BSC Super Mystery #4: Baby-sitters’ Christmas Chiller

What the heck did I just read?

baby-sitters-christmas-chiller

Before I started this I unfairly assumed that “chiller” was a bit of an overstatement. But no: the New York subplot involving the crazy ex-girlfriend was genuinely creepy, especially the gift of a jack-in-the-box with Stacey’s face. Yikes.

I worry about the BSC kids sometimes. They prematurely responsible mini-adults at the best of times, and now I find out that they already (in the <i>eighth grade</i> no less) have to worry about being stalked by crazy people who’ve dated their current boyfriends? That’s, wow…that’s a lot more than I had going on in my life in the eighth grade.

The break-ins plaguing Stoneybrooke are fairly typical series-book fair, although the idea of a vengeful former employee is scary (possibly this reads a little more “sinister” now than when it was written).

The third plot, with a hugely pregnant amnesiac, is practically reassuring compared to the rest. It feels very “Hallmark Christmas movie,” and let me catch my breath in between the other bits.

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SVK Super Snooper #3: The Case of the Haunted Camp

Jessica and Elizabeth are attending day camp at Camp San Benito, because God forbid the Wakefields look after their own kids for the summer. 94420fa86b0ca0f819522006368dcadc

Unlike the day camps I’m familiar with, which run for an hour or two each day, this one seems to literally go on all day every day, plus one night they get to have a sleepover.

Elizabeth loves day camp and being a porpoise (the name for the seven year olds at camp), and Jessica hates it because she doesn’t like being in the hot sun, playing sports, getting messy, or carrying her damp swimsuit home at the end of the day. Wow, even as at seven she was the living embodiment of first world problems.

Anyway, they belong to a “mystery club” called the Snoopers; the other members are Todd, Winston, Amy, Eva, Lila and Ellen. What, no Bruce? Although it’s cute to think of a time when Lila and Jessica would have voluntarily hung out with Winston.

They get caught in the rain with their counselor, Jennifer, and take shelter at the San Benito mission museum, where they hear a ghost story. Apparently the bells ring if trouble is coming, though Mr. Sanchez (the museum director) assures them there are no longer any ringers inside the bells (I assume he means clappers).

Then the camp starts being plagued by minor acts of theft and sabotage, and the twins overhear a man arguing with Mrs. Branson, trying to get her to sell the camp even though it’s been in her family for forty years. Anyone who has ever watched Scooby Doo understands the relevance of this. But the Snoopers spend the second half of the book tracking footprints and hearing the bells ring and finally, on the night of the sleepover, catching the man and the camp cook, Joe, with a tape recorder of ringing bells.

As far as children’s mysteries go it was brisk, cute, and as plausible as these things ever are. Plus it had hints of ghostly monks, and a camp setting, both things my own seven-year-old self would have adored.

SVK Hair Raiser Super Special Edition: A Curse on Elizabeth

a curse on elizabeth This is written in the first person (from Elizabeth’s point of view), which confused me so much I had to go back and check the last one I read. (For the record, that one was third person). So…okay. We’re in Elizabeth’s head. I suspect most of the readers of various Sweet Valley series were more Elizabeths than Jessicas anyway. I know I was, until I got in touch with my inner Jessica and stopped trying to please everyone.

Anyway. I would have loved this SO MUCH if I were the right age for it. Even the cover is wonderful, with embossed hieroglyphs along the edges. Plus, mummies. I wish I could mail this back through time to my younger self. Instead I’ll have to hang on to it until my own daughter is slightly older.

Unfortunately, since I’m not in first grade, the “it was all a dream!” explanation stood out a mile. But it was still adorable, and I bet it would have been exciting if I were young. Half the pleasure of series books is seeing familiar tropes deployed, anyway.

So the book opens with the twins learning about King Ramses the Thirteenth, because Mrs. Otis is going to take them to the Los Angeles History Museum to see his mummy and grave goods. Man, the Sweet Valley school system is amazing. Lila wants to see the mummy’s jewellery, which makes me laugh, and Jessica wants to see the coffin. Elizabeth finds the whole thing creepy. Andy, Elizabeth’s partner for the research project that goes hand-in-hand with this, is most interested in the actual mummy. A college student named Henry who was part of the expedition that found the mummy comes to speak to their class, but rushes off in a hurry.

Naturally Elizabeth and Andy find out about the Curse of the Pharaohs and conclude that Henry is cursed. Andy’s mother is a librarian, which is cool, but I do wonder why she was letting two seven-year-olds scare themselves witless. (Although…my own kids also gravitate to anything creepy/disgusting/completely unsuitable for their age, so perhaps it is beyond the power of librarians to do much about that.) Also naturally they share all this “information” with the other kids on the bus en route to the museum.

The bus gets a flat tire, which they take as further proof of the curse. That’s too cute. When they finally arrive they pass by some armour (which Jessica says is scary…this from a kid who wants to see a coffin, mind you) and a mammoth (which they all find scary, and which none of them can identify until Mrs. Otis tells them what it is).

They visit the mummy exhibit. There are a lot of snakes in glass cases; Andy likes the snakes. Andy is slightly creepy. Two classmates waiting their turn to see the mummy, shove Jessica and she bumps the coffin, and then all the lights go out suddenly.

Jessica thinks the lights went out because Ramses is mad at her for bumping the mummy case. Awww. That WOULD be scary if you were seven. The museum guide brings flashlights and leads the kids safely to the bus, except Elizabeth can’t find Andy. She was his partner and feels responsible for losing him, and also doesn’t want to admit to the teacher that she lost her partner, which honestly is the sort of thing little kids do all the time. This is why you have to WATCH THEM constantly, which no one is doing here because in Sweet Valley minimal standards of childcare don’t exist, so Jessica agrees to sneak back into the (dark, scary) museum with Elizabeth to look for Andy.

Elizabeth runs straight into a suit of armour, hard enough that it falls on top of her.

Then a bunch of scary things happen. They find Andy. Andy loses his glasses. They get variously lost, trapped, beset by mysteriously-escaped snakes, chased by a mammoth, nearly suffocated, chased by a mummy, and discover Henry is a thief planning to rob the mummy’s tomb. None of this is real, of course, but the reader doesn’t find that out until the last chapter.

Elizabeth wakes up, still confused, and it takes her a while to work out that she’s dreamed the whole thing. Andy was on the bus the entire time; they just didn’t see him. Jerk. Jessica ran and got Mrs. Otis right after Elizabeth knocked herself out (yay Jessica!). The lights were out all over Los Angeles because of the storm, although Elizabeth spookily remembers that the same thing happened the night Lord Carnarvon died. Elizabeth’s jacket is missing, and she remembers that she stuffed it under the door to keep the cobras from chasing them. So was it all a dream, or did it really happen? DUN DUN DUN.

Okay, that was seriously cute, and a nice retelling of pop culture mummy mythology. I honestly love it when familiar characters (from books or television shows) do their own version of familiar stories or tropes. See also: every “A Christmas Carol” episode ever, including the Sweet Valley Twins one.

 

 

reading: Christmas Stalking

I admit I bought this partly because of the title. And because I love romances set during a holiday (Christmas especially, but honestly I’d love to read more set at other holidays). And because lately I’m having a streak of good luck when it comes to reading Harlequin’s “Love Inspired” line, which at first I approached very tentatively.

Title: Christmas Stalking

Author: Margaret Daley

Harlequin Love Inspired Suspense

November 2012 christmas stalking

Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: A female bodyguard with military training and a difficult background, Ellie St. James spends the Christmas holidays protecting cosmetics CEO (and product creator) Mrs. Rachel Winfield.

At seventy-three, Winnie is working on one last product before she retires; she doesn’t know it at the outset of the book, but someone’s been sending her threatening letters, and her business manager hires Ellie without consulting her. Winnie’s old but not helpless, and she’s written marvelously: kind but never twee or sacharin; invested in her adult grandson (the hero) but not overly interfering; in charge, but aging gracefully and stepping down intentionally once she’s finished a project that had meant a lot to her late husband.

Ellie, meanwhile, has a touching background that contains tragedy without being drowned by it. Her handicapped brother was bullied and died young, but instead of destroying her his life pushed her to become a strong woman, committed to protecting those who need her care.

More than anything this reminded me of a Nancy Drew mystery, only with an adult heroine. The mystery is complicated enough to be entertaining, but not written to be so creepy or gore-laden that it’s disturbing. There are set pieces (an elegant winter ball where a suspect shows up, for instance) that really, really brought Nancy to mind (and in case it’s not clear, I mean that as a compliment).

Active Ingredients:

missing or emotionally neglectful parents

raised by grandparents

time to provide grandchildren, you two

girl detective

scientist

snowed in

Christmas

Sweet Valley Twins #54: The Big Party Weekend

big party weekendWhere Are We? The Wakefields’ house, mostly.

When Are We? A five-day period when the Wakefield parents are in Mexico without their children. At the end of The Slime That Ate Sweet Valley they were discussing maybe having a party while their parents were away, so yay, continuity!

Recap: Jessica thinks they’re going to have five days of freedom, so at school she starts inviting people to a party on the weekend. Steven is doing the same thing, so they agree to combine parties.

Elizabeth asks if their parents have any chores for them to tackle while they’re gone. They suggest the kids clean out the garage and have a yard sale, which they agree to because they need money for party supplies.

They night before they leave the Wakefield parents reveal that someone called Mrs. Brown will be staying with the kids.

I don’t object to having someone stay in the house while the parents are out of the country, but Mrs. Brown is so awful I could barely finish this book. I don’t know, maybe target-age readers are able to enjoy wallowing in the fantasy of being sorely mistreated by an adult, but reading this AS an adult was horrible. How could they leave without setting ground rules like, “Do not make up a bunch of house rules that aren’t ordinarily in place, and here are the usual things we eat”?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jessica makes Liz promise not to tell everyone at school that they aren’t having a parent-free bash after all, because she’s embarrassed.

At home, May (Mrs. Brown, the babysitter) has set a new bedtime, a new limit on time spent watching television, and won’t allow after-school snacks. Because that is a totally reasonable way to approach a babysitting job: change all the house rules, and then yell at the kids for “having no manners” when they object.

Jessica puts purple dye in May’s shampoo, and I don’t actually blame her. I mean, it’s horrible, but so is cooking stuff people hate and forcing them to eat it. Bodily integrity: it’s a thing. She’s also waking them up at 5:30. I’d run her over with a truck.

Elizabeth sets May’s clock radio for 3:30, and tunes it to “the station that played the loudest and most obnoxious heavy metal music.” I can’t believe this ghostwriter has written an adult so awful I’m siding with the kids on this. Well done, ghostwriter. Or Francine, if this was in an outline that she wrote.

Steven makes her coffee undrinkable by adding garlic powder and stuff. May won’t let them use the phone.

On Thursday afternoon they have their garage sale, and they earn a lot of money but Jessica accidentally sells a carved wooden rose that belonged to their mother’s great-great-grandmother, so Elizabeth starts trying to track it down through antique dealers.

Meanwhile in the background of all this, Amy has been warping her personality out of shape over some guy she likes named Rob.

Jessica has a plan for getting rid of May on the night of their party, and Steven goes along with it. At dinner Elizabeth is confused that her siblings are trying to be polite and agreeable.

Elizabeth has a “setting up the next book” conversation with someone named Brooke who has divorced parents; her mother might be coming to visit, all the way from Paris.

Amy talks Elizabeth into bringing Todd along to Casey’s so he can meet Rob. They do, and he’s obnoxious.

Elizabeth talks to a man named Martin Hannaford at Valley Antiques; he hasn’t seen the wooden rose, but offers to call her if it turns up. She has to tell him not to call until after Sunday (because she’s not allowed to answer the phone in her own house while May’s in charge). Later she has a conversation in which May obviously doesn’t believe she stayed after school to work on the newspaper; it’s patently obvious to the reader that May has seen her at the antique shop. She sends Elizabeth to her room, and Elizabeth tells Steven and Jessica that she wants in on whatever plan they have for getting rid of May.

The night of the party Steven takes a backpack and pretends to run away, and a few hours later calls, saying that he’s at a convenience store near a friend’s house in Palilla Canyon. May leaves to pick him up, and apparently this will keep her away from the house for long enough to have a party.

The party is a disaster: people they don’t even know show up, there are food fights, the house and pool get trashed, Rob is obnoxious and tries to steal CDs, and May shows up before it’s over.

She’s so mad at the kids she packs to leave, which is a completely sane adult reaction! No, I’m kidding: it’s nuts and wildly irresponsible, and she could probably be charged with something (child abandonment?) for walking out of a house before the parents have returned from another country.

They apologize, she blows her whistle and drives all the horrible party guests out of the house, and then she has a heart-to-heart with the Wakefields and confesses  she’s never looked after older kids before so she thought she had to “keep them on their toes” right from the start. Because “make the children hate you” shows up in so many guides to childcare, I guess.

May offers to help them clean the house, but the children insist on doing it themselves. Well, Elizabeth insists, but the others agree.

The next day after they’ve cleaned May shows up with the antique wooden rose. The guy from Valley Antiques called, having seen the rose at an auction, and after he told her the whole story May drove up and bought it back for fifty dollars (Jessica had originally sold it for seventy-five). I think we’re supposed to applaud her “toughness” now that it’s being used for good, but honestly I haven’t forgiven her yet for being the least responsible, self-controlled adult I’ve yet encountered in Sweet Valley. And that’s saying something, I know.

Quotes:

Jessica threw up her hands. “Those rules are unbelievable! Why did Mom and Dad pick this woman for us? Do you think they’re mad at us about something?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m sure they didn’t know she was like this. When they met her, she was probably nice. She just forgot to tell them that she hates kids!” (p. 31)

Super adulting from both the Wakefields and this woman, there.

May frowned. “Honestly, I don’t know why you have to look so much alike.” (p. 55)

Idk, genetics?

“That depends. What music do you like?” Elizabeth asked.

“Everything except the Emerald Girls, or whatever they’re called,” Rob said, naming one of Amy’s favorite groups.

Any giggled. “Oh, I hate them, too.” (p. 59)

Sigh.

“It worked on ‘Days of Turmoil,'” Jessica said. (p. 70)

Words to live by.

reading: Sweet Valley Twins “Frightening Four”

I have stumbled across the most amazing of all the Sweet Valley things: this mini-series. It actually has a name (“The Frightening Four”) and consists of four titles: too scared to sleep

Too Scared to Sleep

The Beast is Watching You

The Beast Must Die

If I Die Before I Wake

The best part about this (well, aside from the only-vaguely-related-to-the-story Beast titles) is that somehow Francine Pascal pulled off the never before attempted feat of capitalizing on the popularity of Goosebumps and The Babysitters Club simultaneously. It’s glorious. Also probably dangerous; I’m amazed the fabric of the universe withstood this, to be honest.

A new family move to Sweet Valley. Mrs. Riccoli has five children, and her husband won’t be joining them for a few months, so she needs babysitters. Elizabeth, Jessica, Winston, Todd and Amy decide they can take turns sitting for her and split the money, and maybe put up signs around town advertising their services. (No mention is made of whose phone will be used on the posters. Alas.)

But the Riccolis’ new house is “the old Sullivan House,” which is apparently “creepy” and which causes Alice to act weird and bolt when she drops in to give decorating advice. All through these books its increasingly obvious that Alice knows somethe beast is watching youthing about the house, and eventually it unfolds that each member of the babysitting group has one parent who knows what happened at the house.

Sweet Valley is nobody’s idea of the go-to place to learn parenting skills, but this is a new low. Five teens were involved in a child’s death, and when their own offspring start babysitting at the house none of them mention this, or notice their kids are having nightmares, or…anything. Hasn’t anyone in Sweet Valley ever watched a horror movie?

Continuing the actual Babysitters Club tradition of twelve-year-olds somehow knowing more about childcare than I do, we get this wonderful scene of Winston babysitting a set of twins:

Actually, it wasn’t the first time he’d changed diapers in his life. He had done some babysitting before, and he had seen lots of diaper commercials on TV. It didn’t take him long to whisk the twins into new diapers. In fact, as he fastened the tabs, pulling them tightly so there’d be no gaps, he thought he’d done an even better job than the Karstens themselves. (TSTS, p. 73)

That conveys…precisely none of what it’s like to change diapers, particularly for two children at once. Maybe I didn’t watch enough commercials as a child, but my learning curve was a bit steeper than Winston’s.the beast must die

Anyway, so the gang continue to sit in pairs for the Riccoli children, who are having nightmares and sleepwalking and generally telegraphing as clearly as possible that we’re in horror-movie territory. When any of the babysitters fall asleep in the house they have the same nightmares, with a scary “faceless” girl wearing only one slipper and clutching an old teddy bear. This culminates in the entire group of babysitters staying there at the same time, trying to stay awake all night, because I guess the Nightmare on Elm Street movies also looked ripe for borrowing.

The best bits are, as always, the Jessica bits.

But whatever Steven was up to, it couldn’t be half as interesting as what was going on in Granville, the setting for The Guilty and the Glamorous. Jessica had been so busy baby-sitting, she’d missed an entire two weeks of her new favorite TV soap opera, which came on right after her old favorite, Days of Turmoil, which was extremely convenient.

Fortunately the plot hadn’t changed much in the two weeks since she’d last seen it. Everyone was still at the same fancy ball they’d been at the last time she watched. Only they seemed to be leaving the giant, fancy party, or at least starting to think about leaving. Coats were being discussed, anyway. (TBMD, p.41)

There is a ridiculous subplot in which Steven tries to earn money by mowing lawns with the Wakefields’ new ride-on mower. I’m sure it was meant to be page-filling hilarity, but it annoyed me so much I can barely even summarize it. If I had had a series of expensive accidents (shredding in-line skates and other people’s hedges and so forth), no one in my family would have just kept giving me further chances to cost them money. We couldn’t have afforded to have me playing around with the lawn mower, basically, and I kept wanting to reach into the book and shake Steven for being careless and Mr. Wakefield for continually enabling him.

I know: applying any kind of real life standard to Sweet Valley is pointless. I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief high enough to get passed Steven failing to read the instructions (more than once) and still being allowed to drive the mower.

Yet I had no problem whatsoever with a vengeful ghost showing up in people’s dreams and then turning out to be (spoilers ahead) Continue reading

Reading “The Bee Theres” (as an adult non-Mormon)

You can just pick out "There's a Snake at Girls Camp" in my stack of summer nostalgia reading.
You can just pick out “There’s a Snake at Girls Camp” in my stack of summer nostalgia reading.

A while ago there was a piece over at The Toast by Diana Hurlburt about a book series called The Bee Theres. I won’t lie to you: I went a little nuts and instantly bought three of them. That wasn’t cheap, because while Amazon has people selling used copies for a penny, I live 1) in the back of beyond and 2) in Canada, and shipping charges are ridiculous. It would have been cheaper to buy a plane ticket for an actual Mormon and get them to bring the books as carry-on luggage. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but shipping charges really are the worst part of buying books.

(It still beats my childhood, when shopping online was not an option and going to a bookstore was a HUGE DEAL because there wasn’t one in my town. So my disgruntlement has limits.)

Anyway, dazzled by the news that there was a girls’ series I not only hadn’t read but hadn’t even heard of, I set out to instantly immerse myself (immersion to a depth of three books, bought in the wrong order).

ruby's ghostReading these as an adult who isn’t LDS (and hasn’t ever been) is about as “not the target reader” an experience as one can ever have, but I really enjoyed them. Possibly if I WAS the right age, and Mormon, I would have felt they were a little…not preachy, exactly, but proscriptive. But as an absolute outsider, what struck me most was how gentle these girls were as compared to, say, the characters in the Taffy Sinclair books (which I read and loved, eons ago). There’s no way Becca and Marybeth and Sunshine and Elena and Carlie would have dreamed up an “anti- some other girl” club. Even when they’re all feeling threatened by Ducky’s overachieving self, the most they do is have one single meeting (at McDonald’s! they go there all the time in these books) to discuss her, and when she walks in midway through they invite her to sit down.

bridesmaidAlso, these girls are BUSY. They attend something called Beehive, which I spent most of one book thinking was Sunday School but no: they also attend Sunday School, so this is something else. Also they do “service projects,” basically age-appropriate charity projects, AND they go to Girls Camp, AND they do fundraising for that, AND they design and sew bridesmaids’ dresses. Basically they make the Babysitters Club look like a bunch of slackers.

ALSO, and this stood out a mile, the girls in these books are openly interested in marriage. I mean, not right this second: they’re twelve, and make it very clear they can’t even date until they’re sixteen. But, like, they speculate about who they’ll grow up to marry, and play “who will I marry?” games at sleepovers. I only even know about “who will I marry?” games from my grandmother, and from reprints of books for girls from a century or more ago. We didn’t play games about, or openly talk about, marriage when I was twelve. I don’t know if my group of friends were singularly warped, or if it was a widespread cultural thing, but we would have been somehow embarrassed to simply admit we wanted to grow up and get married (even though we all DID grow up and get married, and in retrospect everyone else must have thought about it as much as I did, so…how did this end up being something we didn’t discuss? That’s really strange. We talked about boys, dating, sex, who had their period or wore bras yet…but not marriage. Were we all idiots?)

All the things I associate with Mormon culture show up here, more or less. Largish families; a sense of historicity and interest in ancestors (the girls don’t scrapbook, at least not in the three books I own, but they do presentations on their ancestors, visit a farm that Becca’s great-grandmother used to live at, are encouraged to keep diaries, and sew dresses using scraps of fabric that are meaningful to them); older brothers getting mission calls (okay, I only know that from the other side: youngish men showing up on my doorstep); a wedding at the Temple which the girls can’t actually attend (I had a family member who did this, and her non-LDS family could only attend the reception).

Also a few things possibly not as often associated with Mormon culture (by non-LDS people, I mean) are here: a single working mother (widowed maybe? I couldn’t tell); a mother of eight children who is rediscovering her passion for writing; a mother who teaches history at a university. No big deal is made of any of this (apart from the one who goes back to writing, but that’s only because there’s a bit of a mystery about what she’s up to until the end of the book). The mothers are just quietly there, being awesome in the background.

I am currently refraining from cornering one of the locally-assigned Mormon missionaries to ask all about Beehives, because I suspect that would be rude, but I’ve really enjoyed the books. It’s a pity the missionaries don’t hand THESE out, actually, because I bet it would make local people view them with affection even if they had zero interest in conversion.