Published in a series of magazine issues in 1868-69, this is one of the masterpieces by the author of “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov”. It made me laugh a great deal, but it is not a comedy. Its climax is mysterious and chilling, but it is not a thriller. Dickensian in its large cast of vividly colorful characters and satire on the society of its time, it is not quite a picaresque. Tragic to a truly disturbing degree, it is too subtle and complex to make grand opera, too often given to immensely long talky scenes, featuring too many characters, to translate well into film—though the attempt has often been made to adapt it for stage or screen. It’s a great novel in which a sensitive reader can feel himself totally immersed, only to be shocked out of “willing suspension of disbelief” when its author breaks the fourth wall and begins commenting on his characters as fictional creations. Though it may come as a surprise to those of us who grew up watching a copy of the novel collecting dust in a reverential spot on our parents’ bookshelf, looking so serious and sophisticated that we could hardly imagine trying to read it, it happens to be a vastly entertaining novel. Once you read it, you will not forget it.
An “Adult Content Advisory” remains in effect for the second book of the “Lumatere Chronicles”, in which the fate of kingdoms depends on the actions of highly sexed young adults. Even more than in “Finnikin of the Rock”, in which the figurative and literal rape of a kingdom is involved in the tale of a nation divided 50/50 between captives and refugees. But now the people of Lumatere have been reunited; the curse has been broken that separated those within the boundaries from those without; their queen has returned to her people; and a new set of problems has arisen.
The second book of the Sherlock Holmes canon was first published in 1890 under the five-word title “The Sign of the Four”. Since then, it has often been republished under the four-word title “The Sign of Four”. The confusion actually originates in the book itself, in which both phrases are used interchangeably. Although Holmes did not really become a hit until Conan Doyle followed up with a series of short stories (later collected in such books as “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”), this book is an important step in the development of a great cultural icon. This is the one in which Dr. Watson meets his beloved wife Mary. It marks the first time Holmes enunciates his famous dictum, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this novel, the sleuth’s craving for a seven-percent solution of cocaine is first mentioned, as is the name of the Baker Street Irregulars, those dirty-faced junior detectives of his. Viewers of TV’s “Elementary” will be thrilled to find Holmes here saying, for the first time: “You can… never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to.” And fans of the late Holmes film featuring a bare-knuckled boxing Holmes may be delighted to spot the first mention of his pugilistic talents, already in his second recorded case.
In Book 2 of the “Kane Chronicles”, the Texas-based author of the “Tres Navarre” mysteries cleverly uses hilarious, romantic, magical, and thrill-packed entertainment to educate young adults about ancient Egyptian mythology. He’s very sneaky that way. But we’re not surprised since he did the same thing with Greek mythology in the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series. Ditto with Roman mythology in the “Heroes of Olympus” series. Face it, you’re going to need a roadmap to keep track of all the different ways Rick Riordan has brought the legends of ancient gods and heroes into the present day. But in spite of the globe-trotting complexity of the action in this book, and the relative unfamiliarity of the gods, monsters, and mythological concepts it introduces, this is a deceptively easy book to enjoy.
The fifth book of the “Squire’s Tales” series continues this Wisconsin-based author’s retelling of Arthurian legends for younger readers with a combination of two knightly love stories with the point of view of a minstrel knight who has fallen out of love with romantic love. Forced into knighthood, though he would rather be a rebec-playing troubadour, Sir Dinadan rides out into the English countryside in search of inspiration for heroic ballads. Instead, he finds disillusionment. First it comes in the form of a beautiful lady who toys with his heart and tries to trick him into doing something vile. Then he observes the series of tasks that a would-be knight named Culloch must do to win the hand of a Welsh princess—ridiculous tasks that have nothing to do with the “helping the helpless” sort of thing King Arthur values in his knights. And thirdly, he gets mixed up in the affair of Tristram and Iseult, the most tragic lovers in all of song and legend, though in reality (as Dinadan sees it) theirs is the stupidest and most sordid story of all.
Published in 1831 in French under the title “Notre-Dame de Paris”, this book has been made into an opera, a ballet, several stage plays, two musicals, and at least 15 films, including TV and animated versions. One conclusion I could draw from this is that it’s a very popular tale, and so there is a good chance that you already have some idea of what it’s about. Another conclusion that I came to while listening to David Case’s expert audiobook narration, is that it was written in a way that lends itself to dramatic interpretation. It’s not hard to see why so many theater and film producers have found it hard to resist the urge to adapt this book to their medium. It comes ready-made with dramatic set pieces, entertaining dialogue, moving soliloquies, skillfully blocked stage business, characters making dramatic entrances and exits, vividly described scenery, and impressive spectacles that leave one thinking, “I wonder how this could be engineered for the stage.” Sometimes its melodrama is downright operatic: “With a few cuts,” one thinks, “this could easily be made into a libretto.” As the villain struggles to hang on while dangling 200 feet above certain death, one thinks, “I know just how I would edit this scene, intercut with shots of the gargoyles and sculptures on the church’s facade.” You see where the idea comes from.
If I had read “Anna Karenina” after this book, it would have cheered me up. Hardy’s last novel, written in 1895, stirred up such harsh criticism that its author never wrote another novel, although he lived until 1928. In me, listening to the audiobook while driving a sales circuit of convenience stores in rural Illinois, it stirred up feelings of failure and disappointment in life. The character of Jude Fawley is a scholarly chap who aspires from an early age to study in the university town of Christminster (in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex), become a clergyman, and distinguish himself in the world.
To understand how these love stories fit together, it is probably best to introduce the not-so-happy couple first. That’s what Tolstoy does, anyway. We first meet the Oblonskys, Stiva and Dolly, at the moment when the love has gone out of their marriage. Dolly has caught Stiva having an affair with their children’s governess, and she is trying to decide whether to leave him when his married sister, Anna Karenina herself, convinces her to forgive him. Stiva and Dolly’s troubled marriage continues to simmer in the background throughout the novel. But while Anna is saving her brother’s marriage, her visit to Moscow has unintended consequences on the happiness of several other people—including, most fatefully, herself. The first person she meets as she descends from the train is a handsome young cavalry officer named Vronsky, who until that moment has been toying with the affections of a debutante named Kitty, who happens to be Dolly’s little sister. It is on Vronsky’s account that Kitty refuses a marriage proposal from a proud country gentleman named Konstantin Levin, and it is on Anna’s account that Kitty suddenly finds herself without any suitor and plunges into despair.
The fourth book of the “Heir” chronicles adds a new dimension to the world of magic that now orbits around Trinity, Ohio. In addition to wizards, sorcerers, enchanters, seers, and warriors, there is now a new category of gifted that crosses the boundaries between these guilds: the Savants. Created in a disaster or massacre or mass poisoning that wiped out all the adults and most of the children in an experimental commune called Thorn Hill, each of the surviving kids has unique powers—as well as weaknesses. Some of them are profoundly disabled. Many of them are destined to die young. And those who die have a tendency to become wandering shades, possessing the bodies of the recently dead—and sometimes killing people just to take over their bodies.
In this sequel to “Hold Me Closer”, “Necromancer”, college dropout, ex-fry cook, late-blooming necromancer Sam LaCroix begins to make sense of his long hidden powers, his network of strange and dangerous allies, his steamy relationship with the Alpha female of a werewolf pack, and the huge fortune left to him by the villain he recently vanquished. But he’d better hurry. More challenges are coming at him, as fast as he can deal with them.