Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter

Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 
by Susan Witting Albert
Historical Cozy Mystery Series

The Tale of Briar Bank (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 5)

December 1909: snow is falling softly over the village of Sawrey and Beatrix Potter longs with all her heart to be there to experience the peaceful snowfall, supervise renovations at her newly purchased second  farm and experience the Christmas celebrations in the twin villages. Defying her cantankerous mother, Beatrix heads off to the Land Between the Lakes with her guinea pig companions Nutmeg (an excitable young female) and Thackeray (a grouchy old gentleman who loves books and hates travel). Upon arriving at Hill Top Farm, Miss Potter discovers she is snowed in and there's no way of communicating with or returning to London. That suits her just fine for the moment. There's some excitement in Sawrey though, a local gentleman, Mr. Wickstead was found dead and there are rumors of a curse caused by his digging up a buried treasure. Mr. Wickstead was a collector of antiquities and a friend of Mr. Potter's. Beatrix is saddened by his death and surprised to discover Mr. Wickstead's long-lost sister Jane is the sole beneficiary of his estate. Mr. Wickstead's Fox Terrier Pickles knows the truth about his owner's death but no one will listen to him, not even the other village animals. There's another who knows the truth, Bailey Badger, a solitary creature who has an extraordinary story to tell his friends at The Brockery. Meanwhile Caroline Longford is blossoming under her new governess but still under the iron rule of her dragon of a grandmother. Miss Potter hopes the addition of two new guinea pigs to Caroline's family will help cheer the girl. Alas, Thackeray has other ideas. Also the Sutton family home is about to be foreclosed on and young Deidre Malone is determined not to lose her new home. Since Mr. and Mrs. Sutton are not very practical people, though very kind, Deidre takes it upon herself to save the day. This is the most unusual of the Cottage Tales thus far. Not only does it contain the usual mystery plot and the talking animal plot, there's a new creature introduced to the story that really stretches the credibility of the plot. The book cover illustration gives it away so readers won't be too surprised to discover the big secret. The secret of buried treasure would have been better without this new addition. There's another mystery that Miss Potter figures out that I felt was predictable. Having past experiences, I would think the villagers would be wary and aware of off-comers. As in the previous book, the narrator speaks directly to the audience, guiding the reader to and from various scenes. I found this very off-putting. I prefer to be a silent witness to events, not a silent witness being told what scenes to witness and where I am during the action. I think the author is attempting to mimic Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbitt and other children's writers of the period. It doesn't work in a modern, adult novel. Aside from a death scene, the book is family friendly. It's a nice, simple read that lacks action. I did not feel particularly compelled to find out what happens next. As usual, the descriptions and period detail are excellent but the story is weak. The series seems to be quickly losing momentum.

The Tale of Applebeck Orchard

When Miss Potter arrives in Sawrey in the late summer of 1910 she is surprised to hear the village has been shocked with the news that Mr. Harmsworth, a local farmer, has blocked the footpath that runs through his property. He claims it is in retaliation for someone burning his haystack. He's convinced it was The Ramblers and determined to punish them by blocking access to the path. The villagers, human and animal alike are stunned and determined that the path shall reopen. Captain Woodcock and Constable Braithwaite try their best but they're missing a few key witnesses who would tell them they saw a ghost just before the haystack burned. Caroline Langford, now 16, dreams of becoming a famous composer but as usual her grandmother has difficulty with the idea of letting go. Can Miss Potter help? Mr. Harmsworth's niece Gilly, an unpaid servant in his dairy, is searching for a better life. When Miss Potter hears about Gilly she is of course determined to help the sad girl. Romance is also in the air for the Big Folk. Poor Beatrix must do something about Mr. Heelis and his feelings for her. Bosworth Badger has a dilemma of a different kind. He's growing older and more forgetful. He needs an heir to inherit the Badger Badge of Honor but his top choice, Thorn, has gone roaming and hasn't been heard from since. He'd like to wait for Thorn but there's a possibility the boy will never return. Who else can he choose? The answer seems obvious to you and me but the book deals with issues about gender roles at the time and the capabilities of women. I found this book rather boring. I figured out who the arsonist was right away and didn't care any more after that. I also realized the solution to Bosworth's problem. That plot ended neatly and exactly how I thought it would. I was mostly interested to find out what had happened to Thorn. I also did not enjoy the author's inserted comments about what happens to Beatrix Potter and recapping of past events. She could have included a forward and afterward for that purpose. The narrator's addressing of the audience also bothered me a lot. I've read many Victorian novels and I don't like the style. I did enjoy the sweet romances in this book and I felt sorry for Beatrix being torn in three different directions. I hope (I know) she will find her happiness in a future book. Overall though, this book is the slowest and weakest of the series. 

The Tale of Oat Cake Crag

Miss Potter has returned to Sawrey to escape her cantankerous parents, leaving her brother Bertram to care for them. The peace she seeks is quite cut up by the appearance of a new flying machine over Lake Windemere. This machine, known as a hydroplane, is supposed to be the latest thing in military weaponry but the villagers HATE it. The pilot flies all day disturbing everyone and driving everyone crazy, even the animals. The Professor is determined to find out what manner of animal this creature is and try to stop it. Thorvald thinks it may be the mysterious sea serpent or dragon that was supposedly spotted in the lake many years ago. The villagers are angry when the project's financial backer does not turn up at a community meeting. When the animals find out why they wonder whether someone meant him harm and if the humans can figure it out without help. Beatrix Potter soon gets caught up with her friends and village gossip. Her friend Grace Lythecoe is planning to marry the vicar soon but she confides in her friend Beatrix that she has been receiving threatening notes that may impede the marriage. Grace asks Beatrix to investigate and get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile the young people have turned their attentions to grown-up matters. Deidre Malone has a happy secret she can't wait to tell Miss Potter and Caroline Longford dreams of becoming a composer and a happy wife and mother while Jeremy Crossfield seems content to teach at Sawrey School and draw. As usual the village gossips have discovered Miss Potter's secret romance. She worries about the news getting back to her parents and what she will do about it if it does. Finally, there are some real mysteries in this book. I very much enjoyed this book because the mysteries kept me interested and engaged in the book until the end. I also really liked the secret engagement plot and how Beatrix handled it. She was such an incredible woman and I really admire her. The animals take a back seat to the humans this time and their adventures are minimal. The narrator continues to talk to the audience and step out of her story to explain facts. There's less direct speaking this time but several paragraphs of information on the hydroplane that should have just been included in the author's note. This book is definitely one of the best in the series.

The Tale of Castle Cottage

Beatrix Potter arrives in Sawrey in July 1913 for a much needed rest and to finish her newest book. She's been sick and tired and is feeling unmotivated. She dearly wants to marry her beloved Will but her parents still object and their new home, Castle Cottage, is being renovated. To add to her stress, her friend Sarah Barwick suspects Miss Potter's contractor of stealing from her. When Miss Potter inspects the work site, she finds a bunch of lazy workmen and discovers her contractor has been spending most of his time at the pub flirting with the pretty new bar maid. Beatrix asks Will for help but he seems distracted. Perhaps she had better call off the engagement and allow him to go free. Will Heelis loves Beatrix Potter with all his heart and can't stand to see her so drained. His family doesn't much approve of the match either. He wonders whether he should just break off the engagement to relieve some of her burdens. How ever can they live happily ever after? He doesn't have much time to spend with her for he is busy investigating a series of thefts from some of his clients. Lady Longford is also missing something - a very rare and valuable 1000 year old book that belonged to her late husband. It would be worth a fortune, if she could find it! Then when Mr. Adcock, the only honest carpenter, is found dead, the village is rife with gossip. The doctor's investigation reveals that all isn't what it seems to be and Mr. Adcock's death and the mysterious thefts may be related. The animals discover the village has been infested with rats - large, nasty brutes who are stealing from the Big People. Tabitha Twitchett has resigned her presidency of the Village Cat Council and left Crumpet to deal with the matter. Poor Crumpet just doesn't know what to do! Not all is gloomy, however, a young couple welcomes the birth of their first child and Bosworth Badger is enjoying his retirement knowing that his successor is more than worthy. In this book, the humans carry most of the plot with Beatrix Potter being the primary character. The other characters, even the animals, are all secondary. The secret to some of the mystery is revealed and some the reader can guess but the story is interesting and engaging. All loose ends are tied up and we learn how all our favorite minor characters have ended up. The ending is sweet, at least until the readers learns the true facts which were more bittersweet than fiction. The narrator doesn't spend too much time addressing the reader and there are only two passages that step out of the story. It's not too cutesy or maybe I finally got used to the style or am in the right frame of mind. I loved the rare book subplot, having recently studied rare books and done a report on Anglo-Saxon literature. My only complaint abut this novel is that I hoped Will Heelis would be man enough to stand up to the Potters but I understand the author wanted to be true to his real-life personality. Anyway, I really enjoyed this final volume in the series. I'm a little sad to see the series end.

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