Category Archives: 52 Books in 52 Weeks

On this sixth day of Christmas

2016santa…it wasn’t all that cold. Well, not if you believed the thermometer. But then there was the cold, cold wind…the kind of wind that makes you feel like you have ice cubes on the sides of your head instead of ears. Santa would have been comfy, though.

Classics challenge: Such a bad girl

Review – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

A keeper? Yes, no question about it

That Jane Eyre! Such a stubborn, uncooperative girl. She never, never does what her betters want. Why, you’d think an orphaned, penniless baby would just quietly die before her fool of an uncle could rescue her. Not Jane! And then he had the selfishness to die right after making his wife promise to raise the brat.

Well, she did her best for ten years, but no amount of scolding and beating could make Jane pretty and cheerful. So, when the little witch dared to fight back just because her cousin John threw a book at her, Aunt Reed did the only thing possible: she protected her own darling children by sending Jane away to school.

And any decent child would have died within six months of arriving at that particular school – but not Jane. No, she made friends, she learned as much as she could, she wound up teaching there, until she chose to look for a better job. She has the arrogance to keep making her own decisions, too.

Why, when her employer, Mr. Rochester, comes home to deal with some business matters, she tells him to his face that he’s not handsome. A decent girl would have quit on the spot when he explains that her pupil, his ward, may possibly be his daughter – and her mother was a French call girl. Not Jane. And when someone sets fire to his bed in the middle of the night, she just runs into the room and sloshes water everywhere until the fire is out.

When Mr. Rochester brings a whole houseful of guests home to see if it bothers her to watch him courting rich, obnoxious Blanche Ingram, she goes right on acting calm and quiet. And finally, when he tells her (all right, he’s making this up) that he has found a new job for her so that she can be out of the house before he marries Miss Ingram, the minx stands there and tells him that he doesn’t love Miss Ingram, who isn’t good enough for him – but she, Jane, loves him.

Happy ending? Well, no. Halfway through the wedding, a stranger announces that the marriage cannot proceed because Mr. Rochester is already married. True, his wife has been dangerously insane for years – but that just means that no matter how rich he is, he can’t get a divorce under the laws of the time, no matter how many other men she’s slept with.

So he tries desperately to persuade Jane that he’s not really married, law or no law. The wicked girl is tempted to run off with him, too – but at the last minute, she has the gall to decide that what’s best for her matters. And making herself a social outcast totally dependent on Mr. Rochester won’t be good for her. Instead of obediently heading for the south of France with Mr. Rochester, she vanishes.

Does she starve appropriately to death in a ditch? Well, no. Once again she lands on her feet, finds friends and work and relatives and at last a fortune. In spite of being horribly plain, she even finds a man who wants to marry her – her virtuous cousin, St. John Rivers, who carefully explains that she is not suited for love, but he needs a wife to help him when he goes to India as a missionary. What more could she want?

By this time, that should be an easy question to answer. Jane wants what will make Jane happy. A few days’ travel and she learns that Mr. Rochester is now a widower, blind and one-handed from the injuries he suffered making sure everyone got out safely when his dangerous wife set fire to the house. It’s a simple choice: St. John Rivers, tall and handsome and pure of heart (well, a bit arrogant and cold, but terribly pure), or Edward Rochester, ugly without even considering his injuries, sarcastic, morally tainted, and passionately eager for her.

Jane and her Edward live happily ever after. Sometimes insisting on getting what you want works.

(And a personal note: I first read Jane Eyre when I was fourteen or fifteen, and Jane’s defiance has been a very useful model for me over the years. Sure, in my teens I thought the story was the most romantic thing ever – and maybe the next time I read it, without plans to analyze it, I’ll be blown away by the romance again. But what matters here is that Jane is the girl who refuses to be squashed.)

52 books / 52 weeks – The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford’s Flies

Review – The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford’s Flies
by Jerome Friedman

A keeper? Probably, as research material

The Weekly World News – remember it? Alien expecting Elvis’ baby? That Weekly World News? – anyway, it would have been right at home in seventeenth century England.

The Battle of the Frogs tells you all you could ever imagine wanting to know about early tabloid-style publications during the English Civil War. It turns out that there’s a lot to know, mostly on the themes of “people you don’t like anyway are even worse than you thought” and “here’s the real meaning of today’s news, and prophecies of what’s comping next”.

Friedman packs his book full of original material…it gets a bit repetitive sometimes, but it’s weird enough to stay reasonably interesting. (After all, the original authors had to grab the public’s attention in a very competitive market.) Meanwhile, he adds just enough background to help the modern reader understand what on earth these people were concerned about. Faults? A slightly clunky writing style, and a tendency to draw conclusions that contradict each other.

If I weren’t a would-be novelist, I would figure that once was enough for Fairford’s Flies. But, who knows? Maybe someday I’ll want to write a story set in this time period. And where would I ever get my hands on all this strange background information again? This one stays.

Besides, who could pass up the discombobulated gentleman partly shown on the lower right corner of the cover? Inside, there’s a full view of the original –

arms in his pants legs, jacket on his lower body, feet in gloves and hands in boots. No wonder he looks upset.

Vintage Mysteries – Man in the Tree

Review: The Hand in the Glove by Rex Stout

A keeper? Oh, why not?

Archie Goodwin was a much better writer than Rex Stout. And that’s amazing, considering that Archie is a character created by Stout – Archie works for Nero Wolfe and narrates all the Wolfe mysteries. But just look at the first sentences of The Red Box (a Wolfe story published in 1937) and The Hand in the Glove (a Dol Bonner story – probably THE one and only Dol Bonner story – also from 1937). First, The Hand in the Glove:

“It was not surprising that Sylvia Rafferty, on that Saturday in September, had occasion for discourse with various men, none of them utterly ordinary, and with one remarkable young woman; it was not surprising that all this happened with no special effort on Sylvia’s part, for she was rich, personable to an extreme,……”

WAKE UP!

Okay. Have you recovered yet? That’s Rex Stout in his own voice. Now, at the start of The Red Box, Archie Goodwin speaks:

“Wolfe looked at our visitor with eyes wide open – a sign, with him, either of indifference or irritation.”

Thanks, Archie. I feel better now. Anyway, the writing style in The Hand in the Glove stays somewhere between ponderous – like that first sentence – and serviceable. I will admit, though, that I stopped noticing the style once things started to happen.

And a lot happens. Dol Bonner – a formerly rich girl impoverished by the Great Depression – is trying to make it as a private detective, but her partner, Sylvia, is being pressured to take her money and run – which would force Dol out of business. Meanwhile, an acquaintance wants to hire Bonner & Rafferty to find out who’s killing tame pheasants. Meanwhile, half a dozen young men are all trying to persuade Sylvia to marry them. Meanwhile, Dol is hired to expose a probably fraudulent psychic. Meanwhile, Dol finds another character dangling from a tree, dead. And on and on it goes, with good reason to suspect just about everyone. (Possibly including Dol. Did I mention that the dead man is the person who wanted Sylvia to pull her money out of the detective partnership?)

Not a great mystery, but entertaining enough to hold my attention for a short 190 pages. And an interesting contrast to what Stout managed to do with the dozens of Wolfe stories.

52 books / 52 weeks – Skeletons on the Zahara

Review – Skeletons on the Zahara,
by Dean King

A keeper? Yep.

A couple of notes to start with – “Zahara” = “Sahara”, the way they spelled it in 1815.

And about that book cover with the weirdly elongated camels and people – those are shadows. The colorful line of something or other (maybe trash that the camels are wading through?) is an overhead photo of the real caravan.

What a story. In late summer of 1815, the square-rigger sailing ship Commerce, out of Middletown, Connecticut, was starting her voyage home from Gibraltar, alone in the Atlantic Ocean with nothing to guide her captain but sightings of the stars and guesses about her speed. Two weeks after leaving Gibraltar she was much too far east of where she should have been, rapidly sailing into the coast of Africa, but Captain Riley had no idea of her danger until he heard surf breaking against the coast between 9 and 10 p.m. the evening of August 28. A few minutes later, the Commerce was aground, wedged helplessly between rocks.

The “Commerces” – as King calls the ship’s crew – managed to haul a chain from the crippled ship to the beach and offload themselves, and all the undamaged supplies and money they could salvage. But they were stranded on a nameless beach at the edge of the unknown desert, and nobody who might have helped them knew they were in trouble.

Then things got worse, much worse. The Commerces were taken prisoner by local tribes and enslaved. The wandering tribes lived in horribly difficult conditions, always on the edge of starvation and dehydration. They were not kind to their slaves; the sailors had to endure dreadful suffering. (I would not have survived long.)

By a mixture of defiance, conciliation, and bluff, Captain Riley managed to keep about half of the crew together and eventually arranged for their ransom and return home.  One more of the sailors, Able Seaman Archie Robbins, who was sold to a tribe moving in the opposite direction from Riley’s owner, finally made his way to a place where he too could be rescued. The rest presumably died in the Sahara, either soon after being shipwrecked – some of them seemed near death when last seen – or, who knows, possibly after years of slavery.

The Captain couldn’t rescue his crew alone, of course. Without the protection of Captain Riley’s final owner, Sidi Hamet, none of the Commerces would ever have made their way home, except perhaps Robbins. Sidi Hamet promised the Captain that he would try to find the missing sailors. But he was apparently killed in an argument with another tribe while trying to keep his promise. The British consul-general, William Willshire, also deserves mention for advancing his own money as ransom without knowing if he would ever be repaid.

Skeletons on the Zahara draws heavily on the books that Riley and Robbins published about their experiences, expanded and clarified with information that wasn’t available to them, and an epilogue telling what happened to the rescued sailors. None of them escaped without lasting effects on their health, and sometimes on their mental state – today we would call it PTSD. But Captain Riley, at least, seems to have also learned to set aside many of the prejudices he would have grown up with – he became a passionate abolitionist and advocate for religious tolerance.

In the end, though, it’s the story of how much these men endured, of how they escaped at last, of the tricks and political maneuvers their unexpected allies had to use to help them to freedom that keeps you from putting Skeletons on the Zahara down until the surviving Commerces are safe back in Connecticut. And even then, you mourn the men who never got home.

Read it.

Scorched earth? (52 books / 52 weeks)

Review – Wormwood Forest,
a natural history of Chernobyl,
by Mary Mycio

A keeper? Oddly, I don’t think so

If you’re over 35, you probably remember. The first vague news stories about high radiation detected in Sweden; the realization that something had gone horribly wrong somewhere in the Soviet Union; eventually, the terrifying story of how a nuclear reactor not far from the Ukrainian city of Kiev had exploded, showering the surrounding area with killer radiation. Among other aftereffects, the disaster at Chernobyl helped to bring down the Soviet system, quickly followed by the fall of Communist governments all over eastern Europe.

That was over twenty-five years ago, back in 1986. What sort of wasteland surrounds the evacuated, still-radioactive section of Ukraine and Belarus by this time? Is it a moonscape of crumbling buildings and skeletal dead trees, where no living thing walks except the handful of people who keep tabs on the sealed reactor core?

Well, no. It’s radioactive, yes. Not a safe place to raise a family (though apparently some aging Belorussians have refused to abandon their homes, and still live there). Full of towns slowly falling into ruin. But far from dead.

Instead, human withdrawal has turned the area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant into an unintended wildlife refuge, green and teeming with animals of all sorts. Mary Mycio tells us how local experts showed her around the abandoned flourishing new forests (an unnerving experience punctuated by dosimeter checks; but without radiation detectors, only the strangely misshapen pine trees would show that something’s very wrong.)

Wormwood Forest has a surprising story to tell, one that’s well worth reading. I’m glad I read it; if I didn’t have a space problem, I would keep it; but I don’t think I’ll need to come back to it. Out it goes – but if you come across a copy, this little book is worth your time.

52 books / 52 weeks – The Lark and the Wren

Review: The Lark and the Wren,
by Mercedes Lackey

A keeper? On the whole, yes

(This has got to stop. One point, for me, of tackling various reading challenges was to identify books I don’t really want. But now that I’m finally looking at my TBRs, it turns out that most of them are too good to dispose of. What’s a packrat to do?)

Almost 500 pages of the roving – picaresque, if you want to be English-majorish – adventures of Rune, aka Lark, and the friends she eventually makes along the way; and almost every page is interesting. It’s not a perfect book, of course, but it’s packed full of enjoyable moments. Rune knows what she wants at any given part of the story and goes after it – what she wants changes appropriately as she learns more about her world and the likely consequences of her choices, and especially as she matures and learns more about herself. (The main action of the story takes Rune from just barely 14 to 18 or 19.) But it’s not just the story of Rune growing up. It’s the story of Tonno who would have been a musician if only he had the talent, of Amber who made a satisfactory life in a hard world, of Stara who snatched at everything she wanted and lost her grip on it, of Gwydain who disappeared, of gypsies and judges and elves and lost heirs.

So, what’s wrong? Well, if it matters (and maybe it doesn’t), Lackey sort of ignores all the standard advice on how to construct a plot: start with a little problem for your main character, solve that problem in a way that leads to a worse problem, lather, rinse, repeat, till by the end it looks impossible for your character to find any sort of solution. In many ways, this book reads as if it might have started as a series of short stories – Rune is faced by a problem that makes it impossible to go on with her life as it is, and finds a way to leave and take up a new life. Her worst problem, being trapped in a tiny village with an abusive mother and serious danger of gang rape, comes at the very beginning of the story, and she escapes by taking what may be her biggest risk – playing a concert for a murderous ghost. That’s the end of that set of problems. After that, on the whole* her life gets better and better (and good for her).

* (Well, there is the incident about halfway through that leaves her with bruises on bruises and a broken arm. But, through no action on Rune’s part, this leads directly to being quasi-adopted by the nicest people she ever meets and having all her dreams come true.)

Are there worse flaws? Most of the characters, with just one notable exception, are either Good People or Bad People. Even if they have what are usually considered flaws, the people Rune likes have Hearts Of Gold every time. However, what I really disliked was the Fantasyland dialect – “Na, na, Rune. That’s not sensible, lass. Nobody can have that….Leastwise, no musicker.” I don’t like dialect anyhow, except in tiny doses – and this is especially annoying, because everybody Rune grew up with talks like this, and she talks standard English.

What I really liked, what sold me on the book finally, was the very last episode (the last sixty pages), with the most complex person in the whole story and an unexpected twist in the problem and in its resolution. Ending on a high note always helps!