Friday, August 5, 2016

The Twenty-Four-Hour Lipstick Mystery

The Twenty-Four-Hour Lipstick Mystery by Bonnie Pryor, 1989.

Cassie Adams, who is eleven years old, has never been happy with her looks, and now that her friends are starting to shave their legs and get interested in boys, she feels plainer than ever. One day, she sees an ad for Mrs. DuPrey's School of Beauty and Charm and thinks that it might help her improve her appearance and develop confidence. The only problem is that she doesn't have the money for it, and her parents won't give her any. She decides that she needs to look for odd jobs in the neighborhood to help raise the money that she needs.

By coincidence, old Mr. Murdock's granddaughter has recently moved into the old family house, which is huge and reputed to be haunted. In spite of the creepiness of the old place, Cassie finds a job there, helping Miss Murdock with cleaning and unpacking. Miss Murdock's father made his money in cosmetics, and Miss Murdock employs a secretary named Victoria Presser, who used to be a model. Cassie admires Vicky for her beauty and elegance and looks forward to picking up some beauty tips from her. She also makes friends with Jason, a new boy in town, who also works for Miss Murdock, helping the gardener fix up the grounds. However, it isn't long before Cassie, Jason, and Cassie's younger brother, Danny, begin noticing that there is something odd about the old Murdock house.

Danny is the first to notice that there is an octagonal window in the wall of the house, but none of the rooms has a window in that shape. Sometimes, lights can be seen through this window at night. Also, Cassie finds what looks like lab equipment among Miss Murdock's boxes. Is Miss Murdock involved in something illegal? Does it have something to do with the burglaries that have been occurring around town? Why is the grumpy old gardener sneaking around? Just what is in that hidden room?

This is a good mystery for tween and early teen girls, who can identify with Cassie's worries about being beautiful and popular. The moral of the story is that appearances are deceiving, and in the end, Cassie reconsiders what beauty really is and develops more confidence by appreciating the good qualities she already has and developing new interests. While some of the other girls try to show how grown-up they are by looking grown-up, Cassie really grows up by taking responsibility for her life and the direction she wants it to go, making decisions about what she wants and who her real friends are.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mystery of the Golden Horn

Mystery of the Golden Horn by Phyllis A. Whitney, 1962.

Vicki Stewart doesn't mean to get into trouble. However, with her mother in the hospital with a back injury and Vicki in the care of her unsympathetic aunts, she has allowed her schoolwork to slide to the point where she cannot go on to the next grade. Faced with the prospect of admitting her failure to her friends, Vicki decides that she would rather leave school early and skip summer camp. Instead, she will join her father in Turkey, where he has been teaching at a girls' college. The prospect of going to a new country and facing her father after her humiliating failure isn't pleasant, either, but Vicki sees it as her only path to a fresh start. Indeed, her life will never be the same.

Vicki's father rents his rooms from Mrs. Byrne, an American living in a palace that once belonged to a pasha, along with her son, Ken, and her distant cousin and ward, Adria. Adria is about the same age as Vicki, and she has problems of her own. Adria's parents are dead, and she has not been happy living with the Byrnes. Adria is something of a mystery to Vicki. She's a dreamy, unpredictable girl who believes in magic spells and fortune-telling. A gypsy friend of Adria's has told her that her fortune is to be found with a mysterious "golden horn," and Adria's single-minded pursuit of it has a tendency to get her into scrapes. Unfortunately, Adria also tends to drag Vicki into trouble, partly because she is convinced that Vicki's fortune is intertwined with hers. Vicki resents these complications in her life that add to her "problem child" reputation. However, she sincerely wants to help troubled Adria. Not all of the strange things happening in the house, particularly in the spooky, disused haremlik, are Adria's fault. As Vicki puzzles over these strange things and Adria continues her search for the golden horn, the girls gain new perspectives on their lives and their problems. The solutions aren't as far-away and mystical as they think, but the girls will have to rely on themselves and each other to see them.

Phyllis Whitney's books are wonderful for their colorful settings and insights on human nature. Vicki's disappointment and embarrassment over her failure are true-to-life, and her struggle to change and redeem herself is something that everyone has experienced at some point. It's a touching and reassuring story about how to deal with failure and life's problems. The mystery is subtle (up until the end, you're not quite sure how much of the trouble is Adria's doing and what her motivations are), and the setting is vivid and engaging. Whitney has also included interesting historical details about Turkey and comparisons between the past and present (by 1970s standards) culture.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Secret of the Tiger's Eye

Secret of the Tiger's Eye by Phyllis A. Whitney, 1961.

Benita Dustin's father is a writer, just like she hopes to be one day. When her father announces that they will live for a year in South Africa with his Aunt Persis so that he can do research, it sounds like a grand adventure. The trouble is that her father's editor has given permission for her son, Joel, to accompany them because she thinks the experience would be good for him, too. Benita's little brother, Lanny, gets along well with Joel, but Benita and Joel fight and tease each other almost constantly. Benita gets annoyed with Joel's obsession with facts and information, and Joel thinks that Benita's stories and flights of fancy are silly.

Aunt Persis's house is wonderful with a beautiful tower room where Benita is allowed to stay. There is even a fantastic story about the ghost of a tiger that Aunt Persis's husband shot years ago in India haunting the grounds of the house and the little cave in the garden. Although Joel scoffs at the idea of a tiger ghost, Benita is captivated by the story, especially when strange things begin to happen around the house. Benita learns about the tragic death of Aunt Persis's adopted son, Malcolm, and the strange theft of the emerald diadem that Aunt Persis received from the rajah that her husband saved from the tiger years ago. However, she will need Joel's help to make sense of the situation, a difficult prospect at the best of times but almost impossible to ask for after Joel plays a cruel joke on Benita and tries to get Lanny to help gang up on her.  Then, Benita's father tells her something that changes everything, and all the time, someone with sinister intentions is watching and waiting . . .

Besides the mystery, there is also a subplot about the nature of hate and prejudice. In South Africa, at the time the story was written, apartheid was a big issue. Benita makes friends with a girl of mixed race called Charis, and they talk about racial issues in South Africa and the U.S. during the 1960s. Although Benita wouldn't think of being prejudiced against anyone on the basis of race, she finds it harder to understand people with different personalities, like Joel.  Although the story focuses on Benita and the lessons she learns, I personally found Joel and his mistakes harder to accept.  Both Joel and Benita need to learn to be more understanding of each other, but in a way, I think Joel is worse because of his deliberately cruel pranks and because he already knows a couple of things that Benita doesn't which should have influenced his behavior. But, that may be a matter of opinion. Fortunately, the two become friends when they learn to allow each other to be themselves and to appreciate each other's good points.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Silver Days

Silver Days by Sonia Levitin, 1989.

This is the second book in the Journey to America Saga.

Escaping from World War II Europe was only the first step for the Platt family. Now that they are reunited in the United States, survival is still a struggle. They have very little money, and Lisa's father struggles to find work and a permanent place for his family to live. Along the way, they encounter people who are prejudiced against them, some because they are Jewish and some because they are German, and are forced to confront certain prejudices that they hadn't realized that they held as they settle into their new country and learn to live alongside people from different backgrounds who live very different lives.

Lisa describes her family's day to day struggles and adventures with understanding. In Germany, her father had his own business, selling coats, but he has to struggle to get into the clothing business in America. Her mother, who had once had her own servants in Germany, is forced to take a job as a maid to help make ends meet. Besides the basic problems of learning a new language, dealing with a lack of money, and trying to find work, she also describes the parts of American culture that take her family by surprise. There are religious issues because most of the people around them are Christian, and Lisa's mother is upset when her youngest daughter, Annie, ends up getting a role in her school's Easter play. Her mother also isn't sure what to make of the Japanese family who lives next door when Annie makes friends with their daughter.

Meanwhile, the war that they had feared is becoming a reality. People in the U.S. are starting to support the war effort, collecting materials that the army can use, starting Victory Gardens to help support themselves during food rationing, joining the army, and volunteering as nurses. The Platts also experience survivor's guilt as they hear reports of friends and family who weren't lucky enough to escape the Holocaust.

The Platt family is realistic, and they have their arguments as the stresses of all these changes take their toll on them. But, they are a loving family and continue to support each other through everything. The title of the book comes from a song, "Golden Days", about looking back on happy times. When Lisa's little sister Annie asks her if these are their "golden days", Lisa tells her that she doesn't think so, but she thinks that they might be silver ones, days leading up to happier times ahead.

In some ways, the children of the family have an easier time dealing with all the changes than their parents. In the beginning, they are aware that they don't quite fit in, although they desperately want to. However, they do manage to make new friends, and Lisa and her older sister, Ruth, even find their first loves. While the world around them is changing, the three sisters also change, growing up, finding new interests, and learning more about themselves and the kind of lives they want to live in their new home.

There is a third book in the series called Annie's Promise, which I don't have and haven't read. It focuses mainly on Lisa's younger sister, Annie. Unlike her older sisters, Annie doesn't remember much about life in Germany because she was so young when they left. Most of her life has been spent in America, and she can't understand why her parents are so old-fashioned about many things compared to the other people around them. In this book, Annie (now twelve years old) tries to become an independent young woman, but also comes to understand her family better.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Journey to America

Journey to America by Sonia Levitin, 1970.

This is the first book in the Journey to America Saga.  Like her heroine, Lisa, Sonia Levitin also fled Germany with her family during World War II, and her stories are semi-autobiographical.

Twelve-year-old Lisa Platt lives with her family in Berlin in 1938.  But, with the rise of the Nazis, events have taken a frightening turn for Jewish families like theirs.  There has already been violence toward Jewish people, and travel is restricted.  Lisa's father fears for their family, and their mother believes that war is about to break out.  Reluctantly, her parents have decided that the only thing to do is to try to start over somewhere else.

Because of the travel restrictions, Lisa's father has to leave secretly, pretending that he is only going on vacation.  In reality, he and Lisa's uncle will go to America and try to get established before sending for the rest of the family.  But, it isn't safe for Lisa, her mother, and her two sisters to stay in Germany, waiting for word from them.  Instead, they pretend that they are joining Lisa's father for a holiday in Switzerland.  They can only take a little luggage with them, as if they were really just going on vacation and very little money.

But, getting on the train out of Germany is only the first step of their long journey.  Lisa and her mother and sisters live as refugees in Switzerland, waiting for her father to help arrange for their passage to America.  Often, they have too little to eat because they don't have much money.  There are some people who help them, and they make some new friends, but the long wait is difficult.  Meanwhile, they must face the frightening events taking shape around them, around the people they left behind, and their own uncertain future.

Although there are sad parts of the book, there are lighter moments, too, and the characters are realistic and engaging.  There is only one illustration in the book, a drawing of Lisa and her sisters getting their pictures taken for their passports.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Vandemark Mummy

The Vandemark Mummy by Cynthia Voigt, 1991.

The Vandemark Mummy is an exciting mystery with believable characters. The story includes a bit of history about Ancient Egypt and side plots about the complications of family life, the role of women in society, and the nature of ambition.

Twelve-year-old Phineas Hall and his fifteen-year-old sister, Althea, have recently moved to Maine with their father, Professor Hall, because he got a job working at the small Vandemark College. Moving and starting over in a new place is never easy, but the move is more difficult for the kids because their mother didn't come with them. Their mother is an ambitious, career-oriented feminist, and when she was offered an important job working for a congressman in Oregon, she could not bring herself to turn it down in order to go to Maine with the rest of the family. Although the entire family talked the situation over, and everyone agreed to the current arrangements, no one is really happy about it. Althea particularly feels hurt. Even though she has shared her mother's feminist ideals, she's hurt by her mother's apparent selfishness and the seeming ease with which she abandoned the family. Althea believes that her mother should have compromised on her career this time because her husband has made compromises for her in the past. To make herself feel better, Althea spends her time studying one of the oldest feminists, the Greek poet Sappho. Phineas, on the other hand, is just trying to be a normal kid and fight off boredom while waiting for the summer to end and school to start. But, boredom is the last thing on Phineas's mind when the mummy arrives at the college.

The wealthy patriarch of the Vandemark family dies and leaves his collection of Egyptian antiquities (one of many collections he had) to the college, including a real mummy. The Vandemark family is a little disappointed because they had hoped that the collection might go to a much more prestigious institution, even though Vandemark College is named for their family. To the joy of the Hall family, Professor Hall is put in charge of the collection, which will be put on display in a new addition to the college library. Professor Hall lets Phineas and Althea go through the collection with him and another professor, Ken Simard. Although at first the collection does not seem to be particularly valuable, except for the unusually good condition of the mummy and the funeral wreath, it seems to be a lot more valuable to someone. After a failed attempt to break into the collection, someone later manages to steal the mummy. Then, Althea suddenly disappears. The adults suspect that Althea might have run away because of the troubles in their family, but Phineas knows better and begins a desperate hunt to find his sister.

One of the best things about the book is that it really takes both kids to unravel the entire mystery: Phineas for his persistence and decisive action and Althea for her more mature understanding of the thief's motives. Although, even at the end, their family's situation isn't completely resolved, the kids' experiences give them a new perspective on things. It would be a great book for middle schoolers.