Madame Serpent: Catherine de Medici, #1 — Jean Plaidy

So.  Madame Serpent.

Catherine de Medici, according to this novel, was, like pretty much every other girl from a prominent family in this period¹:  she was raised to be a bargaining chip.  So she was trained, at a very young age, in the art of the poker face.

According to Jean Plaidy, that calm exterior hid a heart and mind that were willing to love, passionately passionate, and desperately unhappy.

The verdict: Fascinating lady, fascinating people, fascinating times.  The actual action sequences — and by action sequences, I mean the parts WHERE STUFF ACTUALLY HAPPENED, not, like, explosions and such — were really entertaining.


I suspect that, before the death of her husband, not a whole lot was really known about Catherine’s machinations — because, other than the aforementioned action, this book was about 250 pages of Catherine thinking OH, WOE, I CARRY SO MUCH LOVE FOR MY HUSBAND, WHO DOESN’T LOVE ME BECAUSE HE LOVES THAT BITCH DIANE DE POITIERS.  I WILL POISON HER.  NO, NO I WON’T.  NOT OUT OF THE GOODNESS OF MY HEART, BUT BECAUSE EVERYONE WILL KNOW I WAS BEHIND IT EVEN THOUGH EVERYONE THINKS I AM STUPID.  NOW I WILL WATCH THEM HAVE THEIR SEXY TIME THROUGH THIS HOLE I HAVE DRILLED INTO MY BEDROOM FLOOR.

Seriously.  250 pages.  While it had to’ve been hell to live through, it didn’t make for very entertaining reading.

I do, however, have high hopes for the next two books in the trilogy — because, from what I understand, that’s when Catherine really starts throwing her weight around.

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Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy.

As planned, I borrowed a copy of Wisconsin Death Trip through interlibrary loan, and hoo boy — I’m going to have to buy myself a copy.  I haven’t read it start-to-finish — it isn’t that sort of book — but I’ve been picking it up and paging through it on a daily basis, examining the pictures and reading the newspaper excerpts.

Backing up:  After discovering a collection of 1890’s-era photographs¹ in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, the author combined those images with snippets he pulled from the archives of the local newspaper.  If you read A Reliable Wife and felt that the background noise of tragedy and horror was over-the-top and unbelievable — well, believe it.  Because it’s on every single page of this book:

The 80 year old mother of an imprisoned man threw herself in front of a train and was cut into 3 pieces.  She was crazed by the disgrace.  [7/5, State]

The 60 year old wife of a farmer in Jackson, Washington County, killed herself by cutting her throat with a sheep shears.  [8/3, State]

Mrs. John Sheehy of Manitowoc committed suicide recently by cutting her throat with a small case knife and was found dead in the woods by her house.  [4/24, State]

John Kuch, a farmer living in the town of Oakland, was found in his barn the other morning hanging by his neck. . . .No cause was known.  About 12 years ago, his father hanged himself in the same barn. [1/16, Local]

Lena Watson of Black River Falls gave birth to an illegitimate child and choked it to death.  [10/9, Town]

Frederick Windex, an aged farmer, committed suicide at Janesville by drowning himself in the pool where his little daughter had been accidentally drowned 2 years ago.  [10/30, State]

Wisconsin Death Trip is page after page after page of that.  It’s the kind of reading that will make you think about just how overused words like ‘misery’ and ‘tragedy’ and ‘heartbreak’ are — that we use them so often and so easily that when they are actually applicable, they seem washed-out and weak and trite.  And that sometimes when we read books or watch movies that involve situations that seem just a little TOO Look-At-My-Clever-Literary-Parallels!-y, we should remember that sometimes, this is the way that life unfolds.

If that makes any sense.

All that, and it’s still utterly fascinating — for me, each one of those newspaper excerpts was like a short story.  Well, a really upsetting, really short story with no explanation or resolution that was, unfortunately, not fiction.  But still sort of like a short story.  I’m always telling patrons that one of the things I love about Deadwood is that because the world those characters live in is so harsh, the decent things that they do shine all the brighter — with only this book to go on, it would be easy to assume that that brightness was absent in Black River Falls from 1885 – 1900.


¹Many of which can be seen here.

Book source:  Interlibrary loan.


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As frightening as a unicorn with galloping consumption…

Only less scary.

From the back:

The Three investigators books are among the most popular mysteries ever published for young readers. Millions of fans around the world–from America to Finland to Japan–have thrilled to the Investigators’ exciting adventures and amazing feats of detection.

Clearly this was pre-JK Rowling.

Found: in cabin #6

Oldies-But-Goodies: Judy Blume’s Blubber, 1974

I know Elder and I tore through Judy Blume’s books as children, but I have a feeling neither of us ever really appreciated her skill of actually getting into the heads of adolescents.  I opened Blubber for a reminder.  I ended up sitting on the floor, wedged in a corner, to read it in its entirety.

I remembered trying to be friends with girls for fear of NOT being friends with them.
I remembered being bullied.
I remembered bullying.
I remembered being ten.

If the “celebrate-materialism-and-attention-whoreism” crapfest that is much* of mainstream young adult fiction today is Tiger Beat and Cosmo, Judy Blume is National Geographic.  Raw truth honestly told.
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For Big Suz

While reading Jean Plaidy’s Madame Serpent

…I discovered a torture device that was new to me¹.

The guy — who was being interrogated about the sudden death of the Dauphin — gets his legs and feet crushed by The Boot².


THEN, as if that wasn’t enough, he gets drawn and quartered.  (Apparently, even though Count Montecuccoli confessed (because confessions under torture are oh-so-trustworthy), François III may have actually died of tuberculosis.)

And Catherine hasn’t even STARTED poisoning people yet.


¹Not that I’m hugely well-versed in torture devices.  But I have seen a lot of horror movies, so… you know.  I’ve picked things up.  And there was that very first episode of Wire in the Blood.  SQUICK.  Love that show, but WOW.  I totally understand why some people were unable to keep watching.  (Though they’re missing out.  Robson Green, mmmmmm.)

²While I was reading up on that, I discovered the existence of the show Surviving History, which sadly only lasted one season.  It sounds like a pretty awesome premise, though maybe not for the super-squeamish.

The Bad Queen, by Carolyn Meyer

Halfway through the book I still couldn’t figure out why I kept picturing the Dauphin of France as Jason Schwartzman.  

Then it hit me:

The VERDICT: Historical YA fiction enthusiasts, go for it.

The Bad Queen is as interesting as it is easy to read, with great tidbits such as 18th century teeth straightening:

“I thought the canines he talked about were probably dogs, and the pelican must be some exotic sea bird, and none of it made any sense to me. Then, without a word of warning, he placed a block of wood in my mouth to hold it open, gripped one of my upper teeth in the draws of a dreadful instrument—this was the pelican—and forced the tooth into a new position.  I let out a shriek of pain and terror, my arms and legs flailing.  Several footmen rushed to pin me down and hold my head in place.  While I howled, Doctor Bourdet repeated the horrible process on the remaining canines–my pointed teeth, it turned out, and not dogs at all.”

(It gets even better when they move on to the gold wire braces.)

If you know the story of Marie Antoinette, little will come as a surprise.  Still, it’s nice to hear her story from the perspective of what she was: political pawn AND young girl.  Scapegoats for the French revolutionists, she and Louis have been labeled everything from uncaring to cruel… but really, they were probably just totally inept.¹

The Bad Queen tells that side of the story.
¹Okay, so  she had that whole Petit Trianon thing—that was a bit much.

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife.As promised, here I am, writing about A Reliable Wife.

I don’t know why I’ve been procrastinating.  Maybe because the crazypantness of the plotting gets me all worried about Releasing The Spoilers.  But I’ll be careful.

Wisconsin, 1907.  Ralph Truitt stands alone on a railway platform, waiting for a woman he’s never met — the woman he plans to marry.  His advertisement for A Reliable Wife (See what I did there?  Ho ho ho, my cleverness knows no bounds!) brought in mailbags of responses, but only Catherine Land’s “I am a simple, honest woman…” that spoke to him.

When she steps off of the train, though, he knows that she is something other than what she claimed in her letters — because the photograph she sent him was a picture of someone else.

Don’t fool yourself.  This is no Sleepless in Seattle.  There is romance, yes.  But it is a very dark, often-unpleasant sort of romance.  Surrounding the romance is deception, guilt, terror, lust, despair, obsession, vengeance, violence and a planned murder.  But don’t let the darkness scare you off, either, because there’s also hope and renewal, reclamation, recreating and rebirth¹.

The Verdict, in Brief:  Do the words Sexy Literary Historical Potboiler fill you with joy?  Then read it.

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City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare

The VERDICT: Read it, don’t analyze it.



BAAA, by David Macauley

My classroom being 90 bajillion degrees (due to what I’ve often heard called a “lowest bid” HVAC system), and it being that time of year (the end) I ended up in the library with my students recently.  As they pretended to be studious, I roamed the stacks.  I was lucky enough to come across this gem: Baaa.

First of all, I’ve loved David Macauley’s drawings since I was six.  Always interested in architecture, I pored over Castle, Cathedral, Pyramid and others.  His attention to detail always hooked me from page one.

I really had no idea he dabbled in apocalyptic satire.  Directed at 9-12 year olds.  Starring my second favorite species, ovis aries.