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.