Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “book reviews”

Too much sword, not enough sorcery

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, #2)A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven’t reached the end yet, and doubt that I ever will.

About a quarter of the way in I stopped reading every chapter, and read only those relating to the characters I was most interested in, which did not include Daenerys, Theon and Davos. I suppose it would be possible to have different reading schemes for this series, rather like the Bible. And one such scheme would be to just read the chapters relating to one character, right through the whole series,. and then go back to the beginning again and follow another character.

*** Possible spoiler follows ***

The character who interested me most was Arya, and I thought I’d read on to see if she ever got safely back to Winterfell, but when it turned out that Winterfell wasn’t safe to go back to anyway, I decided to give up. I may still try to follow Jon north of the Ice Wall to see if any interesting creatures appear, but so far there has just been some vague shadow of menace.

But this is only the second book, and it’s longer than the first, and I think there are better things to do with the rest of my life; read The Lord of the Rings again, for example.

The book isn’t bad, and I don’t think it’s badly written. It’s just that, apart from the setting, it isn’t all that different from everyday life, and if I wanted to concern myself with such issues it would be more profitable to watch the proceedings of the Zondo Commission on TV. Trying to influence the course of events in South Africa might be just as hopeless as it would be in Westeros, but you don’t know that for certain, in advance.

In my review of the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, i suggested that the genre was “sword and sorcery”, though some have disputed that, but in both there seems to be.too much sword and not enough sorcery. The South African equivalent to the Iron Throne, is, of course, the ANC presidency, with all the patronage and crony capitalism that goes with it. And though there may be sorcery and magical creatures behind the scenes, with rare exceptions the media don’t report such things.

But at least when I see the names of the characters mentioned on Twitter, I’ll know what they are talking about.

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A Game of Thrones: sword & sorcery at its best

I’m not particularly fond of “sword and sorcery” novels, but this is one of the better examples, which I would recommend to fans of the genre, and even to those who aren’t fans, but would like to read something just to see what it’s about. It has all the appeal of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe but with a much more realistic view of practical politics.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Take current politics, any current politics, remove it to a fictional country in a fictional world, and turn it into a parable, and you have basic plot of A Game of Thrones.

It’s all there: ambition, power seeking, spying, back-stabbing, manipulation, greed and all other staples of practical politics, ancient and modern.

It’s symbolism, not allegory.

If it were allegory it would apply to one particular set of politicians in one particular period, but it doesn’t do that. You can see whatever you want here.

The land of Westeros has seven kingdoms that were unified some four centuries earlier by a conqueror whose dynasty has now been overthrown. You can read that in many ways — seven kingdoms could stand for seven SOEs. Or seven independent homelands. Or seven successor states of the USSR.

The heir apparent to the current reigning monarch, Robert Baratheon, is 12-year-old Joffrey. In the film version he looks like Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, and in both the book and film versions of A Game of Thrones his character matches. And some might say that he similarly resembles Donald Trump, both physically and in character,

I suppose that the genre of this book is best described as “sword and sorcery”, though in this first book of the series there seems to be more sword than sorcery, at least in the beginning. And I would say it is one of the better examples of the genre. I’ve tried reading others, like The Sword of Shannara, and was not tempted to read any further in that series. Likewise with A Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings.

But in this case I have started reading the second volume of the series A Clash of Kings, mainly to find out what happened to some of the more sympathetically-drawn characters, of whom my favourite was Arya Stark, the nine-year-old daughter of one of the more honest and honourable men in the cauldron of political intrigue, Lord Eddard Stark. But even he finds himself trapped into lying for reasons of state, and it costs him dearly.

I came to read the book by a strange chance, when Twitter showed a list of tweets that were trending in South Africa, and I did not recognise a single word in the list. I asked about it here Being out of touch with pop culture | Notes from underground and discovered that all the unfamiliar words were the names of characters from A Game of Thrones, which was then showing on TV. My son had the first series on DVD, which we started watching, but it made little sense until I found the book in the library and began reading it. I’d heard of the TV series, of course, but had never watched it, and assumed that it was a kind of extended version of Braveheart.

I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t, and that it was actually worth reading.  I doubt that I’ll read the whole series, though. The first volume is over 700 pages, and there are still another six volumes to go.

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Darkness suspended, a novel by Jurie Schoeman

Darkness SuspendedDarkness Suspended by Jurie Schoeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was an absorbing read, at least for me.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found it so absorbing is that it was in a familiar setting. It is set in Pretoria about 15 years ago, 2004-2005, and so a lot of the scenes are familiar. I’ve had coffee and been to the bookshop in Brooklyn Mall, and also at Greenfields in Hatfield (alas, no more!). We’ve many times taken visitors sightseeing on the road past Fort Klapperkop and looked across to the Union Buildings and then gone there.

Was it just its familiarity that made it interesting?

No, I think it’s more than that. The characters are interesting too, and so one sympathises with them in their ups and downs. It’s a crime novel and a romance novel, a love story. And the crime is true to life. It’s not a whodunit. You know who did it, but you see how crime affects the perpetrators and the victims.

The protagonist is the Revd Nigel Jones, the youth pastor of a Baptist Church in the well-to-do eastern suburbs of Pretoria. His closest friends are a fairly wealthy doctor and the manager of a security company — the latter is his running partner, and they take their running seriously, entering marathons and the like.

The things that happen to them test Nigel’s faith, and that of his friends. And that is perhaps the most realistic part of the book. I’ve read many crime novels, but the crimes that take place in them are remote. I don’t know anyone who has experienced anything like that. The crimes and passions and temptations and sins and setbacks experienced in this novel come much closer to home.

So the picture the book draws of life in the “rainbow nation”, or at least the middle-class part of it, in 2005, is absolutely authentic. And that makes it worth a read.

The book has some flaws, too.

It is self-published, and was obviously prepared for publication with a word processor designed for business reports, and it is formatted more like a business report than a novel. The prose could have been tightened up with more editing, and some of the word choices could have been improved — “staunch”, for example, is not a good description of a facial expression.

But those errors were minor and did not get in the way of a good story.

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The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost ThingsThe Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading a couple of whodunits by John Connolly I thought I would see what he wrote in another genre, and this one is fantasy of the “child entering another world” kind, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unlike those other books, however, I think this one, though it has a child protagonist, is not really for child readers. I find it rather difficult to put my finger on why I think that. On the surface, at least, it looks as though it should be good for children to read. Twelve-year-old David, mourning his dead mother, resentful of his father for remarrying, and jealous of his younger half-brother, by the end of the story has learned to cope with those things in his life. It should surely be instructive for children who face similar conditions in their lives, which many do. But somehow this one isn’t that kind of book.

The Book of Lost Things seems more violent and cruel than the other books mentioned. In the other books there is violence or bloodshed, or the threat of it (“off with his head!”), and there is cruelty (“intercision” in His Dark Materials) but here it somehow seems to be told with more relish, and seems harsher and more cruel.

In this respect it is more like The Talisman by Peter Straub and Stephen King. That book also has a twelve-year-old protagonist with a sick mother, but this one, I think, is better told, and has a much more convincing fantasy world (see my review of The Talisman here). So why did I give them both four stars? On a ten-star scale I would have given The Talisman seven stars, and this one eight.

So if you liked The Talisman I think you might like this one more, but just because it is a book about a child, don’t think it is a book for children. I suppose I might have enjoyed reading it as a child from about the age of 11 onwards, but it’s still not as children’s book.

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Invisible Forms: Curiosities of Literature

Invisible Forms and Other Literary CuriositiesInvisible Forms and Other Literary Curiosities by Kevin Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating excursion into all the bits of books other than the actual text itself. It includes a bibliography (in the chapter on Bibliographies) that shows that each of these “forms” has one or more books dedicated to itself alone. There are books on bibliographies, books on indexes and indexing, books on footnotes and footnoting, and more. Jackson refers to these parts of books, other than the main text, as “paratext”.

Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac D’Israeli, pub 1794

It was inspired by Curiosities of Literature first published in 1791 by Isaac D’Israeli (father of Benjamin Disraeli, sometime Prime Minister of the UK). I have a copy of that too, in three volumes, and one of the oldest books in our house. We have the fourth edition, published in 1794, and it’s on my list to read now. I’ve only dipped into it before, reading an essay here and there (it’s that kind of book), but Kevin Jackson has piqued my curiosity.

My mother once worked at Arthur Meikle’s, estate agents and auctioneers in Johannesburg, and bought this copy at a sale, presumably from a deceased estate, probably of Hedley Williams, who seems to have acquired it in May 1937. There is also an inscription of a previous owner, with the note “Bgt at sale”, so perhaps the physical books themselves have an interesting history.

In addition to the interesting histories and facts about these literary forms, Invisible Forms would be useful to any aspiring writer, as it could give most people a better knowledge of most of these forms, and in one volume, rather than having to get a separate book for each. Are you struggling to find a suitable title for your next novel? Read the chapter on Titles here.

It is also full of droll and erudite humour. Anyone who has worked in academia in the last 30 years and has gradually seen the proportion of administrative to academic staff rise enormously will be amused, or perhaps dismayed, by a footnote on footnotes, discussing the profusion of footnotes and other references in academic books:

There used to be a method, no doubt encouraged by bean counters, whereby the ‘objective’ worth of an article or book was supposed to be gauged by the number of citations received in other books or articles. The effect was predictable by anyone who isn’t a bean counter: academics would set up little back-scratching groups or cartels of citation.

Indexes have taken many forms, and some have taken a narrative form, telling a story in themselves. Jackson notes that some publishers, no doubt inspired by their bean counters, had left indexes out of some of their academic books, not so much because of the extra expense of including them, but to foil academics who, in search of a couple of citations, would simply browse the index in a bookshop instead of buying the book. Jackson gives, as an example of an index telling a story, R.C. Latham’s index to Pepys’s diary:

‘BAGWELL,–; wife of William; her good looks–; P plans to seduce–; visits–; finds her virtuous–; and modest–; asks P for place for husband–; P kisses–; she grows affectionate–; he caresses–; she visits him–; her resistance collapses in alehouse–; amorous encounters with at her house.’ Unsurprisingly, Mr Latham won the Society of Indexers’ Wheatley Medal for 1983 with this fine work.

There are several chapters devoted to pseudonyms, heteronyms and fictional books and authors.

One example of a fictitious book that he gives is The Necronomicon, frequently mentioned, with an elaborate pedigree, in the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and Jackson tells of people who have gone into bookshops to order copies, only to be told that it doesn’t exist.

Since this book was published 20 years ago, a more recent example has occurred. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown mentioned similar fictitious books. The protagonist, Professor Robert Langdon is introduced as the author of The Symbology of Secret Sects, The Art of the Illuminati and a few others. When my son worked in a bookshop a few years ago a customer came in and asked if they had one of these books. My son said they did not. The customer then asked him to order it, and my son said he could not, as the book did not exist. The customer angrily waved a copy of The Da Vinci Code, pointing to where the book was mentioned, and my son explained that it was a work of fiction, and the protagonist was a fictitious character, and that the books that the story mentioned were fictitious works. The customer got even more angry, and threatened to report him to the management for refusing to order the book.

Another interesting chapter was on Marginalia. Jackson records some instances where marginalia have been collected and published separately. Something not mentioned in the book, but which came up while I was reading it, was this article: Why Were Medieval Knights Often Pictured Fighting Giant Snails?, which deals with marginalia in medieval manuscripts.

Jackson gives more examples of fictitious authors, some of whom published real works. There were three Portuguese poets who did not exist. Another imaginary character turned up in several books, as various authors joined in the fun.

A quick read was informative and illuminating, but one could have weeks or even months of fun following up some of the more obscure allusions.

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Boer renegades and their fate

BoereverraaierBoereverraaier by Albert Blake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 was a complex affair of conflicting loyalties.

Back in the 1890s what is now the Republic of South Africa was four different countries. In the south was the Cape Colony, originally Dutch, but in 1899 a self-governing British Colony. In the south-east was the Colony of Natal, which had recently become a self-governing colony. In the centre the Oranje-Vrijstaat (Orange Free State, OFS), an independent republic, led by President M.T. Steyn, and in the north the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic, ZAR, also called the Transvaal) led by President Paul Kruger.

Gold had been discovered in the Transvaal and the British High Commissioner and Governor of the Cape Colony, Alfred Lord Milner, a fanatical imperialist, wanted to control it, and tried to browbeat Kruger. Eventually Kruger realised that war was inevitable, and tried to gain the advantage by declaring war first, and President Steyn followed suit as an ally. The combined forces of the two republics (the Republicans, or just “the Boers”), invaded Natal and the Cape Colony, and after initial successes got bogged down in besieging towns like Ladysmith and Mafeking (now spelt Mahikeng).

The British brought in more troops, drove most of the Boers out of the two colonies and staged a counter-invasion of the two republics, and after 18 months had seized and occupied most of the bigger towns and main transport routes.

It was at this point that many Boer soldiers, thinking that there was little point in continuing the fight, surrendered to the British, and some Boer renegades joined the British forces and fought against their erstwhile comrades.

So the republicans were divided into three groups: the “joiners” who joined the British forces, the “hendsoppers” (those who put their hands up in surrender), and the “bittereinders”, who fought to the bitter end, which was 31 May 1902 when the Peace of Vereeniging was signed, after which the ZAR became the Transvaal Colony and the OFS became the Orange River Colony .

When the Boer forces captured British soldiers, those who were British or from the Natal or Cape colonies were treated as prisoners of war, and most of them were eventually disarmed and freed. In the guerrilla stage of the war the Boer forces had no facilities for guarding prisoners. But the Boer renegades, the “joiners”, were tried for treason in courts martial, and if found guilty, they were executed by firing squad. and that is basically what this book is about. The title Boerverraaiers means Boer traitors.

Who were the traitors, how were they tried, how were they executed, and what happened to their families?

The book is thoroughly researched, and Albert Blake has gone through archival records, published and unpublished war diaries, and collected reminiscences of family members of the traitors and those who tried them to try to make the account as accurate as possible.

I noted at the beginning that the war was complex, with conflicting loyalties. The migrating Dutch farmers who founded the Boer republics originally came from the Cape Colony, so many of them had friends and relatives there, and many were born there. Some, including relatively recent immigrants from Britain, settled in the ZAR where they worked in the mines or associated industries. When war came, some had become citizens of the ZAR, other had not. But when the British army occupied the land, many of those who had become citizens reverted to their old loyalty.

People would find that they were in a firing squad ordered to shoot their childhood playmates or members of their own families. Nowadays people can often get counselling for such conditions as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but there was nothing like that back then.

The book is full of tragic stories, like the widow of a renegade who was shot by a firing squad, who then married a staunch republican, who never let her daughters by her first husband forget that they were children of a traitor. The son of another, who was executed as a spy, was made to stand up in class at school, so that the other children could see what the son of a traitor looked like.

Many of the “joiners” were of the bywoner (sojourner or squatter) class, who had no land, no income, and joined the British forces for money, to be able to feed their families. The British also took the women and children off the farms, burnt their houses and kept them in concentration camps where thousands died of malnutrition and disease.

After the war, therefore, many families and communities remained divided, though many tried to consign the renegades and their fate to oblivion. It became something that one did not talk about, but one effect was to make Afrikaner nationalism very suspicious of any signs of deviance. Terms like “joiner” and “hendsopper” were used as political insults more than a century after the end of the war.

In 2004 Tony Leon, then the English-speaking DA leader, repeatedly taunted Marthinus van Schalkwyk, then leader of the National Party, as a “joiner” when he joined the ANC. Van Zyl Slabbert, the leader of the official opposition in the 1980s was accused of being a “hensopper”, and a few years later Pik Botha, a former member of the NP cabinet, was dubbed a “joiner” when he was accused of getting too close to the ANC. (my translation)

A lot of black people were also executed as traitors, but their names were not recorded. Though they were not burghers (citizens) of the republics, and had no right to vote, they were regarded as subjects, with a duty of loyalty, so they too were tried by courts martial for treason, and many were executed if found guilty, and on at least one occasion a childhood playmate was in the firing squad.

The usual method of execution was to lead the condemned to where graves had been dug. They would be blindfolded and stand on the edge of their graves. The firing squad had 7-12 members, and someone else loaded the rifles, half of them with blanks, so that no one would know who had fired the fatal shots. They would fire simultaneously, and usually the executed traitor would fall into the grave, which would then be filled up. Sometimes relatives would erect a gravestone, and on some occasions they arranged or the reburial of the body in a cemetery. But the location of many graves of the renegades have been lost.

So this book exposes the pain of divided loyalties, and opens a subject that people would not talk about for many years, though it had a profound effect on South African society.

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Memoirs of a Guardian Angel (review)

Memoirs of a Guardian AngelMemoirs of a Guardian Angel by Graham Downs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found it a bit difficult to review this book, for several reasons. One is that it’s hard to classify — fantasy? Yes and no. General fiction? Well, yes, but not quite.

At one level it’s a series of vignettes of people at crisis moments of their lives, as observed by a guardian angel. Then it takes us to the corporate headquarters of Guardian Angels Ltd, where the angels are assigned their charges and disciplined if they fail, or if they break any of the rules, such as one that prohibits a guardian angel from being in charge of anyone they had known in their life on earth.

There is plenty of drama in the vignettes of life on earth, which initially seem quite separate, but are eventually tied up together to make a single story, which is quite readable and held my interest.

The dialogue seemed a bit jerky in places, with a strange mixture of South African and American English (“curb”, “the hospital”, “exit” as a verb). But perhaps that’s just a generational thing, as the author recently reviewed one of my books and found the dialogue old-fashioned, so it works both ways.

Another difficulty I had in reviewing it is that I am writing a book that features guardian angels, and I have a totally different conception of them, so I found it quite hard to get my around the idea that angels had lived as people on earth, and are arbitrarily assigned to people to guard and then are taken off the job and set to look after someone else. But that’s just me, it doesn’t affect the book itself, and the story needs to be taken on its own terms and not judged on other criteria as a story.

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As I often do with book reviews on GoodReads, when I transfer them to my blog I make additional comments that go beyond the book itself and deal with issues that the book raises for me. In this case, one of the issues is angels, what they are, and how they are portrayed in fiction. In the review on GoodReads I tried to be a bit postmodern about it, and treat the text simply as text, and the story simply on its merits as a story — who knows what GoodReads readers are looking for in a book, or what ideas they approach it with?

But I approach it with certain ideas, and that’s what I talk about here.

In the Orthodox Church we take guardian angels seriously. At every Divine Liturgy we pray for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies…”

In the book the guardian angel seems to be a guardian of bodies rather than a guardian of souls, and as for being a faithful guide, in the book the guardian angel looks on helplessly while people make bad decisions.

The guardian angels were at work.

Of course the function of guarding bodies is quite important. An Anglican priest friend of mine (Fr Michael Lapsley). always invokes the guardian angels when he boards an aircraft. Many years ago I was returning to Windhoek from the Matchless Mine in the Khomas Hochland in Namibia. I had driven there in daylight, but returned at night. We came over a rise with the headlights up in the air, and by the time they were pointing to the road again the road was almost gone; it curved quite sharply to the right, and we were already on the loose stones on the outside of the curve. The bakkie spun and rolled, and we were shaken around inside. When the shaking and rolling stopped I was lying halfway out of the window on the passenger side, with my right hand stretched out into the gravel on the side of the road in a bunch of duwweltjie thorns, and the roof of the bakkie hanging over me. Would it fall on top of me, or wouldn’t it? It fell the other way, onto its wheels, facing back up the road we had come down, and I fell completely out of the window. Abraham Hangula, an evangelist, who had been in the passenger sear, came round from the other side of the bakkie, and said, “The Lord must still have work for us to do.” The other passenger, who had been in the back seat (it was a double-cab bakkie) was also largely unharmed. We all escaped with a few scrapes, sprains and bruises. And I thought yes, the guardian angels had been busy, and may be tipped the bakkie onto its wheels instead of on top of me. Guardian angels do guard bodies as well as souls.

There have been many portrayals of angels in fiction:

C.S. Lewis, in his Cosmic Trilogy, calls them eldila, and his portrayal largely fits my theological understanding too. In Memoirs of a Guardian Angel they are, as in Lewis, portrayed as bodiless powers, invisible to human beings, for the most part. But unlike Lewis, Memoirs of a Guardian Angel shows them as people who have lived on earth who become guardian angels after they die.

Tolkien shows, in his fictional Ainulindalë (published as part of The Silmarillion) how angels were created, with surprising theological accuracy. One class of angels, the Maiar, can also take on visible form, and are known among men as istari, or wizards.

In the Holy Scriptures angels take visible form and appear to people when they bring messages from God.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the ikon of the Annunciation depicts him in human form, but with wings. We are not told if that is how Mary saw him, but she was aware of his presence and heard him.

But one thing is clear from Christian tradition: angels are a separate creation of God. They may sometimes appear in human form, but they have never lived human lives.

Is there a way of reconciling, or at least comparing these views?

The ancient Romans, for example, believed the idea of the Genius. The genius was a guardian spirit of an individual that was assigned to each individual at birth, stayed with them throughout life, and after death conducted their soul out of the mortal world. The ancient Romans were expected to make a birthday sacrifice to their genius. If one had a good relationship with one’s genius it would become a lar, or household god, after death. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth. If one had a bad relationship, however, the genius could become a troublesome spook, plaguing the living.

This is not all that far removed from the Zulu idea of amadlozi, the ancestral spirits who are also associated with the isiku, the hearth.

Now some might object that these are pagan notions, and Christians should have nothing to do with them. Some, who are interested in the history of folklore and transmission of ideas might wonder if the Romans got their ideas of lares from the Zulu amadlozi, or vice versa, and if so, how were the ideas transmitted? And the folklorists might conclude that the Christian idea of guardian angels came from the Roman idea of lares, and classify it as yet another “pagan borrowing”.

The Christian theological explanation is a little simpler: if everyone is assigned a guardian angel at birth (no transfers, as in Memoirs of a Guardian Angel), then every society and culture must have some experience of them, and though there might be some differences in the way people described this experience, there should be enough in common for one to recognise the commonalities.

This leads on to the concept of egregores, which I have discussed in other blog posts here and here.Someone recently came up with the interesting notion that one’s social media persona or profile could be a kind of egregore, so would that be one’s genius too?.

And what happens if one’s genius goes bad?

In Rabbinic Judaism this is attributed to the yetzer hara (Hebrew: יֵצֶר הַרַע‎). Though in Judaism, while the evil inclination is present from birth, the good inclination, the yetzer ha-tov, only appears at maturity (for more on this, see here). C.S. Lewis, however, personified the evil influence (the yetzer hara) as a kind of guardian devil in The Screwtape Letters, And in everyday English we still say, of someone who seems wedded to “the dark side”, that “he has an evil genius.”

So how does one represent this best in fiction?

 

Speaking in bones

Speaking in BonesSpeaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a rather disappointing book. It features Dr Temperance Brennan, who, like the author, is a forensic anthropologist, trying to assist in the solving of crimes through the examination of human remains, especially bones.

It started off quite well, and introduced me to several things that I didn’t know — that there were such things as websleuths, amateur detectives who use information from the Internet to try to match unidentified dead bodies with reports of missing persons. It sounds like quite a good idea, until you discover that there is also a great deal of rivalry and sometimes hostility among them. But that kind of thing appeals to the family historian in me, because a lot of family history is in effect looking for missing persons.

Colin Darlington Rogers once wrote a book on Tracing missing persons and found that most of the readers were actually genealogists and family historians, so he wrote another book called The Family Tree Detective which was a pretty good how-to book for its time (pre-Internet), in England and Wales, and has followed it up with several more.

So I was thinking that this might be an interesting missing person’s mystery, but then it seemed to fall apart as I read further. The first thing that struck me as strange was that the author seemed to be enjoying commercial sponsorship. I kept wondering about that, when the protagonist didn’t just make calls on her cell/mobile phone, but we were told specifically that it was an iPhone. And when she was searching the Internet for websleuths, she opened her Macbook to do so. And her mother didn’t just go on a computer course, it was an Apple computer course. So I was wondering if she was getting paid for each mention of the brand name.

That was slightly irritating. But it was also annoying when the author tried to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger, and when you read the next chapter the “cliff” turned out to be nother more than a nine-inch wall. One was led to expect dire and perilous happenings that turned out to be quite banal.

And then quite a lot of the plot turned on the beliefs of a weird religious sect that majored on exorcism. Now there are lots of weird religious sects out there that do very strange stuff, like spraying people with insecticide and getting them to drink rat poison. But the one in the book seemed inauthentically weird. It struck me that that is one of the problems of using the web for research. It is great for verifying information when you have a framework of knowledge to put it into, but if you try to research from scratch without knowing what you are looking for, but can get seriously led up the garden path. And while there is a considerable difference between social anthropology and physical anthropology, reading a book by a social anthropologist, like Demons and the devil by Charles Stewart might have been a better preparation.

So yes, it was disappointing in the end.

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The Talisman (book review)

The Talisman (The Talisman, #1)The Talisman by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d just read the sequel, Black House, so thought I would reread this, because I read it so long ago that I’d forgotten parts of the story. I see I gave it four stars after my first reading, and after reading it this time seriously considered dropping it to three, but then decided to leave it.

Jack Sawyer is a 12-year-old boy whose mother is dying, and he sets out in search of a mysterious talisman that might be able to heal her. He has to travel across the United States, partly in the real world, and partly in a mysterious other world called The Territories, where travel is sometimes faster, but more dangerous.

Jack is quite an engaging protagonist, and some of the people he meets in his travels help him, while others hinder him or overtly hostile. Many of the people in this world have opposite numbers in the other world, called “twinners”, In ther help and hindrance he gets, Jack is a bit like the hero of Sammy going south, which is also about an epic journey by a young boy, though it takes place entirely in this world. It was a goo0d deal shorter than The Talisman, and I thought it was also better, partly for that reason.

I had forgotten quite a lot of the story the second time around, but what I had not forgotten was my reactions to it, the parts I enjoyed and the parts I didn’t. On the whole I enjoyed the parts in this world better than the parts that took place in The Territories. In part that was because The Territories was a rather unconvincing alternative world. There are quite a lot of books in that genre (or is it a subgenre?), but in most of them the other worlds are more internally consistent and coherent than this one.

The Territories seem to have a kind of medieval technology, with animal-drawn vehicles, no real towns and shops, just fairs and markets. Until the end of the story, where there is a very unconvincing train that crosses radioactive blasted lands. C.S. Lewis does a much better job of explaining how a lamp post got into Narnia than King and Straub do of explaining how a train got into The Territories. Lewis doesn’t even try to explain the sewing machine in Narnia, but it seems less out of place there than the train in The Territories.

Jack travels about 2/3 of his journey on the train, from Illinois to California, and allowing for shorter distances in The Territories, that must have been a distance of at least 700 miles, most of it over very loose sand, which would complicate track laying. So how would anyone build such a track, in an extremely unhealthy and hostile environment, while transporting all the materials from this world? The train, we are told is small and light and battery driven, so one pictures a narrow-gauge set up, like the old sugar cane trains in KZN, but then we are told that it was actually a broader gauge than the trolleys that used to run in this world. And even more puzzling than the how is the why? Why build such a track for one light three-car train? It is far too much of a deus ex machina, and towards the end there is a new deus ex machina on virtually every page, so each new danger Jack faces is more yawn-inducing than the last because you stop thinking he is in any real danger from an 11-foot high knight in armour. The most convincing attack on him is a kick in the balls from his best friend’s father, who happens to be the villain of the piece.

The last 150 pages or so were the worst, where the descriptions seemed to be confusing and interminable, or perhaps that was just because they were so dreary that my mind kept wandering and I was not taking in what I was reading.

When reading Black House I wondered which parts had been written by which author, and on rereading this one I began to think I had a clue. I suspect that the parts I enjoyed least were those written by Peter Straub. They were lengthy and over-described. And I’ve had that feeling when reading other books by Peter Straub, and since reading this the first time I had read Stephen King’s book on writing, where he says, of description, that:

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.

I wish they had followed that advice in The Talisman!

View all my reviews

Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland (Tales of Alderley, #3)Boneland by Alan Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is almost impossible to say anything about this book without spoilers, so I hope that anyone who reads this has already read the book.

It is a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In those books twelve-year-old Colin and Susan go to stay on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, and discover that the Edge is haunted by all kinds of strange creatures, malicious goblins, suspicious fairies and elves and the like, and there is a strange woman, a witch, who seems to have evil designs on them, and especially a stone that Susan had inherited.

Some of the creatures, good and evil, that they encounter are from local folklore, and others from stories from further afield. Eventually the children overcome the forces of evil, and are left in peace for a while.

Boneland is set much further in the future, where Colin has grown up and become a professor of astrophysics.

One problem that Professor Colin Whisterfield has is that though he has an exceptionally good memory, he can remember very little of his childhood before he was 13.

He works at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, and spends much of his time at work trying to find a twin sister that he thought he had, whom he believes has vanished into the Pleiades, riding on a horse. He has a bad conscience about wasting his employers’ time on this personal project, and so at one point he resigns, but his resignation is not accepted.

He is also worried about his missing sister, whom he can hardly remember, and thinks he might be going mad, so he visits a psychotherapist, Meg, She tries to probe his memories, but there are some places in his past where he both wants to go and fears to go.

It is impossible to go beyond this point without spoilers, so if you’ve read the book and want to go further, see my original review on GoodReads. See also my review of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

If you have read any of these books and written a review of any of them in a blog or elsewhere, please leave a link to your review in the comments below.

 

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