29 March 2010

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce, budding chemist with a penchant for mischief and poison, lives at Buckshaw with her father and sisters. One night, the eleven-year-old almost literally stumbles across the dying body of a stranger in the back garden. She is immediately on the case, racing to beat Inspector Hewitt to the solution and to find the murderer before the innocent go to jail or anyone else is killed.

One of the best parts of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley is getting to know Flavia de Luce. She is simply a breath of fresh air. Her wit, her intelligence, her ability to reason, and her clear-headedness under duress do not for an instant hide the fact that she is preteen with a fabulous imagination and the luck to be living in 1950 England, when children were given much more freedom than they are today.

Here's what she thinks about being a Catholic attending an Anglican service:

Because it was trinity Sunday we were treated to a rare old romp from Revelation all about the sardine stone, the rainbow round the throne, the sea of glass like unto crystal, and the four beasts full of eyes before and uncomfortably behind.

I had my own opinion about the true meaning of this obviously alchemical reference, but, since I was saving it for my Ph.D. thesis, I kept it to myself. And even though we de Luces were players on the opposing team, as it were, I couldn't help envying those Anglicans the glories of their Book of Common Prayer (p. 116).
The mystery itself is beautifully set up, and it is great fun to follow along as Flavia attempts to put the pieces together. When her thinking goes astray, we are right there with her until, at the climax, we say, "Oh yes, you're right! Why didn't I see that sooner?"

Besides the very believable spats among the sisters, we are also treated to numerous literary and cultural references, such as this:
Miss Mountjoy rummaged in the desk drawer and dredged up a ring of iron keys that looked as if they might once have belonged to the jailers of Edmond Dant├Ęs in The Count of Monte Cristo. I gave them a cheery jingle and walked out the door (p. 63).
Finally, as wonderful as life seems at Buckshaw--well, if you discount the small matter of the murder--we are subtly and constantly reminded that the war is still a part of life in 1950s England. Flavia is a bit mystified and doesn't quite understand the physiological effects the war has had on Dogger, her father's man, who suffers from shell-shock, or what today we call post-traumatic stress. She also cannot reconcile the man her father is at home with the man he must have been as a soldier. These nods to the war anchor the novel in time and place and provide the contrast to Flavia's joie de vive.

Although I received a review copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie in spring 2009, I listened to the unabridged audio production read by Jayne Entwistle, who brilliantly captured the enthusiasm of eleven-year-old Flavia. Entwistle's pacing and inflections added both to the overall charm of the novel and to the tension of the action.

Here is the trailer for the book, narrated by Entwistle:

Flavia du Luce has her own website, where you can learn more about the author, see the awards the book has won, and find about the other books in the series.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie at Powell's
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Published by Delacorte Press, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780385342308

Challenges: New Author, Support Your Library, Audiobook, What's in a Name, 2010, 100+
YTD: 28
Source: Review and borrowed (see review policy)
Rating: A−


Jackie (Farm Lane Books) 3/29/10, 6:17 AM  

A copy of this finally arrived in my library last week and so I grabbed it! I hope to read it in the next week or two - I'm pleased to see that you enjoyed it.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 3/29/10, 6:57 AM  

I liked this one a lot Beth, as well as the latest follow-up. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Marie Cloutier 3/29/10, 7:01 AM  

this is another one of those books that everyone just seems to love. great review- it sounds great!

Chrisbookarama 3/29/10, 7:19 AM  

Don't you just love Flavia? I have The Weed that String's the Hangman's Bag. I can't wait to get to it.

JoAnn 3/29/10, 7:43 AM  

I really need to read this...

Jenn's Bookshelves 3/29/10, 8:34 AM  

I'm so excited that my face-to-face book club decided to read this one for April! I can't wait to dive in!

Sandy Nawrot 3/29/10, 8:49 AM  

I think the story and Flavia sound precious. Jenners sent me the book, so all I need to do is find a wedge of time to squeeze it in. Maybe for the read-a-thon!

A Bookshelf Monstrosity 3/29/10, 8:51 AM  

I need to get it together and read this one already! I've read so many great reviews, but just haven't gotten around to it yet.

bermudaonion 3/29/10, 9:32 AM  

This sounds wonderful. I just checked and our library has the audio, so I'm putting it on hold!

Susan 3/29/10, 11:38 AM  

It sounds great - definitely going on my rapidly growing TBR list. :)

Margot 3/29/10, 3:18 PM  

I have a copy of this book but I haven't read it yet. I'm not sure why. It sounds like a fun read. I thought the video was fun too. I need to find some time.

Julie P. 3/29/10, 4:48 PM  

I have this one coming up and can't wait!

Super Mon 3/29/10, 6:03 PM  

I loved both Flavia mysteries. They were great! Flavia is one of my favorite heroines! Great Review!

Booksnyc 3/30/10, 12:36 AM  

Thanks for your review and for your comments on the audiobook - I seem to be hit or miss with audiobooks and I notice that the reader makes a huge difference in my enjoyment of the audiobook so I am glad to hear that Flavia is especially well captured!

Alice 3/30/10, 3:35 AM  

I think I've seen this in the bookstores! Although this is a murder mystery, it sounds like a fun read (looking at all the quotes you've included). Thank you for the review!

Beth Hoffman 3/30/10, 9:01 AM  

Wonderful review, thank you. This book has been on my TBR list for quite some time and now I'll have to move it higher.

Dorte H 3/30/10, 2:52 PM  

"... the four beasts full of eyes before and uncomfortably behind ..."

My, this one sounds irresistible! The list, where is my list?

Ana S. 3/30/10, 3:04 PM  

Now that I'm done with the Harriet Vane books, I could use a new mystery series to get hooked on. This could very well be it.

Unknown 3/30/10, 5:14 PM  

Seen lots of good comments about this one. Great review.

Jenners 3/30/10, 9:50 PM  

Isn't Flavia the best? I just love her. Great review! I just finished the "sequel." I didn't think it was as strong as this one but I think the real attraction is the wonderfulness of Flavia.

Michele 3/31/10, 6:35 AM  

Do you know how many times I picked this book up to buy it and then chastised myself for trying to purchase yet another book just because of it's pretty cover? (Yes I do know I'm shallow that way.) But noooooo, I resisted and then patted myself on the back for having such fortitude.

Then I read this review. And I'm kicking myself.

Guess what book I'm going to buy when I swing by the bookstore later today? ;)

Anonymous,  3/31/10, 9:17 AM  

I feel like the only blogger alive who hasn't read this; I first heard about it during Carl's RIP Challenge this autumn, and I bought a copy. Now I need to open it! For some reason, when you described the fresh vitality of Flavia, I'm reminded of our heroine teenager in The Elegance of The Hedgehog...

Michele 3/31/10, 11:14 AM  

oh, and an update for you three hours later:

saw it in the airport bookstore this morning on my way to Baltimore and bought it. You, my friend, are a very BAD influence, LOL.

Cori 3/31/10, 1:55 PM  

I really need to get the print version of this. I thought that the audiobook reader did an accurate job with her voice, but it absolutely GRATED on my nerves -- I had to stop listening. I was enjoying the book, though. Must request the print edition. :) Great review!

Lisa 3/31/10, 9:30 PM  

Ack--I have got to get this, especially now that the second book is out.

Whitney 4/1/10, 9:28 AM  

I have been wanting to read this for a while. Nice review.

Anonymous,  4/1/10, 5:32 PM  

I must say, I've been wanting to read this for a while. The title first captured me and now from your review, it sounds great. I'm a little obsessed with that era at the moment so this will complement my obsession well.

I have such a backlog of books to read for my blog though, this will have to sit on my TBR pile for a little longer.

Anonymous,  4/1/10, 5:32 PM  

I must say, I've been wanting to read this for a while. The title first captured me and now from your review, it sounds great. I'm a little obsessed with that era at the moment so this will complement my obsession well.

I have such a backlog of books to read for my blog though, this will have to sit on my TBR pile for a little longer.

Jen - Devourer of Books 4/5/10, 12:36 AM  

I picked this up from the library this weekend, hoping I can get to it before it is due back!

Kari 4/27/10, 11:37 AM  

Oh I'm glad you enjoyed this one! I love Flavia. Now you need to move on to #2 in the series!

Unknown 3/7/11, 2:14 PM  

Hi! I also enjoyed The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I thought maybe you'd like to read my review of it:


Many thanks,


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