One-Minute Book Reviews

December 19, 2007

My Dear Watson, It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Classic Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story – ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

The world’s most famous detective must figure out how a priceless gem ended up in a white goose

By Janice Harayda

Great holiday crime stories are rare. Set a murder mystery against the backdrop of a celebration of the birth of Christ and you risk accusations of trivializing the season or playing it for heavy irony. And who wants to be reminded that the wreath-draped mall teems with pickpockets or that burglars may strike after we leave for the airport?

Part of the genius of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is that it implicitly acknowledges such realities. Arthur Conan Doyle begins this Sherlock Holmes tale on the second morning after Christmas. It’s a holiday story without the freight it would carry if it took place two days earlier. And it has a plot perfectly attuned to the season. Holmes has the benign Watson by his side as usual. But he doesn’t face his arch-foe, Moriarty, or a killer armed with a gun or a trained swamp adder as in “The Dancing Men” or “The Speckled Band.” He needs only to find out why a priceless gem – the blue carbuncle – turned up in the gullet of a Christmas goose abandoned on a London street.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. But Holmes resolves the case, in fewer than a dozen pages, with panache and in a spirit of holiday generosity. You could probably read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud in 20 minutes or so as a yule log burns. And it appeals to nearly all ages – not just to adults but to children who need more dramatic fare than The Polar Express.

Part of the allure all the Sherlock Holmes tales is that, while their stories are exciting, Holmes is imperturbable. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he tells a suspect in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” How nice that, in this case, he knows how to set the right tone – in a secular if not religious sense – for the season.

Furthermore: You can download “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for free at the online Classic Literature Library, which makes available at no cost books in the public domain: At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander, available on Amazon and elsewhere.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts and plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 25, 2007

‘Miss Nelson Is Missing!’ A Back-to-School Favorite Returns in a Book-and-CD Set

The deliciously vile Viola Swamp is back in a new edition of a book that has sold more than a million copies

Miss Nelson Is Missing! Story by Harry Allard. Pictures by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 32 pp., varied prices. Also available in a book-and-CD edition, $9.95. Ages 3–8.

By Janice Harayda

“More than a million copies sold” is often a publishing-industry code for, “This book is utter trash.” In the case of Miss Nelson Is Missing! it’s proof that a good picture book can find its way even if its illustrator was insufficiently honored in his lifetime by the American Library Association, which tried to make up for it by giving him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award posthumously.

Harry Allard’s text tells a lively story of pupils who torment a kind teacher until she doesn’t show up and they get a loathsome substitute, Viola Swamp, who teaches them a lesson in “as you sow.” But James Marshall’s pictures send the text into orbit.

Marshall had “an intuitive grasp of how to reduce a visual object to its most basic elements, the type of genius found in the sculptures of Alexander Calder,” former Horn Book editor-in-chief Anita Silvey has rightly observed. But his art is so rich you can’t call it minimalist. Marshall defines Viola Swamp in a half dozen or so boldly drawn features, including a huge potato-shaped nose that is both memorable and symbolic in a genre in which liar’s noses grow. No less striking is her ski-slope chin, defaced by a large mole. It reminds you of Jay Leno’s until, a few pages later, you come across an illustrated reference to sharks and see that the chin foreshadows this.

Many back-to-school books are dreary examples of bibliotherapy, more therapeutic than artistic. In its way, Miss Nelson Is Missing! says the same thing that many of those books do: School can seem good and bad at different times. But it doesn’t bludgeon children with an educationally correct message. It’s pure fun. If you were a soon-to-be-kindergartener, which type of book would you rather read?

Best line/picture: A full-page image of Viola that makes her look at once sinister and, in horizontally striped green-and-yellow socks, comically absurd.

Worst line/picture: The good Miss Nelson has blond hair, and the bad Miss Swamp has black hair. Some people might object to this, because it perpetuates a stereotype. But among the children, bad behavior comes in all hair colors.

Published: 1977 (first edition). August 2007 (book-and-CD edition)

Caveat lector: This review is based on the first edition. I haven’t seen the just-published book-and-CD package.

Furthermore: Marhshall is best known for George and Martha, a book about the friendship between hippos, and its sequels. The American Library Association gave him, besides the Wilder award, a Caldecott Honor for Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Puffin, $6.99, paperback), which he wrote and edited.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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