App Review: LibriVox

I'm deviating from the norm here to do a review of an audio book app for three reasons. One, it's a great app. Two, I'm getting married in a few months and I barely have time even for audio books. Three, a lot of the classics I have reviewed are available on the LibriVox app, so it makes it easy for you, potential reader, to get caught up on what I'm going on about.

I am only able to speak to the LibriVox app's usefulness on the iPhone. I currently have an iPhone 4. The app was free at the app store because every single book on it is in the public domain. The great thing is that the recordings that people do for the app are also put in the public domain, so you can use them if you have say a book blog and want to put a sample of a book up.

Using the LibriVox app is easy and I do it just about every night. You open the app by clicking it and then either choose a book from your favorites or use the browse catalog or search function to find a book you want to listen to. They are typically broken up into chapters, sections or stories. You can click directly on those parts to skip or you can start from the beginning. Inside the book, you will see a timer function. I use this so the app will stop running on my phone after I fall asleep. A warning, though. The "resume" function does not work for me if I use the timer. You may have to remember where you left off.

The books on the LibriVox app are primarily classics. This is because these books are without copyright, so volunteers for LibriVox can read them and offer the recordings free. You will find a wealth of books from authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. You will also find obscure self-help books, science fiction and some newer novels that have somehow made into the public domain marketplace. There is definitely a limit to how many good books you will be able to listen to from LibriVox, but I haven't reached it in nearly a year, so you will have some time with this app. Enjoy it.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "A Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin

I have something to confess. It was not until I heard of the HBO series "Game of Thrones" that I heard of George R.R. Martin and his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. Even then, I neglected to think about picking up a book until after a friend of mine said they were amazing as we walked back from yoga in the park one morning. After that, it took me watching the first three seasons of "Game of Thrones" on full throttle over a very shameful and long weekend to realize that I needed to read these books. The first is "A Game of Thrones" from whence the show gets its name.

Before I start extolling the virtues of Martin and the first of his epic series, I have to say that readers should not be wary if they have seen the show. The two compliment each other well. Moreover, you can depend on the old truth of books always having more than their media counterparts. Knowing the outcome of every plot line did absolutely nothing to curb my elation, revulsion and amusement as they unfolded.

You may know this already, but "A Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin is a fantasy fiction novel. I know, surprising. It takes place on two fictional continents -- Westeros and Essos. Martin manages to do a pretty solid job of flushing out most of Westeros for the reader right in the first novel. Essos is touched on as well, but, at least until this point, the bulk of the action is in Westeros and what happens on Essos is intertwined with the plotline in Westeros. In short, pay attention to the different realms in Westeros. It will be important.

Now, Martin did his job as a fantasy writer well when it came to his geography, but he could have done a crap job on that and still had an amazing novel. Why, you ask? His characters are stellar. I say that with no lack of enthusiasm. The show does the depth and facets of each character little justice and that is saying a lot. As I read "A Game of Thrones," all of my favorite characters gained new strengths. My least favorite characters become even more revolting. It was awesome. Every single person in these books has a distinct personality, an interesting background and a definitive part to play, however small.

Because the point of view of "A Game of Thrones" shifts with every passing chapter, it is hard to become bored. Right when you hit a peak with one character, you are flying along to the next, sometimes across vast oceans and deserts. My personal verdict is that any fantasy fan would be remiss in avoiding "A Song of Ice and Fire." George R.R. Martin may well be the Tolkien of our generation, even if the master can never be fully matched.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "In the Days of the Comet" by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells is an extremely well known classic author. He has a household name thanks to such novels as "The Time Machine" and "War of the Worlds." In my opinion, these are among the best science fiction novels ever written. Then, there are the lesser-known H.G. Wells novels, such as the one I just finished reading -- "In the Days of the Comet." Written in 1906, this novel has themes of violence and enlightenment, all tied together with the skillful science fiction that weaves through most of this great's work.

All of "In the Days of the Comet" is told through the eyes of a narrator who has lived both before and after the arrival of the eponymous comet and often refers to life in such a way, hinting that the comet brought about great change, even before it is expressly stated. The narrator, William Leadford, leads an unhappy existence before the comet and describes it, along with the conditions of contemporary working class London, in Book I. You might find its descriptions a mite tedious, but from a social history perspective, it is quite informative.

Book I meanders back and forth between predicaments faced by William and predicaments faced by fellow members of the working class. All the time, a green comet in the sky features as a lesser character, something for passersby to observe. William has the attitude of a man in fevered pursuit of social reform, but what winds up driving him more than anything else is betrayal, an act that he plots to avenge with the utmost violence. The acme of this drama is the segue into Book II.

Books II and II focus more on the comet's effect on William and the world at large. It would be a spoiler to say much more about it. I will say that Wells' work is insightful and perhaps indicative of his personal feelings regarding humanity and its capabilities. Whatever the case, the result is a book that drags at times, but has a very clever premise to help it along.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "Sacre Bleu" by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore at a book signing
Courtesy of Cody Harris
If you know who Christopher Moore is, you probably know that he is a bit of a zany author. He has done such things to characters as have them traumatized by the penis of a whale on open water, chastised by Jesus, beset by a demon with anger issues and assaulted by zombies accidentally raised from the dead by an angel sent to Earth to perform a miracle. So, you know that when I opened "Sacre Bleu," I knew what I had in store, but I still managed to be pleasantly surprised a bit.

I think the cast of characters in Sacre Bleu was the best surprise of the book. I didn't think I'd be reading a book populated by painters of Vincent van Gogh's era, including van Gogh himself, but only briefly. Nonetheless, that is what I got. Initially, I thought the book was just about blue and that the paint aspect of it was going to go away, but it turned out that "Sacre Bleu" is about a special blue powder that is, in this case, used to make paint. To say much more about it would be to give it away.

In spite of the title, it is not the blue that intrigues the readers but rather the characters, more of them syphilitic than I had ever imagined. You may learn a few things about period artists that you did not know, but, of course, this is a fictional work, so if something strikes you as interesting, use a second source. You may find that the weirdest tidbits, such as van Gogh eating paint, are actually true.

As for the plot, tone, etc. of "Sacre Bleu," this is classic Christopher Moore. There is humor, sarcasm and debauchery. It isn't so much the solid or even entertaining nature of the plot that keeps you reading. (Hint: The plot isn't all that great standing apart from Moore's fantastic wit.) What keeps the pages turning are the little intrigues, dialogues, asides and jokes. Any other story about blue paint would likely be dull, but like an additional gospel for the Bible, Christopher Moore manages never to let a single dull moment into this novel.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu" by Sax Rohmer

Sax Rohmer wrote a book titled "The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu" in 1913. It also sells under the name "The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu." From the eponymous character came the name for particular style of beard, but this book was much more. It was a concoction of racism, Sherlock Holmes-esque detective work and mysticism. To be honest, the thing that stood out to me the most was the blatant use of racial slurs and paragraphs dedicated to belittling the Chinese. Nonetheless, it was a decent and even educational read and I intend to continue the Fu Manchu series.

I want to start with the racism because, as I said, it was the most memorable part of the book. I suppose that is only true of a modern reader, but I have read that Rohmer's protagonists were heavily racist even for the time. I won't add snippets of derogatory remarks strewn about by Nayland Smith (a detective of sorts) and even his tamer friend Dr. Petrie. I will suffice it to say that terms like "preservation of the white race" were used copiously to describe the motivation of our Smith and Petrie. However, what I find most interesting is that Dr. Fu Manchu, their Chinese archenemy is endowed with extraordinary intellect and other talents, so we are talking about a peculiar type of racism that does not underestimate the enemy, but rather finds him evil.

I'm not going to get into a plot summary, as I have never come across a faster moving plot in my life. There are frustrating moments, as the "good guys" never seem to get ahead, but they are always on the go. There is always a goal in sight. Instead, I want to talk about the language used by the author. Sax Rohmer has an uncanny grasp of archaic word usage. You can expect some dated language in a book more than a century old, but even contemporary readers must have wondered what some of the words he used meant. For example, he used the long outdated usage of queue to mean a braid at the back of the head at one point. Keep your dictionary open. Better yet, use Google.

You are not going to find depth of character, well described settings or anything of the like in "The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu." What you are going to get is a good old-fashioned detective story peppered with sensationalism and some vocabulary building words. The reading goes fast and you are bound to have a few laughs at the ideas presented in some parts of the novel. It's hard to be offended by something about as influential and a restaurant menu.

Shelly Barclay 

Review and Summary of "The Beast in the Cave" by H.P. Lovecraft

While H.P. Lovecraft is one of the reigning, though deceased, kings of horror, there were definitely trends in his work that bordered on repetition. You can chalk this up to him being one of the universe creators of horror.  You would frequently see cities of a time long past or glimpses of other worlds. There was something, to use one of his favorite words, phantasmagorical about his work. As much as I love these stories from Lovecraft, I enjoy "The Beast in the Cave" all the more for its break from this trend. Do not worry. You will still recognize his handiwork, but you may find it hard to believe that this short story was written in 1905. Lovecraft was only 14 at the time.

[Spoilers ahead]

The entirety of "The Beast in the Cave" takes place in Kentucky in the company of the nameless narrator. He is stumbling through Mammoth Cave with a dying torch after having lost his tour group. You learn that he has been lost for many hours and considers his plight terminal. This deep in the caves, even a guide would have a difficult time finding a way out. This setting is perfect for a story wrought with cloying claustrophobia.

As you may have guessed, our narrator soon encounters a beast. Well, he hears what he thinks is a beast. It is walking on all fours and padding along behind the lost tourist. We join the narrator in his head while he ponders what could possibly be this deep into the caves and how being lost from the light may have affected any creature so beset by tragedy. Soon, our hero loses his light and finds himself cornered. The creature comes ever closer as the man reaches for a rock, throws it and incapacitates his tormenter.

Surely, that is a creepy enough story, but not for a teenaged H.P. Lovecraft. The guide, after noticing one of his charges went missing, goes searching for the narrator. They meet just after the confrontation with the so-called beast. As the guide sheds a light on the thing, which they can tell is expiring by its breathing, the two men realize with horror that what was chasing the lost tourist was his fate were he to have remained too long in the cave. It was a beast all right, but a beast that was once human and had changed with the lightless ecosystem of Mammoth Cave.

If you are just starting off with Lovecraft, this is as good a place as any. The story is just a few pages, is not as wordy as some of the adult Lovecraft's stories and does not fail to chill.

Shelly Barclay

A Character Analysis of Peter Pan

In the collective conscious of readers and Disney movie lovers everywhere, there is but one boy who comes to mind when the words cute, bold, adventurous and immortal are mentioned. That boy is Peter Pan, but there is often much more to him than depicted in the various plays and films that bear his name or the name of his home -- Neverland. It is even possible that your version of the boy who never grows up is much more watered down than the version that J.M. Barrie envisioned when he wrote this boy into existence.

Peter Pan presumably decided he never wanted to grow up before he made it to Neverland. He was once a mortal boy with parents. He left these parents at an undisclosed age and made his way to Neverland. It is stated that he did once go back to see them, but saw there was a baby boy in his place. Assuming his parents did not want him, he returned to his life as an immortal adventurer.

Of Peter Pan's appearance and age, there are only hints. He is a beautiful boy, which could mean just about anything in regard to his complexion, hair color, etc. He dresses in leaves and sap, though Barrie puts it far more romantically than that. Well, he also mentions "skeleton leaves," which I do not understand, so I could have it all wrong. Nonetheless, he wears leaves in many adaptations.

The character is inspired by Barrie's own mother's memories of his brother, who died just before he turned 14. However, Peter Pan is clearly not as old as J.M. Barrie's brother. He states that he still has all of his baby teeth. According to the American Dental Association, permanent teeth begin to erupt around 6-7 years of age. Whether this is the age that Barrie intended or not, this is the age implied by the statement. Therefore, we can place him at a quite young age, which is a mite disturbing when you consider various actions made by the boy.

Peter Pan has several skills that even the Lost Boys do not possess or possess to a lesser degree. Firstly, he does not age, as I have mentioned. Secondly, his imagination is so powerful that he is able to think things into existence in Neverland. Thirdly, he can fly with the help of lovely thoughts and fairy dust, provided by his sidekick Tinker Bell. (The Lost Boys and the Darlings can also fly, but Peter Pan is especially good at it.) Lastly, he is a very skilled swordsman. He is so skilled that he is able to fight adult pirates, often even winning battles and memorably taking Captain Hook's hand.

While Peter Pan's personality is attractive in its nearly fearless and adventurous aspects, it leaves much to be desired in other areas. He is quick to come to the aid of friends, as evidenced by his rescue of Tiger Lily. However, he is also known to abandon his friends in their times of need. When the Lost Boys grow older, Peter "thins them out," which has been taken to mean exiling them or killing them. There is a theory that they become pirates, but this does not pan out, so to speak. Peter will switch sides in the middle of a sword fight with the pirates for fun, presumably injuring or even killing his usual comrades. As far as his smugness is concerned, that can be summed up by his proclamation, "Oh, the cleverness of me." after Wendy helps him reattach the shadow that he misplaced. He is also remarkably forgetful, which seems to be a result of his unending youth.

Regardless of Peter's characteristics, he is loved and/or respected by his many friends. When the Darlings are introduced to the Lost Boys, there are six, though there have been untold numbers before them. The Indians seem to have a peace with him and even the mean mermaids have a spot for Peter. Tinker Bell seems to be quite in love with him and maybe Wendy too. His only enemies are the pirates and maybe the Lost Boys that he maybe killed along the way, but you will not even see that on the Peter Pan Wikipedia page. It's clearly a delicate subject.

Shelly Barclay