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.

25 May, 2012

An Even Dozen

For some reason i have a large, even for me a large, number of books going currently. And so, naturally, instead of spending some time reading them, or some of them, i'm sitting down to write about them! Maybe i need to explore why i have so many, why each has attracted mine attention, in order to be able to focus on them properly.
The Man in the Queue, by JosephineTey. I've not read anything by Tey previously, though i have wanted to. Recently i bought a collection of a half dozen of her novels, so wanted to start with one. After all, she is an author one ought to have read, from the classic period of the British detective novel, the second quarter of last century. I started with this one because, as far as i can tell, it was her first; i firmly believe in order and organisation, and that applies to my reading as much as to anything else.
Essays on Duty and Discipline, edited by Isabel Marris. An old book, just over a hundred years old, and i have a hard time not reading old books. I love the feel, the quality, the easy to read print, the slightly thicker paper of the pages, the gold stamped cover. This is a series of essays by assorted members of the Quality of a century ago, from field-marshals to earls, from bishops to politicians, all focussing on what is needed to bring up children, primarily boys, to become excellent men, suitable replacements for themselves. Incredibly priggish, and yet, truth be told, fascinating reading, a lot of which makes sense today in a society which has lost the ability to create meaningful aspirations in the pursuit of celebrity and cash.
Thatcher's Britain, by Richard Vinen. I seem to have an history book going almost all the time, ranging from one of the Oxford History of England series through to the lightest and most popular retellings of familiar stories. This is one of two which are the current entries. I was fascinated by the title when i saw it in the catalogue, perhaps because i remember Thatcher with far more affection than most people seem to; in fact, since i have returned to the United Kingdom, i suspect i have not heard a single person, on the radio, in person, or in print, have anything positive to say about the Iron Lady, and i was curious to investigate why.
The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams. A series of short stories about the one character almost no one seems to be able to resist writing about; there are stories here by people from Anthony Burgess to Anne Perry, from Michael Moorcock to Stephen King, and lots and lots i've not heard of. All based on Conan Doyle's character, who seems to have such a compelling impact on authors and readers alike; in the latter case, he has caused whole mythologies, histories, and biographies to be developed; in the former, as here, he appears to inspire huge numbers of new stories, in this book alone about two and a half dozen.
Echoes of an Alien Sky, by James P. Hogan. Simple, straightforward science fiction, i picked it up in the library, taken by the title, which i thought i recognised. I was incorrect, but am enjoying the book.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A dramatisation of this was on the BBC recently; i was able to hear parts of it only, and that has persuaded me that i needed to read it again. So far, i'm enjoying the experience.
Empire of Blue Water, by Stephan Talty. I ordered this from a catalogue mostly because it is about pirates and i thought Jacob might be interested in it. Turns out it's more of a history and less of a popular book, though certainly written to be popular. I'm learning a lot about Henry Morgan and his culture that i did not previously know.
Innocent Blood, by P.D. James. There was a time when i first discovered P.D. James and read everything available in the library of whichever town we happened to live in at the time; i thought i had read everything she'd published but was happy to be proven wrong when i saw this on a bookstall in the local marketplace. Naturally, i picked it up, and am enjoying the process of discovering it.
The 13th Tribe, by Robert Liparulo. A book sent to me by my alpha writer; i have only just started this (a chapter or two in), but have expectations of liking it, if for no other reason than i trust her taste.
A novel coming to me in snippets from my alpha, as i perform beta reader services. This is as much fun and as satisfying to read as anything else i'm doing at the moment, not least because i get to be picky and pedantic, which are two things i am excellent at, and because giving feedback to an author is something that i do in my mind almost every book i read, but this time i get to do it for real.
The Names of Things, by John Colman Wood. Not a real book, just an e-book, but included because i am actually reading it. Obtained from Early Reviewers, so will finish it and post a review fairly shortly, i hope, which is my motivation for reading it. It does not appear to be of the highest quality, though i am not a long way into it yet.
The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Currently i am reading this aloud to Jacob; as he is not with me the vast majority of the time it is a slow process. We usually manage to read one book each time he visits, which implies that we'll be doing it for some months yet. Fortunately, he is and always has been excellent at being read to, following and understanding sufficiently no matter the difficulty of the material, and he's had some great stuff read to him (The Lord of the Rings [an epic in itself] when he was nine, for example).

18 May, 2012

History as it wasn't

Well, it would appear that i have done it again. This book is one of a series of, maybe, a dozen and a half that i have been given over the past few years, through the Early Reviewers programme, in exchange for a review. There was one which i was utterly unable to finish (i reviewed it, to be sure; you can read that review at the other end of this link); and now Guardian of the Vision: Merlin's Descendants#3, which i have fought with for over a month and am officially giving up on, so this is the review of an unfinished book. It hurts my pride to have to do this: I can read anything, so i always say, without respect for genre, style, author, even meaning.
I have tried to read Guardian; with all my heart i have tried. Each time, though, i have managed to struggle through a chapter or two then throw it aside (not literally, don't worry ~ i have far too great a knowledge of and respect for the value of money to risk thus damaging the Kindle i paid nearly a hundred pounds for!) and turn to something else. Each time i have found myself thinking, or on one or two occasions saying out loud, “Blah blah blah!” which is as near as i come to the contempt the Greeks had for the meaningless language sounds of those they called “barbarians”. Nothing, in other words, seems to have any value or meaning here. Let me explain further
First of all, and it is hard for me to decide which of my complaints deserves to be first, there are the characters. I say “characters”, but i could just as easily have put “character”, because they are all slight variations on the same character, no difference in style, presentation, value, or charisma. None of them is attractive ~ of the main ones, anyway ~ none is clear protagonist, none is compelling, none makes me care about them or their actions. There are differences: One is female, two are male; one a priest, one a baron, one a witch; but truthfully, if you ignore those superficial differences, they are the same person.
A second issue is the structure. Radford has chosen to tell her story from several different perspectives, from those of each of the three main characters; two of those use a third person narration, the third (first chronologically) uses first. Except when it doesn't. In one chapter i was reading the other day, the first person narration changes to third person from one paragraph to another; but the focus doesn't change, nor does anything else at all: It is as though Radford simply forgot which person she was using and got confused. Certainly not what i look for in a skilled author.
A third difficulty is that Radford has her history wrong. Maybe i oughtn't worry about that; maybe it isn't important; maybe she has purposely written what she knows to be incorrect, and if i could have forced myself to finish the book i'd find out why. Perhaps the characters with the names of people from our history ~ Elizabeth Tudor, Marie Stuart, John Dee ~ aren't the same people, and the names are merely coincidence. Until i can be convinced of that, however, i struggle to understand why James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, is given that title and appears as Regent of Scotland within the action of the novel, years before either were true. Simple historical inaccuracy, which ought to be avoided.
The next issue i have, and perhaps this one ought to have been first, as it is at least partially at the base of a couple of the others, is that Radford doesn't seem to have the knack of writing compelling prose. I may not have that knack myself, but i can recognise, by the effect it has on me, of creating the necessity to keep reading, the desire to know what's happening next (linked to but not the same as plot construction), giving me enjoyment sufficient to carry me till the next time i can read, using words cleverly and with pleasure, and making me see things in words i hadn't seen previously. And this prose does not do that. It is, sadly not in the best sense of the word, prosaic: Dull, flat, uninteresting.
The thing that is remarkable to me is that Radford must have ability and her previous works must have had audience, precisely because there were previous works: Guardians is the third book in a series. Her writing must be, or have been, sufficiently successful for some readers that her publisher is willing to put this one out there. I only hope that there is an audience for it somewhere; in my house there is not.
I notice, now that i thought i had come to the end of my review, that i have actually written nothing about the content at all, the subject or story of the novel. That was an accident, needing correction. It is an historical speculative fiction, wondering what would have happened had there been a family in England descended from Merlin, the Pendragons, whose essential family concern was to work with the powers of the land (monarchy and church, primarily) to prevent chaos from taking the country. This book (as i pointed out above, it is the third in the series) asks these questions about the time of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. There is trouble in the land, caused by the religious struggles, by the dynastic concerns of both Tudors and Stewarts, by a young Scottish witch who is in league with a demon whose sole desire seems to be to cause chaos in England. The Pendragon family has its own issues, of course, and how these are to be resolved must be the matter of the plot (i can only imagine, as i've been unable to finish it). I would assume that matters are left somewhat unresolved, in order to provide space for a sequel, could one be wanted.

Blah blah blah....

16 May, 2012

Moving movies

David Gilmour
I suppose that it is a good sign that, as soon as i finished this book, i ordered it from Abe Books as part of a birthday present for JAG. That’s gotta be a sign of success, even by my rather strict criterion!

Normally, based on the title alone, one would expect me not to enjoy this. I mean, what is to enjoy in a book about films? I am well-known within my family for having no patience with films, often quitting them a few minutes in because they haven’t bothered to catch mine attention, and i reckon i can better spend my time elsewhere elsehow. So i am not certain why i picked this up in the library, other than ~ and i promise, i don’t remember that this was the case, i’m just guessing ~ i may have done so to see if it was written by the Pink Floyd guitarist. It wasn’t; this Gilmour is a resident of Toronto, and that, i suppose, may have caught my attention once the book was in mine hand, as a fellow Canadian. Whatever the motivation, i did pick it up and, while still in the library, read the first third of the thing before taking it out.

So, what is it? Well, as the subtitle indicates, it is the story of a father, Gilmour, and his son whom he allows to drop out of school on the condition that they watch three films a week together, films of the father’s choice. It really isn’t clear what, other than desperation, put the idea of this approach into Gilmour’s mind, but against all odds it works. The two talk, Jesse, the son, goes through some difficult times ~ as does Gilmour himself ~ but eventually comes out the other side and, as far as one can tell, has made a certain amount of a success of his life. Gilmour gives a partial list of the films they watch, and an index to them in the back, with some interesting comments as he tells Jesse what they should be looking for while watching them; as he used to be a film critic, one can assume that he knows whereof he speaks. 

The interesting point, from my perspective, other than the father/son relationship i’ll address shortly, is that i found myself wanting to watch at least some of these films, or regretting that i’ve not had the opportunity to do so, perhaps thereby continuing mine education in an area where i am evidently, evidentially, lacking. Dirty Harry, for example; i know the famous line, who doesn’t, since Reagan quoted it? but i’ve never seen the film, for one reason or another ~ lack of opportunity, Lynne’s distaste, &c. ~ and now might find myself looking for the opportunity to do so. Perhaps, as i’m giving JAG the book, we’ll rely on some of Gilmour’s recommendations to guide our viewing, as that seems to be what we do fairly regularly when he visits.

So, on to that relationship. The disappointing fact is that i find myself in a very similar position to that of Gilmour; the details are different, as he is remarried, actually has another child who plays absolutely no part in the story, is on good terms with his ex-wife; the general sweep, though, is the same: Broken marriages, a son who is having difficulties in life, and an inability to know what to do to help that son, on the part of both parents, all are features of my life and his. I’m not sure that we are in the position to do anything as radical as Gilmour did ~ apart from anything else, i am employed and he was not, and JAG is in school, and Jesse essentially was not ~ but it is stimulating to see that from a difficult situation good can arise and result, that boys, sons, can struggle through difficult times and emerge as mature adults. Thus, in the end, i am delighted that i have read this book, and i will see if i can leverage it, in some way, into a stronger relationship between JAG and myself. Woo-hoo!

11 May, 2012

Guilty, m'lud

Guilt is currently gnawing at me. Or is it eating at me? Or taking digs? Or trying to drive me? Or...well, whatever the particular idiom one is correct to use with guilt, it's pretty clear that it acts unpleasantly, and that's what it's doing at the moment. I suppose the logical question is, when a statement such as this is made, what do i feel guilty about? Not what might be considered the obvious contenders.

Work? Plenty to be guilty about there, to be sure. The company i work for continues to load more and more onto us, gives us no more reward for doing the extra, provides no more hours in the week to do it in, nor any extra staff to help with it. Therefore i am, without a doubt, constantly behind, with an ever-growing list of tasks. Sure, i should feel guilty; but i don't ~ why should i when i cannot affect the circumstances, other than by taking on a different job altogether?

Perhaps, then, a sensible thing to feel guilt over is the collapse and demise of my marriage. Again, though, i don't. Similar situation to that of the previous potential cause: Though some of mine actions have been a part of the cause of the collapse (only part; it takes two to tango), it was neither my choice nor decision and, although i regret it, i cannot affect the outcome, so why be guilty?

Other potential proximate causes? I have to drive seventeen miles to work each day; that causes pollution, adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than i would choose, and seems a bit of a waste of time. I don't eat as healthily as i “should” ~ forget five-a-day ~ enjoy junk food too much, and don't track the units of alcohol i consume, though the government continually admonishes me to do so. I drink more coffee than i probably should. Only once or twice a week do i go for a walk, even though i enjoy it when i do.

It is not any of these, though. No, what is currently causing me guilt is that there are two books i have started reading and i'm struggling to finish them. Books, of all things innocuous and friendly, giving me grief. But there are reasons.

One of them is quite old (not my copy, just the contents), about a hundred and ninety or so years old, and written in a style i'm not finding especially enjoyable. Plenty of older books i love, Pride and Prejudice, Tristram Shandy, and The Rape of the Lock, to name but three; this one, however, is fighting me all the way, instead of welcoming me, drawing me in, seducing me, pleasuring me. And the fear that, maybe, the fault lies in me and not the book causes me guilt.

The other is a book i have been freely given, with only the stipulation that i read and review it ~ i don't even have to like it! ~ on the Library Thing website. It must be the sixteenth or seventeenth book, i should think, that i have received this way, and i am fighting hard to finish it. There was one other of the Early Reviewer books that i received which i was simply unable to finish; that one was so bad that in the review i did write i compared it unfavourably with tripe, and i really don't want to do that again, so i struggle on, and on, and on (of course, it's a book on the longer side; it would be!).

To continue, probably much farther than necessary, the metaphor i began in writing of the first of these two books, this one, while it should be buying me drinks, sweet-talking me, making me laugh and want to spend time with it, while these lovely activities should be taking place, in fact it is boring me, talking of matters it clearly doesn't know, embarrassing me with its overbearing cleverness, and breathing on me with rather heavy halitosis. Unfortunately, and i say this with genuine regret because, without all the poor behaviour this could have been a fun relationship, instead of being seduced i am repelled.

The problem, where the guilt arises further, and this has been an issue for me with others of these Early Reviewer books, is that although there is no requirement at all to give a positive review, i feel an obligation to be polite about what is, essentially, a gift of something i value highly: Books are not, to me, consumable items; they are artefacts to be treasured, potentially the containers of wisdom, skill, beauty, new experiences. I want to appreciate them, it's a part of my personality, and being able to read almost anything is a part i am proud of. I'm not sure, though, that when the time comes for the review to be written and posted, i shall be able to be nice and polite about it; i may end up going for honesty and brutality ~ which will doubtless cause more guilt!

06 May, 2012

A surprising result

David Ross

Took me quite a while to read this (and a whole lot longer to get around to starting it ~ i think i’ve owned it for nearly two years!), but not for any bad reason, just time constraints and other things grabbing mine attention and refusing to let it go. There were a couple of points that rather disappointed me about this, led me to be slightly slower in reading it than i might have otherwise been: First is the physical book itself ~ it is printed on coarse, newspaper-style paper, which gives it a bad feeling to me, both because i’m afraid of permanently damaging it (i have an almost unhealthy respect for the physical well-being of my books) and because that paper triggers a reaction in my mind which says that the contents are less important, more transitory, perhaps, than more expensively produced works; second, obviously, the content found in that physical book ~ i have been unable to determine properly the reader for whom Ross was writing; at times i felt he was producing a child’s history of Wales, or at least one for juvenile readers, but at other times i got the feeling that he was hoping for a full adult readership, and occasionally that he was aiming at the high end of that range, if not actually academic level. This difficulty, either in conception or in execution (or, to be fair, in mine understanding of the book), made for an up and down reading experience; i was not always sure, as i turned the page or moved into a new section, just what i was going to be in for.

A third point, though not so much a disappointment as an observation, is that the sidebars can be distracting as they automatically attract the eye and the reader then must focus on staying away from them or allow himself to read them as soon as the page it turned revealing them; either action leads to a loss of flow in the main text. This is not to say that sidebars are always bad ~ they’re not; sometimes they are quite useful ~ nor that i have a better solution ~ i don’t; i am merely pointing out a problem with their use.

In the end, which may come as a surprise considering i seem to have done nothing but complain in this review, i enjoyed the book, probably enough to make it a success by my criterion, and though i may not know a lot more after having read it than i did before, i do know where to find information, and where to turn for further research about Welsh history (there are a reasonable, though unannotated, bibliography and a very good chronology as parts of the end matter).

02 May, 2012

There's a few Newfies...

Yes, i'm a day late, but i wanted to finish this review, which i owe, and post it this week.

Tom Finn

The latest of the Early Reviewer books i have received; this one, like the book of poetry, Blueshifting, reveals a shortcoming of the e-book reader (or, to be precise, the Kindle, since that is the model i use), which is that turning to the table of contents is useless because there is no way to get from it to the next story (or a different one if, as i did, you want to be reminded of some past character or event); clearly, a great need for an effective e-book reader (and perhaps the best already have this facility) is the ability to use hyperlinks, from the table of contents at least, perhaps an index, too, if books with indices are e-published.  Apart, though, from my dissatisfaction with the medium, which i shall try not to mention again in any e-book review ~ you may take it as read that it is less perfect than an actual book ~ i have to say that i enjoyed Westsiders.  

I love short stories; they are probably my favourite form of fiction, though not one that i read an awful lot of, partly because they are not as popular in general as they used to be ~ a cultural weakness ~ but when i do, and they are well written, very enjoyable.  And these were enjoyable.  

Finn is a Newfoundlander, writing of the province either before or just after the transition to that status from British colony (i am not sure of the exact setting of the stories); a time when poverty was pretty clearly a defining trait of the island ~ as indeed Britain herself and, one suspects, many of her colonies, at that early post-war period ~ though that poverty does not overly force itself into the stories; they are more interested in the characters, the interactions, the developments.  The plots themselves are fairly minor; that of the last story, for example, could be summarised without much loss as “A man stands in a window waiting for a ride to Church on Easter”.  There is, however, more to the story as Finn tells it than that simple summary; we also learn about the man's relationships, both currently with his neighbour and his children, and in the past, with his wife.  This clever revelation by Finn occurs all through the book, with most of the stories having far more to offer than the plot, and the pleasure (for me, anyway) multiplied by the complexities.

The only story i feel which does not work as well as it might is the one in which plot is, perhaps, the strongest element, as Finn uses two or three narrators to tell the story of a boy who ran away; the whole thing has a feeling, to me, of the experimental (vide the different narrators), the forced, and, as i say, the unsuccessful.  One story in a collection, though, is not a bad ratio.  All in all, i have to report that i was very pleased to read (another) Canadian book ~ and one i enjoyed more than the last two i did read.