Tag Archives: Flavia de Luce

Review: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan BradleyThe Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley (Random House, 2014)

[This review contains a spoiler for the previous books in the series.]

There’s so much to love about Flavia de Luce: her quick wits, her unusual view of the world, her propensity for chemicals and poisons. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is book six featuring the somewhat dysfunctional de Luce family in their crumbling ancestral home of Buckshaw, England.

It’s 1951. Flavia will soon be 12. She and her sisters have matured, and events have bound them together—somewhat—but old habits of mutual torment die hard.

I confess I misunderstood the ending of the previous book, Speaking from Among the Bones. Flavia’s missing mother, Harriet, found? She’d been lost in a Himalayan expedition when Flavia was still too young to remember her. I envisioned a joyful reunion, expecting the accident had caused amnesia which would somehow now go away. A happy ending would be so heartwarming.

Instead, Harriet comes home in a coffin as sensible readers expected all along. It makes for a better story, including the requisite mysterious death, and as Flavia and her sisters find closure, Flavia also learns the truth of her mother’s death—and of her life.

The novel is more about unravelling the mystery surrounding Harriet than about who killed the man at the train station, but it all comes together in the end. If you had questions about Flavia and her unusual upbringing, they’re likely answered by The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.

Internationally-bestselling author Alan Bradley’s bio says he’s working on more Flavia de Luce mysteries—reassuring, since The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches wraps things up so nicely. I’d been afraid we’d seen the last of Flavia. It will be a challenge writing this character as she grows up, but in many ways Flavia’s an old soul. I look forward to her next adventure.

[Review copy borrowed from a friend.]

Review: Speaking From Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley

Speaking From Among the Bones cover artSpeaking From Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley (Doubleday, 2012)

Flavia de Luce lives with her father and two older sisters in a decaying English country manor in 1951. She’s almost 12 and has already solved four murders, to the chagrin of the local constabulary (who are beginning to show her some grudging respect).

In this mystery, she discovers another body—this time in conjunction with the excavation of the village church’s patron saint’s tomb, honouring the 500th anniversary of his death. Why do the Bishop and the Magistrate want to block the project? What’s the secret hidden in the Magistrate’s creepy manor? And, of course, who killed the dead man?

Flavia’s family fortunes are slowly succumbing to what her father calls “His Majesty’s leeches” and in this novel the dreaded day comes when Buckshaw Manor must be put up for sale. The crisis, plus perhaps a bit of maturing among the sisters, gives them a common focus. I appreciate Alan Bradley’s deftly understated portrayal of the family dynamics, and I’ve come to care for the somewhat dysfunctional de Luces and their staff.

Although Flavia is a “child sleuth” there’s a rich depth to the stories that make them satisfying to (and designed for) adults. I like the humour and the word choices, and Flavia’s fixation with chemicals and poisons. She’s one of those delightful characters that you might not want to live with but who’s awfully fun to read about.

Alan Bradley’s mysteries are gentle reads in the “Golden Age” style, and this one ends with a surprising turn that has me a little perturbed about having to wait a whole year to find out what will happen next (in The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches). This is a series that builds on itself, so for maximum enjoyment a reader would begin with book 1, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. But you can start with any one of them and not feel out of place.

To learn more about Alan Bradley and the Flavia de Luce mysteries, visit Flavia de Luce or pop over to Canadian Living‘s Saturday Afternoon Book Club to read an interview with the author about this newest book in the series.

[Review copy from my local public library. Amazon link is an affiliate link for The Word Guild.]

Review: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley

I Am Half-Sick of ShadowsI Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley (Doubleday, 2011)

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is the latest instalment in the life of 11-year-old chemical mastermind Flavia de Luce and her somewhat dysfunctional family in 1950’s England. Where Flavia is, death seems bound to follow, and her detective skills both aid and irritate the local police.

This time, a film crew leases the de Luce ancestral home and the family will be celebrating a quiet Christmas sequestered in their rooms. At least the intrusion shouldn’t interfere with Flavia’s plan to prove (or disprove) the existence of St. Nick.

The equipment and cast arrive in the middle of an escalating snow storm. Add in an impromptu performance for the local community which brings in half the town, turn the storm into a blizzard that traps everyone in the mansion, let Flavia discover a dead body, and you have a delicious murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s house-party type murders.

Oh, I think Dame Agatha would have liked Flavia! Hercule Poirot definitely would have enjoyed making her acquaintance.

This is book four in the series and although each title stands alone, there are ongoing relational threads. Flavia and her widowed father may be becoming a bit closer. She thinks her older sisters hate her, but one admits that’s not the problem – so what is?

Flavia makes a delightful narrator, with her child’s perspective and her propensity to view everything in terms of chemical compounds and poison. At one point she’s commiserating with her father’s faithful manservant-cum-gardener, Dogger, about forgetting things, and she says:

“Why, just yesterday I had a thimbleful of arsenic in my hand, and I put it down somewhere. I can’t for the life of me think what I could have done with it.”

“I found it in the butter dish,” Dogger said. “I took the liberty of setting it out for the mice in the coach house.” [p. 81, Doubleday Canada hardcover edition]

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is a delightful addition to the series, every bit as enjoyable as the book that started it all, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Expect a good ‘Golden Age’ mystery, but also expect intriguing and understated relationships where all is not as it seems. And expect Flavia to make you smile.

For more about internationally bestselling Canadian author Alan Bradley and his novels, see the official Flavia de Luce website. I’m pleased to see there’ll be another Flavia novel in early 2013. You can read an excerpt of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows on the Doubleday Canada site.

[Review copy borrowed from the public library.]

Review: A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley

A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley (Doubleday, 2011)

Adult books with child protagonists are rare—or good ones are. Thankfully, eleven-year-old Flavia deLuce is back, in the third instalment of Alan Bradley’s mysteries series set in 1950’s England.

Flavia’s elder sisters treat her miserably at times, and she dishes it right back at them. They live in sprawling Buckshaw Manor with their inattentive father. Flavia, especially, feels the lack of her mother, who died when Flavia was a baby.

This time the mystery centres around the attack on a gypsy woman who was camping on the Buckshaw grounds at Flavia’s invitation. Flavia feels responsible, and sets out to assist the local constabulary in their investigation. Naturally she manages to get in the way, to use her prodigious knowledge of chemistry, and to discover clues that help solve the case.

Finances are not good for the deLuces, and Father is selling off the family silver. We see the developing relationship between Flavia and her father as they learn to support one another without breaching the “stiff upper lip” exterior. He often seems to view his daughters as creatures outside his comprehension, but by the end of A Red Herring Without Mustard Flavia begins to suspect he may actually be somewhat proud of her.

To me, this novel had more of the feel of the first one, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: intriguing, and a bit playful, much like Flavia herself. I found book two, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, a bit more sombre.

For more about Alan Bradley and his novels, visit the official Flavia deLuce website. According to the website, the next novel will be called Seeds of Antiquity.

Review: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, by Alan Bradley

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, by Alan Bradley (2010, Doubleday Canada)

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag is the second mystery from Alan Bradley featuring 11-year-old Flavia de Luce. The series is set in 1950 in rural England.

Flavia, her sisters and their father live in a huge old house, where she spends her happiest times in the lab of a mad (now dead) chemist.

The mystery surrounds a murder that doesn’t happen until part-way through the book. I knew it was coming, having read some promotional material. Getting to know the soon-to-be victim was an odd sensation.

A secondary plot thread involves the death of a local boy some years earlier, and Flavia is determined to get to the bottom of that too.

The world through Flavia’s eyes is an interesting place. She observes, rarely judging, and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

Although she’s a child, this is a novel for adults. Since I usually review books for the Christian market, I’ll add that it’s a general market book containing some mild profanity.

Flavia is one of those enjoyable fictional characters you probably wouldn’t want to live with. She has a dry sense of humour and a vocabulary that includes words like pustulent, pristine and diminutive, along with a variety of chemical terms.

When she successfully ducks an assignment from her father, he laments that she’s unreliable. Her comment as narrator: “Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself. Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be unreliable.” (p. 86)

Another character calls her terrifying, and Flavia tells us with all modesty, “It was true—and there was no use denying it.” (p. 90)

I suspect Inspector Hewitt of the local constabulary would describe her as terrifying too—but she does have his grudging respect.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a sadder story to me than the first novel in the series, but it’s still a very good read with plenty that made me smile. You don’t have to read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie first, but don’t miss it!

Alan Bradley is a Canadian author now living in Malta. You can find him online at the Flavia de Luce website, and Flavia de Luce has her own online fan club.

You might also be interested in this interview with Alan Bradley in the Ottawa Sun,  or this article by Andrea Baillie of the Canadian Press.

The next book in the series is A Red Herring Without Mustard, releasing in 2011.  I’m looking forward to it.

Here’s a video trailer for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, to introduce you to Flavia. The voice is perfect.

Review copy purchased from Kobo Books and enjoyed on my Aluratek Libre e-reader.

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley (Doubleday Canada, 2009)

Flavia de Luce is an 11-year-old girl whose approach to her older sisters’ pranks is “letting the soup of revenge simmer to perfection” (p. 4). The girls’ mother died when Flavia was a baby, and their father has never recovered. He’s distant and inattentive, and the girls have the run of their sprawling, centuries-old house in 1950’s England.

Flavia concocts some rather beastly revenges, such as dissolving sister Ophelia’s pearls in acid and adding poison to her lipstick, but it’s with a child’s spitefulness rather than any sense of evil. Although she’s a genius in the house’s private chemistry lab (poison is her passion), she’s a bit short on interpersonal skills. As the novel opens, she’s vaguely fond of her father and would happily embrace never seeing her sisters again. She takes the people in her world for granted, as children do.

Flavia would be a terror to live with, but she makes a charming narrator. Her point of view is never dull and often sprinkled with humour and clever turns of phrase. There are too many wonderful descriptions to quote, but here’s how she describes her home: “[The] two yellow brick annexes, pustulently Victorian, folded back like the pinioned wings of a boneyard angel, which, to my eyes, gave the tall windows and shutters of Buckshaw’s Georgian front the prim and surprised look of an old maid whose bun is too tight” (p.5).

Mr. de Luce loves his stamp collection more than his own daughters. Perhaps he feels it’s safer ground. One day a stamp turns up at the kitchen door—impaled on the beak of a dead bird.

That evening Mr. de Luce has a secret visitor, and the next morning Flavia finds the man’s body in the cucumber patch. Fearing that her father or the family’s gardener might be involved, and irritated with the police Inspector for excluding her from the crime scene, Flavia determines to solve the mystery herself.

She reminds me a bit of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, minus the fairies and criminal tendencies. Like Artemis, the dangers she faces help her begin to understand her family and her heart. I think that’s where the novel’s title fits in. It refers to a quote from William King’s The Art of Cookery, “Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie, who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?”

As with her human relationships, Flavia doesn’t give much thought to faith. It’s there in the background, another part of her life’s framework. Author Alan Bradley treats it with care, something I rarely find but always appreciate in a mainstream-audience book.

I must also say, as a Canadian, I thoroughly enjoyed reading a book with Canadian spellings. That too is a rare experience these days.

I read the novel once to see what happened, and a second time to enjoy the language. Flavia may be 11 years old, but this isn’t a book for children. It’s rich in nuance, vocabulary and detail, clearly designed for adults’ experienced palates.

I’d love to share the best lines with my husband but I’ve resisted—for the most part. I don’t want to spoil it for him.

Canadian author Alan Bradley has created a fascinating character in Flavia de Luce, and I’m glad to see two more novels to follow this one: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag [or Tied Up With Strings] (2010) and Dance, Gypsy! Hang, Gypsy! (2011). Flavia certainly seems to be capturing the imaginations of readers the world over. There’s even a Flavia de Luce fan club—for adults.

Mr. Bradley is co-author (with Dr. William A.S. Sarjeant) of the non-fiction Ms. Holmes of Baker Street and author of The Shoebox Bible. Before being internationally-published, his first novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie received the (British) Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger Award in 2007.