27 December, 2012

I Love Short Stories

John Joseph Adams, ed.

A collection of Sherlock Holmes stories by people other than Conan Doyle which does not, quite, live up to the expectations raised by the title and conception of the collection. One is lead to believe, both by the title and by the blurb on the back cover, that these are stories which will have some connexion with the unexplained, with superstition, with the paranormal; and some of them do, though not as many as i would have expected in an anthology of over two dozen stories. This is not to say that i did not enjoy the book, or that the stories are of a poor quality; merely that the organising principle seems not to have been chosen as carefully, or maybe logically, as possible. In fact, i did enjoy the book; many of the stories are good; a couple of them excellent, of the highest quality possible, both as Holmes stories and as short stories in themselves.

In particular, i refer to one by Naomi Novik which, written from the perspective of Irene Adler, posits a theory about Holmes and Watson and gives an excellent suggestion as to why the former kept from the latter his survival at Reichenback Falls for so long; i have not read anything by Novik previously, but on the basis of this story i am quite happy to trace what else she has written and give it a try.

I also am referring to a story by Neil Gaiman, whose name i have come across but whose works not, which is a superb alternate reality retelling of the first novel, A Study in Scarlet. It is interesting how many authors have found themselves compelled to continue the adventures of Holmes and, usually, Watson over the past century; i cannot think of another character in fiction who has attracted so much attention from people not the original author. 

19 December, 2012

How the Rich Lived

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I was, i reckon, in Grade Nine or Ten when i read this book previously; that makes it thirtyeight or thirtynine years ago. I remember discussing it in Mr. Plummer's class ~ if that is how he spelled his name ~ outside, enjoying the sunshine, in the courtyard at UHill; i wonder if that lovely little area still exists for use by relaxing students and kind teachers. As i recall ~ unfortunately, i remember more about the circumstances than i do about my response to the book ~ i was not overly enthusiastic about Gatsby the first time around; seems to me, though, that might well have been my general response to set books as i have always been happier with mine own choices for reading directions ~ despite some excellent direction from great teachers, PCW (Loretto), Sister Pires (AUR), and Barb Baker (UHill) among them. This time around, however, i found myself enjoying the book far more than i did ( i suspect i have matured greatly as a reader, if no other way, over the years), and am prepared to find and read more Fitzgerald, which makes the thing a success by my criterion.

What did i like? The characters are clearly drawn, with very little given that is not needed or used again to further the plot; that certainly doesn't make them likeable, but they are manageable and not a challenge to the reader. The plot itself is simple, straightforward, which is reader-friendly; a love-story of sorts, or a tale of an accidental death, or an example of how the rich might live and die. We shall have to wait and see what other Fitzgeralds come my way to see what else i read and how that will integrate and build mine opinion of him as a writer; at any rate, i shall be on the lookout for them.

14 December, 2012

But i did like it...

Gerald Griffin

This is one of two books i wrote a squirt on recently, the essential information being the guilt that they were generating in me because of mine inability to make myself work all the way through to the end. I am now glad to point out that, obviously, i have finished The Collegians and, while it probably will never become one of my favourite books, it is not, in totality, as bad as i was finding it in the actual reading. Faint praise, i know, but not intended to be damning. There were, i think, two things about the book which made it difficult for me to fully enjoy reading it: I tend to dislike reading works which try to show accent or dialect through the text, and in particular i dislike the production of the Irish dialect here (and common elsewhere) which when pronounced in my mind does not seem to sound like any Irish i have ever heard; and secondly i had difficulties because the expectations raised in me by the book and its circumstances were different from those it was intended to fulfil.

For the first, perhaps mine exposure simply is not great enough, but i find an accent (dialect) written such that “-st-” is shown as “-sth-” and “-ea-” sometimes as “-a-” and sometimes as “-ai-” unconvincing. While i admit that presenting “-th-” as “-d-”consistently is acceptable, to represent what i hear i would use “-t-” myself. There are other questions i found based on the orthographic conventions Griffin used, but these are enough to give a flavour of mine objection. There is also a sprinkling, fairly heavy at times, to be honest, of Gaelic words thrown in, sometimes with translation, sometimes not, which also helped in the process of slowing me down. That, i think, is the heart of this difficulty for me: I read fast, over five hundred words a minute when last i was timed, and i dislike having to slow down, be confused, having to think about the actual words being used rather than the meaning, concepts, or action they present. Thus, i was not altogether happy with The Collegians because it slowed me down rather dramatically ~ at a guess, no more than two hundred words a minute on average as i read it.

The second point i mentioned which made it difficult for me to read this novel i have identified as mine own expectations. I purchased the book as part of a set of “classic mysteries”, or some such phrase the use of which raised certain images in my mind as to what i was going to read. This book does not fit those images. I was expecting a novel along the lines of, say, A Study in Scarlet, or The Mysterious Affair of Styles, rather than what i got. The fault here is certainly not Griffin's; he wrote as he chose, and wrote well, too. If there is any fault other than mine, it would go to whoever chose to market the novel in this fashion, setting up parallels in a reader's mind which are not going to be fulfilled. Though there is a murder, there is scarce any mystery ~ other than, for a short time, of whether the murder has been committed. There is no detective; hardly any detecting, to be honest, simply an investigation by the coroner which comes to no conclusion. These points are irrelevant, though, to be truthful, as the book ~ any book ~ should stand or fall on its own merits, and i believe that this one does stand fairly. I suspect, having read it now, and able to get my preconceptions in line, i may read it again at some point in the future, giving it another chance, so to speak, to present itself to me properly. Should that happen, i anticipate enjoying it (other than the dialect!) more.

12 December, 2012

Hela, hela hello

Rebecca Skloot

As i has happened in the past, i am caused fascination by the effect on my brain that this book had, as well as by the book itself. This is the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman behind the HeLa line of cells, a line which is proving to be essentially immortal, which has been of incredible importance in the history of medical research over the past sixty years. Actually, like all good books of its kind, this is far more than just the story of Lacks; it is also the story of her family, of some of how the cell line has been used by scientists, the story of how Lacks' family was treated and maybe exploited by those scientists, and the story of how Skloot herself tracked down and developed her story.

First, though, i want to focus on what is always, perforce, first to my attention: Mine own brain, mind, and their reactions to the book. I knew from the instant that i saw the title on the library shelf what the essential subject of the book was; how? I have no idea at all of how i knew who “Henrietta Lacks” was or what HeLa is, but i did; i can imagine, and have, that i may have read a Reader's Digest article once upon a time, or somehow come across the name in an “A” level or university biology class or text. The problem, though, with both those scenarios, and any other i can think of, is that Skloot documents pretty thoroughly where Lacks' story was told in the Seventies and Eighties, and they don't seem to fit in with her time-lines, and my “feeling of knowledge” for lack of a better term, meaning how it feels to me, when it seems that i learnt it, is that i have known this for that long. So i am left puzzled by mine own knowledge: How did i know this? Where had i come across HeLa, and how had i heard the name Henrietta Lacks? More than that, there were other, more obscure, points in Skloot's narrative that were not ~ or did not seem to be ~ new to me; either i have read in some detail in the past of this subject, or i have just been the victim (if that's the correct word) of a particularly elaborate deja vu episode. And the latter possibility worries me, because if it is true then i cannot trust my knowledge about my knowledge.

Enough self-indulgent maundering, and on to the book itself. As mentioned above, it is far more than just a review of historical facts about a scientific advance. The most touching parts of the book are those when Skloot describes the way that the whole of Lacks' family have suffered, been taken advantage of, with the essential justification ~ whether or not the scientists involved consciously thought it ~ that the end justified the means, that it was not illegal, and they were Black and uneducated and therefore second- or third-class citizens anyway. How completely they had been abused by the process is shown in the levels of suspicion that Skloot had to fight through before she was able to earn the trust of the family. The story is horrible; Skloot tells it with such compassion that the reader is fully drawn in and made a part of it, as happens with the best of fiction.

01 December, 2012

Where we (politically) came from

Walter Ullmann

This has taken some weeks to read ~ i remember sitting in the grounds of the Plas in the sunshine reading it, two or three times, and it's a month since we had that kind of weather, having just finished the wettest April on record in these Isles ~ but that is because of its density, detail, and interest to me rather than any implication of avoiding it on my part.

Ullmann has taken one of my real interests and developed it, showing both how the theories of government in the Middle Ages developed from and supported the practice of governing in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and how the modern world is itself a development from the Middle Ages ~ a point dear to my heart, and forgotten or, more possibly, never learned or, even more likely, actively ignored, by the political classes in this country today.

Much there was here that i did not know previously, despite my supposed study of Mediæval times, and it was fascinating to watch the growth, as Ullmann showed it, of the over-arching sovereignty of the Bishop of Rome, both over the Church and the secular rulers of most of Western Europe. I had not realised that the Popes had such a positive programme of increasing their power; i had assumed that they wanted to but not that they actually planned it and used theology and philosophy to actively promote their programme. Also interesting is the point Ullmann makes that countries (primarily England) with a feudal structure were less affected by the top-down view of sovereignty which the Popes attempted to impose (quite successfully), as they already had a form of bottom-up permission for rule; i had not fully understood previously the almost complete difference which feudalism made to the history of the British Isles. Altogether, this was one of the more interesting and educational books i have read in some time; good choice to pick it up on a market stall.

27 November, 2012

Less than wanted

British Museum

An extremely brief book, perhaps twenty or thirty large pages, with some lovely illustrations of Sinaiaticus (if that's how it's spelled ~ i can't be bothered to fetch the book and look), perhaps the single most important early copy of the Bible in existence today ~ at least as implied by its code-name א, aleph. There was little in here, if any, that i had not previously come across but, to be fair, i have a personal history in which the Bible and its transmission have played a somewhat greater part than the general populace at which this book is aimed. It is, in fact, i suspect, the sort of production the British Museum ~ or possibly the British Library if they are, unfortunately, now separate organisations ~ makes to sell in its gift shop (a retail outlet i have no evidence towards but am merely surmising the existence of): The language is fairly simple, as are the descriptions of the artefact and its history and provenance. Interesting, but not as detailed as i had hoped when i ordered the thing.

16 November, 2012

Keeping Lotuses (Loti?)

Offline for some days, so quite a while since posted; never mind, here's an Early Reviewers review to make up for it.

K.R. Dial

Unfortunately, i was able to predict at the beginning of the book ~ maybe about five pages in ~ what it would be about, how the major turns of the plot and development of the characters would go, and what the essential themes would be, and i was not proven wrong in my predictions. That in itself is not the sign of a bad book; it could well be that a predictable plot is worth reading for the power of the writing (after all, i reread books which i know intimately for their writing, among other things), but the writing here is not that strong, being fairly basic and simple.

Dial has a message to get across, two messages, actually, and has chosen a novel as a means of doing so; however important the message, and i'm not commenting on that at this point, a novel needs to be more than a container to be a real success; The Lotus Keeper does not have the feeling of being anything more than the medium of the messages. The messages are to Dial, i would have to assume, of supreme importance; she wants to show the necessity of depending on God ~ believing the Gospel, in other words ~ and give a picture of the current trafficking in the world of children for sexual exploitation, primarily by Western men. I have to agree that the latter is of supreme importance and should be shouted from the housetops in the attempt to prevent this horrific behaviour; the former, for the Christian Dial is, is also essential and worth passing on to others ~ evangelising is one of the tasks of the Church, after all.

I have pointed out in another review, however, that the end does not justify the means in writing as in other areas of life. At that time i was referring specifically to the habit some Christian books have of making everything revolve around the Sinner's Prayer and the acceptance of the Gospel by the character who has been chosen for that purpose; i find that an essential dishonesty by an author, if it does not actually flow from the action. This time i am concerned about ends and means both for the conversion and the other purpose of the book, the human trafficking. The conversion of the protagonist, or one of the protagonists, is both sudden and unconvincing; the latter is not because of the former, for it can happen that people are quickly, almost without explanation, converted (C.S. Lewis is a well known example), but there is always some background to it, which simply doesn't happen here. Furthermore, once the conversion has happened, it doesn't seem real, it creates no conflict in his life, no difficulties, real or imagined, with his previous circle, no struggles to work through and accept the implications of what he has done.

This, though, is of less concern to me than Dial's belief that her end of exposing human trafficking justifies the means of poor writing which is displayed here. The action is not believable at several points; coincidences are relied on heavily (two characters fall into a tiger pit while running from a tiger; they are only able to escape the pit when the tiger also falls into the pit, caught and partially strangled by a vine, so they can clamber up its body!); characters act in a manner which seems to be contrary to their essential nature as previously revealed; and the happy ending is not only no surprise, but also rather unlikely and, in mine opinion, not likely to last.

In a way, i am disappointed to have to feel and sound so harsh about The Lotus Keeper, as the subjects the book raises are vital; trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children (of anyone; why does “of children” make it worse?) are awful, factual, and must be tackled in the world, both by politicians and by ordinary people. It's just a shame that Dial hasn't chosen a different way to tackle it, as this novel is not convincing as literature, so does not carry conviction about its subject matter.

03 November, 2012

Not a casual read

J.K. Rowling

I bought this because a glittery friend whined and badgered me and threatened not to talk to me unless i did so we could discuss it together. All i can say now, in response to that, is that she had better realise how grateful i am to her for her pushy ways.

This has been a really successful read, quick, and demanding, and enjoyable, and clever. I read a review or a portion of one somewhere which said, as i remember it, that while Rowling is no George Eliot, she does manage to portray the life of a small town in complexity and completeness in much the same way; i thin my response is two-fold: George Eliot was no George Eliot back when she was writing and publishing, and surely showing the completeness of life is precisely what made Eliot Eliot.

Rowling has written about a small town somewhere in the West Country (though, i have to admit, for some reason it felt like somewhere in Kent or Sussex at first), which has troubles partially brought on by its location close to a city, with all the social ills that can bring. Matters are brought to a head in Pagford, the town, by the death of a Councillor whose seat will have to be filled; the machinations of the First Citizen of the town, the three people standing for the seat, and the families surrounding them, drive the action of the plot.

The characters are surprisingly real, gritty i expect they have been called, in particular the children showing in marked contrast to Rowling's previous children; they have real concerns, revolving around such truths as ageing, sex, drugs, poverty, anguish, and depression. None of them is purely good, but each have points at which they appeal, some to a greater extent than others. I was particularly moved by one of the two deaths at the end of the book, as the character had, in some ways, been among the most attractive in the book; i suppose a great author (and despite what the review i referred to earlier said, i believe that one day Rowling will be officially listed among them) cannot afford to allow an emotion such as affection to get in the way of telling the story. I think back to the Harry Potter series, a number of well liked characters die during the course of that, as well. So, though it probably doesn't need saying, The Casual Vacancy is a success for me; there is no doubt that if and when Rowling writes again, i shall read.

01 November, 2012

Tattoos and Magic for Early Reviewers

Sabrina Vourvoulias

A fascinating book based on a truly remarkable concept that posits a US government which requires all Hispanics to be tattooed, an action which allows and leads to further legal restrictions ~ and worse ~ on that population. What seemed at first an utterly implausible idea became, as i reflected on it, surprisingly possible, though not actually likely.

Having lived in the United States for some twenty years, immersed in what is truly one of the most racially aware, if not racist, cultures in the world, i found myself appreciating the underlying truths on the book: The general fear of the unknown, by Americans in general, because it is different, is clear; the amazing passivity with which huge numbers of Americans allow their government to assume a larger and larger rôle in their lives, despite their constant lip service to the ideals of small government, no matter what that intrusive government does; also, to be fair, the individual kindness or loveliness of many Americans individually rather than en masse (as much as a cliché as it is to say it, while i find the American people in general rather unpleasant, many of my best friends are Americans ~ indeed, i married one). It is part of the novel's interest that the group which is being oppressed is not that group in actuality most discriminated against, African-Americans ~ or whatever the currently correct term is ~ but Vourvoulias has chosen to make the fasted growing ethnic group in the US her victims; this has raised a number of challenges for her, some of which she has risen to quite well, including the matter of a word for the group ~ the titular “ink” ~ which is universally used within the book.

In mine opinion, however, she has been less successful in her treatment of African-Americans themselves, as there is, if i recall correctly, only one identifiably Black character, and there is really no difference between that character and the other non-Inks other than the colour of the skin. The United States is, as mentioned above, one of the most vocally egalitarian, yet practically non-egalitarian, societies in the world, yet the true underclass of the society is that of the African-Americans; they are the group most closely linked with the idea of prejudice, the most underprivileged group, the class closest to the position of the Inks in the novel. I suspect that Vourvoulias found that it would be impossible, if she even thought about trying, to use Blacks as her victims, and anyone she may have run the idea past would have dissuaded her.

Another facet of the book which i found rather distracting, though i can see (or, at least, imagine) that some readers would probably find it one of its strengths, is the intrusion of the generally unseen world of magic into the world of reality. There are several ways in which Vourvoulias allows these worlds to intersect; each of them is, to me, either confusing or annoying. The most consistent manner is that several of the Inks have some form of dæmon or alter ego which occasionally comes to the fore, most notably during times of stress or conflict, in particular when she shows them in conflict with evil dwarves which, while not appearing to actually be alter egos of anyone, are intimately linked with the pain and anguish caused by the government's Ink policies. The most acceptable (to me) intrusion of magic is the ability of one of the non-Inks who helps subvert the government's policies to manipulate the land around him and actually cause it to change, shape or characteristics, to enable people to hide or do things they otherwise wouldn't be able to.

In the end, i'm afraid that Vourvoulias has tried to put too much into a novel which will not carry it. As much as i enjoyed the plot, the conception, the characterisations (and the characters), i found the book as a whole a bit more than i could comfortably read. I would like to have seen the idea developed without some of the extra themes, the magic, or the importance of story-telling. This could have been a superb work of speculative fiction, had it not left so many questions dangling ~ how did the government bring in the Ink policies? what was the political landscape which permitted these developments? do Latins or Hispanics from other than Central and South America (Spain, Portugal, Italy) have to have tattoos? The single idea of the tattoos is so powerful, in mine opinion it should have been allowed to develop fully. A success then, for me, but not as successful as it might have been.

18 October, 2012

{Insert Title Here}

Gary Dexter

This is just the sort of thing i ought to love: A collection of essays gathered around a particular topic, in this case a very limited topic, the titles of books, by a man who knows the subject well and evidently loves it too ~ the two not always going together. Apparently Dexter drew on a column he writes or wrote (i don't know the appropriate tense) for The Telegraph on the subject of titles. One might think that such a topic would be too limited to sustain a series or make a book; it would appear not. 

 And yet.... I have to admit to a little dissatisfaction with this book because it does not seem to properly fulfil or stand by its premise. Plenty of the essays are, indeed, fascinating, learned, and i have learned from them about some of the more obscure titles ~ and the better known (Winnie-the-Pooh) ~ in literature. Unfortunately, on too many occasions Dexter strays from his self-appointed rôle as explainer of titles and starts offering an exploration or criticism of the book under question itself. I don't say that he does this poorly ~ in fact he's quite an interesting writer, both skilled and, as i mention above, immersed in a subject he enjoys ~ but i do say that it is not what his book is supposed to be about, and thus he could have used some strong guidance from an editor not afraid to say, “Gary, stick to the titles ~ or change your whole concept!” To take but one example, the chapter (21) on Around the World in Eighty Days spends more time on the subject matter than the title, even acknowledging that Verne gave no indication that he was aware someone had actually attempted to make that journey. Unfortunately, there are a number of chapters in which Dexter makes this or a similar mistake, writing about either the book or its subject matter rather than its title. Thus, i fear, this is a superb conception, not brought quite properly to fruition.

13 October, 2012

Quotable Quotes

Matthew Parris & Phil Mason

A collection of quotations by politicians, things that they really ought not to have said, either because they (the quotations) are unbelievably stupid, apparently dishonest, later proven incorrect, or display an astonishing quality of misjudgement by the speaker ~ or some combination of these. The title, of course, sets the tone for the book, as it is what was displayed behind the second President Bush on the occasion of his visit to an aircraft carrier to declare that the Iraq War was over: The sheer presumption, arrogance, stupidity even, of that phrase was noted by numerous commentators at the time, and has been held in ridicule ever since; while many of the quotes in the book are of a similar level of immediately apparent absurdity, there are a large number which have only through the passage of time revealed the truth.

This is the second edition of the book, apparently, and includes many which were not available to the first for precisely the delay in full revelation, that their absurdity had not yet come to light. One imagines that, as long as politicians continue speaking, and events continue happening, and historians continue investigating, there will be the possibility of many further editions. Rather a sad prospect, in a way. One would like to think that politicians, like the best of trainable animals, could learn, but that does not seem to be the case. All one can do, then, is assume that there will be further chances for amusement at their continuing to speak.

I must point out that i am a little disappointed in Matthew Parris; i enjoy listening to him on the radio occasionally, when he seems quite cogent and intelligent. He was, however, a politician previously, which makes him eligible for inclusion in this book ~ and, as a politician he doubtless, by definition, said things worthy of inclusion ~ and yet he is nowhere to be found. A little more self-examination, or honesty, might have been refreshing from a man who used to feed at the public trough.

01 October, 2012

Dick Francis

One of Francis' later books, this bears all his hallmarks ~ strong, self-sufficient protagonist, link to horse racing, a single but largely hidden enemy, a lot of research in a different field (in this case, politics) ~ but is not as strong or enjoyable a read as some of the earlier of his novels. I think that when following a structure or formula which has become very successful, the temptation for an author to skimp on novelty must become quite strong; i fear that this time Francis was not able to resist it as fully as he did on other occasions. There is little precise one can put a finger on and say, “This is poor” or “this ought to have been done differently”, but there is a general atmosphere of settling rather than driving for the best.

One sequence i feel that is less than sparkling is occurs towards the end of the book as the protagonist, a politician's son, is led to reconstruct an attempt which had been made on his father's life some years earlier; there is simply no reason given (presumably because Francis couldn't, or couldn't be bothered to, think of one) for this reconstruction, but it is necessary for the driving forward of the plot to the final dénouement Poor writing, i fear.

A second example is to be found a little earlier in the action, at 10Downing Street, when the politician father is unable to resist sitting in the Prime Minister's chair; we are already fully aware of his desire to progress, indeed of his ultimate aim of becoming Prime Minister, and that little action is not necessary: It adds nothing to our understanding of the character (except, perhaps, causing a little puzzlement about a man who cannot control his instant gratification desires), nor his son; indeed, the action is somewhat contrary to the revealed character, as this politician has clearly shown himself to be a man fully in control of his impulses, well aware of the appearance of his actions, in addition to understanding the fact that he was fully under observation. Again, an example of poor writing control.

I would not wish to imply, however, that the book is not enjoyable; i did like it, as i always do Francis' novels, just with a slight frisson of sadness that it wasn't quite up to the high standards he had set previously.

25 September, 2012

A Most Favourite Author

John Wyndham & Lucas Parkes

This is the only one of Wyndham's books of which this statement is true: I had not read this since UHill, which means it is at least thirtyfive years since i had last read it. And how has it aged in that longish stretch of time? It seems to me that we had agreed, in class, that it was one of the weaker of Wyndham's books that we read together (though none of his books are actually weak); i would say that the passage of time has not strengthened it.

Part of the weakness is the structure: The book, novel, is five short stories which are linked by being about several generations of the same family, and the urge that the male members of that family seem to have to get into space. A novel usually has the strength that the same characters are kept through all of it, thus giving the author and the reader time to get to know them properly; a collection of short stories may have a common theme, but tends not to have much linking the stories other than that; this collection has more than theme, the plot develops from one to the other, to a degree they are dependent upon the previous stories, but the tenuous familial relations (the last is a four greats grandson to the first) are not enough to hold them together as a novel. This is unfortunate, as each of the stories is actually good, and could stand by itself.

I think the error was in the collecting or, perhaps, in the attempt to make the five stories hang together; as i say, each, alone, is quite a good story, a part of the development of space, how Britain, along with the USA and the USSR was able to enter space and go to the moon, how Brazil, after a nuclear war, made space a monopolised part of its domain, and how that monopoly was broken. Fascinating to read, as the stories were written at least ten years before Armstrong and Aldrich were on the moon, so perhaps even before Sputnik. The estimates Wyndham made of how things would be done, what the effects of space would be, what other planets would be like, are fascinating ~ as always with his writing. So much so that i feel a little guilty in criticising the overall presentation of the book; i would not be honest, though, were i not to report my reactions, even when less than favourable to one of my favourite authors.

18 September, 2012

A Second Bite...

Irene Radford

It must be six months since i started reading this book, i should think, though without investigating i don't know. And it's also been, surely, two or three months since i decided i just could not finish it and regretfully posted a review on Library Thing for the Early Reviewers programme explaining that inability. And it is a fortnight or so since i came back to it and tried again, certain that i had the willpower to force my way through it ~ after all, i can read anything, just about, surely an historical fantasy isn't going to defeat me! And it did not: I have, indeed, finished. Having finished, then, was it worth it? Is the book a success?

Well, to answer that question we have to define “success” and what would or would not put a book into that category. For years if not decades implicitly, and at least five years explicitly i have considered a book's success purely on the grounds of one criterion: Am i, having read a book, likely to pick up another by the same author based solely on my feelings about and response to it? If the answer is “yes”, well then, the book is a success. By my book definition, then, Guardian of the Vision; Merlin's Descendants #3 can in no way be considered a success. I regret saying this. Deeply i regret it, for a number of reasons: A free book, given to me solely so i can read and review it, i want to like; an historical novel, about an interesting time and place in history, i should like it; a book by a professional historian, no less, i ought to like it; a fantasy novel (one of my favourite genres), with a simple “What if this were true” premise, how could i not like it?

Sadly, many of the points i catalogued against the novel a few months ago still stand; they were not simply a result of not having finished the book. The characters are not sufficiently delineated one from the other. The narration is mixed in person and, consequently, confused in effect. The history is not accurate, which is acceptable in an historical fantasy, but the background history is not close enough to reality to carry the imaginative elements.

Let a mere reference to the previous list suffice. Here i shall explore a little further the actual plot of the novel, which i only touched on last time i reviewed it. The three main characters are, in their differing ways, touched by another life or another dimension; two of them, brothers, are descended from Merlin, their family bound to try and keep England, though perhaps Logres would be what is really meant, safe from chaos; the third is also, perhaps, a descendent of Merlin, though more on a distaff side, and she is linked with a demon whose sole desire is to create chaos and destruction. Each uses magic, of a form, in what they do, though one, in whom the magic is perhaps the strongest, renounces its use in the belief that that is what he must do to remain in the Church of Rome, where he has become a priest. There are, as is common with historical fiction, a number of actual personages within the pages (a peculiarly inept turn of phrase for a book read on an e-reader), pre-eminent among them Elizabeth Tudor, Mary or Marie Stuart, and Thomas Howard. They are really only in the book as mechanisms for the furthering of the plot; only Elizabeth has any real development of character, and what we are shown is, quite in line with actuality, not the most attractive (it is depressing to discover that the monarchs i most admired as a child are the ones i find least attractive as i learn more about them; i can only hope this will not happen with Elizabeth Windsor).

The biggest problem i have with this book, the key point in why i cannot call it a success is, i think, something i touched on in my previous review. There simply is nothing in it to make me care. None of the characters is compelling, i don't really care if their desires are fulfilled or not, and none of them (except maybe the dogs) is consistently nice or good. In addition, i'm afraid, the plot, the action, is not strong enough to carry the novel without characters; it's obvious from the beginning that the demon isn't going to be able to bring the levels of chaos he wants, but there is not even enough tension over that conclusion to force me to continue reading to find out why, how he is to be defeated. All in all, i am very sorry to have to reiterate, not an experience i care to repeat. Sadly.

15 September, 2012

A surprise success

Thuggin in Miami; The Family is Made
R.A. Robinson
I do not remember how i was given the e-copy of this book to read and review; i shall have to make more careful records if that is to continue happening.

While i was reading Thuggin in Miami there was no way that i could stop myself from comparing it to the other book i was reading on my kindle at the time, also for review, and this one benefited from that comparison, which in some ways is surprising. I say it is surprising because there are a number of things about this novel which would have lead me to expect myself not to like it: It is written in dialect, which i almost never enjoy; not only that, but the dialect used it a variety of African-American English, which i cannot help but read as poor grammar, spelling, and usage in general, no matter how much i accept intellectually that it is a legitimate means of communication; as well, the subject matter, gang life, murders, drug use, jail experience, all in southern Florida, is not really something that i am drawn to ~ to be sure, i've read it before, in Elmore Leonard in particular, though i read him more for style than content ~ but it isn't a subject i'd naturally turn to; then the style is rather more explicit than i am used to or generally comfortable with, at least in casual reading, with plenty of “penises” and “pussies” (why is it that, no matter what word people use for the male generative organ almost no one feels it appropriate to use the correct word for the female, in almost any genre or context?) as well as interaction between them to a level i'm not sure i've come across previously in work not intended to fall within the erotic genre. And yet...yet i found the book oddly compelling.

Almost from the first i was involved, though i wasn't attracted by them ~ any of them ~ interested in what was happening to the characters, and what the plot action would be. Let me be clear: None of the characters are attractive people; in fact, they are gangsters, drug dealers, criminals of the worst sort, so that even the one prison officer we know anything about is entirely corrupted. Nor is the plot, as may be expected from the characters, uplifting, as drugs are sourced, bought, and sold, and Richard Gale, the protagonist, has at least two separate revenges he has to research and prepare for.

And yet, as i said above, though almost every element of this review is negative, the book itself, as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts. I have struggled to understand this, and one conclusion i can come to is that the author, R.A. Robinson, is a product of the environments he writes of, that these are his experiences, and the truth in what he writes may be what pulls me in. Also, the ease of the writing ~ despite the awkwardness of reading the dialect ~ meant that in reading i was able to continue quickly, other than sometimes having to puzzle out who the heck was being talked about, as all the characters have multiple nicknames and see themselves as one big family, using incorrect relationship terms for each other, continue quickly, i say, and feel that at the end of each chapter it wouldn't take long to read another, so it was probably going to be worth starting it. In the end, despite the negative points i made, i found that this book fit my terms of success ~ i would read another by the same author based solely on his name and mine experience here. I cannot fully explain this success but, for me, it exists.

12 September, 2012

Something's lost, but not just a symbol

Dan Brown

Curiously i had recently read on-line that this was the most borrowed book in libraries last year when i happened to see it in the local library, so i picked it up; after all, i enjoyed each of Brown's other books, though they were formulaic, so why not this one? I am now in a position to answer that question: Because it is more farcical than believable, more ridiculous than clever, more pointless than a broken pencil. Because i enjoyed his previous books, though they were, to an extent, predictable, and because i respect his success (both financial and on my strict, single criterion) i regret having to write this review, but The Lost Symbol was laughable; literally, at points during it, i was laughing ~ from embarrassment at how bad it was, at the ridiculous things he was expecting me to accept, at the mistakes of fact he made, at the absurd ways his characters behaved in order to further his plot twists.

When i started reading the book i really had to work quite hard to get into it; indeed, it has been three weeks since i took it out of the library, and i started it the day i took it out. I felt guilty because i was not being gripped by the story, desperate to turn the pages, as i had been when reading his other works. It was not until well over halfway through that i felt i was going to be able to make it to the end: Though i knew intellectually i would, as i do with practically every book i start, i didn't know it emotionally, i wasn't excited about reading it. Because of my previous experience, i confess that i thought there was something wrong with me, with mine understanding, mine involvement. I was clearly, very mistaken. There was something wrong, all right, but it was with Brown and his book, not me. Sadly, this sequel is an absolute indictment of the idea that because one book has been successful, another in the same vein must be, too. Certainly it was popular when it came out, i remember the displays; i bet, however, if he were to write another about Robert Langdon not half the people that read this one would rush to pick it up ~ assuming that, like me, they felt it was, rather than a can't put it down, a can't pick it up book. Brown should have stopped after The Da Vinci Code, while he was ahead.

07 September, 2012

My First Real E-Book

Keith Curtis

This is the first book i have read on my Kindle; not actually the first e-book i’ve read ~ that might have been Mendenhall’s about ancient Israel, i don’t remember ~ but all others have been done on the computer screen, whereas this one i purposely saved, after i downloaded it months ago, as i was pretty sure that at some point i’d be buying an e-book reader. So, this review can serve to speak of the book and the reader.

Curtis is interesting; he is an apostle in the gospel of free software, converted like St. Paul from an enemy of it; in Curtis’s case he was a Microsoft employee, but now urges Linux on the world, as the way into a better future, powered by the ability of thousands of volunteers who will scratch what itches ~ fix or improve what annoys them. The main message that Curtis gives is not that Microsoft (or any other entity which charges for software) is evil, nor that their products are, of necessity, poor quality; rather it is that software which is charged for because people are employed to make it cannot be of such high quality, at least after a period of time, as that which is freely available both to use and to be improved upon, because people will improve it ~ not because they will be paid but because they want it to be better for themselves. Thus free software takes advantage of people’s own self-interest to improve and evolve. The secondary example he uses to illustrate the process is that of Wikipedia, which improves daily as readers make changes to something they believe can be better expressed or more accurate or simply add what had not previously existed. This perspective, at least as Curtis gives it, is quite persuasive, to the point that i shall at some point more than likely try Linux for myself, as i already use free software (OpenOffice) daily, both at work and at home, it is not too great a stretch to imagine migrating.

The points at which i tended to lose interest were those at which he moved from talking about free software to making points about capitalism and space exploration, both of which he has beliefs on, and neither of which he seems especially qualified to be listened to on. This is a shame, because i enjoyed the book, other than at these points. Still, one mustn't complain.

The other point i need to address is the use of the Kindle to read this e-book. I cannot at all remember where i got the PDF file from, but i remember downloading it some months (or more) ago and keeping it because it looked interesting and i imagined that at some point i would obtain an e-book reader. I did not try reading it on the PC, because i dislike PDF files to read, by and large, as they are cumbersome and sitting upright at a desk is not, i find, a particularly comfortable position. That was, as i recall, the sole complaint i had about the prepublication PDF of Mendenhall's book.. I have to say, however, that reading on the Kindle was both comfortable and pleasurable. I did quite a bit in bed, fully warm, except for the hand holding the device, and that could be changed and warmed up frequently enough for it not to be an issue.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the electronic reader will not replace physical books for me, nor is it likely that it will become even the primary method of obtaining and keeping reading material. There is too much invested emotionally in actual books for me to give them up; i can quite easily see, though, that i and people of my generation and perhaps the one after me could well be the last regular users of paper books, as children being born now are quite likely to consider us as we consider the monk with vellum ~ a relic of a previous age and method.

04 August, 2012

Colin Duriez

A sort of a biography of Lewis and Tolkien and the points at which their lives intersected. I did know that they were friends ~ i would think that almost everyone knows about the Inklings and the readings and talks that were done within that group of friends ~ but i don’t think that i knew previously that there was a work element in their friendship, as they both held similar views on the teaching of English and affected the Oxford School, or that Tolkien was able to influence Lewis’s move to Cambridge after he had been turned down for a professorship at Oxford several times. Different backgrounds the men had, though of similar ages (Tolkien was about six years older, i think), brought up in radically different locations, yet with similar experiences in that both experienced early loss of one (Lewis) or both parents and the dislocation that must involve.

Duriez is quite an accomplished writer, with a lot of expertise, it would appear, in Lewis-ology (surely there’s a word for that? There’s certainly an entire scholarly industry built around the man. Lewisania?), and this book reflects the work he has put into it ~ the subtitle seems to undersell it, as this is far more than just a “Story”. Apart from anything else, there are some sixty pages of back matter, which give some indication of the work he has put into the book. Worth my time; i’m glad i found it and read it.

01 August, 2012

Chaotic Attraction

John Gribbin

John Gribbin is a fairly successful writer of science, making difficult concepts clearer for the non-specialist reader. In mine opinion, here he has fulfilled that mandate. The basic subject in this book is the mathematics of the edge of chaos and how real simplicity, applied with feedback, can create chaos or trend towards chaos and in fact be attracted to that edge; the conclusion Gribbin draws, and his purpose in writing, is to show how the notions of simplicity and chaos can be applied to the formation and development of life. I am by no means capable of reviewing the quality of his mathematics, or the science involved, suffice it to say that i saw no glaring errors (and, at my level, i wouldn’t expect to!); what i can evaluate is his writing and his ability to convey the messages he intends to.

In these areas, then, i find that he does well. I was aware of the concept of chaos previously, hard not to be for anyone who reads anything at all modern in science, but i would not have been able to explain it, so i certainly didn’t understand it; that has changed: I could now explain (not using mine own words, or not all of them) to a low level, and therefore i understand to a low level. Chaos, at least in the technical, mathematical, sense of the word in which it is used here, can be caused by the continued application to an input of one or more simple rules, the result of which application provides the input for the next iteration. Certain rules, chosen wisely, cause the results to trend closer and closer to what are called attractors, and the resultant patterns, the trends or the attractors or both, mapped show this chaos. A rather chaotic explanation, now that i look at it, but i seem to have grasped the essentials of what he was saying, i think. I just haven’t put it nearly so eloquently or neatly.

27 July, 2012

Dahl is always worth a read

Switch Bitch
Roald Dahl
I’m fairly sure that i first read this while at Loretto ~ either there or at UHill ~ which is a bit surprising as one doesn’t think of a school for adolescents (which category both places fit) as the ideal location for a book essentially about the passion and inevitability of sex. It is without doubt, however, that i have read this Dahl previously, and have gained just as much pleasure from it this time through. He is the master, in his short stories, of odd switches, changing point of view or behaviour so that his readers’ expectations are confounded; and what a joy that confoundment is!

Someone Like You
Roald Dahl
Found two Dahl books at the library, obviously, took them out! Takes me back to Loretto, sitting in the window in the newspaper area in the library, reading a subversive book ~ for there is no doubt that, to a sixteen year old, at least such a one as i, that Dahl is purposely subverting the proper view of life. And very enjoyably he does it, too. This particular book, i remember, i found flawed in that i did not enjoy the last story (or four stories, depending on how you view them) as much as the rest; on revisiting, i agree with my younger self, to the degree that i think they are of a slightly different quality and style, not quite in fitting with the rest of the book, and they might have been better placed elsewhere; i disagree with that self, however, that they are flawed or lacking, judgements which i now think i made then as a beginning reader, not yet fully able nor willing to accept variation as a quality. I trust i have now grown up a bit, and am slightly better able to read and judge.

17 July, 2012

The Mythos

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales
H.P. Lovecraft

It is a good two and a half months since i took this book out of the library; what can possibly account for my taking so very long to read it? After all, it’s not that long (twelve stories in five hundred and fifty pages), nor difficult (first published in the pulp magazines of the first half of the Twentieth Century). The truth is, i’m not altogether sure what has held me up, other than life itself ~ i’ve tended to be at work quite a bit over the Christmas period, and then when i’m home i’ve gone to bed quite early, which has severely cut down on my reading time; i don’t think that there is anything in the book itself which has held me up ~ indeed, i have enjoyed it each time i’ve read it ~ so the time factor oughtn’t be any reason for me to have bad feelings towards it, or Lovecraft.

These dozen stories are what might be termed classic horror, along the lines of Poe, though more detailed, more developed, perhaps, than Poe was; they tend to revolve around Lovecraft’s creation of a mythos of Elder Ones and ancient evils based on some interstellar travellers who brought conflicts to Earth in the aeons prior to the present. These evils have been glimpsed by certain authors of the past, in particular Lovecraft’s favourite, Abdul Alhazred, whom he several times refers to as “the mad Arab”, and his book the Necronomicon which is completely forbidden and evil, yet seems to have been available to everyone in the stories who has wanted to see it. This apparent contradiction is one of the minor complaints that i do have about the book, and it appears in a stronger form in one of the later stories, “At the Mountains of Madness”, in which a couple of explorers are making their way through a long abandoned city of the Elder Ones, amazed at all the sculptures and reliefs they find, and they are able, within the constraints of the small amount of time available within the plot-line, to comprehend millions of years’ history as shown in those reliefs, as well as offer a critique of the relative degradation of the later ones. It’s as though Lovecraft lost track of what the time-line was within his story, and he compressed what would in actuality be many years of study, learning about a truly alien culture purely from its art, into a couple of hours or so. This kind of fault in a book or story is annoying, but not sufficiently so to prevent me from reading more; i have to say that, using my single criterion, this book was a success for me.

03 July, 2012

I'm left with questions

John Coleman Wood

Another e-book read for Early Reviewers. I had a small gap in the reading of this and, unusually, found that what i had read had not remained with me sufficiently for me to pick up the book and continue; i had to go back to the beginning and start again. I only mention this because it is relevant to my review in that i, normally an involved reader, am able to follow several books at once (recently it was a dozen i had going), without confusing them, but this time i was not able to. I am not sure i can put my finger on the reason that i was confused, though a couple of ideas to come to mind, intimately linked with the book and my review. 

First of all, the plot is not told in chronological order but jumps back and forth through time from the present, the book's opening, to several different points in the past. Also, intermixed in the plot are snippets from an anthropologist's notes or writings; the implication is that they are those of the main character, a never named American studying in East Africa, though i think they could well be actual notes made by Wood in the course of his studies.

Another reason for my confusion, and this lasted far longer than my original start and restart, indeed, even after having finished the thing i still have less than complete clarity, is the names and personalities, such as they are, of the African characters. Wood's protagonist (awkward to refer to him this way, but he is nameless throughout) seems less interested in them as people than as objects of study and, as he is our reference point, our point of view, we are given almost nothing to distinguish them one from another. In fact, the anthropologist’s wife (also nameless, “she” and “her”) is also less a real character than a memory or image of one ~ perhaps this is intentional as, in the present she is dead. Ultimately, this particular issue for me revolves around a lack of distinctive character in the novel and, as i tend to prefer character-driven writing, that is something of a weakness.

Usually if a particular book ~ or sometimes it's all of an author's works ~ is less character-driven it will be more plot-oriented; in this case, however, i don't find that compensation. The plot in The Names of Things is thin, almost as though nothing happens, just the recording of a journey walked through some of the land of the tribe studied, along with the memories inherent. I don't really understand Wood's meaning or purpose behind the book; since there really is not much of a plot, as i mentioned, nor do the characters present anything new or compelling to me, certainly not the two North Americans, while the Africans are hard to distinguish though as a group perhaps new, why was the book written?

In a sense, it seems as though the sole purpose to the novel is to present what the life of an anthropologist is like; this would make it more autobiographical than anything else, which may i suppose explain the namelessness of the North Americans. At any rate, despite the several negative points i have made, i did not not enjoy the book so much as find it necessary to reclassify it in my mind. It clearly does not fit into my categorisation as “Novel, good”, yet it is not clearly a book to throw away; i am not sure exactly how to categorise it. Nor am i sure whether it is a success by my criterion; all i can say it that another book by John Coleman Wood would be much more likely to be picked up and read by me if it is non-fiction rather than fiction. That makes this an awkward review, i'm afraid, of what is, in a number of ways, an awkward book.

21 June, 2012

Gifts are Good

Robert Liparulo

Stephanie sent me this urging me to read it; that alone naturally disposes me towards liking it, as recommended books always find me prepared to be biased towards them. And so i have expected to enjoy it. And so, for the most part, i have. I do have to say, “for the most part”, though, because it was not complete or unadulterated enjoyment which i experienced. Let me tease out, then, the points which come to mind and try to separate those i liked from those i did not.

First of all, and this may not be the best of confessions to make, but i tend not to like “Christian books” as a genre. Novels, good novels, which happen to have Christians as protagonists, that's a different matter, usually, but all too frequently Christian authors seem to feel that they have to focus on the message and then leave the medium to a secondary place. The most usual ~ no, maybe not “most”, but a very common ~ manifestation of this is the book with some form of The Sinner's Prayer at some point in it. This is not always the kiss of death: I remember reviewing NoSafe Haven for Early Reviewers and reporting that i enjoyed it despite the presence of overt preaching and The Prayer; generally though, they are signs of poor writing in the cause of an ulterior motive.

Second, a positive point, i love the development of the idea, a group of people immortal ~ or almost ~ because God has changed something about their biology, and the struggles they have in trying to understand and repair the damage they have done to their relationship with God in order to be allowed to die. I do not actually like the mechanics of the premise ~ that this group of forty or so people were those of the Children of Israel who not only worshipped the Golden Calf but tasted the blood of a child sacrificed to it ~ which seemed clunky and rather less well worked out than other points of the plot; mechanics aside, and this is what i like, the thought that this group of people feel cursed and desperate to work their way back into God's good favour is clever and well done.

Third, i found the book surprisingly difficult to get into, despite the opening action scene, because there seemed to be a lot more exposition than events, and i wasn't buying it. In addition, perhaps a further problem, but i'll list it in this paragraph as it increased my difficulty in starting the novel, the main character, Jagger (and what kind of a weird, i'm-so-hip name is that?), was not at all appealing, at least at the beginning; it almost seemed as though Liparulo was writing purposely to make him repellent rather than attractive. Fortunately he picks up a bit further into the book, but he and his situation really were not a reason for me to carry on reading; while we're at it, talking about reasons to struggle while finding a way into the novel, the complete archaeology set-up was somewhat of a problem for me: I found myself unable to buy into the premise, the situation at St. Catherine's; although i know the monastery exists it just wasn't working for me.

Fourth, and this clearly shows how picky i can be, the title annoys me. I understand it; i understand the reasons for it; i understand the history, theology, and Biblical interpretation behind it. But it is still wrong. Jacob, aka Israel, had twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes; except for Joseph, who became father of two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, making thirteen already, so any further division such as Liparulo has invented at the foot of Sinai would clearly make a fourteenth. Clearly for the authors of the Bible twelve was an important, magical number; they got around the problem in two different ways. First, by dropping one or other of the tribes from the lists, usually Levi, justified because they became the priests and so were excluded from land distribution, or, on one or two occasions i believe, Simeon is dropped, because they were combined with Judah quite early on. Second, Joseph's two tribes are usually listed together, and many commentators or interpreters (i don't think the term appears in the Bible itself, though i am open to correction) call them “half-tribes”, thus keeping the count at twelve. By any honest method, however, there were thirteen tribes when Moses came down from Sinai, so any addition should be called a fourteenth.

Fifth, while trying not to give away the secrets, the plot twists are good and well done. Well, the main one, anyway. I had already worked out two, regarding the doctor with whom Jagger teams up in his battle against the evil forces, and felt relatively proud of myself for that; when, then, the other kicked in, kicked is exactly how i felt. An excellent surprise, hidden, timed, properly revealed. There are more points i could make, but they would really tend to reveal more plot points than would be responsible.

On balance, then, i have to conclude that, negative points taken into account, i did enjoy the book. I might or might not read another of Liparulo's based on this one, but i certainly wouldn't rule it out; qualified success, then.

30 May, 2012

Churchy Book

Michael Hampson

Funny thing: The last book i read i ordered almost as soon as i had finished it as a gift for JAG, and this one i was thinking about ordering even before i was done, both for myself and as a gift for Lynne. Not certain at this point if i will, for either purpose, both being perhaps a little unnecessary, but certainly odd that two books in succession should have that effect on me, the same effect. This one, too, i started reading while i was in the library, keeping out of my flat, which was very cold that day, no heat and all; and i enjoyed what i read, obviously, so took it out, too. 

Hampson is in some ways analogous to me: He is just a few years younger than i, with some similar experiences (and some different, very different), including growing up and coming across the Charismatic movement in the late Seventies or early Eighties, becoming a minster (though in my case, of course, Baptist, not Anglican), and then leaving the ministry though still feeling some draw to it, and still wanting to be able to be active in the church.

Clearly, the biggest difference between us is that Hampson found it necessary to leave the ministry because he is a homosexual, and found that he was not welcome in the Church of England, despite the official position of the Church (which is akin to that temporarily of the US military, “don’t ask, don’t tell”), particularly with reference to John Jeffries, who was forced to withdraw his name from consideration for Bishop of Reading because of his orientation, although he had made a pledge of abstinence. Hampson does a very good job of explaining as he is easy to read and easy to understand; he explains the structure of the Church of England, deriving that structure from its history, and its theologies, both in the past and the present, how he was drawn to it, as well as how he became driven from its ministry, both because of his orientation and because of the actions of certain of his superiors within the hierarchy.

He also lays out a manifesto, a suggested structure for the future (not that it has any hope of being accepted ~ at least voluntarily), which would, in his view, accommodate different views, and put the Church back on its true path of finding and serving God. As i have no allegiance to the Church of England nowadays, this is another difference between us, but i can see that his ideas have merit, and are, to be sure, thoroughly and cogently explained. Altogether, an enjoyable book.