Monthly Archives: November 2011

Luckily, Crime of Any Type Can Be Taken Care of in 186 Pages … or, Canby Hall #4, Keeping Secrets


My copy of this one has the old-school cover, and man, I can see why Scholastic put out the call for a new graphic designer.


That’s better.

As Tolkien and Baby Howie would say, this book was a steaming turd. Where to begin? All right, so there’s a rash of thefts at Baker House, because for some reason no one locks their doors, and the girls all suspect a very aloof dormmate named Mary Beth. MB is rude and standoffish to everyone, so she has no friends. Meanwhile, another dormmate named Millie, whom we have never met before and I’m going to guess we will never hear from again, starts turning up in every scene. She’s kind of the school dunce, always getting the answer wrong in class or falling down stairs or throwing up in biology lab or breaking things. Spoiler alert: these Canby girls can’t be too smart. The whole time they’re suspecting Mary Beth, this Millie moron is everywhere.

Eventually Dana walks in on Mary Beth crying, and after a year of not getting close to anyone she suddenly decides to put her full trust in Dana and … wait for it … tell the secret she’s been keeping. Ah, as per the title! Brilliant! Well, it seems MB’s dad is in prison for having embezzled from his company, and she’s afraid people will find out. But lest we the readers recoil at his being a convicted felon, we are quickly told that MB’s dad didn’t want anything for himself. He only wanted to buy the best for MB and her mom! Even his boss understood! What a saint! What coldhearted snake even put this guy in jail in the first place?

MB is immediately taken under the collective wing of the girls of 407 and her whole world is bright now that she suddenly has them for friends. She loooves studying French with Shelley and being part of their perfect lives. It’s so great that she’s happy now! “What’s really great,” she murmurs, “is that I have you three.” Gag me! But then a Boston paper does a “Year in Review” column and mentions that a year ago one Melvin Grover was convicted of embezzlement. MB nearly goes back into her loner shell at this, worried that the whole school will shun her, but when the girls of 407 help spread the “truth” — that MB’s dad is really a good guy! His heart was in the right place! — the other girls accept MB and all her problems are solved. As idiotic as this premise is, my question is, would an entire school figure out from one line in a newspaper that some random person was Mary Beth’s father? It’s not like Grover is a totally unique name.

Meanwhile, Faith has a love interest at last. Naturally, he’s African-American, (I’m sorry, “black”) because so is Faith and, well, this is the 1980s. Our new boyfriend Johnny is a great guy, but he has one flaw: he plans to be a police officer. This understandably bothers Faith, since her father was a policeman who was killed in the line of duty. Luckily for Johnny, however, their local ice cream parlour is held up while he and Faith are in it, all the customers are taken hostage, and Johnny’s calm, police-officer-like, high-school-aged head saves the day. Afterwards, Faith totally changes her mind and Johnny’s career plans are A-OK with her! Geez, the child lost her father, she’s not allowed to have any reservations that aren’t neatly cleaned up at the end of the book?

And by the way, that whole hold-up was hilarious. Is the tiny town of Greenleaf, Massachusetts some sort of criminal haven? Between these ice-cream store robbers, Shelley’s kidnappers, and Mary Beth’s dad, it’s starting to look a lot like the Sopranos’ New Jersey. The police burst in to save the hostages and the robbers are so surprised they drop their guns. Instead of, you know, firing them. A policeman gives a long artificial explanation of how they got there (sample sentence: “Without Mrs. Leeds knowing it, we followed her to the Tutti-Frutti, crept towards the windows in a crouched position, waited for her to enter, and quietly watched the proceedings.”) The police knew these criminals were serious, because they demanded “the big bucks” — fifty thousand dollars. It reminds me of Dr. Evil in Austin Powers. Was the owner of a dinky ice cream store really the guy with the deepest pockets in town? You’re telling me Ms. Allardyce doesn’t make serious money on the stock market with all those girls’ private school tuitions?

After this, the ghostwriter realizes she only has a few more pages in which to tie up all the loose ends, and there’s still that pesky thief running around, so while Faith is developing pictures in a darkroom she overhears … SPOILER ALERT, DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU … Millie confessing that she was the thief all along. “Because everybody’s better than I am, and I wanted to do something special.” Uh, OK. She was about to get away with the whole thing, and she suddenly decided to confess and face the school administration? Makes perfect sense. Everyone except the reader is shocked. Shocked, I tell you. But they all feel bad that they were never all that nice to her, and she gets sent to counseling and is reformed. Presto!

Miscellaneous observations:

a) Faith wants to buy her sister a birthday present, so she gets her a country record, her favourite. Because D.C. is a real hotbed of college-aged country music fans.

b) Shelley is known for having a small-town Midwest sense of style, as evidenced by an outfit she wears consisting of chartreuse pants and an orange plaid shirt. I don’t think that’s small-town Midwestern, that’s colour-blind. Or preschooler.

c) The entire dorm, during a midnight birthday party, holds off on singing “Happy Birthday” until one of the girls can run to her room and get her violin. To accompany them. Yeah, I can’t count the number of teenage parties I attended that included violin-playing.

d) This book, the fourth in the series, was the most obviously cheesy so far. The ghostwriter’s name on the copyright page is Patricia Aks. In my effort to track down the person unembarrassed to be responsible for this inanity, I discovered that she doesn’t have a Wiki page, but she apparently authored a bunch of other ’80s teen fiction which is no doubt as stellar as this production.

e) I checked. The next book is not written by her. This project can go on.


Well, That Was Fast … or, Canby Hall #3, You’re No Friend of Mine


First of all, Faith’s sister now goes to Georgetown again. And their father suddenly has a different name. Is a pulse the only requirement to be a teen book editor? Is even that optional?

So essentially, just weeks after dramatically showing the FBI how it’s done and rescuing Shelley from armed criminals, Dana and Shelley now can’t stand each other. Shelley has discovered her love for the stage and is babbling on incessantly about how she’s decided to ditch her dreams of becoming an Iowa homemaker, because her new future is as her generation’s greatest actress. While rehearsing for the school play, she falls for a town boy and is worried about how she’ll break the news of him and her new ambitions to her small-town boyfriend Paul. Meanwhile, her grades take a nosedive. Dana is annoyed (and you can’t blame the girl) by Shelley’s immature habit of going on and on about her self-created situation, because Dana has a real problem: her father is getting remarried and moving to Hawaii for a year, and wants Dana to leave Canby Hall and go with him and his new wife. 80% of the book is some variation on this theme:

Shelley: My heart is in the theat-ah! Whatevah will I do? Woe is me!

Dana: Shut up! You don’t know what a real problem is! I hate you!

Faith: I want a single room.

Dana starts actively snubbing Shelley and spending all her time with new friends. Which I remember is a very effective weapon in the world of teenage girls. Out of desperation, Faith drags them both home to D.C. for a weekend so her social-worker mother can fix their problems. Mama Thompson does, but her magic lasts only until they return to school, when their rift widens again. Despite this, for some unclear reason, once it becomes known that Shelley is failing French, Faith and Dana take it upon themselves to tutor her. Somehow Dana is able to do this in a language she is not taking. Because she’s a “language buff.” Yes, that makes sense. It also makes complete sense that two girls would feel it’s their responsibility to carve out time in their own busy schedules to tutor their roommate so that she won’t fail and Room 407’s honour will be protected, or something like that. It’s not that I didn’t care about my friends in high school, but my own packed study schedule left barely enough time to brush my teeth, let alone theirs. But I digress. Anyway, Shelley continues to be a big immature baby about it all, blowing off study sessions when Dana and Faith have killed themselves to be there. This is the last straw for Dana, who after something like 15 chapters of angst about what decision she’s going to make, finally decides to move to Hawaii.

But then Shelley, in a moment of weakness, decides to cheat on her French final. Just as she pulls out her cheat sheets during the exam, her conscience intervenes. But she is caught and sent to see the dreaded headmistress Ms. Allardyce, who will most likely expel her. In the most absurd plot development ever, Dana and Faith, overcome with sympathy, rush to Shelley’s defense, and Shelley is forgiven because a witness said that although she took her notes out, she didn’t actually look at them. Now, I’m no academician, but that seems like splitting hairs to me. And Dana realizes, in the last two pages of the book, AFTER GOING ON AND ON ABOUT IT TILL I WANTED TO STAB MYSELF IN THE EYE, that oh, she actually belongs at Canby Hall. Sorry, Dad and Hawaii and carefully-thought-out decision! Now that she and Shelley have suddenly stopped fighting (because the ghostwriter reached her word quota) Dana can just change her mind back.

In the end, Shelley never bothers to tell Paul about her new guy, which, believe me, will be a trend with these Canby girls over the rest of the series. But that’s not cheating, because … because … well, because this is some sort of alternate universe.

Snarkable moment: Shelley doesn’t understand what Dana means when she says she left a message for her mom at home. Because Shelley doesn’t know what an answering machine is. Because they’re not very common in Pine Bluff, Iowa. These writers hate Iowa!

Honestly, these characters are more capricious than the weather in April. I’m not sure how we went so suddenly from weeping over their beloved roommate’s kidnapping to wanting to end their friendship over a part in the school play and a D in French. But why am I questioning it, these are the girls of Canby Hall. And you know, in just 3 books, they’ve gotten almost to the end of their sophomore year — and there are still 14 books till they graduate. This should be interesting.

Tom Clancy Called, He Said This Doesn’t Count as a Thriller … or, Canby Hall #2, Our Roommate Is Missing


First of all, Shelley looks about 35. Also, both she and her kidnapper look like they’re trying not to laugh. Maybe they read this book.

I don’t know how ghostwriting works, but this strikes me as having been written by someone who got assigned a Canby Hall novel but had her heart set on being the next Grisham/Baldacci, so she tried to scratch her suspense-fiction-writing itch by producing this book. It’s so out of place in a teen girls’ series that starts out being about regular school life and, I assure you, quickly goes back to being about regular school life. They just take this one detour into the world of international crime, and pretty much never mention it again. So odd.

So basically, Shelley is kidnapped by art thieves who mistake her for Casey and want to prevent Casey’s parents from testifying against them at some federal art trial. This case of mistaken identity is made possible by the fact that Casey has recently started dressing and doing her hair like Shelley, and by the fact that Shelley is conveniently carrying no ID at the time she is snatched. Seriously, does anyone ever leave home without ID? I am paranoid that I’ll get hit by a car and admitted to the hospital as “Jane Doe #47” if I don’t have my license on me. Is that just me? And talk about suspension of disbelief, why would a supposedly rich girl like Casey ever start copying the look of the country hick they keep telling us Shelley is? To quote Faith, “One loses one’s mittens. One can even lose a reputation. One does not lose a slightly overweight but nonetheless adorable roommate like our Shelley.” Geez, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Girlfriend probably ran away.

Our friendly ghostwriters never lose much sleep over maintaining continuity, as Casey, who in other books is portrayed as the roommates’ fourth Musketeer, is pretty much a loudmouthed brat throughout this story. Also, Faith’s sister went to Georgetown in the last book but now is a student at George Washington. Because all those D.C. schools are the same, you know! It’s because of this book that, for the longest time, I thought “Georgetown” was GWU’s nickname. (That may say more about me than about the book, but nevertheless.)

So Shelley is held hostage in a sawmill, she manages to get a few murky clues across in a telephone call, and Dana and Faith naturally figure out where she’s being held. I’m amazed at the expertise these fifteen-year-olds have when it comes to mills, by the way. If it were me, those clues would have sailed right over my head. Guess we had a different collective knowledge base back in 1983. So they decide to sneak out and go find her by themselves. The lamest of excuses is given for two tenth-graders not to tell, oh, say, THE FBI AGENTS investigating this case: that the authorities wouldn’t take them seriously. Really? Even though police officers always tell you to tell them anything you remember, no matter how seemingly insignificant, because it could be helpful? Well in the end the FBI agents tell the girls they could never have cracked the case without them, that they would have thought the clues “too whimsical to follow up on,” so I guess the joke’s on me. So anyway, D and F sneak out of Baker House for the weekend, which is, for now, guarded by some staff member named Mrs. Betts – someone who will soon have vanished from this series faster than Dana dons designer outfits. Anyway, they drive all over the state in a snowstorm (with Bret as their driver — he’s a completely normal, accommodating boyfriend all of a sudden instead of his previous lyin’ cheatin’ self), find the mill, get chased by the bad guys, Dana falls into a frozen pond but miraculously avoids hypothermia, Bret crashes into a snowplow, and somehow the day (and Shelley) is saved. Meanwhile, her poor parents, who fly in from Iowa when she goes missing, get zero face time in this whole book. And there is never once the suggestion that perhaps Shelley ought to think about going home. If you were from a small town and sent your kid to a boarding school out of state, and she got herself kidnapped within days of returning after Christmas break, wouldn’t you be transferring her out of there faster than she could say “baggy pleated jeans“? I guess Shelley’s parents knew this series was just getting started.

As an aside, this book has more lush descriptions of eating than any book in the entire series. Sample passage, referencing a box of sandwiches: “They were made on homemade bread spread thickly with butter. There was almost more sliced roasted chicken in hers than Faith could get her mouth around. The chicken tasted like home, faintly perfumed with sage and onion as if it had been bursting with stuffing at least once in its history.” Which begs the question, who stuffs the same chicken twice?

Anyway, the book ends with Dana getting a birthday cake with four candles on it since her 16th birthday is February 29. Though her birthday will magically jump to August just before graduation.

Really, this was impossible to take seriously. I did get one thing out of this, though — the solution to this country’s war on crime. What we need is more high schoolers showing that bumbling FBI how it’s done. Somebody write a memo.

UPDATE: Apparently Courteney Cox was the model for Shelley on this cover! She actually name-drops this book in that article! Ironic because not only does the face not look anything like Courteney Cox, it doesn’t look particularly afraid either. And yet this is what taught a future star how to act. Monica Geller, what humble beginnings you had.

The Saga Begins … or, Canby Hall #1, Roommates


OK, quiz question. Which of these three girls is the super-sophisticated fashionable Manhattanite (because that’s the only kind of Manhattanite there is, of course)? And which is the Midwestern, corn-fed, chubby hick? Ding ding ding! Dana, our stylish New Yorker I’m-a-fashion-buyer’s-daughter-as-will-be-repeated-ad-nauseam-over-the-course-of-this-series, is the … middle one? Yes, because a ruffled blouse buttoned to the neck with some sort of unraveling bow tie is super-hot. I’m pretty sure I just saw a picture of Gisele Bundchen in the exact same thing. And our supposedly overweight friend Shelley is … the one on the right? Unless my eyes deceive me — and they do not — she looks to have exactly the same build as the other girls. These 1980s YA cover illustrators either only knew how to draw one kind of person, or they thought portraying an image of a normal figure would send young readers screaming into the night. This pet peeve of mine will be a recurring theme, by the way. They never stop mentioning that Shelley’s a plump country girl, and at the same time she will never be shown on a cover that way.

As was the case for many teen series in this time period, the Canby Hall books were written by a series of ghostwriters, so that a new book could be popped out every month and the publishers could take bubble baths in piles of money. Unlike the Baby-Sitters Club books, which really were written by Ann M. Martin for the first thirty or so, or the Sweet Valley High books, which were at least created by Francine Pascal, Emily Chase of Canby Hall fame doesn’t actually exist. Does this sort of thing still go on with young adult books today? I’m dating myself.

So, plot recap: Three very different girls are starting as sophomore transfer students at Canby Hall, a girls’ boarding high school in Massachusetts, and are assigned as roommates to Room 407. (Can I just say that I thought it was fate that in my freshman year of college, out of all the rooms in an 18-floor dorm, I was randomly assigned to Room 407?) Dana is our aforementioned New Yorker whose parents are recently divorced. Shelley is our aforementioned Iowa girl whose entire life is her small-town boyfriend and her high school’s football games, and her parents think her horizons could use a little broadening. (Can’t say I disagree with them there.) Faith is our Washington, D.C. girl who is street-smart (this is 1980s code for “black”) whose policeman father was killed in a robbery. Oh, the stereotypes. They’re all nervous about going so far from home. Faith is worried that she won’t fit in because of her race and Shelley doesn’t want to leave her Norman Rockwell town. Naturally things get off to a bad start and they all hate each other. Sheltered Shelley offends Faith with her racial ignorance, Faith looks down on Shelley for her country naivete, and Dana gets annoyed with them both. Eventually their super-cool housemother Alison comes to the rescue and by Chapter 8 (of 20) they’re best friends. Who is this Alison woman? They could use her at the United Nations. (She’s a woman in her late 20s who lives in the dorm and is on call for teenage girl problems 24 hours a day. What kind of a job is that? Honestly, medicine is less taxing.)

Despite now being joined at the hip with her roommates, Shelley remains inexplicably homesick, writing embarrassingly gushy letters to her boyfriend every five minutes even though the dude forgets their scheduled phone calls (for which she has to use a pay phone in the lobby, and wait till after 11 PM for the long-distance rates to go down … oh the old days!) Faith becomes friends with a troubled girl named Casey who acts up to get the attention of her rich parents who deposit her at school after school and forget which one she currently attends. Dana falls for a boy (a student at Oakley Prep, a boys’ boarding school that’s conveniently located down the street.) Alison breaks the news to Dana that Lover-Boy Bret is actually the campus heartbreaker. Casey runs away, Faith sneaks out of the dorm to stop her and convinces her to come back, and then gets caught sneaking back in and gets into tons of trouble with the imposing headmistress Ms. Allardyce. Faith is all upset because the school is going to notify her mother, but eventually Casey comes clean and clears Faith’s name, and all is OK because it turns out that Allardyce hasn’t written to her mother yet. Seriously? Even in 1983, you would have put pen to paper about that and wouldn’t have just picked up your curly-corded phone?

So this book was actually disappointingly normal and mature and even somewhat witty up until this point. That’s probably why I liked this series best when I was a kid. I didn’t have to feel like an idiot for reading it. (Cough, SVH!) But you know, when you’re my age and in the present day, you want some material to snark about. However, don’t you worry, Self. Here some comes.

So predictably, Bret cheats on Dana by not calling her for two weeks and asking some other girl to the fall dance. When Dana finds out about this, and Alison suggests “a little light revenge” (excellent example-setting for someone who’s on the school’s staff), this is what she comes up with: she, Faith, Shelley and Casey dress up in gorilla costumes, surround the new couple on their way to the dance, and yell “Booga-booga” all the way there. Wow. That is almost as impactful as George W. Bush invading Iraq because Saddam Hussein fought with his daddy.

After that, Bret, who recognized Dana as one of the gorillas, comes back to beg her forgiveness. He says he was just scared of how real what they had was, and was running away from his feelings. Yes, I have always found there is no better way to show your love than by asking some other girl out. At first, Dana does womankind proud and refuses. She tells the jerk she never wants to speak to him again, which is exactly what she should say. However, this is a 1980s YA book, in the end, and all of them do what even as a 7-year-old drove me crazy: teach girls, essentially, to accept poor treatment from guys. Dana up until this point has behaved exactly like a girl who respects herself and has solid self-esteem. Why on earth would you stick around to allow a guy to lie to you and treat you like a doormat? Why would you believe that he would ever change his ways? And in fact Dana asks him this, and Bret answers with the classic emotional abuser’s line: “How can I prove I won’t [mistreat you] if you won’t give me another chance?” Nice one Bret. I see what you did there. Dana does the right thing and refuses. But inexplicably, the supposedly level-headed Faith sees how depressed Dana is over the breakup and convinces her to call him again. “So he made a mistake. He said he was sorry. Give the guy a break. Call him.”

A mistake? Uh, a mistake is forgetting your birthday. Asking another girl out and not telling your current gf, when you have a history of doing the exact same thing over and over again to other girls, is called “a pattern.” What kind of good friend would advise anything other than “Run?” Also, if this took place a couple of decades later, “Un-friend him on Facebook”?

So Dana gives up all the power and respect she has earned to this point, calls him, and they get back together. The book ends with her thinking something like a relationship “between two strong people can be a battle of wills.” THAT’s the lesson from this absurd episode? Bret wasn’t a cheater, he was just a person with a nice muscular will? Heaven help me if my kid ever believes this kind of nonsense.

Oh and the book ends with sappy homesick Shelley finally convincing her parents to let her leave Canby Hall and go home to Iowa, doing all the packing and paperwork to withdraw from the school, saying sad goodbyes to Faith and Dana, and then … showing up again the day after Christmas vacation. She decided she was wrong, she actually belongs at Canby Hall now. This girl changes her mind like her underwear. Only this time it’s for reals, guys! She means it!

Oh and I can’t forget the hip and stylish makeover Dana and Faith give their country bumpkin roommate! In their words, she wears her hair “like 1958” (which was only 25 years ago at the time this book was published! Egads) and wears hideous things like lime green jeans. Man, if I was from Iowa I would have been irate about these ridiculous stereotypes. Especially because the fashionable city girls’ idea of upgrading Shelley’s look is buying her, and I quote, “baggy pleated jeans.” You know, I always wondered whether anyone ever thought baggy pleated jeans were a good idea, and now I have proof that in fact they did. I’m pretty sure not too long from now we’re going to feel the same way about jeggings. Which is why I have not invested in any.

But I digress. Book #1 ends as the girls are taking a picture of themselves in front of the Canby Hall front gates with cheesy thoughts going through each of their minds about their personal journeys over the past semester. Little do they know that Book #2 is on its way, with the most incongruous plot of the entire series: Shelley gets kidnapped. You heard me right, kidnapped. And it’s not so they can do a Japanese-straightening treatment on her hair.