Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book 18 – The Crazy Kill

By Chester Himes

Six books for the month of May!

This may not be the best intro to the work of Chester Himes as The Crazy Kill is already the third book in a series and generally not considered his best work. I had picked up this Vintage Press 1989 reprint (doesn't boast the greatest cover, I know) for a couple bucks at our fave thrift shop, and read it when I needed a break from Something Borrowed (that book will haunt me for the rest of my days) to immerse myself in something tough from the classic crime genre . So for any fans of Himes please take this review with a grain of salt.

Though I was curious to know more about the back story of Detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed, in The Crazy Kill they merely function as secondary figures who lurk in the background quietly observing the other characters doing their dance as the story unfolds. This worked out well for me since the plot of TCK stands on its own without any need to read the first two books.

The big luxurious sitting room of the Seventh Avenue apartment was jam-packed with friends and relatives of Big Joe Pullen, mourning his passing.

Himes follows literary conventions by establishing the setting, context and cast of characters, but in such a colloquial, engaging style that you are immediately drawn in. Though the story was interesting enough, I was not particularly impressed by it, as it wasn’t terribly exciting as a thriller, nor was it terribly perplexing as a detective-mystery, yet there was a fair bit of criminality and some police procedural. The actual murder at the beginning wasn't really all that crazy - until I got to the end, that is - where I finally realized this was what the title was probably based on. So yeah, that was kind of crazy!

But I did take pleasure in the way Himes depicts the atmosphere of late 50’s Harlem. There's plenty of scenery where street kids touch the gleaming hot fishtails of “Four Ace” Johnny Perry’s Cadillac as it pulls up to a curb or how Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed cruise down Seventh Avenue in their battered black sedan looking for stool pigeons.

Himes really has a way with words. The experience of being immersed in that gritty, noirish world is enough to compensate for a lack of thrilling action or interesting plot construction. It's the little details I tend to savour, such as a peak at a dinner menu at Fat’s Down Home Restaurant:

Today’s Special – Alligator tail & rice
Baked Ham – sweet potatoes & succotash
Chitterlings & collard greens & okra
Chicken and drop dumplings – with rice or sweet potatoes
Barbecued ribs
Pig’s feet á la mode
Neck bones and lye hominy

(Choice of biscuits or corn bread)

(Note that the next book I read tried to do a similar thing with Chinese food, but it didn't quite work for me. For some reason, this works for Himes, but not for others)

Or a brief description of the physical attributes of a character can be loaded with backstory and meaning:

Stripped to her black nylon brassiere, black sheer nylon panties and high-heeled red shoes, Doll Baby was practicing her chorus routine in the center of the floor. She had her back to the window and was watching her reflection in the dressing-table mirror. A tray of dirty dishes containing leftovers from the chili bean and stewed chitterling dinners they’d ordered from the bar restaurant rested on the table top, cutting her reflection in half just below the panties, as though she might have been served without legs along with the other delicacies. The outline of three heavy embossed scars running across her buttocks were visible beneath the sheer black panties.

I have a feeling Himes previous books in the series may be better in terms of plot and characterization of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed, and I am interested in reading A Rage in Harlem one day, though I’m not in any great rush.

Here is link to a pithy review which I thought had some interesting observations.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book 17 – The Crystal Cave

By Mary Stewart

A few 50-bookers have already reviewed this classic tale about Merlin the magician. Le Braconnier, Print Is Dead and Olman did such a wonderful job describing what is basically a coming-of-age adventure tale with a bit of fantasy and historical epic thrown in, that I’m happy to have some respite in having to write about it myself.

I went through a brief Arthurian phase as a teenager, reading the Mists of Avalon, the Rosemary Sutcliff books, and even catching the 1981 flick Excalibur when it played on television. But somehow I missed out on The Crystal Cave. Any spin on the Arthurian legends is subject to interpretation, really, and Mary Stewart distinguishes herself in providing some geographical and historical oomph to her take on the story of Merlin and Uther Pendragon, as well as good old fashioned quality prose that is engaging and descriptive but not at all flowery.

Although I very much enjoyed TCC (which is the first of a quartet), I don’t think I’ll seek out the other books… unless it falls upon my lap like it did for me and Olman.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book 16 - Paying For It

a comic strip memoir about being a john

By Chester Brown

In order to wash away the terrible taste of mainstream chick-lit that was Something Borrowed from my mouth, I contemplated going back to a Parker novel. But around that time, Olman had also impulsively picked up the latest Chester Brown and even finished it that very evening (though he has yet to read the copious notes). I then realized that Paying For It would be THE perfect antidote to a woman’s delusional fantasies about romantic love.

I had only started reading the comics of Chester Brown and Joe Matt from living with Olman, and only quite sporadically at that. I’m not really a fan yet on occasion I appreciate their talent and sense of humour. When you read the semi-autobiographical details of CB’s whoring and JM’s porno addiction and then look at Something Borrowed, you wonder how it’s even possible for the opposite sexes to co-exist, let alone have an intimate relationship with one another. Although CB and JM may be weirder than your average male, they nevertheless think a lot like men, while someone like Emily Giffin represents the kind of mainstream gal who typically has a strong - if not extremely reactionary - stance against such hot button topics as prostitution and pornography.

Chester Brown does not seem to be an anti-social loser, closet misogynist or sleaze ball. But he does hold rather unconventional views about sexual relationships and is rather cynical towards romantic love in general. He believes that romantic love is an idealistic concept that was invented in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t very long ago that people in the Western world began marrying for love, yet a long time before that, marriage was basically a financial contract between two families. He makes many comparisons between the institution of marriage and the obligations of a sexual relationship with that of the arrangement between a prostitute and a john.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Though there is definitely a fair bit of pro-prostitution proselytizing on CB's part, he also presents a compelling personal story. The comic begins in Toronto during the late 1990’s where CB and his live-in girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee are at the tail-end of their relationship (she wants to start seeing someone else). Rather than be upset about it, Brown sees this as an opportunity to enjoy his new status as a single guy. He is also genuinely psyched that he can maintain a close friendship with his ex now that they’re just roommates. In fact, he realizes their relationship is even better than ever before since it’s no longer burdened with the emotional baggage that comes with romantic relationships (possessiveness, jealousy, unrealistic expectations, role-playing, etc.). At some point, he even lets Sook-Yin’s new boyfriend move in with them, and soon derives some satisfaction in observing their relationship degenerate into the usual petty arguments that afflicts most long-term couples. This of course, reaffirms his jaded views towards romantic relationships.

Even though CB is enjoying his bachelorhood, he has been celibate a little too long for his liking. So he discusses the idea of seeing a prostitute with his friends Seth and JM, who are initially rather shocked by his proposal. Thus, we get a fairly interesting insider view as CB embarks upon the trials and tribulations of being a newbie john. I found the whole account quite fascinating, and even enjoyed reading the copious notes at the end where CB basically presents his treatise on prostitution. And it's not that he's pro-prostitution because he's a regular customer, but he really argues it with a sympathetic viewpoint of a sex worker as well. As someone who has some left-leaning attitudes, I tend to agree with most of CB’s arguments, ie. that prostitution should be decriminalized rather than legalized, that the sexual obligations inherent in a marriage or relationship are really not all that different from that of a prostitute and client.

The only things I didn’t entirely agree with were CB’s extremely cynical views towards relationships. He really does believe that happy couples are the rare exception to the rule – that it is simply not possible for two people to be happy and fulfilled in such a relationship. Yet I'm not entirely convinced whether a satisfying love life can be achieved by only seeing prostitutes either. Perhaps this kind of lifestyle suits someone like CB, who has been unsuccessful in finding happiness within the confines of a conventional heterosexual relationship, but again, all CB is arguing for is societal acceptance. If he hasn’t already, Chester Brown should read Julian Barnes’ eye-opening treatise on romantic love, “Parenthesis”. And Barnes is the kind of writer who can be as cynical as the rest of ‘em (he's known for saying things like “Love is just a system for getting someone to call you darling after sex”).

But what I appreciated most from CB was his honesty, or at least his constant striving for honesty, in Paying For It. I appreciated how the author explains some of his artistic interventions in the notes, ie. how certain conversations that took place in one sitting in the comic were actually condensed over a period of time, or how he wasn’t really that articulate in that conversation. Most of all, I appreciated CB’s skillful artwork and how he portrays himself (and his scrawny body) with some measure of honesty as well. For instance, when he finds himself in a "monogamous relationship" with a prostitute named "Denise" with whom he has some emotional attachment to, he admits in his notes that if he were to stop paying her, she would probably stop seeing him.

If there is one thing I learned in Women's Studies 101, every human relationship is based on the balance of power, in some form or another. If you look at it from this perspective, in some ways, it seems that the relationship between a prostitute and client is probably more honest than the sanctioned or conventional varieties.

This was a very, VERY refreshing and, if you can believe, heartening change from the piece of trash I read before.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book 15 – Something Borrowed

By Emily Giffin

It might seem a little odd (and extreme) to go from an uber-masculine book like The Hunter to ultra-feminine trash like Something Borrowed. But hey, that’s how I roll. The only thing the two books have in common is they’re the type of books I do not normally seek out. It makes sense that I wouldn't normally read a Parker novel, but I'm also far from being a girly-girl. Admittedly there are rare moments when I succumb to my more feminine urges and read a chicklit book of the moment.

Our local thrift shop Chainon has been a treasure trove of dirt cheap books for me and Olman. The problem is that the English fiction shelf is also riddled with mainstream chicklit fare such as Eat Pray Love, Sex and the City, Twilight, The Nanny Diaries, The Princess Diaries, etc etc. So when I "happened" to read the blurb for Something Borrowed, I thought why not? The maid of honor ends up having an affair with the bride’s fiancé, and the blurbs made it sound like the situation could be portrayed with some measure of maturity and complexity. The the new movie starring Kate Hudson sounds pretty bad, but I thought maybe the book would surprise me with some interesting insights. At worst, it’ll be a throw away book, right?

Boy, was I dead wrong. I can be so naïve sometimes!

A quarter way through, I was already regretting getting this far, as the novel was turning out to be just another stupid, hackneyed romance. And the writing was absolutely horrid (no surprise there). But like the Twilight books, I just couldn’t stop. Like a terrible yet gripping soap opera, I had to find out what happens next! Still, there were so many things wrong with this book, I don’t know where to begin. But since a Reading Group Guide was conveniently provided at the end of the book to provoke thoughtful discussion, let’s just use what we’ve got.

Reading Group Guide

1. What do you think was the real impetus behind Rachel’s decision to sleep with Dex after her birthday party? Was it about her desire to break out of her good girl persona? Was it about a long-standing resentment toward Darcy? Or was it both?

Maybe it was simply that Dex was hot and he was there? And Rachel was turning thirty, probably hadn’t had sex in months and was super horny?

The question is misguided because this Rachel chick lacks some serious self-awareness, which translates as she doesn’t know WTF she’s doing. From how it was described, Rachel acted (and responded) on impulse, something which she doesn’t normally do. It was far from a decisive action. Deep down she knew what a pathetic loser she was by letting her best friend take her man and this was the only chance she had to get inside Dex’s pants.

2. How do you view Dex? How would you describe Dex and Rachel’s relationship? What drew them together? Did you root for them to be together? Do you think they have true love?

Dex is the stereotypical Mr Dreamboat whose beauty and desirability is constantly mentioned throughout the book. You know this is the stuff of fantasy when Mr Dreamboat is secretly in love with a 30 year old woman with average looks and intelligence who actually hates herself (with reason). Coupled with the fact that he is named Dex is enough to draw guffaws. The “relationship” between Dex and Rachel yields the same reaction. At one point when they are deep enough into their affair, Rachel summons enough balls to try to end it, but then she gets an email from Dex with the subject line “You”. It basically starts like this:

You are an amazing person, and I don’t know where the feelings that you give me came from. What I do know is that I am completely and utterly into you and I want time to freeze so I can be with you the time and not have to think of anything else at all. I like literally everything about you, including the way your face looks when my cock is in your mouth…

Ok, I confess the last 8 words were actually my own, otherwise the guffaws will take over. But seriously. If a guy does write something like “I like literally everything about you including the way your face looks”, chances are likely he will also be thinking about his dick in your mouth.

Re: true love. Well, let’s take a look at Rachel’s take on “true love” at the end of the novel when she finally gets Dex and makes dinner for him for the very first time (as she doesn’t cook):

Only then do I acknowledge that what I am feeling might actually be true happiness. Even joy. Over the past several days… it has crossed my mind that the key to happiness should not be found in a man. That an independent, strong woman should feel fulfilled and whole on her own. Those things might be true. And without Dex in my life, I like to think I could have somehow found contentment. But the truth is, I feel freer with Dex than I ever did when I was single. I feel more myself with him than without. Maybe true love does that.

Wow, do grown women really eat up this shite? If I get this right, Rachel believes that true love is not about two completely independent people sharing a life together, but two people who are missing something in their sad single lives and only find true happiness in each other. True love means that Dex completes Rachel. And Rachel completes Dex. My, the perfect recipe for a codependant relationship, if I ever saw one. (It is interesting to compare Rachel's take on happiness to Cassandra Mortmain's take on happiness - whose do you think is more genuine? But it's not fair to compare since I do not put Emily Giffin in the same league as Dodi Smith). But hey, this book is marketed as a contemporary urban fairy tale and this is precisely what it’s delivering. What did you expect, an update of Jane Eyre?

3. Is anything about Rachel and Darcy’s friendship genuine? Do you believe it has changed over time?

No sane rational woman with any measure of self-respect would remain best friends with a self-serving narcissist like Darcy for so many years. I've known people in these sorts of friendships/relationships and you eventually have to break up with them after a year or two at most because you realize that they are unrealistically demanding and possessive. In other words, they SUCK.

The book does an ok job portraying why someone with major self-esteem issues like Rachel would be friends with someone like Darcy, but again, I was looking for a story that was more about how a decent person would betray her best friend, who happens to also be a decent person, and the ramifications of that kind of fallout; not a story about a goody-goody girl who ends up betraying her friend because she stupidly let her friend have her man and this friend turned out to be a backstabbing bitch in the end so that the goody-goody girl gets a kind of get out of jail free card. That neat ending stuff does not interest me.

4. Do you think Dex and Darcy would have married if it weren’t for Dex’s affair with Rachel? Why did he stay with Darcy for so long?

Although Darcy is shallow, self-centred and high maintenance, she is also smoking hot, fun and charismatic. That is enough for most guys, even someone like Dex. Oh, but Dex is supposedly secretly in love with Rachel, who is average-looking, boring and passive. So maybe that is why Dex has stayed with Darcy for so long, so he could have Rachel close by. Right.

I think Dex ended up with Rachel in the end because he probably realized that he could be with a girl like Rachel and still get with babes like Darcy, because Rachel will take it. Whereas if Dex married Darcy, and he cheats on her, Darcy is the kind of girl who would cut off his dick in a heartbeat.

5. How did Rachel’s flawed self-image contribute to the dilemma that she faces? What do you see as her greatest weakness?

Rachel’s greatest weakness is her total lameness and passivity. It is a total drag to read a book narrated in first person by someone like Rachel. The fact that Rachel lacks self-esteem and insight causes her to let her boss treat her like his personal slave, be loyal to someone like Darcy, and let Darcy have the love of her life. Rachel’s issues causes her life to suck. But what really sucks is having to listen to Rachel whine and fret about her problems for most of the novel.

6. Was Rachel’s moral dilemma made easier because of Darcy’s personality? Would she have acted on her attraction to Dex if Darcy were a different kind of person and friend? If Rachel had fallen in love with Julian, would she have pursued the same course of action? How does Rachel rationalize her affair with Dex?

The novel seems to support the idea that it’s okay to cheat on your best friend or lover if she turns out to be a selfish, backstabbing bitch. There was never really a moral dilemma that Rachel had to face, except her feelings of guilt, which she rationalizes like any insecure person in that situation who has never truly lived. Also, Rachel would not have fallen in love with Julian because he listens to The Barenaked Ladies (gag). She and Dex are obviously meant for each other because they share a deep love of Bruce Springsteen (Darcy, on the other hand, is a big Bon Jovi fan).

7. What risks does Rachel take when she pursues her relationship with Dex? What is the biggest moment of risk for her? How does Rachel grow and change in the novel?

WTF? Rachel never took any risk. She just finally made an ultimatum to Dex and then took off to London. The novel made it clear that the only risk was Rachel's friendship with Darcy, who conveniently turned out to be a villain at the end. No big loss there. Except that Rachel still missed her fun, bitchy friend! What a loser. As for Rachel growing and changing, let’s look at the blurb which mislead this reader so:

As the wedding date draws near, events spiral out of control, and Rachel knows she must make a choice between her heart and conscience. In so doing, she discovers that the lines between right and wrong can be blurry, endings aren't always neat, and sometimes you have to risk everything to be true to yourself.

So did Rachel actually remain true to herself? What does that mean really, in the author's thinking? If it means Rachel achieving some self-realization and growing as a person, then hell no. Darcy got her comeuppance but never learned her lesson because Rachel never confronted Darcy about what a terrible friend she was for all those years. Rachel got her man in the end, which is what the main goal of the book was really about. Yet we don’t have a sense whether Rachel had gained any self-esteem or respect. Oh wait, Rachel did learn how to
make dinner for her new boyfriend in the end. That’s something, right?

So you could say that Rachel did become true to herself: she became liberated from her unhealthy friendship with Darcy and found contentment in her new role as Dex’s subservient girlfriend!

8. Disloyalty is a major theme in this novel. How differently do men and women view cheating on a friend? Why is Darcy so indignant when she catches Dex and Rachel together when she has been having an affair of her own?

Because Darcy can't imagine why a super hot guy like Dex would cheat on her with an unattractive, gutless loser like Rachel.

9. Under what circumstances is it justified to choose love over friendship? How important is it for women to stick together? Have you ever been in a friendship like Darcy and Rachel’s?

The novel justifies love over friendship if your best friend turns out to be a backstabbing bitch. Of course it is important for women to develop strong friendships but I do not believe that is the book's message. I have never been stupid enough to be in a friendship like Darcy and Rachel's.

10. This novel is told from Rachel’s perspective. How do you think Darcy would tell the same story? How do you think she would describe Rachel? How do you think she views their friendship?

See answer to 5. I don’t mind reading books about a heroine with low self-esteem written in the first person, as long as she is interesting and has something to say. But this Rachel character is none of these things. She is really a pathetic loser with no backbone, substance or appeal. I would have an even harder time reading a whole novel told from the POV of Darcy in the sequel
Something Blue (which focuses on Darcy's struggles to cope with the fallout of her engagement to Dex and her friendship with Rachel). Dear God. Not even if you paid me.

Something Borrowed was truly one of the worst books I have read. EVER. Something will have to be borrowed because I won't get back the time I wasted reading this piece of crap. It actually made me kind of hate womankind and feel some anger and embarrassment for my gender because this was a bestseller and from what reviews I could find, it seemed every woman loved this book and would recommend it to their friends. At least the Twilight books were kind of fun, goofy and action-packed but this was just a horrible reading experience. After finishing Something Borrowed, I considered immediately reading another Parker book just to wash the taste of tacky chicklit from my mouth. Then I realized there was an even better antidote….

Monday, May 09, 2011

Book 14 - The Hunter

By Richard Stark

I’m not quite sure what finally lead me to Richard Stark’s The Hunter. Perhaps it was reading two books back to back about neglected young girls that I felt it was time for something more masculine. Something lean, mean and bad ass. I had heard plenty about the Parker novels from Olman as well as the other 50-bookers. I certainly have also been enabling Olman’s adulation of the series by getting him three new reissues by the University of Chicago Press for his birthday since 2008. So it’s high time I checked out what all the fuss was about.

Another thing - although I have a soft spot for vengeance movies, I’ve never really sought out the equivalent in fiction. I don’t know if there’s a vengeance niche, but I recently came upon the eye-for-an-eye style of vengeance with surprised glee in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stieg Larsson modeled Lisbeth Salander after the Parker character. Unusually intelligent and just autistic enough to be borderline anti-social, Larsson’s (anti-)heroine also operates within her own moral universe.

Since I’m sure all who bother to read this review are well acquainted with the storyline, I won’t go into summarizing The Hunter. I did appreciate the lean structure, taut pacing and sparse prose. Oh, which reminds me, another reason why I wanted to read this was that it simply made a bloody quick read. No wonder Olman bangs ‘em out so quickly – he just focuses on the slim genre books which dispense with all that descriptive, prosaic bullshit that is normally associated with literature. As Olman notes in his review, “there is no fluff here, no moralizing, no glee, no pornographic satisfaction in the revenge. It's like a short, direct punch to the gut that nobody else in the crowd notices until the guy crumples to his knees, gasping for breath”. Yeah, that pretty much nails it right there.

Indeed, the story starts off with Parker telling someone who kindly offers him a lift to go to hell (if this was written today, he would’ve told him to fuck right off). We soon learn that Parker himself went to hell and back, having been screwed over in a heist, thrown in the slammer, then escaping and living as a vagrant for a month. Damn right he is right bloody pissed and he won’t rest until he exacts his revenge, going about it patiently, cunningly and methodically. It was quite enjoyable reading how Parker steals and cons his way until he has the means to go after his enemies. When he finds out that his target Mal is a middle manager within a criminal organization, he single-handedly takes them on. Although he belongs to the criminal underworld himself, he still operates in his own terms.

I guess that’s the appeal of Parker - he’s a true loner - in a world that either wants to mess with him or have a piece of him. So he’s always a man on the move. The Parker character has endured and gained in popularity since The Hunter first appeared in 1962. Sorry if I keep comparing Parker to Lisbeth Salander (I’m not a Parker fan so I don’t have any pretensions of being a purist), but I think this is also why LS appeals to today’s readers (esp. those little old ladies who secretly like to kick a bit of ass) because she’s an updated (and more accessible) version of Parker.

Olman mentioned Parker as “an individual, a free radical, attached to no institution, organization, woman or job”. Parker is not autistic like Salander, but he obviously has sociopathic tendencies. His moral universe is even simpler than Lisbeth Salander’s: mess with me, and you die. Though he may come across as one, Parker is not exactly a misogynist as his black and white worldview applies to both men and women alike. It just so happens that being the wife of Parker allows a certain level of intimacy with this cold, calculating individual, if you catch my drift. This is how Parker ends up getting betrayed – his wife is his weakest link. Mal forces Lynn at gunpoint to choose: either kill her husband or be killed. When Parker finally confronts Lynn, being unaware of the back story, he never asks her what really happened. In Parker’s world, the fact of the matter is that his own wife shot him in the back, and even if he didn’t end up killing her for that, his wife was as good as dead to him. When Lynn ends up committing suicide, this brings little or no emotion in Parker. He just ends up watching too much bad TV and drinking a little too much that night. He just knows that he won’t make the same mistake again. Yup, this guy is bad ass.

A brutal yet entertaining read. And a refreshing change from the stuff I normally read.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Book 13 – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

By Alan Bradley

As a grownup, I do fancy stories about precocious young misfits. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is supposedly like a cross between Harriet The Spy and I Capture the Castle, the latter due it being about a motherless family living in an old Victorian mansion in post-WW2 England and told from the perspective of the youngest daughter, Flavia. But the comparisons pretty much stop there. Flavia de Luce is not your average 11 year old girl. Not only does she possess a brilliant aptitude for chemistry, but a morbid passion for poisons as well. It just so happens that when her “strange talents” had begun to manifest themselves, Flavia inherited the alchemist’s laboratory that once belonged to her dead Uncle Tar, conveniently tucked away in the attic of the De Luce mansion.

Soon enough, a dead body is found in the cucumber garden of Buckshaw Estate, and her stamp-collecting father, Colonel de Luce, is the prime suspect. The murder sparks Flavia’s curiosity as well as her obsessive-compulsive tendencies and she goes on a sleuthing spree that takes her all over the English county on her beloved bicycle and eventually leads her to father’s old boarding school. Flavia soon becomes embroiled in a philatelic conspiracy that involved a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria and a mysterious orange-tinted Penny Black stamp.

Alan Bradley is an Ontarian who has made several visits, but has never lived in, England though he does an admirable job capturing English rural life in the 1950’s. It’s interesting to note that this is Bradley’s first published novel at age 70, having taught scriptwriting at the University of Saskatoon for many years and having published non-fiction work. He is also a huge Sherlock Holmes afficionado. The events of TSatBofP unfold quite effectively and charmingly, and the pacing is quite efficient with some good page-turning moments.

However, even though the author has created a fairly original detective-heroine, there were still a few moments throughout the novel where it felt like an old dude attempting to write from the perspective of an pre-adolescent girl, albeit a highly intelligent one. Often it seemed that Bradley completely forgot that his character was only eleven years old. I suppose it’s possible that Flavia could recognize the “acrid protein smell” of insulin by sniffing a vial and deduce that the murder victim was diabetic, or single-handedly solve a cold murder case from 20 years ago (actually more than cold since the death was originally ruled as suicide), thus gaining the respect and admiration from Inspector Hewitt. But too often Flavia talks and thinks, well, like an old fart. Like any young girl who had lost her mother at a tender age, Flavia wants more than anything in the world is to be loved by her father. So when she manages to fanangle her way to see her father in the county jail, she is overjoyed when her father explains his story to her, even though she realizes that her poor deluded daddy thinks he’s talking to his dead wife, Harriet, instead of his youngest daughter.

Here we are, Father and I, shut up in a plain little room, and for the first time in my life having something that might pass for a conversation. We were talking to one another almost like adults; almost like one human being to another; almost like father and daughter…
… And so we sat, Father and I, primly, like two old women at a parish tea. It was not a perfect way to live one’s life, but it would have to do.

Then there is another time where Inspector Hewitt visits Flavia in her laboratory, and she makes him a cup of tea.

“Beautiful bit of bone china,” he said at last, raising the cup above his head to read the maker’s name on the bottom.
“Quite early Spode,’ I said. “Albert Einstein and George Bernard Shaw drank tea from the very cup when they visited Great-Uncle Tarquin—not both at the same time, of course.”

What kind of 11 year old girl talks like this, even if she is preternaturally intelligent and she grew up in an upper class English household in the 1950s? Would she really know or care what kind of china she’s drinking out of? And if she does, does she have to sound like a prim old lady?

Because of this, I found Flavia to be charming to a fault. Bradley has created a charismatic fictional character, but it sometimes feels like he’s trying too hard, with the result of having a heroine who’s much too good to be true. It’s the equivalent of having to watch those annoyingly precocious kids in Hollywood movies dispensing grownup wisdom to their elders. Flavia can’t quite come to life for me because too often I hear Bradley’s voice speaking through her. I understand that by making Flavia more child than adolescent allows her to insert herself in situations where an older person would be more conspicuous, but Flavia has far too much knowledge and experience than is possible for a gifted 11 year old. It would have been much more believable if Flavia was a few years older, say 13 or 14.

Another problem for me was how the other de Luce members were so superifically drawn. Flavia’s father is the same distant, taciturn figure as Daddy Mortmain in I Capture the Castle, and her older sisters Ophelia (“Feely”) and Daphne (“Daffy”) are merely self-absorbed, silly girls with a streak of nastiness. It’s unfortunate I was somewhat disappointed by the first book since Flavia de Luce has the potential to become a delightful mystery series (and the cover design strikes the perfect balance of whimsical restraint). Hopefully Flavia’s voice and the supporting characters will become more colourful and nuanced as the series develops. My brother also gave me the next book (The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag) for my birthday, so I’ll see if things improve. Otherwise, I’m going to be moving on! There are far more interesting books to explore!