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review 2020-04-02 19:34
Allan Quatermain (H. Rider Haggard)
Allan Quatermain - H Haggard,Fred Willia... Allan Quatermain - H Haggard,Fred Williams Jr.

I knew what I was getting into when I opened the first page of this British colonial adventure-fantasy. Though I'm not quite sure whether I've read King Solomon's Mines, I know I read She when I was younger, so I'm familiar with the notion of brave English explorers - male of course - penetrating into darkest Africa to discover a lost race, preferably ruled by females who are light-skinned enough to avoid the inevitable cries of miscegenation when the said brave English explorers take over by some combination of martial force and marriage. Allan Quatermain, our narrator in this adventure, is such a man, although he casts himself as the older, unmarriageable sidekick to Sir Henry Curtis, unchallenged Hero of this book, and to the secondary principal, Captain John Good, who is as apparently fated - by genetics or literary convention - to be as unlucky in love as Sir Henry is inescapably lucky. So it's just as well, really, that there are two light-skinned sister-queens in the lost kingdom, one good one (Nyleptha) for Curtis to fall in love with, and one bad one (Sorais) to fall for Good while he is pining inappropriately after her sister. Part of their party, but standing apart in every possible way from the English, is Zulu chief Umslopogaas, who has a great attachment to his battle-axe and is immovably serene except when intensely engaged in battle.


The fantasy elements are well-handled, by and large, with intriguing architecture for the central royal complex (in Milosis, the capital of the realm of the Zu-Vendi) and a fun and well-described involuntary trip by underground river into the fantasy realm. The hunting scenes (Quatermain is a hunter by profession) are less enjoyable for this reader, as are the various battle scenes. In particular, the opening chapters set in the "real" Africa, where the opponents are not fantasy nobles and priests but the very real Maasai - and if Umslopogaas is the Noble Savage, the Maasai are depicted are the very opposite, ignoble and undifferentiated slaughterers destined for slaughter themselves because they have the effrontery to attack a Christian missionary's family.


The tone is generally fairly light and full of dialogue, and there are comic episodes, some of which work better than others for the modern reader. The stereotypical lily-livered Frenchman (a cook, of course) doesn't provide me with many guffaws, which is a shame since that's his sole purpose in the book.


Anyway, it's a well-told adventure story, and since I'm past the stage where my world-view will be warped by the sexism and imperialism in the narrative, I'm perfectly happy to treat it as a fantasy and enjoy it.

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review 2020-02-24 22:37
The Dead Alive (Collins)
The Dead Alive - Wilkie Collins

This novella by Collins was first published in 1874 in the collection "The Frozen Deep and other stories" under the title "John Jago's Ghost; or The Dead Alive". Based on a real early 19th-century case, it is set in the US, and the solution to the mysterious disappearance/murder of John Jago is fairly easily discerned from the title. The narrator-protagonist is a youngish lawyer, on a foreign trip to cure his nervous complaint (well, so much for that), and he encounters no supernatural occurrences or Gothic contrivances, other than a couple of moonlit gardens. Instead, there is a steady buildup of characterization for four or five main players, including the aforementioned John Jago, as well as one of Collins' trademark Young Women Who Know Their Own Mind (this one demonstrates it in American idioms, though not too annoyingly).


There's a disappearance, the arrest of two overwhelmingly obvious suspects, several stages of trial (interestingly, we're taken through the whole rarely-described sequence of magistrate - Grand Jury - formal trial), a couple of confessions with coercion in question, a verdict, a newspaper advertisement and a coincidental discovery, all overlaid with a rather unnecessary romantic sub-plot that leaves us a little unsure whether the young lady in question really knows her own mind or not, so quickly does she change the object of her affections. But then, it's not a full-length novel.


A quick and easy read, and it has been republished (2005) as an interesting early fictionalization of a wrongful conviction in the US, along with a lot of contextual legal information on the same - that is not the edition I read.


If you read Collins because he tells a good story, this item will suit you fine; if you read him for his Gothic/supernatural/sensational aspects, don't be fooled by the title - there's next to nothing in that vein.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2020-02-18 23:21
Blind Love (Collins)
Blind Love - Wilkie Collins,Walter Besant,A. Forestier

Given his own socially unconventional attitudes (he had a well-documented disdain for the institution of marriage), I think it's unlikely that the plot of this novel - ostensibly a cautionary tale about choosing the rascal over the upright man for a husband - was anything more than a convenient trope for the aging and ailing Collins. Whether that was also the case for the fellow-novelist, Walter Besant, who finished the novel from Collins' notes after the latter's 1889 death, I do not know.


My principal problem with this novel is not the young lady, Iris, who gives her heart away to the roguish Sir Harry, despite the constant supporting presence of the much more suitable (and very much enamoured) Hugh Mountjoy. My problem is that, as a rogue, Sir Harry's a vacillating weakling. Of course, in order to make him defensible as a love object for his heroine, Collins had to put him far more to the centre of the moral sliding scale than either the scheming murderer Dr. Vimpany or the rather faceless and nameless Irish rebels who go around assassinating (a) English landowners in Ireland and (b) people they conceive to have betrayed and insulted their cause. Sir Harry moves from ideological to financial crime with barely a hitch, but is unable to carry through with any particular villainy, even his own proposed fraud on a life insurance company after he goes to all the trouble of faking his own death. And one of the best moments in the novel, because it's not at all conventional, is that where Collins shows Sir Harry sitting vacillating in the presence of a medical murder, neither assisting nor interfering, and making it quite clear in the process that while that murder was always a likelihood, it had not been openly discussed with his confederate.


The break between Collins' writing and the part written by Besant is at the end of Chapter 48 (so noted in my copy), and is very noticeable. Besant doesn't seem to have made any effort to mimic Collins' fairly declarative style, and instead one immediately notices the much more broken sentences and heavy use of dashes. However, there is no floundering in moving the plot to its preordained conclusion; I just wish Besant had made a little more of the dramatic death of Doctor Vimpany in the flooding Solway Firth, a climax of the action that I vaguely feel must have been done before in 19th-century literature, possibly by Sir Walter Scott, as it was bringing up memories of a similar scene.


This is Collins at the very tail-end of his powers, and the story is incompletely realized, but I still found some interest in the proceedings. I also quite liked the three main women characters: Iris, Fanny (a fallen woman rescued by Iris, who thereafter became somewhat manically devoted to her), and Mrs. Vimpany, who was also reformed by Iris, though rather suddenly. The women, interestingly enough, are all capable of more character development than the men.


This novel came up fairly early in my reading of Collins because the title starts with the letter "B" and my collection is alphabetical. If you are reading Collins according to a more sensible plan (merit of the novels, or even chronology), you can safely leave this one to the end, but there's no need to omit it.

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review 2020-01-09 19:17
Treasure Island (Stevenson)
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

If I read this in childhood - and it would have been in a children's abridged edition, I should think - it didn't leave any memory of its rather gory plot, nor of the curious moral ambiguity of it principal villain, Long John Silver.


Nonetheless, once it got going, it was more or less what I expected: an adventure story featuring a young man with more courage than sense. The abrupt change out of his first-person narrative to another point of view for parts of the plot took me by surprise a bit - but frankly, that would never have bothered me in the slightest if I'd read it when I was younger.


The e-version I read the story in was rather bad. Each page of the first 100 or so was interrupted by an illustration having nothing to do with the text (mostly the same scene of pioneer America, repeated over and over). No-one had bothered to supply the missing first letters of opening words in each chapter (likely decorative initials in the scanned original.) The file is entitled "Complete Works of R.L. Stevenson", but it contains exactly 3 of his most famous novels - probably volume 1 of a collected edition.


And all this notwithstanding, I enjoyed reading this missing piece from my childhood. It was clear, straightforward, vivid storytelling.

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review 2020-01-09 19:08
The Black Robe (Collins)
The Black Robe - Wilkie Collins

I found this story of a nerve-stricken man and his shattered marriage to be less entertaining than Collins' usual, mainly because it relies on an uncomfortable strain of anti-Catholicism - and associated mercenary motives - for its villain, Father Benwell, who is just about as stereotypical a Jesuit schemer as you could find in any of Mrs. Radcliffe's Gothic romances. Collins makes an attempt to introduce some supernatural or apparently supernatural occurrences into the mental/emotional breakdown of his protagonist, Romayne - aptly named, since he becomes an avid Catholic convert and priest, to the point of abandoning his pregnant wife Stella - but the haunting voices in the lonely old house aren't very enthusiastically portrayed, and Collins doesn't seem to be terribly interested in convincing us of either a plausible or a supernatural explanation for them. The associated story of the mentally ill younger brother of a victim of Romayne (in a duel) has possibilities, but we never really get to know him, nor to understand the massive coincidence of his being the unwitting transmitter of some important documents.


There are a couple of sympathetic characters, one being Stella, Romayne's wife, and the other a Jesuit enthusiast (but with a moral compass) named Penrose, who is packed off on some dangerous adventures in the New World. And, of course, there is one Winterfield, who is a noble but (while Romayne lives) hopeless alternate suitor for Stella, who wooed her under the impression his first wife was dead, was forced to leave Stella at the altar when that first wife resurfaced, and of course has the most terrible trouble re-establishing his claim thereafter. But, sympathetic or no, I just found myself a little bit detached from all of them, probably because they all seemed far too easily duped by Father Benwell and his endless lies and sophistries directed at retrieving Romayne's estate for the Church. There is, of course, a happy ending of sorts, brought about by a little boy throwing things in a fire (at his expiring Father's urging).


It wasn't bad, but Collins can do better than this.

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