I've moved bookishwhimsy.com to tumblr! This blog is now an archive of my past posts.


Monday, June 30, 2014

The Refined Reader (15) The Four Great Classical Novels

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!




Last week, The Refined Reader looked at the top best-selling novels which included a novel called Dream of the Red Chamber which I had never heard of before.  When I read about that book I discovered it was part of a special group of novels in Chinese culture which are seen as the pinnacle of pre-modern Chinese Literature.  These four books are extremely influential and popular in China, and I thought it would be interesting to find out why they are culturally so important.  The four books are:

The Water Margin by Shi Nai'an (written during the Song dynasty - 14th century)
This book is about a large group of outlaws (over 100!) who fought against the harsh feudal system of the Song dynasty and who repulsed the government troops who tried to subdue them.  I read that this book is reminiscent of Robin Hood and features many connected individual tales.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong (written during the Yuan (or Ming) dynasty - 14th century)
This book is a semi-historical and semi-fictional account of the Three Kingdoms period in history when the Han dynasty was broken up into rival kingdoms.  The story is a complex narrative of dramatic intrigues, battles and corruption.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en (written during the Ming dynasty - 16th century)
This is a fantastical tale of a journey by a monk and his protectors - one of whom is a very intelligent monkey, and one who is a dragon prince who takes the form of a white horse.  Of course this epic novel is popular as a children's story but it is an allegorical tale of individuals seeking enlightenment.

Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (written during the Qing dynasty - 18th century)
As I mentioned in last week's post, this book is a soap opera-ish drama of two ruling clans in the Qing dynasty.  "Red Chamber" is a Chinese idiomatic expression for the "sheltered chambers where the daughters of wealthy families lived."  This book is also the most recent novel on this list.

There are a few things these four books have in common - they were partially written in vernacular Chinese which made novels written in vernacular much more accepted in Chinese culture.  There are disputes for all four books on who exactly wrote them (which is surprising to me!)  They are epic, complex novels based in historical events and were breakthroughs in the techniques of the novel by using irony and satire.  These books also helped give novels prestige in China, when poems and Classical texts were considered more worthy in the 'literary hierarchy.'

And one last thing - there is a fifth unofficial Great Classical Novel which has been largely banned for it's explicit sex scenes.  It's called The Plum in the Golden Vase and was written in 1610.

All of these books are very long and feature a large cast of characters (except perhaps for Journey to the West) which is very daunting to me, but I would like to read them one of these days as I find their history so interesting, and I have not read any Classic Chinese novels.

Are you familiar with any of these four novels?  Which one sounds the most interesting to you?

Sources:
Wikipedia
China Highlights
Expat-China
Sunday, June 29, 2014

Suspense Sundays (103) Drive-In

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,
Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.

"Drive-In"
Air date: June 14, 1959
Starring Margaret Whiting
>>Episodes here<<

This takes place in a fast food drive-in - how quaint!  :)  Mildred is asked by her coworker to take one more car order even though Mildred is due to go home soon.  The man in the car is in a bit of hurry, and as Mildred takes his order she gets a bit of blood on her hand - from the man's car.  The man explains he's a doctor and just transported a patient before.  And when the Doctor finds out that Mildred is in a rush to catch the bus, he offers to drive her to the bus stop.  She accepts.  And it turns out the Doctor is afraid Mildred has realized he just killed a man.

This story was one of the quintessential Suspense radio stories - an innocent gets caught up in a terrifying situation.  And the suspense is in how she can get out of it.  It's really well done in this story - Mildred's dilemma is so tense, and the setting of a dark, rainy night definitely helps keep up the atmosphere.  It's also interesting to think what you would do in that situation (heaven forbid!) - kidnapped by a murderer who intends to make sure you can't make any trouble for him.  The resolution is wonderful as well - it's easy to guess what will happen towards the end, but it all plays out perfectly!
Friday, June 27, 2014

Review: Fortunately the Milk

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,
Fortunately the Milk
by Neil Gaiman
Children's Fantasy
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

"I bought the milk," said my father. "I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road."

"Hullo," I said to myself. "That's not something you see every day. And then something odd happened."

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

Review:

This is a sweetly, endearing children's book with some fantastic, whimsical illustrations!  With such a mundane start - the need to buy milk for breakfast - Neil Gaiman spins a wild, adventurous tall tale of encounters with different peoples and creatures in different times.  The story moves so quickly and in very imaginatively unexpected directions, while also tying up all the loose ends nicely.  Since there is a time travel aspect to it, I appreciated how neatly some of those temporal twists were explained in the end.

The story is framed by the children who are being told this story by their father, and that element of childish skepticism and tangential thinking added humor and fun side-commentary to an already entertaining story.  This book was a joy to read for this adult, so I imagine it must be the same for any child.  If you are a fan of Neil Gaiman, children's books, or fun stories, definitely give this one a try!
Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,
Now that this webseries is over, I have the chance to write my thoughts about the whole show!  This was a modern vlog adaptation of Jane Eyre which I posted about back in November when the show was about halfway through.  I was really impressed by how close they stuck to the novel - adapting scenes that are often disregarded in other adaptations (granted they have a lot more time with this series) but also to make some scenes from the book modern must have been a great challenge.  And I was really mostly happy with how they managed to make everything fit in their world.

I think the only problem I had in general with this production was how some moments or videos seemed a little too filler.  There would be a couple nods to the novel and then a lot of random - it really didn't happen often though, but there were some videos that didn't make the most of the story to me.  And there were times when I thought it was weird that Jane would just have her camera running while she was doing mundane things - I suppose I don't really understand the point of just filming herself while sitting there even though the show sets up that having these vlogs was like therapy for Jane.  But then of course someone would just happen to come into the room and we'd have a story.

The actors were all really excellent in their parts.  Jane was so endearing and quirky - definitely different from Jane in the book, but believably the modern version.  The Rivers were also believable surprisingly - I mean especially when it came to the St. John character - now called Simon.  St. John in the book would be very difficult to modernize I think - because he's so zealous and religious, selfless but selfish.  They made Simon a little bit too dorky and cute, but he was also stubborn and unsympathetic to others which fit.  I thought it was a bit sad though that he is so quickly out of the picture in the end - it seems like he really wasn't very happy in the last mention of him, and at least St. John of the book seemed happy to be doing what he wanted.


The whole thing with Rochester was unfortunate though.  I really loved how they adapted him, and the actor brought a great sense of humor to the character.  Apparently the actor left towards the end due to some differences with the team, so the viewer gets a very unsatisfactory ending.  I think they did the best they could with what they had, but I wonder if it would have been better to just get some Rochester scenes on screen even if the actor had a different face?  Or just a voice-over from hoarse-voiced Rochester?   It would have been nice to get some of the dialogue from the last part of the book.  I don't think the resolution was what they had truly planned since it seemed rushed, and more like a footnote, instead of a proper farewell to the fans.  Like in the Lizzie Bennett Diaries.  Of course it was great that they showcased how far Jane had come, and how much she had accomplished because that is the most important point of Jane's story.  But I am a bit of a romantic, and more closure from the Jane/Rochester relationship would have been wonderful.

This adaptation had it's ups and downs for me, but I always felt there was a lot of love for this book in every episode, and the writing and the story planning were often exceptional in adapting the book.  I was always happy to get a new episode (okay, towards the end, I felt happy after I got over my disappointment that Rochester was not in it!) and it was such a great experience getting a little dose of Jane's story every week.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: Ruin and Rising

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,
Ruin and Rising (Shadow and Bone #3)
by Leigh Bardugo
YA Fantasy
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

The capital has fallen. The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.

Now the nation's fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.

Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.

Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova's amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling's secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.

Review:

The ending of Siege and Storm was dark and terrifying, and that tone is carried through to the beginning of this book.  Alina is damaged and broken and slowly gains the resolve and strength to find a way to defeating the Darkling.  Her journey as a character is beautifully brought to completion in this book, and I found her arc so satisfying.  Alina has always been a prickly person, and she has had to make decisions she never wanted to make, so I was so happy that she found a way to be true to herself and her noble heart.  She's the reason I loved reading this book so much, and I feel that Leigh Bardugo has done complete justice to her main character.

When it comes to how other character arcs are played out, I feel that the author took the same care to bringing them to full potential.  I don't want to say too much though about them in case of spoilers, but it was wonderful how so many little scenes and moments really brought out the personalities of these characters, and how easy it was to feel for each one of them.

The story has many twists and turns that made it suspenseful and surprising, especially when some very important reveals are made.  It was a difficult and dangerous journey throughout, and the author was not afraid to make some really difficult choices in the story.  But I was very satisfied with that (even if I was biting my nails with worry!) because the stakes are very high in this book, and it would not be fair to the reader to back away from the danger.  But even with all the gloom hanging over the characters' heads the wit in the writing and the humor in the characters helped lighten the mood and bring even more realism to the story - for it is understandable for these characters to need a moment to laugh when they have gone through so much.  Nikolai in particular is just a joy of a character to read about.

This is a completely satisfying conclusion to the series - because all the characters' paths are true to what has been set up in the previous two books, loose ends are tied up and all the questions are answered.  The story left me feeling complete.  Ruin and Rising was a fantastic reading experience!
Monday, June 23, 2014

The Refined Reader (14) The Top Best-Selling Novels

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!


Are you having trouble deciding what your next read is?  Look no further than this post since I am pleased to present the top best-selling novels of all time!  So they have to be good right?  (Best-selling means over 100 million in sales.)


Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)
by Antoine de Saint Exupéry
First published in France in 1943

This poetic novella is otstensibly a children's book while also making quite profound comments on life in general.  I'm sorry to say I have not read this one yet though I do have the book to read on my bookshelf!

Approximate Book Sales: 200 Million




A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens
First published in England in 1859

Charles Dickens's complex tale of love, sacrifice and revolution is truly a masterpiece.  I read this book in high school and after getting through the dense first few chapters, I was in complete awe of how well Dickens meshed the stories of two different casts of characters in two very different cities.  This is well worth a read, especially for it's heartbreaking conclusion.

Approximate Book Sales: 200 Million



The Lord of the Rings
by J. R. R. Tolkien
First published in England in 1954-1955

It is no wonder that The Lord of the Rings is such a blockbuster bestseller - the sheer scope and genius of the world and the characters demand it.  It's a truly breathtaking achievement in writing, and it definitely helps that the film adaptations were just as brilliant!

Approximate Book Sales: 150 Million

I should add that The Hobbit also reached more than a 100 million in sales, but I'm just going to let Tolkien take up one space in this post!



Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
by J. K. Rowling
First published in England in 1997

It's kind of ridiculous how many of J.K. Rowling books are big bestsellers, but it is fitting because this is an amazing series.  I first read them when I was in college as well, and devoured each book as it came out.  This is the most recent book on this list to hit such a milestone in book sales which is a testament to it's enduring popularity.

Approximate Book Sales: 107 Million


And Then There Were None
by Agatha Christie
First published in England in 1939

Oh this book.  I'd seen the film adaptation a few years before I actually read it, and I still couldn't put it down.  It's compelling character study and suspenseful page-turner and if you haven't read it, you really need to!  Ten people are stuck on an island and someone is killing them off one by one...

Approximate Book Sales: 100 Million



Dream of the Red Chamber
by Cao Xuegin
First published in China in 1791

This is one of two books in this list that I was completely unfamiliar with.  This Romeo and Juliet type story is a soap opera-ish narrative of courtly intrigue, romance and drama.  It is complex and episodic and it is one of the great novels of Chinese literature.  This is a book I want to read someday!

Approximate Book Sales: 100 Million

She
by H. Rider Haggard
First published in England in 1887

The main characters in this novel journey to a lost African kingdom and encounter the mysterious white queen "She" or "She-who-must-be-obeyed."  Such a strange story to be a best seller.  And incidentally the other book I've never even heard of!  This sounds really interesting though and I hope to read it one day as well!

Approximate Book Sales: 100 Million



It's interesting that all the English language books are all by English authors!  At least France and China have a showing to make this list more international.  It's also interesting how varied this list is - two children's books, one mystery, two Classics, and two speculative fiction.  Of the books listed I've only read 4 (or 5 including The Hobbit) -

How many of the top best-selling novels have you read?

Source:
Wikipedia
Sunday, June 22, 2014

Suspense Sundays (102) Spoils for Victor

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,
Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.

"Spoils for Victor"
Air date: May 24, 1959
Starring Robert Horton
>>Episodes here<<

An out-of-work actor, Victor, bumps into a beautiful woman and gets her phone number.  He goes to his agent's office to call her and arrange a date, and the agent realizes the beautiful woman is a wealthy heiress.  The agent bankrolls Victor's dates with Madeleine and it ends in matrimony.  But the agent wants Madeleine to have an accident so they can make a big profit.  The trouble is Victor is really in love with Madeleine.

I really enjoyed this episode!  It was nice that Victor really didn't want Madeleine to die, because it's too often the other way round in these stories.  The agent seemed so smart with his plans that when he tells Victor what he wants him to do to cause Madeleine's death, there is such a gaping flaw in his plan (to the agent's detriment) that it's unbelievable the agent didn't think of it.  And the flaw is totally exploited in the episode.  Fortunately that is not the twist in this episode - there is one last pretty heartbreaking one which surprised me.  This is a great listen.
Friday, June 20, 2014

The Last Confession or Poirot and Me

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,

On Saturday, I went to see a very intriguing play called The Last Confession starring David Suchet.  And for those who are not familiar, David Suchet is The quintessential Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's famous detective.  And one of my favorite actors!  But first the play -

The play itself delves into a fictional account of the circumstances surrounding the sudden death of Pope John Paul I who reigned for just 33 days.  I was not at all familiar with the history behind this play so I went in completely surprised by some aspects - like how radical John Paul I was in his thinking and of the beneficial changes he wanted to make to the Catholic Church.  The play made him seem a little bit more open-minded (at least in regards to contraception) and refreshingly eager to dispense with some of the stuffy pomp and circumstance that surrounds the Vatican's practices and the Pope's position.  The actor to play John Paul I - Richard O'Callaghan - played him beautifully I thought - he made him so endearing and likable.

The play raises questions on the nature of faith and the role of religion which are very thought-provoking topics.  I can't say I am clear on the meaning it was trying to get across in the end, and for the most part, I was really exasperated with how badly members of the Church acted - corruption and greed were not glossed over in this play.  I was glad I got to see this play though, because I thought it was an excellent production all around with some powerful and subtle performances.

Now back to David Suchet.  I became a fan of Agatha Christie novels when I was in high school - gravitating more towards Poirot novels because Poirot's eccentricity very much appealed to me.  He always made me smile.  And around that time I also got into the TV series adaptation of Poirot's stories which starred Suchet.  There have been a few other actors to play Poirot on screen, but no one gets him like David Suchet.  That's just a fact.  He delves so deeply into the character it's awe-inspiring.  And he's played Poirot in adaptations of all of Agatha Christie's novels and short stories! (Except for one short story apparently)  The last season - the last four books that needed to be adapted - will finally air in the U.S. this summer. (Of course it already aired in the U.K. months ago!)

At the stagedoor, I was pretty nervous, and tried to keep my thoughts straight as I waited with my Mom to see him.  There were a couple other Poirot fans waiting too, so it was nice to talk to them a bit about David Suchet.  And when he finally did come out, he was so gracious and polite!  He took the time to talk to everyone, and personalized our items to be signed.  It was a very special moment for me to be able to meet him and shake his hand.  I know he is an amazing actor who has done great work outside of his role as Poirot (He was very good in a British period drama called "The Way We Live Now") but I did find it hard to stop myself thinking I was meeting Poirot. :)  I was a bit disappointed though because Stuart Milligan is also in this production and he didn't come out.   Stuart Milligan played President Nixon in an episode of Doctor Who, and he was also a recurring character in another favorite show of mine - Jonathan Creek.

The Last Confession is on a limited world tour at the moment - it goes on to different parts of Australia after it's run in Los Angeles.  If you have the opportunity, do go see it!  And David Suchet did write a book on his experiences bringing Poirot to life called Poirot and Me.  It's not yet officially available in the States, but I hope it will be after the last season of Poirot airs.  Expect a review of the book on the blog sometime soon!
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ruin and Rising Launch Party

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , , ,
Gigantic first page of the book in the entry way
The Launch Party for the last book in Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone series - Ruin and Rising - was on Monday at the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles.  It's kind of an amazing bookstore by the way.  I live in the area and I've never even heard of it until recently!  This place messed me up though, because I got there so early, with every intention of being one of the first in line to get good seats, and I ended up roaming the store and buying all kinds of books (ones I've not seen in any other bookstore!).  And so I did not get a seat.  C'est la vie.


The event was pretty packed.  Leigh's army turned out in force and we were rewarded with a tote bag, a photobooth, nails station, and free food and drinks!  I had caviar for the very first time, and some freaking delicious bacon caramel brownies.  My friend and I were always keeping an eye out for the waiter bearing the brownie tray!

Drinks!  The red one was called Ruin, and the yellow was Rising

There was a brief talk where Leigh read some from her old diary which was completely endearing and hilarious, and then she started talking about the movie Labyrinth with David Bowie while showing some screenshots and a clip of the scene at the ball from the film.  She talked about how the movie bombed when it was released, but became a cult favorite and it's probably due to how it went from a children's film to one with a seduction and darker themes.  Which lead to her talking about why we read YA.  I'm paraphrasing, but the reason why Labyrinth appeals is why YA appeals.  That in a children's book there is an idealized hero's journey and in adult books, people who make mistakes live in the suburbs with regrets.  But in YA, the characters can make mistakes and still have their hero's journey.  I can not do justice to Leigh's wonderful speech, but I found it very moving and so eloquently put.  If only those silly article writers (who shall not be named) could understand how important YA can be in what it shows of the kind of life that adults want to lead.  Not just children.  I wish I had expressed my admiration for how Leigh explained the importance of YA to her when she was signing my book, but after a long wait in line, I completely forgot to mention it!!  But I thought her speech was so perfect.  And I realize that I really need to watch Labyrinth!  Although it does sound like a very trippy movie.

Like I mentioned, the line was quite long, because Leigh awesomely took her time to talk to everyone, so after we had our book signed, my friend and I had to leave.  It was too bad because I would have loved to stay a bit longer and wander around the bookstore more.  Or maybe sit for a bit and start reading Ruin and Rising like I saw some smart people doing at the event.  But I've already started reading the book now, so must get off blogger to read more!

By the way, I've just set up a 500px account to upload bookish pictures!  You can visit it here: 500px  There's only a few more photos from the event on there, and they are mostly random things! Turns out I didn't like 500px that much!
Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: Cruel Beauty

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,
Cruel Beauty
by Rosamund Hodge
YA Fantasy
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.

Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him.

With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she's ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.

But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle-a shifting maze of magical rooms-enthralls her.

As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex's secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.

Review:

Nyx was such a strangely compelling character.  For most of the book, her bitterness at being the one who must marry the demon Ignifex defines who she is.  It is very understandable that Nyx should feel so wronged, and bemoan how unfair it all is, but she does do it a lot. But those feelings do play an important part in how the author reimagines the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.  I can't say that I particularly like to read about main characters who accuse and grumble as much as Nyx does, but I was impressed with how well the author makes it integral to the story and to all of the characters' developments.

When it comes to the romance, I was a bit torn.  I thought that Nyx's attraction to Ignifex was believable, as was his attraction to her, but I found it a bit laughable how quickly Nyx would forget everything she knows about Ignifex when he shows her a little romantic interest.  But I did enjoy her relationship with him, and there were certain aspects to the couple's development that I found really satisfying.  Even though I wanted Nyx to show more sense when she was around him, I thought they made a great pair.

The world-building was very rich and I loved how Greek mythology was interwoven throughout.  The curse was complex, and unraveling the true nature of it was the great mystery that made me eager to read more.  There were times I thought I knew what was going to happen, or understood the purpose of something, only for the author to take it in a completely new direction.  I loved how unpredictable this story was for me.  The writing was also a highlight - very lush and descriptive - it contributed to the Gothic atmosphere of the story, and to the complexities of the characters.

This book is an imaginative and suspenseful take on Beauty and the Beast.   While I found the characters difficult to relate to sometimes, their dilemmas and motivations were always believable and worked so well in advancing the story.  And the author brought so much dimension to this fairy tale retelling with the addition of mythological and fantastical elements.
Monday, June 16, 2014

The Refined Reader (13) The History of the Dictionary

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!


The term "dictionary" was first coined in 1220 by John of Garland who wrote a book on Latin diction he called Dictionarius.  But the dictionary - a collection of word definitions - was around way before then.  Cuneiform tablets with Sumerian-Akkadian word lists date from around 2300 B.C. while a Chinese dictionary dates from the 3rd century B.C. and an Arabic dictionary was compiled in the 8th century A.D.  Language dictionaries were around in Medieval times for Latin and Greek translations.  Early dictionaries were often ordered by topic, by rhyme (the sound of the last syllable) or by the root word.

The dictionary was sometimes ordered alphabetically by first letter as well, the now predominant method, and Samuel Johnson's dictionary used that method to organize the words, as well as used textual references to create the first 'modern' dictionary in 1755.  This dictionary encompassed the English language as it was used, and not just the difficult, rare words that almost exclusively made up the content of the dictionaries that came before it.  Even though Johnson's dictionary was not always accurate and unbiased (and there were sometimes humorous definitions included in the text), his work set up the methodology that all dictionaries after would emulate.

And some fun Dictionary facts from Express.co.uk:
  • Johnson's Dictionary took him 9 years to complete, the encyclopedic Oxford English Dictionary (OED) took 70 years.
  • The word with the most definitions in the OED is 'run'
  • "Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall of 1604, which is often seen as the first English dictionary, had no words beginning with J, K, U, W, X or Y ...but J and I were seen as the same letter at that time, as were U and V, so only K, W, X and Y words were really absent."
Does anyone use a physical dictionary any more to look up words? 

Sources:
Wikipedia / Wikipedia
Sunday, June 15, 2014

Suspense Sundays (101) A Friend of Daddy's

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,
Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.

"A Friend of Daddy's"
Air date: May 17, 1959
Starring Frank Lovejoy
>>Episodes here<<

Butch Bailey, a war veteran, comes by his old soldier buddy Pete's house for a visit.  Butch meets Pete's wife and his son who Pete named after his friend because Butch saved Pete's life at one time.  Butch is down on his luck so Pete offers a bed to his friend until he can get back on his feet.  Pete's wife Louise is not thrilled with that.  Butch has this odd preoccupation with Louise's beautiful, long hair.  And when Louise tries to explain her fear to her husband, he dismisses it.  Butch is harmless.  Right?

The introduction to this episode straight off casts blame on women who insist on growing their hair so long and luxuriously.  O... kay....  It's also a little aggravating how the husband is so dismissive of Louise's feelings.  Especially when her concerns are very valid.  The story is predictable in regards to whether or not Butch is dangerous, and the resolution is a bit silly and not entirely believable, so I wasn't the biggest fan of this particular episode.  
Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: We Were Liars

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,
We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart
YA Contemporary
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

Review:

The writing in this book was mesmerizing.  So sharp, clean, sparse, and effective.  And really clever.  Even with the sophistication and uniqueness of the storytelling though, I felt this was believably a story narrated by a teenager.  And because we see everything so completely through Cady, the other characters lack some dimension which is fitting, since Cady has such a particular viewpoint.  All of this adds to the atmosphere of this story which goes from relaxed to increasingly disturbed and suspicious.

The story does feel a little padded though, and I almost felt this would have been more effective if it was a little more streamlined (although it is already a slim book).  I also felt like the timeline of the story could be confusing at times with all the summer trips Cady relates to the reader.  And even though I did understand why the characters were a little one-dimensional, it definitely made it hard to empathize or connect with the characters, although Cady is easily the most sympathetic, and it was interesting to gradually understand her better.  It is upsetting how privileged the people in this book are, and how they can distance themselves from reality so much.  Luckily one of the characters - Gat - helps voice reason.

The resolution of this story is the best part, and I won't lie about what happens - I just won't say what it is.  It definitely redeemed so much for me about this book, because I didn't see any of it coming, and it is so emotional and thought-provoking.  And I shouldn't say much more than that.  This book really sells a concept - which is the ending - and I think it is worth the read to find out what it is all about.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Jane Eyre Pet Peeves

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,
The novel Jane Eyre is pretty much perfect (let's have no arguments on that)  - but I do have these pet peeves when it comes to the way the novel is often interpreted, which probably bothers me more than it should.  But that's okay, because after I vent in this post, I will feel much better! Theoretically.  (Apologies in advance for all the ranting!)


  • Pet Peeve #1: When Jane is not the focus
I understand from a marketing viewpoint why the DVD cover to the right happened but... that still doesn't make it right.  Honestly, "Jane Eyre" starring Timothy Dalton??  At least put Zelah Clarke's name with Dalton's!  I also understand that Mr. Rochester can often take over the focus of the story because of his personality and because many people swoon over the romance.  I too am guilty of this!  But I always go back to the idea that Jane is the most important aspect and the real reason I love this book so much.  The story is about her, filtered through her, and is most about her development.  I get a little sad when adaptations are referenced by the actor who played Rochester - even if the actor dominated in performance.  So when adaptations or cover images do put the focus on Jane (example, the 2011 film poster - not so much the DVD cover) then they are doing it right.

  • Pet Peeve #2: Mr. Rochester is a bad man
Alright.  This might bother me the most actually.  Yes, he does a terrible thing by keeping such a major secret from Jane.  He tries to manipulate her and make her jealous, and he didn't treat Blanche very nicely either.  Nobody said he was perfect.  (And btw Blanche does not treat him very nicely either.)  These are mistakes that are the result of a childhood with little affection, 10 years of an unhappy marriage, and arrogance bred from his social position.  He's a Byronic hero.  And if you read the novel carefully, he does not deserve Jane until the end when he truly repents and intends to live a better life.   Charlotte Brontë wrote this character with intention and the intention is Mr. Rochester is redeemed.  He is not bad, but he has done bad things.  And the whole thing about Rochester's poor treatment of Bertha is just ridiculous.  Keeping Bertha in the attic with a caretaker was more humane at the time than putting her in an asylum.  Her madness is genetic and "her excesses had prematurely developed the germs of insanity."  ("Excesses" perhaps meaning sexual, because she was not faithful, or perhaps her violent tendencies?)  And why are her homicidal tendencies so easily dismissed?  She's dangerous and needed to be locked up.  

  • Pet Peeve #3: Jane is not a strong character
I had a discussion with a friend once who did not like Jane for this reason.  And ultimately I think it came down to Jane marrying Mr. Rochester in the end, after he treated her so badly (reference: above).  Jane is obviously socially constrained, but she is much more outspoken and passionate than her rank and station allow.  She acts in accord with her own concept of morality and stays true to herself all the way through.  Only when she can be equal in all things with Mr. Rochester does she marry him - the man she loves.  Pretty much in everything, she does what she wants to do.  I don't know how else you can portray a strong character.

  • Pet Peeve #4: The Jane/Bertha
I think the idea of Jane and Bertha reflecting each other started with the 1979 literary criticism work The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.  It's a feminist reading which really took off, but I just don't buy it.  What do Jane and Bertha have in common?  They are both passionate and constrained by society.  Um, so is Mr. Rochester. (Okay granted, Rochester has like 80% less constraints.)  To my mind, I think it much more believable to see Bertha as a warning for what Rochester can become than for what Jane can become.  Especially since Bertha and Rochester are both flawed characters who share a skewed sense of morality.  They are much more alike.  And I think it telling that near the end, when Jane hears about Rochester's blindness, Jane thinks - "I had dreaded he was mad."  Hmm, like Bertha?

  • Bonus Pet Peeve! - This quote:
"Crying does not indicate that you are weak.  Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive."

Credited to Jane Eyre for some reason.  It's not in the novel anywhere, and also unlikely that Charlotte Brontë wrote it.  It's not even a quote from one of the adaptations.  So stop it tumblr.  
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Review: The Reluctant Assassin

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,
The Reluctant Assassin (W.A.R.P. #1)
by Eoin Colfer
YA Science Fiction
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

Riley, a young orphan boy living in Victorian London, has had the misfortune of being apprenticed to Albert Garrick, an illusionist who has fallen on difficult times and now uses his unique conjuring skills to gain access to victims' dwellings. On one such escapade, Garrick brings his reluctant apprentice along and urges him to commit his first killing. Riley is saved from having to commit the grisly act when the intended victim turns out to be a scientist from the future, part of the FBI's Witness Anonymous Relocation Program (W.A.R.P.) Riley is unwittingly transported via wormhole to modern day London, followed closely by Garrick.

In modern London, Riley is helped by Chevron Savano, a nineteen-year-old FBI agent sent to London as punishment after a disastrous undercover, anti-terrorist operation in Los Angeles. Together Riley and Chevie must evade Garrick, who has been fundamentally altered by his trip through the wormhole. Garrick is now not only evil, but he also possesses all of the scientist's knowledge. He is determined to track Riley down and use the timekey in Chevie's possession to make his way back to Victorian London where he can literally change the world.

Review:

This was a fun story, but after I read it, I really didn't find it all that memorable.  I think it's mostly personal preference since it's hard to put my finger on what it was I disliked - or rather failed to like.  The characters were interesting, the story moves pretty quickly, and the time travel aspect is involved and intriguing.  Perhaps the only thing I can fault is in the villain Garrick who was so annoyingly superior, was often way ahead of everyone, yet in the end everything was too easily resolved.

Riley and Chevie have a really fun relationship because they are both so different from each other.  I enjoyed their banter and Chevie's sometimes caustic personality.  It was easy to see why the two got along though, and I felt that their interactions really held this story together.  I appreciated the grounding believability of Riley and Chevie because there are some colorful and exaggerated characters in this story which felt a little jarring at times.  They were sometimes Dickensian, and sometimes just over-the-top and it was hard to believe that they were really very dangerous.  Because it is mostly the threatening characters in Victorian England who were so outrageous.  Garrick was often seen as the most dangerous - almost superhuman in his cunning and fighting ability - yet it was really hard to feel that menace come through in the story which I think made it harder to immerse myself in the narrative.  Garrick is a well drawn character though because his past and his mind are so complicated and it is interesting to learn more about him as the story develops.

The pure adventure of the story is appealing though, and I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the author, or for time travel romps.  Probably a readiness to suspend disbelief would help as well.  And because I really liked Riley and Chevie's dynamic it might be interesting to see how they are developed further in the next book.
Monday, June 9, 2014

The Refined Reader (12) Origins of the Mystery Genre

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!


When I was younger (like elementary school age), mystery was my favorite genre to read.  Something about having some problem to solve and trying to pick up on the clues ahead of the detective was majorly appealing to me.

The mystery story as a genre is relatively new in our literary history - it began in the early 1800s with the rise of an organized police force and detectives as well as a higher literacy rate. The 1819 crime novella Mademoiselle de Scudéri. A Tale from the Times of Louis XIV by E.T.A. Hoffman helped to inspire the father of the mystery story - Edgar Allan Poe in his novel The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). "Poe was one of the first to shift the focus of mystery stories from the aesthetics of the situation to a more intellectual reality, moving the story from "a focus on the superficial trappings of eerie setting and shocking event to a study of the criminal's mind." (Mystery Net)

What followed was a boom time in mystery with works by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and of course the creation of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Arthur Doyle who played a major part in popularizing the genre.  With Holmes, the mystery became even more of an intellectual exercise, placing even more focus in the power of human agency and reason.

The mystery story has many different sub genres today, that do not always include a logical solution to a mystery (in the case of paranormal for instance) but in most cases a mystery encompasses a crime, the use of logic to solve the crime, and a great deal of suspense.  The genre has also endured very well in popular television series and films.

Do you have a favorite mystery story and/or detective?

(My favorite is Agatha Christie and all her Hercule Poirot novels!)

Sources:
Wikipedia
Mystery Net
Sunday, June 8, 2014

Suspense Sundays (100) The Amateur

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,
Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.

"The Amateur"
Air date: May 3, 1959
Starring Jackie Cooper
>>Episodes here<<

Jerry Molloy witnesses a fatal hit and run, and only after the police leave does he notice a license plate out of the way, with a little blood on it.  Instead of going to the cops, his friend convinces him to try his hand at blackmail, because the driver would undoubtedly be grateful he didn't go to the police.  When Jerry gets a phone call from someone who saw his picture in the newspaper and wants to know if he found anything at the crime scene,  Jerry decides to see where it will lead him.

The beginning monologue of this episode puts forth an argument that crime does not pay, as does the whole plot of this episode so I think it's obvious what the outcome for Jerry will be.  This is not a dark episode though, because Jerry is narrating and it is obvious that he is likable and misguided, and the noir-ish vibe of the story-telling was a little more light-hearted than one would expect.  I enjoyed the twists this story took, as well as the fitting resolution.  And I think I mentioned this before, but the old-timey commercials in this are just precious.  The one for the magazine McCall's came off a little tabloid-y surprisingly!
Friday, June 6, 2014

Review: Braving the Brontës

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , , ,
Braving the Brontes (Carly Keene Literary Detective #1)
by Katherine Rue
Middle Grade Mystery
AmazonGoodreads

Plot Summary:

"Voracious readers who share Carly’s wish to end up in a literary adventure will enjoy exploring the world of the literary sisters."–School Library Journal

Carly Keene is a twelve-year-old from Alaska who has always longed for adventure. She gets her wish when she is transported back to 1846 and finds herself living with the Bronte family in England. There is a mystery surrounding the Bronte sisters, and until she solves it Carly is stuck in the past. Will adventure be what she thought it would be? Will she ever get home?

Review:

This was a very sweet and endearing read!  I was already interested because of the link to the Brontes but the author managed to bring the Bronte history and the era to life so well, which was surprising for such a short read.  I think this is a wonderful start to Carly Keene's adventures!

Carly (whose name must be inspired by Carolyn Keene, the pen name for the author of Nancy Drew) is a very believable and likable protagonist.  The Alaskan setting, Carly's family, and her best friend Francesca, give Carly such a distinctive personality as well, because through these things, you can understand why Carly is so quirky.  It's also fun to read how Carly copes with 19th century England with all of it's less savory aspects (like the food, poor hygiene, and the lack of plumbing) as well as her delight in wearing period dress and in exploring the beautiful countryside.  These little details really captured the time and place, and felt so true to how someone would feel traveling out of their own time. This book made the time travel aspect very satisfying because it felt so realistic.

This story reads more like an adventure than a mystery to me.  Perhaps later books in the series will explore true mysteries, but this book was more about Carly helping the Brontës be true to themselves and finding out more about their lives than any mystery surrounding them that Carly has to solve.  (Although I may feel this way because I am pretty familiar with the Brontes' lives already.)  There is a supernatural aspect though that felt very true to the Brontë legacy which I really appreciated.  I think kids will enjoy Carly's adventure and spirit and adults will appreciate the authentic details, the multi-dimensional characters and the nostalgia of reading exciting books like this when they were young.

(I received this book from the publisher or author for a fair and honest review.  I was not compensated for this review.)
Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Star Trek TNG Season 2 - Top 3 Favorite Episodes

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,
The second season of Star Trek The Next Generation was definitely better than the first.  I did wonder at the replacement of Dr. Crusher with Dr. Pulaski - who was good, but a little annoyingly patronizing at first.  But I was shocked to see that she was in a few episodes of the Original Series.  I did miss Dr. Crusher though so I'm glad she'll be back in the next season.

I'm still going to pick only three episodes for this season because I feel like I would just be forcing myself to try and pick more.  But I really love my top 3 picks too so I'm excited to devote this post to them.  (I wasn't as enamored with my top 3 of the first season.)

And just FYI, still can't stand Q.  I read that his episode this season ("Q Who?") was highly regarded but even though the Borg is a great concept, I could have done with 100% less smarmy, self-congratulatory alien.  At least I was glad that Guinan is maybe kinda a match for him.  I want to see her take some action sometime though instead of always letting the crew solve their own problems.

3. Peak Performance


As an attempt to prepare themselves for the eventual coming of the Borg, the Enterprise is ordered to engage in a mock battle pitting Picard against Riker's small ragtag crew.  While engaged, the Ferengi happen by and decide to pillage, and plunder, and rifle, and loot (drink up me hearties, yo ho!)  While I'm not sure how useful this exercise was in preparing against what is going to be a vastly superior foe in the Borg, it was great to see that Riker would attempt to use cleverness to win.  I love to see that in any story - it's more fun than brute force and fighting skills winning the day.  And I think Riker could have done it if those darn Ferengi didn't turn up.  (Again another annoying alien.)  It was also so satisfying to see Data "defeat"the Zakdorn strategist who was also... annoyingly condescending, but his skills did give him some right to his behavior.  Captain Picard showed his own bit of cunning in tricking the Ferengi as well which was a fantastic scene. 

2. Time Squared


With just the first scenes of this episode, I knew it would be a favorite of mine.  The Enterprise happens upon a lone shuttle and takes it on board, only to discover the pilot is ... Captain Picard!  A future version who is injured and confused.  And the crew has to figure out what happened to him and prevent it from happening again.  Actually if the ending was different (I thought it was a bit confusing) this would probably be my top favorite episode of the season.  But I do still love it a whole lot.  The time travel element was really well done - the doubles trope does seem to be done a lot in Star Trek, but I think the way they worked it in as sort of a countdown to their immediate future was brilliant and created so much tension.  What a situation to find yourself in, and Captain Picard handled it with such strength and resolve.  I'm really appreciating how Patrick Stewart plays the Captain.  It's very different to Kirk, but perfect for this show.  Again the ending was a bit confusing for me, but it must have been a difficult scenario to resolve completely - it was such a perfect paradox. At least the journey through it had me on the edge and completely invested.

1. The Measure of a Man


A Starfleet Cyberneticist - Maddox - is intent on building more androids like Data and requests to take Data apart to better understand how he was made.  Data refuses because he doesn't believe Maddox would be able to assemble him properly again, so Maddox demands access to Data based on the idea that he is not a person but Starfleet property.  This was such an elegant and straightforward story told with intelligence and compassion.  The episode looked at who deserves to be treated with humanity and individual respect and it was really such a profound discussion.  Especially if in the future humans are faced with extraterrestrial life forms very different from our own.  It's a message that persists throughout the Trek universe, and was perfectly embodied in this episode.  And Data was so poignant in this episode, I think Brent Spiner put forth an amazing performance.  This episode must and deserves to be one of the best episodes of any Star Trek series.
Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Review: The Todd Glass Situation

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,
The Todd Glass Situation
by Todd Glass with Jonathan Grotenstein
Autobiography/Memoir
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

A hilarious, poignant memoir from comedian Todd Glass about his decision at age forty-eight to finally live openly as a gay man—and the reactions and support from his comedy pals, from Louis CK to Sarah Silverman.

Growing up in a Philadelphia suburb in the 1970s was an easy life. Well, easy as long as you didn’t have dyslexia or ADD, or were a Jew. And once you added gay into the mix, life became more difficult. So Todd Glass decided to hide the gay part, no matter how comic, tragic, or comically tragic the results.

It might have been a lot easier had he chosen a profession other than stand-up comedy. By age eighteen, Todd was opening for big musical acts like George Jones and Patti LaBelle. His career carried him through the Los Angeles comedy heyday in the 1980s, its decline in the 1990s, and its rebirth via the alternative comedy scene and the explosion in podcasting. But the harder he worked at his craft, the more difficult it became to manage his “situation.” There were the years of abstinence and half-hearted attempts to “cure” himself. The fake girlfriends so that he could tell relationship jokes onstage. The staged sexual encounters to burnish his reputation offstage. It took a brush with death to cause him to rethink the way he was living his life; a rash of suicides among gay teens to convince him that it was finally time to come out to the world.

Now, Todd has written an open, honest, and hilarious memoir in an effort to help everyone—young and old, gay and straight—breathe a little more freely. Peppered with anecdotes from his life among comedy’s greatest headliners and tales of the occasionally insane lengths Todd went through to keep a secret that—let’s face it—he probably didn’t have to keep for as long as he did, The Todd Glass Situation is a front-row seat to the last thirty plus years of comedy history and a deeply personal story about one man’s search for acceptance.

Review:

I don't think I've ever read through a memoir so fast.  This book is on the short side so that helped, but I found it wonderfully illuminating, thoughtful and compassionate which made it very easy to read.  And of course it's also really funny.  I am a fan of Todd Glass's comedy and his socially forward thinking so I was very happy when I heard he was writing a book because he always has interesting things to say.  I'm hoping that people who are not as familiar with Todd's work will also pick this up because it has a lot that can appeal to readers who are interested in people's lives and how they overcome their personal issues.

The flow of the writing was one of the things I found really noteworthy about this book.  It moved so seamlessly between aspects and anecdotes about Todd's life to his commentary and asides about each event.  The neuroses Todd details from his preoccupation with cleanliness and a neat house and lawn, to his phobias about being homosexual was so honest and told with such humor, that I found it easy to empathize and understand.  Todd also talks about comedy and how he got into the business which was a fascinating glimpse into the comedian world.

The major takeaway from this book is Todd's journey to accepting his sexuality and embracing an honest and open way to living his life.  I think that message can be helpful to any reader, and reading how Todd works to achieve personal happiness is more inspiring than most self-help books in my opinion because he doesn't tell you what to do, just shows you what worked for him.  There is a section near the end where Todd explains his personal thoughts on social issues in more depth, and while it is full of compelling arguments, and great points, it did feel a little like an info-dump of ideas and viewpoints which I thought could have worked better if it was integrated more into the flow of the story of his experiences so far.  But I still felt enlightened by his views, so I think that section was very important.

This is a highly enjoyable read because Todd is a great narrator and his life experiences have been so varied and colorful to give this book a lot of interest.  If you are unfamiliar with Todd Glass, then maybe a listen to his podcast, or a search on youtube to find some comedy clips will make you interested in reading what he has to say on a variety of topics.  If you are already a fan, then it is completely worth reading this book for the in-depth look into his distinctive character and comedic mind.

(I received this book from the publisher or author in exchange for a fair and honest review.  I was not compensated for this review.)

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Refined Reader (11) Austen vs. Brontë - A Contemporary Debate

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , , , ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!
Source (Although it erroneously labels Charlotte as her sister Emily)
Jane Austen vs. Charlotte Brontë.  An age-old debate.  If you are familiar with my blog, you will doubtless know to which camp my heart belongs to (hint: Gothic governesses FTW!) but for this post I wanted to examine what their peers would have said on the subject by looking at reviews of their work; reviews that were written in their time.  Basically if this debate was happening in the 1800s who would win?  With only three talking points to compare them on for this post.  (Obviously Austen and Brontë were not exactly contemporaries of each other so a direct comparison is difficult.  But I'll do my best!)

Morality

In the 19th century, morality was often a hugely important aspect of literature.  Because people were more religious and more concerned that novels set a good example,  I think any debate of the time would consider a good moral center to be a necessary attribute of a superior novel.  And it was definitely discussed in contemporary reviews of the authors.

For Charlotte Brontë it was said:
"We are painfully alive to the moral, religious, and literary deficiencies of the picture, and such passages of beauty and power as [are contained in Jane Eyre] cannot redeem it [...]"

Granted, that was from the notoriously most harsh review of Jane Eyre by Elizabeth Rigby, but it echoed much of what critics would say about the novel at the time.  Jane Austen faired a little better because her novels were seen as realistic and plausible - I've seen some reviews praise lessons learned (for example in the elopment of Lydia) but others find fault in Austen's lack of instructive morality.  All things considered though, I think most people at the time would find Austen's novels more strictly moral than Brontë's passionate "undisciplined spirit" so on this point I think the winner would be Austen.
Winner: Jane Austen

Writing style/Plot

Austen and Brontë had very different writing styles - each as eloquent and expressive as the other, but with different aims - Austen's use of irony and wit was a highlight, adding to the realism in her work, while Brontë's ardent prose highlighted emotion and individual thought.  But which was better received by contemporary readers of the day in terms of enjoyment and relatability?

Sir Walter Scott said of Jane Austen's novel Emma that it "[copies] from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him." 

Of Jane Eyre, the Westminster Review praises "the natural tone pervading the narrative, and the originality and freshness of its style."

It seems like a natural style is praised for both, with more originality praised in Brontë's work because Austen is much more "correct."  I think both authors were well received in how they brought their characters and plot to life, but for Charlotte Brontë, the drama in her narrative appealed more than Austen's "common sense and subtle shrewdness." (that quote is from a letter Brontë wrote!)  Certainly there seemed more enthusiasm for Charlotte's prose given her popularity which I'll go into in the next paragraph.
Winner: Charlotte Brontë

Popularity

I was surprised to find that Austen was not very popular in her time.  It might be due to the lack of sensationalism in her books that made this so, something Charlotte Brontë could not be accused of and sensationalism was fashionable at the time - books that made people gossip and talk sold well.  And Jane Eyre was very popular after it's release since it was reprinted three times, while none of Austen's novels were, in the immediate period after her death.  So in terms of popularity I think Charlotte is the winner.
Winner: Charlotte Brontë

Technically I think the "writing style" section can be argued for either authors, but I do feel like since Brontë was much more popular in her time, it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that she would have won this debate.  Obviously Austen is much more appreciated now, and rightly so, so when it comes to these debates it is mostly fun to discuss but it doesn't prove anything.  Both authors are amazing.

Now I'm almost afraid to ask this - How do you weigh in?  Are you more of an Austen or Brontë fan?

(I realize that for most of this post I compared reviews of Jane Eyre specifically to reviews of Jane Austen novels generally, but it was difficult to find reviews of Charlotte Brontë's other novels for some reason!)

Sources:
Wikipedia
1813 Review of Pride and Prejudice
Pemberley.com
Victorian Web
Brooklyn College
Excerpt of London Quarterly Review