It’s both sweet and savory and if it were PIE, I’d order more

I went through a mystery phase in middle school.  Nancy Drew (yes, all of them), Hardy Boys (almost all of them), Agatha Christie (a lot of them), and Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series (definitely all of them).  And that was it for me.  No more mysteries; I just wasn’t as interested anymore.  Until I saw this book on the shelf of my local (independent!) bookstore recently.  It called to me.  It said “you think you don’t like mysteries anymore, but you know you are going to like this one!”  Look at the gorgeous, intriguing cover.  A dead bird and a postage stamp.  And the title?  Love it!  And the reviews?  It was like love at first sight without that awkward first date.

This is a book for absolutely anyone older than twelve.  Adult mystery readers will love this book.  And middle school and high school girls will like it, too.  So please, let me begin.

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley
Genre
: Mystery
Age: 12 and older, Middle School, High School, Adult

Summary and Review:

In the opening scene, young Flavia is locked in a dark closet, breathing stale air through her nose as she tries to free her tied hands and gagged mouth.  But just when you think the book is starting off more intense than you imagined for a story of a young girl, she frees herself, runs down stairs, waves to her father, and begins to plan her revenge on her two older sisters.  The scene, after much more sibling turmoil, ends with these words:

I leapt up from the table and fled the room in tears.  I didn’t actually think of the poison until next morning at breakfast.

As with all great schemes, it was a simple one.

And we are thus introduced to Flavia, a very different, very isolated 11-year-old girl whose mother has died leaving behind a Father who has nothing to say to his children and two older sisters who taunt her cruelly (although she’s no less mean in her retaliations).  In the grand old manor in which they live, Flavia spends most of her time in the attic’s old chemistry lab, a relic of a passionate ancestor.  Her older sisters might have the edge of age and memories of their mother (which she is tormented not to have), but she has a chemistry lab and she knows how to use it.  It is this chemistry that helps her solve a mystery that begins with a dead bird on the doorstep with a rare stamp on its beak and intensifies when Flavia watches a man take his last dying breath, whispering a secret only she can hear.

Solving the mystery takes Flavia, her bicycle, and her sharp mind on a journey to understand her father’s past and, as she struggles to prove her father innocent, gets her in more trouble than she could ever predict.

I once read somewhere that the best way to learn about a place is to read mysteries set in that place.  Apparently, the kind of research and writing that tends to go on in a good mystery novel just seems to bring out the geography of an area.  Sweetness certainly does that–transports you to the English countryside in a wonderfully vivid way.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I love one of the quotes by the author in the back of the book.  “[Flavia]’s eleven but she has the wisdom of an adult.  She knows everything about chemistry but nothing about family relationships.”  And that, right there, is what makes the book so good.  That’s what I would talk about.

This is one of those books that actually has book group questions in the back.  I love book groups; I hate book group questions in the back of my book.  Of the twelve questions, there is one that I like and I think would make an interesting conversation with a middle or high school student.  “Like any scientist, Flavia expects her world to obey certain rules, and seems to be thrown off kilter when surprises occur.  How much does she rely on the predictability of those around her, like her father and her sisters, in order to pursue her own interests (like solving the murder)?”

The second Flavia de Luce mystery, The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag, is already out in hardcover and the third, A Red Herring Without Mustard, will be available in February 2011.

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