Hello friends! So nice to see you here for our discussion for The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
Firstly: apologies for being so behind in responding to comments and visiting everyone’s posts last month. All three of us have been so incredibly busy, blogwise and personally, that it’s been tough for us to operate normally. It looks like things will be settling down somewhat in mid-July, though, so hopefully things will be back on track soon.
Also–if you are posting your own reviews of the book we’re discussing, or even reading others books for the middle grade challenge, please feel free to leave a link in the comments! We’ll do our best to visit as soon as we can after this weekend. I’ve read so many great posts on Anne of Green Gables in particular, and have learned so much from the discussions. Having read these books so many times, I really appreciate the perspectives I’m hearing from both those revisiting these classics as adults and those who are reading for the first time.
Without further ado, let’s get started! As always, beware spoilers in the discussion…and stick around at the end for the July book info as well.
Kim: This was my first time reading this book! I also don’t normally read mysteries which might explain why I had some trouble fully connecting with it. I’ve never read any Agatha Christie so I couldn’t say how they compare. I know. Shame, shame…
Wendy: Ah, this might be hard to follow if you haven’t read a lot of mysteries. I think Kate mentioned wanting to try this on audio, and I think that would be the most confusing way to experience this story–so many red herrings and twists and turns to keep track of! And lots of visual clues. But unlike a lot of wild goose chases where the author’s just thrown something in to throw you off the track, many of the possibilities seemed so plausible to me. I actually have a hard time categorizing this–I think it’s considered middle grade, but it’s definitely mature enough to be YA and engaging for adults as well. One of those books that really blurs the lines.
Kate: Yeah, I need to take a look at a hard copy of the book, because the layout in the Kindle edition was a little screwy, and it made it seem poorly edited. You can tell it’s a formatting issue, though. I can’t imagine how confusing the audiobook would be, and it’d make the mystery really unfair because the same guy reads all the voices, so you wouldn’t really notice… you know. I’d wanted to do all our Readalong books in audiobook form, but I’m glad you talked me out of that with this one.
Wendy: Contrary to the implications of that dumb Slate article that ran a couple of weeks ago, I’d put the cleverness of this story right up there with your best Agatha Christies.
Kate: That’s a really tough comparison for me. The author was clearly very strongly influenced by Agatha Christie‘s work–especially And Then There Were None. While The Westing Game is fun and I loved it and I’m going to spend this entire conversation being very, very positive, I don’t think it stands up there with Witness for the Prosecution, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd… There are at least ten of Christie’s works that I’d rank above this, cleverness-wise, and I’ve read all of it at least twice. Full disclosure: I own everything Christie ever published (yes, all 66 novels and over 150 short stories, plus the plays).
Wendy: Nice stats, I didn’t realize you were such a Christie fan! That’s interesting–I’ve enjoyed some of her books and she’s certainly celebrated as the cozy mystery queen for good reason, but I’ve never been blown away by the writing or characters, as I am with The Westing Game. Still, I’ve only read a handful of Christies, and it’s probably not completely sporting to compare adult/children’s anyway. And yes, the influence of Dame Agatha is certainly there in the overall structure of the novel, setting, and some of the classic mystery tropes.
Kate: Where I think this really stands out is in the area of social commentary and diverse character work that is actually entertaining to read. So many socially-conscious books from around this time are a real drag to read (and they feel like the author reeked of pot 24/7), but this is properly fun and engaging and delightful.
Wendy: The characters are perfectly rendered. I cannot express how much I love Turtle Wexler. She’s so fierce and defensive and vulnerable–and so freaking smart! Man, I wish I could give her money to invest for me. Is this the only book featuring a stockbroker kid, do you think?
Kim: Oh, I really loved Turtle too. I couldn’t even begin to ever figure out stock broking as an adult–and this is a twelve year old! I really loved how right at the beginning of the book she doesn’t hesitate to take up the dare to go into the Westing mansion–right after hearing a super scary story. It told me so much about her character in just a few sentences and I was in love. And she won’t hesitate to kick your shins! Hey, it’s self defense! What’s not to love?
Kate: I don’t think I could possibly love Turtle more. She’s so completely different from who I was at her age, and that really gives me the freedom to embrace everything about her. I love that she’s very bright and into the stock market, but she doesn’t have that Alex P. Keaton business suit thing going on.
Wendy: This book is a textbook example of how to write complex characters and show them for what they are in settings and conversation, without having to info-dump or EXPLAIN things. There are so many different players in this story, and yet you understand each and every single person’s motivations and feelings. Turtle’s uneasily affectionate relationship with Baba is so sweet, and you could see the needs she was trying to fulfill through all the acting out she did. Shin-kicker!
Kim: Hands down my favorite aspect of this book was the characterization. You put it all perfectly, Wendy. It was in tiny things like Chris Theodorakis writing “birdwatcher” as his profession that really captivated me. Or the way that Judge Ford only hands out smiles sparingly. When you see who she does give a smile to and in what situation it’s so rewarding and revealing. Very smart writing.
Wendy: Chris and Theo’s relationship was really touching, and it was written in a completely unsentimental, believable fashion. I love that this book also touches on so many interesting topics, in a way that doesn’t slow down the story and also makes you empathize with the characters. From mental illness to social pressure to immigrant experiences to disabilities to feminism, there’s a lot packed into this short book. Also, all appropriate for the age level it’s written for. This book is a marvel of construction and masterful writing.
Kim: Yes! What a pleasant surprise. I really loved Chris and Theo’s relationship as well. I wasn’t expecting so much social commentary in what I thought was a straightforward mystery novel. I wonder how much I would have picked up on this as a kid. Not much, I fear. I was a big fan of Judge Ford and I especially appreciated that small moment when she reflects on having made an unprofessional remark and how she’s held to a higher standard for being the first black woman elected to judgeship in the state. I was super impressed that such important, and adult, social commentary was included. There was also some casual bigotry exhibited by the some of the characters but portrayed in the way that you understand that character is obviously wrong for being that way. And it’s not done in a preachy or heavy handed manner at all.
Kate: I have a grandmother who is a retired judge, and she is kind of hardened and bitter in the same way as Judge Ford (my grandma is white, btw), so I had a soft spot for that character. I think I maybe had a soft spot for EVERY character, though, to be honest.
Kim: Another favorite moment: When Angela’s position goes from “none” to “person.” There is so much contained in those few words.
Wendy: Yeah, Angela’s story arc is one of my favorites. As an adult, I think it’s fairly easy to see that she was the bomber, but as a kid, it was totally unexpected. I always forget how FUNNY this book is, too! It keeps you chuckling with its situational comedy, as well as its irony and witty dialogue.
Kate: OMG. So, so good. Angela was probably my favorite character (I love, love, LOVE her), and it broke my heart that she writes “none” as her profession. I mean, I actually put my hand over my heart. But then after it’s read aloud, Denton is alarmed because he heard it as “nun” and they’re engaged to be married, and I actually SNORTED with laughter, you guys. Denton is such a wet fucking blanket.
I laughed a lot while reading this. It’s very witty.
Wendy: What did you think of the mystery? Did you guess where it was going, and who the culprits were? When I was in grade school, I’d never read anything like it and was SO thrilled by the whole thing, and honestly it still keeps me on my toes as an adult, too. Just as with horror movies, the mark of a great story and construction is if it can still get you when you already know the ending.
Kim: This is embarrassing to admit, and it might be because I’m not used to reading mystery, but it was all largely out of my scope of comprehension (how sad is this-it’s a kid’s book!). I had no idea where things were headed until the very end.
Wendy: I think it is one of those stories that you can appreciate more upon a reread, because there are initially so many clues to chase and characters to track. I love, love, love that epilogue. It was so great to see where everyone ended up, and I loved that final scene with Sandy and how she never, ever told. And my young heart LOVED that she ended up with Theo, despite the total lack of interest from both sides when they were young.
Kate: That epilogue. I liked it. A lot. A huge part of why I don’t like books like A Game of Thrones is that I believe absolutely, with all my heart, to my very core, that people are basically good. I think that when we allow our fears and insecurities to control us, we can act like assholes, but most people want to do the right thing. I really loved how once these people stopped listening to their fears and were true to themselves, suddenly all the barriers that had seemed insurmountable didn’t look so bad. I think that’s really important in children’s literature.
Kim: The epilogue was a little too “neatly tied bow” for me but I think I’m just being a grump about it. I loved Turtle’s relationship with Sandy and I loved how she never stopped caring for him. But I did not like how this man just disappeared from his friends’ lives with seemingly no care (except for Turtle). And why does Angela end up with Denton Deere after all? He was a pompous jerk sometimes. I did think Theo was rather dreamy, though, and I’m glad Turtle ended up with him. And also that she was just an amazingly accomplished and fulfilled person. Go Turtle!
Wendy: Oh, it’s totally a neatly gift-wrapped package for sure. I think I would expect more of a properly YA novel, and certainly YA novel written now, but considering the influences of the time and the age group, I rather enjoy the comforting story-telling aspect of it. I was surprised by the Denton thing, though. I understand people can change and all that, but he was kind of a drip who treated Angela like a doll. She could do way better.
Kate: Yeah. I liked the IDEA of the Denton thing–I’m such a sap for shit like that–but I didn’t love it with these particular characters.
Wendy: Obviously, 5 huge stars from me. This one’s one of my all-time favorites, and I never get tired of revisiting it.
Kim: 3 stars. I enjoyed it but I had a hard time connecting with the writing style and mystery isn’t my usual thing anyway. But it’s definitely very smart writing with sharp characterization. I think I would actually enjoy this a lot more upon re-read. Without constantly trying to figure out the mystery I’d be more able to appreciate the wordplay and the construction of the story as it’s meant to be read.
Kate: 4 stars. I wish I’d read this as a child–it would have fit in nicely with my Encyclopedia Brown and Agatha Christie mysteries–and I’m adding this to my list of books to give to children in my life. It’s really lovely, and surprisingly funny.
July Readalong: All of a Kind Family!
This is a series that I wish more people would discover. These books follow a family of delightful sisters growing up in the early 1900s in New York, and since they are based on the author’s own childhood, they don’t have that “trying VERY HARD to be historical” feel, they are just they are warm, everyday stories about growing up during a different time.
A few reasons I love it:
- everything I know about Jewish customs and culture, I learned from these books, and I still long for someone to invite me to Shabbat.
- they helped instill a love of books in me, because books are entirely precious to those who cannot afford them.
- food porn–so much food porn! I want to eat my way through this first book in particular, in which Charlotte and Gertie sneak paper bags of candy into their bed and eat them long after they should be sleeping.
I’m going to leave it at that, lest I write an entire discussion entirely on my own.
It’s the turn of the century in New York’s Lower East Side and a sense of adventure and excitement abounds for five young sisters – Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie. Follow along as they search for hidden buttons while dusting Mama’s front parlor, or explore the basement warehouse of Papa’s peddler’s shop on rainy days. The five girls enjoy doing everything together, especially when it involves holidays and surprises. But no one could have prepared them for the biggest surprise of all!
The book is just $4 for either the ebook or paperback, so I hope you’ll join us. I promise, it’s loving without being sickly sweet, and if you enjoy Little House books or other such stories, you’ll like this one.
Also! If you’d like to get a head start on what we’re reading in August, it”ll be A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The last time we took a poll, well over 100 people were interested in it, so it’ll be fun to read it together.