Mirror Mirror, by Gregory Maguire

April 27, 2011 at 22:23 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

4/10

Maguire promises a lot and delivers little. Historical fiction blended with the recasting of a classic fairytale might seem like unlimited license for creativity and a surety against failure, but Maguire made several extremely poor mistakes, and his most creative moments leave the reader hungry for more and feeling rather cheated. This book is either much too long or much too short. We have the spectacle of several interesting and engaging characters, each with their own storylines, and in some cases individual races or creatures. None of them are adequately developed.

“Snow White” de Nevada (a cute choice for a name) is barely explored at all, despite being the main character. Brilliantly interesting characters such as Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia are barely touched upon, and Maguire’s bizarre dwarf creatures are superficially discussed at best. There is no sense of mythology, no sense of magic, no sense of historical intrigue. Maguire ought to have been satisfied with writing a Grimm’s style short story, or else should have been prepared to put considerably more effort into developing his creation, paying due attention to Italian history (which is rather superficially explored) and crafting a fantasy worthy of the reader’s investment. As it is, he has given us a very pretty concept that unfortunately has little or no depth at all.

Finally, the writer’s preoccupation with the sex of his characters is disturbing and offputting to say the least. That sort of thing might be expected from the legendarily lecherous Borgias, but their excesses somehow taint every single one of his distrubingly nymphomaniacal characters. This is a seven-year-old Snow White, for pity’s sake! Next time, we could do to leave Sigmund Fraud locked well away, please.

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God is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

April 21, 2011 at 14:43 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , )

8/10

There is an irony about this book, in the way that it presents itself and the final impression it leaves. Prothero’s chief intent is to strike a blow against the ill-informed syncretists, who neither know about the differences between the religions of the world, nor care. He paints with dazzling colours, and writes like an art admirer locked up with bread and water in the Louvre. But that is really where the problem lies. For all his enthusiasm, and his denigration of those unscholarly plebs who know nothing of the vivid shades of Islam, or the fragile beauty in such-and-such a cult of Hinduism, is the enthusiasm and the scorn of a scholar.

Prothero himself claims, time and time again until it has taken the form of a mantra, that to look at religion as a dogmatic pursuit, or a scholarly thing, or even as an experiential phenomenon, is to shackle oneself with the bonds of Western Thought–or the bonds of whatever our preconceptions might be. How terribly unfortunate, then, that he himself is unable to truly tackle that thing that truly separates the religions from each other: not philosophies or disparate ways to differing ends (although his acknowledgement that different religions seek after different things is poignant and well developed), but monopoly. These are not beautiful paintings, each different from the other as a Picasso is different from a marble sculpture or a Rembrandt; but wild things, and though they may be beautiful by standards and by standards, they will not coexist. His own blind spot is his inability to see religion as anything other than a unique (always unique; and at least he manages that!) thing to be admired, as a pastime or a momentary distraction. Even as a subject for a lifetime of teaching.

He fails to grasp perhaps the most important part of his own titular statement: that God is not the same entity to any of the adherants he describes; but that these groups do not only differ in drastic ways; they despise the philosophies of one another.

He makes admission occasionally, such as when he mentions that Buddhism, at its root, considers the dogmatic worship of a god to be precisely the sort of kharmic pain that must be purged from the world; that Islam will never countenance the same equality with God that Christ did not consider to be robbery. The most welcoming and flexible religions in his structure can only bend unto the point where they encounter another’s rigidity, and their own willingness to flex becomes inflexibility. One can hardly expect a tired old professor of comparative religion to starkly admit irreconcilable vitriol as the only commonality between the subjects of his classes, but without this admission, his honest attempt to show off a collection of jewels that all sparkle with equal and different beauty comes off as a sham once the surface of his study is scratched.

Despite its manifest theological and philosophical failings, this is a good entry-level guide to comparative religion, and if Prothero’s own likes and dislikes are worn somewhat on his sleeve, then at least he makes an effort to play fair with all concerned, and writes like a professor ought to write: the faintest touch of good-humour, businesslike without brusqueness, and with the warranted assurance that even if he isn’t the ideal man to save your soul, at least he has a fair idea about what everone else is doing to save theirs.

It must be added that, while Prothero is a fastidious scholar and presents a fair and balanced view of each of the religions he studies (as a Professor at Boston University, one would expect nothing less), he occasionally makes mistakes that are downright embarrassing; seemingly minor errors that a layman might pass off as theological quibbling, yet which in his position he ought to recognise as gross errors of earth-shaking magnitude. It would not seem a “minor error”, for instance, for a Jewish reader reading Prothero’s earnest assertion that Abraham never entered the Promised Land of Caanan. While these errors seem to be few and far between, the fact that they are present at all does a great deal of damage to Prothero’s credibility.

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When Light Pierced the Darkness, by Nechama Tec

April 19, 2011 at 15:20 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

8/10

Remarkably well-researched, in this book Tec does an admirable job of walking the line between publishing meticulously-recorded interviews and presenting a survey-based thesis with no possibility of a control group under trying circumstances on a massively controversial issue.

The largest criticism to be applied to this book strikes at its stated goal, and is Tec’s lack of differentiation between the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Pole’; somewhat cynically, Tec admits to using both terms interchangeably. Although this does not really weight the conclusions she comes to, it certainly makes the book’s subtitle extremely misleading (although some distortion is inevitable, such as her somewhat naïf and contradictory description of hardcore Communist Atheist Christians!).

This book is certainly more of an academic work than a retelling of wartime events for an amateur audience, and while her rendering of personal stories is both lively and dramatic, there is a clear bias towards analysis of data and the preeminence of statistics in her study. It is a little disappointing that her focus is so utterly Polish (though she cannot be faulted for attempting even that mammoth task), and that the results of her study can only be of limited use in determining the motivations, challenges and successes of rescuers in the Third Reich. It is probably true that any frustration with this history’s limited scope simply demonstrates how well Tec has performed her task. At times traumatic, at times dull and at times lively, this is nonetheless a valuable addition to holocaust literature

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My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James and Chris Collier

April 17, 2011 at 14:19 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, War and Politics) (, , , , )

8/10

Historical fiction for children or teenagers is as a rule dreadful gaudy stuff, full of beads and the proper way to churn butter, respectful apple-cheeked children and dreadful litanies of mucking out farmyard animals and lighting fires. There is always some note of pain or loss, to teach youngsters how tough things were in the olden days, and the stories always end on a positive note–all the better to worm their way into school libraries, where tragedy is seldom encouraged.

This rather simple tale of the American Revolutionary War incorporates striking realism (that is to say, it has just the right amount of domestic humdrum) to be good history; at least equivalent a six-hour trip to a carefully recreated colonial town. It has all of the hallmarks of a rather pithy story attempting to disguise education as something interesting and relatable, but it also manages to tell a decent adventure story, and the Colliers do a good job of limiting the tiring stuff of tavern life, and bringing the war to the forefront. Whenever wood-chopping or cow-milking is mentioned, the reader will have an almost palpable sense of the authors’ impatience, and their welcome desire to take their story somewhere more interesting.

Ultimately, it is the politics of this book that distinguish it from the swirling slurry of tawdry adolescent fiction. The conflict is described in simple terms, but with a constant and noticeable escalation throughout the book. Never do the writers rest on their laurels, but continually develop and elaborate the various tensions between the loyalist and rebel parties. If they can be accused of spelling things out somewhat painfully at times, they have their target readership to think of, and if they can be blamed to some extent for the drearier sections of this book, then they can at least be praised for their effort to balance the historicity with a compelling story.

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The Knowledge of the Holy, by A. W. Tozer

April 14, 2011 at 13:39 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

8/10

Extremely stiffly written, with very little charm or interpersonality, which certainly made this rather hard to read. Not quite the earth-shaking book that its reputation suggests; and yet the simple fact that Tozer is such an influential author and his ideas so widely disseminated and commonly quoted throughout Twentieth Century Christianity might explain why his book seemed rather basic.

The chief flags being waved here are the deity of Christ, the unapproachable holiness of God, the easy cohabitation of the Lord’s attributes and an heroic attempt to explain God’s transcendence. All manifestly worthy subject matter, and while Tozer does not explain his thoughts on any of his subject in great depth, he is clear and bold in asserting his beliefs.

No reader ought to expect to “understand the attributes of God” after reading this, but one ought to at least understand what those attributes are, and even hearing the subtitles of each chapter in this book for the first time will do wonders for any Christian’s theology.

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The Giver, by Lois Lowry

April 12, 2011 at 13:36 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )

5/10

The Giver is, quite honestly, a bit of a fraud. It is very nice to think that in a world of sterilised memories and a tableau of soma-induced sameness, one boy’s borrowed experiences can shatter the brittle mirror of illusion, and send him plummeting headfirst into the real world, and into an adventure that will either refine or kill him. We like stories like this, filled with purgatory and a phoenix soul rising above the dross of temporal darkness; stories where it is so difficult and yet so simple to find a quick fix, nestled down in the back of that marvellous lump of fat, the human brain.

There is very little, however, that sets Jonas apart from those around him, who also live with the same experiences of death and trauma and agony, euthanising the old and young and disobedient with the placid grins of automatons, with their conditioning seemingly quite unaffected by the dark side of their world. It seems inconceivable that Jonas is able to so quickly, and with so little soul-rending, reject The Community; even more so that The Giver himself is equally ready to tear apart the utopia he has propagated. Suspicious minds will see clumsy fingerprints of a pedagogue author all over this charming and unbelievable happenstance.

It is a very pleasing tale of humanism that works, and of the innate good in all of us bubbling to the surface and sprouting butterly wings, or somesuch rot. Huxley and Orwell, Heller and Bradbury knew that people just aren’t like that.

Jonas’ easy evasion of The Community’s watchdogs, his own binary acception of The Community as wicked but misguided and his crusade to save Gabriel’s trebly worthless life (in what by all accounts ought to be his view) are all nice in a warm and fuzzy sort of way, but are rather hard to swallow.

We are left with a world of evil in which everyone is good, and a world of conformity where everyone is a secret rebel in masque, and nobody is conformed. The Community is one of the more organic dystopias imagineable, held up by a bizarre social contract, where Big Brother does not lurk behind monitors, but behind the faces of every schoolboy and parent; an intriguing concept, were it not for the inexplicable exception of the key characters. Read another way, this book gains a little more power when the frightening fact crops up that its heroes are things of fluff that cannot (and could never) exist; but the earnest attempts of this short story can be lauded only as a brave attempt to bring the dystopian genre to a younger audience, and will find it very hard to stand up on its own merits.

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The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

April 10, 2011 at 12:31 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )

6/10

Due care should be taken when reading this book. It is a marked departure from the first book of the series, in style, content, substance and feel. Most positively, Rothfuss continues his able characterisation of Kvothe and the manifold denizens of his vivid world; he manages to avoid repeating himself unduly (which is no mean feat, considering these books’ lengths!) and builds substantially on his other creations. Whereas he had first gone to painstaking efforts to colour every jot and tittle of Tarbean and the University, and to lovingly explore his different incarnations of magic, here he demonstrates that, no: he had not yet written everything that could be written about these inventions, and he writes passionately enough to keep his storytelling fresh. Also weighing heavily in this book’s favour is a thankfully improved standard of copy-editing. No haphazard mistakes or clumsy phrasing to detract from a clever and sophisticated story.

Unfortunately, The Wise Man’s Fear has somewhat lost its reserve; its gentleness and the sense of propriety that lent its predacessor such grace and beauty. Needless prudery is one thing, but the extent to which Rothfuss feels it necessary to delve into more graphic aspects of his world ends up damaging something fundamental in his writing, and altering the whole flavour of the book. Additionally, where most of his creations still feel new and freshly original, the Daoism of his Ademre race is laid on with a rather too thick trowel, which is both distracting and eventually, feels somewhat arrogant.

Also missing is his remarkable ability to borrow the pen of Tolkien and write that rarest and most beautiful of the gems of fantasy: true legend. The Lay of Felurian might have begun to approach the majestic, had it not been a largely sordid romp. The ever-elusive quest for the Amyr and the stunningly-portrayed appearance of the Cthaeh certainly are the best taste of grand and proud writing, and are sadly relegated to background roles. Instead of these shimmering themes, the more prosaic and–dare it be said?–exhausted aspects of the story are drawn out to their uttermost extent: long, dull valleys between the occasional (far too occasional) shimmering peaks. Having promised much, Rothfuss delivers; but only in his expansion of what is already in place. There are very few sparks of revelation in The Wise Man’s Fear, and some of the fire of his writing appears to have dimmed.

Related review:
The Name of the Wind

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The Truce at Bakura, by Kathy Tyers

April 9, 2011 at 21:03 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , )

7/10

As Star Wars literature goes, The Truce at Bakura has a great deal to recommend it. By its very nature, it is one of the few novels that scratches the skin of the Empire, and even of the inhuman antagonists, with Tyers making a sterling effort to write compelling and three-dimensional characters. The concept is pleasant enough, and although the book suffers for striking out a little too far from the beaten path of the existing Star Wars universe, the Ssi-ruuk are not so utterly outlandish as to spoil the story.

Tyers writes rather competently, but her story has considerable trouble getting off the ground, without any significant tradeoff in terms of exposition or character development. It is a little too long before the crisis rears its head, and then for a long and awkward while the crisis sits and eyeballs the reader before any action is taken by either protagonists or antagonists; sometimes the book can feel just a bit like a dress-rehearsal, where nobody is totally sure of his lines, and where there are flurries of confusion and uncertainty before the groove is once again found.

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Fake: Lies, Forgery & eBay, by Kenneth Walton

April 7, 2011 at 14:06 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )

7/10

It is not really natural to expect a third-rate con artist to be a terrific writer, but Kenneth Walton managed to put down a concise and thoroughly gripping account of his five years of dodgy dealing. When reading about famous cons, it is also taken rather for granted that there should be car chases, nefarious meetings in darkened alleys and safehouses sprinkled liberally throughout trackless wastes. To be an infamous fraudster on eBay is, let’s face it, not very cool or inspiring stuff. Nevertheless, Walton is able to make his criminal underworld of drab attic bedsits and failed law practice the stuff of legend, with even the daily ritual of watching the seconds tick past in virtual auctions causing the reader’s palms to grow just a little bit sticky.

It is not entirely clear whether his intention was to vindicate himself or draw on sympathy – the book contained more than enough confessions of contrition and shame to seem like the common-or-garden prison novel, but was written in such a reasonable and friendly way that one half suspects that in the midst of Walton’s tearstained confessions he is winking at the reader and sharing the joke that he didn’t really deserve all this. Certainly the reader is to be left in no doubt that the real villains are the greedy suckers bidding on worthless art – or worse, those heartless busybody vigilantes whose policing of eBay’s trust system led to his downfall. The FBI and prosecutors are passed over as a cruel and implacable faceless foe, while eBay’s own fraud unit are simply painted (excuse the pun) as being merely inept, and perhaps hatefully vindictive.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, and if Walton is heartlessly manipulative towards his readers, then, like the saps who bought his dollar-store paintings, if they believe everything he says then they probably deserve it.

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The Family, by Mario Puzo

April 5, 2011 at 15:34 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller) (, , , )

6/10

With the title and the name of the author splashed so gratuitously over the cover, it is not necessary to read the afterword to discover that Mario Puzo believed the Medieval papacy to be some kind of proto-mafia. With this entirely questionable retroactive commentary openly taking the helm, the book advertises itself rather clearly as just another pulp fiction disguised as history. Of course, this is admittedly “just” another pulp fiction written by one of the masters of the genre, and written about some of the most hotly contested and colourfully animated figures from history! Puzo does not pretend to be a brilliant historical writer, and he is not. He paints his picture in wide strokes, trotting Renaissance personalities through his circus proudly and dropping famous names at the slightest provocation. The most amusing of these is Machiavelli, who Puzo is clearly desperate to develop, yet just as clearly realises that Machiavelli has no real role in the story.

Very little of this is necessary, and thankfully none of it takes front seat. This book (despite its grandiloquent name and ambitious theme) is about precisely what it claims: a family more than a dynasty. There is a backdrop of vaguely-outlined history, but Puzo wisely stays with what he knows: the interactions between human beings. Much of this book seems like it might have been set in the 1920s, and a reader might be excused for expecting Cesare to whip out a revolver in a passionate game of cards. Mario Puzo is not the most sanitised of writers, and when dealing with such profligate characters as the Borgias, one might expect lesser writers to eagerly ladle great dollops of graphic detail about murders and sexual indiscretions alike. Remarkably, Puzo treats the whole story (including the infamous rapacity of the Borgia family) with the style of a proximate gentleman, and if he needs to acknowledge sordid deeds, then he does so without revelling in them. If he leans closer to the interpretations of some of the more salacious historians, then he can be excused, for his genre demands it; but at least he treats the characters as men and women, and if no hero is above a little blackening, then neither is any villain above redemption.

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