Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling

Rating: WARTY!

I've enjoyed more than one book by Kipling, but not this one I'm sorry to report. The first problem is with the title, because the book barely features Puck. It uses him instead as an introduction to history, and each chapter gives a concocted history lesson about a period in British history. The first two or three chapters cover the aftermath of the Norman invasion when William the Conqueror beat King Harald at Hastings, and the Normans took over Britain. Yes, everyone was called Norman. No, I'm kidding, of course.

The story covers one fictional character named Sir Richard, who takes over a manor as his spoils and fortunately happens to be a moderate and just lord. But that's all the story is. There isn't anything special about it, and while it may well have entertained children - or more accurately, the boys at which it's aimed - in Kipling's time, it really doesn't have anything to say to modern children because it's not even a good history lesson. I suspect the book tells us more about the history of Kipling's boyhood passions than ever it would about British history in general.

The next section goes even further and is about gorilla warfare - literally. It takes us back into Viking times and relates something about the endless Viking incursions into British coastal villages, raping and pillaging as they were wont to do. They somehow get blown off course and end up skirting the coast of Africa and encountering gorillas, who they view as hairy people.

Kipling appallingly and shamefully misrepresents gorillas. This was no more or less than people thought at a time when gorillas were kept in brutally disgraceful conditions in Edwardian zoos, but I expected something better and different from him. It wasn't forthcoming. The story dragged on and was boring, and it was at this point that I gave up on this book. I can't commend it as a worthy read.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

Rating: WORTHY!

Despite my abhorrence of Newbery medal winners, I have read one or two by accident. This is another one, and while most have been awful, I'm forced to conclude that older Newbery winners are infinitely better than the more recent ones in that they're far less pompous and pretentious and therefore make for a better read.

This one, which won in 1950, was short - which helps when it's a Newbery - and educational. Set in the middle ages with a very small cast, it features young Robin, who is expected to become a knight like his dad, but who suffers some sort of debilitating disease which robs him of the use of his legs, and of which he only regains limited re-use over time.

Derailed from his life plan, and ending up at a monastery after scaring away his helper with his unappreciative behavior, Robin eventually finds strength in other pursuits such as reading, swimming, and wood carving, eventually moving on to build a harp.

The language in the book is period, but the wrong period. Most kids won't know the difference, however, and it has to be rendered intelligibly, let's face it! It's read amiably by Roger Rees, and the book is educational, so I consider it a worthy read despite being handicapped with the taint of a Newbery.

The Man Who Was Thursday : a Nightmare by GK Chesterton

Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook in which I did not progress very far - about thirty three percent. I'd never read anything by Chesterton and decided to give him a try. So from this encounter, I've learned that I can strike him from my list of potentially interesting authors! His writing was rather pompous and overblown, which is I guess how they wrote back in 1908. That doesn't mean I have to like it though! The book's language and style reminded me somewhat of Ian Fleming, who coincidentally was born in the same year this novel was published.

The story is rather allegorical, and the plot seemed like it might be entertaining, with a philosopher joining a secret organization within the police aimed at overthrowing anarchy. Gabriel Syme is recruited to this organization right after he gets an inside track into a secret anarchist society via an acquaintance, Lucian Gregory. In the society, each of the seven leaders is named after a day of the week. The Thursday position is up for election - which struck me as curiously ironical for an anarchic organization! They have elections??? Anyway, after Gabriel informs Lucien that he is a police officer, the latter becomes nervous and flubs his chance of election, and Gabriel is elected himself, only to discover that all of the seven positions are occupied by police spies!

Sorry, but I never made it that far because I could not get past the rather tedious writing style. I can't commend this based on my experience of it and I definitely don't want to read any more GK Chesterton.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Josephine Baker's Last Dance by Sherry Jones

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I was disappointed in this novel and ended up skimming the last two thirds hoping it would improve. For me it did not. Josephine Baker was a pioneer in so many ways and such a positive thinker. I felt none of this came out in the story I read, which was so dreary and depressing in the beginning that the writer left me wondering why Josephine hadn't simply killed herself. Thankfully in real life she did not. There had to have been things, or at least a thing which kept her going, and this was never brought out that I could see. On top of that, a lot of conversation was added which can only be speculative.

Make no mistake: her life was miserable as a child because her family was poor, she had a poor relationship with her mother, and she never did know who her father was. She did have her hands scalded by a bitch of an employer, but this was for using too much detergent in the laundry, not from breaking a plate as is told here. The way it was depicted in this fictional version made little sense, and there was no reason to change it from what really happened. She did cohabit with a much older guy when in her mid-teens, but the way it was depicted here was that it was forced on her, not her own choice, however problematic that choice may have been for her.

To me it felt as though the story had been deliberately loaded in as negative a way as possible - which was so unnecessary - that it felt like it cheapened the real story while at the same time, nothing was added to leaven the tale and balance it out, so it was nothing but a depressing read for me for as far as I went.

It was at this point that I began to skim in the hope of finding something of the optimistic, positive, perky and bouncy Josephine I knew was supposed to come, but I never found anything. Naturally, I may have missed some of this, but if it had been there in full, I cannot possible have missed it all, so where was it? I should never have had to search for it in the first place. Josephine should have been right there, and she was not.

On that basis, I cannot commend this as a worthy read.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hal by Kate Cudahy

Rating: WARTY!

I was interested in reading this because in some ways it reminded me of my own novel Femarine, but in the end - or more accurately in the middle since I never reached the end, it was quite different. Hal is the abbreviated name of the main character - either that or some computer got a body for itself and is seriously going after Dave, because Hal is a duelist, so we're told. Really she's a prizefighter and gives most of her take to her slave overlord because she's too much of a wimp to go it alone.

She's also an idiot. And a lesbian. All of these preconditions come together to trip her up big time when the daughter of a rich and powerful merchant falls for her, and inexplicably so, because Hal is arrogant and selfish (as their 'love' scenes confirm). I have no idea why either falls for the other, so that wasn't really giving me an authentic story, and what story I got was made worse by Hal's appallingly dumb behavior.

Hall knows perfectly well she's walking on thin ice with this girl, and she also knows she's being spied on, and she's warned repeatedly by two different people that trouble is heading her way, but she stubbornly keeps her blinkers on and walks right into it. It was at this point that I decided I have better things to do with my time than to read any more of this, so I moved on.

The book needs a little work too. At one point, I read, "a large pair of double doors." Is that four large doors? I don't think so! So why write it like it is? 'A large pair of doors' or 'a large double door' is all that's needed. Later I read, "Someone tapped her on the shoulder and she span round" Nope! She spun round! So yeah, work. I can't commend this.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Rating: WARTY!

Set during the Renaissance, this book was a pretty much a non-starter for me. I did start reading it, but quickly lost interest because the main protagonist is writing in first person voice and it seemed so utterly inauthentic that I couldn't take it seriously. I quickly took to skimming, hoping things would become more interesting once the author had got the period info-dumping out of her system, but she never did and they never did and all I could think was "Well, I never!"

The novel ought to have been interesting because initially I had thought it was - as far as I could make out (which was nowhere near as far as this woman could make out) - about main character Alessandra Cecchi being the model who posed for Sandro Botticelli's famous Nascita di Venere (Birth of Venus) painting from the mid 1480's, which I parodied in my children's book The Very Fine-Art Rattuses and which is a part of the only series I shall ever write, rest assured. It turns out that it has nothing to do with Botticelli or Venus as far as I could see, which begs the title. It's entirely possible I missed something, but I really didn't miss it in any meaningful sense!

Alessandra is married-off to a much older man who turns out to be the lover of her brother. She has an affair with this nameless young painter her father hires to paint murals and inevitably becomes pregnant, moron that she is and irresponsible jerk that he is. She was lucky a baby was all she caught from him.

The story is supposed to be set against the backdrop of the Savonarola-Medici struggle, the one side supposed to represent scuro, the other, chiaro, with the rest left to canvas for themselves, but Savonarola really wasn't very active for that many years and he was burned at the stake in 1498, so that felt a bit like it was stuck in there precisely because the rest of the story was so boring. However, since I didn't read the rest of the story, I escaped this pitfall.

While I cannot commend this, I do suggest that the author keeps taking the Medici and calls no one in the morning.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories by Angela McAllister, Alice Lindstrom

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a well-written and easy introduction to Shakespeare for young readers, providing a short story version of a dozen plays. Note that it pulls no punches, telling the stories as Shakespeare wrote them, so there's no hiding the murder, intrigue, and double-cross - and there's a lot of it, for fully half of these plays are the tragedies, the other half the comedies. There are none from the 'histories'. Overall, I think this worked well and it strikes me as a great way to get your kids interested in a highly enduring and popular writer.

The book didn't offer anything aside from the plays - apart from a few illustrations by Alice Lindstrom, which I personally could have done without because I did not feel they contributed anything beyond padding. I'd rather have seen some information or commentary added, and there was a small section at the back with a short paragraph on each included play which gave some background details, but it was very brief.

The plays do not appear to be in any kind of order that I could see. For example, Romeo and Juliet was written before Macbeth, yet they're the first two plays and in the opposite chronological order. The plays are these:

  • The Tragedy of Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy. It's sourced from the Holinshed's Chronicles published a decade or two earlier and influenced by the 1590 witch trials in Scotland. It begins with MacBeth coming home from battle to be accosted by three witches who tell him he will become king, while his companion Banquo will be the father of kings but never king himself. In many ways it's just a rejiggered version of Hamlet. MacBeth, rather than wait for fate to crown him decides to hasten things along. He murders King Duncan, leaving 'evidence' that lays the blame on the king's guards (who had been drugged by Macbeth's wife). Fearing the blame trail would lead to them, Duncan's two sons flee, and MacBeth is crowned king, but like Hamlet, he can't overcome his fears and doubts and this leads to a downhill trail of guilt, suspicion, murder, and discovery. The play was essentially a paean to King James and was evidently written (or at least amended) in the aftermath of The Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
  • Romeo and Juliet which ought to need no introduction, is an early play of Shakespeare's once again ripped-off from an Italian precursor as so many of his works seem to be! The story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano is the source, later adapted as Giulietta e Romeo and containing the entire story as Shakespeare appropriated it. The warring family names are perhaps from Dante's Divine Comedy: Montecchi and Cappelletti. It also has parallels in Pyramus and Thisbe which was a play featured in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream also included in this collection.
  • The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark popularly known as just 'Hamlet' is a play that exists in three different versions, having evidently been re-written by Shakespeare several times. Set in Denmark, it tells the story of a young prince set on a course of revenge by his father's ghost, who claims he was murdered by his brother, who now happens to be married to Hamlet's mom, and is king. You know, no one ever explained to me how that worked. Didn't the crown pass from father to son? Why is the uncle the king and not Hamlet? This was written during the reign of Elizabeth the first, and she was queen in her own right, so maybe Hamlet's mom was queen in her own right? This is one of Shakespeare's plays where everyone dies. He seemed to enjoy writing those. As with all his other works, he ripped off this idea directly from the Scandinavian story of Amleth.
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fluffy nonsensical story of mixed loves and confusion written around the same time as Much Ado About Nothing. I much prefer the latter. This play is one of Shakespeare's earliest and the opening lines perhaps wisely invite the observer to pretend it's only a dream if they don't like it. Helena is in love with Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander, but Hermia's father wishes her to marry Ron, Demetrius. Sorry! All this is worked out in the end by Robin Goodfellow aka 'Puck' and his magic potion. Meanwhile a troop of players are practicing a play (Pyramus and Thisbe) which they hope to put on at the Duke's wedding. One particularly self-opinionated player named Bottom becomes the object of Puck's self-amusement as his features become those of an ass (Bottom, ass - get it? Shakespeare was not known for subtlety!). Following Fairy King Oberon's earlier instructions, Puck makes Queen Titania fall in love with this ass. This is one of Shakespeare's few plays which he did not rip-off from some other source.
  • The Tempest is thought to be the last play Shakespeare wrote and sees him once again returning to the magical as a once again an exiled Duke (cf As You Like It!) gains a belated revenge - of a sort. There is no single source that Shakespeare used for this one, so it's more like his own work for a change.
  • Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Ripped-off from yet another Italian source (The Deceived Ones), this is a comedy once again featuring twins as in The Comedy of Errors which features two sets. Shakespeare himself was the father of twins: Hamnet who died as a child, and Judith who lived to a ripe old age. In the case of this play the twins are Viola and Sebastian, who become separated when their ship wrecks. Thinking her brother has died and hoping for a better life as a man, she takes her brother's male identity, but calls herself Cesario, and becomes a trusted confidante and companion of Duke Orsino, while at the same time falling for him. Meanwhile, thinking his sister dead, her brother starts life anew and ends up encountering her accidentally, but not before confusion has been set in motion as Orsini sends Cesario to court Olivia, who of course has no interest in Orsino, but who falls for Cesario. So once again we get the same old Shakespeare routines we've seen so many times before. As it happens I like this play and it is, methinks, my favorite along with Much Ado About Nothing.
  • The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a direct rip-off of Un Capitano Moro, aka A Moorish Captain by Cinthio, and from which the name Desdemona was taken directly. The trouble-making Iago, who is the Don John of this story, feeds poisonous untruths to his boss, Othello, who had failed to promote Iago in his military unit. Iago sets his boss against his wife and eventually causes Othello to suffocate his wife and then upon learning too late of her innocence, kill himself.
  • As You Like It is believed to have been written in 1599 and tells the story of Shakespeare's famous Rosalind (Romeo's soon-ditched 'undying live') and her cousin Celia, who flee her cruel uncle's court and move into the Forest of Arden where others are also in exile. Arden, situated in almost the geographical center of England (not far from where I am from!), is now no longer a forest worth the name. The story is somewhat confused because while Arden is in England, the play is set in France, yet the Forest of the Ardennes lies in Belgium and Luxembourg! Shakespeare was very confused! He was one of history's most famous rip-off artists. If he were writing today he'd be doing young adult trilogies galore. He took this tale from the source story for what later became known as The Tale of Gamelyn.
  • The Tragedy of Julius Caesar was written around the same time as As You Like It and Hamlet and despite its title, is really more about Brutus and his plot to assassinate Caesar, whom he thought was bad for Rome, but really, would you want to see a play named 'Brutus' when you could see one named 'Julius Caesar'? I think people would rather see a play named 'Popeye' than one named 'Brutus'! Shakespeare took his story from Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's 'Lives' retaining many folk tales that had no historical provenance (such as the 'Et Tu Brute' line, which Caesar never said) as well as compressing events for the sake or performing them on a small stage.
  • Much Ado About Nothing! I read somewhere that in Shakespeare's time that last word in the title would have been read as 'noting' and therefore was a double entendre. If you take note, you'll notice that the importance of being noted, or of failing to take note, is at the forefront of this play. Beatrice makes mention of marking (i.e. paying attention to) something in her exchange with Benedick, and shortly thereafter, Claudio and he make mention of noting Hero. Written roughly around the same time as A Midsummer Night's Dream, this play was perhaps taken from Orlando Furioso (Furious Orlando) by Ludovico Ariosto and from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. In a sense it's very much like Midsummer Night's Dream in that there's a meddlesome interloper and mistaken identity. In this case the meddler is Don John, Don Pedro's evil brother. The absurdly-named Hero is besmirched by trickery and the original 'fighting couple who fall in love' (Benedick and Beatrice), which is such a staple of cheaply-written modern romances, begin at odds and even fall in love here.
  • King Lear is another tragedy taken from semi-historical sources about the ancient English character known as Leir, and he also took the character of Cordelia from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. The tragic ending was displeasing to so many that an alternative happy ending was later used - and for many years before the original was restored to favor. Shakespeare's play appeared about a decade after a comedy written about this same king who was believed to have reigned in the eighth century BC.
  • The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice dates to the end of the sixteenth century and is considered a comedy, but with high dramatic content. It's a direct rip-off of Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino. Pecorone is an Italian word related to sheep (pecora), not to be confused with Percorino which is a type of cheese made from sheep's milk; so the meaning here is someone who is weak willed or easily led and no doubt refers to Antonio being sorely abused by Bassanio. Bassanio is a dilettante and profligate who wants Portia, and who persuades Antonio to loan him 3,000 ducats to spend on pursuing her. Antonio has no liquid assets at that moment so he secures a loan from Shylock - the one and original, but because of his racist remarks, Shylock forces him into a deal whereby Shylock will get neither money nor goods if Antonio defaults. Instead, he will get a pound of Antonio's flesh from around his heart! Bassanio correctly chooses the casket from three which Portia offers, only one of which contains her picture, and so gets her hand, but if it were that simple why does he need 3,000 ducats?! Anyway, Antonio's ships flounder and Shylock calls in his loan! Fortunately, Antonio is saved by the skin of his teeth when Portia and Nerissa in disguise as a male lawyer and 'his' clerk bale Antonio out.

Is this a blank page I see before me? Out, out damned text! I ran into a couple of issues with this advance review copy. The most serious of these was a problem - in two different downloads of this book - in that p82 (the last page of As You Like It), and also pps 98, 99 (in Much Ado About Nothing) were all completely blank - no text at all! I assume this will be fixed before the final copy is published. This was viewing the PDF format file in Bluefire Reader on an iPad.

Double, double, toil and trouble! The other issue was more of an annoyance in that the pages are presented as double-pages, meaning you have to tip your tablet over to landscape view to read them - and therefore at a smaller magnification than you'd be able to if they were presented as individual pages you could read in portrait view. To me this was an annoyance and a sign of yet another book being conceived as a print book and suffering for that in the ebook version. You definitely don't want to try reading this on your smart phone! Not smart!

Other than that I enjoyed these very much and I commend this collection as a worthy introduction for youngsters new to Shakespeare.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Bessie Stringfield Tales of the Talented Tenth by Joel Christian Gill

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I have to rate this negatively because it begins with the fictional version of Bessie Stringfield's life, and from that point onward, it necessarily casts doubt on the rest of the story. Bessie Beatrice White was born in Edenton, North Carolina, not Jamaica, and there was no dramatic crossing of the ocean to Boston during which her mother pretty much succumbed to consumption (or whatever) and her father abandoned her in a hotel. Why the author felt he needed to augment this story with pure fiction, even fiction she purveyed herself, is a mystery.

It's like he felt her story wasn't good enough without it. The author/illustrator seems strangely averse to illustrating faces too, such as her parents, the woman who runs the fictional hotel where she's fictionally abandoned, the woman who adopts her, and the woman who interviews her.

The frame of the story is a woman interviewing Bessie who then recounts her life. For me it failed because it made Bessie seem to be an extraordinarily selfish and self-centered person. It also skips a lot of detail. Like how did she pay for her gallivanting after she took off at age nineteen? It mentions later that she performed in carnivals on her bike, but there's nothing about how she financed her trips at such a young age or where her bike came from. The author seems to have bought into more fiction: that of divine miracles!

The story mentions that she had six marriages and no children, but it fails to discuss the fact that that her first marriage gave her three miscarriages. It also says nothing about why she married six times, whether she abandoned each of those husbands, split from them amicably, or they abandoned her.

It relates that she took off after college and started riding around the US, but her criss-crossing the country eight times was during her time as an army courier. Despite working for the US to help the war effort, she was subject to racism repeatedly, and they didn't even have the "excuse" of having a racist, misogynistic, homophobic jackass as president back then.

So while this is a story worth telling, I did not feel this was the version worth reading, and I cannot recommend it.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Queen of Kenosha by Howard Shapiro

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is the third - and last as far as I'm concerned! - in a loose collection of comics telling supposedly positive and life-affirming stories. I was not impressed by any of them and the artwork was a bit odd to say the least, particularly in this one. there really was a Queen of Kenosha - Dorothy J Queen, who died in 2012!

In previous comics this author had depicted male characters who looked quite feminine for no apparent reason, but in this one we get the opposite: the female characters look rather masculine. I don;t know if this is a deliberate gender-bending effort or simply accidental, but it didn't work. I don't mind feminine-looking men or masculine-looking women, but if you're going to put them into a graphic novel and you don't want your reader to be continually distracted by them, then there really ought to be some sort of reason for it. There was none here that I could see.

Nina Overstreet used to be in a duo with her cousin and now her cousin is no longer is part of it, for reasons which go unexplained, but is still Nina's 'manager'. One night, an odd event happens which brings Nina to the attention of a secret government agency and for no real reason whatsoever they recruit her, while still demeaning her as a female.

This is particularly odd because their idea is purportedly that a female can offer distraction and an intro into areas where a man might stand out, but the author drew Nina as very masculine-looking, so it begs the question as to why these guys are hiring her as a female distraction when she looks just like one of the guys! It made zero sense.

Add to this the fact that one of the two guys is a complete jerk, while the other is an obvious love interest, who also acts like a jerk at times, and you have a very predictable story at best and at worst, a disaster in the making. Nina is supposed to be a strong female character, but she really isn't. She wasn't impressive and the story was boring. It was set in 1963 and they're talking about Nazi sympathizers and a network of underground Nazi spies? If it had been Soviets instead of Nazis, I might have maybe bought that, but like this it was a joke and it read like a really bad fifties B movie. I cannot recommend it.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Rating: WARTY!

Sashenka was another audiobook experiment I tried that failed. I don't normally go for the longer books because my time is valuable and it's a bigger investment of it to put it into a longer book and have that fail. If it works out, it's great, but given that I take more risks with audiobooks, they tend to fail more than other media, so I tend not to go for the longer ones. This one sounded like it might be good if it worked out, but it didn't.

If it had bee about half the length it was, I might have been willing to invest more time in it, but it was endlessly rambling, jumping back and forth, and worse, the author seemed like he was obsessed with showing off his knowledge of the classics instead of telling a succinct and engaging story. He spewed out title after title, some of which I'd even heard of, but it served the story not at all. Writers who do this are among the most pretentious, substituting books for smarts, and book names for knowledge and sophistication.

Despite this focus on showing how intellectual the main character is, the ham-fisted book blurb describes her - sixteen-year-old Sashenka Zeitlin - as "Beautiful and headstrong" like her best trait is her beauty. I detest writers who reduced women to skin-depth, like a woman has nothing else to offer and their character is quite useless except for her 'beauty'. What does it matter where she is on the dangerously sliding scale of beauty to ugliness if she's an interesting character? Is she so boring that the author has to make her beautiful in order for her to have anything at all to offer the reader? Because that doesn't work for me.

It's not just the book blurb writer. The author himself is equally culpable, sexualizing his character very early on in the story when he informs us that she has the "fullest breasts in her class." How is this remotely relevant to anything? If the story were about sex, then I can see how it would be something of import, but it isn't. It's supposed to be about this woman and her life in Tsarist and then revolutionary Russia. Her breasts are really nothing to do with her story unless she goes to work for the communists seducing political enemies, in which case I could see some relevance. if the tit doesn't fit, you mustn't acquit, and I find this author guilty.

I thought it might start to get interesting when Sashenka is thrown into prison as a political offender because of her association with her uncle, but no! The novel is set in 1916, right before the Russian revolution, and I thought this might make it quite gripping, but the author seems to have sterilized it so effectively that the rich soil of a potentially entertaining novel is reduced to unproductive sand.

The only interesting thing to me was the repeated mention of gendarmes, which I had never heard of in connection with Russia, but these were the political police. It would have made more sense to call them jandarmov, which is how the Russians pronounced it.

The author may be able to write knowledgeable non-ficiton about this era, but he has no clue how to write a gripping novel, a compelling main character, or realistic female characters.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Thomas and Buzzy Move Into the President's House by Vicki Tashman

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a great idea: teaching children history by letting them see it through the eyes of well-known historical figure's pets - and at the same time, in this case, allaying fears a child might have about a change or even upheaval in their life - such as moving to a new house.

I'm not a fan of Jefferson and see no reason for deface on Mount Rushmore(!), but whether you like an historical figure or not has no bearing on whether it's worth learning something about them, and I think this is a charming way to do it: seeing Jefferson through the eyes of his French chien bergère de Brie (sheepdog of the brie region - the home of brie cheese).

Beautifully and artistically illustrated by the talented Fátima Stamato (I loved her image of Buzzy on page six, at the start of chapter two, which is monitor-screen wallpaper-worthy!), this book tells of the worries of Buzzy, when she learns that Jefferson is going to become the new president (in 1801) and has to live in the President's House, now much more commonly known as The White House.

Buzzy (which actually was the name of a dog owned by Jefferson) is afraid of moving and leaving her beloved farm and friends behind (a horse, another dog, and a mockingbird Jefferson got to replace an earlier one he had bought from a slave), but when she realizes she can bring along her favorite pillow, and her fetch toy, and water bowl, and set them up where she wants in this new residence, she feels a lot more comfortable. Some things change, but others remain much the same, and finally she's happy with her new home.

The author rather glosses over the fact that Jefferson had been vice president for the previous four years (a position he got through a mistake in the constitution!), so while he had not been resident in the White House (vice presidents lived in their own home until relatively recently, when a government residence was opened for them) he certainly knew it quite well, both inside and out. That doesn't mean Buzzy ever visited, of course, so this was more than likely a very new situation for her.

The author also glosses over the fact that Jefferson soon became a breeder of the variety of dog (indeed, Buzzy gave birth on the trip back to the US, so Jefferson actually arrived here with three dogs). Buzzy was not the only such dog at Monticello, but to have multiple "Briards" running around would just confuse things as would it have done to depict Buzzy more accurately as an outdoor dog, rather than living in the house. Dogs back then were considered working animals (and even pests in livestock country, the ownership of which was taxed), so the mockingbird, "Dick" was much more of a pet to Jefferson than Buzzy was, but again, this makes for a better story for children, even if somewhat inaccurate, so overall I was very pleased with this book, and I recommend it as a worthy read for the intended age range (4 - 8yrs).

Saturday, May 9, 2015

MASH by Richard Hooker

Title: MASH
Author: Richard Hooker
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: WORTHY!

Audio Book read excellently by Johnny Heller.

According to wikipedia, Richard Hooker's real name was Richard Hornberger. He died in 1997. I'm not sure why a guy by the last name of Hornberger would change it to Hooker! That's hardly an improvement in my opinion, but I guess it's his choice! It was his experience working in the 8055th M.A.S.H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) during the Korean war that gave him the background for the story. Here again is a case where a novel that turned out to be successful was rejected repeatedly by Big Publishing&Trade; despite the runaway success of its spiritual predecessor, which was Joseph Heller's renowned Catch-22 which I reviewed in February 2014. The two novels are very different though.

Hooker worked on this novel for eleven years, we're told and then had a sports writer polish it before William Morrow had the smarts to pick it up and publish it in 1968. It was pretty much immediately turned into a movie starring Donald Sutherland as the main character Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, which I also review on my blog. It led, two years later, to the long-running TV show. I was never a fan of the TV show. It kinda sucked. The movie, which I enjoyed, is closest to the novel, but it excludes a lot perforce. You have to actually read the novel, which is quite short, to get the full flavor of the joy and humor of this excellent story, or listen to the audio book narrated by Johnny Heller, as I did.

The novel (as does the movie) begins with Duke Forrest and Hawkeye Pierce arriving at unit 4077 (the double natural). They have traveled there by jeep over a long day and have bonded on the journey. Colonel Henry Blake, their CO, puts then on night shift and they billet with Major Jonathan Hobson, a highly religious guy who spends a lot of time praying. In the movie, they conflate this guy with Major Frank Burns, and in the TV show they conflate Burns with Charles Emerson Winchester III.

Life in the camp is a series of days with literally nothing to do, punctuated harshly and violently with endless hours in surgery as soldiers are brought in from the latest offensive or defensive. The hi-jinks and trouble-making naturally occur during the surgical downtimes, but the two new surgeons prove themselves highly competent, and are soon liked by pretty much everyone despite their lax attitude outside of the OR. Friction soon erupts with Hobson, and eventually the other two talk Blake into sending him home. Blake in the novel is nothing like either of the Blakes on the screen.

As their experience of the types of injury grows, Pierce and Forrest decide they're getting too many chest injuries that neither feels very expert at tackling, so they prevail upon Blake to get a "chest cutter" and he shows up in the form of "Trapper" John McIntyre, who is cold and distant to begin with, but eventually warms to his situation and the two men with whom he shares a tent. Their domain is known as the Swamp (after Hooker's own billet in Korea) and the three together are frequently referred to in the narrative as "The Swamp Men".

The chaplain had quite a role in the TV series, but in the movie and the novel he's very much a minor character. Since he's Catholic, Forrest, a protestant, demands a like-minded chaplain, but the one they get is completely clueless and likes to write peppy letters to families about their wounded sons. This idiotic misrepresentation finally goes too far, and the Swamp men threaten to burn him on a cross at one point. This is omitted from both the movie and the TV show. The movie does retain the funeral of Captain Waldowski, the camp dentist, which is never actually a funeral. He is depressed however, so they hold a service and drop him from a helicopter. After he sobers up the next day he's fine.

The Swamp men also take a dislike to Major Frank Burns because he's a jerk whose only real skill seems to be his facility with open heart massage. Both Duke and trapper deck him at one time or another, and Blake is furious. It's at this point that Major Margaret Houlihan, a stickler-for-rule-rules chief nurse shows up. She sides with burns and detests the Swamp men as an unruly, disrespectful rabble. This culminates in a fight which Pierce provokes and Burns falls right into. The fight is witnessed by Blake, who sends Burns home, and bitches out the swamp men for now depriving him of two surgeons.

Another incident missed from the movie is the Ho-Jon affair. The Swamp Men pretty much adopt their Korean houseboy, and when he's drafted into the Korean army, they try to keep him out of it. He comes back to them wounded and after saving his life, decide to sponsor him to attend Pierce's own college. They raise money for this by selling signed photographs of Trapper John dolled up to look like Jesus Christ. People actually buy these and before long they have several thousand dollars and off goes ho-Jon.

In a sequence very similar to that depicted in the movie, Trapper and Hawkeye are tapped to fly to Japan to perform surgery on the son of a US congressman, and they take advantage of this to tighten up their golf technique. They also fix up a child who is being taken care of in the local pediatric hospital-cum-whorehouse.

One of the most amusing sections, for me, was when Blake is ordered to Tokyo and is expected to be gone for several weeks, so a temporary CO is drafted in and although he isn't too bad, the Swamp men want to avoid him. In a sequence reminiscent of the man who saw everything twice form Catch-22, the three of them come up with a plan to convince the temporary CO that Pierce is in need of psychiatric treatment. The three of them get to go for evaluation, talking of mermaids and epileptic whores. The way this is written is hilarious, but it's entirely omitted from the movie, which by-passes this and jumps straight to the football game.

The movie portrays it slightly differently, but in the novel, Radar is calling plays based on his supernatural senses, and with twenty-twenty-twenty-four points on the board, the opposition's sedated (or at least their leading player is), and because Pierce got Blake to bring a in professional football player who is also a surgeon, the 4077th squeaks by with a 28-24 win and makes a mint out of it.

The story winds down a bit flatly, with nothing going on, and the original two, Forrest and Pierce pretending to have battle fatigue and presenting themselves as chaplains, so they have an easy ride and no work to do. I had one major issue throughout this novel which was Hooker's addiction to adding "he said" after very nearly every speech. It became annoying in short order in the audio version; maybe reading it yourself would make it feel less glaring. I don't know. I could have done without that, but on balance I recommend this novel. It's not the classic which Catch-22 is, but it is a decent second-best. It parallels Catch-22 in some regards, but it is its own novel, just as goofy, although rather less crazy. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in war stories with a humorous angle.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Rupert's Parchment by Eileen Cameron

Title: Rupert's Parchment: Story of Magna Carta
Author: Eileen Cameron
Publisher: Mascot Books
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This is an amazing story for children - not your usual bland stuff. It's a true story in a way, but of course it's fictionalized since no one actually recorded whose sons were there at Runnymede. Maybe it actually happened this way?

To begin with, I found myself wondering how many American kids would like this story. Could they relate to it? But then I found myself wondering how many English kids could. Finally I found myself realizing that if they were anything like me when I was a kid, they'd more than likely love it because it involves a true story, and kings and knights, and nobles and barons, and the secrets of the trade, so what's not to love - and learn from?

Rupert is the son of the parchment-maker (don't worry, it's all explained in this book). He's happy to help out and learn an important trade which will see him set up for later life. On the day soldiers show-up and deprive his dad of their hand-cart, some monks also show-up asking for the very best parchment Rupert's dad can supply. What's going on?

Rupert has no idea. His family is happy to make it from one day to the next. They're really not up on politics and royal intrigue. He is up for adventure, however, so he's thrilled to get the chance to travel along with the scribes to Runnymede where a bunch of irate noblemen are about to harangue the only English king to be named after a toilet, about injustices.

Rupert gets to see (and spy) first hand on the activities and to celebrate the resulting Great Charter which laid the foundations of a constitution for the nation, from which we could view distantly, had we the foresight, the earliest beginnings of a significant loss of royal power in Britain.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

Title: The Dream Lover
Author: Elizabeth Berg
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Not to be confused with half-a-dozen other novels which use this same title, this is a fictionalized story set in the world of real-life writer Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, more popularly known as George Sand. Starting in January 1831, it features George embarking upon a stagecoach ride to Paris where she will try to interest a publisher in her novel Aimée (a fictional novel as far as I'm aware since Sand never published any work with that title).

This novel has no numbered chapters, just chapter headers. I skipped the prologue as I habitually do (prologues, forewords, introductions, prefaces, etc). If the author doesn't consider it sufficiently worthy for incorporation into the body of the book, I don't consider it worth expending my time upon.

The novel is also first person PoV, a voice which I detest because it's the most selfish voice: all 'me', all the time, and it didn't work here. Few writers can honestly make it work, quite frankly. It all-too-often comes off sounding inauthentic, or really irritating, and I wish writers would avoid it unless they have a really, truly, honestly compelling reason to go there.

Chapter '2' consists of a huge historical info-dump which I skipped since it seemed irrelevant to me, and more like the author was simply showing-off how much research she'd undertaken. Chapter '3' was the same. Finally, in the next chapter (after a bit more flashback) we get back to the current story. Unfortunately in the very next chapter after that, we get another huge flashback to 1805.

It was then that I realized that I was being told two stories, only one of which I had any interest in. The first was of George's childhood, and the second was what was happening now (now being 1831 in the novel). I had whiplash by this point. Can we not tell the current story? If we're obsessed with flashbacks, why not write that story first, then make this the sequel? I rather suspect that the answer to that is. "Because it wouldn't sell". If that's the case, then that alone ought to tell you that it, perhaps like George Sand on occasion, oughtn't to be there between those covers!

So the next chapter went to 1808, and it the chapter after that where we finally got back to 1831, and we learn that George's novel is considered inadequate by an older male writer who tells her to quit with the writing and go make babies instead, but right when I really wanted to see how she reacted to this, we're suddenly back in 1808 in the next chapter. Seriously? I was beginning to detest this switch-back method of story-telling at this point.

I honestly did not care about her childhood. I wanted the 'now' story. If I'd wanted to read of George Sand's childhood, I would have read an autobiography. I thought, hoped, that this story would tell me something inventive, unique, and interesting. It didn't. It was at this point that I looked at the page count and it showed 48 out of 374, and I did not want to read even one more of those remaining 320+ pages. I really didn't.

I could not continue reading this because what I'd read so far had convinced me thoroughly that the real George Sand had to be far more interesting and arresting than was this limp, passive, and rather schizophrenic (am I a child or am I a grown-up acting like a child?) character which was all we had available to us here.

The story was far too dry and passionless, far too info-dumpy and in the end, pointless. There was nothing to draw me in and make me want to read. Unless you're going to use your fiction to take the character in some new direction, why not just write a biography? If you're interested in writing a biography, why the fiction?

I don't know how this writer feels about George Sand and actually, that's the problem in a nutshell. I felt no passion coming through from the author to the character, and if she feels so cold about it, why should I feel differently?

The novel made no sense, and didn't offer me a thing to feed on. George was presented (unintentionally, I hope) as this self-centered, self-obsessed narcissus who basically has no time for anyone but herself (hence her leaving her husband, no doubt). People like to talk about how scandalous George was but she really wasn't that different from a host of other women in that era (Mary Shelley was one, for example). This novel could have made a difference to my feeling that, but it didn't.

Admittedly I didn't read it all, but I was given no incentive to do so, and based on what I read of it, I cannot honestly recommend this.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Executioner's Daughter by Jane Hardstaff

Title: The Executioner's Daughter
Author: Jane Hardstaff (no website found)
Publisher: Egmont
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Note: Not to be confused with The Executioner's Daughter by Laura E Williams (which I haven't read), not with The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter by Angela Carter (which I also haven't read), nor with The Executioner's Daughter by Miguel Conner (which I also haven't read). Note also that this novel has a sequel, River Daughter, which I haven't read either. Shame on me! What's wrong with me - all these novels I haven't read?!

This story is quite a bit different from a lot of what I've been reading lately, and it was as welcome as it was a charming read. It's 1532 (that's just after three-thirty for those of you not familiar with military time), and Henry 8.0 is on the throne of England. Young Moss is the daughter of the executioner at the Tower of London. Moss's job is to catch the heads of the beheaded in her little wicker basket when they fall off. She quite good at it, but she hates her life, and her father's job.

One day she learns from him that he's been lying to her about why they never leave the Tower! Moss is furious at this revelation. She's been held prisoner just as effectively as enemies of the state, and none of it was necessary. It turns out that her dad is hiding her from someone who is apparently coming to claim her on her upcoming birthday. The Tower, he believes, despite the fact that it's right on the banks of the Thames, is the only safe place safe for her. Yeah, that plot-point is a bit thin, but the story-telling was so good that I was willing to forgive the author this - and her portrayal of the Thames freezing over that winter (it didn't!). The Thames froze - or partially froze - in 1514 and 1537, but not 1532-3.

Moss, in her wanderings around her 'home' has found a secret route that leads outside, away from the eyes of the Tower guards. Now she takes to it with a vengeance, abandoning her father and eventually ending up with a guy who ferries people across the Thames for a coin here and there. He's also a scam artist who puts himself first and foremost, and Moss becomes very disillusioned with him. She strikes out on her own one frozen night determined to find the place where her mother gave birth to her.

Is the inexperienced Moss going to survive alone on one of the coldest nights of the winter? Will she find what she seeks? And what, exactly, is it she thinks she's been seeing following her around, but forever staying below the unforgiving waters of the great river, and snaking beneath the impassive ice? I'm not going to tell you!

This novel was very well written, original, entertaining and engrossing. I kept getting back to it every chance I got and it was a fast read. Most enjoyable. The only problem I had with it was in the Kindle, where every instance of "fi" was replaced by the letter À and every instance of "fl" was replaced by the letter Á. You can see an example of it in the illustration on my blog, where the offenders have been underlined in red. I did not have this same problem in Adobe Digital Editions or in Bluefire Reader on the iPad.

Despite that annoyance, I was able to read and enjoy it without any real problems (please note that this was an advance review copy and not a regularly purchased copy, so the problem may well have been fixed in the commercial version). I recommend this novel, and I am definitely interested in reading more by this author.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wizzywig by Ed Piskor

Title: Wizzywig
Author: Ed Piskor
Publisher: Top Shelf Comix
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This one had me at the cover. Now I'm pissed off that I didn't think of that first! This graphic novel follows closely the real life of Kevin Mitnick, here naming him Kevin Phenicle. I have no idea where that came from unless it's somehow a reference ot Phenic acid. Maybe it's pure invention. The novel tells the story of his initial hacking attempts (the LA transit system, believe it or not, to get free rides!) of his being bullied, and of his subsequent initiation into phone phreaking (the first real form of hacking). All of this takes place at an early age, and is prep school for his alter forays into computer hacking. His best asset was what's known as "social engineering" - finding out secrets from people just by being friendly and sociable towards them. Mitnick excelled at this.

At the time of his arrest in 1995, a pursuit documented in Tsutomu_Shimomura's Takedown (1996, Hyperion Books, which I recommend reading in tandem with Mitnick's side of the story) Mitnick was the most-wanted hacker in the USA. The events have been made into a movie known as "Track Down", which as of this writing I have not seen. The hacker quarterly, 2600 produced a documentary titled Freedom Downtime in response to the movie There has been considerable controversy over these events, and Mitnick's resultant arrest and trial and imprisonment. Mitnick has written his own book (one of many since he was released from jail) about these events including some serious criticism of the story related in Takedown. As of this writing I have not read Mitnick's book. Mitnick now runs his own computer security consulting business.

This graphic novel is done in black and white line drawings, which are skillfully executed but very basic. Dialog is sparse. Contrary to popular media stories of hacking, especially those in film, this novel tells it much more like it really is. The most successful hacks (until those which have been in the news recently, such as the stuxnet business in Iran) weren't done in Mitnick's era by someone using advanced hacking software, but by tried and proven methods of dumpster-diving (finding vital passwords and log on information from discarded business materials), and from social engineering (befriending or becoming an acquaintance of someone on the inside, and using information garnered from interactions with them to derive passwords and network navigation information.

I recommend this graphic novel. It's a really interesting piece of history and it makes a fine tale, well-told.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Pandora of Athens by Barry Denenberg

Title: Pandora of Athens
Author: Barry Denenberg (no website found)
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

So it's December sixteenth which must mean it's time for a novel beginning with the letter 'P'!

This is one of at least three books in "The Life and Times" Series, the other two being Atticus of Rome written by the same author as this one, and "Maïa of Thebes written by Ann Turner.

This story is of course about a girl named Pandora, who learns at the start of the book that she is named after the woman who was created - in a creation story which was obviously taken from the same roots as the Biblical creation fairy tale - as a punishment for humans accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus (who subsequently contracted a severe liver complaint!).

Pandora lives with her strict father Alcander, and her increasingly snotty brother Polybius. Being men in a man's world, those two had it easy, and had all the freedom they wanted. Pandora had heavy restrictions placed upon her behavior and freedom because she was a woman, and she resented this immensely, but she was at least blessed by a stepmother who was a Spartan!

I don't normally do covers for the very reason (inter alia) I'm about to highlight: my blog is about writing, not window dressing, which is all covers are: fluff at best and fraud at worst. The writer has little or nothing to do with the cover unless they self-publish, which is why we get dumb-ass covers such as the one this books sports. Cover artists never, ever, ever, ever read the novel which they illustrate. If they did, then this artist would have put the amphora on the girl's head, where the text quite clearly states she carried it, instead of on her clavicle - not even her shoulder!) as the artist cluelessly cants it!

Some parts of this novel were interesting, but I got the distinct impresison that the writer had a list of facts about life in Athens, and he was determined to put all of them into this story no matter what, so some parts of it read like a shopping list.

Another issue I have with historical novels - particularly those written for young people - is how they depict real historical characters. They're usually depicted as clowns or geniuses, neither of which portrait ends up being very complimentary to them. This happens here, with Socrates presented as some sort of brilliant genius and super-hero philospher when he was no such thing.

Since everything we know about Socrates was written by Plato and others, we really don't know Socrates at all. All we know is what people said about him. He was evidently against democracy and something of a hypocrite, as well as being arrogant in the extreme. He purportedly believed that might does not make right, but he supported the Spartans against Athens!

So, all in all I am not going to recommend this novel unless you want to read it as a laundry list of aspects of life in Athens in 399BC, in which case it's not bad, I guess, but you can get a better deal by actually reading a book about life back then rather than this novel.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: BBC audiobooks
Rating: WARTY!

Read in an okay manner by Martin Jarvis

So, if it's December fifteenth, then it must be time for a novel with a title starting with 'O'! Here 'tis!

Oliver Twist: The Parish Boy's Progress was a diartibe against the abuses of the poor and orphaned, and it was the second novel published by Charles Dickens. I have to say I was disappointed in this. The reading of the audiobook was okay - nothing spectacular, nothing atrocious - but the story itself was annoyingly preachy, its attempts at humor ill-conceived and flat, and it was, in the end, really boring. I was unable to finish listening to it.

The basic story is rags to riches - almost literally in this case. Oliver's mom dies in childbirth, and Oliver is raised in the poor house where he was born. He's treated abominably by our standards, but no worse than any child (or woman for that matter) of impoverished circumstances was treated back then. Eventually even he rebels against his circumstances and runs away, ending-up in the "employ" of Fagin, who fences whatever the boys steal, and takes care of them (after a fashion) in return. Eventually the boy grows up and discovers he's really from a wealthy family, whereupon he abandons and forgets everything and everyone from his past, and lives the life of luxury.

Highly, highly improbable, contrived, and above all else, boring.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Dangerous Deceptions by Sarah Zettel

Title: Dangerous Deceptions
Author: Sarah Zettel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often reward aplenty!

This is the 372 page sequel to Palace of Spies which I reviewed favorably on my blog in mid-September last year, so I was thrilled to have the chance to review its successor as well. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed in this second novel in the series.

It was about a hundred pages too long for a start, and I don't even know where the title derived, because there really wasn't anything going on here that was dangerous or deceptive - at least not any more so than in the last volume. The last volume was equally mistitled, but it at least had the distinction of being a nearly unique title, unlike this one which is one amongst two dozen.

The protagonist is the brave, inventive and sometimes smart Margaret Preston Fitzroy, commonly referred to as Peggy. This is a first person PoV story - a person which I normally detest, but some writers can carry it and render it in a non-obnoxious form, and Sarah Zettel is, to my everlasting gratitude and adoration, one of these writers. She has a way of writing these stories that make them seem authentic and highly amusing. It felt like coming home when I read, "…my rooms had remained cold enough that my fingertips had achieved a truly arresting shade of blue." Bless you Sarah Zettel! The problem is that this tone disappeared rather quickly, and the novel became a bog-standard humdrum YA historical novel all too speedily. The highly amusing title page (see image on my blog) was soon lost under YA trope.

This is an ARC which I was reading, so sometimes there are issues, even though, in this electronic age, there is very little excuse for them. Spelling and grammar should never be a problem, and on this score, a publisher doth protest too much I find, but in this instance, things were fine until I reached the last complete paragraph in page two, where I discovered that words containing an 'e' followed by a 'k' as in "weeks" and "housekeeping" had the 'ek' replaced by a bizarre symbol that looked like a bow without a string (see image on my blog).

Similarly, any word which contained the combination "eh" had those two letters replaced with an apostrophe, so that on page 4, "behind" became "b'ind" and on page five, "horsehair" became "hors'air", and elsewhere "somehow" became "som'ow", and "behaving" became "b'aving". Weird! Hopefully this will be fixed before the final copy is released!

There were other issues which are arguably arguable! Such as, for example, would a woman of that era write "more important" (as we see on page three) or "more importantly"? I would guess the latter, but it’s just a guess. On page ten we read that an acquaintance of Peggy's "...sailed through life as well as doorways" which might have been more quickly grasped had it read, "...sailed through life as readily as she did through doorways". On page 91, we might ask the question of whether an English woman of the era would write "…out the window…" or "out of the window…." But each to his or her own. On page 127, she gets it right when she has Peggy use the phrase 'exclamation mark' rather than 'exclamation point'. And I seriously doubt anyone in 1716 would say "Half six" in relating that the time was 6:30. The Brits say it now, but not two hundred years ago.

At the very beginning of this novel, Peggy's life is at once complicated by the arrival of her would be rapist and betrothed suitor Sebastian Sandford bearing a gift of tea. He wishes to talk to her, but she will have none of him, yet he presents her with a rather expensive gift of tea (Twinings was established a decade before this novel begins!), and takes pains to let her know that he will be available when she realizes that she does indeed need to talk. Rapidly on his heels arrives her nasty uncle to demand that she marry Sandford, but she refuses, and her adorable cousin Olivia stands staunchly by her side, rebelling against her own father. It’s all go, innit?!

I found it rather inappropriate that a man should call upon a woman who is not a relative, and in her chambers, too. It seems scandalous to me; however, eventually Peggy does decide to meet with Sandford, but nothing occurs to trigger her change of mind, which I found rather false, given how much she detests him. In the end the choice is removed from her and she does meet.

The story went into the doldrums about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through and became quite boring, so I skimmed until we got to around page 315, where we find ourselves with a Casino Royale style showdown at the card table. Except that this is piquet, and there are only two players: Sebastian Sandford's brother Julius, who is playing against Peggy. Peggy has planned out this challenge and this game carefully, knowing that she can win if she doesn’t lose her concentration. How this works, especially given that Julius is cheating, is a mystery.

Sarah Zettel doesn’t write card games with anywhere near the skill that Ian Fleming did. And she evidently doesn’t know the rules of piquet, either. The piquet deck has only 32 cards. From a regular deck, this would mean the removal of all cards with a value of two through six, since only 7 and above, plus face cards and aces are used.

What this means is that the ending which Zettel wrote for the game made no sense. Peggy's win involved an errant two of clubs which could never have been in a piquet deck to begin with! Even had the card not been a two, but instead had been a non-face card other than an Ace within the confines of a piquet deck, this still offers no explanation for the game-changing conclusion which was drawn. Where's the basis for the assumption that the extra card is the one in his hand rather than the one on the floor? And why does Julius give up so quickly and equanimously? It made no sense given what we'd been told of him.

At one point - and without wanting to give too much away, there's an issue of what the Sandfords and her uncle are up to, and the answer lies in them having in their possession a massive amount of something. It's so obvious that it’s pathetic what all of that stuff was being stockpiled for, yet Peggy can’t figure it out. An army marches on its stomach dontcha know?!

In conclusion, I can't recommend this. It was unnecessarily long - far too long - and it was boring in far too many places. The tedious trope relationship between Matthew and Peggy is so awful that it makes for cringe-worthy reading. How this could have sped so fast in a downhill direction after the first volume went so well is a mystery, but I'm done with this series now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Title: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Publisher: ABDO
Rating: WARTY!

For some reason, this novel interested me for the longest time. There was something about the title which intrigued me, although I can’t say what it was or how it worked its influence. Finally, I decided to tackle this in an ongoing, if slightly unenthusiastic effort to read some of the so-called classics. I confess I've been almost singularly disappointed in this quest, and this novel was unfortunately no exception. It should have been titled "Little Mary Sues".

The story is rather autobiographical, drawing heavily on Alcott's own childhood (she is the Jo of this novel although their fates are different). It’s a story about four young sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their rather privileged and truly boring lives. Their father is a soldier in the American civil war, and the four of them live with their mother in comparative luxury all the while hinting at how deprived they are.

I was particularly sickened by the farcical description of their Christmas, where they give up their breakfast to feed a horribly impoverished woman and her child who live nearby in abject and miserable circumstances; then they promptly forget about her for the rest of the novel (at least they did as far as I read before giving up in disgust - this attitude of theirs may not have held for the entire novel).

I could not help but ask: how is it helping that woman at all to lavish attention on her for a couple of hours on Xmas morning, and then let her rot for the rest of the year? It would have made a far more interesting novel had they invited her into their home to live with them until she could get out of the circumstances which held her cruelly and rigidly trapped. Their home was spacious and comfortable. They had plenty of room.

That's not the story we get however. The main story here appeared to be that of Jo's love interest over her new neighbor, which was boring at best. That's as far as I got before I ditched this. I've learned from other reviews that she did not marry "Laurie" but married a mature professor with whom she had a much closer mindset, so kudos for that.

From what I've read of Alcott's life, she was very forward-looking and progressive, being both a feminist and an abolitionist, which begs the question as to why she seemed so desperate to marry-off the four girls in this novel and effectively kill both their independence and careers, when she herself had a long and distinguished career and never married. I don’t care if this is considered a classic, or if it was a best seller when it was first published - it’s really not very good, and I can’t recommend it.