30 May 2006

I Want My "Fix" Back

Granted, I still have many books in waiting, but I'm beginning to get worried about Blackmask.com. (For those who don't know, Blackmask.com's webmaster is being sued by Conde Nast. He has been publishing pulp novels that he said were in public domain on the site, but it turns out Conde Nast owns the rights to a bunch of them, especially Street and Smith's most famous creation, the Shadow. I don't have the whole story, just what I read on various Usenet groups, but apparently he was told to take them down and refused, so now the whole site's down.) Combined with the disappearance of Mary's series book site, this is pretty disappointing.

It's a pity because I am enjoying those wonderful old Stratemeyer Syndicate and other series novels for kids. Not only are they a wonderful window on the mores of kids as they were (and probably a lot of what adults wanted them to be!), but they're now unintentionally funny. How can you not laugh at boys calling each other "old bean" or spouting funny epithets like "great horny toads!" in place of profanity? Right now I am concurrently reading H. Irving Hancock's saga of Dick Prescott (and Greg Holmes) at West Point and Dave Darrin (and Dan Dalzell) at Annapolis (the other members of the "Dick & Co. sextette" as they are referred to in the ubiquitous summation, formerly "the High School Boys," Tom Reade and Harry Hazelton, are off being civil engineers all over the US).

Having made it through plebe year with Dick, Greg, Dave, and Dan, I have to admit the stories haven't changed much: each pits the boys against some physical and often moral challenge, and there's always some idiot classmate with a chip on his shoulder against Our Heroes who keeps trying to get them expelled/in trouble. Over at West Point, after two years of ragging on Prescott and Holmes, fellow Gridley High School classmate Bert Dodge finally was exposed and sent packing. I'm sure some fellow Dodge-supporter is primed to take his place. In Dave Darrin's Second Year at Annapolis; or Two Midshipmen As Naval Academy Youngsters, classmate Pennington is aiming his big guns at Dave for getting him in trouble, although Dave actually saved him from getting booted from the Naval Academy by covering up the fact that Pennington stupidly smoked opium as a toothache remedy. The ethnic stereotypes are, as always, mildly distasteful—the whole opening opium den scene with its "velly evil" Chinese proprietor was pretty bad—but I find it interesting reading about the behind-the-scenes life of Army and Navy cadets: the system of hazing that is forbidden, but still exists; the grind of studies, "Flirtation Walk" along the Hudson and battleship cruises with the "middies."

Presumably everyone makes it through unscathed because Dave Darrin goes off to Vera Cruz in one book and then is mentioned as serving on a destroyer escort (along with Dan) when Dick Prescott goes off to fight the Boches in World War I. But getting there has been fun...

10 May 2006

Callahans Revisited

Warning, spoilers ahoy!

This one, Keeping Cool, is a little more like it.

When we left our story, I was utterly disgusted after the second book in the series, Home Sweet Home wandered into girly-girly territory with a plot that could have been solved had Neeve (the outgoing, wildly creative one of the four cousins) simply talked to her "supergranny," Gee; quarrels over painting the girls' room, which eventually turns out a typical pink; and a haggle over, of all things, a makeup bag. ::snore:: This was a complete turnaround from the opening Callahan Cousins book, Summer Begins, in which the four 12-year old Callahan girl cousins—Neeve, Hilary (the athletic one), Phoebe (the bookworm), and Kate (the quiet, craft-oriented one) come to stay with Gee in her big house on Gull Island, learn to sail, and compete in a contest once practiced by their fathers and the children of a neighboring (and slightly snobby) family, the Bickets. Sloan Bicket, who is their age, becomes the girls' bete noire.

The third book is about Kate. Although Phoebe is the bookworm, she's also coolly blonde, a little patronizing, and dresses like a hippie. Of the four girls, Kate is the one I feel the most kinship to. She likes crafts and knitting, is afraid to talk to strangers and when she does often stammers (unless she shares a common interest with the person and then she is chatty and curious), carries things with her to feel secure, fusses over her cousins, cries easily, and keeps a to-do list. In this story, Kate gets tired of being teased about the things she does and is determined to change her image so she will be "cool." Of course she's only twelve and ends up going overboard on many things, annoying the other three several times, and, of course, in the end discovers that while there are some things she could improve in herself (eating better, not being afraid of strangers), she is at her best when she is herself. [Insert violin music here.]

In the course of the story, the girls also collect donations for a fundraiser at the Island's clinic and get into a rivalry with Sloan Bicket about who will collect the most donations. During Kate's self-improvement craze, she manages to get close to Sloan and discovers that like most snobs, Sloan is actually deeply insecure and also wishes her mother, a doctor at the very clinic they're seeking donations for, would pay more attention to her. She is also jealous of the Callahan girls' closeness to each other and actually is rather lonely. Yet Kate discovers that Mrs. Bicket is not the dragon she seems to be from Sloan's comments, but a very personable woman who takes her job very seriously.

Kate's eventual revelation works without being too sappy.

As always, my reservations on these books are the same ongoing complaints: Gee seems perfect (everyone loves her, she has a gorgeous house, she has the world's best housekeeper and cook, her generosity is never-ending). The girls aren't wastrels, but they want for nothing. They all wear designer clothing. The town is idyllic, a picture-perfect resort with everything freshly painted and wonderfully scented (even low tide doesn't smell bad on Gull Island). As much as I dislike "problem" books for children that contain nothing but endless despair, the Callahans' world is almost too much in the opposite direction. It's like living in a candy-perfect world and occasionally the sugar just gets to be a bit much.

The final book comes out in October, and is about Phoebe, the only one left. The girls are apparently staying overnight in a nearby whaling museum, which may prove interesting. Maybe the realities of whaling can add a little grit to the fairy tale.