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.