26. ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott

For the second year in a row, I’m participating in the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge. This year is also special because it marks the 150th anniversary of Alcott’s most beloved novel of all time. For this reason, I thought Little Women would make an excellent choice as my first review for the challenge. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read it, but I do have vague memories of the film version starring Winona Ryder as Jo. Overall, I was very pleased with Little Women. I not only found it to be a very charming story about the importance of family, but I was quite surprised with some of the directions Alcott decided to take in terms of plot. Sometimes a book comes along that just makes you feel all warm inside. There’s a indomitable spirit that runs through Little Women that I found as quite the beacon of hope in even the darkest of times.

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During my research on the book, I learned that Louisa May Alcott originally did not want to write this “book for girls” preferring to stay with the more adult thrillers she had been penning for quite some time. She finally agreed in the hopes that the publisher would return the favor by helping her father publish his own idea for a book. Despite her initial reservations, I think that it’s safe to say she made the right call as Little Women is heralded as one of the greatest works of nineteenth-century literature. Alcott even manages to insert many of her own beliefs into the book, making a case that Little Women stands as a strong piece of feminist fiction.

The “little women” of the book’s title refers to four close-knit sisters living with their mother during the American Civil War. Meg, the oldest, loves her family but dreams of living a life of riches with fancy balls and beautiful houses. The second oldest is tomboy Jo who is very outspoken and rebellious. Her one dream is that she may one day become a successful writer and escape the expected duties of a typical woman. Then we have the gentle and shy Beth who loves music and is quite gifted on the piano. The youngest is Amy whose artistic talent is matched only by her occasional selfishness. While their father is away helping as a pastor on the battlefront, the girls are cared for by their mother who they affectionately call “Marmee.” Throughout the novel, Mrs. March stands as someone who is trying to bring out nothing but the best in her four girls, as each works to eliminate a significant character flaw. For example, Jo attempts to calm her rather fiery temper (with rather mixed results).

This work has been described as Alcott’s most biographical novel, as the inspiration for the four March girls are based on Alcott herself and her sisters (guess which one is Louisa). They can all be described as dreamers striving for success, but they have a lot to learn, as they work to improve themselves both academically and morally. I was impressed with how Alcott manages to insert her own philosophy into this novel. For example, there’s a scene where the youngest Amy gets into trouble and suffers corporal punishment from her teacher due to her misbehavior. The family immediately pulls her out of that school, reflecting the Alcott family’s disdain at treating children in this manner. Now, the book does occasionally talk of possessing “womanly values” which would sadly make some female readers want to vomit. However, Alcott does make Little Women cutting edge through the very feminist character of Jo.

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Jo March-the original fierce girl.

I don’t think Little Women would have been successful without the inclusion of Jo March. This is a character who struggled to find her role in society. Brash and argumentative, you never knew what she going to do or say next. I loved the scene where Jo cuts off all of her hair in order to raise money for her mother to go see her father. There’s just something particularly appealing about watching this character in a world of proper manners. Everything “girly” goes against her nature. Although she is self-aware of her character traits, she is someone who doesn’t back down. Her relationship with Laurie, the rich boy next door, was extremely charming making them one of the best double acts I’ve encountered in fiction. Another great moment was Jo’s first encounter with Laurie’s scary and frosty guardian who quickly warms to Jo and later, the rest of the March family. This isn’t to say there was anything wrong with the other sisters; for me, Jo March elevated a great novel into something truly legendary.

Despite being a work of nineteenth-century literature, the writing makes this novel quite an easy read. The chapters are short, and each one is almost a short story within itself. I would be doing a great disservice to this review if I did not name my favorite chapter called “Castles in the Air.” It is beautifully written, and if nothing else, you should read that one chapter as a selling point to read the entire book. This isn’t to say the book is for everyone’s tastes. Little Women, at times, can comes across as quite preachy with discussions on religion and moral commentary. None of the advice giving bothered me though because there was such a feeling of kindness behind all of it, that it left me feeling as though I was a better person for having read it.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a message of hope contained within Alcott’s prose. Although we never witness scenes of war firsthand, the outcomes from the conflict are felt throughout the book. Despite all the fun in telling stories to each other and playing make believe, Jo and her sister strive to find their places in the world. They must find a way to fulfill the domestic roles that are expected while trying to become more and stand as individuals. Despite the hardships they face, one quality that unites the girls are their unfailing devotion to family. Perhaps that is the true reason this novel shines bright.

Little Women is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful classics I have ever read, and I think the reason I loved it so much is that it teaches the importance of gratitude. Although the March family doesn’t have a lot in the way of money and possessions, they are rich in the bonds that unite them. In today’s technological world, we often rely on more convenient methods of communication. We don’t actually spend time talking to one another. Family time has become an almost forgotten commodity. Although we can stand to learn a lot from the March sisters, the most important lesson of all is that we shouldn’t lose sight of time with our loved ones. Also, there’s something to be said about enjoying more childlike pursuits. Throughout the novel, the girls are usually engaged in some “frivolous” activity like performing plays or telling silly stories to each other. These activities would be unheard of by today’s youth. So maybe Louisa May Alcott had the right idea. Stop and look at what’s truly important in life. Spend time with your family. Do something silly. Most importantly, love and be grateful.

“Wouldn’t it be fun if all the castles in the air which we make could come true, and we could live in them? I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.”

 

This book counts towards one of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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25. ‘Dark Eden’ by Chris Beckett

I had never heard of Dark Eden or its author Chris Beckett prior to picking up this book. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but honestly do you blame me? It was a must have. I am pleased to say that there is definitely substance beneath the gorgeous cover. Dark Eden was compelling science fiction that manages to to tell a familiar story in a rather inventive way.

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One hundred and sixty-three years ago, two astronauts named Tommy and Angela were stranded on a planet they named Eden. While the remainder of their team journeyed back to Earth in order to bring back a rescue team, the two castaways began having children. Nearly two centuries later, the “Family” consists of 532 people all descended from Tommy and Angela. As a result of incest, several members of Family have birth defects such as a cleft palate (called “Batface”) or clubbed feet. The inhabitants all live in Circle Valley, where the landing vehicle originally came down, because Angela told her children to stay together so they could be found when rescue from Earth finally arrived. This rule was passed down from generation to generation, and now everyone is afraid to venture out from Circle Valley in case rescue finally arrives. As the population continues to grow and food becomes scarce, there is a real danger of being wiped out within a few more generations. However, the old traditions continue to stand due to the fear of being left behind once help finally arrives. One day, someone makes the decision for change that alters life on Eden from that point forward.

John Redlantern is one of the teenagers (“newhairs”) of Family. He feels closed off from the world and stuck in the endless cycle of routine. John often gets into trouble with the group leaders and elders because he asks the questions everyone else is afraid to ask. Outside of Circle Valley lies Snowy Dark, a place of unfathomable cold. Nobody knows what lies on the other side, but John wants to brave the journey to discover more to this world. Finding the nobody will listen, John leads a small group of those that are willing to break away from the rigid structure of Family. His actions lead to some drastic changes, not all of them good.

In creating Eden, author Chris Beckett has designed a truly fascinating world. The planet lacks a sun, and light is derived from the bioluminescent plant and animal life. The trees (called Lantern trees) tap into the molten core of the planet bringing up heat and fruit. I loved the descriptions of all the wildlife because it leads you to try to imagine what these creatures. Despite being a very alien world, Beckett manages to make every aspect appear logical. The details of Eden are told naturally through the characters’ eyes.

Beckett should also be applauded for the development of the society of Eden. Life among Family centers on powerful and rigid rituals: retelling the story of the original inhabitants, worshipping the few remaining relics, and maintaining the primary law of staying in Circle Valley. There are several themes that run through this book, but for me the greatest achievement is how this group best represents a dysfunctional family system. In my research, I discovered that in addition to being a writer, Chris Beckett is also a social worker. As a therapist, I found this book endlessly fascinating. I think that the ideas crafted here can be applied to examining how our family systems can become fixed and rigid.

Linguistic drift has given has given the people of Eden unique words when retelling the history of their ancestors, such as “police veekle”, “rayed yoh”, and “Jesus Juice” instead of “police vehicle”, “radio”, and “Jesus and the Jews” The word very is nonexistent so the inhabitants simply double the adjective, such as “cold cold”, “sad sad” etc. The word “slip” refers to having sex with someone, and Family has a very polyamorous society with babies being born and the mothers unsure of which male is the father.

The characters are interesting, diverse, and well-developed. Although the main character of the book, John Redlantern is a flawed character and your typical anti-hero. We can sympathize with his decision for change and exploring the world beyond Snowy Dark, but often his actions are more out of self-interest in being respected as the leader of the tribe. John’s lover and friend Tina Spiketree also becomes an interesting and thought-provoking character, particularly in regards to women’s rights (or lack of). Most of the story alternates between John and Tina’s perspectives, with a few other characters occasionally thrown in throughout the narrative.

The power of storytelling is an important theme running throughout Dark Eden. The origin story of Tommy and Angela is told multiple times. Over the course of time, details and meaning are altered to fit what works in the best interests for Family’s moral well-being. I love how we never get a flashback to Tommy and Angela. It works so much better to learn the story through the current characters’ eyes. There is a moment near the end where we learn a few more details, but the author leaves it to us the readers to put it all together. As a therapist, I have always been fascinated by narrative theory. Particularly, it is interesting to examine how narratives can change over time. John wants more than change from the repeating cycle of rituals that symbolize Family. He wants to be the center of the story, the hero. Rather than give a happy ending, Beckett gives us a realistic ending.

I learned that this is the first book of a trilogy, but it definitely works as a stand-alone work of brilliant science fiction.  I highly recommend you add this book to your TBR list if you are wanting to read a work of accomplished science fiction. I will definitely be reading more Chris Beckett in the future.

“That was what Eden was like. We were trapped inside a dark little cave with no way out of it. And even though I’d never known anything else, and probably never would do, I longed and longer for that different world that was full of light. I don’t mean just longed for it in a sad wistful way. I longer for it like a blind person must long to see. I longer for it like you’d long for air if you couldn’t breathe.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

 

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind the Masks

When you hear the name Louisa May Alcott, you typically identify her as the author of Little Women. While it’s true this novel made her a household name, it is important to know that the creator of the March family actually wrote several other works spanning different genres. She was also quite accomplished in many other areas as well. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Alcott’s Little Women, I thought it would be fun to explore some interesting moments in the author’s life and how those impacted her writing.

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Louisa May Alcott (1832-1885) wrote everything from children’s fiction to suspense thrillers.

Writer of Suspense Thrillers

“I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.”

One would not suspect that the genius behind Little Women would have written the above quote, but it is in fact the opening line to Alcott’s thriller A Long Fatal Love ChaseInterestingly enough, this tale of a deal with the devil and a psychotic lover was my first introduction to the world of Louisa May Alcott. Written two years before the publication of Little Women, this particular manuscript remained unpublished until 1995. This dark story does not stand out by itself, as Alcott churned out quite a few other Gothic thrillers.

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The term “blood and thunder tales” refers to the suspense thriller stories that Alcott wrote under the pseudonym A.M Barnard. Due to her family’s dire financial situation, Alcott took it upon herself to lend financial support. Her suspense thrillers proved to be a means to help make money, while at the same time showcasing the writer’s skills in developing tight psychological stories seeped in Gothic mystery. Some of her most famous of these “blood and thunder tales” include The Mysterious Key, The Abbot’s Ghost, and Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power. I will be reviewing a collection of her darker fiction later this month!

Author of Children’s Stories

On the complete opposite end of the writing spectrum, Alcott was quite the purveyor of children’s fiction. She naturally had a gift for capturing the imagination of youth with fairy tales that were also morality lessons. When she was only a teenager, Alcott wrote her Flower Fables as a gift for the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. These little stories are filled with fairies, elves, and sprites and teach children how to resolve problems peacefully and with respect to all of the creatures in the world. Other collections for the family include Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag and The Brownie and the Princess. 

Civil War Hero

Never one to sit idly by when her country needed her, Alcott helped support the war effort by sewing Union uniforms. Determined to serve in a greater capacity, Alcott enlisted as an army nurse the following year. During this period of her life, Alcott comforted the dying and helped doctor’s with operations. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches based on her wartime experiences.

Alcott served her country any way that she could.

Early American Feminist 

Alcott was all about rocking the vote! During the 1870’s, she wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts spreading the word. In 1879, the state passed a law allowing women to vote in local elections involving education and children. Guess who was the first registered female voter in Concord? If only Alcott could have been alive to see the steps taken in equality.

Transcendentalist Thinker

Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was quite the figure in the realm of education reform. As a teacher, he developed new ways of student interaction focusing on more of a conversational style. Based on his ideas of perfecting humanity, he co-founded Fruitlands, a Utopian commune based on Transcendentalist principles. Unfortunately, the project would be short-lived, but the elder Alcott’s idealism would pass on to his daughter. Louisa would go on to publish a satire of this experience called Transcendental Wild Oats as well as the semi-autobiographical Work: A Story of Experience in the same year.

I hope this article intrigues some of you to read a work or two by Louisa May Alcott. If so, perhaps you will join me for this year’s Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge. I will be reviewing Little Women in about one week and some other Alcott works later this month. Until then, I leave you with a quote that I think perfectly sums up her ideal qualities of a strong woman.

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Have you read Little Women or some other works by Louisa May Alcott. Sound off with a comment below!

 

 

 

 

 

24. ‘The Black Arrow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

Last year, I read and reviewed two works by Robert Louis Stevenson. I really enjoyed both Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for vastly different reasons so I was excited about the prospect of tackling another Stevenson classic. Fellow bibliophile and blogger Joelendil recommended this one to me so special shout out to you kind Sir. While The Black Arrow is not as universally celebrated as the other two, I did find it to be quite an enjoyable little adventure with lots of action and intrigue.

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This was a great used bookstore find. If only books were still this price!

The Black Arrow is set during the turbulent period in British history known as the Wars of the Roses. If you are like me and slept a lot in high school, no need to fear as a knowledge of the history is not necessary to enjoy this book. Basically, the Wars of the Roses were a series of English civil wars for control of the throne during the fifteenth century. The two opposing factions were the House of Lancaster (symbolized by a red rose) and the House of York (represented by a white rose). It spanned off and one for several decades. That’s about all you really need to know. I will end the brief history lesson here to focus on the book itself.

The main character is Richard (Dick) Shelton, a young ward to the knight Sir Daniel Brackley. As the story begins, Brackley’s men are attacked by the mysterious group known as “The Black Arrow.” After reading a message that Sir Daniel may have been responsible for the murder of his father, young Dick begins to suspect that he may have been loyal to the wrong person. Not that his guardian is duplicitous mind you. I mean sure Sir Daniel is known for switching sides often during the war to promote his own self interest. There is also the matter of kidnapping women and arranging marriages to those that serve him. So in a nutshell, yes Sir Daniel is the real dick of this story (sorry had to do it). As young Shelton’s loyalties are tested, he finds himself going on one daring adventure after another to both avenge his father and rescue his true love. Oh, did I forget to mention that there is romance as well? Remember when I said that one of Sir Daniel’s pastimes is kidnapping young ladies and marrying them off. Well, Joanna Sedley is the latest of these conquests who manages to escape from Sir Daniel disguised as a boy. Using the alias John Matcham, she soon becomes friends with Dick who does not suspect anything suspicious about his new partner in crime.

Finally, a strong female lead in a Stevenson novel! Of course, Joan does spend the first part of the novel dressed as a boy. Then, the remainder of the novel consists of Dick trying to rescue her as the classic damsel in distress. Alright, so Stevenson isn’t known for his strong female characters. The time that Joan is disguised as his alter ego leads to some rather funny moments for the clueless Dick. The classic “girl pretending to be a boy” has been a trope in fiction from the classics all the way up to modern movies. Once our hero learns that his new friend is really a girl, he professes his undying love to her. Literally, in less than a page. Oh well, I guess the role-play will be fun. I get that Stevenson was more interested in getting the story to move along to the more action-packed parts.

The story does move along at a rapid pace, with plenty of fights, daring escapes, and intrigue. I found Dick Shelton to exemplify the qualities of a true hero. He is a brave person who wants to do what is right. Unfortunately, I felt like some of the plot threads didn’t come together perfectly. For example, the first half of the book seemed to focus on the death of young Richard’s father. Later, it almost becomes more of a side story. When I researched this book, I learned that it was written and printed in installments (common practice of the times). Also, Stevenson was not in the best health so that could attribute for some of these issues.

Another problem for me with Black Arrow was the dialogue. Stevenson felt it necessary to write the dialogue in the speech used during that time period. While I applaud his efforts to be authentic, the dialogue really slowed this book down for me. I think I would have been alright with modernizing the language. Stevenson took some other liberties with the novel in regards to history, such as adjusting the age for the future King Richard III. In his own self-criticism of the work, Stevenson used the term “tushery” due to the archaic language. I will give Stevenson credit for giving me a word that I plan to use as much as possible. I mean you can’t help but smile at the word “tushery” right?

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable romp with plenty of adventure and intrigue that might be hampered down a little by the antiquated language. I will definitely continue to read the works of the great Robert Louis Stevenson.

“Wisdom, indeed, moved him to be gone; but love and curiosity were stronger.”

This book counts towards one of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

 

The Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

In addition to my annual goal of reading and reviewing at least 50 books, I also signed up for three reading challenges this year. Feel free to see my progress by clicking here. I ask you though, can one have too many challenges? The answer is yes, but I don’t let that stop me! I am pleased to announce another special event just for the month of June! It is time for the 2018 Louisa May Alcott reading challenge hosted by In the BookcaseI had the pleasure of participating last year, and Tarissa kindly informed me last night that the Alcott challenge has returned!

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

I like this challenge because you set your own parameters. You can choose as many (or as few books) as you would like. These can be her novels, short stories, biographies about Alcott and her family, or even fictionalized accounts of Alcott’s life. Click on the link above for all the details. Did I mention that there are prizes? I’m so excited! Can you feel my enthusiasm people?

Since I read two books for last year’s challenge (under the post The Many Genres of Louisa May Alcott), I decided to step it up to three for this year.

little women

Since this year marks the 150th anniversary of Alcott’s classic Little Women, I thought it was fitting. Sadly, I’ve never read this book (but I saw the film version years ago). I look forward to finally crossing this one off of my list.

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Before she became a household name thanks to the March family, Alcott was a writer of Gothic thrillers! I thought this would serve as a nice contrast to the warmer and cozier Little Women. 

jack and jill

I got this little known book as a free download and know next to nothing about it. My only knowledge is that was spawned from (you guessed it) the classic nursery rhyme.

In addition to reviewing all three of these books, I will be writing additional posts all about……wait for it……Louisa May Alcott. I’ve been toying with the idea of devoting each month to a special theme. such as a specific author, a particular genre, or even some other bookish topic. June will mostly be devoted to Alcott. However, I will continue to post regular book reviews as I always have. My apologies for a slow past couple of weeks, but getting sick will do that to you.

In the meantime, I hope to see some of you take part in this challenge.

What books by Louisa May Alcott have you read or want to read? Sound off with a comment down below!