Alan Bradley – I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Flavia de Luce is a companion I don’t want to catch up to. She may not get me as excited as Harry Potter once did, but the upside of that is that I can restrain myself a little bit after every book. And trust me, knowing that there are two more books in this series waiting for me, is a great comfort. Let me never be Flavia-less.

flavia4I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS
by Alan Bradley

Published by: Random House, 2011
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: Flavia de Luce #4
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Tendrils of raw fog floated up from the ice like agonized spirits departing their bodies.

Precocious Flavia de Luce — an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry and a penchant for crime-solving — is tucked away in her laboratory, whipping up a concoction to ensnare Saint Nick. Amid a blizzard, the village gathers at Buckshaw to watch famed Phyllis Wyvern perform. After midnight, a body is found strangled by film. Flavia investigates.

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This is my favorite Flavia de Luce mystery so far. Despite work, which is still crazy and time-consuming and tiring, I managed to eat up this book in only a few days. It’s Christmas time in the village of Bishop’s Lacey and Flavia’s latest chemical plans involve catching Saint Nick red-handed. Her eleven-year-old mind may know deep down that there is no such thing as Father Christmas, but Flavia is also enough of a scientist to better make sure there is proof.

But then a film crew comes to Buckshaw – a desperate attempt by Flavia’s father to make some money to be able to keep the house. There will be a movie made at Buckshaw, and famous movie star Phyllis Wyvern will be the leading actress. With her this sparkling movie goddess brings, you guessed it, murder. The police is involved early on but again, it is Flavia who will solve the case and save the day.

I had almost forgotten how charming Flavia’s voice is. She is precocious and clever, yet deeply vulnerable when it comes to her cruel sisters. Jayne Entwistle, the audiobook narrator, brings her to life so perfectly, it’s like you’re there. But despite being funny and playing the grown-ups just right, Flavia is actually quite a tragic character. There hasn’t been a single volume in the series that doesn’t bring up Harriett, her dead mother. As with the books that came before, the family situation and dynamics interested me much more than the murder mystery. Flavia sees her laboratory as a sanctuary and makes do with what love she gets from Mrs. Buckett and Dogger. But it is very clear that she yearns for some affection from her father and some peace from her sisters.

Daphne and Ophelia, the older sisters in question, mostly seem like evil step sisters from a fairy tale. They love telling Flavia that she is an unwanted child, that random things are her fault, that Harriett didn’t want her in the first place. But there are those rare moments of de Luce truce, when they show that, despite their practical jokes and evil jibes, they do love their little sister – even if they only admit it unwillingly. Dogger, the man for odd jobs in the house, is still one of my favorite characters, and Aunt Felicity showed a surprising new side that made me grin for an entire afternoon. Should people stop being killed in their vicinity some day, the de Luce family would still never be boring.

With the arrival of the famous and beloved film star Phyllis Wyvern comes another treat for fans of the series. A performance of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet brings almost the entire village to Buckshaw. It’s been a while since I read the last book, but seeing old characters again was like meeting up with old friends. The word that keeps coming to mind is delighful. All their quirks combined in one place, it’s like an explosion of hilarity just waiting to happen.

Everything about this book was wonderful. Flavia is still one of the coolest, most bad-ass child characters I have ever read about, and I cannot wait to go adventuring with her again. What chemical concoction will she brew up next time to take revenge on her sisters? How will she help the police catch the next culprit (we know there will be another murder evenutally)? And will the family ever get over the death of their beloved mother? It almost doesn’t make a difference because as long as Flavia gets to tell her story, I know I’ll be well entertained.

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The Flavia de Luce Series:flavia series

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Lauren Beukes – The Shining Girls

I’ve been wanting to read Lauren Beukes for a while now but I always thought I’d start with Zoo City, whose description somehow spoke to me the most. Then I listened to the book review and interview with the author on Speculate! and the decision was made. “Time travelling serial killer” sounded too good to be left on the TBR.

shining girlsTHE SHINING GIRLS
by Lauren Beukes

Published by: Harper Collins, 2013
ISBN:0007464568
Hardcover: 391 pages
Standalone

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: He clenches the orange plastic pony in the pocket of his sports coat.

The girl who wouldn’t die, hunting a killer who shouldn’t exist…A terrifying and original serial-killer thriller from award-winning author, Lauren Beukes. ‘If you’ve got a Gone Girl-shaped hole in your life, try this’ Evening Standard “It’s not my fault. It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.” Chicago 1931. Harper Curtis, a violent drifter, stumbles on a house with a secret as shocking as his own twisted nature – it opens onto other times. He uses it to stalk his carefully chosen ‘shining girls’ through the decades – and cut the spark out of them. He’s the perfect killer. Unstoppable. Untraceable. He thinks…Chicago, 1992. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Tell that to Kirby Mazrachi, whose life was shattered after a brutal attempt to murder her. Still struggling to find her attacker, her only ally is Dan, an ex-homicide reporter who covered her case and now might be falling in love with her. As Kirby investigates, she finds the other girls – the ones who didn’t make it. The evidence is …impossible. But for a girl who should be dead, impossible doesn’t mean it didn’t happen…

divider1This book shows beautifully that you can get me to read anything if you just promise me the tiniest speculative fiction element. The idea of a time travelling serial killer immediately appealed to me (in a I-want-to-read-about-it way only, of course) because we’ve all seen movies where the police hunt a serial killer. Usually, these killers fit into a psychological profile, killing their later victims more violently than the first ones, and so on. But Harper travels randomly through time, so nothing about him makes sense to the modern police. It is assumed there are several murderers and some of them are even in prison (with only the readers knowing of their innocence).

The story is told alternately from the points of view of Harper, Kirby, the other victims, Dan, and occasionally a random person who gets involved in Kirby’s hunt. Being the only girl that survived Harper’s attempt to murder her, Kirby carries a lot of scars with her, and not just visible ones. She is almost obsessed with finding her almost-killer and bringing him to justice. After the police didn’t really help her, she starts an internship at a newspaper and works her way through old clippings of murders similar to hers. Her boss Dan, who is kind of falling in love with her, was a wonderful (and sane) counterpart to obsessive Kirby and her relationship with Harper.

We follow both Harper and Kirby’s storylines in a linear way. However, since Harper disocvered his time-travelling house, he jumps wildly in time, popping up in the 1950ies, then again in the 30ies, and then in the 80ies. Lauren Beukes does an excellent job of bringing each of these time periods to life. When Harper sees a television for the first time, he just stands there and watches ads for half an hour. But his goal are and always will be his Shining Girls, whom he sometimes “visits” when they are still young to tell them he’ll come back for them later. Invariably, he returns to kill them when they are in their early twenties.

shining girls 2I have to watch my vocabulary here because saying I enjoyed or liked getting to know Harper’s victims just sounds wrong. I loved that the author gave them a life of their own, a backstory with hopes and dreams, and didn’t just leave them to be pretty corpses on a policeman’s wall. Of course, as soon as we read a chapter about one of the Shining Girls, we know how it is going to end – which makes it all the more tragic that the girls themselves make plans and think about the future. We know there is no future for them. But, and this made me insanely happy, we get to understand why they are Shining Girls – because each of them shines in their own field, be it science, social work, or art, they are talented, promising young women.

I was also impressed by the diversity and range of characters we get to meet. There is a young black mother, working hard to feed her children, a woman working for an (illegal) abortion clinic, a brilliant young scientist, a dancing girl who painted her body so it would glow in the dark, and of course Kirby with her sharp wit and lovable personality, despite the bitter edge whenever someone talks about her scars.

Any novel about a serial killer will have a certain amount of violence in it. Let me say right away that I didn’t feel it was gratuitous at all! Most murders Harper commits aren’t described in detail at all. We get the glimpse of a knife slicing through skin and fiber, a crumpling body, sometimes only a sensation of pain and then darkness. In other cases, we do learn Harper’s preferred mode of killing his victims and, yes, it is gruesome and horrible. But I felt that Lauren Beukes kept it to a minimum and let us know just enough to properly hate Harper.

Apart from the police (or journalist) procedural nature of the book, Kirby’s story was interesting on other levels as well. Her relationship to Dan intrigued me, his careful attempts to make the right steps. How do you treat a girl who has been through something that horrible? Dan grew on me very quickly and I was hoping throughout the novel that Kirby would come to see that she has a true friend and ally in him.

All things considered, I am very impressed, not only because I couldn’t put the book down, but because in addition to a thriller, it offered a glimpse into different periods of the 20th century. The historical aspects, and Kirby’s journey, were at least as gripping as the hunt for Harper. Lauren Beukes is an author to watch out for, and I personally can’t wait to pick up another of her books.

RATING: 8/10  – Excellent!

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Lauren Beukes in front of her "murder wall". http://laurenbeukes.com/

Lauren Beukes in front of her “murder wall”.
http://laurenbeukes.com

Review: Alan Bradley – A Red Herring Without Mustard

Last summer, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Flavia de Luce, child sleuth and chemistry enthusiast. As the first two detective adventures were so much fun and I’m sure by now that with Flavia you can’t go wrong, I dove into our heroine’s third case.

flavia 3A RED HERRING WITHOUT MUSTARD
by Alan Bradley

Published by: Doubleday, 2011
ISBN: 0440339863
ebook: 391 pages
Series: Flavia de Luce #3

My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “You frighten me,” the Gypsy said. “Never have I seen my crystal ball so filled with darkness.”

In the hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey, the insidiously clever and unflappable eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce had asked a Gypsy woman to tell her fortune—never expecting to later stumble across the poor soul, bludgeoned almost to death in the wee hours in her own caravan. Was this an act of retribution by those convinced that the soothsayer abducted a local child years ago? Certainly Flavia understands the bliss of settling scores; revenge is a delightful pastime when one has two odious older sisters. But how could this crime be connected to the missing baby? As the red herrings pile up, Flavia must sort through clues fishy and foul to untangle dark deeds and dangerous secrets.

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Here comes a heroine who manages, with the first one-and-a-half pages, to burn down a gypsy’s caravan wagon after being told her fortune. While one may call Flavia de Luce a bit clumsy at times, she is everything but stupid. Her passion for chemistry is unsurpassed and ever since the events of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, she has dabbled in crime-solving. Quite successfully, at that.

Narrating her third adventure, Flavia captured my attention as easily as ever, and didn’t let go until I was finished with the book. This is quite a feat, considering that I wasn’t very impressed with the mystery. Flavia’s voice was enough to keep me interested, her family situation and some dark secrets I’m sure are looming in her past, are engaging enough. Beneath the cold English surface, we get further glimpses of Flavia’s inner turmoil. She covers it well with humor and cynicism but we can tell that she does suffer from never having known her mother, from her family’s cold demeanour, and from her sisters’ cruel japes.

red herring

The first two books in the series each had a theme surrounding the murder case(s). First it was stamps, then it was puppetry, this time it is… fish? Not really. Gypsies, telling the future, crystal balls? Also not quite. Not being a big reader of crime fiction, I sorely missed that overlying theme that taught me new tidbits and gave me an insight into a world otherwise new to me. We get clues to follow from the start, ostentatiously all over the place, seemingly unconnected. Of coures, I was relying on Flavia to help me figure everything out but in the end, the solution wasn’t very satisfying and the clues felt too scattered for me to make up my mind. Then again, maybe I’m still just terrible at guessing.

All things considered, this is a gem of a series, no matter whether each murder case happens to be up my alley or not. Alan Bradley has shown three times now that he is a great writer and highly talented in depicting highly intelligent, young girls who like to spend their free time helping out the local police. What on earth would they do without Flavia de Luce?

THE GOOD: Flavia is as charming and funny as ever, her narration is funny and engaging and she makes for a wonderfully precocious protagonist.
THE BAD: The clues were a bit too loosely tied to each other for my taste. I would have liked a theme connecting them, like in the first two books (stamps, puppetry).
THE VERDICT: For Flavia fans, this is another recommendation. So far, it was my least favorite of the series, at least as far as the mystery goes. But that doesn’t change the fact that these books are beautifully written and very engaging, quick reads.

RATING: 6,5/10  Very good, with some reservations

dividerThe Flavia de Luce series:

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
  3. A Red Herring Without Mustard
  4. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
  5. Speaking From Among the Bones
  6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Review: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – A Study in Scarlet

I had read only one Sherlock Holmes novel – The Hound of the Baskervilles – before trying the BBC series Sherlock. As many others before me, I am completely and utterly in love with this TV show but like any serious reader, I felt the need to finally read more of Doyle’s original stories. And what better way to start than with my huge Complete Works paperback (and a Gutenberg free ebook) of A Study in Scarlet?

A STUDY IN SCARLET
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Published: Penguin, 2011 (1887)
ISBN: 0241952891
Pages: 162
Copy: paperback, ebook
Series: Sherlock Holmes #1

My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

A Study in Scarlet is the first published story of one of the most famous literary detectives of all time, Sherlock Holmes. Here Dr. Watson, who has just returned from a war in Afghanistan, meets Sherlock Holmes for the first time when they become flat-mates at the famous 221 B Baker Street. In “A Study in Scarlet” Sherlock Holmes investigates a murder at Lauriston Gardens as Dr. Watson tags along with Holmes while narratively detailing his amazing deductive abilities

Dr. John Watson has just returned from his work as a war surgeon in Afghanistan and is looking for somebody to share a flat with him. He is introduced to Sherlock Holmes, the only existing consulting detective in the world – and his theory of deduction. Soon Watson learns that it is more than a theroy as he watches Holmes figure out the details of a murder case. A dead man is found on the floor of an empty apartment, the only (to us ordinary people) clue is the German word RACHE written on the wall in blood.

I was surprised at how readable this book was. Maybe I underestimate my own ability to read English but then I did read my first Sherlock Holmes when I was about 19 years old. Either way, the language has a nice flow to it and I finished this small adventure in about two hours. The unravelling of the case was done quickly, even for Holmes’ standards, but the second half of the book shows us the murderer’s backstory. We turn from dialogue-heavy banter between Holmes and the police force to a tale that makes us look at the murderer in a different way and shows us his true motive.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle managed to pack a fair bit of criticism into his detective story and that also took me by surprise. I will definitely read all the other Sherlock Holmes stories (even though I’m worried I might deduct the outcome from my having seen the TV show) and I’ll probably reread The Hound of Baskervilles as well. Holmes is a likable, if very cocky, hero (don’t tell him I called him that) and while his knowledge in certain fields is almost unbelievable, I will gladly suspend my desbelief for the sake of a good story.

I recommend these books for anyone who – like me, a number of years ago – is daunted by the idea of “reading the classics”. This quick read doesn’t only show the beginnings of Holmes and Watson’s beautiful friendship but it offers a fun detective story and a surprisingly intriguing background to our murderer.

THE GOOD: Easy to read, great characters, a lot of depth that I was surprised to find on so few pages.
THE BAD: The actual detecting could have lasted longer for my taste. I can’t get enough of Sherlock’s wise-cracking.
THE VERDICT: Recommended, but maybe a longer Sherlock tale would be a better starter-drug.

RATING: 6,5/10

SHERLOCK vs. Sherlock Holmes

Having just seen the first episode of the BBC TV show, I can’t help but notice how brilliantly this classic story has been translated to the screen. Its beginning is almost a scene-by-scene adaptation of the original Sherlock’s case into 21st century London, including the war in Afghanistan (makes you wonder, doesn’t it?). Who would have thought that cell phones, the internet, blogs, and automatic guns could work with such a well-known and well-loved tale. I am impressed and a little bit awed. Also, I couldn’t help but picture Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch and simply dress them in their appropriate garb (including the hat). My curiosity to discover the other Sherlock stories and compare them to the BBC TV show has risen – and I can’t wait for season 3 of that. I am, so to speak, Sherlocked.

Alan Bradley – The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

I devoured the first Flavia de Luce mystery while on holiday. I thought it would be perfect for a lazy afternoon at the beach and some light reading. While it wasn’t a perfect book, I found myself missing that charming young protagonist with a passion for poisons and a knack for mystery-solving. It is not so much the plot of these stories as the voice in which it is told that captivated me and that I can’t seem to get enough of.

THE WEED THAT STRINGS THE HANGMAN’S BAG
by Alan Bradley

Published: Dell 2010
ISBN:0440339170
Pages:372
Copy: ebook
Series: Flavia de Luce #2

My rating: 7/10
Goodreads: 3,95/5

First sentence: I was lying dead in the churchyard.

When a traveling puppet show sets up on the village green in Bishop’s Lacey, death stalks the little stage. Flavia goes behind the scenes to learn the craft (so to speak) in order to catch an ingenious killer. Flavia thinks that her days of crime-solving in the bucolic English hamlet of Bishop’s Lacy are over—and then Rupert Porson has an unfortunate rendezvous with electricity. The beloved puppeteer has had his own strings sizzled, but who’d do such a thing and why? For Flavia, the questions are intriguing enough to make her put aside her chemistry experiments and schemes of vengeance against her insufferable big sisters. Astride Gladys, her trusty bicycle, Flavia sets out from the de Luces’ crumbling family mansion in search of Bishop’s Lacey’s deadliest secrets.

Our clever little sleuth of a heroine is back. And it doesn’t take too long for somebody else to drop dead in her surroundings. There is puppetry, there are murdered children, there are (of course) poisons, and yes, the titular weed is the one you’re thinking of. While I enjoyed the theme of this volume more than the first novel, it is not the plot that drew me in – and I suspect, this will continue as the series goes on. Flavia is solving the case of a puppeteer dropping dead during a show with a whole range of suspects, not a lot of motive, and the past catching up with the present…

Alan Bradley has given Flavia de Luce the most charming voice I could imagine. Much like the Alexia Tarabotti novels, this series lives from its wit and its remarkably clever heroine as much as from what is simply good writing. Flavia, as much as I liked her already, has grown ever so much more dear to me. Who wouldn’t want to be friends (or a mother to) that kind of eleven-year-old? Her passion for chemistry is still as powerful, even though it isn’t vital to the plot. It does give her personality more depth though and teaches me quite a few little tidbits about the subject. Hurrah for educating your readers, Mr Bradley!

As Flavia leads us past that fateful puppet show, meets new characters and shows us more of Bishop’s Lacey, we both read an entirely new and separate story – good for standalone-lovers – but we also get a glimpse of novelty. Flavia’s home life, her family and the nearby village all grow a little in depth. Which is exactly what I was hoping for, as we didn’t see a whole lot of it in the first book. If the series continues in the same vein, with standalone crime stories and an overarching continuation of Flavia’s life in general, I will go so far as to call myself a fan.

My suspicions as to who the murderer(s) was showed once more that I’m not well-read when it comes to the crime genre. Who is really pulling the strings in this game of memory and secrets came as a surprise to me, even though I had all the necessary clues. More experienced readers of the genre may not be fooled as easily but personally, I enjoyed this little adventure very, very much.

THE GOOD: A charming heroine with a quick mind and great storytelling abilities.
THE BAD: There is still room for improvement. I would like (even) more family life, more de Luce craziness and more quaint villagers.
THE VERDICT: Another light and fun mystery story with an endearing leading lady and a clever murderer.

RATING: 7/10  Very good.

The Flavia de Luce Mysteries:

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
  3. A Red Herring Without Mustard
  4. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
  5. Speaking From Among the Bones
  6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Alan Bradley – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Holidays make me grab random books off my shelf (or Kobo library) at times. I don’t know why but judging by the cover, I expected this to be a light and quirky read and exactly what I wanted for the beach. I got just that. A light, fun little book with an endearing child heroine, some interesting trivia about philatelic history and, oh yes, a murder to be solved.

THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE
by Alan Bradley

Published: Delacorte Press, 2009
ISBN: 0440338468
Pages: 385
Copy: ebook
Series: Flavia de Luce #1

My rating: 7/10
Goodreads rating: 3,77/5

First sentence: It was as black in the closet as old blood.

To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is seized, accused of murder. And in a police cell, during a violent thunderstorm, Colonel de Luce tells his daughter an astounding story — of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, of a priceless object that vanished in a bizarre and brazen act of thievery, of a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school’s tower thirty years before. Now Flavia is armed with more than enough knowledge to tie two distant deaths together, to examine new suspects, and begin a search that will lead her all the way to the King of England himself. Of this much the girl is sure: her father is innocent of murder—but protecting her and her sisters from something even worse…

An 11-year-old heroine with a lust for chemistry solving a murder case? This sounded like just the right kind of holiday read and as I dove into the story, I got everything the blurb and reviews had promised. Flavia de Luce is immediately likable, her hunger for knowledge, especially when it comes to chemistry, is charmingly refreshing and the de Luce family would merit an entire series about themselves, even without the murder mysteries. Charming, a little strange, and utterly likeable, this house full of crazy people – including the maid and the gardener – made me want more. Two chapters into the story I knew I was going to continue the series, no matter what.

I’m not a crime reader so guessing plotlines is harder for me in this particular genre. I liked not knowing how things were connected. Following Flavia on her quest for the truth was utterly enjoyable and her reasoning skills and use of logic made her all the more likeable. Sure, she’s a bit too clever and definitely not careful enough about her snooping into things that are none of her business but who wouldn’t love a pig-tailed mystery solver? I especially loved the relationship to her sisters and father, this distant and untransparent man, as well as Dogger who is a mystery of his own.

I thought this story was a good mix of mystery, history, and sweetness. At some points, though, the pacing seemed off and there are a great deal too many coincidences. I suppose if I read more crime fiction, I wouldn’t have liked it as much as I did. And for me, the murder mystery really wasn’t the most interesting part. It was Flavia’s charm and her surprising cleverness that kept me reading and wanting more. Just like the police detective, I was astounded at how many steps Flavia was ahead of the police. Towards the end, there are a few thrilling moments but altogether, this was a light and fun read, perfect for a summer day.

THE GOOD: An adorable heroine and narrator who uses cleverness and logic to solve a murder mystery. Charming writing, funny dialogue, and a bit of intersting chemistry and philatelic trivia.
THE BAD: Not always thrilling, I didn’t feel the characters were ever truly in danger. Murder mysteries are still not my favorite thing in literature.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended for a light read. You will laugh, you will be charmed, and you will want to conspire with Flavia just how to pay her silly sisters back for being annoying.

RATING: 7/10  A very good, lighthearted read.

The Flavia de Luce Series:

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  2. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
  3. A Red Herring Without Mustard
  4. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
  5. Speaking From Among the Bones
  6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches