Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Christopher Cool, Teen Agent #1: X Marks the Spy

Okay, the Christopher Cool, TEEN Agent series is my all time favorite boys series. I cannot tell you how much kitsch-tastic amazingness is contained in each volume. The series was published in 1967-69 by Grosset and Dunlap and written by Jim Lawrence (who wrote the newspaper strip version of James Bond, appropriately enough) under the pen name Jack Lancer. Chris is the son of Dr. Jonathan Cool, "America's foremost brain in high energy physics," who mysteriously disappeared a couple of years ago. Chris goes to the CIA at 17, hoping to get hired and go after his dad. Instead, he gets funneled into the TEEN (Top-secret Educational Espionage Network). Yes, I'm serious. Yes, it's fabulous.

Anyway, two years later, Chris is at Kingston (an Ivy League type college), rooming with his TEEN partner, Geronimo Johnson. Gerry is Apache, which is one of the fifty million languages that Chris speaks fluently. I won't deny that a lot of the Native American humor in this series is kind of cringe-worthy, but most of it's tongue-in-cheek and mocks the other characters, rather than Gerry. Q is their main contact from Control, dresses in a navy blazer and a yachting hat, smokes an unlit pipe, and takes constant swigs from a bottle of milk. Could I make any of this UP? I LOVE IT. The heroine (supporting character) is Spice Carter, a fiery redhead who can hold her own in intelligence and a fight. The villains alternate between the Reds (obvious Cold War influence in the series) and TOAD, which is a network of supervillains aimed on global domination. SQUEE!

In this first title, Chris and Gerry are off to France, in search of a secret weapon Ciel Assassin/Skykill. It's been developed by an evil genius, Le Glacier/the Chiller. Of course. They meet up with Spice Carter for the first time outside of Paris, and both boys are impressed with her, not just her looks, but mostly her skillz. To give you an example of a typical Chris Cool adventure, there's a fight scene on top of the Eiffel Tower, and Chris gets thrown over, goes into a skydiving roll, turns on the jet packs built into his shoes, then Gerry zips him a rescue line. Also typical: underground labs abound, with venomous attack bats. These books are PERFECTION.

This refuses to rotate.
Other things I like about this series: They're well-written, in spite of the ridiculosity of the plots. They talk a lot about cars and girls, which I think is realistic for a series targeting boys who are maybe 11-15. They're also heavy on gadgets, in the vein of James Bond. Pomeroy is the eccentric little bald man who keeps them suited up with bizarro supplies. Anyway, I HIGHLY recommend this series. It can be difficult to collect--it doesn't seem to have been as widely-printed as many series, and a lot of the titles duplicate other, more commonly available trade titles, which makes it hard to search for some of them. That said, most can be found for $5-10 with a little patience.
  • The story begins with a hot flash from Control via their wristwatches. I tried to keep track of the gadgets for this entry, but it was getting ridiculous. Rough list: chewing gum explosives, UV light rings, jet pack shoes, rescue lines, ties that adapt to gas masks.
  • "The 4.2 liter engine purred like a well-fed pussycat, then broke into a full-throated jungle roar as the black Jag shot down the driveway into Madison Circle." The Jag is their main car.
  • Q calls the CIA "Cloak and Dagger," which I found entertaining.
  • TOAD  sends toads to intended victims, and stamps the foreheads of victims with a bladed, venom-injecting stamp.
  • Sixties fashions abound, including a, "Gaunt horse-faced woman with dangling earrings and a brassy yellow fright wig."
  • When they talk about girls, they pretty flatly say whether or not they're hot. To me, this reads a lot more true to a typical 19 year old guy than most of these books.
  • Chris himself is of course hot, with blond hair, blue eyes, and a tight frame. Gerry is constantly described as having coppery skin and longish black hair. The book mocks those around them who give Gerry the side eye.
  • I apologize for how much squeeing fangirlness is in this post, but I seriously can't recommend these books highly enough. Guaranteed entertainment.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Jane Allen #5: Jane Allen, Senior

Someone has added the above annotation to the scanned copy on Google. And luckily, it's quite true--this book is compulsively readable and the best of the series. This year, Jane has decided that she and Judy must go in for that specialization in social work, complete with 200 hours of field work. Judy hauls in truant boys, while Jane takes on the Jennings/Castbolt family. Mrs. Jennings is a young widow with two baby children, living with her also-widowed mother, Mrs. Castbolt. They're eeking out a living while Mrs. Jennings's brother/Mrs. Castbolt's son, Renny, finishes his final year of an engineering degree. Unfortunately, Mrs. Jennings has given their pittance of savings to Carol Dare, an "agent" of sorts, hoping to get on the stage and get more money for the family. Of course, this fails, and unless Renny drops out of school, they'll lose the house. Their only other hope is a wealthy uncle, who just HAPPENS to be Henry Allen's old friend.

While Jane manages to solve everyone's problems per usual, this book is much more fun as to what happens along the way. The girls take in the two babies to Madison Hall for a night, and Judy also has hilarious adventures with her "hooky boys." In another side plot, Judy has the school "adopt" an elderly man, who just happens to be the grandfather of Carol Dare. Honestly, it's not too far from the usual series book do-gooding, but doing it through the lens of social work makes it less cloying. Finally, this book has boys and romance! There's a prom, and Renny is a great romantic interest. He reminds me of Bill from the Patty Fairfield series, so far as the humbler origins/self-made bit. I really hate that the story ends with this title.

This book does raise interesting issues as far as the then relatively new idea of girls being in school at all, let alone actually pursuing a career. In one scene, the girls bemoan how being away at school hurts their chances with boys back home. They also give Jane a hard time as far as taking time away from sports and school fun to do her field work. Jane's father, especially, really is not into her taking on ANY job, let alone social work--he doesn't "want Jane to devote a promising young life to a restricted career." In the end, it turns out that he's asked their supervisor to restrict her to this case, since he's friends with the uncle. Jane, oddly enough, is okay with this. It's one of the many mixed messages this book gives. I wonder how the romance and career would have both been incorporated had the series continued--ideally in the vein of Beverly Gray, I think.
  • Social work "had only been recognized as a profession since college graduates were required by the Social Service promoters." The book is really interesting as far as info about the establishment and workings of Social Services. Very unique in a series book, to the best of my knowledge.
  • "But we have had the games all through our three years," is the only real mention of basketball in this book (refereeing is the only one in the last one, for the record), and it's offered as a weak protest to the girls field work. I will also point out that it's actually been four years--memory slip, or futher proof that Josephine Chase did not author the later titles?
  • Dozia tells a long, hilarious story based around wearing (and not wearing) stockings with a bathing suit and a misunderstanding with her fiance, Phil. It's worth reading, I promise! I can't condense it any better than that.
  • Mrs. Castbolt and her sister were both seminary grads, and they (and Jane) bemoan Mrs. Jennings decision to marry immediately after college, "Married the year she graduated! The clause repeated itself. Just imagine!"
  • "The fact that gentlemen were now permitted to come to Wellington and take part in the big social affairs, gave the zest that goes to make any affair interesting." Finally! An explanation of all the girls-only dances of the first three books.
  • It's too bad that there weren't boys until this book, because the writing about it completely captures schoolgirl crushes. "When he was gone, a few minutes later, Jane and Judith fell into each other's arms like two high school girls." None of Nancy Drew's nonchalance/disinterest here.
  • "Then he smiled down at her, and she felt so small--he was so tall and so protective. The two old friends were talking eagerly over near the window, and the young folks--well, they were not saying much just then. The air was tingling with interest, and Jane must have been very happy; for again 'youth will be served.'"Clearly, Renny was to be the romantic lead for the rest of the series.
  • "Was there anything else to be settled? If so it will have to be told in the next volume of this series to be entitled: Jane Allen: Graduate." :-(
  • Final count for things that were restricted to the first three books: basketball, no boys, and Marian Seaton. Carol Dare is the only real enemy of this volume, and she's not much of one. I hate enemies, so even more points for this book.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Jane Allen #4, Jane Allen, Junior

Well, as I thought, this story doesn't resume the second semester of junior year. That semester will be forever lost to human history. Judy and Jane are juniors again, with the explanation of, "An extension course in special work kept Jane with her junior friends," or, "Judith and I decided on this extra year to specialize," in sociology. This doesn't mean much for this book, but it will for the next, so file it away. Anyway, they're juniors again (?), and the Allen scholarship this year has gone to an unfortunate, raw-boned country girl, Shirley Duncan, who's both obnoxious and gauche. The other "pet freshie" this year is Sarah "Sally" Howland.

Dol Vin (as she's now known) has opened her beauty shop of iniquity at the gates of Wellington, and Shirley and Sally seem to be somehow involved with her, although Sally's well-liked by everyone. There's also a ghost haunting Lenox Hall and scaring the poor little freshies, and some mystery surrounding Shirley and Sally. It turns out that Sally and Shirley have swapped identities at the suggestion of Dol Vin, who taught them in gym--the real Shirley ("Kitten") needs money to send her brother Ted back to college and sells her scholarship to Sally ("Bobbie"), who, while brilliant at math, is unable to pass the other subject exams to get into college. Of course, in the end, Bobbie makes nice with Jane and her friends, and Shirley's father's fortunes are reversed, so they're both able to stay at Wellington. Because the dean is willing to overlook multiple fraudulent elements in light of good intentions.

  • The first proof of Bobbie's awfulness: "She was garbed in a baronet satin skirt of daring hue with an overblouse of variegated georgette. This as a school frock!"
  • Sarah Howland is considered a "most atrocious name." I'm sure I don't see how. Apparently Sarah is "old fashioned" and "country."
  • Bobbie is forced to dust Dozia's room with a feather glued to her nose as her freshman initiation. When the girls clean her up afterward, she refuses to let Jane brush her hair with a damp brush. "Not wet it?" she [Jane] thought quickly. "That must mean treatment, and treatment meant the forbidden beauty shop!"
  • More classless dressing, on Vin's part this time: "She was gowned in a very close fitting and striking black satin 'clinger' gown. Her hair was done in the most modern of styles, like a window show for her hair dressing parlor, and her foreign face, with its natural olive tones, was very much fixed up with many touches of peach and carmine, as well as darker hints under the eyes; and her lashes--well, perhaps Dolorez had been crying inky tears; that was the effect one gathered from a glance at the vampish make-up."
  • The Project Gutenberg text repeatedly refers to "Jane Alien." Can you imagine? It makes me think of the whole Pride and Prejudice and Zombies business.
  • There are boys at dances now! Judith is, of course, more interested than Jane in this. Series heroines are never allowed to be interested in boys or romance, only sidekicks.
  • I'm completely lost now on the authorship of these books. The missing time is a pretty glaring inconsistency, but this book continues the new cast of characters from the previous book.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Jane Allen #3, Jane Allen, Center

Henry Allen, Jane's father, has funded a scholarship this year, which has been awarded to a Polish violinist, Helka Podonsky. They soon Americanize it, at her insistance, to Helen Powderly, which is later further nickmaned to Nell. Of course, Marian, who is now the flunky of Brazilian Dolorez Vincez, has to plot the downfall of this girl for no reason. Helen has an annoyingly artistic temperament (which doesn't help Marian's insinuations of possible madness) and a mysterious secret. I oddly don't think I'm surprising anyone when I tell you it turns out she's secretly a Polish noble on the run from sinister Russians. In the end, Jane of course manages to reunite Helen with her mother, a brilliant soprano.

I had originally thought it was the next book where the original characters all disappear, but it's actually this one.The only explanation given is the first bullet point below. Adrienne and Maizie are mentioned in passing at the beginning, the others not at all. The only characters remaining from the previous two books are Jane herself, Judith, Marian, and Mrs. Weatherbee, who now has evolved from a house mother of sorts to a more administrative/faculty position. I have no great attachment to the original characters, but I can't see the point of switching them out for equally nondescript new ones. The writing style in this book is also less old fashioned, with snappier, more slangy dialogue.
  • "But let's to Wellington. I do wonder how many of the old set will be back? The war has changed so many homes, we may have to take over an entirely new contingent."
  • "Now Judith had wonderful teeth. In fact, she might claim championship in the tooth beauty contest, did Wellington carry such a sport, but Helka's!  They were so small, so even and so white, matched pearls indeed. Thoughts of the pure grain foods of Poland filtered through Jane's mind, while Judith wondered about Polish dentifrice." Again, there are moments of awesome humor, but it's not consistent.
  • "The art student called herself Anaa Kole, and just why she insisted on the second "a" to her otherwise plain Ana had not yet been discovered by Judith. It looked to her to be a waste of type, that could not vocally be made use of."
  • "Of course, bobbed hair was so comfy, and so becoming, too bad it was not the general style, mused Judith, patting her own heavy coil, that would slip down her neck every time she attempted to relax outside of bed quilts." "Judith and hairpins were always at painful odds."
  • Since coloring is such a hot topic here lately, Helen has violet eyes and curly, dark hair. Elizabeth Taylor, I guess?
  • New freshmen: Dorothy "Dick" Ripple, Mary Louise "Weasis" Blair, and Grazia (Grawcia) St. Clear. All the nicknames are either unpleasant or men's names? There's also Ted, Tom, and Dozia.
  • "Every experimenter knows hair dye affects the blood in color changes, affecting the eyes disastrously. Also, but it seems unkind to suggest such a catastrophe, hair-dye has an immediate action on the sight. Cicily Weldon could not tell time last year after one trip to New York when her hair was "fixed up!" I warn you in advance that the evils of the beauty parlor are extrapolated on in the next book.
  • Dolorez Vincez takes over from Marian Seaton as primary villain. She's a fast older girl from South America. She gets disqualified from the basketball team when it's discovered that she was a teacher of athletics (a "professional") at Blindwood, where Helen previous studied.
  • Dol and Marian have made a plan to canvass for business for *gasp* an evil beauty parlor. File this away for the next book.
  • The book only covers the first semester, ending with, "But a new story was unfolded in the second half of that eventful year. And what happened to 'Jane Allen, Junior,' will be told in our next volume of that title." I'm pretty sure this isn't what happens, but we shall see.
  • Ebook available here. Frontis is by Thelma Gooch, who is familiar to me as the illustrator of Blythe Girls and Doris Force books.
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