Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Spiral Staircase, or Some Must Watch

The Spiral Staircase, or Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White.

I had a hard time finding a good blurb for this one.  Here's one from the New York Herald Tribune that I found in a review on another blog (which looks like a good place to find similar titles):

A lonely mansion, with its strangely assorted guests, and its terrible secret…

The silhouette of a murderer, seen at twilight moving ever closer through the ancient elms…

The frantic turnings of a beautiful young girl, as she is sucked down into a whirlpool of shrieking fear.

All in one of the greatest novels of mystery and suspense ever written – a book filled with “astonishing and diabolical shock.”
However, I take issue with a few things in that blurb.  First, I don't think anyone in the "mansion" is a guest.  They're all there because they live there, for the time being.  Second, the young girl is not supposed to be especially beautiful-- just young, innocent, and very small and thin, with vivid hair and a plucky spirit. Also, though I did enjoy reading the book, it's a painful stretch to call it "one of the greatest novels of mystery and suspense ever written".

Anyway, as I've already indicated, I enjoyed the book, overall.  I think I tend to like older books like this one (published in 1933) more than most modern books.  It's dripping with atmosphere, which I love, and there were enough twists and turns to keep me guessing right up until near the end.  That said, I did suspect the person eventually unmasked as the murderer, and once that person was revealed... well, the story (what there was left of it) went downhill, a bit.  The climax was somehow anticlimactic for me.  However, most of the (relatively brief) book was good, in my opinion-- definitely entertaining.

More Particulars:

--  Yes, there is outdated slang, but I don't mind that.  Actually, I even like it, in moderation.  (Heaven knows, our own time has its share of slangy speech.  Personally, I prefer the old-fashioned versions.)

--  I didn't realize until after I'd finished the book that its original title was Some Must Watch; it was renamed after Hitchcock filmed an adaptation of it.  I expected the spiral staircase to play a more vital role in the plot than it did.  The spiral staircase must be more important in the movie.  Speaking of which, I'm not sure if I've ever seen it, but I intend to try, now.  (Apparently the main character is mute in the film!)

--  There are times when you want to shake characters.  "Just talk!  Tell what you know!" or "GET OUT OF THAT HOUSE, LADY!"-- but, well, that's the way most such books work.  If everyone behaves the way 95% of us (at least think we) would, in similar circumstances, there'd be no story.  And the author does a pretty decent job (in my opinion, at least) of explaining/rationalizing behavior.

--  This is the third book I've read, recently, to include at least a reference to the (historically) strained relationships between the English and the Welsh-- and it made me realize that I have no idea why that is/was.  I don't know much about the history of the hostility between the Irish and the English, either, but I think I know nothing about the Welsh... except that they're always described as having dark features (hair, eyes), in books. (g) 

--  The only version I could find (for free) was from Project Gutenberg.  I'm glad it was available, but wow, there were a ton of typos / punctuation errors.  The commas were the biggest issue, I think.  However, let's be honest-- at this point, even retail e-books often come with errors, so it's not surprising that a freebie should have them (though there were more than usual in this copy).

--  Sometimes the word "looney" was spelled "luny", which I'd never seen before.

--  Nurse Barker.  Wasn't that the name of a character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?  (I've never seen it, so I'm not sure...)  I wonder if that was inspired by this character?

--   This is the second of White's books I've read.  In both of them, she really loves to "call forward" to events that will happen later in the book.  (Which is why she's one of the Had-I-But-Known writers, I guess.)

--  Some of the references to the popular culture of the day caught me off guard-- King Kong and Marlene Dietrich... and the "Pictures".

SPOILERy Comments:

--  On the one hand, it was obvious that Lady Warren will use her revolver by the end of the book (to kill the murderer), and some of her comments are blatant clues that she knows who the murderer is-- that it's someone in the family-- that she feels she must kill him/her before she herself can die.  On the other hand, I still wasn't sure-- not until the murderer's identity was revealed.

--  By page 82 I was suspected a Professor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation, but again, I still wasn't completely sure... White kept me guessing-- and mistrusting my guesses.

--  The Professor's motives for murder felt a bit odd... and of course he would explain everything in detail, as all such murderers do in these old mysteries!  I guess that since he's a "luny", his motive needn't make sense, but... overpopulation and food shortage?  I did get a little shiver at the revelation that he witnessed his father commit a murder-- was terrified at the time, but later found that "the seed bore fruit".  ~shudder~ 

That's all the SPOILERs!

So, that's that.
I don't think Ethel Lina White is well-known for any of her other books, so it's doubtful I'll read more by her anytime soon... but I may browse around and find some "if you liked that, you may like this"-style recommendations.  I think I'm in a good-old-fashioned gothic mood, still.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Shattered Silk

Shattered Silk, by Barbara Michaels

Publisher's Blurb:
Karen Nevitt has brought new life to old, abandoned things. Her vintage clothing collection, nestled away in Washington, D.C.'s picturesque Georgetown, features exquisite designer originals from decades past. But there is something deadly sewn into the lace and delicate fabrics she has—clues to a forgotten mystery that is pulling Karen into a dark and terrifying place. A secret once locked away in old trunks and dusty attics is crying out for justice, and only she can make things right. But a killer still lurking in the shadows has decided that the truth must remain hidden . . . and Karen Nevitt must die.  

General Impression:

It was fine-- a generally pleasant read.  Great literature?  No.  Dated?  Somewhat.  Enjoyable?  Certainly.

I liked the main characters and found the story interesting.  I think I'm a sucker for stories about people starting small businesses-- especially when it's a cute little shop.  I could happily have read more details about their plans, even though I know very little (and care even less) about high fashion, new or old.  (The vintage aspect, though, does catch my fancy...)

The mystery was... eh, okay, I guess.  This was another case where the title and cover sound/look much more mysterious and foreboding than most of the story merits.  When "all was revealed", I felt a little disappointed.  ("Is that all?")  But fortunately I enjoyed the bulk of the book enough to not really care that the mystery aspect wasn't absolutely mind-blowing.

I'll definitely continue to read more by Barbara Michaels.  Her work's not perfect (what is?), but she's more suited to my tastes than a lot of other (reasonably) contemporary authors.  Easy, relaxing reading.

More Detailed Comments:

--  At first, I was struck by some of the similarities between this and the last Barbara Michaels novel I read (Into the Darkness).  In both, a woman returns to a former home and works in a shop where someone she knows already works (or in this case, owns).  This person is a female so-called friend who is entirely unsympathetic.  What jewelry was to Into the Darkness, vintage clothing is to Shattered Silk.    ...But admittedly, the similarities soon faded.  I found Karen (heroine of this novel) much more likeable than Meg (from the other).

--  Of course there were a couple of references to Egypt/mummies.  It's required.  ;o)  "...Mrs. MacDougal's face-- which, as her son had once remarked, resembled that of one of the handsomer Egyptian mummies..."

--  I loved Mrs. Mac's explanation of how it felt to try on her wedding dress, however-many long years later:  "'Did you ever read She?'"  ..."'Immortal woman, Mrs. Mac explained.  'Bathed in the fire of Life-- two thousand years old-- superbly beautiful.  Went back into the fire, reversed the process-- aged two thousand years in five minutes.  Nasty.  Felt like that myself when I tried on this dress.'"  (And now I'm curious about She.  Barbara Michaels has a habit of mentioning books and authors in her novels.  I like it when authors do that.)

--  "Chichi clever".  I'd never heard the word "chichi" before, but Kindle told me what it meant.  (Deliberately chic.)   Thanks again, built-in Kindle dictionary!  (It is pretty helpful.)

--  Rob puzzles me.  I don't think I've ever known / read about / seen on TV or movies any male person or character who acts so... "fabulous" ;o)... and yet apparently is some sort of ladies' man.  I find it bizarre and unlikely, but maybe that's just me...

--  The "Congressman" element?  Meh.  Fortunately, politics didn't come into play much (just one reference to Mark as a liberal-- of course), but still... The whole idea of our "hero" being a Congressman just turns me off.  (I don't find politicians to be terribly attractive or romantic figures, as a rule.)

--  The Bell Witch?  Never heard of it. "The Stratford case"?  Nope, not that one, either...

--  "'You sure know a lot of fancy words,' Cheryl said."  Um...  I like Cheryl, but sometimes it felt like Michaels made her a little too unrefined in comparison to her brother.  Why was Mark not portrayed as slightly bumpkin-ish, when Cheryl goes around saying things like that? 

--  Conversely, some of the other characters speak too "fancy" (as Cheryl might say (g)).  How many homicide detectives do you know who go around quoting romantic poetry?  (Or men in general, for that matter!)

--  I was happy that Karen started out slightly overweight and "frumpy"-- but of course I knew she would begin to change for the better over the course of the novel-- and that's good, but... I don't know.  It was frustrating that she so easily dropped pounds and apparently transformed into a beauty.  Why can't a heroine ever be average?  Or just "pretty"?  Why must they all be beautiful?  ...It's just annoying sometimes.  (And it's one of the reasons I adore Jane Eyre so much.  She's physically plain through the whole thing.  She doesn't drop twenty pounds-- or get contact lenses-- or straighten her hair-- or get a new wardrobe-- and magically turn into a stunning beauty.) 

--  "All I had to do was get fat and sloppy... Her mouth dropped open as the truth dawned-- the answer to a question the psychologist has asked weeks ago.  That was why she had let herself go.  She didn't have the guts to come right out and tell Jack she wanted to leave him; she didn't even have the courage to admit it to herself.  So she had pushed him into taking the fatal step, by turning herself into a careless, unattractive frump."   ...Um, excuse me?  Ugh.  I guess we're meant to realize that Jack behaved like a cad and Karen's change in appearance just accelerated things-- not that a little weight gain and unattractive clothing is a legitimate excuse for a man cheating on his wife... but still.  That just irks me intensely.

SPOILERy Observations:

--  More appearance issues!  After Shreve is revealed as a Very Bad Guy (as opposed to just a b***h), we are treated to a description of how unattractive s/he is without her make-up.  What's the point of that?   It seemed rather silly and juvenile. 

Well, that's that. 
Now to figure out how to label this.  I always have a hard time labeling books like this one...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Winter Garden Mystery

The Winter Garden Mystery: A Daisy Dalrymple Mystery, by Carola Dunn.

Though the first Daisy Dalrymple mystery failed to really impress me, I thought I'd try another one, in case I found the series improved after the first installment.  And did I?  Somewhat, but not tremendously. 

This is another case of a book that's by no means awful, but not dazzling in the least.  The setting interests me, but the mysteries themselves are bland and rather predictable-- and though I don't dislike the recurring characters, they are not so engaging as to entice me to read a series of dull mysteries just for their sakes.  I suspect that a lot of the "cozy mystery" genre (these days, at least) is of similar quality.  (Indeed, the high ratings this novel has on Amazon leads me to wonder how much worse many other "cozies" must be.)  This type of book is acceptable if there were nothing better to read... but surely there is something better! 

So, I think this will be the last Dalrymple mystery I try for a while; though I might possibly read/listen to others, it's not something I'm anticipating with particular excitement.  Actually, the only reason I made it through the first two was that I listened to (library copy) audiobook versions, so I could be doing something else (knitting, crocheting) at the same time.  Otherwise, I doubt I'd have finished them.  I do like audiobooks while knitting/crocheting, but in future, I'd like to find stories that are slightly more entertaining.


--  The true nature of the relationship between Ben and Sebastian was painfully obvious, right away.  I can understand how a young woman of that time might not have realized what was going on-- but if she was that innocent, I doubt she would've been so instantly sympathetic and unperturbed by it when she did get the idea.  But whatever.  Clearly, we're more concerned with being PC than with being realistic, even in reference to the past.

--  So the bad guy decides to just blurt out a confession for no reason whatsoever?  Very convenient!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Hobbit

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

(I can never remember the proper order of the i and e in Tolkien's name!)

Tolkien's description of the novel:
If you care for journeys there and back, out of the comfortable Western world, over the edge of the Wild, and home again, and can take an interest in a humble hero (blessed with a little wisdom and a little courage and considerable good luck), here is a record of such a journey and such a traveler. The period is the ancient time between the age of Faerie and the dominion of men, when the famous forest of Mirkwood was still standing, and the mountains were full of danger. In following the path of this humble adventurer, you will learn by the way (as he did) -- if you do not already know all about these things -- much about trolls, goblins, dwarves, and elves, and get some glimpses into the history and politics of a neglected but important period. For Mr. Bilbo Baggins visited various notable persons; conversed with the dragon, Smaug the Magnificent; and was present, rather unwillingly, at the Battle of the Five Armies. This is all the more remarkable, since he was a hobbit. Hobbits have hitherto been passed over in history and legend, perhaps because they as a rule preferred comfort to excitement. But this account, based on his personal memoirs, of the one exciting year in the otherwise quiet life of Mr. Baggins will give you a fair idea of the estimable people now (it is said) becoming rather rare. They do not like noise.
Donald and I read this together in anticipation of the film version that will be released later this year.  Donald had read it before (years ago), but though I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was in middle school, I don't think I'd ever read The Hobbit

As usual with books read jointly, I didn't take notes, so I only have general impressions to mention.

--  The story was (mostly) much more lighthearted than the LotR trilogy (even though there was plenty of adventure and many life-threatening situations).

-- Most of the book felt like it was written with a younger audience in mind (again, compared to the LotR).

--  The songs are just as boring as I remember the ones in LotR being.  Boring!  Keep the amateurish poetry out of my prose, please.

--  Gandalf seemed kind of useless, for most of the book.  What good is having a wizard along if all he can offer is the occasional fireworks display?  ;o)

--  I thought the book got dull once the dragon was defeated.  From that point on, I just wanted it to be over.  (And descriptions of battles are not my favorite things to read at all.)

-- Where were some of these characters in the LotR books?  Beorn, for instance. I don't have a very clear picture/map of Middle Earth in my mind-- much less the details of the books-- so maybe they are mentioned, and I've just forgotten.  (Or maybe they're in a totally different part of the world and weren't involved simply because of distance and lack of liaison.)

--  I'll be curious to see how the book is adapted for film and how closely it resembles the other movies in tone.