Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Sultry May Night at the Movies

We're in the midst of a late-spring heat wave, with sky-high temperatures and humidity to match. Folks are breaking out the linen clothes, the short sleeves, the summer dresses, and even the white shoes, and Memorial Day isn't here yet.

Our dinner at the familiar old restaurant is a light one, and conversation largely revolves around what we plan to this summer. Some are planning visits to conventions, or major vacations here and there, while a few are planning a long weekend at a quiet spot near the sea.

Once dinner is over, we wander up the street to that charming old movie house...

To match the sultry weather, we have the tropical setting of 1934's "Picture Brides," a classic B-movie thriller.

After the show, we head up the street, hoping for a cold drink at that little cafe....

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What I've Been Reading Lately

While the title may make you think of something very English-village-cozy, this is actually an interesting variation on the hardboiled formula, only set in the world of music box collectors. Dr. Thomas Purdue, an emergency room surgeon who's also a collector, gets a hot tip to buy an unbelievably rare music box for an indecently low price. It needs a few minor repairs, so he gives it to a good friend who's the best music box repairman around...only he is murdered and the box is missing. And then the dealer he bought it from is murdered as well. Soon nearly everyone who came into contact with the box is murdered. Why? Purdue is determined to find out before he becomes the next victim.

Purdue is tough, and while he cares for his friends and his estranged wife, his greatest devotion is to antiques, and you learn a lot about music boxes and other clockwork gadgets from this book. The mystery is well-constructed but not quite fair-play; there is a major clue hidden from the reader that would reveal the murderer too early. Still, it's an enjoyable enough book, and will make you want to browse for music boxes the next time you're out antiquing. This spawned a couple of sequels.

And I finally got on the bandwagon and started on the Lucifer Box novels by Mark Gatiss, and it matched my mood. I wanted something sexy and snarky and arch, and that was unashamed of having a pulpy plot, and his fit the bill.

Lucifer Box is a portrait painter who is also a secret agent for the British government in 1900. His superior meets him while sitting on the toilet, in a scene that's like a tarted-up version of "Get Smart." Box sets about seducing a young woman who comes to him for drawing lessons, but then gets summoned to Italy to investigate the disappearance of an agent...and of a number of scientists and geologists as well. It takes a number of enjoyable twists and turns, and quite a few characters are sexually ambiguous, so this isn't for the too conservative. (But if you're very conservative, what are you doing reading this?)

Seriously, though, this is a lot of fun, with a big pulpy plot. I've read too many Victorian/steampunk adventures that try too hard to be lit-ra-choor and lack the courage of their convictions to simply be enjoyable books with solid plots. Pick this one up for a good time.

I recently picked up a modern reprinting of Kathleen Winsor's notorious epic FOREVER AMBER and while it's massive (over 1,000 pages), so far it's enjoyable as a bodice-ripping romp. While somewhat sexually frank, it's hardly the smut it was made out to be in the 40s. And it's a very well-researched look at Restoration England and the court of the Merry Monarch, Charles II.

And I picked this up while used-book shopping; it's a 1950 edition of MISCHIEF, by Charlotte Armstrong, a crackerjack thriller writer of the 50s and 60s who is criminally forgotten today. This was filmed in 1952 as DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK, starring Marilyn Monroe. Isn't that an amazing cover?

So that's what I'm reading lately....What are you reading?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Phantom Ballad for May

We've been out to a movie, and stopped by a slightly shabby yet still dignified bar by the harbor for a drink. Conversation is sparkling, and there's live music tonight. The drinks are good but although it's cozy in the bar, the threat of rain outside has lent an odd sense of forboding to it all.

Then one of the musicians gets up and sings this old folk ballad...

Was that a woman's face looking in the window? A shudder passes down your back as you avoid looking, afraid you'll see something you'd rather not deal with....

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Happy Walpurgisnacht, and Happy Seventh BIrthday

It's Walpurgisnacht! If you're doing something, hope it's fun! I'm housebound tonight; I'm feeling a bit unwell (sleep deprivation, mostly; I barely slept last night thanks to an eye irritation that has now been treated) and Baltimore is still under a curfew because of the riots, and even though I'm just outside the city, all my favorite places are in town. So it's the DVR and Chinese delivery tonight, I think.

But I'm proud of keeping this going for seven years! And I've been toying with thoughts of a new project....stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: The Nutcracker and the King of Mice

We finally arrive at Hoffmann's best-known tale; in fact, you may be wondering why I'm bothering to review it, as nearly everyone knows it. But really....it's worth a closer look.

"The Nutcracker and the King of Mice" opens on Christmas Eve, with the Stahlbaum family eagerly awaiting the arrival of Godpapa Drosselmeier, who always brings the best presents. Drosselmeier, a master of clockworks who wears a glass wig (!), always brings complicated clockwork toys, and this year is no exception. Young Fritz is enchanted with a clockwork castle at first, but then grows bored with it, while his sister Marie is taken with the famous Nutcracker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Drosselmeier.

Marie puts the Nutcracker with her dolls, noticing that it appears to make horrible faces when she mentions Drosselmeier. Then things get weird, in a wonderfully surreal scene. A carved owl on top of the grandfather clock turns into Drosselmeier, a horde of mice arrive, and then the Nutcracker, the dolls, and Fritz's toy soldiers come to life. As in the ballet, Marie throws her slipper at the seven-headed King of the Mice, but in this story, she lacerates her arm on a glass cabinet door and passes out before she discovers the result of her actions.

Marie is laid up for a few days due to blood loss, and it's unclear if any of this really happened or if it was merely a vivid dream by an imaginative girl. Drosselmeier visits, and after singing her a weird, unsettling song, he tells her the tale of Princess Pirlipat, who was turned into a nutcracker from a curse by the witch-queen of the mice, and how the court Arcanist and Clockmaker, Drosselmeier himself, found a cure for the curse, which could only be effected by Drosselmeier's nephew. He manages to life the curse, but due to the intervention of the mouse queen, is turned into a Nutcracker himself (although it costs the queen her life), and he is then spurned by the princess and the court.

Marie recovers, and Drosselmeier tells Marie a few things that clue you in that he's fully aware of what's going on, and even may be the driving force behind this. The Mouse King harasses Marie at night, until finally she goes to the Nutcracker, who vows love and slays the king himself.

Then is one of my favorite bits in the story: The Nutcracker opens the doors of a wardrobe, climbs up and pulls the tassel on a fox-fur coat, which causes a ladder to fall from the sleeve. He and Marie climb the ladder, and find themselves on a meadow. From here the Nutcracker takes her on a tour of his realm, the Kingdom of Toys, with rivers of lemonade and people made of sugar. It's a pleasantly surreal journey, with some dabs of what seems to have been political commentary. Then suddenly Marie wakes; again, was it all a dream?

Drosselmeier arrives...and brings his nephew, newly arrived from Nuremberg. Marie and the nephew fall in love, are married a year later....and he takes her off to live in a marzipan castle.

The story is actually darker than the ballet, and while there's a lot of kid-friendly stuff in it, it's also creepy and unsettling at times. Drosselmeier is an ambiguous character at first, sometimes seeming more like a villain. He turns out to be good; was this a sign of the story needing some touching up?

There's no dancing Sugar Plum Fairy, and there's some fairly gruesome bits, like when the mouse queen dies when she's stepped on, and sometimes people are cruel and heartless. Fritz can be an awful bastard, and Marie can seem like a naive drip, but also sentimental and steadfast in her loyalty. And the descriptions of clockwork toys, and Marie's dolls, and of the candies and other facets of an 18th century German Christmas celebration, make this a nicely sentimental and cozy read for the holiday season.

And what about that bit where they enter another world through a wardrobe? Did C. S. Lewis read this?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An April Night at the Movies!

It's an April night, we've done our taxes, and some of us are on meds for allergies. But we're all getting together yet again for our dinner-and-a-movie date, albeit a bit delayed.

That one over there had to pay through the nose, but the one next to them is getting a big return so they're picking up his tab. And for some of us it makes little difference. Still, it's always good to catch up, to talk about our latest reading material, antique shopping, used-book finds, cemetery exploring, rambles in the country, kitchen experiments, and how we're all getting worn out by superhero movies.

After splitting the bill, we head up the street to the old movie house we love so much...

Tonight's film is the 1934 chiller HOUSE OF MYSTERY.

The flick over, we amble up the street to our favorite cafe....some of us sneezing on the way....

Saturday, April 11, 2015


I found out about this anthology from the excellent Classic Mysteries podcast, and and glad I did. This is good stuff.

"Domestic suspense" is a subgenre of mystery/thriller fiction that focuses on family relationships, either spousal, parental or a mix, and is normally regarded as the purview of women writers. I've some across scornful remarks that it was the "kitchen sink" school, but as Edna Buchanan once wrote, the person most likely to murder you is sitting across the breakfast table, and she knows her business.

My favorites from the collection? There's Patricia Highsmith's early story "The Heroine," about an unstable woman who's hired as a governess for a well-to-do family, with tragic results. I mean, c'mon, it's Highsmith, of course it's exceptional.

Another good one is "Louisa, Please Come Home" by Shirley Jackson, an incredible tale of a girl who runs away from her wealthy family, covers her tracks, and starts a new life in another city. The exact reasons for her leaving are nebulous, and she's on the verge of forming a new family, when someone from her past shows up and wants to take her home. It's a great tale, full of psychological depth and devastating irony.

Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady" is a story of a singer who's growing tired of her most requested song, which her fans don't realize is a tale of the loss of a beloved childhood friend, a nanny who liked to wear lavender. But as the story progresses you realize the singer has filtered the tale through a very sentimental lens, and there's a lot of darkness lurking.

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" by Helen Nielsen is a great noir story of a woman, married to a prominent businessman, who is being harassed by a former lover, a pianist. She hatches a scheme to be free of him once and for all, but it takes an unexpected twist.

Some of the others are pretty good but didn't leap out at me as much. Nedra Tyre's "A Nice Place to Stay" is a tale of a woman who prefers life in prison to a hardscrabble, chancy life on the outside. "Sugar and Spice" is a nice tale from Vera Caspary, but I was more enthused by finding out more about Caspary's feminist leanings, which means I have to re-watch "Laura" and view it through a feminist lens instead of the usual gay-rights lens I employ. "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington is a good psychological tale of a long-suffering wife who's finally had enough. Miriam Allen Deford's "Mortmain" is a ferociously nasty tale of a nurse who plans to rob her dying patient after poisoning him, and of the patient who has his own ideas.

Of the others...well, they're good, but some seemed a little out of place. Dorothy B. Hughes's "Everybody Needs a Mink" hardly seems like it belongs here, as there's no real crime or suspense going on. "The Stranger in the Car" by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is a rather run-of-the-mill murder story, at least to my eye, as is "The Splintered Monday" by Charlotte Armstrong. "Lost Generation" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis is hideously nasty, and not as much about domestic relations as it is about racism and prejudice in small towns. "The People Across the Canyon" is memorable and good, but it has a supernatural twist at the end and comes across as a lost episode of "The Twilight Zone" than something from a mystery anthology. The collection closes with "A Case of Maximum Need" by Celia Fremlin, a nasty psycho-thriller that is quite good but doesn't quite strike me as domestic.

Even with a few stories that seemed like they didn't belong, I still had a fabulous time with this collection, and I've added quite a few of the authors' works to my shopping list. (I picked up a lovely vintage Armstrong title, "Murder's Nest", a couple of weeks ago during a used-book expedition.) I know there's a move lately for folks to read less works by white male authors, so this at least will have you reading more female authors! (I don't pay much attention to such campaigns myself; I read what interests me and the author's sex or ethnicity doesn't come much into it, although I do find I read a lot by female authors anyway.)

So seek this one out, folks, it's a great collection, even if there's a few that seem off, and like any good anthology, it will clue you in to other authors to seek out. Get it and have a blast.