Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll

alice in wonderland Original Publication Date: 1865

Genre: Fantasy, children's books

Topics: Crazy rabbits, casual endangerment, drugs, tea

Review by Sharky & Smiles:

Angry Sharky 3What is it with children’s books and casual endangerment of children?

Shocked SmilesNothing HAPPENS to her.

Surprised SharkyWho the heck orders kids to be beheaded?!

Surprised SmilesWell...

Default SharkyDon’t even try to justify this one.

Default SmilesThen I won't. Summary time! Now, imagine you’re lying on the grass. The weather’s nice, but there’s nothing to do and you’re bored out of your mind. Suddenly, you see a rabbit. Well, nothing strange about that. BUT WAIT. It’s wearing a teeny tiny waistcoat. And takes out a pocket-watch. And complains about how late it is. What do you do? Go back to being bored? Of course not! After that rabbit! Right down the rabbit hole!

Default SharkyIgnore the fact that a rabbit hole shouldn’t fit a human at all.

Default SmilesA lot of logic has to be ignored and really isn’t the point in this story. Anyway. You drop lightly down, down, down into a place where nothing makes sense, things can change from one second to another, and everyone is either really rude or completely wrapped up in their own weirdness. But first you have to drink from an unknown bottle just because it tells you to.

Happy Sharky2The story is definitely creative. I don’t think you can find such.... effortless bizarreness in many other books. And there’s a LOT of bizarreness. The main character, Alice, just travels from one strange set-piece to another. Stop, something weird happens, move on.

Happy SmilesIt’s terrific!

Angry Sharky 4It’s exhausting. Sometimes. The main set-pieces are great, absolutely creative imagery, but when even the transitions between them have to have something strange happening, you don’t get a chance to pause and take in anything. And some things just seem beyond pointless or just aren’t fun to read. The pointless puppy sequence, the idiot birds, the annoying mock-turtle, the awful, awful scene at the Duchess’s house which you should just skip over because it’s the stupidest-

Sad Smiles 2I swear he likes this book.

Angry SharkyAGH.

Sassy SmilesThis is definitely one of those books you really shouldn’t think too hard about. Which for Sharky is pretty much impossible.

Default SharkySo it doesn’t help when I’ve got to stop and start skipping over the bits I don’t like. But I put up with it because there’s stuff in there I’d happily revisit.

Default SmilesAnd there really is a LOT. A crazy tea-party, a royal court where everyone is a playing card, food and drink that makes you change your size, a disappearing cat, a court of law where nobody knows what they’re doing, a queen who keeps ordering beheadings but the king pardons everyone behind her back anyway so that’s okay. It also has a share of dumb puns which make me groan, but that’s why I love puns. And fun poems like The Lobster Quadrille and You Are Old, Father William. And genuinely funny moments like the cat appearing as just a head so nobody can figure out how to behead it. Seriously that part’s short but pretty funny.

Confused SharkyEven the Duchess bit, as much as I hate it and skip over it every time, has a pretty funny start where the footman of her house just refuses to go inside because everyone’s so crazy in there. I don’t know, it’s such a mixed bag of stuff I REALLY don’t like mixed in with stuff I really love? But it's worth a go.

Default SmilesHonestly if I knew how to get out of it, I’d love to visit it. I guess that’s the criteria for visiting most fictional places. But to go there in place of Alice and just... be weird at people and see how they would react seems really fun to me. It’ll probably all end up the same though. Most of the people are really easily offended. Which makes Sharky a citizen of Wonderland.

Angry Sharky 3Don’t make me punch you.

alice's tea

Download Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Monday, June 26, 2017

Review: JEEVES AND WOOSTER by PG Wodehouse

jeeves and wooster Original Publication Date: 1934

Genre: Mystery, comedy

Topics: Society, love, no good deed goes unpunished

Review by Sharky & Smiles:

Default SmilesImagine you’re a pleasant, helpful, not very clever member of the upper class. Imagine your friends aren’t even that clever or that pleasant and helpful. And they keep getting into trouble and expecting you to get them out of it. Of course, they’re your pals, so you do, mostly based on plans your incredibly intelligent valet makes up. Same thing applies when you mess everything up and get into even deeper trouble.

Default SharkySounds like a recipe for disaster, needlessly overcomplicating a simple problem.

Shocked SmilesSimple problem you say? Now imagine if X loves Y but can’t meet Y so Z goes to make sure Y doesn’t get stolen away by Y’s charming guest while pretending to be A because A is engaged to B and B’s relatives are expecting A to visit and A can’t make it.

Confused Sharky... what...

Default SmilesThat’s the BASE plot of the book we read. It just gets worse from there until everything collapses on itself like an abused soufflé. Somehow into a happy ending.

Happy Sharky2The pattern is broadly the same in each book in the series, but they’re all uniquely absurd in their own ways. The nice thing is you can probably just grab any Jeeves and Wooster book (and there’s a lot of them) and enjoy it as a stand-alone, without having to worry about sequence or whether you have to read five other things to know what’s going on.

Happy SmilesYou’ll likely never know quite what’s going on anyway, and that’s the fun of it. It’s another one of those wild rides where you just have to trust the author. And if you can’t do that, if you keep stopping to roll your eyes or object to how silly things are getting, you don’t enjoy. These are SILLY books. So silly. Complete, absurd, slapstick, screwball comedy narrated with a style I’m completely in love with.

Happy Sharky2Remember what we said about Hitchiker’s Guide being weird with amazing narration? This is very like that, but without the freedom of weirdness of being set in space among aliens. And if you think a non-magical, non-alien setting doesn’t give you much leeway to be silly and strange, boy are you wrong.

Default SmilesThe characters are more like caricatures, the plots are basically ridiculous, and the narration keeps going off on its own tangents in the most amusing ways. Great descriptions, run on confusions and liberal use of ‘dash it all!’

Default SharkyI’m 100% behind the way things are narrated. But I tend to lose patience with the characters sometimes, they’re all such idiots. They’re supposed to be but that doesn’t always help.

Sassy SmilesI caught Sharky yelling oh my God just tell the truth already at the book.

Angry Sharky 2Oh my God just tell the truth already it’s not that hard but you’re making it harder what is happening why is nobody making any sense.

Sassy SmilesIt got worse for him when someone tried to tell the truth, it got over-exaggerated by someone else, and now nobody believes the original truth.


Default SmilesBut that’s why you have to hold on and just trust the author. Everything has to go horribly for the main character, Bertie, before things can get better for anyone else, and always in the most ridiculous ways. It would almost be tragic if it wasn’t so funny.

Sassy SmilesUnlike Sharky, Jeeves is actually helpful. And objectively the smartest person in every book.

Happy Sharky2But even the stupidest characters can be really sarcastic and witty, even if Bertie can never quote anything properly even when he’s trying to act clever.

Surprised SmilesSomeone somewhere once said something very profound about comedy and tragedy being the same. Kind of. Broadly. Probably.

Sassy SharkyNow you know what to expect when Bertie quotes anything.

Default SmilesI like the setting. There’s something nice about spending time in a little bubble where the biggest problem tends to be ‘my aunt is angry at me and she’s very scary’. It reminds me of those books where kids could have adventures because they didn’t really have to worry about anything else. Despite the fact that these books are set between wars and during, we’re in a sunny little patch where things are good, money- and status-wise, but love and family is confusing and people are unreasonable and sometimes there isn’t time to dress for dinner and you feel out of place.

Sassy SharkyJust so you know, Smiles has been shaking in place, trying not to spend the entire review just spouting off quotations rather than talking about the book.

Happy SmilesI just want to quote so many things! ... which I do with every book. Tell you what, between this review and the next one, we’ll do a mid-week upload with a quote from each of the books we’ve reviewed!

Surprised SharkyWha- we didn’t discuss that!

Default SmilesOh Sharky, when do I ever discuss what we’re going to do with you?

Quiet Sharky

Download Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: MASTER FLEA by ETA Hoffmann

book cover Original Publication Date: 1822

Genre: fairy tale, fantasy

Topics: trust, love, friendship, coming of age, forgotten for a reason

Review by heidenkind:

Peregrinus Tyss is an odd duck. If he was living in the 21st century, he'd probably be diagnosed with Asperger's; but as it is, he lives in 19th-century Frankfurt and people just assume he's stupid.

Since Peregrin is an orphan and has no friends, every Christmas he picks one family and brings a bunch of presents to them dressed as Santa. But while delivering presents to a bookseller and his children, Peregrin is assaulted by a strange, beautiful woman who acts like she knows him. This lady is obviously Bad News (obvious to the reader, that is); fortunately for Peregrin, he's managed to collect Master Flea, whom the woman needs to keep herself alive. Grateful for Peregrin's protection, Master Flea helps him navigate the waters of social life among the muggles and the mythical beings that suddenly surround him.

I enjoyed Master Flea at first, but as the story went on it started to wear on me. First of all, the eponymous Flea doesn't even show up until the "Third Adventure," nearly halfway through the book! Before that, we are introduced to Peregrin, a femme fatale named alternatively "fair Alina," Dörtje Elverdink, and a mythical princess called Gamaheh of Famagusta; a guy named George Pepusch, who's actually the Thistle of Zeherit; Pepusch's bestie, Leuwenhock, who's actually a magician; Peregrin's lodger, who's Leuwenhock's nemesis and fellow magician; and et. al. I probably forgot a few people there, but you get the idea. This is the type of book where everyone has two or three names, like Lord of the Rings, only not as tolerable. And I was never able to get through Lord of the Rings, sooooooooo.

This is also the type of book where there's only one female character, and she's not really a character, more of a MacGuffin. Alllllllll the men in this story are after Alina/Dörtje/Gamaheh, for no reason I could see because she's a total bitch.  But she is beautiful, so I suppose that's all that matters.

There are some fun scenes in Master Flea, like when Master Flea gives Peregrin a glass that lets him see what people are *really* thinking when they talk to him (the glass, incidentally, is a small concave disk that fits over his eye, and to take it out he leans over and blinks very wide and it pops out and back into its box–so, ETA Hoffmann basically invented contact lenses). Naturally, whatever they're thinking is the exact opposite of what they're saying. But this went on for way too long and there was way too much of it.

The book also bounced around a lot and there was a ton of information about other fairies and mythical creatures, most of which I not only didn't care about but was annoyed with, considering keeping the thrice-named circus of the regular characters straight was exhausting enough.

Finally, I found the conclusion to be extremely irritating.

Master Flea a really weird book. Like, REALLY weird. It's over-the-top and all over the place. I probably wouldn't recommend this book to anyone, and I think I'm going to avoid ETA Hoffmann books in the future from now on. Sorry, ETA.

Download Master Flea by ETA Hoffmann at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: THE CONJURE WOMAN by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

the conjure woman cover Original Publication Date: 1899

Genre: folk tales

Topics: slavery, antebellum South, magic

Review by heidenkind:

John and Annie are northerners who relocate to North Carolina for Annie's health, and want to invest in some property. The first day looking around their new neighborhood they meet old Uncle Julius McAdoo, a former slave who John enlists for help. Uncle Julius knows everything there is to know about the area, the former plantations, and their owners, and loves to tell stories about what life was like before the Civil War–stories filled with strange happenings and "conjure," a hoodoo kind of magic. John dismisses these tales as ignorant and fanciful, but that doesn't stop Uncle Julius from using them as a metaphor to manipulate John and Annie for his own purposes.

This is a book I would recommend to anyone. First of all, the writing style is super-smart and clever. Charles Waddell Chesnutt definitely had a way with words, and there's an underlying current of humor and intelligence in the narration. Secondly, the stories themselves are simply fascinating. Some of them are comedic; many of them are tragedies. But taken on their own they stand up with the greatest of Aesop's Fables or Grimm's fairy tales. And lastly, The Conjure Woman is book that's not simply a collection of stories–it's about race relations in the South after the Civil War.

Chesnutt was a 19th-century African American journalist who became an influential early member of the NAACP. The Conjure Woman was his first book, and it's cleverly framed by the contemporary (in Chesnutt's time) lives of John and Annie. John's perspective gives the stories context–for example, after "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," John suspects Uncle Julius told him this story for the express purpose of keeping a piece of John's property undeveloped. Julius is obviously not afraid to take advantage of the ignorance of his boss, and tries to influence both him and Annie with his tales.

When it comes to Annie, however, one gets the feeling that her view of Uncle Julius is both more realistic and more sympathetic than John's: John sees the antebellum South in a romantic light, whereas Annie can understand the precariousness and harshness of life from Julius' tales.

But the main focus of The Conjure Woman is, of course, Uncle Julius' stories, which are bizarre and terrifying and definitely have the atmosphere of another world. In tone they kind of reminded me of Django Unchained: full of danger, mystery, vengeance, love, dark humor, violence, and the sense that this a place where anything can happen. But that doesn't mean people in the stories are powerless. They have the conjure woman!

I listened to the Librivox recording of The Conjure Woman, and the narrator, James K. White, did an absolutely fantastic job. I can't imagine anyone performing this book better. His accents and voices were absolutely perfect.

I'd definitely recommend The Conjure Woman if you're looking for a classic about the lives of slaves in the US that takes an honest look at race relations in both pre- and post-Civil War America, yet isn't a downer. I'm really happy I decided to give this one a try!

Download The Conjure Woman by Charles Waddell Chesnutt at Project Gutenberg|Librivox