Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (Classics Club Spin #31)

Title: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Mark Twain
Publication date: 1889
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis (Goodreads):

One of the greatest satires in American literature, Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ begins when Hank Morgan, a skilled mechanic in a nineteenth-century New England arms factory, is struck on the head during a quarrel and awakens to find himself among the knights and magicians of King Arthur’s Camelot. The ‘Yankee’ vows brashly to “boss the whole country inside of three weeks” and embarks on an ambitious plan to modernize Camelot with 19th c. industrial inventions like electricity and gunfire. It isn’t long before all hell breaks loose!

Written in 1889, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ is one of literature’s first genre mash-ups and one of the first works to feature time travel. It is one of the best known Twain stories, and also one of his most unique. Twain uses the work to launch a social commentary on contemporary society, a thinly veiled critique of the contemporary times despite the Old World setting.

While the dark pessimism that would fully blossom in Twain’s later works can be discerned in ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ‘ the novel will nevertheless be remembered primarily for its wild leaps of imagination, brilliant wit, and entertaining storytelling.

And from Wikipedia:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an 1889 novel by American humorist and writer Mark Twain. The book was originally titled A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Some early editions are titled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur.

In the book, a Yankee engineer from Connecticut named Hank Morgan receives a severe blow to the head and is somehow transported in time and space to England during the reign of King Arthur. After some initial confusion and his capture by one of Arthur’s knights, Hank realizes that he is actually in the past, and he uses his knowledge to make people believe that he is a powerful magician. He attempts to modernize the past in order to make people’s lives better, but in the end he is unable to prevent the death of Arthur and an interdict against him by the Catholic Church of the time, which grows fearful of his power.

Twain wrote the book as a burlesque of Romantic notions of chivalry after being inspired by a dream in which he was a knight himself, severely inconvenienced by the weight and cumbersome nature of his armor. It is a satire of feudalism and monarchy that also celebrates homespun ingenuity and democratic values while questioning the ideals of capitalism and outcomes of the Industrial Revolution. It is among several works by Twain and his contemporaries that mark the transition from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era of socioeconomic discourse. It is often cited as a formative example of the time travel genre.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is my fall 2022 Classics Club Spin book, and once again, I’m delighted that the CCSpin has given me reason to finally read a classic that I might never have considered otherwise.

Way back in my middle school days, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were both required reading, and that was about it in terms of my experience with Mark Twain. Still, I’d been more or less familiar with the general plot of this book as well as The Prince and the Pauper, which have both been adapted and retold in countless formats over the years.

1889 frontispiece by Daniel Carter Beard, restored

In Connecticut Yankee, a “modern” man of the 1880s finds himself transported back in time to the world of King Arthur. Being a proud Yankee, our narrator isn’t content to just find a way to fit in and survive, but instead decides to bring 19th century civilization to life a full thirteen centuries early.

First, seeing the power that Merlin holds over King Arthur and his court, the narrator proclaims himself to be an even greater magician, and uses his 19th century scientific knowledge to create supposed miracles — for example, using dynamite and fireworks — to astound and frighten everyone there. Quickly, he is given the title of “the Boss”, second only to Arthur himself in power and authority.

From there, the Boss begins a plan to introduce modern technology to the kingdom, instituting factories, newspapers, electricity, schools, currency, and more. Determined to improve health and sanitation, he introduces soap, then has the knights roam the countryside carrying advertising shingles to promote it! Of course, obstacles arise, and the Boss finds himself challenged and inconvenienced many times throughout his adventures, but his knowledge of unknown mechanics, science, and communication techniques help him triumph, again and again.

The writing in Connecticut Yankee is sly, sardonic, and often outright funny. From the earliest chapters, I was charmed and entertained, as in this encounter with a young boy as the narrator enters the court at Camelot:

He arrived, looked me over with a smiling and impudent curiosity; said he had come for me, and informed me that he was a page.

“Go ‘long,” I said, “you ain’t more than a paragraph.”

Mark Twain satirizes and skewers concepts of class throughout the book, as the main character — while appreciative of Arthur himself — is determined to do away with nobility, chivalry, and all the inherent injustices of a societal order that holds some people to be better than others.

Intellectual ‘work’ is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the magician with the fiddle-bow in his hand, who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him – why, certainly he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair – but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash also.

The application of justice, as portrayed in this book, is particularly brutal, and there’s one especially heartbreaking scene of a young desperate mother’s punishment that’s truly haunting.

Still, even during scenes of great violence or inhumanity, Twain’s humor shines through. Even the more serious situations are lightened by his skill with words, and I couldn’t help laughing at so many of the small little lines and comments that are thrown in throughout the story.

His head was an hour-glass; it could stow an idea, but it had to do it a grain at a time, not the whole idea at once.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an early example of a time-travel novel, and while the genre has certainly changed over the years, it’s a fun look at the concept. Mark Twain does it well, showing both the influence of the 19th century on Arthurian times and offering a solid set of circumstances to explain why history continue on as expected.

There have been many, many movie and TV adaptations of this story over the years, including a musical version from 1949 starring Bing Crosby, a 1989 TV movie starring Keshia Knight-Pulliam, and a really strange-looking 1995 movie called A Young Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, starring Michael York as Merlin and featuring a guitar-playing teen in the lead role.

I’d decided to read Connecticut Yankee via the Serial Reader app — which I did — but instead of sticking to just one 10-minute installment per day, I got caught up in the story and finished well ahead of the October 30th deadline. I expected to be interested in the story, but I didn’t realize just how entertaining it would turn out to be.

I’m really glad to have read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’m not sure that I’d pick up more Mark Twain immediately, but I think at some point, I’ll want to read more of his works, perhaps venturing into some of his non-fiction writing.

Are you a Mark Twain fan? Which of his books would you recommend?

Once again, I’m so happy that I decided to participate in the Classics Club Spin! Looking forward to the next one!

My Classics Club Spin book for fall 2022 will be…

Earlier this week, I shared a post with my list of books for the newest Classics Club Spin challenge (see it here), and today, this spin’s number was announced. (For those keeping track, it’s CC Spin #31, and for me personally, #3!)

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that corresponds to the “spin” number that comes up.

For CCSpin #31, the lucky number is:

And that means I’ll be reading:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (published 1889)

Synopsis:

One of the greatest satires in American literature, Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ begins when Hank Morgan, a skilled mechanic in a nineteenth-century New England arms factory, is struck on the head during a quarrel and awakens to find himself among the knights and magicians of King Arthur’s Camelot. The ‘Yankee’ vows brashly to “boss the whole country inside of three weeks” and embarks on an ambitious plan to modernize Camelot with 19th c. industrial inventions like electricity and gunfire. It isn’t long before all hell breaks loose!

Written in 1889, Mark ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ is one of literature’s first genre mash-ups and one of the first works to feature time travel. It is one of the best known Twain stories, and also one of his most unique. Twain uses the work to launch a social commentary on contemporary society, a thinly veiled critique of the contemporary times despite the Old World setting.

While the dark pessimism that would fully blossom in Twain’s later works can be discerned in ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ‘ the novel will nevertheless be remembered primarily for its wild leaps of imagination, brilliant wit, and entertaining storytelling.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve read anything by Mark Twain — probably going back to reading Tom Sawyer in middle school — but I’m excited for this one! I’m assuming this will be a lighter read relative to some of the other classics on my list, although it does sound like there are some heavier themes as well as the playful elements.

I’ve been trying to figure out how long this book is, but because it’s public domain and there are so many versions published, I’m seeing everything from 271 pages to 480 for an illustrated edition!

For my own reading adventure, I’ll be using the Serial Reader app, which has this book available in 54 installments. If I start now, reading one installment per day would push me past the October 30th deadline, but if I double up at least some of the time, I’ll make it!

Wish me luck!

Here’s my list of 20 titles for Classics Club Spin #31:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Peony by Pearl Buck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

My previous Classics Club Spin books:

Are you participating in this Classics Club Spin? If so, what book will you be reading?

Getting ready for the Fall 2022 Classics Club Spin!

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin, and I can’t wait!

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up. This will be my 3rd time participating — although for The Classics Club, it’s spin #31!

Here are the dates and guidelines from the host blog:

On Sunday 18th, September, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by the 30th October, 2022.

We’ll check in here on Sunday the 30th October, 2022 to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

What’s Next?

  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Sunday, 18th September.
  • We’ll announce a number from 1-20. 
  • Read that book by 30th October, 2022.

I’ve had so much fun with my previous CCSpin experiences, so of course I’m going to do it again! I’m going back to my list from last time, and other than replacing the book I just read, I’m going to leave the rest of my list as is. I’d be happy to read any of these!

And now for the good stuff…

Here’s my list of 20 classics for my 3rd Classics Club Spin:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Peony by Pearl Buck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

Wish me luck! I’ll post again on Sunday once the spin results are announced!

My previous Classics Club spins:

Spring 2022 (CCSpin29): The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer
Summer 2022 (CCSpin30): Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

My Classics Club Spin book for summer 2022 will be…

Earlier this week, I shared a post with my list of books for the Classics Club Spin challenge (see it here), and today, this spin’s number was announced. (For those keeping track, it’s CC Spin #30, and for me personally, #2!)

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up.

For CCSpin #30, the lucky number is:

And that means I’ll be reading:

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, published in 1945, 181 pages.

Synopsis for the edition above:

Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live “up the hill” in the more respectable area of town. The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short vignettes that introduce us to various denizens of the Row, most of whom are not directly connected with the central story. These vignettes are often characterized by direct or indirect reference to extreme violence: suicides, corpses, and the cruelty of the natural world.

The “story” of Cannery Row follows the adventures of Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack on the edge of a vacant lot down on the Row.

And a synopsis for a different edition:

Unburdened by the material necessities of the more fortunate, the denizens of Cannery Row discover rewards unknown in more traditional society. Henry the painter sorts through junk lots for pieces of wood to incorporate into the boat he is building, while the girls from Dora Flood’s bordello venture out now and then to enjoy a bit of sunshine. Lee Chong stocks his grocery with almost anything a man could want, and Doc, a young marine biologist who ministers to sick puppies and unhappy souls, unexpectedly finds true love. Cannery Row is just a few blocks long, but the story it harbors is suffused with warmth, understanding, and a great fund of human values.

First published in 1945, Cannery Row focuses on the acceptance of life as it is—both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual. John Steinbeck draws on his memories of the real inhabitants of Monterey, California, and interweaves their stories in this world where only the fittest survive—creating what is at once one of his most humorous and poignant works. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck returns to the setting of Tortilla Flat to create another evocative portrait of life as it is lived by those who unabashedly put the highest value on the intangibles—human warmth, camaraderie, and love.

I have to say, I’m not especially excited that this is the book that came up this time around — I have been intending to read Cannery Row for years, but there are other books on my list that were more strongly calling to me.

Cannery Row was published ten years after Tortilla Flat, which I read with my book group a couple of years ago. Having spent lots of time in Monterey, I’m familiar with the area as it exists now, and I do think it’ll be interesting to finally read this Steinbeck classic.

And fortunately for me, I actually own a copy! I have the edition pictured above, and since it’s under 200 pages, I don’t think I’ll have any problem finishing before the August 7th deadline.

I’m a little bummed that I’m feeling so hesitant about this book… but I’m sure once it’ll all work out. Wish me luck!

Here’s my list of 20 titles for Classics Club Spin #30:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

My previous Classics Club Spin book:

The Black Moth (read 4/2022)

Are you participating in this Classics Club Spin? If so, what book will you be reading?

Getting ready for another Classics Club Spin!

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin, and I can’t wait!

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up. This will be my 2nd time participating — although for The Classics Club, it’s spin #30!

Here are the dates and guidelines from the host blog:

On Sunday 12th, June, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by the 7th August, 2022.

We’ll check in here on Sunday the 7th August, 2022 to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

What’s Next?

Go to your blog.

Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.

Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Sunday, 12th June.

We’ll announce a number from 1-20. 

Read that book by 7th August, 2022.

I had so much fun with my first CCSpin — my book was The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer — that I can’t wait to do it again! I’m going back to my list from last time, and besides replacing the book I already read, I’m swapping out a few of my previous picks to replace them with books that have a bit more appeal for me right now.

And now for the good stuff…

Here’s my list of 20 classics for my 2nd Classics Club Spin:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

I think I’d be happy to read any of these! I’m mostly going for shorter books, trying not to be too ambitious given how many other books I already have lined up for this summer.

Wish me luck! I’ll post again on Sunday once the spin results are announced!

My Classics Club Spin book will be…

Yesterday, I shared a post with my list of books for the Classics Club Spin challenge (see it here), and today, this spin’s number was announced.

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up.

For CCSpin # 29, the lucky number is:

And that means I’ll be reading:

The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer, published in 1921, 355 pages.

Synopsis:

A disgraced lord, a notorious highwayman

Jack Carstares, the disgraced Earl of Wyndam, left England seven long years ago, sacrificing his honor for that of his brother when he was accused of cheating at cards. Now Jack is back, roaming his beloved South Country in the disguise of a highwayman.

And the beauty who would steal his heart

Not long after Jack’s return, he encounters his old adversary, the libertine Duke of Andover, attempting the abduction of the beautiful Diana Beauleigh. At the point of Jack’s sword, the duke is vanquished, but foiled once, the “Black Moth” has no intention of failing again?

This is Georgette Heyer’s first novel – a favorite of readers and a stirring tale to be enjoyed again and again.

I’ve read several of Georgette Heyer’s books already, but not this one, and since it’s her first published novel, I’m really eager to give it a try.

I’m also really happy that this spin landed me with a book that’s available through Serial Reader. The Black Moth is on Serial Reader in 33 installments, so if I start this week, I’ll definitely finish before the April 30th target date.

Wish me luck! I’m excited to get started. And who knows? If this works out for me, I’ll be back for future spins!

Here’s my list of 20 titles for Classics Club Spin #29:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Queen Lucia by E. F. Benson
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer
  12. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  15. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  16. Passing by Nella Larsen
  17. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  18. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  19. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  20. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Did you participate in this Classics Club Spin? If so, what book will you be reading?

My very first Classics Club Spin!

I’ve been seeing other bloggers participate in the Classics Club Spin over the last few years, and I suddenly got inspired this week to join in the fun!

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up.

Here are the dates and guidelines from the host blog:

On Sunday 20th, March, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by the 30th April, 2022. That’s a six week reading window for this spin. You may like to stack your list with books that you know are do-able for you within that time frame.

We’ll check in here on Sunday the 30th April, 2022 to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

What’s Next?

Go to your blog.

Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.

Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Sunday, 20th March.

We’ll announce a number from 1-20. 

Read that book by 30th April, 2022.

This is probably the worst possible time for me to do this, since I’m completely backlogged when it comes to my reading plans and have way too many ARCs lined up for April and May.

Still, I’m intrigued by the concept, and I really like Hopewell’s Library of Life‘s idea to refer to Serial Reader for books that can be read in few enough installments to finish by the deadline. (And, by the way, Serial Reader is fabulous, and if you want to know more, see my post here for more info!)

Enough introduction!

Here’s my list of 20 classics for my first ever attempt at the Classics Club Spin:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Queen Lucia by E. F. Benson
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer
  12. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  15. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  16. Passing by Nella Larsen
  17. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  18. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  19. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  20. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

A few of these would be re-reads for me, but given how many years have passed since I first/last read them, I’d be happy to read them again!

I’m just dipping my toes in cautiously, trying to pick books that are both doable in the time frame and that I would feel excited to read. No huge books, no huge obstacles…

Wish me luck! We’ll find out tomorrow what the spin number is!

Audiobook Review: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Title: The Blue Castle
Author: L. M. Montgomery
Narrator: Barbara Barnes
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: 1926
Print length: 249 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Classic fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

All her life, Valancy Stirling lived on a quiet little street in an ugly little house and never dared to contradict her domineering mother and her unforgiving aunt. At 29, she’s never been in love, and her only consolation has been the forbidden books of John Foster and her daydreams of the Blue Castle.

Then, one day, she gets a letter and decides that things need to change. For the first time in her life, she does exactly what she wants to and says exactly what she feels. At first, her family thinks she’s gone around the bend, but soon, she discovers a surprising new world, full of love and adventures far beyond her most secret dreams.

The Blue Castle has been on my to-read/to-listen list for several years now. Ever since reading Anne of Green Gables a few years ago (making up for what was clearly a major deficiency in my childhood reading), I’ve been committed to reading more and more by L. M. Montgomery. And while I’ve now read the full Anne series as well as the Emily trilogy, I still hadn’t quite gotten to The Blue Castle… until now.

I associate L. M. Montgomery with writing charming, heartfelt tales about girls whose sense of wonder and imagination enables then to see the world in such a glorious, optimistic light. The Blue Castle, though, is about a grown woman, and I was curious to see how the author presents a story about an adult.

In The Blue Castle, the main character is Valancy Stirling, whose 29th birthday represents a dramatic turning point for her. Valancy lives with her mother and elderly cousin in a stifling, rule-bound, drab house, completely under her mother’s thumb. The family considers Valancy a somewhat pitiable old maid at this point. She’s never been known as a beauty, has paled in comparison with her lovely younger cousin Olivia, and has never been expected to do anything with her life but be obedient, laugh at her uncle’s awful jokes, and be meek all her life.

One her birthday, Valancy decides to secretly see the local doctor about a strange feeling she occasionally gets in her chest. The doctor is forced to rush off due to a family emergency, but days later, she gets a letter from him, regretfully informing her that she has a fatal heart condition and may have months, but certainly no more than a year left to live.

It’s bitter news for Valancy, who mourns not her impending death, but the fact that she has never lived. And so, with nothing left to lose, she decides to throw caution to the wind and finally, better late than never, live a real life.

Her actions and demeanor shock her family, who are convinced that she’s gone “dippy” — and when Valancy crosses what they see as an unforgiveable line, they decide to pretend that she’s dead.

Meanwhile, Valancy finds unexpected joy by embracing a new, adventurous life, seeking out people and places that make her happy, throwing aside society’s rules and soaking in the beauty of the natural world and the pleasure of companionship based on respect and friendship and being open to experience.

I won’t give away too much of the plot. I’d imagine that in 1926, when the book was published, the surprises that come toward the end of the story might truly have been new and unexpected. As a 21st century reader, I absolutely saw most of the twists coming… but that’s okay. The joy is in the journey to get there, not in unraveling the plot points and figuring out just how Valancy’s story might end.

Valancy is a delightful main character, smart and open and loving, and I found her sass and bravery absolutely fabulous, once she makes the decision to remove herself from the rules and drudgery of her former life.

As in other L. M. Montgomery books, the setting is terrific. The Anne and Emily books are all set on Prince Edward Island, but the setting of The Blue Castle is the fictional area of Lake Mistawis, which apparently corresponds to the real Lake Muskoka in Ontario. In particular, Valancy’s home on an island on the lake is my ideal of a perfect little hideaway, simple and warm, surrounding by lakes and forests, and just such a lovely dream location.

The audiobook narration is quite good, capturing the officiousness of Valancy’s various relatives, as well as her own good nature and open attitude. Yes, some of the dialogue and phrases and terms of endearment sound hokey and outdated… but they’re from the 1920s, so of course they seem a little out of place now. Still, it’s a sweet and fast and enjoyable listen, and I’m so glad I finally experienced this lovely story.

And an added positive — I have at least three more of L. M. Montgomery’s books on my shelves! I’m looking forward to reading them all.

The cover of the 1980s edition, which cracks me up. I mean, the sweater tied over the shoulders! Absolutely wrong for the character… but so dorkily delightful all the same.

Series wrap-up: The Emily Starr trilogy by L. M. Montgomery

One of my reading goals for 2021 was to read the Emily trilogy by L. M. Montgomery. Check! I just finished up the 3rd book, and I’m still under Emily’s spell. Here’s my reading wrap-up for this lovely trilogy:

Title: Emily of New Moon
Published: 1923
Length: 339 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Emily Starr never knew what it was to be lonely–until her beloved father died. Now Emily’s an orphan, and her mother’s snobbish relatives are taking her to live with them at New Moon Farm. She’s sure she won’t be happy. Emily deals with stiff, stern Aunt Elizabeth and her malicious classmates by holding her head high and using her quick wit. Things begin to change when she makes friends, with Teddy, who does marvelous drawings; with Perry, who’s sailed all over the world with his father yet has never been to school; and above all, with Ilse, a tomboy with a blazing temper. Amazingly, Emily finds New Moon beautiful and fascinating. With new friends and adventures, Emily might someday think of herself as Emily of New Moon.

Emily of New Moon introduces us to the unforgettable Emily Byrd Starr. Orphaned at age 10, Emily is taken in by her late mother’s side of the family, who disowned her mother years earlier when she eloped with Emily’s father. Suddenly uprooted, Emily settles into life at the beautiful New Moon with her spinster aunts, Elizabeth and Laura, and her impish cousin Jimmy. Despite her heartbreak over losing her father, Emily is soon enchanted by the loveliness of the farm and its surroundings, and settles in — with challenges — to her new home.

Emily is feisty and sensitive, speaks her mind, and doesn’t back down. She’s also highly imaginative and inquisitive, and — like Anne in Anne of Green Gables — delights in imbuing the natural world around her with fanciful names and personalities. For the first time in her life, Emily also has friends and classmates, and gets into wonderful adventures with Ilse, Teddy, and Perry. Most of all, Emily lets her secret ambition to become a “poetess” flourish, and uses every scrap of paper she can find to record her poems and stories.

This is a truly lovely book, very similar to Anne of Green Gables in spirit and tone. The author once again gives us a young girl with a sharp, expressive mind and a will of her own as a main character. The book is full of sweetness and whimsy, but we also feel Emily’s sorrow and pain as she navigates a world that isn’t always kind to her. There are memorable characters and escapades, and as in the author’s other works. Prince Edward Island is brought to life through Emily’s eyes.

Title: Emily Climbs
Published: 1925
Length: 325 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Emily Starr was born with the desire to write. As an orphan living on New Moon Farm, writing helped her face the difficult, lonely times. But now all her friends are going away to high school in nearby Shrewsbury, and her old-fashioned, tyrannical aunt Elizabeth will only let her go if she promises to stop writing! All the same, this is the first step in Emily’s climb to success. Once in town, Emily’s activities set the Shrewsbury gossips buzzing. But Emily and her friends are confident — Ilse’s a born actress, Teddy’s set to be a great artist, and roguish Perry has the makings of a brilliant lawyer. When Emily has her poems published and writes for the town newspaper, success seems to be on its way — and with it the first whispers of romance. Then Emily is offered a fabulous opportunity, and she must decide if she wants to change her life forever.

The second book in the Emily trilogy covers Emily’s teen years as she attends high school in the nearby town of Shrewsbury. While Emily is desperate to further her education and hone her writing craft, she dreads being forced to board with her judgmental, restrictive Aunt Ruth. Plus, as part of being allowed to attend high school, Emily has had to promise not to write fiction during the three years of her schooling, which is a really tough pill for her to swallow. Still, she has her diaries and her poetry, and starts writing newspaper articles as well.

As the years go by, Emily and her friends grow and have more adventures, and Emily has some initial success as a writer when magazines begin publishing her submissions, sometimes even for money. Meanwhile, she has her first suitors, but her heart really belongs to the boy she’s grown up with.

I really enjoyed book #2, although one of the romantic situations involves a much older cousin-by-marriage and is kind of icky (although Emily, bless her heart, doesn’t understand at all that there’s a romantic interest there.) While he is never inappropriate, his interest is obvious, and seen through today’s lens, it feels way too much like grooming. So icky. (Granted, the book was written 100 years ago, so perspectives on this sort of thing would certainly have been different).

Even as she gets older, Emily is still a dreamer, and it’s lovely to see her view of the world around her. Like Anne (of Green Gables), she sees magic and beauty in the world, and is driven by the need to describe what she experiences through her writing.

By the end of Emily Climbs, Emily has finished school and set her course for the future. It’s charming to see the choices she makes and the life she envisions for herself.

Title: Emily’s Quest
Published: 1927
Length: 258 pages
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Emily Starr and Teddy Kent have been friends since childhood, and as Teddy is about to leave to further his education as an artist, Emily believes that their friendship is blossoming into something more. On his last night at home, they vow to think of each other when they see the star Vega of the Lyre.

As Emily grows as a writer and learns to deal with the loneliness of having her closest friends gone, life at New Moon changes. Mr. Carpenter, Emily’s most truthful critic and favorite teacher dies (warning Emily, even as he dies to “Beware — of — italics.”). She becomes closer to Dean Priest, even as she fears he wants love when she only has friendship to give. Worst of all, Emily and Teddy become distant as he focuses on building his career and she hides her feelings behind pride.

Oh, this book grabbed me and put my heart through the wringer! So many emotions! Emily grows into her young womanhood in Emily’s Quest, and it’s both sad and inspiring in so many ways.

Although she’s been offered an opportunity to pursue a career in New York, Emily knows in her heart that she belongs at New Moon, and that this is where her joy and creative inspiration live. She continues to live with her aunts and cousin in the family home and enjoys the natural beauty of her world. Her writing gets accepted by more and more magazines, and she actually earns enough to pay back the stuffy aunts and uncles who paid for her earlier education.

But Emily is lonely without her closest friends. She has many suitors, none of whom really stir her feelings enough to accept their proposals. Her older cousin Dean provides companionship, and it’s clear that he loves her. Emily is very fond of him and loves his friendship, but I started to hate him. He’s so disparaging of Emily’s work, to the point that he pretty much eviscerates her:

“Her pretty cobwebs—” ah, there it was. That was all Emily heard. She did not even realize that he was telling her he thought her a beautiful woman.

“Do you think what I write is nothing but cobwebs, Dean?” she asked chokingly.

Dean looked surprised, doing it very well. “Star, what else is it? What do you think it is yourself? I’m glad you can amuse yourself by writing. It’s a splendid thing to have a little hobby of the kind. And if you can pick up a few shekels by it—well, that’s all very well too in this kind of a world. But I’d hate to have you dream of being a Brontë or an Austen—and wake to find you’d wasted your youth on a dream.”

“I don’t fancy myself a Brontë or an Austen,” said Emily. “But you didn’t talk like that long ago, Dean. You used to think then I could do something some day.”

“We don’t bruise the pretty visions of a child,” said Dean. “But it’s foolish to carry childish dreams over into maturity. Better face facts. You write charming things of their kind, Emily. Be content with that and don’t waste your best years yearning for the unattainable or striving to reach some height far beyond your grasp.”

Ugh. If Dean Priest was standing in front of me, I think I’d have to punch him in the face. Because of a series of events that start with Dean telling Emily that her work is basically trash, Emily goes through one of the worst periods of her life, and eventually accepts Dean’s proposal of marriage, thinking she can have a happy life with him. Fortunately, she realizes what we readers have known all along — her heart has always belonged to Teddy Kent, the boy she’s loved since childhood.

Sadly, the course of true love never did run smooth, and there’s more heartbreak ahead. I can’t tell you how completely wrung out my feelings were, reading Emily’s ups and downs, and at times, hurting so much for her that I wanted to go hide with my head under a pillow.

But fear not, there’s a happy ending! I wish the ending had been given a little more time to breathe, but it was joyful nonetheless, and that’s really all I wanted — for Emily to find the happiness she deserves.

Wrapping it all up…

The fact that I was so caught up in Emily’s life shows what a magnificently written set of books this is! There’s something incredibly beautiful about following Emily’s story from girlhood through her teens and into womanhood, seeing all the different stages of her life, and experiencing how her childhood hopes and dreams evolve over time, making her the woman she finally becomes.

It’s a lovely journey, and Emily is a fabulous character. She has the starry-eyed joy that we see in Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), but her story takes its own path. While initially feeling like a similar book about an orphaned girl finding a new family, Emily becomes someone unique and worth knowing in her own right. I love her imagination and joy as a child, and how her love of the world around her infuses her writing and her ability to love others.

The books are filled with memorable quirky characters, and the setting on Prince Edward Island is so lovingly drawn that I could visualize everything Emily sees. (PEI is going to be a travel goal for me!)

I’m so thrilled that I read the Emily trilogy, and I know in my heart that these are books I’ll come back to again and again.

Mini-reviews: A trio of classic horror

Maybe it’s the month of October exerting its spooky influence over me, but I ended up reading three works of classic horror fiction this week, and they were all chillingly great. For all three, I was inspired by recent reads that drew upon these works as inspiration. Read on to find out more…

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Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau
Author: H. G. Wells
Published: 1896
Length: 153 pages

Adrift in a dinghy, Edward Prendick, the single survivor from the good ship Lady Vain, is rescued by a vessel carrying a profoundly unusual cargo – a menagerie of savage animals. Tended to recovery by their keeper Montgomery, who gives him dark medicine that tastes of blood, Prendick soon finds himself stranded upon an uncharted island in the Pacific with his rescuer and the beasts. Here, he meets Montgomery’s master, the sinister Dr. Moreau – a brilliant scientist whose notorious experiments in vivisection have caused him to abandon the civilised world. It soon becomes clear he has been developing these experiments – with truly horrific results. 

For this book and the next on my list, I was inspired by Theodora Goss’s excellent trilogy The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club (which starts with The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, reviewed here.) A newly invented character related to the happenings on Dr. Moreau’s island is one of my favorites in the Goss books, so of course I had to read her origin story.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is grotesque and horrible, but it’s also a very exciting and compelling read. I can only imagine that this would be even more startling if (unlike me) you didn’t know the major plot twist related to Dr. Moreau’s strange and cruel experiments.

There are sinister people, scary beings in the jungle, midnight chase scenes, and all sorts of terrifying encounters. Definitely recommended!

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Title: Rappaccini’s Daughter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Published: 1844
Length: 48 pages

Part fairy tale, part Gothic horror story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is an inspired tale of creation and control. Giovanni Guasconti, a student at the University of Padua, is enchanted to discover a nearby garden of the most exquisite beauty. In it abides a young woman, perhaps the most beautiful Giovanni has ever seen; yet as he looks out from an upstairs window, he soon learns that the garden–and the matchless Beatrice–are not the work of Mother Nature but rather the result of a monstrous abomination of creativity.

Beatrice Rappaccini is another character who appears in the Theodora Goss novels, so it was enlightening for me to read the original story about her. Here, Dr. Rappaccini is a scientist devoted to cross-breeding plants and flowers to create a deadly garden, and has raised Beatrice among the plants from birth so that she herself is poisonous. Giovanni falls in love with her, but eventually has to believe the evidence he sees that proves that Beatrice’s breath and touch are deadly.

Rappaccini’s Daughter is brief, but powerful, and well worth reading.

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Title: The Willows
Author: Algernon Blackwood
Published: 1907
Length: 105 pages

Two friends are midway on a canoe trip down the Danube River. Throughout the story Blackwood personifies the surrounding environment—river, sun, wind—and imbues them with a powerful and ultimately threatening character. Most ominous are the masses of dense, desultory, menacing willows, which “moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.”

“The Willows” is one of Algernon Blackwood’s best known short stories. American horror author H.P. Lovecraft considered it to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature. “The Willows” is an example of early modern horror and is connected within the literary tradition of weird fiction. 

I picked up a copy of The Willows after reading The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher, one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read (reviewed here). In the author’s notes, T. Kingfisher credits The Willows as an inspiration, so of course I had to read it.

This is such an odd story, because in some ways, it’s hard to understand why the characters’ situation is so scary. They stop on a small island in an isolated, wild section of the Danube, where the river is wild and harsh, filled with similar small islands, and surrounded everywhere by willows.

The longer the men spend on their precarious island, the more convinced they become that something unearthly is going on, that they are in fact in a place where the veils between worlds are thin, and that the best they can hope for is to evade the notice of the beings from the other side who are trying to push through.

The Willows has a creeping terror — no jump scares, just the growing sense that something is really, really wrong, and that the characters may not make it out alive. Nothing is obvious, but the overall atmosphere is chilling and disturbing. It’s a weird story, but was enlightening in terms of understanding where some of the elements in The Hollow Places came from. Really a strange yet interesting read.

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That’s my creepy classics round-up! What’s your favorite classic horror story?