Sunday, November 11, 2018

A November Night in the Phantom Concert Hall

Halloween is over, the cold weather is arriving in earnest, and we've bundled up and ventured out for a concert at that lovely old restored hall downtown.

It's that in-between time...orchestras no longer need to do spooky-music programs and won't have to do any Christmas music for a while, so they can actually be a bit adventurous in the repertoire. One of the highlights of tonight's program is this piece by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly...



This 1933 piece is based on actual Hungarian folk music, harvested by Kodaly and his friends as they traveled around the country gathering music that had never been written down. (In addition to being a composer, Kodaly was a notable educator and musicologist.) There's something lively about it that gives a little excitement to a cold night, eh?

After the concert, we slip out for a drink and a discussion of what we've been doing lately...and our plans for the holidays approaching....can they be here again so quickly?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Back to Bellairs: THE CURSE OF THE BLUE FIGURINE

It's the Halloween season, and THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is playing in theaters (I haven't seen it yet, sorry, my budget is tight and I don't get out to the movies much anymore), so it's a good chance to get back to John Bellairs' works.

The Curse of the Blue Figurine introduces his third hero, Johnny Dixon. It's the 1950s, and Johnny is living with his grandparents in Duston Heights, Massachusetts, while his father is in the Air Force in Korea. His mother died a few years before.

In the course of the novel, Johnny makes his first friend in his new town, Prof. Roderick Childermass, a crabby old gent who lives across the street. (Bellairs enjoys these young/old friendships; these days, it would raise eyebrows.) Johnny is also having a problem with bullies at his school, and one day, to avoid them, he ducks into the nearby Catholic church. Feeling mischievous, he sneaks into the basement, and while down in there, stumbles on a hollowed-out book that contains a blue Egyptian-looking figure and a scroll.

The church is supposed to haunted, by the ghost of Fr. Remigius Baart, who supposedly sold his soul to Satan. Johnny is thrilled by his discovery; maybe this proves the legends real? Johnny investigates further, hiding his treasure at home. The figurine, however, turns out to be a replica, and Johnny befriends another older man, a Mr. Beard, who listens to his problems and gives him a ring as part of a joking game.

However, the ring has supernatural powers, and soon Johnny is living in a nightmare.

It's an effective, eerie tale as the ghost of Father Baart seeks some goal through Johnny, and just when you think things are resolved, there's more shocks to be had.

It's a pretty solid tale, although some revelations at the end seem to come out of nowhere. The resolution of the story comes from finding Father Baart's remains in a remote corner of New England, with no explanation as to why they are there.

Still, with its flaws, it's a good solid Bellairs tale, and it kicks off one of his longer-lived series.

Monday, October 8, 2018

October in the Phantom Ballroom!

So, let's gather in that new ballroom/dance hall that's opened, and have a spin around the floor! There's a live orchestra playing, the whiskey is flowing, the cava corks are popping (because who can afford champagne these days?), and everyone is having a blast.

I've been in a 30's mood lately, and remembered this lively novelty tune from famous bandleader Ray Noble and one of his groups, the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra. This is just right for the Halloween season....



Fun, isn't it? A jaunty tune with a few comical shivers, just right for the season.

And how is YOUR season? Where I am, it's still unseasonably warm and humid, but there's hopes of cool temperatures to come this weekend...


Monday, September 24, 2018

Some of What I've Read Lately

So...things have calmed down, Mom is back home after hip replacement surgery and a stay in a rehab home (not Amy Winehouse rehab, physical rehab), and I've dealt with the grief of her giving her sweet cat up to the Humane Society...an understandable decision, she can't care for him anymore, but still, it was like a kick in the chest for me. Hopefully the sweet little boy will be adopted soon.

So...here's a sampling of some of the stuff I've read lately...


I've heard so many people praise Edmund Crispin to the rafters, and I heard a review of this that made it sound intriguing, so I finally picked up a copy. I have to say it....I wasn't impressed. This isn't quite the puzzle mystery I was hoping for, more of a thriller, and it's full of self-referential humor and meta-zaniness that I find offputting. A man, wandering lost in town one night, enters a toy store that's mysteriously open, and finds a dead body. When he tries to go back with the police the next day...the body is not only gone, but the building is now a grocery store. What's going on? Well, it's a fairly complex story, and not very plausible, but at least it keeps moving. There's a lot of comical goings-on, a car chase, and other crazy stuff, but after a while I was almost screaming for the book to get to the point. (I had a similar problem with Charlotte McLeod as her series ran on, and devoted more time to comical zaniness than to things like story, plot, and character, to the point I walked away from her works, gave away the ones I owned, and wasn't even aware when she died from Alzheimer's.)

Edmund Crispin was really Robert Bruce Montgomery, a noted composer of film music. He died in 1978, but all his mystery novels were written in the 40s and 50s. He apparently had some serious drinking problems that got in the way of his writing, which is too bad. But while his style certainly wasn't for me, he still has fans galore, so don't let that stop you if you want to check it out. It's not a bad book, per se, just not for me.


Elizabeth Peters (real name: Elizabeth Mertz, and she also wrote as Barbara Michaels) was a friend of mine. I would hang out with her at Malice Domestic and occasionally when she did book signings near me, and I was stricken when I got news that she had passed away some years ago. Although her works are technically "romantic suspense", I enjoy them, because let's be honest....sometimes the difference between being classed as "romantic suspense" and a regular "mystery" or "thriller" or "spy novel" is the sex of the author. Really...read some Helen MacInnes and Robert Ludlum back-to-back. They're in the same style with similar content, but MacInnes' work was always classed as "romantic suspense" because she was a woman. Like how Mary Renault's historical novels of ancient Greece would be stocked as "romance" because...well....the obvious reason. OK, I'll stop ranting...

Published in 1968, The Jackal's Head is her first novel as Elizabeth Peters, and while it's rough, it's got a lot of her strengths in place. I love books with a sense of place, and Peters was great in giving life to her settings, which range from Egypt to Mexico to Scandinavia. Her books also generally involved archaeology and/or art history, topics I enjoy. And she's one of the more feminist of romantic authors as well, at least for the time. (Again, we're not in an eternal present.)

Althea Tomlinson, in need of a job, gets one accompanying a spoiled girl on a trip to Egypt. She holds back that she grew up there, the daughter of a controversial archaeologist. And as the plot proceeds, she runs into old friends and her father's colleagues, and slowly discovers that the treasure her father had claimed to have discovered is actually real, although he was forced to say it was fake. But the forces of evil are gathering....

It's nonsense, but it's slick, fun, nonsense, although it lacks polish. (Then again, I think it was only her third work of fiction. She was still developing her skills.) The denouement is a bit abrupt and I sat there for a while questioning why the villains did X when it got them nothing....but I just shrugged it off. The description of the final treasure (Spoiler: the tomb of Akhenaton and Nefertiti) is gorgeous and rings of expertise; Peter/Mertz was Egyptologist, and wrote two standard works on the subject, Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, and Red Land, Black Land.

All in all, an enjoyable entertainment. You learn a little bit from it and have a fun, exciting story. My kind of thing.


Here's another comedy-thriller, from someone who normally wrote very serious thrillers. Published in 1944, Fire will Freeze is a classic tale of an ill-assorted group of travelers stranded by a snowstorm in a ramshackle old house...I mean, really, this sort of thing had been a staple of thriller novels and films since the 20s. But Millar seems to be having fun poking fun at the genre conventions, and it works better for me than Crispin's zaniness. Millar had remarkable ability with character, and this book's humor comes mostly from character rather than zany situations. The murders are treated with tragic seriousness, and the menace is always real. When murders start to happen, the reactions are plausible...for the most part, and the rationale behind it all is realistic. The characters are all drawn well, and the chilly confines of the house are truly menacing as the travelers, all driven by a distrust of each other, try to make sense of the bizarre situation they're in.

It's a fun read, and would be good for a cold snowy afternoon this winter, I'd guess. You can pretend to be an in an old-dark-house mystery of your own...

So, pick your favorite of the three...one wasn't for me, but I enjoyed the others.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A September Night at the Phantom Concert Hall

We're kicking off the fall season, and thumbing our nose at the dreary, rainy weather, by heading out to the concert hall again. Tonight's performance...Rheinberger's roiling, romantic piano concerto!



Isn't it great? One of those lovely pieces that flies under the radar. I love finding these obscure little gems.

Sorry to be late with this and not posting for a while. My elderly mother took a fall and broke both her shoulder and hip, and my sister and her husband have moved cross-country to Seattle. I had to be on hand when Mom underwent surgery and helping arrange for assistance while she's in a rehab facility. And then Mom decided she couldn't take care of her cat any longer so she had him surrendered to a local shelter, which upset me quite a bit as he's 10 years old and shelters have problems adopting out older cats. And I haven't talked about this on the blog, but over the summer I was hit by an unexpected depression and I went into therapy. I'm slowly coming out of it but it's taking a while, as it usually does.

So, the past couple months have been difficult, to say the least, and while I slowly get my groove back, bit by bit,I hope to get back to regular posting.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

THE HORROR CHAMBERS OF JULES DE GRANDIN by Seabury Quinn

Finally, the last volume of Popular Library's reprint series! And just in time as the complete ebook reprints are now available....making these books pretty much obsolete. I spent years and tons of money hunting these down, and now...well, at least I enjoyed the chase, I guess.

Seabury Quinn apparently was a bit of a progressive in some ways, as you may have seen from my previous reviews of his works. He's sympathetic to minorities (sometimes) and some of his stories have centered on sexuality. And that continues here...

"The Gods of East and West" concerns a woman under the influence of an idol of Kali, and de Grandin, not able to help her out himself....so he brings in a Native American shaman to exorcise the spirit. The story leaves one with an odd feeling; Quinn may have been trying to be pro-Indian but at the same time it comes across as a sort of fetishization of the Noble Savage sort of thing. A strange story.

"The Poltergeist" has another young woman be the center of poltergeist activity. It turns out to be the work of a ghost, namely that of another woman who was plainly a lesbian and in love with the living woman, and who is now jealous of her upcoming marriage. OK, kinda homophobic, to be sure, but that's pretty much to be expected from a story written in 1927.

The story after that, "The House of Golden Masks," is a non-supernatural tale of white slavery. But after that is an eyebrow-raiser, "The Jest of Warburg Tantavul." A young couple are being tormented by the vengeful ghost of the husband's guardian, an eerie phantom whose malice is palpable and who is handled memorably...and even dispatched in a rather modern way. But the thrust of the story, that the man in life had sought revenge on someone else through the couple, is made clear when the reader realizes (and is finally revealed) that the couple are unknowingly brother and sister. And at the end, de Grandin remains silent, seeing that they are happy together. A weird way of ending a tale, and definitely not something that would work today, but oddly compassionate.

"Stealthy Death" is another non-supernatural tale, but with a weird element. A series of people are murdered, and a strangely beautiful but robotic woman keeps cropping up. Who is responsible and why? It turns out the murderer is a Hindu man avenging his sister, who was seduced, robbed, and sold into prostitution by an American missionary. The man's deeds are heinous but it's clear that he has a legitimate gripe.

The final story, "A Gamble in Souls," is a weird sort of tale in which the soul of a man being unjustly executed is put into the body of his evil twin brother. Again, we have some exoticism here as a Middle Eastern "philosopher" is brought in to effect the changeover. It's progressive in a tiny way, but also dripping with pulp-fiction nonsense.

So...are these good? Well, they're fun, to be honest. I'm probably being a little unfair as my modern eyes and modern sensibilities aren't the target audience. It's important to remember the times in which something was written, and the audience it was intended for, when reading older works. We don't live in an eternal present. And while the exaggerated exoticism that goes on in these tales may seem cheap and offensive to many readers today, at the time this was exciting and novel to many American readers. And also, Quinn introduces elements that rouse the reader's sympathy, in taking a brief look into the evils of imperialism in "Stealthy Death" or introducing powerful minority sorcerers in "The Gods of East and West" and "A Gamble in Souls." Even the homicidal lesbian spirit in "The Poltergeist" would at least introduce the concept to people who might not have even been aware such people existed. (And let's be honest...we're in an age now where we can acknowledge that LGBTQ people are just as capable of being dark and twisted as anyone else...) So, really, the fun is in the chills, and there are chills to be had, especially in "The Jest of Warburg Tantavul" which is one of the more dark and twisted pulp tales outside of the exploitative "weird menace" genre. This is pulpy fun and recommended if you can get into the mindset.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Steamy August Night at the Phantom Concert Hall

We're out at the symphony tonight! And as it's a hot night, we're going to listen to some pretty hot music...de Falla's remarkable "The Three Cornered Hat"!



"The Three-Cornered Hat"is actually a ballet, a rarity for its time for working mainly with traditional Spanish styles of dance, rather than classical ballet. But there days, it's mostly known as a concert piece. I love the use of castanets and all the ways in which the music disdains the conventions of the normal Western classical tradition, while at the same time being an exceptionally lovely piece on its own.

Let's have a drink after, shall we?