The Masque of the Black Tulip

Can I admit that modern romances are a guilty pleasure I occasionally indulge? Most of the time I read them on online writing sites that I’m still a member of from way back in the day. My biggest problem with the “chick lit” genre is that the heroines aren’t always appealing, or that the first person perspective gets to whiny. After finishing The Masque of the Black Tulip, I can confirm that Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series really does have it all. Smart, flirty females who can trap both French spies and paramours, and look good in the process.

the masque of the black tulipWhile the Pink Carnation is continuing work in France, and Richard and his wife have begun their school for spies, Richard’s best friend Miles has just received news via the War Office that dangerous spy The Black Tulip is back on English soil. The trouble is, no one knows the spy’s identities or intentions, though recently-arrived Lord Vaughn certainly fits the dastardly stereotype. Richard’s younger sister Henrietta is determined to prove her worth to the organization, and sees no better way than to capture the spy herself. If Amy can do it, so can she. Of course, the couple’s latent attraction to each other might provide just enough distraction to be their downfall.

Ms. Willig writes the interactions between Miles and Hen perfectly. They are filled with witty repartee and fond longing at the same time. Though they get themselves into a fair number of scrapes, overall they have intelligence to survive and the grace to laugh about it afterwards. The book satisfies equally on all fronts: romance, suspense, and humor. I laughed aloud more than once, especially at Turnip Fitzhugh, who seems to have migrated from a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

Eloise’s modern day story is still brief compared to the historical narrative, but I was much more invested in it this time around. She came off as too much of an idiot in The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Now, however, I dying to know if anything ever happens with her and Colin.

There are enough incidental characters planted that the series seems like it still has a long way to go (good thing I own the next three books). I also want to reread The Scarlet Pimpernel.

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Published in: on May 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Be-A-Detective: The Secret Cargo

I lucked out on Bookmooch and found one of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Be-A-Detective Mysteries, as well as three supermysteries I was missing. In the Be-A-Detective books, you get to make choices that will affect the outcome of the investigation.

I used to read Choose Your Own Adventure Books occasionally, but I’m the kind of person who sat there making a tree diagram to be sure I read every possible storyline in the book. After a while reading them because more cheesy and tedious than fun, so I stopped. I was curious as to how the format would work with a mystery, because sometimes choices turned out very badly!

Fortunately, Nancy and the Hardys’ good luck holds in Secret Cargo. The basic premise is that a young trucker approaches Nancy for help. His father’s company has been hired to deliver an unnamed cargo that must remain sealed, and now he is being followed by mysterious men. The only clue he leaves is the word “Greenglobe.” This is the name of the boat owned by a famous folk singer, as well as the name of his huge environmental campaign. Nancy calls the Hardys for help, and from this point the case takes off in a multitude of different directions.

Of course I had to make sure I read every possible ending, twenty in all. That’s a lot of content in 120 pages! Each individual storyline seems sparse, but taken together there is surprising variety in both plots and clues. My favorite was a note that, depending on your choice, was interpreted at GG or 66. I was really impressed at the different ways Greenglobe and the cargo fit together. Some of the plots involved convicted polluters out for revenge, poaching, promotion tactics ranging from dubious to illegal, an undercover EPA investigation, and even clues deliberately planted by the government to keep the sleuths off the trail of a national secret. A person might be innocent in one ending and guilty in another.

The only aspect I had a little trouble with was the environmental angle. With everyone “going green” these days, it seems hard to believe that only 25 years ago chemical companies would pollute rivers, or dump barrels of toxic waste in the woods. We’re still far from perfect, but I’d like to think that we’re a little more aware of the consequences of our actions.

I have the last one in the series as well, and am looking forward to reading it at some point. I really enjoyed this format for a mystery. In some ways, it seems like the precursor to the Her Interactive games. I wonder why they never published the seventh and eighth volumes.

Published in: on May 15, 2012 at 11:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Winter Rose

I’m finally re-realizing what I should have been following all along: the sooner I write a review after reading a book, the easier and quicker it is. So I read Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose on Saturday and am already writing about it.

I’m trying to be good about reading books from my own shelves, especially since they are bursting at the seams. There is literally not a single square inch of space left on the three bookshelves in my room. I would love to be able to send some books on to their next home, but the problem is that a lot of the ones I don’t feel strongly about keeping are ones I haven’t read yet.

Winter Rose is one such example; it’s an ex-library book I picked up for a quarter years ago because I had read and loved another book by the author (The Forgotten Beasts of Eld). Even though I don’t really read fantasy any more, there are still aspects of the genre that appeal to me.

No one in the village has ever been quite sure what to make of wild girl Rois Melior, who roams the woods barefoot gathering herbs no one else can find. Even her loving father and elder sister Laurel gently humor her. Laurel is staid and domestic, engaged to marry her childhood sweetheart, Perrin. One summer a stranger arrives, Corbet Lynn, planning to rebuild the abandoned family property. The village is abuzz with gossip; years ago Corbet’s father killed his own father and disappeared, but not before the old man cursed him with sorrow and trouble.

Rois sees things, knows things, that no one else can, and isn’t quite sure whether it is her imagination or something deep within her. She feels that not everything with Corbet is as it seems, especially since she saw him born of a beam of light near a hidden well in the woods. Corbet and Laurel seem to grow closer, while Rois is driven to pursue the secrets surrounding him. With the arrival of the worst winter in recent history Corbet disappears, and with him Laurel’s will to live. Their own mother died many years ago, wasting away waiting for spring, and the past seems to be repeating itself. Only Rois’s fey side can save her family as well as Corbet from a fate that has its grasp on them.

Patricia McKillip’s writing is absolutely beautiful. I recall very little about the other book I read, but her prose here is light and lyrical and perfectly suited to the subject. I meant to read only the first chapter to test the book out, and ended up reading the entire thing. I could picture the locations as I read, and feel the changing of the weather. Though some parts seemed a big ambiguous, especially the ending, that seems appropriate for the dreamlike state of the story.

My biggest complaint with the book, trivial though it may seem, is the name Rois. I spent the whole time switching how I pronounced it in my head (the same problem I had with Coraline). Five years of French had me leaning towards “rwa” (to like the plural of “kings”), but based on the context and other names I doubt that’s what the author intended. My next instinct was to make it two syllables, like Lois. Ultimately the title and imagery throughout the story suggested it was a homonym for Rose. I get irrationally annoyed sometimes by unique or cutesy spellings; the profusion of made up words is one of the things that used to bother me when I read fantasy regularly.

I had read online a while ago that Winter Rose is based on the Scottish folktale of Tam Lin. Though not a direct retelling, it does contain elements likely inspired by the legend. Knowing this going in did not spoil the reading in any way for me.

Published in: on May 14, 2012 at 7:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Flaming Tree

If asked which author I own the most books by (not counting series books or Agatha Christie), Phyllis Whitney would be in the top five. I wouldn’t call her one of the greatest authors ever, and like those of Mary Higgins Clark her books can get a little repetitive if read too close together. Nevertheless, I’ve been picking up her books at sales ever since my mom introduced me to The Red Carnelian years ago. [Is this really the first one I’ve written about on here? I guess I haven’t read one since college.]

In The Flaming Tree, Kelsey Stewart is still trying to recover emotionally months after the car accident that took the life of her three-year-old son and led to her husband divorcing her. She is slowly getting back into her career as a therapist for critically injured children, but has taken a vacation to visit her aunt’s inn in Carmel, California.

Once there, however, her aunt begs her to take on a local case. Ruth Hammond and her son Jody were on a picnic at the point when Jody began playing near the edge. When his mother tried to grab him, they both went over the cliff to the rocks below. Ruth is bedridden but doctors say he will eventually walk again; Jody, however, remains in a vegetative state with brain damage and his father plans to send him away to an institution. Tyler Hammond is a complex man, selfish yet sensitive, and tormented by inner demons from his own childhood. He blames his son for the accident and refuses to see him (Secret Garden, much?). Ruth is cared for by her mother Dora, and Jody by Ruth’s college friend Ginnie. It is she and Ruth’s brother Dennis who convince Kelsey to work with and advocate for Jody, believing that a spark is still present inside him.

Kelsey stands up to Tyler and is given one week to see what she can accomplish, and her combination of nutrition, therapeutic touch, and mental stimulation proves to be effective. (Phyllis Whitney notes in the afterword that this approach was used when her own grandson was in a vegetative state.) Soon Jody is able to move his fingertips and form simple sounds. Larger problems exist in the house, however, and Kelsey believes that the questions need to be answered before Jody and his family can be healed. Why is Denis not allowed to see his sister? Why does Tyler shut himself off in anger and despair? Why did Ruth try to commit suicide? And why will no one talk about the malicious journalist who died a few months ago?

Phyllis Whitney’s later works (this is from 1985) often have a different feel from her early books. Though some elements are consistent, such as the inclusion of a real, detailed setting and information about an interesting hobby (here, Tyler is working on a documentary about the poet Robinson Jeffers). However, her later books seem to have children as a more focal part of the plot (like Feather on the Moon). They also move at a much slower pace. I found myself reading with steady curiosity rather than page-turning intensity, which worked for the situation.

In the first half of the book, the tone is peaceful and ruminative despite the horrible events that have occurred, likely because they happened before the start of the book. There is hope for healing for both Kelsey and the Hammonds. As the story progresses, however, through the calm surface of the lake we see tensions darting about like minnows. The situation in the house contains layer after layer of despair and anger and secrets, blocking out both memory and hope. I have to give Phyllis Whitney credit for the plot twist two thirds of the way through, because it really is unexpected and makes you go back and see the first part of the book in a whole different light. I can’t say that I liked it, however.

SPOILERS BELOW

 

Here’s the gist: Ruth basically manipulates everyone around her, and has also been in an incestuous relationship with Dennis since they were young. Tyler has known about this and hoped it would stop when they married, but it didn’t. A few years ago, however, the journalist Francesca saw the two of them together at a resort. With Tyler’s documentary on the brink of success, she decides it’s the perfect time for blackmail. Ruth and Dennis go to talk to her, but when she won’t let up Ruth commands Dennis to murder her. Jody witnessed the entire thing and was threatened to never talk about it. The next day was the picnic on the point.

Ruth secretly has been healed and able to walk, but didn’t want Tyler to know or else he will leave with Jody. When Kelsey begins to catch on, Ruth lures her up to the same cliff and tries to push her over. Dennis had followed to finally to do something right, and in his struggle with Ruth the two siblings fall over the edge and die. Dora fills in the details for them afterwards; she had known a lot, but her devotion to Ruth was her weakness.

Also, let’s talk about the romance. When Kelsey first started to fall for Tyler I thought it an interesting twist, and better than the cliche choice of her getting together with Dennis. The tortured artist can be very attractive, and Kelsey was already emotionally involved with him as they fought over Jody’s rehabilitation. Obviously nothing could come of it, since Tyler was married, so I appreciated the boldness of a suspense book with unrequited love. In reality, that should have been my clue that Ruth had to go. Of course Tyler loved Kelsey in return, for giving him his life and hope back, and had been planning to leave Ruth before the accident made her dependent on him. Ruth conveniently dies, and no one cares much because she was the bad guy anyway. After some time to heal, Kelsey can start a new family with Tyler and Jody, who really likes Kelsey already so everything will be okay.

That poor kid will probably spend a lifetime in therapy about all of this.

I had a very hard time writing about this book. It seemed so fresh and intriguing, but the ending ruined everything for me. Even going back to the beginning to refresh my memory for the review, I saw all the characters differently. I’m really disappointed.

An interesting note: Kelsey’s situation here is similar to Menley’s in Mary Higgins Clark’s Remember Me, also about a woman whose son died when she was in a car accident, but the stories are handled very differently.

Published in: on May 12, 2012 at 8:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys Super Sleuths!

Every single Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys crossover seems to advertise it as the “first time”—Girl Detective, graphic novels, and even the Her Interactive games. Super Sleuths! really was the first time, though (not counting the TV series and tie-ins), published in 1981, over fifty years after the characters debuted. In some ways it seems funny to me that there was a time in the canon world when they didn’t know each other; I read my first supermystery when I was around 9, alongside of the classic series. As much as I love the Files/Casefiles universe, though, it’s nice to get a break from the romantic tension and just have three friends who love mysteries working together.

The volume features seven short stories in which the sleuths work on a variety of cases, including bank robberies, stolen artifacts, a carnival fun house, kidnappings, pirate treasure, mistaken identity, and a haunted opera house. The situations were creative, and consistent with those found in contemporary volumes of the regular series. Sometimes the sleuths worked alone; other times they had help from their parents or from the police. Although the later supermysteries seemed geared more towards Nancy Drew readers, this volume specifically states in the forward it’s intent to feature all three sleuths equally; both pen names are used on the volume.

I love the early Wanderer titles for Nancy Drew (Captive Witness and Secret in the Old Lace are some of my all-time favorites), though it’s been a while since I read them, so I was surprised at how poor the writing here seemed to me. Several times it felt like the characters were delivering lines that were meant to be funny, and they just fell flat. I’ve read better fanfiction. Part of the problem is that the style of the full-length mysteries doesn’t really adapt well to the short-story format. The coincidences seem more glaring, the villains more obvious and over-the-top in their stunts.

Rather than summarize all the stories, I just wanted to mention some of the moments that just didn’t work or were unintentionally humorous.

  • When the three sleuths are following a thief on a very poor road, the boys get out to chase the car ahead on foot while Nancy keeps driving. Since she couldn’t go over ten miles an hour, she soon loses sight of them. They must be impressive track stars, especially taking the rocky terrain into consideration, because a 6 minute mile would only keep pace with the car.
  • Five feet five, straight black hair parted on the left, very white skin, sharp features, glasses, thin, forty years old. Based on this police description, Nancy creates a sketch of the suspect so accurate that the sleuths recognize him immediately when they see him. The suspect himself panics when he sees his own picture while attempting to break into the Hardy house.
  • An old man gives the skeptical sleuths little bags of shark repellant to wear while they dive for treasure. Of course a shark charges after them unprovoked, and suddenly flees due to effect of the repellent.
  • The sleuths go backstage to look at a hanging cage where a ghost supposedly appeared. The stagehand tells them the cable holding it has been broken for two years, but a chest is kept beneath it so no one could ever be under it. At that very moment the cable breaks and the cage falls.
  • The Bayport gym team is so talented that they are on tour, and Frank and Joe are members. In fact, Joe is the one at the top of the five-level human pyramid they create.
  • The sleuths are on a roller coaster when their car stops right at the top. They are told the wait will be an hour until it is fixed. Frank and Joe, the expert gymnasts, climb down the framework so they won’t miss their special performance for the governor. They are shocked when Nancy and her friend do the same to follow a suspect.
  • When the sleuths find information about a planned bank robbery in Bayport, Joe and Frank beg to be hidden inside with the plainclothes policemen. Chief Collig relents, but says no to Nancy for her own safety. He does allow her to pose outside as a flower seller to take picture of potential suspects, but only if she is disguised as an old lady and has a friend lately. Conveniently, Bess is in town visiting a friend (Nancy is staying with the Hardys) and accompanies her. Regardless of all the precautions, later on in the story Nancy is the one that the thieves divert and attack. Bess is not mentioned again.

I do love the characters, though, and the short story format was the perfect way to read just a little bit each day. Otherwise, cliffhangers have a way of making you keep turning pages.

Published in: on May 6, 2012 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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