This book is CSI
to The Series of Unfortunate Events' McGyver
. In my scale, a three-star rating is neutral, and that's a pretty accurate evaluation of how I feel about this story. At the risk of sounding disapproving, I'm going to make a couple of notes about why I didn't love the book. They're not things I really disliked about the book, though, just to be clear. I'm also really terrible about reading mystery stories, so, I’m disqualifying myself from evaluation. These are my general reactions, and all that is just to say that I think the reactions say more about me being a bad reader in this situation than the author being a bad writer.
Also, since writing them, I’ve realized that my reactions aren’t spoilers, but they’re probably going to ruin this book for you if you haven’t read it, so you should stop reading now and leave it at the CSI
thing. That’s really all you need to know. Go read the book, and my blessings upon you. It’s too bad about missing the review, though, because if you like slapstick I tell a pretty funny story at the end. Anyway, here are my thoughts:
This story wasn't silly or dramatic to the point of ridiculousness, which left me slightly disinterested. I'd rather stories be totally over the top if they get close to the top at all. This kept a semi-real atmosphere that was informed by trivia references. A lot of the story is about slight-of-hand, and the trivia seemed like a better example of that than any of Boney's magic tricks. Again, this is the McGyver
's always like, "LOOK AT HOW WEIRD THIS IS!" CSI
's like, "Look at the swirley machines! Woooo! You don't understand our words! Woooo! *You'll never realize how unlikely this story is. bwuhahaha.*" I kind of like it when stories are extremely unlikely
, but it makes me uncomfortable when I feel like the author is trying to distract me from it or justify it. Or maybe it just makes me feel apathetic. A lot of the chemistry lessons and cultural references in this book felt like misdirection. Also, I might feel like that because I didn’t understand ANY of the chemistry stuff, and even in the cultural references where I knew what the author was talking about, I kind of felt like I didn’t understand.
On a different note, bitchy siblings are a pet peeve of mine. It stresses me out to read about siblings who hate each other. That’s totally a personal thing, but it really affected my read of the book. I’ve honestly never met siblings who absolutely hate each other and don’t have some kind of sibling bond that transcends petty fighting. Even siblings who do fight a lot have some kind of deeper understanding, in my experience. Also, sibling bickering is just unpleasant. It doesn’t bother me to have fighting among siblings if there’s that other understanding, but the idea that the siblings inherently hate each other bugs me.
In one of my first college English classes, the professor told us to read our assignments not just for the material in front of us, but for who the author was and what the author was trying to convey – as in worldview and all that. It’s good advice, but I blame that professor for basically ruining most contemporary fiction for me. Authors often seem uncomfortable with the protagonists they choose, and I just don’t GET why people are writing what they’re writing. For example, Water For Elephants - why would a young mother living now write about a man in the 1920’s working at a circus and becoming an old decrepit crank? I don’t get it, and I spent the entire book alternately being suspicious of what she was doing and being just plain confused. Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was the same. From the blurb in the back of the book, I learned that our author is not a spunky 11-year-old British girl living in the 1940’s (1950’s?) but a retired Canadian man living now. Yes, I know it’s fiction (or, lies, as we sometimes call it), so the author can pretend to be whomever he wants, but again, why? It’s better than Water for Elephants because I mostly like our girl Flavia, but I still don’t understand, and that’s really distracting.
More specifically, my problem is that for the bulk of the story Flavia’s more adult than I am, and then she would suddenly transition to kid jokes. She’d be describing these chemical processes and doing the whole Sherlock Holmes thing, and then she’d make some kind of pun or reference to cartoons about a page later. I guess I wanted the chemistry and puns to be woven together more? Also, there were a couple of points where she’s going on about how she’s glad she’s not a boy, and that seemed awkward to me. When 11-year-old girls are riding their bikes down the street thinking to themselves, are they really glad they’re not boys? Are they even thinking about whether or not they’re boys? Was the author mad that he
is a boy? Those parts brought up Virginia Woolf’s point from A Room of One’s Own about how women authors are able to truly write at the level of men authors when they are not so self-conscious that they are women (I’m butchering that, but it’s from the comparison of Austen and the Brontes, and I can mos def find it more specifically if you’d like). Except Bradley is not a woman, so I guess I feel like he was self-conscious that his protagonist is one. I mean, it seems like he was proud that she’s a girl, but it still drew me out of the story. Both the kid jokes and the “Hey, folks, I luvs bein’ a girl!” parts were like the accidental boom mic in the movie scene. It reminded me I was reading a book about a scrappy little British Nancy Drew kid, who was supposed to be both creepy and charming. Remember? Remember who the protagonist is?
But then there were parts where the author completely ignored that he wasn’t the character, and that might have been weirder to me. There’s one part when Flavia gets a cold, and everything about that stressed me out a little bit. It became a big deal that her nose was really plugged up, but also a big deal that she could both breathe through it and use her impeccable sense of smell. It’s petty of me to get distracted by that, but there you are. More funny, though, was this really crotchety moment where she points out that she got her cold from this person breathing on her. I mean, MAYBE an 11-year-old girl in the 1950’s would be a germaphobe, if she was also the genius chemist that our Flavia was, but I have to do some mental gymnastics to get there. I’m much more willing to believe that a man in his 60’s who retired to write mystery stories and lives in British Columbia would be able to tell me exactly who it was who gave him a cold. Again, it’s not really even a flaw in the story, it just kicks me out of the world Mr. Bradley’s creating.
I don’t know whether it made me more uncomfortable when he was pointing to who the character was or when he was ignoring it. It’s like this story I like to call “Undeniable Proof Exercise is Dangerous” about a treadmill accident
I had one time. So, walking in a drab exercise room is boring, and I was pretty sleepy, and I decided to rest my eyes for a minute while I was on the treadmill. Then suddenly, when I opened them I was standing at the very end of the machine, and, yes, friends, I slipped right off. As I was falling, I suddenly realized what that chord attached to the big STOP button does. Anyway, I did a major face-plant, and got pretty scraped up. I had these flesh-colored band-aids all over my face for a couple of weeks. The scrapes felt really weird after I would put the numbing Neosporin on them, so I kept touching them. One of the helpful men I worked for came up to me one day and was like, “You know, I wouldn’t notice the bandages at all, if you would just stop touching them.” Thanks, Ben.
This book wasn’t a full treadmill faceplant for me, so the pointing at the bandages didn’t burn my eyes or anything. I’m just left feeling distracted from the action’s pretty face. Where are you point of the story, and why do you tease me like this?