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|

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