Book Review: Enchantment Lake

Book Review: Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus

Francine Frye isn’t a detective.  She played a detective on TV.  On a children’s show.  For a few episodes.  But that still makes her the closest thing to a detective Francie’s eccentric aunts Astrid and Jeannette know.  So when a series of perfectly explainable but statistically improbable deaths strike around their cabin home on Enchantment Lake, they make a (badly worded, static-filled) call to their great-niece which cuts off abruptly.

Enchantment Lake

When Francie can’t get the authorities or even her grandfather to investigate, she decides to head to Walpurgis, the small town in northern Minnesota Enchantment Lake is closest to.   She’s relieved to learn Astrid and Jen are alive and well, but now that she’s here, the aunts suggest the young actor snoop around some.  Especially as there’s been a new death, the most suspicious yet.

This middle-grade mystery is the first in the “Enchantment Lake” series, which does make certain developments in the story pretty obvious.  Francie’s on the lower end of seventeen, which allows her to be fairly mature (she was living in New York City on her own while trying to continue her acting career) but still be viewed as a child by most of the adults around her.  This includes her grandfather, who makes use of his control of Francie’s trust fund to order her around.

Francie is perhaps a little too ready to believe there’s a connection between all the seemingly unrelated deaths, as there’s plenty of mystery in her own life.  Her father died in a statistically improbable car crash, her brother moved to Europe a couple of years ago and never communicates with Francie, and absolutely no one will tell Francie anything about her mother.

This last one comes up more than the others, as a couple of the suspects seem to know more about Francie’s mother than she does, and a clue pops up suggesting the woman may be alive.  This plot hook is left dangling for a future volume, alas.

Not being a detective, Francie (known to the older locals as “French Fry”) makes several rookie mistakes, including being alone with murder suspects without having told anyone where she’s going multiple times.  And several people who have information that would be relevant either don’t bring it up or are refusing to tell Francie for their own reasons.

The language is suitable for middle-schoolers, but not so simple that young adult readers would be embarrassed to be seen reading this book.  Romance is limited to Francie noticing certain boys are attractive and being mildy jealous of one paying attention to another girl.  Suicide is mentioned.

The small town Minnesota setting will be familiar to most Minnesotans and many other people from the upper Midwest.  It allows for a quirky cast without going into demeaning “hick” stereotypes.  (The most stereotyped person is actually a spoiled city girl who sees no attraction in a lakeside vacation.)

The solution to the mystery is pleasingly complex, and younger readers should be pleased if they figure most of it out in advance.

Recommended for young mystery fans, and older mystery fans with a love of small town Minnesota.

Since the book mentions the sound of loons several times, here’s a video set on Loon Lake, not far from where Enchantment Lake would be:

Book Review: Taran Wanderer

Book Review: Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

With the Black Cauldron destroyed, Death-Lord Arawn has retreated to his own lands for the time being, and no other major threats beset the realm of Prydain.  Long peaceful days at Caer Dallben have given Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper time to think.  Taran has realized a number of things, including that he wants to be together with Eilonwy for the rest of their lives…and that he has no idea who he is.

Taran Wanderer

That’s both in the metaphorical and literal sense.  Taran has no idea who his parents were, or if he has living kin.  And his life at Caer Dallben has been more about caring for the oracular swine Hen Wen than discovering his own way of life.  What if he is of noble birth?  What if he is truly a peasant?  Can he be together with a princess if his birthright is unknown?

Dallben the enchanter is as usual not a great deal of help; he either cannot or will not tell Taran the details of the boy’s heritage.  So it is that Taran sets out with his faithful companion Gurgi to the Marshes of Morva.  There, Taran consults the three dangerous sister enchantresses, but learns he cannot pay them a price high enough to learn his own secret.  They do, however, mention that the Mirror of Llunet might give him a glimpse of his true self.

Lake Llunet, where the Mirror was last seen, is clear at the other end of the country, and the rest of the story is about Taran’s journey there.

This is the fourth of five novels in The Chronicles of Prydain, a children’s series based loosely on Welsh mythology.  (Mr. Alexander mentions in the foreword that he’s borrowed bits from other folklore as well.)  The focus is on Taran’s character development, so there’s no one overwhelming threat, but a number of smaller problems and lessons that Taran must overcome or learn from on his way to maturity.

Indeed, Taran has grown a great deal from the callow lad he was at the beginning of the series; he shows wisdom whenever he thinks about how to help others, rather than his own problems.  But he still needs to let go of the notion that he needs to be special before he can embrace his true destiny.

Not everything is hard lessons; not-quite-human Gurgi and the prevaricating bard Fflewddur Fflam provide comic relief.  But there are villains as well, the terrifying Morda, who cannot be killed by mortal means (and who is responsible for some of the mysteries in earlier books) and the greedy mercenary Dorath.  Eilowny does not appear, but is often mentioned.

The book is well-written, though some of the running character tics grow tiresome by the end.  (And the lesson at the end is obvious at the beginning if you’re at all familiar with children’s literature.)   It’s a good breather before the climactic events of the final volume, where Taran and Eilowny must take their mature roles.

I recommend the entire series, and the Disney version has its good bits as well.

Magazine Review: Thrilling Mystery March 1936

Magazine Review: Thrilling Mystery March 1936 by various

Thrilling Mystery was a pulp horror magazine created by Thrilling Publications; I’ve been unable to find publication history details in a quick search.  It specialized in “weird menace” tales, which had supernatural trappings but were ultimately revealed as having non-supernatural (but not necessarily plausible) explanations.  It did not, however, stick entirely to such stories.  This issue was reprinted by Adventure House, so let’s see what’s inside.

Thrilling Mystery March 1936

“The Twisted Men” by Hugh B. Cave starts us off with the tale of a young couple who’ve come to the wife’s isolated New England hometown to purchase a summer home.  Peter and Jo Smith (names changed to protect the innocent) soon discover that some force is taking healthy, sane men, and turning them into twisted, mentally deficient monsters that soon die as their bodies are no longer able to support life.

The explanation is allegedly scientific, but the near-instantaneous transformation of the victims (always done while they are off-page for a few minutes) is highly implausible to say the least.  Some great atmosphere, though.  (Also a completely unnecessary mention of Jo being naked at one point for the “spicy” factor.)

“Cold Arms of the Demon” by Jackson Cole is the non-“weird menace” story in this issue.  There’s something in the lake that likes to drown young women, and staying out of the lake is not a defense.  Good thing there’s a ghost writer in the area!

“Black Moonlight” by G.T. Fleming-Roberts is set in an isolated mountain community, probably in Appalachia.  Despite the best efforts of pretty schoolmarm Helen Dahl, the benighted locals have fallen into the clutches of a doomsday cult that promises the end of the world tonight when the moon is destroyed.   And given that frozen corpses are showing up in the middle of summer in a town with no electricity, the cult just might be on to something.

Good thing Helen’s fiance Larry Brit and town doctor Kayne are not so superstitious!  The story hinges on the notion that the ignorant rural folk don’t understand the concept of an eclipse and wouldn’t have noticed it coming in the Farmer’s Almanac.

“The Howling Head” by Beatrice Morton concerns anthropologist Gregg Hartnett coming across a woman’s head howling in the middle of nowhere.  This proves to be a trap by cannibals.  Period racism and the concept of Social Darwinist atavism (sudden resurgence of ancestral traits, particularly among non-white people) make this an uncomfortable read.

“Vengeance of the Snake-God” by James Duncan stars reporter Gary North, who is engaged to Marion Cravath, daughter of archaeologist Hugh Cravath.  They’ve come to Mr. Cravath’s isolated mansion to gain his blessing on their relationship.  That plotline is derailed when the pair stumble across a corpse in the driveway.  It seems Mr. Cravath raided the tomb of Cla-Mir, high priest of the Egyptian snake god Musartis, and brought the fabulous jewels within back to the States.

There is supposedly a curse on the jewels, and this is the second person to die horribly in a similar manner.  Mr. Cravath had called in detective Paul Medal to protect him, but that worthy admits he’s baffled.  The phone lines have been cut, the vehicles rendered inoperative, and the house’s occupants are dying one by one.  Musartis strikes!

Period racism and ableism, though this time misguided.  The sinister Egyptian little person is a red herring.

“Spider’s Lair” by C.K.M. Scanlon initially looks like a love triangle story.  Jeff is a bank cashier who is in love with Nancy Shelby.  She’s currently dating Clinton Banning, a slick fellow who was recently raised to vice-president by the bank president, Harmon Tabor.  Jeff has been suspicious of Banning for a while, as his work hardly seems of the quality to deserve such a promotion.  The detective agency Jeff hired to look into Banning’s background has discovered a wife that Banning never divorced (and has never mentioned to Nancy.)

Nancy’s weak-willed little  brother Paul Shelby asks Jeff to come along on a triple date to Spider Island that Banning is organizing.  Paul will be bringing along his current squeeze, Dolly Pollard, and there’s a third woman coming along for Jeff, a beautiful but mysterious lady named Rose Larue.  Jeff decides this outing will be the perfect chance to get Banning alone and confront him with Jeff’s knowledge of the abandoned wife.

Spider Island has a sinister reputation, but that might just be because of all the spiders.  Or that it was the lair of pirate Spider Murgler.  Or it might be because of the actual point of the expedition, which is far more lethal than Jeff ever expected.  A nifty if highly implausible murder method is involved.  And maybe a bit more love triangle.  Content warning: torture.

“Blood of Gold” by Wayne Rogers (no relation) has seven young people from the wealthier classes and their chauffeur going on a treasure hunt out in Colorado, based on a map found in one’s father’s trunk.  Most of them will not be making it out alive.  Has some good twists, but again the science explanation for what’s going on is highly implausible.  This is the closest story to the cover illustration, but not quite right.

“The Man Who Died Twice” by Bret Altsheler concerns an attempt to bring a man back from the dead who should have remained a corpse.  Once again, dubious science.  The intro tells us the author also wrote “The Gods Laugh at the Red Maggots” which is a far more intriguing title.

The magazine ends with the “Horror-Scope” column by “Chakra.”   The main feature is retellings of various real-life serial killer cases.  Then there are questions from readers, one on ghosts and the other two on torture.  One of these may be useful to writers looking for authenticity in 1930s gangster stories.

The Adventure House reprint includes the original ads and illustrations.  A good selection of the “weird menace” subgenre, but be warned that in every tale, the role of the main woman is to be rescued by the hero.

 

 

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park by Erin Peabody

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

A Weird and Wild Beauty

In early 1871, the readers of Scribner’s Magazine, one of the best-selling periodicals in the United States, were treated to an article about a mysterious land south of the Montana Territory.  According to the article, there was a place of geysers that shot steaming water hundreds of feet into the air, where mud pools exploded on a regular basis, and trees were encased in stone.  This was the first widely-published  account of the Yellowstone, and many dismissed it as an absurd traveler’s tall tale.

But the Yellowstone River and its surroundings were very real.  It had been named “Mi tse a-da-zi” (Rock Yellow River) by the Minnetaree tribe, and translated to “Roche Jaune” by French trappers before English speakers gave it the present name.  Native Americans had often visited or lived there for its special properties, and stories of it were shared by the few hardy white people who’d managed to survive a visit.  They were generally disbelieved by those who had not been there.  It took a proper expedition organized by former banker Nathaniel Langford and staffed by sober, reliable citizens to show the reality.

This volume is a history of how Yellowstone became a National Park written for young adults by a former park ranger.  The primary emphasis is on the two important expeditions, first Langford’s and then a full scientific expedition led by government  geologist Ferdinand Hayden.  In addition to the hardy scientists and support staff, the expedition had two artists and photographer William H. Jackson, and their visual evidence was key in convincing Congress of the reality of the fabled wilderness.

The writing is clear and concise, rated for twelve and up, but quite readable for adults.  There are multiple sidebars about related subjects such as the Transcontinental Railroad and Henry David Thoreau, and many illustrations in both black & white and color.

The history section briefly covers what is known of the history of the Yellowstone area before the expeditions, and up to the point where the National Park bill was signed into law.  More recent events concerning the park are not covered in the main text, although some are mentioned in the sidebar.

After the history section, there’s a map of America’s National Parks and other federal preserves, then a couple of chapters on the science of why Yellowstone is a unique area.  There are endnotes, a bibliography, index and photo credits (in readable sized font!)

Part of Yellowstone’s importance is mentioned in the subtitle; it was not just the United States’ first National Park, but the world’s.  Previously, when land was set aside to preserve it, it was only for the powerful (“the King’s forest”) or the very wealthy to enjoy.  This was the first time a national government had set aside wilderness for the sake of the public at large.  And just in time, as the Hayden expedition had already run into people planning to exploit the Yellowstone area for private commercial gain.  (At this point in history, the U.S. side of Niagara Falls had already been completely privatized and commercialized!)

The book briefly touches on mistreatment of Native Americans, the extinction or near-extinction of animal species and other difficult topics, but these are not the main concern.  The bibliography contains books that go into much more detail on these matters.

Most recommended for teens interested in history and the outdoors, but also good (and affordable) for adults with similar interests.

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