Classic

GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman –and– “GOOD OMENS” (2019)

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When the Anti-Christ arrives in the unassuming Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, and the countdown to the apocalypse begins. Although most of the Earth’s inhabitants are unaware of the Anti-Christ’s presence, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are more than a little unhappy that the Earth will be ending so soon. After 6,000 years or so, they’ve gotten attached to certain Earthly comforts and the humans they live with. And although they’d never admit it to their respective Head Offices, they’ve gotten more than a little attached to each other as well. So they decide to do what they can to influence the Anti-Christ’s upbringing and avert the apocalypse altogether. But due to a mix-up, partly due to chance, and partly the incompetence of certain Satanic nuns in the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, the Anti-Christ does not end up in the family of an American diplomat as Satan intended, but rather grows up in a typical English family in Tadfield. Of course all of this was predicted by Agnes Nutter, witch, centuries ago, before she exploded at the stake, and her own ancestor, Anathema Device, is searching for the Anti-Christ as well. With the end of days only days away, Aziraphale, Crowley, Anathema, and a couple of barely-competent witch-finders scramble to find the boy who may be bringing about the end of the world.

If you’re a Pratchett or Gaiman fan, you’ve probably already read this one, and you know it is a hilarious, witty, occasionally poignant work of pure genius. I am reviewing it now due to the recent Amazon mini-series adaptation. Could it possibly be as good as the book, you ask? Yes. Incredibly, yes. I did not like the adaptation of Stardust nearly as much as the book, but somehow with this quirky, insane, erratic novel, Neil Gaiman has produced an equally brilliant screen adaptation. Through use of a narrator, it mimics the style of the book beautifully. The characters are perfectly cast, the dialogue in most cases taken directly from the text to preserve each character’s personality. The somewhat scattered writing style in the book actually works perfectly for cross-cut scenes in the series.  Obviously some changes are made to bring the book into the 21st century. Added characters (such as Jon Hamm’s Gabriel) and added scenes tracking Aziraphale and Crowley through the centuries are incorporated so authentically that they merely enhance the satire of the celestial war and the characterization of Aziraphale and Crowley.

In short, the screen adaptation is as perfect as the book. Loved it!

DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather

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As a young man, the French priest Father Latour was assigned as a missionary to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Over the course of his life, he served the diverse community, learning much about the Mexicans, Indians, and Americans who lived there and striving to help the poor, spread the faith, and work for justice.

This Willa Cather classic is a work of fiction based on the life of the real French bishop of Santa Fe.  Laid out as a series of vignettes about different people and circumstances, the story provides a beautifully written, poetic glimpse into a romanticized Old West.

Written in the early 20th century, the book contains prejudicial language and ideas about the various Latino and American Indian populations, some of which are less common today.  Since Cather (and her characters) are trying to understand and respect the people and cultures she writes about, it provides an interesting historical perspective on race relations during the late 19th and early 20th century–and forces today’s white readers who believe themselves to be enlightened and tolerant to examine their own language and behavior for unwitting prejudice.

Although it is short, don’t expect this to be a quick read! The rich, dense prose deserves to be savored.  Fortunately, the vignette formate makes it easy to read in bite-sized chunks.

BLESS ME ULTIMA by Rodolfo Anaya

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Born of a mother from El Puerto and a father from the llana, Antonio grows up caught between two worlds. Despite his father’s objections, his mother hopes that he will one day be a priest.  But when the elderly healer Ultima comes to live with them, Tony begins to uncover a world of New Mexico spirituality that challenges his Catholic faith.  Although some townsfolk accuse Ultima of being a witch, Tony’s family trusts her to heal his uncle who has been placed under a curse. Ultima saves him, but in so doing invites the vengeance of the evil Tenorio upon herself and her friends.

This exploration of the complex spirituality of New Mexico has become a much studied classic.  It is truly a work of literary fiction, meant to be read slowly and contemplated–although the suspense of the Tenorio plot line certainly keeps readers engaged.  I recommend this novel to readers who enjoy literary fiction and exploring other cultures and religions. 

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES by Arthur Conan Doyle

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The death of Sir Charles Baskerville would seem on the surface to be nothing more than an old man’s heart attack.  But the look of terror on Sir Charles’ face, the nearby paw print of a giant hound, and the ancient legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles which has plagued the family for a century are enough to prompt Dr. Mortimer to call in the assistance of Sherlock Holmes.  After an initial study of the case it is clear to Holmes that Charles Baskerville’s death was murder and that the new tenant of Baskerville Hall, the baronet Henry Baskerville, may be in grave danger.  So it is that Dr. Watson travels to Baskerville Hall with Sir Henry and the most famous and terrifying of Sherlock Holmes adventures unfolds on the dark moor.

For lovers of mystery and horror, The Hound of the Baskervilles remains a classic.  Through Watson’s recollections, diary entries, and letters, the suspenseful mystery comes together and the reader, along with Dr. Watson, is challenged to sift through the many complications and red herrings to tease out the true culprit and motive.  A great book that may even be of interest to advanced 5th-6th grade readers, as well as teens and adults!

TO BE OR NOT TO BE: A CHOOSEABLE-PATH ADVENTURE by Ryan North, William Shakespeare, and You

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Ever get sick of those predictable Shakespearean tragedies where everyone dies at the end?  Then this is the book for you!  Ryan North has turned the bard’s best known tragedy into a choose-your-own adventure book.  Decide whether you’d rather go through the story as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet Sr.—spoiler alert: if you choose the latter, you get to be a ghost!—and the choices you make will determine the outcome of the story.  This book will be especially hilarious to those familiar with Shakespeare’s play who can appreciate the inside jokes and twists on the original.  A really fun read!

THE LOST WORLD by Arthur Conan Doyle

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When Gladys told Ned Malone that she could only love him if he did something truly courageous and adventurous, the young journalist despaired.  When would he ever have the opportunity to perform the heroic and extraordinary acts of bravery that Gladys demanded?  But when the investigation of a supposed scientific fraud opens the door for a dangerous expedition to the Amazon, Malone seizes the opportunity immediately (and against his better judgment).  Together with a rugged hunter and outdoorsman (Lord John) and a skeptical professor of zoology (Summerlee), Malone travels from England to South America in order to try the outlandish claims of Professor Challenger, who claims to have discovered a plateau where prehistoric dinosaurs roam, unevolved.   As their adventure gets underway, however, all quickly realize that the plateau is indeed inhabited by creatures far more strange and dangerous than even Professor Challenger had imagined . . . .

Most people are familiar with Sherlock Holmes, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s science fiction novel is every bit as exciting and engaging as his mysteries.  As with most of Conan Doyle’s works (and the writings of many of his contemporaries), you must be prepared for his racism which colors the text, particularly the portrayal of the native tribes of the Amazon and the African servant, Zambo.  But if you can accept the work as a product of its time, the adventure on the plateau and the imagining of the prehistoric monsters are quite compelling.  Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) has cited Conan Doyle’s novel and an inspiration for his own Lost World.  But while Crichton’s stories lean heavily toward the action-thriller genre, Conan Doyle devotes considerable attention to the thrill of discovery and the explorers’ sense of wonder at the beauties and horrors of this newly-discovered (insofar as the English are discovering an already inhabited land…) world.  I highly recommend The Lost World to those who love science fiction and/or the classics, for though it is lesser known, I found it as well-written and engaging as Sherlock’s stories, though in a different way.