Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Series Review: Trixie Belden

Title: Trixie Belden (series)
Author: Julie Campbell (first 6) (involved in Ginny Gordon and Cherry Ames), then  Kathryn Kenny (a name taken on by an unknown number of authors)
Release Date: 1948-1986
Genre: friendship, family, mystery, drama, adventure
My Rating: ***** (possibly biased by my young tween self who was obsessed with the series)
Official Rating: children's fiction
Age Group: 10+ (mostly dependent upon reading level)

Sleepyside is a nice little town, home of Beatrix (Trixie, please!) Belden, her two older brothers Brian and Martin (Mart), and their youngest brother Bobby. Their lives are simple. Not much happens. They help out around the house, go to school, etc.
Then one summer Madeline (Honey) Wheeler's family moves in up the hill. No doubt about it, they're rich. She has a governess, the house is huge. Horses, house staff, you get the idea. Money.
Honey is lonely. Trixie's brothers are away assisting at a boys' summer camp. The two meet and hit it off, even though they're complete opposites. Honey likes Trixie's tomboyish love of adventure and danger. Trixie finds Honey's girlishness new (albeit really hard to understand)--but mostly she just likes the companionship and the horses. Who doesn't like horses?

The two girls meet a runaway boy, and everything just picks up from there.
The friends from a club called the Bobwhites of the Glen and they try to help people in need. The club consists of: Brian Belden, Mart Belden, Trixie Belden, Honey Wheeler, Jim Frayne, Dan Mangan, and Diana Lynch (the last two usually not present in the books).

Friendship. Mysteries. Adventure. Travel. Fun.
What more could one possibly want to read about? Especially as a young reader just jumping into chapter books.

Word of Warning
 Please note that while I am not reviewing specific books (for the most part), I am commenting on trends the series carries. I will also do my best to comment on any problems that really stand out, even if they were only in one book.

  • Jim Frayne's stepfather beat, starved, and didn't care for him. Basically, Jonsey was abusive. We don't get much detail on this, and he's relatively mentally untouched (it's a 1940's children's book), but it is still a reality that is faced.
  • Dan Mangan was part of a gang at one point (it doesn't appear he did anything too horrible, but this makes him untrustworthy).
  • Some suspense. In a few books, characters are kidnapped. I remember only three or four times where the lives of the characters were in question. All the other times, the kidnapping did not lead the reader to expect death.
  • Bad guys.
  • No murders as far as I can remember.
  • As the books rise in number, they become a bit more intense. All dealt with in a good, rather old-fashioned way, but more intense. An accidental poisoning, near drowning, an accidentally abandoned child, car crash victim with amnesia, etc.
  • Also as the books rise in number, they sort of peter out. I'd say they are at their best in the late teens and early twenties. The rest are worth reading, but aren't nearly as good.
  • Book 32, The Mystery of the Whispering Witch was very frustrating. For the most part, the books stay on the straight and narrow, and so do the characters. This one went over the edge. It is implied that a house is haunted, and a rather horrible story is told of a woman who was once burned to death inside of it after being accused of witchcraft. Trixie very stubbornly refuses to believe in such things (a much-appreciated element of the book), but right near the end seems to question her firm beliefs.
  • Frustrations:
    • Bobby's language. This is more of a rather annoying element than an actual problem. The kid is supposed to be 6 years old, but he talks like a 3 year old. As the oldest of 8, this always really bothered me because I knew he wasn't talking right.
    • Continuity. As the books continued to change hands, major plot threads would get lost and important facts would be changed. Strawberry the horse would change from male to female and back again (in different books, obviously). Honey's hair color would shift, Jim's eye color, character's attractions and relationships, etc. I always thought if you're going to enter a series, know the series. I was a fan and I knew it better than the authors and editors. This drove other fans crazy as well.
The Good
  • It's fun. Lots of adventure, relatively good plots (at least, not identical like the Hardy Boys* plots).
  • Vocabulary. I know this isn't about education, but man the vocab in these books is great. Mart is a walking dictionary, and we learn many of the words he uses from the confusion of his friends. Others can be looked up if one so desires. I hadn't considered this when first reading these years ago, but now I see great value to what's going on here.
  • Good characters. These characters come from all different backgrounds, but they join together and want to do good for others.
  • Great friendships. They aren't without their struggles and complications, but they're solid.
  • Great families. No, they're not torn by divorce or death or anything else. They're supportive. They're there and they care. It's very refreshing.
  • Good guys. I know this sounds strange, but in contemporary books it is getting harder and harder to find good guy characters. But take a few steps back on the timeline, and we have the Belden boys and Jim Frayne (every girl who read these had a literary crush on him). Brian is responsible. Mart is a little annoying but very funny. Both brothers care deeply about their sister and her friends and do their best to protect them. Jim is stubborn and does the right thing all the time (mostly). He's respectful and loves his sister dearly, as well as her best friend, and does his best to make sure they go unharmed.
  • Good ages. I remember reading Nancy Drew and quickly losing interest. She was nearly 8 years older than me! And when you're 10 or 12, that's a really big deal. Trixie, on the other hand, was so much closer and easy to relate to. And if you didn't relate to tomboy Trixie, perhaps Honey or Diana. 
  • Mistakes. The kids mess up. They make bad decisions, they're not always nice to each other or others, and they get into all sorts of "scrapes." And then they dig themselves out with help from each other, family, other friends, authorities, etc. Basically, all is not well all the time--and far from it!
 *I'm not bashing the Hardy Boys series. On the contrary. Even though nearly every plot was identical, I loved those books too.

My Thoughts

They were great. With the help of very wonderful family members, I managed to get my hands on every single book, all the way from 1 to 39--and that is not an easy thing to do. I knew those things inside out. I had my favorites (still do) and my complaints. I read them to my sister because she was too young to read herself. I could draw a map of Sleepyside. I could tell you Trixie's cousins' names and where they lived, and all about the Bigfoot story. I knew the names of the minor characters and all the criminals.

Basically, I was hooked. I might propose that aside from The Boxcar Children books, this series was really what launched me into the great world of literature.

Why though? Because the characters were fun and easy to relate to. Because the adventures were great. Because it wasn't too hard to read but it didn't feel like I was being written down to. Because I shipped Jim and Trixie and wanted to find out how that turned out (spoiler: it's never addressed). Because even the romance was something a 12 year old girl not interested in romance could get behind.
Because they were good. And they're still good. Now my second sister is involved, and some of my summer students have mentioned interest (poor things. I immediately offered my thoughts, little-known trivia, and the entire series for their borrowing pleasure).
They're old but they don't get old. They're decent literature that's readable. Sadly, that can be very hard to get.

But Trixie Belden joins those childhood loves, joining the ranks of Boxcar Children, Hardy Boys, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, American Girl books (Sisters In Time were better), and Caddie Woodlawn.
And yes, some day I will try to get reviews of those up here too. Until then, know that they are strongly endorsed by myself and other readers of this household.

Further Reading
A very interesting article on the books: Schoolgirl Shamus that already-established fans might find enjoyable.
A blog that summarizes each book, comments on the historical/cultural aspects of them (because yes, words change meaning, societal movements come and go, etc): Brian's Jalopy

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Movie Review: Catching Faith

Title: Catching Faith
Release Date: 2015
Genre: Christian, family, drama, sports
My Rating: *
Official Rating: NR (not rated)
Age Group: 14+ for teen drinking and lack of parental guidance

They're like any other family. A father with a job, a mother who stays at home and runs things, two seniors in high school, one boy, one girl. The girl's smart and headed for M.I.T. Her brother, the football star who's popular and good at the game he plays. They've even got the grandparents who are nice, but get on their nerves every now and then. The mother's friends who are concerned about appearance and don't really know her. The crazy church lady who seems to think they need help.
But they don't need help. They're the perfect family with success and great clothes. They're fine. Great, actually.

Then the son gets caught drinking. The grandfather dies of a heart attack, the grandmother moves in and drives everyone crazy. The daughter has a copy of the answers to the final Latin exam that hasn't been given yet. The mother is falling apart and doesn't know where to turn, and on top of all that, her husband wants the son to confess to drinking. Which will get him kicked off the team. But the husband wants his family to have "integrity" and he's positive that's the way to get it. Get the kid kicked off the football team. Make enemies of the entire town.
Right. 'Cause that's a good idea.

Word of Warning
  • Underage drinking (were it not for this, I might give it a much lower age rating)
  • Mother hesitates and thinks her son should get away with drinking because he didn't get caught. This may be the attitude of the town, as at least one other mother (who is used to represent the views of the women) believes that if the kids are safe and don't get caught, it's not a big deal and should be left alone.
  • Daughter steals a copy of the test answers (she doesn't use it, but she does have it)
  • Grandmother is always rude and nitpicking her daughter's way of running the house/family
  • Wife takes a necklace her husband bought her to the store to exchange it for a bigger one and doesn't tell him
  • Dishonesty, tension, problems in the marriage
  • Death
  • Daughter's clothes are sometimes revealing
  • A very rude woman who masquerades as a friend
  • Family issues. Basically, the family bond is suffering
  • No bad words, no violence (save for a few football tackles), nothing bad on the intimacy front (except for the conflicts in the marriage, but that's not inappropriate for younger viewers)

My Thoughts
Two things I want to address: the use of nouns instead of specific names, and the low rating for something obviously appropriate for nearly the whole family.

Let's start with the single star. The single star is because I found this film rather boring. It was the typical Christian film that is slightly preachy, but I have to give them credit for still putting the family through plenty of struggles even after the faith comes back into their lives. It wasn't even that preachy until the moment on the bench when the football coach starts quoting Scripture to the son. Which I have nothing against--it was just painfully preachy and sort of pushy of the movie. If they had managed to make it a bit more interesting, I could have dealt with the pushy preaching.

Husband. Wife. Son. Daughter. Grandmother. Grandfather. Why no names? I could confess that I can't even remember the names (aside from Beau, the son's name, because he got yelled at a lot). But I want to claim a stylistic move here. The movie is meant to be universal. It's trying hard to be classic, the story of every family. No, it's not the story of every family (M.I.T.? drinking?), but I will admit that it does a pretty good job of feeling applicable and real for everyone (which is probably why it's so boring--after all, we all know the story and its ending). So I went with it instead of looking up names, because I liked the implications that choice made.

So it was boring, but it was every day life with a semi-every day family and it was mostly appropriate for all ages. I'm just not sure all ages would be interested, since it mostly follows the struggles of the mother and isn't very gripping.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review: Chasing Shadows


Title: Chasing Shadows
Author: Swati Avasthi (pro SWA-thee of-US-thee), graphics by Craig Phillips
Release Date: 2013
Genre: grief, pain, death, friendship, romance, violence, crime, family, mental health, Hindu, graphic novel
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: Young Adult Fiction
Age Group: 18+
Awards: Junior Library Guild Selection, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Star, Library Journal, YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults 2014, YALSA Outstanding Books for College Bound 2014, Bank Street Best Children's Books 2014

"Madness is the emergency exit" --Alan Moore, The Killing Joke
So begins Ms. Avasthi's book, and rather accurately I might add.

The book follows the experiences of Savirtri and her best friend Holly Paxton. Corey, Holly's twin brother and Savirtri's boyfriend, is shot and killed in an act of violence the two girls struggle to understand. Sav tries to convince herself she is not to blame for his death, that her hesitation of forty-seven seconds before running to his car did not cause him to bleed out. Holly, also injured in the attack, falls into a coma where she meets Kortha, the ruler of the Shadowlands where Corey is being kept. If she can find his killer, she may be able to get Corey back.
With Holly drawing further and further from reality, and Sav unable to face her own grief while she is trying to help her best friend, things begin to fall apart.

And Corey? Well, "'Corey made a choice.' His [Mr. Paxton's] voice gets thick. 'He was a good brother. A good man. You have to honor that.'"
Corey took a bullet for his twin sister. Then he died for her.
Can Holly face that reality? Can Sav?

Word of Warning
  • The beginning can get a little graphic with the shooting as one character tries to stop the injured from bleeding out. 
  • Holly and her boyfriend were sexually involved. At one point, she was afraid she had become pregnant. He finds out and insinuates that it might not be his kid, basically feeding her to the wolves at high school.
    • At one point Holly goes to visit him and tries to seduce him to distract herself from her grief. She removes her shirt and has his pants unzipped before he completely turns her down.
  •  It's not clear whether Sav and Corey were also sexually intimate. At one point she reveals she wanted to wait, and he accepted that without argument. Still, there are times where she remembers sneaking into his bedroom at night and sleeping next to him.
  • Characters kiss.
  • Parents fight.
  • A girl drugs another girl.
  • A character is shot and killed. Another character is injured and in a coma.
  • Characters deal with grief in a very raw way that can be painful to read about.
  • The main characters in this book are freerunners. That means they're often off running, jumping, and flipping off various things.
  • Theft of a police file by multiple characters, then later theft of a gun.
  • One character becomes obsessed with a false reality in which a man wants her to kill someone, or touch a killer, in order to save another.
  • A character hears voices. This character also stubbornly resists any help in the grieving process, shutting everyone out one by one.
  • Gangs are mentioned and initiation (either killing someone and cutting off a lock of hair, or standing without resisting while being beaten) is as well.
  • The Chicago police are referred to as the biggest gang in Chicago.
  • Racist comments like implying that the police are going to be particularly upset if a black gang kills a rich white kid.
  • Lying to the police.
  • A character almost kills another character.
  • Parents in general fail in this novel. They shut their children out, or force them to do things, or berate their friendship choices, or a multitude of other things. Yes, they are grieving too, but they just fail over and over and over and their efforts not to are nearly nonexistent, making it very hard to forgive them.

The Good
  • Josh, Holly's ex-boyfriend, makes a huge turnaround. He's nothing of the huge jerk that he was made out to be. He steps up and is there when Sav needs a friend to turn to in her grief and even tries to help Holly as well. While he might've been an awful person in the past, when Holly comes to him for distraction he turns her down and will not relent, not even when she starts shouting at him and leaves in an angry huff. He eventually becomes one of my favorite characters.
  • Corey. For all his mistakes, he was a good supportive boyfriend and a good brother. His father's description of him as a "Good brother. A good man" seems pretty accurate, even with all his faults. It almost brings tears to the reader's eyes when it is revealed that he leaned across his sister and took the deadly bullet--for her.
  • The way this novel is written. It is careful and well-done, dealing with a difficult subject in an honest and raw way. It may slip up at times, but I have to give the author credit for her bold move in doing what she did.

My Thoughts
A mishmash of two first person narrators, words, and panels that appear to be taken from a graphic novel, used when words seem to fail, this book is truly one of the strangest things I have ever read.
But it was addicting. I couldn't put it down. I also couldn't stop myself from becoming emotionally attached to characters who are so unlike me it might be hard to find anyone further away.

It was a hard read. Not in the sense of language or structure or anything else we associate with "hard read" when we think of the classics.
No, this was just hard to swallow. Hard to get through. Hard to watch.

Because even though this was words, mostly, that's what I was doing: watching. Watching Holly slowly lose her mind and lock everyone out. Watching Sav struggle to figure out whether she should go along with Holly or stand in front of her and stop her. Watching Corey die, seeing little glimpses into his character even after he was dead. Watching the parents struggle, the police unable to find the criminal, watching. Watching.

Sometimes I wanted to yell at the book and the characters. A few times I smacked the pages with an open palm in frustration.

And that is skill. A writer who can cause that kind of emotional response from someone who has read far more books than she's willing to admit, well, sometimes that's more difficult than it ought to be.
It has its problems, yes. Some are unforgivable, sure. They make it inappropriate for young readers, of course. The topic itself even narrows the audience.
But for all that, this is still skill.
And I respect that.