As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to DustI just don’t even know what is going on with Flavia these days. I mean, I’ve always had my problems with these books, which have decently interesting mysteries and a delightful protagonist but which can’t decide if they want to drag on too long or not enough. But there was that short story a month or so back that just left me kind of cold, and then… this novel.

I was pretty excited about this book and the fact that we were going to get Flavia! In! Canada!, because seriously those graveyards in Bishop’s Lacey must have been overflowing after six books. And also because I was promised intrigue and secret organizations and general interesting new things. But what I got was confusion and more confusion and also some befuddlement.

So Flavia takes the boat to Canada, right, and then she settles into her dorm room at the horridly named Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy and then there’s a strange altercation and then there’s a dead body. In Flavia’s room. On day one. I’m not sure even Jessica Fletcher could do better. But this time Flavia doesn’t get to be terribly involved in this investigation because there are actual functioning adults around to take care of such things, and also because she has to, like, go to school and try to work out a dozen other mysteries of the campus.

Well, probably not a dozen. But there’s a lot. There are mysterious disappearances and faculty acting oddly, and then also there’s this whole thing about Flavia being in a society so secret that she apparently doesn’t even get to know who else is in it? Except that some other students are possibly dropping hints about it, but they’re so subtle they might not actually be hints, and then Flavia’s trying to drop hints and getting the stink-eye, and I am like omg wtf.

In the midst of all this Flavia does actually manage to solve that whole murder thing and also the disappearing students thing, but the solutions are both so ridiculous I don’t even want to talk about it except to say OMG WTF.

And then it gets worse! SPOILERS AHEAD: After Flavia solves these mysteries it is somehow determined that she no longer needs to be at the horridly named Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy even though she was there for like ten seconds and she gets shipped back to Britain to do God knows what. I wonder if Bradley realized his geographical mistake in the middle of writing the book, but having promised us Canada couldn’t take it back and this was his way of “fixing” things? Ugggggggh. (END SPOILERS)

It’s so awful. I mean, Flavia is still delightful, but the mystery is bad and so is the rest of the plot and I am just so disappointed. And yet you and I both know that as soon as the next Flavia book comes out I am going to read it, because I am a glutton for punishment and precocious eleven-year-olds. And really, it can only be better than this one. (She said, jinxing everything.)

Recommendation: For Flavia addicts only.

Rating: 4/10

Weekend Shorts: FBP and Flavia!

It’s a science round of shorts! First there’s physics, then there’s chemistry, how can anyone go wrong? Well, I mean, there’s also death and a bit of destruction, so… I guess that’s how. What are you reading this week?

FBP, Vol. 2: “Wish You Were Here”, by Simon Oliver and Robbi Rodriguez
Wish You Were HereHey, remember how I read Hawkeye and that one issue nearly broke my brain due to strange chronology? That’s how this entire volume was for me. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when we’re talking crazy pseudo-science, but I am still very confused as to what exactly just happened.

What I can understand is that our freelance physics friends go to a remote outpost where they meet an old friend of Cicero’s who has a shiny thing she wants to show them. Hardy and Reyes go off to explore the nearby town, there’s fancy physics fighting, Hardy learns about Reyes’s crazy physics past, Hardy learns some things about his own present, and a magic physics canyon becomes a magic physics cannon (well, sort of, let me have my wordplay) and it’s amazing. The brain-breaking part is that some or all of these events are taking place in a reality created by Hardy and Reyes, or possibly by Cicero and Sen, or possibly some hyper-intelligent mice, I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’ll know in the next volume, but for now I’m going with the mice.

The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse, by Alan Bradley
The Curious Case of the Copper CorpseI’ve stated several times here that I love Flavia de Luce, but the books about her have been hit or miss with me almost solely on the basis of how much time is spent solving mysteries versus extolling the virtues of Bishop’s Lacey and environs. Mysteries, yay! Ruminating about the history and future of Buckshaw with regard to laws governing estates, yaaaawwn.

But it turns out that long-windedness is a foundational Flavia attribute that really cannot be replicated in a 27-page story. Here’s Flavia, sitting around, oh, a note!, bicycling bicycling bicycling, a jaunt up the stairs, copper-covered fellow in a bathtub, meeting the boys of Greyminster, evading capture, mystery solved! No long rants about horrible sisters or even daydreams of criminal mischief via chemistry, and I rather missed them! It’s fascinating to find out how much you don’t even know about yourself…

The mystery itself was perfectly satisfactory, and it stands completely alone from the rest of the series so if you’re not caught up you won’t feel like you’re missing anything. But it’s no substitute for full-flavor Flavia, so luckily it’s just a few weeks until the next book comes out!

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

The Dead in Their Vaulted ArchesIntriguing, Mr. Bradley, very intriguing.

At the end of the last book, we readers got the news that Flavia’s long-lost-in-the-Himalayas-or-wherever mother had been found, and I personally was like, OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG because I very much wanted to meet Harriet and I especially wanted Flavia to meet her and maybe stop feeling like such a red-headed stepchild around her siblings.

This book starts off with Harriet’s return home via train, with a huge entourage of soldiers and whatnot, but of course, spoilers for the incurably optimistic like myself, it turns out that this is a funeral train and it is Harriet’s body that has been found, actually. Frowny… face.

On the plus side, Flavia meets Winston Churchill, which is pretty awesome, but then on the minus side she witnesses yet another murder in her tiny town when a man with a cryptic message for Flavia’s father is pushed in front of the departing train.

Although we get this murder right up front, it turns out that this book falls right into the pattern of even-numbered installments being more about Flavia and her family and her history than some boring murder, although in this case I was extremely interested in this backstory. Flavia spends much of her time channelling Frankenstein and attempting to reanimate her mother, because that’s going to go well, but she also meets some new family members and finds an old film of her mother that gives Flavia new facts about her family’s past.

And what a past it is. We finally get a sense of why there are so many murders occurring near Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, and why Flavia is given such free rein to go off investigating, not to mention her forays into chemistry and poisons in her own personal lab. We even learn just why it is that Flavia’s sisters are so hostile to her, aside from, you know, being siblings.

The end of this novel brings with it a huge change for the series that will probably protect many rural English villagers but can only bode poorly for another set of citizens that Flavia has yet to meet. It will be very interesting indeed to see where Bradley takes this series and whether it will have the same delightfulness that I associate with Flavia and Buckshaw or develop a new and different (and perhaps better?) identity. As I said up at the top, I am intrigued.

Recommendation: For those who have read the rest of the series, which should be you!

Rating: 8/10

Speaking from Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley

Speaking from Among the BonesIf you’ve been around here for a while, you might know of my love-exasperation relationship with these Flavia de Luce novels. On the one hand, as soon as I see a new one my brain says YOU MUST READ THAT. On the other hand, as soon as I start reading I am like, seriously, what is wrong with this town? Why do people keep dying horrible deaths here? Why is an 11-year-old solving these crimes as well as or better than the real detectives? Why has no one grounded Flavia for life for all the rules and trusts and things she breaks?

But then on my third hand, which I keep for such occasions as this, I love Flavia because once you get her out of her detective brain she is a sweet if overly precocious kid who just wants to be more or less normal. This installment of her adventures starts with an attempt by her to prove scientifically that she is actually a part of her family, since her two older sisters often “inform” her that she is a reluctantly adopted feral child raised by gorillas or whatever, because sisters are mean (yes, yes we are).

Of course, the story can’t stop there because this is a mystery series, and so Flavia gets caught up in first the disentombment at her church of its namesake, St. Tancred, and then quickly after that the investigation into why a missing church organist was found super-dead atop said tomb. Seriously, people, get out of Bishop’s Lacey, it is dangerous.

I quite liked the return to mystery from the get-go, as opposed to the half-mystery of the second and fourth novels (somehow I sense I will be upset again in the sixth…), and I very much liked how this mystery introduced us to a lot of new characters in Bishop’s Lacey and environs, including a strange man locked in a tower who thinks Flavia (who has of course broken in to see him) is her mother. Although there have been way too many murders for Flavia to solve lately, the real thrust of this series, is, I think, Flavia solving those mysteries of childhood — who are these people who live in my town, how do they know me and my parents, is it possible that my parents were real people before they were my parents?

And that last line, oh my heavens. Alan Bradley, you know how to make me come back for more. But you’d better deliver!

Recommendation: I’m back on board with this series, which I really hope doesn’t become an every-other-novel thing. But seriously, if nothing else go read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie because delightful.

Rating: 8/10

A Study in Sherlock, ed. by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger

A Study in SherlockI may have mentioned before that I quite adore all things Sherlock, from books to movies to old computer games that I remember my dad playing when I was a kid. He may be a prat, but he’s just so smart and therefore so cool to me.

I’ve never really gotten into non-Doyle Sherlock books, for whatever reason, and even though I’ll watch any of the film and television adaptations I can get my hands on. Maybe I just have lower expectations for films (or maybe the new BBC version is the most amazing thing ever)? Whatever, the point is that I can’t even remember reading any non-Doyle Holmes before falling in love with “A Study in Emerald” during the Fragile Things readalong last fall. So good, and I don’t even know Lovecraft! So when I saw this collection of stories inspired by Sherlock and Doyle, and also saw that it had a second Neil Gaiman Holmes story in it, I was like, yoink!

And then I remembered what I dislike so much about short story collections, which is that they always contain super awesome fantastic stories and also stories where I think to myself and to others, someone got paid to write this crap?

There is such a piece of crap early on in the book that I read, and stared at, and wondered if maybe I shouldn’t keep reading if all the stories were going to be like that, and then I remembered I was reading it on an airplane and I might as well keep going. Thank goodness for airplanes.

I’m not going to call out the stories I hated, because there were plenty that were awesome and thus deserve my words more. In order of appearance:

“You’d Better Go in Disguise”, by Alan Bradley
Of course the creator of Flavia de Luce is going to get a place on this list. It’s practically fate. Bradley presents the opening story of the collection and it gets quite to the heart of the matter — we meet a mysterious man who meets a mysterious man and they get to profiling people in the park for fun and perhaps profit, and the reader wonders whether one of these men might be Holmes, of course, and what the point of this conversation might be, and it is all very intriguing and delightful.

“The Startling Events in the Electrified City”, by Tom Perry
This might be my favorite of all of these stories, as it recasts the assassination of President McKinley as a case for our favorite detectives, one that was put away in a box for many years until the characters involved were long gone. I don’t know terribly much about McKinley’s assassination outside of what I learned from Sarah Vowell, but the interesting circumstances presented by the story — the World’s Fair, other assassination attempts, weird Italians — have me searching the internet for more info.

“The Mysterious Case of the Unwritten Short Story”, by Colin Cotterill
I was sure this was going to be one of the stories I would hate when I started reading it. It’s in a pseudo-graphic-novel style and is super meta, with the author explaining how he came to write this story (and confusing Laurie King with Larry King) and then telling the story he is trying to write but interrupting with complaints about how much effort it takes to appease the nitpickers in the audience and it all seems so whatever except then he does actually finish the story he’s writing and it’s kind of adorable and amusing. Cotterill wins this time.

“The Last of Sheila-Locke Holmes”, by Laura Lippman
This is a sweet and sad story that I think everyone can relate to. It starts off all happy-like with our hero Sheila being a detective like Holmes or Harriet the Spy (but definitely not Nancy Drew, who’s totally stuck up), and it’s all fun and games until Sheila uncovers a secret that she doesn’t like or really understand.

“The Adventure of the Concert Pianist”, by Margaret Moran
Look, I just really like Mrs. Hudson, who narrates the heck out of this story, in which she and Dr. Watson team up during Holmes’s dead period to solve a case of poisoning. I would like this kind of story to show up in the next season of Sherlock, if they haven’t already written all those episodes.

Recommendation: Definitely check out at least a few of the stories, if you like Sherlock and things based on Sherlock.

Rating: 7/10

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley

I Am Half-Sick of ShadowsAlan Bradley is just messing with me now, isn’t he? I was so excited in the last Flavia novel that the mystery managed to get off the ground within the first sixth of the book, but here he is back to his second-novel ways waiting until nearly halfway through for someone to kick the bucket! I spent the better part of three weeks just getting there.

But once there was death and intrigue, I was hooked, and I finished the rest in a couple hours. Bradley certainly knows how to write a thrilling story when he wants to.

Anyway, in this installment Papa de Luce, who has been generally hard up for cash through the series, has invited a movie crew to film on the de Luce estate, which is pretty cool. Even cooler, to most people, is that Fancy Pants Actress Phyllis Wyvern (think Marilyn Monroe, maybe?) is the star. Flavia spends some time getting in good with her, to the consternation of her sister, who actually wants to be BFFs with Phyllis but keeps making a fool out of herself instead.

That’s basically the first half of the novel, and it manages to be pretty interesting if not engrossing — Wyvern is awesome like a star but also haughty and entitled like a star, and she crosses that line deftly, and Flavia’s interactions with her are very telling of Flavia’s outlook on life and relationships in general.

Then someone gets all strangled and stuff and the investigation happens slowly enough for me to be like, who done it?, but fast enough that it doesn’t get bogged down in red herrings, of which there are a few.

I think I would be into a collection of “Flavia solves a mystery!” short stories and also a collection of “Flavia interacts with humans!” short stories, but I’m falling out of love with the combination of the two. And really, Flavia can only Jessica Fletcher it up so many more times before she’s just going to have to have been an 11-year-old serial killer the whole time.

Recommendation: I do love me some Flavia, but I might suggest that you stick with original Flavia unless the series gets drastically better in the future.

Rating: 7/10

A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley

I don’t know what is going on in Bishop’s Lacey. You can’t seem to throw a stone in this place without hitting a conspiracy and a dead body. Luckily for everyone, 11-year-old Flavia de Luce is on the case. Well, she’s interested in the case. And intrusive in the case. And totally holding back evidence until such time as she is forced to hand it over. Maybe it’s not such a lucky thing.

After the interminable opening of The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, I am glad to say that the mystery here gets started within the first sixth of the book, and that the preceding pages are full of Bradley’s wonderful writing so it goes by quite quickly. In this go, Flavia sets fire to a gypsy’s tent, then attempts to atone by offering the gypsy shelter at her family’s estate, then finds an intruder in the house, then finds the gypsy beat over the head and nearly dead. Flavia, delighted by the new mystery, sets off to find the connections between gypsies, thieves, and odd religious sects.

There is also a bit more information about Flavia’s dead mum and the slow ruin of her family’s estate, and I think quite a bit more insight into the characters of Flavia’s sisters and father. I liked this, and I liked the intriguing complexities of this set of mysteries, if not the selective genius of Flavia. It is a lot harder to believe in her 11-year-old-ness in this book and things get awfully convenient for her. But the story is amazingly engrossing and I tore through it in a few hours — though I was able to take a break and have some sleep before getting back to it the next day.

I’m hoping that things calm down around Bishop’s Lacey, but if people just want to keep scheming and dying and whatnot, I’m very interested in hearing about it.

Recommendation: For fans of the Flavia and of precocious science-minded child mystery solvers in general. Are there others? I should go find out.

Rating: 8/10
(Global Reading Challenge: North America)