31 March, 2012

Two Unsatisfying

J.N.L. Myres

Of all the Oxford History books i have read so far ~ maybe a quarter of them altogether ~ this has been the least satisfying, i’m afraid. Why? I’m not really sure, in detail, except that it seems to be the one in which the least amount of good history is given. Or, to be specific, my kind of history. There is all to much here of an explanation of why we don’t know enough, and how we know what we know, but all of it seems to rely on just enough specialist knowledge that it is just beyond my ken, leading to a feeling of constant struggle to catch up and understand, which is not a pleasant feeling to have as i read. I can’t say i didn’t learn at all, because that simply wouldn’t be true; the truth is that i have not learned as much as i wanted, with the result that i am left still partially in the dark about the period of sub-Roman history, as it seems to be called, not really understanding how the Saxons and their colleagues came, to where (or even, fully, whence), when, and in what manner they settled and blended or otherwise with the established population. I can’t even tell, really, if this is a fault in myself or in the book, or mine expectations for the book, which may have been incorrect. In the end, all i can do is reiterate my response from the first sentence, that i am not well satisfied with having finished this one of the series.

Bernard Whimpress, Nigel Hart
An account of a dozen Test matches between England and Australia, those in the authors’ view as being of particular value or interest for the strength of the game. I enjoyed it, but not as much as i had hoped i might, not being as fluent in cricket as i’d like. In some ways, i really can wish quite strongly that i didn’t move to Canada when i was ten ~ for all the benefits it bestowed, it also caused some pains, which surely Mum & Dad must have foreseen and decided that the benefits outweighed the costs. As a result, though, i find that although i know some names, some characters have made a sufficient impact that even in Canada or the US i heard of them, most are completely unknown to me, and events which the authors take as read aren’t, and, to be sure, some of the terms and ideas are insufficiently developed here (which is understandable) for me to understand fully. Again, a shame, but an interesting read. I should like to see the concept developed for other sports; i think it could be interesting.

25 March, 2012

Not At All Funny

Jonathan Ames

Talking with JAG a little while ago about books i’ve read and not enjoyed, and i came to the conclusion that this one was tedious; i’m glad to have worked that out, because i have been thinking about how to write this review, as i tend to while reading, and i have wanted to be clear about what i like or don’t like (much more of the latter, i fear) in the book.

You have, at the Powys library system, four weeks on a book loan and, as i actually began to read this one (the first few paragraphs, anyway) in the library prior to borrowing it, and as it was five days late in being returned, it is clear that i struggled for thirtytwo days before finally finishing it this morning. To be honest, i probably read about half of it this morning over my coffee, before JAG got up and we got on with the day. That is not good for a book of less than four hundred pages.

I really have given this some thought ~ as i tried to find myself reasons not to pick up the thing and finish it! ~ and i think that the basis of my lack of enjoyment is to be found in the mismatch between mine experience and mine expectations based on both the title and, more importantly, the cover quotes which largely consisted of the word “Hilarious” from a half dozen American papers. I was expecting, then, a very funny read, clearly along the lines of a Wodehouse, since there is a valet called Jeeves as a central character. What i actually experienced was slow, not at all funny (until the last quarter, at best), self-indulgent by both the author and the protagonist, and just not worth it. Such a disappointment, and that emotion will completely cover any interest i may have in another book by this Ames, who seems to be relatively successful, so that, on the basis of this one, i will clearly not ever pick up another. Great pity that neither of us have been well served by this experience.

20 March, 2012

Amazingly, being Canadian isn't enough!

David Conover

This caught mine eye at the market because of the title; i thought at first that “Salt Spring” was one word, so i picked it up for a closer look, realised it wasn’t, but then also realised that it was about Saltspring anyway, so bought it. It’s a very simple book, simple writing style, and neither the plot nor characters are especially complex. This isn’t always a good thing, i have to confess, as i found it a bit lacking to hold mine interest; i read the whole thing, but i’m not sure i’d read another by the same author, unless i could reasonably anticipate a bit more to it. 

 It seems rather in the line of James Herriot’s Yorkshire vet books, in that it appears to be a fictionalised (as far as i can tell) for effect story of the life of Conover and his wife and family as they moved from a small Gulf Island to Saltspring at some undefined point in the late ’50s or early ’60s. Conover doesn’t seem to have the same easy, flowing sense of humour that Herriot did, or maybe life on Saltspring didn’t have so much in the way of the unexpected as that of a Dales vet in the Depression, and i find that though there is humour in the book, and actually capacity for more than is in fact here, it is not a strong enough part of the mix to grab the attention.  

To be quite honest, i’m not really sure what appeal this book has, other than the local one (i know the area, a little), or at most the national one (here is a Canadian author, published by a Canadian company ~ always been big marketing points in Canada, i’m afraid). There is no real hook that grabs the reader, pulls him in, and makes him say, “I’ve got to get the others of Conover’s books” (this is the third in a series). And, for that, i’m rather sorry, because, in the end, being Canadian alone isn’t sufficient.

17 March, 2012

Decision time

Tosca Lee

So, when i began this, a few pages in, i was not overly joyed at the prospect. On the plus side, well it was recommended by someone whose taste i trust; on the minus, why read about someone whose situation is remarkably like mine own? Clay, the first person protagonist, is recently separated and divorced, by his wife's choice not his, and is still not over the relationship; he feels he has nothing to live for but his work, currently, and that is no longer giving him the pleasure it once did; though it is self-imposed, he is experiencing banishment from the places he once felt comfortable and at home, because they are all places he enjoyed with his wife; he has a religious background, and perhaps at one point had commitment, but is currently undecided or indifferent. Not in every respect are Clay and i similar, but in sufficient, and sufficiently unpleasing, ways we are, and i was not certain i wanted to continue.

I did, though, and i have to admit that i enjoyed the book. I cannot say that i liked everything about; my overall impression is a positive one, however, and was from about a quarter or a third of the way through, once i was able to get over, or at least ignore, the uncomfortable similarities. One of the points i did not like is that Clay seems remarkably thick; perhaps this is a point at which we are not similar, but he simply does not understand the simplest things, seems unable to make the easiest steps of logic. For example, though he claims to have been brought up with a churched background he seems singularly obtuse or uneducated and doesn't recognise Bible stories as they are recounted to him ~ the simplest, most obvious of stories, creation, not the more esoteric unusual ones such as some of the lesser judges ~ this ignorance just irritated me: How can someone with half a brain, which surely he does have, so completely have ignored or forgotten every lesson he must have had in Sunday School?

I'm afraid that there were a few other points about the novel which annoyed me, or at least i found less than pleasing, Typographically it's a bit odd in that every subsection (though, curiously, not the chapters) starts with half a line of a different font ~ i would guess one that has a pleasingly clever and appropriate name ~ a font which is not quite as easy to read as the rest of the typeface; why the dickens do publishers do things without regard to the effect on the reader? who is, after all, their target. Also regarding the physical structure of the book, the novel's end came upon me very abruptly, quite a number of pages prior to the end of the volume, with a single half page epilogue which resolves nothing satisfactorily for the reader. That end matter, which i can only think it is there to disguise the fact that the end is approaching, also contains some material i find curious, as there is a snippet from Lee's next book ~ which always feels to me to be the action of a desperate publisher ~ and a very odd two pages of “Interesting Facts about Demon” which appear to be a list such as one might find on a fan-site or at the end of a Wikipedia article, not the sort of thing that a self-respecting author would normally put in, as i would expect them rather to let the readers search and find these nuggets for themselves.

Curiously, perhaps, after this list of things that i didn't care for, i have to repeat that actually i enjoyed Demon: As i have written on a number of occasions in these reviews, i have one criterion alone for my judgement of whether a book is a success or not, and that is whether i would read another by the same author based purely on mine experience of the book in question; for Demon, the answer is clear: I would. I like the clever presentation of the Gospel and the call for a decision, which is usually so excruciatingly painful in Christian books ~ a reason in itself not to read them ~ so well hidden is it, in fact, that it creeps up on the reader unexpectedly; to be honest it was not what i was anticipating for the climax of the book, though i could work out for myself (which Clay so annoyingly couldn't) the direction it was going. I also found pleasure in the suddenness and completeness which marked a change in Clay's attitude towards his ex; all of a sudden he was not holding a grudge, able to be happy when she told him she was pregnant, which news certainly made it clear that the break was final. Perhaps there can be a positive in it, a way in which i can see at least a potential similarity between Clay and myself in the future.

Shall i read another of Lee's books? Very likely indeed, if i come across them. Time well spent, and i thus have further reason to trust my friend's judgement and taste.

16 March, 2012

Clocks, take two

Since i wrote my previous piece on the clock-tower near my window the chimes within it have developed another, rather more frustrating, error in their ringing. While it is now possible to hear the chimes and tell what time it is, they are clearly not ringing as designed nor, by any stretch of the imagination, correctly.

Just to recap, the clock is designed such that there are two bells, one of which chimes on the hour, and both of which chime on the quarter hours, with single, double, or triple double times, a double chime being one ring of each bell. Of the eleven months i have lived here, the number of double chimes has been incorrect for about eight. Obviously, unless one knows their pattern of incorrectness this makes it impossible to tell the time accurately.

All this has changed now. For some reason one of the two bells is now completely silent, meaning that a single “double chime” consists of solely one bell ringing once. Curiously, at the same time as the silencing of the bell, the number of chimes at the quarter hours has taken a turn for the better: There are now three bells at a quarter to, two at half past, and one at a quarter past the hour. Consistently. This is a real improvement on what was happening, as now, hearing one, two, or three chimes, assuming you know it isn't one, two, or three o'clock, you can tell the time.

On the other hand, at roughly the same time as these two changes (the silencing of one bell, the accurate ringing of the other), the hourly chime has become incorrect. Instead of ringing once for each hour, as is standard for every chiming clock i've ever heard of, this clever clock now rings once for each hour, and once more. Thus, it rings twice at one o'clock, thrice at two, and so on. I don't know, however, whether it rings thirteen times or only once at twelve o'clock; i don't happen to have heard and counted at that hour, though i could make a case for either.

The first time i noticed this was early one morning, as i woke up to go to work. I came close to panicking when i counted the chimes and realised that, if they were correct, i was already half an hour late, and hadn't even got up yet. It was only once i was up, rushing to have a shower and get out the door that i realised that the clocks in the flat were not showing me as late; still, i had to turn on the computer and go on-line to convince myself that it was not me that was in error.

I suppose the best thing that can be said about this current state of affairs is that, now that i know, i can tell the time without having to look at a clock. To be truthful, though, if i'm in bed i almost always glance at the bedside clock to reaffirm what the clock-tower says, or at the mantelpiece if i'm in the living room. I no longer trust it.

On the brighter side, when we change to daylight saving time in a couple of weeks, the clock-tower will be ready. So, i wonder how it'll go wrong then.

13 March, 2012

Aaarrgh! Scared!

Dean Koontz

Brrrr. I almost have to shake myself clean and clear after just thinking about this book, let alone reading it. Koontz has managed to distil the essence of fear, or that which frightens, and put it down in words. This is different from most scary books, including the few (two or three?) of Koontz’s that i have read, in that the spiritual world is very much a part of the novel, to the point that i am pushed to wonder what beliefs Koontz himself may have. I don’t really think that it matters (at least, not to this book), but he stimulates the question with sympathetic portraits of a man who prays seriously, and acknowledges he does, of a family who are concerned about the spirituality of their parish priest, not to mention the fact that the source of the evil in the story is very clearly demonic, straight from Hell by the description of a defrocked priest (who also obtains a sympathy from the author). All too frequently (and the use of that phrase is not a criticism, but a recognition of how writing is done in this world) the only source of evil is human, but here Koontz write of the demonic and evil powers as though he understands and believes in them. To be sure, for the functioning of the plot it is necessary to a demonic source of evil, because the humans who have performed the evil are dead, but it still continues, so there has to be an ongoing cause. Perhaps i am just interested by the whole conception of the plot by a secular writer. Whatever, however, i thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will read another based solely on it.

09 March, 2012

Some Poetry Present

Heather Kamins

    My first Early Reviewers e-book; i regretted being unable to request them for long enough, i was happy to be able to request, and delighted to get an e-book the first month i did request one. I am only sorry that i cannot be as happy about the work as i was to get it.

    I have to report that, as much as i have enjoyed my Kindle with the first books i read on it, both fiction and non-fiction, the medium is not suited (at least in my mind) to poetry, and i probably will not get another book of poetry for it (other than something like The Iliad, the Earl of Derby's translation of which i already have there). The reason is that, for me, a part of the joy of a book of poetry, either an anthology or a single work by one poet, is flipping through it, almost at random, finding something and being delighted by it ~ or at least given the opportunity of being delighted. An e-book reader is not a medium in which this can be done: It is self-evidently designed for the work to be read from start to finish, in as many bites as are necessary, but in a linear order.

    Enough of the format, what of the content? Well, here too, i'm afraid, i must confess that i am less than fully enthusiastic. The book of poetic criticism i have read most recently (review here), John Newton's AreGod and the gods still there? How poetry matters, argues effectively that an important part of the essence of poetry ~ all art, i believe Newton would say ~ is beauty; that beauty and our experience of it is in some way mediated and brought to our understanding through the religious. Newton does not argue that a religious content is necessary for poetry to be good, but rather that the response to a religious experience and that to beauty are related and, in some way, dependent upon one another. I found Newton of great value and interest because i have often, though without the fluency that a professional critic can put together, thought similar thoughts and been disappointed in much modern poetry. Feeling that lack of beauty, noting a dearth of response in myself ~ though not associating it with the religious response ~ i have frequently wondered what exactly it is that the poet thought they were doing, why they called what they had written poetry, when it seemed all they had done was write some prose and break it up into lines of uneven length. At times they appear to have wanted to stimulate thought in their readers by trying to separate linked thoughts or phrases, but this has always seemed artificial to me, and not in the sense of creating art, but meaning forced and trivial. I have, thus, been disappointed by much modern poetry.

    On to this collection, then. In Blueshifting i found some poems to make me feel good about the skills or talent of Heather Kamins; poems, in other words, that meet Newton's criterion of beauty evoking a response. Specifics: “How the sun remembers/its way home each night, into the sea/beyond Ia” (“Entanglement”); “You would have tried to call me the wind./You would have called my name, and then remembered” (“The Supernatural Subjunctive”); “Meanwhile,/you, noctilucent, breath beneath the quilt./How can I sleep/in a world so full” (“Insomnia”). These, it seems to me, evoke this religious reaction, the experience of beauty i look for in true poetry. Unfortunately, not everything here is of that quality. Some does seem to just be prose thoughts put down and then given arbitrary line-breaks, with no thought for beauty, nothing which grabs the reader and says, “Look at me!” “[T]he instructor tell you to leave half an inch/between the top of the preserves and the top of the jar/so the contents may expand” (“Headspace”); “Remember those days/when we used to lie on a plastic-strewn hillside/and look for patterns in the smog? When we first kissed/beneath the incandescent lights on a diesel-scented evening?” (“Devolution”); “Think/of all the beloved bad boys, the broken/girls, all the children/of disaster” (“Entropy”). Indeed, two of the passages in the book make no claim to be poetry at all, but are solid slabs of prose; i suppose i could be grateful that there is no attempt to disguise them by breaking them into sentence fragmented lines.

    Overall, i have to say that while i think Kamins evidently has some talent, her skills need refining for her words to grow more securely into the realm of true poetry, art, artifice which is created with skill to the ends of both giving beauty to a reader and creating a response in that reader; in this collection she does both, but only intermittently, and not to the degree necessary for a major poet.

08 March, 2012


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.