Back from Hiatus

I think I give the same apology/explanation every time I have a long absence from the blog, but here’s how the story always goes…

1. The school year goes into full swing and I get really busy.

2. I still read some books, but I don’t have the time to review them, so I put them on my nightstand and pick up the next book. (Well, not the library books, but you know what I mean.)

3. I take pictures of the books and create drafts with the titles/pictures. If I’m smart, I include a bulleted list of things to mention while the book is still fresh. If not, I will really need to wing it later on.

4. The growing pile makes me feel guilty, so I don’t really start any new books because I have so many others to write about still.

5. I open up a draft and stare at it, and maybe type a sentence or two, and stare some more. By this point I have to flip through the book again to get the summary right because it’s been so long. After a few more repetitions of this the review might eventually get written.

6. Once I’m about halfway caught up on the backlog, I let myself start a new book. This often means the other half of drafts will continue to languish. (I have reviews from two years ago still sitting unfinished.)

Right now I’m somewhere in between steps 5 and 6, which means you’re going to get several new posts over the next few days, so that I can actually read a book again instead of limiting myself to online fiction websites (which are good, and I like supporting unpublished writers and indulging the occasional fanfiction whim, but its just not the same).

I ask myself once in a while why I do this. Maybe book blogging was a phase in my life and I’m nearing the end of it (the writing part, not the reading). Sometimes I just want to read a mystery, think that it was pretty good, and move onto the next book. There is a part of me, however, that really wants to stick this out (I’m coming up on three years of blogging). I think it helps my critical reading skills, and I definitely know it helps my writing skills. Ever since I stopped writing essays for school on a regular basis I find myself working harder to present my thoughts in a coherent, orderly written sequence. I know, I sound like the typical math nerd.

Even more, as litlove recently wrote about, I like having a record of my thoughts on what I’ve read, mostly for myself but also for others. I do go back and visit some of my older posts, and it’s like a mini reread; I find that I remember better the books I write about. In addition, sometimes I read older or obscure books that don’t really get much mention on the Internet other than sales pages. Maybe someone else interested in Howard McGrath or Louise Platt Hauck would be able to learn more about their books by reading my reviews.

Again, I can’t make promises that my posts will occur regularly rather than in fits and spurts, but I want to keep trying. And if you have a blog that I’ve visited in the past but don’t comment on much anymore, I am still reading! I usually go through my Google Reader on my lunch break, and if I want to comment I have to try to remember to go back and do so that night.

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Published in: on November 27, 2011 at 10:14 pm  Comments (1)  

Rogues and Company

I’m acting as faculty advisor this year for a club that meets in the evenings, which means I have three and a half hours to kill after school once a week. Rather than spend the entire time on lesson planning, I’ve rediscovered Google Books. I read a few things on Project Gutenberg in college, but I can only take so much of that typewriter font. Through Google, it actually looks like a book! I can download it as a pdf and read it right from my laptop.

Rogues and Company, by Ida Alexa Ross Wylie, is a title I had jotted down after seeing Melody’s review on Redeeming Qualities. None of these books have summaries, and I’ve stumbled upon clunkers by picking based on title (nothing personal, Lynn C. Doyle), so I tend to just go with books that I’ve read something about and know I will like.

It begins with a man who has amnesia, discovering himself on someone’s doorstep in the beginning of the night. The constable he finds takes his to the home of the doctor down the street, where the doctor declares it a most interesting case. The man’s clothes and his time and place of discovery suggest a person of ill repute, but his manner and personal cleanliness hint at a higher station. The man himself feels polite and educated, and accustomed to comfort.

The constable comments on his striking similarity to Slippery Bill, the notorious gentleman thief and master of disguise who robbed the doctor’s house that very night. Secretly, the patient has discovered in his coat what is supposedly the lucky charm of the criminal, and is horrified at the thought he might be the rogue. On the other hand, a visiting Frenchman, Count Louis de Beaulieu, also seems to have gone missing. The count’s housekeeper insists that the patient is not he, but then the count’s fiance Theodora turns up and makes a positive identification.

The book keeps us guessing for a while as to which identity is really the patient’s, or if he is simply a doppelganger. I loved all the twists and turns in the plot, too; it seemed like there was a new surprise in every chapter. There’s a romance, of course, between the patient and Theodora, and a little bit of personal distress over falling in love when you’re not really sure you are who you say or think you are. There are some fun characters that turn up on a trip to France, too. Everything turns out all right in the end, though maybe not in a way you might have expected.

Identity, both unknown and mistaken is such a fun plot device. I’d love to see either a movie of this or a modern take on the story, though with the prevalence of images in today’s digital and social media I think identity would be very easy to establish.

Published in: on November 23, 2011 at 11:39 am  Comments (1)  
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The Moonspinners

The sky was black velvet, obscured by the veil of cloud drawing slowly across from the White Mountains. Later, perhaps, it would be thick with stars, but now it was black, black and comforting for the hunted. The moonspinners had done their work.

I’m not sure why, but lately I’ve been drawn to mystery and suspense rather than regular fiction. Perhaps it’s more escapist, or perhaps it holds my attention better when I have twenty other things on my mind at the same time. Mary Stewart fit the bill perfectly; The Moonspinners was one of the first books of hers that I read, and the later ones I’ve read more recently seem a bit more laid back.

Nicola Ferris, a young secretary at the British Embassy in Greece, is looking forward to joining her cousin Frances for a quiet Easter vacation on Crete. Frances is an avid naturalist and the secluded town of Agios Georgios is perfect, with its location in the foothills of the White Mountains. Nicola has also managed to secure reservations at the small hotel before it opens, since the owner is a wealthy native Cretan recently returned home to help out his sister Sophia.

Thanks to a lift from friends Nicola arrives a day before she is expected, and decides to take a detour up a mountain trail before heading into town. She travels farther than she intends on a search for the perfect picnic spot and stumbles across an abandoned shepherd’s hut. The discovery seems innocuous until she is confronted by a large Greek man with a knife who takes her inside.

The Greek, Lambis, is actually caring for a British man, Mark Langley, who is recovering from a gun wound. Lambis had piloted the caique bringing Mark and his brother Colin to hike and sightsee around the mountains. On the first night, however, the brothers accidentally witnessed a murder. The murderer then shot at Mark, and when Lambis sound and revived him later, Colin was gone. Since ties run deep in Agios Georgios, the two men must remain on the mountainside until Mark’s wound heals a bit and then secretly search for Colin, while avoiding a murderer who hopes to leave no witnesses. Meanwhile Nicola must return to the village to meet her cousin. Her conscience won’t let her turn a blind eye, so she feels around for information without knowing whom to trust, and and who might instead be involved in the affair.

The book was originally published in 1962, but Nicola is a smart and confident heroine. She traipses the mountainside in a dress, smokes cigarettes, and shares a blanket overnight with an injured stranger. She loves working in a foreign country, uses her fluency in Greek to her advantage, and is willing to take plenty of risks. I wonder sometimes how I would fare in situations like this, and right now my answer is not nearly as well as she did!

On this stretch of the hill there were no trees, other than an occasional thin poplar with bone-white boughs. Thistles grew in the cracks of the rock, and everywhere over the dry dust danced tiny yellow flowers, on threadlike stalks that let them flicker in the breeze two inches above the ground. They were lovely little things, a million motes of gold dancing in a dusty beam, but I trudged over them almost without seeing them. The joy had gone: there was nothing in my world now but the stony track, and the job it was taking me to do.

One of my favorite elements of Mary Stewart’s best suspense books is the exotic locale she she so vividly describes. I could see in my mind the wild mountainsides of Crete, the fields and streams and tiny flowers. It’s like a mini mental vacation! The unfamiliarity of the surrounding also exacerbates both Nicola’s perception of events and the reader’s growing interest; there is nothing familiar to fall back on. The most beckoning trail could lead the danger, and the most unassuming building could house a great secret.

Even though I had read this before, I recalled only the basic framework of the plot and still couldn’t quite figure out who to trust. I even mostly fell for an incorrect conclusion Nicola draws at one point. I guess this means I can go back and reread her other books as well!

Published in: on November 20, 2011 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Thursday Throwback: Jamie and the Mystery Quilt

I’m not ashamed to say that I still occasionally read children’s books, especially if they were ones I first read as a child.  I was actually probably a more voracious reader when I was younger than I am now, if that’s possible.

While browsing for series books at the latest book sale I found a couple old favorites that had me secretly jumping for joy. Two of the Miss Bianca books by Margery Sharp immediately found their way into my bag. I don’t love these as much as the movies because Miss Bianca is  more stand-offish and Bernard more subservient, but they are wonderful nonetheless. Neither is the one I most vividly remember, which features some somewhat creepy wax dolls.

After rereading The Doll’s House over the summer I remembered a book with a treasure in a doll house that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the title of. As soon as I picked up When the Dolls Woke, by Marjorie Filley Stover, I knew I had found it. The prequel, Midnight in the Dollhouse, was there as well.  I flipped through and everything was as I remembered, including the parchment over the fireplace and the exotic wooden doll Martinique (though she is not mean like I had thought). They are a bit similar to Rumer Godden’s books, which must be why I thought they were by her.

In the same box as those two was a book called Jamie and the Mystery Quilt, by Vicki Berger Erwin. I first checked this our of the local library when I was about eight, and read it several times more in the next few years, though if you had asked me now about the plot I would have been stumped. I couldn’t resist reading it as soon as I got home. My library’s copy had been missing some pages, so this was actually my first time reading it in its entirety.

Jamie absolutely loves the old house that has been passed down for generations in her father’s family. Since he died a few years ago, however, money has been really tight, and her mother has been showing the realtor Mr. Payne around with the intent of selling the house. Janie is determined to stop him. She begins tutoring one of her classmates, Kevin, after school to earn some extra money. She also wants to start bringing down some of the original furniture from the attic to try and get their house on the historical circuit. Kevin’s mother is an antiques dealer and he thinks some of it may be valuable.

In the process, Jamie stumbles across a quilt made by her great-grandmother during the Depression which is an exact replica of the house. She also finds letters from her great-grandfather hinting that hid money in the house before he died, and that he added a clue to the quilt. Before Jamie has a chance to investigate, however, the quilt is stolen from her back porch. Her mom will be signing papers to sell the house in a few days, so Jamie and Kevin have very little time to recover the quilt and save the house.

I find it amusing that the plot elements I was drawn to even at a young age are still the ones that resonate with me: old houses/antiques, mysteries, connections to people in the past, hidden treasures, and hints of romance. I could definitely fill a shelf with children’s books that have some or all of these themes (like The Family Tree). Fewer adult books seem to have all of these at once, especially the hidden treasures part, but if anyone has any recommendations feel free to pass them along!

Published in: on November 20, 2011 at 6:40 pm  Comments (1)  
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November Book Sale

I think I’m running out of room in my house for books (horror!), but since I pulled about thirty over the summer to sell I’m hoping I’m not quite at saturation yet. The bookshelf in the spare room isn’t double-shelved yet…

Every book sale has a different character, and I’ve found that the library bi-annual sales are the worst for older non-classic adult fiction but best for series books in terms of quantity.

  • I’m slowly but surely building a set of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys paperbacks. Most of the Files/Casefiles I have because I actually read those growing up, but I’m trying to fill in my sparse collection of digests. These ones are all in pretty good condition. I was also thrilled to find a first printing of Without a Trace. I have the boxed set of the first four Girl Detective books, but they are all much later printings.
  • The Clue in the Jewel Box is a neat library binding, and I did not own a revised text version of The Clue in the Old Album. This one has the third cover art.
  • Secret of the Old Sleigh and Phantom of Dark Oaks: I always see Linda Craig advertised in the back of the Wanderer Nancy Drews. Of course, now I need to track down the beginning volumes to start with!
  • Mission Moonfire: This is a Christopher Cool, T.E.E.N. Agent book. It was one of the other series parodied in Chelsea Cain’s Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. I started flipping through, and it’s fun but totally cheesy. Did Simon and Schuster use this as the inspiration for A.T.A.C in the Undercover Brother series? Did they think about the fact that this lasted for 6 volumes while the Hardy Boys classic formula stayed strong?
  • The Bobbsey Twins at the Ice Carnival and The Mystery at Snow Lodge: I think I’m up to six Bobbsey Twins books with dust jackets now–but that’s okay because they’re all the same.
  • two Boxcar Children books and a Mandie book: I was excited about the Amusement Park Mystery because it’s the only one I was missing out of 1-30. I used to buy them from the Scholastic Book orders at school, but I somehow missed some and had to read them at the library instead.

And yes, I do buy adult books too!

  • Murder at Arroways, by Helen Reilly: an Inspector McKee mystery. I have another one requested on Bookmooch, but the person seems to have changed his or her email address since joining so I have little hope of ever receiving it.
  • Blood Orange Brewing and Dragonwell Dead, by Laura Childs: I am so far behind on the Tea Shop Mysteries, but I do want to continue reading them.
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club, by Alexander McCall Smith: I need to catch up with this series, too. I also passed up another one in the series I could have sworn I already owned, but I don’t think I do. I suppose that makes up for the Susan Wittig Albert book I accidentally bought a duplicate of. This happens surprisingly infrequently given the number of books I own.
  • The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde
  • Alarums and Diversions, by James Thurber: our copy was pretty beat-up, and this one has a dust jacket.
  • Suite Française, by Irene Nemirovsky: this one has been on my reading list for a long time.
  • In My Father’s House and The Last Silk Dress, by Ann Rinaldi: She writes the best American historical fiction. Both of these are set during the Civil War. The first is about the family whose house was used for the surrender (I never realized Appomatox Courthouse was a village and not a building). The second is about a hot air balloon that the south attempted to use.
  • Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens: We don’t own this one, and Dickens is definitely an author of whom I’d like to read more.
  • The Plague, by Albert Camus: I don’t know if existential writing is really my thing, but I guess I won’t know until I try.
  • The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse: I’m thrilled to have found another of these lovely editions.
  • The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy: I might have to save this for summer, but I;m looking forward to working my way through it.

Whew! I don’t usually ask for books for Christmas because I don’t mind waiting and can find them used later on. Hopefully these are the last books that enter the house for a while until I find any others to get rid of.

Published in: on November 18, 2011 at 6:39 pm  Comments (1)  

The Secret of Lone Tree Cottage

“If we have guessed wrong,” said Jean, “I’ll never be able to look a policeman in the eye again.”

“They’ll be wild!” admitted Louise. “But I’m sure we’re right, Jean. We can’t be wrong this time.”

I managed to squeeze in a second book during the power outage, and continued with the adventures of the Dana Girls in The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage.

The book begins about a month after By the Light of the Study Lamp when the popular young English teacher Amy Tisdale [I keep wanting to say Ashley Tisdale] invites Jean and Louise to Friday night dinner with her parents. It seems her father, a perpetually grumpy hypochondriac, isn’t doing so well healthwise. As they pull out of Starhurst, Miss Tisdale seems shaken by a rough looking man who tries to stop the car, and she tells him not today. A few days later, Miss Tisdale receives a telegram during class and leaves suddenly. She is not heard from again, though her car is found abandoned on the road to Hilton.

Mrs. Tisdale does not want to tell her husband (or the police) because she fears her husband’s heart won’t be able to take the strain; instead, she hires a private detective and asks the girls to do everything they can to investigate. She also mentions that Amy had a twin sister Alice, now Mrs. Brixton, who was disowned for marrying a man of whom her family did not approve. On a hunch, the girls go into Hilton and manage to track down Mrs. Brixton, now widowed, and her five-year-old daughter Baby Faith.

Alice Brixton is doing poorly both in health and finances, and her home at Lone Tree Cottage is a shabby little place. Lately she has been hounded by one of her husband’s former business associates, a sailor named Sol Tepper, who claims that she owes him money her husband swindled him out of. She is afraid he may have kidnapped Amy for ransom. Her fears prove correct when a letter from Amy arrives saying $5000 will be asked from their parents. Miss Tisdale used their sisterly code (every fourth word), however, to request that they not pay ransom or notify their Father.

Louise and Jean, though hesitant to keep the struggles of both sisters a secret from their Father, continue the search for Sol Tepper. Every time they get a lead, however, something happens to change the game. Sol even resorts to kidnapping Faith when he doesn’t receive his ransom. Finally, with Uncle Ned’s help, they search up and down the river and find the hideout, reuniting the entire extended Tisdale family just in time for Thanksgiving.

Notes and thoughts on the book:

  • I’m sure it was a different world back then, but I teach high school and it seems odd for a teacher to bring individual students home to meet her parents. As a student, the only time it happened was when my French teacher hosted the entire honor society for a traditional meal at the end of the year.  I had college professors do something similar as well.
  • “Carolyn Keene” takes great care to distinguish between the sisters, especially in this sentence after Louise runs off to fix her hair before meeting a visitor: “Jean, who was not so particular about appearances, sauntered into the library.” Louise, of course, would never saunter. Neither would Nancy Drew. George probably would.
  • The girls are naturally champions at the school tennis match
  • Never let it be said that the Dana girls neglect their studies! Miss Tisdale’s substitute is so strict that Jean has to read David Copperfield in the car as the girls drive to Hilton. Later, of course, they take off two days from classes.

“Hello,” drawled Lettie. “I hear you had the day off. It’s nice to be some people. Mr. Crandall must be thinking of adopting you.”

  • Math at work: Louise uses a map to draw a five-mile-radius circle in order to narrow down their search. Jean is able to calculate in her head the area they will need to cover (31 and 3/7 miles; apparently they use 22/7 for pi).
  • A world-wise Uncle Ned cautions the girls that they have no proof Mrs. Brixton is who she claims to be, and don’t know she is trustworthy. They protest that Baby Faith is too adorable to have a mother who is a crook. Uncle Ned is not convinced; clearly he doesn’t understand series book conventions like the girls already do.

“Whenever a particularly mean trick is played in Starhurst,” said Louise, as Evelyn disappeared, “everyone immediately thinks of Lettie Briggs.”

  • Pranks: Lettie moves Miss Tisdale’s car so the girls will think it has been stolen, but accidentally leaves her handkerchief on the seat; Jean sends Lettie into the library telling her she has a male visitor, but it’s really the detective waiting for Louise; Lettie steals a Thanksgiving basket the girls had bought for the Brixtons (and has the grace to feel guilty afterwards)

“And that,” said Jean, as they drove back to Starhurst, “ends the excitement for today.”

Published in: on November 2, 2011 at 11:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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By the Light of the Candles and Fireplace

We lost power during the snowstorm over Halloween weekend (it still feels weird typing that), and since I was the only one home it was the perfect excuse to curl up with some Dana Girls books. Lately some discussion group members have been reading together, which reminded me of how much I love these. Nothing says comfort quite like old series books! I built a roaring fire, lined the mantle with candles, and pulled up a blanket-laden armchair to read By the Light of the Study Lamp.

Jean suggested that they notify the police station, but Louise would not hear of it. “I like mysteries, she declared, “and this is something of a mystery. We’ll handle it ourselves. If I find the man who drove that car, I’ll give him a piece of my mind.”

It’s been a while since I last read these, but I was still surprised how much I remembered. The book begins when Louise and Jean receive a beautiful antique study lamp from their Uncle Ned, to adorn the new study they will have this year at Starhurst School for Girls. When they leave the room for a few minutes, however, they come back to find that the lamp has been stolen. They rush outside to see a car pulling away and quickly follow it into Oak Falls, where they find it parked outside of a secondhand shop. The owner, Jake Garbone, turns nasty when Jean confronts him, and sends her away.

On their way home the girls rescue a man who has fallen into the river near the rapids and been knocked unconscious. The man, Franklin Starr, turns out to have been on his way to the Dana house to visit Captain Ned. He is also the older brother of one of the girls’ classmates, Evelyn Starr. The Starr family used to own the property and buildings now used by Starhurst, until their parents died and money got tight. Evelyn may no longer be able to afford tuition, though Franklin is convinced that his father left something behind for them.

The girls head for Starhurst the next day, and on the train they spy Jake Garbone’s gypsy-like assistant. They manage to stop her from stealing the luggage of wealthy Mrs. Grantland, though she does make away with the woman’s pearl ring. Mrs. Grantland is eternally grateful, asks the girls to work on finding the ring, and promises the loan of her car whenever they need it.

Over the course of the book the girls try to track down their lamp, Mrs. Grantland’s ring, Jake Garbone and the gypsy Fay Violette, and later Franklin Starr when he disappears. There is also a subplot involving a mysterious plumber at the school; the girls’ nemesis Lettie Briggs links his name with Jean’s in a malicious rumor. Oh, and it would be nice if they could manage to restore the Starr family fortune in the process. Needless to say, they are successful on all counts.

“I daresay we could solve the mystery of this lamp quite as well as any man,” declared Jean. “I think we’d make good detectives if we had a chance.”

Two of my favorite things about old series books are the over-the-top contrivances and coincidences, and the glimpses into everyday 1930s life (I hesitate to say the girls’ lives are “normal”). As I read I found myself marking all the spots that stood out, and it’s easier to list them than write in detail:

  • The lamp arrives in a box–but one that needs to be opened with a hammer and chisel, and is packed full with newspaper and excelsior (which also used to be used to stuff teddy bears)
  • The girls having a going away party with their neighborhood friends who attend Oak Falls High, including Sally and Sam Gray, but I don’t recall these friends being mentioned in any other books. We do see more of their school friends later: Nell Carson, Doris Harland, Ann Freeman, and Margaret Glenn
  • As far as I can tell, the Starr financial troubles are the only hardship that could be in any way traced to the depression. Every other character seems to live comfortably.
  • Pranks: Lettie steals the girls’ lamp and gives it to the cook, Amanda, so Jean gives Lettie and Ina red-pepper-filled cream puffs.
  • “Carolyn Keene” is big on skull fractures; that is the big fear when Franklin is rescued from the rapids and when Fay Violette hits her head on a stone.
  • Louise seems to be the designated driver for the duo, and is quite skilled at it–including driving an out-of-gas car downhill all the way to Penfield without using the brake to get to the police station. Luckily there was no cross-traffic!
  • Jean does such a horrible job recounting events to headmistress Mrs. Crandall that she is assigned extra writing exercises and admonished that “one fact must lead directly to the next.”

My old copies of the books used to belong to my grandmother and are starting to fall apart. I need to look into finding some facsimile dust jackets I can use to protect the covers.

Published in: on November 2, 2011 at 7:22 pm  Comments (1)  
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