Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Serial Killers' Featured Review: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

Want to know more about the idea behind Serial Killers? This post is the place to start.

This month's book is I Am Half-Sick of Shadows the 4th book in the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley. Odd's the established reader and I'm new(-ish) to the series...

Synopsis (Goodreads)
It’s Christmastime, and the precocious Flavia de Luce—an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry and a penchant for crime-solving—is tucked away in her laboratory, whipping up a concoction to ensnare Saint Nick. But she is soon distracted when a film crew arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ decaying English estate, to shoot a movie starring the famed Phyllis Wyvern. Amid a raging blizzard, the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey gathers at Buckshaw to watch Wyvern perform, yet nobody is prepared for the evening’s shocking conclusion: a body found, past midnight, strangled to death with a length of film. But who among the assembled guests would stage such a chilling scene? As the storm worsens and the list of suspects grows, Flavia must use every ounce of sly wit at her disposal to ferret out a killer hidden in plain sight.

My Thoughts: Well. That was surprisingly fun. I've read the first two Flavia de Luce books previously (although I skipped #3) so I'm not entirely new to the series. I love that Flavia is so wonderfully obsessed with poisons and that stumbling over dead bodies doesn't faze her. I like that Buckshaw, the ancestral home that has fallen into disrepair, has such a presence in Flavia's life. From the freezing bedrooms to her mother's boudoir, they all have such character.

Much of Flavia's charm lies in her interactions with the people of their small village. Her understanding of Digger's fragile mental state and her willingness to protect him when he's consumed by the demons from his past, her determination to help the police solve the crimes she stumbles over, her ability to deconstruct the clues she finds to figure out why something happened as it did are all offset by her eleven-year-old belief that she can catch Father Christmas in a glue trap to finally have the proof her scientific mind requires that he is real. Alan Bradley makes Flavia work. She's hot tempered and she often rhapsodizes about poisons and how to best make her sisters' lives miserable (when she's not solving terrible crimes) but she's consistent and she worked for me as a character.

The mystery was full of mysterious goings on, the setting was bleak and icy and Flavia was her usual irrepressible self. I liked it.

Odd's Thoughts: It's hard for me to admit this, even now, but I don't think I really liked this book. And that's hard because I feel like I *should* like this book: morbid, amoral preteen heroine; tortured yet capable vet; snarky maiden aunt; giant ancestral home filled with drafts and sadness; small village. And this installment, too, had snow and rooftop shenanigans.

Shenanigans, people. I am a sucker for shenanigans.

But overall, I just wasn't moved by it. The writing style's fluid and lambent, and Flavia is annoying, yes, but she's interesting about being annoying. My lack of enthusiasm for the book stems from the trope of movie stars invade unlikely setting x, a trope that has never moved me one iota, and the thawing of the relationship between Flavia and her sisters. I loved in previous books how mean they were to each other because, as Kelly can attest, my sister and I at that age tried to kill each other on a regular basis, and it's refreshing to see an honest portrayal of dysfunctional siblings in a book.

That and I realized that this series relies waaaaaay too heavily on gathering the village together for a theatre performance, and for me to keep reading the author needs to level up on the plotting.

I did like how there was more maiden aunt ("Impertinent children ought to be given six coats of shellac and set up in public places as a warning to others." hee.) but as a reader, I was being asked to invest too much in the back-story and personal lives of these walk-on film people rather than the deLuce family, when they're the whole reason I keep reading.

And that said, keep reading I will: I'll definitely read the next one in the series.

Kelly: I have some questions...

Toward the end of the book (in the 230 to 240 page range), Flavia finds Feely in her lab and they have a little back and forth. Flavia asks Feely why she hates her. Feely replies: "Hate you, Flavia?" she said, her voice trembling. "Do you really believe I hate you? Oh, how I wish I did! It would make things so much easier."

Did I miss something vital or is she just being dramatic?

And the ending? Once again, I feel like I've missed something here. Why was Flavia so melancholy once her sisters left? I feel like there's this whole subtext to the sisters' relationship that I'm seeing but not seeing.

I'm making a frowny face.

Odd: As for the lab scene, I've read all three books and I have to tell you I'm as confused as you are. The only thing I can think is that Flavia is so much like Harriet that her sisters both hate her as a reminder of their dead mother and love her for being that same reminder? But then again, as you mentioned, Feely has a tendency to be dramatic.

Kelly: Okay. The idea that they both love her and hate her makes sense. I guess. I mean, it makes sense I just wish the author had made things a little clearer.

Do you think Flavia is going to remain 11 forever? Wasn't she 11 in the first book? Did all of these books take place within a year?

Odd: I wonder if she really is going to stay 11 (going on 30 -- oy, separate discussion) for the duration of the series, and I'm unsure of the timespan of all the books. From Flavia's conversation with Nualla, we know that the 2nd book took place nearly a year ago.

What did you think of Digger? And the maiden aunt?

And do you share my suspicion that Harriet, whose body, we are told over and over again, WAS NEVER FOUND, will come back from the dead in a future book? Possibly the last one in the series?

Kelly: I really like Digger and his issues. He's a high functioning wreck. I don't know how I feel about the aunt. Her revelation about what she had done during the war seemed very convenient. I don't know. I just don't know.

YES! YES YES YES! With the weirdness surrounding the sisters' relationship, I kept thinking that maybe Harriet hadn't died at all and it was all a story the family had made up. I can totally see her popping up in a later book.

Since you're more a mystery buff than I am, what did you think about the mystery this time around?

Odd: I love Digger. He's always my favorite part of the books. And the aunt's growing on me -- honestly, her revelation of the wartime connection was one of my favorite parts of the book.

The mystery was kind of meh for me. I didn't really care who killed the crazy lady and during the whole setup of the ending, Flavia finding the Who's Who book, I skimmed. I was much more into what was going to happen to the hall and to the de Luce family, and given all the set-up, I was SO looking forward to the rooftop shenanigans, and to be fair, they did not disappoint in the least. Neither did the bit where the inspector recalls having to coax the superintendent down off the ceiling.

There's really something to be said for Flavia's agentive powers in these books. She's very much the protagonist of her own story, which I find refreshing, and she's not extremely nice or super-beautiful or can heal people with the power of angel farts  just by -- yeah, I've been reading too much YA for review. Does it show?

Kelly: Lol! Little bit. 

Split Decision

Books in this series
1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
2. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag
3. A Red Herring Without Mustard
4. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows - Hardcover | Kindle
5. Seeds of Antiquity
6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Author Links
| Website | Amazon |

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