Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

It was nice to get back to the audiobook editions of the Flavia de Luce mysteries read by Jayne Entwistle. While I enjoyed the volumes the local library only held in hardcover, I missed Flavia's help passing the time I spend every day at the wheel of my car. I also missed the opportunity to savor the atmospherics, the rich language, the imagery and the humor of these well-told tales at the pace of the spoken word.

As Flavia closes in on her twelfth birthday, much about her remains the same. She is still devoted to chemistry, especially poisons. She still enjoys a complex relationship with her brooding father, her bright and talented older sisters Ophelia and Daphne, and her tough Aunt Felicity. She is still handy at solving the murders that somehow always happen in front of her. And she still feels cheated out of knowing her mother, who disappeared in a Himalayan climbing accident when she, Flavia, was only a year old. But now a big change has happened: Harriet de Luce has been found. In this sixth book in the series, Flavia's mother comes home. With that, everything will soon be altered.

Harriet, of course, is still dead. Only now it's official. While Flavia would prefer to use the opportunity provided by a zinc inner coffin filled with dry ice to try an experiment in resurrection on her long-frozen mother, an investigation from high up in Her Majesty's service forces her to redirect her energies. Instead, Flavia tries to learn who pushed a stranger under the train the day Harriet's remains arrived at Buckshaw, and whether it might be connected with a mysterious film she finds and develops, a message in invisible writing that she decodes, and the suspicious behavior of one of her family's houseguests during the days leading up to Harriet's funeral.

The clues in Flavia's hands may also determine what happens to Buckshaw itself, which the family has been in danger of losing ever since Harriet disappeared without leaving a will. And then there's the hint that certain interested parties, including perhaps Winston Churchill himself, may have their eye on Flavia to serve England someday as a secret agent. Wouldn't that just be spiffing?

Flavia's enthusiasms are infectous. Her feelings and their causes are touching. Her suspicions are hair-raising. And her sisters' antics at their mother's funeral gave me one of my biggest laughs in recent memory. I could use more like it. So, naturally, I'm already well into the seventh book in the series, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, in which our young sleuth ships off to a girl's school in Canada! It could be only be only the beginning of Chapter Two of a vast Flavia de Luce saga. I hope so!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

119. Hymn of Hunger and Thirst for the Sacrament

I felt every line of this hymn since, due to complications of geography, scheduling and communion fellowship I haven't been able to take the Lord's body and blood since April.

O Bread of those who falter
And Cup of those who thirst,
Whose promise does not alter,
Whose death hell's prison burst:
Behold, O Christ, a famished soul
Whose broken heart yearns to be whole!
Behold a vile defaulter
Whose sin is of the worst!

Sin in my flesh is rooted
And sets my will to rout;
The world, with sin polluted,
Besets me all about;
The devil plays his cunning role,
And long affliction takes its toll;
My vigor is diluted,
My faith disturbed by doubt.

Too long the world's vain chatter
Of false and fleeting joys
Has drowned the words that matter
With loud, distracting noise!
Would that reciting prayers and psalms
Alone were proof against these qualms!
Would that one word might scatter
The devil's thousand ploys!

But once from heaven's palace
You, Son of God, came down
And in blest bread and chalice
Forgiving grace made known:
Your body sacrificed, Your blood
Are made a life-restoring food,
That sin nor Satan's malice
No more may seize Your own.

To me, Redeemer, hasten
This medicine to give;
My sinful members chasten,
My chastened soul forgive!
May Your atonement fill me up
As often as on You I sup,
Till death-rimed eyes I fasten
On You in whom I live!

EDIT: Here's the only hymn tune I know of that fits this meter, the Norwegian folk tune HVOR DET BLIR GODT Å LANDE.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library
by Chris Grabenstein
Recommended Ages: 12+

When Luigi L. Lemoncello was twelve years old, the public library of his hometown of Alexandriaville, Ohio was his escape from a crowded home. Twelve years ago, that library was torn down to make way for a parking structure. Now a world-famous game designer, he has spared no expense to convert an old bank building into a high-tech library so that another generation of twelve-year-olds can learn, dream, and have fun with good books.

The day before the library is to open, Mr. Lemoncello invites twelve local twelve-year-olds, winners of an extra-credit essay contest, to be the first to use his amazing new library. Not only do they get to spend a night locked in with interactive holograms, key-carded Dewey Decimal sections, video games and memorabilia, but they also have a chance to win the grand prize of being his company's spokesman in a series of nationwide advertisements. All they have to do is escape from the library without (a) going out the front door, (b) setting off any alarms or (c) mistreating each other or library materials. Each kid gets a chance to opt out of the game, call a friend, consult an expert and risk everything on an extreme challenge.

Among the youngsters competing for the prize is Kyle Keeley, a game enthusiast who tends to do things like split a $500 gift card with his parents and two brothers. Kyle assembles a team of kids whose different strengths work well together to solve the puzzles that will lead them to the library's secret exit.

Heading the other team, meanwhile, is Charles Chiltington, a rich kid with an unhealthy drive to succeed and win. Charles gathers a team of loners and backstabbers, of whom he is the foremost. While he is willing to do anything to win, he clearly doesn't get what the library is for. Compared to Kyle, who is constantly adding to the list of books he has to read, Charles never catches Mr. Lemoncello's constant, whimsical references to classic children's books. In the end, the question is whether being "in it to win it" matters more than being open to all the ways a library can be informative and fun.

This book is a gift to children who love reading books and adults who once were such children. Not only does it contain a bonus puzzle that the author invites readers to solve on their own, but it also features rebuses, riddles, book trivia, and a veritable bibliography of other books every child should read sometime. Simply catching all the clever book references is a puzzle-challenge groups of bright kids might enjoy working on either together or as a contest. And as for the games, this book describes both real games that many of us fondly remember as well as fictional games that somebody should seriously invent. A character in this book compares Mr. Lemoncello to Willy Wonka, and the comparison holds up. It's a lot like that kind of adventure, only with high tech gizmos instead of magic, puzzles instead of moral sermons, and a less tooth-rotting alternative to a candy factory to light up children's imagination.

This is the first book I have read by Chris Grabenstein. I am amazed at the number of titles he has authored, including The Explorers' Gate, The Island of Dr. Libris and an upcoming sequel to this book, Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics. He has also co-authored many books with James Patterson, including the Daniel X, House of Robots, I Funny, Middle School and Treasure Hunters series. Other series he has written on his own include the John Ceepak books (Tilt-a-Whirl and seven more), the Christopher Miller Holiday Thrillers (Slay Ride and Hell for the Holidays), the Haunted Mysteries quartet and the Riley Mack/Ocean's Eleven books.

Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk
by Neil Gaiman
illustrated by Skottie Young
Recommended Ages: 8+

I was browsing the young readers' section at Barnes and Noble when a young lady who was stocking the shelves told me to look at this book. "It's absolutely hilarious," she said. And so it is. A thin, quickly read book in Neil Gaiman's most lighthearted register, it features the story a dad tells his two kids to explain why it took him so long to fetch a bottle of milk from the corner store.

The father's story involves time travel, an alien invasion, a pirate ship, a stegosaurus piloting a hot air balloon, a volcano god and his worshipers, a herd of brightly colored ponies, bloodthirsty wumpires (sic) and more. At each crucial turn of events, the fate of the milk and the children's waiting breakfast cereal proves more and more significant until the existence of the universe itself depends on it. And when, finally, the children doubt their dad's tale, he produces undeniable proof: "Here's the milk!"

Skottie Young's illustrations take up at least as much room as Neil Gaiman's words, and they are just as important to the enjoyment of a story that begs, with puppy-dog eyes, to be read out loud by an adult to one or more children. Neil Gaiman is such an important author of graphic novels that he probably needs no introduction, other than to mention that his children's picture books include Crazy Hair and the Chu's Day trilogy. I have read many of his novels, but I am still looking forward to reading some of them, such as Odd and the Frost Giants and the sequels to InterWorld, co-authored by Michael Reaves. And of course, I have yet to be inducted into the world of Sandman.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes
by Jonathan Auxier
Recommended Ages: 10+

This triumphantly weird, whimsical story takes place in a world where certain children are brave, resourceful, clever and wise and most adults are pitiful, silly, and easily duped into serving as slaves of a fiendish villain. It is a world full of such possibilities as winged zebras, talking fish, curses, transfigurations, disappearing islands and clockwork weaponry. It features a war between apes and ravens, an endless desert littered with shipwrecks, an island where all the seas in the world meet, and a blind boy whose keen senses of hearing, smell and touch make him the greatest thief in the world.

The boy's name is Peter Nimble. As a baby he was found floating in a basket on the seashore, along with a raven that had apparently pecked his eyes out. He was raised by a family of cats, and later learned to pick pockets and nick vegetables from market stalls. He spent the better part of his childhood committing burglaries for a cruel master named Mr. Seamus, until one night he stole a precious box of enchanted eyeballs that transported him on a magical adventure.

Joined by an absurd but loyal knight who, for reasons too complex to go into here, has been transformed into a part-horse, part-kitten creature, Peter receives his marching orders from a strange old professor who dwells on the Troublesome Lake, so named because all the hopeless messages in bottles thrown into all the world's seas eventually drift upon its shores. The professor sends Peter and Sir Tode off to solve a riddle in a bottle and, perhaps, save whoever sent it.

As a bonus, the riddle leads them into a dangerous conflict between thieves and birds, and then to a kingdom ruled by a vile usurper who has brainwashed all his adult subjects and enslaved all the children. Between a night watch staffed with man-eating apes, a mine guarded by ferocious sea monsters and a system of cogs and springs that controls everything else, King Incarnadine seems to have an unshakable hold on power. But there's no reckoning on a boy whose fingers are as good as his name, especially once he learns his true identity and destiny.

This is a delightfully quirky, funny, adventurous adventure that places a touching emphasis on friendship, loyalty, courage and the resiliency of children. It should appeal to all readers who are ready for the secret that kids are better than grown-ups, and anyone who likes fairy-tale endings that don't come too easily. A lot of complications are packed into its plot, but at bottom it is a simple, direct, satisfying escape route from hum-drum to fun. It could also boost the spirits of disabled children. If their vision is impaired - and even if it isn't - they may especially enjoy Michael Page's audio-book preformance, which brings the voices of Sir Tode and the apes most vividly to life. A sequel, Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, is scheduled for release in 2016.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

118. Disaster Hymn

I saved writing this "disaster relief" hymn until well after the conclusion of a disaster-relief-hymnwriting contest that I didn't care to compete in. I haven't read any of the submissions to it either, just to be safe from unconscious plagiarism. It's not that I'm uninterested in competition or in what other hymn writers did, it's just that I was too interested in the subject to let someone's, or rather some committee's, criteria get in the way of my judgment. Behold, this is how I would write a "disaster relief" hymn without any reference to how someone else would do it.

O Lord, our Dwelling Place
From age to age, give ear:
When trouble hides Your loving face
And fills our hearts with fear,
Assure us that with sheltering grace
You listen even here.

When famine sears the land
Or wind and flood destroy,
Remind us Your creating hand
Provides each need and joy;
Then at the season You have planned,
Your messengers employ.

Restore the broken wall;
Raise up the fallen home.
Relieve the pain and want of all
On whom these days have come.
Into safe harbors, Savior, call
Those who in peril roam.

Our hearts may take it ill
When we come to the test;
Forgive us, and the thought instill:
In this, too, we are blest.
We do not understand Your will,
But know that it is best.

For Christ was poor from birth
And had no place to rest,
Though foxes had their den of earth
And birds their nightly nest;
His flesh, of heaven-spanning worth,
Strait in the tomb was pressed.

But now He lives again
And nevermore can die.
His death encompasses all men;
His rising splits the sky.
He will destroy destruction when
He raises us on high.

In You, Lord, and Your Son
No force on earth can harm
The people You unite as one
And shelter with Your arm.
Help us recall what He has done
In times of sore alarm.

Creation quakes and groans
For Jesus to appear;
Each war the church's vigil hones
To see His day draw near.
Till then build us as living stones
To be Your dwelling here.

So build us, Lord, that when
Men's earthly dwellings fall,
We may relieve our fellow men
And mend the broken wall.
Make us the messengers You send
To show Your love to all.

EDIT: Here's an original tune I wrote for this hymn. I titled it DWELLING PLACE.

Monday, June 22, 2015

117. Table Grace Hymn

I was covering a Lutheran church's vacation Bible school today for the local newspaper when I discovered, by experience, that there is truly no limit to the stupidity that religious songs written for children can achieve. So I've decided to branch out into another hymn project: writing children's songs that don't suck.

I know, it's going to be hard in many, many ways. Hard to devise lyrics small children can readily learn while not necessarily making slightly bigger children want to gag, or even perhaps gag themselves on purpose to get out of singing them. Hard to write simple, kid-friendly poetry that isn't also cheap, trite, cutesie or moralistic; that doesn't sound like Dr. Seuss or A. A. Milne or a hapless adult trying to sound hep, hip, hip-hop or otherwise something he's not; that actually teaches spiritually useful stuff like, you know, the gospel without sounding tediously didactic, etc.

So, anyway, it's going to take some experimentation. Here is Experiment No. 1, a children's table prayer inspired (to begin with) by the one in Luther's Small Catechism: "Heavenly Father, bless us and these Thy gifts, which we receive from Thy bountiful goodness through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Heav'nly Father, God and Lord,
Bless us as we share this board.
Both in body and in soul,
Give the gifts that make us whole.

Jesus Christ, our living Bread,
Bless the food we now are fed.
Both by word and holy sign,
Feed our faith with food divine.

Holy Spirit, heav'nly Dove,
Blow on us God's faithful love.
Both in plenty and in need,
Help us walk the way You lead.

Three in One and One in Three,
Let us free from worry be.
Trusting Your providing care,
May we also learn to share.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book of a Thousand Days

Book of a Thousand Days
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Ages: 12+

Not many books figure in the plot they contain. This book, written as a diary of a lady's maid named Dashti, begins when she and her mistress, the Lady Saren, are walled up inside a tower for a seven-year sentence of darkness and solitude. By the end, the book ends up being used as evidence in a trial for Dashti's life. Welcome to an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale of Maid Maleen.

The simple version of the story is complex enough. The young lady is being punished by her father because she is afraid to marry the powerful but evil lord who wants to wed her. Then she orders her maidservant to impersonate her while a nicer young lord woos her, because she is too nervous to be courted even by him. The maidservant falls in love with the young prince and he with her, but another princess grows jealous, exposes her and demands that she be put to death.

But that's just the nugget at the center of this richly layered story. It also spotlights Saren's struggle with mental illness, the horrors of long-term abuse and neglect, the possibilities of a brand of magic based on singing, the traps and troubles of a layered society based on eight very exacting gods, and Dashti's rise from a common "mucker" girl with no clan to claim her to marrying the highest ruler in the realm. Lying in wait for her are not only a fear-addled mistress who can order her to do things that will destroy her if she is caught and another princess who is watching for something to catch her in, but also a monster who is sometimes in human form... and sometimes not.

Styled like a tale of ancient days in the part of the world I like to call the Stans, this is a magical, romantic, and at times suspenseful tale from the author of the Books of Bayern quartet, the Princess Academy trilogy, the Austenland duo and some of the Ever After High books, among other interesting titles.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

116. Sower Hymn

This hymn is superficially about the Parable of the Sower taught by Jesus in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8 (the gospel for Sexagesima Sunday), tied in with the efficacy of God's Word and St. Paul's "yes, yes, no, no" argument in 2 Corinthians 1:15-22. Somehow it also seems to be a polemic in defense of the doctrine of objective justification. Not sure how I managed that. I wrote it without any notion of what tune it would be sung to, so it looks like I may have to write an original tune to go with it. Oh, well!

A sower went abroad his seed to sow:
Some fell on trampled paths, and there
Were snapped up by birds of the air;
Some that on stony soil began to grow,
Ill rooted, withered in the heat;
Some, choked by thorns, could not compete;
But some seed in a better soil took hold
And yielded thirty, sixty, hundredfold.

Behold, dear children, what these figures tell:
God is the man who works the soil;
Each sinner saved, fruit of His toil.
Above all other details, note this well:
The seed is God's implanted word
That grows and lives where it is heard.
Fret not to make your hearts receptive soil;
God makes the vessel that receives His oil.

God's word to you is not yes, yes, no, no;
His faithful promise, true and pure,
Is always yes in Christ, and sure.
As in the height of heaven, so below,
No shifting shadow is His will;
What He has pledged, He will fulfill:
Without condition, bias or degree,
He speaks and it is done, and perfectly.

Beloved, have this confidence in God:
It is His changeless, loving will
All hearts, all types of soil to till,
That all mankind, redeemed by Jesus' blood,
May be ruled righteous in His suit
And, trusting Him, bear lively fruit.
This yes of God, extended to all men,
Creates the faith to grasp it: our Amen.

UPDATE: Here's an original tune for this hymn, titled YES OF GOD. My friend Matthew Carver also wrote a Bohemian-inspired tune for it at the same time, which I hope to use in my next collection of hymns as an alternate tune.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Speaking from Among the Bones

Speaking from Among the Bones
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the fifth Flavia de Luce mystery, a sleuth who is hardly twelve years old discovers her fifth corpse and, as usual, solves the crime. One would think word of her skills would have gotten around a village the size of Bishop's Lacey by now, and murderers would think twice about practicing their craft there. But when the crypt of a saint who has lain in the parish vault for five hundred years is opened, Flavia's is the first snout poked into it and, naturally, the body she sees isn't old St. Tancred but young Mr. Collicutt, the handsome young organist.

As Flavia unknots her most complicated tangle of clues yet, she also faces more private puzzles. She approaches nearer than ever before the mystery of her brooding father, her two older sisters, and the family retainer Dogger. She learns more about her long-lost mother Harriet, whom she is told she resembles both inside and out. She gets to know the vicar and his wife in a new way, and she uncovers secrets her community has kept so well she never knew they existed. But naturally, as she gets closer to the killer or killers and whatever they were after, she also gets herself in ever deeper danger.

Being an organist myself, I got a kick out of this mystery's tour of the innards of a pipe organ. There may be something in it, too, for people who dig archaeology, or who revere ecclesiastical history, or who (like Flavia) feel a fizz of excitement about chemistry, especially where poisons are concerned. They all come together in a murder mystery that includes spooky nighttime walks in a churchyard - not to mention grisly crawls down in the graves themselves. From a carved image of a saint that seems to weep blood to a mentally broken man kept calm by piped-in classical music, it's a mystery full of haunting images and moving tragedies, narrated in the voice of a precocious child who attributes human feelings to her bicycle and who boils eggs laid by her pet hen over a Bunsen burner.

These days to say that I am reading straight through a series realistically means that I may read two or three other books between each of these mysteries. Partly it's a matter of what's available at the local library, but I think the speed I am taking through this series testifies to how much I enjoy it. They have heart and brains. They have a substantial literary mouthfeel on the mental palate, yet they go down with a light cheering fizz. I have now reached the point where I am more worried about running out of these books too soon than of spending time in them. The next title in the sequence is The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

An Irish Country Girl

An Irish Country Girl
by Patrick Taylor
Recommended Ages: 12+

The fourth book of the "Irish Country" series in publication order, this is the first of the three books I missed when I skipped from An Irish Country Christmas to An Irish Country Wedding. The fact that it mostly takes place in a flashback helps to explain my sense of not having missed anything vital to series continuity.

It's Christmas 1965 and Maureen "Kinky" Kincaid is making a special dinner for Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly and his assistant, Dr. Barry Laverty, at No. 1 Main Street, Ballybucklebo, County Down, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, Earth. She tells the first part of a Christmas-themed, faerie-haunted ghost story to a group of children, then reminisces about the rest to herself as she finishes cooking the meal.

It's the story of the St. Stephen's Day ghost, a man who dared to anger the Sidhe, or the little people, or the old ones, or if you prefer, the faeries. His bad luck turned deadly one snowy St. Stephen's Day and left a hole in the lives of the neighboring O'Hanlon family, in which young Kinky was then only a teenage girl.

The story then skips ahead a few years and finds Kinky, or rather Maureen O'Hanlon as she was called then, about to enter womanhood. Her ambition to be a teacher throws a spanner into her blossoming romance with a young fisherman named Padeen Kincaid. But when another St. Stephen's Day blizzard puts her Padeen in danger, all depends on the spirit of a man taken by faeries and a dead Ulsterman's last chance at redemption.

One of the lighter confections in an already light and sugary series full of roguish old-country charm, this installment has an extra layer of romantic nostalgia, a chilling touch of fate and a spun-sugar filigree of magic. Note to self: The correct follow-up to this pleasant entertainment is a draft of An Irish Country Courtship.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

I Am Half Sick of Shadows

I Am Half Sick of Shadows
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book four of the Flavia de Luce mysteries, set at Christmas 1950 when the heroine is still eleven years old, gives a quirky nod toward the Agatha Christie type of murder where all the suspects are conveniently gathered in the drawing room of some baronial pile in —shire, England. It brings the added twist that the suspects include the cast and crew of a film and half the village of Bishop's Lacey.

The film people have offered Flavia's father a desperately needed wad of cash to use Buckshaw as the set of their next picture. The village has turned out on a snowy Christmas Eve on the chance of seeing a pair of movie stars act out a scene from Romeo and Juliet, with the proceeds to help repair the roof of the parish church. So, naturally, when a celebrated screen actress is found strangled with a reel of film tied in a bow around her neck, Flavia will be in the thick of it.

While the police, as usual, do their best to solve the crime using routine police work, Flavia is up and down the stairwells and corridors of Buckshaw, in and out of the cupboard under the stairs, up onto and down off the roof, in and out of her chemistry lab with the unflagging energy of a child. She chats up people the police may never have thought to interrogate. She digs into secrets and angles no one else would have dreamt of exploring. She slips undetected through doors no one who didn't live in the house would have guessed were there, and lies or sneaks her way into places she has been warned to stay out of. She channels her frustration with a not very attentive father, a dead mother she doesn't remember and two sisters who make her miserable, into proving Father Christmas exists and, along the way, poking into everyone else's business. Meanwhile, she observes things no one else noticed, makes connections no one else made, and drives the local inspector to an excess of admiration and exasperation.

Most unusually, as Flavia's case rapidly unfolds, her suspicion falls almost immediately on those who actually done it. After that the mystery is why they done it and how she can be sure of it. As usual there is a point quite late in the mystery when she sets down in her casebook a list of possible suspects, their motives, and their pros and cons - but when her snooping finally, inevitably leads her to a life-or-death struggle among the blizzard-battered chimneys of Buckshaw, the chill you feel isn't surprise at the reveal-all so much as suspense and dread for Flavia's safety.

Though she is confronted by an improbable number of murder mysteries for a sleuth of her years, Flavia continues to develop as a wonderful character, and each of her adventures is a fun blend of dark comedy, poignant family drama, light satire and taut thriller, all wrapped in a quick-reading popular-fiction package and died with a dainty ribbon of literary quality. It's a gift to people who like a bit of Shakespeare, a bit of Christie and old movies. Next up in Flavia's adventures is Speaking from Among the Bones.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

The third Flavia de Luce mystery finds our heroine still eleven years old, still plagued by two older sisters, still fascinated with chemistry and especially poisons, still running a bit wild around the family estate of Buckshaw and the village of Bishop's Lacey, and still discovering corpses and solving mysteries at a rate that leaves the local detectives scratching their heads. To paraphrase a quotation Flavia finds in an old book, a week in her life without murder would be like a red herring without mustard.

In this installment, she tries to make amends for burning down a Gypsy woman's fortune-telling tent by inviting old Fenella to park her caravan in a secluded corner of the Buckshaw grounds. She thinks maybe this will also atone for her father kicking Fenella and her husband out years ago, leading to the husband's death on the road.

Later that night, while going to check on Fenella, Flavia catches Brookie Harewood, one of the skeezier local characters, fondling the firedogs in her family's drawing room and claiming he let himself into the house after seeing a ghost.

Then she finds the old woman unconscious in her caravan and bleeding from a head wound.

Her quick action saves the Gypsy woman. But when she returns to the scene of the assault the next morning she encounters Fenella's granddaughter Porcelain - who, if she can be trusted for even a moment, may prove to be something that has eluded Flavia all her life: a friend. Bad luck, then, that on their way to sneak back into Buckshaw they discover Brookie's corpse dangling from the trident of Poseidon on a derelict fountain, a piece of the De Luce family silver lodged in his brain.

Something about both these crimes stinks of rotting fish, which suggests to Flavia they may be connected - possibly by the remnants of a nonconformist sect called the Hobblers that practiced a strange form of Baptism in the river near where the Gypsy's caravan was parked. Or possibly it might have something to do with the disappearance two years ago of a local child. Plus, all these things may be connected to a criminal conspiracy to steal family heirlooms, make copies of them and return them before the owners miss them.

Flavia untangles these interwoven crimes with a combination of intelligence beyond her years and girlish innocence, the all-access pass that comes with belonging to an old (if down-on-its-fortunes) noble family, and the energetic activity of a child who is expert at evading what little parental supervision her widowed, philatelist father provides. As in the previous books The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, she finally finds herself in deadly danger, but only when the solution to all is in her grasp.

It's an irresistable mystery headlined by a delightful character who promises many fun outings in the future. The next book in the sequence is I Am Half Sick of Shadows.