J’s Take on In Lane Three, Alex Archer by Tessa Duder

In Lane Three, Alex Archer Cover

Published in 1987, this novel recounts the fictional story of one young New Zealand swimmer as she tries to win a spot on the 1960 Olympic team.

I’m going to save the spoilers for the end, so you can stop reading when you get to them if you don’t want to be spoiled.

When I first picked up the book, I was expecting a quick, easy read. But then it turned out to be one of those publications from the 1980s where the print is tiny and cramped and so the book wasn’t as short as I thought. I went ‘ugh’ and put it aside for later. Once I finally did pick it up again and start reading, it was easier than expected. Overall, I’d say I liked the book. It was an interesting read.

I wouldn’t classify myself as someone who likes sports books and reading about jocks, which is what this book is, so I’d say I liked it despite of that rather than because of it. The main character is likeable, even if I want to just shake her plenty of times. We hear about her rivalry with a swimmer who usually beats her, her family which sacrifices for her, her friends and her school life.

What probably interested me the most was the gender stuff. And the book opens right away with that, with Alex reacting an article written in a women’s section of a paper. How despite training hard, she and her rival also have “feminine” interests and things like that.

It was a little odd to be reading a book that was ~25 years old written about a time nearly 30 years before that. In a way, it felt very much like an 80s book, even though it was written about the late 50s. There were times where I felt it was being a little too obvious about “the 50s were a different time, especially for girls”, and a little preachy about drinking and driving. One character asks rhetorically and hyperbolically whether he should’ve taken his drunk friend’s keys away from him. The 80’s audience is meant to think “Yes, yes, you should’ve!!”

At some point, I started questioning the author’s research. I was stopped by wondering how a girl swims with her period, and had to do some Googling. I had a vague notion that pads were way different and weird in the 50s. Turns out it’s not an easy thing to Google, probably because Wikipedia is written mostly by men. But I did discover that tampons have been around longer than I thought. Not that I’d want to be a 14 year old in the 50s wearing them in a swimming pool. Especially since one of the pools is described as a warm soup of chlorinated salt water. YUCK!

It’s not until nearly the end of the book that it was confirmed for me that tampons were involved.

Yes, dear readers, it’s a book about periods! Well, not really, but it didn’t shy away from it. Even though it was coy about the tampons until the end.

So when Julie Andrews’ voice is mentioned, I had to stop and Google that too. This is before Sound of Music, so how did kids in New Zealand not only know about her, but hear her voice? Well, she was on Broadway in the mid-50s and made a TV appearance just about the time this book takes place. So I gave the author a pass, on the theory that theatre geeks would have records of her Broadway singing. Maybe.

Oh yes, I neglected to mention that Alex is a theatre geek. And a hockey player. And a piano player. And good in school. And into ballet. And I feel like I’m forgetting at least one other activity. She’s doing so many things at once that thinking about it, I just want to lie right down on the floor and take a nap. Most kids would consider being in a theatre production and one other activity plenty. Or, you know, maybe training for the Olympics is enough! She even practices piano for an hour a day. At least we finally learn she’s not so good at school as we were led to believe. At least judging by the grades she got.

A lot of the book is about how she’s doing too many things at once, but she keeps doing them! And nobody forces her to stop. Not her parents, not her coach, not anyone at school.

In the end, I had to trust the author got things right. Or at least more right than I could’ve. Her bio says she was a swimmer in the 50s in New Zealand. So, yea, I don’t have a leg to stand on with my Googling.

Alex’s relationship with her boyfriend is what bothered me the most. She’s 14 and he’s 17. Which, all right. Though her parents and his seem completely fine with this! Her father even arranges a beach trip for her and her boyfriend and gives them alone time to do like, whatever. :} When they do make out, the first time, and subsequent times, her reaction to it is completely unbelievable to me.

Alex is tall and plays the men’s roles in plays in the all-girl school she attends. And there have been comments hinting she might be a lesbian. So she’s a little insecure about her femininity, though mostly she doesn’t let it bother her.

So here’s her first time making out with her older boyfriend.

“I’m also regarded by some as a second best specimen of femininity around the place — except that Andy not only kissed me so many times I lost count on that day of the bridge walk, but also, later in the car, very gently traced the outline of my breast with his fingers, deliciously reassuring me of my femininity…”

The thoughts of a 14 year old? I didn’t buy it.

Throughout the book, she kept seeming to me to be about 16. It was really hard to remember she was 14 and barely 15 by the end of the book.

I’m a big believer that kids are smarter and know and see more things than authors usually give them credit for. But that doesn’t mean they’re emotionally mature.

Okay, I’m going to venture into spoiler territory now. So be warned!

*** Spoilers ***

Remember the drunk driver I mentioned before? Well, Alex and her boyfriend do get out of the car. And then it gets into a wreck, justifying their actions. But the driver and his girlfriend, despite her being thrown completely out of the car, only have minor injuries. If you’re going to try to teach us not to drink and drive, especially without seatbelts, maybe you should give them believable injuries, huh?

But this was just foreshadowing.

About halfway through the book, I had a sneaking suspicion something was going to happen to her boyfriend. And lo and behold I was right. Don’t drink and drive, kids, but that doesn’t matter, because a drunk driver will kill you anyway. The only surprise was that this death meant her ailing grandmother who was “fading away” didn’t have to die.

Sigh. I haven’t read as many Newbery books as K has, but I’ve still read enough books like this to be fed up with the trope. The only thing that would’ve made it more trope-y was if her boyfriend was gay.

And then she’s all.. I have to go to the Olympics for him. And having some weird telepathic conversation with his ghost while she’s racing. Like, not just talking to him in her head, but he’s actually feeding her information she shouldn’t be able to know. Um, all right.

So I liked the book, but liked it much less by the end of it.

I’ll end this review not with a bang, but with a siiiiiiiiigh.


Little House: Laura’s Early Years (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

With the exception of Farmer Boy, the original Little House books all have Laura Ingalls as the main character. Though the books themselves follow her as a child all the way to the first years of her marriage, there’s a time jump* between the third Laura book, On the Banks of Plum Creek and the fourth, By the Shores of Silver Lake. The existence of this gap means it makes sense to me to break the series there and have a look at the first three books together.

The Plot
In Little House in the Big Woods we’re introduced to the Ingalls family – Ma, Pa and their daughters Mary, Laura and Carrie. They live in a tiny cabin in the midst of a forest that’s pretty much on the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. The family isn’t wealthy, but they’re able to live well enough off the land – both theirs and the unclaimed areas of the forest. But soon enough, Pa is beginning to feel the forest is oversettled, and the whole family moves to Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie. Pa believes the Native American tribes will soon be forced to give up this land (as do quite a number of others) and he and the family set up a farm just inside the disputed border. When he hears a rumor that soldiers will be coming to displace the settlers, he angrily packs the family up and they depart for Minnesota, where they settle during On the Banks of Plum Creek. Relatively close to a town for the first time, Laura and Mary are finally able to attend school, while Pa once again takes a stab at building a farm.

My Thoughts
These first three Laura books cover the period when she was about age 4 until 9 or 10, and follow the Ingalls family as they live at three different locations. We begin in Wisconsin, where the family is living in a small cabin in a forested area near the town of Pepin. The cabin is tiny, and life surely wasn’t quite as rosy as the picture Wilder paints, but even if the depiction of her childhood is romanticized, it’s still engrossing in a way that’s hard to explain.

We’re introduced here to the family: Pa, Ma, older sister Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie. Pa is a bit of a jack of all trades – he farms just enough to provide food for the winter, but obviously much prefers the variety of hunting and trapping with occasional other projects to the steady monotony of farming. Ma supervises the children and the food as well as performing numerous other important tasks around the homestead. Mary and Laura assist Ma with her work and Pa as needed; as with the Wilders in Farmer Boy, gender roles are enforced to a point, but if work needs to be done, then whoever can do it will be required to help out.

Compared to the industrious Wilders in Farmer Boy, the Ingalls family is positively idle. Which is not to say they aren’t constantly working, but without a large farm to take care of, the daily tasks of taking care of the stock and the garden are much less labor intensive. Pa spends a great deal of time tramping through the woods — hunting and trapping and fishing to be sure, but also enjoying himself while doing it. Ma certainly knits and sews, but it’s not clear that she has the materials for the sort of spinning and weaving that Mrs. Wilder was able to do. Interestingly, Ma, a former schoolteacher, does not really seem to press academic lessons very hard on Mary or Laura; both girls seem to have lots of free time in which to play.

But it’s not so much the plot or even the characters which make these books so fascinating. As I mentioned in my comments on Farmer Boy, it’s the details that drive my interest. Wilder was aware she was writing about a way of living already foreign to most of her readers, who had grown up with automobiles and the A&P. She took the time to describe the process of how things worked — from the perspective of a child — and include interesting details that just captured the imagination. If someone confronted me with a roasted pig tail I would probably recoil, but reading about Laura and Mary’s delight in the treat makes me want one: it sounds absolutely delicious.

The drawback to the weight given to process detail, and the fairly episodic nature of these early books means that the characters themselves are not deeply drawn. Ma is quiet and efficient, Mary is good and ladylike, Pa is mischievous and a good provider, Carrie is a baby, and Laura is restless and naughty. Part of this is, I think, because the Ingalls children themselves are so young in these books, it would be difficult to draw a more nuanced portrait of Ma and Pa while still retaining Laura’s perspective. And part of this is because they are meant to be idealized versions of the Ingalls family. Living in a tiny shack in the woods of Wisconsin cannot have been an easy life, no matter how rosy a picture Wilder tries to paint, but to start with real hardships are pretty much glossed over: everyone is well-fed, warm, and comfortable, even if they don’t have lots of possessions.

By the time we reach Plum Creek, the girls are starting to grow older and are more aware of their own lack of wealth relative to others around them. Nellie Olson appears on the scene for the first time, providing a sharp contrast to the Ingalls household with her heaps of toys and dresses, furniture and books. Something I didn’t pick up on reading as a child, but which comes through clearly now, is Charles Ingalls’s restless and somewhat irresponsible nature. His move to Kansas may have been well-considered, but to leave in what amounted to a fit of pique was truly shocking, and his decision for the family to settle near Plum Creek was poorly researched to say the least. Surely the fact that the man he bought the land from was so eager to get out of Dodge should have given him a clue? (Hint: When the oldtimers are talking about “grasshopper weather”, ask them what they mean!) And then he falls victim to easy credit, building a house without any actual money to pay for it. I’m left with the feeling that if he were alive today, his mortgage would be underwater and he’d be up to his eyeballs in credit card debt in spite of his ideals of self-reliance.

And I can’t much speak for Caroline Ingalls either. Though she is obviously part of the decision which brings the family to Plum Creek, because of the proximity to a school for the girls, she seems in no hurry to actually send them — she keeps them home most of the first year they live there, for no good reason. As a child, I never noticed it, but it does seem odd to me that the very clever daughter of this ex-schoolteacher heads to school around age eight just barely knowing her alphabet. Especially when Mary can apparently read? I am not sure what was going on there.

But none of these were things I noticed when I read them long ago, and even seeing them now and knowing more about the real Ingalls family and how they differ from the book version doesn’t take away from the charm of these books. It’s easy to see why they’ve inspired such a fandom as they have.

*Recently, the author Cynthia Rylant has attempted to bridge the gap by writing a midquel, Old Town in the Green Groves to cover this missing period, a book I’ve not yet decided upon reading.

In Short
The first three Laura-focused books in the Little House series covers a span of five or six years in Laura’s life, during which her family moved several times to radically different locales. Wilder describes their lives in each location, dwelling on interesting incidents and pulling these anecdotes together into an idealized portrait of her early life. Though reading them as an adult allows one to pick up on undercurrents that a child probably wouldn’t notice, nothing detracts from their charm and interest. These are books I will and have read again and again.


Little House: Farmer Boy (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

The Plot
The Wilder family are prosperous farmers living in upstate New York in the middle of the 19th century. Almanzo, the youngest of the four Wilder siblings, is eager to be considered responsible enough to handle training the horses he adores. In the meantime though, there are plenty of things for a boy growing up on a working farm to learn and do. Even if that sometimes includes actually going to school.

My Thoughts
Farmer Boy opens in the winter, with the four Wilder children in the midst of the winter school term. The four are quite close in age, the eldest, Royal, being 13ish and the youngest, Almanzo, only a few weeks shy of nine. But in spite of the fact that he’s only a little bit younger than his next oldest sibling, Almanzo very much occupies the position of family baby, being indulged by his parents and bossed by the older children.

We follow Almanzo, and to a lesser extent all of the Wilders, over the course of slightly more than a year. The book strives to present in detail the various tasks (and pleasures) of a child growing up on a successful farm in New York state. To this end, though the narrative covers most of two winters, we really only see each task once, even though surely things such as timber hauling were a yearly chore. Perhaps one is meant to conclude that the first winter, Almanzo wasn’t involved due to his age (and the fact that Royal was at home to provide more competent help.)

Since Almanzo is a boy (and because the rest of the books focus so much on the tasks of women, being about Laura), Farmer Boy keeps its focus on the male sphere of farm work, with only brief glimpses now and then into the tasks which occupy the time and energy of Almanzo’s mother (and sisters). The women aren’t ignored or unacknowledged so much as their occupations just aren’t part of the list of skills that Almanzo is expected to acquire. It’s made abundantly clear that the talents of both Mr and Mrs. Wilder are essential to the smooth running of the farm and the family.

The book ends with Almanzo tacitly deciding he wants to be a farmer when he grows up, rather than a tradesman. He wins his parents’ approval as well as the chance to help train a young horse, something he’s been clamoring to do for years.

When I was younger, I was always annoyed when I came to Farmer Boy in the series. I had the box set in which Farmer Boy (in spite of being published second) was number 3. So I’d have been reading right along about Laura and her family and then, after being left at a surprising near cliffhanger at the end of book 2, I’d have to suddenly shift gears to New York and Almanzo’s well-to-do family. It really interrupted the flow of the narrative.

I still think it does, but I’ve solved the problem by reading it before the Laura books — since chronologically it would be ahead of them all, given Almanzo’s age. It’s not entirely clear if that’s still the case within the timeline of the books; the Wilders, even more than the Ingalls, have been tinkered with for the purposes of the books. Almanzo’s oldest sister is omitted entirely, perhaps due to her misfortune in also being named Laura, and the other extant siblings (his youngest brother wouldn’t have been born yet during the time period covered by Farmer Boy) have had their ages compressed quite a bit to make them closer together.

But how well the characters match up to their real life counterparts is irrelevant, since this is historical fiction, not a history. And it really is fabulous historical fiction. Now, more than 80 years after the story was originally written, we’re even further removed from the time period Laura Ingalls Wilder was trying to capture. But the level of detail she provides about the small things — the way the yoke attached to the oxen, or the way they loaded logs onto the sleds — makes it possible to imagine the scene even without much knowledge of 19th century farming.

I find Farmer Boy interesting for a number of other reasons as well. Geographically, it takes place in a part of New York I’m not super familiar with. Malone, the town nearest the Wilder farm, is very far upstate, mere miles from Quebec. It’s not stated in the text, but the presence of ‘French’ people nearby is probably the result of the non-border we shared with Canada at the time. (It wasn’t until after 1906 that anyone even bothered to start keeping track of Canadians entering the US.) Their portrayal plays to a popular stereotype of French-Canadians at the time (see: the works of L.M. Montgomery) the origins of which I don’t really know, but which interests me as someone with a significant amount of Québécois ancestry.

But even more than interesting historical sidetracks, what’s most compelling about Farmer Boy is the FOOD. It’s dangerous to read this book while hungry; the loving descriptions of the heaps of food eaten by the Wilder family make it extremely difficult to resist getting something to eat. Popcorn, cider, ice cream, ham, pancakes, potatoes, goose, gravy, sausage, maple syrup, bread, lemonade, egg nog, pies of all types: mealtime is the most frequent scene and it always leaves me desperately wanting to pig out.

In Short
Farmer Boy is unique among the Little House series: it’s the only book with a male main character. This holds true even taking into account the large extended series — the prequels and sequels authored by others. As such, though Almanzo and some of his relatives appear again in the later books, this one about his childhood is really very much stand alone. But it’s fascinating anyway — especially as the Wilders lived not too far from where some of my own ancestors were during that time period — and highlights very well the big difference between Almanzo’s early life and Laura’s.


A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

A Spy in the House coverFrom the back cover:
Mary Quinn leads a remarkable life. At twelve, an orphan and convicted thief, she was miraculously rescued from the gallows. Now, at seventeen, she has a new and astonishing chance to work undercover for the Agency.

It is May 1858, and a foul-smelling heat wave paralyzed London. Mary enters a rich merchant’s household to solve the mystery of his lost cargo ships. But as she soon learns, the house is full of deceptions, and people are not what they seem—including Mary herself.

As a convicted thief, twelve-year-old Mary Lang is about to be executed when she is saved by the ladies of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. There, she receives an education and by the age of seventeen is teaching other students the skills they will need to be independent. Trouble is, she’s not satisfied and the few other career options open to her gender don’t interest her much, either. When she mentions this to the two women running the school, they suggest another alternative: the Agency.

The Agency is a covert organization of female spies, operating under the assumption that because women are presumed to be flighty and empty-headed, their agents will be able to retrieve information more easily than a man might, particularly in situations of domestic servitude. Mary quickly agrees, despite the threat of danger, and soon finds herself serving as paid companion to spoiled Miss Angelica Thorold, whose merchant father is suspected of dealing in stolen Hindu goods.

Mary (now using the surname Quinn) isn’t the lead on the investigation and isn’t supposed to actually do much of anything, but she gets antsy, and in the process of snooping meets James Easton. James’ older brother desperately wants to marry Angelica, but James has heard rumors about her father’s business practices, and so is doing some sleuthing of his own to determine whether a family connection would be unwise. He and Mary form a partnership and spend most of the book poking about in warehouses and rest homes for aging Asian sailors and following people on foot or in carriages while maintaining a flirty sort of bickering banter.

Author Y. S. Lee tries to make the mystery interesting, giving us a bit of intrigue between Angelica and her father’s secretary as a distraction, but ultimately it feels very insubstantial to me. Nothing much comes as a surprise and two story elements that could’ve been highlights—Mary’s month-long intensive training and Scotland Yard’s raid on the Thorold house—occur off camera! Too, Mary is harboring a secret about her parentage which is thoroughly obvious: she’s part Asian. Only towards the end did Lee actually make clear that Mary is keeping this a secret from others because of the foreigner bias of the time, and I must wonder whether the intended young adult audience was reading this going, “What’s the big deal?”

Not that it isn’t nifty to have a part-Asian heroine, of course. Mary is competent and level-headed, though I admit I did get irritated by how often she is favorably compared to “ordinary women,” who would scream or faint in situations in which Mary is able to keep her head. When a mystery stars a male sleuth, do we need to hear over and over how much smarter he is than the ordinary fellow? I don’t think so. On the flip side, the overall theme of the book seems to be “don’t understimate women,” and Mary finds time to inspire a scullery maid to seek out Miss Scrimshaw’s and to convince Angelica to pursue a musical career.

In the end, A Spy in the House is a decent read. It’s not perfect, but I still plan to read the second book in the trilogy in the near future.


The Body at the Tower (Y.S. Lee)

The Plot
Mary Quinn was rescued at the age of twelve from the hangman’s noose by an enterprising group of women. Now educated and grown, she has been recruited by those same women to join a clandestine group of mercenary agents hired by Scotland Yard and other to investigate where official channels have turned up no results. Now a year on from her somewhat shakily executed first assignment, Mary’s latest case is a departure for even the Agency. Mary must disguise herself as a boy in order to infiltrate the building site at the Houses of Parliament and discover what she can about the suspicious death of a bricklayer.

My Thoughts
The Body at the Tower opens roughly a year after the events of the first Mary Quinn book, A Spy in the House. Mary is still working for the Agency, taking assignments and becoming more comfortable in her role as an investigator-slash-spy. Apparently, which I did not recall from the first book, she is not yet considered a full-fledged member of the Agency – though she is due for this promotion soon, as she’s slowly accumulated experience.

Mary’s latest assignment is one which is controversial within the Agency itself – she’s to go undercover at the building site of the Houses of Parliament, where they are working on completing St. Stephen’s Tower (what most people just call “Big Ben”). The building project is decades behind schedule, over-budget, and has been continually plagued by setbacks and bad-luck, leading to rumors of a curse or phantom. Certainly the latest incident, the death of a bricklayer, has not improved matters any. Scotland Yard wishes to know if the death was a suicide or homicide, so they have asked the Agency to investigate. Since the building site has zero opportunities for a female, Mary will have to disguise herself as a boy. It’s this latter step which creates friction between the two women who head the Agency – they disagree whether or not it’s a good idea to attempt expanding the business in this fashion.

In the meantime and hardly unexpectedly to the reader, James Easton has returned from his assignment in India and promptly finds himself tapped to perform his own audit of the building project. What saves this turn of events from being completely cliched is the fact that Easton does not return in health – in fact, he seems downright consumptive in the manner of the best Victorian heroines. (The official explanation is malaria; we’ll see if that turns out to be all it is.)

I found this second book in The Agency series to be much more brisk than the first – though Mary is no Sherlock, she is able to be a lot more proactive in this outing and eventually begins to piece things together. She finds herself on more even footing with Easton due to his physical weakness and her own increased confidence in her abilities, so their interactions are more interesting. And we’re introduced to a new character, the tabloid journalist Octavius Jones, who promises to be a nice addition to the cast, provided he shows up again!

My main concern, not of this book in particular, but of the series in general is that the books thus far have been fairly short. My fellow Tripletakers have noticed that many things which may have been quite interesting (Mary’s time at school, her time teaching, her training for the Agency) have been quickly glossed over or skipped entirely. Indeed, book 2 barely has time to return to the mysteries surrounding Mary’s father introduced in the first book. And – alarmingly – other reviews have referenced as fact that the Agency series was intended as a trilogy rather than an ongoing, open-ended (or simply longer) serial as I had initially supposed. I haven’t actually been able to confirm this at author Y.S. Lee’s website, but it seems to me that there is simply too much which needs to happen in book 3 to satisfactorily tie up all of the dangling threads. I fear being disappointed by the ending, so I rather hope book 3 is either considerably longer or not actually the end.

In Short
Now a more experienced investigator for the Agency, Mary Quinn’s second adventure moves along at a highly satisfactory pace. The setting and mystery are not at all similar to A Spy in the House, giving this book a different but still pleasing flavor. I’m left anticipating the third book in the series (The Traitor and the Tunnel), inexplicably (and aggravatingly!) due to be released in the US months after the UK edition arrives.