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Posts tagged ‘book reviews’

Book Review: The Secret History

‘The Secret History’ by D. Tartt.

The plot is very difficult to discuss without giving anything away! The book examines the idea of group mentality, the notion of the Greek ‘fatal flaw’ in a character, class structures, etc. etc. It’s set in New England, in an unspecified time period, and revolves around the lives of 6 Classics students who find themselves embroiled in murder and mystery.

As for the principle characters, I loved them, honestly. They were the right combination of beautiful Classical figures, with an underlying element of hubris, selfishness and even malevolence. In other words, they are very realistic creatures.

The structure of the novel is interested too: it’s about Greek scholars, and is written to parallel the Classical tragedies, again and again coming back to the idea of the tragic figure, foreshadowing, and that fatal flaw. But at the same time there’s a beautiful Dostoyevsky-ish undertone to the whole thing; it’s obviously deliberate, and is directly mentioned by the narrator, but never falls into the trap of self-consciousness. Stylistically, it’s beautiful, though I must admit I’m a sucker for the biased perspective of the unreliable narrator. The shifting flow and rhythm of the writing work perfectly to create both atmosphere and emotion – these are Stoics, by and large, so the sense of what they’re feeling is perhaps best conveyed through the suggestive language and form.

A lot of people have commented on the lack of a definitive temporal setting for the novel – I particularly loved this. After all, we’re talking about a concept that spans thousands of years of human literature. The characters are often straight out of a Greek tragedy, down to the suggestions of incest and pseudo-pederastic adoration on Julian’s part. Then there are the hints of an early 20th century setting, complete with the appropriate slang and dress; perhaps this is simply a lazy way of enabling a stark representation of the class system (again reminiscent of the earlier Greek social structure), but I don’t think so. I think it was a deliberate choice that not only adds to the mystery of the novel as a whole, but also conveys the undeniable knowledge that human nature is largely consistent; desires, darkness, selfishness, ego – these things haven’t disappeared with time.

Overall, I’d give it 9 out of 10. I’d highly recommend it!

Book Review: Breath

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton.

This review may be somewhat biased, given that Winton is one of my favourite contemporary authors; but there’s good reason for his prominent standing among modern writers. Breath is yet another example of his amazing work.

The premise of the plot is deceptively simple: framed within the perspective of Bruce Pike’s adult viewpoint is the story of his wilder youth, in which he sought thrills in dangerous natural environments, and rebelled against the loneliness and hurt of society in ostensibly ‘deviant’ ways. Although he reflects on the insanity of some of his teenage antics, the plot never veers into moralistic piety, and is certainly more nostalgic and reminiscent than regretful.

Stylistically, Winton’s prose is typically sparse and occasionally disjointed, simultaneously conveying the harshness of the Australian landscape, the sea itself, and the tumultuous life of a teenage boy seeking to live an extraordinary life. The underuse of conventional grammar (if you hate Joyce, you may be rather annoyed) adds to the feel of the novel, creating a fast-paced tale that careens from present to past, skipping across time freely, and genuinely recreating the hectic feel of adolescence.

It’s interesting that Winton so aptly conveys the desparation of youth; Bruce tries desparately to establish his extraordinariness, to defy convention, and to live a meaningful and exciting life. However, given that this part of the story is framed within the perspective of adult-Bruce’s life, I think there’s a poignant message in it. The desire to be something brilliant, to burn brightly in the dull sea of mediocrity, never dies in those that feel the driving need to be something more than average.

It could be argued that he still seeks that thrill in the adrenaline-fueled work of being an ambulance officer, but the fact that he still surfs, despite the limitations of age and injury, more strongly suggest that even that capitulation is never enough. That in finding that compromise between thrill and what is considered conventionable/allowable, the brilliance is lost, and becomes little more than a new sense of safety. It’s the kind of need for something more that drives people to unspeakable despair through dissatisfaction.

Hmm, digressed a little there, but it’s hard not to, after reading such a passionate piece of writing. Overall rating: 10/10.

Book Review: Spirited – Taking Paganism Beyond the Circle

‘Spirited: Taking Paganism Beyond the Circle’ by Gede Parma.

Let me preface this review by saying that 1) it is basically a ‘Wicca101’ book (though not actually dealing with Wicca, just NeoPaganism in general) aimed at teenagers (and thus I’m not the target demographic), and 2) I know and adore Gede, but I hope I’ve kept this review balanced nonetheless.

Spirited is one of the better Wicca/NeoPaganism101 books that I’ve read in a long time. It follows strongly in the tradition of Scott Cunningham’s eclectic Neo-Wicca DIY approach. I don’t have a problem with that, and indeed, I’d certainly recommend this as a very light introduction to NeoPaganism for young people.

The book does what it intends to do, in that it is very specifically aimed at young and new practitioners: however, as an experienced practitioner with a very different approach to and experience with NeoPaganism, it also made for a thought-provoking read. There were a lot of parts of the book that were nothing new at all, but certain aspects made me stop and think – if I disagreed with his statements/conclusions, why was that? I’m a firm believer in a book being worth reading if it makes you think independently and critically.

The good: it’s a very relevant and current approach to generic NeoPaganism. The first half of the book contains general tips and guides for young NeoPagans, both in terms of establishing and accepting their identity, as well as actually practicing. The balance of suggested exercises/spellwork is good, and the overall tone of the book is generally extremely clear and very simple to read. The second half of the book contains more general information, not necessarily specifically aimed at such a young audience, and covers issues such as different conceptions of Deity in NeoPaganism, aspects of ethics, etc. This part is of particular interest to people who, like myself, are not really the target demographic, but like to gain insight into the thoughts and opinions of other NeoPagans.

The not-so-good: Some of the author’s included personal examples seem a little pointless – a lot of people have bad experiences in high school, but the manner in which they’re depicted quite possibly transects the line between ‘helpful background with which the reader can identify’ and ‘airing personal grievances/a martyr-like attitude’. I also think the book could probably benefit from introducing more detail on the basics of energy work (given that this is a beginners’ text) prior to the inclusion of exercise/spellwork ideas.

Overall, it’s a great book that I certainly wouldn’t hesistate to recommend to any new, young NeoPagans, and it’s great to see an updated beginners’ text. However, if you’re not a teenager, you may want to hold off purchasing – the second half may be thought provoking, but it primarily summarises and codifies a lot of information already out there.

Rating: 8/10

Book Review: Carolan’s Concerto

Carolan’s Concerto by Caiseal Mor.

This book was an absolute joy to read. It was a delightful narrative, weaving together elements of fairy-tale and historical reality in a manner that leaves you constantly questioning how much is real, and how much is fantasy. But within the context of the book (through the character of Edward, who is hearing the life-story of Turlough Carolan, being told by a blind brewer), you seen the gradual acceptance of the magical as being possible.

It really does pay tribute to Irish culture, without being overtly OMGIRISHGUINESSGREENLEPRECHAUNS!!! etc. It’s in the subtle capturing of the national pride, but also the fierce pragmatism that is prominent in the many Irish people I’ve met. That is to say, he doesn’t rely entirely on hyperbolic stereotypes and shallow portrayals.

On that note, it was interesting that it treated the Irish rebellion against English rule in the manner that it did; the standard ‘fight for your country, patriotic hatred of the English’ trope of so many novels, films and poems was absent. Personally I don’t have a problem with that sentiment, when expressed well, but it was interesting that Mor instead chose to focus on the reality of any culture that’s been oppressed by an invading force; that, ultimately, many people are forced to choose between sacrificing everything in the name of their ideological beliefs, and instead enduring in order to ensure the survival of themselves and their families. And he does portray it well; there’s the sense of fierce Irish pride, but it’s tempered by the weary acknowledgement that Connor’s rebellion is a subtle one, by necessity, as they try to survive in hard times.

So, for a brief overview; Mor uses mis en abyme (framing a story within a story) to particularly fantastic effect. Both stories are equally engaging, and the ‘containing’ story isn’t simply a framing device, it’s a rich tale of its own, and the combined stories work beautifully. The external story is of a Dublin-based rebel, who shoots an English officer and then escapes and seeks refuge with a country family; while hiding out there, the patriarch of the house recounts tales of his master, Turlough Carolan, arguably Ireland’s most famous musician. Throw in liberal doses of Sidhe mythology, sharp humour, and beautifully subtle cultural references, and you’ve got yourself an enchanting fantasy novel.

Stylistically, this is another of those books that, much like Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, you read for the narrative content, not for syntactical experimentation. So, the structure is fairly basic, though Mor uses his customary evocative description and expansive vocabulary to paint a very vivid mental picture.

Overall rating: 10/10.

Incidentally, Caiseal Mor is one of my all-time favourite authors. If you’re looking for fantasy that isn’t full of stupid names (or ones that are a blatant, and insulting, plagiarism of Tolkien’s works), bodice-ripping shit, and 4 pages of nothing but a description of the stock-standard ‘heroine’, definitely check him out.

Random Book Meme

Stolen from Lady Lazarus. Also, I kind of cheat, because most have more than one answer (and that’s after culling my favourites by like 700%).

A book that made you cry: There have been quite a few, but the one that immediately springs to mind is Good Night, Mr Tom. It remains one of the best books about civilian life in Britain during WWII that I have ever read.

A book that scared you: The only one I can think of right now is the graphic novel The Nightmare Factory, based on the stories of Thomas Ligotti.

A book that made you laugh: Definitely Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s just hilarious, and a frighteningly insightful piece on modern culture.

A book that disgusted you: For actual content, probably Trainspotting (or most things by Irvine Welsh). It’s great, but there are some pretty gross scenes in there (the restaurant bit springs to mind…). Of course, I’m also disgusted by the intellectual insult and misogynist bullshit that is Twilight.

A book you loved in elementary school kindergarten: most were pretty unremarkable “learn to read” sort of crap, but I really did love Bugs in Boxes.

A book you loved in middle primschool: it’d have to be Playing Beatie Bow, hands down. I don’t remember precisely how many times I read that book, but it’d have to be over 50.

A book you loved in high school: Ahahahah, like 50? Number one is of course Lord of the Rings, which I actually read during the holidays between primary school and the start of Year 7. I was a big Dumas fan at that point, too.

A book you hated disliked in high school: I didn’t hate it, but Margaret Hale in Gaskell’s North and South was just begging for a punch in the face. God, but that woman irritated me.

A book you loved in university: hmmm toss-up between The Bell Jar and The Handmaid’s Tale. Man that’s hard to pick, I’ve read several hundred books while I’ve been at uni, and many of them have been pretty damn awesome.

A book that challenged your identity: this is probably somewhat tangential, but Wicca: a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner was pretty influential in leading me down the path of NeoPaganism. Failing that, any and all of the books I’ve read on war are a lot of the reason that I’m so vehemently anti-war.

A series you love: hmm, it’s almost impossible to pick between Tamora Pierce’s Immortals quartet and her Song of the Lioness quartet. I also love Tiernan’s Wicca series (they’re my guilty easy-read indulgence).

Your favorite horror book: I don’t really read much that could be strictly defined as ‘horror’. Dracula and Interview with the Vampire are often classified as horror, and I really, really love them both. The graphic novel From Hell is also terrifying and awesome.

Your favorite science fiction book: Aaaaaah, how do I even pick?? One that springs to mind is Stranger in a Strange Land, but there are many.

Your favorite fantasy: well I’ve already mentioned Tolkien and Pierce, so we’ll go with American Gods, or anything by Neil Gaiman.

Your favorite mystery: not sure if it’s strictly classified as a mystery, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is a favourite. If this was meant to refer to crime novels, then the entire Inspector Rebus series is fantastic.

Your favorite biography: probably Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. Man, do I love Alan Alda.

Your favorite “coming of age” book: off of the top of my head, probably How I Live Now. Anything by Judy Bloom is pretty classic, too.

Your favorite classic: ZOMG how am I supposed to pick just one??? Anything Austen/Dickens/Dostoyevsky/Tolstoy. Number one favourite is probably… Northanger Abbey, but really the Western canon is my favourite genre.

Your favorite romance book: either Pride and Prejudice (cliche, I know!) or Chocolat. The original graphic novel of The Crow is also beautiful, in a tragic way.

Your favorite book not on this list: hahah, how long do you have? Probably anything by Camus (particularly The Plague), Vonnegut (especially Slaughterhouse Five), Winton (The Riders is amazing), and Caiseal Mor (an Australian writer of Celtic fantasy, one of the best).ary

Book Review: Fire Child

Fire Child by Maxine Sanders.

I have to admit, this book really wasn’t what I was expecting. Well, in some ways it was, but not in others. Allow me to explain:

First off, this book is almost solely an autobiography of Maxine Sanders’ magickal life (that is, it doesn’t really deal with her personal life, except as it pertains to magick/witchcraft). For instance, it turns out she has a sibling; this is only described in terms of, basically, a one-word mention, in passing. It’s a bit unexpected for a biography, but when you consider that she is one of the founders of a major Wiccan tradition, it makes sense to focus primarily on what is considered one of her major achievements.

I’d like to point out that the integration of magick in her everyday life was interesting; there were a lot of insights into the daily life of a coven, and especially how much British Traditional Wiccan practices differ vastly from what most people think is Wicca today (i.e. what I generally call ‘neo-Wicca’). The techniques of ritual fasting and scourging are nowhere near as prevalent as they seem to have been at the time.

Mostly, this book is useful in this manner; as a sort of time capsule and historical document, giving an account (albeit a highly subjective one, but that’s the nature of religious study, which is by it’s nature qualitative) of the burgeoning Wiccan movement. I found it particularly interesting to compare the way that most people came about witchcraft/Wicca, through the Egyptian religious orders that were so popular in Britain at the time, as well as the Theosophical movement, with the “straight into reading Cunningham (now easily available) and Internet sites devoted to Wicca” introduction that most neophytes now undergo.

One thing that I found a little appalling was the instance of a ‘bad witch’ who led a woman into his house under false pretenses (something about being a grand high magus and going to ordain her, or some such), and then subjecting her to emotional and sexual abuse. When Maxine and the others found out about this, rather than go to the police, they decided to keep it “in community” and basically excommunicate him from the Wiccan culture. Um, that’s all well and good, but when religious organisations take it upon themselves to mete out their own ‘justice’, and believe themselves to be separate from secular law, that’s a problem. Maybe that’s another sign of how much things have changed. At least, I certainly hope they have.

Another surprising thing, for me, was the reminder that, yes, she was the co-founder of a Wiccan tradition, but she is still a human being. She made many mistakes, and at times I was somewhat shocked by her extremely trusting and naïve nature, but that’s the point: it made me stop and reflect upon the fact that we tend to pseudo-deify our religious leaders. It was a good wake-up call.

Obviously, the stylistic elements of auto-biographies are kind of secondary to theme and content; that being said, Maxine definitely could have benefited from a better editor. There are a few grammatical errors and misspellings, and I found that I had to occasionally reread a sentence in order to sort out the meaning that was being obfuscated by poor syntax.

Overall, 7/10.

Book Review: Trainspotting

Book: Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh.

I loved this book. Immensely. It was a little difficult to get into, occasionally confusing, but these effects only contributed to the overall theme of the novel. Honestly, if you want a straightforward, easy-to-read plot, well, it’s probably best if you look elsewhere. If you enjoy confusing tales told in incremental insights, extended introspective insight, and a book that really manages to capture a very real sense of verisimilitude, then this book is for you.

Obviously, the content (the lives of heroin junkies living in Edinburgh) won’t appeal to a lot of people; and indeed, it’s a book that, while it can appeal to the “outside” crowd (or, the punters, as Rent Boy would say), it is a meaningful and hilarious account for those with experience in the drug scene. In this way, it really is transcendental, in that it realistically encompasses the experience of the middle-class, of average (sometimes above average) intelligence drug user.

A lot of reviews have criticised the book for portraying heroin use in a glamourised, heroin chic manner, but I don’t think that it does. I think that it very accurately, and certainly very vividly, represents how the user feels at the time; it’s hell, but, shit they’re enjoying ever second of it, in a perverse manner. And it’s not as though there aren’t depictions of the hellish periods of heroin-withdrawal, and even the horrific things that happen as a result (an infant’s sudden death, for example). If they appear glossed-over, it’s the natural product of being portrayed from the hazy, warped perspective of drug-users, who are generally in a state of intoxication throughout the novel.

So, that’s content covered. Let’s take a look at style. First off, the language: it’s highly, highly offensive. Especially the parts told from Begbie’s perspective, where the use of the word c**t is less an expletive and more an article of speech. Expletives, racial slurs and sexist remarks abound, but it’s not in a gratuitous context, really; it’s simply the book representing the characters as they are, accurately capturing their patterns of speech. Also the use of basically transliterative/phonetic spelling is a bit confusing at first, but once you get used to reading “tae” as ‘to’, “ah” as ‘I’, etc., it really adds to the feel of the book, to the point that it really conveys the Edinburgh accent when you’re reading.

Free use of the word ‘fuck’ aside, the style is often disjointed and confusing, with sections of the book suddenly skipping between characters, and it’s often difficult to distinguish precisely whose perspective has just been introduced. Sometimes the style of speech is a giveaway, other times you have to wait until someone addresses the character to know whom it is that you’re dealing with. But again, this almost-haphazard style lends the novel it’s pace and context, with the fast-moving, chaotic nature of the lives that it depicts.

I could go on forever about this involving, and surprisingly complex (yet vastly entertaining), novel, but I’ll finish before I write one of my own. 10/10 overall.

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