As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust–Alan Bradley

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This is the newest of the Flavia de Luce books, which are completely charming and adorable. I recommend, as always, starting with the first book in the series. In this case, that book is “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.”

Flavia is a young girl (10-11 depending on the book) who lives in a large but impoverished home in England with her father and two older sisters. She loves chemistry and lives in the chemistry lab set up by her chemist great-uncle years before. She solves the local mysteries using logic and her chemistry skills.

In this book, she has been shipped to Canada, to boarding school. To the same boarding school her mother once attended. Her mother died in a mountain climbing accident not long after Flavia was born (which, seriously, the fortitude that implies is impressive) and who apparently may have been part of a secret society of spies of some sort, which Flavia is meant to be learning to join herself.

But boarding school is miserable. She’s awakened the first night by another girl, who thinks she’s the previous resident of her room, and who hides from the headmistress in the chimney, until she and the dead body stashed in the chimney come tumbling out.

The rest of the book is spent figuring out who the dead body in the chimney was, what it was doing in the chimney of all places, who the killer is, and what the mystery of the school is all about. Girls go missing on the regular, apparently, which is very concerning to Flavia.

This was not my favorite of these books, I think Flavia was not at her best here, but it was a charming addition to the series and I hope for more typical Flavia in the next book.

Things Fall Apart–Chinua Achebe

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This is a beautiful book. It’s considered a classic and for good reason. It’s also a very sad book, as indeed most classics seem to be.

Considered the best example of modern African narrative, this story follows Okonkwo, a leader in his village, at the time of colonization in Africa.

The colonists and the missionaries do not come out of this well, which is not a huge surprise.

Regardless, this story is aptly named. Things really do fall apart for Okonkwo. He’s a fierce man, trying to overcome the issues and memory of his weak father. To this end, he sometimes makes bad decisions in the name of being tough. For example, at some point his village takes a young boy hostage and the boy lives with him for three years and thinks of him as his own father. And then, counter to the advice of the village elder, he participates in the boy’s execution.

Then during a funeral his gun explodes (unreliable firearms are a feature of the time) and accidentally kills someone. Per the rules of his village, he’s banished for seven years. So he goes to his mother’s village and during this time the missionaries come.

His son joins the missionaries and moves away, which creates yet more resentment in his heart against the missionaries. And the stories of the new colonial government are distressing to all the villagers.

When he gets back to his own village, things get worse. One of the Christians unmasks the sacred dancers representing the gods, which is a big no-no. The village leaders, including Okonkwo, retaliate by burning the church to the ground.

The colonial government calls the village leaders in for a “discussion” which turns out to be a trial, and the leaders are kept in humiliating and terrible conditions. This does not improve the quality of the situation when they return to the village.

There’s plans for war, but when the messengers from the government come to see what’s happening, his village settles down. In frustration he kills one of the messengers. The penalty for this is death, as he well knows, so to prevent having to be shamed by the colonial government, he hangs himself.

It’s all incredibly tragic and sad. But it’s beautiful, beautifully written and executed.