Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: THE FIRST VIOLIN by Jesse Fothergill

the first violin by jesse fothergill Original Publication Date: 1877

Genre: Romance

Topics: love, music, friendship, honor, fatherhood, coming of age, mysterious past

Review by Rachel S:

In the pre-internet era, when out-of-print books were difficult to find, my grandma would tell me about the books that she loved when she was growing up.  One of her favorites was First Violin by Jessie Fothergill. Of course nowadays this book, which seemed so impossible to locate when I was a child, is easy to access and completely free. I finally got around to reading it, and was very glad I did, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. If I had read it when I was a child or teenager, I can easily imagine it becoming one of my favorite books.

First Violin was originally published in 1877, and was quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although it is rather G-rated by today’s standards, it was apparently somewhat controversial at the time, because it describes (but does not condemn) an affair by a married woman. The main plot line follows a handsome violinist with a mysterious past, Eugen Courvoisier.  Much of the tension in the book comes from slowly discovering his backstory.

The novel is narrated from the perspectives of May Wedderburn, an English girl who travels to Germany for musical training, and of Eugen’s friend Friedhelm Helfen, a fellow musician.  Although several main plot threads involve romantic relationships, Eugen’s love for his son and his friendship with Friedhelm are also central to the story. The following passage from the beginning of the novel gives a sense of the book’s general style. May is distressed here because her malevolent, much older neighbor is pursuing her romantically:

“Shuddering, dismayed, I locked the matter up within my own breast, and wished with a longing that sometimes made me quite wretched that I could quit Skernford, my home, my life, which had lost zest for me, and was become a burden to me. The knowledge that Sir Peter admired me absolutely degraded me in my own eyes. I felt as if I could not hold up my head. I had spoken to no one of what had passed within me, and I trusted it had not been noticed; but all my joy was gone. It was as if I stood helpless while a noisome reptile coiled its folds around me.” 

The prose tends towards melodrama, but May’s dismay and alarm here are not unreasonable given her situation. In general, although the book takes place in a world of heightened emotion, I found the characters’ reactions, descriptions, and conversations convincing.

Less believable are the improbable coincidences on which the plot hinges (several of which involve extreme weather).  It’s probably better not to give spoilers, because part of the fun of the book is finding out how various suspenseful situations resolve. I’ll just say that events are configured for maximum drama in several emotionally tense scenes, and that the book includes multiple highly unlikely encounters that strain credibility.

Nevertheless, I found the book as a whole compelling, with memorable, although somewhat flat, characters. The story raises some interesting questions on the meaning of honor, with the married-woman-affair subplot, dishonorable but utterly sympathetic, providing a counterpoint to Eugen’s rigid acceptance of the constraints of duty.  For the most part, though, it’s just a delightful read, one I didn’t want to put down until the very end.

Download The First Violin by Jesse Fothergill at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|GirleBooks|Internet Archive

Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll

alice in wonderland Original Publication Date: 1865

Genre: Fantasy, children's books

Topics: Crazy rabbits, casual endangerment, drugs, tea

Review by Sharky & Smiles:

Angry Sharky 3What is it with children’s books and casual endangerment of children?

Shocked SmilesNothing HAPPENS to her.

Surprised SharkyWho the heck orders kids to be beheaded?!

Surprised SmilesWell...

Default SharkyDon’t even try to justify this one.

Default SmilesThen I won't. Summary time! Now, imagine you’re lying on the grass. The weather’s nice, but there’s nothing to do and you’re bored out of your mind. Suddenly, you see a rabbit. Well, nothing strange about that. BUT WAIT. It’s wearing a teeny tiny waistcoat. And takes out a pocket-watch. And complains about how late it is. What do you do? Go back to being bored? Of course not! After that rabbit! Right down the rabbit hole!

Default SharkyIgnore the fact that a rabbit hole shouldn’t fit a human at all.

Default SmilesA lot of logic has to be ignored and really isn’t the point in this story. Anyway. You drop lightly down, down, down into a place where nothing makes sense, things can change from one second to another, and everyone is either really rude or completely wrapped up in their own weirdness. But first you have to drink from an unknown bottle just because it tells you to.

Happy Sharky2The story is definitely creative. I don’t think you can find such.... effortless bizarreness in many other books. And there’s a LOT of bizarreness. The main character, Alice, just travels from one strange set-piece to another. Stop, something weird happens, move on.

Happy SmilesIt’s terrific!

Angry Sharky 4It’s exhausting. Sometimes. The main set-pieces are great, absolutely creative imagery, but when even the transitions between them have to have something strange happening, you don’t get a chance to pause and take in anything. And some things just seem beyond pointless or just aren’t fun to read. The pointless puppy sequence, the idiot birds, the annoying mock-turtle, the awful, awful scene at the Duchess’s house which you should just skip over because it’s the stupidest-

Sad Smiles 2I swear he likes this book.

Angry SharkyAGH.

Sassy SmilesThis is definitely one of those books you really shouldn’t think too hard about. Which for Sharky is pretty much impossible.

Default SharkySo it doesn’t help when I’ve got to stop and start skipping over the bits I don’t like. But I put up with it because there’s stuff in there I’d happily revisit.

Default SmilesAnd there really is a LOT. A crazy tea-party, a royal court where everyone is a playing card, food and drink that makes you change your size, a disappearing cat, a court of law where nobody knows what they’re doing, a queen who keeps ordering beheadings but the king pardons everyone behind her back anyway so that’s okay. It also has a share of dumb puns which make me groan, but that’s why I love puns. And fun poems like The Lobster Quadrille and You Are Old, Father William. And genuinely funny moments like the cat appearing as just a head so nobody can figure out how to behead it. Seriously that part’s short but pretty funny.

Confused SharkyEven the Duchess bit, as much as I hate it and skip over it every time, has a pretty funny start where the footman of her house just refuses to go inside because everyone’s so crazy in there. I don’t know, it’s such a mixed bag of stuff I REALLY don’t like mixed in with stuff I really love? But it's worth a go.

Default SmilesHonestly if I knew how to get out of it, I’d love to visit it. I guess that’s the criteria for visiting most fictional places. But to go there in place of Alice and just... be weird at people and see how they would react seems really fun to me. It’ll probably all end up the same though. Most of the people are really easily offended. Which makes Sharky a citizen of Wonderland.

Angry Sharky 3Don’t make me punch you.

alice's tea

Download Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Monday, June 26, 2017

Review: JEEVES AND WOOSTER by PG Wodehouse

jeeves and wooster Original Publication Date: 1934

Genre: Mystery, comedy

Topics: Society, love, no good deed goes unpunished

Review by Sharky & Smiles:

Default SmilesImagine you’re a pleasant, helpful, not very clever member of the upper class. Imagine your friends aren’t even that clever or that pleasant and helpful. And they keep getting into trouble and expecting you to get them out of it. Of course, they’re your pals, so you do, mostly based on plans your incredibly intelligent valet makes up. Same thing applies when you mess everything up and get into even deeper trouble.

Default SharkySounds like a recipe for disaster, needlessly overcomplicating a simple problem.

Shocked SmilesSimple problem you say? Now imagine if X loves Y but can’t meet Y so Z goes to make sure Y doesn’t get stolen away by Y’s charming guest while pretending to be A because A is engaged to B and B’s relatives are expecting A to visit and A can’t make it.

Confused Sharky... what...

Default SmilesThat’s the BASE plot of the book we read. It just gets worse from there until everything collapses on itself like an abused soufflé. Somehow into a happy ending.

Happy Sharky2The pattern is broadly the same in each book in the series, but they’re all uniquely absurd in their own ways. The nice thing is you can probably just grab any Jeeves and Wooster book (and there’s a lot of them) and enjoy it as a stand-alone, without having to worry about sequence or whether you have to read five other things to know what’s going on.

Happy SmilesYou’ll likely never know quite what’s going on anyway, and that’s the fun of it. It’s another one of those wild rides where you just have to trust the author. And if you can’t do that, if you keep stopping to roll your eyes or object to how silly things are getting, you don’t enjoy. These are SILLY books. So silly. Complete, absurd, slapstick, screwball comedy narrated with a style I’m completely in love with.

Happy Sharky2Remember what we said about Hitchiker’s Guide being weird with amazing narration? This is very like that, but without the freedom of weirdness of being set in space among aliens. And if you think a non-magical, non-alien setting doesn’t give you much leeway to be silly and strange, boy are you wrong.

Default SmilesThe characters are more like caricatures, the plots are basically ridiculous, and the narration keeps going off on its own tangents in the most amusing ways. Great descriptions, run on confusions and liberal use of ‘dash it all!’

Default SharkyI’m 100% behind the way things are narrated. But I tend to lose patience with the characters sometimes, they’re all such idiots. They’re supposed to be but that doesn’t always help.

Sassy SmilesI caught Sharky yelling oh my God just tell the truth already at the book.

Angry Sharky 2Oh my God just tell the truth already it’s not that hard but you’re making it harder what is happening why is nobody making any sense.

Sassy SmilesIt got worse for him when someone tried to tell the truth, it got over-exaggerated by someone else, and now nobody believes the original truth.


Default SmilesBut that’s why you have to hold on and just trust the author. Everything has to go horribly for the main character, Bertie, before things can get better for anyone else, and always in the most ridiculous ways. It would almost be tragic if it wasn’t so funny.

Sassy SmilesUnlike Sharky, Jeeves is actually helpful. And objectively the smartest person in every book.

Happy Sharky2But even the stupidest characters can be really sarcastic and witty, even if Bertie can never quote anything properly even when he’s trying to act clever.

Surprised SmilesSomeone somewhere once said something very profound about comedy and tragedy being the same. Kind of. Broadly. Probably.

Sassy SharkyNow you know what to expect when Bertie quotes anything.

Default SmilesI like the setting. There’s something nice about spending time in a little bubble where the biggest problem tends to be ‘my aunt is angry at me and she’s very scary’. It reminds me of those books where kids could have adventures because they didn’t really have to worry about anything else. Despite the fact that these books are set between wars and during, we’re in a sunny little patch where things are good, money- and status-wise, but love and family is confusing and people are unreasonable and sometimes there isn’t time to dress for dinner and you feel out of place.

Sassy SharkyJust so you know, Smiles has been shaking in place, trying not to spend the entire review just spouting off quotations rather than talking about the book.

Happy SmilesI just want to quote so many things! ... which I do with every book. Tell you what, between this review and the next one, we’ll do a mid-week upload with a quote from each of the books we’ve reviewed!

Surprised SharkyWha- we didn’t discuss that!

Default SmilesOh Sharky, when do I ever discuss what we’re going to do with you?

Quiet Sharky

Download Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: MASTER FLEA by ETA Hoffmann

book cover Original Publication Date: 1822

Genre: fairy tale, fantasy

Topics: trust, love, friendship, coming of age, forgotten for a reason

Review by heidenkind:

Peregrinus Tyss is an odd duck. If he was living in the 21st century, he'd probably be diagnosed with Asperger's; but as it is, he lives in 19th-century Frankfurt and people just assume he's stupid.

Since Peregrin is an orphan and has no friends, every Christmas he picks one family and brings a bunch of presents to them dressed as Santa. But while delivering presents to a bookseller and his children, Peregrin is assaulted by a strange, beautiful woman who acts like she knows him. This lady is obviously Bad News (obvious to the reader, that is); fortunately for Peregrin, he's managed to collect Master Flea, whom the woman needs to keep herself alive. Grateful for Peregrin's protection, Master Flea helps him navigate the waters of social life among the muggles and the mythical beings that suddenly surround him.

I enjoyed Master Flea at first, but as the story went on it started to wear on me. First of all, the eponymous Flea doesn't even show up until the "Third Adventure," nearly halfway through the book! Before that, we are introduced to Peregrin, a femme fatale named alternatively "fair Alina," Dörtje Elverdink, and a mythical princess called Gamaheh of Famagusta; a guy named George Pepusch, who's actually the Thistle of Zeherit; Pepusch's bestie, Leuwenhock, who's actually a magician; Peregrin's lodger, who's Leuwenhock's nemesis and fellow magician; and et. al. I probably forgot a few people there, but you get the idea. This is the type of book where everyone has two or three names, like Lord of the Rings, only not as tolerable. And I was never able to get through Lord of the Rings, sooooooooo.

This is also the type of book where there's only one female character, and she's not really a character, more of a MacGuffin. Alllllllll the men in this story are after Alina/Dörtje/Gamaheh, for no reason I could see because she's a total bitch.  But she is beautiful, so I suppose that's all that matters.

There are some fun scenes in Master Flea, like when Master Flea gives Peregrin a glass that lets him see what people are *really* thinking when they talk to him (the glass, incidentally, is a small concave disk that fits over his eye, and to take it out he leans over and blinks very wide and it pops out and back into its box–so, ETA Hoffmann basically invented contact lenses). Naturally, whatever they're thinking is the exact opposite of what they're saying. But this went on for way too long and there was way too much of it.

The book also bounced around a lot and there was a ton of information about other fairies and mythical creatures, most of which I not only didn't care about but was annoyed with, considering keeping the thrice-named circus of the regular characters straight was exhausting enough.

Finally, I found the conclusion to be extremely irritating.

Master Flea a really weird book. Like, REALLY weird. It's over-the-top and all over the place. I probably wouldn't recommend this book to anyone, and I think I'm going to avoid ETA Hoffmann books in the future from now on. Sorry, ETA.

Download Master Flea by ETA Hoffmann at Project Gutenberg|Librivox