In the Shadow of the Tower

“I’m going to telephone Bart Wheeler this very minute,” announced Bessie Marsh. “I’ll ask him to bring that money over here. It’s the oddest coincidence–“

Sometimes there’s nothing better that spending a lazy afternoon curled up with a Dana Girls book! For some reason I think I reread this series more frequently than Nancy Drew as a child, perhaps because there are fewer books. In any case, there are several volumes where I have a fairly good recollection of the plot. In the Shadow of the Tower, The Secret at the Hermitage, and The Riddle of the Frozen Fountain especially stand out in my mind. (And The Clue in the Ivy, but that’s my favorite so I’ve read it like eight times. Plus once in French.)

In the Shadow of the Tower tends to get a bad rap among collectors because of its hackneyed plot devices and less than politically correct portrayal of a physical deformity. Jean and Louise are out enjoying the winter air when they duck into a cave to avoid Lettie. However, a boy soon enters to read a private letter. When the girls try to make their presence known, the startled stranger lets the contents slip from heisgrasp–a letter and a thousand dollar bill. When the Danas give chase, the money is snatched by a fox who quickly disappears. They comb the whole area to no avail, and eventually return to the cave.

The boy turns out to be a disguised girl their own age, named Josy Sykes. She has run away from the Home for Crippled Children because she was accused of stealing the proceeds from a benefit. In a case of bad timing, what she did take from the safe was the aforementioned letter that had been left there for her. It was from her uncle and guardian Joseph Sykes, who believed himself to be dying, and represented the majority of his savings. The girls take the forlorn girl back to Starhurst and promise to continue the search tomorrow.

Josy’s gratitude was pathetic. “It’s a long time since I’ve worn silk stockings,” she sighed luxuriously, looking at her slender ankles. “You are too good to me.”

[Actually, if she hadn’t met the Danas, she would never have lost the money. The girls were quick to deny culpability when they realized the size of the sum, however, and instead saw themselves as Josy’s champions. Josy, of course, is too kind-hearted to mention it. That’s a lot of money, though; $17,096.36 by today’s standards.]

Unfortunately, their search remains fruitless. As it is near the holidays, they invite Josy to spend Christmas with them and their cousin Bessie at Barnwold Farm. Josy entertains everyone at dinner with her singing and distinctive whistling. Bessie mentions that her fiance Bart recently found a letter and thousand dollar bill in the woods, and telephones him to come over when she hears the girls’ side.. Upon arriving however, he says that Josy, resting on the sofa from the excitement , cannot really be the owner because the letter described a cripple. Josy runs away again (how humiliating can they make it for this poor girl?). Bessie fights with Bart for his tactlessness and tells him to leave, which he interprets as for good. Meanwhile Bart’s employer, the famous recluse painter Constance Melbourne, is greatly distressed when she hears Josy’s story. Before falling gravely ill, she begs them to find the girl again.

Unfortunately, while she is invalided, the lesser-known painter Claude Fayle steals her unsigned masterpiece, and plans to pass it off as his own at the upcoming art show in Majestic. He also poses as a famed portrait painter around Starhurst, completely fooling Mrs. Crandall. Fortunately the Danas already have plans to visit the show with recently returned Uncle Ned; a group from Starhurst will be attending as well. To tie things up even more neatly, the art show is the perfect opportunity to track down the missing Bart Wheeler. In the end, of course, justice is meted out, everyone is reunited, and all ends happily. Josy even finds a successful career as a radio star, which turns out to make perfect sense.

Jean nudged Louise. “A coincidence,” she whispered. “Just what cousin Bessie was writing about.”

As with the previous books in the series, it’s easier to give short reactions than to try to write a formal review.

  • In the Shadow of the Tower is the winner so far for the number of coincidences in the plot. Seriously, does stuff like this happen in real life? it even turns out that the nurse tending to Miss Melbourne just happens to have been at the Home at the time of the theft, and vouches for Josy’s innocence.
  • The book mentions that both girls are sophomores. I can’t see studious Louise staying back a grade, so either Jean skipped ahead or they are Irish twins.
  • I can’t quite fathom what Josy’s whistling is supposed to sound like. It’s described as neither bird nor human, and is distinctive enough for the Danas to recognize it anywhere.
  • Lettie hatches an elaborate scheme to send the girls on a wild goose chase to all the hotels in town based on fake messages from Uncle Ned; unfortunately, the plan backfires when the Danas politely decline, knowing him to be currently at sea.
  • Lettie also tries to steal a fox stole by paying for a cheap one and wrapping a fur of much higher quality.
  • Most of the book portrays Josy as pitiable rather than grotesque, but it still feels exploitative. Most of the descriptions contain words like poor, pathetic, or stricken. At one point her shadow on the wall frightens other girls at Starhurst; later, a near-sighted fox farmer who sees her from behind takes aim with his gun.
  • While the Danas are searching for the letter they run into Mr. Tisdale from The Secret of Lone Tree Cottage, who gives them the lead about the fox farm.
  • One of the big complaints about the book is how at the end when Josy wears new clothes tailored to hide her hunchback, it is hardly noticeable (compare to the incidents mentioned above). I actually find this plausible, though not necessarily because of the clothes. Josy’s attitude and outlook are so different from her earlier woebegone ways that I think the confidence she carries herself with now is responsible for the change.

I’m really torn about this book. I love all the melodrama (which is why Broken Locket is my favorite Nancy Drew), but I’m just not completely comfortable with the way the Josy storyline is handled.

Published in: on June 29, 2012 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Thursday Throwback: The Westing Game

“Today I have gathered together my nearest and dearest, my sixteen nieces and nephews, to view the body of your Uncle Sam for the last time. Tomorrow its ashes will be scattered to the four winds.
I, Samuel Westing, hereby swear that I did not die of natural causes. My life was taken from me–by one of you!”

At my youngest cousin’s recent birthday party, he mentioned to me that he had just read The Westing Game and really enjoyed it. I replied that Ellen Raskin’s book was pretty much the best ever. Another cousin overheard us and chimed in her own praise. Thinking about it on the way home, however, I realized that despite it’s being one one of my all-time favorite Newbery winners, I had only read it once. Was it really as good as I remembered? Happily, the answer is yes.

Six families, seemingly unrelated, are all pursued by a mysterious realtor to take an apartment in the prestigious, newly-built Sunset Towers in Westingtown. A few months later, sixteen of these individuals are named as heirs in Sam Westing’s will. He was the founder of the extremely successful Westing Paper Products, for which the factory was named, and earned millions of dollars, but his life was a lonely one in his later years and he had no direct descendants.

There is a catch, however. Westing’s bizarre but legal will claims that one of those same sixteen heirs was responsible for his death, and the one who figures it out will win a million dollars. The heirs are divided into pairs, each given $10,000 and five one-word clues. The participants on the surface have little in common–a high school track star, a judge, a cleaning woman, a dressmaker, a doctor, a beautiful fiancée, a precocious thirteen-year-old, named Turtle. However, they will have to put aside their differences and work together if they want to play the Westing game. Sam Westing may have seemed mad, but perhaps there is a method to it after all.

I don’t want to say anything else for fear of giving something away, but I loved the book just as much this time around. In fact, knowing the outcomes of different plot lines, I was able to pick up many of the clues scattered throughout that I would have overlooked on a first read. It might be the mathematician in me, but I absolutely adore puzzle-type plots, and even as an adult I still find this book intellectually engaging. The correct solution makes complete and total sense, but so do all the incorrect solutions that everyone else comes up with,especially given our knowledge of the characters. Raskin treats all the clues and plot elements like pieces of colored paper in a kaleidoscope, rather than red herrings to simply display and discard.

The book is written in a third-person omniscient that jumps around among all the different characters. The only element that distinguishes this as a children’s book is that Turtle receives more time than the other characters–but no more so than in, say, a Flavia de Luce mystery. Ellen Raskin also has a wonderfully ironic sense of humor. For example, at one point the elevator becomes an unofficial bulletin board, and some of the postings are just hilarious.

My first experience with Ellen Raskin was actually her Newbery Honor book, Figgs and Phantoms. I remember being underwhelmed and thinking it was pretty weird. I almost didn’t readThe Westing Game because of it. At least I am not alone; of her four main books listed on Amazon, this one had the lowest reviews, and many agreed it was bizarre. At least the other two look promising.

Fun fact: Ellen Raskin was also a graphic artist, and actually designed the first cover of A Wrinkle in Time.

Published in: on June 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Belong to Me

All of my life, love had trumped sadness and anger. It had been that kind of a life. Let it continue, I prayed. Let me do the right thing.

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos is another one of those books that I bought a while ago at a library booksale because I knew it was on my TBR list. I didn’t remember why, or what it was supposed to be about. I’m trying to clean out my shelves a little bit now, though, and part of that involves reading going through all the books that are still unread.

I sat down to test out the first chapter introducing Cornelia, a woman in her thirties who has just moved with her husband Teo from NYC to a small suburban neighborhood. She is bright, bubbly, and somehow instantly at odds with her ice-queen neighbor Piper, who is obsessed with appearances and perfection for her husband and two children. Great, I thought to myself. One of those fish-out-of-water queen bee stories for adults. A Housewives tale on paper. I’ll give it one more chapter before deciding.

I actually read the entire book that Sunday. It turned out to be a far cry from what I expected, both from the jacket and the first chapter, but it was very well done. I quickly found myself caring about the characters that de los Santos creates. Piper becomes instantly humanized as she copes with her best friend Elizabeth’s cancer-related decline. The two families have lived picture-perfect lives together, and now everything is crumbling. As Cornelia struggles to find a niche, she is befriended by Lake, who has also recently moved to town. She left her husband when her teenaged son Dev was just a baby, and has been supporting the two of them with low-end jobs ever since. Dev is a gifted and philosophical student, with a special affinity for Darwin and physics. After a horrible year of being bullied in public school, he’s finally beginning to shine at the private school they moved across the country for him to attend.

Belong to Me is not that plot-heavy, at least compared to most of the books I read. The real joy is getting to know the characters and de los Santos’ writing style. Cornelia and Dev in particular have lovely voices. Cornelia and Teo also have the sweetest known-each-other-since-they-were-five marriage. I’m a sucker for childhood sweethearts, but this is done is such a way that their romance still feels powerful and immediate. They are the couple that everyone else in the book aspires to be. (And also, apparently, the main characters from the previous novel, Love Walked In, which is also on my TBR. How can you publish a book and not mention anywhere on it inside or out that it is a sequel of sorts?)

One (perhaps unintended) message I brought away from the book is the enforced realization that extramarital affairs really do throw a wrench in the works. (I’ll admit upfront that this has always been a personal belief for me, but I saw it more from a practical sense in this book. This is my own reaction and not a judgment on anyone.) They can destroy a marriage, when the husband and wife no longer make each other a priority. Plus, there is the issue of children born out of wedlock, which this book tackles. Dev grows up without knowing who or where his father is. A couple in the book finds out that they are pregnant after they have already broken up. I don’t think that every family needs to fit the traditional definition, and blended or single-parent families have no less love than blood-linked ones (this is pretty much de los Santos’ main theme). It just makes it a bit more complicated, sometimes.

Also, can someone who has read the book please explain to me the significance of the cover image? I’ll give it credit for not showing a headless woman, and for being a pretty color combination, but after that I’m stuck.

Sometimes I feel bad about my obvious preferences in reading choices. I tend to gravitate towards mystery and suspense, or quirky vintage charm, as a substitute for what often seems to be lacking in daily life. My first choice is not to read about women with friendship problems or the trials of motherhood; perhaps in a different phase of my life it will seem more relevant. When I do read these books however, I’m pleasantly surprised. For example, I went on a big Elizabeth Berg binge when I was around 18, and fell in love with her poetic writing style. Does anyone have recommendations for other books or authors of this type? I’ve never even read a Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Piccoult to know how they compare. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

Published in: on June 25, 2012 at 7:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Finds at the Used Book Store

At the last several booksales, I’ve had more luck with other series than Nancy Drew, especially Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins. I also already own more Nancy’s than the others, but the overall trend seems to be that it is less available, perhaps because it is more well-known and held on to.

My luck changed a bit when I stopped by the small used book store near my school. I recalled from the last time I was there that they had a decent collection of series books, and I wasn’t disappointed. There were several of the yellow book club editions, and I chose four:

photos 002I didn’t have any of these cover illustrations, because most of my lower-volumes are hand-me-downs without dust jackets (not that I could ever replace them for sentimental reasons). I was especially excited to get the smoking man cover of Broken Locket, as that book is one of my favorites.

Speaking of favorites, I was over the moon to find a paperback copy of The Little White Horse. I had no idea that it had been reissued; I guess they hoped the blurb by J.K.Rowling might make a difference. I checked this book out several times from the school library when I was younger and just adored it. I’m a little bit afraid that it won’t live up to my memory, but I just read a few pages and don’t think that will be the case. I can recall so clearly many of the elements, especially Maria’s rabbit Serena and the scene where Robin takes her home to his mother.  I will have to save this for the perfect time to reread.

Published in: on June 25, 2012 at 6:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Unidentified Woman

I have my grandmother to thank for my large Mignon G. Eberhart collection, as most of them were hers. For an author frequently billed as “America’s Agatha Christie,” she seems to fly under the radar of most today, but I still really enjoy her romantic suspense/mystery novels. Most of my favorites date from the first half of her career, like The Dark Garden and Wings of Fear and Enemy in the House, and Unidentified Woman is also from that era. I wouldn’t call it a favorite, but still a suspenseful and intriguing read.

When Henry Frame was found drowned on their property several months ago, Victoria Stearne and the rest of the household went through the hell of a public investigation. Vicky herself was the main target of suspicion for John Campbell, the Ponte Verde State’s Attorney, because Frame had a tight grip on the purse strings and wouldn’t allow her full participation in the Stearne Mills she inherited from her father. Finally, however, the death was ruled a suicide and the family began to move on. Thalia Frame still remained with them indefinitely, and Vicky became engaged to Michael Bayne from a different Mill office. Her cousin Hollis continued to train with the army at the newly constructed camp under the direction of their family friend, Colonel Galant. Aunt Bessie is busy planning the upcoming nuptials. The weekend before, however, another dead body is found floating in the water. The unidentified young woman is wearing a dress belonging to the long-time housekeeper Clistie, who has now disappeared. Vicky is most upset, as she alone had heard a scream that night and she and her cousin Agnew had allowed Clistie to go investigate. That’s not the end of her troubles, however. Soon incriminating evidence shows up linking Vicky to the crime, and the zealous investigator Mr. Beasley is determined to see her convicted for both murders.

I think the aspect that kept me from outright loving this book is that Vicky doesn’t always seem to be the brightest crayon in the box. Granted, being suspected of murder (twice) might make you behave a little desperately, but she is still surprisingly naive this second time round. Anytime someone pushes for marriage after a crime, my first thought is that spouses can’t testify against each other (not that Vicky was actually guilty, of course). She also returns to the scene of the crime alone with Agnew, something that can only lead to being hurt, incriminated, or both. Maybe I’m just naturally suspicious from having read too many mysteries. I can’t guarantee that I would make good choices myself in the panicked heat of the moment.

It also was not the cleanest of plots. Mignon Eberhart liberally sprinkled in red herrings, not all of which seemed satisfactorily resolved. I’m still not sure whether one character who at times seemed untrustworthy was actually involved in the murder plot, though I don’t think so. It also seemed like the resolution came out of left field a bit. (To be fair,  I was sick when I finished the book, so I may not have picked up on everything I should have.)

I do have to give her credit for the characters of Beasley and Agnew, however. Beasley has Vicky in his crosshairs from the moment he takes over the investigation. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that he believes her guilty, and his constant pointed accusatory remarks are designed to pick her apart. However, even Vicky must admit that he is honest, and still follows leads that are contrary to his suspicions. As a reader I hated him, but he was far from the bumbling fool that incorrect inspectors often are. Agnew, on the other hand, was probably my favorite character. He has all the cavalier innocence of an eighteen-year-old, fascinated by the investigation but not quite sure he has the stomach when it hits this close to home. He and Vicky are five years apart but have grown closer lately, and he is more than willing to act as her partner in–well, anti-crime, I guess. I’ve read enough gothics that it’s really refreshing when cousins can just be good friends, like in The Street of Small Steps.

Though published in 1943, the book is actually set in March of 1941. The army camp is merely for training at this point, but everyone views the US entrance into the war as eventually inevitable. The small town of Ponte Verde is trying to deal with an influx of soldiers, and the fledgling camp is trying to deal with security when construction is still ongoing. I wonder if Mignon Eberhart began writing the book before Pearl Harbor, or if she decided to change the time so that the male characters at camp would still be around.

She also provides an interesting perspective on genre conventions. At the beginning of the book, Vicky is seriously doubting her impending marriage. She isn’t sure whether she actually loves Michael, or only accepted his proposal because it seemed like the obvious thing to do after he came to her aid so nobly during the turmoil of the first investigation.

She would scarcely have known him if it hadn’t been for Henry’s death. He would have stayed a few days at the house and left. They wouldn’t have been plunged together into horror–into anxiety and apprehension, yes, as fear; they wouldn’t have been thrown into each other’s arms, seeking each other’s support in time of need. He wouldn’t have acted, really, a hero’s role, with herself a heroine. Thus the whole circumstance of their engagement was artificial, fictional, unreal; marriage needed something real for a basis.

She’s totally right. I’m a hopeless romantic and like the idea that love can blossom amidst the escapades of a suspense book, but sometimes that relationship can be as contrived as the result of a season of the bachelor. Just because people are thrown together doesn’t mean they belong together, or are meant to be anything more than friends. Minon Eberhart actually plays with this idea throughout the course of the book. It’s a different perspective, but makes sense in this context.

The young lovers are one of Patricia Wentworth’s greatest strengths, but are never a main plotline in the likes of Rex Stout. How much of a place do you think they have in mystery novels? (I think romance is pretty much a given in gothic or suspense, so we’ll let those slide.)

Published in: on June 21, 2012 at 2:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chamomile Mourning

After a brief hiatus I’m back in Charleston with Laura Childs’ sixth Tea Shop Mystery. I love the small town feel of this series. There are lots of little shops and restaurants, and everyone in this sphere of society seems to know everyone else. I’m not sure how realistic it is, but it does make me want to visit historic Charleston!

chamomile mourningIn Chamomile Mourning, the Poet’s Tea at annual Spoleto festival is forced to move indoors due to rain. Worse still is when an auction house owner plummets to his death from the balcony. When the main suspect turns out to be Gracie Venable, a friend of Haley’s from business school who is getting ready for the grand opening of her hat shop, Theo is tapped to help with the investigation. As usual, there are many secret motives lurking beneath the surface–a dispute over a lease, an affair, or even something related to the art world.

Childs still followed her format for choosing the killer, but this climax was probably Theodosia’s most harrowing crime-fighting experience yet, landing her in the hospital. I wasn’t paying as much attention to the mystery plot, though, because relationship bombshell!! Theo’s boyfriend Jory proposes to her, on the grounds that she move with him to NYC for his new position at the law firm, and either go back into advertising or open a new branch of the Indigo Tea Shop. Does he not get how much her shop and her friends mean to her? It just seemed really, really out of character for Jory, who had been fairly complacent and Ned Nickerson-like up until this point. One of the things I liked about this series was the lack of relationship drama. Long story short, Jory goes off to New York without Theo and she takes up with young restauranteur Parker Scully. As blond and charming as he may be, I just can’t like him because of the way this all came out of the blue.

On a more positive note, at one point, while hosting an afternoon tea, Theo puts in a new CD–Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughn Williams. I have that CD! His Fantasia on Greensleeves is one of my favorite classical pieces. This reference made up for Parker just a bit.

Fun tidbit: While flipping through this one for the review, I noticed that a very minor character is the wife of the man who is murdered in the next book. She comes across as more annoying here.

Published in: on June 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Summertime, and the Living Is Easy

Once again, posting during the school year just didn’t really happen for me. I find that once all the planning and grading are done,all I want to do is relax with a new book, not write about the last one I finished.

I have a ton of old drafts because I did at least keep my habit of making notes to myself as I read. The only thing that these reviews still need is the synopsis, which ironically for me is the hardest part. I can be quite long-winded and have trouble summing up a book succinctly. I’ve got a stack of books on my nightstand glaring at me for this sole reason, so one of the things to cross off on my to-do list this week is finalizing the posts. Bear with me if you see a lot of them suddenly crop up!

It was a very mystery-heavy spring, so my focus on summer reading is to mix in some classics. Last summer I kept Bleak House in the car for whenever I had a break between tutoring students or was waiting around somewhere. I’m thinking about giving Oliver Twist a go this time around; I’ve seen the movie(s)–real as well as Oliver and Company–and read the heavily abridged illustrated classic as a child.

I’m also continuing the Year of Rereading. The Jasper Fforde books are just calling my name, and I’m so excited to start from the beginning with Thursday and her world.

Published in: on June 11, 2012 at 10:43 am  Leave a Comment