From Fact to Fiction: The Mystery of the Jade Avenger

6 July 2013

I’m taking a break from “serious writing” to focus on a new project: a children’s detective story called The Mystery of the Jade Avenger. The story takes place at fictitious Keeblewhite College in Oxford, England and revolves around an ancient Chinese sword that goes missing and two young detectives — Richard Reynolds and Antonia “Toni” Giordano — who try to discover who stole the sword and why.

Writing about Oxford is helping to take the edge off my England withdrawals, having spent the last six summers in Oxford as coordinator of a study abroad program. I’m finding that writing about a place that has become familiar to you enables you to see it in a very different light. I’m having so much fun with this!

Though the process of writing this book has been unexpectedly therapeutic, I am actually writing this book for an audience of one: my 9-year-old nephew Seth. He loves the Hardy Boys and I’m a lifelong Agatha Christie fan, so the book will have elements strongly influenced by both, I’m sure.

As mentioned, the setting is Oxford, England. The story takes place in modern times, though since it is Oxford, where things seem to change more slowly and some things never change, it might as well be the 1940s or 50s. The action takes place primarily on the site of Keeblewhite College, a college founded in the late 18th century. Other settings are the Ashmolean Museum, which is England’s oldest museum, as well as various “flats,” manors and cottages in the Oxfordshire countryside, and the Covered Market, one of my favorite places to go in Oxford because of the hustle and bustle and all the interesting sights and smells.

My goal is to introduce Oxford, one of my favorites city in the world, to a young audience. Oxford has its own vocabulary, quaint rituals, mysterious customs, and lovely old buildings — all of which I am looking forward to exploiting and exploring in my book. Below is the plot synopsis.

The Plot

The Jade Avenger, an ancient Chinese sword, goes missing on the opening night of an exhibition in its honor. The sword was on loan for a year to Oxford’s Keeblewhite College from a famous British museum, in an attempt to bring publicity — and therefore revenue — to the struggling college.

Upon the sword’s disappearance, suspicion immediately falls on the competent but ruthless museum curator, Dame Phillipa Scott, and the stuffy and unpopular college principal, Christopher Cummings-Price. The curator and the principal are the ones who seem to have the most to gain out of the sword’s disappearance: the museum and its curator will benefit from the theft in terms of collecting insurance money, while the principal will gain free publicity for his school — and as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity.

But amateur detective Richard Reynolds and his sidekick Antonia “Toni” Giordana soon find the case is not as clear-cut as it initially appears. In the course of their adventures, they will track down a notorious gang, encounter a fierce Chinese martial artist intent on getting the sword back to its rightful owners (an ancient line of brave Chinese warriors), experience a kidnapping, endure a series of attempts on their lives, and unscramble a secret code before finally discovering the astonishing truth behind who stole the sword.

Smart Money: Cash Passport

11 July 2012

Sorry, folks. Traveler’s Checks are a thing of the ancient past. They’ve been replaced by debit cards, credit cards and most recently … Cash Passports.

I’d heard about Cash Passports for several years but was skeptical about them: I always felt deep down that it was some kind of scam. However, after reading some positive testimonials, I decided to try one this year for my trip to England.

You can get a Cash Passport at the exchange company Travelex, found in the international terminals of major airports. You put an initial sum on the card (you get the best deal on exchange rates if you go over a certain amount, like $700) then use it as if it were a debit card, either as a swipe card or to withdraw money from ATMs. It’s widely accepted here in England.

So why use a Cash Passport instead of a debit card? Several reasons.

(1) It has a “chip and pin” system which makes it very secure for use in Europe; over here they consider our non-chip US cards (both debit and credit) very unsafe as it’s much easier to steal information from them.

(2) The amount of the card is in British Pounds (you can also choose Euros) so you only have to deal with exchange rates one time, upon purchase of the card at the airport, and the rest of the time you can figure out everything in British Pounds based on the remaining balance on your card.

In my opinion, it beats having to monitor the exchange rates on your checking account as transactions go through, as well as being charged a percentage for each transaction. The advantage of a Cash Passport over a credit card is similar to that of a debit card with the additional advantage that the CP lets you withdraw cash without charge, whereas a credit card would charge for a cash advance.

You can check your balance online (supposedly — I’ve just been keeping a tally of all my expenses) and if it gets lost or stoelen there’s a number you can call immediately to deactivate the card and you’ll be issued a new one with the remaining balance.

Bottom line is that everyone has a different system and preference for how to handle their money abroad. I’ve tried the CP this year and been very pleased with how it’s worked for me. I think I’ll continue using the CP in my travels in the future. You might want to check it out, too!

4th of July in England

4 July 2012

Happy 4th of July!

We would soon be heading out to the Boathouse where our Oxford RAs are preparing for us a dinner to remember. Who would have thought that 236 years after our little revolution, the Brits would be hosting us in a little barbecue to celebrate our Independence Day? Just a little twist of irony.

But not the strangest thing that’s every happened here. I think that award goes to last year’s Oxford program students Trey Ramsey and Alycia Graves teaching the Chinese students how to do the electric slide, after they’d helped us celebrate the 4th of July — a holiday they’d never heard of before.

I love these multicultural interactions. 🙂

Will have photos later!


View From My Window

26 June 2012

Western Road Rowhouses, Oxford, England

Sunshine in Oxford

25 June 2012

We had a sunshiny and — get this — warm day here in Oxford for the first day of class and the Welcome Tea. In fact (and this is a first-ever phenomenon for me) I got a little sunburn from sitting in the Hertford College quad for the better part of an hour. Sunburnt. In Oxford.

Yesterday’s lunch was chicken in a white wine sauce with a sort of rice pilaf, snowpeas and carrots. Chocolate cake for dessert.

Chicken in Wine Sauce

Walking back from class today, I made the mistake of taking a shortcut through the Covered Market. I came out on the other side with two flower containers and 3 bouquets of flowers from the discount bin!

Blue Flowers

Lilies in my dorm room


An English Breakfast: The Stuff of Dreams

24 June 2012

Ahhhhh! A traditional English breakfast. The smell wafted up to me on the top floor of Abingdon House as I woke up this morning, my stomach rumbling in anticipation. The fare did not disappoint.

An English Breakfast

Eggs, “bacon,” mushroom, tomato, hash browns, sausage plus toast, croissants, fresh fruit and berries and several options of cereal, juices, milk and coffee. It’s the breakfast of kings. What a great way to start a Sunday morning!

Today’s Highlight: The Grand Cafe

22 June 2012

Already Day Three and it’s going much too quickly. Another thing that’s going quickly is my spending money!! Why is it so much easier to spend British pounds than American dollars? I guess partly because it doesn’t feel like real money.

Tea with my colleague Diane — and yes, that is a winter sweater in June.

Lots of administrative details to deal with today but the highlight of the day was probably tea for three at the Grand Cafe, the oldest coffeehouse in England (established in 1650). Had “cream tea” with my colleague Diane and her son: cream tea consists of delicious scones (nothing like the hockey pucks you get in the States!) with clotted cream, jam and — of course — tea. We had a great time discussing the cultural differences between the British and Americans.

Diane & son Josh at Grand Cafe

Another highlight was getting a pass to the Botanic Garden — my favorite spot in Oxford.

Botanic Gardens, Oxford

Our students arrive tomorrow!

Oxford Times Six

21 June 2012

Christ Church Cathedral

Oxford.There’s just something about this place that makes me walk around with a smile on my face.

One thing I love about it is that it changes at such a slow pace that everything is still familiar from one year to the next. Sure, students may sometimes have complaints about limited access or no wifi — I understand; I go crazy if I don’t check email daily, too — but this is Oxford!

I am hoping and praying that this year’s group will be predisposed to fall in love with Oxford; that they will be flexible and adaptable; that they will have a sense of humo(u)r and enjoy everything that comes their way here, knowing what a privilege it is to be here and how neat it is to be in England.

This is my sixth year to help coordinate the program and I feel like one of the luckiest (most blessed, in “Christianeze”) gals in the world.

Smartest thing I did this year: PACKED LIGHT!! Everything fit into a rollarboard carryon bag!

Dumbest thing I did this year: Didn’t bring a book to read. My reasoning was that I could buy something here but it’s the end of Day Two and still no book! There’s always tomorrow but it stinks to be without a good book.

Today, my colleague Diane and her son Josh arrived. They were tired from their trip but they were such troopers as I dragged them around town saying, “I promise … although this feels like torture right now, you’ll thank me later when you have the best sleep of your life tonight!” The biggest mistake people can make is to sleep during the day on their first night overseas. The quickest way to get over jetlag is to adapt immediately to the local schedule of eating and sleeping.

We had a pleasant lunch “in Hall” with Fatjon and some other members of the Hertford College staff. They are such lovely people! Each one so smart and sweet-spirited. After lunch, we meet with the International Programmes director and with Fatjon so that they could get to know Diane a little better.

Afterwards we took the “mandatory” Oxford sightseeing bus tour. I think this was my 4th time to go?? It beats a walking tour when you are fighting hard to stay awake but need to get familiar with the layout of the city. Then dinner, then grocery shopping, then “home.”

Goodnight! Will report again tomorrow. The fun shifts into high gear when students arrive on Saturday!

P.S. Blame any typos on the jetlag …

The White Tower

21 May 2012
White Tower with fragment of ancient Wardrobe Tower

When William the Conqueror started building his “white tower” in the 1070s, Londoners had never seen anything like it. It is difficult today to grasp the full impact the new tower must have had on the surrounding populace. It served as a chilling reminder to them that they had been defeated and were now governed by a foreign power.

The White Tower is the oldest part of the Tower of London and is over 900 years old. Its basic design was inspired by the castles and towers that William grew up around in his native Normandy, just across the Channel. The Tower’s stones were imported from there. The White Tower consists of four towers: one circular and three square.

The purpose of the White Tower in William’s day was three-fold: it was used as a fortress, a palace and as a powerful visual symbol.

As a fortress, the White Tower was the last line of defense and the most secure part of the Tower complex. Enemies of the king had to get through many obstacles and the outlying curtain walls before reaching this heavily-secured inner fortress. As a palace, it was used as both a place for the king to lay his head, to conduct official state business and to entertain his guests. As a symbol, it was a vivid visual reminder of the new king’s power and dominion.

Today within the 90-foot-tall gleaming whitewashed walls, visitors are treated to a magnificent display of royal armor – the armor used by Henry VIII being the main attraction. Other items on display are weapons used throughout the centuries and even an execution axe and chopping block. The “Line of Kings” exhibit displays life-size portraits of the kings of England.

Don’t miss St. John’s Chapel within the White Tower. It is built of Caen stone from France and is one of the earliest examples of a Romanesque church interior in England. This simple, serene chapel is where Lady Jane Grey is said to have knelt in prayer before her execution. The chapel was completed in 1080.

Note: Some of the staircases in use are original to the building. Visitors should exercise caution when winding up the steps, many of which are uneven.

Did You Know? The White Tower got its nickname in 1241 when Henry III had it whitewashed.

Mysteries of the Tower of London

25 April 2012

This segment of the Tower of London walk takes visitors through Traitors’ Gate, the Medieval Palace and the Bloody Tower.

Traitors’ Gate

In pre-Tudor days, the Tower of London was used primarily as a royal palace and not yet as a full-time prison. At the time, the river came right up to the Tower wall where today there is a wharf. The Thames River was the city’s lifeblood and provided a busy thoroughfare for commerce and trade. The river entrance to the palace was called “Traders Gate” and acted as a sort of tradesman’s entrance where vendors could pull up in barges, sell their wares, then push off again and ferry to their next stop.

When the Tower’s purpose took a more sinister turn, the river entrance offered a way to sneak the monarch’s more controversial prisoners into the Tower away from public eye. Princess Elizabeth made a low-key entrance through this “Traitors’ Gate” at the age of twenty-one when her Catholic half-sister Queen Mary Tudor imprisoned her on suspicious of inciting a Protestant rebellion. Elizabeth vehemently protested her innocence and, although Queen Mary’s throne was not considered secure as long as Elizabeth was alive, Queen Mary did not order her execution. After Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth acceded to the throne as Queen Elizabeth I and reigned for nearly 45 years.

The Medieval Palace

Just beside Traitors’ Gate lies the entrance to the Medieval Palace, where modern visitors can get a vivid sense of life at the Tower during the 13th century. The Medieval Palace is the collective name used for the three towers of St. Thomas, Wakefield and Lanthorn, where King Henri III and his successors Edward I and II lived at various periods during the Middle Ages.

In medieval times, kings and their courts traveled frequently, sometimes at a moment’s notice. All furnishings and decorations required portability. Rooms themselves had to be adaptable, since each chamber held multiple functions throughout the day, serving in turn as a bedchamber, dining hall and a place of entertainment.

Edward I’s bedchamber has been painstakingly restored to its medieval splendor with richly colored furnishings, wall hangings and a magnificent four-poster bed all based on descriptions of the palace found in surviving documents and in archeological research. Costumed interpreters bring the Medieval Palace to life through various speeches and sketches.

The Wakefield Tower includes a throne room complete with a throne replicated from the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey as well as a small oratory (or prayer room), where Henry VI is thought to have been murdered while at prayer.

Did You Know? The Crown Jewels were displayed in the Medieval Palace from 1870 to 1967.

Bloody Tower

The Bloody Tower, formerly known by the more prosaic name of Garden Tower, enshrines in its walls the secrets of its many prisoners. Chief among its secrets is what happened to two young princes once imprisoned there.

At King Edward IV’s death in 1483, his 12-year-old son acceded to the throne as Edward V. But things went downhill for him after that. On his way to London, Edward was met by his uncle Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, who escorted him to the Tower of London where he was to be kept until his coronation. Edward was joined by his brother Richard, age 9, a few days later. Before Edward has a chance to be officially crowned, his uncle declared his brother Edward IV’s marriage to the young princes’ mother unlawful, making the boys illegitimate offspring and therefore ineligible for the throne. The Duke of Gloucester then declared himself king and reigned as Richard III.

The princes at the Tower were seen less and less frequently until they seemed to disappear altogether, never to be seen again. Foul play on the uncle’s part was suspected, as William Shakespeare depicts in his play Henry III, but nothing was ever proven. Fueling rumors that the boys were murdered was the discovery of two small skeletons, presumably of two boys around the princes’ ages, in the White Tower 200 years later. What really happened to the young princes remains one of the Tower’s darkest mysteries.

The Bloody Tower is also known as the place where the great poet and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for 13 years, accused of treason by King James. Despite his long imprisonment, Raleigh lived in considerable ease and comfort and managed to write his History of the World before his beheading in 1618.

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