Welcome to my library! We are all readers looking for the next fabulous book. In my search I have found many books that will just knock your socks off. Books that I have to share. So come on in and look around. Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable; gently flip open the pages, the magic is about to begin.

My intentions for this blog are:

1) To have monthly author spotlights in which I will write about the authors themselves and give several reviews of their different books.

2) Biweekly book reviews. I will review one book but also discuss similar books of the same topic. Because one book is never enough.

3) Newbie writer alert will review books of new unheard writers whose work deserves to be heard.

4) I will endeavor to talk about Canadian writers and titles.

Book Hunt section where people can ask about books they would like to read and get suggestions. If you have read a great book that you want to share with someone else, please feel free to leave your comments.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Flavia de Luce Mystery Series by Alan Bradley

Quote of the week: “Good books don't give up all their secrets at once.”
Stephen King

Alan Bradley

We Canadians need to promote and acknowledge the talent our own people. This is the first of my Author Spot Lights.  I could pick no better candidate to commence my blog than Alan Bradley.  This fall I have had the absolute pleasure to read all four books of the Flavia mystery series. Since the fourth book I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is both a Christmas book and recently released, I thought this would be a good holiday launch for my blog. OK.  I am going to get it out of the way right from the start.  I love Alan Bradley’s Flavia mystery books.  Just so we are all on the same page.

  The Flavia de Luce mysteries is a multi-award winning series; and, when I say awarding winning, I should mention that the first book in the series The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie won more awards than any debut novel of a series ever published, including Debut Dagger Award of the (British) Crimewriter’s Association for his novel, the 2009 Agatha Award for Best First Novel, the 2010 Dilys Award, the Spotted Owl Award, and the 2010 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.   Hence, with each new publication, a flurry of shelf building can be found in the Bradley household. 

Alan Bradley was born in Toronto and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario.  He received his training as an electric engineer and worked in many radio and television stations across Ontario, as well as, at Ryerson University in Toronto and as the Director of Television Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon where he worked for 25 years. While at the University of Saskatchewan, he taught courses in script writing and television production.  He has also won awards for children’s literature and has had podcasts of his short stories on CBC Radio. 

He has had a life time interest in mystery genre and was a founding member of The Casebook of Saskatoon Society for Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts.  Here, he met Dr. S.J. Sarjeant with whom he collaborated to write Ms. Holmes of Baker Street, the controversial book that proposed that Sherlock Holmes was actually a woman.  (To be honest Alan, I have had my own suspicions for years.)  He began his writing career only after taking early retirement, beginning his own mystery series with Flavia de Luce.  And, this is one reader who is very happy with this career-life decision!

Alan Bradley is now in his 70s and still going strong.  He envisions the series as 6 books.  Alan is a fine example of what people can accomplish after retirement and pursuing dreams regardless of age.  Alan is an inspiration to all of us who spend our time wondering if we could ever write a book or take up a new career later in life.    

The best books emphasize character development; characters with whom readers can engage, and, no one does this with more style than Alan Bradley.  The character Flavia de Luce was introduced in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie along side many quirky characters and proceeds to solve both present and past mysteries that bloom like weeds in her small rural English village of Bishop’s Lacy during the 1950s.  Alan has created a Sherlock Holmes like character embodied in an eleven year old girl complete with deductive skills and child like innocence and vulnerabilities that is equally compelling and endearing.  A warning to parents even though the main character is only eleven years old, this is very much adult reading as each book addresses at least one grisly murder.  In addition, Flavia is fascinated by chemistry and poisons and spends a great deal of her time trying to get even with her older sisters…chemically. (Not traits I wish to encourage in my own brood.)  The secondary cast of characters range from the nobility through all classes of society. The mannerisms of the British cast are spot on, from colloquialisms of the cook Mrs. Mullet to the dry crisp language of the Colonel, Flavia’s father.

These mysteries are written from the first person point of view of Flavia.  While first person PVO limits a story to that main character’s actions and thought processes, I believe that by using Flavia as our spy lens into the stories the plot is augmented by her own genius and perceptions, as well as, her innocence in age and maturity.  Flavia, as only children can, has a greater perception and literal world view that enhances these criminal investigations.  And, most importantly some of Flavia’s conclusions are just plain funny. 

At the heart of these stories is a heartbreakingly lonely child looking for attention and craving adult acceptance.  Flavia’s mother died while she was a toddler and her father the Colonel, remains distant and unhappy, preoccupied with impending financial ruin.  He buries himself in his study and his valuable stamp collection.  Her older sisters Ophelia and Daphne do not understand their youngest sister and gang up on the younger Flavia, playing horrible, if not down right scary pranks on Flavia.   Dogger, the handyman, a survivor of the POW camps of the last war and now suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, is the only person paying the remotest amount of attention to this child and that is when he is not having one of his bad moments and is in a working state of mind.  As the series develops Dogger is found to be more than he seems and comes through for Flavia in her many sticky moments. Flavia’s developing relationship with Inspector Hewitt arises out of her fantasies of being a great detective in order to gain his respect and esteem and that much sought after adult attention.  Although it must be mentioned Flavia really does enjoy investigating these murders and admits to a strange fascination with the dead and can accurately determine how such victims met their bad ends.  She is in reality a budding medical examiner.  

Alan Bradley has written very clever mysteries with an imp of an investigator which makes me laugh and marvel at what an eleven year old motherless—and I must say woefully unsupervised--girl can accomplish with just her bike she calls Gladys, an old chemistry lab, acute abilities of perception, unquenchable curiosity and a very generous dose of moxie. Flavia solves her mysteries in the old fashioned manner of investigation, deduction.   The shear extent to which Flavia will go in her quest to solve these crimes demonstrates a determination and focus rarely seen outside of the old Sherlock Holmes stories. Her inventive use of common household materials in her chemistry experiments denotes a brilliant mind, and by extension indicates how absolutely brilliant Alan Bradley is himself, and reminds me of the MacGyver show of the 1980s (A strange kind of feeling comes over me after reading one of these books, as if I could gather up random materials in the house and build a car.)  Each time I finish these clever stories with a smile, a feeling of hopefulness and, not to be overlooked, a much better understanding of chemistry. 

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Sweetness at the Bottom of the pie is first Flavia de Luce Mystery.  This delightful mystery is set in the summer of 1950, in rural England in a rambling old mansion, Buckshaw, fallen on hard times.  Working in a lab inherited from a distant ancestor, our precocious eleven year old main character, Flavia de Luce indulges in her love of chemistry and her strange passion for poisons.  She is the lonely youngest daughter of a former Colonel, presently most distant father, who lost his wife when Flavia was only a toddler.  Her father is found most times in his study hidden away with his very precious stamp collection.  Flavia passes her time with experiments in her lab, getting even with her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and avoiding suspect cream pies made by the housekeeper Mrs. Mullet.  The hired man, Dogger, suffering from post traumatic shock following his time spent in the war and in a POW camp, is ally and friend to Flavia, at least when he is in the present.

 Two strange incidents occur at Buckshaw, which places our clever Flavia, to her absolute delight, in the middle of a murder investigation.  First, a bird is found dead on the back step with a postage stamp stuck on its beak.  Second, within hours an unknown man is found dying in the cucumber patch, breathing his last breath into Flavias face.  Flavia launches herself into these mysteries; travelling over the country side in search of clues on her trusty bike she calls Gladys.  From high roof tops to the bottom of foul pits, and, from prison cells to the local library, Flavia collects clues and theories, not to mention the ire, and finally, admiration of the local police inspector. The writing floats off the page, light and clever.  This is a perfect book to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  But beware, Flavia will pedal her way right into your heart.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag is the second installment in Bradley’s series.  Flavia sets out to investigate one murder only to uncover the truth surrounding the tragic death of a young boy years earlier when Flavia herself was only five.  A mad woman living in the woods, a German pilot obsessed with the Bronte sisters, a haunted woman tending a shrine built in a dovecote, a beautiful but pregnant puppeteer’s assistant with marked bruises on her arms, and even the vicar all seem to be behaving suspiciously as Flavia collects her evidence through the fields and farms of the deceivingly quiet English countryside, and succeeds in uncovering more than a few local secrets.

In The Weed that String the Hangman’s Bag, we return to the small English village of Bishop Lacey during the summer where Flavia de Luce lives with her father and two older sisters in their crumbling manor Buckshaw.  Flavia is bored and entertaining herself in the cemetery imagining her own funeral, when she encounters a distraught woman, Nialla, weeping face down on the ground.  Nialla is the assistant of the famous puppeteer, Rupert Porson, whose van had just broken down near the church yard.  The vicar soon helps the stranded pair organize a puppet show and enlists Flavia to help.  Flavia is thrilled to see the behind the scenes activity and equipment that creates the illusions of the puppet theatre.  When Rupert is electrocuted mid performance, Flavia naturally assumes she will be not only a star witness to this crime, but a valued member of the investigative team.  When Inspector Hewitt fails to give Flavia her due, she sets out on her own to solve the crime.   And with great powers of observation and deduction, Flavia solves two mysteries, but not before she incurs the wrath of the formidable vicar’s wife, finds a surprising ally in her crusty spinster Aunt Felicity, and all the while seeking revenge on her older sisters by means of a tampered box of chocolates.

A Red Herring Without Mustard

In A Herring with Red Mustard, the third book in the immensely popular Flavia de Luce series, we return to Bishop’s Lacey of the 1950s.  Flavia embroiders herself into yet another murder mystery. In addition to the usual suspects, Alan Bradley adds to the mix a fortune telling gypsy complete with caravan; a dissenting religious group called the Hobblers who has engaged in strange baptism rituals; and, hillbillyesque family whose baby went missing two years earlier. All strange incidents seem to intersect at the Palings, a bend in the river on the Buckshaw property.  As the title suggests, Flavia chases after a few red herrings in this murder mystery of too many suspects, one of whom literally smells fishy.
It is now fall and Flavia is attending the local fair.  No fair is complete without a visit to the Gypsies tent to have your fortune told, and like all the other children Flavia is   expecting the usual banalities.  Flavia is shocked when the gypsy exclaims, you scare me, darkness surrounds you.  When she adds that a woman is calling out to come home, Flavia jumps accidently setting the gypsy’s tent on fire.  Flavia sets out to recompensate the poor old woman suffering smoke inhalation by inviting her to stay on the Palings on Buckshaw.  Returning to check on the old gypsy, Flavia finds she has been bludgeoned in her own caravan.  Flavia demonstrates quick thinking and manages to save the gypsy’s life.  Within a few hours Flavia finds the local thug hanging off the Poseidon fountain on the Buckshaw lawn, very dead, complete with a De Luce silver fork jammed up his nose.  Flavia determined to solve this mystery on her own, conceals evidence and alters the facts given to Inspector Hewitt.  Flavia takes on angry roosters and junk yard dogs sneaking in and out of building and businesses of Bishop’s Lacy.  Even scary, Flavia meets a girl who could be a friend and must learn to negotiate the intricate twists of a friendship relationship, not so easy for a girl who talks to her bike, Gladys.  Despite the many directions this mystery takes Flavia, in the end the solution to the mystery will be found in the grounds beneath Buckshaw.

With each installment, Alan Bradley draws us deeper into Flavia’s world.  And, there is no better place to lose yourself for a couple of hours of reading bliss.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is the fourth in the charming Flavia de Luce mystery series and a special Christmas edition.  What would any eleven year old girl budding detective want for Christmas, but, a nice murder and dead body to examine!  (Ok, maybe only Flavia would put that on her Santa list.)  Alan Bradley has served up a brilliant new story with the return of old characters and new, just in time for the holidays.
Although I usually mention how much I love this series, I must say that each book gets better.   Alan Bradley with each book has further developed the characters and back stories within the Flavia mysteries adding greater depth to the ongoing story.

If you are unfamiliar with Flavia de Luce, she is an eleven year old girl with an obsession for chemistry; a strange fascination for poisons; and, in direct contradiction to Inspector Hewitt expressed orders to stop meddling, has solved several mysteries in her tiny hamlet of Bishop’s Lacy; not a few of which occurred right on the grounds of Buckshaw, the De Luce ancestral mansion.  Flavia is an imp of child, brilliant beyond safety and sometimes plain common sense; and has on occasion lied, or should I say altered the truth and even hid evidence from the police in order to solve the mysteries herself.  All the same, you can not help loving this woefully neglected, motherless child.
Overwhelmed with financial worries and the impending loss of Buckshaw the Colonel, Flavia’s father, makes an out of character decision to allows a Movie production company to set up to film at Buckshaw over the Christmas holidays. Cast, including a very pregnant Nialla, and crew invade the home in large numbers and soon have scaffolding and electric equipment spread through the main floor.  With firm orders from the Colonel to stay in the family rooms, Flavia is of course winding her way through the snaking cables, climbing scaffolding and chatting up all the members of the cast and crew including the famous actress, and surprisingly friendly, Phyllis Wyvern. 

The vicar not one to pass up an opportunity to raise funds for the church roof convinces the actors to put on a performance.  Since the community hall plumbing is on the fritz, the only place large enough to accommodate the performers and towns people is Buckshaw itself.  In for a penny, in for a pound, the Colonel agrees, only to have the entire town trapped by a blizzard at Buckshaw.  With of course a murderer running amuck; as it seems, Phyllis Wyvern was not so friendly after all and had collected quite a few enemies.  One angry enough to murder her with her own movie film, and leave it tied around her neck in a bow.  Flavia of course wants to solve this murder; but, Flavia has made Christmas plans of her own. One, which involves entrapping ‘Father Christmas’ in birdbind to prove his existence to her doubting sisters. And, the second plan involves her own special blend of chemical pyrotechnics; you got it, homemade fireworks.  Flavia of course catches more than she bargains for as the whole scheme explodes around her. 

Once again Alan Bradley has written a bang of a story.  Perfect for some quiet downtime, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is a delightful perky read. 

No comments:

Post a Comment