(The Extraordinary Adventures of) Foundling Mick by Jules Verne

foundling mick by jules verne Publication year: 1893
Genre: Fiction
Time and place: 19th century Ireland
Narrated in: third-person omniscient
First sentence:Ireland, which has an area of 31,759 square miles, or 20,326,209 acres, formerly formed a part of the insular tract of land now called the United Kingdom.
Verdict:I’ll always have a soft spot for it.

Continue reading

Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

the daughter of time by josephine teyPublication year: 1951
Genre: Mystery
Time and place: a detective in the ’50s UK reads about Richard III’s times
Narrated in: third-person omniscient
First sentence: Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling.
Verdict: I learned some history and I love that.

Summary
Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is in the hospital, stuck in bed after an accident. He’s bored, as he has nothing to do, so he decides he will try to solve one of the history’s unsolved mysteries, to pass the time. Captivated by a portrait of Richard III, and the way his physiognomy did not match the awful things that people believed about him, Grant wants to find out all about the man, and perhaps find out who killed the princes in the tower in the process. He sets to work, with the aid of Brent Carradine, a young American who works at the British Museum. Bit by bit, Grant’s theory takes shape, a confirmation of his first impression, as in his version of events Richard is a loved and just king, a victim, not a perpetrator.

General impression
I started reading this book around the time Richard III’s remains were found. People here and there were promoting the idea that Richard may not have been a villain after all, and cited this book as support. My curiosity was then aroused, and I picked up the book with no idea what to expect (I had a vague idea that it must be something with a female time traveler, because of the title). To my (slight) disappointment, there was no time travel at all involved, just a modern-day inquest in things that have happened centuries ago.

A lot of the book is tell, not show, as very little happens in modern times — the bulk of the book consists in the information Alan Grant and his research assistant dig up and interpret. It reads like a non-fiction book seen through the conversation of fictional characters, characters that are there only as a means to present the results of the author’s research to the reader. An interesting approach, though it did feel at times like something was missing. I did however love the novelty of having a detective solve a crime that has been committed many centuries ago :)

220px-King_Richard_III_from_NPG

History-wise I found the book very interesting, although I am not sure how much of it is actually non-fiction and how much of the information Brent digs up has been simply created by the author — let’s not forget that the book is marketed as fiction. The conclusion Grant arrives at is not shared by many historians today (Alison Weir for example heartily opposes it), so the chain of events must have been less clear in reality than Ms. Tey wants her readers to think1.

Be that as it may, I have found very interesting the arguments that the author brings forth to support her case. The three that had me almost convinced were:
a) Richard had no political reason to want his nephews dead, as he was already a legitimate king, so they were no threat (plus there were other people with similar claims to the throne as the two princes, and nothing happened to anyone else);
b) Henry had a lot to gain from exposing Richard’s crime, but he never did;
c) Henry’s claim to the throne was lesser than the princes’, plus it is his modus operandi to have his rivals killed.

Sure, none of these is ironclad, but together with others they do make quite a bit of sense. There was at least one moment when the book had me wondering how come this is still a mystery, since the author has gathered up so many proofs to support her theory :)

What I liked most
The “Tonypandy” bits — during the course of their research Alan and Brent come across various pieces of history that were widely believed to be true, but in fact were anything but. Such as the Tonypandy Riots:

“If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights. You’ll probably hear that Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time, was responsible. South Wales, you will be told, will never forget Tonypandy!”

Carradine had dropped his flippant air.

“And it wasn’t a bit like that?”

“The actual facts are these. The rougher section of the Rhondda valley crowd had got quite out of hand. Shops were being looted and property destroyed. The Chief Constable of Glamorgan sent a request to the House Office for troops to protect the lieges. If a Chief Constable thinks a situation serious enough to ask for the help of the military a Home Secretary has very little choice in the matter. But Churchill was so horrified at the possibility of the troops coming face to face with a crowd of rioters and having to fire on them, that he stopped the movement of the troops and sent instead a body of plain, solid Metropolitan Police, armed with nothing but their rolled-up mackintoshes. The troops were kept in reserve, and all contact with the rioters was made by unarmed London police. The only bloodshed in the whole affair was a bloody nose or two. The Home Secretary was severely criticised in the House of Commons incidentally for his ‘unprecedented intervention.’ That was Tonypandy. That is the shooting down by troops that Wales will never forget.”

Or this story:

Scotland has large monuments to two women martyrs drowned for their faith, in spite of the fact that they weren’t drowned at all and neither was a martyr anyway. They were convicted of treason—fifth column work for the projected invasion from Holland, I think. Anyhow on a purely civil charge. They were reprieved on their own petition by the Privy Council, and the reprieve is in the Privy Council Register to this day. This, of course, hasn’t daunted the Scottish collectors of martyrs, and the tale of their sad end, complete with heart-rending dialogue, is to be found in every Scottish bookcase. Entirely different dialogue in each collection. And the gravestone of one of the women, in Wigtown churchyard, reads:

Murdered for owning Christ supreme Head of his Church, and no more crime But her not owning Prelacy And not abjuring Presbytry Within the sea tied to a stake She suffered for Christ Jesus sake.

They are even a subject for fine Presbyterian sermons, I understand—though on that point I speak from hearsay. And tourists come and shake their heads over the monuments with their moving inscriptions, and a very profitable time is had by all.

I find it terribly fascinating how flimsy history (and by extension, what we take as truth) actually is.

What I liked least
There’s nothing that has truly bothered me (although admittedly I was a bit confused about Martha’s place in the story at first, and I would have liked a bit more details about her and her relationship with Grant; I get that this is book 5 in a series so many people already know this, but a few words allowing me, the newcomer, to catch up wouldn’t have hurt).

Thoughts on the title
Brilliant :) But also very much the opposite of obvious. I had no idea what it referred to until I read about it on Wikipedia: it comes from a quotation of Sir Francis Bacon: “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.“. Which, as I said, I happen to find it brilliantly relates to the idea behind the book — that the truth has been found now, after all these centuries, despite what the then-authorities (the Tudors) have tried to pass on as facts. Put in another way, time has brought on the discovery of truth, not the authorities. A perfect match between the book and the quote the title is from.

Thoughts on the ending
It would have been a silly murder, that murder of the boy Princes; and Richard was a remarkably able man. It was base beyond description; and he was a man of great integrity. It was callous; and he was noted for his warmheartedness.

Predictably enough, shortly before he gets discharged from the hospital Grant reaches the conclusion that Richard is in fact innocent of the crime everyone thinks he committed. I liked that Brent plans to even write a book about it, to clean up the dead king’s name; all the book would have seemed futile otherwise, if Grant and Brent had spent all that time doing research and then had kept the solution for themselves.

Recommend it to?
Everyone with a penchant for medieval history or classic detective novels :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | josephinetey.net

  1. It is worth noting, however, that there is at least one fact that Ms. Tey got right in the book — “According to Sir Cuthbert, the hunchback is a myth. So is the withered arm. It appears that he had no visible deformity. At least none that mattered. His left shoulder was lower than his right, that was all.“. While everyone knows this now, after the remains were found, keep in mind that the book was written more than half a century ago. []
armadale by wilkie collins Publication year: 1864
Genre: Classic literature
Time and place: 19th century Britain
Narrated in: first-person / third-person limited
First sentence:It was the opening of the season of eighteen hundred and thirty-two, at the Baths of Wildbad.
Verdict: Started out slowly but eventually became captivating.

Continue reading

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Genre: Mystery (of sorts)
Main characters: John Gabriel Utterson; it is through him that we get to know Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde
Time and place: 19th century London

First sentence:Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.

Verdict: Wow. Loved it, despite the fact that is started out rather slow and I already knew what the big twist at the end was going to be.

Summary
Mr. Utterson just knows there is something wrong with his friend Jekyll. Not only he’s been acting withdrawn lately, but he also changed his will with an unusually worded one. The new version states that were something to happen to Jekyll, were he to suddenly disappear, a certain Mr. Hyde is to inherit all of his fortune. Now, Utterson has only a passing acquaintance with this Hyde, but he agrees with everyone else who’s ever met him: there’s something about him that sends shivers down people’s spines; he feels… evil. Utterson suspects that the man is somehow forcing Jekyll’s hand, perhaps even scheming to kill him, to get his hands on his fortune; he feels compelled to solve the mystery of the man, and rescue his friend from his clutches.

“If he be Mr. Hyde,” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”

But then a murder happens; Hyde kills someone in cold blood, and there has been a witness. Wanted by the police, Hyde disappears. In his absence, Jekyll flourishes again, becoming the man he once was.

But then…

General impression
First of all, I was surprised to see that this is a very short book. Until now my sole acquaintance to the story has been via the musical, and the plot there has a bunch of characters, including not one but two romantic interests. As such, discovering that the book has little to no plot at all, and very few characters was… quite unexpected, to say the least. It is obvious while reading that the author intended it to be a novella centered around a mystery, no more.

We’re first introduced to Hyde, via a secondary character. The peculiar way he makes people around him feel does not go unnoticed. A connection between him and Jekyll is mentioned in passing — he has a check with the latter’s name on it — and it is the first time their association makes Mr. Utterson uncomfortable. He has some suspicions, and it is obvious that the reader is supposed to share them, and is supposed to wonder, together with him, about this Mr. Hyde — who might he be, what does he have on Jekyll for the latter to act so strangely whenever the former is mentioned? A web of misdirection is woven around the reader, and I was sorry that I already knew the key to the mystery, because otherwise I am certain I would have found the big reveal simply stunning.

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON
(although since there’s an expression that has entered the vernacular you too probably know who Hyde was and how he related to Jekyll; however, in case you don’t, you definitely want to stop reading here)

Since nothing much other than the big reveal happens in the book, and the said big reveal was anything but a mystery to me, my expectations rapidly lowered towards the ending. For a while the book seemed flat and I didn’t expect to enjoy the remaining pages — and I was surprised to see I did. I thought the ending was handled very, very well: I knew who Hyde was, of course, but I didn’t know how he came to be, or how he came to stay, and I loved the missing pieces I have only now discovered. For example, I loved the theory Jekyll had about man’s dual’s nature:

I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

I loved how Hyde was at first a smaller man, as Jekyll mostly led a noble life until then, a life that did not allow the evil side of him the chance to grow:

The evil side of my nature, to which I had now transferred the stamping efficacy, was less robust and less developed than the good which I had just deposed. Again, in the course of my life, which had been, after all, nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue, and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted. And hence, as I think, it came about that Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter, and younger than Henry Jekyll.

It’s interesting to notice that in time, as Hyde got to satisfy his every pleasure, this is reflected in his physical appearance too: his size actually increases. And then, I loved how the discovery of the drug that alternately let Hyde free and imprisoned him back in Jekyll’s skin was nothing but a fluke — Jekyll seems to have bought a certain medicine that was (unbeknownst to him) impure, one way or another; when his initial supply is depleted there is nothing he can do to recreate his potion again. I also loved the description of Jekyll’s feelings in his first moments as Hyde:

There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill-race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.

A thing that I did not love as much was the ending: show spoiler

Although of course I do realize this is the only way things could have been satisfactorily ending. Ah, but still.

Nitpick: something that has somewhat disappointed me in the story is that the initial theory was that Jekyll was searching for a way to separate the evil side of a person from his good side. And he did manage to isolate the evil in him, in the person of Hyde. Thing is, he explains at one point that this is the way the drug works:

The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prison-house of my disposition; and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth. At that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.

(this very idea is another one of the things I loved about the book)

Thing is, by this description I would have expected him to be alternately good and evil — under the incarnation of Hyde I figure that the good, angelic side of Jekyll is the one that’s imprisoned (since all evil was Hyde, only the good parts remained). Which makes me think that taking the drug again should have imprisoned Hyde (and all the evil with him) and set free everything that was good in Jekyll (probably in the guise of a third character). Yet this is not how it happens — the evil side is alternately set free (Hyde), or mixed back in with the good (Jekyll), a thing that I think directly contradicts the aforementioned quote.

Not that I am complaining all that much. But still, my nitpicky nature felt the need to comment on it :)

Recommend it to?
I expect everyone and their mother has read this (teensy, tiny) book by now. However, I heartily recommend it, as long as you know not to expect anything sensational: it’s a simple, straightforward story, that hinges on one big twist at the end. Of course, the contemporary reader knows what the twist is, but I thought the book enjoyable nonetheless.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Get it free @ Gutenberg.org | Get the free Kindle book @ Amazon.com

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Main characters: Rebecca Rowena Randall :)
Time and place: early 1900s; a small town in the US called Riverboro
First sentence:The old stage coach was rumbling along the dusty road that runs from Maplewood to Riverboro.
Verdict: Uncomplicated.

Summary
Rebecca Rowena Randall is the second of seven brothers, living with their mother in a small house that Rebecca likes to call Sunnybrook Farm. As the book opens, she is sent to live with her two spinster aunts, in hopes that this will be “the making of [her]“. Rebecca’s sunny disposition does not fit very well with the somber house of the aunts, but, by and by, she manages to soften any heart she encounters in her path.

General impression
I took up reading this on a whim, having found out about its existence from a list of books presumably read on the Titanic. I love this type of heroine (Rebecca belongs to the same league that Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna do), and as I was able to find it instantly both on Amazon (the Kindle version) and on Gutenberg Project I wasted no time and jumped straight into it. In the end, while I was right, and Rebecca did share the optimism an resourcefulness of both Anne and Pollyanna, her life struck me as a mere succession of events. Contemporary books have probably perverted my tastes and expectations, as I could not help finding only a very few of Rebecca’s adventures (while important for her, of course) important/interesting enough to be worth being mentioned in a book.

Setting
The setting is what I’ve come to think of as a typical small town, the kind where everyone knows everyone and no secrets can ever be kept from the nosy neighbors. There are a bunch of children too, more or less Rebecca’s age, so “Rebecky” is always surrounded by friends. Much as everyone loves gossip, there are no truly mean people in the village, and our heroine is liked by all.

Characters
Rebecca Rowena Randall is a rather extraordinary child. She has an intense personality, filled with artistic fervor and bursting at the seams with imagination. She takes great pleasure in the mere act of communicating (as one of the characters says, she’d more likely talk to herself than say nothing). She always has something interesting to say though (no small feat), which is I think one of the things that attract other people to her like moths around a flame. She’s written poetry all her life (clumsy worded at times, but correctly rhymed), she plays the piano, she is talented when it comes to drawing too — in a word, she is a very gifted young girl. All her intensity is mirrored into her large, dark eyes, the first thing that anyone noticed about her:

Rebecca’s eyes were like faith,–”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Under her delicately etched brows they glowed like two stars, their dancing lights half hidden in lustrous darkness. Their glance was eager and full of interest, yet never satisfied; their steadfast gaze was brilliant and mysterious, and had the effect of looking directly through the obvious to something beyond, in the object, in the landscape, in you.

And then there’s Mr. Adam Ladd, a well-to-do thirty year old, who finds Rebecca fascinating, and who plays the part of a hidden benefactor for her more than once. When they first met Rebecca, not knowing his name, called him Mr. Aladdin, and she has been addressing him thusly ever since. While reading, I kept feeling that he has the potential to be a great character, to do something interesting, but, alas, he never did.

As for the aunts, I liked the way the author has chosen to draw them. The eldest is Mirandy, a stern old woman who likes being in control of everything and thinking herself too level-headed for sentimentalities. The quote that best describes her is “Miranda Sawyer had a heart, of course, but she had never used it for any other purpose than the pumping and circulating of blood“. She always tends to think the worst about people, and she is not particularly fond of Rebecca, seeing in her a beastly, disobedient child. The other sister, Jane, has a more peaceful nature, and is letting herself dominated by her elder sister. She did have a wild streak in her, though, and in her youth she ran away from home in order to be with her betrothed, wounded in war. Now however that spark is almost extinguished, as Jane is old and frail, but the very memory if it makes her far more understanding of Rebecca’s character than her sister will ever be.

Plot
The book is more of a series of vignettes out of Rebecca’s life growing up. To me they felt like simple preparations, paving the way for the real story, but alas, that intense, powerful moment I had expected never actually happened. Again, I have probably gotten way too used with the books written these days, fast paced and one twist following quickly on another’s footsteps. In comparison, Rebecca’s adventures feel rather subdued and quaint :)

What I liked most
My favorite adventure of Rebecca’s was the one with the pink parasol :)
At the time the book opens her most prized possession is a pink parasol that someone has brought her from Paris. She treasures it so much that she only uses it on cloudy days, taking great pains to always keep it away from the sun, as “pink fades awfully“. In Rebecca’s own words, “it’s the dearest thing in life to me, but it’s an awful care“. A few months later, Rebecca, inspired by a book she was reading, decides that she needs to punish herself for making mistakes (she often got caught in her inner world and forgot the outer one, so she always got into a scrape or another) as she saw this as a way of building character. When it came time to decide on a punishment, she chose for herself the harshest thing she could think of, giving up her cherished pink parasol:

That would do; she would fling her dearest possession into the depths of the water. Action followed quickly upon decision, as usual. She slipped down in the darkness, stole out the front door, approached the place of sacrifice, lifted the cover of the well, gave one unresigned shudder, and flung the parasol downward with all her force. At the crucial instant of renunciation she was greatly helped by the reflection that she closely resembled the heathen mothers who cast their babes to the crocodiles in the Ganges.

Alas, but then the little umbrella gets stuck somewhere inside the well and everyone wonders how come they cannot draw water anymore :)

Another quote of Rebecca’s, giving up the idea of becoming a missionary:

“Why, whatever God is, and wherever He is, He must always be there, ready and waiting. He can’t move about and miss people. It may take the heathen a little longer to find Him, but God will make allowances, of course. He knows if they live in such hot climates it must make them lazy and slow; and the parrots and tigers and snakes and bread-fruit trees distract their minds; and having no books, they can’t think as well; but they’ll find God somehow, some time.”

“What if they die first?” asked Emma Jane.

“Oh, well, they can’t be blamed for that; they don’t die on purpose,” said Rebecca, with a comfortable theology.

Last but not least, I found quite amusing that Rebecca’s father’s name was Lorenzo de Medici Randall, while his twin brother had been named Marquis de Lafayette Randall. Someone in that family must have liked history books :)

What I liked least
Other than the simplicity of the stories I have absolutely nothing to reproach it (but let us keep in mind it was written over 100 years ago, in a time where people’s lives were so much less eventful than ours today).

Thoughts on the ending
Quite a disappointment. The book ended way too soon!
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who likes the enthusiastic-child-melts-everyone’s-hearts trope :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy

Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Marguerite Blakeney nee St. Just, The Scarlet Pimpernel
Time and place: France and England, 1792
First sentence:A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.
Verdict: A tad disappointing.

Summary:
A novel about a brave and noble Englishman who, together with his little group of faithful friends, repeatedly risked his life saving French aristocrats from the guillotine. The success of their enterprise is based on the fact that no one knows the identity of the leader. Now, however, a French agent knows just the way to unmask him: he makes one of the ladies at the English court an offer she cannot refuse — either she finds out who the famed hero is, or her brother dies.

General impression
I don’t know what to make of this. I feel like it has this great potential and yet all the interesting parts are missing.

Setting
The year is 1790, a short while after the French revolution. Beheadings happen every day, as the people, drunk on their new-found freedom, are also thirsty for revenge on their former oppressors. On the other side of the channel, the English are horrified at the news of the bloodshed. The King, the Prince of Wales, and the rest of the political leaders are as yet undecided whether they should openly condemn France’s behavior or just keep quiet, not to risk a conflict. However, a bunch of English young people have decided to do more that just decry the situation: they spend their time working up schemes to smuggle the unfortunate “aristos” from their now hostile motherland to the safety of the British soil. Their leader, who calls himself The Scarlet Pimpernel (after a humble little red roadside flower), is a paragon of resourcefulness and a master of disguise — which is how he managed to keep his identity hidden for so long.

It is obvious that the author herself is firmly on the aristocrats’ side, being openly against the ‘regular people’. The former are gracious, well bred, and the ones we root for; the latter are dirty and mean. The reason for that became obvious when I read about the author’s early life: of noble descent herself (her father was a Baron, her mother a Countess), she and her family left her native Hungary in 1868 as they were afraid of a peasants’ revolution.

Characters
As a sidenote, the dialogue was awfully sprinkled with interjections. It felt like there hardly ever was a sentence without a “Lud!” or “Zooks!” or “Bah!” or “Odd’s fish!” or something such. While at times there was indeed the need to show someone’s surprise, or Marguerite’s pretend flippancy, having basically every character exclaim something every few minutes became tiring after a while.

As for the characters, I felt them more cardboard-y than anything else. Marguerite St. Just/Blakeney, for example, is not only a very beautiful woman but is also considered the wittiest in Europe(!). Alas, this last part remains unproven, although we spend about half the book reading her inner thoughts. All she thinks about is the fact that she loves the hero, and oh, how she betrayed him — but she loves him so much! More and more every passing minute! And to think she has betrayed him! Him whom she loves so much! — and so on and so forth. Surely, she does show courage (or is it merely recklessness?) when she follows the love of her life straight to France, where it wasn’t safe for her, but then, other than following the soldiers she does absolutely nothing to actually help. This is one of the missing parts I complained about in the beginning — the fact that we, the readers, are not actually shown the rescue operation — which happens to be the most interesting part of the book, as the Pimpernel has pledged his honor to rescue some French aristocrat, and he does not know that the area is surrounded with soldiers. The pages that should deal with that are dedicated to Marguerite’s thoughts, and as she follows the soldiers she can only see what they see — which is naturally nothing, else the rescue would not have taken place. We only find out about what happened near the very end, in a few sentences, as the brave rescuer explains to Marguerite how he accomplished the feat. But I would have liked to see it myself, to hold my breath and keep my fingers crossed all throughout :(

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a very romantic, dashing hero: a noble, mysterious man who risks his life in order to save others’. He also possesses an insurmountable pride, that sometimes gets the best of him, an intensity of feeling of the kind one sees only in books1, a presence of mind that never betrays him and a rather superhuman physical strength. Oh, and of course he’s good looking too. And a good actor with a gift for accents, which is how he manages to fool the French police for so long. There isn’t anything this guy can’t do, which is why after a point he stops being an actual person, becoming a sort of parody instead. A male Mary Sue, if you wish. And to think that, for all his perfection, we didn’t get to see him being a hero. I imagine the book would have been so much interesting had it been told from his POV. *sigh*

As a bit of trivia, the villain, the French agent that spares no efforts in his hunt for the Scarlet Pimpernel, is actually a real-life character, although the author is said to have stretched history quite a bit.

Relationships
Ah, yet another one of those parts I found sorely lacking. As the book opens, Marguerite St. Just has been Lady Blakeney for about a year. She despises her husband, which she finds dull and incapable of passion. This despite the fact that his intense passion for her was the very reason she married him in the first place (in short, he was very much in love with her, but she had some secret and he judged her for it, and she was too proud to explain her reasoning to him, so apparently he stopped loving her, just like that). I would have liked to see their courtship, to see them as a couple, as when the book opens they are very much apart.

And then one evening all of a sudden Marguerite talks to her husband (had they never talked before?). And his behavior gives away the fact that he still loves her, and all of a sudden Marguerite realizes that, wait, she loves him too! Despite the fact that up until then she barely looked at him, and that she mocked him on every occasion. Despite the fact that a bit earlier we’re told how she married him because she thought that he loved her so much she could grow to love him in return. And now she realizes she had loved him all this while? This would have been easier to believe if I had seen her ever caring for him before — in a scene before their marriage, perhaps — but as it were it seemed somewhat of a stretch.

Thoughts on the ending
I was particularly amused by one of the last few sentences:

But it is on record that at the brilliant wedding of Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Bart., with Mlle. Suzanne de Tournay de Basserive, a function at which H. R. H. the Prince of Wales and all the ELITE of fashionable society were present, the most beautiful woman there was unquestionably Lady Blakeney, whilst the clothes of [The Scarlet Pimpernel] were the talk of the JEUNESSE DOREE of London for many days.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has many manly qualities, probably all of them. He has a soft spot however, and that is his love for expensive clothes. As such, a truly happy ending for him could not have existed without everyone’s admiring his clothes, right? :)

Other than that everything’s pretty textbook stuff, the good and the brave are rewarded, the evil plans are foiled. I don’t think anyone expected otherwise. :)

Recommend it to?
People interested in the classics, I guess. It has a 4.05 rating on Goodreads, so the vast majority of people seems to have liked it.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Get it free from Gutenberg project | Listen to it for free

  1. alas, he literally kisses the ground where his lady love stepped on []

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Genre: Utopia/Dystopia (I cannot decide)
Main characters: Jonas
Time and place: the far future
First sentence:It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.
Verdict: Four and a half stars.

Summary:
Jonas is a eleven year old boy who lives in a society where everything is regulated. The quality of life is high, and if one would ask them the people there would say they do not lack anything.

As Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to become a Receiver of Memory, the most honored role in their society, one that implies having access to all the memories of their forefathers. It is this way that Jonas gets to find out about how things once were, and realizes how not-so-utopic the society he lives in actually is.

General impression
I have no idea what I was expecting this book to be, but it took me completely by surprise. In a good way, of course. It’s one of those books that made me think, and I love those. I am quite looking forward to reading the sequels (although I understand that they are set in totally different worlds).

Setting
For me, the world building was the best part. It had elements that are unmistakably 1984-esque, such as the speakers in everyone’s homes, speakers that could not be turned off and that chastised children/people who did something untoward. And, of course, the feeling that someone, somewhere, is always watching.

There are also some main differences though, because this world is, at least on the surface, quite friendly to its inhabitants, or at least those of them that do obey the rules. Lying to one another is forbidden, and children are taught from an early age not to be rude with others. People’s path in life (their jobs, their marriages, their kids) is assigned to them by the Elders, but great care is taken for these choices to fit the individual they were imposed on (“Matching of Spouses was given such weighty consideration that sometimes an adult who applied to receive a spouse waited months or even years before a Match was approved and announced. All of the factors — disposition, energy level, intelligence, and interests — had to correspond and to interact perfectly“). There are also mandatory rituals that are supposed to relieve people of their daily stresses: the evening ‘telling of feelings’, when people shared their feelings with their ‘family unit’ and were helped to deal with them, and the morning sharing of dreams, which was pretty much the same.

Everything is very well regulated. A ‘family unit’ always has a mother, a father, one boy child, and one girl. There are precisely 50 babies born and entrusted to families every year. The children are all given names that are unique in the community (only when someone dies his or her name may be used again; unless the person did something particularly reprehensible so the name is forbidden to reuse), but they also have numbers, according to their age and the number they had on the list on the day they were ‘assigned’ to their families. And so on and so forth.

The obvious question that this raises is: would building a carefree life like that justify the loss of choice? The answer, in the context of the world in a book, is a resounding yes. And that is because those people (with the exception of Jonas later on) had no idea they were missing anything, as no one had ever told them there could be such a thing as free will. It takes one of us, people living under a different regime, to be horrified at the immensity of their loss. Although to be fair I do think that the idea of having someone always making the best decisions does have its merits for the society as a whole (a society where no one makes the wrong choices has no way to go but up, right?). However, from an individual point of view this would be nothing short of a catastrophe — we grow by learning from our mistakes, we gather strength by surpassing obstacles; it is this very growth that makes us who we are.

But I digress. Back to the book :)

Characters
This is a short book with plenty of world-building, so the characters are not developed beyond a few basic brush strokes. We don’t even know most of them’s names.

I liked Jonas a lot. I thought his transition from a child of his own society — taking things for granted, playing by the rules, and never thinking for himself beyond the basics — to the one who knew and understood things was quite believable and well done, albeit a bit short in pages (it did take about a year in ‘real-time’). I liked the way he found some answers to the questions no one ever thought of — such as what are animals (they used the word, but had no idea of its actual meaning), what the children’s plush toys represented (each ‘newchild’ was given a plush ‘comfort object’, with a strange name — hippo, elephant, bear — and shape), or what some of their games had their roots in. Even deprecated words, like ‘love’, become full of meaning for Jonas. The memories change him irrevocably, and for the better.

I feel like I should say something about the Giver too, but I only see him as a means to an end. Basically he is there to provide the information Jonas needs, we rarely if ever get any insights in his own mind. We know his task is very brave, taking on everyone’s memories and relieving them of their burden, but I do not know whether to read too much into that since it was a task imposed on him and not one he chose himself. I imagine him as an older version of Jonas, with the same courage and same willingness to do the right thing.

Relationships
That is also an interesting part. People are no longer capable of love, or perhaps they have just discarded it as unnecessary. Since a ‘family unit’ is brought together by the authorities, they have no real blood ties and no actual attachment to one another, other than mere familiarity. Sure, parents are proud of their children’s achievements, but only because they reflect on themselves and their parenting style. Children are well cared for, but that is because this is the way things are supposed to be done. The parent-child interactions are stilted and formulaic, using pre-established sentences. A far cry from the way Jonas interacts with the Giver himself, asking all the questions he needs and being given answers, even when those answers are not easy ones.

The most obvious example of the general lack of feeling is Jonas’ family reaction to baby Gabriel: they took him in, because if he didn’t make it it would reflect badly on Jonas’ father performance as a Nurturer. They all took care of him for about a year, and yet they never bonded, they were absolutely indifferent when told they have to let Gabe go.
show spoiler

What I liked
My absolute favorite thing by far was the part related to colors.
show spoiler

I also liked the way the author has imagined the childhood stages of the people in that community.
First, there is the Ceremony for the Ones:

Each December, all the newchildren born in the previous year turned One. One at a time — there were always fifty in each year’s group, if none had been released — they had been brought to the stage by the Nurturers who had cared for them since birth. Some were already walking, wobbly on their unsteady legs; others were no more than a few days old, wrapped in blankets, held by their Nurturers.

There is a similar ceremony for each age up to twelve, marking the passing from one particular stage to another.
For example, when one became a Seven one was allowed (requested actually) to wear a front buttoned jacket for the first time.

Fours, Fives, and Sixes all wore jackets that fastened down the back so that they would have to help each other dress and would learn interdependence. The front-buttoned jacket was the first sign of independence, the first very visible symbol of growing up.

At Eight, one got another jacket, “with smaller buttons and, for the first time, pockets, indicating that she was mature enough now to keep track of her own small belongings“. At Nine, each kid got a bike (the only means of transportation allowed), “the powerful emblem of moving gradually out into the community, away from the pro-tective family unit“. At Ten their hair was shortened, and at Eleven they got new clothes again, “different undergarments for the females, whose bodies were beginning to change; and longer trousers for the males, with a specially shaped pocket for the small calculator that they would use this year in school“. The last important step was becoming Twelve, when one was assigned to their future job. After that, people usually no longer kept track of their age.

I think nothing makes more obvious the Sameness of everything than the idea of these stages. Everyone wore the same clothes, everyone wore their hair the same way, and so forth. I find it quite an original idea and I salute the author’s imagination for thinking about it.

What I did not like
Not a fault of the book’s per se but I was confused to find out that there still was snow and animals still existed in that world. Seeing that no one knew about them other than the Giver, I would have expected them to be long gone/extinct. And they weren’t even that far away, since Jonas only had to travel a few days to find them. Although now that I think about it, this too — the fact that people had no idea of the things in their vicinity — could be a sign of how isolated, closed, and self-sufficient the community was.

Thoughts on the title
“The Giver” is one of the central characters of the book, so the title is very apt. I also like how it comes with a touch of mystery — I used to try to imagine what exactly is that the giver in the book is giving. I never had a satisfactory theory about that, but even if I did I don’t think I would have guessed in a million years what the actual answer is :)

Thoughts on the ending
I can’t stop thinking about it.
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone. It is an interesting read and also quite short (I read it in a single sitting).

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Lois Lowry’s website

The Golden Volcano by Jules Verne, Michel Verne

Genre: Travel Fiction
Main characters: Summy Skim, Ben Raddle, Jane Edgerton
Time and place: 1898-1899, Canada (mostly Klondike)
First sentence:On March 16, in the antepenultimate year of this century, the letter carrier whose route included Jacques Cartier Street in Montreal delivered a letter addressed to Mr. Summy Skim, at house number 29.

Summary: Summy Skim and Ben Raddle are two cousins living in Montreal. When they find themselves, out of the blue, the owners of a claim in Klondike, the adventurous side of Ben takes over. He manages to convince Summy, and the two of them travel together to the place where Ben hopes he will become a rich man. But the river floods their patch of ground and everything seems hopeless… until one day when they rescue a man that, with his dying breath, left them instructions to reach a place where a volcano filled with gold was to be found.

This is my third time reading this book (I’ve read it twice as a child). I have come to it with a bunch of expectations, given that I already knew I was going to like it, because, of course, I had already read it. Twice. Well, as it happens when it comes to expectations, I was wrong. I simply couldn’t believe this was a book I have actually liked. Everything seemed cardboard-like, the situations, the characters, everything. So disappointing.

Summy Skim for example. He loves quiet life (so mostly he complains about wanting to go home), but he also has feelings for one of the girls (so wherever she goes he goes too). Loves hunting, he’s a good shot, that’s about it. Nothing deeper than that. Edith is simply gentle and good at keeping everything in order. Ben Raddle is an engineer who wants adventure, and Jane is almost his female counterpart (just as adventurous yet shallow as he is, with a dash of feminism blended in). As for the antagonists, they felt more like literary devices than fully fledged characters, as they are two vicious people with no background and no qualities at all.

Mr. Verne is mostly famous for his “Extraordinary Voyages” series, and I believe this book is one of those. The characters are uprooted from their familiar environment (Montreal), and brought at the (almost literal) end of the world. Some say Mr. Verne’s descriptions of travelling in cold weather are very well-done, making one feel like he/she were actually there. Unfortunately all I can say about it is that even those parts seemed bi-dimensional to me.

As a bit of trivia, I have read this book in my native lanaguage (Romanian), and, while I own two separate translations, both of them have the same opening sentence, which differs from the one in the English version in two places: the date in the English version is March 16, when in my versions it’s March 17; the century is “this” instead of “the previous” one. I have checked Google books and found a copy of the original French book, and it was the same as the English one. However, the fact that I have two translations I think implies the fact that somewhere out there there’s also a French text with March 17 instead of March 16 — but why would that be? At least the case is a bit more obvious when it comes to the century issue, since the book was released in 1906, if I remember correctly (post-1905, anyway), so “the previous century” is by far the correct version, rather than “this”. But why is there a French version of the book with “this century”, when it all happens in 1800s, but the book was published not in that century but the next?

After a bit of digging I have found out the explanation for the century dilemma (but not for the date change, which is what has intrigued me the most). The version published in 1906 was a post-mortem one, heavily edited by the author’s son. I already knew that, but what I did not know is that the original version of the text, originally finished in 1899 (the same century as the events in the book), was also published in 1989 (yup, 90 years after). I have first read this book, in its Romanian translation, with March 17, far before 1989, which means that my copy is a translation of the initial version, the edited one (waaaah!), while the English version is straight after Jules Verne’s.

The differences between the original version and Michel Verne’s are very important (hence my adding Michel as a co-author): show spoiler

So many things I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t searched for the first sentence of the book in English :P

Thoughts on the ending: Predictable and somewhat unlikely, but nice :) show spoiler

What I liked most: It was interesting to find out about the meridian marking the border between Canada and Alaska, and a bit of what the search for gold entails — about rockers (a cradle-like piece of equipment that could be rocked like a cradle to sift sands through screens) and sluice boxes (sluices that have transverse riffles over a carpet which trap the heavy minerals) for example. I knew a bit about them before but I had no interest in them before (not that I have any grand interest now but I did spend about an hour clicking around Wikipedia in search of information regarding gold mining back then :) ).

What I liked least: The character that annoyed me the most was Naluto, a guy who never gave a decided opinion on anything. His answers to questions were something like “It’s [something]… unless it’s not” and “There are probably twenty miles ’til there… or more… or perhaps less”. Each and every time he talked like this and it became mightily bothersome after a while. To think that this is a character written in by Michel especially for comic effect! Ugh.

Recommend it to? I didn’t much like this book so I do not particularly recommend it to anyone.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Review of the original version

Also written by Jules Verne
(The Extraordinary Adventures of) Foundling Mick

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins


There is a special magic in number three, isn’t it? Welcome to the third stop of the Wilkie Collins tour! It is the first tour on The Classics Circuit and it plans to follow Mr. Collins as he visits a few of the book blogs in the blogosphere, in hopes of making new acquaintances. Feel free to visit the previous stops (1, 2) and the full list of the stops planned for the future. And, of course, enjoy this one!


Genre: Mystery
Main characters: Miss Rachel Verinder, Mr. Franklin Blake; Mr. Gabriel Betteredge, Sergeant Cuff
Time and place: 1799, India; 1848 – 1849, London and Yorkshire
First sentence:I address these lines—written in India—to my relatives in England.

Summary: The Moonstone is a large diamond, originally stolen from an Indian shrine and said to be cursed. Brought in England by a soldier of noble birth, John Herncastle, it is bequeathed by him to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her 18th birthday. When she receives it she is childishly delighted by it — but the precious stone disappears over night and no one knows what to make of the disappearance. A famous detective, Sergent Cuff, is summoned from London, but his enquiries meet with resistance in the area he would have least expected, as Miss Rachel herself seems to be opposing the inquest with all her might.

Ever since first opening the book I was amused at the shape it way written in: letters and descriptions of events by various characters, in order to record a certain story “in the interest of truth“. The very same way The Woman in White was written, and, as I liked that book, I readily prepared to like this one in turn. At first it started out a bit slowly, but once things got rolling I could hardly put it down.

Were I to name a most amusing narrator, I would certainly choose Miss Drusilla Clack, a single woman dedicated to her faith and her charitable causes, so much so that she became a caricature of such a character instead of a multifaceted human being. Among her quirks we should note the fact that she considered sympathy for the sick a very un-Christian reaction and takes pride in giving tracts to people because that’s her idea of doing them good. A funny scene involving her is when she tries to force Lady Verinder into salvation by hiding books on religious topics all around the Lady’s house (and then she goes home so convinced she did good that she feels like a young girl again).

Another narrator that I have liked was Mr. Gabriel Betteredge, Lady Verinder’s house stewart. Despite his age (somewhere around seventy and eighty) he takes pride in doing his job well and he treats the people under him as kindly as they deserve. In the course of the book he has quite a few fits of the “detective fever”, as he calls it, but always in the company of someone better acquainted with the situation and more likely to make discoveries (it can be said that Betteredge would make a wonderful Watson while never being capable of being a Sherlock Holmes himself). Although I have mostly liked him he did have at times moments of feeling superior to other people (usually women), and then I usually got annoyed at him. But then I remembered his most interesting quirk (he believed the truth, the life and everything was to be found in the pages of Robinson Crusoe) and it made me smile again.

Here’s one of his “superior” quotes, just to form an idea:

“[...] it is a maxim of mine that men (being superior creatures) are bound to improve women—if they can. When a woman wants me to do anything (my daughter, or not, it doesn’t matter), I always insist on knowing why. The oftener you make them rummage their own minds for a reason, the more manageable you will find them in all the relations of life. It isn’t their fault (poor wretches!) that they act first and think afterwards; it’s the fault of the fools who humour them.”

Ugh.

Looking back I realize I have only mentioned things I have found amusing in the book. Don’t expect this to be a funny volume though — on the contrary, it is a very serious one as the happiness of the members of a whole family is at stake. Not any members of any family, but a cast of characters that the reader grows to like and root for, and as such their happiness becomes important (or at least that’s what happened with me). The atmosphere of the book is also rather gloomy, what with everyone suspecting everyone else of theft, with even a few deaths and illnesses thrown into the bargain. It is not a happy reading in any way, but it’s definitely a captivating one.

Here is a quote from the book’s preface by the author, illustrating an interesting side of the book:

“In some of my former novels, the object proposed has been to trace the influence of circumstances upon character. In the present story I have reversed the process. The attempt made here is to trace the influence of character on circumstances. The conduct pursued, under a sudden emergency, by a young girl, supplies the foundation on which I have built this book.”

The young girl in question is, of course, Miss Verinder. She is a complex character, young, pretty, gentle, kind hearted, but with an easily excited temper. A temper that made me actually dislike her at first (way too overexcited by everything around her for my taste), but as the story progresses her strong nature begins to shine through, and the book ended with her as my favorite character of them all. As far as her way of seeing things influences the narrative, it is obviously after a while that her decisions influence the book throughout, but I think the mystery would have been just as complete even without her acting in a certain way. But, of course, I agree that the author knows best so I will say no more.

Last but not least, T.S. Eliot called this book “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels“. It is hard to believe in this day and age, when detective novels are everywhere, that a little over a century ago the genre almost didn’t exist. And then Wilkie Collins appeared on the scene. While not entirely original (parts of it are inspired from real life), the book established the cornerstone of the genre, and some of its elements are still used to this day (large number of suspects, amateur detectives, the person who did it was the least likely of all, a local policeman who does a bad job at solving the case and more).

What I liked most: There is a certain scene where Rachel has a heated conversation with the guy she’s in love with. It’s my favorite scene and I liked Rachel at least twice as much afterwards.

What I liked least: I was less than enchanted by the “medical experiment” that helps solve part of the mystery. I found it quite hard to believe despite Ezra Jennings quoting from official (and I supposed real life) books. Sure, the author assures us in the preface that he had make sure this is what it would have happened, by consulting “not only [...] books, but [...] living authorities as well“. I do believe him of course, and yet that part of the narrative was decidedly the one I liked least.

Recommend it to? Anyone who likes classics and/or good mystery books.

See also
Audrey Niffeneger’s review of The Moonstone

Written by the same author:
Poor Miss Finch | Armadale

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]