The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
When I saw this at the bookstore, I remembered seeing it on one of those best books of the year lists at one point and decided to give it a shot. However, once I started the novel, I was a little skeptical at first. Among other things, the backcover of the book described the narrator as "young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison" and for some reason I assumed she was between 17 and 22 years old and kind of had an idea of a certain character I was expecting. I completely missed the quote that said she was eleven (that's because I generally just read the description of the novel, and really could care less what random newspaper or magazine quotes say since it's not like they'd be on the novel if they were negative). When I realized a few pages into the novel that the narrator was eleven, I was a little bit worried. Even though the tone of this novel is completely different, I started having flashbacks to Atonement, and I really didn't want to read about a young girl messing everything up or misinterpreting everything and ruining everyone's lives (not that I don't like Atonement, it just wasn't what I was looking for). Fortunately for me, Flavia was not only a reliable narrator but also rather entertaining and intelligent (even if she apparently isn't that big on bathing). At some point while reading, I stopped keeping myself at a distance to avoid my fears, and started simply enjoying the story.
Flavia is the youngest of three daughters, and is also the most eccentric. Her mother died and Flavia doesn't even remember her, while her father is rather distant. They live on a large family estate in England and Flavia takes after a recluse great-uncle who had a chemistry lab built in his wing of the house. One day, a dead bird with a postage stamp is left on their door step and the night ends with a mysterious visit to her father of which Flavia catches a few remarks. The next day, she finds the man in the garden as he whispers his last breath to her.
The police quickly get involved, but Flavia also decides to investigate, using her knowledge of poisons and the local area. While on the case, she occasionally is ahead of the police involved, and other times crosses their paths. During the novel, Flavia also gains a slightly deeper understanding of her father - he is still very much hurt by his wife's death years ago, and his time served in World War II has left a mark upon him. During one scene, he tells Flavia about his childhood and its current involvement in the case, but Flavia realizes quickly that this is less a father-daughter bonding moment, and more of an internal monologue spoken out loud to which she happened to be a witness.
I guessed rather early on who the murderer might be, but I enjoyed the story quite a bit - I used to read a lot of mysteries as a kid, including Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, the Three Investigators and Agatha Christie. As a result, it was nice to read about another precocious adolescent investigator, and I also liked that it focused more on the puzzling out part of the investigation rather than crazy action sequences. And while it was a murder mystery, it was also rather lighthearted.