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Archive for April, 2012


I do like my short stories, and I wasn’t disappointed in this first volume of what promises to be an entertaining series from Michael Panush. These stories follow the adventures of Morton Candle and Weatherby Stein, an unlikely pair who operate a detective agency that specializes in unusual (read paranormal) cases. Each story is a short vignette involving supernatural entities ranging from zombies (a favorite) and vampires to Old Nick himself. The relationship between Stein and Candle unfolds as the stories progress, and we learn how Weatherby was rescued by Candle and his group of American GI’s just as he and his family were being executed by the Nazis. The Stein Family, we learn, has a long history of exploring and controlling supernatural forces, a skill much in demand by Hitler’s Third Reich. Although unable to save Weatherby’s parents, Candle does manage to rescue the small boy and eventually ends up as his guardian and partner in detecting.

The stories are imaginative and just long enough to please. I was often reminded alternately of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder and Hellboy but found enough originality in the stories to keep me entertained and left me looking forward to Volume 2.

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The Pickled Pantry


The Pickled Pantry by Andrea Chesman

Last summer, on a whim, I bought a bushel of mini cucumbers at a local farmers’ market. I reasoned that my husband, who loves cukes, would eat them, which he did – for about a week. Then I found myself with two thirds of a bushel of lovely little glossy green cucumbers that I could not bear to see go to waste.

Tired of hearing me moan about what to do with this bounty, my husband uttered a phrase that changed my whole summer.

“Why don’t you make pickles?”

Indeed!

So, I searched the internet and found an abundance of recipes for bread and butter pickles, brined pickles, garlic pickles, refrigerator pickles, dill pickles, basil pickles, even kool-aid pickles. While the recipes seemed like something I could manage, I found the lack of good directions a big problem. So, I headed to the library and spent a lovely afternoon browsing through cookbooks on pickles and canning, but came away feeling very intimidated. I eventually tried the simplest refrigerator pickle recipe I could find and they turned out okay. Nothing special, but certainly edible.

The Pickled Pantry has changed all that. This is the book I wanted last summer. Chesman writes in an engaging conversational style, and isn’t afraid to talk about her successes and failures in pickle making. She explains why it’s important to take certain steps, but also offers alternatives for various ingredients or processes. Recipes for a variety of pickles, from cucumber to cauliflower, are presented in clear language that can be understood by a novice. As an added bonus, Chesman also profiles famous pickle makers (who would have thought there were so many!?) in appealing inserts throughout the book.

The Pickled Pantry is one of those rare cookbooks that you can read straight through like a novel. I sincerely hope Chesman has other culinary expertise and will be writing more books like this one!

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The Orphanmaster


I was intrigued from the very first exposure I had to The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman, primarily because I am a New Yorker and totally enamored with the history of my state. That, combined with all the elements I love in a story – mystery, murder, romance – how could I not read this?

I was not disappointed. At all.

The Orphanmaster didn’t grab me right away, however. The first chapter detailing the activities of spies and assassins dispatched across the globe to hunt and murder the men who authorized the execution of Charles I of England, kind of left me cold, but as I read further, it became clear why Zimmerman began the story in this way. Edward Drummond, our hero, is one of those spies and his activities in New Amsterdam and New England are driven by his mission to hunt three regicides who have taken refuge in the New World. It also didn’t hurt that the second chapter contained one of the most frightening scenes I’ve read in a book since Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.

What did immediately capture my attention was the character of Blandine van Couvering, a she-merchant (don’t you love that term?) trader and an orphan who moved easily and confidently through the hard scrabble world of early New York. It is through Blandine that the story gets it red thread – the thing that holds it all together. And what a character! Strong, independent, kind, beautiful (of course), a superb housekeeper, a skilled negotiator – a woman making her way in a man’s world. What I appreciated the most about Zimmerman’s treatment of Blandine were the references to the role of women in early Dutch culture. Blandine was not an anomaly. Under Dutch rule, women were allowed to work, to own property, and to choose their own husbands.

Blandine and Edward find themselves smack in the middle of a rash of child killings and disappearances – all of orphans. Blandine’s mentor, Aet Visser, the Orphanmaster of New Amsterdam, is involved, but we don’t know how deeply until well into the story. Zimmerman draws a vivid picture of a man conflicted as we watch Visser tumble into despair. Add to that several other well-drawn characters – Martyn Hendrickson, the handsome, dashing patroon who cannot be tamed, Kitane, a Lenape trapper afflicted with a horrifying mental illness, and Lightning, a terrifying half-breed – and you have all the elements of a thriller.

There are a number of gruesome scenes in this story that could and should repulse the reader. This is, in an odd way, a 17th century Silence of the Lambs, but Zimmerman uses the horrifying actions of the killers to create a suspenseful, nail-biting story that had me guessing to the end. There are a lot of elements at work here besides the child killings, but all the loose ends are tied up in a frenzied ending that left me wanting more from this author. I was also pleasantly surprised to find Blandine and Edward ending their days in Honeoye, a lovely area quite near where I live.

It’s been awhile since I had trouble putting a book down, so I appreciated the combination of riveting story and skillful telling. Highly recommended.

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Nevermore


First published in 1994, this reprint tells the tale of how Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle teamed up to catch a killer recreating grisly scenes of death from Edgar Allan Poe’s writing. Houdini and Conan Doyle meet up in New York City, where Houdini is busy revealing the tricks used by mediums to defraud their clients, and Doyle is in search of spiritual connection, which he finds in the form of Poe’s ghost, who visits him occasionally.

Having long admired Conan Doyle, Houdini, and Poe, and being a mystery lover, I thought I couldn’t miss with this story. I was wrong. The more I read, the greater my sense of dissatisfaction with the story. I simply could not connect with the characters, or with the story, and found myself increasingly annoyed with the author’s descriptive elements. For example, Conan Doyle and his wife are continually referred to as “the knight and his lady.” While I understand Conan Doyle was knighted, this description seemed contrived and silly. Elsewhere in the story, I found myself cringing when reading how a cop “felt his sphincter tighten with excitement” as he realized he had a clue to a murder. And later on, when describing the atmosphere of an indoor pool, Hjortsberg writes that “the close, humid air reeked sexually of chlorine.”

Really?

Despite the odd descriptive elements, I plugged along, thinking the story could get better, and there *are* some really interesting elements. I found the character of Isis engaging, and appreciated how Hjortsberg developed the relationship between her and Houdini. The ghost of Poe, though, seemed contrived and unnecessary, and the climax less than breathtaking. All in all, an excellent concept but an unsuccessful treatment.

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