Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

3.75 stars

Reasons for reading: Have heard lots of great things about it; Mystery for the Four Month Challenge; Debut Gold Dagger Winner for Book Awards Challenge

Description: "It is the summer of 1950–and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.” "

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

My thoughts: This was quite the quirky book. I enjoyed it but have a bit of a nagging feeling about Flavia. Alan Bradley actually sums it up for me in an Amazon.com interview. He said, "People probably wonder, “What’s a 70-year-old-man doing writing about an 11-year-old-girl in 1950s England?" And I did wonder. I never quite felt like she was 11. He says he wanted to explore an unreliable narrator as well as the fact that people pay no attention to kids, so they let lots of information slip. And that worked well for the story. But I couldn't quite escape the feeling that there was an older man standing behind her directing her. I guess I never suspended disbelief enough to fully embrace her. She's a great character, don't get me wrong - fierce, intelligent, crafty, impetuous, occasionally vulnerable... But she felt very....crafted to me. (Well-crafted, though.)

But despite that, I think that Bradley writes very well and I quite liked his style, once I got used to the quirkiness. As you can see from the first line, he's got quite the ability to turn a phrase. The setting was really well done, particularly crumbling Buckshaw - the Georgian stately home with the ugly Victorian wings. And the village of Bishop's Lacey - I loved that the burned-down library had been re-located to an old garage and never moved again. (The library plays quite a large part in the story, so of course I enjoyed that!) While I don't know much about stamp-collecting, the philately angle certainly made for a different type of murder mystery. The sniping and pranks between Flavia and her sisters added some (often malicious) humour. But overall the de Luce family was really pretty sad - the father obsessed with his stamps, one sister obsessed with her appearance and one with books. And Flavia obsessed with chemistry. None of them really seemed to care much about each other and I sympathized with Flavia's feelings that no-one would miss her if she died. But I do hope it wasn't true, there did seem like there was a bit of hope for family togetherness at the end.

The verdict: I can see why it won the Debut Dagger and received such high praise. Maybe I'll read the sequel and get past my reservations about Flavia.

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Kerry said...

I felt pretty much the same way about the book. I had such high hopes that it was disappointing.

Personally, I think the author missed getting "quirky" right and was left with just plain "odd" which was part of the problem.

But still not a bad book and I remain interested to read the next one. I love the titles.

tinylittlelibrarian said...

I'm glad it wasn't just me! I think you're right about odd vs quirky. The titles are cool, though.