Monday, May 11, 2015

Looking Back Bellairs -- The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn

I actually read this book Wednesday and wrote this on Thursday but decided to wait a week before publishing.
I tend to go through phases in which all I'll want to do is read or video games or watch TV shows or write. Right now, it is reading. I hope to get to a big list of books I have accumulated over the year but may have picked at but not read fully (as I said, my attention span has been crap lately). But for now, I am cruising. I may run out of gas, but I'll try not to.
It took me about four hours to read this one, mostly because my cat was being a little asshole. She does that from time to time.
Anyways, onto the review! Contrary to what I said before, this book is the 1st Anthony Monday book and 4th kids' book. I'm reading them in order in each series.
The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn follows the adventures of 13-year-old Anthony Monday and his friend and boss, librarian Miss Myra Eells. When Anthony's family falls into money troubles and his father suffers a heart attack, he becomes obsessed with finding the rumored lost treasure of millionaire eccentric Alpheus Winterborn. Winterborn was involved in typical hobbies eccentric early 20th century gentlemen found themselves in including archaeology, inventing stuff, and building castle libraries (where Anthony and Miss Eells work). He also allegedly hid hints to where his treasure is in the library.
Anthony find the first clue which begins the chase to find it. However, it becomes clear that one of the wealthiest men in town, the Vice President of the Bank, and Winterborn's nephew Hugo Philpotts seeks the treasure himself. He believes as a relative, it belongs to him -- nevermind his mother and Alpheus had a falling out and never reconciled.
In the battle of the haves and havenots, the two try to out maneuver each other to find out if the treasure really exists or -- as Miss Eells suspects -- Alpheus is the biggest troll of them all.
Random Thoughts
+ What I learned is that if I am stuck on a clue in a grand mystery, visit an auction for inspiration
+ Man, Anthony can be a little asshole sometimes -- just like his mother.
+ Seriously, Anthony's mother is kind of emotionally abusive and manipulative at times and contributes to Anthony's tendency to be a nervous wreck about the tiniest things.
+ I think this is Bellairs' only book in which there are no supernatural elements.
+ Miss Eells is adorable. Can I adopt her?
+ I know Bellairs provided a deep description of Philpotts but I kept on picturing him as an evil version of the monopoly guy.
+ I was surprised halfway through that there were no references to Catholism. But then in the climax as Hoosac floods, our heroes must evacuate to a Catholic School.
+ A House With A Clock In Its Walls definitely had a more grandiose and magical style than this one. Doesn't make it bad though.
+ It can't be helped to make a comparison to the first book. While Mrs. Zimmerman and Miss Eells are both slightly eccentric old ladies they are different in many ways. Eells is klutzier and sweeter than the sharp and witty Florence. Anthony and Lewis are both bookish dudes with anxiety issues except Lewis is a lot more hesitant and its his intellectual curiosity that gets him into trouble (and desparately wanting friends) while with Anthony, he is just impatient and impulsive and a little sassy.
Does it hold up further than just nostalgic reasons?
No. Well, yes and no. When I was a kid, this is the second Bellairs book I read and I remember not being incredibly wild about it. I think I thought, "Needs moar ghosts". I still continued to read Bellairs' books because I do like Miss Eells and to a lesser degree of Anthony. I forgot how sassy Anthony could be which is different from Lewis and Johnny.
I also noticed a lot of different themes in the book I missed as a child. Philpots is an evil capitalist type, true, but I couldn't help but notice the subtle political commentary. Both Anthony and Philpots are willing to do anything to get that treasure, including illegal things, but for a while it looks like Philpots could use his position to be excused of doing the dastardly things he does. Meanwhile, Anthony could use the money. Banks are not out there to help you, they are there to make money.
Is it actually good?
This is where I waver a little bit. Like with the book mentioned before, Bellairs is really great at writing characters as flawed and interesting to succumb to temptations and make bad decisions. Miss Eells and Anthony are highly likable characters. There were amusing jokes and in general a lot of moments to go gasp at.
However, the book in places felt a little klunky. The beginning didn't flow as well as the rest of the book did. I mean, the first about five paragraphs grab you. It is Anthony listening to his parents argue about money when he is supposed to be sleeping. It is realistic and emotional and it really sets the tone of the book and provides early motivation for Anthony's later obsession with the treasure. But afterwards, as Bellairs sets the scene and sets Anthony up with a job, it just didn't move as smoothly.
Then, I have one minor issue in which Anthony stumbles on a clue quite randomly. Before, he had been stuck but then he found just what he was looking for at an auction. I'm okay with happenstance but with a mystery, I would really prefer if there was a path the characters took to get the clue. It is one thing to stumble on a clue while looking for one or near the crime scene but the set up is Miss Eells wants to get Anthony to forget about the treasure and takes him to the auction in a different town. I get it. Miss Eells is a skeptic of the treasure so she wouldn't take Anthony there for that. However, I feel that it would have been better if maybe somehow Anthony heard the lady whose house is being auctioned also bought stuff at Winterborn's auction and he somehow convinced Miss Eells to go there under the guise that she likes antiques.
I also was initially irritated that Anthony tried to break into someone's house but got off when caught. But then, when he tried again, he ended up breaking his arm. So I guess that is consequences for doing something illegal.
But besides all that, when I really sat down and thought about it, I couldn't help but notice how realistic this story was in many ways. Sure, it has typical preteen shenanigans. However, there were many realistic moments, particularly with the villain and Anthony's mother.
I find that parents in kids books usually are generic, loving parents often looked at fondly by their children or they are charictures of horrible parents like Matilda's parents or Harry Potter's aunt and uncle. Anthony's mother is somewhere in the middle. She obviously loves her children and is protective of them but she is incredibly judgmental, overprotective, and emotionally manipulative at parts. In fact, Anthony's anxiety is directly linked to her in many cases. A lot of his neuroses are instigated by the fear of what his mother may say or do. She's realistic.
As for Mr. Philpots, he is a realistic villain. No doubt there are people who have high standings due to wealth in small towns like Hoosac, Minnesota that believe they are entitled to certain privileges even though they didn't earn it. And no doubt they would use their position to get their way.
How Philpots tries to manipulate Anthony before the climax is positively frightening and not because he took out a gun or knife or threaten to kill him. Oh no. Philpotts tells Anthony that he would use his position at the bank to force one of Anthony's dad's investors to declare bankruptcy which will cause Anthony's dad to close down the Cigar Shop/Saloon that he runs. And Philpotts mentions he knew about Mr. Monday's troubling health and heart attack and speculated that such a situation would destroy Anthony's father's weakened heart which will end up killing him.
He threatened to kill Mr. Monday indirectly in such a way that he would not get caught if he did not get the clues Anthony had. How frightening and just plain callous and evil is THAT?
So I really have to give the book credit for those two characters.
 I read on an uncorroborated site how this book was very personal to the author. His father had died of a heart attack when he was around Anthony's age. And his father also ran a store similar to Mr. Monday's. The scenes with Mr. Monday's heart attack lingered and really were at the "heart" of the story. Mr. Monday's work ethic and stubbornness feels too real to be something Bellairs made up. And Anthony's longing to find the money so his dad wouldn't have to work as hard felt sincere. I do wonder if this whole story about the treasure was something Bellairs made up to cope with his father's death. And the lack of ghosts in this story may be due to the reason that it is John Bellairs' father who haunts it. 

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