Nov 10, 2008

Two Books by John Bellairs (and a few other things)

The Figure in the Shadows is the second of John Bellair’s series of gothic mysteries featuring Lewis Barnavelt. Eleven-year-old Lewis is an orphan and lives with his eccentric uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan. Of his uncle’s peculiarities, one in particular stands out: the fact that he’s a wizard. And his next-door neighbour, Mrs Zimmerman, is a witch of even greater power.

Lewis’ best friend is Rose Rita, and in The Figure in the Shadows the two get involved in a spooky adventure that begins when Grandpa Barnavelt’s supposedly lucky coin ends up in Lewis’ hands. Strange things begin to happen: Lewis receives a letter in the middle of the night that says venio (I come), he begins to have strange dreams, and when he goes out he can’t shake off the feeling that he’s being followed by a shadowy figure. What could be the meaning of all this?

In The Letter, the Witch and the Ring, Rose Rita takes the stage. While Lewis goes off to Boy Scout’s camp, she accompanies Mrs Zimmerman on a trip to a farm that her late cousin Oley left her. Just before he died, cousin Oley wrote her a strange letter: he was absolutely convinced that he had found a magic ring. When Mrs Zimmerman and Rose Rita arrive to the farm, they find the place turned upside down and the mysterious ring missing. As you can imagine, this is only the beginning of a long series of inexplicable events.

I really enjoyed these two short books, especially the second. Like The House with the Clock in its Walls, the first book in the series, they were spooky and atmospheric, but never actually scary. They were full of cosy everyday scenes, of loveable characters, of bits of insight, and of human moments.

John Bellairs’s books are fun, fast-paced, engaging, and comforting reads, but this doesn’t mean they lack substance. While they might not be as complex as some other children’s books, I admire them for their willingness to tackle difficult issues and to portray children as they actually are.

Both Lewis and Rose Rita are smart and unpopular kids. Though Lewis is no longer as lonely as he was when we first met him, he’s still bullied at school, and sometimes he can’t think of anything other than how to get back at those who make his life miserable. Though Lewis is often a victim of cruelty, he’s capable of being cruel himself, and acknowledging this only makes him a more believable and sympathetic character.

As for Rose Rita, as she grows up we see her having to deal with increasing pressure to behave like a “young lady” and not like a tomboy. In The Letter, the Witch and The Ring she is thirteen, and those around her keep telling her that now that she’s leaving childhood behind, her relationship with Lewis will have to change. As they enter their teens, they will either start dating or grow apart. Fortunately she has Mrs Zimmerman, who knows better than to pressure her to grow up or force her to follow rigid definitions of what being a young woman has to be like. She just lets her be herself. And although by the end of the book some of these issues are still unresolved, we do get to see her become a little more comfortable in her own skin.

As someone who was also a bit of a tomboy (though I don't like the term), I could relate to Rose Rita, which is one of the reasons why The Letter, the Witch and the Ring is probably my favourite book in the series. I just have one small complaint: while the first book was illustrated by Edward Gorey, these two have illustrations by Mercer Meyer and Richard Egielski, and while I didn’t dislike them (though I found that Meyer’s were a bit too cute for the mood of the story), it’s just not the same.

Unfortunately, John Bellairs passed away before he could write any more books in the series, which was continued by Brad Strickland. Normally I don’t like the idea of a series being continued by anyone other than the original author, but books 4, 5 and 6 were plotted and actually begun by John Bellairs. I’d really love to continue to read about these characters, so I think I’m going to give them a try.

Other Opinions:

Stuff as Dreams are Made On (The Figure in the Shadows)
Stuff as Dreams are Made On (The Letter, the Witch and the Ring)
somewhere i have never travelled (The Figure in the Shadows)
What Kate's Reading (The Letter, the Witch and the Ring)

(Please let me know if I missed yours).

First of all, I want to thank you all for your enthusiasm about the Christmas Swap. After just one day we already have more participants than there were altogether last year, which confirms my impression that the book blogging world has been growing. I hope everyone has as much fun as we did last year!

Secondly, and still on Christmas-related blogging events, Kailana and Marg are once again hosting the Blog Advent Calender. I had a lot of fun with this last year! The goal is to have bloggers post Christmas-related things in December - a different person each day until Christmas Eve. For more details, and info on how to sign up, visit Kailana or Marg. There's a prize involved too!

Finally, Kate at What Kate's Reading is giving away a copy of Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. People often ask me which Discworld book I recommend that they start with, and this one would actually be a good choice. It's an excellent book, and it's the first to introduce Moist von Lipwig. So go leave Kate a comment before the 16th to be entered in the giveaway.

Edit to add: The Friendly Book Nook is organizing a Christmas Book Swap. We both posted yesterday without knowing about the other's swap, but as they work differently, people can join both and get something different out of each. Click here for more details!


  1. So glad that you enjoyed these two Nymeth! I could really relate to Lewis too...I was never the most popular kid in school, lol...but I was always a discoverer and enjoying life just the same. I agree that it would've been cool to see Edward Gorey finish out the series, but I have to admit that I like Mercer Mayer's illustrations as well. I used to love Mayer's books when I was a little kid...he had this series of books called LIttle Critters and I think I had all of them, lol. I'm hesitant to continue the series because I don't like series continued by other authors typically, but I loved this little series so much that I might just suck it up and read them!

  2. These sound so utterly delightful! I'd never heard of them until you talked about The House With the Clock in Its Walls. I had to immediately interlibrary loan it, and while Annie loved it, I never had a chance to got it read...sheesh, how many times do I have to say that. :(
    But one of these days, I'm determined to actually get to them.

  3. These books are completely new to me and I love the covers. Yet another series to look out for. My list of 'series' to read is as long as my arm. Oh well. :-) There are worse problems...

  4. Oh, I love the covers! They definitely have made me want to read the books, besides the stories that is. ;)

    The Christmas Swap and the Blog Advent Calender sounds fun too!

  5. Hi Nymeth! Great review and thanks for the giveaway shout-out :) I also reviewed The Letter, The Witch, and the Ring some time ago:

    I understand your hesitance to read the Strickland/Bellairs works, I feel the same way. But I understand from a listserv I'm involved with that the Strickland continuations are quite good too. Did you know there was another out last month? The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer - another Louis Barnavelt mystery!

  6. Hi Nymeth, first, great review! I think I like the sound of the books. I don't like the idea of the subsequent books in the series being written by another person, but if he or she could maintain the voice and produce stuff as good as the original author, I don't mind getting started on the series. I can't wait to hear your thoughts about the other works.

    I joined in the swap too and just got an email yesterday requesting for more details of myself. :D

    P/S: I'm also quite a tomboy (I don't like that term either).

  7. You are such a good blogger, Nymeth! I don't think I'll be able to participate in the exchange this year, but I wanted to tell you how great I think you are for organizing such an event. I hope everyone has a great time!

  8. This is something I'd like to read someday. I think I saw a couple of Bellairs' books here but haven't the time to pick them up. I'm sure I'll have fun reading this (goodness, both you and Chris enjoyed it plus the plots sound like something I'd enjoy. Spooky and strange. Lovely mix as always.)

  9. You read a lot of good mysteries. I love reading mysteries too, but don't seem to notice good ones in the bookstores. Or maybe I just don't know where to look. I'll look out for these too. I love the book covers btw, it says "mystery" all over :)

  10. We have had such a great response to the Advent Blog Tour as well! More people already signed up than we had last year! Thanks for blogging about it!

    I am thinking about the Christmas swap. Truth is, I can't really afford it, but I may just say what the heck!

  11. Ohhh, this sounds like something for my grandson! I will check them out at amazon!

  12. This sounds like a great series, I'm going to keep these in mind for my son.
    Great review!

    thanks for the heads up on the Christmas swap and advent event too :)

  13. These sound like interesting books. I bet my daughter would enjoy them. Too bad the author didn't live long enough to finish the series himself. So sad. :(

    Diary of an Eccentric

  14. Chris: I did like Mercer Mayer's artwork, but it just didn't fit my mental pictures of the book, if that makes sense :P If I get to book #4 of the series first I'll let you know how it is.

    Debi: I'm sure both you and Annie will love these. I remember Chris mentioning that there was a very reasonably priced edition that contain the first book plus these two, so we'll have to ask him about it! I think he said it was a B&N edition, but I'm not sure.

    Cath: I love the covers too! And lol, I have the same problem, but there are indeed worse ones :P

    Melody: I hope you enjoy them!

    Kate: Thanks for the link! And thanks for info about the Strickland books. I had no idea they were still being written!

    Alice: Yes, I definitely agree. I think maintaining the voice is the key. And I'm so glad you joined the swap! I know about the e-mail because I was the one to write that one :P And yeah, I don't like how "tomboy" implies that we're somehow a deviation from what a "proper" girl is supposed to be.

    Trish: Aww, thank you!

    Lightheaded: Lovely mix indeed! I really do think you'd enjoy these.

    Violet: I'm actually not very knowledgeable when it comes to mysteries, but the RIP challenge made me discover some great ones, and I thought I'd continue to enjoy them throughout November :P

    Marg: You're welcome! I'm very glad to hear people are excited about the Advent Calendar too. I really loved it last year! About the swap, remember that you could asked to be assigned a blogger from your part of the world and save on shipping. I'd love to have you join in, but know that I mean this in a completely pressure-free way :P

    Deslily: I hope he enjoys them!

    Naida: You're welcome! Hope you enjoy the series when you get to it.

    Anna: I bet she would too! And yes, it really is too bad. He's such a great writer.

  15. Yep! The edition I have is from Barnes and Noble and it's called "The Best of John Bellairs" and it has all 3 books in this series! It was only like $9.95!

  16. I'm adding this series to my list. I like the sound of "The Best of John Bellairs" - 3 for the price of one!

  17. These sound fun. I know what you mean about another author continuing the writing. I have continued with the Avalon series by Marion Zimmer Bradley which is now being written by Diana L Paxon who collaborated with her when she was alive. I am still enjoying it and am going to look into more of Paxon's writing in the future.

    Oh the best thing about your review: New Zebedee. Is that a real place?!? That's brilliant if it is boing boing.

  18. Chris, thanks for letting us know!

    Jenclair: It really is a great deal!

    Rhinoa: It's good to hear that the new Avalon books are still good! And googling New Zebedee only finds Bellairs-related sites, so I assume he made it really is an awesome name, though :D


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.