Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sweet Valley High #63: The New Elizabeth

When I was of an appropriate age to be reading Sweet Valley books, my favorites were Sweet Valley Twins. In fact, aside from the occasional book, I was never really into Sweet Valley Kids, High, University, or Nursing Home. As a result, my knowledge of SVH going into this little project was on the hazy side. I have to mention/thank the Sweet Valley High blogs out there, especially Shannon's Sweet Valley High Blog (http://shannonsweetvalley.com/) which is really comprehensive and a has been a definite help in figuring out exactly what happened and when.

One more thing before I write about Elizabeth Wakefield trying not to be a sanctimonious bitch. Like many Sweet Valley books, this one was written by someone named Kate William who doesn't really exist. I just found out who Kate William actually is (for pretty sure) and, well, color me a little disappointed. In real life she's a great and respected author. I knew she had written Sweet Valley books but I had no idea she'd written so many! In fact, I will be covering at least one of her real books (and probably more) right here. I've also met her, but that's neither here nor there. On with the book!

The cover terrified me so here's a picture of water (sorry, not the Pacific or a beach). People surf in water, you know:

When the book begins, Elizabeth has just done the most spontaneous and crazy thing ever in the history of her life: she got a perm. Way to live large, Liz! She walks into the Sweet Valley High cafeteria tossing her new curls carelessly over her shoulder and smiling flirtatiously at the lunch ladies. Or, she sits down at Jessica's table to ask about using the car that afternoon. And to be teased mercilessly by Lila "the bitch" Fowler. Since Jessica's friends think Elizabeth's boring, she must be and that's enough to get her to make a change.

Elizabeth spends a few hours after school considering hobbies (she thinks about and discards hang gliding and scuba diving) but realizes dangerous hobbies tend to be pretty expensive. Oh, just jump off a cliff and be done with it, Elizabeth. Finally, though, Liz finds a cheap hobby requiring lessons from a hot guy (who of course falls head over heels for Liz). Believe it or not, Elizabeth Wakefield is going to learn how to surf! Radical, dudes.

Elizabeth's teacher is an extremely cocky guy named Sean; he's a high school senior at nearby Big Mesa. So that's why it took him so long to fall in love with a Wakefield. Anyway, either due to her incredible good looks or to win a bet, Sean offers Elizabeth a month of free lessons and a rental surf board. In order for Sean to win his bet, Liz has to place in an upcoming surf competition. This means lessons three days a week which doesn't allow much time for anything else like, say, writing, which was important to Liz before she started caring about what Jessica's obnoxious friends thought about her.

Since we're talking about characters (well, I was until a minute ago), another important one is Laurie. In a plot that practically mirrors every other SVH book, Laurie has a major crush on Sean. He, of course, has no clue (at first she's just a pal even though she thinks they went on a date, then Elizabeth's beauty completely blinds him). And of course, *spoiler alert* Elizabeth finds out about Laurie's unrequited love and, as usual, wins the gold medal of meddle by forming a plan to get them together. But that's not 'til later in the book. Oh, one more thing about Laurie: she decides to learn how to surf in order to impress Sean. That's important later, too.

Since Elizabeth wants to keep her hobby to herself until she's sort of decent, she lies to her friends and family about what she's doing. As far as they know, she's involved in some marine biology project at the beach.

The book continues with Elizabeth's surfing lessons in way too much detail. Basically the only important part is that, naturally, Elizabeth is immediately a great surfer. Oh, and Laurie isn't, though of course she is jealous of Liz. Oh, and Ultra-Perceptive Liz can't tell that Laurie has an extra-special crush on Sean (she thinks they're going out). Or that Laurie is learning to surf even when Liz sees someone who looks like Laurie in the water. ("But Laurie doesn't surf," thinks Liz.) Yeah, she's a smart one.

Sean totally flirts with Elizabeth, invites her over to see his surfboard collection and trophies, and suggests renting a movie for the VCR. VC what? I just love historical fiction, some of the words are so quaint! (Actually, I still have a VCR. I'm old school.) Even though Liz can tell Sean is flirting with her (she's not blind and deaf!), she thinks it's safe because he has a girlfriend. Elizabeth does turn down his second and third offers; she has to get home and pretend she isn't ignoring her own boyfriend (Todd) who's called her three times that afternoon. He is so the Dean to her Rory.

As the book continues, Sean takes Elizabeth for a ride on a surfboard built for two. Okay, fine, he just takes her to some special beach where they can't surf because they might be eaten by sharks. Live dangerously or not at all, I say. And Laurie is jealous. The budding Liz/Sean romance continues (though is interrupted by a Liz/Todd date) when Sean gives Liz a surfboard charm. Then he totally comes on to her and Liz finally realizes that he's really into her. She's still confused, though, because she still thinks he's dating Laurie. When he tells her he isn't and that he doesn't like her that way, Laurie happens to overhear it. Of course, she doesn't hear the part where Elizabeth mentions her boyfriend and the whole thing is a typical, predictable mix-up. However, Laurie resolves to be the best (surfer) she can be. How inspirational.

There's a lot more boring surf stuff. Like, Liz the Intrepid goes surfing the day after a storm, wipes out, and gets caught in a rip-tide. No one accuses a Wakefield of doing something half-assed. Um, not that anyone did, of course. After the frightening experience of wiping out and getting mouth-to-mouth, Sean didn't want to abandon Liz. Actually he still just wants to get in her pants. He asks her out to dinner (she says no) and insists on driving her home. Liz was supposed to go out with Todd that night but he cancels, presumably after seeing Liz in Sean's car. It's a hard life Elizabeth has.

The day of the big surf competition (or as Elizabeth tells her friends, the big biology presentation) finally arrives. Sean lets Liz use his special surfboard because he's sweet on her. Cute. (She ends up not using it.) While Liz is preparing for the competition, she overhears Laurie talking about learning to surf to impress Sean. So Liz finally knows about the Laurie/Sean situation and, as I mentioned, she gets up to her usual tricks.

At long last, it's Elizabeth's turn to compete. Of course, all her frenemies from school are there and of course they're simply shocked when her name is called. At least the SVH people sort of come through when they realize Liz is actually surfing; they start chanting her name and it's terribly exciting. Instead of showing all of Sweet Valley that Elizabeth Wakefield doesn't take no shit from anyone and can go adventuring as well as anyone, Liz decides to play matchmaker. She wipes out on purpose so Sean will be impressed with Laurie. Of course, everyone figures Liz is just a sucky surfer (can you imagine Elizabeth Wakefield actually surfing?) and Liz just goes with it in the name of romance of people she'll never speak to again. Still, they're impressed that Liz tried something new, so, success? Sure, why not. Laurie surfs next, and brilliantly, and all is well with her and Sean.

So, anyway, everyone's proud of Liz for trying something new, Liz feels she proved something to herself, and no one cares that she lied to her family, friends, and boyfriend for a month. Inspired by his sister, Steven Wakefield decides to take up hang gliding and adventure in the Wakefield family lives on.

In stupid sub-plot land, Caroline Pearce tells the school that Jessica signed up for http://www.sugardaddyforme.com/ (I'm guessing. We're only told it's a "computer dating service". Yes, I know this book was published in 1990 and no, I'm not a member if you're wondering about that. I just figured that sounded Jessica Wakefieldesque.) Jessica vows revenge on Caroline. She does this by bothering the crap out of Caroline at work--Caroline works at the amazingly named Unique Boutique and I'd love to know what genius thought of that name.

Jessica's plan is to be a really annoying customer. Well, she didn't get the brains in the family. The plan actually works for awhile; the boss is a bitch, Jess spills a drink on Caroline's sleeve, and makes her carry bags out to the car in the pouring rain, you know, normal work stuff. Of course, the plan backfires when Caroline quits while Jess is is trying on clothes. Caroline takes all of the clothes out of the changing room (including Jessica's own clothes) while Jess is wearing practically nothing. Have I mentioned how much I love Caroline Pearce?

To conclude that storyline, Caroline had mentioned to Elizabeth that someone bearing resemblance to someone important to a Wakefield would be working at the Unique Boutique soon. Oooh, cryptic! Turns out that someone looks like Tricia, Steven's dead girlfriend. The book ends with Steven asking the girl out and with the usual SVH preview. And I'm finally done!


  • Lila and Amy talk about how a world full of Elizabeths would be boring while a world full of Jessicas would be chaos. How lucky for the world that there's one each; why, that's practically perfect.

  • On page 3, we learn that Lila is Jessica's best friend. I thought they were only best friends in middle school. Please tell me I don't have to read approximately sixty books to learn how they re-become best friends! Or do they?

  • Jessica's special dating site names are Magenta Galaxy and Daniella Cheese Fromage. I'll say it again, she sure didn't get the brains in the family. Magenta Galaxy is quite the name, though.

  • Although it never comes back to bite her in the ass, telling everybody she's off doing marine biology was pretty stupid of Liz. Of course, she's so brilliant and everyone loves her so much she could probably get away with answering, "A fugitive species lives in the abyssopelagic zone. It's ahermatypic, honestly! The deep layer is endosymbiotic*" should anyone ask her a marine biology question.

  • Funnily enough, Sean tells Liz that a good surfer probably knows as much as a marine biologist. Mr. Big-Shot knows where there's a reef so he must know the secret to saving all the poor little endangered sea turtles? I don't think so, kid.

  • Sean collects surfboards. His favorite was made by some surfer named Bob who could only use one arm and invented the modern surfboard or something. I had never heard of the guy--see how much I know about surfing?--but it turns out he's real. http://www.surfline.com/surfing-a-to-z/bob-simmons-biography-and-photos_907/

  • Some hot-shot Sweet Valley surfer could tell that Elizabeth wiped out on purpose. I thought Sean was the bestest ever so why didn't he know, huh? Guess he's not so special after all.

*Real live marine biology words. I totally looked them up.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Boxcar Children #8: The Lighthouse Mystery

As the official poll tie-breaker, I've decided to make my next post of the Boxcar variety. After this, I'll be heading on over to Sweet Valley. Anyway, I bring you the first of (hopefully) many posts on the Boxcar Children. This particular book is one of what will henceforth be known as The Nineteen, referring to the nineteen books actually written by Gertrude Chandler Warner, before the series got taken over by ghosts and the kids entered a time warp as big as the one in Stoneybrook. One more thing: I will be playing the Official Boxcar Drinking Game™ as I read and write. The rules are very simple: any time someone says or does something to reinforce a gender stereotype, take a shot. Feel free to play along; the first round’s on me. And without further ado, The Lighthouse Mystery.

Beginning with the blurb on the back: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny used to live alone in a boxcar. Now they're a world famous singing group called the Alden Four, working under the management of their tyrannical grandfather.

When the book begins, the Alden Four and Grandfather are just finishing their tour returning home from a visit with their Aunt Jane. In a good but confusing bit of continuity, this book actually picks up right where the last one left off.

The Aldens decide to take the generic "beach road" home, passing through the small town of Conley along the way. Conley is apparently known for its lighthouse, which, according to a sign, happens to be for sale. The kids somehow manage to convince Grandfather that a lighthouse would be a good investment and he figures he'll ask the town store owner what the deal is with the lighthouse and how to buy it. It turns out some other sucker got there first and already bought it. Who, you ask? Mr. I-must-be-overcompensating-for-something Hall, the owner of the store. Mr. Overcompensator agrees to rent out the lighthouse for a few weeks and so the Aldens move right in.

Nothing of any interest happens at all until the stroke of midnight (dun dun DUN!) when Watch, the dog, starts barking. Because something is obviously very wrong but absolutely nothing can be accomplished by rational persons at midnight, everyone just goes back to sleep. Well, first they all have a conversation. Benny claims he can smell mashed potatoes and Violet and Jessie are quick to point out that potatoes and salt do not smell. I think that deserves a shot.

The next day, the Boxcar Children head into town. While at the store, a (supposedly annoyed) man doesn’t fall all over the kids and tell them how great they are so naturally the Aldens are suspicious. They decide he’s part of their non-existent and previously unmentioned mystery. In fact, they’re on the lookout everywhere for “suspicious characters” i.e. people who don’t believe the sun shines out of the asses of the four Boxcar Children. And really, how could they.

Just after running into Annoyed Man, the kids meet another crazy character: a kid about Henry’s age who indignantly tells them that, despite his reading material, he most certainly does not go to college. According to Mr. Overcompensator, the boy is Larry and he’s unfriendly and uneducated because his asshole father thinks book learnin’ is overrated. The holier-than-thou Aldens make it their mission to befriend Larry. The Boxcars then decide that one of the two “cross people” they just met must be involved in their mystery. Yeah, I don’t get it either. In a ridiculous bit of foreshadowing, Benny says he doesn’t see how they could be involved but “Maybe they are cooking up something or other.” Old Gertie makes a point of telling us that Benny is kinda near the truth. No freaking WAY.

The next chapter begins with Jessie making lunch and me pouring myself a shot. The Aldens decide to eat lunch outside only it turns out sitting on rocks is kind of uncomfortable. They decide to fix the situation by putting rock chairs together and adding cement to make them last forever. Can’t you just imagine some children, fifty years later sitting in the seats of the legendary Boxcars? It just about brings a tear to my eye. In one of the most random and contrived plot points ever, some men (shot!) are cementing a nearby driveway; the Aldens decide to ask them for some cement. Guess what? One of the men working on the driveway is Annoyed Man. My goodness, it is a small world after all.

The Aldens return To The Lighthouse, stopping along the way so Henry can buy a trowel and I can take a shot. They spend the rest of the chapter cementing a table and chairs together and it’s so boring I either fall asleep or pass out due to drunkenness, I’m not sure which. Finally, the Aldens bring back the unused cement and pay for what they did use. They notice that Annoyed Man is no longer there; they’re glad since he’s a big old meanie and they don’t like him anyway. That doesn’t stop them from wanting to know who he is, and Old Lady Warner informs us they’re about to find that out. I can hardly contain myself.

Nothing interesting happens until midnight when, once again, Watch starts barking. The Aldens guess, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that someone’s cooking in the little house (I think it’s a summer kitchen) next to the lighthouse. After debating the possibility of someone being in the house for much longer than necessary (it’s about half a page), they come to no conclusions and figure they’ll check things out in the morning. However, Jessie and Violet happen to see a woman outside, walking away from the house. They figure everyone’ll talk about it in the morning and back to sleep they go.

In the morning, Jessie and Violet do mention the woman. Everyone decides to look around the little house for clues and stuff. Would you believe it? They find something! Not, like, in the house or anything, but just sort of lying around outside. It’s a piece of paper with some very advanced science-y stuff on it. Even Henry doesn’t understand it. All Aldens agree: someone very smart has been using the house for experiments.

After no segue at all, the Aldens decide that, since they’re on the beach, they should probably do beachy things like collect shells (did you know that Grandfather is, like, an expert on shells?) and go swimming. Unfortunately, they need bathing suits. I wouldn’t even mention it except when they go into town to buy them, Henry and Benny are more interested in the boats in the harbor while Jessie and Violet are of course more interested in bathing suits. (Have a shot? Don’t mind if I do.)

While the Aldens are buying their suits, they learn a bit more about their “mystery”. The boat that Henry and Benny liked was called the Sea Cook II. It’s owned by a Mr. Cook. Someone named Mr. Cook also bought the summer kitchen. Mr. Cook and Annoyed Man are the same person. Mr. Cook has a grown son who isn’t allowed to use the boat or anything (but the rebellious kid does anyway). Aaaand, the kid always comes back with “stuff”. Raise your hand if you’ve figured it out. Well, I’ll press on anyway. On the very next page, we learn that the son is “very smart” and his father won’t let him go to college, even though he’s applied and been accepted. Yes, that’s right. Larry’s asshole father from a bunch of chapters ago is Annoyed Man aka Mr. Cook and I totally did not see that one coming.

After that, nothing very interesting happens, including that the Aldens go swimming. That night, Benny, sitting on the lighthouse lookout, saw a ship start to approach the harbor then go out again. Somehow this stupid boy figured that someone on the boat could see him; Benny then turned off the lights and put on a dark coat. I guess that did the trick because the ship came in with Benny watching. He saw a man get off the boat, holding a pail and I call that a clue.

This is getting long… So, the Aldens are able to see into the summer kitchen and realize that someone’s been working there. They figure out (don’t ask me how) that Larry’s been doing experiments to turn seaweed and plankton into good food to feed the whole world! The Aldens decide they need to be friends with Larry (and damned if I know why).

The next sort of interesting thing that happens is a big town dinner thing. Conley is trying to raise money to put in streetlights, yes, streetlights. They think this’ll be the year they manage to do it! Larry is apparently the cook (But… but… boys aren’t allowed to cook! This SUCKS, I’m long overdue for a shot.) His usual help quit and the Aldens offer to help out. Aren’t they PRECIOUS. The only remotely interesting thing about the dinner is that a stranger shows up who talks to Larry for awhile. FORESHADOWING.

I’m really trying to skip stuff but these pesky little “clues” keep popping up. Like, the Aldens watch a ship come into a nearby harbor and because Grandfather is in the mafia well connected, they get a tour of the ship. They eventually realize there were big bags of plankton on board, the captain lives in Conley, and therefore the plankton must be for Larry. Turns out they’re right.

Moving on. Everything the Boxcar Children have figured out up ‘til now is right. Go figure. Next up, becoming friends with Larry. How? By forcing him to help them put screens on the lighthouse windows. I tried that friend-making technique three times and all it got me was a few hundred mosquito bites and a note saying “I hope u get malaria, bitch”. Some people have all the luck. Then, the Aldens make Larry cook their lunch. What is wrong with these assholes?

Hey, I’m almost done with this thing! The next night, there’s a huge storm. Stupid Larry (um, isn’t he supposed to be smart?) gets caught out at sea and the Coast Guard comes to bring him in. He’s taken to the lighthouse, unfortunately all delirious and stuff, ranting about feeding the world. Except, he knows what he’s talking about. He just wants everyone to eat plankton. Like I said. Delirious.

So. Anyway. Larry’s been cooking seaweed and stuff in the summer kitchen; his mother was helping him out by bringing him dinner. Which made Watch bark. Fascinating, isn’t it. Everyone tries the “food” and agrees it’s disgusting. Even so, Larry was accepted to college, choosing to go to Adams--which is, as Benny puts it, Henry’s very college! Asshole Father aka Mr. Cook aka Annoyed Man finally agrees Larry can go. I wish I cared. Out of gratitude or pity or hatred or something, the Cooks invite the Aldens over for dinner. John Carter, Grandfather’s friend from the FBI shows up and gives Larry his microscope. I wipe away tears of joy for Larry boredom.

Finally, the Aldens head home. Henry and Larry show up at college where Larry learns that the scientist he’ll be working with was that random stranger from the town dinner that happened so long ago I care even less about it now than I did 20 pages ago. And they all live happily ever after.

What, you want more details?

  • When the Aldens ask to rent the lighthouse, Mr. Overcompensator informs them that it’s set up for light housekeeping. Which is not to be confused with lighthouse keeping. Yes, the book goes there and yes, I rolled my eyes so hard they got temporarily stuck. Between that and all the cooking puns, I fear my love of wordplay is no more; hopefully that’s only a temporary condition.
  • Upon moving into the lighthouse, Jessie and Violet took note of the stove before anything else and I took a shot.
  • The lighthouse accommodations were such that Violet and Jessie had to share a room (and possibly a bed?) while Henry and Benny each had his own. Worthy of a shot? Why the hell not.
  • Like all good one-dimensional characters, each Boxcar child is only allowed to like one color; presumably their bathing suits correspond to that, though we only hear about Jessie’s blue suit and Benny’s red one. Small blessings, I guess. At least we aren’t hit over the head with Violet’s favorite color. Betcha can’t guess what that is.
  • When Larry is stuck in the storm, Henry is the one to contact the Coast Guard. Since the phones are out, he has to drive to the next town. I’d call that shot-worthy but Henry’s the only one who can drive.