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Archive for April, 2011


Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson

True, the original Carnacki collection was published in 1913, but it was re-issued in 1947 and created a stir in a world recovering from the horror or human war. The character of Carnacki is a cross between Sherlock Holmes and VanHelsing, a man who uses intellect and science to battle forces of darkness. I’m betting Carnacki was also the model for one of my all-time favorite TV shows, the 1970’s classic The Night Stalker, starring the magnificent Darren McGavin as Karl Kolchak.

This collection of short stories follows the adventures of Carnacki, a ghost finder, who is called in to investigate all sorts of supernatural goings on, usually in the English countryside. The stories are told to a group of Carnacki’s friends as they gather for dinner at his home. In each story, Carnacki approaches the supernatural activity with a healthy dose of skepticism tempered by a real belief in the unknown, a bag full of equipment, and his trusty camera. Through the course of these stories, Carnacki battles a huge hand, an enormous pair of lips that whistle a horrifying tune, and a group of very human smugglers “haunting” a castle, among others.

I was reminded of the old pulp comics while reading this one, and I bet I could find a Carnacki comic if I looked hard enough. This is an entertaining, light read for fans of the horror genre. Not terribly gruesome but certainly very spooky and lots of fun.

5 out of 5 catalog cards.

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Those of you who know me, know very well that I am a diehard mystery fan, and as such, completely revere the great Agatha Christie. Several years ago, my father-in-law, who is an addicted garage sale junkie, showed up at my house with a box full of an entire set of Agatha Christie books. These weren’t your every day, average books – these were a Set, with black leather bindings, and gold leaf edges. And they had never been cracked.

Although it killed me to be the first to open these beautiful books, books are, after all, meant to be read. So I started re-reading all the Christie’s I’d devoured as a kid, and found several I’d never read. One of those was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, originally published in 1920. Even though I’d read it before, I felt obliged as part of this reading project to read and write about Christie’s first published novel and the first appearance of Hercule Poirot.

As the story opens, we meet Lieutenant Hastings, freshly returned from war and recuperating from a wound. He meets up with old friend John Cavendish, who invites Hastings to spend some time at his family seat, Styles, as he begins his rehabilitation. The family home, owned by John’s stepmother, becomes the scene of a murder involving the family matriarch, Emily Inglethorp. As the local police struggle with the crime, Hastings brings in an old acquaintance, Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who became one of Christie’s most famous characters. Poirot and Hastings, along with Inspector Japp who also appears in later Poirot mysteries, engage the characters, discover and refute alibis and motives, and eventually, through the use of Poirot’s famous “little grey cells,” unmask the murderers.

Although Christie’s first published story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was greeted with great enthusiasm by critics and readers alike when it was published in the United States in 1920. This marked the beginning of an illustrious career for Christie and the development of a genre that has become beloved by millions of readers worldwide. If you haven’t read The Mysterious Affair at Styles lately, or at all, find yourself a copy and settle in for a treat.

5 out of 5 catalog cards.

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The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

I have fond memories of reading the book to which this one is a sequel – The Scarlet Pimpernel – one hot summer in between high school semesters. I was reading anything I could find about the French Revolution, and a librarian at the Gates Library recommended Baroness Orczy and the Pimpernel, which I devoured.

I had not realized there was a sequel until I started creating the lists for this reading project, and was delighted to find my old friend Percy Blakeney among the choices. In fact, I discovered there are a great many sequels to the original Pimpernel, which I’m sure will lead to much more reading for me!

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel picks up with Sir Percy still rescuing unfortunate maidens and righting wrongs in post Revolution France, albeit in a collection of short stories instead of one longer novel. Each vignette has Percy or another member of The League righting wrongs committed against members the aristocracy or members of their staff. Children are rescued, fortunes restored, and lives set aright, all at the hand of the man with the twinkling blue eyes that can turn to steel in a second.

An entertaining read for fans of the spy genre and historical fiction.

4 out of 5 catalog cards.

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Daughter of the Morning by Zona Gale

I was eager to read this story because I had was intrigued by a biographical sketch of Zona Gale’s I’d found in a reference book in the Central Literature Division. Gale was an early proponent of rights for women, participating in the National Women’s Party and the Lucy Stone League, and specialized in writing about strong women who overcame traditional roles and made their own opportunities.

Daughter of the Morning is an example of Gale’s descriptive writing about the lack of opportunities afforded to women in the early 20th century. The story opens with Cossy, a young woman just out of teens and stuck living on a farm with her parents and brothers, who all seem unhappy with their lot in life. She’s creating a book out of wrapping paper, someplace she can write down her thoughts. Cossy frets about what to do with her life. She has no particular ambition, except not to turn out like her mother and father, who scream at each other constantly. In the opening chapters, she reluctantly agrees to marry Luke, a neighbor who says “she’s got to marry somebody” and why not him?

The morning after she agrees to marry Luke, she meets a stranger on the road as she’s walking at dawn, enjoying her solitude. That meeting opens a whole new world of ideas to Cossy, who within the day, has decided to leave the farm and move to the city to find her way. She eventually finds a job in a factory, where she becomes involved with workers rights. The story is a string of adventures experienced by Cossy in the big city, which all lead back to the farm and home.

What I find particularly interesting about the women’s fiction of this time period is the reach into independent living, which fires much of this story, but the eventual return to the status quo of the male hero “rescuing” the female protagonist in the final chapter by clasping her tightly to his broad chest and declaring that he has been hopelessly in love with her for the whole book and won’t she please marry him and make his life complete? Not unlike a Harlequin romance novel of today.

Daughter of the Morning is at best a pleasant if uninspiring read.

3 out of 5 catalog cards

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The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

I picked this story for 1916 primarily because it was a work by Twain I did not know and I was curious. This is one instance when it would have been better to leave my curiosity unsatisfied. 

During the last part of his life, Twain entertained a great fascination with what he referred to as the “hypocrisy of religion. ” This edition of The Mysterious Stranger concentrates on that, telling the rather jumpy story of the “mysterious stranger,” Satan, the unspoiled nephew and namesake of the Lord of Hell. The story begins in the hills of Austria, set during the Middle Ages, and concentrates on the actions of Satan as he befriends a group of young boys, who are both horrified and delighted at the attention paid them by the stranger. 

The story jumps around and rambles, and so lost me about a third of the way in. The forward says this edition is a compilation of two versions of the manuscript, which Twain worked on sporadically from around 1890 to 1910, and which was left unfinished when Twain died. 

Unfinished, rambling, preachy, and just plain uninteresting, skip this one. 

1 out of 5 catalog cards.

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The Adventures of Kathlyn by Harold McGrath

 Picture the old silent films with the evil villain menacing the innocent, goddess-like heroine, who is saved either through her own ingenuity or by the handsome hero…again, and again, and again. All of those films were born out of this story. 

The Adventures of Kathlyn was actually published to coincide with the release of the film of the same name, which is acknowledged as the second serial ever made in American cinema and the first of the cliffhanger genre. 

Kathlyn Hare is the beautiful blonde daughter of adventurer Colonel Hare, who inherits the throne of a tiny Indian kingdom after saving the King from being mauled to death by a big cat. We first meet Kathlyn as she is sculpting a leopard on her father’s ranch in sunny California. Kathlyn has an uncanny way with animals and is able to calm the fiercest of wild beasts with a few quiet, sweet words, a long look and a gentle touch. The first “dog whisperer” perhaps?

 Colonel Hare unexpectedly departs on a mysterious journey back to India, leaving a letter for Kathlyn and her sister to open on New Years Eve if they fail to hear from him again. Unbeknownst to Kathlyn, her father’s letter is replaced with one written by the dangerous pretender to the throne, Umballa, who wants to lure Kathlyn to India in order to marry her and seize the throne.

On the way to India, Kathlyn makes the acquaintance of the handsome, stoic John Bruce, a big game hunter who knows her father. She does not reveal her identity because she wants to rescue her father without assistance from anyone. Little does she know that Bruce will be her rescuer again and again. As soon as she arrives in India, she begins falling into and out of Umballa’s clutches. After many narrow escapes, all’s well that ends well.

 As with much American writing of this time period, The Adventures of Kathlyn is shot through with stereotypes, classism and racism, reflective of the culture in the early 20th century. The stereotypical fair skinned, blonde woman being lusted after by the dark-skinned foreigner; the strong, silent hunter-hero; the doting father; silly younger sister; there are too many to count in this story. The story was clearly developed to leave the audience hanging at the end of each section, and it accomplishes that task admirably. Kathlyn is shot and tumbles into the river; Kathlyn is menaced by a ferocious lion; Kathlyn is about to be whipped within an inch of her life…and so on. You can just picture the film scenes.

If you are a fan of early cinema and want to sample the writing behind the film, give this one a try. If you enjoy series fiction, you will also probably like Kathlyn. She’s a little bit of Nancy Drew, Buffy and Lara Croft all rolled into one. I hope The Adventures of Kathlyn is on DVD, because I would dearly love to watch a few of the episodes. I suspect they’ll be as corny as the written version but more fun.

3 out of 5 catalog cards.

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