“I found a dead body in the cucumber patch,’ I told them.
‘How very like you,’ Ophelia said, and went on preening her eyebrows.”
~ Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, pg 35
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a perfect example of mistakenly judging a book by its cover. I’ve shelved this book a dozen times at my library, thinking it was one of those culinary and knitting mysteries that have become such a popular sub-genre. Had I realized this mystery featured a morbid 11-year-old girl detective in 1950s England, I would have checked it out years ago.
Flavia de Luce is no preteen Nancy Drew. They both are raised by their fathers, have amazing deductive reasoning, and won’t let a locked door stop their investigations. But the similarities end there. Flavia is more intense and far less hygienic, moral or kind. Her passion is chemistry -in particular experimentation in poisons. She adventures alone, without a Ned, Bess or George for companionship. As a mom, I wanted to reach into the pages, grab her and lecture her on her childish sense of immortality.
This passage captures Flavia:
“I made the Girl Guide three-eared bunny salute with my fingers. I did not tell him that I was technically no longer a member of that organization, and hadn’t been since I was chucked out for manufacturing ferric hydroxide to earn my Domestic Service badge. No one seemed to care that it was the antidote for arsenic poisoning.” (pgs. 306-307)
Flavia is the reason to pick up this novel. I didn’t find the mystery particularly spell-binding, but her character makes up for that. She reminds me of a feral kitten–somehow still cute even after its lashed you with its razor claws. Pick her up 😉
It’s been awhile since I’ve read a novel with a male protagonist. I’m more drawn to books with female heroines. Am I girly? Maybe. I guess I just feel like I can relate to the female protagonists better. That said, some of the best books I’ve read have male protagonists. This is one of them.
City of Thieves is narrated by Lev Beniov, an awkward 17-year-old Russian living in Lenningrad during World War II. Lev is arrested for looting the body of a dead Nazi solider. In jail he meets Kolya, a charismatic literature student who has been accused of deserting the Russian army. Lev expects that they will be executed, and is surprised when he and Koyla are given a mission instead. A colonel orders them to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake, an impossible task in a city that is starving.
As Lev and Koyla search for the eggs, they encounter cannibals, prostitutes in distress and cruel Nazis. They bond through a series of adventures and narrow escapes. In many respects, Lev and Koyla are polar opposites. One is pragmatic; the other idealistic. One is a patriot; the other quietly rebellious against his government. City of Thieves is definitely a bromance; the friendship between Lev and Koyla is both comic and heartwarming.
The book itself is also a bit of a mystery. Is it a novel or a biography or something between the two? In a NY Times book review, Boris Fishman notes: “In a recent interview, Benioff said the novel’s first chapter was pure invention — that all four of his grandparents were born in the United States. But in the bound galleys of the novel he thanked his grandfather for his ‘patience with my late-night phone calls’ about the blockade. The final version of the book doesn’t carry that acknowledgment. What gives?”
Whether is pure fiction or based on reality, City of Thieves relates important truths about a terrifying period in history. I highly recommend it.