Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Good Demon by Jimmy Cajoleas


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Errata:
“...tinny screen light” - perhaps should be 'tiny screen light'?
"...shown a pure white light..." should be 'shone a pure white light' - this is the problem with pronouncing the word 'shone' as 'shown' rather than as 'shonn'!
“I mean the whole dum lot of them” - 'dumb lot'?!

I wanted to read this because it reminds me in small ways of my own Nature of the Beast, although the two stories are very different. I liked this one just as much as I like my own!

Clarabella once had a demon whom she called 'Her' and referred to as 'She'. Given the power which is typically assigned to knowing the name of an entity in stories like this, I concluded early that Clare's lack of a name for her demon might be significant as the story played out. I was wrong! That was the hallmark of this story - it kept me guessing! There is no doubt though, that when She and Clare were united, they were pretty much in love with one another. They talked like the closest of friends, and were of course always together.

She looked out for Clare's welfare fiercely. It was because of this ferocious protection (She could take over Clare's body at any time) that they were finally 'outed' and separated. Ever since then, Clare has been miserable and determined to get back together with Her, and it appears that She was counting on this. She left cryptic guidelines for how this reunion could be achieved. Why they were cryptic, I do not know. There seems to have been no valid reason for it, but it’s fun to see how Clare discovers these and goes about interpreting them.

Throughout the story - which I read avidly - I could not help but wonder about this demon. Was this truly an inter-spiritual love affair, or was the demon playing a devious long-range game? If you think you know, it probably just meets the author wrong-footed you again!

Having interpreted Her wishes, Clare finally finds herself in a position to make a deal to get Her back, but the wish-granter demands a price, of course. Clare quite gullibly agrees, misled into thinking that the boon will be a mere trinket, but it occurred to me that She was far more devious than Clare ever would have expected - and for once, I correctly discerned what the boon would be. So then the question became: is Clare so desperate to be reunited that she will quite literally pay any price?

That successful interpretation was pretty impressive for me, because I'm usually completely wrong when I try to prognosticate about such things in novels - and also in World Cup soccer it turns out! LOL! When the women's World Cup comes up next year, be sure to ask me for my predictions, and then be sure to bet in a diametrically opposed manner to whatever I say, and you may well become rich! Or maybe my inverse predictions only work in men's soccer? I make no guarantees!

Anyway, this book was a very worthy read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

Atheism: The Case Against God by George H Smith


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a book which covers the ground which Richard Dawkins was accused of failing to cover in his excellent The God Delusion, but as Dawkins himself mentioned in that book, it was never his intention to do that since it had been done already - in books such as this one! Note that these arguments are not new (indeed, the copyright on this one is some forty years old), and some of them go back to antiquity, but the refutations still stand as strong as ever since nothing new or original has arisen to overturn these.

The author opens with a discussion of the scope of atheism and the concept of a god, and then specifically looks at the god of Christianity. In part two, he considers reason versus faith, the varieties of faith, and the revelation. Part three addresses the arguments for a god tackling them one after another: those from natural theology, from a first cause, from contingency, and from design: a non-argument which has been much popularized lately by those who are clueless about science and who call themselves creation scientists. Trust me, there is no such thing as creation science unless the definition of science is changed by faith so that it equates to 'carping about things you don't like and can refute neither by logic nor by counter evidence'.

He concludes with a discussion of the practical consequences of belief and the sins of Christianity.

I recommend this as a worthy read, but please note that you can these days find pretty much everything this book contains online.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, Kerascoët


Rating: WORTHY!

I favorably reviewed Malala Yousafzai's I Am Malala back in August of 2015, and also Raphaële Frier's book about her, aimed at young children, back in October of 2016. This is a book for younger children still, and was penned by Yousafzai and illustrated by Kerascoët, which is the joint nom de plume of artists Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset.

Beautifully written and gorgeously illustrated, it tells an autobiographical story of Malala's childhood fancy and dream, and of what she wished for in a world which was and still is extremely hostile to half the population. I think it makes a worthy read for anyone. I'm truly sorry that it may not reach those children who are most in need of hearing these words.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Saints and Misfits by SK Ali


Rating: WARTY!

I had mixed feeling about this throughout. On the one hand I liked a lot of the writing, but on the other, the plot and the main character were a real problem. In the end, the ending decided me against favoring this.

I read a few reviews of this to see if I was way off-base or on-point and it seems I was the latter, not the former. Although many people liked this, those of us who did not, seemed to have similar issues with it. My problem was not with the presentation of Muslims, because I don't have a fixed idea of what Islam is like or what any given Muslim might do.

Some of those who are Muslim seem to have a problem with Muslims who are represented in ways which are different from their own narrow idea of what a Muslim should be and how one should behave, but such people are forgetting that above and beyond everything else they may or may not be, Muslims are people just like the rest of us, and they do smart and dumb things, brave and cowardly things, rational and irrational things, exactly like the rest of us do! readers and writers who fail to grasp this are limiting themselves chronically.

There was a lot of bandying about the 'hashtag own voices' bullshit in the reviews I read, but this seemed like such a reflexive, if not knee=jerk, label that I laughed at it. It still comes down to the antique notion of 'write what you know'. If people wrote what they know, there'd be no science fiction, because we don't fly around the galaxy or time-travel. There are no magical super heroes. Stephen King never went into another dimension and met a gunslinger. John Grisham was doubtlessly an attorney, but he never was involved in the specific cases he wrote about, and his books really aren't about the practice of law. They'd be boring if they were. JK Rowling never was an eleven-year-old boy, much less a wizard. Suzanne Collins never entered a dystopian death match. Write what you know is nonsensical. My advice is to write what you can get away with and make it as real as you possibly can.

I do not have any time for religion and especially not for organized religion which is a bane of life on Earth. I don't care what people privately believe. It's none of my business as long as they're harming no-one and not trying to impose their beliefs on others, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good story about people of faith or about the 'battle' between good and evil. I was interested in reading this one not because it was written by an author who writes on Muslim topics in Canada, but because it was, I thought, a story about rape and I was curious as to how it was treated in the context of Islam.

It turned out that the Islam part was irrelevant; it was bait and switch. The story told here was no different from how the same novel would have been had the characters been Christian, Judaist, Hindu or atheist! So the Muslim context was in effect nothing more than a niqab flimsily covering what everyone knows is underneath anyway. And that segues into a definition of these outfits. What's a hijab? This is my understanding - which I admit may be flawed, but in general simple terms, a hijab is what we in the west would call a headscarf. So why even call it a hijab? Well, a hijab tends to actually incorporate a scarf which wraps round the neck.

A burka is full head-to-toe covering. Strictly speaking, a niqab is a face veil, but it's often viewed as a complete head and shoulders covering rather like what Ronan the Accuser wears in Guardians of the Galaxy as it happens. That overall ensemble may or may not cover the face, but the tendency is for the face to be covered leaving only the most alluring part of the face visible - the eyes, which to me is hypocritical, but then, as I said, I have no time for hidebound traditions. I think people who blindly follow a set of rules laid down fourteen hundred years ago, or two thousand years or more ago, are morons, and it seems a lot of religious adherents agree with me since the majority of people tend to practice a very relaxed version of their religion rather than the original, usually much more strict path.

For example, all Christians are hypocrites in that they claim to follow what Jesus taught, but very few actually do. I don't believe there ever was a Jesus Christ, miracle-working son of a god, but if there had been, he was a Jew, not a gentile, and he practiced Judaism, not Christianity! He taught Judaism, and he came only for those of the house of Israel. No Christians practice Judaism. None of them is really a follower of Jesus; they're followers of Paul, who very effectively derailed what Jesus purportedly taught. His name wasn't even Jesus for Christ's sake! It was Yeshua, so anyone praying in his name is calling on the wrong guy unless they're praying to Yeshua (which is what we in the unsubtle west call Joshua)!

But let's talk about this book. The main character is Janna Yusef. She's a young Muslim in school and she wears a hijab. To me the hijab is an abuse of women. The Koran, as I understand it (which may be wrong!) talks about modesty. That talk applies equally to men and women, yet today all the onus is of course on the women of Islam to cover themselves lest they excite and incite men. There is no onus on men to quit being such lustful dicks. It's all on the woman, and so conveniently is the blame should something go wrong. Repeatedly we see attacks on women for immodesty or for wanting an education; we never see attacks on men. This is a fundamental flaw and weakness not only in Islam, but in any religion where women are isngle-d out negatively, and it needs to stop.

So one problem with this novel (and to be fair with several other such novels I've read) is that this this author fails to explore any of that. Like her main character, she simply accepts status quo, aka subjugation and repression. That was one problem with the novel, but the Islam novels I've read accept it; none of the main characters even question it, much less rebel against it. That was a problem with Janna. She had an nice sense of humor, but she was such a limp character, and she never changed except for one brief irrational and completely out-of-character spell near the end, which was too little, too late, and therefore entirely ineffective. No justice was delivered because she was so retiring and subjugated. To me this was badly written.

So what happened to Janna? This was another problem for this novel. It is entirely unclear what happened until close to the end. Was she raped or was she merely threatened with a violation - which is bad enough, but nowhere near as bad as an actual rape? The novel doesn't make this clear until near the end, so Janna's reaction to it is entirely out of proportion, and it is nonsensical. Before I go on, let me make it clear that for me, it's the victim's choice how they react to something like this. Those who have been violated are entitled to react in any way they want, but that said, they also ought to bear in mind that if they're accepting, or at least passive and retiring after something like this, then they're encouraging the violator to repeat-offend, and this is a problem because if they get away with it once, there is a big compulsion to try it again and another woman becomes the victim.

For the longest time while reading this I was bothered by Janna's reaction - or more accurately, an almost complete lack of one, because on the one hand she was persistently referring to Farooq, the man who did this, as a monster and living in near-terror of him when he was around, yet she never reported it. On the other hand her terror disappeared when he was out of sight, and she was going about her life as though nothing bad had happened. She was even obsessing on another boy in school who was not a Muslim. This felt inauthentic to me.

I've never been raped or violated in that way, but I have had events in my life where I've felt threatened, and I tend not to be able to let those things go, especially not in the immediate aftermath. I still remember them and in (fortunately!) an increasingly mild way relive them. I assume that others - to a greater or lesser degree - go through a similar process. Perhaps other people are able to let things go better than I am, but I doubt everyone is, especially after an event like Janna experienced, so this almost complete lack of any kind of real traumatization on Janna's part was unrealistic in my book.

The only time she had any issues was when Farooq was in proximity. The rest of the time it was like nothing bad had happened, so we were bouncing back and forth: was she raped, which would explain why she saw him only as a monster, in which case why was she not more traumatized than she was? Why was she not angry? How could she become interested in another guy so quickly? Or was she merely threatened with rape, which would explain some of her behavior afterwards, but not all of it?

I think the author failed in not describing the event better. No one in their right mind wants 'juicy details' of something like this, and maybe she intended it to be ambiguous, but for what purpose? I saw no purpose to it. In my opinion this was a writing fail, so let me clear this up now and reveal that there was no rape. There was a serious violation in that Farooq pushed her down on the couch and was trying to put his hand under her sweater when he was interrupted, but that was it. That was bad enough, and it was unacceptable and should have been dealt with. It wasn't. Again, this was a writing fail.

So my problem with this was that it was really much ado about nothing. Not that what happened was nothing; it wasn't, but the way this was written meant the writer sadly treated it as nothing for the almost the entire length of the novel! It didn't work. Nor did it matter about the Islamic veneer. It really played no part in the story. It felt like it was just set decoration - those background objects in a movie which people tend to see but pay little attention to. So I didn't get why people focused on this, rather than the poor story-telling. It was serious misdirection. That's not to say you can't have a novel where Islam is just a background. We do need more like that: a quarter of the world's population is Islam, but you'd never know it if all you read was novels published in the USA by native authors!

From that perspective, there was another character, Sausun, who was far more interesting than ever Janna was, but we got nowhere near enough of her. There was another character named Tats who was also more interesting, but we got precious little of her, too. In fact, even 'Saint Sarah' was a more interesting character than Janna. Her wedding to Mohammed) which was in the very early planning stage in this novel) would have made a better story than this one.

Why the author didn't chose to write about one of these people instead of Janna is a mystery. So for me the novel was a fail for all these reasons, and despite the fact that, for a while, I was liking it. Having finished it now, and found that there was no justice and a lot of the side stories simply fizzled out, I cannot recommend it. The book would have been better and a lot shorter had those red herrings been ditched. It would have packed more punch had it stayed focused on the central issue, and had Janna been less of a limp biscuit.

This brings me back to the 'own voices' bullshit. I think this novel was in part a fail because it was written by a person who was intimately familiar with the Muslim faith. I think if a non-Muslim writer had written it, we would have had a better story, in the same way that say, a Hindu writer had written about a Christian character, or a Muslim written about an atheist. I think if you are a person of faith writing a story, even if your intended audience is others of your faith, you have a duty to think at least a little bit outside the box if you want to tell a really good story. Otherwise what's the point? A better Muslim writer would have seen that and given us a great story, so this one wasn't any such story and I was sorry of it, because it could have been so much better had it been written even just a little bit more wisely and with more clarity.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim


Rating: WORTHY!

This is ostensibly a high-school romance story, but it offered so much more than that. It begins during Shabnam Qureshi's last week of high-school and extends into her last summer before college starts. She is nominally a Muslim, but that speaks more to her heritage than her practice, because she really doesn't practice her faith. The story is more about cultural and religious clashes and about how foolish a first love can be.

Shabnam meets Jamie, a charming, romantic guy who easily knocks sheltered Shabnam off her feet. Because of her sheltered upbringing, she has very little experience of boys and is therefore easy prey for the much more worldly Jamie, who seems a bit 'off' right from the start. While Shabnam is falling in foolish teenage love with him, he's more in love with the idea of an exotic and potentially forbidden femme than ever he is with her for herself, and she is far too inexperienced to see this.

In a way, they have a lot in common: they are both very shallow in their own way, and they both purvey a big lie to the other. The difference is that Shabnam is potentially a much deeper person than ever Jamie could hope to be, and as the story progresses, we see this blossoming in her repeatedly. Shabnam knows she lies, Jamie is too selfishly in love with himself to see that he's a living embodiment of a lie.

On the topic of lies, too many YA novels betray their main female character by insisting that she be validated by a man. I detest novels like that. This was not such a novel. It was about girl power and female friendship and it was the better for it. It was also about culture, religion, and conflict between generations, and in some ways I felt it risked cheapening the very message it was trying to send: about the riots and slaughter in India during partition, by tacking those on to this story.

The Brits are often blamed for the problems they caused in India as they should be, but at least they treated all Indians with equal disdain; they didn't single-out any one ethnic group or religion for abuse, whereas during partition, every religion turned against every other religion, which is one reason why I detest religion. It's divisive by its very nature in its arrogant and unprovable assertion that 'we're the chosen ones and you're doomed to hell' or whatever. That said, the injection of the parts about partition were not overdone, so it didn't feel like a lecture, nor did it disrupt the story, and it did get the word out about an historical tragedy that's been largely forgotten today.

Lending more weight to what is an already heavy subject, Shabnam is also at odds with her once best friend Farah, who is far more deeply religious than is Shabnam, but Farah has her own take on her religion. She approaches it in a far more fluid manner than many other people, adapting it to herself as much as she adapts to it. She's a lot more brash and brave, wise and mature than is Shabnam, and she was my favorite character, but I am often in the position of finding the side-kick more interesting than the main character in YA novels.

This is very much a high-school romance, YA novel, but that said, it's leagues ahead of the usual poorly-written, crappily-plotted story that's out there. That's why it won't sell as well as the others, because the bar is so low in YA books, and this one clears it so handily that it's going to be way above the head of an embarrassingly large number of YA readers. That said, this novel, like many YA novels, does fixate on music which it seems to me, is far more the author's addiction than ever it is the character's. This music will date this novel, so I paid as little attention to it as I did the poetry. The music and the poetry were both overdone and contributed nothing to he story. There was more wisdom came out of Farah's mouth than came out of the mouth of the poets and songwriters featured here!

Shabnam betrayed Farah when her friend chose to start wearing a hijab, but Farah failed to give Shabnam advance warning of her unilateral decision, and this is what caused the rift. Shabnam is embarrassed by Farah's change in habit (as it were!), and Farah feels betrayed by her friend's distancing of herself and her lack of support. They do maintain a prickly contact with each other especially since Farah is the only one Shabnam can turn to over her romance. Farah is often warning her friend about it, but Shabnam won't listen because she claims that Farah doesn't know Jamie like she does. In the end, it turns out that Farah actually knows Jamie better, even though the latter two have never met.

Some reviewers have chastised this novel for its lack of portrayal of Islam accurately, but those reviewers make the blind assumption that everyone practices Islam in exactly the same way and no-one ever makes foolish teenage jokes about aspects of it. I don't know a heck of a lot about Islam, and I am not religious myself. I think it's a serious mistake to blindly put your faith in the scientifically ignorant dictates of relatively primitive people from some two thousand or more years ago, but I do know people, and at least I have the decency to regard practitioners of religion, misguided as they are, as individuals, and not as a monolithic block of clones. Every walk of life and every religion has saints and sinners, and I would be surprised if Islam is somehow fundamentally different given that its practitioners are people just like the rest of us!

One thing which did strike me as odd was the whole hijab issue. My understanding is that it's related to modesty (and in this regard, both men and women are supposed to be modest), so I find it interesting that Farah, who considered wearing it to be pretty much a tenet of her faith, made such a big deal of wearing brightly colored and patterned hujub (the plural of hijab, although most westerners use 'hijabs'). I'm against forcing women to do something which men are never forced to do, but I don't have a lot of time for religion, and especially for rigid and blind religious practices, but that's not my point here.

Note that there is a spectrum of covering for females in the Muslim world from the least which is the hijab, or headscarf as we in the west would call it, to the most, which is the full-body burka. Farah wears only the headscarf and it's that term which is used in this novel for the most part, but the ones she wears are colorful and she also dolls them up as elaborate fashion statements. This whole practice was never discussed other than to mention it, but it occurred to me that this was rather hypocritical in that it can hardly be considered modest to wear such bright colors and to sport designs so elaborate that they can only succeed in drawing more attention to a woman than would otherwise be drawn!

In fact, I'd go further than that, because if the purpose of wearing a hijab is to avoid drawing attention, then wearing a hijab or any such garment in the west fails because it draws more attention! If they were to be rational and consistent (which religion is not, admittedly) then they would wear such things only where the majority wears them, and dispense with them where the majority does not wear them, because this is the only way that they would truly blend in instead of standing out! I know it's not quite that simple, and that modesty and means different things to different people, but in this particular story, Farah seems to be flying in the face of modesty by wearing the things she wears in the style she wears them. This was never raised as an issue, which I felt betrayed the whole point of Farah's choices.

That and the fact that the author doesn't seem to know the difference between tread and trod (the past tense of tread, as in 'take a step', is trod, not treaded, and tread and trod are not interchangeable!) are the only complaints I had about this. Farah was awesome and kick-ass, and I'm tempted to think a whole novel about her (her first year in college would be a great place to stage it) would be a worthy read, but that feeling is tempered by the fact that her power perhaps came from the fact that she was a limited exposure character, and if she had a whole novel to herself it might ruin her(!), unless the writer was me! No I'm kidding, I want to say unless the writer was particularly adept at her craft, which has author seems to be, so maybe it would work. But for now, I thoroughly recommend this as a worthy read and I plan to read more by this author.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu


Rating: WORTHY!

Rachel Walker is a seventeen-year-old who has been raised all her life in a Christian cult. I'd argue that all religions are cults, but some are far worse than others. The author apparently rooted this story in what is known as the "Quiver-Full" cult which is merely, from what I can tell, a religious movement that sees children as a blessing from their god and so wants 'their women' to have as many children as possible to the forfeiture of everything else in life.

Whether there are any of the coercive/oppressive elements in that cult that are depicted here, I can't say since I know very little about it, but since (as I understand it) the author did work with some escapees from the cult, then I'm quite willing to take her word for it, knowing how oppressive religion can truly be when it gets its way, and goes unchallenged and unregulated.

Rachel's family is very large, and her mother just had a miscarriage and is not handling it well, feeling like she's a failure for not increasing the tally of her offspring. She retreats to her bed for some considerable time, leaving Rachel, as the oldest unmarried daughter, to step in and assume mom's role in raising her siblings, cooking, cleaning, helping her father run his tree-trimming business, and helping her younger brothers and sisters with their schooling. This starts to wear on her and make her a bit resentful even as she tries to put it into the perspective in which she's been raised: that she's a woman and this is her duty.

Rachel has led a very sheltered existence, although she was not sheltered from the appalling mental abuse. She knows little of the real world, having been taught only that it's a godless, sinful place, so she is very naïve and backward when it comes to life outside her claustrophobic community, even as she shows herself to be a smart and curious young woman.

She's a believer though, and she tries to meet all the expectations put upon her by the Calvary Christian Church: thinking pure thoughts, dressing modestly, obeying parents, being always cheerful, praying, Bible reading, and on and on. The more she feels put upon though, the less she feels like this is what she wants in life, and it scares her that very soon she's going to be married-off to someone and expected to churn out children.

Her only respite from this oppression is her access to her father's computer, ostensibly so she can help him with his accounts, his work schedule, and maintain his website, but really so she can also look up things to educate herself. This is where her 'downfall' begins, because she's aware of a young woman named Lauren who left the community, and is now shunned by it, yet Lauren came back to this small town where Rachel lives. She did not rejoin the religious community however, and Rachel is curious about her.

She starts to focus on Lauren more and more, wondering what happened to her, and why she came back yet did not come back to the fold, and pondering if she might have answers to Rachel's ever-growing list of questions about her own life. Rachel discovers that Lauren has a web site and begins reading her story, eventually emailing her and beginning a hesitant dialog.

Despite her academic smarts, Rachel isn't that smart in other things, and eventually she's found out. Threatened with the horrifying prospect of being sent to the brutal 'Journey of Faith' brainwashing isolation camp, Rachel decides to leave the community, and her escape is made possible by Lauren who immediately comes to her aid. Lauren puts Rachel up in her modest apartment - sleeping on the couch - and Rachel tries to get her life in order.

I did not like the debut novel this author wrote, so I was a bit skeptical of this one, but it sounded interesting. Even as I began reading it, I wasn't sure I would finish it, but it drew me in, and I ended up liking it, despite some issues with it so overall, I recommend it as a worthy read.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Quantum by Dean De Servienti


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

The first problem I encountered with this was that it's the first of a trilogy, which means it's really not a novel, but a prologue. The funny thing about that was that there is an author's note, an introduction, AND a prologue in this volume. Now that is serious and hilarious overkill. I do not read introductions, prefaces, prologues, author's notes, or any of that stuff. If you want me to read it, put it in the main text. Anything else is as antique as it is pretentious.

Despite this being a trilogy overture, I decided to take a chance on it anyway because it sounded interesting, but in keeping with its tripartite roots, it moved too slowly for me and didn't offer me much reward no matter how much I let slide. This is why I so rarely find series of any value. The first volume was boring - at least the fifty percent of it that I read - and it should not have been. I can't see myself being remotely interested in reading three volumes if they're anything like the portion I read of this one.

The second problem is that there are far too many characters introduced far too quickly. All this means is that we never get to know a single one of them in any depth, and so we have no one with whom to identify or for whom to root. This is another problem for me. I am not a fan of novels which jump around like this, especially when it's after as little as a single paragraph as often happens here. It moves so rapidly from one person to another, and one locale to another that it's likely to induce whiplash in many readers! It also pretentiously announces each paragraph with a dateline, like this is somehow crucial information. It's not, so why the pretension? Who reads datelines anyway?

This is translated from the Italian (as far as I know), so I readily admit something may have been lost in translation, but I doubt so much could have been lost that a brilliant novel in the native language would have been rendered so uninteresting in English. What bugged me most about this though, is that it was set in the USA. Italy has so much to offer - why betray that and set your novel in the US? Was it to avariciously pander to an insular US audience which evidently can't stand to read a novel unless it's native? And I don't mean Native American! I felt it would have been more interesting had it been set elsewhere, and Italy would have been a fine place to set this.

The most amusing thing was that Kindle's crappy app on my phone, which is the medium I read most of this in (and the formatting was, for once, fine) told me on page one that there were six minutes left in the book! Right, Amazon! Seriously, you still need to do some work on your crappy Kindle app. You're pulling down enough profit from your massive global conglomerate, so I know it's not that you can't afford to hire top line programmers; is it just that you're too cheap to hire them? Or are you purposefully trying to force people to buy a Kindle device?

The story opened amusingly: "Rome was beautiful in spite of the annoying wind that had been buffeting the city for the past couple of days." How might wind make it unattractive? Was Rome farting?! I liked Rome when I visited, but felt it was rather dirty - more-so than London is typically asserted to be, but that was a while ago. I don't know what it's like now, but I promise you the wind cannot make it ugly, so this struck me as a truly odd way of expressing a sentiment. Another translation problem? I can't say.

There were other such issues. One of them was that the artifact they found was six inches in diameter, yet it's referred to as a cane and a walking stick?! Again, this might have been a problem with translation, but with that repetition, it didn't seem so. I think it's funny that the artifact is described as sparkling, yet one guy assumes it's made from gold. Again, a problem with the translation? I don't know.

The truly bizarre thing is that I read, "Whatever metal it's made of isn't known to us." I'm sorry, but this is bullshit. We know all the metals in the universe. They're in the periodic table, and scientists can reliably project what others may be found. There are almost none beyond Uranium that are remotely stable. They can be created in the lab, but are so loosely wrapped that they exist for only minuscule fractions of a second, so this 'unknown metal' which often appears in sci-fi, is nonsensical.

The author would have made more sense and impressed me more if he'd talked about an unknown alloy instead of an unknown metal. I would have been more impressed still if he'd gone for one of the unstable metals and reported that it had somehow been rendered stable in this artifact (but then it might still have been radioactive), or if he had gone with one of the projected stable metals which are way off the end of the current periodic table. There's supposed to be one somewhere in the vicinity of Unbinilium. It hasn't been found yet and may not exist, but something like that would have been sweet to read about instead of this amateurish 'unknown metal'.

The story itself made no sense. The idea is that medical volunteers in the Sudan find a metallic cylinder, which was evidently embedded in rocks a quarter billion years old. Instead of asking permission from the powers-that-be in the country, they simply assert white man's privilege and steal the thing, transporting it to the west like the Sudanese have no business with it at all, and no say in the matter. They're black and African so why would any white scientists care at all? That can and has happened, but the fact that there isn't one single voice of dissension recording how utterly wrong that is bothered me intensely, and spoiled this right from the beginning.

The next absurdity is that the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) cease all disputes and come together as one, Israel sending the Mossad after this object. why? There is no reason whatsoever given for this intense religious interest, and for why it is only those three, like there are no other important religions on the planet! Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Falun Gong, and Sikhism are all larger than Judaism, so this seemed like an utterly arbitrary choice.

Anyway, all of the scientists contact their families and tell them not to try to contact them (!), and then they disappear. They're accompanied by and protected by a guy named Yoshi, who has a really interesting and overly intimate (but not sexual) relationship with his sister. Those two intrigued me more than anything else in this story, though they 'skeeved out' at least one reviewer I read, but they were switched-out with other characters almost interchangeably, so we never even got to learn why those two were like they were, although this may have been revealed in the second half of this first volume which I did not read. Life is too short!

So overall, based on the half of the volume I read, I cannot recommend this. It's too dissipated: all over the place and completely unrealistic, and it offered nothing to hold my interest.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mind Virus by Charles Kowalski


Rating: WARTY!
Mind Virus by Charles Kowalski

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher. I'm sorry I could not give it a better review, but the pledge is to be honest, so here it is!

There is at least four books titled 'Mind Virus' or something very similar, so the title is not unique, but this one sounded interesting to me. While it started out well enough, the more I read of it, the more it felt like a diatribe about atheists than ever it was a novel telling an engrossing story.

Normally I applaud an author who takes the road less traveled, so I was initially thrilled with the off-the-beaten-track approach, but the story devolved into trope, and in the end, bogged-down in the diatribe, and it really forget to tell us anything interesting, engaging, or worse: actually credible.

Call me warped, but it was amusing to me that I lost faith in a book about faith. It's also sad, because it had been interesting and engaging in the beginning. The plot is too improbable, though. Instead of religious terrorism, the story is about atheist terrorism! Now this is unlikely, but it's possible, and I applaud the author for taking a different tack, but the more I read of the novel, the more it felt like there was an agenda here other than telling a story, with the author not-so-subtly sniping at atheists every few pages. The villain was such an absurd caricature that he was just not credible, and he doesn't talk like any atheist I'm familiar with.

The story begins with a series of terrorist attacks on religious locations using a virus which, despite our being repeatedly told is horrific and deadly, never actually does any real harm because the hero rushes in and inevitably stops the attack at the eleventh hour. It was a bit too much, and tedious in how repetitive it became.

The trope of a retired veteran being recalled to the intelligence services to combat the threat is way overdone in stories these days. If you're going that route, you need to have a very good reason why an outsider has to be brought back in; that is, why the resources they have at the CIA (in this case) are insufficient, yet no real reason was offered here.

The "hero"'s name is Robin Fox, no doubt named after Robin Lane Fox, a well-known atheist and academic, and he almost immediately begins globe-trotting. Instead of keeping authorities informed of the threat and letting them handle it, he abandons all communication at the end, and personally takes charge, actually physically chasing terrorists and bringing them to book, so he was something of a one-trick pony, and it felt far too incredible that he was the only one who could do this: see the threat, spot the interloper, and defuse it at the last minute. Once or twice maybe, but every single time, and single-handed? It didn't work for me because it was so unrealistic.

The method of the attacks in each case was so improbably contrived that it was not only unlikely to succeed, but it was contrived in a way which was tailor-made for Fox to defeat it. He was always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to foil the attack.

In one case, the method was to use linseed oil to make a garment erupt in flames, and then to have the nearby fire extinguisher 'impregnated' with the virus, so it was spread as someone tried to put out the flames. This was so absurd that I actually laughed. I agree that linseed oil is dangerous in a pile of soaked rags, but to have it in the material of a garment is not likely to have the same effect, and the smell would be highly noticeable. No one would put on a garment which smelled badly of putty!

And why go to all that trouble? Too much can go wrong. If the practice was to use linseed oil (also known as flax seed oil, FYI) to polish the pews, which seemed a bit of a stretch, then why not simply put the virus in that, or spray it from the gallery during the service? It made no sense to me to set it up in such a risky and Heath Robinson fashion, and it made me feel like the author had become so enwrapped in presenting a "cool scenario" that he failed to look critically and objectively at what he was writing. This took me right out of the story.

There was too much trope and stereotyping in the novel, which ultimately defeated the 'off the beaten track' approach which I'd initially admired and rooted for. For example, we get an Irish MI5 officer whose name is Liam Donovan. He had a, wait for it, red beard, and red hair. This could not have been more of a condescending cliché if he'd been named Paddy O'Brien, had worn shoes with curling toes, a green felt hat, and carried a shillelagh.

The atheist terrorists leave a trail of clues to their next attacks like this is a Nancy Drew story. These clues are ones which only Robin Goodfellow can solve of course, and each clue consistently got him there in time to save the day. Why would a terrorist leave clues? There's a halfhearted attempt to explain it as a conceit on the part of the obsessively posing and monologuing terrorist leader, but it failed. I don't have a problem with the good guys doing the footwork and making the breaks for themselves, but to have neat clues laid out, Dan Brown style, and have the hero swoop in and solve them all so effortlessly and in the nick of time, was too much to swallow.

The author has the atheists worshiping at the altar of Charles Darwin, but no atheist does that, and all of the atheists I've encountered understand evolution very well. They would never talk of it as the Nazis did, for example, as winnowing out the weak links to make the race stronger, in the way that the over-the-top villain mindlessly monologues about.

As a point of order, it's the creationists who slander Darwin by misrepresenting what he said and who make endless attempts at character assassination on him, like if they discredit him, then the Theory of Evolution fails. Atheists are not that stupid and never would misrepresent his work. Plus they have better things to do with their time!

Atheism isn't about a belief system or about worshiping at the altar of the sciences; it's simply a lack of belief due to a lack of viable evidence, and that's all there is to it. Yes, there are some atheist campaigners like Richard Dawkins, but most of us don't care about religion enough to waste much time even thinking about it; we're too busy getting on with our lives, content to let religion fail under its own unsupportable weight.

Yes, we find it foolish, and often in equal parts amusing and annoying, but that's about it. Yes, if it tries to encroach on our rights or control our lives we will fight back (but not with bombs or viruses!). Other than that we really don't care if people want to believe in fairy tales. It's their choice.

So this book felt like it misrepresented atheists, but that wasn't the worst fault by any means. I would have bought into the plot of atheist terrorists if they hadn't been so painfully paper-thin and caricatured. That, the boring and poorly plotted story, along with an improbable terrorist and an even more absurd protagonist who was so self-righteous and infallible that it left no possibility of suspense for the reader at all, were what brought this down for me.

I began skimming this novel around page 270 (out of some 330 pages) and I quit at around page 300 when it devolved even more absurdly into secret passageways and booby traps. I wish the author all the best in his career, but I cannot recommend this novel.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock


Rating: WORTHY!

This amazingly-named novel, from an author I now intend to read more of, is about a teen-aged girl in a religious cult (not an evil one, just a misguided one as they all ultimately are). Starbird has grown up leading a rather sheltered life, but she gets the chance to go out into the world and this is her story.

All of the characters have bizarre names. Starbird's brother is called Douglas Fir. Apparently the cult went through eras of selecting names from particular inspirational sources, so the founding members are all named after planets in our solar system. The leader is called Earth, and the name is always capitalized, but he's disappeared. He went out on some sabbatical, and no one heard from him since.

Starbird ends-up working with a girl named Venus Lake (daughter of Venus Ocean) in a restaurant owned by the cult. Venus is not a founding member but since her mother, who was a founder, died in childbirth, they gave her name to her daughter. Yes, it's that kind of weird. It was really hard to get into for the first couple of pages, but then it started making sense and I really liked it, which is a good feeling form a new novel by an author I was not familiar with. It's the best part of a novel, right? Before you've become disappointed in it and ditch or, or worse, before you read it avidly and then are disappointed that it's over! LOL! The manic world of novel addicts.

That;s not to say it was perfect. I had a problem with, in the space of 6 pages in chapter 9, meeting two guys and two girls. In each case the guy is described in terms of his hair, while in each case the girl is described in terms of how pretty or attractive she is. Fortunately, this was the only instance of this I encountered, so I let it slide, but this business of typing females by how pretty they are has to stop. I'm getting so tired of it that I'm ready to start rating novels based solely on that, if it's indulged in to absurd lengths, regardless of how well-written or otherwise the novel is.

Women have other qualities and the people who should perhaps most realize this are female writers, yet so many of them sell-out their characters with this genderist bullshit that it's nauseating. As I said, the author went on to show admirably how these women had other qualities and she backed-off on the skin-deep garbage, so I let it slide this time.

I can understand it if a character, in the novel reduces a woman to her looks alone; this happens in real life, but these descriptions came directly from the author, not from one of the characters. In each case the woman is reduced to her looks and in doing this, the author is very much announcing that women who are not considered attractive need not apply, because when it comes to women, looks are all that matter. I don't subscribe to that and I wish that a lot fewer female authors did, particularly in the YA genre.

That caveat aside, and because it was so limited in this novel, I do consider this a worthy read.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown


Rating: WARTY!

This was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

'A hanging' ought to be the collective noun for witches. It would remind us of what has happened to so many women who were not even witches. This book could have set that right at least a little, but in the end it was a disappointment. The very title is an issue since it's in the form of "The 's Sister/Daughter/Wife." I admit that such titles are provocative, but when you get right down to it, all they really achieve is the reduction of a woman to a mere male appendage of some kind, and it's appallingly insulting when you think about it. I think this is the last novel with such a title that I shall read, no matter how interesting the blurb might make it.

I think there was a story to be told here about a fictional sister of a real historical person, but the telling of it in this way did not work for me. Others might draw different conclusions, and in the interests of full disclosure, let me confess here (you don't even need to torture me!) that I am not a fan of first person voice stories at all. They're decidedly unrealistic and I cannot for the life of me understand why authors, particularly female and particularly in the YA genre, are so addicted to them.

I think it awfully sad that female authors are implying, by so dedicatedly employing this method, that women have so little confidence and feel so unheard in novels that they have to make their stories "all about me" just to get anyone to pay them any attention. As an avid reader, I certainly don't believe that and yet I've encountered very few first person voice novels that were satisfying. First person is far too self-centered, and it typically makes me dislike the narrator because it’s all, "Hey focus on me! See what I'm doing now! It's time for some more about me! Lookit me! It’s all about Meeee!" and I honestly cannot can't stand it, with very few exceptions.

Once in a while an author can carry it, but here it did not work. In terms of realism, it’s highly unlikely that a young girl growing up in a large family of boys, even one as relatively well-off as this one was, would be well-enough educated to be able to write, and especially not a story like this (which is supposed to be her diary or journal, but which reads nothing like one).

Girls did not get much of an education if any, not even in the nobility, and the Hopkins family was hardly nobility. It was deemed that an education would be harmful to a girl's marriage prospects, so it was neglected (beyond the basic housekeeping, sewing, etc.). Because of this, Alice's literacy was hard to swallow. It was inauthentic. On top of this, her voice did not suggest the mid-seventeenth century at all. The mentality was far too modern, and no one has that kind of recollection of events down to detailed conversations, so it just felt wrong from the start, and kept throwing me out of suspension of disbelief.

There's another problem with this voice and the author illustrates this one handsomely for us here. When you trap yourself in first person, your character has to be there and everywhere - otherwise how can she tell us what’s happening? Almost the only alternative to this is the info dump, where she learns what’s going on by having someone tell her in a story-halting binge, or where she reads something which feels so fake, because the only purpose it serves is to clue us in to what she's missed.

The equally clunky alternative to this is to have the character end-up in a position to listen in on something she's not meant to hear. Typically this is far too convenient or contrived, and it feels fake and thoroughly unnatural. In this case, at a meeting of men, we get Alice dragged in there for no good reason, and it felt so obvious and so fake that it really kicked me out of suspension of disbelief. Again. These kinds of men certainly would not want a woman in on their meetings. They had no use for women whatsoever.

Did Matthew Hopkins have a sister? It’s unlikely. His father had six children, but we know the names only of the four eldest. The author argues that at least one of the other two could have been a girl, and uses the lack of mention as evidence: since girls were not counted for anything back then other than as housekeepers and baby mills (an argument which, of course, undermines her entire sister story!). But if the two youngest had died, then they also would have merited no mention even had they been boys. It's unlikely in a family of six that all of them survived infancy in that era. Mortality was appalling.

But fine, if you want to say one was a girl, then let's go with that and ask how she got her name. The name 'Alice' for the main character is chosen for a reason, and it would be a spoiler to reveal it, but it doesn’t work. The Hopkins boys were all named after apostles, the other three (older) brothers being called James, John, and Thomas. Where then would this family come up with a non-Biblical name like Alice? It stands out like a sore thumb, and for me wasn't worth the ending which is too cute by far to be taken seriously.

For a story which promises witchcraft and horror, this one kills the thrills by moving achingly slowly, with rambling reminiscences and flashbacks. These are not to my taste at all. For me, all a flashback does is bring the story to a screeching halt, and I never appreciate that, especially not when it's a reminder that a writer seems to be trying to hit plot points and a story outline, rather than relate a realistic and organic tale of a person's experiences (fictional as they are) as they happened.

Flashbacks have such an amateur feel to them that they ruin suspension of disbelief. No one in real life sits lost in pages flashback or reminiscence (unless they're mentally ill) - not for as long as characters all-too-often do in such stories. It's an amateur conceit really ruined the pace for me. I took to skipping all the flashbacks because they contributed nothing to the story and actually impeded it as far as I could see.

It was a third of the way through the story before we ever got to what Hopkins was doing! Up until that point it was all about Alice, and she was not an appealing character at all. She was tedious, and in very short order, I had lost all interest in her and in what she was thinking or doing. For some reason she became obsessed with a list of witch's names and we had to go through that list over and over again. I took to skipping those passages, too, because they were simply annoying and led nowhere. I had read some reviews that said the story picked up around the halfway point, but I didn't find this to be the case. For me, it continued to be lackluster the entire length of the novel.

Of course not a one of these women was a witch, neither in the pagan sense nor in the absurd evil caster-of-spells sense. They were simply tragic victims of Hopkins's religious fanaticism, and the worst thing about this novel is that we got nothing of that from this story. Just as with his sister, Matthew was completely bland and unmemorable. He's presented as a simple, flat character who offers nothing original or entertaining. He has no emotional depth.

He ought to be a firebrand and a dynamo, but he's a limp rag, and it made for a boring story. He was larded with far too dramatic a past and it completely overshadowed his present whilst contributing nothing materially to it, so instead of an emotional story about the horrible slaying of scores of innocent women, we got a bland family melodrama, and I found it insulting to the memory of those women who were slaughtered on the altar of religious psychosis.

Matthew Hopkins was a real person about whom we know very little, and would probably know next-to-nothing were it not for the eighteen months or so when he became Britain's most prolific serial killer, hiding his vindictive blood-lust beneath the guise of a Christian witch-finder as he acted on the clear Biblical injunction, which fortunately everyone outside of Africa ignores today - of not suffering a witch to live.

He terrorized East Anglia - that butt rump of a bulge on Britain's south eastern shore - running from village to village, and being paid by the local parishes to cleanse their territory of witches. The Bible has a lot to answer for, doesn’t it? It’s the most execrable terrorist manifesto ever written, and we could have had all of this in this novel: the empty message of a god's unconditional love contrasted with the brutal Biblical injunctions to kill, slaughter and eradicate, but we got none of that. For me that was the saddest aspect of all.

On top if this there were portions of the story which seemed to start up dramatically, like an avocado pit on a plant pot, only to die inexplicably without going anywhere. There was a suggestion of the supernatural quite early in the book which never went anywhere, as though the author forgot about it, or had second thoughts. Alice's pregnancy (a left-over from her deceased husband) was an obsession for much of the start of the book and then it fizzled out. At one point I was starting to suspect that Matthew had had Alice's husband killed. I admit that if this suspicion turned out to be true, then I missed the revelation because I was, I confess, skimming the last forty percent of the novel just to get it over with.

As I said, so little is known of Hopkins's life that you can make up pretty much any story you want about him and get away with it. The saddest thing about this novel was not a hanging of witches, which ought to have been front and center, but of a tragically wasted opportunity - one squandered on unimportant trivia in the life of a fictional women when there were so many very real women, all of them murdered by Hopkins, who are begging to have their story told, and yet were denied that opportunity by this author. I cannot recommend this at novel all.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Awakening by Lisa M Lilly


Rating: WARTY!

Unfortunately, this is volume one of the inevitable "Awakening" series, which I have no intention of following, even though this volume wasn't entirely disastrous. The fact is that I'm allergic to most series! Why writers suffer this inexplicable chronic verbosity these days and cannot seem to confine themselves to the covers of one book to tell a story is a complete mystery to me. Well not quite complete. Obviously it's mercenary and driven by publishers (and writers) wanting to milk a story for all they can, even when the udder is running dry or turning out sour milk, and the hell with the readers.

I mean, why sell your readers one pair of covers when you can milk them for three or more? Three is where this series is at as of this writing, but I'm done with this one volume. Series are by definition derivative and uninventive and that's not me, especially if they're rather uninspired and a bit lackluster, as this one was. If I'd realized that it was part of a series I would probably have decided against getting this at all. As it happens, this story wasn't so bad that I immediately wanted to ditch it, but it had problems which did not inspire me to pursue it.

In some ways I can understand it, in an era where Amazon seems determined to make all writers charge the same price for a three-hundred page novel that iTunes charges for a thee minute song. Running to a series seems like the only way for most writers to make any money, but to me it's still a cheat - an easy and lazy out. I do like a well-written good v. evil story, but unfortunately they're so few in number that they're hard to find. I didn't find one here.

This story features Tara Spencer, a mature young adult, who discovers she's pregnant, yet she's never had sex. Her boyfriend. Jeremy, ditches her because 'she's been unfaithful'. Apparently he doesn't know her very well, and he's a hypocrite anyway because he's already having an affair on the side since Tara wouldn't have sex with him! I honestly don't get Tara. She was raised Catholic but it didn't take. She's at least doubting, and at best lapsed. I say at best, because I'm not a believer. I think religion is nonsensical and organized religion is predatory and coercive. It has nothing to do with the love of any god. Like a book series, organized religion is all about making money.

So Tara is evidently either the new virgin Mary or she's the mother of the antichrist, but since she's not really a Catholic any more, this business of her remaining a virgin, while there's nothing wrong with it at all, felt to me like it wasn't justified very well by the author, and especially so since her supposed forbear Miriam (commonly known as Mary in the West) was not actually a virgin. The Hebrew word used to describe her means 'young woman' - there's a separate word for virgin, but this is never used in connection with Mary. The virgin lie is nothing more than a ruse employed in a long history of Catholicism's abuse and oppression of women and the twisting of belief for its own mercenary ends.

The sad thing from Tara's PoV is that the only person who believes her is some oddball guy named Cyril Woods (I disown all relationship to this guy. I'll explain later!), who is a believer and is resolved to protect her. At first she doesn't trust him, but he proves as good as his word and Tara is left with no choice but to turn to him since she's getting zero support from anyone else, not her best friend (who happens to be Jeremy's sister) and not her parents, although her older brother is on her side, as is her doctor, Dr. Lei.

One sad thing about this story is how little the author knows about religion or about nursing - as in taking care of the ill, not feeding babies. When Tara faints and is in the hospital, we read, "Dr. Lei, white coat open over her gray pin-striped pants suit, stopped in around nine. She told Tara she was on an IV with nutrition and hydration and took Tara's pulse." No, the nurses would be doing this - orientating the patient and filling her in on her treatment plan. Doctors don't do this, and they sure don't come in and take the patient's pulse! They read the nurses notes. Often the nurses are telling the doctors what to do, if they're new interns, for example.

Dr Lei isn't an intern, of course, she's a seasoned doctor and she'd know that wandering in and taking her patient's pulse isn't going to tell her anything. She would have read the patient's 'chart' (file) before she went into the room, so this is just the kind of thing a writer puts into a story when they really have no idea what doctors and nurses do, and are too lazy to research it. It might pass by most people, but to me it was a glaring lack of fidelity, with nurses once again being criminally under-served by a writer.

My other main issue with this was the religious one. I said religion is nonsensical, but this kind of story, while fiction, is so true to life that it's laughable. The Bible predicts (and the prediction long ago ran out) the arrival of this "Antichrist" and foretells what will happen, yet every story about the Antichrist has the believers trying to short-circuit this Biblically ordained series of events in direct contradiction of their god's wishes! LOL! They're always trying to kill the mother or kill the child in direct contravention of the sixth commandment - you shall not murder.

The sad thing is that organized religion has so little control over its adherents that this is exactly what fanatical Christians would do in real life. It's not only a measure of how delusional and misguided they are, it's also one of how shockingly little faith they truly have in their god. The fact is that they're making it up as they go, as has always been done in all religions, and there are virtually no modern Christians who honestly follow Jesus. They follow Paul who has more effectively derailed the Jesus movement than anyone before or since. These people are Paulians, not Christians.

If they truly were Christians, they would follow Judaism! LOL! Jesus never was a Christian. He was a Jew. He followed the Judaic religion, and he stated quite clearly that he had not come to change one jot or tittle of the law. It was Paul, the fanatic who had some serious mental issues, who did all of that, and everyone fell for it. Jesus (if you believe he existed - I don't - not in the way Christians believe) also stated that he came only for the children of the House of Israel, so he'd have no interest whatsoever in gentiles, which makes this story false from the start: why would the Antichrist appear in the USA? And why now?

Nearly all modern writers, particularly in the US, and even more particularly in the young adult genre do this kind of thing routinely because they can't imagine any story of worth taking place outside of their own back yard, so blinkered are they. Nor do they explain why this appearance is taking place in this particular year or with this particular individual. It's a sad and provincial tunnel-vision which creates farces like this, and I have little respect for such writers even when the story isn't a disaster. No, if the Antichrist were not pure fiction, he (it's almost never a she in the three big monotheistic religions) would appear in Israel. Personally I'm rooting for the Antichrist because I detest the way organized religion is going! LOL!

The novel took a decided turn for the worst when this guy Cyril says to Tara, "...that you've had the strength of character to stay a virgin despite a sex-saturated world," like this is some sort of badge of honor. Excuse me? No, if a woman wants to have sex (and she's not dumb about it) then she's perfectly entitled to. It has nothing whatsoever to do with strength of character, because the obverse of that view is that if she had sex it would mean she was weak and easily manipulated. It offers her no voice in her own sexuality. It's her choice, dipshit, not yours!

The fact that Tara has nothing to say about this patriarchal attitude of this patronizing busybody lessened her in my view, too, especially since she's not so subtly starting to get the hots for him. It was then that I realized that if this was the way this book is going - weak woman rescued by shining knight and falling hopelessly in love with him, then I really didn't want to read any more of it because that story has been done to death, and making her pregnant with the Messiah/Antichrist doesn't accomplish a thing by way of improvement!

When are book blurb writers going to treat people with respect? The blurb for this one asks, tediously, " Will Tara find answers before it's too late?" How pathetic is that? I detest book blurbs that ask this stupid question. Of course she will! Is she going to fail to find answers? No! Is the writer going to kill off this character? I'd respect her if she did, but no, that's not going to happen - not when there's a potentially lucrative series in prospect! Quit putting dumbass questions in your blurbs, morons! And for the record, I disrecommend this novel.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Ms Marvel Vol 1: No Normal by G Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona


Rating: WORTHY!

Admirably written by the talented G Willow Wilson, and nicely and amusingly illustrated by Adrian Alphona, the Ms. Marvel book is actually the first in the series - finally! I can't believe graphic novel writers make it so hard to figure out which collected volume is the first you should read. Is it such a problem to put a big "#1" of the front cover? LOL! It's a good story though, so I want to read more in this series. I think I've now read the first three (but who can say?!), and really liked one and three; two, not so much. Finally I got to learn how Kamala Khan got her super power - and it was by the oddball method of becoming enveloped in an unexplained fog which wafted through the city!

Working on an idea for a super hero novel (not graphic, just text!) myself, I've started thinking about the existing ones a little bit more closely. Becoming empowered by a fog struck me as decidedly odd, because everyone in the city (this is set in Jersey City; Marvel seems obsessed with the east coast for some reason) was likewise exposed, yet only Kamala seems to have developed any super powers from it. Why? This goes not only unexplained, but unexplored. I found it sad that she wasn't curious about why she alone was blessed or cursed. Thinking about other heroes, only one immediately comes to mind - although I'm sure there are more - who developed his power in a way parallel to Kamala, and The Hulk really goes unexplained too, so this is nothing new.

I mean, how did Bruce Banner change, and no one else exposed to gamma rays did? Maybe it's because no one had the exposure he did, yet we're all exposed to gamma rays from space - fortunately not to a high degree. The fact remained that it was he who survived and developed his...condition. Spider-man is a similar case, but though many are bitten by spiders, none that I know of have been bitten by a radioactive spider! Superman doesn't count because he isn't special - anyone from Krypton would have his powers if they came to Earth, as his story shows. Batman and Iron Man are self-made, so they're responsible for their "power". Thor is just like Superman in many regards, so nothing to be learned there. Wonder Woman is also in that category. Green Lantern got his power because he was chosen and imbued with it, just as was Captain America, although in a different manner. Again, anyone in theory could have had their power. So we're back to Kamala being special in an undefined way which few other heroes are. Unless of course she was chosen somehow, but we're left with these unanswered questions, which make her very intriguing to me.

Moving on from the receipt of the power, we immediately get to the story of how she recognized it and learned to live and work with it, which I thought was really well done in this book. It felt real, and natural and organic, and it made for a fun and engaging story, especially since it's tied, in many ways, to her Muslim upbringing, her distance from her traditional parents - and from her school-friends, and her desire to be "normal" yet be able to use her gift to help others. I loved this story and recommend it as a great start to the series. I was unimpressed by volume two, especially the artwork. Volume three was a much more impressive and very amusing volume. I review both of those separately elsewhere on my blog.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Cresswell Plot by Eliza Wass


Rating: WORTHY!

This novel, which I was thrilled to receive as an advance review copy and for which I thank the publisher and author, was very entertaining, despite being told in worst person voice, aka first-person, which is a voice I normally detest. The voice is one of the family patriarch's daughters, a fifteen year old, and it turned out to be a rare case where the author does it well. There are three sisters and three brothers in this strict religious family, under the thumb of the overbearing - some would argue totally psycho - master, aka father, who has written his own addendum to the Bible from which the kids are forced to read each night. Like some deluded Noah, this Dad has convinced his family that they are the only righteous family, perhaps in the world, and that they will all go to Heaven if they follow his teachings. Each sister will become the bride of one of the brothers: Castley will marry Caspar, Delvive will marry one of her triplet siblings named Hannan, and Jerusalem will marry the rather rebellious Mortimer.

Yes dad is sick. So is mom, but in her case it's physical, and she also has deformed legs, because when she fell (or was she pushed?) downstairs, family practice was to avoid doctors and let their god fix broken legs. Predictably, the god failed. Now she can barely move on her own. The kids are hardly any better. At least they can move around freely, and they are forced to attend public school (where they're considered freaks) after an intervention, but other than that, at home they are kept as virtual prisoners - and sometimes literal prisoners. If they misbehave, there is always the drainage ditch with a lockable grill over it, in the woods behind the house. Nearly all of them are intimately familiar with it.

It's predictably Castley who begins to rebel, and the disturbing question becomes: will these kids get out of this alive? Or will they end up 'in Heaven' sooner than they expected? The story is disturbing as we see the children struggle to make sense of life after being thoroughly warped by the very person - their father - whom they ought to be able to trust for guidance and protection.

There are many questions here, not least of which is why the authorities, knowing these kids are at risk having intervened once, do not intervene more. The kids routinely show up at school with bruises and the Cresswell's neighbor (and what's his story? It might surprise you) is keeping a very close eye on them. It beggars belief that things could have become so bad and continued in this way for so long unchecked. It's also a mystery where the kid's names came from given how strict and Biblical this family's patriarch is. Castley? Delvive? Those names are not Biblical! But that aside, Castley's story is moving and worth listening to. She's a smart and strong female character and I enjoyed her story even as it made me cringe and squirm. I recommend this as a worthy read.


Friday, February 5, 2016

VALIS by Philip K Dick


Rating: WARTY!

I guess I'm done reading Philip Dick novels at this point. I've enjoyed movies and TV shows based on his works, but I can't seem to find much in his novels that I like, except for a graphic version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Even when I've liked the movie or TV show, I tend to find the novel uninteresting. VALIS (an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System) was volume one in a planned trilogy which was never completed due to the author not being smart enough to go to the ER when his doctor advised him to do so.

I could not stand this novel. It began promisingly enough, but then became bogged down under Dick's juvenile rants about religion and philosophy and there was no story being told. I quit about twenty percent in, and I cannot recommend this dreary and pretentious book of boredom based on the portion I endured. Tom Weiner's droll voice didn't help with the narration, either.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Still There? A Little Zen for Little Ones by Sanjay Nambiar


Rating: WARTY!

In a retelling of an old zen Buddhist story, we read here of two boys with improbably, amusingly, large heads, who encounter a girl in the school yard. She's lost an earring and isn't dealing. She seemed to think that stomping and yelling was the best way to find her earring, and in actual fact, she was right! One of the boys thought the best thing to do was get down and dirty and search for it. The other boy didn't, but once the earring was found and the girl stomped off without even thanking her helper, the boy who didn't help was annoyed! The girl was rewarded with her earring. The two boys were rewarded with nothing, but wasted time and dirtied clothes and hands.

It seems like the lesson we're supposed to learn here is that it doesn't do to cry over spilled milk (it's actually much better to clean it up before it stains and stinks!). There are several lessons to be learned here though, and we're offered only one, which is that when you perform an act of kindness for someone, do not expect a reward. I agree with this. You set yourself up if you expect something in return, and the quality of your life is lessened by the act of wanting. The girl didn't specifically ask him for help of this particular boy. The boy volunteered. As a lawyer (Buddhist or otherwise!) might say, there was no contract entered into here. The boys should not expect anything in return, not even thanks, and therefore shouldn't by adversely affected when none come. Nor should the unhelpful boy be upset by the helping boy's attitude.

I think that the author missed a great opportunity though, to look at other lessons here. He focused on only one perspective, which doesn't seem very zen to me. There's a better story here. For all I know this is the one which inspired this children's version.

It would have been a better story had we looked at each perspective in turn, and then looked at how things could have been better all around. Of course, in real life, you rarely get an opportunity like that, but in real life, there is a concept of justice and equity. It doesn't do to let those who are selfish, ungrateful, fraudulent, arrogant, or endlessly demanding. It is better to teach them the error of their ways - or to at least try. Only one lesson was learned here where several could have been. None of the other lessons were considered, which lessen the lesson! In a way, this is a very selfish lesson to teach a child. This was a very short story so there was room for lots more.

In some ways, this book is the polar opposite of one I reviewed favorably back in 2014. In that book, not focusing on the now was the point which was extolled. In this book, it seems to be just the opposite! Now that's zen! But I can't recommend this story as it stands. There's no still there, there!


Friday, November 27, 2015

The Heretic's Wife by Brenda Rickman Vantrease


Rating: WORTHY!

Having got through and enjoyed Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII not long ago, this one sounded like it might be entertaining. The version I listened to was the audio book read by Davina Porter. She did an acceptable job.

Set at the time when Henry 8 was trying to talk the Pope into letting him marry Anne Boleyn (which turned into a disaster for both, but did spawn Elizabeth 1), this novel focuses on booksellers who are purveying the English translation of the Bible, something which the idiot Pope had declared illegal. They took their censorship seriously back then, and death awaited anyone who flouted the Catholic global dictatorship.

Unfortunately, this novel moved way too slowly for me, and dithered and dallied when I wanted to get on with the story. There is no logical or rational reason why historical fiction should routinely run to four, five, six, seven, eight hundred pages! What it is which drives authors to do this, I think, is that they hate to waste all the research they did and consequently feel like they have to cram it in somewhere. Worse than this, they feel they have to draft-in every historical person they can think of from the period, which is nothing more than tediously pretentious name-dropping and turns me right off a novel. It's like a kid's time travel movie where they run into famous people like Benjamin Franklin (it's always Franklin isn't it?!). It's celebrity worshiping gibberish and it simply doesn't work.

I've raised this issue before of book titles which take the form "The _______'s Daughter" or "The _______'s Wife." On the one hand, I agree that they're quite provocative titles, carrying as they do a suggestion of rebellion or at least misbehavior. On the other hand they seem to me to be insulting titles, implying as they do that the woman in question is no more than a possession of the man. I've reviewed about four such novels prior to this one, and they were batting a .500. Now the balance is tipped negatively and I think I am no longer inclined to pick up any more such titles, lackluster as they've been!

What finally killed this particular one for me was the (relatively) modern language and idiom. It kept kicking me out of the story. I think it would have been tedious to have read this in the same English which Shakespeare knew, or in which the King James Bible was written, but there had to be a happier compromise than this one. In the end, I couldn't get into it and I can't recommend it based on the portion I covered.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

I Am Malala: by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb


Rating: WORTHY!

If I have to relate Malala Yousafzai's story here, then clearly you're not going to get it at all. This is a story which should be known already so this review talks about issues related tot he book, not the book itself, which I consider to be a worthy read. I've been wanting to read this book for a while, so when I saw it in the library I snatched it up at once. I'm so glad I did.

This book isn't perfect, nor should it be. It's a young woman's account of a very personal and tragic story of oppression and attempted assassination. After I had read it and was ready to review it favorably, I went onto Goodreads and looked at the negative reviews, curious to see an opposing PoV. Initially I was surprised that there were so many, but then I found myself asking, "Why am I surprised?" This girl's entire life has consisted of one awful wall of suppression and oppression by religious elements, so why would it be a surprise that these very same elements seek to treat her the same way as she continues to speak out against that oppression?

In truth, I think the real surprise came from the ignorance of the negative reviews, and not only from religious elements. There were were many negative reviews from those who had no religious ax to grind, but which instead sought to blame her youth, or her co-author, for a bad book, claiming things were lost in translation, or whatever. There was no translation! Did these people not read the same book I read? Malala Yousafzai was and is fluent in not only her native Pashto, but also in the commonly spoken Urdu, and in English. She has better English than a lot of adult Americans. She's a straight-A student in an English school in Birmingham, (love the Brum dialect!), and it's demeaning and insulting to talk about language difficulties or about things being lost in translation, or about her youth and 'inexperience'. She had no problem putting her thoughts down in English or in writing this book, and it's ignorant at best, and downright mean and petty at worst to suggest otherwise.

I am not usually complementary about co-authors and ghost writers, but I think the only contribution Christine Lamb made was in helping to set Yousafzai's thoughts and views into a cogent narrative, and also in setting her personal story into an intelligible historical framework. I think she did an admirable job, but Yousafzai's story was her story - no one else's. Lamb is the foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times, but her credentials are, as wikipedia has it, that "Her first major interview was with Benazir Bhutto in London in 1987 where subsequently she was then invited to her wedding in Pakistan later that year. From here, she began her life as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan, journeying through Kashmir and along the frontiers of neighbouring Afghanistan..." In short, she knows her stuff, and she knows the region.

There are those who claim that Yousafzai is dissing Pakistan, but they obviously read this book with blinkers on. There are others who claim Islam is not as harsh on women as Yousafzai portrays it (although she actually doesn't cast it in a bad light - merely those who would use their religion as a means to suppress and control others). The facts argue otherwise. UNICEF notes that out of 24 nations with less than 60% female primary enrolment rates, 17 were Islamic nations; more than half the adult population is illiterate in several Islamic countries, and the proportion reaches 70% among Muslim women. This is not an exaggeration, it is a fact.

Yousafzai was a Muslim child who was shot because she refused to bow down before the false god of the Taliban. She did not revile Pakistan. She did revile those people who sought to destroy the country she loved and to oppress people in general and women in particular, based on nothing more than a self-serving and absurdly narrow view of Islam. The Koran wishes women to be educated about religion, not educated in general. The Prophet Muhammad praised the women of Medina for their pursuit of knowledge: "How splendid were the women of the Ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith." Not learned as such, only learned in the faith, but the fact remains that there's more to education than just religion. This misbegotten desire to suppress women and keep them in the back seat will fail. People like Malala Yousafzai, Hala Alsalman, Asma Jahangir, Baroness Uddin, Lira Bajramaj, Arfa Karim, Mishal Husain, Aliya Mustafina, Adeeba Malik, Razia Sultan, Hassiba Boulmerka, Azadeh Moaveni, Al-Malika al-Ḥurra Arwa al-Sulayhi, Samera Ibrahim Islam, Hayat Sindi, Raha Moharrak, Sayeeda Warsi, Durriya Shafiq, Shazia Mirza and hundreds of others, far too many to list, in all walks of life, have and will push Muslim women to the forefront of nations, Islamic or otherwise, whether men like it or not.

I recommend this book as part of an ongoing education into tragedies caused in this modern world by organized religion.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

American Virgin: Around the World by Steven T Seagle


Rating: WORTHY!

The last volume, though titled "Around the World" also incorporated the final arc, titled "69". It follows Vanessa and Adam on their "world tour", beginning in Rio de Janeiro. Adam is dramatically brought almost literally face to breast with topless beaches, and is shocked initially to see Vanessa topless, but she educates him - the start of a long, slow process.

When Adam calls Cyndi, as he does frequently, now she has become his reality touch-stone, he interrupts her int he middle of her and Mel having sex. Why Cyndi would even answer the phone is a mystery! Why Mel isn't insulted that she does is an equal mystery.

From Rio, the couple travel to Japan and attend a penis festival. By this time you would think Adam has learned a few things, but evidently he has not. Initially he's shocked by the giant penis statues, but all too quickly turns his feelings around, so this part seemed completely fake to me, first his shock, and then his almost immediate acceptance.

Next up is Bangkok, where Adam books a hotel room for the two of them and it's Vanessa's turn to go overboard, but why she does is even less intelligible. In the end, she storms off to a hostel, abandoning Adam. Later, equally unintelligibly, they make up rather speedily, and all is well. Again this rang false for me. What saved this story for me, despite all this patchiness and falsity, was the other interactions between this couple, which were truly well-written and realistic, and which were endearing and engrossing. Adam gets a tatoo and while he's having that, he hallucinates a sexual encounter with Cass, which somehow convinces him that Vanessa is the one for him. This signifies the end of the Around the World Arc.

The 69 arc begins with Adam returning home with Vanessa and announcing, out of the blue, that they're married, but, we shortly learn, the marriage has not been consummated. At first I thought that this just meant that they were married spiritually, but not officially, but it quickly becomes clear that between this and the last arc, they did actually get officially married. Adam's mom reveals what a truly racist piece of work she is, ordering Adam to annul the marriage.

Meanwhile, fulfilling the last clause of their unofficial contract with Adam, his low-life, but evidently industrious step brothers announce they've found his real father in Cuba, so the entire family debarks, including Adam, Vanessa, Mel, and Cyndi, and manages to enter Cuba through some arrangements Mel has made. Reydel, it turns out, is now a priest who inexplicably still thinks the obnoxious Mamie is a beauty, and kisses her, giving her a heart attack, which Mel fixes by jolting her from the local power supply.

While she's recovering in hospital - availing herself of the free health care in Cuba - Mel kidnaps Adam and hustles him off to the Dominican Republic where the architect of his wife's murder now resides for reasons unexplained. Rather than shoot the bastard, Adam tries to make friends with the fiend. Inexplicably, the terrorist tells Adam there is a video of his fiancée in a nearby suitcase, which Adam dutifully opens. Why he would want such a video is a mystery, but when he opens the case, a bomb explodes yet Adam escapes without a scratch, other than a bloody nose. He isn't even deafened, yet we're expected to believe he's badly injured! The rescuers ask him his name and the last page shows him laying in their arms and a translucent version of him standing over his unconscious form. Whether this means he died or what, simply isn't explained.

So, this last arc was perhaps the weirdest of the entire series, and perhaps we would have learned more had the series not been canceled, but this was a truly odd way to finish it. Did he die? Who knows! It was ridiculous to artificially keep him virginal without any good reason, just so he could die in that state. It would have been more in keeping with the rather black-humored tone of the series to have had one more issue showing him being raped as one of the 79 virgins of the terrorist who died with him! Based just on the ending, I would rate this negatively, but based on this entire volume I have to rate this positively because until the very end, the story was really good in these last two arcs, and the art work was excellent, particularly some of the photo realistic filler pages between issues and the one full page image of Cyndi (which on reflection I think might have been in the previous volume). Overall, I rate this who series a worthy read. Be prepared for some potholes along the journey though!