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

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenI have been hearing so many good things about this book lately, well deserved good things, but back when I picked it out of the advance copy lineup all I knew was that it had a neat cover and was written by Emily St. John Mandel, who, like Jo Walton, I should have started reading ages ago. And I think that’s a pretty good way to go into the book, because it is so hard to describe the book well and I think whatever you hear about what the book is about is necessarily not going to be the whole story. All you really need to know going in is that it’s not going to be a page-turner, but if you’re in the mood for something you can sit and savor and that will make you think about life, this is just the ticket.

But if you need to know more, I’m happy to oblige. Station Eleven fits primarily in that genre called post-apocalyptic that I know gives people hissy fits, but in a world where literally can mean figuratively I think that’s not the worst name we could have for a book that takes place after a big, world-changing event. In this case, the world-changing event is a flu that takes out something like 90 percent of the world’s population along with all of the important services like electricity, water, gas, and the Internet. How does anyone survive??

But of course people do, as people have always done, and the primary story line we follow is that of Kirsten Raymonde, a member of the Traveling Symphony, whose slogan is “Because survival is insufficient.” The Symphony, still going twenty years after the flu, puts on Shakespeare’s plays and performs concerts for various settlements on a circuit in the northern Michigan area, and those settlements seem generally glad to see them until the Symphony rolls in to a town where they dropped off two members a couple years back. The members are nowhere to be found, no one wants to talk about it, and things are generally creeptastic in the area. When the Symphony leaves, they decide to wander off their usual circuit to see if they can’t find their friends and maybe explore some new territory, but of course it’s not as easy as that.

Meanwhile, we get to know some other people who are all connected through this one fellow called Arthur we meet at the beginning of the book (Kirsten was in a play with him). We meet Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda and learn about her relationship with him and his relationship with fame, we meet a paparazzo turned entertainment journalist turned paramedic called Jeevan who once documented Arthur and later worked to save his life, and we meet Clark, Arthur’s old friend who just manages to avoid the flu and who lives in probably the nicest settlement in northern Michigan.

I love the way the stories interconnect at different points, allowing you to learn about these people and their lives before and after the flu in little pieces spread throughout all the narratives. I also like that although Mandel connects all these characters together through Arthur, none are close enough in relationship or location for it to feel contrived that they’ve survived this flu.

I appreciate that although this story falls into that post-apocalyptic category, it seems so much more realistic — it’s twenty years later, so the characters are past any looting, panicking, killing stage that might have happened, and no one crazy person has stepped in to realize his utopian vision or whatever. Instead it’s just regular people living out a pioneer life with a few minor altercations here and there but generally just trying to live, or in the case of the Traveling Symphony, trying to increase awesome. I can only hope our future post-apocalyptic world is as nice as this one.

Recommendation: For people who are tired of plot-driven apocalypses and those who want to know that everything’s going to be okay, ish.

Rating: 9/10