Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as "dearie." When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poison, and come to "Cyanide," I am going to put under "Uses" the phrase "Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one 'Dearie.
-Flavia de Luce

Who would have thought that a middle aged Canadian man living in the 2000s would know anything about an eleven year old girl living in 1950s England?  Surprises of surprises, Alan Bradley succeeds in this task with the creation of Flavia de Luce.  Flavia, is by no means your typical little girl.  She finds refuge in a Victorian chemistry lab located in her family's estate--Buckshaw and has a penchant for poisons.  She reminds me somewhat of a non-wizard version of Hermione Granger.  For the Sunny Von Bulows in the audience, Hermione is an intelligent young witch from the Harry Potter novels.  Anyway Flavia's cleverness and sense of adventure make her the perfect candidate in solving a murder that takes place literally in her backyard.

At first, the novel seems harmless enough with its quirky characters and witty dialogue.  We quickly learn that Flavia is free to do as she pleases, thanks to her father, Colonel de Luce, who spends more time with his stamps than his daughters.  We also find out early on that Flavia's mother, Harriet, died when Flavia was too young to remember her.  In addition, Flavia's sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy) are too wrapped up in boys and books respectively for either of them to pay Flavia much mind.  However, everything abruptly changes when a dead bird turns up on the back stoop at Buchshaw with an old Penny Black stamp shoved through the beak.  As if this incident isn't disturbing enough, Flavia stumbles upon a (nearly) dead body in the family's cucumber patch.  The event proves thrilling rather than traumatizing for Flavia, but the macabre scene turns darker when police arrive and Flavia's father is charged with the murder of the deceased stranger.  Flavia soon finds herself playing the role of lead investigator in order to track down the real killer.

The ensuing events lead to Flavia discovering secrets from her father's past, uncovering a mystery of a lost Penny Black, and putting herself in increasing danger.  When she finally puts all the pieces together, Flavia is faced with a situation which would make even the seasoned mystery reader squirm.  Fortunately, this is the first book in a series so we know the odds are in Flavia's favor.

In short, this is a charming novel about a girl detective who's not afraid of being different.  The plot is fast-paced, but thoughtful and introspective when needed.  Bradley doesn't skimp on the supporting cast, and there are more wonderfully bizarre characters than I can list in this review.  The sequel, The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag, came out this year to great acclaim, and there are four more novels in the queue.  I hope Bradley keeps up the momentum of his first two efforts--Flavia de Luce is too good a character to waste and someone I will never get tired of reading about. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.-Anna Whitelock

Just as children have been taught for the past 450 years, I grew up knowing Mary I only as “Bloody Mary.”  She was the woman who persecuted Protestants, exiled her sister, Elizabeth I, and forced England into an unpopular alliance with Spain upon her marriage to Philip II.  However, in Anna Whitelock’s historical biography, Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen, we meet a woman who was every bit as courageous as her grandmother, Isabella of Castile, and had to fight just as hard for her crown.  This is the story the history books don’t teach and one I hope after reading this review, you’ll walk away finding Mary to be a slightly more likable figure in world history.

When I started writing this review it read like a history lesson.  There was so much I wanted to say about Mary, but I’m going to try and focus on Whitelock’s books specifically.  After all, this is a book review, right?  Right!

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog.  I’m also an Anglophile.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that I have become intrigued by Mary Tudor.  Several recent books including The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter, and Mary Tudor: The Tragical History of the First Queen of England by D.M. Loades are proof that I am not alone in my genuine liking of Mary.  These texts exonerate Mary, explain her immense contributions to the reshaping of the English monarchy, and demonstrate that the seeds of hatred planted by her detractors all the way back in 1558 are finally being reconsidered.

Whitelock takes us chronologically through Mary’s life using countless historical resources including letters written by Mary herself.  After the divorce of her parents; Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, Mary was declared a bastard and only had a chance of becoming queen if her younger half brother, Edward VI, died without issue.  Mary was unloved by her father, kept away from her mother, and tormented by her stepmother, Anne Boleyn.  She was also condemned for her Catholic beliefs during the Protestant reign of Edward VI.  It seemed that life was one hardship after another for Mary.  Fortunately, Mary’s tribulations only made her stronger and eventually won her the admiration of the people and the crown of England.

In 1553, Edward VI died and the Protestant regime place Mary’s cousin, Jane Grey, on the throne.  Mary was not discouraged and raised an army that overthrew the government and Mary was declared the rightful queen.  Mary was beloved by the people throughout most of her five year reign and Catholics rejoiced at Mary’s plans to return to the old faith.  Unfortunately, her inability to produce an heir to the throne and the nearly 300 burnings of Protestants caused much unrest among the people and when Mary died in 1558, England was ecstatic when Elizabeth took the crown.

What historians forget and Whitelock points out is that Elizabeth owed everything to Mary.  Mary paved the way for all queen regnants by showing the world that a woman could rule in her own right.  With no one to love her, Mary’s Catholic faith was all she had so it’s really not surprising that she worked so tirelessly to bring England back into the Holy See.  However, Elizabeth cast aside the memory of her elder sister and Mary’s tomb was buried under the rubble of broken altars during Elizabeth’s reformation.  It’s ironic that three years after her death, Elizabeth was moved into Mary’s tomb and the two of them have spent the last 400 years side by side.

All this and more can be found in Whitelock’s book.  She does an excellent job of putting the reader in the moment and really feeling for Mary.  I do want to point out that poor editing diminishes the book to some extent.  For example, the book states that Mary died in 1557, but all historical documents and countless other texts confirm that it was 1558.  Being a historian, I’m sure Whitelock knows this and the mistake was the fault of an editor.  Did I mention that bad editing is one of my pet peeves?  Anyway, if you want to learn more about Mary, English history, or just want a good old fashioned Medieval soap opera, grab a copy of Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock.  I truly hope that this book and other texts will change the popular opinion of Mary I, my favorite monarch.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book Scouting 101: Save the Drama for Your Mama

Hello and welcome to a very special edition of Reading Under the Covers.  Rather than a book review, this week I want to tell you about the fun, rewarding, and slightly stinky world of book selling.  We will return to our regularly scheduled programming next week.

Over the summer, I found myself being drawn into the strange little profession of online book selling.  This endeavor came to fruition with the aid of my book-pushing mother.  You see, she sells used and in some cases quite rare and collectible books through  Her store, The Moonlighting Librarian, offers over 1,400 books, with an impressive 40 being books I have listed.  In an attempt to increase my emaciated inventory and sales, I joined my parental unit on a trip to Bloomington, IN for a used book sale.  This is my story.  The day in the life of a book scout: raw, uncut, and uncensored.

10p.m.-I got home from my night class and we loaded up the car with carts and bags for books, as well as enough luggage for even Diana Ross to utter, "That might be a bit much."

3a.m.-We finally find the fairgrounds where the book sale will be held the next day.  No one is there.  All I am aware of is the sound of dueling banjos and the smell of my own fear.  The point of driving down in the middle of the night was to get the first spot in line, but the gates are locked so it's off to a hotel for the night...what's left of it.

8a.m.-My sainted father goes to the sale ahead of us and gets the 10th spot in line.  Success.

11:30a.m.-Bleary-eyed and under-caffeinated, my mom and I arrive a half hour before the sale.  We are dressed quasi-homeless which is not uncommon for book sales.  In fact, a book sale is probably the only time I don't care how I look in public.  No one cares.  The dealers just want books, not a fashion show, and they make this fact painfully evident.  I wait impatiently amid a sea of culottes and fanny packs for the sale to start.

Noon-The sale opens and we rush in like a herd of cattle into what is basically a barn.  It's actually rather appropriate considering the circumstances.  Now here is where things get down and dirty.  Book sales smell.  The books smell, the people smell, and eventually you will smell too.  I know I did.  But that's OK because all that matters is finding cheap books to resell for a profit.  I use a scanner which tells me what a book is worth for resale.  I have to consider the condition of the book and how many are already listed on amazon.  If it's a good deal, then it goes in my cart.  However, you have to act fast or someone else will get "your" book.  Actually, everyone at this sale was very friendly which is unfortunately a rare occurrence.

My mom and I do our own thing at the sale.  She goes her way, I go mine.  Every once in a while I can see her crazy-eyed and scanning like her life depended on it.  Her best deal of the day was a book she bought for $3 and listed online for $75.  My best was a book for $3 that I can resell for $20.  Not great, but not bad either.  All in all, we will more than pay for the cost of the books, travel to and from the sale, hotel expenses, and multiple stops at Steak 'n Shake while still making a profit.

As you can see, being a book dealer is by no means glamorous.  My hands were black with dirt and dust by the end of the sale and I sifted through hundreds of books to find the 50 that will make a profit.  I don't make enough to earn a living doing this, but it is fun.  I love books and I'm not too ashamed to say that it's a rush to find that "one" book that makes the trip all worthwhile.

I hope you've enjoyed this bizarre journey into the book selling world.  Perhaps you would like to do this for a living?  It's a lot of work, but with time, effort, and persistence, you too can be insane!