Tag Archives: Oxford

The Calder Game – Blue Balliett

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The Calder Game is the third in Blue Balliett’s series about some eccentric Chicago middle school kids who solve mysteries using an idiosyncratic belief in coincidence and their own curiosity. Chasing Vermeer was the first book to introduce Petra who has a magical relationship with language and Calder who keeps a pocketful of pentominoes and is a mathier kid. Together they made a formidable, if sometimes perplexing team. A great fascination of book one was the puzzle around the Vermeer paintings and it led to perusal of the Vermeers in our own museum across the park—a delightful follow-up to an engaging book.

In The Calder Game, the third member of the trio, Calder’s friend Tommy who was introduced in book two (haven’t read it) gets his ink. I don’t find him a very compelling character—in fact, he is anything but appealing. Picks his nose, for one thing, and is too easily ruffled. But his presence does take some of the action away from Petra to her detriment. She seems a less strong character in this episode and that is a loss.

The story begins as Calder takes a trip to Oxford with his father, after a disastrous class excursion to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art to see an ambitious Calder retrospective. Calder, who was named after the artist, lugs his pocketful of pentominoes with him and is stunned to find a giant Calder sculpture installed in the medieval town square in the small village outside of Oxford where he and his dad are staying. Dad takes off for a conference at the university, leaving Calder to sightsee on his own and things pretty much go downhill from there.

A village full of suspicious characters resents the sudden appearance of a sculpture no one wants, ominous looks and coincidences shadow Calder’s tourism, nearby Blenheim Palace has a legendary maze that hides ugly secrets and ancient landscaping that might be deadly, a fat cat shows up rather often at auspicious moments. Then the Calder sculpture and Calder himself disappear. You need a powerful willing suspension of disbelief to puzzle through the rest of the story. Petra, Tommy and a neighbor are flown over from Chicago to help in the search for Calder. The neighbor has thoughtfully procured some sort of Chicago official police detective IDs for them so they can ignore police lines and sleuth at will. They come and go day and night without much supervision. Calder’s father and the neighbor believe the children will solve the mystery of the disappearances.

There’s a lot of adventure and the kids do act independently. The resolution of the various riddles—and crimes—is tricky to guess at because it doesn’t/can’t make sense until the explanations at the end. A bright boy like Calder doesn’t know that a cave with an entrance and cracks in the rocks isn’t a sealed oxygen-free chamber. Americans are boors and bad guys before they are heroes and okay after all. It’s very puzzly—a hallmark of these books—and it was entertaining. But the illogical bits were very distracting and I wish they were more seamlessly incorporated. Nice to learn about an artist, a math tool that looks like a toy, a few museums and botanical gardens. But Chasing Vermeer was a better book—Calder and Petra were a tough team together. Add the nose-picking Tommy and, not so much.

The Calder Game   Blue Balliett  | Scholastic   2008

A Discovery of Witches — Deborah Harkness

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A Discovery of Witches was sitting in a display stand on the library desk when I dropped off some books so I snagged it. I love historical tales about witches and Deborah Harkness is a professor of history so I settled in for a good long read. I came close to giving up about a quarter of the way in because the witchcraft was pretty thin, the heartthrobs were pretty thick and the male lead turned out almost immediately to be a vampire. Twilight for grown-ups. No thanks. Muttering through the original had been bad enough.

But I persisted because I have to read one book a day and I’d already had this running start. And it got better—but only a little. There is plenty of history sprinkled throughout the text and any one of the threads would be fascinating to unravel but what dominates in this book is the love story. I am so not a fan of interspecies vampire love stories. Puh-leez, what is the romance about a classic abusive boyfriend set-up in which the besotted undead wouldn’t dream of harming his lady love—except for this teeny little problem he has with his appetites and his teeth?

OK, maybe not fair. Romance aficionados will find this a rich romp through a lot of material that never strays too far from the love story and the travails of the passionate but chaste couple and the somewhat heavy-handed argument for mixed species marriage. The heroine, Diana Bishop, is a scholar spending the summer in Oxford doing historical research at the Bodleian Library. She is also an uncommonly powerful witch who, due to the trauma of her parents’ untimely deaths when she was seven, refuses to use or even acknowledge her powers. When she stumbles across an ancient alchemical text that seems to be alive with mysterious spells, she triggers a witch hunt with herself at the center of it.

Diana runs a lot along the paths at Oxford and she goes rowing in the river solo at odd hours in foggy, deserted landscapes. Very tough cookie in the first half of the novel. Encounters sequential near-death experiences throughout most of the second half when she and the handsome, wealthy, accomplished, urbane, oenophile, ice-cold vampire, who stalks and then seduces her, take on the fearsome and murderous bigots of the magical world.

Matthew Clairmont, charming and cultivated uber-carnivore, has been a kind of very bright Forest Gump throughout most of Western European history and owns the tchotchkes from famous figures to prove it. His taste is exquisite and his fortune formidable. He is a distinguished Oxford fellow and a medical researcher of some renown who attends a weekly yoga class at his country estate that has all the groovy vibes of California, although the yogis are daemons and vampires.

All the creatures—there seem to be few actual humans in this story—have hypersensitive olfactory capabilities and spend a fair amount of time sniffing, describing various scents and explaining how that relays valuable information to them about enemies, threats and love interests. Many of the non-human cast want to get their hands on the mystery book, which has vanished as inexplicably as it appeared.

I read the whole novel. It wasn’t bad. I would rather have been reading a thriller with a good historical subplot that was less a hodge-podge of vampire-witchy heavy breathing salted with historical factoids. But, if you like romances that exist for their own sake and enjoy an encyclopedic knowledge of history as a bonus, go for it. If you’re a witch, you’d probably prefer Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader—funny, wacky, creepy, full of contemporary Salem witches and not a vampire in sight.

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel   Deborah Harkness | Viking 2011