Book Review: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

ChimneySweepersI’ve been an ardent Flavia fan since the first book in the series came out, so it pains me to say that this book is the weakest of the series. I’ll assume you’re up to speed on Flavia, eleven-year-old chemist, sleuth, and now heiress (and if you’re not, you MUST pick up a copy of the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), so I’ll launch straight into this book.

Flavia has been sent off to Miss Bodycote’s Academy in Toronto, her mother’s alma mater: a whole new setting, made necessary by the fact that a tiny village like Bishop’s Lacey had already seen too many murders in one year for any more to be believable (truth be told, it was stretching that believability by about the fourth book). Being Canadian myself, I was excited to see what this trip would bring.

Well, Flavia is still Flavia – determined, resourceful, and (truth be told) far too insightful for her years—but the setting, the plot, and the writing seemed very watered-down compared to the previous books in the series.

Flavia stumbles across a corpse on her first day at her new school, which is what we’ve come to expect of her, but the mystery itself never gripped me the way the other books did. No one seemed all that concerned that there had been a murder. What weakened the book the most for me, however, was the lack of enjoyable characters. Bishop’s Lacey is overflowing with them: Dogger, Professor Hewitt, Mrs. Mullet, Dr. Darby, Dieter Schrantz, even very minor characters like the Misses Puddock… these are what make the other books such a delight for me. In this novel, we are introduced to several characters in the school, but for the most party they were faintly sketched and seldom likeable. It didn’t help that the students all called each other by their surnames; this increased the feeling of separation and coldness. No doubt this was deliberate—the atmosphere of the school is one of isolation, not only of the school from society but between the characters—however, this makes for a bit of a dreary read! (Sorry Alan Bradley; I’m still a HUGE fan but this part really did leave me cold.)

Another massive missing piece, for me, was more description of day-to-day boarding school life. I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s boarding school series (and when I saw ‘grew up reading’, I mean ‘devoured and re-devoured’), so, given Bradley’s usually masterful powers of description coupled with a sense of humour, I had high expectations of this. However, Flavia only mentions one or two classes, and one or two meals. Now, even if it does have a culture of isolation, a girls’ boarding school is like a social experiment: I would have expected it to be teeming with interactions, cliques, friendships, hostilities, customs, unwritten rules—kind of like an ant colony, but much louder, and with far more passing of notes and copying each others’ homework. There were tiny, brief sketches of some of this, but SO much more could have been made of this, and was passed right over! Imagine the book Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but with 90% of it set in the entranceway; that’s what this felt like. Look, over there! – the good stuff’s all over there! Why aren’t you taking us inside? As a result, I never really believed in the school the way I believed in Bishop’s Lacey. It was missing the richness and interest.

Another thing that Bradley completely forgot was how huge a factor age is, in a school. What grade you’re in dictates whom you talk to and whom you scurry away from. Inter-grade friendships are uncommon in schools. We no longer know Flavia’s age, because although she’s introduced to us in the first book as being eleven, a year seems to have passed without her having a birthday. So let’s say she’s twelve… the only girls she almost makes friends with seem older than her (although we’re not told their ages either. In fact, we’re never told what age range the school houses). This would be really important!  So this killed a great deal of believability for me, too.

The other issue with creating a setting that is cold (literally and figuratively) is that you really have to work on other writing aspects if you want to keep the mood from getting dreary or morose. Here again, I felt like Bradley’s writing didn’t even come close to the gasp-inducing beauty of his previous novels. With almost all of his previous books, I’ve had to frequently stop and re-read sentences because they’re so beautifully crafted. With this book… not so much. It just felt like a weak watercolour version compared to the rich oil paintings that the others were.

If you’re a Flavia fan, obviously you’ll read this anyway (given how much I adore Flavia, I’d read her shopping list), but after finishing it, you might want to re-crack your copy of Speaking From Among the Bones, which to me, is Bradley’s best-written book to date. I look forward to seeing what the next one will bring.

 

Side note to Alan Bradley: could you write faster, please? A year is a very long time to wait.

Book Review: Speaking From Among the Bones

Book cover: Speaking from amng the bonesThe latest Flavia novel has arrived… and it is a cracker!

Now that Alan Bradley’s Flavia mysteries have become an annual event, Bradley fans have certain expectations, and this book delivers on all counts: midnight skulduggery in a churchyard, a bizarre murder discovered by the unflappable Flavia, rivalry with her obnoxious sisters, one-upmanship with Inspector Hewitt, triumphs through chemistry, descriptions that border on the genius, and more laugh out loud moments than any of the previous books in the series. (Minor nit: this novel also seems to have more Americanisms in the text than any of the previous books; someone needs to find themselves a British copy editor!) But on with the show…

This is the fifth book in the series featuring eleven-year-old chemist and amateur detective Flavia de Luce, who has a talent for stumbling across dead bodies. This time, she’s angling to be the first person to see the remains of St. Tancred, the patron saint of Bishop’s Lacey, who is being disinterred for the quincentennial of his death, when she instead gets the first glimpse of someone else’s remains: the church organist, Mr. Collicutt. The plot of this book is delightfully complex compared to the last one, and involves corrupt religious officials, a leprous magistrate, an elephantine soprano, a collector of antique seeds, a victim of lead poisoning, a centuries-old diamond known as the Heart of Lucifer, and a hen named Esmeralda. We also have all the usual beloved regulars: the vicar, Inspector Hewitt, Captain Havilland de Luce, Flavia’s evil older sisters (all right, some loathed regulars) Ophelia and Daphne, Dogger, Mrs. Mullet, and Flavia’s trusty steed Gladys.

The fearless Flavia launches into her own investigations as usual, cheerfully ignoring Inspector Hewitt’s warnings and really coming into her own, in this story, as a sleuth, chemist, and explorer (there’s always a lot of crawling through dirt for our mettlesome heroine, and never more than in this book, which also involves wriggling through putrid graves). As always, both Bradley’s characters and descriptions delight. Alan Bradley is such an enormously talented writer that even if his books weren’t entertaining, gripping, and hilarious, they would be worth reading for the writing alone; this is one of those books you will find yourself re-reading for the sheer pleasure of re-acquainting oneself with certain passages. But happily, plot, character, and description are all deliciously intertwined in this book: a trinity of majestic writing.

To wit, Flavia’s discovery of the wrong dead body, and her delightfully deadpan response: “The first thing I saw was a human hand, its dried fingers tightly clutching a bit of broken glass tubing. And then the face – and ghastly, inhuman mask with enormous, staring acetate eyes and a piggish rubber snout. Beneath it was a white ruffle, not quite covering the ink-black vessels of the neck and throat. Above the eyes was a shock of curly golden choirboy hair. This was most definitely not the body of Saint Tancred. I turned off the torch, withdrew my head, and turned slowly to the vicar. ‘I believe we’ve found Mr. Collicutt,’ I said.”

And Flavia’s descriptions of those she encounters: “Miss Tanty… was a retired music mistress whose sheer physical bulk and full-strength spectacles gave her the appearance of an ancient omnibus with enormous acetylene headlamps bearing down upon you in a narrow country lane.”

Flavia’s delight in chemistry, especially her predilection for poisons: “I had created a poison which, in sufficient quantities, was enough to stop a rogue elephant dead in its tracks. What it would do to an impertinent sister was almost too gruesome to contemplate. One aspect of poisons that is often overlooked is the pleasure one takes in gloating over them.”

I could go on forever, but one more favourite feature of the Flavia oeuvre: the personification of her bicycle Gladys: “I parked Gladys on the north side of Cassandra Cottlestone’s tomb and gave her leather seat a pat. The silver glint of her handlebars reminded me of a frightened horse showing the whites of its eyes.”

Without giving away any more of the plot, I’ll sum up by saying that Flavia’s triumph over all the adults will make you want to jump up and shout “Yaroo!”

There were a couple of not-quite-believable plot points in this book, the most obvious being Flavia’s father’s refusal to part with a First Quarto Shakespeare which could have brought in enough money to save the ancestral home. It seemed unlikely that a small inscription of his late wife’s would hold more cherished memories than an entire mansion; he already has a shrine to his deceased wife in the house, so it makes no sense that he would he choose the book over the latter, let alone that he would make the family homeless for the sake of one scribble.

And there still remain a few unsolved mysteries that span all the books: Why do Flavia and Daphne not go to school? Even if Captain de Luce can’t afford private school, isn’t there a school in at least one of the local villages? And why are there no children Flavia’s age in Bishop’s Lacey? (Lack of local schooling, perhaps?) And could an eleven-year-old really become that adept at chemistry with only books, and no tutor, to teach her? If we’re to believe that five murders could happen in one small village in the space of a year, then we need to believe in the more practical aspects of life in Bishop’s Lacey, too!

Now, besides my earlier nitpick about the Americanisms insinuated their way into the text, I do have a slightly larger axe to grind: I have a personal dislike of books that end on a cliff-hanger. It feels too much like we’re going into a commercial break. If the idea is to get us to buy the next book… we were going to do so anyway! No need to leave us with a Season Finale; a book should have a proper ending. So it looks like we’ll have a LONG wait to find out more about Colonel de Luce’s discovery. (No spoilers here, you’ll have to read it yourself).

That aside, this still feels like a deluxe, bumper edition of Flavia – all the ingredients we’ve come to love, tantalizingly simmered over one of our young detective’s Bunsen burners and set in front of us to either fester into fireworks or distil into delight – or both!

by Jody Kihara

Speaking From Among the Bones is available for sale on January 29, 2013 – you can pre-order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, The Book Repository, and other retailers.

Book Review: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Continuing on in my Best Reads of 2012 post series, here is my favourite for Adult Mystery.

Image: book coverI Am Half-Sick of Shadows is the fourth in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. Flavia, for those of you who haven’t yet met her, is an irrepressible eleven-year-old with the mind of a thirty-year-old and a passion for chemistry. The stories are set in post-war England, in a country house that has seen generations of de Luces. Unfortunately, the de Luces are now running out of money, and it looks like Colonel de Luce, Flavia’s father, may have to sell Buckshaw.

To bolster his non-existent income, de Luce is letting out Buckshaw to a film company – a huge step for him given his loathing of anything modern (including the telephone). Flavia’s two older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, are agog to see the filmmaking; Flavia is more interested in chemistry and in proving whether Father Christmas exists.

The film company arrives… and as with all Flavia novels, a murder soon follows. And Flavia, as always, takes the lead in the investigation, or at least her lead, much to the annoyance of Inspector Hewitt, who has investigated cross-purposes to Flavia many times before.

The most wonderful thing about Bradley’s novels are the characterizations. Scratch that, there are two equally wonderful things: the characters, and the quality of his writing. Both are so beautifully done that you truly feel like you know these people, that you could step into one of the corridors of Buckshaw, wander into the kitchen, and have a conversation with Mrs. Mullet while trying to avoid her almost-poisonous cooking.

However, with this Flavia novel… there is a however! (Which I didn’t have for the others.) I felt this novel was not up to the level of the others in terms of plotting. The plot is a thinner than the others, and because the crime involves characters who have recently descended on Buckshaw, it’s almost impossible to try and work the mystery out yourself. Not only that, but the plot is slightly ludicrous. Plot aside, however, my main criticism is of a character trait slip-up! Flavia has always been precocious for an eleven-year-old; she has university-level chemistry knowledge, and is used to looking after herself, as her father is emotionally absent and her sisters wickedly cruel. Yet in this book, we find the eleven-going-on-thirty year old Flavia painting the roof of Buckshaw with bird lime to see whether she can catch Father Christmas. This is amusing, but I found it too hard to swallow that Flavia would still believe in Father Christmas; everyone knows by eleven, especially if they have two older, cruel sisters who delight in trampling dreams! The bird lime on the roof ties into the plot at the end, but given that it doesn’t fit well with Flavia’s character, this made it all feel a bit “manufactured”.

Given that huge criticism, why does this book still make it to the top of my Adult Mystery list for 2012? The writing, the characters, and the humour. Once you’ve met Flavia, you’ll find yourself waiting with bated breath for the next novel. Although this one isn’t quite as good as the others… it’s still a delight.