The Haunted Dollhouse

Both the Girl Detective and Graphic Novel series gave a nod to the 1930’s at Nancy Drew’s 75th anniversary in 2005, and it’s hard to say which one I prefer. The Haunted Dollhouse might win out slightly because of actually getting to see all the vintage fashions.

All of River Heights is having a Nostalgia Week to celebrate 75 years since the founding of the Stratemeyer Foundation. Everyone has put away their electronic devices (including George), donned period clothing, and brushed up on their 1930’s slang. Nancy has even tracked down a vintage blue roadster to drive.

In honor of the celebration, Mrs. Emma Blavatsky has offered for display the antique dollhouse replica of the estate she recently bought. Inside the glass case, however, Nancy notices a set-up of what looks like a crime in progress—a crime that takes place for real the next day. No one recalls seeing that part of the display previously. When this happens again, it starts to look like the dollhouse is haunted. Nancy doesn’t believe in spirits, but she’s determined to solve this case before someone gets hurt, especially when the latest set-up involves a Nancy doll getting murdered.

I love miniatures as well as pseudo-hauntings, so this book was right up my alley. It reminded me a lot of Betty Ren Wright’s The Dollhouse Murders, though in that case the dolls really were moving by themselves. The ending was a bit weak, because I didn’t completely buy the motive for the crime, but I was willing to forgive it because I liked the premise so much.

As an additional nod to Nancy Drew’s legacy, The Haunted Dollhouse works into the text the titles of the first sixteen original Nancy Drew books, which are all the ones published in the 1930s. It also mentions the steamboat Magnolia Belle from the Girl Detective #11, Riverboat Ruse.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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Patricia Brent, Spinster

[This is an old draft I am just now publishing, so the time references are a bit off.]

“But my dear Miss Brent,” said Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, “you never told us that you were engaged.
“Didn’t I?” enquired Patricia indifferently.
“And you don’t wear a ring,” interposed Miss Sikkum eagerly.
“I hate badges of servitude,” remarked Patricia with a laugh.
“But an engagement ring,” insinuated Miss Sikkum with a self-conscious giggle.
“One is freer without a ring,” replied Patricia.
Miss Wangle’s jaw dropped. “Marriages are—“ she began.
“Made in heaven. I know,” broke in Patricia. But you try wearing Turkish slippers in London, Miss Wangle, and you’ll soon want to go back to the English boots. It’s silly to make things in one place to be worn in another; they never fit.”

The backlog of reviews I have to write is shameful, but perhaps it is fitting that I start with Patricia Brent, Spinster, by Herbert George Jenkins, which I learned about from Melody’s blog. It’s my most recent read (just last week), and also the perfect example of why I usually don’t read during the school year.

I am currently serving as the faculty advisor for a club with a large time commitment (not quite the level of a varsity sport, but close), and find that I have very little time for reading. The joy of Google Books is that I can download one onto my laptop and then have it with me when I have my work finished and need a little break between the end of the school day and when the activity starts in the evening. The problem is that the books I am drawn to when tired and stressed are mostly of the escapist nature, and quite unwilling to be confined to neat little chapters here and there.  I feel a bit like I did as a young girl in bed with a Bobbsey Twins book when my mom came in to turn out the light and I begged for one more chapter. Luckily I was reading this on Friday last week, so I didn’t need to do any prep for the next day and could use my lunch break to squeeze in a few chapters. I finished it after school that day.

Melody’s summary is much more detailed than my own, but the basic premise of the plot is that 24-year-old Patricia Brent is unhappy with her life. She works as a secretary for an aspiring politician, Mr. Bonsor, whose wife’s social and political goals far outweigh his own. Both her parents are dead and the only family remaining is the overbearing Aunt Adelaide. Her fellow “guests” at Mrs. Craske-Morton’s boarding house are rather a pitiful lot, outwardly unaware of their own failings and ready to latch onto any topic of interest, such as Miss Wangle’s flaunting of her deceased great-uncle, a bishop. After overhearing one of her catty remarks, speculating about why Patricia is still a spinster, Patricia follows a rash impulse. She remarks that she will not be in for the evening meal because she will be dining that evening at the Quadrant Grill Room, one of the town’s nicest hotels, with her fiancé who is recently returned from the army.

The trouble is, said fiancé does not exist. And when Miss Wangle and her cronies show up at the Grill Room to spy on Patricia she frantically sits down at the table of a man in khaki and begs him to play along with her charade for the evening. Her companion turns out to be Lord Peter Bowen, a lieutenant-colonel just arrived home, and delighted to be Patricia’s fiancé. In fact, he falls for her hard, and begins sending her flowers and chocolates and telegrams at the boarding house. Patricia, on the other hand, refuses to believe that anything good can come from this relationship, now matter how much her treacherous heart leaps at the sight of him. It will take an all-out war on Peter’s part to convince Patricia he is in earnest, enlisting the help of those at the boarding house and also his sister Lady Tan.

Despite knowing how much I would like the plot, I was sorely tempted to stop reading by the second chapter because of how much unnecessary (and frankly, depressing) background information was provided. We hear all about Patricia’s lonely childhood with a father who didn’t know how to show affection after her mother’s death, Mrs. Bonsor’s manipulation of her husband and condescension towards her rich but lower-status father Mr. Trigg. Clearly, Jenkins never heard of “show, don’t tell.”

The story picks up when Patricia meets Lord Peter (I wonder if their initials are both PB by intent?), because he is such a delightful character. He has wealth, a title, kind personality, sense, of humor, and apparently good looks. I was this close to falling in love with him myself, until I read the line where he “screwed his glass into his eye.” I’m sure it was fashionable at the time, but I’m sorry, I could never tolerate a man who wears a monocle. All I can think of is the king’s assistant in Disney’s Cinderella.

For every pathetic character at the boarding house, there is a considerate and enthusiastic character looking out for Patricia’s happiness. That’s what really sold the book for me. Patricia’s loneliness not only needed to be solved by a love interest, but by stimulating company who appreciated her for what she was worth and engaged her knowledge and humor. She already has Mrs. Hamilton at the boarding house, the sweetest little old lady (whom Patricia has the strange habit of physically picking up from time to time), and Mr. Trigg, who tends to treat her as a surrogate daughter. What she lacks, however, is a circle of people her own age, which is where Tan and her friends come in.

Tan is pretty much just as perfect as Peter. They are close siblings willing to drop everything for the other, as Tan does here. She is also beautiful, strong-willed enough to put Patricia in her place, and wise as Solomon. Of course, she also possesses two of my pet peeves in heroines: violet-blue eyes (Patricia has them too, and I don’t see them nearly as frequently in life as I do in books), and an unusual name. In this case, Jenkins explains that her father the duke named her after his favorite Tanagra figurines even though her mother hated to saddle her with the name. I interpret this as Jenkins thought it sounded cool but his wife vetoed it in real life. It’s only nominally better than “Quail.”

Basically the book comes down to this: Patricia doesn’t want to admit to herself how much Peter and his attentions have quickly come to mean to her, because a) she grew up with Aunt Adelaide brainwashing her against men and love, b) has never been in a relationship before, or even met a man who interested her romantically, and is kind of overwhelmed, and c) doesn’t think anything good can come from a relationship founded in deceit. Everybody else tries to convince her otherwise. If you can buy the reasons for why Patricia is so obstinate, then you’ll enjoy the book. If not, you’ll want to smack her and wonder why no one else has. I was mostly in the former camp. Plus, there’s an awesome chapter about an air raid that humanizes everyone at the boarding house and makes the book worth it in and of itself.

[Random vintage tidbit: At one point a character puts ink on the seams of her black dress to freshen it up. I’ve never heard of that before and a Google search isn’t giving me any information. Was this a common practice?]

The book is dedicated to “the Patricias of the world.” I thought it was odd at first, but as I got to know Patricia I realized that her plight was actually probably common back then. With no family, and a career that keeps her relatively isolated during the day, she doesn’t really have the opportunity to meet anyone her own age. Her loneliness is not just the romantic type. I can definitely think of times in my life when I’ve felt like Patricia.

I was surprised when I went back to write this review to look at the author; I hadn’t noticed before that it was written by a man, and based on the plot and characters I just assumed female. Now I am curious as to what else he may have written. Good thing I can just check Google Books.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 10:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Scoundrel

For my next Google Book, I thought back to when I read Miss Watts. Did Ernest Oldmeadow write anything else? Sure enough, I found a few, though The Scoundrel and Virginie turned out to be the same book. On the heels of Rogues and Company, I guess this makes me quite adept at choosing books with dastardly titles.

Lionel Barrison is a quiet young Englishman living a secluded life in the countryside. One day a foreigner named Canuto approaches him, and asks the favor of allowing him to pawn a piece of artwork overnight. It is a wax model, preserved in ice for safekeeping. Barrison tentatively agrees. When Canuto’s servant delivers the work, it turns out to be a real young woman, in a drugged sleep, draped in fabric and holding a silver horn.

The girl wakes up with no knowledge of who or where she is, but is beautiful and kind. Barrison takes a liking to her immediately, and feels very protective. She is French, but fortunately he knows the language. Then he begins getting strange notes from Canuto, saying that the girl’s name is Lethe (the Greek spirit of forgetfulness) and telling stories about her. Barrison and Lethe are sort of falling in love, and then things start to get interesting as they head to France to try to figure things out, and are kidnapped by Canuto.

Despite being written in the early 1900s, The Scoundrel is very medieval in feel, like The Castle of Otranto but without the supernatural (except for the girl frozen in ice). It’s divided into four sections (Ice, Wheat, Fire, and Mist), and has some symbolism in each of these. The action for the most part is very secluded, other than a delightful scene where Barrison buys a whole wardrobe for Lethe at the department store. Even the attitudes and mores of the characters seem to be of a previous age.

In many ways it is similar to Miss Watts, with a sweet romance and a girl who doesn’t really know her past. Here, too, Lethe is devoutly Catholic, one of the few things she remembers from her previous life in France, and through her simple but deep faith Barrison comes to believe as well. It might not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s more of the “saintly virgin” than the “preachy” variety.

And then there’s the surprising conclusion, really the whole final section. I waver between thinking it’s ridiculously romantic and a load of hooey. I like to think it’s the former; if you can get into the mindset of the book, it does kind of make sense, but it wouldn’t fly today. Overall, I really enjoyed it, over-the-top but fun all the same. My only complaint is Lethe herself. The book is told from Barrison’s viewpoint and she comes across and good and beautiful and tender…and very one-dimensional. Having lost her memory doesn’t help.

“I tell you, Virginie belongs to love. Not to attachments. Not to chumships. Not to infatuation or to sentimentality or to desire. She belongs to love–to the love which makes the seas flow and the sun rise and the mountains stand fast. Would you have had me introduce you in a drawing-room, over cups of tea? Lionel Barrison, I chose to fling you together so as to wake up every atom of manhood and romance and chivalry in your nature.”

Final thoughts? I really really liked it for what it was, and would look for more by this author. It’s a book that makes a lot more sense after the ending.

Published in: on January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Writ in Stone

I continued my read of the graphic novels with Writ in Stone. As in the first book, there are two plotlines that run side by side. Archeologist David Severe arrives in town with a stone marker found in California, which he claims is proof the Chinese arrived on the West Coast in 1421. However, when he opens the case again at a fundraiser for the local museum, the marker is gone. The only time the case left his hands was when he used the washroom right before his presentation. The best suspect Nancy has is the museum guard, who’s old and creepy and pretty much looks like a villain from one of the old Nancy Drew books.

The stone is not the only thing missing, however. George had been filming the whole presentation with her new camcorder and could likely have caught shots of the washroom right offstage, but the camcorder has disappeared in the hullabaloo. Even worse, Owen Zucker, a sweet but mischievous little boy whom Nancy sometimes babysits, is also nowhere to be found.

There are some great elements in Writ in Stone, like a stake-out in a cemetery (three guesses as to which suspect has a second job there and the first two don’t count). I also enjoyed learning about the theory that that the Chinese reached America before Columbus. However, I felt sure that I had guessed the culprit pretty early on, as well as a connection between cases, which put a bit of a damper on the reading. It turns out I was correct, but Petrucha redeemed himself by having a really interesting “why” for the crime.

Nancy is her usual fashion-challenged self when on a case, but we learn in this volume that she gets it from her father. As Carson discusses Owen’s disappearance with Nancy he remains oblivious to the fact that the end of his tie is submerged in his cereal bowl. Nancy also reveals that Bess’s repair skills are of the intuitive type; she can figure out how to fix something but can’t name any of the parts.

This is probably my least favorite cover in the series because Nancy’s position looks so awkward. I like the look of the art overall, but Sho Murase’s style can sometimes be a little inconsistent. In the first several books Nancy’s chest tends to look unnatural, much more so than that of pinup-girl Bess. I’m also not sure I totally buy her fashion sense. Nancy looks just like what I’d expect in t-shirts and jeans, but she also apparently has a fondness for tighter tops and long flowing skirts. It’s a look that a friend in high school used to wear, and not really one I’d associate with Nancy.

Published in: on January 23, 2012 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Demon of River Heights

Two years ago when I was super busy with subbing plus two part time jobs, the only books I really found time to read were graphic novels. This winter, when I was getting home very late most nights from helping out with a robotics team, I turned to the same solution.

I have all the boxed sets of the Nancy Drew graphic novels by Papercutz, and a few months ago someone in the Nancy Drew Sleuths mentioned that the hardcovers were being remaindered. I found a few at low prices, and then one thing led to another, and thanks to my Christmas money I now have a near-complete hardcover set as well (missing 1, 5, and 10). Part of this is the collector in me, but another equally large part is me wanting to show Papercutz customer support for the concept.

I read the first and third ones when they first came out seven years ago (and it really doesn’t feel like it’s been that long!). I didn’t remember the plot for the first at all though. In The Demon of River Heights, two local university students are making a film of the legend of the titular demon, and Nancy is helping them out by acting in it (because really, how many times can she make her acting debut?). When they stand Nancy, Bess, and George up for a coffee date, though, the girls go back to the shooting location to investigate.  The only traces the girls can find of Ben and Quentin are their abandoned equipment. One camcorder, still running, caught on tape their expressions of fright as they flee from an approaching figure.

In addition to searching for the missing filmmakers and a potential demon, Nancy is also asked by her father to keep an eye on Canton Angley. Carson refused to do some questionable work for him, and now Angley has hired Deirdre Shannon’s father instead for legal advice. His son Todd is also squiring Deirdre about town, which the girls have a hard time believing anyone would do without an ulterior motive.

This series is in the Girl Detective universe, so in addition to Deirdre’s cattiness we have the usual trope of Nancy forgetting to put gas in the car, so that it is empty exactly when they need it to make a quick getaway from the woods.

There’s not a ton of room for plot development in this format, but Stefan Petrucha did an excellent job creating an interesting and suspenseful story. Without giving anything away, the last chapter in particular was well done. In this case, the story gained from the graphic format, because the visuals gave a much better sense of the gravity of the situation than text would have done.

Published in: on January 19, 2012 at 10:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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Reading Plans for 2012

I made detailed plans for 2010, from which I’ve still only read six books, and didn’t even bother last year. Last February, however, I picked out four books to read and did eventually get to all of them. I tend to do better with shorter lists because I can view it as mandatory short-term reading, like with library lists.

In 2012, I have five(!) goals for my reading. First, I do still want to get to all the books on my 2010 list. I’ve got a TBR word document three pages long, and those few I had pulled out still seem appealing.

Second, I want to continue reading classics. Last year was not too shabby but I still didn’t feel like I read very many (probably because two were so long). I’d really like to read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham.

Third, I’d like to continue with authors and series I’ve started,especially mysteries. Several of these were mentioned on the 2010 list and are still languishing. To pick a few, I’d like to read at least one book each by Carolyn Hart, Angela Thirkell, E.F. Benson, Laura Childs, Brian Jacques, and Alexander McCall Smith.

Fourth, I’m declaring this the Year of the Reread. In some ways this might seem counter-intuitive when there are so many new books waiting, but going back to the beginning with the Jane Austen mysteries made me realize how little I remember anyway. Besides, it might me the impetus I need to continue with the series. I was a chronic rereader as a child and have gotten away from it in recent years, other than occasionally dipping into favorite parts of favorite books.  I’d almost rather read a book I know I’ll like rather than take my chances with one yet unread. This year I’m giving myself permission to do so.

Finally, I had a lot of fun rereading a couple Dana Girls books last year, and I’d like to keep going. I’m still way behind on Girl Detective books as well; I’m only halfway through the series.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I really am feeling more inspired to read. I don’t think I’ll ever again reach the book totals I did in high school (probably in part because I was never online back then), but I’m okay with that. I’m reading for enjoyment again and not letting myself get overwhelmed by the imbalance between available books and available time, like I have been in the past.

Published in: on January 4, 2012 at 8:05 pm  Comments (2)  

The Street of the Small Steps

I wasn’t feeling well on New Year’s Eve  and went to bed at about ten; I think that’s the earliest in years! My cold was a little better the next morning, and since no one else was up yet I had to content myself with one of the books in my room.

As much as I love the giants of romantic suspense, I also like trying to find forgotten authors of the genre. Ruth Willock looks like one of them. In The Street of the Small Steps, orphaned Lisa Barrett has always been torn between two worlds. Her mother’s family in Zurich, famous textile producers the Eberlis, have long tried to keep her under their thumb. When her American father was alive, however, she traveled with him on his journalism assignments sometimes and got her first tastes of freedom. Now she is living with a great-aunt in London and studying fashion design at the university. An American manufacturer Jerome Curtiss is interested in some of her sketches, and an engineering student, Richard Kendal, is interested in her.

When her domineering grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, however, she is ordered to return home for the summer and potentially for good. Lisa understands that her grandfather comes from a different era, where women had limited roles, but she wishes she had more control of her life. At the very least, she could design new textiles for the mills. She is glad, though, to catch up with her cousins Alec and Ursula, and spend time in the city again.

Lia soon has even bigger problems to worry about. Her mother’s cousin Nicholas, who as a barrister is in charge of her purse strings, suddenly seems intent on courting her. She has a constant feeling of being under surveillance. Everyone seems to want the sketches and mock-ups of her designs, especially a stunning cape, and she has no idea way. If they disappear, so does her shot of breaking free and starting a career with Jerome. The truth turns out to be bigger than she could have imagined.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I’ve long been interested in fashion, so that aspect held my interest, but Ruth Willock writes excellent suspense as well. I was snatching this up every spare moment I had the rest of the weekend. Lisa, and by extension the reader, has to go by instinct on who is trustworthy and who to be on guard with. She’s a bit in over her head, and making this up as she goes along.

Lisa’s situation also leads to the trapped feeling. The book was written in 1972, and I absolutely can’t imagine having someone order me to stop my schooling and my potential career to return home, to not see someone because he is a foreigner. It makes me appreciate how much control I have over my own life, and how I would feel if that control were taken away.

I liked the way the relationships were handled, especially seeing so many dysfunctional ones in Phyllis Whitney novels over the years. Lisa has her doubts sometimes about Richard, and Jerome even flirts with her a bit, but she believes deep in her heart that the love they had in London was real, and because of that I believed in him as well. It’s also refreshing for a heroine to have friends at hand with no strings attached, and no romantic tension. I’m very close to several of my cousins, so I thought the way Lisa, Alec, and Ursula all supported each other was very believable.

I picked this one up when the library at my school weeded its collection last summer, and I will definitely keep an eye out for more of Ruth Willock’s suspense novels. I wonder if there are any on Bookooch?

Published in: on January 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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