Tag Archives: classic literature

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels was the last of the Thursday Next books sitting on my to-read shelf. I was a little excited about it, mainly because I’ve had a nonfiction reading jag, and I was ready to return to something I’d find more relaxing and less taxing. What I got was a purely delightful book that stands with its head just a little taller than most of the other Thursday Next books.

One of the best things about this book is that it starts off with Thursday as a middle-aged woman. She has her children and her husband, whom she has told she has given up her work with all enforcement agencies she was previously associated with. Instead, she owns a flooring business.

This is, of course, a lie.

Next works undercover, with the carpet-laying job being a ruse so that she can justify to Landen all the time she spends away from home. Life seems to be going along as smoothly as it can when one’s lying to one’s husband, and then there’s a surprise. Thursday’s son, Friday, who is a typical lazy teenager, is revealed to be the future head of the ChronoGuard — except that he should have started training a long time ago. The fate of the world hangs on his career choice; it appears the universe will end in a couple of days.

Thursday is also training herself from her fifth book, Thursday5, to become a Jurisfiction agent. Sadly, she also gets saddled with Thursday1-4, who turns out not to be cut from the correct cloth for this type of work.

I loved the fact that every plot part was easy to track. Fforde did a much better job of juggling the various aspects of the story within the reader’s mind; some of his other Next books have left me a little confused at points when I had to struggle to remember something that was mentioned quite a bit earlier in the book. This time, it was put together so well that I didn’t have to put forth the effort to find what he’s referencing, which is perfect. I read Thursday Next: First Among Sequels for fun and as a break from nonfiction.

Another great thing about this book is that there is a lot less jumping around between books and time. I prefer it when there’s a cleaner flow, and Fforde provided that wonderfully here. I also liked the fewer references — sometimes the earlier books fell into the fault of stretching for a pun or literary mention. There’s less of that here.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels left me excitedly anticipating my chance to read the next book in the series. That’s the mark of an awesome book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

When I first chose to read The Woman in White, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I thought, perhaps, that it would be a supernatural thriller of some sort — one of the descriptions I read lead me to believe so.  It isn’t, and how happy I am to have been wrong.  The Woman in White is a superb and clever mystery story, and has no need of the occult.

Wilkie Collins’ telling of the story of Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie has a pacing that is very pleasant.  Collins takes his time to describe locations and characters in a way that seems lost to modern writers.  I, for one, enjoy the longer exposition that he provides, not only for the surroundings, but also for the thoughts of the narrators.  Their minds are open for exploration while also maintaining small secrets for later.

Notice I did say narrators.  Collins has not only Walter Hartright tell us this story from his point-of-view, but we also follow, among others, the Fairlie family lawyer, Laura’s cousin Marian, and the clever and devious Count Fosco.  He also uses multiple sources — for example, Marian’s account of part of the story is told through her journal entries, while Count Fosco’s is told through a writing of his about past deeds.  I thought this a wise choice, since the story involves all these people.  Hartwright’s experience of the events that unfold after he meets with the Fairlie family could never have provided the information and insight needed to properly built a true mystery.

The actual mystery of The Woman in White is well-done.  It’s not my first choice of genres, but I think, for the time it was published, that it was rather smart.  We’re given an obsessed, mentally-unstable woman, Anne Catherick, who floats in and out of the story, stirring up suspicions.  We have a smart and brave hero in Hartright, who collects the accounts of others and puts everything together in order to rescue the woman he loves.  There’s Laura Fairlie, who is a sweet and delicate woman not entirely up to the challenges placed in front of her, and her cousin, Marian, who is a strong and fiercely intelligent woman whose strong love for Laura and Walter allows her to perform amazingly on their behalf.  Lord Glyde, Laura’s husband, is a brute, but it is his companion, Count Fosco, who is the deadly mastermind behind the entire story.

The story is compelling.  Collins makes inheritance money the ultimate center of the story, and, while death is in this book, there is only one slaying, and it was not performed for the gain of money or in retribution for anything done against the Fairlie women or Hartwright.  I thought this a refreshing approach to handling a story that easily could have gone down the murderous route.

It may be that I’m a tyro when it comes to mysteries, but I think Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White has a timeless appeal that will make it a quiet favorite for generations to come.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

I’ve already read the entire Chronicles of Prydain series.  I loved it, so I picked up a matching copy of this book, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.  I’m not quite sure what I was expecting — maybe a story about Taran’s early childhood mixed in with some more traditional background lore — but what I got was perfectly delightful.

The book is made up of eight short stories.  The first, “The Foundling,” is not, as I had expected, about Taran’s origin or early childhood.  It is, rather, about Dallben’s early years.  It turns out that he has some interesting foster parents — Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, the three fate-like figures who seem to know all (or cause all) events in Prydain.  We also learn how Dallben became so wise, the story of which echoes how Finn MacCool earned his intelligence in Celtic mythology.  Finally, we also get to find out how Dallben obtained The Book of Three and what consequences he had to face for owning it.

The second story, “The Stone,” is modeled on a traditional folktale frame; we do have Doli, but it’s not really a story about him.  He merely serves as the fairy-world representative for the main character, Maibon.  In exchange for helping Doli out of a jam, Maibon compels Doli to honor the rule of granting a boon to a human who comes to a Fair Folk’s aid.  Maibon wishes for something foolish, and we get to see the result.

“The True Enchanter” feels both familiar and new.  Drawing from both the Western fairy tale structure and the plot of at least one Greek myth I can think of, Alexander writes of an enchantress princess, Angharad, and her difficulty with the rules placed on her regarding her choice of a husband.  Told by her mother she must only choose from the pool of enchanters, Angharad quickly decides that the first two suitors, based on their magical performances, are not for her.  The third suitor, however, turns out to be more interesting.

“The Rascal Crow” truly reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables.  I think it could fit right in with his canon.  After the animals of Prydain learn of the evilness of King Arawn, Kadwyr the crow disparages the offers of help the other species bring to the defense.  Insisting, teasingly, that he can carry out all the tasks better than the other animals, he sets off to protect the land.  Alexander shows us the consequences of believing only oneself to be competent and the value of learning to trust and rely on others.

For the fifth story, “The Sword,” Alexander writes about the origin of the great sword Dyrnwyn and of how it became tainted.  Rhytta, the King of Prydain, inherited the sword.  Through his arrogant and dismissive behavior toward his subjects, Rhytta commits a terrible act.  From there, the sword changes slowly from shining to stained as the king makes further and further mistakes, yet refuses to change his behavior.

“The Smith, the Weaver, and the Harper,” explains how a disguised Arawn managed to take the forging and weaving knowledge of Prydain away from its artisans.  Neither the smith nor the weaver Arawn tricks manage to realize that something for nothing is never really for nothing — there is always a cost.  The harper, however, manages to see what his fellow tradesmen were not, and confronts the true face of Arawn.

The penultimate story, “Coll and his White Pig,” is, delightfully, about Coll.  We still don’t learn how Coll happened to own Hen Wen.  Alexander does, however, show us Coll’s nature through the actions he takes while attempting to rescue Hen Wen after she is captured by Arawn’s henchmen.  Not one to leave us completely hanging, Alexander also tells us how Coll and Dallben came to be living together in Caer Dallben.

The last story is about Fflewddur Fflam, our favorite truth-bending bard.  “The Truthful Harp” begins with Fflewddur’s study to become a bard, and how that didn’t go so well.  After failing his test, Fflam is given a new harp by the Chief Bard.  Fflam goes through several adventures (and several harp strings) before arriving back to the Chief Bard and reporting on his exploits, first through fibbing and later by telling the truth.

I love the lessons Alexander imparts to the readers of The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.  He takes inspiration from several different traditional folklore and mythological traditions while keeping Wales in the forefront of his mind.  While the stories can stand on their own, they are, I suspect, easier to understand and enjoy if one has first read the books in the Chronicles of Prydain series.  That’s the only reason I can’t give it a 5; some younger readers, especially, are likely to be a little lost coming in to some of the stories.  Overall, however, I think most children, young adults, and, yes, adults, will enjoy what Alexander can tell them about the goings-on in Prydain.

Rating: 4/5

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The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

No matter how I think I have grown up, some books manage to put me back in the head of the little girl I once was.  The Black Cauldron is one of those books; it’s a pity I didn’t manage to read it when I was young.

I was, unfortunately, one of the kids who only knew about The Black Cauldron through the Disney movie adapted from The Chronicles of Prydain series.  I absolutely loved that movie.  Now, with two of the five sequenced books under my belt, I see how poorly that movie treated such rich material.

We pick up with Taran and the crew after they have resettled in Caer Dallben and are living normal lives once again.  In the first couple of pages, the entire population of the estate has been agitated into participating in a dangerous venture: stealing and destroying the Black Cauldron.

Taran, eager once again for adventure, readily agrees to go along.  Unfortunately, he is paired with unpleasant Prince Ellidyr, who frequently and unceasingly maligns him and his other companions, goading Taran into angrily confronting him on a regular basis.  He appears to have no checks on his behavior, nor remorse for his mistakes.  Ellidyr eventually runs off to find honor on his own, leading to the scattering of the group when they are left without someone on watch one night, only to return to cause further harm later.

The wonder of Lloyd Alexander’s second book about Prydain is that it provides nice lessons for children around the age of Taran without seeming to preach about them.  He writes on how to treat those who treat us badly, on what honor truly is and what your word means, on how to think on the greater good while ignoring your own wishes.  These are valuable lessons, and they’re presented in a remarkably approachable way.  Even I, ostensibly an adult, have a wish to act in a more honorable and admirable fashion after reading one of his books.

Alexander provides us with a hero who is a work in progress, which I think most of us can relate to.  He has big-name warriors to look up to, villains to escape from, odd characters to negotiate with, and companions who are as imperfectly charming.  He learns throughout his story, becoming less and less foolish and more admirable.  This is probably the most valuable lesson Taran has to offer:  no matter who you are, if you learn from your experiences, you also learn to be a better person.

Rating:  5/5.

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Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is one of those books that is a product of its time.  Julia Strachey, the author, was of Virginia Woolf’s time — in fact, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press.   It is put forth today as a “forgotten twentieth-century novel” by the current publishers, and I think that’s a fair assessment.  The book has a limited audience it speaks to, and others are not likely to pick it up.  Despite that, I think that it is a good depiction of British women of a certain class and time and their relationships; it is thus worth reading if only for the insight it gives into the time period.

The book takes place in the home of Dolly Thatcham, a bride-to-be dressing for her wedding.  The house is full, from the visiting relatives and guests to the servants, and her confused mother looks after it all.  Dolly appears to not have anyone who truly understands her other than Joseph Patten, a former lover, who is unhappily in attendance for the wedding between his still-beloved Dolly and Owen Bigham.  Joseph and Dolly play the game of keeping up appearances, and can even almost do it.

One delightful point of both realism and symbolism was when Dolly, drunk and uncoordinated, manages to spill ink on the front of her wedding dress.  The only one there to help is Joseph, who does — he gets her a lace scarf to drape and pin over the stain.  In it I find both the sign that Dolly’s marriage to Owen will never be a clean start, and also an omen of what is to come from Joseph after the wedding.

I suppose Cheerful Weather for the Wedding could be, and probably is, classified as domestic fiction — after all, the book takes place solely in one house over the events of a part of a day.  In this way, it carries on in the tradition of Jane Austen, taking a careful look at the manners and mores of the time and skewering them.  Unlike Austen, however, Strachey strives to move beyond the manners into a more realistic life depiction.  While Austen would have striven for the characters to cover scandal and to provide for them a mostly happy ending, in this book no one ends up in an enviable position.  In this way Strachey has both honored Austen in her genre choice, while also subverting its conventions and providing it with a more realistic feel.

Overall, I found the story to be a solid one, with some really interesting parts.  It’s not my favorite genre, but it was an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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