70 year old Alan Bradley’s debut mystery novel quickly became an international bestseller- and with reason. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce brings something completely fresh and new to the mystery scene. Amateur chemist Flavia is all of 11 years old, but when a stranger gets murdered in her family’s garden, she is instantly determined to solve the murder. Precocious and cynical and lovable, Flavia is a one-of-a-kind sleuth in these charming, well-plotted mysteries.
In the Great Tradition of Golden Age Mysteries
Author Bradley seems to have intentionally created a Golden Age of Mystery atmosphere in these novels. Like most Golden Age detective fiction, these books are set in English country houses and cozy villages. Each book opens with Flavia becoming involved in a murder investigation. The clues are provided for the reader so there’s actually hope of figuring out whodunit. The theme is always about bringing justice and restoring order to the house and village.
With an 11 year old protagonist, this series easily avoids many of the common racy relationship scenes common in mystery novels. There are a few plot points here and there involving adultery or promiscuity, but no explicit details. Since they’re so clean, this series is actually appropriate for teens too.
A Troubled Family
The sad part of these books is Flavia’s troubled family life. Her mother was absent, then dead. Her father is depressed and disinterested. Her sisters are frequently quite cruel. Flavia’s cynical nature is better understood after she explains how her sisters play cruel pranks such as leaving her tied up and locked in a dark cellar. Paradoxically, these same sisters do show loyalty on occasion, even saving Flavia’s life in one novel. The evolving relationship between the sisters is one of the threads that connects the books together and a reason to read them in order.
Given her troubled family situation, it’s no surprise that Flavia is no angel. She frequently lies, manipulates, and prevaricates. She disobeys adults habitually, breaks rules, plays malicious pranks and generally tries to get attention. She’s somewhat disturbingly obsessed with poisons. But despite all this, it’s easy to see this brilliant, lost adolescent’s potential, and you quickly begin rooting for her- not only to solve the mystery but to grow as a person.
A Mystery Series for Teens and Adults to Enjoy
Fans of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Sherlock Holmes will really enjoy these clever mysteries which reach back to the Golden Age for inspiration. Given Flavia’s troubled, precocious personality and the violent murders, I wouldn’t recommend them for younger teens. The books are intended for adults, but I think older teens would also enjoy them. Enjoy a little escape time as you peruse The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
I love reading almost anything. Even calculus books and Russian novels. But when on vacation, I generally crave lighter literary fare. If sandy beaches or mountain views are in your not so distant future, here are some fun light novels to help you rest and rejuvenate. They’re organized by genre so pick your favorite flavor.
Christian fiction is a genre I recently spent some time exploring. My research netted me many poorly written novels I dropped after a few chapters, but also some clean, enjoyable mysteries, adventures, and romances, perfect for a vacation.
Dani Pettrey’s Submerged is a fast-paced mystery/romance set in beautiful Alaska. Pettrey is a decent writer and this book has a sweet theme about second chances and redemption. If you fall in love with the characters, there are several sequels including Shattered and Stranded.
Dee Henderson’s books vary greatly in quality, but I did enjoy her O’Malley series. The Negotiator is the first in a series of seven books about a family of adopted siblings who each work in a law enforcement or first-responder type career. Each book recounts an exciting mystery while also tackling a faith-related question such as the Resurrection, trust in God, or why bad things happen to good people. The answers Henderson provides to these questions are not always complete, but a Catholic reader can practice their apologetic skills and think about even better answers!
Long Time Coming by Edie Claire was a thriller with a twist: the biggest villain may not be a villain. A thought-provoking look at psychology, prejudice, and buried memories, with a healthy dose of romance to lighten the mood.
Leslie Lynch is actually a Catholic author, and the mention of subjects like theology of the body gives her novels a unique flavor. Her Appalachian Foothills series is another sequence of adventure-romance style novels about young women with dark troubled pasts who find healing through friendship, love, and the Catholic church. Kudos for a positive portrayal of Catholics, but also a warning that Lynch’s books are darker than most other Christian fiction, involving subjects like rape, abortion, and addictions.
Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel might not actually be the best book to haul on vacation if you’re flying at over 800 pages, but if you’re not worried about tonnage, it is a typical O’Brien novel: thought-provoking, creative, and well-told.
I love a good mystery, and have yet to find a modern author that matches the brilliance of the writers in the golden age of mystery! Also, I appreciate that these writers were able to tell a captivating story without needing to have the sleuths be sidetracked with lurid sex scenes.
You can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie such as Ordeal by Innocence. Her mysteries are fast-paced, well-plotted, and utterly bewildering. She is truly the Queen of Mystery.
However, don’t overlook her contemporary and fellow female author Dorothy Sayers. I actually enjoy Sayers’ books even more than Christie’s. Her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, introduced in Whose Body?, actually does fall in love with a woman on trial for murder in Strong Poison. Their tempestuous courtship and marriage add interest to the mysteries they make a hobby of solving together.
Margery Allingham is another golden age mystery author. Her detective, Albert Campion, stars in a long series of novels including Look to the Lady, a whodunit, and The Tiger in the Smoke. Allingham’s mysteries are clever, but also follow the life events and character development of Campion.
Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is a new favorite of mine. Check out my Review of My Family and Other Animals for more details about this hilarious book, perfect for lovers of all creatures great and small.
Leave It to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse could, or to be more accurate has, made me smile during some of the most trying seasons of life. And on vacation? My husband and I laugh till we cry at this master writer’s spot on similes and knack for situational comedy. If you have not read Jeeves & Wooster, you need to. You will be a more cheerful person after encountering Wodehouse. Also your vocabulary will expand tremendously.
Although you may not immediately think of L. M. Montgomery in conjunction with comedy, I actually find her depictions of small town life and insight into human flaws and foibles quite amusing. Anne of Green Gables‘s escapades are even funnier to read as an adult, and the later Anne books are actually meant for adults.
I won’t deny that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma are her best works, but if you haven’t read some of her lesser known books, they are a perfect length and lightness for a vacation! For example, Northanger Abbey is a clever satire of Gothic novels.
Kristin Lavransdatter is has a graver theme and tone than most of the books on this list, but if you are more of a classics fans, then you won’t be disappointed by this sweeping tale by the master writer Sigrid Undset. If you have already enjoyed reading about Kristen, Undset’s The Master of Hestviken trilogy is also excellent.
Gone with the Wind is certainly worth reading. Margaret Mitchell’s novel captures the aura of the Civil War so vividly, and her heroine is so unforgettable (both for spirit and selfishness), that this novel just flies by despite its length.
If you are fascinated by World War II, read Aline’s unique account of her involvement in The Spy Wore Red. From clothing model in a department store to undercover agent to Countess, Aline’s life is colorful and captivating.
I also enjoyed The Zookeeper’s Wife, an account of how one family’s courage made a small difference and saved lives during the turmoil and persecution of World War II.
Without having watched a single episode of the hit TV show Fixer Upper, I read The Magnolia Story on a friend’s recommendation. What a beautiful story about a couple filled faith in God and each other.
Who doesn’t love the Sound of Music? But I love The Story of the Trapp Family Singers even more. Maria Von Trapp recounts the real story which inspired the beloved movie. Heartwarming and imbued with love for the Catholic faith, this book has always been a favorite of mine.