Book Review: Next Year in Havana

Book Review: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Reading Copy from a Read It Forward giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.  The final product, due out 2/6/18, may have minor changes.

Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of one of the richest families in Havana, constrained by family tradition and the patriarchal society.  Her father supports president Fulgencio Batista in order to protect their sugar industry interests, but Elisa is becoming increasingly aware of the suffering of the Cuban people at the hands of the government.  Still, are the 26th of July movement and the other revolutionaries truly the way forward?

In 2017, Marisol Ferrera takes advantage of the partial thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States following the death of Fidel Castro and her job as a lifestyles journalist to travel to the land her family has long been exiles of.  Though she knows what Cuba was from the stories of her grandmother and other relatives, Marisol has little idea of what that country is like now.  More, she’s about to discover a family secret hidden all these decades.

The author, Chanel Cleeton, is herself the descendant of Cuban exiles, which inspired this dual romance book with political thriller elements.

My mother has told me of meeting Cuban exiles back in the late 1950s who eagerly hoped for the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator Batista so that they could go home and rebuild their country.  They hoped that Castro would keep his promises of reform and that Cuba would rise to be the prosperous, modern nation it had once been.  Mom lost touch, and has no idea what happened to them.

Elisa, nineteen, is whisked out of the house in secret by her more daring sister Beatriz to go to a party in a less prosperous part of the city.   While Beatriz meets with their disowned brother, Elisa meets an earnest lawyer, Pablo, who it turns out is an ally of Che Guevara.   They begin a forbidden courtship, kept apart by social status and the explosive political climate.

Marisol is twenty-six, and a bit more worldly wise than her grandmother had been.  Her shoes still cost more than the average Cuban makes in a year.  Elisa’s best friend Ana had been forced to stay in Cuba, and has managed to make a small living as a restaurant owner.  Ana’s grandson Luis is a history professor who also helps out at the restaurant, and becomes Elisa’s tour guide.  As Elisa learns more about her grandmother’s life before exile, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Luis.

The descriptions are lush, with many glowing descriptions of landscapes and food.

Elisa’s section of the book seems surer-footed, perhaps because the passage of time has made the political outcomes clearer and that allows the author to weave the events together more closely.  Marisol’s section seems designed to appeal to the viewpoint of Cuban expatriates and their loyalists, and I have to wonder how much it would ring true to Cubans who actually live in Cuba.  The political thriller elements seem more forced in that section.

Torture is mentioned, and the results are seen.

I think this book will go over well with people who are heavily into historical romance as a genre and appreciate political thriller elements sprinkled in.  It’s also nice to read a book with Cuba as a setting; I’ve only had a handful of those.  (Check my back reviews for Mingo Dabney.)

The edition coming out in 2018 appears to be designed to be a book club selection, as there are discussion questions in the back.  Also, the sequel starring Beatriz, Elisa’s sister, is already in the works and there is a chapter from that.  (And from that excerpt, it looks like more my thing.)

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01 by Hirohiko Araki

Centuries ago in Mexico, an offshoot of the Aztecs discovered a method of attaining eternal life through the consumption of human blood.  They ruled supreme for a while, then abruptly vanished from the pages of history.  One of their mysterious stone masks was excavated in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, and made its way to Britain.  There, it became the catalyst that altered the fate of two young men and their descendants.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventures Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

In 1868, lower-class ne’er-do-well Dario Brando was returning home from the pub in a storm when he came across a carriage accident.  The driver and the female passenger were dead, and the male passenger looked dead, but an infant was alive.  Dario was going to loot the bodies, but the man woke up and mistakenly believed that Dario had saved his life.  He rewarded the rascal handsomely.

Dario used the reward money to open his own pub, but his alcoholism and general mismanagement drove it into the ground.  He also abused his wife and child, sending the former to an early grave.  By 1880, his health was completely failing and Dario realized he was about to die.  Despite his behavior, Dario did love his son Dio, and decided to prevail upon the rich man in a letter to take care of the boy.

And so it was that Dio Brando came to live with the Joestar family.  A cunning lad, and already a skilled manipulator at age twelve, he swiftly ingratiated himself to everyone but the Joestar heir, Jonathan Joestar, who was nicknamed “Jojo.”  Dio’s plan was to estrange Jojo from his family and friends, cutting him off from all positive human contact.  He meant to drive Jojo to suicide, allowing Dio to become the new heir to the Joestar fortune.

This plan doesn’t quite work, and Dio switches to biding his time, but not before committing a horrific act of animal abuse.

In 1888, with the boys graduating school (Jojo taking a degree in archaeology, and Dio in law), Mr. George Joestar is ill and sinking fast.  Jojo finds the letter Diego Brando sent introducing Dio, and discovers that Diego’s symptoms exactly match those of George.  He swiftly realizes that Dio is somehow responsible.

Jojo heads to the slums of London to get the evidence he needs, and the antidote for his father.  Meanwhile, Dio has filched the stone mask from George’s collection, and is about to find out what it really does.  When these two meet again, the true nature of their fate will be revealed!

This was the first installment of Araki’s series of series about the adventures of the Joestar family and those connected to them.  After the initial color pages, which assure the audience that weirdness is coming, the story switches to a somewhat more realistic tale of a charismatic social climber using any method at his disposal of getting wealthy without getting caught.

Until Dio’s cornered and decides to find out what the stone mask actually does, of course.  The volume ends as he uses the mask himself–the amazing battles that this manga is known for begin with the next volume.

Araki’s character designs are bulkier here than in later installments.  As he mentions in the author’s notes, this was created in the age when Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the big movie stars, and overgrown musculature was all the rage.  Jojo and Dio can barely fit into their somewhat fanciful Victorian suits.

This volume also has the one combat scene where Speedwagon, a former slum dweller who becomes Jojo’s sidekick and a good ally to the Joestar family, does anything of importance.

This is a violent series, and there are often grotesque results fully shown on-panel.  Especially disturbing is what happens to the dog Danny.

As was the custom with shounen (boys’) manga of the time, female roles are at a minimum.  Erina is there to be a romantic interest for Jojo, and to be forcibly kissed by Dio as a way of hurting his rival.  (This scene also shows how abusers can be enabled by their friends; Dio’s hanger-ons admire him for doing things they’re too chicken to actually try.)

This is also very much penny dreadful England, not a meticulously researched historical fiction.  The Chinese character is particularly stereotyped.

The characterization is very shallow, with most of the good bits going to Dio, who would become one of manga’s and anime’s defining villains.  Araki has since gotten much better at writing.

Recommended to anyone who’s enjoyed the Jojo anime series.

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord

Once upon a time, there was a psychiatrist named Hector, who was very good at his job.  But he didn’t feel that he was as good as he needed to be, because he had patients who were unhappy, and he didn’t know how to make them happy.  So he did what any sensible person would do, and went on a round the world trip to learn more about happiness.

Hector and the Search for Happiness

This is the first novel by M. Lelord, which was a big hit in France, then Europe and then did well enough in the United States to be turned into a movie.  It’s spawned two sequels as well.  The book is essentially a self-help book written as a children’s story.  The language used is simple, and it should be readable even by people who aren’t strong readers, with short chapters.

Hector travels from country to country, meeting up with old friends who now live in those countries, and learning something about happiness in each place.  He also spends time “doing the thing that people in love do” with several different women, which is not something I’d put in a children’s book, and I have to wonder if they’d even do it in France.

If you take the book as a series of events designed to introduce different concepts about happiness, it’s mildly amusing and has some good points.  However, the language sometimes comes off condescending (perhaps a translation problem?) and there’s a lot of male gaze going on here when the narrator talks about Hector’s interactions with pretty women.

The story plays coy with the reader by not naming countries except China; most of them will still be recognizable from context.  They’re mostly seen from Hector’s very privileged viewpoint  (sometimes he even admits it).  And perhaps one of the inadvertent lessons of the book is “happiness is easier if you’re friends with a powerful crimelord.”

All that said, I can see why this book was a hit with certain audiences.  If you like your self-help tips mixed with an actual story, this  is one with plenty of interest-holding events.  If, however, you react badly to perceived condescension, this book may not be your best choice.

Disclaimer:  This book review was sponsored through GoFundMe as an incentive reward.

And now, here’s the trailer for the movie.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWFVAIbIkS4

 

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More edited by August Derleth

Sleep No More was a 1940s anthology of horror fiction put together by noted Wisconsin historical fiction (and horror) author August Derleth.  It featured primarily creepy stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a paperback reprint came out.  To make it a manageable size with the binding limitations of the time, only the first nine stories were included; and presumably there would have been a sequel with the rest had sales justified it.

Stories from Sleep No More

“Count Magnus” by M.R. James leads off with the tale of a would-be travel book writer who visits Sweden and wakes up something that should have been kept sleeping.  Like many tales from the era, it’s told at a remove, reported by someone who found the protagonist’s papers and pieced together the story from them.  That aside, it’s an excellent example of horror by implication–none of the presumably gory bits happen on page, and the results are not directly described.  The moment of most terror is a lock that should not be open being open.

“Cassius” by Henry S. Whitehead is set in the West Indies.  A man who’s had an ugly growth removed is hunted by a small but deadly enemy.  It starts well, but the explanation for the terror is heavily racist, involving some dubious genetics and “race memory.”  Also, the ending is an anticlimax.

“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood is the oldest story in the collection.  A schoolteacher who altered his holiday plans on a whim finds himself at a Swiss inn with no vacancies.  Wait, there is one room, but the catch is that the occupant just vanished a couple of days ago–they may or may not be returning.  The room’s atmosphere is oppressive, leading to thoughts of suicide.  Unnatural thoughts!

“The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith has a desperately unemployed man (who happens to know Arabic) get a job as secretary to reclusive scholar John Carnby.  Carnby turns out to be an occultist with eccentric habits, and a fear of leaving his room at night.  Supposedly, the noises in the halls are rats, but the glimpses the secretary gets don’t look like any rats he’s ever seen.  Mr. Carnby needs some passages from the Necronomicon translated at the highest priority, passages about sorcerers being able to come back from the dead.  The job does not end well.

“Johnson Looked Back” by Thomas Burke is a rare second-person story.  The reader is addressed as though they were Johnson, who is pursued by a mysterious blind, handless man.  The narrator urges Johnson not to look behind him, but of course he does and dooms himself.  The ending is kind of kludgy, suggesting the whole story is a metaphor.

“The Hand of the O’Mecca” by Howard Wandrei is set in Minnesota, not far from Mankato.  Finnish-American farmer Elof Bocak is crossing the fields at night to woo his neighbor, Kate O’Mecca.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the superstition about bats on the ground.  Some nice local color, but the twist is telegraphed.

“‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” by H.R. Wakefield concerns a barrister named Edward Bellamy.  He’s contacted by an old school friend, Philip Franton.  They’d fallen out of touch after the War, but now Franton is in a spot of trouble.  It seems he was for some months host to Oscar Clinton, a fascinating fellow who Philip was quite entranced with initially.

Eventually, Clinton’s less appealing habits (impregnating chambermaids, stealing and forgery) became unbearable, and Franton broke ties with the man.  Some time later, Clinton tried to use his “friendship” with Philip as a recommendation to a club, and the wealthy man blackballed him.  Clinton was not well pleased, and sent Franton a supposedly cursed image.  Now Philip is jumping at oddly shaped shadows.

Bellamy is unable to prevent his friend’s horrible death, but perhaps he can get a little extrajudicial revenge?

Oscar Clinton is cartoonishly decadent.  To quote:

“I fancy,” said Clinton, “that you are perplexed by the obstinate humidity of my left eye.  It is caused by the rather heavy injection of heroin I took this afternoon.”

It’s probably meant to evoke the image of the notorious “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.  While Clinton only mentions sex with women, there are homoerotic undertones in his relationships with Franton and Bellamy.  His comeuppance is satisfying.

“Thus I Refute Beezly” by John Collier is titled after Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley.  “Small Simon” Carter is a friendless child who spends most of his time in the garden, playing alone.  He claims to be playing with a “Mr. Beezly” who is hard to describe, and no adult has ever seen.

Small Simon’s father, who insists on being called “Big Simon”, is a dentist with some odd ideas about parenting.  Big Simon is big on science and fact, and when Small Simon won’t admit that Beezly is imaginary, decides to punish the lad.  That’s a mistake.

This story is more often reprinted than most in this collection, and there’s analysis of it at various websites.  What struck me was that the author is being snotty about “modern” parenting methods of the sort where parents insist on children calling them by first name.  “See?  This fellow is all ‘progressive’ and such, but when logic fails, it’s back to corporal punishment just like normal folks!”

Rounding out the collection is “The Mannikin” by Robert Bloch.  A schoolteacher picks a random isolated town for vacation, only to discover that this is the hometown of his old school friend Simon Maglore.  In the time they’ve been parted, the deformity of Simon’s back has gotten a lot worse, and the superstitious locals shun him.  The basic twist is the same as “Cassius”, minus the racism.  Some Lovecraftian references in this story, too.

Most of these are good if dated stories; “Cassius” is the only one that has become outright uncomfortable to read due to its attitudes.  While it’s long out of print, the paperback edition should be relatively easy to find in finer used bookstores.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

Time for more old-time TV!  Checkmate was a 1960-62 series about a detective agency of the same name based in San Francisco.  Don Corey (Anthony  George ) and Jed Sills (Doug McClure) out of Corey’s plush apartment, and employ Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot), noted criminology professor, as a consultant.  The agency specialized in attempting to thwart crimes that had yet to be committed.

Checkmate

I watched two episodes on DVD:

  • “The Human Touch” :  The focus is on Dr. Hyatt, as a master criminal (Peter Lorre) he caught years ago is out of prison and wants revenge.  The two men are both very proud of their brains, and we get a lot of cat and mouse dialogue as they try to outsmart each other.  The revenge plan is nifty, but fails due to the title factor.  A fun episode!
  • “Nice Guys Finish Last”:  A more somber story, in which the Checkmate regulars play only a small part.  Instead, the main character is a police lieutenant who is denied promotion because of his obsession with a certain wealthy man about town.  (The man may have even directly intervened to quash the promotion.)  The wealthy man hires Checkmate to protect him from the police detective.   When the lieutenant has an opportunity fall into his lap to destroy his enemy, he takes it,, much to his cost.  An interesting aspect of the story is that it is never proven the rich man did anything wrong, even the one thing that set the policeman on his trail in the first place.  He just acts like a dirtbag, and I for one wanted him to be brought down.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a 1955 British series starring Boris Karloff as the eccentric head of the Department of Queer Complaints at Scotland Yard.  The premise was based on a book by John Dickson Carr, a master of locked room mysteries.  March wore an eyepatch (never explained) and was a playful chap who enjoyed a good puzzle.  Sadly, most of the episodes have been lost.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

The episode I saw was “Error at Daybreak.”  As it happens, Colonel March is on holiday at the seashore, and reading a book on “The Psychology of Crustaceans” when a millionaire with a weak heart dies nearby.  The body is lodged between rocks and impossible to move, but March discovers blood by the corpse, and a mysterious sharp metal rod on the ground nearby.  March suspects murder rather than heart attack, a suspicion given credence when the corpse disappears before the police proper arrive.  The real solution lies in a little boy’s rubber ball.  Pleasant, but not Karloff’s best work.

I’m the Law ran in 1953, and starred George Raft as New York Police Lieutenant George Kirby.  Kirby had been a stage dancer before joining the police force, and never carried a gun.  Mr. Raft’s career was in a steep decline at the time, and was one of the first big-name film stars to be reduced to steady work in television as opposed to special guest appearances.

I'm the Law

Still, the series benefited from his tough-guy air and screen presence.  My DVD had three episodes.

  • “The Cowboy and the Blind Man Story”:  Kirby is contacted by a singing cowboy star (loosely modeled on Roy Rogers) to investigate a stalker of the singer’s current girlfriend.  That lady turns out to be a sharpshooter and fully capable of taking care of herself.  Except a shot comes in through her window, just missing her.  In the office of a blind record promoter across the street, the stalker turns up dead of lead poisoning.  Could be the sharpshooter, but her guns don’t match the bullet.  So who?  Pretty obvious to the genre-savvy.
  • “O Sole Mio”:  A boy’s father is gunned down in Central Park, with only the boy and an organ grinder as witnesses, and the organ grinder was looking the wrong way at the time.  Kirby takes the boy under his wing before the kid gets too far down the road to becoming Batman, and discovers the father had a taste for the horses and too much money for his day job.  The idea of a police woman is treated with some disbelief by the boy, and a subplot involving a seedy newsstand vendor and a juvenile delinquent turns out to be an entire red herring.
  • “The Trucking Story”:  A dockworker is killed in what is reported as an accident, but is pretty clearly an “accident.”  An elderly peddler who was friends with the dockworker calls on Kirby to investigate beyond the official report.  Kirby goes undercover and discovers that the shipping company is sending more than glassware to China.  The dockworker’s union is seen protecting its members from  abusive behavior by the bosses (one of the reasons the death had to be an “accident.”)

It’s an okay series, but relies a bit too heavily on eccentric minor characters to play off the strait-laced George Raft role.

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