Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fun with Flavia de Luce: Judging a Book by Its Cover

Despite the old axiom, I have bought books before simply because of  an appealing cover.  Some of them sit on my shelf awhile before I actually read them.  I've also nearly passed over books because of a dull, unattractive cover.  I should know better.  I fell in love with books that had those old blue or green library bindings. They all looked alike.  They all smelled alike.

I picked up my first of Alan Bradley's Flavia deLuce novels because it was, frankly, pretty.  The title Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was cute too. Maybe too cute, I feared.  So it sat awhile. But when a friend whose reading tastes I trust said she was reading the books, I decided I'd give them a try.  Then I found the audiobooks at the library, and in no time, I was hooked.  The books are set shortly after WWII. The protagonist and narrator Flavia deLuce is an eleven-year-old girl,the youngest of three daughters who live in an English manor house that belonged to her mother, who was killed in Tibet on an adventure when Flavia was a baby.  The Colonel deLuce, Flavia's father, a philatelist, hasn't the income to cover the expenses of the house, which actually belonged to his late wife.

Flavia is a perfect narrator--she's clever enough to recognize (and cover for) her own naivete. Her oldest sister Ophelia, a young teen, is most fascinated with the mirror; the middle sister Daphne is a bookworm.  Flavia loves chemistry--especially poison.  She has taken over the lab that belonged to her late uncle Tarquin, and she uses her chemistry knowledge to try to solve murder cases in the vicinity, much to the chagrin of the police inspectors with whose work she often interferes.

In the fourth novel--the last so far--I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, her father is allowing a cinema company to use the home to film a movie in an attempt to remain solvent.  The movie stars one of the best known British actresses of the day, who agrees to put on a special Christmas Eve performance to help raise funds to re-roof the parish church. In short order, the group assembled in Buckshaw, the deLuce home, is dealing with a snow storm, a murder, the early appearance of a baby, and--of course--a murder.

As corny as it may sound, the books are just delightful.  Bradley weaves in chemistry, anatomy, and even Shakespeare.  Most intriguing, though, are the human dynamics.

I remember going to the library regularly when I was in junior high, always checking the shelves to see if they had anything new by Daphne du Maurier.  Face it, without Google, I had not easy way of knowing if she was alive or dead. (For the record: alive and still writing).  I suspect I'll be keeping an ear out for Bradley's next adventure with the young Miss de Luce.  I'm hooked.

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