Monday, March 20, 2017

The Last of the Barnavelts: THE SIGN OF THE SINISTER SORCERER by Brad Strickland

Great cover, huh? It's appropriate; this is the last of the Barnavelt series, and the last Bellairs novel that Strickland wrote. Apparently his publisher decided to axe the series.

It's the mid-1950s, and Lewis Barnavelt is having a rough time, as usual. At an end-of-school party, where Uncle Jonathan is performing a magic show, he sees an odd, cloaked figure off to the side, which disappears quickly. Then he has a run of bad luck; he gets two black eyes, he loses his allowance, and twists his ankle. He then looks in the enchanted mirror that hangs in the coatrack in the front hall and sees the image on the cover...the hooded figure tracing a "3" in the air.

What could it mean? Lewis is trying to puzzle it out when his uncle's wand vanishes and later Jonathan himself disappears. What's going on? Who is responsible? And what of the new kid in town, Hal Everit, who has so many questions about magic and sorcery?

It's an interesting story, and I get the vibe that Strickland knew this was it, as he did something a little daring. (SPOILERS!) The thing is, Jonathan is being persecuted by an old rival from his student days, who had participated in the manufacture of the enchanted coatrack mirror, and who now wants it for himself. However, the rival has taken the guise of young Hal Everit, and toward the end of the book there's a scene where the artifical Hal falls apart. It's pretty gruesome for a kid's book.

However, there's one bit that I found a problem, and I had to double-check to be sure I was right. In the first book in the series, the coatrack mirror is clearly described as round, and the Gorey illustration follows suit. But Strickland makes a goof, and describes the mirror as being rectangular. A pretty serious error.

Still, it's not a bad book at all, though not the best of Strickland's work. I felt a little wistful as it ended, but the series could only go so far. The idea of the kids being frozen in time, more or less, and never getting older (when the Bellairs-penned works touched on their getting older), which I understand was the command of the publisher, but it took something away from the series, I felt.

Bellairs wrote two other series, one about Anthony Monday (four books) and another about Johnny Dixon (an even dozen) and I'll get into those later. Now that I'm working again, I have to schedule my reading time more carefully!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Belated Evening at the Phantom Concert Hall

We pick our way across the patches of ice and solidified snow to that old concert hall. It's a big night; a noted guitarist is in town, and we nabbed tickets!

We're hoping for some hot guitar action to bring in some signs of spring, but the freezing temperatures and high winds are telling us that winter is still with us. However, some music from sunny Spain puts us in a romantic springtime mood.



(I'm so sorry for being so late with this....I started a new job last week and it's taking a lot of my energy and time, and it'll be a while before I've adjusted to working full time again. And we're having brutally cold weather right now that's got me in a rotten mood....)

The show over, we slip out and find a cafe for a warm drink....that wind is brutal!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Catching Up & Short Takes

OK, I've been busy and distracted lately, but in a good way: I start a new job tomorrow! It came just in time; my unemployment ran out (you get six months here in Maryland) and what money I had was on the verge of running out, so if I didn't land a job when I did I'd be moving in with my mother and updating this blog from the local library. (She doesn't have internet.)

I won't go into detail about the new job but it's with a local stable company, involves research, is a temp-to-hire position through a famous temp company, but if they like me after about six months I'll be brought on permanently. The pay is less than I had been making but is right at the low end of what I'd prefer. (Considering everything else I'd been interviewing for was below that mark, sometimes significantly below, I think I'm lucky.)

So...what have I been reading lately?


Some of H. C. Bailey's works about Reggie Fortune are available as ebooks and I read the first one, after sampling some excellent tales. These are fun traditional mysteries from 1920, and while sometimes Reggie seems a bit too much like Lord Peter Wimsey (whom some simply can't stand), the stories tend to the darker than Wimsey's and could deal with intense obsessions, corruption, miscarriages of justice, and child abuse. The stories in this particular collection are a bit lighter in tone than some of later ones, but Bailey's elegant and sophisticated style are a joy to read and the mysteries can be genuinely nasty...although one is a bit comical. They do give an "origin story" as the first tale, "The Archduke's Tea," features Fortune accidentally embroiled in a mystery, with the police (and he himself) being surprised as his acumen in solving the case, leading him to be called in on others as the volume progresses. I can't wait to dip into more Fortune; this is damn good stuff.


Well, this is lurid, isn't it? This is the first in a series of collections of pulp tales by Paul Chadwick, about the adventures of reporter Wade Hammond, who becomes embroiled in some startling mysteries. The first story, "Murder in the Mist," is shockingly mundane, but the third story, "The Murder Monster," which the cover illustrates, is sheer pulp madness. There's a mad criminal called the Tarantula, a mesmeric mastermind, and a bizarre plot involving making people see skeletons. My favorite story, "Doctor Zero," had a mastermind using weird purple lights as murder weapons. This is good pulpy fun, as published in the magazines "Detective Dragnet" and "Ten Detective Aces" between 1931 and 1935.


Elizabeth Daly had been a big deal in the 40s, with Agatha Christie naming her as her favorite mystery author. This is her first book....and I wasn't thrilled. It actually took me three tries to read it, and when I finally did, I had the plot figured out easily. Henry Gamage (Daly's detective, a rare book expert) is vacationing at a seaside resort in Maine when an alarming death occurs, as a frail, ill man seemingly falls from a cliff. However, there's evidence that it might not have been an accident, and the death occurs literally hours after he inherited a fortune. There's a lot of meandering around a local theater company and a golf game, but I found it confusing and hard to follow, and the final revelation not much of a shock. I was very disappointed in this book but I have heard some very good things about her other novels, so I'll probably give her another try at some point.


The first in a new series and while it was well-structured and well-written, I was rather annoyed with it as it's yet another one of those books set in Victorian times but with the characters not acting all that Victorian. Really, it seems to be endemic among those who write historical fiction these days to make their physical milieu well-researched and period-accurate but their character's attitudes and behaviors to be perfectly modern. But I digress...March Middleton, newly orphaned, goes to London to live with her new guardian, detective Sidney Grice, who is a flamboyant and well-known figure in the papers. Middleton finally convinces him to allow her to assist on a case, a seemingly sordid one involving a murder in a sleazy junk shop, but it ends up leading into rather strange Victorian noir territory. Not bad, but there were aspects of it I wasn't crazy about. Unsure if I'll continue down this road...

Well, there's some more, but that's enough for now. I need to get to bed and be ready for my first day of work tomorrow....

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A February Evening at the Cinema

It's been a strangely warm February; is this a hint of a hot summer to come? Is it climate change? Well, of course it is, that much is obvious, but we chat over dinner about how we didn't have much of a winter this year. Not much in the way of deep cold spells, no significant snowstorms to speak of. Takes away a good excuse to hunker down at home.

But after teasing the waiter over the bill, and remarking on tonight's fish special, we head up the street to that old movie theater we love so well.

Tonight's film is another golden oldie from 1936, The Rogue's Tavern.



This actually holds up quite well as a comedy/mystery and is still very enjoyable today. Produced on a shoestring, it actually looks like a million bucks thanks to good sets and a good cast.

The show over, we bid our adieus to the folks at the theater and wander up the street to that little cafe...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray

This was another library find, picked up at random. But when I got home, I found it on a list of recommended books that I'd jotted down long ago and almost forgotten. This is an entertaining tale of murder and the occult set in 1920s New York.

Evie O'Neill is a wealthy flapper from the town of Zenith, OH (nice tip of the hat to Sinclair Lewis there) who has a psychic power: she can hold a person's possession and get psychic impressions of them and see their secrets. Blurting out a local's dirty secret at a party, she's shipped off to New York to stay with her Uncle William, who runs a museum of the occult with his assistant, Jericho.

Evie makes friends with the downtrodden Mabel, the child of social-reformer parents, Theta Knight, a Ziefeld showgirl, and her best friend, gay pianist Henry, pickpocket Sam (who's more than he appears to be) and Harlem numbers runner Memphis Campbell. Everyone has their secrets, people sometimes clash, but everyone's lives converge.

A series of murders is striking New York, with serious occult overtones, and Will is called in by the police to assist. Evie uses her psychic powers to get information, and investigates. Evie is madcap and goofy, but inside is haunted by the death of her older brother in WWI and her parents' rejection of her. She has repeated dreams of him and it becomes clear that he's trying to communicate something to her, but she can't tell what. Memphis, who plays a large role in this, is haunted by his memory of having healing powers as a child, but is also protective of his younger brother Isaiah, who has psychic powers of his own, and is dealing with the death of his mother and his family's seeming abandonment by his father.

Their paths converge as more murders occur, and clues point to a racist church in the suburbs, then to a former cultist's compound upstate (actually a fairly accurate depiction of such cults back in the day). There's fake (and real) spiritualists, weird revelations, and hints of government conspiracies and shady operations.

It's interesting that there's a lot of world-building going on here, and lots of wheels are set in motion that are still turning by the end of the book. In fact, after the main threat of the novel is resolved, there's still a lot going on that will presumably be continued in a sequel, Lair of Dreams, and one presumes there's an entire series in the works.

It's long, nearly 600 pages, but it moves quickly and I was able to complete it in a few days. It's certainly fun, if sometimes uneven, and so much left hanging at the end. (I tend to prefer books that are self-contained.) Still, it's new and different, and the Roaring 20s setting is well-researched. Worth checking out.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

February at the Phantom Concert Hall


It's been a while since we've been to the symphony, so this month we've scored tickets and are dolling up in our best bohemian finery. (One of these days, we'll get to the opera. Really.)

We hurry to our seats, which are actually good ones for a change. (Remember that Beethoven concert where we were so far back we heard the traffic more than the music?) All around us people are thronged, some looking at us enviously with our easy laughter and unconventional-yet-dressy attire.

Tonight's program is an epic....Mahler's 7th Symphony, also called "The Song of the Night."



Whew...that was a marathon! Well, friends, shall we go back to my place and enjoy a late dinner? I have something in the slow cooker that will be done by the time we get there...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

THE HOUSE WHERE NOBODY LIVED by Brad Strickland

The next volume of the Barnvelt adventures, by Brad Strickland, The House Where Nobody Lived is a fun little chiller based on some reality, and is also fairly different from the others. Besides that hideous cover painting.

It's sometime vaguely in the 1950s. (By now, Strickland had been pressured by the publisher to "freeze" his characters age-wise and the timeline being just the '50s.) Lewis and Rose Rita, out rambling around town, come across Hawaii House, an isolated building in an odd architectural style that had been built by a sea captain who had first taken American diplomats to Hawaii in the 1800s; the house was in the style of wealthy Hawaiian landowners. (Back then, they had been called the Sandwich Islands, though.) However, there's a gruesome tale of how once people moved in, everyone in the house died in the space of one night, all being found frozen to death. The two hear drumbeats from inside, and see phantom figures, and flee the scene. Time passes.

Later, a family buys the house, and Lewis and Rose Rita befriend the son, David Keller, who has a speech impediment. (Which is handled nicely, and Lewis and Rose are actually realistically sympathetic.) But the family has problems; they never get a decent night's sleep, and dream of drums and phantom figures. David has a haunted aspect about him, and when Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann manage to visit the house, they find weird emanations abounding.

I won't tell much more, but I was happy to see that there's no unnecessary secret-keeping, and the book's menaces are based on Hawaiian mythology, and it's all very nicely handled. In fact, I'd say that while the writing in this isn't brilliant, at the same time it's one of the best structured stories that Strickland had done for the Barnavelt series. I came away without any issues regarding continuity or plot lapses. It may not be art, but it's damned good craft.

So, a solid late entry for the Barnavelt saga, worth reading.