As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

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Oh, scissors – Flavia is back! Thanks to NetGalley and Bantam Dell, I had a chance to read an advance copy of As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, the seventh novel in Alan Bradley’s fantastic Flavia de Luce series.

In this novel, we pick up with Flavia on a boat crossing the Atlantic as she departs England and her beloved home at Buckshaw to attend Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada. Flavia understands this school will train her to follow in the mysterious and patriotic footsteps of her mother and her eccentric Aunt Felicity, but she knows nothing about what to expect or what this training will entail. Most twelve year old girls would probably faint if their first night at boarding school involved a charred corpse tumbling out of their chimney, but Flavia – chemistry enthusiast, lover of poisons, and avid student of biological decomposition – is not your average twelve year old. Thanks to her habit of pocketing important bits of evidence and her ability to startle people into answering her unexpected questions, Flavia discovers that something is amiss at Miss Bodycote’s. Three girls have disappeared, and Flavia makes it her business to determine what has become of them, and whether one of them might be the unfortunate body from her chimney.

I absolutely loved exploring Miss Bodycote’s with Flavia. It reminded me of reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time and watching Harry learn his way around Hogwarts. At Miss Bodycote’s, there are day-pupils and boarders, chemistry labs with the very latest technology and equipment, teachers with a wide variety of backgrounds (among them an acquitted murderess), and a headmistress who seems uncannily omnipresent. The wings of the school are named after goddesses, the girls’ rooms after heroines, the houses after female saints, and the bathrooms after defunct royalty. There is a hierarchy among the students, both official and unofficial, that Flavia must learn to navigate, and she hasn’t been at the school for more than a week before she’s had several late-night visitors and an impromptu field trip into the Canadian woods to hone her survival skills.

Watching Flavia try to integrate herself into new surroundings was every bit as wonderful as I hoped it would be. When she tries to mimic the other students’ slang and says to a classmate, “Spill it,” she is overjoyed to see that she’s used the phrase correctly. Flavia decides that “[a]ll those afternoons with Daffy and Feely at the cinema in Hinley had not been wasted after all, as Father had claimed. I had learned my first foreign language and learned it well.” She calls upon all her skills to learn her new environment – her ability to adopt the body language of “little girl lost,” squeeze herself into tight spaces, and (oddly) to vomit on command all come in handy in this story.

If you’re a regular reader of the series, you probably will miss Colonel de Luce, Dogger, Mrs. Mullet, Flavia’s sisters, and the other Bishop’s Lacey locals we’ve come to know and love. But Bradley introduces a whole cast of characters to take the sting out of their absence, and I found that this change in setting is breathing new life into the series. If you haven’t experienced Flavia yet, definitely grab a copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and get started. If you’re already a fan, you won’t want to miss the latest of Flavia’s exploits.

Top Five Friday: Young Adult Books

This summer’s release of the movie version of The Fault in our Stars seems to have revived the debate about adults reading young adult books. There are people who stand firmly in the “adults should be embarrassed to be seen reading kids’ books” camp, and then there are those who feel like YA is more easily accessible or relatable than “literary fiction.” There are also booksellers, teachers and librarians who argue (rightly) that they can’t hope to be effective at their jobs if they don’t read YA.

My feelings on this are similar to my feelings about reading romance novels – I think everyone should feel free to read whatever they want without feeling remotely embarrassed by it. Even though YA doesn’t make up the majority of what I read, there are plenty of books that fall into that category that I’ve read recently and enjoyed. When I was teaching, I liked reading the books that my students recommended to me so that we could talk about them. That’s how I read Twilight, Prophecy of the Sisters, and Wicked Lovely.

For today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite young adult books (or series!) that I know I will be rereading for years.

 harry potter 1. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. These books will be special to me for my whole life. Beth and I were just talking about how wonderful it is to reread these books and find references hidden in the early books to something that happens at the end of the series. I find something different to love each time I read them or listen to the awesome audiobooks narrated by Jim Dale.
 sweetness 2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Really, I enjoyed all the books in this series, but something about the first one was so wonderful and unrepeatable. I loved the setting. I loved the mystery. I loved snarky little Flavia and laughed out loud on a regular basis when she would talk to her bicycle, Gladys, or exclaim, “Oh, scissors!” when something didn’t go her way.
 trickster 3. Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce. I know Pierce is prolific, but these were the first books I ever read by her. She does a really great job of world building, and somehow in less than 500 pages, I’ve gotten a new mythology, class and political systems, and geography down without feeling like I’ve been hit over the head with it. I thought the story was unique and really interesting.
 smack 4. Smack by Melvin Burgess. Unlike the other books on the list, this book isn’t fantasy, or funny, or lighthearted. It’s a book about heroine addiction, and it is pretty terrifying – not because anything particularly gory or horrific happens, although there is plenty of drama. It’s terrifying because it is such an accurate portrayal of a slippery slope, or the way that we talk ourselves into things. The message that jumps out of this book on every page is that, when we say we’ll do things “just this once,” we never really mean it. Somehow, Smack manages to drive home a powerful lesson about addiction, or really about poor choices, without being preachy.
westing game 5. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I’ve talked about this one before, but I read this book for the first time in 6th grade and kept on reading it on a regular basis afterward. Somehow it doesn’t get old for me.

Happy Friday!