The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Book #804

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily 

TAOSH I read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a good number of years ago as a teenager and enjoyed them.  But they were essentially consigned to memory until I thought to revisit them after my earlier review of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The adventures are a series of twelve, relatively, short stories.  Most will set you back less than an hour to read and each is a little vignette of Holmesian deduction.

The twelve cases are:

  • A Scandal in Bohemia
  • The Adventure of the Red-Headed League
  • A Case of Identity
  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery
  • The Five Orange Pips
  • The Man with the Twisted Lip
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band
  • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
  • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
  • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

The most likely story that you would be familiar with is the first, A Scandal in Bohemia.  It is in this piece that we meet ‘that woman’, Irene Adler.  American opera singer, socialite and apparently a brilliant woman to have outwitted Mr. Holmes.  Then you read the story, or listen on audiobook as I did, and you are left wondering at the idea that being observant and quick witted equals being a brilliant woman and a great opponent for the master deducer.
Oh how times have changed Sir Arthur, oh how they have changed.

Each of the succeeding stories brings out different mini-mysteries, some of which Holmes solves faultlessly while others like the Irene Adler case, are not so clear cut in the perpetrators being brought to justice.  In some instances, it is a case of unmasking goings-on rather than actual crime.

I found the writing to be almost as good as The Hound of the Baskervilles, with just enough setting for each story before getting to the nitty-gritty of the various mysteries to be detected.  Holmes’ deductions are sometimes obvious in advance of his explanations, other times not so much.  And as I mentioned in my previous review, unlike the often portrayed superior attitude of Holmes to Watson in film versions, there is nothing to note of that in these stories either.  In fact, he is quite complimentary and warm about his companion for the most part.

It is another pleasant read, or listen, that will not tax you.  It is worthy of a place on the list as a good selection of the different types of mystery story and if you enjoy it enough you will find it to be the first of five Sherlock Holmes short(ish) story collections for you to hunt out.  This one is the earliest, dated 1892, and was published ten years before The Hound of the Baskervilles but only two years after The Sign of Four.
If you find yourself enjoying the Victorian world of Holmes and Watson, I can only imagine reading the novels and short stories in published order, would give an even more rounded aspect on Conan Doyle’s characters.  To do that, start at the beginning with A Study in Scarlet, and then check the list at the bottom of the page here at Wikipedia for published order.

I hope you enjoy this slice of Victoriana as much as I did.

Thérèse Raquin – Émile Zola

Book # 864

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

TRThérèse Raquin is the first of Émile Zola’s five entries on the 1001 Books list to be reviewed here and my first contact with his work.

As a novel it was first published in 1867 and it caused quite a scandal, which is unsurprising considering the subject matter.  It is apparently considered to be an example of naturalism, and there is plenty of detail to be had throughout my translation (the Penguin Classics edition).  I would be slightly dubious as to the true reality of the world described by Zola it has to be said, however.

The novel follows Thérèse Degans, a young woman who is brought back to France by her father Captain Degans in order to be raised by her over-bearing aunt, Mme Raquin.  She grows up in the company of her aunt and sickly cousin, Camille.

Thérèse grew up sleeping in the same bed as Camille and wrapped in the warm tenderness of her aunt.  She had an iron constitution and was treated like a sickly child, sharing her cousin’s medicine and kept in the warm atmosphere of the sick boy’s room.  She stayed for hours crouching in front of the fire, lost in thought, staring straight into the flames without blinking.  This convalescent life that was imposed on her drove her back into herself.

Mme Raquin eventually sells her small haberdashery business and retires to a little house by the water, which suits Thérèse’s nature but not Camille’s egotism.  Eventually Mme Raquin decides to marry Thérèse to Camille, feeling that her niece is the perfect person to take care of him as part sick nurse, part guardian angel.  The two children grow up with this idea as a foregone conclusion.
A week after they marry, Camille insists that they will move to Paris, thus upsetting his mother’s nicely planned out life of retirement.  But resilience wins through and Mme Raquin heads to Paris and buys a small and dingy haberdashery shop in the Passage du Pont-Neuf and the family duly move there.  Camille finds himself a place in the offices of the Orléans Railway Company and they begin their life in Paris.

The shop and apartment are where everything changes in Thérèse’s life, and this is foreshadowed in the description of it.

When Thérèse entered the shop where she was to spend her life from then on, she felt as though she were going into the clammy earth of a pit.  She shuddered with fear and a feeling of nausea rose in her throat.  She looked at the damp, dirty passageway, toured the shop, went up to the first floor and examined each room; these bare rooms, without furniture, were terrifyingly lonely and decrepit.

For three years she lives in a dank and dreary world.

Every week the family entertain old friends, and the head clerk from Camille’s office.  Then one week Camille brings with him “a tall, square-shouldered young fellow”, an old school friend from their time in Vernon.  Laurent is pretty much everything that Camille is not and catches Thérèse’s eye straight away.

Laurent amazed her: he was tall, strong and fresh-faced. She looked with a kind of awe at his low forehead with its rough black hair, at his plump cheeks, his red lips and his regular features with their sanguine beauty.

Unsurprisingly Thérèse enters into an adulterous affair with Laurent.  But that is only really the start of the story.

It was quite suspenseful and I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the inevitable moment of discovery.  It was a long wait.  It was a long, drawn-out wait.  There was lots of passion, hatred, madness and plenty of very evocative passages.  But it was a long, long, long piece of character description that could have done with a bit of editing down, in my opinion.

I enjoyed the translation that I read.  There were plenty of gems amongst the psychological observations of an adulterous affair gone wrong.  Especially the passages describing Laurent’s visits to the morgue.

One morning, he got a real fright.  For some minutes, he had been looking at a drowned man, short in stature and horribly disfigured.  The flesh of this body was so soft and decayed that the water running over it was taking it away bit by bit.  The stream pouring on the face was making a hole to the left of the nose.  Then, suddenly, the nose collapsed and the lips fell off, revealing white teeth.  The drowned man’s head broke into a laugh.

I hope I haven’t put you off your breakfast, lunch or dinner with that passage.  There are plenty more where that came from if I haven’t.

While I found this fairly short novel to be a bit too drawn out for my liking, it has not put me off reading more of Zola’s work.  The observations are interesting, if stretched out, and in a good translation the descriptiveness of his characters’ lives and environment are very well done.  I will definitely be seeking out the others on the list to see how they fare by comparison.  I think you would not be too disappointed if you did so too.

The Hobbit – J.R.R.Tolkien

Book #610

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

THSuch a terrible task I have taken on.  To review one of the worlds most loved stories. Before we begin, you may be aware of the incredible amount of love that a great number of people have for the works of J.R.R.Tolkien, or not as the case may be.  If you are a long time admirer and have read his entire canon, then this is not a review you need to be reading.  This is for those thinking of dipping their toes in to the world of Middle Earth.

Published back in 1937 The Hobbit, or There and Back Again has since been revised many times in order to bring it in to line with its sequel, The Lord of the Rings.  It is a tale for children, but has many themes that are worthy of an adult’s attention.

Essentially this is the tale of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.  Like all hobbits, he’s a home-loving sort, with a great appreciation of food and peacefulness.  He is highly respectable until one day the wizard, Gandalf, appears at his little round hobbit hole.  As a result of Gandalf’s brief visit Bilbo finds himself inundated with dwarves for afternoon tea the following day.  Thirteen of them, in fact.

Led by Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King under the Mountain, these thirteen wish to reclaim their treasure from the Lonely Mountain and from under the belly of Smaug the dragon.  Gandalf proposes Bilbo as the fourteenth member of the party and chief burglar.

In this way, the stay-at-home Bilbo is led into an arduous, dangerous and even humorous series of adventures as the fourteen, plus Gandalf, make their way from the safe and secure Shire to the halls of the Lonely Mountain.
Along the way we meet trolls, goblins, wargs, Gollum, the Eagles, Beorn, the Elvenking of Mirkwood, the Master and men of the laketown Esgaroth and finally Bard the Bowman.  Each promising adventure, danger and bravery in equal measure.

It is beautifully realised, and perfectly pitched for children.  It does not shy away from the grimness of life, but also allows for it to be described in such wonderful language as to soften many of the harder aspects.  It really is an excellent read.

Descriptions of the terrible travels in the mountains,

He knew that something unexpected might happen, and he hardly dared to hope that they would pass without fearful adventure over those great tall mountains with lonely peaks and valleys where no king ruled.  They did not.  All was well, until one day they met a thunderstorm – more than a thunderstorm, a thunder-battle.  You know how terrific a really big thunderstorm can be down in the land and in a river-valley; especially at times when two great thunderstorms meet and clash.  More terrible still are thunder and lightning in the mountains at night, when storms come up from East and West and make war.  The lightning splinters on the peaks, and rocks shiver, and great crashes split the air and go rolling and tumbling into every cave and hollow; and the darkness is filled with overwhelming noise and sudden light.

Descriptions of the fighting, in this case with the goblins,

Just at that moment all the lights in the cavern went out, and the great fire went off poof! into a tower of blue glowing smoke, right up to the roof, that scattered piercing white sparks all among the goblins.
The yells and yammering, croaking, jibbering and jabbering; howls, growls and curses; shrieking and skriking, that followed were beyond description.  Several hundred wild cats and wolves being roasted slowly alive together would not have compared with it.

Yes, no backing away from grimness.  But done so poetically.

And as for poetry, the book is scattered with it, often in the form of songs.  The dwarves love to sing and make music, as do the other inhabitants of Middle Earth and Tolkien shares this regularly throughout.  My favourite being the song sung by the dwarves in Bilbo’s hobbit hole on the night they meet to discuss the adventure ahead.  For the sake of brevity I will only quote a small amount.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For a wonderful adaptation of this song*, and for a fair (in my opinion) retelling of The Hobbit so far, you can’t go wrong with the film released last year.  In the meantime, here is a Youtube version of Misty Mountains for you to get a feel for the ambiance of the film and, I think, of the book.

All in all, this is definitely a book to read to your children and for yourself.  If you have not read The Lord of the Rings, then starting here is a nice, light way in to the world and peoples of Middle Earth.

A definite five-star read for me.  I hope you enjoy it too.

* they chose two verses, with minor alterations to one line of the original song.

For more Hobbit and Lord of the Rings discussions and information, you cannot go past The One Ring website.
And a final disclaimer, yes I do proudly live in Middle Earth.  In fact I live in the middle of Middle Earth where these stories have been brought to another generation through the films.  So perhaps I am a little biased.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter – Anonymous

TToTBCThis is a very short folktale from 10th century Japan.  So short that it is rather hard to describe without telling you the whole tale.

At a whole 5 and a smidgen pages in length, in the only edition I could get my hands on, it had to share the book with stories from Cicero, Lucian and Voltaire amongst others.

Many of the motifs will be very familiar from folk tales and creation myths, far and wide.  It is also touted as one of the first, if not the first, science fiction story.

It starts with a poor bamboo cutter going about his daily work.  He and his wife have no children.  One evening, lo and behold, he sees a fabulous light shining nearby.  On investigation he finds a baby girl small enough to fit on the palm of his hand.  Naturally he takes her home and raises her as his daughter.  They name her Lady Kaguya.

Is this sounding familiar?  Lots of modern stories feature that particular motif, not looking at anyone in a funny suit and cape at all.

As she is not of this world we find that Lady Kaguya grows quickly (a few months) from a baby to a beautiful young woman.  Cue the romantic and quest section of the folktale.  Young men and their desire to see her beautiful face wears thin and in the end the bamboo cutter is left trying to dissuade only five noblemen.  Each is given an impossible quest.

Eventually the Emperor hears of her and requests that she come to the palace.  Unfortunately she will, apparently, die if she leaves the bamboo cutter’s home so the Emperor (bless him) comes to her.  Naturally, as folk tales go, he falls in love with her but she cannot leave her home and so he resigns himself to leaving.

After some time Lady Kaguya becomes pensive and sad whenever she looks up at the moon.  Eventually she explains that she is not from Earth, but from the Moon and is soon to have other Moon People come to take her home.

Mystified, her father asked her why she had come to Earth.  Lady Kaguya explained that there had been a great war on her world, and that she had been sent to Earth for her own safety.  Now that the war was over, she would have to go home.

Sound vaguely familiar, anyone?

And eventually this does come to pass.  Lady Kaguya’s people come down in a bright cloud, descend from a strange craft and with a little hey presto magic and an Elixir of Immortality she is whipped off back to her people.

I would not be exaggerating to say that it took longer to write this review than it did to read the tale.

To our modern ears the familiarity of extra-terrestrial beings as fictional characters makes it seem a small and unimpressive story, but in the context of 10th century Japan it must have been really quite radical to introduce other-worldliness into a tale.  If you find it in a book of folk tales, it is a nice way to see the beginnings of many themes that make their way through to modern science fiction.

Happy reading everyone.

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

Book #539

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

IRToday I get to review the 1001 list’s second and final science fiction book by Isaac Asimov.

Once again I will confess at the outset to being biased in my opinions of Asimov’s writing.  I enjoy science fiction that is aspirational in it’s view of the future, but is still accessible and easy to read.  Mr Asimov, in my opinion, does both very well.  

I will also confess to another personal Asimovian quirk.  The laptop that I am typing my review on has a name.  It is R.Daneel Olivaw.  And yes, it is the name of an Asimov robot.   He does not, however, appear in this interconnected collection of short stories.

There are nine interconnected stories in this volume.  My edition ran to 249 pages, but certainly reads much faster than that would suggest.  The format is a retrospective of key events in the early development of robotics through a journalist interviewing the renowned robopyschologist, Susan Calvin on the occasion of her retirement.  Set in 2057, we are first taken back to 1996 and the story of Robbie, a non-vocal nursemaid robot, and his young charge Gloria Weston. We then take jumps forward in time through each of the eight remaining stories, investigating the development of speaking robot models, the conflict potential of the laws of robotics, the mind-reading robot, the potential fault of robots perceiving their superiority to humanity, the development of the interstellar engine and the development of a united world.  

Even reading this collection all these years after my first foray, I still find them fresh and inviting.  It astounds me to think that they were first gathered into this format in 1950 and were originally published as individual short stories between 1940 and 1950.   Once again I think it is a testament to Asimov’s style that they have barely dated.  There are clearly aspects that would seem outmoded to us today in our miniaturised computer chip world, but bearing in mind the size and cost of “computing machines” at the time Asimov was writing I think the stories hold up pretty well.

Of course no review of I, Robot could be complete without the very famous Laws of Robotics, so here they are.

The Three Laws of Robotics

1 – A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2 – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3 – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Handbook of Robotics.
56th Edition, 2058 A.D.

As a fan I am naturally going to say that you should spend some of your precious reading time on these stories.  I just hope that you enjoy them as much as I do.
My only gripe is that I had to spend my re-reading time looking at Will Smith on the cover of the book, my copy currently being in storage.  My teeth would grind every time I picked the book up as I was well aware that the film of the same name would bear a scant similarity to the stories told here.   And from what I have read of the film synopsis, I was right.  Do not believe you are going to replicate each by reading or viewing the other.