Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley

Source of book: I own this.

This is the eighth book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia series. Here are the others:

As I noted in the very first review, Alan Bradley turned to writing fiction late in life. The first six books were part of his original contract, which has now been extended after the significant success of the first books. I strongly recommend reading both the books and my reviews in order, as the later ones assume the earlier ones.

Like all the books in the series, this one has its title taken from a line in an old book. This one continues in the Shakespearean vein with a well known quote from the Scottish play.

Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
Harpier cries 'Tis time, 'tis time.
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Anyway, this quote gives the book its title, and a few other details. (A cat, a woman who fosters rumors she is a witch.)

Since the last book, Flavia has returned from a rather awful sojourn in Canada, only to find her father deathly ill. Soon afterward, while running an errand for the vicar’s wife, she discovers yet another dead body. (Well, this is a murder mystery series…) In this case, the victim is an old wood carver with a mysterious past, who apparently has some sort of connection to the (fictitious) children’s author Oliver Inchbald.

I did a little poking around regarding this character, and while he is definitely fictitious, he is a bit of a tribute to real-life authors. I would list perhaps Edward Lear (for the nonsense verse) and A. A. Milne (for the Christopher Robin type son.) But Google moves in mysterious ways, and I think I discovered where the name “Oliver Inchbald” came from. I perhaps don’t need to introduce author Oliver Goldsmith, best known for The Vicar of Wakefield. But the other half of the name appears to come from actress and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald. It appears that back in the day, among her other projects, she provided the “critical and biographical notes” to a collection of plays, including Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and The Good Natured Man. I suspect Bradley saw this somewhere and decided it was a perfect name. And it is.

The previous book was really quite dark - the series has generally gotten darker as it has gone on. This one isn’t exactly light, but the emotional territory isn’t as unrelentingly negative. Flavia is, after all, back on her home turf, and thus surrounded by familiar people. Dogger, her sisters, the vicar and his wife, her frenemy the police inspector. So she doesn’t feel as forlorn and alone as she did in the prior books. That said, all of the bad things happening in her life are still there, with more added. I’m still not sure how I feel about all of this - there was something charming and more innocent about the earlier books that I miss. But it has also been fascinating to see Flavia struggle with growing up. While she was always independent, she has had to learn some self control and social niceties - and she is getting there.

Just a few quotes I liked. One is when Flavia visits the office of the publisher of Inchbald’s books:

“Not surprisingly, his office was like a cave carved into a cliff of books.”

I plead the fifth as to how much I resemble that remark.

Regarding growing up and gaining independence:

“Growing up is like that, I suppose: The strings fall away and you’re left standing on your own.”

Regarding a sudden burst of communication from her reticent middle sister:

It was a longer speech than I’d ever heard Daffy make in my entire life. Unless she was reading aloud to us from one of her favorite books, my sister was the kind of person who is sometimes described as “monosyllabic.”

Actually, my middle daughter is kind of like that right now.

I will also note with approval the mention of Gorgonians. Because those are cool.

There is one more book in the series that has been published, and the contract runs for one more after that. Given Bradley’s age - this was a second career after retirement - he may decide to hang it up. But who knows? He originally agreed to six, and then ten, so things could change.

As I noted above, best to read these in order. They are kind of quirky, bookish, and snarky. But they are fun as a light read.

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