Tuesday, June 26, 2012

snips and snails and puppeteer's tales

Title: The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
Author: Alan Bradley
bookmark: library receipt

I got a dirty look from my girlfriend when I acknowledged that I might be falling in love with a fictional eleven-year-old girl.  Admittedly, it sounds terrible, but I would like to reiterate that I only want to hang out with young Flavia de Luce, talk science (I could learn so much!!), and trade barbs about her astoundingly horrible sisters.  I have no sinister or untoward intentions, which is good, because she has a habit of pondering how to poison people in various and nefarious ways.

However, in this adventure she finds no clues of poison at the scene when a popular puppeteer is killed during a very public performance in Bishop's Lacey, and must thus investigate through more pedestrian avenues.  She returns to the pit shed where the library stores old newspapers, visits again with Miss Cool, the local postmistress/candy purveyor, and gleans more wisdom from the eminently sympathetic and intriguing Dogger, but we find that Bishop's Lacey has much more to offer.  Aunt Felicity has come to visit, the vicar is hiding something, Flavia seeks intel from a tea room and the undertaker next door, and an unusually artistic madwoman lives in the woods at the edge of town--the woods where an old gibbet sits slowly rotting in a clearing.

Inspector Hewitt and his trusty sergeants are once again on the case, but this time they are well behind Flavia, rather than simply arriving at the same conclusions via variant paths.  Aunt Felicity, despite offering bewilderingly supportive words of encouragement, has some unconventional thoughts on raising children ("Children ought to be horsewhipped," she used to say, "unless they are going in for politics or the Bar, in which case they ought in addition to be drowned.").  Daphne is, as usual, buried in books and evil looks, while vain Ophelia is courted by a German pilot and former POW who knows more than he tells, and is thoroughly obsessed with English literature.

Bradley--and Flavia--is consistently brilliant.  I had to put the book aside for a week when I was nearing the conclusion, and if I hadn't been so occupied during that time, it would have driven me mad.  I was still disappointed that when I returned to the library, someone else had checked out the next in the series, and I now have to wait even longer to find out what Flavia does next.

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posted by reyn at 12:34 PM


Monday, June 11, 2012

sugar and spice and dead in a thrice

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley
Bookmark: library receipt

Enter Flavia de Luce.  Youngest daughter of vanished (presumed dead) adventuress Harriet de Luce and British veteran Colonel de Luce, resident of the sprawling and storied Buckshaw Estate near Bishop's Lacey, England, expert in poisons, and chemical genius, aged eleven years.  Easily the most entertaining, engaging, and endearing protagonist I've met in a long time.  I want to hang out with Flavia.  Scratch that--I want to be smart enough to cope with hanging out with Flavia.  She still has a touch of youth's naivete, but for an eleven-year-old (or most adults), she's positively brilliant.

She is also, upon discovering a body in the family garden just in time to hear the dying word (and smell the suspiciously-odored dying breath), completely fascinated.  Who was the red-headed rogue, what was he doing arguing with her father in the study late the night before, and how did he come to be dying amid the cucumber patch?

At first motivated only by her youthful (and occasionally misguided) curiosity, and later by her father's incarceration, Flavia sets out to learn answers to all her questions encountering more along the way, and discovers a decades-old philatelic scandal that reaches all the way to King George himself.  Following her path, we are introduced to her home, the characters of her village ("Communicating with Ned was like exchanging cabled messages with a slow reader in Mongolia."), and her self-involved older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne.  Mrs. Mullet comes by to do the cooking at the estate, and Dogger, a faithful and battle-addled army buddy of the Colonel's, tends the gardens (occasionally taking an opportunity to teach Flavia useful skills, like picking locks).

Inspector Hewitt, meanwhile, pursues a parallel investigation, learning many--if not all--of the same secrets as our young heroine, and begrudges her intermittent interruptions into his work.

There are many good reasons that Bradley won a Debut Dagger Award, but the simplest is this: Flavia is amazing.  Add to that a colorful cast, delicious descriptions (see above, re: Ned), and a sweet, if sticky with death, narrative, and there's only one more thing to do: go get the next one.  Excuse me; my library beckons.

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posted by reyn at 10:35 AM