Thursday, May 19, 2011

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart may be one of the more popular, recognizable women names in our history and Candace Fleming's new nonfiction biography of the famous flier, throws into question nearly everything we've ever come to assume about the woman. It's a rather fascinating read.

For instance, was it widely known that as a young lady, Amelia and her sister Muriel loathed their father and his alcoholism? "Each night the girls listened for their father's footsteps outside the house. A brisk step meant that a sober, loving Edwin was coming home; a shuffling pace meant the return of that angry, thick-tongued stranger who cursed and yelled."?

Or how many people have heard of the name Amy Phipps Guest? Guest is the fifty-five year old wealthy woman that Amelia owes all her fame and fortune to. Guest wanted to become the sixth woman to attempt (and first to achieve) flying across the Atlantic. When her age got the best of her she opted to foot the bill instead. Amelia was pretty enough and bold enough to meet Guest's requirements. The rest is history.

Is it written in other Earhart biographies that Amelia often powdered her nose or applied fresh coats of makeup after crashes (which apparently happened all the time in the 1920's), just in case reporters would come? Or that she purchased a knee-length leather aviator jacket and slept in it for three nights straight, just to look the part of a pilot?

It's such an unflinching look at Amelia's life and Fleming doesn't hold back in her presentation. In fact, upon finishing this, it's difficult to find much to like about Earhart! She was arrogant, brass, cunning, and stubborn and she loved hoarding the spotlight (even at a young age). She loved speaking passionately to crowds of women, urging them and inspiring them to strive for more than they were given at that point in our history. Yet Amelia herself was never about to let any other woman steal her fame.

The most interesting thing to me, according to Fleming's research, is that nearly everything the general public was ever fed about Amelia's life was heavily fabricated by her and her husband George Putnam, all in an attempt to turn Amelia into a celebrity of sorts. In fact, Amelia was a rather poor pilot. Putnam worked incredibly hard to cover this up! Fleming suggests that there were plenty of other more talented female pilots flying at the time, but that Amelia was the only one seizing the stage and demanding all the glory.

Fleming balances the biography portion of the story with intermittent scenes from the rescue mission for Amelia. The pacing is suspenseful and the backstory Fleming fills in is surprisingly depressing in that Amelia may have no one to blame for her demise but herself. In turning down radio training in preparation for her final flight, in favor of press conferences and photo shoots, she was left with little to no knowledge of how the radio of her plane worked. Leaving her stranded with no means of communication once her plane missed its destination.

It's a captivating read and one that sheds new light on one of America's first and most popular heroines. It's definitely worth a read, regardless of how you feel about Amelia in the end.

Final Grade: A-

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery

I have to say for me personally, one of the more enjoyable reads I recall from last year (2010) was THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE: THE MYSTERIOUS HOWLING. It reminded me of Lemony Snicket's A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS! Fans of his, Pseudonymous Bosch, Trenton Lee Stewart, and Dr. Cuthbert Soup, I'm sure would agree. While the second book of the planned trilogy, THE HIDDEN GALLERY, doesn't answer any of the questions the first book raised, it does continue on in the same fashion, opening even more doors that will hopefully be explored (and closed shut) in the third and final book.

Still reeling from the events that transpired near the end of book one, Miss Penelope Lumley is in need of a break from Ashton Place. When she suggests to Lady Constance that her and the children visit London for the summer, Lady Constance jumps at the opportunity to relocate the whole lot of them! Ashton Place is in need of some serious renovations and Lady Constance can't stand the clutter and mess, so off to London they go. With a mysterious guide book (given to Penelope as a gift from her former teacher Miss Charlotte Mortimer) as their only resource, Penelope and the Incorrigibles set out to explore all London has to offer.

These books are not for everyone. In fact, when reading them out loud to my fifth grade students, briefly summarizing each chapter was of high importance. Maryrose Wood rambles quite incessantly and pulling out the key events and details (and clues) can sometimes prove tricky. My students' eyes definitely glazed over from time to time, but the mysterious elements to the plot kept their ears eagerly tuned in. My students, and I'm sure other avid fans would agree, desperately want to know where these children came from, and why Penelope Lumley became involved in their upbringing in the first place. That hook alone, is enough to keep them returning to the story. Which is quite the feat, if you ask me. It speaks volumes of Wood's ability to get her readers to care for her characters.

In the same fashion as Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, many mysteries are explored in book one, only to be briefly forgotten in book two so that even more mysteries can bubble to the surface. Where did these children come from? Why is Lord Frederick's almanac so important to him? What was hiding behind the attic wall in Ashton Place? Who was behind the sabotage of Lady Constance's Christmas party? Wood brilliantly doles out important information left over from book one at various times throughout this book. This way the first chapter or two are not wasted summarizing the information, as many sequels do.

Wood's writing is so good, it's difficult to pull out just a few examples. The entire book is filled with interesting phrases and clever uses of language. I loved this sentence:

- However, just as a carelessly spilled puddle of India ink blots out the line of practice cursive letters painstakingly written on the paper beneath, the anxiety-producing contents of Miss Mortimer's letter blotted out any other emotions Penelope may have had.

Here's another taste. Miss Charlotte Mortimer is Penelope's former mentor and teacher. We've heard so much about her and in book number two, we finally get to meet her! And her introduction, is awesome:

- Penelope wondered if it was a desire for secrecy that had prompted Miss Mortimer's choice of restaurant and not just an appreciation for ferns - but she did not have to wonder for long. With a flourish, the maitre d' held back an armful of foliage so that Penelope could enter the leafy, secluded room. There, at a charming table for two, with her only companion being the thin plume of steam that rose lazily from the teapot before her, sat Miss Charlotte Mortimer.

Talk about a grand entrance! It's a mouthful, I know. And as I said, this book and it's style is not for the average middle age reader. But for the above average middle age reader, who's willing to put a little extra effort into what they read, this book (and series) is a delight. It feels as if author Maryrose Wood has undoubtedly made it so some predictions are rather easy to make (ex. What is up with Lord Frederick? and Why is Penelope's strikingly natural auburn hair the exact same color as the Incorrigibles?) so as to keep readers' attention and let them feel some success. But I have a feeling that other answers are going to come out of left field and naturally blow us away. Who knows if all our questions will even be answered!

What was The Hixby's Guide and where did it come from? Where are Penelope's parents and will they return for her? Who has cursed the Incorrigibles and why? What exactly does Miss Charlotte Mortimer know that she's not letting on? When will the mysterious Agatha Swanburne's true intentions be revealed? And where did these three Incorrigibles come from? Book Three can't come soon enough!

Final Grade: A-