sjhstrangetales

JUNE 2018 BOOKS ROUND-UP

Posted on: June 30, 2018

Quite a few this month, so I shall try and make it as concise as I can … well that was the plan anyway.

The Marilyn Diaries by Charles Casillo

A fictionalised version of Marilyn Monroe’s secret diary, covering the last couple of years of her life, leading up to her untimely death in August 1962.

Musical Truths by Mark Devlin

The author is a DJ of many years standing, and here he presents a Conspiracy Theorists guide to the inside of the pop music industry over the past 50-60 years.   There were a number of problems with this book for me.  One is that it is written from a wholly Believer viewpoint.  Now that’s fair enough, it is his book after all, but it does mean some completely far-fetched conspiracies  – such as the one where Paul McCartney was allegedly bumped off in 1966 and replaced with a body double – are presented with very little sceptical insight.   The other is that very few of the cases presented here are anything new.  Some are hoary old Urban Legends that go back donkey’s years (the Sgt Pepper album cover for instance!), and I’ve already seen the more recent ones thoroughly covered by YouTubers like Mary40, so no great surprises.   Ultimately, I found it all a bit depressing.  I don’t rule out dark machinations behind the scenes in the music industry at all, we know it goes on, but if every element and development of pop culture over recent decades has been some kind of “Illuminati” plot, then we might as well all throw in the towel now.   He does make some interesting points, such as that hip hop has become much more dark and aggressive in the past 20 years, but how much of that could that be down to the state of the world?   Being an old fogey, I don’t know as much about that particular genre as the author, so I’ll leave it there.   There is a follow up, Musical Truths 2, which seems to cover the Acid House boom in the 1980s.

Conspiracies Declassified: The Skeptoid Guide To The Truth Behind The Theories by Brian Dunning

I was looking forward to this one.  I spend (probably far too much) time in Conspiracy Theory World, and I was interested to read a more balanced, debunking approach than we often get.   Unfortunately, I found it all a bit dull!  In order to cram as many conspiracies in as possible, each one is allocated one short chapter, which doesn’t give the author much room to really take apart each theory.   The problem with all this is that it won’t really change anybody’s thinking.  The skeptics will just nod their heads and go “yeah, that’s what I thought, load of old hooey”, and the Conspiracists will jump and down, and yell “but you haven’t mentioned such-and-such!”   I think the book would be useful as a starting-point to anyone very new to Conspiracy Theories, but I guess I was hoping for a more stimulating, and witty, read.   Also, some of it felt a bit naive.

Theda Bara: A Biography Of The Silent Screen Vamp by Ronald Ginini

Always good to find another study of Theda, Hollywood’s first sex symbol, who had almost her entire identity and history created for her by the studio.  She was publicised as some exotic woman of mystery, born in the shadow of the Sphinx, and her name was an anagram of “Arab Death”.  The truth was she was a simple Jewish girl from Cincinnati, called Theodosia Goodman. The era when she was at the height of her fame, which almost exactly coincided with the years of the First World War, is a particularly fascinating part of cinema history.   Any biographer though is hamstrung by the fact that very little of Theda’s prolific output remains, and so you’re reliant on plot synopses, and stills photographs.  I would love to have known a bit more about Theda’s personality.  For 5 years she enjoyed (endured?) a HUGE amount of fame and public adoration, but then it faded from her again with incredible speed.   The harsh, fickle world of show business I guess.  Partly that was down to changing tastes.  By 1919, the sultry, mysterious “Vamp” had had her day, and had no place in the emerging era of the bob-haired, short-skirted Jazz Baby flapper.   Theda was unable to adapt, largely down to the fact that by then she had become thoroughly stereotyped.   She was also well into her thirties, which would have been seen as positively aged in those days.  There are fleeting references that she had also become difficult to work with, and over-rated her importance, but to slightly misquote Sunset Boulevard, that level of public adoration was probably bound to do that.   A recommended read for anyone interested in the cinema of 100 years ago, and I do think it’s high time somebody made a biopic of Theda’s life.  As far as I know there’s never been one.

Whatever Happened To Mommie Dearest?  by John William Law

This little memoir of movie star Joan Crawford focuses on the part of Joan’s life which is often skimmed over by biographers, namely, her final films, from the late 1950s to the lamentable Trog in 1970.   I agree with the author that whilst Joan’s final movies weren’t exactly her best, they are fascinating, and I am particularly intrigued by the making of Trog in the summer of 1969.   I would love to set a story around this, but someone seems to have already done it (Peter Joseph Swanson: The Joan Crawford Monsters).

Fasten Your Seatbelts – The Passionate Life Of Bette Davis by Lawrence J Quirk

This seems to be a reissue, on Kindle, of a book which was published shortly after Bette’s death in 1989.  The author was a film critic of many years standing, and he interviewed some of the people who had worked with Bette.  As such, the book heavily focuses on Bette’s movies.  It was interesting, but I feel for a more fully-rounded study of Bette, you might be better off with James Spada’s More Than A Woman, or Ed Sikov’s biography of Bette, Dark Victory, which I am currently reading.

The Black Diary by Nick Redfern

This book covers 3 years, from 2014 to late summer 2017 in the life of Mr Redfern, chronicling all the strange events that happened to him after he published his books on the MIB, the Men In Black, and their lesser-known colleagues, the Women In Black.   To those who are not sure who these mysterious people are, they are black-clad sinister people who are reputed to turn up and harass anyone investigating the UFO phenomenon.   They are a particularly strange offshoot of the whole subject.  For me this was a book of two halves.  The first half was fascinating, and I did find myself getting genuinely spooked out by parts of it, probably not helped by the fact that I was often reading it late at night!  But then, in the second half, I found myself getting bored, as it all began to get a bit repetitive.   Also it’s hard in some instances not to feel that the author was making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill.  There is a problem that, when you start looking into these subjects, just about anything can start looking sinister, but you can’t really go around thinking every odd-looking person who walks near your house is something to do with the MIB, or that a picture falling off your wall, or a problem with your computer, is somehow connected as well.  That way madness lies.   But I do have a weakness for books written in a diary format, so I liked it for that reason, and – more importantly – I find the whole subject of MIBs/WIBs endlessly interesting.   It has to be said though I can do without reading about more of Mr Redfern’s Oldest Swinger In Town lifestyle.  The whole beers & punk rock, and visiting strip joints thing, got old a long time ago.  I get the impression he’s about my age, so it can all come across as a bit geriatric student and pathetic.   It also reinforces my current impression that the world of ufology has become nothing more than an ageing Boys Club.  Sorry and all that.

Death In Devon by Ian Sansom

The second instalment in the County Guides series.   Each book is a whodunnit, set in the late 1930s, and focusing on a different English county.   I suppose the writing was on the wall for me with the first one, set in Norfolk, when I actually gave up on it just as we were reaching the denouement, which is not exactly a good sign with a whodunnit!  And the same thing happened again with this one.  I steamed through about 150 pages, and then came to a shuddering stop, and found I couldn’t be bothered anymore.   I’m not sure what is the problem really.  Perhaps the characters are all a bit too arch and clever-dick for my tastes, and it becomes very hard to care about any of them.  Plus it all feels a bit gimmicky, with old photographs inserted which are meant to be of the people and places in the story.   I didn’t mind that to start with, but it started to annoy me.  That sort of thing is fine in a children’s book, but I prefer to envisage in my own mind what a character or a place looks like.  I don’t need help with it.  This one is set in a posh boys’ school in Devon, where all sorts of nefarious things are going on.  The problem is that there really isn’t much mystery here.  We are informed on the front cover, for crying out loud, that Satanism is involved, so it’s a bit hard to be puzzled by spooky teachers and mutilated animals!  Perhaps I should have finished it.  But I don’t think I will.   To coin an old cliche, Dame Agatha Christie would have done all this sort of thing so much better.

The Hopkins Manuscript by R C Sherriff

I did a separate blog piece about this classic 1939 sci-fi.  I enjoyed it very much, and it will stay with me for a long time to come.

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

Another in the elegant Bloomsbury Books reissues.  The Priory weighs in at over 500 pages, and concerns the eccentric inhabitants of the beautiful, but crumbling Saunby Priory, which is situated somewhere in the Midlands.   There was a lot about this book I really liked, although it’s not a quick read by any means.  Dorothy Whipple’s strength is that you really grow to care about her characters.  In one scene someone goes for a showdown with another, and I found myself thinking “You go for it, girl!”  I felt the slap-bang And They All Lived Happily Ever After ending was a bit of a letdown though, but to be fair, at the time this was written, in the late 1930s, the author might have been under pressure to provide that.   The story ends in 1938 (it was published in 1939), so the Happy Ending leaves you with reservations anyway, knowing that the cosy future all the characters are looking forward to is simply not going to happen.   It was a book begging for a sequel I guess.

Sea Sick by Iain Rob Wright

This is the first in a zombie apocalypse trilogy called Ravaged World.  A police officer, Jack, is packed off on a Mediterranean cruise after suffering a nervous breakdown in the line of the duty.  Unfortunately he doesn’t exactly get the relaxing holiday he needs.  I thought at first that Sea Sick was just going to be about a zombie outbreak on a cruise ship – and that too would’ve been fine by me – but it becomes much more complicated than that, with Jack finding himself living the same day over and over again, in the style of Groundhog Day.   This is quite a difficult one to pull off, without it getting totally tedious, but the author manages it.   There are enough unexpected plot twists to keep you engrossed, although some of the secondary characters are a bit wafer-thin.   I think this would make a great film.

Happy reading.

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