Unsolicited Free eBook Recommendations (Feedbooks and Gutenberg.org) Part 2

Continued from Unsolicited Free eBook Picks (Feedbooks and Gutenberg.org) Part 1

4. The House Without a Key (1925) and The Chinese Parrot (1926) by Earl Derr Biggers - Like Zorro, one of the most forgotten characters in literary and cinematic history is Charlie Chan, the Hawaii-based Chinese American detective who served as a racial stereotype for years. In The House Without a Key, we are introduced to the soft-spoken, stocky detective in a story that is a mystery by genre only.

After House, Earl Derr Biggers would succeed in launching a series of stories with Charlie Chan as a supporting character though the adventures had a stronger tone of romance than of a whodunit. Unlike Sax Rohmer's more outrageous "Yellow Peril" (1912) books featuring highly exaggerated "mystical" Orientals, Biggers was more fair in depicting overseas Asians. Both House Without a Key and The Chinese Parrot feel more like a casual stroll through early America with a very touristy feel of San Francisco, Hawaii and California. There is very little urgency in both novels and the crimes feel light and airy compared to the more diabolical stories Poirot and Holmes find themselves solving. This works to Biggers advantage because all his characters are so likable (even the criminal). Moreover, America in its infancy is fascinating: readers get to ride ships and trains, encounter early immigrants, meet classy well-bred ladies, and see how capitalism worked in the new world.

Charlie Chan, despite his later popularity in the Hollywood films that followed, is not the protagonist in these two books, but he does serve as the anchor to the story lest readers forget a crime has occurred and needs to be solved. The Chinese American actually takes a back seat to the capable young American lead, who finds love as they search for the perpetrator. The innocent and whimsy atmosphere in The House Without a Key and The Chinese Parrot is incredibly charming and uses the same formula as Biggers' highly successful book, Love Insurance (1914).

5. Arsene Lupin (1909) by Maurice LeBlanc - Arsene Lupin, the French gentleman thief, is actually overshadowed by his foreign derivatives despite his popularity as France's greatest fictional master criminal. Monkey Punch's highly popular Japanese manga and anime Lupin series, for example, is incredibly well-known to today's younger generation with an upcoming Japanese movie set for release.

Lupin the III movie for August 2014

Lupin's name and features are a great source of inspiration for many fictional writers because of his unique and unmistakeable flair and style, though Lupin himself as created by Maurice LeBlanc is nowhere near as popular as the great British detective (and sometime rival of Lupin) Sherlock Holmes.

"I'd love to match wits with Lupin...but he can't be nowhere near as sexy as me." Benedict Cumberbatch screen capture from The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Arsene Lupin is a fairly straightforward story involving a Duke and a challenge and readers will no doubt guess the plot twist midway through the second or third chapter. LeBlanc focuses on suspense and cleverness rather than action or drama and does a good job of manipulating the loyalties of the reader. You are never quite sure if you want to side with the hard-working inspector or the dastardly chameleon Lupin (my years of reading Peter Parker's adventures made me side with the more sympathetic local constabulary).

Many readers will probably find Lupin lacking compared to any of Edgar Allan Poe's dark, fast-paced and gloomy tales or even Agatha Christie's cerebral Hercule Poirot stories. Lupin, who LeBlanc thought was superior to Sherlock Holmes in every way, isn't even as likable or as endearing as the great eccentric British detective. Lupin's womanizing and arrogance are almost comical as the ridiculous foot chase at the end of the story. Lupin the character and LeBlanc's style of writing isn't for everyone, particularly for readers who aren't fond of anti-heroes. Still, if you're in the market for French writing and sheer audacity, Lupin deserves a few hours on your ereader or tablet and is a good introduction to the French detective genre.

6. Fairy Tales of the Slav Peasants and Herdsman by Alexander Chodzko - I spent most of my college years in the library and picked up this excellent book of European/Russian tales. The copy I perused included lovely ink scratch illustrations popular in old books and I was so inspired I ended up writing and drawing a collection of fairytales for fun (The Liar and Other Tall Tales in 1999).

Almost everyone is familiar with stories by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, but there are plenty of collections available in public domain that have plenty of local flavor including Slav Peasants and Herdsmen. There's an atmosphere of familiarity with many of the stories, which makes sense because there's an overlap of many of the beliefs and legends in Eastern Europe. The stories, unlike today's dreck of fantasy and supernatural novels, feel very real because of its setting despite the fantastical elements involved (such as a flying club or expanding bags). Authors today give very little credit to brilliantly written collections such as Slav Peasants and Herdsmen, though they certainly should.

There are many more free collections of short stories in Gutenberg and Feedbooks ranging from horror and supernatural (such as Irish Ghost Stories) to detective and mystery ( Masterpieces of Mystery: Riddle Stories). An acquaintance once told me she preferred whole novels over short stories since characters never get developed completely in the latter. I agree with her to a certain extent although there are clear advantages to reading short stories. They are often more quick to the point than novels and dispense with unnecessary dialogue or narration. Moreover, the theme is almost always universal and for casual readers - you can finish a tale during a quick visit to the loo.

7. Any horror/suspense novel/collection by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, Marie Adelaide Lowndes or Algernon Blackwood - When was the last time your jaw dropped at a horror novel? Countless recent interpretations of vampires have diluted the poor nocturnal creature's mystique. In addition, poorly crafted movies have added unnecessary images to uninitiated readers of what the blood-sucking creature (or any other supernatural being) should look like or behave. 

Older literature such as Varney the Vampire by Thomas Prest and Vampire Maid by Hume Nisbet do a much better job of creating the power and danger of these amoral beings. Bram Stoker, unfairly remembered only for Dracula, wrote plenty of tales involving supernatural monsters and most of them embarrass today's rubbish books. There is an immense amount of public domain horror literature available online. Also available online from Feedbooks and Gutenberg.org are The Lair of the White Worm, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, The Lodger, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and many, many more. Carmilla by Le Fanu is one of the best horror stories I've read in a long time.

Scary? More like unhygienic. Screen capture from Shining (1980)

In movie terms, many of the best supernatural stories are "period" books and the elements of the tales are familiar to most people because of modern interpretations in popular novels and films. However, the books mentioned here were the template for today's faded and shallow versions. If younger readers find the descriptions of the milieu boring and slow or the plot mild or trivial, it is because they fail to understand that horror stories were always a product of a particular time and setting in history. There is authenticity in these books and stories that is absent in the superficial movies, cartoons, and modern paperbacks that the generation today have become accustomed to. Despite lacking the marketing of Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, these books are exceptional classics of the horror genre and the authors worthy of even the casual reader's attention.

Note: So what public domain books does your friendly neighborhood Unsolicited But Offered writer have stored in his Kobo Glo at the moment? Although I'm not a voracious reader, I do find the time to read fiction (if only to escape the terrible text of XML technical books and white papers or news about the economy).  I'm finishing McCulley's detective story The Black Star with The Czar's Spy by William Le Queux and Fifty Candles by Earl Derr Biggers next on my plate.


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