Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lately with philately

When was the last time you paid any attention to stamps? With our increasing reliance on email, I doubt if anyone still collects or studies stamps anymore. The soon-to-be-lost study of stamps, called philately, is one of the themes of Alan Bradley's wonderful debut novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a tightly written and hugely enjoyable mystery.

TSBP is set in 1950s England and centers on precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce. Flavia appears to be the black sheep in the family. Her father is a recluse who still mourns the loss of his wife several years ago; her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, make it a point to torment Flavia's existence at every chance they get. Ophelia and Daphne couldn't be blamed though, for Flavia oftentimes steal their belongings and frequently concocts mild poisons to put in their lipstick. All four of them live in an English country house who has seen better days with their cook and their father's assistant, Dogger.

One day, the de Luce's idyllic existence is thrown into chaos when Flavia discovers a murdered man in their garden. Flavia then takes it upon herself to determine all the details about the murder, one that would involve his father and unearthing dark family secrets involving stolen stamps, prestidigitation, and birds in a pie. The result is one murder mystery that is very, very satisfying.

Bradley's writing is sparse yet full of details. His characterization of Flavia, one with both the brilliance and naïveté of childhood, is flawless. With Flavia, Bradley has come up with a character that you love more and more as you progress through the novel. You'll overlook her faults, cheer her on when she's in a bind, and celebrate her triumphs and discoveries. We will all see a facet of our childhood in Flavia.

TBSB has all the elements that recall classic English mysteries -- a poisoned body, family secrets waiting to be exposed, a decaying English country house, and dysfunctional family members. In the hands of less capable novelists, these elements would translate to rip-offs of the novels of Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dorothy Sayers, and P.D. James. The way Bradley weaves these elements together, however, is refreshing and uncontrived; TBSP is one of the most ingenious novels I've read this year. I think TBSP would even appeal to fans of the Nancy Drew series and even of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

TBSP is the first Flavia de Luce mystery and it has recently been released to a wider audience only this year. I'll surely be on the hunt for the next Flavia de Luce mystery since I think that, for lack of a better expression, Flavia rocks.

Read this book if:
  1. You love precocious children.
  2. You were always curious about why people collect stamps.
  3. You love death by poison.

31 comments:

Sumthinblue said...

Hey Peter! I collect stamps!

:D I think I'll like this book!

Peter S. said...

Hey, Blooey! Oh, I didn't know that you collected stamps. I think you're just the 2nd person I know who still does!

theliterarystew said...

ooh, this sounds like a book I'd enjoy! Where did you get it?
To answer your other question...yes I've read 2 of the Millenium trilogy. Third one seems to be sold-out everywhere.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Mrs. B! I bought it at Fully Booked! I also got the third installment of the Millennium trilogy at Fully Booked.

theliterarystew said...

Are they hardbound copies? Would prefer to wait for paperbacks.

theliterarystew said...

How about the alan bradley book...is it hardbound?

Peter S. said...

Yes, it's hardbound. There's also paperback editions available though.

theliterarystew said...

Thanks Peter. And you really try the Henning Mankell books if you liked the Millenium trilogy. Similar style of writing and very suspenseful too.

StephanieD said...

While I don't collect stamps, I collect graphics of antique foreign stamps, evocative of adventure and travel.

Charlie said...

A good review, Peter, and a book I'll read because I collect stamps too—and have since I was a little boy.

Now you know three of us.

line of flight said...

i stopped collecting when i became an adult but i refuse to use the barcode-metered stamps for my official and private correspondences and parcels. an individual letter and the recipient deserve to be honored by real stamps not a barcode.

Peter S. said...

@StephanieD: I'd love to see those!

@Charlie: I never knew that stamp collecting would be popular among book lovers!

@line of flight: I agree!

savidgereads said...

This is a book that I loved, I got my mitts on it at the end of 2008 and just thought it was wonderful, I cannot wait for the next Flavia mystery she is such a wonderful woderful lead character and amateur accidental detective.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Simon! I can't wait for the next one too!

Ryan G said...

I haven't collected stamps since the 5th grade but I had a humungous collection of them. I really liked stamps from other countries.

josbookshelf said...

I haven't read much mystery lately, and since you say "Flavia rocks", I'll be on the lookout for this book. Into the wishlist it goes.

Btw, Peter, I've been seeing that book, 2666 on your sidebar. Looks like an interesting goth book. Are you enjoying it so far?

Stepford Mum said...

I used to collect stamps and recently found my stamp albums when I was cleaning out my old room at my parents' house. I've no time to organise them anymore but do wonder if I can sell some as many are in good condition and some may be valuable (the old Filipiniana ones from the 70s, for example). I need to find a proper philatelist to help with this though!

I think I will like this book :)

Peter S. said...

@RyanG: It looks like stamp collecting was hugely popular when we were children.

@Josbookshelf: 2666 isn't really a Goth book. I don't know how to describe it, since it's very, ummmmm, different.

@Stepford Mum: I think you'll really like this book, Iya!

Diane said...

This book really worked for me, and I'll be looking forward to book #2 in 2010 as well. Glad u had a chance to read it Peter.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Diane! I really, raelly enjoyed this book!

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

I think this one looks great. It's been on my wishlist ever since it came out. Thanks for the review.

stacybuckeye said...

Well, who doesn't love death by poison? :)

sheldonhillyer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter S. said...

@A Bookshelf Monstrosity: Hey, you're welcome! And thanks for dropping by too!

@stacybuckeye: You're absolutely right!

mattviews said...

I've had this book somewhere in the pile, just didn't realize it's a mystery. I think it will make a great holiday reading! :)

PS. I love the new rub of your blog.

scribesexpress said...

Now that you mentioned it, yeah, stamps are becoming obsolete! Or are they already are?

I used to collect stamps as a kid. Somewhere down the road, I lost my collection! *sigh!* Although I want to, do you think it would be possible to start over again nowadays?

Peter S. said...

@mattviews: It is a very enjoyable mystery. I think you can finish it in one lazy afternoon!

@scribesexpress: Obsolete? Unfortunately, I think stamps are headed in that direction.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Funny - just today I needed to buy a roll of stamps and couldnt think what to write the check out for because I couldnt remember what stamps cost! You are right - I hardly ever use mail.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Sheila! Most of us seldom do anymore. Sad really.

upsidedownduck said...

I loved this book! It's actually the one that got me started book blogging. I might have to disagree with your 3 categories of people who should read this book though. I don't put myself into any of those categories, and loved it, so I think it's got a much wider appeal than you are allowing for. But great review!
~Undine

Rebecca :) said...

Very well-written review!