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review 2020-05-31 21:05
The Chessmen of Doom, Johnny Dixon #7 by John Bellairs
The Chessmen of Doom - John Bellairs

When Professor Childermass' brother Perry dies, he leaves the Prof ten million dollars and his landed estate in Maine. The catch, of course, is that he must spend the summer at the remote country estate with no paid help. Naturally, the Prof is up to the task, but invites Johnny and Fergie to join him. The letter informing the professor of his brother's death comes with a riddle that comes back to haunt the professor. It speaks of pallid dwarves, dead eyes, and hairy stars. What does it mean?


This book is the usual absurd Gothic nonsense I love from Bellairs. The estate is not only large it is filled with "worthless" statuary and books imported from Europe, features a personalized tomb and statue by the front door and a 300ft memorial column - that you can climb up - for General Herkimer of the American Revolutionary War. There's also an observatory, among other things. I wish Bellairs had spent more (read: any) time describing what the boys discover in the house instead of glossing over it. I felt the lack, though child-me filled the mansion with all the Victorian trappings I longed to find in my '80s ranch. Stone Arabia and Lake Umbagog join General Herkimer as real references moved into Bellairs' world, along, of course with some recently stolen ivory chessmen from the British Museum.


Need I go into the plot? A nefarious person plans on ending life on Earth as we know it with the use of ancient, dark magic and ineffectually tries to scare the Prof and the boys from the estate so he has a clear path. He might as well have employed an unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism when he lures the gang out onto the lake. I did love the detail that Professor Roderick Random Childermass and his brothers Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker and Ferdinand Count Fathom were all named after heroes of Tobias Smollett's novels by their literary parents.


'Chessmen of Doom' makes up for its plot - stretched over a year to little purpose - with such details.


Johnny Dixon


Next: 'The Secret of the Underground Room'


Previous: 'The Trolley to Yesterday'

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review 2020-05-29 21:26
The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost, Johnny Dixon #4 by John Bellairs
The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost - John Bellairs

This is the first, and only?, direct sequel in the 'Johnny Dixon' series, and it may be why I remembered not liking this one as a kid. Most of Bellairs' work can be read independently, but 'Revenge' jumps right into one of Johnny's patented freaky dreams. An old man threatens Johnny, saying he's done his family a wrong, and that the ghost of Warren Windrow still roams. Warren Windrow is the 'Sorcerer' whose bespelled skull caused so much trouble last time.


Of course, Johnny doesn't tell anyone about the dream. This series. They either keep supernatural events a secret because they're embarrassed, or they disbelieve each other. Johnny starts sleep-walking and acting ornery, and has strong visions of saloons and gambling dens. Eventually, he becomes comatose and even an impromptu exorcism attempt by Father Higgins doesn't help.


As a kid, this one left me a little confused. I didn't read these in order so the abrupt revenge-plot left me in the dark. Also, with Johnny out of the picture we have the Professor and Fergie on a multi-day expedition to the Windrow estate to find ancient magical talismans (straight out of the Bible) that may be Johnny's last hope. 


The saving grace of this book, as with many others of Bellairs, are some genuine horror elements out of nowhere that keep a reader off guard, and the period details that evoke midcentury American boyhood and, in this case, Gold Rush-era California. 


Johnny Dixon


Next: 'The Eyes of the Killer Robot'


Previous: 'The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull'

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review 2020-05-20 21:37
The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb, Anthony Monday #3 by John Bellairs
The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb - John Bellairs

Miss Eells purchases a suspiciously cheap antique oil lamp and unwittingly sets off yet another doomsday countdown. Well, to be fair, it's not a doomsday countdown, it's just a countdown to giving an unscrupulous woman god-level powers. No biggie.


I still don't like how Anthony Monday and Miss Eells became supernatural detectives, but this book is so spooky and spectacularly gruesome that it charms to this day.


The lamp, of course, was stolen from an elaborate tomb. Once lit, Anthony and Miss Eels begin to be stalked by an entity with a cobwebby face and lives are lost. Add in an appearance from Ashtaroth, winter sports, and the most interesting chamber of commerce mixer ever devised, and you have a swell mystery on your hands.


Anthony Monday


Next: 'The Mansion in the Mist'


Previous: 'The Dark Secret of Weatherend'

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review 2020-05-13 20:48
Many Waters, Time Quintet #4 by Madeleine L'Engle
Many Waters (Time, Book 4) - Madeleine L'Engle

This series keeps going in weird directions, and I kinda dig it. I don't know how kids today would handle this, but adult me was taken in.


'Many Waters' is set some years before 'Swiftly Tilting Planet', likely the winter after 'A Wind in the Door'. The twins, Sandy and Dennys, are returning from an afternoon on the ice to an empty house. Their father is away on business and their mother has taken Meg and Charles Wallace to town for a doctor's appointment. Being teenagers, they're hungry and set about making a snack. The problem is they can't find the cocoa, and so head into their parent's lab to raid the stash there. They don't notice the "experiment in progress" sign on the door and fiddle with a computer. 


The boys are transported to a desert, luckily there's an oasis in sight, but the journey is hard for them and they wouldn't have made it except a local aids them with some help from a mammoth and unicorns.


Yes. Things are getting weird. This is good. 


Of course, certain editions of this give away the other shoe before it drops either on the cover or in the back-cover text: the boys are rescued by none-other than Japeth, one of Noah's sons. Yes. That Noah.


The book is about the twin's recovery from their ordeal in the desert, their adaptation to the unexplainable universe, and their first adult brush with love and loss. The conflict between the Nephilim and their former kin the Seraphim make up a large part of the plot as well. 


This made me remember my early Sunday school lessons about the flood and other early heavenly destructions. The flaw that the destroyed somehow deserve their fate still stands out. L'Engle's only real failure in this book is her attempt to soften the tragedy of the flood with certain plot devices I won't go into. All in all an interesting book.


Time Quintet


Next: 'An Acceptable Time'


Previous: 'A Swiftly Tilting Planet'

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review 2020-02-14 23:21
Inspiring pictures of recent UK history
Sheffield in the 1980s: Featuring Images of Sheffield Photographer, Martin Jenkinson (Images of the Past) - Mark Metcalf,Justine Jenkinson

I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me an early paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I worked in Sheffield and lived in the area for almost 10 years and had visited it on occasions as well before that, and although it was long after the 1980s (I arrived in the UK in the early 90s), I was familiar with Martin Jenkinson’s work, had seen some of his iconic photographs of the period, and could not resist the opportunity to sample some more. This was a particularly interesting and intense period in the history of the city, with the closures of many steel and cutlery manufacturing companies, the pit closures in the region, and with many strikes and much social unrest, that Jenkinson recorded in his work. It is impossible to look at his pictures and not wonder about recent events.

This book combines a great selection of images from the period with some background text, that rather than providing lengthy explanations about each image, is organised as an introductory write-up for each one of the sections. Although there isn’t much writing, the brief summaries offer a good overview to people who might not be familiar with the historic-social circumstances of the era and provide a solid context for the fantastic images.

The book is clearly a labour of love from Jenkinson’s daughter, and it includes a foreword by Helen Hague, a reporter who has worked at a number of local and national newspapers and was a personal friend of the photographer, a Tribute, written by Chris Searle, summarising Jenkinson’s career, and a number of sections that help organise the photographic content: Who We Are Exhibition (that was an exhibition at Sheffield’s  Weston Park Museum of Jenkinson’s work, which run from November 2018 to April 2019), Steel (that includes images of strikes, a section on cutlery and silver, one on retail and the public section [including images of women taking up various jobs  that were still an uncommon sight at the time], one on rail freight), Local Government (National and Local Government Officer’s Association [look out for David Blankett], SYCC and fare cuts [about increases to the public transport fares, hotly contested], the Manpower Services Commission [a new programme to fight unemployment, also hotly contested], Campaigns and Protests (People’s March for Jobs, Cutler’s Feast [where Margaret Thatcher was not particularly welcomed, but she went nonetheless], The Miner’s Strike [this is one of my favourite sections and many of Jenkinson’s iconic photographs are featured here], Eversure [a wonderful picture of a wedding couple visiting a picket at the factory where they both work],  the National Abortion Campaign, Sheffield Campaign for Access to Moorland, Sheffield Campaign Against Racism and Anti-Apartheid, Anti-Nuclear Protests, Sheffield Street Band), Sheffield & Its People (another great section including some pictures of Hillsborough Football Stadium that are impossible to look at without thinking about the later tragedy), a section referring to The Martin Jenkinson Image Library, and a final section of Acknowledgements.

This is not a nostalgic book about the Sheffield of the 1980s, although there are pictures of some very recognisable landmarks, but rather a book about certain aspects of the period and its people, and they show the concerns and interests of a man who had worked in the steel industry and suffered in his own flesh the changes brought by its demise. It’s not a book of pretty pictures, although there are some beautiful images, but that is not the aim. They are pictures that tell a story, and not always a nice one. As Helen Hague says in the foreword: ‘Martin Jenkinson had a gift for capturing the moment.’

The book is packed with black and white pictures chronicling a city and its people in an era of major political, social, and economic changes, and anybody interested in the 1980s in the UK will find plenty to enjoy and to make them think in this book. I know many writers find inspiration in images, and here they will have a field day. In case you want to get an idea of what type of images you might find in the book, you can check the Martin Jenkinson Image Library(here).

A fabulous book for lovers of photography with a social conscience, and for anybody interested in the recent history of Sheffield and of the UK in general.

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