Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: An English Woman-Sergeant In the Serbian Army by Flora Sandes


Original Publication Date: 1916

Genre: Memoir

Topics: Army life, World War I, Serbia, British nurses, soldiers, women soldiers, sisters doing it for themselves, smoking-drinking-shooting

Review by : Chrisbookarama

Have you ever stumbling across something by accident and then instantly became obsessed with it? That is me right now with Flora Sandes. Obsessed! I was just minding my own business, scrolling through the Librivox catalogue, when I came across An English Woman-Sergeant In the Serbian Army. Well, I thought, this sounds intriguing. I started listening and couldn’t believe my ears. Is this real life? Was Flora Sandes a real person? I had to find out for sure. Fool me once, Public Domain! And it was true! This really happened!

flora sandes

Flora begins her story with herself travelling back to Serbia after a brief vacation from the action during World War I. England was an ally to Serbia. Serbians needed all the help they could get. Flora volunteered to be a nurse with St John Ambulance. She quickly became a favorite with the men. She’d smoke, drink, and share a laugh with them, as well as hold their hands as they died.

Flora decided early on to stick with the Serbian Army even though she was British. The Serbians’ ideas about women in the combat were more enlightened than the Brits’. She travelled with the army while they retreated from the Austrian advance, taking care of the wounded and sick men. At some point Flora is asked to make a choice.

They said the journey through Albania would be very terrible, that nothing we had gone through so far was anything approaching it, and that they would send me down to Salonica if I liked.

Flora says Yes! to Albania, though they find the locals very hostile to their presence. They get fired upon a lot. But here Flora finally gets to be a real soldier and holds her own against the enemy.

I had only a revolver and no rifle of my own at that time, but one of my comrades was quite satisfied to lend me his and curl himself up and smoke.

It isn’t all shooting dudes all day long though. The Serbians were constantly on the move. Along the road Flora saw the corpses of horses that died of starvation or exhaustion. The men themselves weren’t doing so good, as the locals put up the prices of food when the soldiers arrive in their towns.

As for the men, they showed her great respect. She says she expected resistance, but never experienced it, even in her interactions with the British commanders. Her Serbian commander makes her a corporal, and eventually a sergeant, making her the only woman to officially serve in the Serbian Army during World War I.

flora and her men

An English Woman-Sergeant In the Serbian Army ends unexpectedly, but this is because Flora wrote it in 1916, while the war was still ongoing, to raise funds for the Serbian Army. Flora ain’t got time for writing memoirs. The writing is what you would expect from a woman like Flora: to the point, honest, unadorned. It’s also pretty short. In 1927, she wrote her autobiography, An Autobiography of a Woman Soldier. I will be reading that, I can tell you.

The only thing I didn’t like about this memoir was the patronizing introduction by a Serbian politician:

But she only took to a rifle when there was no more nursing to be done, as, owing to the Army retreating, the wounded could not be picked up and had to be left behind.

No, dude, she would have “took to a rifle” if that had been an option from the start.

Here are some facts about Flora:

  • She was 38 when World War I began, 40 when she wrote this memoir. (Yay!)
  • After the war, she married a Russian soldier 12 years younger than herself. (Get it, girl!)
  • They lived in Serbia until he died in 1941.
  • When World War II broke out, she joined the army again. She was 65. (A Boss!)
  • The Nazis imprisoned her. (Oh no they didn’t!)
  • She moved back to England and drove around in a motorized wheelchair until she died at age 80. (Only death could stop her.)

Project Gutenberg doesn’t have the text but The University of Toronto has a text version.

Download An English Woman-Sergeant In the Serbian Army by Flora Sandes at |Librivox|

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: THE PASSENGER FROM CALAIS by Arthur Griffiths

the passenger from calais Original Publication Date: 1906
Genre: Adventure
Topics: Rule of law, honor among thieves, travel, trains, love, motherhood, women

Review by heidenkind:

Lieut.-Colonel Basil Annesley, traveling to Lake Como for some R&R, hops aboard the train from Calais only to find that the train is completely empty of any other passengers, except for one small party consisting of a lady, her maid, and a baby. When he overhears the lady confessing to a theft, he decides she's bad news and that he's going to have nothing to do with her. After she tells him off for being a judgmental douche canoe, however, the Colonel abruptly realizes two things: 1. he IS being a douche canoe; and 2. he's totally in love with this woman and will do anything to help her, despite the fact that he still doesn't know who she is, what she stole, or why. Will the larcenous party be able to evade the private investigators on the lady's trail, and will the Colonel's feelings for her survive the trip?

I was so pleasantly surprised by The Passenger from Calais! It's a game of cat-and-mouse stretching across Europe in an extended chase that reminded me of Around the World in 80 Days–only better, because it includes several awesome female characters. There are fights, run-ins with the law, a slippery villain, double- and triple-crosses, and identity switches. The story takes an unexpectedly feminist turn in the middle, and I thought the ending was pitch-perfect despite an all-too-convenient death.

Even though the Colonel seems a bit dense at the beginning of The Passenger from Calais (his abrupt one-eighty in regards to the mysterious lady was enough to give me whiplash), as the book goes on he proves himself to be a clever and worthy adversary to the people chasing the woman. The story isn't only told from his viewpoint, however: we also hear parts of the story from Falfani and Tiler, the detectives, as well as the lady herself. The switching of viewpoints was confusing sometimes, especially listening to the book on audio, but that's my only real criticism of The Passenger.

The rest of this review is going to be spoilerific, so if you want to read The Passenger from Calais and still be surprised by some of the twists and turns, you may want to avert your eyes.

As for the mysterious woman on the train–whose name is Lady Claire Standish–I absolutely loved her. She's intelligent, capable, steady, and 100% principled even though she *did* steal something. The something that she stole is where the book takes that unexpectedly feminist turn I mentioned.

See, Lady Claire's sister, Henriette, married the vicious Lord Blackadder (cue Blackadder gifs), and several years later was just as unfairly divorced by him, resulting in a huge scandal. Naturally Blackadder got custody of their child, and made it known that he would never allow Henriette to see the little munchkin again. So, while her sister hied off to the Continent, Claire and her maid took her nephew from the house of Blackadder and planned to reunite mother and child in Italy.

So not only is the plot generated by the actions of two women, it centers around a woman's right to have access to her children as well as chose her own husband and maintain her own autonomy (Henriette was forced to marry Blackadder by her guardians, and the divorce hinged on rumors of infidelity sparked by her daring to socialize with men other than her husband). Not only that, but Annesley immediately and genuinely recognizes the women's plight as a just cause.

Blackadder is just as horrible as you can imagine. At one point he pulls the, "Do you know who I AM?!" card with a French official, which I think we can all recognize as a stupid move. The French judge's reaction to it, however, made the scene totally worth it.

And then there's Henriette. When we first meet her it's through the eyes of Colonel Annesley, and she's definitely a Difficult Woman. Completely unlike her sister, she is not cool, calm, and logical in the face of adversity. She's histrionic, temperamental, emotional, and refuses to listen to reason. Colonel Annesley thinks she's a harridan, actually, and when he's telling the story you can understand why Blackadder might have wanted to divorce her.

Lady Henriette is also very suspicious of men in general–understandable, all things considered, but not something I encounter a lot in older novels. Henriette and Claire are painfully aware of the power imbalance between men and women, and Henriette takes care to point it out (in the most annoying way possible, of course):

"Oh, how like a man! Of course you must have your own way, and every one else must give in to you," she cried with aggravating emphasis, giving me no credit for trying to choose the wisest course.

Why should she give you credit, dude? She don't know you. Lady Henriette is sick of doing what the goddamn patriarchy tells her to do. SICK OF IT.

What's interesting is that when Claire's telling the story, Henriette is still difficult and unreasonable, but much more sympathetic. And by the end Henriette redeems herself by taking the initiative to find the people who testified against her in the divorce trial and convince them to confess to the authorities they were bribed by Blackadder, which means everyone can to return to England.

Basically, Claire and Henriette each possess certain attributes of a classic femme fatale (that's certainly what I thought Claire would be when The Passenger from Calais started), but they're not the femme fatales–they're the heroines! Annesley really just provides a supporting role to their adventure.

Despite a few little too-convenient blips now and again, I really enjoyed The Passenger from Calais. I can imagine this book as movie directed by Wes Anderson, à la The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I loved that movie. I'd definitely recommend this novel!

Download The Passenger from Calais by Arthur Griffiths at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review: HER DARK INHERITANCE by Mrs. E. Burke Collins

her dark inheritance Original Publication Date: 1892

Genre: dime novel

Topics: Love, secrets, beauty, economics, sins of the father, forgotten for a reason

Review by heidenkind:

On a dark and stormy night, Beatrix Dane is abandoned at the offices of Dr. Frederick Lynne, with a note promising an allowance for the doctor and his family if he raises the baby as his own. But when the money stops coming 17 years later, Beatrix faces resentment from her evil step-mom and -sister, as well as (even worse!) a horrible wardrobe. When a dashing cousin of Mrs. Lynne, Keith Kenyon, arrives on the scene, Beatrix is sure he's her prince charming. But Mrs. and Miss Lynne have other plans, especially after Dr. Lynne dies. Will Beatrix and Keith ever be together? And what was up with Beatrix's mom and dad?

Her Dark Inheritance is one of those books where being beautiful=good and unattractive=horrible person. Case in point: Beatrix is a shallow little bitch, yet I'm supposed to root for her because attractiveness. Mmmr, no. Keith also falls in love with her, seemingly just because she's beautiful. Meanwhile, Beatrix's "sister," Serena, is vilified largely because of her looks. Every single time she's mentioned in this book, the author takes care to point out that she's "ugly," "not very attractive," "ungraceful," and so on. Yet character-wise there doesn't seem to be much difference between Serena and Beatrix; at least Serena appears to be marginally more intelligent.

This would be bad enough, if I cared even a little bit about the characters or felt like the story had any connection to reality at all, but I didn't. I did like the beginning of Her Dark Inheritance, in a this-book-is-going-to-be-really-cheesy! sort of way, and I liked that it was clearly framed as a fairy tale (at one point early in the book, Beatrix thinks, "Oh, dear! I wish my fairy prince would come!"–literally, that is a direct quote–and a paragraph later Tall Dark and Handsome rides up on his trusty steed), but the story quickly descended into over-the-toppiness with a love triangle between Serena and Beatrix, and Beatrix going to live with some distant relative, who ALSO was involved in a love triangle in his youth and his now seeking revenge through Beatrix and Keith. It reminded me of Wuthering Heights in a way, although I gave marginally less fucks and thought it was way more stupid than Wuthering Heights, a challenge (not a fan of Wuthering Heights, incidentally).

And then there was the writing. Oh lordy lordy. Her Dark Inheritance is filled with long, tortured sentences that contain a whole lot of tell and not show. Another reason why it was impossible to connect to the characters on any level.

In the end, despite all the gossipy, juicy drama going on, I was really bored. If I had been reading the book I'd have skimmed to the very end; but since I was listening to it on audiobook I just DNF'd it.

But here's an interesting thing I discovered while I was trying to figure out when the heck Her Dark Inheritance was published: Mrs. E. Burke Collins was a very successful writer of dime novels for women. This was apparently a thing. A passage in a book I found on Google Books described her as, "one of the small band of women writers who earn more than $6,ooo a year." And says that, "Mrs Sharkey [Collins' legal name] is the only professional story writer in the far South and her salary is larger than that received by any other person in the state of Louisiana not even excepting its State officials."

Hard to believe. There were a bunch of other female dime novelists, too, of course. The American Women's Dime Novel Project contains some hip, retro covers from women's dime novels published between 1870 and 1934, but only a few links to where you can read them online and no discussion or critique of the books themselves, which is a bit disappointing.

There's also this article by Deidre A Johnson on Collins' short story, "Dare the Detective," and how it drew from her life experience.

Overall I get the impression Collins was following in the footsteps of Anna Katharine Green, only she wasn't as good of a writer. But I would be interested in exploring more dime novels from this time period, as long as they're not by Collins. Do you guys have any recommendations?

Download Her Dark Inheritance by Mrs. E. Burke Collins at Project Gutenberg|Librivox