Mini Reviews ~ Two Little Doses of Peril

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“The Invisible Assistant” by John Gaspard

I’ve read a few mystery short stories over the past couple of years. It seems that long-form mystery writers sometimes struggle to fit a whole mystery, nose to tail, into the form. If John Gaspard struggled with “The Invisible Assistant,” it doesn’t show. This story features Eli Marks, stage magician, amateur crime solver, and main character of three great mystery novels. Yet, no previous Eli Marks experience is required to enjoy this story! Not only do we get a solid mystery, but we get some magic which provides an excellent introduction to the character. I will say that I guessed the solution to this mystery before the end. It seems a little…improbable, but given the tone of the story, it works.

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“Flop Sweat” from Shatterday by Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison writes speculative fiction. I’ve always liked the designation “speculative fiction” because it embraces anything that isn’t entirely current reality: science fiction, fantasy, and even horror. I don’t generally think of horror when I think of Harlan Ellison, but “Flop Sweat” is a fine piece of tension. Set against a city on edge due to a razor blade killer, radio talk show host Theresa Ketchum’s guests are cultist Brother Darkness and psychiatrist Jacob Theiss. But neither of them are the crazy one. Just how responsible *is* Theresa for what’s going on in Los Angeles?

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Deal Me In, Week 37 ~ “The Daemon Lover”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What is Deal Me In?

“The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson

Card picked: Five of Spades
From: The Lottery and Other Stories

Thoughts:

“Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn’t it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you’ll see it’s even stranger than that…”

Unfortunately, we never hear about how it happened. Our protagonist, another female character that I don’t recall Shirley Jackson naming, begins this letter to her sister as she’s waiting for her fiancé, Jamie, to come for her so they can elope. She is nervous and wants everything to be perfect. Is her comfortable blue dress too severe? The alternative is an old ruffled print that seems too young for her. She is thirty-four years old, after all. No spring chicken, but she’s sure Jamie sees all her good qualities. Unfortunately, Jamie Harris never shows up. When he’s sufficiently late, our protagonist goes to where he says he lives (she’d never been to his place). She finds that he was a sublet tenant (maybe) who moved out the day (hours?) before. But she’s certain he’d been there that morning and tried to track his progress to to her apartment. He stopped to get his shoes shined. He stopped to buy chrysanthemums for her (an odd choice for his bride). But then, he went to another house, to a room in the attic, and will not answer the door…

This story can be read two ways and neither of them is comfortable. Since we, the readers, have never meet Jamie (he just left before we meet our protagonist), and no one our protagonist talks to ever quite knows who she’s talking about, it’s possible that this old maid (but with skills and talents and a nice apartment!) has made him up. Or maybe…everyone is humoring our protagonist. Or making fun of her. A thirty-four year-old woman in a ruffled print dress that is too young for her chasing down a some man in a blue suit? Well…haven’t you ever wondered if the people around you are just humoring you, or maybe even making fun of you, but you can’t tell for sure because maybe they really are telling the truth? And I wonder, is this a particularly female feeling? Or only the feeling of someone who has never really been “cool” or popular? (Am I tipping my cards too much to say that maybe this story isn’t comfortable to me because I still feel this way sometimes?)

After googling “The Daemon Lover” (sometimes called “James Harris”), I find that this is also the name of Scottish ballad about the Devil who lures away the wife of a carpenter after being away for seven years. Maybe our protagonist will meet Jamie again in her forties. Or maybe it’s all just been a devil’s trick.

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Review ~ The Seance

The Seance by Iain Lawrence

Cover via Goodreads

SCOOTER KING UNDERSTANDS illusions. In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, he performs them behind the scenes at his mother’s séances, giving the impression that Madam King communicates with the dead. Scooter also admires Harry Houdini and can hardly wait to see the famed magician escape from his razzle-dazzle Burmese Torture Tank. But when Scooter stumbles upon a dead body in the visiting Houdini’s tank, it’s no illusion. Who could the murderer be? And did he—or she—kill the right person?

As Scooter sets out to unmask the killer, the mysterious worlds of mediums, séances, and magic are revealed. No one is above suspicion, and appearances are deceiving. If Scooter doesn’t sort out the clues—and fast—he may end up as the next dead body. (via Goodreads)

The Séance is a murder mystery set in 1926 with a 13 year-old protagonist. I don’t read a lot of books with young protagonists (even when I was young) because I find it hard to believe in the proficiencies of young people. I remember being thirteen. I was pretty crap at most things. In this case though, Scooter is a boy of the 1920s who has been specifically trained with a certain set of skills. And it would have been nice if those skills would have been more intrinsic to his solving the mystery. Another problem I have with young protagonists is that they sort of require a lack of adults. In this case, there seems to be only one policeman investigating the inciting murder and he has no time for a kid’s testimony. All the other adults are pretty much buffoons, including Scooter’s mom. Houdini does make an appearance, here and there, and is a true-to-form glory hound.

I was attracted to this book due to my research into séances and I especially wanted to see how the author was going to treat the behind-the-scenes aspects. All-in-all, those details were handled fairly well. Scooter’s mother does partially believes that her psychic powers are real, but there’s nothing in the narrative that leads down a supernatural path. I was okay with Lawrence adding the fictitious spiky water tank, the Burmese Torture Tank, to Houdini’s repertoire when a unique murder weapon was needed, but there were some later details that were a little too convenient.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Delacorte Press, 2008
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: mystery

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Deal Me In, Week 36 ~ “Smee”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What is Deal Me In?

“Smee” by A. M. Burrage

Card picked: 10 of Spades
From: One of the great things about Deal Me In is finding new favorite short stories. “Smee” is from Jay’s list of Ten Favorite Ghost Stories. It’s available in text form at Scary for Kids (even scarier for adults).

Thoughts:
There was a time when even adults played games in the dark. Not *those* kinds of games! Sheesh.* But games like hide and sneek, and maybe  smee, provided some at-home entertainment before the internet, before TV, before the radio gave people other things to do.

The rules of smee are simple. Each player takes a slip of paper. On one of the slips, “SMEE” is written. When the lights go out, the person with “SMEE” goes and hides. The rest of the players try to find SMEE, challenging one another with “Smee?” If the person isn’t “smee,” they answer “It’s me!” or rather “Smee!” If a seeker encounters the real SMEE, the challenge is met with silence. The seeker then silently stays with SMEE until the last person has gathered where SMEE was hiding. This game works is very amusing! …Unless, you play with one extra: a ghost who you might meet in the dark, who will meet your challenge of “Smee?” only with silence.

A good good ghost story doesn’t need to be complex. The ghost doesn’t need to be bloodily vengeful, have an intense hatred of the living, or even need to have their spirit put to rest. All a good ghost story needs is living people and a ghost. And an author that can conjure up the uncanny with just those two ingredients. I highly recommend “Smee” for a chilling September-Christmas read.

Although the end of “Smee” does include a minor misunderstanding about a couple being supposedly alone for an extended period.

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Mini Reviews, Vol. 5 ~ Poe & Kidd

MiniReviews
alt textThe Unknown Poe, edited by Raymond Foye

I read this for #20BooksOfSummer rather than #RIPXI because I apparently have the philosophy of “Poe for any season.”

Two-thirds of this anthology is some of Poe’s lesser known poetry, some letters, and excerpts from a selection of Poe’s essays. Honestly, the poems were all included in The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe which I already owned, the letters were intriguing, but not enough of them, and the excerpts were tantalizing, but too short. Poe had a sort of unified theory of the universe which can be seen in his fiction, but was more clearly outlined in his letters and essays. The last third of the book is a collection of appreciations by contemporary French writers, most notably Baudelaire. Poe was very big in France, but mostly, it seemed to me, because he was underappreciated by boorish Americans.

I bought this slim little anthology a few years back with a gift card my sister sent me for my birthday/Christmas. It’s a nice addition to my library, but, man, now I really want a collection of Poe’s letters.

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Descent into the Depths of the Earth by Paul Kidd

Descent is the second in a trilogy written by Kidd and set in the D&D world of Greyhawk. More specifically, this and a group of other novels that came out from Wizards of the Coast in 2000-2001-ish all contain elements from classic Greyhawk modules of the same names with some other plot built around them. I haven’t read any of the non-Kidd novels because, well, I don’t care all that much about the conceit. It’s the characters that make Kidd’s novels so much fun.

Instead of the usual band of adventurers, we have a grim sentient-hell-hound-wearing ranger, The Justicar, an only slightly larcenous fairy wizard, Escalla, a usually drunk teamster, and a young soldier is only a soldier because he lives in a war zone. There’s a lot humor and the majority of the plot revolves around the machination of the Seeley Court and a murder mystery. To, you know, balance out the dungeon delving.

 

Deal Me In, Week 35 ~ “Keeping His Promise”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What is Deal Me In?

“Keeping His Promise” by Algernon Blackwood

Card picked: Two of Spades – Wild Card!
From: Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, edited by Marvin Kaye

Thoughts: Marriott, a Fourth Year Man at Edinburgh University, needs to study like he’s never studied before. If he doesn’t pass his next exam, his father is going to pull him from University. End of the line. So what happens during the night of the most important cram session ever? An old friend shows up. Marriott hasn’t seen Fields in years, but his friend is obviously in trouble. Marriott does his best to help his thin, shabby, silent, very tired childhood chum by feeding him some snacks (cold scones, stale oatcake, a bit of whiskey) and lending him a bed for the night. Considering the amount of reading Marriott needs to do, he won’t be doing much sleeping. The night passes fairly peacefully. Marriott, only bothered by an occasional pain in his arm, gets his reading done, pausing only to listen to the deep-sleep breathing of his friends. When dawn breaks, Fields is gone. But the sound of his breathing remains. It’s only later that Marriott remembers the schoolboy pledge they made so many years ago…

Sometimes, participating in RIPXI feels a little like cheating. These are the genres I read most of the time. I picked this story last week without thinking about R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, but this classic ghost story is a great way to kick off the event. And it’s available online too: “Keeping His Promise” by Algernon Blackwood @ Classic Reader!

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Review ~ The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales

Cover via Goodreads

Meet the Bling Ring: six club-hopping LA teenagers accused of stealing more than $3 million in clothing and jewelry from the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson and other young members of the Hollywood elite-allegedly the most audacious burglary gang in recent history.

Driven by celebrity worship, vanity, and the desire to look and dress like the rich and famous, the Bling Ring made headlines in 2009 for using readily available sources-like Google maps, Facebook and TMZ, to track the comings and goings of their targets. Seven teens were arrested for the crimes, and instantly became tabloid fodder. The world asked-how did the American obsession with celebrity get so out of hand? And why did a band of ostensibly privileged LA teens take such a risk? (via Goodreads)

I.

I am a late edge Gen X-er. I am young enough to have still been in high school when the label “Generation X” became prominent in the early 1990s. I was told that my generation was a cynical bunch of slackers that would never be as successful as our parents. Those were the shoes I was apparently destined to fill when I started college in 1993. Way to inspire optimism, adults!

It’s easy to look at a younger generation and purposefully not understand them. In retrospect, what was taken for laziness in Generation X was caution. We’d spent our childhoods in the mess that was the 70s: huge financial recession, the wake of a divisive war that wasn’t a war, and social changes that led to a rise in divorce rates. Even if your parents stayed together and managed to remain employed, there was still a pervasive tension. As Gen X hit adulthood, we didn’t jump into the world. We slowly and deliberately made our way, doing things our way.

II.

Between October 2008 and August 2009, a group of upper middle class teenagers from Calabasas,  CA burglarized famous people. This wasn’t at all on my radar when it happened. I’ve never followed current fame culture. I do have an interest in heists though and I was intrigued when I learned that Sofia Coppola was making a movie based on events. Okay, not enough to see the movie, but I did bookmark the book at the digital library and decided to read it on a whim last week.

Alas, heist is a strong word for what these kids did. Pretty much, they used Google maps to scout the celeb’s houses and looked for easy entrance. Which they generally found. You’d think that really rich people would have kick-ass security systems. Instead they seemed to rely on the fact that their neighborhood (in some cases, gated community) is safe and crime-free. In many cases, the Bling Ring walked in and walked out. The better part of the story, for me, turned out to be the different versions of events that each Ring member told later. Whether misremembered or self-protecting lie, it’s a marvelous case of seven-way he-said she-said.

Nancy Jo Sales originally wrote a long-form article about the Burlar Bunch for Vanity FairThe Bling Ring is part further story, in light of concluded criminal proceedings, and part explanatory theorizing.  Why would these youngsters do this? In most cases, they didn’t need the money. Did they do it because they felt entitled to engage in these celebrity’s lives? Had reality TV made them envious of a certain lifestyle that they didn’t quite have? Did they do it to be famous too?

These are good questions. Unfortunately, Sales tinges her answers with a sort of cherry-picked nostalgia. In her eyes, current culture is to blame; this never happened in the past. I don’t have refuting details at my fingertips, but it seems that the more history I am exposed to, the more I realize that nothing is new.

III.

I try not to be too hard on Millennials. They spent childhood in an economic boom. Their parents, later Baby Boomers, had the resources to protect them and give them everything they could need. Millennials have been emboldened with the notion that they can be anything, do anything. In moderation, that’s a great thing! Unfortunately, the Millennials entered adulthood in the 2010s: huge financial recession, continually rising cost of education, and an increasingly connected social world that can be pretty damn hostile.

Having lived through the 70s,  I feel like Gen X-ers spent the economic boom time like any good survivalist would. Expecting that the world would go to pot again eventually, we built figurative bunkers, well-stocked with fresh water and canned goods. We know the world sucks, but it’s a survivable level of suck. So Gen X-ers, if a Millennial comes knocking, share a can of green beans with them. Millennials, please accept a can of beans in friendship and know they’ll at least be French cut. I mean, we’re not savages.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Read, HarperCollins, May 21, 2013
Acquired: Tempe OverDrive Digital Collection
Genre: nonficton, popular culture

As a good Gen X-er, I felt inspired to make a mixtape, er, playlist reflecting the struggles of every generation: