Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Quick Personal Note

Sorry to not be around much non-blog life has been a bit crazy, in a good way. The company I've been temping with for the past year has extended a permanent job offer, so I'm eagerly waiting for HR to dot all the i's and cross all the t's. At the same time, I'll be put in a new part of the department, so I'm learning a bunch of new stuff. I'm excited and happy but also a bit stressed and anxious, as you can imagine. But insurance! paid time off! job security! 

At the same time, I've been physically run down; sinus troubles, coughing, and a general malaise that strike every so often. I haven't felt seriously sick, just "off" as the saying goes, and I haven't had much energy to devote to writing for the past few weeks. I had my flu shot in the fall but wonder if I'm not fighting off something.

And, I'll be honest...the job offer is great but I've also found myself full of self-doubts and concerns that it's all a mistake and other people are more deserving....impostor syndrome and all that. It's made me realize that maybe it's time for a mental and emotional tune-up, so maybe I'll look into therapy once the insurance is up and running.

I'm not going away; I definitely will be back. I'll probably take another week or two before returning to all you nice people out there who read me. I have a growing stack of books to review so I'll definitely be doing them! Thanks for bearing with me.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Anthony Monday and Miss Eells are back!

Anthony and Miss Eells are browsing an antique shop when the owner mysteriously shows Miss Eells an old oil lamp, one that gives Anthony the willies but Miss Eells buys for s suspiciously low price. Anthony later borrows it from her to use as part of a science fair project...and he sees a gruesome phantom at the school (the illustration above) and a night watchman dies a bizarre death. More ghostly happenings, the theft of the lamp, and another bizarre death happen before they figure out what is going on and why.

This is one of the better works in Bellairs' world. The plot is a little wobbly at times but still makes sense, and the menace is real. The villain has a truly heinous plot in mind, but there's another factor that could do them in, that's not a deus ex machina but something lurking in the shadows from the very start. There's also some good, real detective work, some weird murals and artwork, an old house on an island, and a wintry setting. There's a fiery climax like something from one of Roger Corman's Poe films, but also a very nicely creepy denouement that I greatly appreciated.

There's a major nod to M. R. James in this one, specifically "The Tractate Middoth," in that you have a ghastly spectre of a bald man with cobwebs over his face, and a strange tomb. And there's a touch of the Lovecraftian universe as the Lamp of Alhazred, a relic from the Cthulhu mythos, is mentioned.

All in all, a fun read, and a worthy part of the Bellairs canon, probably the best book of the Anthony Monday series....and there's only one left...

Monday, February 5, 2018

A Phantom Symphony for February!

As an early February treat, we've scored tickets to the symphony. That old concert hall has finally been restored to its best self. We've got good seats and we're all happy to have something to do that isn't all wrapped up in Valentine's Day...which we're all hating for one reason or another this year. An evening of music is just what we need to kick off the month.

And tonight we've got a sinister chamber symphony from Shostakovich!

Catching our collective breath once it's over, we agree this is just up our alley, and just the thing to get February off on the right foot...

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Slightly Late January Night at the Movies!

OK, it's been a few months since we got together. Blame the holidays. But now the new year has started, and we're settling back into the groove of our workaday lives. We're dining at that little restaurant we love, joking with the waiter, sampling each others' dishes despite protestations of being on various diets, discussing our planned adventures for the year, our hopes for spring, our dreams of what the year may bring.

After settling up the bill, we head up the street to that old movie theater we love. They got a new coat of paint, and the carpet has been cleaned, and the ticket-taker with the biceps and tattoos is glad to see us.

The movie tonight is the 1937 thriller SKY RACKET!

SKY RACKET is an odd combination of aerial piracy thrills with screwball romance; the producer was mixing two then-popular genres. Whether or not it works is up to you...

The show over, we amble up the street for a final drink at that small cafe....the night is cold, and the stars are bright. We'll make it through another winter...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

PANIC by Helen McCloy

Alison is afraid. Her uncle Felix has died mysteriously. WWII is in full swing and he was doing some confidential work for the War Department. She's taking off for an isolated country house to spend some time alone....but every time she turns around there's another eccentric or creepy neighbor showing up, making threatening remarks. What's going on?

Published in 1944, Panic is one of the few non-series works by Helen McCloy, who frequently featured psychologist sleuth Basil Willing. Panic isn't a straightforward whodunit, though. One of the interesting aspects of it is that it's a mix of genres. There's elements of the analytical, as Alison puzzles her way through a complicated cipher that her uncle left behind. There's elements of espionage, as Uncle Felix's cipher is sought by domestic supporters of the Nazi cause. And there's lots of elements of the gothic damsel-in-distress, as Alison is alone in an isolated house in the Catskills, being stalked by what she thinks may be a supernatural being.

Does it work? Well, kind of. As a contemporary portrait of WWII-era America, it's pretty interesting. (It was later rewritten to reflect the Vietnam era, but I'm glad I found a WWII era edition.) There's quite a bit of discussion of cryptanalysis, to the point I mentally skipped over a few paragraphs as they were obviously the author lecturing the reader. And all the cipher involved in the story is there for the enterprising reader to analyze on their own, if they so care.

I also saw this as a precursor to many of the modern romantic-suspense damsel-in-distress thrillers that are all over the place. Alison is being stalked and harassed by multiple people, including a woman who may be a man in drag, and a strange being who leaves footprints similar to a goat's, making classically-minded Alison to think she's being stalked by Pan.

The solution is no big shock, and much emphasis is placed on physical deformity, especially one that the book says is exceedingly rare but in the real world is not all that unusual. And in the end, the differing aspects of the story don't always hang together well.

In the end, Panic has some interest as history and as a minor landmark in the development of romantic suspense. But it's not a great thriller,and sometimes the heroine is a bit annoying with her dithering and fear of supernatural creatures. Worth reading if you stumble on a copy, but I wouldn't recommend tracking it down unless you're a scholar of romantic suspense, cryptanalysis, or both.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

January in the Phantom Recital Hall!

We're finally starting to come out of the dire cold that's been keeping us inside and huddling under blankets since Christmas, and a friend told us about a performance going on at the why not dress up a little, put on our warm coats, and hear some music?

It's a program of mostly new works, and this piece by Nils Frahm isn't exactly sinister, but it's appropriate for January...

Ah, that's nice. And afterwards, let's go get some hot soup or something at that little bistro in town, shall we? It's nice to be out again...and hope for a brighter new year.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

SILENT NIGHTS, edited by Martin Edwards

I stumbled across this at the library just before the holidays, and it was a natural. Perfect reading material for the break!

And boy, was it ever. This is another superior collection from British Library Crime Classics, so you can't go wrong. Author/scholar Edwards is a great anthologist and digs up all sorts of good and obscure stories for his collections.

There are some that are familiar, like Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," a natural for Christmas mystery anthologies, Chesterton's "The Flying Stars," and Sayers' "The Necklace of Pearls," all of which I skipped. I'd read them all before...why bother?

The rest, however, are a candy box. Ralph Plummer is an unknown author, but his "Parlour Tricks" is an unjustly overlooked and forgotten story for sheer cleverness. Raymund Allen's "A Happy Solution" was my least favorite of the book, in that it relies on a knowledge of chess, a game at which I am a hopeless muddle. (Seriously, I stink at chess. I gave up trying years ago.) "Stuffing," by Edgar Wallace, is an amusing twist-of-fate story that I enjoyed.

H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune stars in "The Unknown Murderer," and while it's not the best Fortune story I've read, it's still damn good as Fortune delves into a series of murders that appear to be distantly related to what we now call Munchhausen-by-proxy syndrome. "The Absconding Treasurer," by J. Jefferson Farjeon, is a fun thriller with a murderer being tracked down in the snow.

Margery Allingham's "The Case is Altered" was my first experience of Albert Campion, and I found it acceptable as the hero detective stumbles into a case of blackmail and espionage at a holiday house party. "Waxworks," by Ethel Lina White, mixes damsel-in-distress tropes with a streak of feminism. "Cambric Tea" by Marjorie Bowen builds as a conte cruel but has a happy ending, and "The Chinese Apple" by Joseph Shearing (actually by the same author, Bowen and Shearing were both pen names of the prolific Gabrielle Long) is a fun thriller about a woman meeting a relative for the first time and piecing together a recent murder.

"A Problem in White," by Nicholas Blake, is a fun mystery set on a train, with an elaborate solution at the back of the book. Edmund Crispin's "The Name on the Window" is an entertaining short starring his detective Gervase Fen, and Leo Bruce's "Beef for Christmas," a forgotten rarity, rounds out the collection.

This is great reading for the holiday season, and I recommend it unreservedly. I'll have a hard time keeping up with Edwards' collections; every so often I hear of another, and thank goodness the local library system is keeping up!