The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

After reading Alan Bradley’s Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d last month, I decided to move quickly on to the next in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. This is the ninth Flavia novel and brings me completely up to date with the series (for now; another book is due early next year).

In this book, our twelve-year-old detective is coming to terms with the terrible news she received at the end of the previous novel. Along with her two elder sisters, Feely and Daffy (Ophelia and Daphne), and her father’s old friend and servant, Dogger, Flavia is taking a boating trip to try to relax and recover from the shock. Trailing her hands in the water as they sail down the river, Flavia suddenly feels her fingers get caught between teeth – it seems that she has discovered yet another dead body. Being Flavia, she is more excited than repulsed, and when the corpse of a young man is pulled to the shore she can’t wait to find out how and why he died.

The dead man is Orlando Whitbread, an aspiring actor with a local theatre company. As Flavia delves more deeply into Orlando’s background, she discovers links with a murder that took place several years earlier. In her usual way, she sets about searching for clues and speaking to suspects – but this time she has some help. It seems that Dogger has been carrying out some investigations of his own and is proving to be Flavia’s equal as a detective, while Daffy, who is never to be found without her nose in a book, offers her assistance in solving some literary clues. This is something new for Flavia, for whom crime-solving has always been a very solitary activity.

We see more of Dogger in this book than ever before and he and Flavia are working together almost as equals, but I was particularly happy with the improvement in her relationship with Daffy. She is getting on better with her other sister too, and for the first time seems to be appreciating that there’s more to Feely than meets the eye. Maybe it has taken some family tragedies to make them overcome their differences – or maybe they are all just growing up. There have certainly been some changes in Flavia and she has come a long way from the tantrum-throwing eleven-year-old she was at the beginning of the series. On the other hand, I think she’s less fun as a character and maybe that’s why I can’t help feeling that the last few books in the series have lacked the charm of the earlier ones. That charm was important because it was what kept me reading and loving the Flavia books, even when the mysteries weren’t particularly strong.

The mystery in this one is slightly more complex than some of the others and I enjoyed meeting the characters who are drawn into it, such as Hob Nightingale, the undertaker’s son, and Mrs Palmer, a published poet who befriends Daffy. I found the final solution a bit unconvincing, however – the reasons for both the original murder and Orlando’s death seemed quite weak. Back to Flavia’s personal story, though, and this book has a much happier ending than the previous one! There were hints that the series might be about to go in an intriguing new direction, but I will have to wait for book 10, The Golden Tresses of the Dead, to find out.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley

In this, the eighth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, Flavia is back in England following her adventures at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, which are described in the previous novel As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. If you haven’t yet met Flavia I would recommend starting at the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; it’s not essential, as this one does stand alone as a murder mystery, but I think you’ll get more out of it if you already know Flavia and understand her family background.

At the beginning of Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Alan Bradley’s books always have great titles), twelve-year-old Flavia returns to Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home, hoping for a warm welcome. Instead, the household feels strangely subdued and quiet. The reason for this becomes clear when Flavia learns that her father is seriously ill in hospital. Desperate to go and see him immediately, she is disappointed to be told that Father needs to rest and her visit will have to wait until the next day. The thought of staying in the house with her two unpleasant sisters Feely and Daffy and her annoying little cousin Undine is unbearable, so Flavia hops on to Gladys, her trusty bicycle, and goes out for a ride.

Calling at the home of her friend, the vicar’s wife, Flavia agrees to take a message to Roger Sambridge, an elderly woodcarver. Finding Roger’s door unlocked, she enters the house – only to discover the body of the woodcarver hanging upside down behind the bedroom door. Apart from a cat, there’s no sign that anyone else has been inside the room. It seems that Flavia has stumbled upon another mystery to solve…

This book is definitely an improvement on the previous one; I hadn’t really liked Flavia being taken out of her usual environment, so I was pleased to have her back at Buckshaw, riding Gladys and conducting experiments in her beloved chemistry laboratory. I was disappointed, though, that we didn’t see her interacting more with the other members of the de Luce household. Before she left for school in Canada at the end of the sixth book, there seemed to be hints that her relationships with Feely and Daffy (Ophelia and Daphne, in case you’re wondering) could be about to turn a corner, but in this book they barely speak to each other. I was also surprised that the Nide, the secret society which played a part in the plots of the last two novels, was only referred to once or twice – not that I’m complaining as I wasn’t very keen on that particular plot development anyway.

Although Flavia has only aged by a year or two since the beginning of the series, she does feel more mature now and is more daring in the methods of investigation she chooses to use. However, she is still only twelve and I found it unconvincing that she would really have been able to do some of the things she does in the novel (such as posing as a biographer in a meeting with a publisher). On the other hand, Flavia has always been unusual for her age, which is part of the charm of these books. I did enjoy watching her solve the crime and although I guessed one or two of the twists, I didn’t guess everything.

This is, I think, the second Flavia novel to be set at Christmas, but unlike the other one (I Am Half-Sick of Shadows), it doesn’t have a very festive atmosphere – which is understandable, with Father so ill in hospital. The last page of the book wasn’t really what I was expecting and I am now looking forward to reading the next one, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, to see what Alan Bradley has in store next for Flavia and her family.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery)

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

In this, the seventh book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, our twelve-year-old detective is sent away to boarding school in 1950s Canada, having been banished from her family home at the end of the previous novel. If you have never read a Flavia mystery before, this is probably not the best place to start; I would recommend reading at least a few of the earlier ones first, particularly the sixth, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, so that you will understand the reasons for her banishment and the choice of this particular Canadian school.

Anyway, back to As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Almost as soon as Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, she stumbles upon yet another dead body – or rather, this one stumbles upon Flavia when it falls down the chimney in her room, having been dislodged by another girl who has climbed up to hide from a teacher. Why is there a dead body up the chimney? Who is it? Could it be one of the three missing girls who have all disappeared from the Academy over the last year or two? Flavia doesn’t know, but she’s determined to find out!

This is the first book in the series not to be set at Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. I have always found the setting to be part of the charm of these books, so although it was nice to have a change, I did find myself missing Father, Feely, Daffy, Dogger and everyone else from Buckshaw. There are plenty of new characters in this book to take their places – including an enigmatic and intimidating headmistress and a chemistry teacher who has been on trial for murder – but none of them felt as well drawn as the characters in the previous novels.

Still, I always enjoy a school setting because it brings back memories of the school stories I loved as a child, such as Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. Maybe Alan Bradley liked that sort of story too and wanted an opportunity to write one of his own; otherwise I’m not sure I really see the point in moving Flavia out of her usual setting. I had expected the storyline involving the Nide, which was introduced in the last book, to be advanced in this one, but actually we learn very little more about it – and what we do learn just made me more confused!

I was pleased to find that this book had a much stronger mystery element than the previous one and although some parts of the mystery didn’t feel fully resolved at the end, it was nice to see Flavia back to making her lists of suspects and searching for clues. Finally, don’t Alan Bradley’s books have great titles? This one is taken from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”. The title of the next one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, is also Shakespeare-inspired. I’m looking forward to reading it – despite not liking the last two books as much as the earlier ones, I do still enjoy spending time with Flavia!

This is Book #2 for my R.I.P. XII challenge.

My Commonplace Book: October 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


“Most people only want a quiet life,” I said. “Even those of us who were once radicals.” I smiled wryly at Roger. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fanatics on both sides,” old Ryprose said gloomily. “And all we poor ordinary folk in the middle. Sometimes I fear they will bring death to us all.”

Revelation by CJ Sansom (2008)



“Books,” the driver resumed. “I’m a great reader. I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder books. I joined one o’ them” – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort his mind laboured and brought forth – “circulatin’ libraries”. He brooded darkly. “But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good in it.”

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)


“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But – what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (2014)


In his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation, Atticus Pünd had written: ‘One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung – a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly. There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal. There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)


“But seriously Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to -” his voice sank to an appreciative purr – “an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read.”

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie (1947)



“Watch and wait,” says Burghley. “You have a valuable nugget of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Cecil is reminded of being fleeced by a card trickster once, who had said the very same thing – watch the lady. He lost all the gold buttons from his doublet. That was a lesson learned.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle (2015)


Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)


Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)



And as the seconds and minutes moved on, I pondered Man’s efforts at the representation or ‘capture’ of Time, and I thought how, for Clockmakers like Hollers, the very Commodity with which they were trying to work was a heartless and capricious Enemy, who stole from them all the while and never rested.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (2013)


A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice, but which was now obstructed with brush-wood, remained entire. Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion. La Motte, thinking it possible it might yet shelter some human being, advanced to the gate and lifted a mossy knocker. The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place. After waiting a few minutes, he forced back the gate, which was heavy with iron work, and creaked harshly on its hinges…

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)


I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea Islanders is nine — or is it ninety? — even the handwriting had become in its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)



Not everyone can write as legibly as I; Father made me spend hours at my tablets, saying that my poems must be written down by me as I myself have composed them, so they will not be distorted in later years by other singers. “For you have great gifts from the Muses,” he said. “I would not have them lost to the world that comes after.”

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart (1974)


“I ain’t in the habit of picking other folks’ roses without leave,” said she.

As Rebecca spoke she started violently and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rosebush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.

“What on earth -” began Rebecca; then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman’s face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.

Small and Spooky edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)


Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)


“You don’t think there’ll really be a war, do you?” she asked anxiously, as her work was for the maimed wrecks of men left by the 1914-18 war – and I could understand her horror of another. But when I looked at the Green Cat I was not sure and I did not reply.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (1959)


Favourite books read in October: Revelation, The Moving Toyshop and Magpie Murders

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

the-dead-in-their-vaulted-arches I love Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. I love the 1950s setting, I love getting to know the inhabitants of Buckshaw – the de Luce estate in the little English village of Bishop’s Lacey – and most of all I love Flavia, our eleven-year-old narrator with a talent for solving mysteries and a passion for chemistry and poisons. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, though, is probably my least favourite Flavia novel so far. I found it quite disappointing, but I’m hoping it’s just that I was in the wrong mood for it and that things will get back to normal when I pick up the next book in the series.

The first Flavia novel, if you’re like me and prefer to read a series in order, is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is book number six and although some of the earlier novels could probably be read as standalones, I wouldn’t recommend reading this particular book until you’ve read the fifth one, Speaking from Among the Bones, because it ended on a cliffhanger – and this one picks up the story from that point.

The de Luce family have been joined by their friends and neighbours on the platform at Buckshaw Halt, waiting for the arrival of the train bringing Flavia’s mother, Harriet, home to Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia has never known her mother – she was just a baby when Harriet went missing (presumed dead), in Tibet ten years earlier. It’s an emotional day for Flavia and her family, then, but it’s also an eventful one in other ways…a stranger at the station begins to give Flavia a cryptic message, but moments later he is found dead beneath the wheels of the train as it leaves. Did someone push him? And could his death be connected with what happened to Harriet?

I think every time I’ve written about this series I’ve said that the mystery-solving is only one small element of each book and that the real charm is in the setting, the characters and Flavia’s narration. In this particular novel the mystery is almost non-existent and Flavia doesn’t get a chance to do the detective work she usually does, searching for clues and making lists of suspects. This gives The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches a different feel from the rest of the series and I think that could be why I didn’t like it as much. It seems that the mystery element was more important to me than I thought it was! That’s not to say, though, that there were no secrets to be uncovered here and no revelations to be made – because there certainly were.

Flavia, who was ten years old when we first met her, is now nearly twelve and I think Alan Bradley is doing a great job of showing the subtle changes in her character from one book to the next as she begins to grow up. Things happen in this book which require a more mature attitude from Flavia and she is forced to make some difficult decisions, but there are also times when she still behaves like the child she is – for example, when she becomes convinced that she will be able to use her chemical skills to reanimate a dead body.

With a storyline based around Harriet’s return, most of the action in this novel takes place in and around Buckshaw which means Flavia spends a lot of time with the other de Luce family members. Her relationships with her father and her sisters, Daffy and Feely (Daphne and Ophelia), are still strained, but some of the information revealed in this book helps us to understand why this is. I’ve been wondering since the beginning of the series why Daffy and Feely had such a problem with Flavia, so I’m pleased that things have finally become a bit clearer!

I’m not sure whether I liked the direction the story went in towards the end of the book but I’m still looking forward to reading As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and hoping I will like it better than this one.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

Speaking from Among the Bones Speaking from Among the Bones is Alan Bradley’s fifth novel featuring the wonderful Flavia de Luce. Flavia’s intelligence, her passion for chemistry (particularly poisons), and the fact that she is still only eleven years old makes her one of the most fascinating and unusual detectives in fiction. The series is set in the 1950s in the small English village of Bishop’s Lacey where Flavia lives with her father and two sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, at the family’s ancestral home, Buckshaw. In each book Flavia investigates a murder mystery, torments (and is tormented by) her sisters, conducts experiments in her chemical laboratory, and desperately searches for information about the mother she has never known.

Flavia’s fifth adventure begins as she excitedly awaits the removal of St Tancred’s bones from his tomb in the church crypt to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of his death. She is hoping to be the first person in Bishop’s Lacey to see the saint’s bones, but what she eventually discovers when the tomb is opened is something quite different: the body of the church organist, Mr Collicutt, who had disappeared a few weeks earlier. Who murdered him and what was their motive? And why is he wearing a gas mask? These are the questions Flavia must try to answer – hopefully before Inspector Hewitt solves the mystery first! Accompanied by her trusty old bicycle, Gladys, Flavia begins to search for clues, but as well as making some discoveries regarding the organist’s death and the possible identity of his killer, she also starts to uncover some of the secrets of her mother’s past.

I’ve enjoyed every book in the series so far, but I think this one might be my favourite (either this or the Christmas-themed one, I am Half-Sick of Shadows). As I’ve mentioned in my previous Flavia reviews, I love this series because I love Flavia, the supporting characters, and the setting of Bishop’s Lacey. The actual murder mysteries are not usually very complex or difficult to solve and are not the attraction of these books for me, but I thought this was an improvement on the previous ones. It was tightly plotted with lots of clues, suspects and red herrings and during her investigations Flavia finds herself crawling through underground tunnels, entering secret locked rooms, encountering a wooden effigy that appears to have started weeping blood in the church, and discovering that she is not the only amateur detective in Bishop’s Lacey!

While Flavia is still just eleven and has only aged slightly over the course of the series, I do think we’ve seen her grow up and mature since the first book. There has been development with some of the other characters too, particularly Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), Flavia’s two sisters, who are not quite as horrible to Flavia in this book as they have been previously – or maybe Flavia is just learning to deal with them better. Also in this book, their father is continuing to have financial difficulties, forcing him to consider putting Buckshaw up for sale and this shared trauma helps to bring the whole family together for once. By ‘family’ I’m including the servants, Mrs Mullet and Dogger. Dogger is a great character and a true friend to Flavia – I like him more and more with every book!

If you’re new to this series, beginning with book five probably wouldn’t be a problem, but if possible I would recommend starting with the first one, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and enjoying all of Flavia’s adventures in order. This is the only one to finish with a cliffhanger ending, which means I now can’t wait to read the sixth book, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches!

I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

I hope everyone had a great Christmas! I don’t usually read a lot of Christmas-themed books but the one I’m posting about today, I am Half-Sick of Shadows, was a perfect seasonal read.

I know not everyone will be familiar with Alan Bradley’s books, so for those of you who need some background information I can tell you that I am Half-Sick of Shadows is the fourth in a series of mystery novels set in the 1950s and featuring eleven-year-old amateur detective and chemistry genius, Flavia de Luce. Flavia lives with her father and her two older sisters Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), at Buckshaw, their family estate near the small English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Other recurring characters include the de Luces’ two servants, Mrs Mullet and Dogger, as well as the local vicar, the doctor, Inspector Hewitt and several more of the villagers.

At the beginning of this fourth instalment, Flavia’s father is having financial difficulties and in an attempt to bring in some money, he allows the cast and crew of Ilium Films to move into Buckshaw to do some filming over the Christmas period. While the snow falls outside, the people of Bishop’s Lacey gather at Buckshaw to watch the two stars, Phyllis Wyvern and Desmond Duncan, give a special charity performance of Romeo and Juliet. Things go badly wrong, however, and a murder takes place. With the de Luce family and all their neighbours snowed in overnight, there’s a long list of suspects. Flavia begins to investigate, but before she can concentrate on identifying the murderer she needs to finish working on a special project of her own: a trap to catch Santa Claus on his way down the chimney!

I have enjoyed all three of the previous books in this series, but I think I am Half-Sick of Shadows could possibly be my favourite so far. It took a long time (almost half the book) before the murder took place and the actual mystery began – and it was probably the weakest mystery in the series too – but that wasn’t a problem for me at all. I don’t read these books for the murder mystery plots; I read them because I love Flavia and love reading about her adventures.

As well as being shorter than usual, this book has a different feel to the first three because it is set entirely within the confines of Buckshaw. This means we get to see more of Flavia’s interactions with her family members and we also have the chance to learn more about Dogger, one of the most interesting characters in the series. I’ve mentioned before that I was starting to get impatient with Feely’s and Daffy’s nastiness towards their younger sister, but there seemed to be a slight change in Daffy’s relationship with Flavia in this book and I almost liked her at times! There was also a hint that maybe Feely didn’t really hate Flavia and that there might be another reason for her cruel behaviour. I’m still hopeful that the three of them will be friends by the end of the series, but we’ll have to wait and see – I’m already looking forward to the fifth book to find out if there are any further developments.

I’m glad I was able to find time to read this book last week as it really was perfect for the Christmas season. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the title comes from the poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott.