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.
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The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart looked like a fairly simple book. I had recently finished reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton, which in typical Chestertonian fashion is absolutely amazing but also leaves you feeling like your head may explode from his awe-inspiring insights. Anyway, I wanted a simple book to review and ended up choosing The Mysterious Benedict Society at the library. I soon realized this book was a poor choice if I wanted a straightforward subject. In no time, I found myself dusting off my Theology major cap and delving into the Catechism, Aquinas, and Augustine trying to ascertain the exact position the Catholic Church holds on spying and lying while spying.
A STRAIGHTFORWARD PREMISE
The plot of The Mysterious Benedict Society is fairly simple. Four lonely but gifted children (Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance) are recruited by a benevolent genius (Mr. Benedict) to assist in foiling a plot by an evil genius. The evil genius aspires to control the minds of all humankind via his hi-tech invention, “The Whisperer.” The children are chosen because they have a particularly strong love for the truth and therefore a certain immunity to The Whisperer. Reynie and his friends have to go incognito into the evil genius’ organization to uncover his plans and foil them. On the surface, it’s a classic conflict of good versus evil with the reader rooting for the good guys.
LYING AND SPYING
The potentially troublesome scenario which this book creates is placing the four children undercover, in situations where they may have to lie, cheat, and otherwise practice deception. The children are repeatedly described as special because they have a strong love for the truth. This doesn’t jibe well with portraying them as lying, cheating, and so on.
The first question I had when analyzing the morality of the children’s actions was: are all the scenarios where the children tell lies under coercion or in order to preserve their secret identities? Mostly yes. Mostly. There are one or two occasions where Sticky tells a completely unnecessary lie, such as when he lies about his parents in the beginning of the book. These occasions are quite indefensible. It is up to you as a parent to decide if your child has the maturity to recognize these lies as deplorable and know not to imitate.
The rest of the lying and cheating is in the context of the children preserving their secret identities. What does the Church have to say on the morality of deception in this context? Not much, actually. There isn’t an infallible teaching about the morality of spying. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas’ argument would preclude lying when spying. But Aquinas isn’t always right.
In a fascinating article in First Things, Ethics professor Janet Smith provides a round-up of various Catholic positions on the lying and spying question. She notes that the lack of an official Church teaching on this subject points to it being a moral gray area, rather situation dependent. She draws an analogy to taking human life. Killing is wrong, but in order to defend oneself or another innocent, one can kill. Similarly, she says, lying is wrong, but in particular situations such as to save human life, one can lie. I recommend reading her article for a more thorough understanding of her argument.
Whatever your position on the question of lying and spying, the inclusion of such a tricky subject definitely makes this children’s book more complicated than your average adventure story. I would highly recommend discussing the morality of the children’s lying in the story. In fact, this makes for a great book report topic or family discussion!
To counterbalance the lying question, I found a plethora of redeeming themes in The Mysterious Benedict Society. Watching four children with diverse personalities coalesce into a team is a great lesson for the reader. Sticky is shy, Reynie is a natural leader, Kate is independent, and Constance is contrary. Their only similarity is a shared love of truth and common mission. Which is plenty to form a team and eventually friendships!
Another great theme throughout the book is overcoming fear. Sticky particularly struggles with overcoming his fears to do the right thing. The Whisperer soothes his fears and makes him feel happy: a seductive evil to resist. Reynie and Sticky both find themselves tempted to succumb to The Whisperer. Reynie thinks:
“The Whisperer’s version of happiness is an illusion – it doesn’t take away your fears, it only lies to you about them, makes you temporarily believe you don’t have them. And I know it’s a lie, but what a powerful one!”
Reynie and Sticky overcome The Whisperer’s seductive pull by relying on their friendships with each other and Kate and Constance. Reynie also turns to an adult, Mr. Benedict, for his wisdom. Through the help of other people rather than a machine’s lies, Sticky and Reynie learn to push past fear to complete their mission.
TV AND TRUTH
A third theme that will make most parents smile is the juxtaposition of TV and truth. The four children are chosen because they love the truth. What is one of the primary signs of their attachment to truth? They dislike TV and its messages. Now of course, in the story the evil villain is piggybacking poisoned messages on TV waves. We don’t have that in our world… or do we? Are the messages our children ingest from the media a positive or negative in forming their moral imaginations?
Weighing the pros and cons, I found The Mysterious Benedict Society to be an enjoyable adventure story with overall wholesome themes. After a discussion of the morality of lying and spying, this book is quite appropriate for children ten and older. Younger children could also enjoy it if they are mature enough to grasp the concepts of spying, mind control, and temptation.
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.
Moms and dads need fiction too! I firmly believe it is not only important but integral to a balanced life for parents to read books too. This list has a lot of readable classics, some fun mysteries, some historical fiction, some Catholic fiction, and some humor. I hope the books on this list inspire, refresh, and satisfy your thirst for the good and true and beautiful!
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In Port William, a love for the land and for neighbors create a tight-knit farming community in rural Kentucky. Wendell Berry‘s Hannah Coulter is a wise elderly woman’s reflections on her life and loves for both people and places. A touching, tantalizing, sometimes tragic picture of a way of life that is mostly lost.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Norwegian Catholic author Sigrid Undset is a beautifully-written trilogy about sin and its far-reaching consequences as seen in the life of a Norwegian woman from girlhood to death.
Undset’s other famous trilogy, The Master of Hestviken, is less recognized in America, but she considered it her greatest work, and I agree that I found it even more powerful than Kristin Lavransdatter.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating mix of an apologia for Catholicism and a recognition of the imperfection of individual Catholics. In addition to his overarching theme of Catholic redemption, Waugh describes the decay of the English aristocracy around the time of World War II. This masterfully written classic is one of my very favorite books to savor.
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is not fiction at all, but rather his autobiographical tale of true love, found first in his wife, then ultimately in God. This beautifully written and moving book details Vanauken’s love affair with his wife, conversion to Christianity with the assistance of C. S. Lewis, and strengthening of faith through the devastating loss of his wife.
One of my favorite Steinbeck books, East of Eden explores themes of family history, free will, depression, truth, and more. Very dark at times with a sadistic female antagonist, the theme in the end is about forgiveness and the truth setting one free. For a shorter introduction to Steinbeck, try The Pearl, which is a heartbreaking story about greed and true happiness.
Desperate to make ends meet, small-town spinster Barbara Buncle writes a book inspired by her neighbors. General chaos and hilarity ensue upon publication of Miss Buncle’s Book. Clean, good, cozy fun!
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’sCrime and Punishment is a masterpiece both on philosophical and literary levels. My favorite Russian novel, this book deals with deep themes such as redemption through suffering, true happiness, and ends justifying means.
Chesterton wrote so many fabulous fictional works! In The Ball and The Cross, a Catholic and atheist find an unlikely affinity in their passion about their beliefs. Manalive is my favorite: a hilarious and thought-provoking apologia for a joyful life. The Man Who Was Thursday is one of Chesterton’s most famous works, a fast-paced adventure with a subplot of allegory.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is considered the very first detective novel ever written! Collins uses multiple narrators to tell an engrossing, well-written story. The Woman in White is also excellent.
Michael O’Brien’sVoyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel achieves the considerable feat of captivating the reader for a whopping 587 pages. Lengthy, yes, but still surprisingly readable, Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a futuristic story of a voyage from earth to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. The quirky, wise elderly narrator, Neal, is juxtaposed to the controlling, totalitarian government most obey blindly.
Till We Have Faces is a haunting and thought-provoking retelling of the Psyche story from Greek mythology. Psyche’s older sister sets out to write this angry charge against the gods who have ruined her life, as she sees it. But in the process she discovers her own faults and finds truth.
North and South is a novel of contrasts: the gentile South and the industrialized North of England, humanism and capitalism. British literature fans will enjoy this classic work by Elizabeth Gaskell.
G. K. Chesterton’s biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas are a wonderful balance of carefully researched history, theological and philosophical insights, and Chesterton’s signature poetic imagination. These biographies are memorable and well-worth reading.
In any contest about sheer hilarity and perfect use of the English language, I consider P. G. Wodehouse invincible. His Blandings Castle series will have you laughing until you cry with its cast of idiosyncratic English aristocrats, servants, and imposters.
In Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz captures the decadence of ancient Rome and the passionate conviction of the persecuted Christians.
In stark contrast to Wodehouse’s levity, Flannery O’Connor‘s The Complete Stories are quite dark on the surface, often dealing with tragedy and ugly sin. But each story contains a lesson about human nature and motivations and insight into O’Connor’s Catholic vision which the discerning reader may discover.
Agatha Christie is the queen of the golden age of mysteries. Her plots are clever and thought provoking in more ways than one. Her most famous books, such as Murder on the Orient Express, feature eccentric Belgian detective Hercules Poirot. Christie’s Miss Marple stories illustrate that crimes whether large or small can often be solved by a knowledge of basic human nature. Sometimes humorous, often tragic, Christie’s mysteries satisfy the human desire for justice, though her solutions strike a discordant note with a correctly informed Catholic view of morality. At times, she advocates solutions such as allowing a criminal to kill himself as a merciful solution.
Although Christie is the queen of mysteries, I personally prefer Dorothy Sayers, who is considered by many a close second in the lineup of golden age mystery writers. Her Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series feature aristocrat sleuth Lord Peter whose lazy manner masks a sharp intelligence. I am partial to Sayers’ books because in addition to producing a fine mystery, she also writes from a broad liberal arts platform, rife with references to other great literature and philosophical insights.
Cry, the Beloved Country is a thoughtful book about racial injustice in Africa. It’s a beautifully written book about the dignity of all people. Sad yet hopeful.
Jan Karon‘s Mitford series, beginning with At Home in Mitford, is a charming, calming collection. Father Tim, an Episcopalian minister, ambles amiably through life, accompanied by his eccentric parishioners. Funny and light-hearted.
A modern classic, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene captures perfectly the anger and jealousy and emptiness of a man looking for love in the wrong places. The narrator feels his lover has abandoned him for God and sets out to learn why. Will he be transformed by his search?
Susan Fraser King recounts the life of Saint Margaret of Scotland in a fascinating way. Queen Hereafter tells the story of a young Margaret’s tumultuous life, highlighting her calm trust in God which carried her through her many trials.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a formidable volume, but really, it does move fast! This famous work by Alexandre Dumas explores themes of revenge and forgiveness in an unforgettable way.
Kate Morton writes wonderfully plotted multi-generational historical fiction mysteries like The Secret Keeper. I love how she keeps the reader guessing right to the end. I also enjoy her vibrant elderly narrators, who are often the protagonists of her works.
Yes, everyone has read Pride and Prejudice, but have you read all of Jane Austen?
If you have an appreciation for the classics, you will empathize with Samantha, the protagonist of Dear Mr. Knightley. A modern romance with many nods to classic literature. Check out my full review here!
The Brontë Sisters‘ major works are classic novels. Often dark in their themes, these are nonetheless important books with great insight into human nature.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written due to its picture of human nature with all its complexities and faults. This is a lengthy read, but fast moving enough to keep the reader’s interest.
Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt is a gripping historical fiction novel detailing the story of a Catholic priest secretly but faithfully performing his ministry to the persecuted English Church. An inspiring story of faith and love of Christ under trying circumstances.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a fascinating historical fiction novel set during World War II. Two sisters help the French resistance while struggling to survive the horrors of the war. So much depth to this novel; read my Review of “The Nightingale” for full details!