Book Review: Enchantment Lake

Book Review: Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus

Francine Frye isn’t a detective.  She played a detective on TV.  On a children’s show.  For a few episodes.  But that still makes her the closest thing to a detective Francie’s eccentric aunts Astrid and Jeannette know.  So when a series of perfectly explainable but statistically improbable deaths strike around their cabin home on Enchantment Lake, they make a (badly worded, static-filled) call to their great-niece which cuts off abruptly.

Enchantment Lake

When Francie can’t get the authorities or even her grandfather to investigate, she decides to head to Walpurgis, the small town in northern Minnesota Enchantment Lake is closest to.   She’s relieved to learn Astrid and Jen are alive and well, but now that she’s here, the aunts suggest the young actor snoop around some.  Especially as there’s been a new death, the most suspicious yet.

This middle-grade mystery is the first in the “Enchantment Lake” series, which does make certain developments in the story pretty obvious.  Francie’s on the lower end of seventeen, which allows her to be fairly mature (she was living in New York City on her own while trying to continue her acting career) but still be viewed as a child by most of the adults around her.  This includes her grandfather, who makes use of his control of Francie’s trust fund to order her around.

Francie is perhaps a little too ready to believe there’s a connection between all the seemingly unrelated deaths, as there’s plenty of mystery in her own life.  Her father died in a statistically improbable car crash, her brother moved to Europe a couple of years ago and never communicates with Francie, and absolutely no one will tell Francie anything about her mother.

This last one comes up more than the others, as a couple of the suspects seem to know more about Francie’s mother than she does, and a clue pops up suggesting the woman may be alive.  This plot hook is left dangling for a future volume, alas.

Not being a detective, Francie (known to the older locals as “French Fry”) makes several rookie mistakes, including being alone with murder suspects without having told anyone where she’s going multiple times.  And several people who have information that would be relevant either don’t bring it up or are refusing to tell Francie for their own reasons.

The language is suitable for middle-schoolers, but not so simple that young adult readers would be embarrassed to be seen reading this book.  Romance is limited to Francie noticing certain boys are attractive and being mildy jealous of one paying attention to another girl.  Suicide is mentioned.

The small town Minnesota setting will be familiar to most Minnesotans and many other people from the upper Midwest.  It allows for a quirky cast without going into demeaning “hick” stereotypes.  (The most stereotyped person is actually a spoiled city girl who sees no attraction in a lakeside vacation.)

The solution to the mystery is pleasingly complex, and younger readers should be pleased if they figure most of it out in advance.

Recommended for young mystery fans, and older mystery fans with a love of small town Minnesota.

Since the book mentions the sound of loons several times, here’s a video set on Loon Lake, not far from where Enchantment Lake would be:

Movie Review: Till the Clouds Roll By

Movie Review: Till the Clouds Roll By

This 1946 musical, filmed in glorious Technicolor, is loosely based on the life of songwriter Jerome Kern (Robert Walker).  It opens with the opening of Showboat, the famous Oscar Hammerstein play he wrote the music for.  After several numbers, we skip to the end of the performance.  Mr. Kern asks his chauffeur to take him to a certain neighborhood that has special meaning to him, and we go into a long flashback.

Till the Clouds Roll By

This turns out to be the beginning of his long relationship with music arranger James Hessler (Van Heflin) and his daughter Sally (Joan Wells/Lucille Bremer.  Mr. Hessler is tired of silly love songs and wanting to write a symphony, but Mr. Kern’s music convinces him to arrange again.

Things aren’t doing too well on Broadway, and Mr. Kern has to travel all the way to England, where he meets his future wife, before he can convince a producer to take a chance on an American songwriter.  After a near miss with the Lusitania, Kern and Hessler finally find success with a hit show.

As the years pass, Sally becomes convinced she wants to  be in show business, and Mr. Kern is able to swing her a plum spot in his latest production.  However, the producer of the show takes away Sally’s big number and gives it to established star Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland).  Sally has a fit and runs away to seek her own fortune, not even returning when her father dies.

Distraught after his friend’s death, Mr. Kern is unable to write until  he finally finds Sally singing in a club near the Mississippi, determined to succeed on her own merits.  Heartened, he is also inspired by the river to create the music heard in Showboat.   The flashback over, Mr. Kern worries that this is the natural end to his career.  The chauffeur assures him that it’s not, and drives him to the afterparty.

A quick montage of success later, the now elderly Kern is brought to Hollywood to do music for the movies, and is pleased to see that Sally is by complete coincidence the star of the one he’s working on.  The movie ends with a medley of Kern hits.

Like many musicals, the plot is a little thin, but there are some great musical numbers sung by such luminaries as Angela Lansbury, Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra.  And it’s in color, which is always nice.

One interesting bit; the parts with Judy Garland were shot early, and with a different director, Vincente Minnelli, as she was pregnant at the time and they wanted to make sure she wouldn’t show.  Jerome Kern was still alive at this point and visited the set shortly before he passed.

Thankfully, there’s no overt sexism or racism in the movie, although the latter is in the metatext–Lena Horne’s number is carefully framed so that it could be removed by Southern theater owners without causing a noticeable gap, and there are two versions of “Old Man River”, one with a black performer (as part of Showboat) and then at the end with young Frank Sinatra in an all-white showcase.

The romance is kept nice and clean.  There’s some smoking and drinking–one scene takes place during Prohibition with the booze served literally under the table.

This film is in the public domain, so easily findable, and well worth it for the musical numbers alone.

Movie Review: The Duke is Tops

Movie Review: The Duke is Tops (1938)

Duke Davis (Ralph Cooper) is a show producer who has a star act, Ethel Andrews (Lena Horne), who is also his sweetheart.  Their current show, “Sepia Scandals” is doing very well in the small Southern cities it’s playing.  A big-time East Coast agent wants to put Ethel on Broadway, but doesn’t need Duke tagging along.

The Duke Is Tops

Worried that he’s holding Ethel’s career back, Duke tricks her into breaking up with him so that she can head up to New York City.  Unfortunately, without her, his next show flops.  Now poison in local show business, Duke happens to meet up with an old friend, Doc Dorando (Laurence Criner.)  Doc’s elixir sales have been doing poorly, as he’s still using the same old spiel.  Duke convinces Doc to let him turn their old trailer into a full-fledged medicine show.

Things go poorly at first, but after they reach the bottom of a river, Duke turns the business around using savvy marketing and good music.  Then he learns that Ethel’s show on Broadway has been a flop.  Turns out the big-shot agent is no producer, and is mishandling her career.

Ethel finally learns the truth about Duke’s trick moments before he shows up at her door.  With his help and that of his medicine show pals, they put on a show that’s a real hit, and Ethel becomes a star.

This musical is different from the other ones I’ve reviewed in that almost everyone in the cast and crew was African-American.  At the time, these were known as “race films”, designed to be shown at segregated movie houses that black people were allowed to be seated at.   Thus it effectively takes place in an alternate universe where there are no white people, and no struggle with racism.  The effect can be a bit eerie for pale-skinned people like me, so used to seeing white casts, with one or two token minorities (especially in these older films.)

This was Lena Horne’s first film, it was reissued in 1943 as Bronze Venus with her name above the title as she’d become a star n her own right.  Ralph Cooper was the host of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater for a whopping fifty years!

Good stuff:  The music is excellent.  Ms. Horne isn’t quite up to her career peak, but the songs are lovely.  Duke and Ethel make a good couple.  For most of the film, it’s free of the usual Hollywood stereotypes of black people.

Less good:  For most of the film, it’s refreshingly free of the Hollywood stereotypes inflicted on black characters in the 1930s.  And then comes the “tribal number.”  Um.  The contrast really makes this stick out.

Also, Duke is manipulative of Ethel, “for her own good.”  This gives her little agency in the film.

Of interest to people who like musicals, and want to see more black people as the stars of the show.

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 1-2-3

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 1-2-3 by Yoshiki Nakamura

Kyouko Mogami and Shoutaro “Shou” Fuwa grew up together after Kyouko’s mother largely abandoned her.  The Fuwa family runs a chain of traditional Japanese inns, but Shou didn’t want to go into that business, partially because it is the proprietress that is the face of the inn, while the husband does all the dull management work.  So he ran away to Tokyo to get famous in show business, and asked Kyouko to go with him.

Skip-Beat

Kyouko adored Shou, and dropped out of school to go with him.  She took multiple part time jobs so she can support Shou and pay his living expenses while he works for his big break.  A couple of years pass, and now Shou is climbing the charts as a singer, and hardly ever home in the apartment Kyouko pays for and stocks with his favorite foods.  Shou’s also been acting more coldly towards Kyouko, and it’s harder for her to make excuses for his behavior.

Then Kyouko happens to overhear Shou talking to his manager, and learns from his own mouth that he brought her with him to Tokyo solely to be his housekeeper and source of income.  Shou has never considered her anything but a convenient servant.  (Later, Kyouko will realize that the Fuwa family was grooming her to be Shou’s wife, which partially explains his contempt for her.)

This revelation breaks Kyouko’s heart, but rather than dissolve in sorrow, the Pandora’s Box in her heart opens, and all her stored up resentment and hatred pours out.   She vows to crush Shou in the one area he cares about, popularity.  Kyouko will become a celebrity!

Of course, it’s going to be pretty hard for a plain girl who can’t sing, has never acted and has no idea how show business works to make it to the top.   Worse, she has a fatal flaw to overcome–can she make an audience love her if she’s unable to love the audience?

This is a shoujo (girls’) manga series from 2002, being reprinted in omnibus volumes, this one being the first three.   These collected editions are helpful with the longer series, as some character development and plot movement can be seen in one sitting.

Kyouko is an interesting protagonist for the shoujo field in that her negative personality traits are right up front, and dealing with her inner demons (which aren’t entirely metaphorical) is given more emphasis than her romantic life.   She has admirable guts and determination, but isn’t good at empathy and most of her social skills were a mask to hide her abandonment issues.

On the other hand, her prickliness allows her to shock others into examine their own behavior…except Shou, so far.    He remains the spoiled, narcissistic child he starts as.  Ren, the most likely romantic interest, blows hot and cold as is the tradition for shoujo romance–he’s kinder than he looks, but takes his job seriously to a fault.

There are a couple of other women who have their own pain that is limiting their careers, and they eventually warm up to Kyouko.  The most bizarre character is talent agency owner Lory Takarada.  He’s a big believer in “love” and comes up with strange schemes to improve Kyouko and her fellow “Love Me Section” members.

The art varies from detailed to crude depending on the moment–it suits the mood well, but may be offputting to some readers.

This story is aimed at middle school girls and up, although parents might want to remind younger readers that one of the lessons they can take from this series is “don’t quit school; no guy is worth it.”  Parents may also want to talk to their kids about the healthy ways of dealing with painful emotions.

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