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Reviews by Chip

Miss Cayley's Adventures

by Grant Allen

This book is a hoot. It is well-written, and its characters feel quite real, as do the situations they get themselves into -- and out of. And a lot of the latter goes on.

Allen has taken the form heroic epic and turned it around, twice. First by making it modern, second by making the hero a heroine, and a mighty feisty one at that. But he retains the geographic wandering, episodic structure, clearly-defined good and bad, and an invincible and nearly infallible protagonist.

The heroine is worthy of note, and respect. Rarely at a loss for what to do or say, Miss Cayley is perhaps at her best turning aside potential suitors and taming tough old ladies. Everything that happens is more or less realistic. That is, until she comes home to save her beloved from the clutches of evil-doers, making for a happily ever after.

I had to laugh at Allen's rendering of colloquial American speech, which he seems to concocted out of 50% Mark Twain (Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer) and 50% "How to Make Money." It's all good fun, though, in the end, just like this book.

Reviewed on 2009.08.31

Dr Heidenhoff's Process

by Edward Bellamy

Well this is quite a snoozer. I don't know if anyone used to reading 19th century lit will find the style too overpowering, although it sure ain't Hemingway.

The story is basically boy loves girl, girl disses boy for city slicker, city slicker uses the girl and throws her away. She is really sad. And so on. Not that great.

Despite all this, I think the story's not entirely without interest.

Bellamy does two good things.

First, he involves an interesting technical process (for easing the pangs of conscience, presumably a larger issue then than now).

Bellamy also uses that technical process to pose some "what if"-type moral questions. One might argue that he blathers on at length while doing so, but still. This reminds me of someone like Phillip K. Dick, who did the same thing. Of course Dick did it much more interestingly, but hey: we may have an early precursor of a certain kind of sci fi here, which gives the story a potential lit-hist interest.

Reviewed on 2009.05.25

Helen Vardon's Confession

by R. Austin Freeman

This novel was a delight.

Not for the story, or at least not only for that. The novel tells the story of how Helen Vardon, a young woman, is manipulated into an unwelcome marriage, then implicated as having apparently caused the suicide of her husband. You can probably guess whether she did it or not. And things resolve, of course, with a bit of help from Dr. Thorndyke, Freeman's scientific hero. It's pretty straightforward mystery, and Freeman handles it well.

But what made this novel so enjoyable for me were the varied and highly independent women characters. Helen herself is of course the prime example. All too often, women in detective stories are passive -- victims to be rescued. And there is a titch of that at work still.

Yet Helen is anything but passive. At every stage in the story, she actively chooses how she will live: she not only refuses to stay in an unhappy marriage, but is determined to make her own living. And she does so by joining a group of independent and talented women who have a sort of artists' collective.

I found it very refreshing to find all this portrayed and portrayed very favorably in an early 20th century mystery story.

I'm not sure that the characters are necessarily fully rounded and believable, exactly. But they are rounded and believable to the same degree that male characters are in Freeman's work. So the book essentially argues for equality.

I don't mean to say that there are no patriarchal notions at work. But in comparison with many other mysteries from the time, this one is downright enlightened.

Reviewed on 2009.05.16

The Wind in the Willows

by Kenneth Grahame

This is a wonderful book. Not only for the story, which is amusing, or the writing, which is brilliant (amazing what they used to write for children!). But because in this single book Grahame has captured some many aspects of the human spirit.

Mr. Mole, alternately timid and bold -- his battle cry: "A Mole! A Mole!" -- meets the Water Rat, who is sometimes peevish, sometimes not, but always ready for a bit of messing about on the water. Together they go traveling with the delightful braggart Toad, who is led astray -- as so many have been -- by motor cars. His conscience, such as it is, can wink at car theft, horse theft, and many a jolly lie, but his loyalty to friends is firm.

And of course one can't forget the solitary and serious Mr. Badger, who is writing a dissertation on the Creation of Man off in his subterranean forest abode. It is he who leads the party through the secret tunnel to attack to the Weasels and Stoats and retake Toad's home, which they have occupied.

Sound exciting? It is.

"A Mole! A Mole!"

Reviewed on 2009.05.16

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