Mr. Holmes, Dr. Jones, and Miss Holly

The Illyrian Adventure by Lloyd Alexander.

Reading Challenge: a book you haven’t read since high school.

This item on the reading challenge gave me a bit of a Moment. I didn’t go to high school. The only way I could possibly fulfill it would be if I managed to find a Driver’s Ed manual, because that was the only book I ever read “when I was in high school.” And who wants to read a Driver’s Ed manual, even the first time?

Then I lightened up and decided to just go ahead and interpret this item as “a book you haven’t read since you were high school-aged.” It’s just a reading challenge, I should really just relax, etc. etc.


I just wanted an excuse to use that .gif.

Anywho, when I was trying to think back to books I enjoyed a lot but not to the extent I kept obsessively re-reading them post-age-18, I came up with a lot of titles by Lloyd Alexander. Seriously, fellow nerds, raise your hand if you grew up on Lloyd Alexander, master of the lighthearted fantasy that could get unexpectedly dark towards the end (seriously, all I remember of The Kestrel is a feeling of despair).

Lloyd Alexander was great. One of the things that made him great was that, even writing in the sixties, seventies and eighties, he wrote heroines who were bright, stubborn, frequently uncooperative and with agendas that rarely if ever included “make the hero feel strong and superior.” Actually, the heroines usually started out by thinking their heroes were idiots, and they weren’t shy about telling them so.

The Illyrian Adventure is the first in the Vesper Holly series. Vesper is an adolescent Philadelphian at the end of the nineteenth century who is equal parts Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and teenage girl. She’s self-assured, extremely bright, stubborn, oblivious to certain social niceties, and an intrepid explorer. She also plays the banjo and will eat anything. As viewed through the eyes of the narrator, her guardian Brinnie (an obvious homage to Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson), she appears to be thoroughly charming and also frustrating to those around her. She follows the traditional male action hero role by having a different love interest in each book (at least the ones I remember), and certainly has teenage girl feelings that never overwhelm her curiosity and sense of adventure. She’s pretty great.

On re-reading, I still enjoyed Vesper and her adventures in Illyria, a fictional Mediterranean country. I had remembered liking the first book the best. As an adult, I will admit I found absolutely no narrative surprises (read: it was predictable) and a few cringeworthy moments: for example, when Vesper insisted that she and her guardian must be welcome at a festival they’ve been told is for the villagers only, no outsiders allowed. It’s funny when Vesper enters a foreign country and bosses kings and rebellious leaders into making the right decisions, less funny when she wants to intrude on something ordinary people would like to keep private. I’m sure I missed that part when I first read this, and today’s kids would probably miss it, too. Of course, I don’t think I understood what “colonialism” meant back then, either.

Vesper’s heart was always in the right place, though. If she’d taken that idol, it would have been to prevent civil war, not because “it belongs in a museum.”


Overall, lots of fun to be had, and it is always nice to see a teenage girl doing the intrepid adventuring. Thinking about it I’m a little surprised Vesper never hit the big screen, because her adventures are pretty film-friendly. I guess now we’ve had Lara Croft and all that, the moment has passed, but Vesper – whose scandalous clothing is “pantaloons” rather than short shorts – came first.

Recommended pairing: this is another wine-heavy book (in that it’s mentioned a few times, not much drinking, obviously). It’s SUPER hot out, so I vote again for a white. Nice chilled Pinot Grigio, anyone?




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