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

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevski

Original Publication Date1868-9 

  Genre: Topics: mental illness, good vs. bad, how crappy life can be for decent people, 19th century Russia

  Review by : Anachronist

Returning to Russia from a sanatorium in Switzerland an epileptic young man and also a descendant of one of the oldest Russian lines of nobility, Prince Myshkin, finds himself enmeshed in a tangle of love. He is torn between two women—the notorious kept woman Nastassya whom he pities and the pure Aglaia whose soul he finds beautiful. Add to the mix Rogozhin, a man obsessed with one of them. In the end, Myshkin’s honesty, goodness, and integrity are shown to be unequal to the moral emptiness of those around him. He must fail and return to Switzerland.

My impressions:
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, 26, arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia, by train. The nominal purpose for Myshkin’s trip is to make the acquaintance of his very distant relative Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchina, and to make inquiries about a certain matter of business. He is alone but full of hope and the best intentions. He also likes other people, never judging them unfairly, even those who clearly have erred.  Overall he has too much compassion for this cynical age. He believes every person, trusts all, feels the pain of the suffering unfortunates. A result? Most of his compatriots decide very swiftly he has no common sense. Simple? Ill? Just terminally gullible? An Idiot? Or a Saint? That question only you can decide. Still be warned: the drama spans over 660 pages and is hardly easy to follow. Or to solve.
I read this one for the  first time in my teens and it all went right over my stupid, empty head. Well, I understood that Myshkin was simply too good and too honest for the world around him but I could hardly grasp why. Was it only because of his illness, a trait he shared with the author himself ? Was it also because he was practically a stranger in Russia, a country never famous of fair treatment of strangers? Why was it so important at all? Now I see I was too young to understand the complexity the of author’s mind. Dostoyevski created The Idiot to force us to think about our lives and our choices; the answers to all these ‘whys’ might vary from person to person.
The characters, none of them “all bad” or “all good” are very much life-like; in fact there is not one single person in this entire novel that I didn’t feel both sympathy and contempt for at various stages. What’s more the author himself felt obliged to punish practically every major lead in the end and the worst fate was allotted to Aglaia who had to marry a Pole. Why it was such a cruel punishment? Dostoevski hated Poles because he was of Polish descent himself and he loathed that fact, go figure why. Anyway if you encounter a Pole in his novels you might be absolutely sure it will be a villain and a scoundrel.
Apart from that The Idiot is brimming with philosophical inquiry into people’s lives, society, culture, and history. Immutable, transcendent ideas about which Russian writers always grapple. The authors of the foreword/afterword reveal and underscore dozens of themes in the book. They discuss mechanics and perspectives and symbols. They discuss Russian history and the Russian concept of suffering, and how these were adroitly parsed among the characters. And how the characters themselves represented the unique attributes–in splinter form–of the Russian whole.
Final verdict:
Let me quote here, uncharacteristically, the letter of Dostoevsky himself who  outlined his own goal, concerning The Idiot:
“The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful man. There is nothing more difficult in the world and especially now. All writers, not only ours, but even all European writers, who have merely attempted to portray the positively beautiful, have always given up. Because the task is immeasurable. The beautiful is an ideal, but this ideal, whether ours or that of civilized Europe, is still far from being worked out. There is only one perfectly beautiful person -Christ – so that the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, already an infinite miracle”
If you are intrigued by such a premise you won’t be disappointed by the novel itself.

 Download The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky at Project Gutenberg|

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Northanger Abbey

Original Publication Date: 1817
Genre: Novel
Topics: Gothic Parody, Romance
Review by : Becca Lostinbooks
Download Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

The Characters

John is egotistical, presumptuous, vindictive, and boring as watching paint dry.  To top it off he is as oblivious to Catherine's indifference as Catherine is to Isabella's own egocentricities.

Catherine is young, innocent, shy, and naive and dense to a fault, but kind-hearted.  She has a huge imagination, which Austen uses to tell the story.

Henry is gentlemanly, humorous, and kind.  Quite the charming flirt, as well.  And he understands muslin "ever so well", which is apparently "much to his credit, I'm sure." Okaaaay.

Isabella, in contrast, is an overt flirt, as well as vain, disloyal, and an opportunist.
The Setting
Catherine was involved in the same Regency world full of dances and proper socializing that is in every Austen novel.  The abbey was the interesting part, as were Catherine's imaginative scenarios.  The problem, for me, is that while the book makes fun of gothic novels, as this is a parody of the genre, there is hardly enough time in the gothic Abbey for Catherine to truly get creeped out and twist logic as much as she does.

The Plot
I like that Austen did something different with this novel, but I am not sure I enjoyed it as much as I was hoping.  I did not care for the characters much and I think that took away from some of the enjoyment of it.  Catherine was sweet, but soo annoying.  I did hope for the very obvious ending, but unlike Austen's other novels, I did not enjoy so much the journey to get there.  I think it would've been much more satisfying if I cared much about Catherine.
I did like the time Austen spent on whether people should read novels, on the debate of a good imagination, and the importance of the heart over wealth.

Have you read Northanger Abbey?  What were your thoughts on it?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Review: Countess Vera, Or Oath of Vengeance by Mrs Alex McVeigh Miller

countess veraOriginal Publication Date: 1888

Genre: Dime Novel

Topics: Abandonment, secret marriage, bigamy, premature burial, REVENGE!

Review by : Chrisbookarama

Leslie Noble finds his wife of one day dead in her room. Dead! Unwilling to live with a man who does not love her, she committed suicide. Vera Campbell had agreed to marry him to escape her Cinderella-like life of servitude to her aunt Marcia Cleveland and cousin Ivy. After her father abandoned her and her mother, they had nowhere else to go and were dependent upon their ‘kindness.’ Seventeen years of heartbreak were too much for Mrs Campbell, with her last breath she begged Leslie to marry Vera. This was the result.

Shortly after her funeral, Vera’s father (now an Earl) has returned to claim his wife and child, who he mistakenly left to fend for themselves. Too late! Both are dead. But when he unearths his child to gaze upon her face one last time, he discovers that she isn’t dead at all. He whisks her off to England to make up for lost time.

Vera keeps the secret of her marriage to herself, vowing to never remarry. She of course falls in love with a wealthy American. Angst! Then it appears that her husband has died. Yay! But just when happiness is within her reach her father dies and commands her to make an Oath of Vengeance against her cruel aunt. REVENGE!

chuck norris
Chuck Norris approves of your Oath of Vengeance

I’ve never read a dime novel before, which is a shame because this one was fun! Dime novels were cheap entertainment for the masses in the late 1800s-early 1900s. They were a lucrative business at that time. Louisa May Alcott herself wrote a few to make ends meet. The plots were sensational and usually featured a young heroine in peril.

This heroine in peril is Vera Campbell. She doesn’t have much in the personality department, but she does have ‘dark flashing eyes’ and an Oath of Vengeance. Her Aunt Marcia is the worst. She is the most evil of aunts. She could rival Cinderella’s stepmother.

cinderalla stepmother
It's an Evil Off!

The writing is not great, and apparently neither was the editing. The transcriber has a list a mile long of spelling and grammar corrections. The plot is super soapy. It’s like Days of Our Lives but with an ending. It is bonkers with premature burials, bigamy, murder-plots, poisons, and kidnappings. I loved it.

Mrs Alex McVeigh Miller (not her real name) wrote at least 80 dime novels (12 found on Project Gutenberg). A look at the synopsises reveals that some are similar in plot. Reading them could get monotonous. So, I’ll proceed with caution and space them out.  Who can resist a title like The Fatal Birthday though?

If you can put up with third person past tense, cheesy dialogue and repetitive phrases (dark eyes everywhere), you’ll enjoy this potboiler.

Download Countess Vera, or The Oath of Vengeance by Mrs Alex McVeigh Miller at Project Gutenberg

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Girl of the Limberlost

Original Publication Date: 1909 
Genre: Novel 
Topics: Coming-of-age, romance 
Review by: Melissa at Avid Reader's Musings

 A Girl of the Limberlost 
by Gene Stratton-Porter

How did I miss this book when I was younger? It’s like a slighter darker version of Anne of Green Gables, and I loved every second of it.

Published in 1909, the story is about a young girl named Elnora who lives in the country. She is going to high school for the first time, but her lack of social skills and money makes the way difficult. Her whole life has been spent on her farm with her cold, unloving mother. Her father died in the Limberlost swamp the day she was born and her mother has resented her ever since. 
Elnora is such a unique character. She is stubborn and driven to succeed. She's fiercely intelligent but incredibly compassionate. She is patient, giving her mother the benefit of the doubt for years. She's a hard worker, willing to make money to achieve her dreams. She has self-respect and is willing to sacrifice in order to find true happiness. She reminded me a little bit of Jane Austen’s Lizzy Bennet, particularly in a scene where one woman comes to talk to her about her possible engagement. 
There is so much I loved about this book. There's a fantastic female lead who isn't just trying to win a man. The plot focuses on relationships with her family and friends and pursuing her dreams. She stands up for herself even when she doesn't fit in. She's a problem solver and isn't overwhelmed when a slight obstacle gets in her path.  

Kate Comstock, Elnora's mother, is a fascinating character. She’s so oblivious to the pain she causes her daughter because she’s trapped in a prison of grief. She has one of the most drastic changes in attitude and overall character development that I've ever read. The way it's done it's completely believable, but it's still a 180 and it was so satisfying to see her relationship with Elnora change throughout the book. 
I love how the romantic aspect of the story played out too. Elnora protects her own feelings and isn’t swayed the moment Philip gave her a second glance. She waited until she was sure he didn't want anyone else and she was not just a consolation prize. That’s so unusual to find in a novel, especially one written more than 100 years ago. She wanted someone who loved her deeply, not someone who settled for her in a moment of passion.  
BOTTOM LINE: I fell hard for this novel. Elnora is so determined and intelligent, she’s definitely become one of my new favorites. The book is chocked full of wonderful characters, including her Uncle Wesley, the young ruffian Billy and even her selfish, detached mother becomes a character you care about. 
Originally posted at Avid Reader's Musings

Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: THE RAIN-GIRL by Herbert George Jenkins

book cover the rain girl Original Publication Date: 1919

Genre: Romantic comedy

Topics: Depression, suicide, family, society            

Review by heidenkind:

Recently home from the trenches of WWI, Richard Beresford finds that he simply cannot deal with stuff anymore. Not his former job at the Foreign Office, not his family, not the whole getting-up-in-the-morning and getting-dressed thing, or eating or reading or hobbies or anything at all. So he decides he's just going to wander around and be tramp. His very proper family is horrified, but he ignores them, sells all his possessions (aside from his books), and starts off across the countryside. No sooner can you say survival skills, however, than he comes across a manic pixie dream girl sitting on a gate in the rain, happy as you please. Richard is enchanted with the young woman and becomes obsessed with finding her, even though he only knows her by his nickname for her: The Rain-Girl.

You might recognize the name Herbert George Jenkins from another of his romantic comedies, Patricia Brent, Spinster, which Liz reviewed here a little over a year ago. As much as I enjoyed Patricia Brent, Spinster–and I did enjoy it a lot more than Liz did; I thought it was a charming and delightful Cinderella story–The Rain-Girl is much better. While Patricia Brent, Spinster, was a tad predictable and suffered from a surfeit of incredible coincidences, The Rain-Girl is much more grounded and goes to some surprisingly dark places while still maintaining the clever dialog and humor of a comedy.

Richard is obviously suffering from what we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome. He wants to check out of life, by which I mean he no longer cares if he lives or dies, and is in fact leaning more towards the latter. There are moments in The Rain-Girl where Richard is perilously close to committing suicide, and there are conversations between him and his cousin, Lord Drewitt, where they argue that they should have the right to kill themselves if they like–after all, it's *their* life. If you can't end it went you want, what can you do?

All this probably makes The Rain-Girl sound like a downer, but it's not. Richard doesn't really want to kill himself, he just doesn't know to cope with life anymore, at least not until he's faced with the challenge of finding the Rain-Girl. Lord Drewitt, who's in the book quite a bit, is filled with sarcastic quips and clever bon mots, and his mother–Richard's aunt–adds a nice bit of spice to things trying to keep her son and nephew in order.

Basically, The Rain-Girl is a really fun book even if Richard has some serious shit to deal with. The world is the same one occupied by the main characters of Patricia Brent, Spinster–Lady Tenegra even makes an appearance–so if you enjoy novels set amongst English high society, this one's your jam.

As for the eponymous Rain-Girl, I called her a MPDG in the summary, but she's really not. I expected her to be, but Richard's attraction goes deeper than that even in the beginning. He likes her because she's interesting and different and doesn't fit in, kind of like how he feels he doesn't fit in anywhere anymore; and he admires her ability to enjoy something that's usually considered bad, like the rain. She's also not a "girl," but a woman whose quirky exterior belies a very serious and independent character.

Basically, if you enjoy historical romances, I think you'll really like The Rain-Girl. I really wish more of Jenkins' romances were available!

Download The Rain-Girl by Herbert George Jenkins at Librivox|Internet Archive

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Original Publication Date: 1891  
Genre: Novel
Topics: Morality, sexual standards in gender
Review by: Melissa at Avid Reader's Musings

Tess of the D'Urbervilles   
by Thomas Hardy

Rarely have I ever had such a visceral reaction to a book. I have read a few other Hardy novels and so at this point I expect tragedy. But this one still blew me away. It broke my heart in so many ways, but Hardy’s writing made the whole experience oddly beautiful, despite the inevitable disaster that you know if coming.

The brilliance of his writing is just breathtaking. The scenes he creates are incredibly beautiful. Alec is such a brilliant villain because of the very fact that he is so relatable to different men. As Hardy himself says, Tess’ own male ancestors probably did the same thing to peasant girls. It's so horrifying and common at the same time and Alec has no real understanding that what he's doing is wrong. He knows what he wants he decides he's going to take it. There's no consideration for anything else.

Tess’ family is poor, but they discover they are descendants of a wealthy local family. She is sent to befriend the family and see if they can improve her own family’s situation. She meets Alec D'Urbervilles and soon her life is changed forever. I can’t say too much more without spoilers, except that it’s a powerful book, but not a cheery one. 

I’ve never hated a character as much as I hated Alec. He is a rapist, a manipulator, and worst of all, he honestly doesn’t think he’s done much wrong in the first half of the novel. At one point Alec says something about how Tess shouldn’t have worn a certain dress and bonnet because it made her too pretty. The “you were asking for it” mentality was present even back then when dress was far more modest. It was so frustrating and infuriating. He manipulated every situation, forcing her to be alone with him, to rely on him for help, etc.

His condescending nicknames made my skin crawl. When he calls her “Tessie” or “my little pretty” it made me nauseous because she was shrinking away from him and begging him quietly to stop touching her. She said again and again that she did not love him and she was scared of him. She never feels comfortable with him. From their very first interaction, as he makes her eat strawberries from his hand, she is uncomfortable and wants to go home immediately. There was no infatuation only a feeling in her gut that he was not someone to be trusted.

On top of that, Angel’s absurd double standard for his actions and her actions was infuriating. The worst part is that both men, the “good” one and the “bad” one share the same mentality about the situation. Both blame Tess but never themselves. The same attitude is around today, even though women have many more options, they are often shamed when they are sexually assaulted. 
The book is split into different phases and the second one begins after the infamous event. Tess is so broken; she's not even scared of Alec anymore because he's already done the worst to her that he could possibly do. She's resigned to her fate and full of sorrow. I kept thinking about how many other women over hundreds of years have gone through the same thing and are just completely broken afterwards and no one understands why. The man took something from her that she did not want to give and society treats it as if he didn't really do anything wrong. They justify it and say things like, maybe she gave off the wrong signals or put herself in a bad situation. It's just horrible.  **SPOILERS OVER** 
BOTTOM LINE: This is not a cheerful book. Every time Tess’ situation improves, heartache is just around the corner. But Hardy deals with it in such a raw and personal way that it is relevant even a century later. His writing transcends the subject matter and I’ve learned that I’ll read whatever he’s written.

** My Penguin Clothbound Classic edition discusses the different versions of the novel that were released. The original release presented a much harsher version of Hardy. Apparently he toned it down and made him more appealing in later versions, which is interesting.

“‘I shouldn’t mind learning why the sun do shine on the just and the unjust alike,’ she answered with a slight quaver in her voice. ‘But that’s what books will not tell me.’” 
“The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.”

Originally posted at Avid Reader's Musings

Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: The Ladies' Paradise (Au bonheur des dames) by Emile Zola

the ladies paradise Original Publication Date: 1883

Genre: Literature/fiction, romance-ish

Topics: Business, modernity, women, consumerism            

Review by heidenkind:

Forced to leave her childhood home in Normandy, orphan Denise Baudu arrives in Paris with her two younger brothers, looking for work in the shop of her uncle. Unfortunately, her uncle is less than welcoming–ever since The Ladies' Paradise opened across the street, he's struggled to keep business going, and the last thing he needs is more mouths to feed. With no other option to make a living, Denise gets a job at The Ladies' Paradise and experiences the not-exactly-cheerful life a 19th century clerk. Meanwhile, The Ladies' Paradise continues to expand, threatening the established shopkeepers on the Rue de la Michodière.

It's well-known Zola based The Ladies' Paradise on Paris' real-life first department stores, the Bon Marché and the Louvre shops, and if you think retail has changed a lot in the last 132 years, all you have to do is read this book to realize you're completely wrong. The Ladies' Paradise could just as easily be, and its owner Octave Mouret a more dashing and romantic Jeff Bezos. All the modern rules of retail apply: selling at no profit or even a loss just to get people in the door; spreading related departments out so customers have to walk through the whole store to get the items they came in to shop for; accepting returns even when the item is obviously used; the customer is always right; advertizing everywhere; sales treated like events; customers buying stuff just because it's cheap; and the drive to grow bigger and crush the competition even when it's not necessary or practical to do so.

And if you've ever had a job in retail, you'll surely sympathize with Denise's work-related woes: the physical labor involved in walking around the store, helping customers and stocking items; the annoyance of spending a bunch of time helping a customer only to have them walk away without buying anything–indeed, you get the feeling they didn't intend on buying anything, they just wanted someone to wait on them–the social hierarchy of a store, the cliques, the lack of job security and the fear of being fired; the way female employees are treated.

i love my job face

Zola does an excellent job of painting a picture of a modern department store. Each chapter is themed around capturing different aspects of the store or the employees' lives. For example, one of my favorite chapters was Chapter Six, wherein Denise is fired for visiting with her worthless brother while at work. But before that happens, the employees grab lunch in the cafeteria, and I swear to god it sounded exactly like high school. Horrible, mass-produced food is served in staggered lunches, and the employees spend all their time bemoaning their meal while talking about what they'd rather be eating. Not to mention the social minefield of the lunch tables.

What I'm saying here is that Zola, no surprise, really knew his stuff. He knew how these new department stores, symbols of modernity, worked from the lowest stocker up to the management and owner, and he knew what the lives of their employees was like. The Ladies' Paradise isn't just a setting in this novel, it's the main character and an unstoppable force, rendered with almost microscopic attention to detail.

Unfortunately, all the characters in The Ladies Paradise who are, you know, actual characters and not department stores, are not developed very well at all. That especially includes the main character, Denise. She has no personality, no motivation, and she's basically just a plot element to give the reader a believable entree into The Ladies' Paradise. Her two personality features are that she's kind and innocent, of the unbelievably stupid variety. If this was a Colette novel, Denise would have hooked up with one of her numerous admirers in chapter two and let him buy things for her so that she could eat and stuff. But unfortunately The Ladies' Paradise is not a Colette novel.

Some things that simply do not make sense about Denise:

  • Why doesn't she hook up with Henri Deloche? She likes him, they're adorkable together, he's devoted to her, defends her honor, and wants to marry her. Yet she refuses. NO EXPLANATION GIVEN. Literally, she's just like, "Hey, I can't explain it! I feel really bad about my inability to provide even the barest minimum of a reason, though, does that help?"
  • Why does Denise continue to be so nice to her uncle WHO BASICALLY THREW HER OUT IN THE STREET after writing her inviting her to come work in his shop? I'd be like, "Va te faire enculer, I hope TLP crushes you!"
  • However, given that she *does* inexplicably still treat him like a beloved family member, and that the other traditional shopkeepers like Bourras and Robineau were kind to her and took her in when Mouret and TLP unceremoniously tossed her out on her ass after making her life miserable for months and months, how can she justify her loyalty to The Ladies' Paradise? "She was secretly for the big shops." Really? I can see accepting that the big shops are going to win in the end, but you're actually rooting for them? Makes no sense WHAT.SO.EVER. Unless you're, like, a terrible person.
  • In Chapter 8, Mouret convinces Denise to return to TLP, and the other employees' attitude toward her undergoes a complete one-eighty. Suddenly they all accept and respect her. Again, no explanation given.

Don't even get me started on the whole affair between Denise and Mouret. After she returns and everyone falls in love with her because she's sweet, innocent, etc., Mouret makes it clear he like-likes her and invites her to his rooms after work for "dinner." Denise is confused until someone explains to her using small words that Mouret wants to make her his mistress. She gets all upset that he would want to sleep with her without marrying her and stands him up. Okay, fine. Stick to your guns, girl.

But then... at the very end of the book, Denise is planning to leave TLP and return to her home in Normandy, which gives Mouret all the sad faces, and her friend Pauline is like, "How cruel you are, to make him suffer so! ...Do you detest him?" Which is when Denise admits, with a tortured aspect, that she doesn't detest Mouret–actually, she really truly loves him.

Pauline is like (I'm summarizing here), "Why didn't you sleep with him then? Oh, it's because you were trying to trap him into marrying you, obviously."

Denise: "Marry me! Oh! no! Oh! I assure you that I have never wished for anything of the kind! No, never has such an idea entered my head; and you know what a horror I have of all falsehood!"


Really, Denise? I mean, you initially refused to sleep with him because he didn't propose, but the thought of marriage never entered your head and you're totally not holding out now just because you want him to marry you, really? Why do you keep refusing to sleep with him, then?


Anyway, The Ladies' Paradise is an okay book. I think it's worth reading, it just doesn't have an actual plot or any character development to speak of. For a "realistic novel," it was pretty hard to buy into the characters' actions. Not one of Zola's better books, in my opinion.

Download The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola at Project Gutenberg [French–This is another annoyance, why isn't the English version on PG and Librivox?]|Project Gutenberg Australia [English]|Internet Archive [English]

And, for your enjoyment...

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

Original Publication Date: 1850

Genre: Historical romance

Topics: Love, tulips, false imprisonment, political shenanigans, obsession, jealousy, bad neighbours.

Review by : Chrisbookarama

What do you like in a fast paced historical romance? Political intrigue? False imprisonment? Tulip breeding? Err…sure.

The Black Tulip has all the hallmarks of an Alexandre Dumas novel. We have a hero who has been falsely accused of treason and imprisoned for life. However, instead of plotting a complicated revenge to visit upon his unknown enemy, he grows a very expensive flower. As you do!

It all starts in the Netherlands with a harrowing scene where brothers Cornelius and Johan DeWitt are torn apart (literally) by an angry mob for consorting with the French in 1672. Of course there is a very important correspondence between the King of France and Cornelius DeWitt that could destroy the life of whoever happens to have it in their possession. That hapless innocent is Cornelius’s godson, tulip grower Dr Cornelius van Baerle.

The second Cornelius has nothing going on in his life except growing tulips and he is good at it. He is so good at it, in fact, his neighbour and tulip fancier, Isaac seethes in jealousy. Isaac spies on Cornelius 24/7 and when he sees him receive a package from his godfather, he rats on Cornelius to the authorities.

Cornelius is so wrapped up in breeding a perfect black tulip, the first of its kind and worth 100000 florins, that he has no idea he is in danger. He’s forgotten all about the package his godfather asked him to keep. Cornelius is tried, convicted as a co-conspirator, and thrown into prison.

But it’s not all bad news, Cornelius has two things to live for: the love of the beautiful Rosa, daughter of the jailer Gyrphus, and the three tulip bulbs he smuggled into the prison. Together, Cornelius and Rosa grow the tulips, and their love (aw), while outside forces threaten to separate them.

You would think a novel about tulips would be as boring as all get-out, but nope. There were moments when, even though I knew there’d be a happy ending, my heart was thudding in anxiety. I wanted to shout at Cornelius and Rosa to PAY MORE ATTENTION! Stuff is going down! The whole time Cornelius and Rosa have the key to his freedom, but he’s too preoccupied by his flowers and she doesn’t have the ability.

Character development isn’t Dumas’s strong suit. The good guys are so Good and the bad guys just evil. Gryphus is ridiculously backward; Isaac is obsessed. Rosa is an angel because she is blonde, wide eyed, and pretty, though a bit coquettish because she’s A Girl! She’s instinctively good, even though her only role model is Gryphus.

Cornelius is a Tulip Geek. He collects them, grows them, breeds them. He’s not a swashbuckler like Monte Cristo, the Musketeers, or Georges. In modern romance speak, he’s a Beta hero. I don’t think he even left his house before his arrest. It was all tulips, all the time. Rosa complains that he loves his flowers more than her. I’d have to agree with her. He never really grows in that regard. He loves Rosa, but maybe not as much as his bulbs.

There is another character behind the scenes pulling the strings on a whim: William of Orange. He has the power, if he cared, to stop the events that were put in motion. I don’t know anything about the real man, but the character he plays here is one who only steps in when he feels like it. Maybe Dumas is trying to show that our lives are at the mercy of the more powerful. Or maybe he just likes torturing his readers.


Since most of the action happens in the prison, Cornelius doesn’t have much opportunity to commit physical acts of heroism. His heroism lies in his intelligence. He must use his skill to grow the tulip in secret. He teaches Rosa what she needs to know and gives her a chance to pull herself out of poverty and ignorance. It’s Rosa who saves the day. Rosa does what needs to be done and acts bravely at the end of the novel. She’s got moxie!

If you can’t tell, I LOVED The Black Tulip. It’s an old fashioned romance. (The phrase “heaving bosom” is actually in the book.) There is intrigue and drama. And that ending! Oh, it’s a killer! At times, it’s over the top, but fun. At a little over 200 pages, it’s a doable alternative to The Count of Monte Cristo, if you're pressed for time.

Download The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review: THE NOTTING HILL MYSTERY by Charles Warren Adams

book cover
Is it just me, or does the guy in the hat
look like he's peeing on the other guy?

I received a reprint copy of this book from The British Library for review consideration. However, I am basing this review on the free audiobook available at Librivox.

Original Publication Date: 1862-63

Genre: Detective novel, epistolary novel

Topics: Mesmerism, twins, somnambulism, the perfect crime

Review by heidenkind:

As insurance investigator Ralph Henderson looks into the apparent suicide of Madame R___, reconstructing her final days and her relationship with her husband, he unravels a plot thick with mesmerism and three possibly-related deaths. Henderson is sure Baron R____ killed his wife for profit–but can he prove it? Or has the Baron committed the perfect crime?

The Notting Hill Mystery is, according to experts on these things, the very first detective novel. Consistent with my experiences reading other "first of their genre" novels *coughCastleofOtrantocough*, it's a very odd book. You can definitely see the influence of Victorian sensationalism, and there is hella lot of weird stuff going on. For example:

  • Baron R___ is a mesmerist.
  • His wife is one of a set of twins.
  • Her other twin was KIDNAPPED by GYPSIES. One really wonders where these gypsies were hiding all the blonde-haired girls they were supposed to be kidnapping, but I digress.
  • Naturally, having been kidnapped by gypsies, the other twin becomes a circus performer.

And that's just the first section of the book! Using newspaper articles, witness statements, and expert testimony, Henderson tells us about the death of Madame R____. It's obvious from the first that Baron R____ is her killer, because husband and five life insurance policies on one woman. But howwwww he committed the murder is the real mystery, since he made sure his wife was never left alone and he never made her food or served it to her. Or did he?!

I listened to the Librivox version of this book, and Kevin Green deserves more than a passing mention as the narrator because he did an absolutely fantastic job of giving each character their own voice and accent. The Notting Hill Mystery could have easily been an intelligible mess on audio, but thanks to Green it was easy to follow and even entertaining. I don't usually go for epistolary novels because I like to have more of a sense of plot and story, but Adams, along with Green, made it work well. If you read The Notting Hill Mystery in ebook format, Victorian Web recommends getting the version with George du Maurier's (Daphne du Maurier's granpop) illustrations, as they supposedly add a lot to the story. They are pretty cool. This one's my favorite:

last illustration from THE NOTTING HILL MYSTERY by George du Maurier

That said, I'm a little tempted to just recommend you read Henderson's intro and conclusion, since he summarizes everything the reader learns in the middle of the book with a level of detail that renders the previous 235 pages pretty much irrelevant. On the other hand, I did kind of enjoy the middle part, so I suppose it's up to you.

As for whether or not I'd say this is the first detective novel, I'm not sure I'd go THAT far. It's definitely a mystery, but I'm not sure I'd call what Henderson does "detecting;" it's more like he's gathering all the available information. He never comes to any conclusion as to who the killer is (even though it's obvious) or finds evidence proving murder one way or the other. At the very end he's like, "Did Baron R___ kill his wife? *shrug* IDK." To be fair, the way the Baron set up the murder makes it almost impossible to prove, but Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin would have put the guy away.

If you're into early mysteries or have an academic interest in English literature, I think The Notting Hill Mystery is definitely worth checking out. For the average reader, however, maybe not so much. It's not a bad book, but it's a little too odd and quirky for anyone who isn't curious about it because of its place in history.

Download The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Internet Archive: Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: THE GOLD BAG by Carolyn Wells

book cover Original Publication Date: 1911

Genre: Mystery

Topics: Society, trust, family

Review by heidenkind:

Burroughs, a young detective, goes to West Sedgwick to investigate the murder of a millionaire. The old man was found dead in his study, and the only clue was a gold bag (and a flower petal, but the book's called The Gold Bag, so let's just focus on that). Was the killer the millionaire's beautiful niece, who stood to inherit his entire fortune? Or was it her sketchy fiance, or his secretary? Burroughs and a whole team of detectives just can't figure it out.

The Gold Bag is probably the worst detective novel I've ever read in my entire 29 years of reading mysteries. Even Inspector Gadget has more going on with his little gray cells than Burroughs.

Here's the thing: The Gold Bag is the second book in The Fleming Stone Mystery series. Stone is (almost exactly) like Sherlock Holmes: he can draw conclusions about people and events by observing the tiniest details. But calling The Gold Bag a Fleming Stone novel is like calling 21 Jump Street a Johnny Depp movie. Yeah, maybe his scene was the best one in the film, but it was just the one scene.

In The Gold Bag, Fleming Stone makes a brief appearance in the first chapter, then doesn't show up again until the very last chapter, and the last part of the last chapter at that. Meanwhile, Burroughs is the main character and "detective," and THE MAN IS AN INCOMPETENT IDIOT. He couldn't detect his way out of an elevator. And it's not played for laughs, either–Carolyn Wells seems to actually believe he and the other detectives (there's a whole slew of them, standing around doing nothing) are conducting some sort of legitimate investigation here.


My first inkling that this "investigation" wasn't going to go so well came in Chapter Four, during the coroner's inquest. Gregory Hall, the fiance of the victim's niece, was on the stand answering questions about his movements on the day of the murder. He'd actually been away on business that night–or so he claimed–but when asked where he stayed and what business, exactly, he was engaged in, Hall refused to answer with, "As it has no bearing on the matter in hand, I prefer not to answer that rather personal question."


Exquise me? This is a murder investigation, buddy, we decide what's relevant, not you. Instead of saying that, however, the coroner's like, "Oh, okay then, we'll respect your privacy. You obviously didn't do it, after all, since you were out of town!"


Then there's Florence Lloyd, who is clearly Suspect Number One. Her uncle told her he was going to cut her out of his will if she married Hall, AND she admitted to owning a gold bag like the one found in the office. But she gave it away, she doesn't remember to who. Florence is dismissed by Burroughs and everyone else out of hand because she's a pretty, wealthy young woman, so OBVIOUSLY she couldn't have killed anyone. In fact, Burroughs develops a tendre for her that kind of made me throw up a little in my mouth.

At first I assumed that the detectives were just lazy, or maybe in the past respecting people's privacy was more important than finding a man's killer. But really this is all about assumptions and labels and society. At one point someone suggests the victim's brother, who stands to inherit now that Florence is cut out of the will, might be the killer. To which Burroughs laughs and says–direct quote–"Don't be absurd! A man would hardly shoot his own brother."

Dude, have you heard of these two guys called Cain and Abel? That story ring any bells in your echoing headspace?

It gets even more ridic. When Burroughs finally finds the owner of the gold bag-the person who either killed the victim or was the last to see him before he was murdered-he lets her know he's coming, affording her an opportunity to write him a letter stating that she has no idea who did it and isn't involved in the affair at all. "I would go straight to you, and tell you all about it, but I am afraid of detectives and lawyers... But I am going to see Miss [Florence] Lloyd, and explain it all to her, and then she can tell you."

Inexplicably, Burroughs' reaction to this woman's letter is to smile and think to himself, "Marathon Park [where the woman lives] was evidently no place to look for our criminal." Say the fuck what? This is based on her handwriting and the fact that the tone of the letter made her sound like "a foolish little woman." As opposed to a woman who's clearly trying to avoid talking to the police?!?

At this point in the book, I really hoped Fleming Stone would show up and declare Florence to be the killer within three seconds, despite the fact that Florence was the only character in The Gold Bag I even remotely liked. That didn't happen. Honestly, I don't remember who the killer turned out to be, I just didn't care by that point. The only thing that kept circling in my mind was that Wells made Anna Katharine Green look like freakin Agatha Christie-a prescient thought, as it turned out, because guess whose books convinced Wells to start writing mysteries?

AKG strikes again.

Aha! I knew I'd seen that millionaire-who-was-killed-in-his-study plot before.

The Gold Bag is pretty awful. Not only is the crime solving lazy, so's the writing. L A Z Y. Wells did no research into her topic, put zero thought into her characters or story, and the only things remotely good about the book were stolen from other books. The Gold Bag is only original in its terribleness.

Download The Gold Bag by Carolyn Wells at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: SUPERMIND by Mark Phillips

(Pseudonym for Laurence Janifer and Randall Garrett)

book cover Original Publication Date: 1963

Genre: Proto-urban fantasy

Topics: Conspiracy, government, control, extrasensory perception, "the future"

Review by heidenkind:

FBI agent Kenneth Malone lives in a world where "psionic" powers such as telepathy and teleportation exist. In fact, Malone himself is able to teleport, a skill that makes him a valuable asset in the FBI's super-secret psionics division. When the director of the FBI, Andrew J. "don't call me Chief" Burris, asks Malone to look into a series of puzzling mistakes in government processing, Malone predicts his investigation will lead nowhere. It's the government, after all, they make mistakes all the time. But as Malone learns more about these mistakes, which aren't really mistakes, things become increasingly inexplicable, and Malone begins to suspect there's a cabal organization of super-powerful psionics influencing the country for their own ends.

I enjoyed Supermind quite a bit. It reminded me of a novel in a modern urban fantasy series, something along the lines of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books or Simon Green's Secret History series. Perhaps a bit predictable by today's standards, but still fun and entertaining.

There's an underlying tone of sardonic, wry humor running through the book from the very beginning, when Malone and Burris make fun of the government's inefficiency. I enjoyed Malone's voice and appreciated him as an everyman character, but what really made Supermind stand out were the secondary characters. You've got your obligatory lovable geek who likes technology more than people ('"Any man who would give false data to a perfectly innocent computer," Fred said savagely, "would—would—" For a second he was apparently lost for comparisons. Then he finished: "Would kill his own mother." He paused a second and added, in an even more savage voice, "And then lie about it!"'), a woman who believes she's Queen Elizabeth I, a sarcastic femme fatale who's always giving Malone a hard time, a snooty expert on psionics, and the most clueless spy in history, just to name a few.

Her Highness Queen Elizabeth I is by far my favorite character in the novel, not just because she's entertaining but because she's so useful and the way Janifer and Garrett employ her is so clever. See, Her Highness spent most of her life in an asylum–not just because she thinks she's Queen Elizabeth, but because she's telepathic and most of the world doesn't know psionics exist. Malone rescued her from the asylum in a previous book, and now he's one of her "knights." When they're interrogating people all Malone has to do is pick up a phone, think his question, and she can tell him whether the suspect is being honest or not without him saying a word or letting the suspect know what's going on. So clever.

Supermind doesn't really pick up steam until the middle of the book, when Malone and company travel to Russia to see if they're behind the US's lack of inefficiency and mistakes. The way Russians were portrayed in this Cold War-era novel was really interesting, I thought, and very evocative of a culture. I'm sure if it's Russia's actual culture the authors were evoking or one of their own imagination, but it read like a bizarro travelogue with just enough hijinks to keep Malone on his toes (and Malone requires plenty of hijinks). It's also after Russia that the story starts twisting into something more complex and Malone realizes he can TRUST NO ONE. Except maybe the Queen.

trust no one

I'd definitely recommend Supermind if you're into paranormal thrillers or tongue-in-cheek urban fantasy. It's definitely not edgy, but it's entertaining and a good way to pass a few hours. I'm kind of sad I read the last book in the series (there are two previous books in the Kenneth Malone series prior to this one) before reading the others, but I might get around to reading the others at some point.

Download Supermind by Mark Phillips at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

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|