The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlockI bought a copy of this years ago in the bargain bin. My husband had read many if not all of the Sherlock books in his early teens and really enjoyed them. I always intended to read them. But I am really not much of a mystery novel reader. I used to be. As a child I devoured read Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Encyclopedia Brown, etc., etc., but this obsession died somewhere in my teens and I never got back to it.

The real reason I put this book on my TBR list was all the rave reviews of the British TV series, Sherlock. I wanted to watch it. But I wanted to have read at least some of the original material first. Well… I failed. While visiting my husband in early February (we were temporarily living in different cities) we were searching for something to watch on Netflix and decided to check out Sherlock. Before the weekend was over we’d watched the whole series.

First of all, the series is excellent. If you haven’t already, you must watch it. And it is on Netflix, could it be any easier? Second, you don’t need to have read the stories to watch, and watching doesn’t ruin the stories. Yes there is additional context if you already know the characters, but the stories have been adapted and modernized and while there are similarities and parallels, they are different. (The characters have been extremely well adapted, with the possible exception that the original Sherlock while reserved was not quite as anti-social as the new TV Sherlock. Based entirely on my newfound ‘expertise.’)

I must admit I am a mystery fan again. There were many surprises from Sherlock’s adventures. First: he never utters the words “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I kept waiting for it. It didn’t happen.. Second: he used/abused both opium and cocaine. How very Victorian of him. Third (and this also came from the TV series) he is far younger than I expected. I don’t think an exact age is given, but early-to-mid-thirties is implied. I always thought he was middle-aged or older.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the stories is that unlike many detective  novels which slowly reveal clues allowing the reader to work alongside the detective, Doyle leaves his readers pretty nearly as in the dark as his hapless clients and Inspector-Detectives. When Holmes puts it all together at the end, the nuances are revealed and you are stunned and amazed along with Watson and Scotland Yard. Occasionally annoying, I still think I like this better than the traditional detective novel, as frequently I  guess the conclusion long before the detective, making me wonder what makes him/her so special in the first place. (Lest I sound like I am bragging, this is a complaint I hear often from other readers. I don’t think it makes me special either.)

The most notable of the stories, in my opinion, was the last: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. I find it hard to say exactly why, but this more than any of the others really pulled me in, creeped me out, and kept me guessing. It is worth mentioning that while Holmes always solves the case, the result is not always a happy ending. Sometimes he is late, sometimes there is nothing to be done to fix things. He does “save” the lady in question in this instance, but as with many real life mysteries, it leaves you with an unsettled, “how could someone do that to someone else” feeling. (Also worth noting, but not why it was my favourite: my Nova Scotia hometown gets a very brief mention in this story.)

Whether you choose to read Sherlock from beginning to end as I have, or want to pick away at a story from time to time, you really can’t get a better mystery story than a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Classics are classics for a reason, after all.

Format: Kobo Edition (eBook)
Published: July 29, 2009, Library of Alexandria
ISBN-10: 1613104693
ISBN-13: 9781613104699
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was originally published in the United Kingdom 1892 by George Newnes, and was 307 pages long.
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The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The-Call-of-The-WildBuck is snatched away from his easy life on a California ranch and thrown with little training or ceremony into the brutal life of a sled dog in the Canadian north. Here, he must learn to protect himself from cruel treatment by both men and other dogs, as he slowly ‘remembers’ his  ancestry as a wild beast. It is also here, in this harsh landscape, that he learns to love.

Before I write anything else, I need to say: I did not know this book was about a dog. That makes me sound so stupid. I mean, I knew there was a dog. There is a dog on the cover, even. I guess I just thought it was about a person and their dog. I was confused for the first few pages, then caught on to the fact that Buck was not human.

Aside from reading Black Beauty as a girl (and rereading it, multiple times) I generally don’t do books about animals. They just don’t appeal to me. I could possibly be tempted by a cat book, but even that sounds too cliché. I like my books to be about people, and more often than not, fictional people.

That now out of the way, I have to say I really enjoyed the book, despite and possibly more-so because of its perspective. This story could not have been told with a human protagonist. This is the other side of the North, and what humans have done there. Buck was there only to work and stay alive. He had no desire for gold or wealth, no longing for the comforts of the south. Setting the story around Buck allows the reader to see the north without human ambition getting in the way.

It was a short book, and an easy read. Still, it was beautiful. Poetic, even. Which was fabulous for a winter weekend where I was mostly confined to my couch with a head-cold.

But now I can’t help but think a little bit more would have been nice. More context. Where did the natives come from, and why did they attack three presumably innocent travellers? Why were the dogs traded so often – was this common practice, or bad luck? Plus numerous other small questions that came up while I was reading. Of course, the point may well have been that Buck did not know the context, and so the reader will not either?

A ‘dog-person’ may have a better perspective on this, but while I found Buck’s transformation fascinating, and hauntingly beautiful, I did not completely buy it. From content estate pet sleeping by the fire to wild dog roaming with the wolves in the span of a few years? Seems unlikely… but damn it makes a great story.

Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications; First Edition edition (July 1, 1990)
ISBN-10: 0486264726
ISBN-13: 978-0486264721

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Working as a governess to teach and raise the spoiled rich children of England’s upper class, Agnes Grey discovers what it means to be invisible. Unappreciated and unacknowledged by those she works for and among, she struggles to hold onto her morals and her sense of self.

Her father’s dreams and impractical business plans slowly lead her family to financial ruin, so at the age of nineteen, Agnes begs to be allowed to take a position as a governess and earn her own keep. Filled with dreams of inspiring young minds and earning the love and devotion of the children entrusted to her, she soon discovers that her lack of social status leads to a lonely and empty life among the higher class families who employ her.

The novel is highly autobiographical, and at least one incident was later admitted by Charlotte Brontë as taken directly from Anne’s experiences as a governess.

As a huge fan of the work of the other Brontë sisters, most notably Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I had hoped another Brontë novel would prove as darkly gothic as the others – in this I was disappointed. Had I done any advance research, I may have discovered that Agnes Grey was described by the critic George Moore as having “all the qualities of Jane Austen.” I am not an Austen fan. I could have been warned.

While there is nothing specifically wrong with Agnes Grey, it is a classic example of the moralising Victorian novel, and as such while well written and interesting (enough that I read it on one sitting), it was not particularly exciting (I read it while flying, and had nothing else to distract me).

Paperback: 248 pages

First Published: Thomas Cautlby Newby, December 1847

Current Edition: Oxford University Press, USA

ISBN-10: 0192834789

ISBN-13: 978-0192834782

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“There she blows!–there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

When I added Moby Dick to my 2011 reading list, I had no idea just how much work it would be to read. And it really did feel like work. While a fascinating book, it is not an easy read. The language is heavy. The imagery is layered. The detail and description lead to information overload.

But it is a beautiful novel. And that is despite the fact that the whole goal of the main characters is to hunt down and kill a whale, which is not exactly endearing.

Moby Dick is narrated by the sailor Ishmael, on his first whaling voyage. He sails aboard the Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. It quickly becomes clear that there is something not altogether right about Ahab. He is scarcely seen by the crew, and not at all before they leave port. He is gruff and reclusive. He wears an ivory leg to replace the limb that was bitten off when he was attacked by the ferocious white sperm whale, Moby Dick. Ahab’s voyage is funded under the pretence of being a whaling voyage, but he soon reveals his real plan: to hunt down and kill Moby Dick, and have his revenge.

But if this was really just a book about killing a whale, I would never have read it. It was so much more. In writing Moby Dick, Melville uses an odd mix of  metaphor, symbolism, stage directions, soliloquies and more to tell the story, while examining concepts of good and evil, class, social status, race and sexuality (among other references I probably missed). This was a book you had to read slowly to really see what he was trying to say, and you would have to read it numerous times to get all that you could out of it. I am not sure I have that in me.

Favourite chapters/moments include: Ishmael meeting and sharing a bed with Queequeg; Ahab making the sailors swear an oath to kill the whale; the soliloquies of Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb, following the oath; “The Whiteness of the Whale” – beautiful yet ominous; the personal stories of the carpenter and the blackmith; and of course the dramatic ending.

Moby Dick was an amazing read, and an intense and thrilling story. Well worth the investment of time if you are feeling ambitious.

The novel is full of famous and not so famous quotes, many of which honestly left me breathless. I would love to list them all here for you, but will leave you with one:

“Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”

Paperback: 656 pages

Publisher: Oxford University Press

First Published: 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers, London

ISBN-10: 9780199535729

ISBN-13: 978-0199535729