Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: THE FIRST VIOLIN by Jesse Fothergill

the first violin by jesse fothergill Original Publication Date: 1877

Genre: Romance

Topics: love, music, friendship, honor, fatherhood, coming of age, mysterious past

Review by Rachel S:

In the pre-internet era, when out-of-print books were difficult to find, my grandma would tell me about the books that she loved when she was growing up.  One of her favorites was First Violin by Jessie Fothergill. Of course nowadays this book, which seemed so impossible to locate when I was a child, is easy to access and completely free. I finally got around to reading it, and was very glad I did, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. If I had read it when I was a child or teenager, I can easily imagine it becoming one of my favorite books.

First Violin was originally published in 1877, and was quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although it is rather G-rated by today’s standards, it was apparently somewhat controversial at the time, because it describes (but does not condemn) an affair by a married woman. The main plot line follows a handsome violinist with a mysterious past, Eugen Courvoisier.  Much of the tension in the book comes from slowly discovering his backstory.

The novel is narrated from the perspectives of May Wedderburn, an English girl who travels to Germany for musical training, and of Eugen’s friend Friedhelm Helfen, a fellow musician.  Although several main plot threads involve romantic relationships, Eugen’s love for his son and his friendship with Friedhelm are also central to the story. The following passage from the beginning of the novel gives a sense of the book’s general style. May is distressed here because her malevolent, much older neighbor is pursuing her romantically:

“Shuddering, dismayed, I locked the matter up within my own breast, and wished with a longing that sometimes made me quite wretched that I could quit Skernford, my home, my life, which had lost zest for me, and was become a burden to me. The knowledge that Sir Peter admired me absolutely degraded me in my own eyes. I felt as if I could not hold up my head. I had spoken to no one of what had passed within me, and I trusted it had not been noticed; but all my joy was gone. It was as if I stood helpless while a noisome reptile coiled its folds around me.” 

The prose tends towards melodrama, but May’s dismay and alarm here are not unreasonable given her situation. In general, although the book takes place in a world of heightened emotion, I found the characters’ reactions, descriptions, and conversations convincing.

Less believable are the improbable coincidences on which the plot hinges (several of which involve extreme weather).  It’s probably better not to give spoilers, because part of the fun of the book is finding out how various suspenseful situations resolve. I’ll just say that events are configured for maximum drama in several emotionally tense scenes, and that the book includes multiple highly unlikely encounters that strain credibility.

Nevertheless, I found the book as a whole compelling, with memorable, although somewhat flat, characters. The story raises some interesting questions on the meaning of honor, with the married-woman-affair subplot, dishonorable but utterly sympathetic, providing a counterpoint to Eugen’s rigid acceptance of the constraints of duty.  For the most part, though, it’s just a delightful read, one I didn’t want to put down until the very end.

Download The First Violin by Jesse Fothergill at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|GirleBooks|Internet Archive

Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll

alice in wonderland Original Publication Date: 1865

Genre: Fantasy, children's books

Topics: Crazy rabbits, casual endangerment, drugs, tea

Review by Sharky & Smiles:

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

Shocked SmilesNothing HAPPENS to her.

Surprised SharkyWho the heck orders kids to be beheaded?!

Surprised SmilesWell...

Default SharkyDon’t even try to justify this one.

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

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

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

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

Happy SmilesIt’s terrific!

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

Sad Smiles 2I swear he likes this book.

Angry SharkyAGH.

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

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

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

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

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

Angry Sharky 3Don’t make me punch you.

alice's tea

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