Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley (hardcover, $23)

Writers need to be careful with precocious children characters. A little goes a long way. Having said that, I mostly enjoyed Flavia de Luce, heroine of Alan Bradley’s novel, who is eleven years old and brimming with eccentricities.

In 1950, it was not untoward for a girl to hope for a career in science, although it probably would have been a little unusual for a girl to have a well-stocked laboratory in her family’s mansion. And it would have been really unusual for a girl to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of poisons.

Flavia is the difficult youngest daughter in an eccentric aristocratic family. Her father is distant and reclusive, her mother died while Flavia was quite young, and her sisters are dismissive of her. She marches to her own drummer and tries to find her proper place in a world full of mysteries.

When not busy poisoning her sister, Flavia detects. When first a dead bird and then a dead person plop themselves on her doorstep, she takes to solving these mysteries with great enthusiasm.

Flavia is not another Nancy Drew, however. Bradley adds depth to his book in the characters of Flavia’s father and the gardener. There’s a little unevenness as Bradley tries to balance the buoyancy of a young girl with a passion and the sadness of men who’ve seen too much badness.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in the end I didn’t really like Flavia’s father all that much. Flavia deserves better.

(P.S. I've been in England for the last three weeks, walking Wainwright's Coast to Coast walk, and haven't had much of a chance to read.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Paper Butterfly, by Diane Wei Liang (hardcover, $24

I enjoyed Eye of Jade, Liang's first book in her series, quite a lot. Written in English but with what feels like a very flavorful taste of authentic Beijing, Eye of Jade captured what it must be like to be a progressive woman in Communist China but saddled with traditional, centuries-old cultural expectations.

In the first book we gradually learned Mei Wang's back story, which is unfortunately not repeated in any detail in this second book, so the reader is left sort of clueless about her relationship with her mother. It must suffice for you to know that there is more than meets the eye and a resolution is surely to come in a future book.

Mei Wang is a private detective. A female private detective. In a country that outlaws private detectives, male or female. Although she started her adult life full of promise and on the right side of the law -- i.e., in a government post with good promotional possibilities -- she now works for herself with only one lowly helper, an immigrant from a rural area of China. Both the story of how she fell from grace and the descriptions of what she has to deal with to solve her clients' problems highlight what a moribund and corrupt society Wang lives in. Fortunately, she is a person clever enough to negotiate its Byzantine (or perhaps "Manchurian" is a better word) structures.

Wang is hired to find a missing pop singer. For the first half of the book, this story alternates with one of a man released from an isolated prison in which, we discover, he has been kept for participating in the student protest at Tiananmen Square. The book heads these two stories towards each other. It doesn't matter that you can probably guess what's coming; it is the journey that counts.

I felt the first book conveyed the patience and tenacity of Mei Wang better than this one, mostly because it dealt with Wang's early life, but also because the story had a center of quiet before the illumination, something this one lacks. And unfortunately, some of the characters in the second book are more parodies than realistic depictions, and that creates a dissonance that makes it difficult to thoroughly enjoy this book.