Friday, December 26, 2014

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

If you love the Princess Bride, you should check out As You Wish by Cary Elwes.
I have several movies that I love and that I have referred to as "my favorite." One of them is The Princess Bride. I love the movie from beginning to end. I love Peter Falk, as the caring grandfather who reads the fairy tale to his sick grandson. I love Fred Savage as the grandson. I love the beautiful tale of Wesley and Buttercup, the Dread Pirate Roberts, Inigo Montoya, Fezzik. I love every second of the movie. As you can imagine, I was very excited to see that Cary Elwes wrote, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, commemorating the making of the movie over 25 years ago.

The book is mostly told from Elwes viewpoint, with sidebar comments from the others involved in the making of the movie. It was interesting to hear some of the stories, and it was especially interesting to see the pictures from the making of the movie. There wasn't anything heavy or earth shattering about the stories. Instead, it was a pleasant walk through the memories of an assorted band of creative people brought together through the luck of fate. I can't imagine the movie without the actors in it. I loved the movie so much that i read the book by William Goldman several years ago.

If you love the movie, Elwes' book will be a pleasant jaunt down memory lane.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Book Catch-up

41 by George W. Bush is a touching tribute to his father
I haven't had much time to read in the past few months. My schedule has been crazy with a full-time job and adjunct faculty work on three courses. That means that I've barely had time to keep my head above water. Fortunately, the term ends this week, and winter recess is fast approaching. i should have more time for readings.

I did have time to skim a couple of books. The first was 41: a Portrait of My Father by George W. Bush. I liked George W. Bush as a president, and in his post president years, he has come across as a much more amiable, fun person than I imagined. In 41, George W. gives us a personal picture of his father through his son's eyes. Of course, 41 represents George Bush (the father) who was the 41st president. George W. said that he wrote the book because David McCullogh's daughter had talked to George W. about how McCullogh was disappointed that John Quincy never wrote anything about his father. George W. does not give a political view of his gather, but he does provide a personal view of the man. We learn about the type of man that George Bush is (and was). Of course, the picture is painted through the jaundiced eyes of the son, but it is touching to see the great love that George W. has for his father. My impression of George Bush changed after reading the book. I gained respect for George Bush because he seems to have lived his life with honor and respect for others.
Zoobiquity shows the connection between animal and human health

The other book that I skimmed through was Zoobiquity: the Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health by Barbara Watterson-Horowitz, M.D. and Kathryn Bowers. I got the book because I saw the TED Talk that Watterson-Horowitz gave on the connections she has made between animals and humans. It in that past, animals and humans were treated by the same doctor. However, as we moved away from a farming society, dependent on horses for transportation, the separation between doctors and vets began. Watterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist, was called in to help treat primates at the Los Angeles zoo with potential heart problems. She found that health problems seemed to cross species. As an example, the recent discovery that the human heart can suffer from emotional distress. Well, vets have known for years that animals can die from fright at capture. As Watterson-Horowitz continued to research the connections between animal and human health, she discovered that doctors could learn a lot from vets. Vets routinely read human research journals, while doctors wouldn't even consider looking at veterinary medicine research. That elitist attitude is ridiculous because it's harder to get into vet school than it is to get into medical school. Zoobiquity has plenty of stories to show the connections between humans and animals. You can enjoy the stories Watterson-Horowitz tells of her animal encounters without having a medical degree. Zoobiquity is a fun, thought-provoking book.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker is must read for anyone interested in writing.
I have been too busy with teaching and my new full-time job. Over the past month, I have not been able to finish reading one book. I did start a few, but I won't mention them because they didn't click with me at that time. Sometimes that happens. It's not that the book isn't good, but that you just aren't in the mood for that book at that time. However, I did get one book that I enjoyed so much that I bought the book. I had requested The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is an interesting guy, specializing in language acquisition. He also wrote The Blank Slate, where Pinker proposed that we aren't blank slates for our environment to write on. We have innate characteristics that may be shaped by our environment, but that aren't created by our environment. That's a story for another day.

I loved The Sense of Style because Pinker says many of the things that I tell my students. Audience is key, and it's important to understand why certain stylistic concepts are prized. For example, passive voice is a big no-no. I used it in the previous sentence. When someone says to use active voice, it's usually because active voice can be more clear and concise than passive voice. The subject is performing the action of the verb. However, there are times when the subject is more important, even if he/she is not performing the action. "Mr. Jones was taken to the emergency room." It's not important to know who took Mr. Jones there; it's important that he went. To blindly follow rules without understanding why is just plain dumb.

Pinker gives examples of good and bad writing. When it's good, he explains why. When it's bad, he gives examples on how to make it better. As I said, I got the book from the library. I was curious about how good it was. I found myself stopping to read aloud sections to my husband. That's when I knew I had to add it to my collection. If you want to know more about writing and style, and you think those skills are vanishing in the 21st century, you should get Pinker's The Sense of Style. You will find that our concerns about the loss of writing skill is overblown.

Friday, October 17, 2014

If You Don't Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails by Barbara Corcoran

if You Don't Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails gives interesting insight into Barbara Corcoran's business philosophy.
I have been a fan of Shark Tank for some time. What interests me most about the show are the sharks. Barbara Corcoran is one of my favorites, so I looked to see if she had any books. She does. If You Don't Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails is a compilation of business advice from Barbara. What I like the most about the book is that each pearl of wisdom that Barbara bestows on the reader comes from her upbringing in New Jersey. Most of the tales revolve around her mother, who appears to be a really interesting person. I was surprised to learn that Barbara came from a huge family. She has nine brothers and sisters, and her family was blue collar. Barbara got into real estate because of a boyfriend that she met when she was fresh out of high school. However, her real estate business took off AFTER her boyfriend tossed her out to marry a secretary from their office. Barbara went all out to become a wealthy entrepreneur. One of my favorite stories is one of the first: Barbara didn't have large breasts, but another waitress at the restaurant she worked at did. Every guy wanted to be seated at the counter for the big breasted girl. Barbara's mother advised Barbara to play up her strengths, personality and great smile. Put pigtails in your hair, push your strengths, and you will be able to compete against big breasts.

If you are interested in starting your own business, Barbara has good advice. If you don't want to start a business, you will still enjoy the warm, family stories. I have no interest in business, but I really enjoyed getting a glimpse at the woman behind the shark.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Quirkology by Richard Wiseman

Quirkology will get you thinking about the little things that have psychological impact
I enjoy watching those brain shows that have popped up on TV lately. Brain Games has had multiple seasons, but I also watched Your Bleeped Up Brain. The shows talk about how the brain works, and how it tries to make sense of things. When we think that the brain is trying to fool us, it's basically trying to make sense of the information it is getting. Richard Wiseman, with a PhD in Psychology, was one of the guest scientists on Your Bleeped Up Brain, and he has also written a few books. I finally managed to locate one in my local library. Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things. In the book, Wiseman investigates and explains such things as:
  • if being born on a certain date has any affect on your life (which it might with seasonal effects)
  • if your name can say something about the person you will become
  • if you can tell if someone if lying by looking at them (no, but talking to them might expose a lie)
  • if ghosts exist (nope, but there might be other things that cause the eerie feelings)
  • if you pick your president or decide guilt based on looks (and it seems that we do)
  • what we find funny and why we find it funny
  • how honesty are we
Of course, this list just breaks the surface of the information in the book. Wiseman talks about his own research and the research of others in the field.

I really enjoyed reading the book. As I was reading, I found myself stopping to re-read sections to my husband. I thought that he would find the section on beards interesting since he has one. It seems that in a study Wiseman did, people thought men without hair on their faces were more honest. Face hair might mean maturity, but it also meant that others might think the man with the beard was sinister. As Wiseman noted, there has not been a US president with face hair since 1910.

If you are interested in the why people do the things they do, and what it means when they do them, Quirkology is for you.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Circular Staircase is an entertaining introduction to Mary Robers Rinehart
Had I but known how good a Mary Roberts Rinehart story was, I would have read one sooner. At least, that would probably be the logic of a Rinehart heroine. Rinehart came from Pittsburgh, and her mysteries fall in the category of the "have I but known" plot that Elizabeth Peter used to such good effect in her Amelia Peabody mysteries. I downloaded The Circular Staircase onto my Kindle and had an enjoyable read.

The Circular Staircase was one of Rinehart's first books, written in 1908. Rachel, a spinster, raised her nephew and niece, making sure to safeguard the siblings money. As they got older, they started to live lives away from Rachel, so as one of the last flings for the family, Rachel rented a house from the Armstrongs in the country for the summer while her house in the city was being renovated. That's when things take a turn for the eerie. Rachel starts to hear knocking noises, and she thinks that she sees people hanging out, maybe trying to get into the house. When Rachel's charges, Halsey and Gertrude show up, things take a turn for the worse. The son of the man who owns the house gets shot entering the house. Halsey and his friend, who left earlier in the evening, are suspects, and the friend, Jack Bailey, gets arrested when the bank that the Bailey worked at had funds stolen from it. Bailey is suspected, but so is Paul Armstrong, who owned the house that Rachel rented. Armstrong is now in California, but he turns up dead. The incursions into the house seem to be ongoing, and the mystery around the Armstrongs, the house, and the missing money deepens.

I really enjoyed reading The Circular Staircase. Humor abounded. My favorite interactions were being Rachel and her life-long maid, Liddy, were constantly bickering with Liddy threatening to quit while Rachel threatens to fire her. The mystery is a puzzle, and I have to admit that there were several times I wanted to shake Rachel and say "don't keep quiet about what you just learned." all in all, the book was very enjoyable, and I look forward to reading more Rinehart.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Heist by Daniel Silva

The Heist by Daniel Silva is a good, if slow-moving, addition to the Gabriel Allon series
The latest Gabriel Allon, The Heist by Daniel Silva, was released in July, but I was just able to get it from the library this week. I've enjoyed the Gabriel Allon series, although I have to admit I was starting to get tired of Allon getting into near death situations in every book. Yes, I understand that he is a spy and risking his life, but having it happen in every book was straining credulity.

The Heist is different from some of the other Allons is that there isn't a terror attack behind the action in the book. Instead, Allon is pulled into an investigation of a former diplomat's death because Allon's friend, Julian Isherwood finds the body. The diplomat turned out to be a former spy, turned rogue, who was now in the business of selling stolen masterpieces. Allon's role is to find the Caravaggio that was rumored to be in the possession of the dead man. What Allon finds is that the man was onto the Syrian president hiding away funds for his future use. Allon is determined to track down the funds and remove them. Also, he wants to find the Caravaggio. In order to gain access to the money, Allon recruits a girl who works for the investment officer who is hiding the fund for the Syrian president. The girl is a Syrian whose family was massacred in Hama as threats to the president of Syria.

As I mentioned, this book is different from the others because Allon isn't being tortured to near death. At times though, the story just seemed to drag along. The overall plot was interesting, but I think there could have been more action and less repetition. I think Silva needs to take a break from Allon, especially since Allon is moving into more of a managerial role in the Israeli secret services. Perhaps, he can revisit the Michael Osbourne character.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Lost Island by Preston & Child

The Lost Island by Preston & Child is a great thriller!
I have enjoyed the books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, both together and separately. However, I haven't had a chance yet to read anything in their Gideon Crew series. This is a new series that just started a few years ago. Well, when I went into the library the other day, I saw their latest book, The Lost Island on the new books shelf. I figured that I would give the book a try, and boy, am I glad that I did.

Gideon Crew is a master thief, who is also a physicist. He also has a medical condition, tangled blood vessels in his brain, that leaves him with only ten months to live. Preston and Child love to have characters appear in multiple series, and it's no different here. Eli Glinn, who is the person behind EES, Effective Engineering Solutions, appears in The Lost Island. Glinn's EES was the group behind the meteorite recovery in The Ice Limit.

Glinn asks Gideon Crew to steal a page from the Book of Kells while it is on tour in New York City. The task appears to be an impossible one because the security is so high, but we are talking about Gideon Crew, and he manages to come up with a way to steal the page. Imagine Gideon's shock when Glinn takes the beautiful illuminated page and removes the paint! But there is a reason. Hidden under the illumination is an ancient map. This map shows the route to the lotus, which can cure bodily ills and injuries, and give the consumer of it longer life. Glinn has a mysterious client who wants the plant because it would be an amazing discovery that could cure so many illnesses. Why, it might even cure Gideon's problem! The map appears to led to the Caribbean, where the ancient Irish monks were the first to reach the Americas. Glinn partners Gideon with Amy, who is an expert in classical languages and boating. Of course, the voyage is more difficult that Gideon imagines, and what they find is beyond his wildest imagination.

The Lost Island is a thrilling adventure story. Preston and Child throw in some Greek history, and the Odyssey. Is it believable? Well, of course it is. Preston and Child do such a great job of weaving high adventure into a fast moving plot that you find yourself caught up in the action. I really enjoyed this book so much that I have to get the two earlier Gideon Crews!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris has an interesting idea behind it, but poor writing and research
I happened to be shelf browsing at the library, and I saw the Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris. I liked the earlier Sookie Stackhouse books, so I thought I would give this series a try. Harper was struck by lightning as a teen, and this has given her the ability to find dead bodies and to see the person's final moments. She uses this talent to find missing people who are dead, as long as she knows the general location of the body. Also, she can see what the person experiences in the last moments, so she can explain the death. If it was murder, she can't see the murderer, but she knows the person was murdered. Harper's step-brother Tolliver Lang, acts as manager/bodyguard when Harper does her work for money. It seems that people don't like that Harper can find the dead, even though it helps them find the missing loved one. People tend to want to hurt her.

Grave Sight is the first book in the series, and Harper is called in to find a missing teenage girl, named Teenie, in Sarne, Arkansas. It seems that everyone in power in the town is related to everyone else, and after Harper finds the body, and discovers that not only was the girl murdered, but her boyfriend, who was found dead in the general area of supposed suicide, was also murdered. This doesn't go down well with the townsfolk, who make Harper's life miserable. Then Harper discovers that the Teenie's sister was murdered earlier. Then after Teenie's mom talks to Harper, she winds up dead. Obviously something is going on, and Harper and Tolliver are stuck in the town. Harper decides that while she is stuck there, she might as well figure out why everyone in Teenie's family was murdered. However, someone in the town is determined to stop Harper at any cost.

The plot was interesting. I mean who would think of a person being struck by lightning then being able to discover dead bodies. Harris does come up with some interesting ideas, but she really does need to work on her mechanics. First, her grammar is atrocious. This is an example of one of her poorly written sentences from page 10: "The waitress filled my coffee cup and taken my first swallow before the sheriff spoke." Wow! So the waitress took the sip for Harper. With the number of grammar errors, it's obvious that Harris isn't an English major, and it's also obvious that her editor sucks. Then there's the matter of common sense and research. On page 46, Harris talks about an approaching thunderstorm: "A boom of thunder was followed by a brilliant bolt of lightning." Anyone who has any common sense, or lived, knows that light travels faster than sound, and that you see the lightning and then hear the thunder. The errors in the book really detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

The book was okay. Harper is a stupid and sloppy detective. Harper finds out from Hollis, cop and former husband of Sally, Teenie's murdered sister, that right before her death, Sally had been cleaning the house of Dick Teaque, father of Teenie's boyfriend, after Dick died. She then came home in a bemused mood and looked through one of her high school textbooks. Well, Harper lumbers in, grabs the biology textbook, and shakes a paper out. Duh! Idiot! She should have flipped through so she could see where the paper was placed because that would have been a clue. However, Harper ain't known for her smarts. She can just find dead people. I may give the second book a chance just to see if Grave Sight was an aberration. It it's not better, I would suggest skipping the series because the first book is not that good.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer

Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer is a well-written, thought-provoking book
Although I love to read fiction, especially mysteries, that doesn't mean I don't like to read other things. I've noticed that others seem to think that people can only read one type of book, but I would think that would be a boring and bland diet. I just finished one of those non-mysteries today: Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics by Charles Krauthammer. Krauthammer writes a weekly column for the Washington Post, and he's a frequent commentator on Fox News. I've seen him a few times with Bill O'Reilly. Things That Matter is a collection of short essays that Krauthammer has written over the past thirty years for the Post and Time.

I learned some things about Krauthammer that I didn't know before I read the book are that Krauthammer was paralyzed in swimming accident when he started medical student, that he was a practicing psychiatrist, and that he used to be a Democrat and a speech writer for then vice president Walter Mondale! I have to admit that I was struck because Krauthammer is the voice of conservatism. I know that I've often thought that liberalism is for the young and naive, because they have such a rose-colored vision of what the world could be. As you age, at least, as I aged, I found that my views became much more conservative. I think that with age comes wisdom and a greater understanding of how the world works. Basically, as I started to make money, I wanted to keep my money. Also, I learned that issues may not always be as black and white as I originally thought.

Krauthammer's essays are very well written and thought provoking. He broke the books into sections:
  • Personal
  • Political
  • Historical
In those essays, he talked about a wide variety of topics, contemporary and long past. Krauthammer's parents were Orthodox Jews, and he went to a Hebrew Day School, and I think that makes his voice even more poignant as he mentions the Jewish/Israeli situation in the world. Although Krauthammer is a passionate about his views, he also writes with a sane, calm voice. I think it would be sad if you passed up Things That Matter. I know that I read works by both liberals and conservatives because I want to get the full picture. I know that personal bias and viewpoints color a writer's work, sometimes even unintentionally. I found myself as I finished the book, admiring Krauthammer, and having a more enlightened view on some of the topics he mentions. Give his essays a try. Just read a few, and I think before you know it, you'll be reading the whole book.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab

Nick and Testa's science project mysteries are winners. First in the series is High Voltage Danger Lab
When I was a kid, I used to love books with mystery, magic, and adventure. i would browse the shelves of the children's section of my local library, looking for titles or covers that would catch my eye. Yeah, yeah, you can't judge a book by its cover, but you don't know until you read the inside. Anyway, as I was in the library with my nephew, I started browsing the shelves. The nephew has no interest in reading, so I was just amusing myself. That's how I noticed the Nick and Tesla adventures. So far, there are three that are available and all are newly published. I started with the first book in the series, Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab. Nick and Tesla are 11-year-old twins, who have been sent to spend the summer with their Uncle Newt, who lives in California, while their parents go go Uzbekistan to study soy beans. Uncle Newt is a weird, mad scientist, who seems like the last person who should be watching children for the summer. But Uncle Newt has a lab, and he tells Nick and Tesla that they can use it all they want. After making a bottle rocket, the pair set it off, where it lands in the yard of a haunted looking mansion. The mansion may be haunted, but it isn't empty. There are two men there who are supposedly doing construction work on the house, two very nasty Rottweilers, and a little ghostly girl who warns Nick and Tesla away. As Nick and Tesla try unsuccessfully to recover the rocket and Tesla's pendant that can off as the rocket whizzed by, they become embroiled in the mystery of the house.

The reason this book series caught my eye is because of the bright, colorful covers. What is really cool about the books is that they contain instructions on how to build the gadgets used in the books. In Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab, the reader can learn how to make:
  • a low-tech bottle rocket and launcher
  • a mints-and-soda fueled robocat dog distractor
  • a semi-invisible nighttime van tracker
  • a Christmas-is-over intruder alert system
  • a Do-it-yourself electromagnet and picker-upper
The instructions are easy to follow, although they will require some help from an adult. In fact, I know that I want to try some of them with the nephew to see if i can encourage an interest in science and reading. The authors are "Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith, and they do an excellent job of melding mystery with science. The series also has a website, where Science Bob demonstrates the projects in the books. The website and the books are really cool, and I highly recommend them for the budding scientist in your household. I wish that there were books like this when I was a kid!

Other titles in the series are:
  • Book 2: Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage
  • Book 3: Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle
  • Book 4: Nick and Tesla's Super Cyborg Gadget Glove--available October 7, 2014

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Death in Disguise by Caroline Graham

Death in Disguise is an entertaining Inspector Barnaby mystery by Caroline Graham
I read the third book in the Inspector Barnaby series, Death in Disguise. The book starts with an inquest into the accidental death of William Carter. He died while falling down the stairs at a local commune, with a bunch of folks practicing various New Age beliefs. They are lead by Ian Craigie, the Master. Months later, Sylvie Gamelin, is a member of the group, and she is going to turn 21 and come into her trust fund. Sylvie now goes by the name, Suhami, and she has decided that she will give her trust fund to the Master and the commune. The Master has invited Suhami's parents down to the commune, and Sylvie's father, a rich, powerful, jerk of a man named Guy, decides that the Master is a fraud. When the Master is stabbed to death in a darkened room where the whole commune, and Guy Gamelin and his wife, Felicity, have gathered to watch May Cuttle have a regression to a previous life. Of course, Barnaby and Troy are called in to solve the case.

This was an enjoyable book. The story was somewhat similar to the series depiction. There were some added characters in the book, and two of the later deaths in the book were different in the show. Gavin Troy is extremely different between book and television series. As I mentioned, he's married in the book, and in this one, he is a new father to a baby girl. Also, Troy is definitely not PC in the book. Graham has Troy express rather negative and outdated views about women, homosexuals, and people with mental disabilities. I can understand why the TV Troy is so different. The character's view in the book would never be okay with the viewing public. Even though I knew whodunit and why, I still enjoyed the book. Graham does a great job with giving the reader insight into how her characters think and feel, and she throws in some unexpected humor by making fun of the characters. All in all, Death in Disguise is an entertaining mystery.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly

Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly is an extremely entertaining vintage mystery.
I just finished Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly. This was an interesting tale, with Henry Gamadge receiving a coded message delivered in a suspicious way. A crumpled ball of paper was thrown out of the window off the Fenway's house in New York City, and a suspicious mailman who saw a crumpled ball of paper in the same place every day, picked up the paper. After some investigation, Gamadge figured out that someone was in trouble in the Fenway house, but wasn't able to get out to communicate openly with Gamadge. When Gamadge finagles an invitation to the house, he finds the atmosphere thick with tension. Mr. Blake Fenway admits that a shipment of books had arrived from his country estate, sent by Hilda Grove, the niece of a woman who was a companion to Fenway's disabled sister-in-law, Mrs. Fenway. The book had views, or pictures, of estates, and the one of the original Fenway estate, that had been torn down, was missing. As Gamadge goes to leave, Mr. Mott Fenway, secretly talks Gamadge into coming back later in the evening to secretly look for the missing picture. Mott suspects that Mrs. Fenway's son, Alden, suffering from mental retardation, now intellectual disability, ripped out the picture. They fear that Mott and his niece, and Blake Fenway's daughter, Caroline are suspicious that Alden ripped out the picture, and perhaps killed Caroline's pet dog. Of course, they are also suspicious of Craddock, a young male friend of the Groves, who has been injured in the war, and is taking care of Alden. Gamadge agrees to come back, but first, he heads out to the country to talk to Hilda, under an assumed name. When Gamadge returns to town for his rendezvous at the Fenway house, he arrives to find that Mott Fenway had fallen from his attic room window. Gamadge suspects that Hilda Grove might be in danger, and his associate gets into the country house to find a booby trap set to possibly kill Hilda. There is more murder and surprise before the book ends, and I don't want to ruin the mystery by disclosing too much.

I enjoyed reading Arrow Pointing Nowhere, and i thought the mystery was much stronger than Evidence of Things Seen. Arrow Pointing Nowhere was published in 1944, and there are references to WWII and the shortages in gas and other items. I did not figure out the mystery, and I was surprised at the twist at the end. Unfortunately, I might not get much opportunity to read more Elizabeth Daly, but I will keep my eyes open for her books.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Evidence of Things Seen by Elizabeth Daly

Evidence of Things Seen by Elizabeth Daly
I was reading something on one of the mystery blogs recently, and it mentioned that Agatha Christie liked the writings of Elizabeth Daly. Elizabeth Daly was an American mystery author who was a contemporary of Christie. In recent years, Felony and Mayhem has reissued the Daly mysteries, which feature Henry Gamadge, a gentlemen sleuth. I thought I would check out some of the books at my local library, just to see if I liked the books. After all, I've never read Daly. Well, I found out that it's incredibly difficult to find Daly's books in my library system, which is quite a large one: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I was able to get two of the recent books in reissue. They have a few others in large print, and I think that I might have to resort to those to read more.

Evidence of Things Seen,written in 1943, had an interesting supernatural plot, so I started with it. Henry Gamadge is off working for his country during World War II. His wife, Clara, goes off to spend the summer in a rented cottage with some family friends. Gamadge is to join them when he is done with his work. Well, the friends are delayed, and Clara is alone in the cottage with her help, Maggie. They both start to see a mysterious figure who approaches the house, but never quite comes close enough to talk to. Clara and Maggie start to think that it's the ghost of a woman who died in the cottage a year earlier. What adds to the ghostly feeling is that the woman renting the cottage is the sister of the dead woman, and she appears to be unwilling to enter the house. On the Fourth of July, as the Clara hosts some local neighbors, The sister, Alvira Radford, winds up getting hurt in a carriage accident, when her horse is spooked by what appears to be the ghostly appearance of Alvira's sister. Clara helps get Alvira into the cottage, and calls the doctor. Meanwhile the neighbors, the Hunters, come for dinner. Alvira's ankle is broken, and she can't be taken back home. While Alvira is sleeping due to a morphine shot, Clara and the Hunters take up a watch over her. Fanny Hunter goes first, and Clara replaces her. While Clara is sitting beside Alvira, a previously blocked outside door opens, and the spooky sister seems to appear. Clara keeps her eye on the image and calls for help. When Phin Hunter answers Clara's cries, he says that Alvira is dead! Strangled! Did the ghostly sister somehow kill Alvira, possibly in revenge for Alvira murdering her. The finger of blame seems to point at Clara, and fortunately for her, Gamadge, finishes his job and comes to her aid.

I have to admit that like Gamadge, who admits he knew who the murderer was when he first heard the story, the murderer was quite obvious. Don't get me wrong; the story was entertaining. However, the mystery wasn't very complex. Clara comes across as a weak person who needs her husband to help her. She even seems to be mindless to a degree. When Gamadge suggests going back to the cottage, she says that she will do it if he wants to go there. I'm going to start on the second books Arrow Pointing Nowhere to see if the solution to the mystery is as obvious as it was in Evidence of Things Seen.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
When Mary Stewart died recently, I looked over her bibliography, and I noticed a book that I had never read. It was Touch Not the Cat. The book was published in 1976. Most of her romantic suspense books were written in the 1950s and 60s, and they were the cream of the crop, in my opinion. Touch Not the Cat has a supernatural feel to it, with Byrony Ashley having a telepathic connection to someone that she grows to refer to as her lover. It seems that the Ashleys have a history of family members having a psychic connection to others in the family. So Byrony believes that her lover is one of her three male cousins. The two elder are twins, Emory and James, and the younger is Francis. Byrony isn't sure who she has the connection with, but her lover contacts her one night while she is in Maderia to let her know that her father is in serious trouble. It turns out that he has been hit by a car while at a German convalescent hospital. Before Byrony can reach her father, he has died. He did leave her a cryptic message about William's Brooke, hidden letters, and warning Byrony to beware. With his death, the Ashley estate skips Byrony and passes to the next male heirs, Byrony's ailing uncle and her cousin, Emory. Byrony still has a say, however, because the estate is bound in a trust, which states that all family members must agree to the sale of land or possessions. Byrony's father personally owned a cottage and some land on the estate, and these pass to Byrony. When Byrony goes back to the estate to spread her father's ashes, she notices that some valuable smaller pieces are missing from the estate. Were they taken by tourists on guided tour of the estate, or the rich Underhills who are renting the estate for a year? Or was one of her cousins? And who is her mysterious lover? Byrony's emotions are confused, and she turns to local farm hand Rob, as a listening ear.

The story was interesting, but I found myself wanting to grab Byrony and shake her. She puts herself into dangerous situations because she trusts her relatives too much, even when it seems that they may have criminal intent. Touch Not the Cat is not one of my favorite Stewart novels. It's a decent romantic suspense, but it's not as satisfying as the early Stewart novels.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham

Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham is a great fix for any lover of the Midsomer Murders series.
I am a huge fan of the Midsomer Murders television series. I've watched the episode more than once, and I have a deep affection for Tom Barnaby, and now for his cousin John Barnaby. The surprising thing is that I really haven't read the books. I say it that way because I tried to read Death at Badger's Creek, and I just had difficulty getting into it. Because I have been re-watching the series as I exercise every day, i decided to give the books another try. This time, I started with Death of a Hollow Man. This is the second book in the series, and it's also the second episode in the series. The book revolves a production of Amadeus put on by the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society. Of course, Joyce Barnaby is part of the group, and Tom Barnaby gets dragged into helping with scenery. There's only one murder in the book (and TV episode). Esslyn Carmichael, playing Salieri, really does cut his throat with the prop razor. It was supposed to be taped up so Esslyn could safely drag it across his throat, but someone removed the tape. it could have been anyone: his unfaithful wife, her lover, his ex-wife, or any of the others that he bullied or put down on a regular basis. Since Tom Barnaby was in the audience for the show, he jumps right into solving the mystery. I won't give any more details on the plot, but I will say that it closely follows most of the plot points in the TV episode.

I found myself really enjoying the book. Graham did a very nice job with the personalities in the story. I felt that I was really getting a picture in my mind of each of them. The solution to the mystery was not very obvious. The only reason I knew whodunit was because I had watched the episode. I'm not sure if all the clues were there. As I mentioned, I knew who the murderer was so I was looking for the clues to identify the person.

One thing that absolutely shocked me was Gavin Troy. In the book, he's a married redhead! What the heck! That is not Daniel Casey (the actor) by a long shot! However, the personality was similar. I think that Troy in the TV series is more likable than the one in the book. However, it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book. I had such a fun time reading it that I requested some of the others from the library. Caroline Graham did not write many books, and the ones she did seem to have been turned into episodes on the series. If you love Midsomer Murders, you should definitely give the books a try.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Road to Paradise Island by Victoria Holt

The Road to Paradise Island is a really entertaining, engrossing Victoria Holt
I've read a good number of Victoria Holt books, but when I saw the description of The Road to Paradise Island, I could not recall ever reading the book. So of course, I requested the book from the library. I just finished reading it, and I was very impressed with the story and the characters. The story's first female protagonist is Annalice Mallory. She comes from a long line of map makers, and she and her brother Philip are raised by their grandmother after Annalice's mother died when Annalice was born. Annalice's father left the country and the business to marry again in Denmark. That's the back story, but the story that influences the whole book is when Annalice finds first a grave site for an Ann Alice and then a journal and map in a walled off room. No one realized the room was there until a bad thunderstorm damages the building to show that a room is there. Ann Alice, whose name is so close to Annalice died a hundred years earlier, and Annalice's grandmother had never heard of her. When Annalice finds the journal, she reads it, and the journal takes up almost 100 pages of the book. Ann Alice tells the story of her father and her new stepmother. She also details the eeriness of Desmond Featherstone, a "friend" of her stepmother, who may be the illicit sexual partner of the stepmother. Ann Alice meets a Magnus Perrensen, whom she falls in love with. Magnus had been shipwrecked, and he had a map that showed the location of the island, which was very rich in gold. Ann Alice appears to be murdered by her stepmother and Desmond when Ann Alice finds out about their affair after Ann Alice's father dies.

Annalice is very much moved by the story, and she feels that she is connected to Ann Alice because of the similarity of their names and ages. Philip goes off to Australia in search of the island and disappears. Annalice is obsessed with her brother. In the hopes of getting their minds off of Philip, the grandmother suggests she and Annalice go to a map conference in London, where Annalice meets Raymond. She is shocked when she discovers that his grandfather was Freddie, the son of Ann Alice's stepmother and Desmond. Although Annalice has feelings for Raymond, and he asks her to marry him, she remains under certain. Raymond arranges for Annalice to accompany a family friend, Felicity, to Australia, where Felcity is to marry. Annalice jumps at the chance to find her brother. On the ship to Australia, Annalice meets Milton Harrington, the typical strong, arrogant, male protagonist in a Holt book. Of course, sparks fly between Annalice and Milton. When Felcity's new husband proves to be a brute, Annalice can't leave Felcity to her fate. When Felcity's husband is killed, Annalice and Felcity go to Cariba, the island where Philip was last seen, and where Milton Harrington has his sugar plantation. I've left some of the action out as Annalice goes to Cariba because I think that would spoil the reader's enjoyment of the story.

I know that it seems that I always give the Victoria Holt books a good rating, but this one was particularly enjoyable. I loved all of the characters strewn throughout the book, and I absolutely loved the plot. If you don't enjoy this Holt, you won't enjoy any romantic suspense books!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth

The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth
I haven't been reading on my Kindle much lately. Usually, I read it while I'm teaching. So it took me a while to finish The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth. This book was published in 1943, and the War is present in the book. Blackout curtains are drawn at night, and Casey Desborough, one of the leading characters in the book was a pilot in the war. Laura Fane has just come of age, twenty-one, and she goes to London to talk to her solicitor. She has had an offer from an Aunt Agnes to buy the Priory, which Laura has inherited from her father. It seems that Agnes was once supposed to marry Laura's father, but he dumps Agnes and runs off to marry Laura's mother. Unfortunately, they are both killed in an accident. Agnes had been leasing the Priory for a long time, and now she wants to buy it. While in London, Laura meets her cousin, and Agnes' ward, Tanis Lyle, who is one of those woman who draw men to her like metal to a magnet. One of the men is Casey Desborough, but when Casey meets Laura, it is love at first sight for both of them. Laura is invited to spend the weekend at the Priory with a slew of others, including Casey. Agnes still thinks Casey is Tanis' fiancee, and of course, that puts Laura in a bad light. Is she stealing Casey from Tanis just as her mother stole her father away from Agnes? Of course, Tanis is playing fast and loose with other of the male guests and a married man who lives near the Priory. Then Tanis' ex-husband shows up and threatens her with a gun. When Tanis is murdered, the finger of suspicion points in many directions, especially at Laura and Casey. However, Miss Silver is also a house guest. She used to be a governess, but is now a private detective. Miss Silver and Randal March, her former charge and now Chief Constable, work together to figure out who murdered Tanis Lyle.

Although it took me a while to finish this book, it was not because I didn't enjoy the book. I thought this was one of the better Miss Silver books that I've read. Miss Silver is like a more active Miss Marple. They both knit, and they both have a keen sense of observation. One of the things that I like about the Miss Silver mysteries is the romantic overtones to the story. You know that there will be at least one couple in love, who has to fight through the stigma of accusation. The puzzle in The Chinese Shawl is a good one. I started to figure out the twist around the middle of the book, but that didn't ruin my enjoyment of the story. I have a few other Miss Silver mysteries on my Kindle that I hope to read soon. If you haven't read any of the Miss Silver books, you should definitely remedy the situation!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Chrisite
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is an Hercule Poirot book from 1940. Originally, it was called The Patriotic Murders when it was released in the US, and the title was later changed to An Overdose of Death. That's the tricky thing about Christie's novels. You may think you are getting a new book, when you are actually getting one that you already read. IN One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Poirot has his regularly scheduled dental appointment with his dentist, Mr. Morley. Later that day, Morley is found dead in his office with a gun shot to the head. It looks like suicide, but Poirot cannot believe it because Morley seemed the same as usual. There was no depression or sadness in the dentist's demeanor. Instead, Poirot wonders if it was murder, but then why was the dentist murdered? When a patient, Mr. Amberiotis, who saw the dentist just a few hours later than Poirot, turns up dead from an overdose of anesthetic, Inspector Japp thinks that Morley committed suicide because of the accidental overdoes. However, Poirot isn't satisfied. Could the target have been financier, Alistair Blunt, who is so very important to Britain in the early days of World War II? Could Mabelle Sainsbury Seale have seen something? She had originally caught Poirot's eye when a buckle fell off of her new shoe as she could out of the car in front of the dentist. Could it be Howard Raikes, boyfriend of Mr. Blunt's niece, Jane Olivera? Or could it be the disreputable boyfriend, Frank Cater, of Gladys, Morley's dental assistant? When Mr. Barnes, another patient of Morley and a former member of the Home Office, meets with Poirot, and he mentions that he thinks there is a plot afoot. Something seems wrong to Barnes, and Poirot agrees that something is just not right about the whole situation. When Mabelle Sainsbury Seale turns up missing and then is found dead with her face smashed in, even Japp starts to get suspicious. However, it isn't until two attempts are made on Blunt's life, and the gun in the one of the attempts turns out to be a twin on the gun that killed Morley that Japp agrees that Morley did not commit suicide. Can Poirot connect all the disjointed pieces of this puzzle?

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe reminds me very much of the espionage stories that Christie writes. However, at times, Christie seems to loose her path in those books, and in this novel in particular, the plot did not seem as tight as it could be. At times, things seemed to drag, and I was hoping that something would happen to help me make sense of the mystery. However, when Poirot unravels the mystery at the end, I had to admit that it was very ingenious. I'm not a huge fan of Poirot's, and this is one of my least favorite of his mysteries. Of course, with that said, I would prefer even the weakest of the Christies over other books!

As with a few other of her stories, Christie uses a nursery rhyme to title the chapters and tie into the plot. I marvel at the creativity of Christie in coming up with ways to present her mysteries. I think my favorites of the nursery rhyme mysteries are A Pocket Full of Rye and Ten Little Indians.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku
I love science, and although it seems that I read a ton of fiction, I also sprinkle in some science. Earlier this year, Michio Kaku came out with his latest popular science book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. Although Kaku is a physicist, he takes an interesting look at the mind and recent research and development on the mind. Some of the topics that Kaku discusses that I found most interesting:
  • Consciousness: what is in and how do we understand it
  • Telepathy: is is possible to read the mind
  • Telekinesis: can the mind move objects (in this case, Kaku looks at cases where people are paralyzed and can use the mind to move the body with technology)
  • Memories: what are the problems of memory lose and retention (looking at amnesia, Alzheimer's, and photographic memory)
  • Intelligence: how it can be defined, tested, and possibly increased
  • Dreams: how they work and what they mean
  • Artificial intelligence: can we really build computers with intelligence, and what is the future for robots
  • Alien minds: what would alien life be like, how would they think, and why would they want to have anything to do with us
Overall, I found the book to be an enjoyable read. I like the way Kaku tells the story in the various chapters. He has a varied life experience, and he's talked to a large number of experts in the field of the mind. As a technical writing instructor, I give Kaku kudos. He knows his audience. That means he knows what sorts of thing someone reading a popular science book on the brain/mind would want to know. The language that he uses is accessible to a less scientifically trained audience. Kaku gives the reader enough information to inform and entertain. I found myself wanting to read some more books on the specific topics that intrigued me. Michio Kaku is greatly entertaining science writer! You should read this book so you can learn more about how your brain works.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Demon Lover by Victoria Holt

The Demon Lover by Victoria Holt
I made a switch of genres, and just finished reading The Demon Lover by Victoria Holt. I don't remember ever reading this book in my younger days, and I'm sure that if I did, I would have remembered. The heroine in this book is Kate Collison. She comes from a long line of renown portrait painter, specializing in miniatures. Kate's father is Kendall, and he fallows the family tradition of having the KC initials when he names Kate. As Kate becomes a young adult, she learns that her father is losing his eyesight to cataracts. The time is around 1865, and cataract surgery at that point is not every advanced at all. Pretty much, Kate's father is doomed to blindness. This is a problem for someone who paints miniatures, but Kate is equally as good at painting, and her father hatches a scheme for Kate to accompany him when he goes to paint Baron Rollo de Centerville. Kate will sit in on the the Baron's sittings, and then she will try to work on the miniature after the sitting. Again, since this is 1865, the Collisons go to France to stay with the Baron to do the painting. Of course, Kate develops some fondness for the Baron's poor relation, Bertrand de Mortemer. The Baron figures out that Kate has been doing the painting, and even though he is a reprehensible person, he starts to promote Kate and her painting ability. Kate goes to Paris to paint the Baron's young, virginal fiancee, Marie-Claude. Of course, Kate feels sorry for the girl being engaged to such a monster. Meanwhile Bertrand fights with the Baron because Bertrand refuses to marry the Baron's mistress, Nicole. In retaliation, the Baron kidnaps Kate and rapes her. Then he brings Bertrand to the house where Kate is held captive to show that the Baron had sex with her. The relationship between Kate and Bertrand ends, and Kate finds herself pregnant. Nicole, the Baron's former mistress befriends Kate, and provides a house for Kate to use as a home and a studio. Kate's father is back in England, going blind, and marrying a distant relative. Paris around 1870 is a dangerous place, and Nicole is killed in the Prussian bombardment of Paris during the Franco Prussian war in 1870/1871. Kate, her son, Kendall, and the Baron become trapped in Paris during the siege. Eventually, they get out of Paris and return to the Baron's castle in Centerville, where the Baron's wife, Marie-Claude, is with a child she conceived with someone else prior to her wedding to the Baron. Of course, now the Baron realizes that he loves Kate, and she is starting to think she loves him. When Marie-Claude dies, Kate suspects the Baron had a hand in it.

Now the above description may sound confusing, but Holt tells the story well, and I found myself captivated with the story and unable to put the book down. The one huge complaint is one that any woman would have reading the book. The Baron rapes Kate, and although he did it for reprehensible reasons, to ruin Bertrand's relationship, he late couches the event in terms of love. Even Kate, who at first is horrified, starts to have feelings of lust as she recounts the story later. She admits that she may want to go back to being a willing captive of the Baron's. Throughout, even when Kate abhors the Baron and his act, Nicole tries to say that the Baron isn't such a bad person. That really irks me, and I think it really left a bad taste in my mouth at the end of the book when Kate started to change her tune about the Baron. So I am really conflicted about this one. I really was captivated by the story, and It was one of the better Victoria Holt books that I read. I think that's the negative rap on some of the romance books. Rape and consensual sex are confused in these books and it's not a positive image for women.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost by John Bellairs

The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost by John Bellairs with artwork by Edward Gorey
Somehow I got the Johnny Dixon books out of order, so I read The Eyes of the Killer Robot before the next book in the series, which was The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost. This book picks up shortly after the The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull. Warren Windrow, the evil sorcerer who was trying to kill Professor Childermass, comes back as a ghost who possesses Johnny Dixon. The ghost threatens to kill Johnny to get back at them all for thwarting his efforts in the previous book. So it is up to Professor Childermass and Fergie to exorcise the evil spirit from Johnny. Professor Coote, a friend of Professor Childermass who specializes in magic and folklore, does some research on the Windrow family, and figures out that they must have had the Urim and Thummim, which are highly religious objects from ancient Jewish history. Professor Coote believes that the objects are hidden away in a tomb for Ensign French, who married into the Windrow family, and the tomb is at the old Windrow estate.

This book is shorter than the others and a very quick read. Johnny Dixon really doesn't feature in the book, other than as a possessed body lying in the hospital at the brink of death. Fergie, after all the evil and magical things that have happened to him, is a skeptic, and just thinks that there is nothing mysterious or evil going on. Both Johnny's grandparents and Fergie's parents seem cool with their children hanging out with a nutty old professor, and Fergie's parents let him go on an weekend excursion up the Hudson River with the Professor. Of course, there are lots of chills, and the evil spirit of Warren Windrow is exorcised. As with the other books, Edward Gorey did the cover art, which you can see here. Gorey's art does a great job of capturing the spirit of the story. So far, although this book has some weak spots, I found it the most enjoyable of the Johnny Dixons that I have read.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Eyes of a Killer Robot by John Bellairs

The Eyes of a Killer Robot by John Bellairs with artwork by Edward Gorey
On to another Johnny Dixon mystery, The Eyes of the Killer Robot by John Bellairs. Johnny is again in danger, this time from a mad scientist who has built a killer robot. Well, truth be told, the robot wasn't intended to be a killer, but to be a baseball pitching whiz. However, fifty years early, when the scientist, Evaristus Sloane brought the robot to the Duston Height Spiders, Johnny's grandfather was a nay-sayer. When Sloane leaves, he threatens to get back at Johnny's grandfather. A ghost tries to contact Johnny, and leaves messages for him about the ghost's eyes being taken. The ghost also leaves a snuff box with a pawn ticket in it that leads Johnny, the professor, and Fergie to a cane with a hidden sword. By the end of the story, the cane holds an important role in the battle against evil when Sloane returns with his robot to claim a $10,000 prize for striking out a famous Yankee hitter.

As I mentioned, the Johnny Dixon books are very similar in plot. Johnny finds himself in danger of losing his life to evil forces. The professor has to battle to free Johnny from the evil. In The Eyes of the Killer Robot, Johnny is physically kidnapped instead of being spiritually hijacked, and this time the threat is much more dangerous. Not only is the plot good, but the cover art by Edward Gorey is amazing. It really captures the thrill of the moments when Johnny, Fergie, and the professor find the pitching robot, and the moment when the evil Evaristus Sloane tries to steal Johnny's eyes for a new robot. The Johnny Dixon books are good summer vacation reading for the kids and for the adults with a child's enthusiasm.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Mary Stewart

I was sad to hear that Mary Stewart died earlier this week on May 9. She was 97 years old, and she was one of my favorite romantic suspense authors. If you haven't read her books, you should give them a try. Some of my favorites were The Moon Spinners, The Ivy Tree, Wildfire at Midnight, and My Brother, Michael. I first started reading Mary Stewart after watching Hayley Mills in The Moon Spinners. The movie is not like the book, but it got me reading and enjoying Mary Stewart and the romantic suspense genre, in general. Mary Stewart also wrote the Merlin trilogy: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. I haven't read those books, but I will have to try to wedge them in. I found a video Interview with Mary Stewart on YouTube that gave some nice insight into Stewart. I must admit I was surprised at how Mary Stewart looked in the video because the only picture I ever saw was the one on her books from the 1950s. She looks just like someone's lovable grandmother. RIP, Mary Stewart!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull by John Bellairs

cover of the Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull by John Bellairs
Onto the third Johnny Dixon mystery, The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull by John Bellairs. One of the things that I find interesting is that so far, none of the Johnny Dixon mysteries refer back to previous evil adventures that Johnny has had. It's amazing to me that the kid doesn't really seem to learn from his past errors of judgment. He just keeps on repeating the errors. In The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull, Johnny and Professor Childermass go on a weekend trip to view the New Hampshire countryside. The professor's car breaks down, and he and Johnny stay in a nice inn. When the inn owner finds out the professor's name, he says that the inn has a haunted clock from the Childermass family. It seems the clock was stolen from the professor's family home, and it was left on the inn porch. The professor's dad made it in memory of his great-uncle who mysteriously died. The clock has a detailed reproduction of the room where the great-uncle died. The inn owner won't say how the clock is haunted,but Johnny discovers the secret when he wakes up in the middle of the night and is drawn to the clock. As Johnny opens the door to the room, it looks as if he is in the room, and he sees the great-uncle getting suffocated by a dark shape. When Johnny tries to leave the room, a small skull in the house rolls out, and Johnny picks it up. Of course as soon as he does it, he finds that he is under the skull's spell. He puts the skull in his pocket and takes it home, and the skull seems to be able to prevent Johnny from telling anyone what he saw in the room with the clock.

That's when things heat up at the professor's house. A mysterious Jack-O-Lantern appears in an upper window, and then the professor disappears. Johnny sees an image of the professor in a mirror asking for help, but of course, the image vanishes. Johnny tries to get his best pal, Fergie, to believe him, but Fergie wants proof, which Johnny can't provide. Johnny finds an unexpected ally in local priest, Father Higgins, who was also a great friend of the professor. Johnny spilled his guts to Father Higgins, except for the vision of the great-uncle's death and Johnny keeping the small skull. Father Higgins suggests a ritual request to Saint Anthony, saint of lost things, to find out where the professor is. Surprises of surprises, when three days after the ceremony, Father Higgins and Johnny receive an answer that sends them to an island in Maine. The interesting thing is that when Father Higgins checked on the clock, he found out that it was sold to someone on the island. Father Higgins travels to Maine with Johnny and Fergie to find and rescue the professor.

Even though Johnny doesn't seem to learn from past mistakes, I have to admit that I found The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull to be a very enjoyable and thrilling read. It has just enough spookiness to keep the reader on the edge of the seat. An interesting commentary on the time. The book is set in 1952. When Father Higgins goes to the Gramma and Granpa to ask if Johnny can go away with him for the weekend, they are agreeable and honored that the Father would take Johnny. Now in the light of all the Catholic priest abuse scandals, I don't think parents would be willing to allow a child to go away for the weekend with a priest.

Edward Gorey did the frontispiece for the book. It's a drawing of the Childermass clock. He seems to have had a good working relationship with Bellairs. I would have liked to have seen more illustrations throughout the book. Drawings of the skull and other eerie events would have added to the tension in my opinion. The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull is an good entry in the Johnny Dixon mysteries. What are you waiting for? Give one of them a try.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt by John Bellairs

cover of The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt by John Bellairs
Book number two in the Johnny Dixon series is The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt. Overall, the book has a darkness about it. Johnny's Gramma has a brain tumor, and this illness really freaks Johnny out because he is afraid that she will die. Although the professor recognizes the symptoms of the brain tumor and gets Gramma to the hospital, she still needs surgery and a long recovery period that might not be successful. More disaster is on the way when Johnny's father, flying a fighter jet in the Korean War, goes missing after his plane is shot down. Johnny fears that his father is dead, that Gramma will die, and that Grampa will waste away without Gramma. Of course, the Professor will not want to adopt him, so Johnny gets himself in a gloomy frame of mind. That's why he goes in search of the Glomus Will. At the start of the book, the Professor and Johnny went on a road trip and visited the Glomus mansion. Johnny finds out about the lost will of H. Bagwell Glomus. Glomus had left behind some clues to the location of the will when he died, but no one had been able to figure it out. There was a reward of $10,000 if someone did find the will, and because Johnny decides that his Gramma is going to have a tumor relapse, he decides to find the will and get the money to hire the best brain surgeon for Gramma. Johnny runs away from home, with the threat of the winter's worse blizzard on the way, and makes his way to one of the houses that Glomus owned near a Boy Scout camp where Johnny had stayed. While Johnny was at the Boy Scout camp, he met up with another Duston Heights boy named Byron Ferguson, aka Fergie. When Johnny goes missing, the Professor gets Fergie, and they go off to find Johnny. Before the story is resolved and the will found, Johnny, the Professor, and Fergie have to ward off an evil witch. All is resolved by the end of the book.

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt was a very enjoyable read. The magic elements were well-done: scary and not overdone. The puzzle of the will was thorny, and obvious, once it was explained. I still like Johnny. As Bellairs says in the book, "Johnny was a pretty strong boy, in spite of his timidity." Johnny has determination, and although he is not the best athlete, he never comes across as wimpy as Lewis Barnavelt. I love the addition of Fergie. He's smart just like Johnny, and they get into a trivia dual when they first meet. Fergie is also athletic and brave. I can't wait for the further adventures of Johnny, Fergie, and Professor Childermass.

Edward Gorey did a frontispiece and maps for the book. The Johnny Dixon series doesn't have many illustrations, but Gorey did a great job of conveying mood and plot through the few illustrations.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

cover of The Curse of the Blue Figurine
As you have probably noticed, I am on a John Bellairs readathon. After reading a few Lewis Barnavelts, I thought that I should make a switch. If you look back at some of my comments about Lewis, his wishy-washy, crybaby antics can get on my nerves. I hope that Lewis grows a pair and starts to stand up for himself a bit more. A good change seemed to be the Johnny Dixon mysteries, and the first in that series is The Curse of the Blue Figurine. As with Lewis, Johnny is sort of an orphan. I say sort of because Johnny's mom recently died from cancer, and his father has gone off to be a fighter pilot in the Korean War. As Bellairs comments at the beginning of the story, Johnny's dad could have had a compassionate release from the war, but he really wanted to fly a fighter jet. Well, that's just wonderful for him, but how about his poor son? So that part obviously rubbed me the wrong way.

Johnny goes off to live with his grandparents, and he unfortunately displays some of the characteristics of Lewis. He is new to the town and school (a Catholic school), and therefore, he has no friends. Johnny also becomes a target for the local bully, Eddie Tompke. Johnny does make friends with his grandparents friend and across the street neighbor, Professor Roderick Childermass. The professor is a learned man, and he befriends Johnny, playing chess with him and plying him with chocolate cake. The professor also tells the tale of Father Baart, local parson who supposedly was given a magic talisman in the late 1800s. Father Baart was rumored to have done some sort of magic to result in the deaths of two local villagers that he hated. Then Father Baart disappeared, never to be seen again. Every now and again, someone sees Father Baart's ghost, but there's no real clue as to what happened to Father Baart. One day, when Johnny was trying to avoid Eddie, he ran into the church attached to Johnny's school. While inside, Johnny explores the basement and finds a hollowed out book with a blue ushabti, an Egyptian statue included in the tombs of the wealthy. The ushabti would perform work for the deceased in the underworld. A note warning that the figure must not be removed from the church is also included. Johnny, of course, takes the book and the ushabti home, and that's when the adventure starts to begin. Johnny asks the professor if the ushabti is real, and if it might be magical. The professor sees that it is just an old souvenir from Cairo, Illinois. However, one evening while Johnny is hanging out in the church because he felt something pulling him there, Johnny meets Mr. Beard. Mr. Beard gives Johnny a ring to wear and tells Johnny to say a daily prayer over the ushabti. The next thing you know, Johnny is being controlled by the ring and scares off Eddie with a gust of strong wind. When Johnny finally realizes that Mr. Beard is really the evil Father Baart in disguise, and that Johnny's soul is at stake, Johnny feels helpless. The professor tries to help, but Johnny won't say anything until he is taken to a psychiatrist who uses Sodium Pentothal to get the truth from Johnny. There is a terrifying showdown between Johnny, the professor, and Father Baard, and I won't ruin the story by saying how that turns out.

Maybe because I so recently finished The Figure in the Shadows, I recognized all the similarities. Both Lewis and Johnny have problems with bullies. Both wind up wearing something (Lewis wears a necklace, and Johnny wear a ring) that negatively controls their behavior and that fights removal. Both of the evil characters are nebulous, hovering, dark forms. Even with all the similarities, I found myself liking Johnny. Also, the professor is a much more realistic and interesting character than Uncle Jonathan. The Figure in the Shadows came first in 1975, while The Curse of the Blue Figurine was published in 1983. The other books in the Johnny Dixon series sound fun, so I'll continue reading them.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs

cover of The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs
The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs is the third book in the Lewis Barnavelt trilogy. At least, the three books were considered a trilogy at first. At any rate, they are the three books in The Best of John Bellairs compilation. Although this is book is part of the Lewis Barnavelt series, the book features Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmermann. Lewis is off at Boy Scout Camp for the summer. He wants to be able to play more sports with Rose Rita and not be such a loser. Rose Rita, in the meantime, is having teenage woes. Rose Rita is 13, and she's starting to realize that things are going to change in life. At least, her mom is constantly reminding her of it. With the teenage years comes going to dances, dressing up, and being interested in boys. The way Rose Rita's mom talks, Lewis will become Rose Rita's boyfriend. The problem? Rose Rita really doesn't want things to change. She wants everything to stay as it is. She just wants to be friends with Lewis, and she doesn't want to go to dances and be all girly. Well, Mrs. Zimmermann takes pity on Rose Rita, and she invites Rose Rita on a trip to Mrs. Zimmermann's uncle's farm. Mrs. Zimmermann had received a letter from her uncle talking about a magic ring he found, and in the letter, the uncle says that he's probably going to die soon due to an illness he has. Well, the uncle, Oley, has died. Mrs. Zimmermann plans on going to the farm to settle things, then taking a road trip. Mrs. Zimmermann invites Rose Rita to join her. On the way to the farm, Mrs. Zimmermann's car ran out of gas, and she and Rose Rita walk to the grocery store near the farm to get gas. Well, the store is run by a Mrs. Gert Biggers, an ugly, old woman who hates Mrs. Zimmermann because Mrs. Biggers blames Mrs. Zimmermann for stealing Mrs. Biggers' boyfriend when they were young adults.

At the farm, there is no magic ring, but there are signs that the house was broken into and searched. Mrs. Zimmermann and Rose Rita continue on their road trip, but things start going horribly wrong. Mrs. Zimmermann lost her magical wand in The Figure in the Shadows, and now she seems to be a victim of black magic. Mrs. Zimmermann almost dies of mysterious stomach pains, and Rose Rita crashed the car, Bessie, while trying to drive Mrs. Zimmermann to a doctor. Mrs. Zimmermann and Rose Rita return to the farm after Mrs. Zimmermann starts to realize that someone is trying to use black magic against her. Back at the farm, Mrs. Zimmermann mysteriously vanishes, and it's up to Rose Rita to solve the mystery of Mrs. Zimmermann's disappearance. Will Rose Rita save Mrs. Zimmermann?

I could feel a strong connection to Rose Rita. Growing up is a hard thing to do, especially when you realize that the growing up might involve some major changes on your part. It's even harder when those changes are really not wanted, such as Rose Rita wanting to continue to be a tomboy instead of a girly girl. The situation became quite tense, and there were some especially harrowing moments towards the end of the book. Will Rose Rita change, and will she be happy with the change? Who knows? As Mrs. Zimmermann says Rose Rita will just have to wait and see how her life turns out. That's all any of us can do.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs

cover of The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs
The John Bellairs gothic horror books are not very lengthy. I started The Figure in the Shadows yesterday and finished it today. This book is the second in the Lewis Barnavelt books, and it continues with the same characters: Lewis, Uncle Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmermann. Rose Rita is introduced as Lewis' best friend. Now, Rose Rita is a girl after my own heart. She's a tomboy who doesn't take any sass from any boy. Lewis featured even more in this book than in The House with a Clock in Its Walls. At the beginning of The Figure in the Shadows, Lewis is crying over being bullied by the other kids. It's pretty much a repeat of the bullying about Lewis being fat and lacking athletic ability. To cheer him up, Uncle Jonathan lets the gang (him. Lewis, Mrs. Zimmermann, and Rose Rita) look through Uncle Jonathan's grandfather's trunk. Lewis finds an amulet, which he thinks is magical, but Mrs. Zimmermann tests it and says it is non-magical. Lewis thinks it is, and he finds a book Mrs. Zimmermann wrote about amulets, and he performs a test to see if it s rare, magical amulet. It turns out that the amulet is one of those rare, magical amulets that doesn't seem seem magical with normal tests. Lewis starts wearing it around his neck, and he finds that the amulet seems to be affecting him. For one thing, Lewis starts receiving weird, disappearing postcards and letters that say Venio, Latin for "I'm coming." Who is coming? Is it something evil? Lewis finds that he has some ability to stand up to local bully, Woody, punching Woody in the nose. The problem is that Lewis did not want to punch Woody, but something, the amulet, maybe, seemed to control his fist and make him punch Woody. Lewis becomes so frightened that he finally tells Rose Rita what has been going on with the amulet, and they fight when she tries to get it off of him. The problem is what to do with the amulet, and who is coming?

The Figure in the Shadows is an enjoyable book. The tension builds nicely and draws the reader into the action. The only thing that annoyed me is Lewis' extreme crybaby routine. I found myself wishing that Uncle Jonathan would tell Lewis to stop being such a wuss and stand up for himself. Rose Rita does effectively stand up for herself, and the contrast between her and wussy Lewis is striking. On to The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring. That book will feature Rose Rita, and I am looking forward to it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

cover of The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs
When I was a child, one of my favorite authors was Edward Eager. I read his few books over and over again. I loved the magic and wonder, and I was always on the lookout for anything similar. However, somehow, I missed John Bellairs. I was surfing the Internet recent and came across something talking about his books. I did some investigation, and I found that his books, especially the Lewis Barnavelt books, dealt with magic and mystery. Of course, I had to check it out, and got The Best of John Bellairs, which has the first three novels in the Lewis Barnavelt series. I just finished the first book, The House with a Clock in Its Walls.

Lewis Barnavelt is a 10-year-old orphan who goes to live with his Uncle Jonathan after the death of Lewis' parents. Uncle Jonathan lives in a interesting old house in New Zebedee, Michigan, and he's a wizard. Uncle Jonathan's next door name is Mrs. Zimmermann, who seems to barge into the house at any time. Oh, Mrs. Zimmermann is a witch. Uncle Jonathan acts weird at times, wandering around the house, and listening at the walls. Lewis spies on his uncle, and finally, he learns that it's because there is the sound a ticking clock in the house that is worrying Uncle Jonathan. Yep, it's the clock in the title of the first book The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Uncle Jonathan fears that it might be some evil magic from the former owner, Isaac Izard. Uncle Jonathan bought the house after Izard's death.

Lewis makes attempts to fit into his new home and with the new school kids. However Lewis is on the tubby side, and he's not very good at sports. The kids all make fun of him, but Lewis thinks he made a friend in Tarby, a popular, athletic boy. But Tarby starts to join in on the mocking. Lewis decides to wow Tarby with stories about Uncle Jonathan's wizard abilities by eclipsing the moon. Tarby seems impressed, but then Tarby says that Uncle Jonathan must have hypnotized him. Lewis then says he can bring a dead person back to life. Well, Tarby calls Lewis on it, and the pair meet up in the cemetery. Unfortunately, Lewis performs some magic from his uncle's books, and he appears to raise Isaac Izard's wife, Selenna. Everything heats up then. An evil presence (could it be the dead Mrs. Izard) moves into the house across the street, Tarby is more mean than ever to Lewis, and Uncle Jonathan is getting more antsy about the ticking clock in the walls. is it a Dooms Day machine? Can Lewis, Uncle Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmermann return Mrs. Izard to the dead and stop the ticking clock?

The story was a quick read, and I found myself rooting for Lewis. The action moved fast and furious at the end, and I just know that there will be more exciting adventures for Lewis and company. The most interesting thing is that Edward Gorey illustrated the book, and his illustrations really add to the eerie atmosphere. Because I am such a read-aholic, I got several John Bellairs books from the library. Now, I'm hoping for a nice, good thunderstorm tonight!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Judas Kiss by Victoria Holt

cover of The Judas Kiss by Victoria Holt
When you are in the mood for romantic suspense, you can't go wrong with Victoria Holt. I had just finished one book, and I was eager for more. You know how you get that feeling that you don't want the book to end. Well, in the case of folks who continue to publish several books in a genre, you have that opportunity. This time, I read The Judas Kiss. I don't remember reading it before, so I knew nothing of the plot.

The heroine of The Judas Kiss is Philippa, aka Pippa, Ewell, the younger sister of Francine, who is a gorgeous and charming young woman. Unfortunately, the Ewell sisters lose both parents within a short time of each other. The father had run away to the island of Calypse to be an artist and marry the woman he loved, leaving behind a repressive live on his father's country estate. With their parents dead, Francine and Pippa's grandfather brings them back to England to raise them. The grandfather is an malicious person, hiding mean spiritness behind religious zeal. He makes the girls' life miserable, and the only good thing is that they have each other and their kindly grandmother. When foreigners from the Bavarian Alps visit the next-door estate, Francine and Pippa sneak in with the aid of their maid and the foreigner's houseboy. When Francine catches the eye of Baron Rudolph, heir to the kingdom of Bruxenstein, who is visiting, it seems like an answer to a prayer. The grandfather wants Francine to marry Cousin Arthur, who is just like the grandfather. Well, Francine runs off with the Baron, and they marry. Francine keeps Pippa updated with a few letters, and then Pippa finds out that her sister has been murdered in a hunting lodge with Rudolph. The newspapers refer to Francine as Rudolph's mistress, and they don't mention the little boy that Francine told Pippa she had. Well, Pippa is shocked. As she goes every day to the empty house where the foreigners lived, she meets a handsome man that she thinks is an equerry to Count who owns the house. They go to look at the church registry that Pippa had seen with Francine's wedding signature, but it no longer exists. Thinking that Conrad, the equerry will marry her, Pippa sleeps with him. She can't believe it when he says that he can't marry her, but he can make Pippa his mistress. Pippa couldn't bring herself to leave with him.Then when the grandfather tries to get Pippa to marry Cousin Arthur, Pippa rebels. The grandfather dies in a fire, and some think that Pippa killed him because he was going to throw Pippa out of the house. However, the fire is deemed an accident, and Pippa, with inheritance money from her grandmother's estate, travels to the Bavarian Alps to find out what happened to Francine. There she finds that Conrad is really Baron Signmund, next in line to rule the kingdom of Bruxenstein. Pippa is in Bruxenstein under an assumed name, and acting as a companion to Countess Freya, who is supposed to marry Sigmund/Conrad.

As you can tell, there is a lot of intrigue going on and a rather complex plot. Does Pippa figure out who killed Francine and Rudolph? Can she prove the pair was married and had a child? If she can, she might be able to free Sigmund/Conrad from his marital obligation to Freya. Of course, all is resolved in the end. I grew to like Pippa. She gave in to human emotion and lust, and she had a relationship with Conrad, even though she knew it wasn't really right, and that Freya, whom she grew to love, would be hurt.

All in all, The Judas Kiss was another satisfying read. I found myself engrossed in the mystery, and I have to admit that I didn't figure out who the evil person was in the plot until the very end. I do have to recommend The Judas Kiss, and I will be adding it to my favorite Victoria Holt books.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Devil on Horseback by Victoria Holt

cover of The Devil on Horseback by Victoria Holt
I've mentioned before that Victoria Holt was one of my favorite authors. I discovered her when I was a teen, and I devoured her romantic suspense books. I've read most of the Victoria Holt books and a good number of the Philippa Carr, her other pseudonym. One of my favorite of the Victoria Holt books was The Devil on Horseback. When you read something as a teen, and then reread it as an older adult, you sometimes wonder what you ever saw in the book you loved. So I have been hesitant to read some of favorites over again.

This time, I saw The Devil on Horseback on the local library shelf, and I decided that read it again. The heroine of the story is Minella Maddox, an English girl who helps her mother run a girls' school in England. The local lord of the Derringham Manor sends his daughters to the school, and he encourages his friends to do the same. When the Comte Fontaine Delibes comes with his wife and daughter to the Derringham estate, he sends his daughter, Margot, to the school. Minella, or Minelle as Margot calls her, and Margot become friends. When Minella goes to the manor house to take tea with the Derringham girls and Margot, Minella wanders into the Comte's bedroom as she secretly wanders during a game of hide and seek. The Comte is instantly fascinated. Also fascinated by Minella is the only Derringham son, Joel. Minella's mother dies, Joel is sent to Europe before he could commit to a relationship with Minella, and Margot runs off with a stable boy. Margot is brought back, but is found to be pregnant. The Comte has an idea of how to solve the problem of Margot and how to get closer to Minella. Minella will act as a cousin to Margot. The pair would go off to a distant town in France for Margot to have her baby, and then Minella would go with Margot as a companion and cousin, back to the Comte's estate in France. Of course, Minella has been raised to behave properly, and she does not succumb to the Comte's overtures. Intrigue follows Minella as the Comte's past peccadillos are revealed to her. He has an invalid wife, an illegitimate son (Etienne), Etienne's mother (the former mistress), and the surviving twin of a child that the Comte killed in a riding accident (Leon). The Comte's wife dies from an overdose; was it suicide or murder? Margot is blackmailed over her illegitimate child. Minella is a target of murder attempts, and the whole of France is an an uproar with the approach of the French Revolution.

The story is well-written, and I found myself on the edge of my seat for the last quarter or so of the book. There were a variety of twists to the plot, and it looked like things would end poorly for the Comte. He's the Devil on Horseback of the title. The book has the perfect blend of romance and suspense. I found myself becoming very attached to the characters, and I was anxious that all would turn out well for them. The Devil on Horseback lived up to my fond memories, and I would have to say that it is still one of my favorite of the Holt books.