Friday, June 28, 2019

Snowfall On Mars - Branden Frankel

    2015; 360 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Murder-Mystery; Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi; Dystopian Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Imagine how thrilling it must’ve been to be one of the first settlers to land on Mars!  It’s now the 22nd century, and that first voyage happened sixty years ago!

    At the time, the planet had no atmosphere, little water, and absolutely no food sources: plant, animal, or otherwise.  But this of course was anticipated, and there were plans to overcome that, via something the technological gurus call “terraforming”.

    After that, colonies can be built.  Equipment such as land rovers can be brought from Earth.  The Martian clouds can be seeded with chemicals to make it rain.  Or, more accurately, make it snow, since Mars is rather frigid most of the time.  Food can be imported from Earth, at least until Mars can become self-sustaining by the development of indoor greenhouse farms.  Or even outside farms, once the Martian atmosphere evolves to duplicate Earthlike conditions.  A few decades at the most.

    Sure, there will be some snags along the way, but what’s the worst that can happen?  A late shipment of supplies from Earth?  Bland-tasting artificial food from the Martian greenhouses?  Snowdrifts?

    How about a terraforming project that fails miserably, making acid rain and snow.  Plus Mother Earth wiping itself out in a nuclear holocaust.

What’s To Like...
    Snowfall On Mars is kind of a mash-up of Andy Weir’s The Martian and Hugh Howey’s Wool, and a clever combination of several genres.  I liked the Hard’ Science Fiction aspect; it’s not quite as rigidly scientific as in The Martian, but you won’t find any phasers or transporters here either.  The Murder-Mystery storyline kept my interest and had a couple neat twists to it.  But first and foremost, this is a Dystopian Fiction novel, with Branden Frankel examining the mindsets of a dwindling group of marooned colonists, without any hope of rescue.   

    The book is written in the first-person POV, that of our protagonist, David Adler.  He’s somewhat of an anti-hero: fatalistic, but determined to survive as long as he can.  He’s a good guy at heart, but more curious than heroic; he’s not a particularly formidable fighter, but he plans ahead well.  I found him to be a fascinating character study.

    The only setting is the last inhabited spaceport on 22nd-century Mars twenty years after Earth blew itself up, although we do get to travel to a couple other deserted ones.  Branden Frankel includes a number of bits of obscure trivia, including one Albert Goring, who is real and is Hermann Goring’s lesser-known brother.  Wiki him; he’s worth reading about.

     I thought the title was catchy, ditto for the cover art, which, ANAICT, is a depiction of a mansion called “Shiloh” that David encounters at 45%.  Geeky engineers play an important part in the story; that resonates with me since I’m a chemist by trade.  I chuckled at the products made to keep the colonists alive, and their order of importance, which was: cigarettes first, rotgut booze second, and tasteless pseudo power-bars euphemistically dubbed “sustainability rations” dead last.  I also appreciated that even the bad guys were not “totally black”.  Proctor, the leader of the religious zealots called “the ghosts” may be manipulative, but his rationale for what he does has a certain logic.  And even his torturer, “Muck”, has a modicum of charm.

    The ending is good, and despite all odds, manages to end on a hopeful note.  All the main threads are tied up, including the murder-mystery, and there’s a window left open for a sequel, although I don’t sense that Branden Frankel is even thinking about writing one.  Finally, a nod should be made to whoever did the editing; I was impressed by how few typos and grammar errors were here.

Kewlest New Word...
Brobdingnagian (adj.) : gigantic (not new to me, but definitely way-kewl)

    The red dust has always been here.  God knows if there was snow before, but the snow I’m watching fall now is the result of a failed project undertaken by a failed people.  The first colonists came to Mars sixty years ago.  Forty years later, they tried to terraform the planet by pumping chemicals into the air.  The intent was to create a breathable atmosphere.  All they created was acidic rain and snow that served to break their impressive machines down into the same rust red dust that is the beginning, middle, and end of this place.   (loc. 29)

    I try to pull my cuffed hands under me, but I’m cuffed to a steam pipe or something behind me.  I’m not going anywhere.
    “Where are your friends?” he asks, his gaze unwavering.  I don’t know if he’s bluffing, but there’s no reason for me to play along.
    “What are you talking about?  I came alone.”
    “You aren’t that stupid,” he responds.
    “Oh, I’m pretty stupid,” I say.  “My current predicament is proof positive.”  (loc. 3380)

Kindle Details...
    Snowfall on Mars sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  This seems to be Branden Frankel’s only book offered at Amazon, although he also is one of the authors for a Dystopian Fiction anthology titled Trumpland: An Alternative History of the Future, and which costs $2.99.  There are eight authors total for the 174-page Trumpland book, so I presume these fall into the short stories category.

In hindsight, it seems like the Boy Scouts is an end-times preparation service.  (loc. 1606)
    The quibbles are minor.  There’s an awful lot of cussing going on which admittedly fits the character of our narrator.  But I found it a bit distracting after a while.  There are also a couple of sex references and/or scenes, which weren’t distracting, but which do mean that little Timmy probably shouldn’t be reading this.

    Then there’s the innovative twist concerning the Martian snow late in the story, but it doesn’t fit well with the “hard science” tone of the book.

    That’s pretty much it, and pretty nitpicky.  For me, Snowfall On Mars was a fast-paced, easy read, and a pleasant surprise since it came from an author I’d never heard of before.  I recommend it highly for anyone who likes Dystopian and/or Science Fiction.

    9 Stars.  The failed terra-forming project kindled some old memories for me.  Back when I was a kid (when woolly mammoths and dinosaurs roamed the world), cloud-seeding was touted as the next big thing in weather-manipulation.  IIRC, they were going to seed clouds with iodine crystals to induce rainstorms in drought-stricken areas.  I haven’t heard anything else about this in decades.  Sometimes, apparently, science doesn’t have all the answers to our problems.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Lords and Ladies - Terry Pratchett

   1992; 281 pages.  Book #14 (out of 41) in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series; Book #4 (out of 6) in the “Witches” sub-series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Humorous Fantasy; Satire; Humorous Fiction.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    Yippee!  We’re going to a wedding, and not just any old affair.  It’s gonna be a royal wedding.  King Verence II of Lancre is getting married to Magrat Garlick.  It’s a good pairing.  Verence used to be court jester; now he’s the king, and pretty new to the job.  Magrat is a witch in good standing with her peers, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, but she’ll be leaving that vocation for a more lucrative one: Queen of Lancre.

    They’re both good people, but without doubt there’ll be an adjustment period.  Verence knows little about women in general, and Magrat has zero training in how a queen is supposed to act.  She’ll need to learn to let others do everything for her, and how to use the “Royal One”.  You know: “One wishes that one’s feet could have one’s socks put on them by someone.”  Forsooth.

    This is going to be a huge occasion.  All sorts of people from all sorts of places on Discworld will be attending.  The wizards will send some of their foremost members, and of course, Magrat’s witchy colleagues will be there as well.  There’ll be delegations of dwarfs and trolls, and lots of family and friends.

    Unfortunately, there are rumors that some wedding-crashers are on their way.  Elves.  Nasty, icky, uppity, unwelcome elves.  Including one who is particularly hostile to Verence and Magrat: the elvish queen, and who views Lancre as her own rightful territory and isn’t in a sharing mood.  To be fair, the two realms do coexist in the same multidimensional time/space "continuinuinuum".

    And as any beekeeper can tell you, there can only be one outcome when two queens are buzzing around in a single hive.  One of them must be eliminated.

What’s To Like...
    Lords and Ladies is Terry Pratchett’s spoof of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I read another take-off of this play earlier this year; which is reviewed here.  Coincidentally, I saw that play many years ago, also done in a spoofy style, and it was hilarious.

    The wizards, the Librarian (Oook!), and the witches all get star billing here, which for me was a real delight.  I enjoyed being introduced to a bunch of Nanny Ogg’s family; I don’t recall meeting them before.  And I was astounded to learn that Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Ridcully have a “history”.

    Terry Pratchett weaves several storylines together in his usual deft style.  The central story is Magrat’s coping with the upcoming nuptials, but of equal importance is the breach in the barrier between our world and that of the elves, the latter being euphemistically referred to as the titular "Lords and Ladies".  We also watch Granny Weatherwax come to grips with her own mortality: she’s growing older and more fragile, all the while having to contend with younger, stronger, upstart rivals.  Meanwhile, on a lighter note, Nanny Ogg has to deal with a small-in-stature, enamored suitor who won’t take “no” for an answer.

    Lords and Ladies is written in the usual Pratchett format, which means there are no chapters, lots of witty footnotes, and humor aplenty.  There is an Author’s Note at the start of the book, wherein those who aren’t reading the Discworld series in order (that includes me) are given a helpful backstory of the characters and events leading up to this.

    Multiverses and Schrodinger’s Cat are again present; Quantum Physics is a recurring theme in Discworld novels.  Other highlights include henges, crop circles, the much-coveted dried frog pills, The Long Man, a cameo appearance by DEATH, and, on a more personal level, agrochemicals.  I work for an agrochemical company.

    The ending is satisfying, witty, and suitably twisty.  Everyone gets their just desserts, for better or for worse.  There is even a semblance of an epilogue at the very end (not an easy thing to do when there are no chapters), and I thought it was a perfect way to close.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Garderobe (n.) : a small storeroom in a medieval building, used for safekeeping clothes or other valuables.  Also, the lavatory in a medieval building.
Others : Incunibles (n., plural, and slightly misspelled); Chicane (n.); Mackko (adj., huh?)

    “Halt!  Who Goes There?” he said.
    A ringing voice came up from below.
    “It’s me, Shawn.  Your Mum.”
    “Oh, hello, Mum.  Hello, Mistress Weatherwax.”
    “Let us in, there’s a good boy.”
    “Friend or Foe?”
    “It’s what I’ve got to say, Mum.  It’s official.  And then you’ve got to say Friend.”
    “I’m your mum.”
    “You’ve got to do it properly, Mum,” said Shawn, in the wretched tones of one who knows he’s going to lose no matter what happens next, “otherwise what’s the point?”
    “It’s going to be Foe in a minute, my lad.”  (pg. 108)

    “The thing about elves is they’ve got no … begins with m.”  Granny snapped her fingers irritably.
    “Hah!  Right, but no.”
    “Muscle?  Mucus?  Mystery?”
    “No.  No.  No.  Means like … seein’ the other person’s point of view.”
    Verence tried to see the world from a Granny Weatherwax perspective, and suspicion dawned.
    “Right.”  (pg. 117)

 “Chateau Maison?  Chat-eau … that’s foreign for cat’s water, you know.  (pg. 176)
    This is yet another Discworld novel that I can’t find anything to quibble or gripe about.  I think that the late 80’s and early 90’s were the Golden Era of Pratchett’s writing:  in addition to Lords and Ladies and several other stellar Discworld novels in this period, he also co-authored Good Omens with Neil Gaiman (in 1990), and which will shortly be released as a movie.

    Overall, Lords and Ladies seemed a bit darker in tone than the other Discworld books written during this time in Pratchett's career.  Perhaps that presaged the tone of his later books in this series.  It seemed like more characters got killed than normal; that isn’t a negative, just an insight.  And my hat’s off to anyone who can make elves and unicorns into terrifying creatures.

    10 Stars.  Highly recommended.  The stack of Discworld books on my TBR shelf has dwindled to about a half dozen, and I’m going to be pretty bummed when they've all been read.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke

   2005; 850 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Alternate History; British Historical Fiction; Dark Magic; Fantasy.  Laurels: Shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award (2004) and the Guardian First Book Award (2004); winner of the Time Magazine’s Best Novel of the Year (2004), the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year (2005), the Hugo Award (2005), the Locus Award – Best First Novel (2005), the Mythopoeic Award – Adult Literature (2005), and the World Fantasy Award (2005).  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    England has lost her magic.  She’s apparently forgotten all about it somewhere along the line.  This realization comes at a pretty bad time, too.  Napoleon is kicking everybody’s butt over on the continent, and the reigning King of England is locked away in Windsor Castle because he’s stark raving mad.  It would be nice if someone would brew up a potion or a spell to cure him, and whup up on Bonaparte while they're at it.

    There are a couple of self-proclaimed wizards in England, most notably the “Learned Society of York Magicians”.  But they’re “theoretical” magicians, devoted solely to combing through ancient books and manuscripts, looking for incantations and spells long gone.  None of them has ever attempted to cast a spell, nor do they intend to.

    There are also a couple of street wizards around, but they just use some cheap sleight-of-hand tricks to entertain poor street urchins for a pittance.  The most famous one is Vinculus, but he looks more like a beggar, and has never done anything truly magical.

    However, things are about to change.  Some upstart named Mr. Gilbert Norrell has just moved to London, and he’s called out the theoretical magicians, much to their chagrin. He’s issued them a challenge.  They are invited to meet him and watch him try to do some unequivocal feat of magic.  If he fails, he’ll leave London at once and never bother them again.

    But if he succeeds, the Learned Society of York Magicians must agree to disband forever and never call themselves magicians again.

What’s To Like...
    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is divided into three “volumes”, namely:
        Mr. Norrell (1%-24%),
        Jonathan Strange  (24%-58%), and,
        John Uskglass (58%-93%).
    These are not separate books, and this shouldn’t be considered a trilogy.

    The novel is set in the early 1800’s (1806-1817, to be exact), mostly in England, but also with excursions to Portugal, Italy (primarily Venice and Padua), and an otherworldly place called “Faerie”.  I liked that the fairies here are rather evil creatures, making them much more interesting than if they were Tinkerbells.  Terry Pratchett would be proud.

    The book is billed as a Fantasy, which is why I picked it up.  But as the title hints, it is really more about the relationship between the two protagonists.  Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell have different personalities, different views on the history of English magic, and different ways of becoming proficient in it.

    The book is written in 1800’s English, which didn’t bother me, although the author seemed to find any excuse possible to use the words “chuse”, “surprized”, and “connexions”.  I liked the usage of other archaic words, such as shewed, dropt, sopha, learnt, stopt, popt, headach, ancles, scissars, standers-by, and learnt.  But I can see where this might get tiresome for some readers.

    The primary storyline theme of the book is: why is there no more magic in England, and what can be done to recover it?  Each protagonist has his own opinions on this.  Jonathan Strange argues that there is a pressing need to learn magic, since there are damsels to save and a French dictator to defeat.  Mr. Norrell, urges caution since one doesn't know what sort of beasties might be unintentionally unleashed by the casting of spells.

    The book is also Historical Fiction, and I thought this was done quite well.  It was fun to get the “feel” for how the Napoleonic wars were conducted, and in times of peace, how travelers passed the time while vacationing in Italy and other parts of western Europe.

    There are some drawings scattered throughout the text; they were a nice touch.  I can relate to Mr. Norrell’s book-hoarding, and I enjoyed visiting Shrewsbury (where Ellis Peters’  Brother Cadfael series is set), and Windsor Castle, which I’ve walked through.  The ending ties up most of the main story threads, including the identity of the man with the thistle-down hair.  There is one major plot thread left unresolved, which could conceivably be developed into a sequel.  But I don’t think Susanna Clarke has any plans to write one.

Kewlest New Word…
Quern (n.) : a simple hand mill for grinding grain, typically consisting of two circular stones, the upper of which is rubbed to and fro on the lower one.
Others : Phaeton (n.)

Kindle Details...
    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell presently sells for $8.54 at Amazon.  ANAICT, Susanna Clarke has only one other novel available as an e-book there, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is a collection of short stories, some of which are set in the same world as this book.  It is priced at $9.99.   

    It had never occurred to him before that Strange would need books in Portugal.  The idea of forty precious volumes being taken into a country in a state of war where they might get burnt, blown up, drowned or dusty was almost too horrible to contemplate.  Mr. Norrell did not know a great deal about war, but he suspected that soldiers are not generally your great respecters of books.  They might put their dirty fingers on them.  They might tear them!  They might – horrors of horrors! – read them and try the spells!  Could soldiers read?  Mr. Norrell did not know.  (loc. 5053)

    “Go to the store-room at the foot of the kitchen-stairs.  In the chest under the window you will find lead chains, lead padlocks and lead keys.  Bring them here!  Quickly!”
    “And I will go and fetch a pair of pistols,” declared Lascelles.
    “They will do no good,” said Mr. Norrell.
    “Oh!  You would be surprized how many problems a pair of pistols can solve!”  (loc. 12826)

She wore a gown the colour of storms, shadows and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets.  (loc. 2689)
     As shown in the header of this review, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was nominated for, and often won, all sorts of literary awards in 2004-05, and there are a slew of reviews at Amazon and Goodreads overflowing with gushing praise.  Yet, for me the book was a let-down.  Outside of fairies and wizards, there are very few otherworldly critters to meet and greet, and for the majority of the book, the magic is rather tame.

    There are a slew of characters introduced, probably close to a hundred in all.  That in itself is okay since this is an 850-page epic, but putting a Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book would have been a real plus.  There are also a slew of footnotes, which worked well, but seemed to be there mostly to make the Alternate History storyline seem convincing.  For me, it didn’t succeed.

    But my biggest issue with JS&MN is the pacing.  Despite being well-written, and an easy read, I found it to be a slow-go.  Volumes 1 and 2 seemed to get bogged down with way too many descriptions, plot tangents, and people and places that had no later impact on the storyline.

    There is good news, however.  If you can stick it out until about 70%-Kindle or so, everything comes into focus deftly, and the pacing picks up significantly.  It probably sounds like a cliché, but if the first 500 pages had been skillfully edited to half their content, this would’ve been a dynamite read.

    7½ Stars.  In summary, if you’re someone who typically reads Jane Eyre or David Copperfield and want to expand your literary horizons to include Fantasy novels, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell might thoroughly thrill you.  OTOH, if you typically read Harry Potter or LOTR, and want to read something a bit more highbrow, this might be a bit of a slog.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Cat Who Played Brahms - Lilian Jackson Braun

   1987; 245 pages.  Book #5 (out of 29) in “The Cat Who” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Cozy Mystery; Cat Fiction.  Laurels: Nominated for the 1988 Anthony Award for “Best Paperback Original” (the winner was Robert Crais’s “The Monkey’s Raincoat”) .  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    The hustle and bustle of city life is getting reporter Jim Qwilleran down.  So it’s quite timely that a distant acquaintance, Aunt Fanny has a cabin up in the sticks that she’d be happy to let him stay at for the summer.  Heck, even Jim’s two cats, Koko and Yum Yum, might enjoy the change in scenery.  It’s a perfect time for him to begin writing his novel.

    Being up in the mountains, close to the Canadian border, and away from where he works is not a problem.  His job for the Daily Fluxion is to write restaurant reviews, so if the place he’s going, some Podunk place called Mooseville, has any eating establishments, maybe Qwill can justify this as an extended and relaxing business trip.

    However, what if you find that the chirping crickets and other things that go bump in the night keep you awake in your cabin, Qwill?  What if there are some deep dark secrets that sleepy little Mooseville is anxious to keep hidden, so the tourists don’t get scared away?  Well, not to worry, the locals probably have ways to keep a clueless reporter from getting suspicious about anything.

    But Koko and Yum Yum might not be so easily fooled.

What’s To Like...
    If you’re in the mood for a cozy mystery, The Cat Who Played Brahms is tailor-made for you.  There are three deaths in the book, all of which occur offstage, with only one of those bodies being “seen” by our protagonists.  There are lots of people in Mooseville (and nearby Pickax) who act like they’re hiding something, so there’s no shortage of suspects.

    It’s fun to watch city-bred Jim Qwilleran try to adjust to life in a small, sleepy rural town.  In theory, he should have lots of time to work on his book, but Lilian Jackson Braun keeps the pacing brisk enough to where somehow he never quite gets around to starting on it.

    There aren’t a lot of settings – just the city where Qwill works for the Fluxion, and the great outdoors around Mooseville and Pickax.  There’s a huge lake by Qwill’s cabin, and it is mentioned that its far shore  is Canada.  But beyond that, it’s never made clear exactly what state this series is set in, just somewhere in the Midwest.

    The first murder, if indeed it is one, takes place on page 75.  In case you’re wondering, neither cat actually plays any Brahms on a musical instrument, but Koko keeps hitting the button on a tape player at the cabin, which has a cassette with a Brahms concerto (Opus 102) on it.  I’d never heard of this piece, so I looked it up on YouTube.  I don’t recognize it as anything well-known, but I love classical music, and anything by Brahms will appeal to me.

    There are a couple of mild cusswords, and the aforementioned corpse being discovered by our trio of heroes.  Qwill and Rosemary might eventually fall in love, but here it’s only a figment of their collective imaginations.  All in all, this is a very "cozy" cozy.

    The ending is okay, but don’t think you’re going to solve the case before Qwill and the cats do.  This is the third book I’ve read in this series, and I get the impression that its main allure is seeing how the cats are going to solve each mystery.  The feisty felines do not disappoint here

Kewlest New Word ...
    Halfhear (v.) : to hear something imperfectly or incompletely.  Yeah, that’s obvious, but I don’t recall seeing "halfhear" as an actual word before.

    “Tell me all about Aunt Fanny after you meet her.”
    “She calls herself Francesca now.  She doesn’t like to be called Aunt Fanny.  She says it makes her feel like an old woman.”
    “How old is she?”
    “She’ll be ninety next month.”  (pg. 15)

    Koko was pacing restlessly from the porch to the kitchen to the guest room and back to the porch.
    “He’s disturbed,” Qwilleran explained, “by his instinctive savagery in attacking the burglar.  Koko is a civilized cat, and yet he’s haunted by an ancestral memory of days gone by and places far away, where his breed lurked on the walls of palaces and temples and sprang down on intruders to tear them to ribbons.”
    “Oh, Qwill,” Rosemary laughed.  “He smells the turkey in the oven, that’s all.”  (pg. 193)

“They say elephants can hear the footsteps of mice.”
“I hope you’re not implying that I have large ears.”  (pg. 90)
   Since it was nominated for a literary award, The Cat Who Played Brahms is apparently considered to be one of the better books in this series.  I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t find it to be a well-constructed mystery novel.

    My main beef is with the story threads.  There are a slew of them, the majority of which never get tied up, despite Lilian Jackson Braun devoting the entire last chapter to doing just that.  Specifically:

    Why are the Mooseville police so gung-ho about setting up roadblocks?
    Why are the names of the crew of the Minnie K not given?
    Why do several places in Mooseville stink so much?
    What’s with the buried garbage pail?
    Was Aunt Fanny’s death an accident or a murder?
    What’s with those UFO’s?
    What’s with the dead-rabbit?
    Does everyone in Mooseville drive a blue pickup truck?

    This is a spoiler-free blog, so I’ll refrain from giving more details, but of those eight threads, ANAICT, only three get resolved.  But maybe I should think of them as red herrings.  And perhaps I should dwell more on how the cats are gonna catch the bad guys.

    5½ Stars.  Add 2 stars if you used to like the TV cozy-mystery show, Murder, She Wrote.  This series will probably charm the daylights out of you.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne

   1850; 190 pages, not counting the 40-page Introduction called “The Custom House”.  New Author? : Yes.  Complete Title: “The Scarlet Letter: A Romance”.  Genre : Highbrow Lit; Classic Literature; Romance; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The Puritan colony in Massachusetts is caught in a moral dilemma.  What should they do about one of their citizens who has fallen into sin?  Hester Prynne recently gave birth to a baby girl.  Unfortunately, it was out of wedlock, and scripture condemns that.  Even worse, Hester refuses to say who the father is.  That's a sure sign that she hasn’t repented.

    All the Puritans agree that Hester needs to be disciplined, but exactly what would be appropriate?  Execution by stoning seems a bit extreme.  One of the colony’s older matrons has suggested branding Hester on the forehead, but that seems like geezer jealousy showing through.

    Still, something must be done to prevent the fine upstanding citizens of Boston from being led astray by Hester’s waywardness.  The last thing the godly settlement needs is for more illegitimate babies to start popping out.

    So let’s force Hester to embroider a big red “A” on the garment covering her bodice.  And let’s tell every good citizen to shun her like she has a contagious disease.  Which is kind of the truth anyway.

    Now we just have to figure out what to do with the child.

What’s To Like...
    The Scarlet Letter is, as everyone who’s ever taken a high school English Lit class, the epitome of American highbrow literature.  It was a smash hit when Nathaniel Hawthorne published it in 1850, undoubtedly helped in no small way (according to Wikipedia) by being one of the first books to be mass-produced in America.

    The main themes of the book are sin, guilt, and religious hypocrisy.  The fact that these were major topics in mid-19th century was a pleasant surprise to me, and of course, Hawthorne is further pointing out that they were equally prevalent in the Puritan days, when America was in the habit of burning people, especially women, at the stake in the belief that they were witches.  I enjoyed The Scarlet Letter from a historical fiction angle as well.  Hawthorne’s world in the 1840’s was quite different from mine, and his portrayal of Massachusetts life 200 years before that was equally eye-opening.

    I knew the rudiments of the storyline going in, but ran across a lot of events and characters that were unfamiliar to me.  I wasn’t aware of Hawthorne’s complex character development of Hester’s daughter, Pearl.  Roger Chillingworth was totally new to me, as was Mistress Hibbins, who I found to be very intriguing.  Yes, this is fiction, but how could a “freethinker” like her survive, and even thrive, in a Puritan settlement?

    The writing is masterful, complex, and at times difficult to grasp.  Reading Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way a couple weeks ago (reviewed here) was a good way to “get in shape” for Hawthorne.  The book was a lot shorter than I’d always assumed, just 24 chapters covering the 190 pages of the main story, plus a 40-page introduction by Hawthorne which I skimmed briefly, then skipped.  There are some footnotes, presumably added by the modern-day publishing house's editor, to help you with the archaic terms.  But they aren’t “Discworldian” witty, so I mostly ignored them.  You have very few characters to keep track of, and the only setting is Boston in the years 1642-1649.

    The ending (Chapter 23) is dynamic, and includes a bit of a plot twist, which was another pleasant surprise.  Chapter 24 is essentially an epilogue, and I thought it was powerful too.  There’s also a romance angle of course, but not to where male readers will be tempted to quit the book.  And the book isn’t meant to be a mystery either; the identity of Pearl’s father is revealed about halfway through.

Kewlest New Word ...
Nugatory (adj.) : of no value or importance; useless or futile
Others: Contumaciously (adv.); Irrefragable (adj.); and a bunch of archaic words as well.

    “Worthy Sir,” answered the physician, who had now advanced to the foot of the platform.  “Pious Master Dimmesdale, can this be you?  Well, well, indeed!  We men of study, whose heads are in our books, have need to be straitly looked after!  We dream in our waking moments, and walk in our sleep.  Come, good Sir, and my dear friend, I pray you, let me lead you home!”  (pg. 142)

    Heretofore, the mother, while loving her child with the intensity of a sole affection, had schooled herself to hope for little other return than the waywardness of an April breeze; which spends its time in airy sport, and has its gusts of inexplicable passion, and is petulant in its best of moods, and chills oftener than caresses you, when you take it to your bosom; in requital of which misdemeanors, it will sometimes, of its own vague purpose, kiss your cheek with a kind of tenderness, and play gently with your hair, and then be gone about its other idle business, leaving a dreamy pleasure at your heart.  (pg. 162.  One sentence, 12 commas, 2 semicolons, and a period)

“Be true!  Be true!  Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”  (pg. 231, and cited by the author as the moral of this story)
    Hawthorne’s writing style, although excellent, takes some getting used to.  Like Proust, he goes batshit crazy with commas, an example of which is given in the excerpts, above.  He also seems obsessed with the words “tremulous” and “preternaturally”.  If you decide to read The Scarlet Letter on your Kindle, it would be interesting to see just how frequently these two words appear.  I read it in paperback, so couldn’t check on this.

    Hawthorne also uses a lot of “period” vocabulary and spellings, such as: trode, betokened, fain, betwixt, subtile, adown, bedizen, clew, plash, agone, veriest, cumber, gayety, betimes, ledst, animadversion, galliard, practicable, and tost.  I’m not sure how much of this is 19th-century lingo, and how much is from the 17th century.  I note that of those 19 words, spellchecker is okay with all but six of them.  Maybe I’m just vocabulary-deficient.

    7½ Stars.  I’ve been meaning to tackle The Scarlet Letter since last Christmas, when my son pointed out that it is a much shorter novel than I thought.  Serendipitously, when I discovered a local “Free Little Library” in our neighborhood a couple months ago this was one of the few books it contained.  I took it as a cosmic omen.

    One other note.  The Goodreads rating for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is 3.39.  The Goodreads rating for E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is 3.67.  This tells you something about the literary tastes and sophistication of 21st-century American readers.