The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

I feel, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I should admit how much I adore Roald Dahl. He’s dry and witty, his writing is tight. His plots have morals without sugar-coating the immorality of (often) more than half of the characters...and even his heroes aren’t always clear-cut Good Guys.

Take Mr. Fox. He’s a thief. Yes, he’s stealing to feed his family, and he’s a fox so it’s assumed that that’s what he’d do...but he’s still a thief. And when it’s pointed out to him he rationalizes that it’s the only way to feed his family. It’s steal or starve to death. And after all, the people from whom they are stealing are three Very Bad Men, so it’s really not harmful.

And that’s the gist of it, really: three awful farmers (and to hear Dahl tell it it’s amazing they manage to have farms, employees, and spouses) get fed up with the fox stealing from them nightly and set out to do something about it. Namely: kill the fox. They chase Mr. Fox into his hole with his family and, when shooting and digging prove not clever enough, decide to starve him out.

I won’t tell you how it ends, except to remind you of the title of the book. It’s a little chapter book, it would take barely an afternoon for an adult to read, but could be spread out over a week for a young reader. I wouldn’t hold back from giving this to your kids to read, either. Certainly before the movie comes out. Dahl doesn’t sugar coat things, but he doesn’t discount virtue, either. It’s a worthy read.

Wes Anderson loves it so much that he’s written a screenplay and directed a stop-action film based on the book. From the trailer and the interview it appears that he’s given more story to the story, but that’s to be expected: a direct cinematic translation would be either full length and boring or thirty minutes and interesting. Staying true to Dahl’s vision is the trick, but I feel if anyone, Anderson is the man for the job.

Interview here:  
(there’s also an amusing anecdote regarding Anderson’s desire to shoot a sci-fi space movie on location at the end)

And Trailer:

Mallets Aforethought by Sarah Graves

I warned you that I was picking up the next one in the series to see if I was right about the foreshadowing.

And without spoiling too much: I was and I wasn’t. That particular plot involved Jemmy, Jacobia’s old partner-in-”crime” who has been in hiding from the mob since book one. It has always been a B-plot and remains so in this book, which I found disappointing. I enjoy Jemmy when he makes the rare appearance and would love to have seen this character fleshed out even more - not to mention the insight we get into Jake’s previous life as a slightly shady investment tycoon. Luckily, there are several more books just waiting to be read and maybe he’ll pop back up now and again.

Graves doesn’t waste any time mucking about with catching the reader up on what happened between the last book and this one - by page two you know that Ellie is pregnant (I know - that’s a spoiler, but it’s page two. I promise not to spoil anything else.) The historical society is restoring a house that was once in the possession of Ellie’s family, but hasn’t been for at least a generation and is now falling apart. Ellie and Jake, perpetually curious, have found a hidden room and not one, but two dead bodies. One of them is very fresh and is the much-reviled president of the Historical Society, and the other appears to have been killed in the twenties right before the room was sealed off.

The most unfortunate part of all of this is that said Historical Society President is discovered dead mere days after Ellie’s husband, George, was seen by more than half the town in a local bar, drunkenly ranting about how much he’d like to see the other man dead. Apparently this puts George at the top of a long list of possible suspects, but his refusal to give an alibi coupled with the fact that Bob Arnold (our beloved local law enforcement) is out of town lands George in the clink.

As I read through the book (one which I could not put down) I was struck time and time again by how much improved Graves’s writing has become. She hasn’t lost her voice, by any means. But her prose is tighter, her plots layered and interesting enough that - while you may have an inkling - you never quite know if what you suspect will turn out to be the way it happened. Also, because she knows her characters as well as most people know their close friends and family, their actions become more fluid and when they drop in and out of the story it’s with an ease that only comes from years of familiarity (both in real life and on the page.)

Have I mentioned how glad I am that I am so far behind? If you’re just picking these up (start with Dead Cat Bounce, please and go from there) I am jealous that you are getting to read them for the first time.


Unhinged by Sarah Graves

*Note - I read Wreck the Halls in the spring during my bed-rest...it was really good but I dropped the ball and didn’t review it and now I’ve read the next one and so that ship has sailed. But let me say this - it was really good. I read it in a single afternoon, which is easy to do when getting out of bed is a Bad Idea and you just can’t sleep anymore.

Unhinged opens as so many mysteries do: with a missing person and a home-repair nightmare. Ok, not all mysteries have home repair nightmares, but Sarah Graves’ do and that’s part of their charm. The other part is her characters: Jacobia, who is afraid of heights and sometimes clumsy but who insists on going up the ladder herself. Ellie who dresses like an extra from Dumbo’s circus but is unfailingly loyal and intuitive and bull-headed when necessary. In addition to the rest of the crew we’re coming to like (I’ll admit it...I’m even starting to like Victor when I’m not rolling my eyes at him) we meet a few new characters in this installment: all of whom are potentially murder suspects.

It’s nice and juicy. There’s a little bit of gossip, a little bit of romance, some explosions, some suspense...all the good stuff is there. Even home repair tips, although the recurring theme in Unhinged is to hire a professional because some things go beyond what mere mortals can accomplish without dragging an entire house down with you.

The book reads (again) like a love-letter to Eastport, Maine. I’m not complaining...but every time I read about the hijinks gotten into by Jake, Ellie, et al, Maine moves a little higher on my must-visit list.

I do like that while Jake and Ellie are well-known around town for snooping into shady events and often getting themselves completely embroiled in them, that it’s not always someone they know who is the victim. Because in some series you just think “Man, you sure are a magnet for murder. I’m glad I don’t know you in real life!”

By the end of Unhinged I found myself being rather moved - emotionally - by the events that were unfolding. There was just enough suspense and grit without a complete unravelling that you get caught up in the events...and by this stage of the game it’s entirely possible to forget that these characters we are beginning to know so well are imaginary so their fates feel just that much more important. I was satisfied by the ending, and am not going to hesitate skip a few books in the TBR stack to move straight on to the next one...mostly because I suspect some foreshadowing in the last chapter and I want to know if I’m right.

Have you started reading these yet? Catch up!

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