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.  
**SPOILERS**

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.  
**SPOILERS OVER** 
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