Monday, January 18, 2016

Arthur Conan Doyle's “Other” Short Stories: The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard

One lesson which I have learned in my roaming life, my friends, is never to call anything a misfortune until you have seen the end of it.  Is not every hour a fresh point of view? (pg 76)

I did not care much for The White Company or Sir Nigel, so as far as I was concerned, Arthur Conan Doyle was wrong when it came to estimating his historical fiction works as better than his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. Then I read The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. While there is no doubt that history has proved Holmes to be the masterpiece—however begrudging—of Sir Arthur, I must admit I enjoyed these much lesser-known short stories immensely.

These stories, which follow the French brigadier through his missions and misadventures on behalf of France and Emperor Napoleon, are the sort of thing one expects from Victorian action-adventure penny dreadfuls. Swashbuckling, honor, secret missions, patriotism, are all part of the fun.  The heroes are brave and undaunted, the villains are dastardly cowards, and the safety of the nation and the values they uphold hang in the balance.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Looking Back at "Back to the Classics"

2015 was the year where I consistently forgot that I had signed up for a reading challenge, only to remember in December and quickly fill in the qualifying books from the previous months.  It also was the year I exceeded my 100 Book annual goal (by a mere seven, of course, but I'll take what I can get), so it was not a total loss. In any case, I completed the Back to the Classics challenge hosted, and here are the results:

1.  A 19th Century Classic -- any book published between 1800 and 1899.

by Mark Twain

2.  A 20th Century Classic -- any book published between 1900 and 1965.

The Mystery of the Blue Train 
by Agatha Christie

It’s only taken reading the majority of her work, but I’m finally getting the hang of solving Agatha Christie’s mysteries.  I successfully deduced whodunit for The Mystery of the Blue Train and have felt immensely proud of myself ever since.  I wouldn’t say this was either Christie’s best-plotted puzzle or her easiest.  Instead it strikes a pleasant chord between the two, and seemed to me an amalgam of Christie’s usual fare of Murder Mystery Set In The Heart Of England and her less famous espionage novels.  I would recommend this to be “read” as an audiobook, as there may (or may not) be a clue that’s more obvious when read in text.  It all depends on how hard the reader wants to make the detecting.

Monday, January 4, 2016

"Darkwing" by Kenneth Oppel

Don't let the cover fool you; this ain't no Stellaluna!
It’s the end of an era: the saurians who had been the dominant predator on Earth are dying out due to a mysterious sickness and through the machinations of all the other beasts, who have made a pact to exterminate this common threat by destroying any saurian eggs they find.  About twenty years before Darkwing begins, however, a small group of chiropters who reject the pact and go to live on a secluded island as conscientious objectors. 

As our story begins, the young chiropter Dusk is about to make his first leap into the air.  He’s a weak newborn, strangely built, and instinctively he wants to flap his sails like wings.  As he grows up with his father Icaron, the leader of the island colony, his impulsive sister Sylph, and the rest of his family, Dusk is subjected to a great deal of pressure to conform or risk being shunned by his community.  But Dusk is not like the others.  Whereas in the story, the chiropters are a sort of pre-bat species (I immediately imagined them looking like sugar-gliders, though later in the book there are illustrations which contradict my mental image), Dusk is a true bat, with the ability to “see” in the dark and, much to the fear and confusion of the rest of his people, to fly. 

But Dusk’s “different-ness” comes in handy as the chiropters are faced with a new threat.  For a long time they’ve lived on the island, secluded from the war between saurians (dinosaurs) and beasts (mammals).  The first shakeup of their world is when the last flying saurian falls out of the sky. Dusk is the one to discover the dying creature, and symbolically feels like the creature has bestowed some inheritance on him.  I give you my wings the pterosaur tells him in a dream. 

But just because the saurian threat would seem to be at an end does not mean the chiropters are free from danger.  New predators are quickly filling the void in the food chain, most terrifying of which is Carnassial, a felid (pre-cat) whose taste for simple grubs and eggs has developed into bloodthirstiness for the hunt and for mammal flesh. 

There are dangers from within the community as well, though they are far more subtle.  Most of the conflict is caused by Nova, a fellow chiropter elder who is constantly criticizing Icaron and questioning the decisions of the colony.  It is in these scenes that the author poses a lot of questions about morality:  Is it just to destroy something that could become a threat, or should there be unconditional respect for all life?  What about protecting your loved ones by any means, even if those means are against all your principles? 

The world of Darkwing is brutal and scary and fascinating, just like the natural world.  Most of the species are based on fossil evidence, although in the author’s note afterward it is admitted that the chiropters are a species of the author’s imagination.  The story is largely built on the theory of evolution, which is an assumption I do not share.  However this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story itself, since my suspension of belief had already been earned by talking prehistoric animals and a sort of fantasy world where bats are gifted the power of flight by a dying pterosaur.  

Although I’d read Kenneth Oppel’s other “bat” books, the Silverwing trilogy, it took me quite awhile to get around to this prequel.   Oppel is a fantastic writer and his plots are well-paced and adventurous.  It’s easy to read several chapters at once, as the conflict is relentless and makes you want to keep turning the pages.  That said, I would only suggest this book to a more mature reader who has read the others first and therefore knows what to expect of Oppel’s writing, as the subject matter can be quite intense, possibly even scary at times.