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Portable Magic

Reading, for me, is entertainment and an escape from the real world. But it can also inform and stretch the boundaries of the life I live.

Currently reading

I am No One You Know
Joyce Carol Oates
The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports
Jeff Passan
Progress: 153/368 pages

Paris for One and Other Stories ★☆☆☆☆

Paris for One and Other Stories - Jojo Moyes

Et tu, Jojo?


I've found books by Moyes to be light escapist romance-ish fiction, always good for lifting my spirits. So imagine my sense of betrayal to find that she's jumped on the First Person Present Tense bandwagon. 


Just say "no", Jojo. Please. 

Necessary Lies - 18%

Necessary Lies - Diane Chamberlain

Amazing to read of a truly compassionate social worker speaking of trying to bend the rules to get her client into the eugenics program - at the client's request - because she's 33 and can barely manage with the five children she already has. This is 1960, the year that oral contraceptives were first approved by the FDA, and sterilization is the only truly reliable birth control available to poor people. Then in the same chapter, read about that same client begging that same social worker not to enroll her legally blind son in the same program, and the social worker agreeing to put it off for another year, but worried that he's old enough to start making babies. And neither one are arguing against the morality or rightness of forced sterilization of a poor black boy because he has a congenital disability, but only worrying that he's too young and shouldn't have to face the pain of surgery yet. 



The Arm: Inside the Billion Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports - 153/368 pg

The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports - Jeff Passan

His voice trembled. It was 10:53, a couple of hours after he'd heard. He'd had a good cry already, a heaving, sobbing, why-me of a lament in Sara's arms. He wasn't the shit heel or the dummy. He didn't disrespect the game or treat the privilege of playing baseball with anything less than the finest effort. Not that he believed any of those things mattered. Baseball wasn't casting judgement on him. The arm is just merciless. 

Reading progress update: I've read 11%.

Necessary Lies - Diane Chamberlain

It's so hard to believe that there was a time when a physician could decide to withhold birth control from his patient until he discussed it with her husband and obtained the husband's consent. But I know it's true - I've heard the stories. And some people talk about the 1950s-1960's as though they were the "good old days"!

The Hidden Staircase – ND2.3

1930 Chs 10-12 vs 1959 Chs 5-8

The Hidden Staircase - Carolyn Keene  The Hidden Staircase - Mildred Benson,Carolyn Keene   

Reading the 1930 & 1959 versions of The Hidden Staircase simultaneously, comparing differences in the story and characters, and pondering dated plot points. Spoilers: full plot description below!



Now we are into the middle section of the mystery, where strange things keep happening in the Turnbull’s home and Nancy’s exhaustive but fruitless investigations are detailed, but there are plenty of opportunities for her to demonstrate her intelligence, bravery, and resourcefulness.


1930 Nancy continues exploring the house and grounds, looking for clues over the next week. It seems to be long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of excitement whenever one of the strange events occurs. But even though Nancy is all over it, she’s not turning up any useful information, leaving her feeling humiliated that the “ghost” is pulling these stunts right under her nose. The creepy atmosphere builds over time: lurking shadows, strained conversation, the sisters tense and trembling. They all lock their bedroom doors at night, and Nancy sleeps with the revolver under her pillow.


There are some funny moments, such as Nancy’s inner monologue when she wakes up hearing Floretta shrieking, and her first reaction is to clutch her blanket to her throat, “as though by doing so she could protect herself from unseen danger,” then rushes out of bed with gun and flashlight, only to be horrified when she can’t get out of the room, then chagrined when she remembers that she’d locked the door. When an urn is found missing and Floretta is again screaming about ghosts, Nancy dryly remarks that a ghost wouldn’t need to push a chair up against a bookshelf to climb up and take it.


Although the Turnbull sisters are talking about leaving, Nancy is determined to stay until she solves the mystery. Although the sisters, under Nancy’s questioning, say no one has any reason to force them out of their house, they do admit that they’ve had multiple offers to sell it, including one from Nathan Gombet that was so low they’d never consider it, even if he wasn’t known to be a shady dealer. Gombet threatened them that they’d be sorry they hadn’t accepted his offer.


1959 Gomber shows up at the door to continue his apparently ongoing campaign to harass Miss Flora into selling him their house for a super cheap price. He barges into the house, hunts down Miss Flora to bully her some more, and tries to intimidate Nancy. But Nancy is having none of that, and the ladies kick him out of the house. Although he’s tried a sob story about coming from humble roots and wanting a grand old home, Nancy suspects he wants to tear the house down and flip the property for building lots. But even though he specifically mentions that Miss Flora will have to sell cheap because nobody wants a haunted house, nobody seriously considers that he might be the “ghost”. Obvious villain is obvious!


Crazy things keep happening and, although Nancy is usually able to discover enough to prove that they have logical, human cause explanations, she’s unable to catch anyone at it or figure out how they’re getting in and out of the house undetected. Nancy calls the Cliffwood police and, although they were dismissive of the old ladies before, they readily agree to send an officer to hang around outside for guard duty “every night as long as you need”. Even as a kid reading these stories, the willingness of local police to serve personal guard duty seemed pretty implausible to me. Nancy, of course, quickly forms a mutually respectful, professional relationship with the officer, who has the very Irish Cop name of Tom Patrick.


1930 Nancy starts worrying when her father fails to return from Chicago on time. She drives back and forth into town, calling their housekeeper, Hannah, for news and telegraph the Chicago law firm for information, only to find that Mr. Drew left there two days earlier and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.


1959 Carson Drew calls to let Nancy know that he hasn’t found Wharton and is on his way back from Chicago, but the next morning, Nancy receives a telegram that he’s been unavoidably detained and will let her know when he arrives. Cue ominous music!


Dated Plot Points: The advancements in communication technology from 1930 to 1959 created a bit of a problem for the revision with regards to key plot points. Most residences, especially poor households, wouldn’t have a phone in 1930. This required Nancy to roar into town to make phone calls, but other communication had to be by easily intercepted written correspondence and telegram, which wouldn't be very likely in 1959 when household phones were common. So the revision required the invention of a hidden “listening post” for the intruder to overhear phone conversations. The 1959 version was still able to keep the telegram mishap plot device, as it was perfectly plausible in 1959 to have long distance communication by telegram rather than exorbitantly expensive long-distance phone calls.


Cult of Domesticity: The 1959 author continues to ensure that Nancy demonstrates her feminine virtues, describing the cooking and cleaning. More meal descriptions – fruit cup for starters, steak and fries, fresh peas, and a “floating island” for dessert. I had never heard of floating island so had to look it up. It looks tasty but seems like more work than it would be worth. Have a Martha Stewart video of it, as she seems to be the very personification of Domesticity.


Index of posts for The Hidden Staircase:





The Hidden Staircase – ND2.2

1930 Chs 8-9 vs 1959 Chs 3-4

The Hidden Staircase  - Carolyn Keene  The Hidden Staircase - Mildred Benson,Carolyn Keene  


Reading the 1930 & 1959 versions of The Hidden Staircase simultaneously, comparing differences in the story and characters, and pondering dated plot points. Spoilers: full plot description below!



1930 Nancy plays a game of tennis with Helen Corning, who fusses at Nancy for being so secretive while solving The Secret of the Old Clock. Nancy just smirks to herself and says nothing about her current mystery, because Helen is a “natural born gossip”. Carson Drew has gone to Chicago on business trip and plans to stop in Cliffwood to see how Nancy is getting along with her haunted house mystery.


1959 Action and danger kick into high gear as Nancy and Mr. Drew are almost crushed by a runaway truck at the bridge’s construction site, and Nancy displays her sleuthing skills by deducing from a few footprints that a short man must have deliberately released the emergency brake and run away. Nancy and Helen drive to Cliffwood in Nancy’s blue convertible, and Helen shares her BIG SECRET that she’s engaged to some guy she’s been having a long-distance relationship with for the last couple of months and the two girls spend the entire trip excitedly talking wedding plans. Mr. Drew’s trip to Chicago is similar, except he’s there to look for Willie Wharton. 


1930 Nancy is again home alone when someone leaves a threatening letter for her on the porch. “The message was brief, but its words carried an import of veiled violence which mystified and frightened her.” But after pondering the threat and the old ladies’ plight, Nancy decides that the ghost must not actually be very brave if it was afraid to have her on the case. She’s frightened but undeterred, determined to expose the shenanigans, and decides that she’s not only going to bring the gun but also enough ammo to “annihilate an army”.


1959 Nancy and Helen arrive at Twin Elms in Cliffwood to find Aunt Rosemary and Miss Flora upset over a revised version of the incident with the missing jewelry. 1959 Miss Flora is a very different character than 1930 Floretta. Instead of a drama queen ready to believe in ghosts, she is dainty but stately with a gentle smile and formal manner. However, she serves the same purpose in driving the plot because her frail health will have her collapsing or near collapse whenever the “ghost” is up to tricks, instead of Floretta’s collapsing in hysterics. Similar to the original version, Nancy investigates all logical means by which an intruder could have entered, taken the jewelry, and left without detection, but finds no clues. At one point, the radio in Miss Flora’s room seems to turn itself on while everyone is downstairs. Nancy concludes that the motive for the strange occurrences must be robbery but is puzzled as to why a thief would want to expend so much energy trying to scare the old ladies, too.


A key plot device is introduced in the 1959 book that will be introduced much later in the original 1930 version is the twin/duplicate home next door to The Mansion/Twin Elms. Riverview Manor was built by the brother of the original owner of the Turnbull house, but the families became estranged after their sons quarreled and the other home has changed owners multiple times over the years, and now has been vacant for a long time. Nancy notes that secret passages were common in colonial homes, but Aunt Rosemary and Miss Flora have never heard that their home has any.


Considerations: There are some nice descriptions of Twin Elms in the 1959 revision, which is similar to 1930 The Mansion in that it is a grand old home that has become a little shabby over time as the family fortune has declined, but is completely lacking in the enjoyably spooky atmosphere of the 1930 version. One of the descriptions was of a “candlewick” bedspread, an unfamiliar term that delighted me when I looked it up, because I remember being fascinated as a girl by the same style of bedspread in my grandmother’s guest room.


Cult of Domesticity: One striking difference in the 1959 books is the significant amount text devoted to demonstrating that Nancy, despite her intelligence and determined, inquisitive nature, is still compliant with the virtues of feminine domesticity. Nancy and Helen are described preparing almost every meal and cleaning up afterwards. They change into fresh dresses immediately after getting dirty while exploring the house for clues. The actual meals themselves are described in detail – this in particular always stuck in my memory of the stories when I read them as a girl. Dinner after church: Sherbet glasses filled with orange and grapefruit slices, followed by spring lamb, rice and mushrooms, fresh peas, and for dessert, chocolate angel cake with vanilla ice cream.  Luncheon at Twin Elms: chicken salad, biscuits, and fruit gelatin (yaassss jello desserts in 1959!).


Index of posts for The Hidden Staircase:




The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place - 8%

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place - Julie Berry

I picked this up because Jayne Entwistle is the narrator, but so far this is a very silly book.

The Child ★★★★☆

The Child - Fiona Barton, Mandy Williams, Rosalyn Landor, Jean Gilpin, Various

An infant's skeleton is found buried in the back garden of a house being demolished. The story follows several women who have an interest in the mystery of the baby's identity and the circumstances that led to its burial: A still-grieving mother whose baby was snatched from the hospital's maternity ward; a troubled woman with a history of psychiatric problems who once lived in the house where the infant was buried; her mother with whom she still has a rocky relationship; an investigative reporter who is determined to solve the mystery and break the story. 


The mystery is not entirely predictable, but I was really more interested in the characters as they were revealed. The only real clunker in this story is really unlikely plot twist where

a rookie reporter finds out a key piece of information about forensics on Wikipedia that neither the forensic lab nor the police had even considered.

(show spoiler)

Even I had that figured out well in advance. 


Still, the story was compelling, and the characters well drawn, and the writing is good enough that I didn't really notice that one character's POV was written in the dreaded First-Person-Present-Tense until I was most of the way through the book. 


Audiobook, borrowed from my public library, with an excellent performance by a cast of several. 


The Hidden Staircase – ND2.12

The Hidden Staircase  - Carolyn Keene  The Hidden Staircase - Mildred Benson,Carolyn Keene  

1930 Chs 1-7 vs 1959 Chs1-2, con't



Reading the 1930 & 1959 versions of The Hidden Staircase simultaneously, comparing differences in the story and characters, and pondering dated plot points. Spoilers: full plot description below!


We finally see some of the 1930 Nancy personality when Carson Drew comes home. Nancy breathlessly pours out the story to her father. She argues in a lawyerly fashion to be able to take the case, “cornering” him with logic and using his own words against him. He tries to tempt her into going with him on his business trip to Chicago, but she’s not having it. She prances wildly about the room when she wins. Then her father gives her a revolver for self-protection. In 1959, Nancy anxiously paces until her father gets home, then is so excited to see him that he teases that she’s looking for substitute date (ewww). He is dismissive of his daughter’s worries, joking that his only danger is from Nancy raiding his wallet, and tells her to take the haunted house case.


We get a little more on the Gombet/Gomber mystery. 1930 Carson Drew is angry when he hears about Gombet bothering Nancy earlier. Gombet comes over again and there’s a confrontation with Mr. Drew. The lawyer scoffs at Gombet’s changing story and conflicting claims: damaged his property (how? Says the lawyer), scared his horses (you’ve got one and it’s an old nag! Says the lawyer), built the bridge over the boundary, was lowballed, etc. etc. Gombet leaves saying he’ll do “something desperate”. Mr. Drew is not concerned about the threat, and explains to Nancy that the man was well-paid, but is known to be a miser and a cheat, which Nancy has already heard independently in her rambling around town earlier. In 1959, there’s no second confrontation, but Carson Drew tells a complicated story of legal loopholes and one of the landowners represented by Gomber, Willie Wharton, going into hiding to extort more money out of the railroad. He laughs at Gomber’s warning that he’s in danger, calling the man a pest and a blowhard. The reason for adding the additional character of Wharton and making a simple story more complicated (and boring) will be apparent in the final chapters, as he is substituted for one of the racist caricatures that infested the original stories.


Considerations: There is a distinct difference in writing style and quality between versions. The 1930 version has a slower build with emphasis on atmosphere and description, where the 1959 version is more sparing with descriptive detail and introduces the action and key plot elements earlier. These key events in this first comparison I’ve made cover seven 1930 chapters vs two 1959 chapters. For example, look at the introduction of Gombet/Gomber in the two versions:


1930: “He was unusually tall and thin with spindling legs which gave him the appearance of a towering scarecrow. The illusion was heightened by his clothing, which was ill-fitting and several seasons out of style. Nancy could not help but notice several grease spots on his coat. However, it was not the man’s clothing or miserly appearance which repulsed her, but rather his unpleasant face. He had sharp, piercing eyes which seemed to bore into her.”


1959: “He was short, thin, and rather stooped. Nancy guessed his age to be about forty. ‘Is Mr. Drew at home?’ he asked brusquely.”


There is an immediately noticeable difference in Nancy’s character, as well. 1930 Nancy is more often acting alone – home alone during the Gombet confrontation, driving around to make visits on acquaintances, hiking by herself in the country – whereas 1959 Nancy has Hannah Gruen with her at the house, going out on dates in groups of friends, attending church with her father on Sunday morning, and the entire mystery adventure will be coupled with Helen Corning.  But both Nancys are intelligent, inquisitive, perceptive, and always busily sifting through clues and analyzing them for meaning.


Index of posts for The Hidden Staircase:



Letters from Father Christmas ★★★★☆

Letters from Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien, Derek Jacobi, John Moffatt, Christian Rodska

What a treat these letters must have been for Tolkien’s children! Father Christmas (and buddies) corresponded with them throughout their childhood, telling all about his home at the North Pole and including thrilling adventure stories of marauding goblins.


Audiobook version via Audible, competently read by multiple performers. I think I’d prefer to have this in a bound copy, so I could also appreciate the illustrations that decorated the letters.

The Lump of Coal ★★★★★

The Lump of Coal (Audio) - Lemony Snicket, Neil Patrick Harris, Brett Helquist

An adorable anthropomorphic lump of coal goes on a journey to find his destiny. Loved it.


Audiobook, borrowed from my public library via Overdrive, with an excellent reading by Neil Patrick Harris, as if he could do anything but provide an outstanding performance of a Lemony Snicket story.

Hogfather ★★★★★

Hogfather - Terry Pratchett

I loved everything about this book, from the little fairies that kept popping into existence with a glingle-lingle-ling to Death playing the role of Santa in his very own way, to the Auditors, to the poker. Especially the poker. Hogfather is going to join with Dicken’s Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ Grinch to form my very own Holy Trinity of Christmas stories.


Now I just need to find it on audio for my annual re-reads!


Paperback version, read for the 2017 Christmas Bingo.

Seeking Sarah ★☆☆☆☆

Seeking Sarah: A Novel - ReShonda Tate Billingsley

After a full hour of listening to this soap opera-ish story, I still know almost nothing about the main character who is telling this story. We hear all about what happens to her and what she says and what annoys her. And she’s annoyed A LOT. But this… mystery? I guess? is almost entirely plot driven, spending all its time on setting up the story’s big events. Then the stupidly unrealistic medical drama happened, and I simply lost patience with this story. DNF @14%.


Audiobook, borrowed from my public library. Janina Edwards does a fine job on the performance but is unable to rescue the source material.

The Hidden Staircase – ND2.11

The Hidden Staircase - Carolyn Keene  The Hidden Staircase - Mildred Benson,Carolyn Keene 

Reading the 1930 & 1959 versions of The Hidden Staircase simultaneously, comparing differences in the story and characters, and pondering dated plot points. Spoilers: full plot description below!



1930 Chs 1-7 vs 1959 Chs1-2


The Hidden Staircase is a two-part mystery, with each seemingly unconnected to the other, and this structure makes for a more rambling, disjointed sort of story than in the first book. The more obvious mystery that Nancy takes on by request has to do with a apparently haunted house, where strange occurrences are frightening the two old women who have lived there for decades. The second mystery involves danger to Nancy’s father, Carson Drew, who managed the (now disputed) purchase of some riverside property for a railroad bridge construction project.


1930 Nancy is feeling bored and restless with her everyday life following The Secret of the Old Clock when a strange man, Nathan Gombet, rings the doorbell, walks in uninvited, and accuses her attorney father of underpaying him on the sale of his property, and demands the deed back. He then pushes past her into Carson Drew’s office and starts rummaging through his desk. He storms out after Nancy physically jerks him away and threatens to call the police. 1959 Nancy is blissfully gardening when the stranger, named Gomber in 1959, shows up with warnings that Nancy’s father is in danger. He tells a more convoluted story about representing a group of landowners who were “gypped” when their property was purchased for a railroad right-of-way. Nancy tells Gomber to leave when he becomes rude and insolent.


1930 Nancy rambles around River Heights visiting old friends from the previous mystery story and picking up clues about the Gombet mystery. She is introduced to Rosemary Turnbull, an “elderly maiden lady”, and asked to solve the mystery of the sudden “haunting” at her home, The Mansion, where she lives with her twin sister Floretta.  For the past couple of weeks there have been strange thumps and creaks and shadows. They’ve heard untraceable music and found valuables missing. Rosemary sensibly doesn’t believe in ghosts and wants to find out what’s going on, but Floretta is afraid and wants to sell the house. They’ve asked the police to investigate, only to be laughed at and told that it was probably just a prankster. 1959 Nancy finds out about the other mystery right away, when her friend Helen Corning brings her Aunt Rosemary over to tell her about the strange and frightening events, similar to the 1930 version, at her home in Cliffwood where she lives with her mother, Miss Flora. They tried calling the police, who essentially dismissed it as two old ladies having the vapors, even after the sisters found they had been robbed of several pieces of jewelry. 1930 Nancy drives Rosemary home and does a preliminary investigation after they find Floretta in near hysterics over a diamond pin that went missing from her room while she was letting the ice delivery man into the kitchen. She is doubtful she can solve it, but promises to try. 1959 Nancy won’t make commitments until she talks to her father.


Dated plot points: The revised story will later substitute a yard man for the ice delivery man as the distraction during which Floretta/Miss Flora has jewelry stolen from her room, since people generally no longer need to have ice delivered by the 1959 re-write. In fact, I had to look up ice delivery since I wasn't sure what it was, how it was used, and how the whole thing worked. It was fascinating reading, and I'm glad I was born in a time of modern refrigerators and icemakers. 


Without that knowledge and the historical perspective, it would be easy to miss that the 1930 author specifically mentions that Nancy has an “electrical refrigerator” at home.  This isn’t key to the plot, but it does illustrate that Nancy is a modern girl from an affluent family, as do other details, such as Nancy having her own blue roadster and a home with a double garage. Really, the concept of electrical gadgets as cutting edge technology is sprinkled throughout these chapters, such as Grace Horner’s dressmaking business being so successful that she can upgrade to an electric sewing machine - from the kind with a foot treadle, I assume.


The relative lack of residential phones in 1930 also has Nancy doing a lot of motoring around in her roadster and personal visits in parlors rather than the 1959 phone chatter.


Index of posts for The Hidden Staircase:


ND2.0: The Nancy Drew Project Con’t for The Hidden Staircase

The Hidden Staircase  - Carolyn Keene The Hidden Staircase - Mildred Benson, Carolyn Keene

Two years ago, I was inspired by a fellow Bookliker to embark on a project to read through my Nancy Drew collection, in order, and comparing the original to the revised texts. I had completed most of the first book before it stalled due to other demands on my time. I’m setting some 2018 reading goals to get through at least 4 books per year, though, so I’m ready to post on the second book in the series, The Hidden Staircase.


The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories began as a girls’ adventure series in 1930 by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, written by various authors under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, following the story idea and outline provided by the Syndicate. Starting in 1959, the books were rewritten, condensing them to 20 chapters/180 pages, modernizing the stories, and eliminating some of the racist stereotypes found in the original stories. Some revisions only updated the stories, but others featured extensive revisions and sometimes even a completely new story. The Hidden Staircase was originally written in 1930 by Mildred A. Wirt Benson and revised in 1959 by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. It is one of those that was extensively revised, so it was much more of a challenge to do a chapter-by-chapter comparison than for The Secret of the Old Clock. I’ll post the chapter comparisons over the next several days.


Shelfie of my Nancy Drew collection: Starting with the books I owned and loved as a girl, I’ve added to it over the years from junk shops, used bookstores, and online purchases, with a goal of owning a copy of each format – original and revised texts, illustrations, and cover art. It is not yet complete.

Finally finished Flowers for Algernon. Going to be a difficult review.

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

It's taken me...15 months to read this book. Mostly because I only read my ebooks when I literally have no other book available: in shopping lines, surreptitiously in meetings, anywhere I didn't anticipate getting stuck without a book. 


But wow, what a disappointment it was to read this one as an adult vs. what I remember of it as a teen. Anyway, I have tons of notes to parse through so it'll be a little while before I post a review. I'm just glad I'm done with it and can move on to another.