Mini Reviews (3)

I Am Pusheen the Cat by Claire Belton

This collection contains a fair number of the popular Pusheen comics.  It has jokes about the weird habits of cats, holiday illustrations, and even a section devoted to Pusheen’s fluffy sister Stormy.  It is equally humorous and delightful.  And, of course, utterly cute.  Cat lovers everywhere will appreciate it, but others may find themselves falling in love with Pusheen, as well. (Source: Gift) Four stars.

The Club of Queer Trades by G. K. Chesterton

This short story collection contains mysteries that feature the men who comprise the titular Club of Queer Trades and make their livings in a manner which they themselves invented.  Narrated by a man called Swinburne, who repeatedly finds himself caught up in adventures he cannot understand, the stories really star Basil Grant, a judge who left the bench after “going mad.”  It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Basil may be the one sane man in a world gone mad around him.  He believes in morality and solves mysteries by eschewing the cold logic of Sherlock Holmes and instead opening himself up to the possibilities that cannot be contained by logic.  The resulting stories are equally fun and fantastic, reminding readers to open themselves up to the romance around them. (Source: Library) Four stars.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

Not having read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I was not sure what to expect from a short story collection of Susanna Clarke’s.  However, I was immediately disarmed, for I found myself immersed in a delightful collection of fairy stories in the finest tradition.  Some are retellings of familiar tales such as “Rumpelstiltskin.”  Others are set in the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  One story is even set in Neil Gaiman’s world of Stardust.  Each, however, has that air of coming from a long line of folklorists, told at night by the fireplace or passed down through the generations.  They feel like the real thing.

Oddly enough, however, the cover bears two blurbs comparing the work to Jane Austen.  I can only imagine that people see a story set in the 18th century or read a story with “old timey” language and immediately think to themselves, “But, of course, it’s Austen!”  It really isn’t.  The work bears no resemblance, in my opinion, to Austen’s witty social critiques or romances.  There is humor here, but it’s more in the counterfeiting of language associated with old-fashioned scholars.  The rest feels like traditional fairy tales, just set in a later age than perhaps we are used to seeing.  (Source: Gift)  Five stars.

The Man with Two Left Feet by P. G. Wodehouse

Humorist P. G. Wodehouse presents a short story collection full of surprises.  From the tale of an ugly policeman who falls in love to the story of a mediocre detective who dreams of going on the stage, each work is delightfully unexpected, full of witty one-liners, and peopled by characters who can’t help but grab the readers’ interest.  Bertie Wooster also makes his first appearance here, making the story of special interest to fans of Jeeves and Wooster.  This is just the type of work to lift your spirits and make you hunt for more Wodehouse immediately.  (Source: Library)  Five stars.

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A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

A Sicilian RomanceInformation

Goodreads: A Sicilian Romance
Series: None
Source: Library Book Sale
Published:

Official Summary

In A Sicilian Romance (1790) Ann Radcliffe began to forge the unique mixture of the psychology of terror and poetic description that would make her the great exemplar of the Gothic novel, and the idol of the Romantics. This early novel explores the cavernous landscapes and labyrinthine passages of Sicily’s castles and convents to reveal the shameful secrets of its all-powerful aristocracy.

Review

Ann Radcliffe is one of those authors who seems to count as “classic” in large part because her work is historically important and not necessarily because it “stands the test of time.” She’s best known for launching the genre of the Gothic novel with The Mysteries of Udolpho, in the eighteenth century but her work overall tends to be predictable and melodramatic. I like reading it partially because I like to laugh at it, which is certainly not the effect Radcliffe was going for. A Sicilian Romance was no exception.

The book has all the elements one might like in a Gothic novel: castles, ghosts, brigands, underground crypts, dashing lovers, duels.  The problem is that all the elements that make Radcliffe’s work recognizable also make it predictable.  One can routinely guess what’s going to happen in any given scene, or even what’s going to happen 100 pages in the future. It ruins a lot of the supposed “suspense” and creepiness factor.

However, the story is so over-the-top that I kind of can’t help but enjoy it, even when it’s slow or eye roll-inducing.  The ridiculousness and unlikeliness of it all is both familiar and entertaining.  And, for this novel, Radcliffe got so ridiculous that I actually didn’t see part of the end coming–though I probably should have.

I don’t think Radcliffe is a master writer by any stretch of the imagination. Her distinction is largely that she did something first rather than that she did it well.  However, I get enough enjoyment from reading her books that I will probably continue to pick up her work.

3 Stars Briana

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

 

Information

Goodreads: A Wrinkle in Time
Series: Time Quintet #1
Source: Library
Published: 1962

Summary

Meg Murry’s father went missing years ago during his experiments with the fifth dimension.  Now, Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin are going on an adventure through space to bring him home.

Review

“We can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”

I have never liked A Wrinkle in Time.  I did not like it as a child and I do not like it now that I have reread it as an adult.  I understand that it is a children’s classic beloved by many.  I even understand that it is celebrated (or sometimes criticized) for its blend of science and Christianity, demonstrating that the two can coexist (though, honestly, I think the majority of people already know this).  But the fact remains: I do not like it.  I find it boring and simplistic without complex characterization.  It is, at least, mercifully short.

A friend suggested to me that this book appeals to children and teens who feel out of place or who have difficult relationships with their parents.  I can see that this might be so.  Still, Meg does not resonate for me as a character.  I do not mind her stubbornness or her anger–sticking points for many.  I simply do not  find her an interesting character.  She starts out stubborn and she ends that way, without readers ever really getting a chance to see her channel her faults into a positive avenue in her regular life. I wanted to see her return to school and advocate for herself, not just hug everyone at the end like it’s all good now because the family is reunited.

The other characters are  just as boring.  Calvin is a nonentity, brought into the story solely to act as the love interest for Meg.  He’s ostensibly good at communication, but we don’t get to see him have any success with this on the journey.  Otherwise, he seems pretty poor at communication, calling Charles Wallace a “moron” (at first in earnest, later presumably as a sign of affection) and indicating to Meg’s father that Meg is…not as intelligent as the rest of them.  Charles Wallace is probably the most interesting character, but quickly leaves the story once he’s taken over by IT.

The rest of the story?  It’s not that interesting, sorry.  We don’t see enough of any one world to make it interesting.  I think this is because the worlds represent ideas more than they actually are worlds.  Some have seen Camazotz as a representation of communism; L’Engle seems to think it’s just about the need to celebrate difference.  Either way, Camazotz is an allegory, not a place.  Just as Aunt Beast’s world is a representation of an unfallen land, not a place.  I didn’t get the sense that there were other locations to explore, cultures to learn about, people to meet.  I got the idea that Aunt Beast and Co. are unfallen creatures and that’s what I think I was supposed to get.

I give L’Engle credit for publishing a sci-fi story with a female lead when that was unusual.  I give her credit for showing that Christianity and science coexist when people apparently also wondered about that.  And I give her credit for creating a heroine with whom many teenagers have sympathized.  But I still don’t enjoy the story.  It doesn’t feel like a story to me but a message.  And it isn’t a message that I felt had enough subtlety, depth, or new information to make me interested in hearing it.

3 Stars

Marriage by Susan Ferrier, the “Scottish Jane Austen”

Information

Goodreads: Marriage
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1818

Summary

Marriage is a novel in two parts.  The first contrasts the marriage of the foolish Lady Juliana with that of Mrs. Douglas.  While Lady Juliana follows all her caprices and elopes for love, Mrs. Douglas follows instead the path of virtue.  The second volume tells of the daughters of Lady Juliana, one taught to follow only her own inclinations and the other taught to find happiness in God alone.

Review

I first picked up Susan Ferrier when I read an article naming her the “Scottish Jane Austen.”  A contemporary of Sir Walter Scott and wildly popular in her own day, Ferrier has since seemingly all but disappeared in literary history.  However, I was interested in a woman who was so acclaimed by her contemporaries that she received a larger advance for her novels than did Austen.  Why doesn’t anyone talk about her today?  Will her books still hold interest, as do Austen’s?  There was only one way to find out.

Personally, I find Marriage to be closer to a blend of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë.  In fact, it reminded me of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters as it contrasts, in both volumes, the characters of two women, one raised to value virtue and the other to value her own amusement; the virtuous one is, of course, rewarded with happiness in marriage and the other punished with scandal and discontent.  It also has a bit of a flair for melodrama with its elopements and other little scandals–a taste, which seems more in like with Brontë than with Austen, who tends to make her scandals a little more subtle.

The comparison with Austen, however, is perhaps best seen in Ferrier’s penchant for describing foolish characters.  We have three aunts who are remarkably ill-bred and ignorant, but convinced that they move in the best society and possess wisdom no one else does.  There is also the woman who must contradict everyone, the woman who hosts a literary circle where the ladies do nothing but try to out-quote one another, and the woman of charity who gives none of her own money or time to the poor, but instead hits up all her guests for their money.  These characters, I admit, did not amuse me.  They drove me crazy and I was glad to be rid of them all (except the aunts, who must keep popping up).

The most vivid character is not one of the protagonists, but Lady Emily.  She possesses a keen and sparkling wit, and loves to point out the foibles of the society around her.  Of course, she has been raised in a haphazard manner and so lacks the virtue of her cousin Mary.  She can’t conceive why Mary must go to church, even against her mother’s wishes, but won’t rebel against her mother to go to a ball.  But she’s still far more interesting, far more lively than Mary.  Mary is certainly admirable and everyone, I am sure, wishes her little romance to go well.  But she does not sparkle.

Fans of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, or Charlotte Brontë will likely find this book of interest.  Others who prefer more modern fare will probably not.  It is not plot-driven, as is most of YA and much genre fiction.  Rather, it focuses on the characters, depicting them for readers’ amusement or education.  I enjoyed it, even when it was slow-paced, but I can imagine others will find Ferrier’s work to be an acquired taste.

4 stars

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Information

Goodreads: The Blue Castle
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1926

Summary

Valancy Stirling is twenty-nine and she has never lived.  Her mother and her cousin control what she does, where she goes, and whom she speaks to.  But then Valancy learns that she has a fatal heart condition and only one year before she dies.  Determined to enjoy life before it is too late, Valancy moves out and suddenly happiness does not seem so far away.

Review

“Fear is the original sin.  Almost all of the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.  It is a cold slimy serpent coiling about you.  It is horrible to live with fear, and it is of all things degrading.”–John Foster

The Blue Castle is one of only two adult novels written by L. M. Montgomery (the other being A Tangled Web) and thus of particular interest to her fans. It focuses on a twenty-nine-year-old “old maid” who is repressed by her family and afraid to speak back to her nasty relatives.  The content is innocent enough that you can find this volume shelved with the children’s books (The adult content might be considered to be a few curses and a girl who had a baby outside of marriage.), but the story itself is a mature one, one that focuses on bitterness and time lost.  It is a story that the old will respond to more fully than the young.

L. M. Montgomery is often associated with idyllic childhoods–an association that overlooks the pain and suffering her heroines must overcome.  The Blue Castle, however, contains a darkness that is harder for readers to overlook.  It begins with Valancy waking up on her birthday and facing a life of loneliness and stifled feelings, a prospect that seems intolerable.  Even as Valancy begins to find the courage to be herself, she remains on the fringes of a small-minded society that would rather see a young woman die alone in poverty before they associate themselves with her shame.  Valancy ultimately attempts to escape the pettiness around her by retreating into the wilderness.  But there are suggestions that no retreat can be permanent.  Duty will always call a person back.

The story, however, still feels uplifting because it suggests that anyone can find the courage to live and that that courage can make all the difference.  Valancy gives of herself to others and does the right thing, even when the right thing will socially stigmatize her.  She becomes the bright beacon of her world, the promise that everything is not as bad as it seems.  And she is rewarded.  Beauty comes to those who seek it.  Montgomery’s love of the Canadian wilderness shines here as she lingers over trees, birds, and waters.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention that The Blue Castle also contains an unlikely but utterly romantic love story.  Barney Snaith possesses neither the name nor the appearance of a typical romantic lead, but his kindness, integrity, and thoughtfulness all make him the perfect hero.  Valancy and Barney seem to be living in a fairy tale and, even when it seems too good to be true, readers just want to believe.

If you are a Montgomery fan, The Blue Castle provides all the sharp characterization, ironic wit, and beautiful landscape descriptions that your heart could desire.  If you are not a Montgomery fan, The Blue Castle might just make you one.

5 stars

Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell

Information

Goodreads: Cousin Phillis
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1864

Summary

First serialized in Charles Dickens’ Household Worlds, this short novel tells the story of a young woman discovering love for the first time.

Review

Cousin Phillis is a short novel in four parts describing a young woman’s coming-of-age through the eyes of her cousin Paul.  Though it features Gaskell’s typical interest in the industrialization of the country, the coming of the railroad serves mostly as a vehicle to get the narrator and his friend into the countryside, where they meet the beautiful and intelligent Phillis. The focus remains on Paul’s observations of Phillis and her reaction to his handsome manager, Edward Holdsworth.

The choice of Paul Manning as narrator is perhaps the one flaw in the story.  He remains sadly unconvincing as a man.  We hear little of his work or of his own pursuits.  Even his friendship with Holdsworth is briefly and broadly sketched.  Most of his energy seems to be spent, not on the railroad or in finding a lover or in the things one typically expects a young man to do, but on thinking about Phillis’s habits.  At first he is intimidated by her superior intelligence, beauty, and good sense.  In the end, he is concerned about her love for Holdsworth.  But does the average man really sit around pondering his cousin’s looks and words, worrying that she is falling in love?

Aside from this criticism, however,  I found the story beautifully and simply drawn.  It is a subtle work, much subtler than many of Gaskell’s stories.  Progress is coming to the countryside, but no one makes a speech about it. We see naturally the excitement and enthusiasm of the men and woman as they welcome the advance of the railroad.  We see implicitly what might be lost–the careful, humble, and pious life of the countryside replaced by the bustle and empty show of Holdsworth and the men of progress he represents.  And the criticism of agricultural life so directly stated by Margaret in North and South is only quietly alluded to in the figure of Phillis Holman, whose superior intellect and education makes her somewhat unsuited to the sphere in which she moves.  Men of intelligence are, of course, not wholly lacking in agricultural areas, and yet Gaskell makes it clear that the long hours required in the fields make education difficult to obtain.  Only Holdsworth, a brilliant railroad man, manages to come across as Phillis’s equal in education and perceptiveness.

Cousin Phillis is a short story (indeed–it seems to cut off in the middle), but one that immediately captures the interest of the audience.  The beauty and the rhythms of the countryside come alive through Gaskell’s pen and the warmhearted characters quickly earn reader sympathy.  Readers just beginning to approach Gaskell will find that this is an easy and a delightful way into her works.

4 stars

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Information

Goodreads: Agnes Grey
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1847

Summary

Feeling that her family treats her like a child, Agnes Grey determines to make her own way in the world by becoming a governess.  However, her idealistic vision of molding the characters of children is quickly shattered.  In her positions, she is often denied authority and thwarted in her efforts to teach her charges virtue.  Additionally, she finds herself increasingly isolated as her position raises her above the servants but keeps her inferior to the families for whom she works.  Still, Agnes quietly perseveres in doing right.

Review

Anne Brontë tends to be overlooked when the works of her sisters are discussed.  In recent years, however, there have been attempts to revive her reputation, especially in reference to her work The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which shocked contemporary audiences with its depiction of a woman who leaves her alcoholic husband.  As critics begin to reexamine the feminist undertones of Anne’s works, undertones so far ahead of their time that even Charlotte refused to have Tenant republished, it seems fitting to return to Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey.

In many ways, Agnes Grey seems a quiet and unassuming novel–and yet it made audiences uncomfortable in its own day.  The titular character begins work as a governess in two different wealthy households.  In the first, she is prevented from punishing the children and so cannot prevent their misbehavior.  In the second, she is instructed never to cross the wills of her charges, leading the eldest to become a shameless flirt  who delights in hurting men to cater to her vanity and the second to curse and run about in the stables with the male servants.  Rendered ineffective by the directions of her morally decadent social superiors, Anne becomes increasingly unhappy and struggles to remain patient, humble, and cheerful.

The novel does not only critique the morals of the wealthy families but also examines the unfeeling treatment of women who occupy a nebulous space in society.  As a governess, Agnes can neither become friends with the servants nor enter into intimate conversation with her families or their guests.  She becomes all but invisible and  mute, her small pleasures denied to her by those who have her at their mercy and her attempts to instill virtue in her charges silenced.  At night, she has only dreams of a certain upright Mr. Weston to console her–but Agnes can scarcely believe he would ever glance her way.

There is an undeniable sense that Anne Brontë writes of her own experiences in these pages, making the isolation, the heartbreak, and the impotency all feel keenly personal.  Well might her contemporaries have felt shamed, for she does not hold back in describing the callous carelessness of the upper classes in their pursuit of their own pleasures and vanities.  Women and social inferiors are simply casualties of the whims of their “betters.”  Brontë ‘s perceptiveness, her deft characterization, and her fearless social commentary all make Agnes Grey a remarkable read–one that should not be overshadowed by her sisters’ works.

5 stars