The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. [No. 1 in his Flavia de Luce series].
It's surprising to find an adult novel with an 11-year old protagonist, but Alan Bradley's series introduces us to just such a little girl, Flavia de Luce. She's witty, she's great with the English language, she's a self-taught chemist with an interest in poisons, she's a nightmare of a little sister, and... she's altogether unforgettable. She made me laugh. A lot.
She's also a bit of a lost child, missing her dead mother, emotionally neglected by her philatelist father, and unmercifully teased by her older sisters. Here is how the novel opens, with Flavia telling about the terrible situation in which she finds herself:
It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air.
I am such a fan of Bradley's use of language and the way he uses Flavia's narration to set an ominous scene in just a few words. Here are some more examples:
On the chimneypiece, [was] an ormolu monstrosity, its brass pendulum, like the curved blade in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” tock-tocking away the time and flashing dully at the end of each swing in the subdued lighting of the room.
... [the rear wheel of my bike] gave off a noise like a den of enraged, venom-dripping rattlesnakes. I pretended they were right there behind me, striking at my heels. It was glorious!The strong scent of Father’s colognes and shaving lotions suggested open sarcophagi and conopic jars that had once been packed with ancient spices.
By the way, did you guess which cruel persons had locked poor Flavia in the closet with no means of escape? Not to give away any plots, but I will tell you that the culprits were her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, mockingly referred to as Feely and Daffy by our heroine. Don't worry, little Flavia has a chemistry lab hidden deep in the bowels of the old country house. Little Flavia knows her poisons, and little Flavia has a plan.
I hope that you will read this book, the first in the series. It is followed by No. 2, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag; and No. 3, A Red Herring Without Mustard.