Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Good, the Better, and the Pretty Boring

As I usually do when faced with a task that is potentially unsavory, I'll start with worst first. I hesitated not one bit to slap down the dollars for Matthew Pearl's new book because his others were quite engrossing (especially The Dante Club). Where could you go wrong, really, when writing a literary thriller? A swashbuckling novel for people like to read? Doesn't seem that far fetched to me.

This one is about the last (unfinished) Dickens novel (one I had--embarrassed to admit--never heard of) (if you haven't either, it's called The Mystery of Edwin Drood) (do you feel smart now?). The novel's premise is certainly interesting: Charles Dickens has died while writing one of the middle chapters of his latest serial novel, and his American publishers are desperate to find out whether he may have written more--but just not sent it. Apparently, publishing in Boston in the mid-1800s was a cutthroat business, and a young boy is killed trying to deliver some of those middle chapters to his publisher. And not just killed but doped up with opium, tortured a bit, and chased down by a creepy dude with a scary little gold statue on the end of his walking stick.

That's the first chapter, really, and now that I write all that, it does sound pretty exciting. It's not the story that was at fault. It was the execution of it. I never really got sucked in, never really cared about the characters. It was interesting to read about Charles Dickens's last few years (flashbacks are so handy, aren't they?) and to read about the dangers of publishing. But that was all it was. Just interesting. Not riveting like The Dante Club. Just--eh. Boring. Don't waste your time and dollars on it.

This one, on the other hand. Pretty good. It's number two in what I hope becomes a long, long series of books. This man (I'm talking about Alan Bradley): pure genius. He's gotta be around 50 and I think he's Canadian, and he's created a wholly believable 11 year old British girl (circa 1950ish) named Flavia de Luce. She lives in a rambling old manor house with her philatelic (stamp collector, obviously) father, two self-absorbed older sisters, and her chemistry lab. Flavia likes to solve crimes in her spare time and also sometimes think about poisoning her sisters. She really, really likes poison. She thinks it's beautiful.
In this book, Flavia solves a crime that I can't tell you about. It would give too much away. But I'll tell you this: there's a very, very talented puppeteer in this novel. He's got some SERIOUS clever skills. Wish he was real; I want to go to a show of his. And it would help if he didn't die a horrible, electrifying death (oops: forget I said that).
It's pretty good but not (I think) quite as good as #1 (see below).

This is the book you REALLY need to read! I told you all sorts of stuff above about Flavia, but this book...this is the best! I've read it twice now, and I'm still laughing a few weeks later when I think about it. The similes are fabulous and chuckle-out-loud-worthy.
It begins whe Flavia's cook finds a dead jack-snipe on the kitchen steps. But this isn't just a dead bird: it's a dead bird with a stamp impaled on its beak. And it isn't just an impaled stamp: it's something that makes her father go pale and shove the stamp into his waistcoat pocket. There is also a tube of lipstick imbued with the essential oils of toxicodendron radicans (that's poison ivy, if you didn't know). And Flavia has a bicycle she has named Gladys, which I think is pretty cool. (Speaking of bicycles, I got the t-shirt. Clint bought a sailboat this weekend; I got a t-shirt.) (Wait: that doesn't sound fair) (I need MORE t-shirts!)
So yeah, this book: you definitely need to read it. You can borrow it from me, if you promise to return it. And if you don't get food on it or bend the pages. And you'll probably want to borrow the purple one, too. You can. You can even borrow the Dickens one, but don't say I didn't warn you.

1 comment:

my2fish said...

in Clint's defense - his sailboat can be shared. I don't think you're going to let Jonah and Jared ride in your t-shirt.