1) The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

I love this! A delicious story, sprinkled with surprises, that makes you fall in love with reading, all over again.

“It is the summer of 1950–and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizzarely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath.

For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. ‘I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.'”

Even though the story tells of murder, deception and the remarkable use of poison, it’s nowhere as dark as it sounds. Rather, you can’t help but fall in love with the central character Flavia, who is remarkably clever, cheeky, fearless and endearingly precocious. The parts detailing her interest in chemistry were especially enjoyable. I remember being fascinated by chemistry in school, and developing a fanatical obsession with performing titration.

“‘And how may I help you, dearie?’
If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as ‘dearie’. When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poisons, and come to ‘Cyanide’, I am going to put under ‘Uses’ the phrase ‘Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one ‘Dearie’.’
Still, one of my Rules of Life is this: When you want something, bite your tongue.”

Other parts I like:

“The congregation at St. Tancred’s had soon become accustomed to our ducking and bobbing, and we basked in Christian charity–except for the time that Daffy told the organist, Mr. Denning, that Harriet had instilled in all of us her firm belief that the story of the Flood in Genesis was derived from the racial harmony of the cat family, with particular reference to the drowning of kittens. That had caused a bit of a stir, but Father had put things right by making a handsome donation to the Roof Repair Fund, a sum he deducted from Daffy’s allowance.”

“It’s a fact of life that  a girl can tell in a flash if another girl likes her. Feely says that there is a broken telephone connection between men and women, and we can never know which of us rang off. With a boy you never know whether he’s smitten or gagging, but with a girl, you can tell in the first three seconds. Between girls there is a silent and unending flow of invisible signals, like the high-frequency wireless messages between the shore and the ships at sea, and this secret flow of dots and dashes was signaling that Mary detested me.”

Flavia’s wit and wicked sense of humour are irresistible. She uses phrases like “perishing with nosiness” and “you look like a petulant pear” and says things like “..in that instant I decided that I liked Mary, even if she didn’t like me. Anyone who knew the word slattern was worth cultivating as a friend.”

All hail Flavia!

2) What Happened to the Corbetts, by Nevil Shute

In contrast to the first novel, this is a sobering tale of war, written in 1938 and published a year later, five months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

“Nevil Shute wrote this prophetic novel just before the start of the Second World War. In it he describes the devastation that results from an aerial bomb attack on Southampton that destroys the city’s infrastructure and leaves the inhabitants at the mercy of cholera and further assaults. The story follows the trials and tribulations of the Corbett family as they try to get to safety.”

The preface says:

“At the time when it was written it was thought probable that war with Germany would come before long, and there was much activity in England over Air Raid Precautions. Most of these activities at that time were directed to countering bomb attacks by gas bombs, and there was little realisation by the public of the devastation that would be caused by high explosive or by fire…I wrote this story to tell people what they coming bombing attacks would really be like, and what they really had to guard against… The publishers, William Heinemann Limited, did a good job for the country, for they distributed a thousand copies free of charge to workers in Air Raid Precautions, not as remainders, but on publication day.”

3) Born Round, by Frank Bruni

The memoir that seriously got me thinking about eating less and exercising more. Frank Bruni became the restaurant critic for the New York Times in 2004. NYT’s book review here.

“In tracing the highly unusual path Bruni traveled to become a restaurant critic, Born Round tells the captivating story of an unpredictable journalistic odyssey and provides an unflinching account of one person’s tumultuous, often painful lifelong struggle with his weight. How does a committed eater embrace food without being undone by it?”

I read in fascinated horror how Bruni’s weight fluctuated dramatically (at his heaviest he was a size 42), comparing his “fat” and “thin” photos in disbelief. It’s scary to think how you can simply balloon if you just let go.