Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: The Woman in White

Original Publication Date:  1859

Genre:  Mystery, Romance, Sensation

Topics:  Inheritance, Dark Secrets

Review:  I listened to this book via the Librivox recording, and it was amazing.  I don't know how so many people worked together to make this book come to life, but I love that they put so much effort into it.  Each character has a different narrator on the audiobook, and each narrator creates a completely unique voice that really brings that character to life.

I don't even know how to describe what this book is about.  There's a drawing teacher, Walter Hartwright, who meets a woman dressed all in white one night on the road.  He helps her get where she needs to go and then continues on his own way.  But he soon realizes that his life is tied by fate to that of the woman in white, who knows about all sorts of secrets and wicked deeds and horrible pasts that will impact the lives of those closest to him.  And it's up to Walter and his completely awesome sidekick Marian, a brave and loyal woman who has the misfortune of being quite ugly, to save the day so that Walter can live happily ever after with the beautiful, rich princess of his choosing, Marian's half-sister, Laura.

Honestly, in reading this book, I can't help but think that Collins really wanted to make Marian the heroine but somehow settled for Laura.  It's pretty clear that Collins has zero interest in Laura.  She's good, she's kind, she's pretty, she can play the piano, but that's about it.  Collins gives practically everyone in the story at least one chapter to tell their side of the story, but he gives Laura nothing.  In contrast, Marian the Awesome gets a significant portion of the story dedicated to her narrative.  I will go to my grave (or at least, will go to the point at which I become quite foggy about this book's particulars) thinking that Hartwright was in love with one sister in his heart but just didn't realize it because he was so blinded by physical beauty.  But lucky for him, he gets to spend his days with both sisters, so life is quite grand for him.

My only other exposure to Collins had been the book Armadale, and I admit that I wasn't a fan of that one at all.  I really disliked Lydia Gwilt and she was the narrator for the majority of the book.  Here, I got to see Collins' skill with POV - he is excellent at making each character unique - and was also quite wrapped up in a complicated story with many twists and turns.

This is one of those books that, for me, was so helped by the audiobook.  I feel like it would have taken me forever to pick up a book that was almost 700 pages of Victorian overreaction and fainting and virtuous women, but in audio form, it was completely doable.  The Librivox team behind this edition is really, really good.  If you enjoy sensation novels or mystery novels or novels about unconventional heroines, then I highly recommend this one to you.  It's good stuff!

I listened to this free recording of the book.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK by Lewis Carroll

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1874

Genre: poem

Topics: humor, nonsense, quest


They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
In the explicanation of all that is good, somewhat is left unsold. Your right brain, directing your speech, knows what you want to say, but your left brain doesn't know the words for it. What are you looking for? Be sure to write it down in soap.

In The Hunting of the Snark there are seven characters. One is a butcher but not a butcher and he makes friends with a beaver, which is what he hunts. Beavers are the only animals he kills. Then they hear a jubjub. They fear death and realize they've been friends forever. That was my favorite part.

Actually, I lied. There are ten characters. The best character is the baker, called "Hi," who forgets everything except the most important thing. He tries to warn the crew, but they don't listen, and he winds up being got by the very thing he feared getting.

Blah blah blah. Coming to the point, think of the words read and understand. Now open your mouth and say the first word that comes into your head. Those with a proclivity to one will say "read," while those with an inclination toward the other will say "understand." But only those who know what I'm getting at will say "runderstead."

I rundersteaded The Hunting of the Snark frumiously. The great thing about kids is they don't really care if something makes sense, because to them nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense to adults, either, but they like to pretend it does. Therefore The Hunting of the Snark is beamish fun for multiple-aged persons!

In conclusion, be careful that your Snarks aren't Boojums.

Get The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll at Project Gutenberg|YouTube

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: THE BAT by Stephen Vincent Benét

Story by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1926

Genre: mystery

Topics: country house, master criminal, old lady


All through the city and its neighboring suburbs, wealthy people are being terrorized by a master criminal known as the Bat--so called because of the signature he leaves at every crime scene. He's so elusive the police are convinced he's a respectable gentleman by day, and a criminal by night, hiding in plain sight. The Bat seems to be unstoppable, until he meets his match: a little old lady who refuses to be frightened from her home.

Here's the thing with The Bat: it's actually a play adaptation of The Circular Staircase, Mary Roberts Rinehart's second novel, which she wrote in collaboration with Avery Hopwood. The biggest change she made for the play was the addition of the Bat. And if the cover of this book makes you think of Batman, there's a reason for that: Batman was directly inspired by The Bat.

The Bat was hugely successful, with receipts running into the thousands of dollars per night, and there were several movie adaptations made of it (including a silent film you can watch at Internet Archive) as well as this novelization, which is credited to Rinehart and Hopwood, but was actually written by poet Stephen Vincent Benét.*

a note from the bat
The Bat likes leaving people notes.

Considering The Bat is an adaptation of an adaptation, it's not that bad. The first third is actually pretty good: it's very cinematic and visual, has lots of humor, and does a good job of setting the scene and presenting the motivations of the central characters in an interesting way. I warmed up to Mrs. Van Gordon, the old lady, immediately; and while her interactions with Lizzie the maid weren't laugh-out-loud funny, they were entertaining.

But The Bat seriously began to lose me in the second third. It started to feel like a play adaptation at that point: everything occurs in Mrs. Van Gordon's living room, which is clearly the set, and the descriptions sound as if Benét is simply telling us what happens on stage. So that was a little dull.

Plus, this is the type of story where there is A LOT of plot going on. Plot upon plot upon plot. Nearly everyone isn't who they say they are, there are tons of people who could be the Bat, and even those who aren't the Bat have their own agenda, which more likely than not involves stealing money out of Mrs. Van Gordon's house. The threads are woven together pretty tightly, but for some reason I found it to be really BORING. The Bat put me to sleep on several occasions. It's strange because I feel like it SHOULD have been interesting; it just wasn't. I think there was too much plot for me and not enough characterization; even watching the movie version I was bored out of my mind. Every single character is more of a "type," and... that's about it. They're types after a thing, and they all keep coming and going from the same room. I think I started to fall asleep just writing that sentence.

In the end, The Bat was a DNF for me. It was beginning to feel like Reading Torture. I did kind of want to find out who the Bat was, but I have a feeling I already know; and anyway, I don't care enough to go through Reading Torture for it.

Get The Bat at Librivox|Project Gutenberg

*Information about The Bat's receipts and contributors comes from Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart by Jan Cohn (1980, University of Pittsburgh Press).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review: IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott

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Original Publication Date: 1820

Genre: historical fiction

Topics: romance, honor, chivalry


You may have noticed I haven't been posting reviews for a while. That was because I was slogging through this monster. When will I ever learn to stay away from romantic tomes? Probably never.

Wilfred of Ivanhoe is a Saxon knight returning from the Crusades to reclaim his inheritance and his true love, Rowena. Conflicts in England, however, make his journey a difficult one.

I decided to read Ivanhoe a long time ago--after seeing the miniseries starring Ciaran Hinds, actually. I'm glad I saw that miniseries, because I'm not sure I would have made it through this book without it. Walter Scott is not one of those writers who believes that less is more; instead, he writes Ivanhoe as if the whole time he's thinking to himself, "Hm, how can I tell this story in the most indirect and meandery way possible?" The first chapter opens with, like, 10 pages about the Norman and Saxon languages. KILL ME NOW. And then there's another ten pages describing one guy's clothes. Unnecessary clothing descriptions happen to be one of my major annoyances in life.

Fortunately, the story moves pretty quickly to a tournament with all the major characters present, including Isaac of York, the badass Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and a mysterious knight who refuses to be identified. Once the tournament starts, Ivanhoe becomes really fun. Ivanhoe does a GREAT job of transporting you to 12th-century England. This book has everything you could possibly want in a novel about medieval Britain: Prince John, Richard the Lionhearted, jousting, a fool, Robin Hood (have I mentioned I'm a trifle obsessed with Robin Hood?), Templars, folk songs, witch trials, romance, family squabbles, and people coming back from the dead. It even has the scenes you would expect to see in a book like this, such as Robin Hood participating in an archery competition and splitting another guy's arrow. I have no idea how historically accurate Ivanhoe is; but it FEELS 100% historically accurate. Which for the purposes of fiction is just as good, if not better.

Ivanhoe himself isn't really in the book that much. Instead, for me Ivanhoe is all about Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the Templar knight who sees the Jewess Rebecca and decides he HAS to have her because she is beautiful. But I think more importantly, she's attractive to him because she's good, even though he never says so. Unfortunately, she's just not that into him. Because she's an IDIOT.

And speaking of the female characters in Ivanhoe, there are only two of them: Rowena and Rebecca, both of whom seem like they could easily step into an Edward Burne-Jones painting. So yes, this is definitely a "guys" book. But it's a guy's book that that favors the autonomy of people regardless of gender or class, and that promotes the chivalric code. It is definitely an Enlightenment reinterpretation of the Middle-Ages, but romantic and inspiring for all of that. As Ivanhoe explains at one point, "We live not--we wish not to live--longer than while we are victorious and renowned--" These boys are balls-to-wall warriors, but with manners and respectful of their mamas. What's not to like?

Do I think Ivanhoe is worth the haul? It definitely has its moments. I think as long as you don't mind spending a month reading a single book, and have a weakness for romantic literature, you'll want to give it a try. I can definitely understand now why this book has endured and inspired artists for nearly two centuries.

Fun things I learned from Wikipedia:
  • The name Cedric comes from Ivanhoe. Walter Scott actually meant to name Ivanhoe's dad Cerdic but misspelled it. For 800+ pages.
  • The term freelance also comes from Ivanhoe--Maurice de Bracy says he offered the services of his "Free Lances" to King Richard.
  • The idea that Robin Hood came from a town called Locksley is something Scott concluded in his research for this novel and put it into the book. No references to "Robin of Locksley" exist before Ivanhoe.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bat Wing by Sax Rohmer

Original Publication Date: 1921

Genre: Mystery

Topics: voodoo, Cuba, colonialism, Edgar Allan Poe, Sherlock Holmesesque 


Paul Harley is asked to solve a mystery. Colonel Menendez, a Spanish plantation owner, believes that a curse has followed him from Cuba. Someone has nailed a bat wing to the door of his new home in Surrey. This seems like a ridiculous prank to Harley but Menendez insists that this is a warning from the followers of voodoo who are out to get him. Harley and friend take a fishing holiday out to Surrey to investigate this mystery and hopefully prevent a murder.

The Good

This is a really well drawn out story with an interesting plot and a twisty ending. Plus, there is an Edgar Allan Poe lookalike in this book! Also, don’t you think Sax Rohmer is a most excellent nom de plume? He sounds like a super villain.

The Bad

Some of the dialogue is clunky. People exclaim, “What?!” quite often. There’s also a local policeman who has his head up his butt. He’s a pompous old fool who says, “Oh I see!” every five seconds. That was all over the top.

The Ugly

This is the book that prompted the discussion with Aarti and Tasha about racism. It’s bad. At one point, a character pretty much says that you can’t trust black people because there is a possibility that they are practicing voodoo on you. Harley wants to know if there are any black people in the area, “just in case.” Then there is the Chinese servant of the neighbour who is devoted to the mistress of the house. He’s done some heroic things in her honour but the author makes him out to be “dull” and not with it.

With the exception of the cringe worthy stereotyping and the ridiculous policeman, the rest of the book is entertaining.

This was a LibriVox recording by Mark Nelson. Nelson is a big deal in the sci-fi narration business and quite popular on LibriVox. He has this accentless American voice that made me think I previously heard him trying to sell me cholesterol medication. But he’s actually very good and his foreign accents are fantastic. The only thing that makes me ponder is some of the characters are British but he doesn’t give them accents when they speak. I wonder why he chose to do this?


Monday, July 2, 2012

Guest Review: HOWARDS END by EM Forster

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1910

Genre: society novel

Topics: gender, class, appearances

Guest review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:

So – I did have to take some deep breaths right from the start when I saw that the book title was “Howards End” (with no apostrophe), but once I had leapt that hurdle, it was ok. (Deep breaths are a wonderful thing for a Grammar Nerd. Ha.)

I have been dying to read some EM Forster books since a long time ago, at least ten years or so, but for some reason or another, I hadn’t picked one up. Then, the other day, saw it on a list of classics that another bookie person was reading and thought now was the time.

Basically, a story that revolves around the ongoing fate of Howards End, a country house whose ownership links three different families, it is also a book to be read on two levels. On one level, is the basic plot of wealthy High Society families in London during the Gilded Age (a la Wharton books) and all their machinations with regard to appropriate marriages and friends etc. And then on the other level, is Forster mucking about with turn-of-the-century symbolism of class roles, gender roles, and the overarching worry of this time in UK history: where is England going? Will it remain structured as two classes of rich people and poor people or will Socialism win the day? (This was before WWI had even occurred and wasn’t even a speck on the horizon at this point.) With England just finishing up the years of the Industrial Revolution (where business and money were Kings), it must have been rather a worrying time for the people at the top of the business heap. Would socialism come and take everything that they worked for and believed in?

The story focuses on three groups of people: the Wilcox family, a wealthy business-oriented family (who represent commerce); the Schlegel artistic and intellectual family (who represent the arts and thinking etc.), and then the Bast family who are at the bottom of the heap, money-wise and education-wise. The family who links the two extremes on this scale is the Schlegel daughters who, through a chance meeting on vacation on the Continent, happen to make the acquaintance of the wealthy Wilcox family. Actually, accident plays a big role in how the Schlegels meet the Basts as well…

So, as you can see, the book doesn’t just question gender roles and society in general, but is also philosophical in many ways, discussing the roles and importance of business/commerce and the arts – is one better than the other? A discussion, I think, that continues to this day and age if you think about funding in schools etc across the nation.

The book also throws Imperialism into the mix as well – what role did England have on colonizing the rest of the world? How would it continue? What would it mean?... Lots to think about, and it’s clear that there were strong winds of change at this time in the world – look at Wharton, James, Forster, Chopin (Kate)…

Haven’t actually told you much about the actual plot, but suffice to say, it’s about who will marry who, and when and where, and who will inherit what. I thought the plot was actually more of a vehicle or a framework for Forster to hang his deeper questions on – the future of England and its role in the world, the questioning of commerce vs. art, gender roles…

This was a good read. The story held together very well, and characters were believable and realistic. When I was reading the story itself, all these philosophical strands were there in the background, but the story itself came first. It wasn’t until afterward that I was struck with all the deep thoughts about the book itself so all this questioning about life is only in the background for the most part. (Forster occasionally makes forays and digression into philosophical questions, but it’s not too distracting.)

Forster wrote quite a few books, but after he published his last novel in 1924, he didn’t write another novel for the next 46 years. He lived in one of the halls at a college in Cambridge and apparently sat around doing not much for decades. (Unless someone knows differently?) I think he authored some literary crit. articles, but nothing major. He died in 1970 in the family house of his long-term partner.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Review: THE FORTIETH DOOR by Mary Hastings Bradley

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1920

Genre: adventure

Topics: love, destiny


An American archaeologist with the appropriately dashing name of Jack Ryder prefers mummies over conversing with living people, until his friend Jinny forces him to go to a masquerade ball. There he meets a mysterious woman wearing veils, which he assumes is her costume (clearly he didn't get the memo about "sexy" being the keyword in women's costumes). They dance together and fall in love, but when Jack walks the woman home, he realizes she's a Muslim, and would therefore never be allowed to date a Westerner. Or date at all, really. Depressed, he returns to his mummies, only to find evidence that Aimée isn't the daughter of a Turk, but a Frenchman (she's a secret Christian! hardy har). Quote-unquote evidence in hand, he sets out to rescue her from the clutches of the man her stepfather has promised her to, Hamdi Bey.

As soon as I read Chris' review of The Fortieth Door (review here) and she mentioned there was a mummy, I knew I had to read it. HAD TO. It's basically a retelling of Romeo & Juliet--from the ball where Jack and Aimée meet to Aimée's fake death. For the most part I really enjoyed this novel, even though there were times when the dialog went on and on drove me crazy. The setting was absolutely fabulous; and even though Mary Hastings Bradley is obviously very critical of the way Eastern women are treated and makes Aimée Western to what I thought was an improbable degree, I loved reading about her wedding, which was definitely the highlight of the book.

Bradley lived in Egypt and while this IS the type of book where all the Arabs and Africans are evil, at the same time I think you can tell she had an admiration and respect for the culture. Although the British run Egypt, Bradley doesn't pretend they're the only people who inhabit it--the country is filled with Turks, Ethiopians, French, Egyptians, Muslims and Christians who all have to put with each other. And if the behavior of Jack Ryder is anything to go by, Americans can be pretty difficult to put up with.

As for the story, it's a freaking blast. Not that it necessarily makes sense--I'm still not sure how Jack added one and one together and came up with "Aimée isn't really a Turk and I need to rescue her," but whatever. Dashing archaeologist guy is gonna do what he's gonna do! Honestly, I really liked all the characters, including Jack, and especially the villain, Hamdi Bey. He was moustache-twirlingly awesome. Now THERE'S a villain, bishes.

The Fortieth Door is kinda like Brigadoon--you just have to go with it. In fact, I can't BELIEVE this book hasn't been made into a musical yet. They wouldn't even have to write new songs for it, they could just use ones that already exist. Imagining the characters in the book I'm reading dancing around and singing amuses me muchly.

Can you tell I had fun reading this book yet? I truly think The Fortieth Door is a perfect summer read. It has everything: romance, mummies, illegal activities, dungeons, men in kilts, cheesy show tune potential. It goes by really fast and you don't even have to pay that close attention to most of it--in fact, it's probably better if you don't. But it is really entertaining. I think Chris' speculation that Bradley was the Dan Brown of her time pretty much sums this book up.