Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book Review: The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter by Susan Wittig Albert

Last time, I ranted about a fluff mystery because it was ridiculous. This time, however, I am going to praise some fluff mysteries, because they are actually interesting and the protagonist has more to worry about than her appearance.

Without further ado, The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter.

I resisted these at first. I thought, “how could someone take the author of twee Edwardian children’s books and make her into a sharp witted detective?” Ah, but I underestimated both Beatrix Potter and Susan Wittig Albert.

The first book opens up as Beatrix has bought Hill Top Farm. She is still mourning the loss of her fiancĂ©, Norman Warne, and is uncomfortably positioned as both an outsider in Near Sawrey, and a woman who bought a prime piece of land. As unpleasant as this is, however, Beatrix has more to deal with soon enough, as an odd mystery crops up in the village. Beatrix’s powers of observation are put to the test as the animals of the village lend her some surreptitious help.

Yes, not only is this partly biographical, it also takes place within the universe Beatrix Potter created for her books. Albert does an excellent job of capturing the general mood of Potter’s own world, while still crafting interesting mysteries, catchy dialogue, and diverse characters. I particularly like that each book has a chapter dedicated to showing (quite hilariously) how a rumor is distorted and spread through the tiny village. (If you've grown up in a small town, you can already imagine it.)

Albert does a fine job with the animal characters as well. Some are characters from Beatrix’s own books, which she modeled after animals she owned or knew in the village. Others are Albert’s own creations, such as Professor Galileo Newton, the wise owl who is pompous and every night likes to take a “friend” to his home “for dinner” and is always helpful with his sharp eyes. Then, Albert clearly takes great glee in taking things farther, including a couple fairies in one book and giving us a young but kindly dragon to round things out. After all, we’re in a world where animals talk and have tea. Why on earth shouldn’t there be fairies and dragons? And Albert makes this all seem completely sensible and invites us to laugh at readers who would be incredulous.

Each book also contains recipes for some of the English dishes mentioned (Albert loves describing food-so much I found myself craving tea and scones, and using more British terms than usual), as well as more background on Beatrix Potter at the end of each book.

This is a fun, light mystery series that isn’t mindless and is difficult to put down.

The website for The Cottage Tales contains plenty of information on Beatrix Potter (as well as pictures!):

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