Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Pinocchio's Sister, Another Great Vaudeville Story by Jan Slepian

Last week I shared my response to Jan Slepian’s novel for grades 4-6, The Mind Reader. This unique story was about a family whose popular vaudeville act involved mind reading. In a surprising twist, it turned out that the son actually could read minds, a talent that led to all sorts of problems, but finally to a happy ending. Slepian has written a second book about vaudeville, Pinocchio’s Sister. In both books Slepian draws on material from relatives in her family who actually performed in vaudeville. As in The Mind Reader, she convincingly depicts the hardships of being on the road in different theaters, staying at different boarding houses. A reader can identify with the anxiety about whether one’s act will stay or be dropped, the bullying by theater managers, the poor pay, the comradery andcompetition between performers of various acts.

But Pinocchio’s Sister, is a darker, more poignant tale than The Mind Reader. Like the latter, Pinocchio’s Sister was written in the 1990’s, but has the swift pace and vivid writing we expect from today’s writers. Theoretically it’s for 8-to-12-year-olds, but School Library Journal suggests it might be better for older audiences because of its underlying theme of emotional abuse. I found it a profoundly moving story that lingers in your mind long after the last page. This is literature at its finest.

The story: Ten-year-old Martha Rosedale travels with her father on the vaudeville circuit and is part of his act. The book opens at a new theater and a new boarding house. But someone else is ever present in the act—the puppet, Iris, who sits on Mr. Rosedale’s lap and says smart-aleck remarks the audience loves. Martha’s father does all the talking—and even singing—but he’s such an adept ventriloquist, he makes audiences suspend disbelief. Martha’s mother died when she was small. For a short time, her father remarried, but his new wife ran off with another actor, leaving Mr. Rosedale with only Martha and . . . Iris.

In the vaudeville act Mr. Rosedale created, Iris wears pretty dresses and has a blonde curly wig. Martha wears a tattered dress and implores him to come home to a family he seems to have abandoned, while Iris zings one-liners at Martha. Audiences love Iris and her smart mouth, although they feel for poor, tattered Martha and join in the plea for him to go home. Iris, meanwhile, has a punchline – “Help, help” – always said sarcastically. This punchline becomes significant later in the story in a way that is nothing short of heart-breaking. 

Since Iris is the family breadwinner, so to speak, Mr. Rosedale lavishes more attention on her than on his own daughter. Jealousy eats at Martha. Still, her life is brightened by another family in the show: a group of Polish acrobats. The twelve-year-old boy in the act, Stashu Pliska, becomes Martha’s friend. Unwittingly, Stashu is pulled into Martha’s desperate plan to deal with Iris. Meanwhile, the proprietress at the boarding house, Mrs. Pelosi, becomes sort of a surrogate mother to Martha. Mrs. Pelosi was a former vaudeville singer and is drawn so vividly, you feel she could actually be running a boarding house just down the street, even though those days have long vanished.  

This is wonderful story, grippingly told, with memorable highs and lows and both a sad ending and a happy ending. Jan Slepian was a brilliant writer. The two books I’ve read by her have sent me on a quest to find more of her books in hopes of learning more about how she works her magic. 

I can remember when I was a kid listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and being entranced by the idea of puppets and ventriloquism. How about you? Did you have favorite puppet shows? Did you ever hear or know a ventriloquist? 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Look Into My Eyes — No, Don't!


Since my present WIP involves a character who was once in vaudeville, I’ve been doing a lot of research. I’ve read nonfiction histories of vaudeville and, more  recently, fictional 
works with characters in Vaudeville. Thus, I stumbled across this little gem of an MG novel about a family whose stage act takes a surprising turn: The Mind Reader, by Jan Slepian.              

The Amazing Leonders have a mind reading act – one with codes and gimmicks all worked out as cues to give Leo Leonder, the father and mind reader of the act, all the information he needs to give a reading. He has a problem with alcohol, although he’s never too drunk to perform. Clara, the mother, dressed in scarves and glitter, posing as Princess Shalimar, is the one who goes into the audience and elicits the information. On the particular night that kicks off the story, Connie’s father has passed out cold and can’t be revived enough to go on. 

The tale is told by ten-year-old Annie Ellinger, whose parents have a song-and-dance act in the same show. She hangs out with Connie (short for Conrad) and realizes he knows the whole mind-reading act forwards and backwards. She suggests that Connie take Mr. Leonder’s place. Hurriedly, Connie is hustled into the turban and robe and make-up that create the Amazing Leonder. Unlike his father, if Connie looks into the eyes of someone, he really can read that person’s mind. For this reason, he has always avoided people’s gazes. Annie has found that sweet. In fact she has a crush on him. 

In his fill-in-for-his-father performance, Connie makes the mistake of meeting the gaze of an audience member who is up to no good and yells, “No! Don’t do it!” The man runs out of the theater. The audience erupts in excitement. This is the kind of “show” they love, as does the theater manager. Connie becomes the new and even more popular “Amazing Leonder”. The family is making good money. But Connie is miserable because of what he sees in people’s hearts. The decision he takes next brings several surprises that lead to a dramatic (and heartwarming) conclusion. 

The characters in this book are endearingly quirky. The details about vaudeville life and performers ring true. Setting details for the acts and stage layouts are well-rendered. The book came out in the late ‘90s, but the writing is lively, fresh, and original. The author did a masterful job recreating the world these characters inhabit. I heartily recommend this book which achieves what the best vaudeville achieves: It entertains and leaves you wondering.

Do you like mind reading acts? Do you believe in mind reading?

Friday, July 13, 2018

A New Way to Enjoy Sherlock Holmes

It isn’t mandatory for a book about Sherlock to be a new mystery starring Sherlock. In this clever new series, Gemma Doyle, manager of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium, uses Sherlockian logic to figure out a crime scene she reluctantly stumbles into.

In Elementary, She read, by Vicki Delany, Gemma has come to West London in Cape Cod for a fresh start after her divorce. She manages the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium for her great uncle, Arthur Doyle, a Sherlock Holmes aficionado (and maybe even a distant, distant relative of the famous author). Uncle Arthur bought the building for its address: 222 Baker Street. Next door (220 Baker Street) Jayne Wilson, who co-owns Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room, has become Gemma’s best friend and confidant. The two shops are connected, benefiting both businesses. 

The story kick-off: While tidying up after twenty-four women on a bridge group holiday swept in, shopped, and left, Gemma comes across a bag wedged between some books. Inside the bag is what appears to be an original edition of a magazine containing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first story. If not fake, it could be worth a fortune. Gemma finds a postcard in the bag with the name of the hotel where the magazine’s owner must be staying. After stashing the magazine in her great uncle’s safe at home, she and Jayne set out for the hotel to ask a few questions before returning the magazine. They find a dead body, and the game is afoot.

The characters are deftly drawn: Gemma isn’t the Sherlock Holmes fan both her great uncle and Jayne are, but her mind works, ironically, like the Great Detective’s. She can take every little detail and arrive at accurate conclusions in a way that disconcerts local police and even wrecked a fine romance. Jayne is her Doctor Watson, sensible, anchored, and yet secretly thrilling to the adventure Gemma drags her into. Other quirky characters move the plot along: great uncle Arthur who, despite being in his 90s, has wanderlust and is on a trip in this story. The author’s brushstrokes are just enough to make him vivid by his absence. (This reader hopes he pops up again in a future book.) Then there is Ruby, the grumpy clerk at the shop cash register; Irene Talbot, the journalist hungry for a story; two book collectors (one hunky, one boring), who take an interest in the magazine; Detective Louise Estrada, out to pin a murder rap on Gemma; a dysfunctional family of would-be heirs . . . and many minor characters breeze through the pages with life and humor. Gemma, as a matter of fact, has some very funny lines throughout. 

This is a mystery that is both satisfying in the puzzle sense and disarming to a reader who likes cozy mysteries with endearing sleuths.

Vicki Delany obviously loves writing mysteries and has several series out, as well as stand-alones. You can learn more about her at her website HERE

How about you? Are you excited to find a new series? If so, is it the location or the characters that grab you and make you want to read more?   Do you prefer stand alone novels  or series?