A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The way I discover new books has, up until now, been by random accidents. Reading a review or an interview, a blog post, “Customers who bought this also bought…” on Amazon, e.t.c. I have rarely handled my choice of reading material before it’s mine, since the majority of my book browsing and buying is done online. This situation has now changed since I recently became a Bookseller; a very exhausted, early rising, sore feeted, but happy Bookseller. I now get to read first lines, chapters, whole books and run my fingers over the covers (and sniff the pages!) – before I commit to buy.
With the book I want to talk to you about today, I had very little idea of what it was about and even less idea what it would look like. The Mysterious Benedict Society arrived in the post and I knew in an instant that if I’d seen it on a shelf in a book shop I would have snapped it up. It’s tall and skinny and the cover wraps around the book splitting at the front. Very quirky, very original and one of those covetous Wow! things. Kids will love it. For the life of me I cannot remember why I bought The Mysterious Benedict Society. The author Trenton Lee Stewart is a New York Times bestselling author but I saw very little UK coverage and there wasn’t even an Amazon rating when I one clicked to buy. But I am so glad I did. Serendipity is one of my favourite words and it works in so many ways.
The story is about four orphans, Reynie (the MC), Sticky, Kate and Constance, all unusually gifted and all completely honest. They all answer an advertisement in a newspaper: “Are you a gifted child looking for opportunities?” and are weeded out from all the applicants by a series of tests. The brilliant thing about the tests was that they were designed to bring out the special qualities each child had, it wasn’t so much about the tests themselves but the way the children handled them. The resulting group of four all have very different skills and attitudes ; the basis of the ultimate team. They are introduced to Mr Benedict who asks them to take on a very dangerous mission in order to save the world.
This book is a joy to read, I absolutely loved so much of the writing…
At the front of the room, munching rather loudly on an apple, the test administrator was keeping a close eye on them to ensure they didn’t cheat. She was a thin woman in a mustard-yellow suit, with a yellowish complexion, short-cropped, rusty-red hair and a stiff posture. She reminded Reynie of a giant walking pencil.
“’Pencils!’ the woman suddenly called out, as if she’d read his thoughts.
The children jumped in their seats.
‘Please lay down your pencils now,’ the pencil woman said. ‘The test is over.’
‘But I’m not finished!’ one child cried. ‘That’s not fair.’
‘I want more time!’ cried another.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. ‘I’m sorry you haven’t finished, children, but the test is over. Please pass your papers to the front of the room, and remain seated while the tests are marked. Don’t worry, it won’t take long.’
What made this book stand out for me though, was the central idea. I feel this is a book about resourcefulness, of adapting, of finding your own special quality and making the most of it. It’s a real heart-warming tale and I couldn’t read it fast enough. I loved the way the children, who were strangers to begin with, bonded and cared so much for each other – even though none of them were cool, or rich, or trendy, or even in one case pleasant. This book celebrates the differences in all of us, it shows its that it’s great to run contrary to the demands of peer pressure and it shows that people who are different have not only a place but a very important role in society. It also shows that you don’t have to be clever to be great, that brilliance is not only about getting A’s in exams but it’s also about being able to think quickly and independently, look for new ways to do things and keep going no matter how difficult you think the task is. All this is apparent to a grown-up like me, but I think what a child will see is a rip-roaring adventure with quirky puzzles and suspense on every page.
Since I began reading The Mysterious Benedict Society blog posts, reviews and ratings are springing up all over UK sites, and I’m very pleased about that. It just shows how quickly word gets out when you find a book as good as this one. I look forward to the next instalment.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart at Chicken House