"review" · fiction · Lit · mystery · recommend · series · series · young adult lit

{book} the dead in their vaulted arches

>>a spoiler-free review<<

flavia de luceThe Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

(Flavia de Luce Novel #6)

by Alan Bradley

ARC thanks to Delacorte Press and NetGalley

release date: January 2014

“Young chemist and aspiring detective Flavia de Luce once again brings her knowledge of poisons and her indefatigable spirit to solve the most dastardly crimes the English countryside has to offer and, in the process, comes closer than ever to solving her life’s greatest mystery-her mother’s disappearance…” –publisher’s commentary

Harriet de Luce has been the mystery haunting this Flavia de Luce series and I’ve been holding my breath not since that tantalizing conclusion to Speaking From Among the Bones, but from the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Harriet’s absence has stained everything: the grieving husband and distant father (the Colonel); the competition between motherless daughters (Ophelia, Daphne and Flavia) with the youngest left with only her mothers looks and mind, but no real memory of the woman who birthed her; and then there is an estate (Buckshaw) left with no known Last Will and Testament. Was Harriet a too adventurous young mother, careless of her husband, children, and inheritance when she went off to climb a mountain? Or is there something more to it?

We learn about what really happened—to a lot of people in The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches. How did the Father and Dogger meet and what is the nature of their relationship? As if I didn’t already love Dogger to pieces. The course of the series has evidenced a deep love between Flavia’s parents: prepare for a terribly moving scene that makes his grief all the more stirring. Will the sisters come to peaceful terms? okay—let’s not be greedy.

There is some bow-tying in a book that would solve Harriet’s disappearance. But if you are looking for neat and tidy…  That consistency in the characters and their relationships we have come to love, has and continues to translates into messy feelings and complicated turns. For one, we still have Flavia struggling to find her place in a family where she receives the most affectionate parenting and siblingship from the servants and Dieter. In that audacious manner Flavia has become known for, she is going to attempt a rather grand scheme in The Dead in hopes to win her place once and for all. That is, if she can do something about that pesky and familiarly precocious cousin of hers that has come with Harriet’s return.

Natalya did not care for Undine and I cannot disagree. I find amusement, however, in just how similar in description she is to Flavia. Child-like, genius, sneaky, underestimated… But Undine is not the only distraction for Flavia, all sorts of people are littering the landscape and the mystery, old and new. The novel is no less ambitious than past books, but Bradley injects a turn that wends its way backwards through the series in an effort to fill in niggling details. It works, but will you be happy with where Bradley goes with the de Luce family?

Flavia has softened, become less heartless over the course of the series, and we see this growing-up girl in this finale. I sort of miss the morbid vengeful thing of the earliest books, but her emotional education is an appealing aspect to the story arc.

I read the Advanced Readers, Uncorrected Proof, but I do not imagine the ending will change all that much–which is too bad. I can get excited by the possibilities that raced through my mind with that one, how it translates into the spinning of tales, of futures, I’ve no guarantee of ever seeing. I do like what it all means for Flavia. I like that ending. But it is actually that very final lines that I wish I could get your opinion on, because it isn’t just that it rings a wrong note, it suddenly shifts the center of the Flavia de Luce Novel and that is not a good choice.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches involves a handful of endings, knotting those bows, exiting stage right and left. Leading up to them, we have the chemistry, visit the personalities of Bishop’s Lacy with Gladys to transport us there, Dogger’s well-timed presence, tense family meals, and the high drama of a family grieving what it’s lost and the lies that have perpetrated the crime. At the center of it all, the brilliant and determined Flavia de Luce who will finally come to realize her place–but only after she solves the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance. It shouldn’t surprise you but it is going to be quite a bit heartbreaking and just a bit gruesome.


recommendations: by this point, you have to read all the previous books as this one responds to the over-arching characterizations and plot. This is a great historical fiction/mystery series for middle-school and up.

my reviews of books: #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 Bones (pending)

"review" · fiction · Lit · mystery · recommend · Uncategorized

{book} I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

There are a lot of 11-year-old girl heroes with pluck and wit, but Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce stands out. While she is superlative in many ways, her vulnerabilities are of as much value to the plot, and none of it feels contrived; which is key, isn’t it? Even if Flavia survives the latest murder-mystery, she might not emotionally. And that is what a Flavia de Luce novel is about: her character, not just the corpse she inevitably stumbles upon.

Was my life always to be like this? I wondered. Was it going to go, forever, in an instant, from sunshine to shadow? From pandemonium to loneliness? From fierce anger to a fiercer kind of love? (292)

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is book 4 in this delectable series about a young girl in 1950 England with a gift for chemistry, and poisons in particular. Since book one, she has discovered an interest in sleuthing as well. Like all the previous books, murder comes to Bishop’s Lacey even as Flavia’s familial dramas continue their own shadowy descent.

It’s Christmastime, and the 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. But she is soon distracted when a film crew arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ decaying English estate, to shoot a movie starring the famed Phyllis Wyvern. Amid a raging blizzard, the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey gathers at Buckshaw to watch Wyvern perform, yet nobody is prepared for the evening’s shocking conclusion: a body found, past midnight, strangled to death with a length of film. But who among the assembled guests would stage such a chilling scene? As the storm worsens and the list of suspects grows, Flavia must use every ounce of sly wit at her disposal to ferret out a killer hidden in plain sight. ~publisher’s comments.

[Yes, Agatha Christie’s name surfaces within the pages and not just the mind.] The part not to be lost in the above synopsis is Flavia’s dastardly plan to ensnare Father Christmas.  It isn’t just a cute aside, because really, it is one remnant of childhood she really needs.

Would chemistry put paid to Christmas? Or would I, tomorrow morning, find a fat, infuriated elf caught fast and cursing among the chimney pots?
I must admit that part of me was hoping for the legend.
There were times when I felt as if I were standing astride a cold ocean–one foot in the New World and one foot in the Old. As they drifted relentlessly apart, I was in danger of being torn up the middle. (163)

Bradley is keen on placing Flavia in that tenuous spot between childhood and greater sophistication. He chose a perfect age. Flavia is both capable of both absolute genius and absolute ignorance. Those walls that come up in trying to decipher adult dynamics (read sexual relationships) are ever amusing. What is less amusing is how deft she is at a crime scene and in a laboratory while yet still remaining such a vulnerable figure. She hasn’t a mother, and her father is always just out of reach. Her two older sisters are a source of torment–really, it is painful. I am glad she has Dogger, the servant and friend of her father’s, because she really does need some adult to care for her, and for whom she could show care in return. And not only because she is 11 and human, but because she is becoming worn.

[After placing dry paper too close to the bulb for better light, and after catching her shoes on fire stomping out flames in the cupboard beneath the stairs:]
I was pulling on my singed sweater and scraping the toes of my smoking shoes on the floorboards when the kitchen door opened and Dogger appeared.
He looked at me closely without saying a word.
“Unforeseen chemical reaction,” I said. (228)

Dogger rarely says a word. And he has remained a bit of a mystery. We learn more in book 4; that is, more clues come to light. The relationships between many a person are given greater lighting–and in turn, greater shadow. Mysteries abide. Just who is Dogger, really? How is it the Vicar and the Colonel are friends? A key one: Why do Flavia’s sister’s hater her so vehemently, and how far with their warfare extend?

Bradley proves consistent in using the title and murder-mystery to facilitate the complexities of the greater series plot arcs. How do people actually know each other– what is the basis for their relationship? Where will adoration and/or covetousness get you? How much danger lurks in the not-knowing? While I enjoy trying to detect alongside Flavia, I am completely captured by the heroine’s personal drama: which involves all the above questions as well as the chemistry behind her plot to nail down a legend.


recommendations: most of these Bradley/de Luce posts will be fan-girl-ish as they continue. I recommend starting with the first book: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and while I think you could pick up any one and enjoy it, the best effect is in its primary arc, Flavia and the development of the characters. The series is a good Historical read, it features great twists and homage to classic mysteries, and the use of language…There is also a dry humor, so do take part if wit is your thing. Young audiences could and should enjoy this series, though I think adults will appreciate them more fully.

of note: I must audibly sigh over the Dogger/Flavia dynamics as well as Flavia/Inspector Hewitt. The very particular word choices that relay Flavia’s sense of the macabre continually delight. And her geeking out over chemistry?–so lovely. Her struggle with her father and her sisters also continues to wound. I really, really love what Bradley does in his Flavia books.


I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (bk4) A Flavia de Luce Novel by Alan Bradley. Delacorte Press, 2011. hardcover, 297 pages.

my reviews for: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (bk 1); The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (bk 2); A Red Herring without Mustard (bk 3).

Carl V. at “Stainless Steel Droppings” has excellent reviews of books 1-3, and will have 4, not doubt. Use the “search” box, and go ahead and use a “subscribe” prompt while you are at it.

a sweet, very brief interview via Book Page


happy wednesday

I guest posted over at Sean’s blog “Sean’s Cyclebabble” today. The post is titled “bikes in books in brevity” where I briefly remark upon a few encounters with bikes in books. Referenced are Nancy Springer’s The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery, Crunch by Leslie Connor, and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels.

Sean called just minutes ago and told me that the Library had just phoned him. Natalya won their “I Love the Library” essay contest! I’m not sure the age group exactly but we are thrilled. She gets a gift bag of swag of some sort Monday, her essay will be on-line and on display at a Barnes & Noble book fair (details forthcoming) and she (and family) are invited to join the Library in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this Saturday! Very cool, huh?!   More as details unfold, gift bags are picked-up, and sore feet and waving arms are soothed.

Happy Wednesday!

"review" · fiction · Lit · mystery · recommend · series · Uncategorized

the thread that holds

cover hangmanThe Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery (book 2)

by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, 2010.

364 pages (hardback).


I am not sure you will read a better review of Alan Bradley’s The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag than Carl V.’s review over at Stainless Steel Droppings. As I don’t believe in flattery, you may know I am serious and follow the link. Then go and check this book out from the Library, or just purchase it along with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and send me copies as well.

What follows? Thinking aloud:

I was finished reading The Weed that Strings and was trying to come up with something potentially negative to say. I don’t try to search out weaknesses or have something unkind to say; plenty of times they are readily apparent. No, I was thinking about how much I’ve been raving of late. My pessimism surfaces when I find that I’ve read too many great works in a row, like three or four. What are the odds? my darkly tuned mind whispers.

I am trying to be objective about a book that I found to be an exceptionally well done Second Book in a Mystery Series. Bradley maintains all the charm of the First Book, carries off the voice of Flavia (the narrator/protagonist) without fail.

I suppose I could say that those who have not a speck of dark humor would care for Flavia. Or even those that doubt the devious capabilities of a nearly eleven-year-old girl…

Or it may be that The Weed that Strings tends to meander a bit. Not intentionally; things naturally get in the way—like sleep, for instance; or a delicious memory; or contemplation of the organic chemical properties of something or other; or happens into conversation with someone crossing her path.

Yet, does Bradley really meander all that much? While Bradley is writing a mystery novel, the mystery is secondary, an incidental vehicle in which to engage the reader further into the deviously clever machinations of Flavia’s mind. Perhaps better stated: Flavia is a mystery, and the murders she encounters are the secondary mystery, which is incidental.

However enthrallingly bizarre the opening event is that Bradley writes, both novels start with Flavia’s daily life. They both end with a “mundane” Flavia moment as well. Flavia happens to come upon a mystery in the in-between. Both mysteries are puzzling, but one might frustrate the other for the Reader—that is, if they are not taken in by Flavia. If you don’t find Flavia compelling the quite brilliant twists, the quirky characters, and amusing cultural references will not hold the reader. I do not contribute this observance to the mere fact that Flavia is our first person narrator. I contribute it to the potentially meandering nature of the novel.

Flavia is ever here and there on her bicycle Gladys. She is ever in a conversation, whether in person or eavesdropped. She is ever creeping about or contemplating something or other that may or may not pertain to the murder-mystery at hand. While you feel sure that somewhere in all of it, you will say, ‘of course’ when the mystery is solved at the end. Just the same, I wonder if perhaps some of the rest was potentially extraneous; even for the sake of characterization. And whether it matters?

Can an interaction be irrelevant if the story is about Flavia, who incidentally becomes a murder investigator? Is it, if it wildly entertaining?

Sean references Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy by Douglas Adams,“It’s all digressions.” I’m wondering about Jesse Ball’s The Way the Through Doors.

Must everything be salient?

I admire a tightly woven story. I just finished Room by Emma Donoghue and the cleverness in which every object and interaction is used and reused toward the progression of the story, which is both character and plot driven. I suppose a notable and personal observation regarding the two reading experiences is that I would like to sit in a pub with Bradley and let him regale me with Flavia stories all the day long, probable digressions and all.

After a few notes on my reading The Weed that Strings, I was reading Polishing Mudballs, a blog I follow daily, and Deanna was reviewing Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. In the review, she writes:

There is criticism that the book is too lengthy with far too many irrelevant details. In some ways, I agree, and did feel that maybe the book was a tad bit long, but mostly I disagree. I greatly appreciated reading about the various details of culture and countries. I truly believe that those details added the overall feeling, and understanding of the story.

Then there is Logan’s blog Rememorandum where he is exploring the question of “What Makes a Story?” and employs the word extraneous along the way.

Strange but wonderful coincidences.

I found The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag as wonderfully entertaining as The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, for all the same reasons as the “review” I wrote on it, and all the reasons Carl V. notes in his review.


A few asides with regards to The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag:

—How much consciously enters the creation of the 2nd book after the first?

The notable discussion on page 112 about being eleven (or even almost). A response to criticism regarding Flavia’s reliability—or Bradley’s capability in portraying a believable character?

“You are unreliable, Flavia,” [Father] said. “Utterly unreliable.”

Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself.

Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be unreliable. We’re past the age of being poppets: the age where people bend over a pokes us in the tum with their fingers and make idiotic noises that sound like “boof-boof”—just the though of which is enough to make me bring up my Bovril*. And yet we’re still not at the age where anyone ever mistakes us for a grown-up. the fact is, we’re invisible—except when we choose not to be.

Neither would an 11-year-old be underestimated. Much of the theme and to the good use of the Mystery, the underestimation of abilities and capabilities is at work in The Weed that Strings. [a female character] “had the highest IQ he’d ever seen in ‘the fairer sex,’ as he put it” 302. Equally treated are the estimations of the young, the non-Adonis, and the lunatic.

There is a thread in the novel, about the perils of children seeing things they shouldn’t: Robin, Jack and the Beanstock, and Flavia de Luce. The Weed that Strings is quite creepy and suspenseful.

I appreciate that Flavia is not negotiating the world of murder-mystery unscathed, despite her predilection for the macabre. Also, the continual resistance of the Constabulary to make an 11-year-old an honorary member (as so many child-detective, –spy, novels are want to do).

—I am noticing the continual references to the relationships between females.

It is a simple fact of nature that while most men can walk right pasta a weeping woman as if their eyes are blinkered and their ears stopped up with sand, no female can ever hear the sound of another in distress without rushing instantly to her aid. (8)

This sort of statement is found in both, more than once.

Is it the motherless child? A reminder that Flavia is a girl so as to not mistake more masculine gender attributes? In keeping with 1950s ideology?

The female mind doesn’t work that way.

Seen from the air, the male mind must look rather like the canals of Europe, with ideas being towed along well-worn towpaths by heavy-footed dray horses. there is never any doubt that they will, despite wind and weather, reach their destinations by following a simple series of connected lines.

But the female mind, even in my limited experience, seems more of a vast and teeming swamp, but a swamp that knows in an instant whenever a stranger—even miles away—has so much as dipped a single toe into her waters. People who talk about this phenomenon, most of whom know nothing whatsoever about it, call it “woman’s intuition.”

Although I had arrived at much the same conclusion as Dogger, it had been by a very different route. (308-9)

Haven’t figured out where I am putting above section in my mind. Explaining the differentiations in why the story takes the form it does? Does a book need to explain itself?

—In this second book, there is a map of Bishop’s Lacy and Environs in the front. Helpful, although Bradley is quite good with directions.

—Lastly, the opening lines: “I was lying dead in the churchyard. An hour had crept by since the mourners had said their sad farewells.” Marvelous.  I am very much looking forward to Bradley’s next installment in the Flavia de Luce Mysteries, A Red Herring without Mustard (2011).

*Bovril, noun [mass noun] trademark, a concentrated essence of beef diluted with hot water to make a drink. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Stainless Steel Droppings review, the link again.