Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

When I first read about Alice's adventures in Wonderland I closed the book in complete bewilderment because I just didn't understand what made it so popular and gave it such staying power. There was no plot, the story was utter nonsense, the characters were beyond strange and to top it all off the whole thing was a dream. Needless to say I didn't pick up Through the Looking Glass.
Fast forward to last week when I was supposed to read both books for a course I'm taking on fantasy and science fiction. Upon first reviewing the syllabus I gave an inward groan, but when time came to read I had to bite the bullet. Alice in Wonderland was first up and it was still nonsense, there was still no plot and the characters were still strange, but now approaching it from an academic standpoint and knowing that the whole thing is a dream I was able to enjoy it much more. I noticed things such as clever play on words and tried to guess if the strange animals were symbolic of real-life people who real-life Alice would be able to recognize and would delight in, as children tend to do when they solve a riddle. I also kept noticing things that would appeal to adults and children on different levels and for different reasons, which reminded me of the Shrek cartoons. And so having had a decent experience with Alice in Wonderland I cheerfully moved on to Through the Looking Glass.
What a transformation the storytelling and the characters underwent between these two books! While in Wonderland, which is referred to as Nursery Alice, it was all about adventure and emotion, which younger children can understand and relate to easily, and in Through the Looking Glass there is an actual plot, things make sense so much more, and characters don't appear and disappear in completely random ways. These changes alone would've been a sufficient enough upgrade for me, but then I looked at the larger picture of cards vs. chess, read some of the poems out loud, googled a few things and decided that Surprise! this one I actually did enjoy. I even have a favorite rhyme:
"In spring, when woods are getting green
I'll try and tell you what I mean.
In summer, when the days are long,
Perhaps you'll understand the song.
In autumn, when the leaves are brown
Take pen and ink, and write it down."
Lewis Carroll really was a very clever man.
I think the next step would be to get my hands on the audio books and listen to them since having read them on the page I've become quite convinced that they were meant to be read aloud. They are children's stories after all.

P.S. If you are waiting for me to say something about how Disney has taken far too many liberties with Lewis Carroll's creation you'll be disappointed, for I enjoyed the Tim Burton's Alice quite a bit (although Anne Hathaway's jet-black eyebrows were incredibly distracting when compared with her general whiteness).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

For Flavia, an aspiring 11-year-old chemist with a passion for poison, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. To her the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is jailed for murder. He tells Flavia an astounding story of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, a stolen priceless object, and a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school tower thirty years before. Flavia ties tie two distant deaths together, examines new suspects, and follows the search to the King of England himself.

For a book published in 2009 this novel is remarkably like the cozy mysteries Agatha Christie wrote in tone, voice, and the nature of the crime: a stranger is found dead at an English country estate and an amateur investigates the death leaving the police in the dust. What's different about this book is that the amateur is an 11-year-old prodigy chemist in pigtails.
From the very first page the author grabbed my interest by diving straight into the mystery of the victim in the closet and held me captive till the end by introducing mystery after mystery with one common denominator: they were all not at all what they seemed. A mystery novel is of course all about the mystery and this one kept me wondering for most of the book. I figured out the culprit not too long before Flavia did and so the story remained interesting while the investigation was going on.
A fun twist is that this is a historical novel and to me the author translated the tone of the time and place to the page very well. I enjoyed reading about listening to music on a gramophone, researching information in 20-year-old newspapers and figuring out details about people and places through old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. Things like that transported me to times long past and I relished the experience because of the contrast with our technology-saturated present. There is just something positively quaint about the concept of investigating the case of a body in the cucumber patch.
This novel is full of interesting characters and Flavia, the protagonist, is the most interesting of them all. Half the time she doesn't seem like an 11-year-old at all, what with her independence and prowess in chemistry, and sometimes it seemed too much, but then she'd do something utterly age-appropriate and I would see her as simply an extremely clever child once more. Dogger stole a few scenes but apart from that Flavia is the undeniable star of the show. An interesting twist to the cast is Flavia's mother, who just happens to have been dead for a decade. She is a prime example of a character who is never around but is more influential than most other characters in the story. I must admit, I'm more curious about the enigmatic Harriet than I am about even Dogger, who plays an important part in the investigation.
I am a big fan of mystery, especially the quaint kind, so even the ending being somewhat over the top didn't spoil the experience for me, and learning all sorts of things about chemistry didn't detract from the enjoyment either. All in all this is a delightful novel that continued the pattern of pleasant reading experiences this year and I hope the trend continues.