Muse du Jour

My name is Marianne Plumridge. I am an artist of mythic fantasy works and fine art images. I also satisfy my creative muse with sewing, cooking, writing and reading. These are my thoughts and adventures with whichever muse drives me each day. You can find more of my art at www.marianneplumridge.com

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Location: New England, United States

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stormbreaker...a book review

STORMBREAKER
By Anthony Horowitz
SPEAK (An imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.); Paperback; ISBN 0-399-23620-1; 234 pages; 2004.

How would you like to read a nice juicy espionage novel – but meant for kids? I didn’t have many high expectations when I picked up young adult novel, ‘Stormbreaker’ to read on a long flight, but it’s nice to be pleasantly surprised.

The story opens at 3am with the ring of a doorbell at a house in West London, England. Never a good sign for anyone, let alone for fourteen-year old Alex Rider: not only is it an ominous portent but also a life-changing one. His uncle, Ian Rider, has been killed in a car accident. Or so Alex is told. During the flood of strange people in and out of Ian’s house, Alex soon realizes that he actually knows very little of whom Ian Rider really was. All is not what it seems. Ian Rider was all of the family Alex had: since Alex was orphaned at an early age and then been taken to live with his uncle.

So, Alex decides to find out what really happened to his uncle; and events, as well as MI-6, sweep him up into danger.

There is no way that the protagonist, Alex Rider, is a typical fourteen-year old kid. If you consider that most children of that age are generally self-absorbed, emotionally volatile, argumentative about restrictions and perceived rights and must-haves: narcissistic little darlings who don’t notice much outside of their own immediate universes. This may seem like an atypical response and judgement of today’s youth – particularly in America – but there are some two dimensional characters who exist like this in YA fiction, as well as unfortunately there are in real life. The character of Alex Rider is as far from this description as he is from even a normal child: his character has traits that belong to someone of more advanced years.

Alex is an enigma: portrayed as a young teen with a problem to solve, a truth to unearth, a death to presumably mourn and avenge, etcetera. However, Alex seems too adult in his behavior, and attitude; too good at too many things; and possessed of impeccable logic in one so young. There are a few token ‘teen’ things like forgetting his cover name at crucial moment when getting to know the villain Herod Sayle, allowing the evil genius an opening to become suspicious of Alex. It works as a convenient plot-device in context, and even allows Alex a human foible in accord with his age group, but the verbal slip is quite a glaring anomaly, given how Alex’s character is portrayed: careful, logical, and dogmatic even in his determination. This could be the result of the influence of Ian Rider on Alex’s life. From the initial moments of their life together, the elder Rider places Alex in a school where he can learn to hold his own, rather than a pampered existence in a more reputable institution. Alex learns karate, beginning at age six; he is taught orienteering, driving vehicles, athletics, hiking, mountain climbing, diving, and skiing; and from living abroad with his uncle, Alex speaks French, German and Spanish. Above it all, Alex has also picked up his uncle’s knack for observation and calculation. Blunt, the head of MI-6 muses and assumes that Ian Rider was training up his nephew to become a spy. Whether or not that is true, we’re not told, but figure that if anything happened to Ian, then he’d want Alex fully prepared to survive on his own – regardless if that were in a normal life, or the life of a spy. Alex uses all of his wits and skills in dealing with Mr Blunt of MI-6, in the face of Blunt’s blatant overt coercion of a minor (Alex) into dangerous duties as well as meeting and handling the missions he is forced to take on. Unfortunately, the hold that Blunt has over Alex smacks highly of ‘faganism’ and not a little of child abuse, in that Alex has to ‘earn his keep’ so to speak.

Alex is abnormally mature and well grounded for his years and makes an excellent junior spy. However, I think that Alex would benefit more as a character if the author could ‘show’ more than ‘tell’ what is going on in future novels.

‘Stormbreaker’ is an excellent read – even for adults. A refreshing plot and array of motives that steer a clear course around the usual clichés found in some young adult fiction. I’m sure that many young people will find this novel an exciting adventure, as from all reports, they already have.

‘Stormbreaker’ is the first of several Alex Rider adventures, and I very much look forward to reading the rest. Well written, well paced, and very well researched. Very well done Mr Horowitz.

Marianne Plumridge
I had planned on putting up another body of works review, however I got a bit sidetracked this week and haven't finished it. Still, I hope you enjoy this one...

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shadows Over Baker Street...A Book Review


“SHADOWS OVER BAKER STREET: NEW TALES OF TERROR”
Edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan

October 2003 – A Del Rey Hardcover/Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-45528-2, Hardcover, 464 pages, $23.95


“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Sherlock Holmes, (Arthur Conan Doyle), 1890.


Was there ever a better set up for a more mystical Holmsian adventure than the above quote from Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective in ‘The Sign of Four’*? In this, and other stories by Conan Doyle, the mythical Holme’s uncanny abilities and knowledge appear almost supernatural in the setting of late Victorian London. With that antique society’s predilection for, and whole-hearted embracement of mystical and semi-occult tinkering, it is a very natural extension for the character of Sherlock Holmes to step forward into the realm of the Elder Gods and Old Ones as recounted by H.P.Lovecraft.

Indeed, in ‘Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror’ a gathering of well known genre authors have attempted to produce a convincing marriage of these two equally well-known universes. And they’ve done very well indeed, dear reader.

This collection opens with the tremendous and disturbing contribution from Neil Gaiman, “A Study in Emerald” set in 1881. This story begins in a regular way, told in the first person by someone presumably recognizable as Doctor Watson. Things get a little iffy after that: the odd appears commonplace and the bizarre and unnatural, normal. Nothing appears what it seems to, or should be, in the regular Holmsian world. Evil is perceived as the conventional norm, and fighting against it has the feel of underground furtiveness. It is revealed at the end which personas have been switched, and who is actually who. I had to read this story twice to find all the foreshadowing elements that the author subtly fermented the text with.

It was nice to encounter the character of Irene Adler again in “Tiger! Tiger!” by Elizabeth Bear. Although, there is ample presence of Lovecraftian myth in this story, and plenty of adventure, the removal of it from the sordid backstreets and veiled drawing rooms of gaslit London, to the mores and dangers of the African bush smacks faintly of something from the pen of H. Rider Haggard, than that of Doyle. Still, it is smartly paced and well characterized enough to frame the era quite well. A nice read.
“The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger” by Steve Perry is set in New York of 1884, and introduces a characterization of Sherlock Holmes that I’m not wholly comfortable with. Holmes has always maintained a certain kind of cold arrogance of tone in his dealings with associates and clients, but always with an impeccable politeness. The interplay between Holmes and his nocturnal lady visitor implies a seduction as they verbally spar with each other in an intricate dance of intellect. Holmes appears arrogant, smarmy and sensually aroused by the intelligence and appearance of the lady. Other than his being impressed by Irene Adler in past adventures, I do not consciously remember Holmes being portrayed thus at all: unless of course it was a Hollywood screen treatment of the character. A good idea, but a difficult version of Holmes.

Steven-Elliot Altman spins another twist in the coupling of the Holmsian and Lovecraftian universes by adding a third: the presence of H.G. Wells as the narrator of the next Holmsian adventure, “A Case of Royal Blood”. Wells replaces Watson as the sidekick and point of view ‘voice’ as it were. He also picks up some inspiration for future stories along the way.

The excellent “The Weeping Masks” by James Lowder is set pre-Holmsian and is told in flashback style of Doctor Watson’s experiences as a subaltern physician newly arrived in the wilds of Afghanistan, and the war being waged there. The legendary Afghani caves are the setting for Watson’s encounters with the Weeping Mask deaths, and ultimately ‘the unspeakable one’, ‘The One Who Must Not Be Named’. Cthulhu, even?

There are a more tales in this excellent collection, some straightforward, some not: telling of curses upon men and women, involving supernatural transmutation and horrific metamorphosis; black arts revolving around the Necronomicon; human sacrifice and transplantation of evil spirits; and the odd megalomaniac or two. All of them make compelling reading for fans of Sherlock Holmes mysteries and of period drama, however, I’m not completely sure if purists of the works of H.P. Lovecraft will agree. I thoroughly enjoyed this anthology of supernatural Sherlock Holmes tales, enough to remind me that too many years have passed since I last read the works of Conan Doyle. An enjoyment well remembered. The frequency of Afghanistan being represented in some of these tales as a place where evil dwells, or hosting access to demonic dimensions, speaks eloquently of current events and world feeling. As much as Afghanistan is a part of Doctor Watson’s military past, I find that the literary associations contained in this anthology to be an interesting response to recent tragedies in the Middle East, also here, and abroad. I wonder if it was intentional.

All in all, I found the stories collected here a wonderful addition to the worlds of both Sherlock Holmes and H.P.Lovecraft. The authors have recreated a splendid mythical history that works in either universe, or both. This is a book that will remain on my shelves for years to come, to be taken down and read again from time to time, when winter creeps too close and the windows rattle on a windy night…


Marianne Plumridge

* On the page preceding the Contents page in this volume, the quote by Sherlock Holmes is incorrectly attributed to Doyle’s story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the New International Dictionary of Quotations give the original reference as ‘The Sign of Four’.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Goodnight, Mr. Holmes...a Book Review

GOOD NIGHT, MR. HOLMES
By Carole Nelson Douglas

1990, (This Edition – 2005); Forge. Massmarket Paperback, ISBN 0-765-34574-9; 407 pages; Price $7.99

It’s often a pinnacle of an author’s literary career, when the author’s publisher repackages, re-releases and beautifully redresses one’s entire series of novels – while the series is very much still in print. Popularity and accolades aside, the very well written Irene Adler mysteries by Carole Nelson Douglas are re-presented to us by Forge Books in elegant form and have lost none of the polish from their clever wit, daring adventures and swift pace interlaced with danger and murder.

One of the most enduring icons of the 20th Century remains the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes; accordingly accompanied by a coterie of slightly lesser characters who also endure. Among these are Professor Moriarty, the good and faithful Doctor Watson, Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, and also “The Woman" – the ‘incomparable’, mysterious Miss Irene Adler. Since the closing years of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary legacy, all of the above personages have gone on to appear in their own stories as pastiches of the Sherlock Holmes realm by other authors, or in cross over stories into other equally prestigious Victorian worlds. Some of these latter stories are well written, some are not; some portray amateur melodrama or shallow characterization, others tell subtle tales of well-evolved mystery and entertaining drama. Carole Nelson Douglas’ ‘Good Night, Mr. Holmes’ falls indubitably into the latter.

This is the first in a highly regarded series of books about Irene Adler: the only woman ever to reach the heady levels of intelligence that match the legendary Holmes, and to outwit him into the bargain. Their first and only original adventure, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ is retold in this book to a much greater length and depth than ever before. The author skillfully interweaves the original story with credible character development and depth without once slipping into melodrama or treating Sherlock Holmes as a two-dimensional cut out. ALL of the characters have been given equal care and attention by the author. Even as Holmes has his Watson, Irene Adler has her foil in a ‘Watsonian’ counterpart, by the name of Penelope “Nell” Huxleigh, the orphaned daughter of a country parson.

It is from Nell’s point of view that we first encounter Irene in the flesh. And it is from Nell’s perspective that the reader becomes an unwitting partner in the unraveling of the complicated layers that constitute Miss Adler’s persona. Nell had moved to London from Shropshire, in search of respectable employment after her father’s death. It began well enough, but eventually ended up in dismissal for Nell, from a haberdashery shop of all things. Wrongly accused of a theft she did not commit, she was thrown on the street with no reference, money, food or accommodation. Nell was at her weakest, from hunger, and in the midst of having her belongings snatched by a street urchin when Miss Irene Adler took a hand and rescued her. A scandalous, to Nell’s eyes anyway, episode in a teashop, a ride in a hansom cab, and listening spellbound to the confession of a self-acknowledged murderer in his heartbroken tale of revenge immediately followed. In that first encounter, Irene was a confusing bundle of contradictions wrapped in fine swaddling to the eyes and dismay of poor befuddled Nell. But from then on, they moved forward together, and Nell began to learn something of the world around her and how to live in it. Throughout all, they skirt scandal and destitution as two independent women living in Victorian London, with as much dignity as they can muster. And encounter mystery and outrage, love and laughter, danger and betrayal in doing so – dealing with each situation as their very opposite personalities will allow.

Like Nell, we never fully plumb those depths of Irene, but a better understanding is achieved. For Miss Adler is a self-confessed adventuress and actress, albeit one who sings opera extremely well: able to walk away from any situation and material possessions as she pleases. Irene’s interests are aroused by mystery, puzzles, curiosity and intellect – and any chance to test herself against them. Her flair for the dramatic, risk-taking, and danger sees an equal only in Sherlock Holmes himself, or perhaps her new husband Godfrey Norton. Let there be no mistake, though, regarding Irene’s morals. Skewed as they are, Irene has a strict code of behavior and will not prostitute her person or her values by selling either for baubles from rich admirers or suitors, as other actresses have done. Her ‘word’ is inviolate according to King Willie of Bohemia, who accepts that she will do naught to compromise him after hearing her so swear. So aside from her budding career as a vocalist, Irene takes on small assignments of the mind by way of mysteries and puzzles for a consideration, to keep her from being bored and to feed her avid curiosity, not to mention feed herself. Although Irene can sometimes be as ruthless and high handed as her compelling rival, Sherlock Holmes, she has what he lacks: a fuller understanding perhaps of some kinds of people; and compassion and kindness. For Holmes has the all-consuming intellect of a scientist, including many of the blind spots that accompany such a personality. Although he has his own charm and magnetism, Holmes is arrogant, self-assured, occasionally pompous, and incurably dismissive of women. The last is probably his greatest failing in his encounter with Irene Adler, and the assumptions he makes about her. However, he rises to the moment when he realizes that not only has she outwitted him, but predicted his behavior as well. It is then that Holmes ultimately, and singularly, develops a burgeoning admiration and respect for a woman, Irene: as much for her intellect as for her talent and beauty. It rises somewhat higher when he learns of her code of ethics. Although the main story is predominantly Irene’s, it contains periodic welcome chapters of Holmes and Watson. Holmes and Adler never actually formally meet, in spite of distant sparring of intellect and talents, but pursue different avenues of the same problems they are engaged in: from years pursuit of Marie Antoinette’s famous missing belt of diamonds whose secret is steeped in antiquity, to opposite sides of the same scandal in Bohemia. Holmes ponders and calculates, while Irene sings, acts, inquires and darts her way through doors and company where a normal Victorian woman would fear to tread.

Nell and Irene, forced to find income without sacrificing self or values, are independent women in Victorian England – far ahead of their time. Both grow as they mature, but neither lose or endanger their self-respect and sense of purpose. Only Irene comes close in her dealings with the King of Bohemia, but she reacts of old when she realizes that her dream of a royal wedding have been but clouds in the sky.

Wonderful additions to the cast of Victorians include the energetic Godfrey Norton, who so proves equal to Irene’s sense of action and queer ethics that she eventually loves and marries him in most unorthodox circumstances. But there are reasons, dear reader. There are reasons. And so add Oscar Wilde, Lilli Langtree, Bram Stoker, and the artist James ‘Jimmy’ McNeill Whistler to the mix, a host of compelling lesser characters, as well as a foul-mouthed bird called Casanova, and things get definitely very interesting indeed.

This novel is an incredibly entertaining and diverting read, filled with adventures, danger, verbal sparring, train chases, hansom cabs, high society and fashion, as well as the lowest levels of the cultural divide, and is entirely deserving of its printed longevity. A sweeping tale that encompasses years and miles across England and the Continent, that is apt to still leave one breathless with anticipation even upon successive re-readings. ‘Good Night, Mr. Holmes’ is an enriching tale of Victorian England made palatable for modern readers, which is sometimes a difficult hurdle to accommodate. Ms. Douglas manages both with aplomb and panache.

However, dear reader, this is only the beginning…

Marianne Plumridge