Review | The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6), Alan Bradley

17834904The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches takes the Flavia de Luce series in a completely different direction, and while the writing is still great and the mystery enjoyable, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this shift in the series.

The book begins with the return of Flavia’s long-lost mother Harriet, and what that means for the de Luce family. Waiting on the platform for her mother’s train, Flavia receives a hurried, whispered message from a mysterious man, who shortly after gets killed on the train tracks. Winston Churchill makes a cameo, there is a mysterious reference to pheasants, and Flavia returns to Buckshaw with her family. All of this happens in the first chapter of the grandest Flavia de Luce adventure yet.

Previous Flavia mysteries have had a cozy feel, Nancy Drew meets Miss Marple in a small village setting. There have always been hints in the background at a larger mystery involving the de Luce family (much of which I admit I chalked up to Flavia’s rich imagination) and Vaulted Arches finally tackles this mystery head on. Bradley takes Flavia de Luce into Maisie Dobbs territory. There is espionage, matters of national importance, secret codes, and Flavia is caught up right in the thick of it. We still get the classic Flavia elements — bickering older sisters, Dogger, Buckshaw — but the stakes are higher than ever before.

Vaulted Arches also introduces a more mature Flavia. Much more thoughtful than in previous instalments, Flavia appears very conscious of being twelve and on the verge of growing up. She still has her delightfully childish moments, most often when dealing with unlikeable cousin and new character Undine, but overall, this is Flavia growing up, and kudos to Bradley for keeping it real and allowing us to see the character develop. We also get to see a classic Flavia de Luce science experiment, Flavia’s darkest and most disturbing attempt in the whole series, yet also the most fraught with emotional heft. Also a nice counterpoint to Flavia’s growing up, the experiment reveals an almost desperate need to cling to childlike belief, because the potential payoff is so very high.

It’s difficult to keep such a long running series fresh, particularly when there is such a significant thread of a backstory tying everything together and preventing the series from being purely episodic. So in a way, I’m glad Bradley took the series in this direction — it’s a natural progression for Flavia as a sleuth and a way to take the mysteries to another level. Future Flavia mysteries will likely continue on in this vein, and the very next one (minor spoiler alert) will be set away from Buckshaw, a clear signal that this is a whole new type of Flavia de Luce mystery. Personally though, I’ll miss the cozy, small scale feel of the first few mysteries. I’ll certainly keep following the Flavia mysteries, and am excited to see how Bradley takes this series forward, yet I’ll always have a special place on my shelf for the beginning of the series, and the irrepressible turn of the century Nancy Drew racing around the dark passages of her family estate.


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Speaking from Among the Bones, Alan Bradley

coverThe fifth in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series begins with blood. An image of John the Baptist’s head in Salome’s hand looms over the pulpit at St. Tancred’s in full colour stained glass. The narrator muses on the vicar’s words, that “in Old Testament times, our blood was taught to contain our lives.” [p. 4] One can almost see the darkened church and hear the portentous music.

Suddenly, the narrator’s reflections on the gory image are cut off:

Of course!


Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

“Feely,” I said, tugging at her sleeve. “I have to go home.” [p. 4]

Last spring, the news broke that the Flavia series has been optioned for TV movies, and with such an opening, it’s easy to see why. The rapid switch in mood is comedic gold, and you can just see it on screen as the introduction to this week’s adventure with a beloved series character.

Speaking from Among the Bones is classic Flavia fare. A dead body is found inside the tomb of the village saint, and Flavia, who is “almost twelve” in this instalment, is once more on the case. The mystery itself isn’t my favourite among Bradley’s books, though that may just be a personal preference for Christmas, filmmaking and Shakespeare over archaeology, botany, and a long-lost jewel. There were also moments when Flavia’s taste for the grotesque felt a bit much — more grating than endearing. For example:

Dangerous killers on the loose! The words which every amateur sleuth lives in eternal hope of hearing.

[…] “A matter of life and death!” That other great phrase! Perhaps even greater than “dangerous killers on the loose.”

My cup of crime runneth over, I thought. [p. 306]

Such passages remind me of how young Flavia is, and when used too often, can make her seem callous. That being said, Bradley counteracts these reactions with thoughtful passages that reveal how shaken Flavia is by the murders. For example, a careless remark that “Feely will simple die.” leads Flavia to think about the murder victim and how he died. “Nothing simple about that,” she thinks. “Nobody ever simply dies.” [p. 271] It’s a sobering thought, and one that reveals much more than it purports to.

I probably learned the most science from this book, than from the rest of the series. Did you know, for example, that “blood from the arteries has more oxygen and less nitrogen, while blood from the veins is the opposite”? [p. 285] It is to Bradley’s credit that Flavia’s lecturing never feels boring or unnecessary. And then there are the lovely observations that reveal how magical science can be. For example, did you know seeds from hundreds of years ago can still be planted and grown?

“A seed is a remarkable vessel,” he told me. “Our one true time machine. Each of them is capable of bringing the past, alive, into the present. Think of that!” [p. 77]

Flavia’s family is central to this novel as well, with the mystery of the saint tied closely to whether or not Flavia’s father will be able to keep the Buckshaw estate. Flavia’s sister Feely is reaching marriageable age, and I love her developing romance with Dieter, who “has nothing to offer but love.” [p. 65]

Long-time Flavia fans know her insecurities about her mother Harriet, who disappeared when Flavia was a baby. Flavia’s sisters enjoy teasing her about how much Harriet hated her, and how Flavia is barely like Harriet at all. In this book, there’s an absolutely lovely scene in the middle of the book where Flavia’s father speaks to her about her mother. I won’t post an excerpt here, because I want you to experience the full impact of reading the scene for the first time within the context of the novel. It’s a lovely, revealing moment, only a couple of pages long and sandwiched between more action-packed scenes, but it moved me to tears.

Flavia fans will enjoy this novel, but I will recommend new readers to begin with an earlier book in the series. Elements in this story delve deep into the characters and while even new readers may understand what’s going on, I think I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Book 4) sets up the family dynamic much more comprehensively, and will set up a better appreciation of the events in this book.

A final note: the ending. Oh my god, the ending. A handwritten note from Lindsey at Random House Canada warned, “P.S. Ainsley said the ending was crazy!” And, well, yes it is. Particularly the last line. Talk about a cliff-hanger! Part of me is annoyed at Bradley taking the episodic serial TV format a bit too far, but really, all I want is even more Flavia de Luce. When is Book 6 coming out again?


Speaking from Among the Bones will be on-sale January 29.


Thank you to Random House Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

(Full disclosure: As with all Flavia books, when I received this ARC, I squee’d even before I began reading it. Flavia fans will understand why. 😉 )

Virtual Advent Tour 2011 | Twelve Books of Christmas, Part 2

I love giving and receiving books for Christmas! I’ve discovered quite a few new favourite writers from gifts (mostly from my sister, who gives awesome book recommendations!), and I love the thrill of receiving a book I may not necessarily have chosen for myself.

Part 1 of this list, posted this morning, is here.

Books featured in Part 1 are as follows:
(Note: Feel free to click on the thumbnail to be taken directly to that book.)

Scroll down or click on the cover image to go to that specific write up.

7. Look I Made a Hat, Stephen Sondheim

The sequel to the equally fantastic Finishing the Hat, Look I Made a Hat features lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s musicals from 1981 – 2011. We also get materials from his TV and film career and (probably coolest for any Sondheim fan) never before seen material from unproduced projects.

As with Finishing, I love the intimate nature of this book, with anecdotes and commentary by Sondheim, production photos and copies of his hand-written notes and drafts. We get both a celebration of his public work and a peek into his private, creative process. Fantastic gift for Sondheim fans, and heck, musical theatre fans in general.

Even better, Knopf is coming out with the Hat Box this December! Both Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat in a pretty gold box. I wish the boxed set offered a bit more extra features than just the box (say, a bonus CD of Sondheim’s personally selected favourites?), just to give us more of an incentive to buy the box set instead of the individual books.

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8. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley

All I want for Christmas is Flavia! I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is the fourth book is Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, and my personal favourite so far. It combines Christmas, Flavia and film — three of my favourite things! Bradley even adds a dash of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet is far from my favourite Shakespeare, but the story behind the de Luce copy of the play is heartwarming. I also love the sly nods to Agatha Christie — the country home cozy mystery plot, the inspector’s dry remark “Just like an Agatha Christie,” and the book’s title, from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” surely a nod to the Miss Marple mystery The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, which also owes its title to that poem.

Shadows is a light hearted, enjoyable mystery with a fascinating cast of characters. Even Flavia’s usually mean, sometimes cruel, sisters feel the holiday glow, and we see a bit more of the de Luce as a family here than in previous books. Bradley has created a world, idyllic yet sinister, and you just want to lose yourself in it.

My full, gushing review is here.

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9. Up Up Up, Julie Booker

Back in the spring, I gushed about how much I love Julie Booker’s short story collection Up Up Up. The stories are funny because they’re true, and tragic because they’re so true all you can do is laugh. Each one packs a little punch, and if you’ve ever spoken to Julie Booker on Twitter, you probably already have an idea of her quick, razor sharp punchlines.

Her stories talk about speed dating (it has “lots in common” with a mall food court: “quick turnover, a story at every table…and some who always leave a trail of garbage”), female friendship (“two fat ladies in a kayak! In skintight wetsuits. Eek!”), and careers (e.g. a woman from “Bumfuck-Nowhere, Ontario” insisting on teaching only in French). I recognized myself in her stories, and chances are, so will lots of other women.

Great choice to stimulate feminine bonding. For more details, my full review here.

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10. Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson

Before I Go to Sleep literally kept me up all night. Imagine losing your memory every time you went to sleep. That’s what Christine has to face every morning. Unable to trust even herself, she can only trust her husband, whom she recognizes only because of Post-it notes on the bathroom mirror saying “this is your husband.” Then she receives a phone call from a doctor she can’t remember, who tells her to meet him and not let her husband know.

Christine’s life is my idea of a nightmare, and S.J. Watson crafts his tale masterfully. Each new revelation makes you want to keep turning the page. No matter how spooked you are by what you find out, you can only imagine how terrified Christine must feel — she’s finding things out right along with you, and while you can close the book (a near impossible feat, once you begin, but it must be possible, right?), this is her life you’re reading about.

Fiction, but certainly feels like it could be real. Before I Go to Sleep won a CWA Dagger for “new blood,” and I can definitely see why.

Harper Collins Canada blog Savvy Reader was kind enough to post my review of this book, if you want to read more.

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11. Stroll, Shawn Micallef

Whenever I travel, I love setting aside at least a few hours just to wander. Package tours and tourist destinations are great, but there’s a charm as well in exploring the city like a local, just absorbing the place. Shawn Micallef offers us this experience in Stroll, and invites us to discover Toronto with him, at the pace of a stroll.

Micallef is a flaneur, which, as I’ve actually just discovered from this book, is, “someone who wanders the city with the sole purpose of paying attention to it.” More than just a guidebook or a history book, Stroll is a walking tour of Toronto, in a small, easy to carry volume. Micallef’s descriptions are detailed, coupled with convenient map illustrations by Marlena Zuber, and each section begins with handy tips, like “day trip,” or “off spring friendly,” or my personal favourite, “dress to impress.”

Great book to give someone who’s just moved to Toronto or who is or will be visiting Toronto. Also great for longtime residents who, like me, still have so many areas left to explore.

In his Flaneur Manifesto, Micallef writes:

Over and over, we’re told that Toronto is not Paris, New York, London or Tokyo. We’ve been trained to be underwhelmed.

[…] Any Toronto flaneur knows that exploring this city makes the burden of civic self-depracation disappear. And anybody can be a Toronto flaneur.

Sounds like fun.

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12. Vanity Fair: The Portraits, Graydon Carter

I love the portraits in Vanity Fair magazines. Vanity Fair: The Portraits collects 300 of its iconic portraits in a beautiful coffee table book. Photographers include such talented names as Cecil Beaton, Annie Leibovitz and Edward Steichen. Subjects include such 20th century legends as Pablo Picasso, Katharine Hepburn and Amelia Earhart.

It’s a beautiful book, and it showcases some of the most influential figures in the past century.

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Lots of fantastic books out there! What book are you giving this holiday season? What book do you have on your wish list?

Happy holidays!