narfna’s #CBR5 Review #75: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

13642966Look, I appreciate the idea of having a Christmas themed mystery with dear Flavia and her community of imaginary fellow Britons, and while Bradley doesn’t disappoint with the characters, he totally drops the ball on the mystery in this one. It’s so short and thrown in there he might as well have not done it at all. His inattention to the mystery on this one made it feel more like a cash grab than a novel. When Doctor Who does a Christmas special, it’s still got a monster in it, you know? And usually a really good one.

It’s Christmas at Buckshaw, and the De Luce family is in dull spirits. They’re still having money issues, and as a result, Colonel De Luce has hired out Buckshaw for Christmas. Famous movie star Phyllis Wyvern is shooting her latest film there, and the whole village is practically twitter-pated about it (including Flavia’s sisters, Daphne and Ophelia).

So of course Flavia develops a special bond with Ms. Wyvern (who is a bit of a bitch, but who has interesting hints of depth that never get explored), and of course she turns up murdered half-way through, and of course it’s Flavia who finds her body. I want to make it clear, though, that I’m only complaining about those things being predictable because of how it turned out. You expect a certain amount of repetitive predictability in stories like these, but the mystery is solved in the blink of an eye, and most of the leg-work happens off page, so that we as readers have absolutely no chance of solving it ourselves (which annoys me in mysteries to no end). It’s just there BAM all of a sudden, and then it’s over.

Luckily, the parts with Flavia’s family were good. Flavia has a couple of revealing moments with her sisters and with her father that lead me to believe interesting things are coming in future books. Dogger also gets some nice characterization, although we still don’t know exactly why it is he knows so much about birthing babies (there can’t have been much need in the army for a gynecologist, if that’s what he is by training).

Anyway, moral of the story: if you’re going to write a mystery novel, make sure you actually care about the mystery part. Otherwise you get pissed off readers who want to punch you in the stomach.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #71: A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

red herringThis series has the best titles, and the best covers. They both convey this welcoming want for me, and I’m compelled to read them almost against my will. As of writing this, I’m actually four books in to the series, and unfortunately Bradley seems to be a bit hit or miss with his mysteries and sense of pacing (two of the four I’ve read so far have been weakest in the main-plot area), which is disappointing after the promise of that title and those covers.

Luckily, A Red Herring Without Mustard (book three) was pretty much up to snuff. Bradley leaps right into the goings-on of the central mystery plot and allows the appropriate amount of time for Flavia to investigate, without resorting to convenient coincidences to give her clues. The mystery itself was also delightfully wacky and strayed from the traditional whodunnit arc that the other three books have followed. The main mysteries that Flavia has to solve aren’t even murders, and (spoiler) the one that everyone thinks is a murder turns out not to be after all. Plus Bradley introduces this wacky religion that I loved and that lent a bit of local color to the story.

Luckily, even when Bradley’s plots are weak, he’s still got great characters to play with. And they’re even more fun to read about when surrounded by a competent mystery (actually three mysteries in one), like in this one. Flavia and her family are all very likable, and I continue to anticipate the day when Bradley finally starts answering some of the ongoing questions/mysteries from the series. What really happened to Flavia’s mother? Why do her sisters treat her like a monster? What’s up with Dogger? I’m a bit frustrated that Bradley’s publisher has expanded the series from its original intended length of six books to at least ten (possibly more) because that means I’ll just have to wait longer. I hope Bradley doesn’t try to milk this series, and that he ends it before he’s sucked it dry of what makes it fun.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #65: The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

weedI really enjoyed the first book in the Flavia de Luce series. Half the reason I read books in the first place is atmosphere. If you build me a world that’s fun or intriguing or exciting to hang out in, I will be very willing to forgive any missteps in your books, and if there aren’t really any, I will fucking love them. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a credible successor to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but it’s got some pacing issues that severely hampered my enjoyment at the beginning. The second half of the book is a lot of fun, but it was only my previous affection for the character and the world she lives in that kept me from becoming frustrated with the book.

Flavia is still an eleven year old genius, obsessed with chemistry (and poisons in particular). My favorite thing about her as a character is how Alan Bradley plays with the contradictions in her character. On the one hand, she’s bitingly intelligent, able to understand and make connections that the adults around simply can’t. On the other, she’s a child who doesn’t really feel the emotional weight of the events going on around her, until she’s faced with moments she can’t really deal with (like in the first book when her investigation put her life in danger, and in this one when faced with a mother’s grief, or the rage of another character I won’t name). She’s a child who puts herself in adult situations that she is often able to navigate more easily than the adults around her, mostly due to the innocuous nature of being an 11 year old girl — people are willing to let her in and tell her things they wouldn’t otherwise — but also because she doesn’t have established modes of thinking, everything is new to her. At the same time, so many other things go over her head, because for as smart and knowledgeable as she is, she’s still rather innocent.

In this one, Flavia finds herself in the middle of an investigation into the death of a famous puppeteer. Rupert Porson and his assistant, Nia (not sure of the spelling as I listened to it on audiobook) have traveled to town and arranged to put on a couple of shows for the local parish in exchange for their van being fixed. Why a famous puppeteer has come to such a small place as Bishop’s Lacey in the first place is part of the mystery. Rupert is a bit (okay, a huge) jackass, who clearly beats Nia, and who is also a womanizer, but he turns out to be a genius at his job. Too bad he gets murdered and stuff. Flavia finds herself unable to stop from investigating everyone and everything surrounding his death, which in turn delves up the mystery surrounding the death of a young boy five years earlier.

The mystery in this one wasn’t as interesting as Flavia herself, and Bradley takes entirely too long in the set-up. Rupert isn’t even murdered until almost half-way through, and waiting for him to kick the bucket was excruciating. I know Bradley was trying something a little different by having Flavia get to know the victim before he died (so that she would be uniquely placed to solve his murder), but it didn’t quite work out logistically as well as it did emotionally for me. Still an enjoyable read, though. I especially liked the audibook version (although Jane Entwistle does tend to overread some lines with too much glee that I thought should have been read in a more normal voice).

I am most interested in Flavia herself, and she’s the reason why I’m so excited to read the rest of the books in the series. I find her fascinating: her dead mother, the way her sisters treat her so horribly, and the way she misinterprets their treatment (another example of her being too emotionally immature to understand what’s really going on). I’ve heard others describe her as a sociopath in training, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s more like she’s emotionally damaged from losing her mother and her obsession with death has taken the form of poisons and murder investigations. She’s also a child, and children are kind of sociopaths anyway, until they learn that actions have consequences (something that usually has to be learned the hard way). Sure, she’s always trying to poison her sisters (not death poison, just you know, the uncomfortable kind), but I don’t see any difference in this behavior than the fact that when I was mad at her, I used to lick all of my sister’s silverware when I was setting the table, and never told her. (Melissa, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. But you did shitty stuff too. Don’t even lie.) Flavia just has a more sophisticated set of tools than the rest of us did at her age.

Anyway, rocky second book, but I’m in for the rest of the series.

[3.5 stars]

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #30: A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

This is the third novel in a mystery series centered around eleven year old Flavia DeLuce, taking place in 1950s England. Flavia lives in the family home with her two older sisters, both whom she describes as torturers (usually, they have at least one or two sweet moments in a novel, but in this one, Ophelia and Daphne seemed to have declared all out war on Flavia), her slightly distant father, and Dogger, all around handy man. Additionally, there is a housekeeper/cook who takes care of the family on a daily basis, while Flavia’s mother died during a mountain climbing incident when Flavia was only 1 (I keep waiting for there to be more to this than there is). Flavia is an amateur chemist, having long ago claimed a deceased uncle’s laboratory as her own, and spends much of her time conducting experiments and reading about poisons.

Read the rest of my short review at my blog.  Popcultureboy recently reviewed the fourth installment of the series.

Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #21: I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley



The irrepressible Flavia de Luce is back for a 4th go at some amateur sleuthing. When a world famous film star is murdered while filming in the de Luce mansion, Flavia is like a dog with two tails. Is it any good though? Find out here