I’ve just finished Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a charming page-turner that I read mostly in a single day. It seems strange to admit to such literary debauchery when usually, I’m lucky to make my way to the end of one book in a month, but I did find Bradley’s mystery novel that absorbing. It features Flavia de Luce, a brilliant, macabre and alienated 11-year-old who is both to-the-manor-born and motherless. Mostly free to to do as she pleases while her father retreats into his stamp collection, she ranges about her rural, post-war English village on her bicycle, Gladys, and conducts unsupervised and occasionally devious chemistry experiments in a fantastic laboratory, the legacy of an eccentric ancestor. She makes an immensely likable first-person narrator, trading jabs with her dull older sisters, tossing about allusions that no 11-year-old today would catch, reading adults the way they tend to assume that a child can’t and generally observing the world with all the acuity and creativity of unconstrained youth. Indeed, the mystery itself is not uniquely gripping– the reader is often ahead of Flavia in putting two and two together– but Flavia’s voice is irresistible. Bradley excels at creating vivid similes for her, both apt and imaginative; although written by a 70-year-old man, they sound just like something that would pop into the head of an astute girl like Flavia. She finds shaking the hand of the hired boy at the inn “like shaking hands with a pineapple.” The cigarette ash at the end of an old man’s cigarette “droop[s] like a mummified garden slug.” Only seven pages in, Flavia’s keenly amusing description of the mansion in which she lives captured me completely: “[The] two yellow brick annexes, pustulantly Victorian, folded back like the pinioned wings of a boneyard angel which, to my eyes, gave the tall windows and shutters of Buckshaw’s Georgian front the prim and surprised look of an old maid whose bun is too tight.” Fortunately, one doesn’t have to get to the bottom of Bradley’s story to enjoy the sweetness of his easy, erudite prose and his sharp and irrepressible heroine.
Read on for more recommendations from our editors, who are watching the natural world and the world of modern romance through various literary windows.
“Birthing the Mother Writer” Columnist Cassie Premo Steele writes, “I was recently taken into the nest of What the Robin Knows. A lively and well written book about watching birds, it taught me lessons far beyond the environmental. My prediction is that its author, Jon Young, will be seen as a Thoreau or Carson in 100 years– if we last that long. And in order to do so, we need to read this book.”
Suzanne Kamata, Fiction Co-Editor shares, “Being a Western woman married to a man from a very different culture, I was intrigued by I Taste Fire, Earth, Rain: Elements of a Life With a Sherpa by Caryl Sherpa. What happens when a high-powered professional woman pushing 40 meets a 28-year-old Sherpani with a third grade education? They fall in love, of course. And, as unlikely as it seems, they figure out a way to make their relationship work. This memoir chronicles the first few years of their relationship when Caryl was doing her best to civilize Nima Sherpa, and he was striving to teach her that what she thought was most important didn’t matter as much as their love and simply being alive.”
Blog Editor Karna Converse has been reading A Stop in the Park by first-time novelist Peggy Panagopoulos Strack: “Michael and Jamie Stolis are living the American dream but have become frustrated about job expectations and family commitments, and with each other. A Stop in the Park follows this husband-wife relationship as they rediscover who they are as individuals and as a couple. Readers are sure to see a bit of themselves in Michael and Jamie.”
Blog Editor Alizabeth Rasmussen adds, “To get myself into the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I picked up Modern Love: 50 Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion, edited by Daniel Jones. This is a collection of the best of the New York Times ‘Modern Love’ column and includes stories that cover the entire spectrum of relationship — dating, falling in love, getting and being married, having kids and raising a family. As you would expect from any collection of real-life love stories, there are stories with happy endings, some that are laugh-out-loud funny, and some that are simply heartbreaking. This has been a great book to have around for when I only have five or ten minutes, and I’m enjoying getting to know some new-to-me writers.”