Friday, February 27, 2015

Book Review - Adele Whitby's Secrets of the Manor: Beth's Story, 1914

Secrets of the Manor: Beth's Story, 1914 by Adele Whitby
Published by: Simon Spotlight
Publication Date: June 24th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 160 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Beth is so excited as her twelfth birthday approaches that nothing can deter her, not even losing her lady's maid hours before her relatives arrive. She just views it as a chance to promote her favorite maid, Shannon, to a higher standing in the house. The French side of the family, the Trufant's, are arriving for a grand family tradition that will happen at Beth's birthday celebration. Since Beth's great-grandmother, Elizabeth, and her twin sister, Katherine, received connected necklaces on their twelfth birthday it has been a tradition on the twelfth birthday of the eldest daughter, and their namesake, to pass the necklace on to the new generation. So the day is fast approaching when Beth will get the Elizabeth necklace! But a theft in the house throws Beth's world upside down. Her maid Shannon is accused of stealing her cousin's, Gabrielle Trufant's, own heirloom necklace! Beth knows Shannon is innocent, but she must prove it while celebrating her birthday yet before Shannon is sent away without a reference.

I am not a reading snob. This means that as long as there's a good story to read I'll read it. Doesn't matter if the book is YA, Middle Grade, Fiction, Nonfiction, if it's worth reading, I'll read it. Sure, this seems like I'm trying to justify my dislike of this book, but what I'm really trying to do is qualify that my issues with Beth's Story aren't based on the books intended audience and being written for young readers, but it the writing itself. When I first saw this book on the shelves I was overjoyed, Downton Abbey for kids; because everyone knows you need to convert them when they're young. But, oh dear, this book just didn't work. I'm glad to say that Whitby didn't fall victim to the most deplorable of writing crimes, talking down to your readers. There is no surer way of alienating your audience then this. She did simplify concepts a little, but again, that wasn't the main flaw. In fact there isn't just one thing I can point to and go there, there is where you went wrong, because in truth, she went wrong in several places. Though there was a tipping point, and it was a tiara.

What I will call the "cheese factor" is where me and this book parted ways. If I didn't know better I would say that these books were written to market a brand of dolls from the late eighties early nineties that had special collectible lockets and keys for you to "find out the secret." Eight year old me would have loved the dolls, the books, like the American Girl books of my youth, would have languished on the shelves untouched as I created my own stories and adventures. Improving literature is the bane of those who love to read. Because there's nothing I hate more then "teaching moments." A good book will teach you things just in the telling of the story, a bad book will teach you things by pointing it out with big arrows going "here's some history you should know" or "here's some life lessons that are to be learned." Spare me now.

The whole "every secret leads to another secrets of the manor" oh, head thunk into keyboard, no. Is this some bad soap opera I have landed in? Like Edwardian Blue's Clues? Because I can't think of any child going, oh wow, time to read all six books and find out the final secret, the ultimate "secret of the manor!" Forth grade me is rolling my eyes. Yes, forth grade me was rather sarcastic. I've always read more mysteries then most, so my deductive skills are right up there. Even if I was still a forth grader the signaling with giant semaphore flags of the "clues" to solve the "mysteries" would have had me writing a rant on the obviousness of what was happening. Oh, and even without reading all six books I can tell you the "big secret," the twins switched places all those years ago doing a Victorian Parent Trap, most likely because of love, aw, gag me now.

Yet there's a chance I could have overlooked this cheese. If I'm honest, I probably couldn't have, but let's pretend there was a chance. If I could have overlooked said cheese, well, the inaccuracies would have driven me round the bend. OK, so I know that an eight year old probably isn't going to know all the proper etiquette for Edwardian society, but that doesn't mean the author gets to be lazy. Whitby doesn't get to pick and choose which societal conventions she will and won't abide by just for the convenience of her story, because then everyone would be wearing tiaras!

Yes, the tiara was the straw that broke the camels back. Sure, I was grinding my teeth when the house party arrived and the servants came in the front door, not, you know, the servant's entrance. When Beth's maid added embellishments to her uniform, I held my tongue. The servants talking out of turn with their employers, OK, deep breath, I can keep going. YOU JUST PUT A TIARA ON A TWELVE YEAR OLD! Tiara's are ONLY for married women. Ask ANYONE who has ever watched a miniseries or read a book, hell, go watch the PBS special about The Manners of Downton Abbey where there is a whole section about no tiaras till marriage! This is unforgivable and made me hate this book.

But, if I'm honest, all this, everything could have been overcome if I liked the characters. So many flaws can be forgiven for the love of a well crafted heroine. Beth is not a well crafted heroine. She's too earnest and too full of spunk and decidedly modern versus British. Her reverence for her great-grandmother is unbelievable. I mean, really, what other twelve year old is mooning over a picture of their ancestor and color coding all their clothes to their dead relatives likes not their own? Once again I was taken in by a beautiful cover. Shouldn't I know by now that a good illustrator doesn't a good book make? OK, time for me to shake it off and move on. Stupid tiara.


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