Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Alan Bradley


Doubleday, 2009

Premise: Upper-class, neglected girl finds a dying man in her garden and takes up the case.

Cover: Title - Perplexing, until full quote is known ("Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie, Who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?" from The Art of Cooking) and later when it is quoted to the heroine by the police inspector. Art - Striking but also perplexing, until one encounters the deceased bird with stamp adornment in the pages. Altogether, unusual and intriguing cover.

What Works: The most spectacularly unusual heroine this reader has encountered in a long time, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is by turns funny, whipsmart, terrifyingly precocious, and childlike. Over and over, she confounds everyone around her by thinking and performing far beyond any reasonable expectations one might have of a child. Mother deceased while she was an infant, father still immersed in grief such that his three daughters are more or less left entirely to their own devices, Flavia has adjusted to the realization that in her family, people only express affection through doing dreadful things to one another - and by loyally taking the fall for whomever may be threatened by others at any time. This includes the war-traumatized gardener, who 'loses' bits of shortterm memory and has retreated to plants due to ever-decreasing ability to deal with people.

Because of the family's elevated social position in their British village, her own unusualness resulting in lack of friendship opportunities with peers, and relatively large age difference to her older siblings, Flavia is a loner, bored out of her nimble mind and has become a self-taught chemistry prodigy. When she comes across a dying man, she is consequently delighted: Finally, something to do! Her sleuthing process takes many dips and turns, alternating between hilarious and frightening, but is never, ever dull.

Some excerpts that give a flavor of typical Flavia and show the author's flair for similes:

"I still shivered with joy whenever I thought of the rainy day that Chemistry had fallen into my life. I had been scaling the bookcases, pretending I was a noted Alpinist, when my foot slipped and a heavy book was knocked to the floor...within moments it had taught me that the word iodine comes from a word meaning violet, and that the name bromine was derived from a Greek word meaning 'a stench'. These were the sorts of things I needed to know!..When I found that precise instructions were given for formulating (poisons) I was in seventh heaven...I tried to follow instructions to the letter. Not to say that there weren't a few stinks and explosions, but the less said about those the better."

"Whenever I wanted to be alone...I would clamber up into the dim light of the (abandoned Rolls Royce) where I would sit for hours..surrounded by drooping plush upholstery and cracked, nibbled leather (filled with mouse nests)."

"I rechristened (the bicycle) Gladys..I found a booklet called Cycling for Women of all Ages, by Prunella Stack, the leader of the Women's League of Health and Beauty...Was there a companion booklet, Cycling for Men of All Ages, I wondered? And, if so, had it been written by the leader of the Men's League of Health and Handsomeness?"

"Ned stuck out his callused was like shaking hands with a pineapple."

"It was like a dirigible with the skin off..."

"...her hair looked like a hot air balloon."

"I made the Girl Guide three-eared bunny salute with my fingers. I did not tell him that I was technically no longer a member of that organization, and hadn't been since I was chucked out for manufacturing ferric hydroxide to earn my domestic service badge. No one seemed to care that it was the antidote for arsenic poisoning."

"Feely once gave Daffy and me (a piece of sisterly advice): 'If ever you're accosted by a man, kick him in the Casanovas and run like the blue blazes!' Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn't know where the Casanovas were located. I'd have to think of something else."

"I found a dead body in the cucumber patch,' I told them. 'How very like you,' Ophelia said, and went on preening her eyebrows."

What Doesn't: Readers who have trouble with claustrophobia, or who are uncomfortable with children in dangerous situations, may want to sidestep this story. In case it makes them feel better, they can take note of the fact that this is the first book in a series; which demonstrates that at the end of this story, things have turned out alright for Flavia.

Overall: A wildly entertaining and unpredictable story; Apprentice Writer is impatiently waiting for her turn with the library's audiobook copy of the second in the series, the equally perplexingly named 'The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag'.

But does it make you laugh? YES!
If the gentle reader has not paid attention, he or she is urged to go look at the excerpts again.

Learn more about the author here.



Jenners said...

Terrific review! I loved this book ... and Flavia. She was a delight .. and very very funny. I can't wait to read the follow-up. From the few reviews I've seen, people thing it is even better!!!

M. said...

Jenners - Oh, I'm so glad I'm not the only one who loved this - I'd gotten some negative comments and hated to think the author wouldn't find his audience.

Julia Smith said...

Excellent review once again, M. The cover is definitely something that would grab my attention in the bookstore. And the author's name is a combo of one of my best friends and my husband! LOL

To answer your questions from my comments section:

Nikki is part of a critique group, yes.

I'll ask her about 'Kinky Boots'. I know which one you mean, and I haven't seen it yet, myself.

Are you on Facebook, M? She is, and you would get along marvellously, I think - you both write in the same genre, and you're both lightening wits. I could introduce you, Facebook-ly speaking.

Thomma Lyn said...

Oh my goodness, I am going directly from your blog to put this book on my TBA (to be acquired) list. It sounds like a delight -- right up my alley. :) Thanks for the review!

M. said...

Julia - I am very deliberately not a facebookie, I have a very slender rein on my webtime as it is and that will just shoot me over the edge. But I'd love to get to know her. Hmm. Conundrum.

TL - Oh, hooray! A new convert!