Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Secret of the Mansion by Julie Campbell

The Secret of the Mansion
by Julie Campbell
Random House, 2003 (originally published in 1948)
272 pages

I read a lot of Nancy Drew as a kid. Imagine my horror when I went back to read some of them again, just for kicks. It turns out that (hold on -- this may come as distressing news to some of you) Nancy Drew is not very well-written. Certainly not the first one, anyway, and I am saddened; I loved her so much as a kid. I couldn't even get past the first half of the book.

My mother, on the other hand, really loved Trixie Belden, and for some reason I just couldn't get as invested. Maybe it was that Nancy was older and cooler -- but it turns out that, as an adult reader, I far prefer Trixie. So I introduced my parent-child book club to her, with mixed results. Some of them really enjoyed the experience -- the boys, mostly, which surprised me, and the older generations, which did not -- and others were so frustrated by the repeated "golly! golly! golly!" and by Trixie calling her mother "Moms" that they just couldn't get into the book. That, and the fact that the pacing seemed kind of slow to them. Funny how a little thing starts to stick out like a sore thumb when there's an underlying dissatisfaction with the way a story is told.

I was somewhere in the middle. I wouldn't say I loved The Secret of the Mansion, which is the first of the Trixie Belden series and one I had never read before, but I rather enjoyed it, and I even kept it past the book club date to finish it (I didn't find it as fast a read as I'd hoped to.) The "golly" and even the "Moms" didn't really bother me, but the pacing did, and the tendency to melodramatic chapter endings followed by "ha ha, it was just a chicken" kinds of chapter beginnings wore a bit thin. I realize this is a certain kind of convention, particularly in children's mystery novels, but it quickly loses its shine for an adult reader.

So, for a quick summary: Trixie lives with her mother and father and three brothers on Crabapple Farm on the Hudson River. Her older brothers, Brian and Mart, are off at summer camp, and Trixie is looking at a summer of housework and helping out with younger brother Bobby, trying to earn enough money to buy a horse. It doesn't hold a lot of allure to her, and she's desperate for some excitement. Luckily, at almost the same time, a new girl Trixie's age moves into one of the two neighbouring mansions and a runaway hides out at the other, and rumours of a hidden fortune in the latter mansion start to heat things up.

Considering the book was first written in 1948, it holds up surprisingly well. It's certainly of its time, but in such an accessible way that though the language (see: "golly") was a bit of a barrier for some of the kids, most of the group had no trouble relating to Trixie and Honey and Jim. The family dynamic is a lovely background -- Trixie's father's a kind, generous man who takes the time to listen to his daughter; Trixie's mother is busy but supportive and trusts Trixie to be responsible; Bobby, Trixie's younger brother, is cute but exasperating and Trixie loves him dearly and also finds him a pain in the neck. The friendship between Trixie and Honey is well-done, too, if a little rushed, but it's rushed in that kind of believable way -- there are no other girls around for Trixie to hang out with, and Honey is lonely and wants a friend, and they're both of that age when passions are high and a potential friend can become a best friend in a day.

Most interestingly for me is that Trixie is not a perfect heroine, and I actually found her a bit hard to like at first. She's wildly impulsive, acts and speaks well before she thinks, shirks her chores, and is judgmental and selfish and pushy. Except that she's also very clever, very genuine, responsible, kind-hearted, and incredibly generous, too. Yes, some of that contradicts, and that makes total sense. She is a thirteen-year-old girl, a tomboy with three brothers. She's a complex character and I grew to appreciate that, versus Nancy Drew's weirdly perfect, mini-adult (and frankly, boring) demeanor. Trixie's the kind of girl I would have loved to know as a kid, but would have been too shy to approach. She would have scared me a bit, and I bet she would have lit up a room.

The plot itself is relatively thin for a mystery, and read more like an adventure story than a mystery to me. Further, it was interesting to me how much "teaching" was done in the text -- [largely outdated] first aid tips, fairly detailed discussions of rabies (aka "hydrophobia") and the habits of skunks, how to ride a horse, that sort of thing. Some of it was a bit info-dumpy, but I thought it was also kind of neat. I did feel that it was my duty to dissuade my group from thinking that the way Trixie handles a poisonous snake bite is the way to do it, though.

I'd like to eventually read the entire Trixie Belden series, but I don't think it's the sort of thing I'll be doing all at once. As I said above, it wasn't a favourite read, but I did really like the characters and I'd love to see how things evolve, at least in the first six books, which were all written by Julie Campbell. It wasn't a fast read, though, and I had enough mild irritation with it that I think I'll space the books out a fair bit. Recommended with caveats, the caveat being that you probably want to be reading this to the sort of kid who enjoys historical fiction, and doesn't mind an old style of adventure story pacing, and won't get irritated by repeated uses of the word "golly."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill

Thirty-Three Teeth
by Colin Cotterill
Soho, 2005
195 pages

This book grew on me. It had to; at the beginning, I wasn't at all happy with the direction things were taking after the first scene (which was excellent). I wasn't exactly bored, but I wasn't getting what I wanted to get out of the book. And yet, something kept me reading. By the time I was done, I was totally, happily satisfied.

Thirty-Three Teeth is the second in Colin Cotterill's series about Dr. Siri Paiboon, Head Coroner in Communist Laos in the seventies. We start with the disappearance of an old, abused bear from her cage at the local "luxury" hotel (the scene I loved) and subsequent maulings -- an open-and-shut case, one might think, except that nothing in a Siri Paiboon mystery is as it seems. And just when things are getting interesting in Vientiane, Siri is spirited off to Luang Prabang in the north of the country to investigate a couple of very, very crispy corpses under the direction of one nasty, rude governor. Then it's back to Vientiane to save his friend Inspector Phosy, Dtui the nurse gets to do some investigation of her own, a close call with the fledgling justice system, and righting various wrongs, both spiritual and mundane.

What worried me at the beginning was twofold: there was some rather clumpsy recapping of earlier events (necessary, perhaps, though I'm not even sure of that; I think Cotterill could trust his readers to hang on even if they're not quite sure what's going on, because he writes that well.) The second problem is that a chunk of this book is spent with Siri learning more about his newfound spiritual powers, and we edge pretty firmly across the line from magic realism to outright fantasy, except that... well, I don't want to spoil much for you, but the explanations for many of the happenings turn out to be less magical and more mundane than I expected. And where they are magical, they are still rather mundane, and always deeply rooted in the culture and beliefs of the Laotian people. A favourite scene: the obnoxious general in Luang Prabang tries to get the shamans to let the royal spirits know that they're expected to conform under the new communist rules (take up residence as working spirits in designated temples, that sort of thing, or be exiled to the north) -- which simultaneously says an awful lot about how seriously the spirits are taken, as well as how ridiculous politics can get very quickly. The scene is also very funny and full of tension.

It's that kind of twisty unravelling, dry humour, and mixture of melancholy, darkness, and light that kept me reading, even when I was feeling like we were spending a lot more time on magical shenanigans than I wanted to in a mystery novel. Cotterill knows how to balance the distressing with the amusing with the moving with the absurd, and he can keep the plot moving, and he provides wonderful, full characters to boot. I have never really read anything quite like these novels and I am tremendously glad there are more of them out there for me to dig into.

A note on the writing itself, too: Cotterill has a knack for a marvellously odd turn of phrase, particularly metaphor. I am sure some of this comes straight out of the Laotian language and the culture, and I am also sure that Cotterill comes up with a few of his own; he uses them unashamedly, and even though some of them are odd and perhaps a bit too florid, they also cause this reader to stop and think -- "huh, I know exactly what he means." Another example of Cotterill's ability to make wonderful connections are his titles. The man knows how to title a book. The titles are odd, attention-catching, and perfectly, perfectly apt. It's a small thing, but very pleasing.

As with the previous book in the series, highly recommended. This one is not quite as good, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded. For armchair travellers, mystery lovers, fans of the tangled and complex, those who love a good, observant, level-headed, kind, and charming lead character wrapped up in excellent writing and really interesting plots. I'd start at the beginning, just because The Coroner's Lunch is the better book. Looking forward to Disco for the Departed, when the chance arises.

Other books in the Dr. Siri Paiboon series: