Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

One of the many uses of science fiction is to talk about current issues in a speculative setting.  One can posit a world in which current trends have become exaggerated to dystopian levels, or where a solution has been found to a current problem and what that would result in, or imagine how a change in the past would affect an issue…or even just go the allegory route by, say, having anti-Martian prejudice stand in for anti-immigrant prejudice of the current day.

Octavia's Shadow

This anthology is dedicated to science fiction stories on the theme of social justice issues.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) a Hugo-winning author of works that touched on such themes as racism, alienation and the environment.  There are twenty stories and two essays by a variety of experienced and first-time authors.

The first story is “Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi.  Two Vietnamese-American young people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse are about to liberate an internment camp for Asian and Middle Eastern-descended people.  It seems that in this future, the zombie infestation was declared a terrorist attack, and the most likely suspects were locked up in special facilities to maintain zombie-attracting pistons “for their own protection.”  It reads like the first chapter of a YA dystopia novel.

The last fictional story is “children who fly” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  It’s a future starring her daughter in a globally-warmed Oakland, trying to preserve what’s left of the community through group disassociation.  “Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs also uses heavy author insertion in foretelling a future where material goods are no longer important but personal growth is.

Several stories are clearly in the Afrofuturism mode, such as “Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros, about a time-traveling Ethiopian king.

The most stylistically interesting piece is “Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson, which is a script format tale about junk dealer Fred G. Sanford encountering cosmic funk musician and philosopher Sun Ra.  It’s a neat concept, but the “jokes” reminded me of just how much Redd Foxx’s comedic delivery skills carried the Sanford and Son show.  Without specifically imagining him in the role at all times, the lines fall flat.

Some of the stories feel like incomplete fragments.  “Aftermath” by LeVar Burton (about an African-American scientist developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, only to be kidnapped by people who want to skin her alive) and “Fire on the Mountain” by Terry Bisson (an alternate history where the Civil War went very differently indeed) are open about this as they are previews of longer books.  Others come off as essays more than stories.

Of the stories in this volume, the one I liked best was “The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips.  It takes place in an archipelago where people known as Memorials can access the memories of the Memorials who have come before them, back to the beginning of their line.  These Memorials have become an important part of the society as the rulers must consult them and their knowledge of history before each important decision.

A wealthy and ambitious politician has become an enemy of the Memorials for reasons including the fact that they remember his ideas turn out badly.  He manages to get enough of the government on his side to imprison the Memorials.

The protagonist organizes a hunger strike in an effort to bring the politician to the negotiating table (and also to remind the people that the Memorials have been locked up.)  She naturally wants herself and her colleagues to be freed, but also comes to the realization that the people of the Archipelago have leaned on the Memorials for long-term memory so much that they’ve lost the capacity to remember history for themselves.

The essays are “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is about pretty much what you’d think, and “The Only Lasting Truth”  by Tananarive Due, which is about Octavia Butler herself, her work, and her legacy.

There’s also a foreword, introduction and outro discussing the themes and importance of the works included, and a set of author bios.

This collection is “important” more than “good”; the quality of submissions is uneven, but they are nevertheless interesting to read and contemplate, and I look forward to seeing the future work of many of these authors.  If you have an interest in social justice themes or Afrofuturism, please consider picking this book up.

 

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: Consumed

Book Review: Consumed by David Cronenberg

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes may be made in the final product.

Naomi and Nathan are photojournalists, specializing in lurid crime and medical stories respectively.  They’re what my generation called “hip” and up to date with all the latest technology.  The two are in a mostly stable relationship, though they spend little time together, snatching moments of intimacy when their paths cross.

Consumed

As the story begins, Nathan is doing a story on breast surgery in Budapest, while Naomi has fastened on a news item about a French philosophy professor who has apparently killed and eaten his wife.  Their investigations lead them further apart physically, one to Canada and the other to Japan, but the stories they pursue are more closely intertwined than they could have guessed.

Mr. Cronenberg is, of course, a famous movie director, with credits like The FlyThe Dead Zone and Cosmopolis.  This is his first published novel, cue out in September 2014.

There’s a lot of brand name dropping, and technological fetishism; it’s very “now”, which makes me suspect that in twenty years’ time, the book will have aged badly.  But at this point in time, it’s still fresh.

It’s hard to pin down a genre here–let’s say somewhere between psychological thriller and techno-thriller, with the meaning of and reasons for much of what’s going on left obscure until very near the end.

Naomi and Nathan aren’t particularly likable protagonists.  They’re self-absorbed, low on journalistic ethics, and have a habit of letting their story subjects co-opt them.  Nathan makes a particularly horrible mistake early on which screws up their relationship.  Naomi is confronted more than once with her lack of cultural depth.  On the other hand, better people wouldn’t have gotten into the fixes they do, which are essential to moving the story along.

Some readers are likely to find this book intensely creepy, as there are themes of cannibalism, deformity, insanity, bodily infirmity, insects and disease throughout.   There’s also a lot of talk about sex, even outside the sex scenes.

I found the ending less than satisfying–the story answers a few of the questions, then abruptly stops with a final mind screw and the actual fates of several people up in the air.

If you’re a big fan of Cronenberg movies, this bears a strong resemblance to one of them, and is likely to please.  People with weak stomachs should skip this book.

This may be fixed in the final version, but there’s a use of Japanese honorifics that will be teeth-grinding for those who’ve studied the language–and since both characters in the scene are native speakers of Japanese, they don’t have any excuse.

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible edited by Nancy Holder & Joe Gentile

Moonstone Books is a publisher that specializes in new material about pulp magazine characters.  This is their third anthology of stories about Richard Henry Benson, the Avenger, and his organization, Justice, Inc.

Roaring Heart of the Crucible

For those who have not heard of the character before, Richard Henry Benson had his wife and child taken from him in a bizarre midair disappearance.  The shock of this and the claims that they had never been on the plane in the first place drove Mr. Benson to a nervous breakdown.  When he recovered his sanity, he found that his skin and hair had lost their pigmentation, and his face was now frozen.

In the process of tracking the criminals responsible, Mr. Benson became the Avenger and began assembling his team.

The fourteen stories in this volume are mostly inserted into the “classic” period of the original series, before “Murder on Wheels”, which changed the premise somewhat.  Some of the stories are very precisely placed indeed.  This means that Cole Wilson, who only joined Justice, Inc. at the end of “Murder on Wheels”, is absent from most of the book.  Perhaps fittingly, then, “An Excellent Beauty” by C.J. Henderson is a solo outing for this agent, with a twisted focus on his distinguishing feature of being “handsome.”

The most famous author in this anthology is Will Murray, whose “The Moth Murders” leads off the book.   It’s an appropriately creepy story, with a horrific murder method, a bizarre antagonist and an almost plausible explanation to end the story.

Another standout story is “The Box of Flesh” by Barry Reese, in which two seemingly unrelated investigations converge at the crossroads of stage magic and folklore.  It’s almost as creepy as the title makes it sound.

Most of the stories stay within the customary adventure pulp limit of “almost plausible,” but a couple do go straight into the science fiction genre.  There are also a number of references to other pulp characters, with the Domino Lady making a full guest appearance in “According to Plan of a One-Eyed Trickster” by Win Scott Eckert, which follows on from his stories in the two previous anthologies in this series.

While the stories are generally good about explaining who the characters are (and thus can get a little repetitious in this area),  for best effect, a reader should already be familiar with the Avenger characters; I recommend looking up a reprint of the first two or three stories in the original series.  Also, the book could have used another proofreading pass, as there are a couple of obvious typos.

If you are already an Avenger fan, or know one, this is a fun book.  You might also consider looking at the previous two volumes.

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