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Book Review of Backward Compatible: A Geek Love Story by Sara Daltry and Pete Clark

Backward Compatible: A Gamer Geek Love Story - Sarah Daltry, Sarah Daltry, Pete Clark

Is there someone for everyone?  Even me?

 

Time is passing and the Y Generation have now become young adults.  During this social period computers and the Internet have become household items, at least in the Upper and Middle classes.  Online gaming has now become a subculture complete with language, social activities and dress. The word 'geek' has become more a description of an alternate subculture than a derogatory term.  Daltry and Clarke take us on a wacky trip into the world of computer geeks, as they follow the hectic lives of Katie Garretty and George Lindell.  Will this young woman and man come together in a sweet romance, or will they be doomed to remain single forever?  Does being a computer geek mean you can never have self-respect, or can these young people grow in self-confidence?  Will the pair ever battle their way to the end of Fatal Destiny, the game which dominates their young lives? Backward Compatible is a romantic comedy that will entertain those who enjoy reading New Adult or Young Adult fiction.

 

Right from the start it should be pointed out that this book is a comedy and much of the humour revolves around politically incorrect views.  This book is full of foul language, sexual references and biases against minorities.  If you are looking for a book that will expand your social and political ideology you would do well to go somewhere else. If, however, you are looking for something that will make you smile, this is the book for you.

 

In tune with the gaming ethos of the book, the novel is divided into 15 "Levels", reminiscent of computer game levels in which each new stage represents a higher degree of complexity and difficulty.  The plot of Backward Compatible can roughly be divided into two halves.  The first half, Level 1 – 7, revolves around the issue of whether Katie and George will actually get together, and the complication of a possible relationship between Katie and Jeff Browning ("Seynar").  The second half, Level 8- Boss Level (15), covers Katie and George's budding romance and a gaming hunt for hidden keys, in order to win a $10,000 prize and a trip to Montréal. Both halves each contain an extended description of gaming play, so it should be pointed out that this novel is particularly designed for those interested in online games.  If you are not so interested, these sections may seem a little dull.  Most of the book, however, is of general human interest and so will appeal to a wide range of readers. The chapters are written alternately from Katie's, then George's, point of view. As a result we gain a look into both the female and male minds and lives of young adults. This book, then, should appeal to both male and female readers.  At 356 pages Backward Compatible is of average length, however, it is just a little too long for the content.  It could have benefited from some minor editing.

 

Daltry and Clarke have created a collection of likeable characters who the reader will instantly relate to. These characters will remind the reader of themselves or their friends.  Both Katie and George are bright and witty, and at the same time vulnerable.  We relate to their lack of confidence, and hope the best for them. Typical of the romantic comedy genre even the antagonist character, who I will not name in order to avoid spoiling the story, is not too bad: even they have endearing qualities.  The character of Katie has an arc of development spanning the whole novel.  We follow her as she progresses from an aching lack of self-confidence to a position of much more self-assurance and certainty. The character of George has two arcs of development. The first arc covers the first half of the story, and takes George from being a nervous young man who does not believe he will ever get a girlfriend to a happy young man who is now dating.  The second arc revolves around the issue of whether George will actually have sexual relations with Katie. The character of Katie is a little more fully developed than that of George. The internal monologues for Katie take us deep into her mind and experiences. The character of George also has internal monologues, but we do not get quite the breadth of characterisation. For example, we hear of George's physical longing for sexual satisfaction, but there are few detailed descriptions of this physical angst.  This is not to say that George does not live on the page.  The reader does relate to him as real.

 

In contrast to the new circumstances of the Y generation and technological development, as the subtitle suggests, romance is the central theme of Backward Compatible.  This ageless theme is fully developed to the reader's satisfaction.  It is a simple fact of life that for many of us at least part of the solution for lack of self-confidence is finding a partner who we can love and be with. Katie and George are not the only characters to pair off by the end of the novel. Family is a very secondary theme. The reader gains a brief look into the families of George, Katie and Lanyon (George's ever present buddy). We see parents who cramp their children's style, but are caring, and a brother who is competitive, but willing to help. These two themes fit well together, as one has a tendency to lead to the other.  Of course, a family is a long way ahead in Katie and George's future, and we do not know if it will eventually come to be, but the reader can hope.

 

The humour in the novel works quite well. There is a great amount of witty comment and repartee, slapstick humour and tongue in cheek events.  George and Lanyon are particularly a comedy duo a little reminiscent of The Three Stooges, although of course there are only two of them. For example, while George and Lanyon are at the store, at midnight, to buy the new release of Fatal Destiny George tries to pull Katie as a date by giving her his copy of the game to buy.  Seeing this Lanyon comments, "I mean, if you are going to give up a midnight release the least she can provide you with is a little midnight release."  During the same incident George comments of Katie, "her smile is more that of a hungry T-Rex than innocent ..."  At times the plot wanders a little into hyperbole. For example there is a three-storey climbing incident which is a little unreal, and certainly would not work in a less humorous and more realistic story. Similarly, in reality few friendships would last if a young man hit his friend in the testicles.  But as has been noted this is a comedy and the reader is not too upset by these unrealities.

 

From the perspective of Feminism women in the novel are represented as quite dynamic and forward.  Katie, despite her lack of self-confidence, can be very forceful in making her opinions known.  She is a talented gamer and an aggressive fighter in Fatal Destiny.  She is also an intelligent university student, an Art History major, who has gained entrance to Amherst College, a prestigious and exclusively selective university.  Allie, Katie's friend, is the first to turn against the antagonist character, deliberately killing their game avatar even though the antagonist is supposed to be on the same team.  Anna, Katie's best friend, is, however, more of a female stereotype. She is interested mainly in guys and clothes.  Anna certainly gets a ribbing from Katie, though, on these points.  Stacey and Vicki, two hussies who knew Katie in high school, also represent the female stereotype of get a man, have a baby and raise a family.  These two women, though, are hardly represented positively, and their lifestyle is certainly not recommended.

 

The male characters, when seen in terms of Gender Studies, are hardly sensitive New Age men.  Much of the humour comes from George and Lanyon's insensitive, macho dialogue about women.  Indeed, where women are concerned they seem interested in only one thing: sex.  Much of this, however, is purely a front, an adopted persona.  We see from the internal dialogue in his chapters that George in fact does have feelings, and indeed is quite sensitive, including being worried about his own masculinity.  In the second half of the novel there is an extended incident where a George very much goes out of his way to cheer up and console Katie, who is crying because of some abuse she has received.

 

The LGBTIQ minority are not represented in the novel, and indeed gays come in for quite a bit of bigoted humour. Much of this, however, arises because of George and Lanyon's insecurities about their own masculinity.  This could have been balanced, though, by including a positively described cameo of a gay character. 

 

The aged are completely absent from the text, but this is not a great surprise as Backward Compatible is a Young Adult / New Adult novel. Once again one cameo appearance could have been included to represent this much ignored minority.  It is certainly true that the age can make a positive contribution to the lives of young people.

 

In the terms of the Capitalist / Socialist debate there can be no doubt that Backward Compatible lies firmly in the Capitalist camp.  Both George and Katie live an alternate lifestyle and are hard up for money, but they are able to do this because of the largesse of their parents.  Neither of them, nor Lanyon, works during their winter break.  Indeed, they do not even attempt to find work.  All three attend university because of the generosity of their parents.  Katie, indeed, goes to a highly expensive college.  Also, much of the second half of the novel revolves around an attempt to win $10,000.  This is clearly a capitalist motivation.  Nonetheless, at one point in the story Katie clearly states that she does not wish to own lots of products, and that money is not important to her.  Also, George drives a car which is old and perpetually breaking down.  His parents have not gifted him with an expensive new vehicle.  Clearly this book will appeal to middle class and upper class readers.

 

The novel is quite sound in psychological terms.  Indeed, the split narration allows Daltry and Clarke to illustrate the concept of "mind reading".  In Cognitive Behaviour Therapy this is a classic error in thinking in which an individual imagines that they can read the thoughts in another person's head.  Usually the individual imagines the other person is thinking of them negatively, in reality this is simply not true. (Sarah Edelman.  Change Your Thinking: overcome stress, combat anxiety and depression and improve your life with CBT:­­__  New York, N.Y.: Marlowe, 2007, p. 53)  Both Katie and George engage in mind reading when in fact the other is thinking of them quite positively.

 

Backward Compatible is an endearing and humorous romp that will particularly entertain young adults, but also, more broadly, the young at heart.  The Katie / George split narrative means that the book will appeal to both male and female readers.  While the novel is centred in Y generation culture, the themes of romance and family are universal, and will appeal to many.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 stars out of 5.

The Neurotic’s Guide To Avoiding Enlightenment by Chris Niebauer, Ph.D. – Book Review

The Neurotic's Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left-Brain Plays Unending Games of Self-Improvement - Chris Niebauer Phd

Reviewed by Raymond Mathiesen

4 out of 5 stars

 

Deep thoughts about the self and self-improvement…

 

Even a quick look at the self-help shelf at any bookstore will quickly reveal that the industry is booming and that most of us seem to have a secret desire to ‘be a better person’.  We search for that magic formula which will give us enlightenment, hopefully the quicker the better.  But is enlightenment, as we understand it, really achievable?  If we did have a better life what would it be like?  Would it be very different from our current life?  Even more, what if we found that this ‘self’, which we are so bent on improving, turned out not to really exist, to be a myth, an unreliable creation of our own brain?  Can modern neuroscience throw any light on this subject, and if so do you have to be an expert to understand it?  If you are confused already get ready to have many of your ideas challenged by Chris Niebauer’s thought provoking book The Neurotics Guide To Avoiding Enlightenment: How The Left-brain Plays Unending Games Of Self-improvement.

 

Many self-help books are written from a New Age / Eastern Mysticism perspective and in a way Niebauer’s book fits into this category.  Niebauer is strongly influenced both by the mid twentieth century author Alan Watts and the contemporary writer Eckhart Tolle.  Watts wrote on a variety of Eastern Religions including Zen, Hinduism and Taoism and Tolle is greatly influenced by Buddhism.  To describe the book as being purely of this ilk, however, would be greatly misleading.  Also, to describe The Neurotics Guide simply as a self-help book, would be equally deceptive.  Certainly there are mind-exercises and meditation techniques included which the reader may find helps them achieve a new mind-state, and which gives them a new approach to life, but this is very much a book of theory / philosophy which concentrates on challenging our standard ideas about ourselves and our lives.  Niebauer is indeed “a college professor specializing in cognitive neuropsychology” (Preface) and the book has a heavy neuroscience content.  In essence Niebauer is attempting to give Eastern Mysticism a neuroscience framework, taking it from the world of pure ideas and giving it a firm background in science.

 

As the reader may by now be guessing this is not really a beginner’s book.  Some understanding of both Eastern Mysticism and psychology would be useful.  Niebauer’s ideas are unorthodox and very challenging, and need to be thought about quite a bit.  The first chapter, for example, may be a struggle to understand, but Niebauer’s ideas become easier to appreciate if you stay with the book and keep reading.  By the end you may not agree with everything Niebauer says, but you will certainly have been forced to think through much of what you believe about yourself and the world.

 

Despite the emphasis on theory, the book does not use technical terms or give lengthy, in depth scientific discussions.  There are illustrative examples from Niebauer’s real life and that of his family.  These examples help to make the text more personal and easier for the average reader to relate to.

 

As the subtitle suggests a great deal of this book has to do with the left-brain.  This is the hemisphere which is dominant, that is, which is most prominent in our thinking.  It is pattern seeking and sees the world in terms of categories.  It divides the world into nouns, that is stable ‘things’.  All this is fine except that much of the world is process, which is to say that things change, indeed often are in considerable flux.  Thus we tend to think of ourselves as a permanent ‘picture’.  We tell stories from our history which illustrate ’who we are’, when in fact we are a changing entity.  This idea is very much in agreement with narrative psychology (Dan P. McAdams. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths And The Making Of The Self:__ New York: The Guilford Press, c1993).  Taking another example, we tend to see enlightenment as a ‘thing’ which can be achieved, a permanent state in which our old self ends and a new self comes.  That is we see enlightenment as the ceasing of one stable thing and the beginning of another.  As Niebauer points out our left-brain will never cease operating, even if we become much more aware of our right-brain, process oriented, expanded awareness, therefore enlightenment is a continuing process of change, of seeing the world in a new way.

 

Much of the book centers on the discovery that, in the absence of solid data, the left brain confabulates, that is, invents perfectly reasonable sounding, yet untrue, explanations for why the world appears as it does.  That is when we have little information we see ‘patterns’ which don’t exist, at least not in the way we believe they do.  This discovery comes from split brain patients.  These are people who, usually because they suffer from extreme epilepsy, have had their corpus callosum cut.  The corpus callosum allows the left and right hemispheres to communicate.  It does not take much to remember an occasion in which we have ‘jumped to conclusions’.  At the time we are sure of our ideas, but later we come to doubt because we find information otherwise or because we see that we actually have no evidence.  The end result of these findings is of course that we should be much less certain of ourselves.  This is an idea Alan W. Watts proposes in his book The Wisdom Of Insecurity (New York: Vintage Books, c1951).

 

Niebauer proposes two main solutions to our problems in life.  The first is that we be aware of life, observing ourselves, and the things that happen to us, from a distance.  This allows us to truly observe, rather than jump to conclusions.  It also allows us to distance ourselves from the emotional drama of our lives.  We observe “I am upset’, but by the act of extended observation we are one step from our unsettledness.  This of course is what is known in Buddhism as mindfulness.  Niebauer’s second solution is to approach life with a playful attitude.  We take ourselves less seriously and do not know with the certainty which our left brain wants to assure us that we have.  Once again we are distanced from the drama of life.

 

Of course the three paragraphs above only just touch on the topics discussed in Niebauer’s book which range from as specific and real as what can be done about anxiety, to as broad and esoteric as what part of the self survives after death.  While the book is not long there is much in it, and the reader may prefer to only read one chapter a day in order to give the author due consideration.

 

One point of criticism is that all of Niebauer’s evidence comes from brain damaged patients and optical illusions.  These are not circumstances in which the ‘normal’ aspects of life apply.   This leads us to wonder how much these circumstances occur in ‘ordinary’ life.  It is not that we doubt what Niebauers is saying, but we wonder how often the circumstances occur.  How often do we, for example, jump to conclusions?  Niebauer would have it that we do this frequently, but is that so.  A little more evidence on this point would be useful.  But even if we disagree on the frequency Niebauer’s book is still certainly an eye opener.

 

The Neurotics Guide To Avoiding Enlightenment is certainly a book that will challenge most readers and give them much to think about.  We all tend to be reasonably certain that we ‘know ourselves’ and understand the world, but Chris Niebauer definitely makes us wonder just how much we really do.  Niebauer doubts that we can ever fully escape ourselves and become ‘enlightened’ as we so desire, but he does hold that we can be more aware.  If you are interested in Eastern Philosophy you will certainly find this book different from most on that subject which you own.  If you are interested in knowing more about how the brain works you will also be intrigued by this volume.  I am happy to rate this book as four stars out of five.

 

http://goo.gl/oKlcFz    The Neurotics Guide (Book ed.)

 

http://goo.gl/z8HkhM  The Neurotics Guide (Kindle ed.)

 

http://goo.gl/IgXUcJ    Chris Niebauer’s Facebook Page

 

http://goo.gl/HBAXap  Chris Niebauer’s Web Site

 

 

Chris Niebauer, Ph.D

 

Finding Devo: A Novel Adventure by Seve Verdad – Book Review

Finding Devo:  A Novel Adventure - Seve Verdad

Escape from the system?

 

Sports journalist Russell Martell is on holiday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico .  His wife Rosalita has recently died and Russell feels lost and hurt, drifting through life.  Then his journalistic senses begin to come alive as he starts to get the hints of stories: not sports stories, but crime and current events, with a hint of politics.  What is the real story behind a body found in strange circumstances near the beach front?  Is the rumor of a police raid on a suburban house really connected to drug cartels?  Who is the colorful character Devon (Devo) that appears to be making a splash in town, at least according to the bar scuttlebutt?  All these questions seem to draw together, but only more questions emerge.  Soon Russell and his friend, Johnny Miles, will become caught up in an adventure where mystery and uncertainty abounds.  How will ordinary citizens survive, let alone take action in a world of gangs, police and government?  Seve Verdad’s Finding Devo: A Novel Adventure is a story of mystery and action which will intrigue and excite the reader as they follow Russell and Johnny in their desperate attempt to escape disaster.

 

Verdad writes well and he lifts his prose with colorful phrases, giving interesting atmospheric descriptions and character details.  Describing Devo, for example, Verdad writes: “But he is smooth.  Smooth as a pythons belly.  Smooth as a razor blade, a bullet, a warhead” (Ch. 83).  Much of the book varies between chapters in first person narrative, giving Russell’s point of view, and chapters in third person narrative, giving the perspective of various other characters.  This change in viewpoint works well to keep the story complex and interesting.  The text contains quite a liberal scattering of Mexican Spanish.  Sometimes an English translation is given and sometimes not.  The lack of translation is at first annoying, but the reader soon notices that these phrases are not of critical importance to the plot.  The book can certainly be enjoyed without knowledge of Spanish.  There is occasional offensive language, both in English and Spanish, but probably less than occurs in most people’s common language.  Only the most conservative will be offended.  Occasionally there are nice hints of irony.  For example Joaquín ‘Garras’ de Jesús, a brutal federal agent, is depicted “imagining his garras [claws] wrapped around the necks of those who might be responsible for such a barbaric massacre” (Ch. 48).  Who is the barbarian we wonder?  Similarly there is a nice contrast between Garras meditating in order to concentrate his powers of destruction (Ch. 48) and Russell meditating in order to survive pain (Ch. 50).  As a point of criticism it should be noted that the first half of the book is, in sections, a bit too wordy.  The party which Russell attends gets quite a few chapters allocated to it even though it is just one night.  Similarly the revelations from the computer disk, which the police find, go on chapter after chapter, even though we quickly get the basic idea of what they are saying and their relevance.  Also the bomb explosion gets several chapters, each one from a different character’s perspective, even though the basic response of all is shock.  These sections could have been condensed to make the plot move at a swifter pace.  After Chapter 50, however, the book really takes off and never slows until the very finish.  This point should not be overemphasized.  It would be wrong to say that the first half of the book is boring: it is just a little slow in some sections.

 

The novel is divided into three parts.  Book I Fiesta (Ch. 1 – 28) gives an overview of the circumstances in all its many complications, introducing the reader to the book’s many main characters.  This section is characterized by questions and mystery.  Book II Rain (Ch. 29 – 83) is a narration of disaster, then capture and escape.  It begins slowly but escalates midway into a high action and adventure narration.  Book III Camacho (Ch. 84 – 114) is a further story of escape in which questions are answered and resolution is given.  It should be noted, however, that even at the end of the book there are still some open questions, and indeed the reader wonders if Verdad plans a sequel.  This is not a book where everything is tied up neatly.

 

The characters are nicely drawn and we immediately relate to them as real people.  We like Russell because of his inquisitiveness and initiative.  His background in sports makes him appealing to male readers.  His grief over Rosalita’s death shows him to be a man of some feeling, beyond his All-American bravado.  But as the plot progresses the reader begins to see some of Russell’s failings.  He is “egotistical” (Ch. 51) and “rash” (Ch. 7).  Also as we read further Russell evolves from an ‘ordinary’ man to one who deals decisively, if perhaps extremely, with extraordinary circumstances.  Devo, by contrast, remains throughout almost all the book a man of mystery.  He is rumored to be a “pot grower” (Prologue), but we never quite find out how he gets his money.  He is variously a “psycho” (Prologue), a “wildcard” (Ch. 52) or just a good guy engaged in “shenanigans” (Prologue).  Devo is quite a performer who carries off acts in which he appears to change height, change age, and even flawlessly change his voice.  He performs slight-of-hand (Ch. 25 & 72) and indeed Verdad manages to make Devo seem almost mystical and magical.  Devo of course has his limits.  At one point he comments “I don’ know everthin’” (Ch. 50), but he is certainly no ‘ordinary’ man.  By keeping this character an enigma Verdad instills in the readers a sense of intrigue which keeps him reading.  The book has quite a host of other characters which Verdad also successfully draws.  He even manages to sum up quite minor characters in just a few words.  Teachers’ union leader, Teodoro Viareal, for example, is described as having “the voice of an excitable Chihuahua” (Ch. 7).

 

Ambiguity is one of the novel’s chief themes.  As has just been noted Devo is a man of mystery.  We do not know exactly how to place him.  He could be a hero, but seen from other angles he is quite villainous.  Moral and political ambiguities are at a premium in the book.  Actions, circumstances and perspectives are described as having both good and bad points.  Government officials fight for good, against terrorism, yet they are themselves corrupt and inept.  Capitalism, Marxism and Anarchism are all made understandable, being both praised and criticized.  Verdad constantly poses the reader questions which are not easy to answer.  This is not a novel which teaches a ‘correct’ viewpoint: rather it opens up complexity.  Indeed isn’t the world just that: complex.  Aren’t different people, with different perspectives, able to interpret the same event in very different ways with very different conclusions?

 

Corruption is itself so central to this book that it must be considered as a theme in itself.  Vice impairs the function of institutions which could work to the good.  We all say about our little misdemeanors that ‘it doesn’t matter’.  We even say our ‘shadiness’ gives us ‘character’.  But when our dishonesty ends in real trouble we are left embarrassed, and even ashamed of our actions.  We immediately seek to emphasize what little good we can salvage and hide the bad.

 

The individual is a third important theme.  We are single units, yet we are also in systems.  Do our actions count or is the weight of the system too much for us to make a difference?  The individual struggles for survival, and yet so much that happens is a result of external circumstances which we cannot control.  As single people we have a certain ignorance of the system and even naivety.  Yet also as individuals we have our own talents which we can use to direct our future, and even contribute to the bigger picture.  Are we better off in a system or purely as individuals, or is a mix better?  Is anything other than a mix even possible?

 

Verdad’s novel is very much set in a male world of macho toughness and competition and so there are a scattering of anti-female descriptions.  Russell observes “a pair of bubble head dolls” (Ch. 2).  Police Lieutenant Benito Cuevas Romero thinks “Why stand women at all, but for one thing…?” (Ch. 8).  Women are reduced to body parts: “… breasts – important assets for a girl” (Ch. 7).  Gloria Infante Velázquez, however, stands out as a major female character who is capable, successful and dynamic.  Her husband would not be a successful mayor without her help, and he is completely guided by her strong political sense.  Indeed Gloria, if she had chosen so, “might have become mayor of Puerto Vallarta herself, or perhaps Guadalajara, her home town…” (Ch. 5).  Certainly Gloria has her failings, as any person does.  She is driven by power, money and prestige.  In the middle of one of her business negotiations we read: “Her eyes had darkened, become bland, almost dead.  Shark eyes’ (Ch. 7).   But Gloria regrets her part in the major disaster that occurs.  She has a strong sense of “guilt” (Ch. 43) and immediately sets about devoting all her energies to set things right.  When attacked by corrupt policemen Brenda, Russell’s new love interest, fights like a “wildcat” (Ch. 60) and her sister Araceli joins the fight by hurling a baseball at the attackers.  Feminist readers will be glad to find that, in this novel, women are not meekly subordinate adjuncts to men, but rather dynamic persons in their own right.

 

As has just been noted Finding Devo is, at least on the surface, a world of male machoism in line with 1950’s values.  Both Russell and Johnny live for sports, womanizing, drinking, cockfights and have dabbled in law breaking (minor for Russell’s part and major for Johnny’s part).  This comfortably male dominant world, however, is very much undercut when both men find themselves in real trouble.  Suddenly Russell and Johnny are victims who need to be rescued.  Their bravado wears thin as they find themselves in waters way beyond their depth.  Certainly it is a male who ‘saves’ them and certainly they are not completely helpless themselves, but the brash American male image takes a beating.  Quite a number of other male characters in positions of power are also undercut.  Their confident acceptance of corruption in various forms, as a bonus of their ‘tough-guy’ power, leads to their downfall and ineffectiveness.  Devo, as has been noted, remains an enigma.  He is certainly a ‘tough-guy’ hero, but we never quite know how to take him.  Is he to be admired or viewed with some doubt?  He ‘pulls the strings’, but to what end?  Rather than the traditional 1950’s ‘super-hero’ we have an ambiguous magician who even at the end leaves us with questions.  How much should we admire him?  Devo has intelligence, skill and charisma, but is hardly a New Age man of feeling.  Russell by contrast gains positive re-connection with his emotions and is able to associate with others in a mature way.

 

The indigenous people of Mexico are represented in the text, though not always in a positive light.  Those people in power in the novel do not view the Indians favorably.  They are described as “naco” a “pejorative word often used in Mexican Spanish to describe the bad-mannered and poorly educated people of lower social classes” (Wikipedia. Naco (slang):__ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naco_(slang)).  As early as Chapter 1 we read: “They have no respect.  Better to send them all north.  Let the gringos deal with them, fill their jails with them” (Ch. 1).  But the Anarchist Carlos Mansalva (Manco) takes up the cause for the Indians.  We read “The entire continent belongs to us, those of Indigenous blood” (Ch. 8).  Further we read of “Zapatistas” (Ch. 5 and following) the politically left Indigenous Mexican movement.  The indigenous are mentioned as demonstrating for their rights (Ch. 7).  Indigenous people are represented chiefly by two characters: Javier Menticlaro and Paulo Pepino Revueltas (Chimp).  Javier is an influential Zapatista leader, though he could be viewed as a ‘bad’ character.  Similarly Chimp holds the respected occupation of police officer, but is certainly not represented positively.  It must be remembered that ambiguity is strong in the novel and so both the good and the bad of indigenous people is discussed.  Javier is a particularly ambiguous character.  We can understand him as an indigenous person, but do not necessarily agree with his actions.

 

In turn with the macho atmosphere of the book LBTIQ characters are absent.  There are indeed a couple of anti-Queer comments made in Chapter 2.  Perhaps one positive character could have been included in the party, at the beginning of the book, and we know that police are not exclusively heterosexual.  In an novel which so emphasizes ambiguity, and which asks so many questions, it is perhaps a missed opportunity that LGBTIQ characters were passed over.

 

The Aged, a much ignored group, are also absent.  They perhaps would have been inappropriate in the heavy partying, high action world of the novel.

 

As has been mentioned ambiguity is prevalent in this novel and peaks when it is viewed from the Marxist / Capitalist debate.  The Capitalist U.S. is viewed as a very safe place compared to the Socialist Mexico, yet the Capitalist desire for money and prestige is a very major contributing factor in the crisis of the novel.  Indeed Gloria’s Capitalist ventures end in defeat, not triumph.  But similarly Marxism is represented as being falsely hollow. Media Minister Lazarito Charlado is an appointee of the Socialist Reform Party, but is interested in the “advance … [of his] … fortunes” (Ch. 3), that is, in the personal moneys he can amass and the power and prestige he can gain.  Even more the Socialist influenced Zapatista movement is depicted as violent and aggressive.  At the heart of both Capitalism and Marxism corruption can lead to a political culture where power, authority and legitimacy are undermined.  Anarchism, a political ideology more left than Marxism, is partially represented in the text by the activist Carlos Mansalva (Manco).  Manco makes quite good arguments against Capitalism and for the advancement of the indigenous Mexican people, but he has quite violent tendencies. Even more Maco is depicted as being falsely hollow, like Lazarito, being motivated by the large amounts of money he can earn for his dubious dealings with Chimp (Ch. 58). Despite this criticism, though, Anarchism has a prominent place in the novel.  The actions of private citizens are seen as being more effective than those of organizations.  But can even individuals be trusted to act for the ‘good’?  The questions abound.

 

Finding Devo is very much a postmodern novel in the sense that there are no hard edges or categories anywhere.  As Brenda observes: “People are brutal, Russell.  The whole lot of us” (Ch. 18).  Even the ‘good’ are capable of doing ‘bad’ given the right circumstances, and indeed what is good and what is bad depends on the observer’s perspective.  Even the ‘bad’ character Masked Apocalypse, who by his nom de plume is associated with the devil, is given human motivation.

 

Verdad has written an action adventure, rather than a more poetic book, and so there is not much imagery and symbolism in it.  There are, however, a few elements of the symbolic.  Devo’s nickname hints at the word devolution, suggesting escape from a system, but once again questions, rather than answers, arise.  Which system is being escaped from?  Is it good or bad, or perhaps both, to escape a system?  Is to devolve to go backwards, or is there still a creative forwards motion in it?  Where exactly is Devo taking Russell?  Similarly, through much of the novel unusual weather hangs over Puerto Vallarta.  Light rain hangs over the city like a “mist” (Ch. 60) obscuring the view, making people feel slightly at odds.  This is symbolic of the crisis of the novel where for most of the characters, the action remains a mystery.  Confusion abounds and truth is obscured.  People think they have the answer, but are deluded.

 

Looking deeper into symbolism and myth it should be noted that Devo is a magician.  He uses metaphoric smoke and mirrors to trick, to obscure, when it suits him.  We never quite know where exactly he stands.  He uses electronic ‘trickery’ to help him pull off his ‘secret agent’ stunts.  This element of the novel draws upon the cultural mythology represented by the Tarot card The Magician.  Sally Annett and Rowena Shepherd observe that this card implies both “rules … [and] .. cheating” (The Atavist Tarot:__ London: Quantum, c2003, p. 47), and both Arthur Edward Waite (The Pictorial Key To The Tarot:­­__ Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, c1971, p. 72)  and Giordano Berti and Tiberio Gonard (Tarot Of The New Vision:__ Torino, Italy: Lo Scarabeo, c2005, p. 19) note that the card implies both virtue and trickery.  Indeed going further Annett and Shepherd note that, when thinking of the card, “we must be aware that man’s ability to manipulate the elements can be used for evil as well as good” (Atavist Tarot, p. 49).  Berti and Gonard particularly emphasis that “ambiguity” (New Vision, p. 19) is the key to the card, and as has been noted this is a major theme in the novel.  Where exactly does Devo stand in the novel?  Is he a force for evil or good?  Karen Hamaker-Zondag notes of the card: “He has a vision or ideal to which he is devoted, and on which he expands his energies. [ … ] Hence The Magician possesses both flexibility and courage, and his vitality makes him want to do something worthwhile.” (Tarot As A Way Of Life: A Jungian Approach To The Tarot:__ York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1997, p. 132)  Devo is certainly heroic and his mind and actions are definitely set on a particular problem or project.  Sallie Nichols writes: “The Magician will include us in his plans.  He welcomes us on stage as his accomplice.  Some degree of cooperation on our part is necessary for the success of his magic.” (Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey:__ York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weisner, 1980, p. 46)  Russell and Johnny certainly become caught up in Devo’s plans and in a sense he needs them to work his magic.

 

Seve Verdad’s Finding Devo is an exciting adventure / mystery novel with interesting characterization and generally good writing style.  The plot revolves around the main themes of ambiguity, corruption and the individual.  There is a fairly strong political emphasis, though no one system is favored as being ‘right’.  Men and women are depicted realistically, and in terms that would be viewed positively by those interested in modern Gender Studies.  Indigenous Mexicans are depicted, partially favorably, partially unfavorably.  At 565 pages the novel is probably not a weekend read, though it can certainly be read enjoyably over a longer period of time.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Pest On The Run by Gerry Burke – Book Review

Pest on the Run: More Humorous Short Stories from the Paddy Pest Chronicles - Gerry Burke

Big trouble and light hearted investigations…

 

A beautiful stage show star, come whore house madam, is suddenly foully murdered, despite her apparent gangster protection.  A disgruntled Japanese business tycoon hires a hit man to assassinate Australia’s Prime Minister.  An unbeatable game show contestant takes a recreational bungee-jump, only to have her rope break in what her friend thinks is dubious circumstances.  Enter the low-life world of Paddy Pest, sometimes Private Investigator and sometimes secret agent for Australia’s spy bureau ASIO.  Pest is based in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, though is very frequently an international traveler.  He is a master of dubious disguises, and often manages to solve the case despite his shortcomings.  Here is a world where virtually everybody has a rancorous underbelly, and where murder is a common life event, but where good will eventually win out (even if by fluke).  These humorous short stories will beguile you, entertain you and make you chuckle.  Gerry Burke’s Pest On The Run: More Humorous Short Stories From The Paddy Pest Chronicles (iUniverse, c2012) is ideal for the lover of crime and murder mystery tales, but will also suit busy people looking for a witty amusement to fill a free hour or two.

 

Paddy is a frequent visitor of both upper class and lower class hotel bars, and these tales have the ethos of a pub yarn: unlikely events, boisterous pride, and male machoism lubricated to dubious heights.  The style is very chatty, with Pest narrating his stories as if he is talking to an interested acquaintance.  There are asides to the reader.  When pertinent, Paddy occasionally reminisces about his past, including his childhood.  With a flair for drama he sometimes skips over the more mundane details to get to the action and juicy bits.  These stories certainly deal with the darker side of life, and a few times death is narrated, but the great majority of these plots take place after the brutality is over.  This book is about solving crime, not depicting crime and is overwhelmingly light hearted.  Paddy is certainly a ladies man and the ticklish subject of sex is often alluded to, though not specifically depicted.  In tune with the ‘pub ethos’, Paddy’s descriptions of women can be quite humorously crude, without actually being offensive, except perhaps to the conservative.  There are several laugh out loud moments and every story will leave the reader smiling.  Most stories have moments of high drama, though here the unlikeliness of the action is taken tongue in cheek.  Occasionally Burke includes good phrasing that lifts the text.  We read for example the atmospheric and slightly philosophic sentence: “Often, when you visit a country with a different culture, it is difficult to break through the veneer of reserve that camouflages a human spirit that is primed to explode” (Burke, p. 25).  More of this care in writing would make the book even better.  There is occasional foul language, but this is completely in tune with the macho low-life spirit of the book and will not offend most readers.  This is a book by an Australian author and there is quite a sprinkling of colloquialisms and cultural references which may be unfamiliar to international readers.  Some are explained in the text, which erases any difficulty, but some are not.  These are, however, in no way essential to the text and will at the most cause a moment of wondering before the reader passes on.

 

In his collective stories Burke presents us with an interesting portrait of “Patrick Pesticide aka Paddy Pest” (Burke, p. v).  Paddy is of Irish heritage, though primarily Australian in outlook.  Burke thus combines both Irish luck and silliness, with the Australian macho male.  He is a gambler and bets on race horses, and has quite an eye for the women.  Paddy is of dubious background.  He says of himself “I would not say I was straight or bent – somewhere in the middle” (Burke, p. 4).  On the down side Paddy can be quite sexist, seeing women in many ways as bodies first.  Full of pride Pest sees himself as a “master of disguise” (Burke, p. 37), though others are not nearly as convinced.  While Paddy is in training in New Guinea one character comments on his being “dressed in a ridiculous head-hunter’s outfit” (Burke, p. 188).  By creating this mix of good and bad Burke has created an endearing, eccentric character that we can like because he gives us a slightly spicy escape from our ‘ordinary’ lives.  Paddy reminds us of the rough, tough boy at high school who everybody admired, but who never really did anything seriously wrong.  He is a ‘lad’ and the reader is charmed.  Paddy of course comes in a great tradition of incompetent Private Investigators / Spies.   We think of Austin Powers, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Agent Maxwell Smart and even Inspector Gadget.  Burke, however, has given us his own particular spin on the pattern, and we do not feel that we are reading a complete copy.

 

A few other characters pop up more than once.  There is Stormy Weathers, the totally competent ASIO agent, who has a cover job as barmaid at Sam’s Fly by Night Club.  There is Justin O’Keefe, the slacker police Inspector with an attitude.  Mostly these secondary characters are at a minimum.  Burke does, though, give them personality traits that flesh them out a bit.  Stormy, for example, is a jealous lover.  Occasionally Burke gives us a potted history of a character, giving us a summary of their eccentricities and adventures.  Murder victim Frankie Hogan, for example, is a memorable woman with true spirit.  Burke describes her in three pages giving the story depth and poignancy.  Burke is quite skilled at this kind of detail and his writing would benefit by including more of it.

 

As we have noted Pest himself can be quite sexist.  At one point for example he outrageously poses the equation that large breasts equals many friends (Burke, p. 200).  Much of the humor, however, arises from the fact that many women are in actuality much more competent than him.  As Pest himself says: “There had been two attempts on my life and, once more, I had been saved by a woman” (Burke, p. 77).  These stories are indeed filled with dynamic, no-nonsense women you would think twice about crossing.  There is a dangerous female assassin, successful business women, and several able female secret agents.  Frankie Hogan takes no sexual nonsense from men, has “personality” (Burke, p. 3), and is a success in all her career ventures.  Not to err too much on one side Burke has included one nasty, negatively-portrayed, female villain (Burke, p. 118).  On the whole this book will pass Feminist standards, though some may not take the humor.

 

Shifting to male roles and Gender Studies it should be noted that these stories are in some ways very much in the ethos of the 1950’s though they are set in contemporary times.  This is the world of the tough guy, the gangster, the merry bachelor.  Men should not really have soft feelings.  Hyman Finkelstein, a low-life criminal, doesn’t even like people looking at him (Burke, p. 151) let alone be able to have a mature relationship.  Fear is a sign that a guy must be a “nancy boy” (Burke, p. 230).  Paddy, on the other hand, is able to hug an old, male friend (Burke, p. 17).  Women are very much a sexual adjunct to the male ego.  Paddy does have a kind of steady relationship with Stormy, but even that is very much a breakable, uncommitted relationship.  This whole ‘retro’ male image is, however, held up to debunking humor.  This male world is on shaky ground.  The great male image repeatedly is out shone by women and needs females to save it.

 

As with the issue of women and Feminism, Paddy Pest, and those he meets, can be quite homophobic.  Paddy, for example, refers to gays by a disparaging name (Burke, p. 244), as does Hyman Finkelstein (Burke, p, 151).  Finkelstein is particularly negative about gays. The actual representations of LGBTIQ people, however, on the whole are not that negative about that aspect of their lives.  LGBTIQ people are primarily represented by two stories.  First there is The Candidate which spotlights Lindsay Dove and his life-partner Jay Sniggle.  Lindsay is a U.S. presidential candidate and Jay is an IT consultant.  Then there is Who Was That Masked Man? highlighting the ‘butch-fem’ caterer Cate Edwards.  Cate is a villain, but the story is not negative about her being a lesbian.  This second story indeed has Ellen DeGeneres making fun of Paddy’s cloddish ignorance of the LGBTIQ community.  Ellen is mentioned (as an LGBTIQ person) in another story (Burke, p. 84), as is k.d. Lang (Burke, p. 154).  Gay Mardi Grass are mentioned twice.  A number of times women are suspected to be lesbian (not in a negative way) and a ‘drag-queen’ secret agent is depicted canoodling with an unwitting male politican (Burke, p. 138-139).  On another occasion Paddy comes upon a not so pretty ‘drag-queen’ (Burke, p. 21), but this is the only negative description, and of course not all transvestites are necessarily beautiful.  Once again the issue should not offend interested parties as long as the humor is taken into account.

 

The often ignored Indigenous and Racial Minorities also feature.  Lindsay Dove is “black” (Burke, p. 79) as well as being gay.  In A Long Time Gone Australia’s Jewish minority is highlighted in the character of Hyman Finkelstein.  Hymie is a gangster villain, but Burke goes out of his way to point out that he is not being anti-Jewish (Burke, p. 158-159).  Louey is a successful “Polynesian” bar owner on Norfolk Island (Burke, p. 121).  In The Goodbye Wave, though, the head of Fiji is referred to as a “baboon” (Burke, p. 129).  This is a rather racist description, even for humorous purposes.  Overall this is a very multicultural book, with Chinese, Japanese, Philipino, Hong Kong, Russian, Balkan and Greeks mentioned with stories being set in many different countries.  We get a true sense of the world, rather than a monosyllabic, white Anglo-Saxon perspective.

 

The aged feature in a very minor way in these tales.  There is one uncomplimentary portrayal (Burke, p. 176) and one positive description of an older (though not necessarily aged) woman (Burke, p. 195).  Burke could lift his game a little here, as the world is not full of only those under 55 years, even though some agencies such as advertising would have us believe this.

 

From the Capitalism verses Socialism perspective wealth in these stories is certainly suspect.  These tales show only a very slim difference between corrupt businessmen and rich gangsters.  Politicians and even judges don’t exactly receive compliments.  The lower classes are not lauded, but they are not seriously criticized.  The Little people’ more often than not help Paddy.  The middle class is to a degree absent, but this is not so surprising as they are not likely to have the funds to hire a Private Investigator and are too ‘clean’ to have information on gangsters.

 

From the broader outlook of society in general, the Catholic Church is foot-noted as being anti-gay (Burke, p. 82 & 154) and rather a kill-joy for the more spirited members of the world (Burke, 149).  The Police are depicted as being often incompetent and corrupt.  These two institutions of society, perhaps in tune with Socialism, could be improved.

 

Before departing from these various social issues it should be stressed that these stories rely very much on outrageous statements and circumstances for humor.  The book is full of politically incorrect text, but we are meant to take everything tongue in cheek.  If we read these tales too critically we will be deeply offended, but Burke wants us, on the one hand to ‘lighten up’, and on the other hand to look a bit deeper.  If this is kept in mind the book can very much be enjoyed.

 

From a Postmodern perspective it can be noted that there are no hard edge binary oppositions in Pest On The Run.  There are definite ‘bad’ guys, but good and bad blur.  As has been noted, Paddy himself is shady.  We like him precisely because he is a ‘wag’.  In Murder Before Lunch Pest even works for a crime boss.  This blurring of categories makes for a more realistic and interesting read.  It adds ‘spice’ and avoids boring oversimplification.

 

Many stories have a mythological quality, and indeed these elements can be what attract us most to an author’s work.  For Paddy Pest we need only to turn to the Joker Card in the modern playing card pack.  As court jester, the Joker is dressed in a funny costume, and Pest similarly assumes dubious disguises.  The Joker’s cap has pretentious baubles and he holds a wand topped with a manikin of himself.   Pest is none to retiring in describing his own talents as a spy and lover.  Yet the Joker possesses almost magical powers that no other card has, and in its presence many a losing hand can be transformed into a winning hand.  Pest does solve the case, even if by sheer luck.  Of course, most of all, the Joker tells silly stories and jokes, and that is the overwhelming ethos of Burke’s book.

 

Gerry Burke has written a very entertaining book for the not so serious at heart.  He manages to take a look at a wide variety of social issues, such as Feminism, while at the same time making us laugh.  The dark world of crime is depicted, occasionally with the brutality described, but good always wins out and we are mostly entertained by a light hand.  Most stories are around 20 pages long, and are ideal reading if you are short of time.  Pest On The Run was a pleasure to read and I am happy to rate it as 4.5 out of 5 stars.

 

 

http://goo.gl/pfzodA   Pest On The Run (Book ed.)

http://goo.gl/PJDHzw Pest On The Run (Kindle ed.)

http://goo.gl/rxzUnD   Gerry Burke’s Facebook Author Page

http://goo.gl/QisYTm   Gerry Burke’s Web Site

 

 

Source: http://raymondmathiesenbookreviews.blogspot.com.au/p/blog-page.html

Armageddon and the 4th Timeline by Don Mardak - Book Review

Armageddon and the 4th Timeline: A Spiritual Odyssey Through Time & Eternity - Don Mardak

A thrilling ride from the first page…

 

Armageddon and the 4th Timeline by Don Mardak is a thrilling ride from the first page.  This science fiction novel combines time travel, spiritual themes, a fascinating mix of characters and modern intrigue to create an ‘un-put-down-able’ novel.

 

We meet the CIA Director, Scott Cunningham, a former Navy SEAL, and his Assistant Lori Colbert, addressing a meeting after a terrible terrorists attacks.  We also meet husband and wife Kathy and Eric who are in Lhasa, Tibet, on a spiritual quest.  Through Eric's time travel, both worlds intersect.  Mardak's premise throughout the novel is that there "is a spiritual universe, and mankind has the ability to rise into a higher level of consciousness where all conflicts can be resolved peacefully without resorting to wars, or threatening a nuclear holocaust.”

 

Mardak'sArmageddon and the 4th Timeline is a science fiction novel, containing elements of time travel.  It is set in 'the Present' with a clear aim of trying to reconcile what is happening.  There is a definite sense of good and bad in the novel.  Mardak’s fascinating use of the scriptural characters of Paul and Silas to both examine Christianity, and to change the future, is an amazing read.  How Mardak structures the novel is particularly well done, so that the ending is both satisfying, works in a science fiction way, and races to the finish, all at once.

 

The novel examines the various tenets of a number of the main religions (Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, and Judaism) using them as plot devices: e.g. Paul's Missionary Journey.  This exploration of religion is quite a wild ride, but worth it.

 

The first third of the novel introduces us to the characters: to the CIA, the issues related to Eric and Kathy, and to the Himalayan mystic Shimahn.  This first third also introduces broader geopolitical issues, as well as setting up the 'four dimensional world of space time'.  In the second section of the novel the actual time travel begins. We see its effects from Eric's point of view. He is an interested participant.  In this section Mardak makes good use of structure to make his point, but also to move the plot along.  The last third of the novel brings everything together: the time changes and the new ideas and perspectives.  There is an ending which is in some ways surreal, and which is beautifully realised.

 

One of the main themes of this book is religion.  It's a fascinating book because I believe many people see Religions as having "Truths" and this novel certainly plays with some of those.  Anyone who believes that the Bible is the written word of God will have a difficult time with this novel.  That said, it is far from Mr. Mardak's aim to make anyone annoyed about this.  I feel, quite the contrary.

 

The novel discuses time travel and how it can save the world.  What difference would it make to war?  Mardak also asks what kind of world are we creating?  How do we cause and prevent nuclear holocaust?  Armageddon and the 4th Timeline is also about an attitude of helping and working together to create change.

 

The relationships that are explored in the novel illustrate personal growth and caring.  Kathy and Eric, Colbert and Cunningham, Paul and Silas are all studies in how we see, how we relate, and how we can change.  The focus in Armageddon and the 4th Timeline is how this happens.

 

A minor quibble about the characters is the character of Kathy.  I didn't feel that she had very much to say for herself, and was a little too passive for my liking. Eric, however, is well written and his relationship with Kathy is nicely drawn.  The CIA group are depicted as a good bunch.  They sounded quite different to Eric and Kathy: they were exciting and gun-ho.  They were well drawn.

 

The scenes in the desert were particularly evocative and the relationships depicted there, though brief, remind the reader that some of the central ideas of the novel are relationship and awareness.  The different families in the desert remind the reader that families have many different shapes.  In terms of diversity and families there are a range of families: Lori Colbert is a divorced mother, Kathy and Eric have been married seven years and there are the families in the Sinai desert.  There is also the relationships between Shimahn and Eric and Kathy, and between Paul and Silas.  Mardak also emphasises diversity by depicting various religions and mixing those religions in unique ways.

 

This novel runs along at a fast, fast pace.  At times it fairly gallops.  It has fantastic ideas about time and space and makes the reader think.

 

Armageddon and the 4th Timeline has a thoughtful purpose, but is highly readable and action packed.  Mardak's plot is well structured and he makes good use of characters.  From the first “gloomy Thursday in Langley…” (Ch. 1) I wanted to read on, to find out what was happening, what was going on.  The science fiction genre makes a twist with a spectacularly good ending.  I am happy to rate this novel as 4.5 out of five stars. 

 

Crimson Footprints by Shewanda Pugh - Book Review

Crimson Footprints - Shewanda Pugh

The balancing act of life…

Deena Hammond is a 24 year old architect living and working in her home town of Miami, Florida.  In some ways Deena is very successful, but she comes from a poor background, and in many ways she is still inextricably tied up with those origins.  Her grandmother, Emma Hammond, who brought Deena up, is constantly demanding and never satisfied.  Deena’s adult brother Anthony is a small-time criminal, and her sister Lizzie, though still at school, is incorrigibly wayward and seems headed for a disaster of a life.  Deena is half African-American and half white and feels that she was never really accepted by the black side of her family when they took her in as a child.  In very harrowing circumstances Deena meets Takumi (Tak for short) Tanaka, the son of her world famous, distant and demanding boss Daichi Tanaka.  Immediately the personal chemistry and attraction seems right, but everything else between these two people seems impossible.  Deena is a mere underling.  Should she even be talking to the son of the owner of the business she works for?  What is more Deena’s family very much expects her to date a black man.  Can these two people overcome the odds and form a friendship, or even the romance they both desire?

 

Shewanda Pugh’s Crimson Footprints can certainly be classified as a romance; however, it is much more than that.  It is a story of class consciousness and racial division.  It is about the struggle to find the right equilibrium between work and family, and it is a story about trying to ‘do the right thing’.  Most of all, this novel is about balance in all things.  We are all different, but we must overcome our resistances and come to the centre ground if we are truly going to be a success in life.

 

Pugh has managed to successfully weld sweet romance with biting ‘slice of life’.  Romance, especially the first phase, usually seems enjoyable, even with its ups and downs and Pugh captures the pleasant nature of first love well.  Mixed in with these chapters, though, are insights into the often seedy, cruel world of the lower class.  This juxtaposition works very well, jarring us, and reminding us that while life can seem pleasurable, there is always harshness, perhaps not too distant from us.  There is considerable irony in the contrasts between Deena’s romance, and her striving for career success, and Lizzie’s pure-flesh ‘sexploits’ and base efforts to get ahead (for example the Ch. 7 / Ch. 8 contrast).  Pugh’s phrasing, particularly at peak moments, is often excellent, lifting her prose from the mundane.  In Chapter 1, for example, which describes the run down suburb of Liberty City, we read of “Torn fences that imprison rather than embellished” the houses which Deena passes.  This care with words, and occasionally poetic turn of phrase, helps to mark out the book as more than the average read.  There are moments of pure humour, particularly the events surrounding Takumi’s cousin Mike and his fumbling attempts to capture Deena’s attention (CH. 47 & following).  There are also moments of true shock and also scenes of high drama that take us far from the average world of romance.  Pugh has included occasional swearing, and sex is very openly discussed and depicted.  This may offend conservative readers, but is certainly justified by the themes, characters and story line.

 

The book has a more unusual plot structure.  Part One (Ch. 1 - 7) serves as a general introduction to the Hammond and Tanaka families, and to Deena’s work.  The plot peaks early, then builds as complications follow.  Part Two (Ch. 8 – 42) is a very long section covering Tak and Deena’s extended holiday road-trip across much of the U.S.  Romance blooms as Deena learns to loosen up, then a series of couples are met.  These couples serve to show how Tak and Deena’s love perhaps could work.  The sequence comes to an unexpected close as events suddenly twist in a crisis.  This Part could perhaps have been divided into two sections, though the whole sequence is certainly united by the structure of the holiday.  Part Three (Ch. 43 – 64) covers the problem of the hidden nature of the romance, centring on complications during a working holiday break.  The disastrous climax of the novel is reached followed by a brief sequence wrapping up circumstances with the Tanaka family.  Part Four (Ch. 65 – 67) describes the complications with Emma.  This section is quite brief and perhaps could have been extended a little considering Deena’s grandmother’s earlier resistance, tenacity and belligerence.  The Epilogue, set some years in the future wraps up the plot lines nicely, though one question is pointedly left open.

 

As already indicated the main theme of Crimson Footprints is balance, or Difference/Harmony.  We like people ‘like us’, but we are all individuals.  What does it really mean to be ‘like me”?  Is this merely a matter of externals, or are internals more important?  We need to accept who people are, and where they came from, but not be bound by that.  An openness in outlook and balance is needed otherwise we will be bound forever in very limited circumstances.  On another level, how do we handle the conflict between work and family / social life?  Is one demand more important than another?  Can we neglect either?  Of course there are no easy answers, though those may be the first to come to us.  Life is complicated and this book explores these complications.

 

The family is a second important theme.  Families can be both sources of pain and sources of strength, and both features can occur in the same kinfolk.  Families are what make us, but at the same time are what we grow from.  They can be conservatively stolid, relying heavily on tradition, or can adapt to new circumstances.  We can ignore them, but we can never really escape them.  Following from tradition, a family can be a basic mother, father and children, or it can be a less conventional grouping.  Families are very basic to human nature and being taken in, or adopted, does not make it of less importance to us.  This very contrary institution in fact dominates us.  We come from families and then we make new families, or at least extend those which we have.

 

Another important theme in the novel is what could broadly be termed as success.  We are encouraged to ‘do our best’, to ‘do good’, to ‘shine’.  What is success and what are the traits that allow us to see it?  Is it hard work resulting in material objects?  Is it love, honesty, caring and ethics resulting in respect and attachment?  Is there room for both?  Millennia ago the ancient Greeks asked, “What is the good citizen?”  In response they formulated the idea of “Virtue” (Ben Dupre. 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need To Know: Quercus, 2007, p. 96 – 99), that is, the character traits that make us wisely successful in both working life and family life, and indeed everything that we do.  This idea of ‘virtue’ is central to Pugh’s novel.  Deena struggles to be a ‘good person’ ethically, socially and workwise.  For her these are not separate issues, and not merely because she is in love with the boss’s son: all are tied up with who she is as a person.  Of course there is success in terms of one social class’s ideals or another’s, but what is truly wise success.  In the end isn’t success really related to what makes us “happy” (Ch. 20), as complex an issue as that may be?

 

Following from this there is also a minor theme of ‘religion verses ethics’.  The Christian religion claims to be the guide for good, but surely considering the evil things that befall us for no reason we should conclude that God in some ways unfairly hates us (Ch. 2)?  Indeed doesn’t hell hang over us like some permanent, inescapable damnation (Ch. 2)?  Even if these things aren’t entirely correct theologically, aren’t accusation and condemnation how Christians really act?  Is this really what good is all about?  Equally, for so many, isn’t Buddhism in reality simply a constraining tradition full of rules about obligation (Ch. 10), rather than a source of right behaviour leading to internal peace?  Once again this may not be correct according to the true tenets of Buddhism, but isn’t this how it often works out in practice?  If religion in practice isn’t such a good guide for ‘goodness’, what do we take as our guide?  Surely we must fall back into the painful position of finding our own way, and indeed Deena must struggle to find her own position.

 

Deena Hammond is an interesting character who we immediately like and care about.  What strikes us is her positivity in very negative circumstance and her determination to get somewhere better.  Deena is a ‘Star’, without being too perfect.  Despite her determination, in certain circumstances, particularly with her Grandmother, she collapses.  What unites these converse character elements is the fact that she is a self-accuser.  Her accusation drives her on to career success, but also holds her up in her battle with her domineering Grandmother.  While she accuses herself, Deena is somewhat driven to help others, particularly her siblings.  This kind of complexity does much to make Deena seem more real to the reader.  She is no cardboard cut-out.  Deena must learn to limit her career “expectations” (Ch. 12) and not rely so much on “reason” (Ch. 16) alone to solve problems.  These are human challenges the reader can recognise and understand, even if they do not personally suffer from them.

 

Takumi Tanaka is in some ways the ‘perfect man’ every woman dreams about.  He is “athletic” (Ch. 1), a success at both art and business (Ch. 5) and caring.  His limitation is that, while he can understand Grandmother Emma all too well, he only has a limited understanding of his own father and family.  Despite this the reader wonders if Tak could have had just one or two more faults to make him more human.

 

Grandmother Emma Hammond is an appropriate nemesis.  She is a narrow minded bigot, uneducated, an immense hypocrite and appropriately venomous, though occasionally she can give way.  The words “consistently hostile” (Ch. 1) certainly sum her up.  Her Christianity is certainly a biting irony.

 

Daichi Tanaka is describe by a magazine is “Architectural God” (Ch. 3) and his behaviour exhibits the kind of flaws that such adulation would certainly bring.  He can be arrogant, bad tempered, rude and cold, but he is also willing to give others a chance to prove themselves, and even work to bring out the best in people. Daichi is like Deena in his determined, even driven nature, and in his concern for others, but quite different in his self-adulation.  Pugh has these two character form an interesting and rich relationship, and has managed to make Daichi equally complex.

 

Examined from the perspective of Feminism it can easily be seen that Deena is a successful young career woman and entirely self-made. Deena’s challenge is to live up to the goals set by Betty Friedan (Cathia Jenainati. Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 90 – 94) of being successful both in her job and family life, without falling into the same traps that men do (primarily favouring career over relationships).  Hatsumi, Tak’s mother, however, is by marked contrast a 1950’s woman: unloved, unhappy, trapped at home, but beautifully dressed.  Even Hatsumi, however, has a certain dignity and demonstrates a mind of her own, showing how women can rise above these circumstances.  Emma, for all her failings, is certainly headstrong.  Lizzie has a mind of her own, but serves as representative of the ‘sex object’ so propagated by traditional media and male driven dominance.  Pugh makes it more than clear that according to her this option is not to be desired.  Rhonda, Deena’s aunty, is also a career woman (Ch. 4), but demonstrates the bigotry which the ‘new woman’ faces as she must “constantly field unfounded accusations that she is a lesbian” (Ch. 4) simply because she does not fit a very narrow picture of what a woman should be like.

 

Daichi is very representative of the 1950’s male role model, being a stranger to both his feelings and his family, and believing that his duty as a male is solely to provide income.  He sees himself as the family figure head.  As the story progresses, however, this position comes under increasing, condemning scrutiny.  Tak, by contrast, is the twenty first century man: not New Age / Spiritual, but none the less in touch with his own feelings, and caring of others.  As an artist he expresses freedom and creativity, rather than being trapped in a rigid role.  Anthony Hammond, Deena’s brother, represents that large group of men who have not progressed to the standard proposed by twenty first century male Gender Studies.  He is everything a man should not be, trapped in a 1950’s ‘tough rebel’ role, renamed “gasgsta” (Ch. 56) as if it were something new.

 

This is by far a predominantly heterosexual novel, though, LGBTIQ people are very briefly represented by Bridget, “a lesbian” (Ch. 20), who is positively depicted as a successful career woman.  Two quite large families are depicted in the novel, plus other minor characters, and we wonder if more of a representation of LGBTIQ people could have been made, particularly in a book where ‘difference’ is an important theme.

 

The aged, who are often ignored in society, are chiefly represented by Emma Hammond, though this is clearly not a sympathetic depiction.  Of course being old does not automatically make you nice or wise.  The absent character of Eddie Hammond, Emma’s husband, is equally uncomplimentary, though that is not surprising as the two belong together, having chosen each other as partners.  Yukiko, Tak’s grandmother, by contrast proves to have learned wisdom over the years and in an important scene gives Daichi very useful words of advice.

 

This is a novel very much about minorities and highlights the difficulties those who would reach beyond their group face, as well as the difficulties those of mixed racial background face.  African-Americans are highlighted, as are the U.S. minority of Japanese-Americans.  This is, however, not really a book about political agenda or advancement in the standard way Post-Colonial Studies thinks.  We do not, for example, really hear of civil rights.  The social history behind African-American food is certainly mentioned early on (Ch. 4), and we hear that this is the food of slaves who must do with left overs.  Also we hear that architecture should reflect the culture of the ethnic group (e.g. Mayan farmers) and empower these local groups (Ch. 3).  As has been seen, both Deena and Rhonda are successful, black career women, and Daichi is certainly successful way beyond the normal expectations.  The bigotry faced by both Japanese and Negroes in the U.S. is also briefly touched on as is the difficulties of mixed race couples (Ch. 57).  The difficulties of people of mixed racial origin are also mentioned (Ch. 22).  In all of this, however, the emphasis is on personal coping rather than political agenda.  As has been said, this is a book about ‘Virtue’, and Pugh’s aim is to demonstrate the personal attitude in the face of these circumstances is what is important.  Personal action to overcome poverty, for example, is the solution, rather than simply social programs.  This is illustrated by the marked contrasts between the Tanaka and Hammond families.  The Tanakas, despite their problems and failings, are educational achievers, work achievers and socially successful.  The Hammonds, on the other hand ignore education, choose criminal careers, and glory in social bigotry and abrasiveness.  They lead lives full of failure and ineptitude and seem to glory in it.  Deena and Rhonda are of course the exception.  As can be seen Pugh is not pulling her punches.  This is a tough message and will be unpopular with at least some, though her message is overwhelmingly one of hope.

 

Similar to the position on minorities, Pugh takes an unusual stand in the Capitalist / Socialist debate.  The evils of poverty are openly depicted.  One example is the Liberty City high school where it is virtually impossible to take driver education courses because of under-resourcing (Ch. 7).  There is no doubt that people should be able to live better.  But once again the primary solution is personal virtue and not government programs.  Opulent wealth is not openly condemned, far from it, but it is not placed above interpersonal caring and personality characteristics of value.  Monetary wealth is of value, but not if that is all you have.  This is certainly in keeping with the theories of Marx (Gill Hands. Understanding Marx: Hodder Education, 2011, Ch. 6), but is hardly standard Socialism.  Pure Capitalism at the expense of virtue is certainly to be denied.  Anthony has his “Air Jordans” (Ch. 6) and Lizzie has her tawdry, growing personal income, but at what expense to them personally?  None the less this novel is in part a celebration of the American rags to riches ideal: the self-made man/woman.

 

Pugh is of course aiming to write about ‘real’ people and ‘real’ life, and so the field of psychology comes into play.  Psychology aims to discover truths about human nature and behaviour, and so is a useful tool and aid to fiction.  Deena is primarily motivated by guilt instilled in her by her overly-critical, religious grandparents who “bullied” her relentlessly (Ch. 12), and as a result is very critical of herself (Ch. 7), though she has achieved much in her life.  She is controlled by the voice of others rather than her own “decision making and self-regulation” (Michael J. Formica. Guilt is a Wasted Emotion: Psychology Today: July 25, 2008, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/enlightened-living/200807/guilt-is-wasted-emotion).   She is a rigid planner (Ch. 9) locked in schemes to ensure success, so that the critical voices (now in her head) will be appeased.  Of course Deena must break free of this circumstance, and that is a major plot line in the book.  Also it can be noted that Deena is a “rescuer” (Andrea Matthews. The Rescuer Identity: Psychology Today: April 21, 2011, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/traversing-the-inner-terrain/201104/the-rescuer-identity), who feels that she must ‘save’ her sister and brother, but is never successful in doing so.  She carries out her ‘mission’ at great expense to her own development.  She tries to ‘save’ others, but has never really established her own self-worth.  Once again, it is clear that Deena must overcome this issue and Pugh explores this plot line in some detail.

 

A name can often help to shape us into the people we are, and studying names can sometimes help the reader to understand fiction.  According to David L. Gold (A Dictionary Of Surnames: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 237) the family name Hammond means “home”, with the special implications of “high [ … ] protection” and “ancestor  [… ] protection”.  This is certainly very ironic as Deena’s home is indeed anything other than a place of strong refuge, and her grandparents are hardly shields against the ill-will of the world.

 

Pugh’s novel is not heavily symbolic: however, the image of architecture hangs over the whole book.  Architecture is “order in a world of chaos, sense in a world of madness” (Ch. 9).  It can be something false and contrived that we impose on nature, or it can blend with the environment, as Deena wants to do with her Postmodern theories (Ch. 5).  It can construct artificiality or it can deconstruct our fake ideas of life (Ch. 3).  As has been noted Deena is trapped in the construction of her family and their “expectations” (Ch. 12), as well as her own, and needs to break free into her own natural being.

 

Shewanda Pugh’s Crimson Footprints has many aspects to it. It has the themes of difference / harmony, family and success, which are explored in some detail.  Its characters tend to be complex and life-like, and are in tune with the ideas of modern psychology.  The issues of racial and class division are explored in depth.  The limitations of 1950’s values for both men and women are depicted, and the alternatives, as proposed by Feminism and Gender Studies, are examined.  The role of money verses personal worth, as seen in the Capitalist / Socialist debate, is investigated in some detail, though Pugh chooses an individual solution, and is not bound by the constrains of either of those theories.  Pugh writes well and she has created a successful novel which I am happy to rate as 5 stars out of 5.

 

http://goo.gl/HwV0jG Crimsin Footprints (Book ed.)

http://goo.gl/vyOHiw Crimson Footprints (Kindle ed.)

 

http://goo.gl/aTcWKT Shewanda Pugh’s Blog

http://goo.gl/gcUo06 Shewanda Pugh’s Facebook Page

 

 

Shewanda Pugh

A 3rd Time To Die by George A. Bernstein – Book Review

A 3rd Time to Die - George Bernstein

What is it about you stranger?

This is a love story with a mystery at the heart of it, a paranormal mystery.  Why can Ashley Easton speak French so well?  Why can she ride a horse so well, after only riding for just a few weeks?  Who is the mysterious young man she meets in the dressage competition, and why is he so alluring?  A 3rd Time to Die by George A. Bernstein is a love story and a mystery, rolled into one.  It uses the concept of reincarnation as an interesting plot device.


Our first glimpse of Ashley Easton is of a woman rescuing a horse:

"Hey quit that!"  Her shout raspy, she banged the gate with the side of the pitchfork. (p. 25)

The horse has always represented passion and desire in literature, and A 3rd Time to Die is no exception.  Ashley's new horse brings her excitement and energy into her life and allows a new relationship to flourish.  Ashley is revitalised and energised by rescuing the horse; it also brings into sharp relief the way her life has changed. Ashley is an engaging character who knows her own mind and who is financially independent.  She feels a great deal, but takes a long time to act on these feelings: this is Ashley Easton's challenge.  The reader feels the occasional sense of frustration, and is delighted she finally gets herself going.

Ashley’s lover, Craig Thornton is lovely and is everything that Ashley needs and wants: he is the polar opposite to Ashley's husband Keith, and is charming, interesting, fascinated by Ashley, shares her interests, and is caring.  Their relationship changes over time, and as they learn more about each other, their characters develop in surprising and engrossing ways.  A personal fault or two, however, might have helped to make Craig more real.


Craig Thornton is also an interesting contrast to Ashley because his marriage is breaking down, but it's not his fault: his wife is the one who is cheating.  Bernstein thus sets up interesting parallels and contrasts in the relationships.  The two spouses, Keith and Toni, are not pleasant characters.  Keith is a husband totally lost from the relationship: he ignores the children and takes a mistress.  I would have preferred a little more shading to these spouses to add more real complexity of personality: Keith doesn't help with the children, doesn't like anything about his wife anymore, is nasty in his other relationships; but has no redeeming quality.  He is a little too bad to be human.  He seems to have no saving grace: I know Craig is lovely but Keith must have been OK at one  point.


The novel examines relationships. The men and women in A 3rd Time to Die are not just seeking anyone but someone special. In the opening 1895's past-life visionary flashback Charles sees in Victoria, a woman who is "passionate, sensuous and willful" (p. 6).  He loves her for these qualities, and Ashley and Craig are similarly looking for very special traits.

Soul mates are important in this novel - people click and realise they are meant to be together. The website of the Australian Psychological Society says that: "newer fields of psychology, especially transpersonal psychology and ecopsychology, are taking seriously the holistic notion of human beings as comprising mind, body, and soul. These fields propose that people are spiritual beings living a human life that extends beyond our mundane existence and skin-encapsulated ego-self to include direct experience of the environment and the cosmos.  They recognise the importance of integrating spiritual with physical and mental reality, that spirituality is but one part of the whole.” (
http://www.groups.psychology.org.au/tpig/)  The complications of the soul mates and reincarnation that have to be overcome make a really interesting plot device in this novel.  The question of whether Ashley and Craig will survive their love, and who is against them and intends them harm is a gripping question.

 
The last main character is the psychologist Dr Feldman.  He is an interesting character: he's helpful, but indecisive and his eventual insights and understandings moved the plot along.  Feldman is one of Joseph Campbell's helpers. In Monomyth, Cambell explains that:  "For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass. What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny.” (
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth)  Feldman helps Ashley and Craig understand what is happening.  This relationship is a satisfying aspect of the novel.

Ashley and Craig share a love of horse riding. As has been noted, the horse has always represented strong emotions and passionate desires in literature and this is also true in A 3rd Time To Die.  Since D. H. Lawrence, the horse has been a staple representation of sexuality, freedom and power.  Ashley's horse in the novel represents all the freedom of her youth, the regained sexuality that her unfulfilled marriage has stripped from her, as well as links to the past.  A secondary meaning for the horse spirit animal is the balance between the instinctive and tamed parts of your personality.  Ashley is thus more real when she is with her horse, Injun, than when she is in her house.  She feels freer, her speech with Craig is more natural, but she also learns more about herself and the issues that are troubling her: "Jeez, that's when this started!  The sense of riding through woods and whispered thoughts in French.  Nothing as intense as now.  Why the fantasy only haunt her when jumping a horse?" (p. 87).  This is the symbolism of the nature / culture dichotomy.
 
The story’s structure is that of several parts with the first long section establishing the various different relationships.  Ashley spends a considerable amount of time analysing her (hopeless) marriage, before concluding that there is nothing to be done.  This section was long and drawn out.  I wondered why it took so long to get to a resolution of this point.  Once the relationship with Craig was established and Bernstein managed to bring the pair together, the book moved along at a great pace.
In the final section the plot lines are drawn to a satisfying conclusion and the lovers’ relationship and future, and the circumstance of the nemesis are well resolved.  A final catastrophic climax is well done and keeps the reader guessing until the last moment.

The role of money in the novel is interesting: Ashley is well off, thanks to her Father's money.  She uses the processes and systems and makes them work for her to improve her life, rather than just make more money.  This is a positive role for women.

A 3rd Time to Die's main theme is of course reincarnation.  Have these people lived other lives?  Who were they?  Who is after Ashley and Craig now?  Carl Jung believed that in a person's life, synchronicity served a role similar to that of dreams, with the purpose of shifting a person's egocentric conscious thinking to greater wholeness.  Dr. Feldman helps promote this view in the novel.  He is also a psychiatrist using various methods to assist his patients.  Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that studies the transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human experience.  Transpersonal experiences may be defined as "experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos."  Issues considered in transpersonal psychology include spiritual self-development, self beyond the ego, peak experiences, mystical experiences, systemic trance and other sublime and/or unusually expanded experiences of living. (
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transpersonal_psychology)  Dr. Feldman moves from a more reductionist view of the mind to a more spiritual, Transpersonal approach and indeed the question of this new ideology and philosophy become central to the book.

A 3rd Time to Die is a love story with a twist, a paranormal mystery with an engaging heroine and plot surprises and developments which were very satisfying.  The characters develop in interesting ways through time and as the novel progresses.  The relationships were interesting and well-drawn.  The plot lines are drawn to a satisfying conclusion, and the lover relationship and mystery of foreboding doom are well resolved.  The conclusion is gripping and the answer is unexpected and pleasingly surprising.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 stars out of 5.

 

 

http://goo.gl/Jg40jh  A 3rd Time To Die (Book ed.)

http://goo.gl/eg6sE5  A 3rd Time To Die (Kindle ed.)

http://goo.gl/uTOJg9  George Bernstein (Facebook page)

http://goo.gl/xp0Wvc  George Bernstein (Goodreads page)

 

Hypocrites In His Midst: A Story About Flawed Human Beings by Donnell Wilson – Book Review

Hypocrites In His Midst - A Story About Flawed Human Beings - Donnell Wilson

The long road from street gangs to success…

Wilton Latso is seventy two years old and a grandfather.  In the middle of a heated argument with his adult daughter Abbie, Wilton realizes that she has no idea of who he is, where he came from, and why he did the things he did when he was bringing her up.  Spontaneously Wilton starts remembering and soon he decides to write down the story of his life.  Wilton came from a poor family living in a poor suburb of St. Louis, Missouri in the late 1940’s / early 1950s.  In this era of street gangs Wilton is soon introduced to a world of violence, ego and selfishness.  Wilton’s parents are staunch Pentecostal Christians, but Wilton doubts that faith from the start.  The trouble is that he can see all too clearly his parent’s hypocrisy, particularly his mother’s.  Throughout his life Wilton will continue to observe people, noting many to be hollow, offering friendship, espousing beliefs but proving to be fakes.

                                                                                                                     

Donnell Wilson’s Hypocrites In His Midst: A Story About Flawed Human Beings is a fictional autobiography spanning seven decades.  It is a story of “redemption” (Ch. 8) in a secular sense.  This is a book about trying to “do the right thing” (Ch. 3), though the “right thing” (Ch. 2) is not always obvious or easy to achieve.  Wilson’s novel, especially in the first three Parts, is broadly comparable to Nicky Cruz’s real life autobiography Run Baby Run (Logos, 1972), though that book is firmly Christian, while this book is firmly agnostic (Ch. 31).  Most of all, this book is about how a person can growing to maturity (or avoid it).

 

The novel is a first person narrative and as a result we hear much of the main characters thoughts and opinions and much less of the perspective of other people.  This is very much a central character novel, partly because of the narrator’s self-confessed ignorance of and difficulty with “relationships” (Ch. 1).  Other people are a mystery.  For example Evelyn, Willy’s teenage bride (Ch. 2), remains in many ways a mystery throughout the whole book though she is ‘present’ for twenty one chapters.  Also, throughout much of his life Willy has unstable job circumstances and as a result the story has many minor characters that come and go without Wil or the reader really getting to know them.  It is indeed Willy’s frequent complaint that this happens (Ch. 1 and following).  As it can be seen the book could have benefited from more dramatized conversations and events that illustrated the perspective of other characters, especially the main characters, and perhaps some of the minor characters could have been left out.  The novel works very well, however, as an exploration of one man’s character and by the end of the story we feel as though we really know and understand Willy and have learned what life can be like for someone quite different to ourselves.  Wil is very much from a lower class background, a regular frequenter of bars, and the narrative has the chatty ethos of a reminiscing story told by a friend, perhaps at a party or a pub.  There is frequent foul language, sex is openly described and discussed and violence is openly depicted.  This is certainly justified and in keeping with the ‘underworld’ ethos of the book, but conservative people may be offended.  There are occasional “Oh my gosh!” moments and scenes of high tension which are well written.  The marijuana trip and LSD trip in Chapter 13 very much capture the ‘Hey man! Cool!’ atmosphere of the sixties giving the reader an off-beat, fun, but dangerous, slightly “paranoid” (Ch. 13) feeling.  In passages like this Wilson reveals his true skill as an author.  Early in the story Wil’s friends take up calling him “Willy Lost Soul” and indeed the name Latso can be seen as a play on the words ‘lost soul’.  Wil is a lost soul in the criminal underworld, but also a soul seeking personal ‘redemption’, albeit in an unconventional secular sense.

 

The plot is divided into five parts.  Part I (Ch. 1 – 6) covers Wil’s childhood, gang membership and street life, teenage marriage and first jobs.  Wilson then describes Willy’s first major attempt to exit his ‘underworld’ style of living by attending trade school and then working as a car body man and painter.  The section ends in a major climax that moves Wil to new territory in an unexpected way.  In Part II: A New Beginning (Ch. 7 – 10) Wil’s family moves to a new suburb and a partially better life.  This section concentrates on Darwin, Wil’s younger brother who is perhaps in some ways even more lost than him.  Wil attempts to help Darwin.  He also gains his GED school qualification and begins a writing course in order to see if he can fulfil his childhood dream of being a writer.  Once again events come to a crisis, though this time not so unforseen.  Part III: Farewell Party (Ch. 11 – 21) sees Wil’s family Move to Boulder, Colorado where Wil meets and befriends Merlin an ‘out-there’ character who is deep into drug culture.  This part depicts the late 1960’s / early1970’s Counterculture very well.  The reader feels both an amusement and frustration with Wil as he seems to repeat his teenage mistakes all be it in a new way.  Wil is never quite a ‘drop-out’ and he develops a bond with Merlin in a way he has never had with anyone else.  Part III comes to a peak of a different kind, then there are two final chapters and the plot peaks again.  Part IV: Learning the Three R’s – Rita, Reba, and Rachel (Ch. 22 – 33) covers love relationships with the title women.  Rita receives six chapters, but Reba and Rachel are only allotted three each.  Once again the reader is interested by these more unusual women but frustrated by Wil as he seems never to overcome his problem with human relationships.  Once more there is a final unexpected crisis which propels Wil into a new life.  Part V: Pain, Love, Redemption, and Success (Ch. 34 – 41) introduces us to Katie a nurse who becomes Wil’s final love interest.  In this section Wil finally gains more maturity forming a more happy relationship, more enjoyable career and financial success.  Wil observes, however, that in some ways people are the same wherever you are.  As can be seen the book involves a certain amount of reputation on a theme, though each part is quite different from the last.  As the book progresses Wil earns and so it is important to point out that the novel is not quite as repetitive as this very bare outline may make it seem.

 

Wilton Latso is a very flawed, but likable character.  “Moxie” (Ch. 1 and following) is a characteristic he likes in his friends and is perhaps his own central trait.  Wil is very determined and always fights back.  He wants to do what is right, but right by his standard.  He repeatedly says that he basically wants to be “left alone” (Ch. 1 and following), but finds that this is just what interfering people will not allow.  On the down side Wil’s independence leads him into trouble and his individuality has a selfish side.  He is ignorant of people and this compounds his selfishness.  His early life has made him violent (psychologically and physically) and he repeatedly uses aggression rather than his creative intelligence to solve problems.  Wil is in many ways like the ‘tough guy hood’ we all secretly admired in high school, who gave teachers grief, won fights and took flak from nobody.  But while we later grew away from these things, though we never forgot them, Wil does not do this until much later (and in some ways not at all).  We both like and dislike this very individual man, and his dynamo character certainly carries us through the book keeping us interested, if not always in an admiring way.  We care enough about will to want things to go right for him.

 

Merlin is an important main character and the reader feels, as they do with Wil, both attraction and disapproval.  Merlin is very easy-going and affable, also in a boyish way.  He laughs a lot and is trustworthy as a friend.  He is adventurous, but this is also his failing quality, as is his boyishness, as it leads him into an extreme life far from tried and tested ‘normality’.  Like Willy we care for him and are carried along by him, caught up in his adventures and misadventures.

 

Rita, Reba and Rachel are all in their individual ways escapees from ‘normality’, each intriguing, but each having pronounced failings.  Rita is very much an ‘out-there, zany lady,’ a product of the Counterculture.  Not so long ago she was very much in into the drug scene, particularly LSD, and she still suffers from “flashbacks and hallucinations” (Ch. 25).  She is sexually free and adventurous, and generally a free spirit who in many ways we like, particularly at first.  Like many in the 1960s, however, Rita is adrift, lacking a centre, and even more than Wil she wants things and is willing to grab them in whatever way she can.  If Rita is sexually adventurous, Reba is the ‘sex queen’.  She and her partner Chuck have an ‘open relationship’ and are very ‘happening’ people.  Reba also wants things, but seems unsure of the details.  She doesn’t really know her mind.  Rachel wants most of all to be loved and to be with a man that shows that love, but she holds herself aloof or even worse is aggressive.  These failings partly prevent her from entering into the very love relationship she desires, and in depression, and perhaps desperation, she turns to drink.  Rachel, too, is sexually adventurous, but in her dissatisfaction in life this makes her shifting rather than solid.  All of these women, in their individual ways, promise love, but all are characterized by emptiness at their core.  They are intriguing without being necessarily ‘good’ characters.

 

Katie, Wil’s final love, is “naïve, affectionate, very intelligent, warm, and pretty” (Ch. 35).  She is a nurse and this reflects her helping nature.  She is centred in others, rather than herself.  While naïve she has the ability to learn to ‘get tough’ and that is exactly what she does.  We like Katie because she is nice, but has her own style of “moxie” (Ch. 35).  Katie also has a solid base that the other major women characters in the book do not have.

 

All these characters interest us and move us forward in the plot, though we do not completely ‘like’ most of them.  What captures us about most is that they are quite different from the ‘normal’.  These are people from the ‘wild’ side of life.

 

As the title suggests Wilson’s novel has hypocrisy as a major theme.  People very much like to put up a front of ‘respectability’, but then say and do things that are far from this public persona.  Even more, under the guise of ‘uprightness’ people like to interfere in the affairs of others, telling them what to do, but they themselves prove to be distant from ‘goodness’.  Organisations, such as the church, government and business, can be particularly guilty of this, and those who participate in them tend to follow suit.  But then even ‘drop-outs’ can prove to be less than ‘happening’.  Self-hypocrisy is perhaps something that we are all victims of.  We say to ourselves that we are one thing, want one thing, believe one thing, but really we are fooling ourselves.

 

The other side of hypocrisy is true values and ethics, what could be called secular spirituality.  Wil believes that relationships should be based on “respect” (Ch. 1), but not the fake kind implied by class or money.  We should “do unto others” (Ch. 2) as we ourselves would like to be treated.  We should not break our word (Ch. 4).  Wil sees the idea of eternal punishment “for sinning seventy years” as anything but “fair” (Ch. 2): balanced justice is important to him.  He sees that we should be basically free to live our own lives, as long as we do no real harm, and be free of “accusation” (Ch. 3), and of course we should not accuse others.  Beyond this, going deeper into spirituality, Willy has his own non-conventional kind of spirituality.  He is mildly interested in astrology.  He espouses views similar to the Unitarian faith (Ch. 6 & 31), particularly the idea that we are all on a journey up a mountain, though we are climbing it from different sides (i.e. different faiths).  A car accident makes him very aware of the reality of death (Ch. 10) and later he experiences a ‘vision’ of someone he knew who is dead (Ch. 21) while friends of his experience strange occurrences at the exact time of the death of another (Ch. 37).

 

The theme of success is very strong in the novel.  We often say that riches are hollow, but living without money, and perhaps worse, without a sense of achieving something is very difficult.  Perhaps only those who come from poor backgrounds truly understand this.  But does owning property, such as a house, assure us of success, and isn’t true success more than money?

 

Closely allied to the theme of success is the idea of maturation / search for the self.  Wilson’s novel is very much about personal change: going from unhappiness to happiness, healing hurts.  We are all hurt, but some of us are hurt more than others.  Is it possible to lift ourselves out of the circumstances we are born into?  What must we sacrifice along the way?  Is change sometimes thrust upon us?

 

The first part of the novel very much depicts the 1950’s biased view of women.  A classic example of this is the notion that men have affairs, while women, being ‘good little women’ do not (Ch. 3).  In the character of Evelyn women’s dissatisfaction under the restrictions of this era is very much depicted.  Feminist criticisms of society and solutions, however, are only hinted at.  Evelyn wants to ‘find herself’, but never seems to really achieve this, though she does take charge of her life and gain a new kind of positive confidence.  The 1960’s version of Feminism is hinted at in the character of Rachel (Ch. 31), but this character is certainly not depicted sympathetically.  The freedom of the 60s, including freedom for women, seems to ring false in the three characters of Rita, Reba and Rachel.  It is 1980’s that we come upon a more mature version of womanhood in the character of Katie.  In this character we have a depiction of a woman closer to Betty Friedan’s ideas (Cathia Jenainati. Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 90-94), that is both successful in her career and her family life, without betraying her femininity or becoming false.

 

Similar to women and Feminism, the novel very much shows men in their 1950’s guise, before the liberation of Gender Studies.  Wil must be the ‘tough guy’ full of bluster and fight.  He is indeed afraid to be afraid (Ch. 1).  Wil is afraid of emotions and sees them, if anything as weakness.  Crying is certainly something men don’t do (Ch. 4).  For Wil relationships are difficult, if not a complete mystery (Ch. 1 & 2).  In a marriage “the man is supposed to be in charge, not the woman” (Ch. 4).  A man’s job in a relationship is seen as not much more than working to provide an income.  But the whole novel depicts an evolution away from this situation as the story progresses.  Indeed, right from the start Wil sees the caring nature of his father and grandfather as something to be admired (Ch. 1 & Ch. 36).  Along the way, however, Wil must first give up his view of ‘the strong working father’ and then learn to express his love.  This is for him a very long drawn out process, and even at the end of the book we wonder if he, despite all his intentions, has completely broken free of his 1950’s masculine conditioning.

 

While this is a mainly heterosexual novel, LGBTIQ relations are occasionally touched on.  Wil has a dream which makes him aware of a grain of homosexuality in himself (Ch. 19).  He is not afraid of this, or does not feel bad as a result.  When Wil’s work colleague Mel discovers that his son is gay Wil gives very positive advice about accepting and loving this young man (Ch. 34).  The kind of bigotry that LGBTIQ people face is depicted in a disapproving way (Ch. 39).  The picture is not all naively positive though.  As a boy Wil was pressured by a gay paedophile (Ch. 25) and as an adult he receives too familiar a treatment from a male boss (Ch. 9), although it is not fully clear that this man is gay.  Lesbians receive a brief sympathetic mention, though they are not depicted (Ch. 40).

 

The often ignored group of the aged are also depicted to a small extent.  Wil’s grandfather, though an absent character, is spoken of positively.  Late in the story Wil’s mother and father are depicted as old people.  In the case of his father we see a positive representation, but in the case of his mother the circumstances are very negative.  Of course people do not become miraculously wise and kind simply because they have aged.

 

Minorities, another classification of ignored groups, are frequently mentioned and depicted in small ways.  Wil often expresses positive views of people of various races, declaring that colour does not matter to him.  Racial bigotry is also often depicted in a disapproving way.  Junior, a work colleague of Wil’s, receives fullest representation (Ch. 5 & Ch. 7).  He is depicted as an affable man who receives bigotry with very good grace.  Wil himself is of partial American Indian descent and characters of this descent pop up as minor characters.  Some of these incidents dramatize the bigotry they face (Ch. 38).  People of Mexican descent similarly regularly pop up in cameo appearances (Ch. 12 & following), and the bigotry they face is also portrayed and condemned (Ch. 18).  Finally there is one rabid Jew hater depicted, who is certainly disapproved of (Ch. 13).

 

Wilson’s novel takes an interesting position in the Capitalism / Socialism debate as it takes the middle-ground, third way of Liberalism.  As has been noted, Wil is no friend of interfering government.  Maximum freedom of the individual is really his central point.  Willy is a “liberal, progressive Democrat” (Ch. 32).  None the less he certainly disapproves of rich “fat cats” (Ch. 9), noting for example their “rudeness” (Ch. 9), however, he is continually aware of his family’s “need [… for …] more money” and pursuit of finance is his central occupation.  Partially this is a ‘poor man makes rich’ story and as such is firmly in the ‘great American Capitalist ideal’.  Wil finally owns “a half-million dollar house on a waterway” (Ch. 1).  None the less Willy describes himself as having “leanings of socialism from seeing inequities in society” (Ch. 9), and to be fair equality is very much an important issue to him.  Class struggle and the unethical way the rich gain their wealth are also important issues to him (Ch. 26).  These are certainly Socialist ideas and not surprising from a man of poor background.

 

Covering a life of seventy two years the novel is partially a social history.  As has been noted, the first two Parts document the narrow views of the 1950’s social system, but from Chapter 11 onwards the plot enters the society of the Counterculture (late 1960s / early 1970s).  “Hippies” (Ch. 11 & following), the anti-war movement (Ch. 12), the psychedelic movement (Ch. 13 & following) and “swingers” (Ch. 21) are all mentioned, and indeed drugs are an important part of the novel.  This ear of freedom, though, does not go completely without critical analysis.  The swingers seem to be simply looking for an excuse to abandon their partner, rather than being really open minded.   Drugs, for all their excitement, propel the user into a narrow world where responsibility is easily lost.  Don, a minor character, for example takes drugs all day while his pregnant girlfriend works (Ch. 19).

 

Most fiction is about ‘real’ people and so psychology, which aims to find the truth about individuals, is an important tool for an author.  While Wilson’s book is not specifically ‘psychological’, it does touch on many issues related to that field of study. Wil himself may suffer from “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (Ch. 1), his brother Darwin is diagnosed as bipolar (Ch. 1 & Ch. 36) and after a bad accident at works Wil suffers from “panic attacks” (Ch. 3).  Wil and his wife Evelyn attend marriage “divorce counselling” (Ch. 22), and Willy attends long after the divorce because he finds it so personally helpful.  “Emptiness” (Ch. 19) as a motivation for drug taking is noted, as is the inevitable “downer” (Ch. 19) that they bring.  These points could have been ‘fleshed-out’ more with a little study of the psychological literature.  The novel is most ‘psychological’ in its observations of the influence of parents and peer groups on long term behaviour.  Both Evelyn and Wil lack parents who can teach them how to communicate with a partner (Ch. 2 & following) and Willy even imitates his mother in her blaming attitude, though this is a quality he hates in her (Ch. 6).  Wil listens to his peer delinquent group because he “wanted to be liked” (Ch. 2).  The effect of both parents and peer group haunt him for the rest of his life and the book documents his attempts to escape this influence.

 

Wilson’s novel does not really use imagery; however, there is one scene where a pet “boa constrictor” (Ch. 17) eats two mice, who the men at Wil’s work have become very attached to.  This story is aptly ghastly and serves as a good symbol for the whole book.  The natural world is cruel and we are trapped in it, dancing around the aggressor, or looking dubiously at him, a little like mice.  We can use our imagination to make the world better, but we will never really escape the snake.

 

Many stories, being what they are, have some mythic qualities and this includes Hypocrites In His Midst.  In the first half of the novel Wil is almost possessed by his desire to earn for his family, and around the middle of the book this peaks in the task of building a family home.  This is his proverbial ‘castle’ or ‘ivory tower’ in which his family will live safely and all will be well.  Drawing on the cultural mythology of the Tarot we can see that the card of The Tower Of Destruction very much represents his predicament at this point.  Describing this card Sallie Nichols says that two people “are being thrown from a position of lofty security into one of exposure and confusion” and that a “tongue of lightning has knocked off the golden crown that serves as [… the tower’s …] roof” (Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1980, p. 283).  Wil’s house is not literally destroyed, but a destructive crisis does occur and Wil is thrown into a state of personal confusion, which he must work through in Part IV.  Later speaking of his mental attitude Wil says “I was already building an emotional brick wall to hide behind and protect myself” (Ch. 29).  His desires for financial security, and later his attitudes, are a mental construct, a tower he has built for protection, and yet a tower that constricts him and causes as much harm as good.  Nichols, noting that the title of the card in French “carries the meaning of hospice”, writes, “the two sick souls [ … ] are being liberated from an enforced incarceration rather than cast forth from their true home” (Nichols, p. 285).  The tower depicted in the card has no door.  Both Wil and Evelyn are indeed trapped in a marriage which was meant to solve a bad situation (a pregnancy), but which has brought mostly pain.  Crowley notes of the card that it also carries the meaning of “the destruction of the old-established Aeon by lightning, flames, engines of war” (Aleister Crowley. The Book Of Thoth: Samuel Weiser, 1974, p. 107).  The events surrounding the building of Wil’s house come in the context of the end of 1950’s values and the beginning of the era initiated by the Counterculture, and the personal meaning of this is certainly acrimony and conflict between Wil and Evelyn.

 

Throughout the novel Wil notices “my own foolishness” (Ch. 3 and following) and we see many examples of his jokey, uproarious behaviour at parties.  Following from this it can be seen that the Tarot card of The Fool applies to the whole book.  Nichols describes this character as a “wanderer, energetic [… and …] ubiquitous”  (p. 23) and indeed this is Wil ‘to a tee’.  He moves from place to place and job to job, is always rushing to some new project and is in many ways an ‘everyman’.  Nichols notes that “the word ‘fool’ is derived from the Latin follis, meaning, ‘a pair of bellows, a windbag’” (Nichols, p. 28).  Wil frequently notes that he cannot “keep [… his …] mouth shut” (Ch. 2 & following).  Again Nichols notes that the fool’s approach to life includes “the innocence of childhood” (Nichols, p. 26), and as has been said Willy in many ways remains the schoolboy ‘tough’.   Nichols notes that the Fool, possessing secret wisdom, was often advisor to the king, being free to “criticise him and offer challenging suggestions” (Nichols, p. 29).  As has been noted Wil often hands out advice to the governments of his day.  Writing further Nichols notes that the fool’s cap was “originally conceived as a satire on the monk’s cowl, [… but …] nevertheless betrays a serious connection with the spirit” (Nichols, p. 27), and, once again as we have seen, Wil is both critical of the Christian church but personally concerned with ethics and ‘spiritual’ concerns.  In a summing up passage Nichols writes:

 

“… the Fool’s spontaneous approach to life combines wisdom, madness, and folly.  When he mixes these ingredients in the right proportions the results are miraculous, but when the mixture curdles, everything ends in a sticky mess” (Nichols, p. 24).

 

This could be written about Wil.  Much more could be said about the relevance of The Fool to Hypocrites In His Midst, but space does not permit.

 

Wil becomes interested in astrology and this is another source of cultural mythology that has relevance to the novel.  Wil is “Aries” (Ch. 23) and examining this sign reveals much about the book.  Aries begins at the equinox when “light and dark are perfectly balanced” (Nicholas Campion. Zodiac: Enhance Your Life Through Astrology: Alhambra House, c2000, p. 21)  and it is interesting to see that Wil is an unusual mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  Many would call him a simple criminal, yet he has an ethic of his own.  He is interested in very earthy, practical solutions to problems, like building a house, yet he has ‘spiritual’ interests.  Aries is characterized by “unlimited power and individuality” (Campion, p. 21) and Wil, as has been noted is very dynamic and quite a character.  Aries is ruled by Mars (Campion, p. 22), the god of war, and Wil is never afraid to fight and indeed finds himself regularly in a battle.  Aries has “drive and ambition” (Campion, p. 23), and Wil, more than most things, wants to get ahead.  Aries can fall into “extremes” (Campion, p. 23), and during his psychedelic phase Wil does just that.  Aries needs to learn the lesson that “other people have feelings and that they may be hurt by our words or actions” (Campion, p. 22) and this is indeed one of the main elements in Wilson’s novel.  Once again, much more could be said about the relevance of this mythological sign, but space does not permit.

 

At 630 pages Hypocrites In His Midst is not really a quick weekend read.  It really needs several weekends to take in the full extent of Wil’s seventy two years of living.  This book needs to be thought about at least a bit.  The characters are likable, but not exactly “good” people.  The themes of hypocrisy, ethics, success and personal maturation reflect the more individual natures of the characters, certainly giving us something to think about.  The changing role of women is looked at, though some Feminists may raise their eyebrows.  The changing gender role of men is described in detail, though we wonder if Wil has completely freed himself of the 1950s perspective.  LGBTIQ, the aged and racial minorities receive representation and sympathetic treatment.  There is an interesting blend of Capitalism and Socialism, though as a Liberal work the main emphasis is Capitalist.  Mythology can reveal much about the novel, though it does not specifically use imagery.  Wilson’s novel could be read and enjoyed simply as the story of a ‘tough’, but it is really quite a bit more than that.  The exploration of Wil’s seventy two years takes us at least briefly to many different ideas and aspects of life.  I am happy to rate this book as 4.5 stars out of 5.

 

http://goo.gl/5kL3R0   Hypocrites In His Midst (Kindle ed.)

 

http://goo.gl/G3Vom5 Hypocrites In His Midst (Facebook page)

 

American Crow by Jack Lacey – Book Review

American Crow (The Missing Series) - Jack Lacey

Move over Rebus, here comes Blake…

Detective fiction is a little like drinking wine: there is a lot around and everyone has their favourite.  When something new comes on the market, the drinker or the reader, looks longingly to their favourite brand or book and says, "I hope the new one is like the old one..."  It's not an exact science of course: there is a chemistry to it. The reader can like a new detective story, and then the reader can love a new detective story.

                                                                                                      

I am a fan of detective stories.  I began with Agatha Christie back when I was eleven. I read Sherlock Holmes and moved onto the feminist detectives in the early eighties.  It's a little hard to define what I like: sometimes I think that reading anything is really a love story and so is undefinable, but....

 

I picked up American Crow by Jack Lacey and was hooked.  I love American Crow.  The character of Sibelius Blake is strongly written and interesting.  Blake’s back story comes out through the novel.  The plot ending ties beautifully with the beginning: it is very well structured.

 

When we first meet Blake, he has just quit his job as a tracer after having suffered a tragedy.  He is alone.  Sibelius Blake comes from a long line of detectives who have issues: Dalziel of Dalzieland Pascoe, and Inspector Morse from Colin Dexter, are recent versions.  We like these wounded detectives for their peculiarities (their cryptic crosswords, their drinking, and their morose moods) because they fight for the truth.  They are right, despite the odds, and they are good at heart.  Blake is cast in this mould: despite telling “everyone he'd quit for good”, Lenny, his boss, can still track him down and know that Blake will find Olivia Deacon, or if he can't, do his darnedest.

 

This is search and find detective fiction: we aren't looking at bodies as in the Cornwell/Scarpetta type of novel.  Rather, we are searching for something lost, in this case a person.  This search serves as an introduction to a Private Investigator with a great back story.  It also gives Lacey scope to show us Blake's ability as a detective.  Lenny tells Blake that he can "mix it with the worst, blend in with the riffraff...  You know what I mean?  You're not some stiff Columbo type in a mackintosh....  That' why you gets results."

 

Like a large number of his kind (Millhone and Dalziel) Blake is alone, without family.  The reasons for this makes a really interesting plot line which is well structured and kept me reading.  It resolved itself well at the end and, along the way we are introduced to an interesting mix of minor characters: the cafe owner, Blake's boss Lenny, Lenny's family members, and an odd, and occasionally, scary bikie and truck driver.  I felt that, not only were these minor characters well drawn, but also that a number of they had good scope for further stories.  I'd be interested to know what happens to them, to see what other meals Blake has at Sheila's cafe.

 

Place is important in detective fiction: Sherlock Holmes's London, Agatha Christie's drawing rooms.  In the modern stories the city is the backdrop: Ian Rankin's Rebus novels are set in Edinburgh, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone drives the streets of Santa Theresa in California.  Blake is an English PI, based in London, but American Crow, as its name suggests, takes Blake to various parts of the US.  The novel sends Blake from place to place, searching.  This is an excellent metaphor for the personal search that Blake is on.  He doesn't like England; he doesn't like himself.  The various locations in American Crow make interesting backdrops: Essex is wet, with rain hammering down, St James's Park in London has inquisitive ducks, Cedar Avenue is a dilapidated tower block.  These places reflect the journey that Blake is going on to find Olivia Deacon.  As the locality changes, so does the mood of the novel. 

 

Travel to the US allows Lacey to explore another aspect of the detective novel: the reason, the meaning, the social issue.  This is an interesting aspect of the modern detective novel: the awareness of social issues: feminism, the environment, class.  Unlike modern fiction, modern detective novels often declare their vision.  In the U.S., both Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky are feminist detective writers.  Their characters are feminist and the stories are seen through an avowedly political prism.  American Crow does not tackle gender, but it does discuss the environment, environmental activism and various concerns including the role of the company, political activism, individual and corporate responsibility.  This environmental theme isn't done in any high handed way: it is integral to the plot and the action follows. 

 

Although American Crow's primary focus is not gender, the female characters in the novel are interestingly drawn and there is a varied range of roles and actions for various women.  The women are activists, scientists, researchers, victims, agents, and some play different roles at different times.

 

Detective fiction requires certain constraints: there's usually a baddie as well as a goodie.  The male characters in American Crow are less inclined to be good, excepting of course, our hero and a couple of his friends.  Overall, though, I found the characters compelling and believable.

 

The setting of this novel is terrific.  Who will Blake meet?  Where will he go?  Will he use his contacts or his wits?  I couldn't wait to turn the pages and to find out what Blake would do in order to find Olivia Deacon.  The characters are intriguing, and the social issue of environmentalism adds depth.  Like many great detective novels, I finished it really quickly and I can't wait for Jack Lacey to write the next instalment.  American Crow is very highly recommended and I am happy to rate it as 5 out of 5 stars!

 

The Only Way Out by Don De Lene – Book Review

The Only Way Out: Forgiveness - The Path to Peace & Happiness - Don De Lene

Problems, problems, problems…  Solutions?

Hannah Lane, the seven year old girl we remember from The Power, The Miracle and The Dream, is now 22 years old and a “Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and renowned peace activist” (Ch. 1).  She is with a National Geographic team that has just landed on Mars, and has become officially the first woman to set foot on the planet.  Hannah has come a very long way since her loosing childhood days as an asthmatic, but how exactly did she get here?  Was it really the secret of “the power within … [her] … mind” (Ch. 12) that brought her to these heights?

 

The Only Way Out: Forgiveness  - The Path To Peace & Happiness takes us deeper into the spiritual philosophy set out in De Lene’s earlier book, concentrating on our desire to hurt others, and the solution of reconciliation through absolution.  We can never really be at peace unless we are willing to forgive wrong.  In this book De Lene digs deeper into a metaphysical view of the world, particularly the idea of God, however, the philosophy presented is not at all ‘orthodox’ religion.  De Lene instead derives his inspiration from the non-fiction book A Course In Miracles (Helen Schucman. Foundation for Inner Peace:__ 3rd ed.:__ 2007).  De Lene’s book is an unusual blend of novel and teaching manual, and is a very enjoyable and easy way of looking deeper into philosophy.

 

Set not too far into the future, the novel has elements of science fiction, such as the “video phone” (Ch. 2), permanent Moon and Mars bases, and the “Intelligent Traffic Management System” (Ch. 21), where cars are robotically steered.  Most of the life depicted, though, is very familiar to the reader, and indeed the book concentrates on ‘ordinary’ life and the all too common problems such as work and relationships.  The book is not science fiction in the true sense of the word.  A great deal of the 29 chapter book is plot line which entertainingly dramatizes the philosophical points, though there are four teaching chapters which deliver ideas in a chatty, but more instructive way.

 

The books structure is divided into two parts of roughly equal length: Chapters 1 to 16 and Chapters 19 to 29.  Chapters 1 to 3 are introductory, covering the events of Hannah’s childhood and adolescence.  Some of this section recaps very briefly the events and philosophical points raise in the first novel in the series.  Chapters 4 to 11 cover the teaching and learning experiences surrounding the new idea of forgiveness.  Chapters 11 to 16 are wholly narrative and cover the events surrounding Hannah’s contact with National Geographic and her first working trip to Kakado National Park in Australia.  These chapters also cover the beginning of Hannah’s friendships with Meiling Wang, “Editor In Chief of National Geographic” (Ch. 5), and Alexander Messina, an apparently arrogant but very gifted staff photographer.  In Chapters 17 to 24 the plot takes on a truly international theme in which the troubled world of the Middle East is explored, and in which the idea of synchronicity or “meaningful coincidence,” (Carl Jung. Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, in The Structure And Dynamics Of The Psyche:__ 2nd. ed.:__ Princeton University Press, c1969, p. 426) is dramatized.  Chapter 25 is an adventurous interlude covering exciting action on the moon.  Finally Chapters 26 to 29 explore the outcome of the earlier events surrounding the Middle East.

 

As would be expected from the sub-title of the book the main theme is forgiveness.  We all hurt and we all do harm, and this seems to be a fact of life, but is there a solution which practically works?  We freely talk about forgiveness, but what does it really mean?  What about retribution and justice?  Are they ignored if we forgive?  Success is a second theme strongly running through the novel.  We want to get ahead in the world, but how do we do that?  Is success simply making money, or are their deeper values we can judge ourselves on?  Are money making and values opposed?  What should we do with our personal success, or is it an end in itself?

 

The three main characters are immediately likable and indeed this seems to be one of the benefits of the philosophy they each espouse: we like ‘nice’ people and want to be friends with them, even if we don’t agree in every detail of what they say.  Hannah is in the main positive in her attitude to life.  She does have moments of negativity (Ch. 3) and to a certain extent she underestimates her own ability, but she is a high achiever: the kind of girl we all wanted to be friends with at school.  She of course is very successful, but she never ceases to be amazed at this, and even more puts in the work learning her photography.  She does not assume she ‘knows it all’: indeed she is known for her “determination” (Ch. 2).  Meiling is even more successful, but she too has worked to get there.  She is perhaps less certain than Hannah in her philosophical approach to life, but the two women work well together and from the beginning we wish the best for their friendship.  Alexander, behind his exterior of conceitedness, is jovial, admits his faults and is willing to pass on his skills as a photographer.  These three people move the book forward as we at first wonder about them, get to know them and then hope for their plans.

 

As we have already mention, this is in part a teaching book and some of the ideas put forward should be mention and looked at in more detail, though there is too much to cover in a short review.  Synchronicity has already been mentioned.  De Lene’s take on the subject is that “there is a reason behind everything” and that each event provides an “opportunity to learn more about ourselves” (Ch. 2).  In essence a person should “set your goal … [and] … synchronicity will take care of the rest” (Ch. 2).  De Lene proposes that there is an element of “spirit” in life.  He speaks of “the power within his mind, connected to spirit” (Ch. 2 and following) and also of “spirit or God” (Ch. 2 and following).  In many ways, though, this element remains undefined.  People pray to God (Ch. 15) and one minor character who claims to see God’s angels seems to know Hannah’s future (Ch. 4), but the picture of God remains distant.  Can we honestly ever truly know the spiritual in complete detail?  On the other hand there is a detailed ‘creation story’ of sorts in the novel and here many readers may experience considerable resistance.  We are encouraged, as a result of this story, to believe that we should forgive because all of life is an illusion, a dream, because “nothing really happened” (Ch. 9).  Most readers would respond that this dream seems very, very real and so does the pain we suffer.  Similarly in Chapter 13 we read of a near death experience (NDE), which seems to confirm De Lene’s notion of a God filled with only love.  This experience, as described by De Lene, is in agreement with much of the psychological literature, especially Raymond Moody’s Life After Life (Bantam Books, 1976).  It should be noted, however, that Maurice Rawlings in Beyond Death’s Door (Bantam Books, 1985) reported encountering just as many negative NDE’s as positive.  Judgement and hell seem very real.  These metaphysical notions of illusion and an all-loving God, though, are not central to the book and are not needed in order to understand and appreciate the main point of forgiveness.  The “ego” (Ch. 2 and following) is a central notion in the book.  Primarily it is seen as being “controlled by … negative emotions” (Ch. 2), chiefly “guilt”, and because of this it divides us from others so that we see ourselves as “separate selves” (Ch. 7).  There is also the notion of “holy relationships” (Ch. 10) which basically says that if two ‘right minded ’people work together huge amounts can be achieved.  All these teaching points are dispersed throughout the book and are often integrated into conversations arising out of the plot.

 

There are quite a few women characters in the book and virtually all of them are successful and dynamic in one way or another.  We have already talked of Hannah and her career as a photographer.  Meiling reveals herself from an early age to be “creative” (Ch. 12) displaying a talent for painting.  She is also intelligent and is successful in school.  She displays winning physical ability at sport, being a state champion at “badminton” (Ch. 12).  Like Hannah, she is characterized by a determination in all that she does.  As “Editor In Chief” (Ch. 5) she has reached the top of her profession.  She is no ‘pretty silly thing’ of the 1950’s.  Anna Messina, Alexander’s partner, is a psychologist who earlier in her life worked in “a prestigious medical center in Washington” (Ch. 20).  Hilda is a “social worker” (Ch. 4) who Hannah meets.  She is head of the “Community Refuge Center” (Ch. 4) in Australia.  She is very knowledgeable in her field.  Professor Amy McLaughlin, who initially teaches Hannah at university, is “highly regarded in photographic circles around the world for her technical expertise in the field of photography, as well as for her innovative ideas” (Ch. 5).  Feminists will be pleased by this book as the women display both emotional and social intelligence, determination and business nous, all of which enable them to achieve.

 

The two most prominent male characters in the book, Alexander and Nathan (Hannah’s boyfriend), both outwardly fit the traditional male role of tough, rough men.  Alexander is full of pride and Nathan is a hard drinker.  We at first feel these men would very much be at home in the 1950’s.  Alexander, however, actually has a very soft side which he has learned to develop as a result of great personal hurt, and Nathan shows that he can learn to listen and change his ‘macho’ ways.  De Lene’s novel shows the benefit of Gender Studies and will be a challenge to some men.

 

Minorities are represented by Meiling who is an immigrant from “China” (Ch. 12).  Here difficulties on coming to a foreign country, the U.S., are mentioned.  As we have seen she perseveres to success.  Minorities and the dispossessed also are mentioned in the novel in the form of the Palestinians, in the Middle East, and Aboriginals, in Australia.  While mentioned, though, their presence is not really dramatized.  The Palestinians very briefly appear in the character of Ramy, a youth who has had great personal hardship, but Aboriginals must be represented simply by their rock paintings.  Also both these groups are to some degree represented as being helped by others, rather than being self-possessed.  A book centring so much on personal overcoming and empowerment would have been considerably enhanced by dramatizing these minority groups more.

 

The elderly appear in the character of an “old bag lady … Doris” (Ch. 4).  While being bereft personal possessions because of “bad choices” (Ch. 4), she possesses a remarkable friendliness, joy of life and wisdom.  This is a dignified picture of this often ignored group.

 

LGBTIQ characters are completely absent.  Once again, in a novel dealing with empowerment, it is unfortunate that this group is ignored as including them would have added extra dimensions to the ideas expressed.

 

In terms of the Marxist/Capitalist debate, and the accompanying discourse on power, it can be noted that De Lene’s novel is not at all hostile to personal wealth.  The Wang’s are well off and the Messina’s live in a mansion with extensive gardens.  The characters globe trot with ease.  De Lene, however, very much considers what should be done with this wealth.  Hannah gives her first large earnings to the Community Refuge Center despite her own personal need.  She is aided in her causes to improve the lot of the suffering by her rich friends at National Geographic.  Her plans to increase world peace are resisted by governments and those with “vested interests” (Ch. 29).  Hannah is aided in her cause by ‘people power’ rather than ‘the system’ (Ch. 26 & 27). This interesting balance of viewpoints makes for good reading and reveals a refusal to be trapped by any one dogma.

 

Novels mainly aim to represent ‘real’ people and ‘real’ life, so the field of psychology, which aims to find truths about human nature and behaviour, becomes relevant.  De Lene’s novel is no exception.  Brenda, Hannah’s imaginary, fairy ‘spirit-guide’ will seem to many to be the most unbelievable part of the novel.  The psychologist Carl Jung, however, believed that ‘archetype’, knowledge bearing sub-personalities deep in the unconscious, could become manifest to the individual in visionary appearances.  Jung indeed experienced visits from, and received wise advice from, Philemon, a visionary guide (Anthony Stevens.  Jung: A Very Short Introduction:__ Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 30-32).  De Lene has Hannah feel she is “to blame” for the sexual abuse she receives from Bruce, her mother’s boyfriend.  Psychologists have indeed noted this effect in victims (Psychology Today.  To Forgive Or Not Forgive: That Is The Question: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/200803/forgive-or-not-forgive-is-the-question - Accessed 08/10/2012).  Meditation is represented as a valid way of relaxing and gaining balanced personal insight (Ch. 4 & 6), though it is not purported to be an easy method of personal development (Ch. 18).  Psychology indeed supports the idea of the benefits of personal peace and insight coming from meditation (Harold H. Bloomfield, et al. TM: Discovering Inner Energy And Overcoming Stress:__ Dell, c1975, Ch. 5 & 6; and, Andy Fraser, ed.  The Healing Power Of Meditation:__ Shambhala, 2013, Ch. 3-6).  De Lene includes the use of a journal to record personal insights, for later referral (Ch. 6).  This cognitive technique of journaling has been shown to be of use (Morton T. Kelsey. Adventure Inward: Christian Growth Through Personal Journal Writing:__ Augsburg Books, 1980).  De Lene has his psychologist character Anna Messina decide that her clients are too much persuaded by her colleagues to blame others in their past for their problems (Ch. 20).  Anna believes that instead her clients should accept “personal responsibility for their lives” (Ch. 20) and this is certainly very much in tune with the thinking of both Existentialist psychologist Rollo May (Freedom And Destiny:__ W.W. Norton, c1981, p. 96-101) and William Glasser (Reality Therapy: A New Approach To Psychiatry:__ Harper  Row, 1975, p. 16- 23).  This psychological accuracy very much adds to the validity of De Lene’s message.

 

Following from psychology it should be noted that the novel has a little symbolism.  Brenda is of course a fairy.  Writing from a psychological perspective Rose Inserra (Dictionary Of Dreams: Understanding Dreams And Their Messages:__ Hinkler Books, c2002, p. 163) notes that fairies “usually represent wishful thinking and belief in the possibility of magic existing in the world, rather than reliance on the practical”.  Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant (The Penguin Dictionary Of Symbolism:__ 2nd ed.:__ Penguin, 1996, p. 369) on the other hand, describes how the history of the idea of the fairy goes right back to primal, elemental forces, indeed to the “Earth Mother”, and as such they can be seen as primary creative forces in our psyche.  As Chevalier and Gheerbrant write, they symbolize “the paranormal powers of the spirit or the extraordinary capacities of the imagination” (Chevalier, p. 368).  J.E. Cirlot (A Dictionary Of Symbolism:__ Barnes & Noble, 1993, p. 101) agrees with this point of view, describing them as creative beings who bring about change and “transformations”. De Lene, as we have seen, proposes a real element of “spirit” in the world which we are meant to take seriously (Ch. 2 and following).  The imagination, creatively seeing our true purpose as expressed in our life goals and actions, is also very important in the book (Ch. 2).  Both these elements of ‘spirit’ and ‘imagination’, when perceived in the right way, can bring about great change.  In tune with this transformational nature James George Frazer certainly describes how fairies in traditional tales can give “valuable information” to people which transforms their life for the better (The Golden Bough: A Study In Magic And Religion:__ Macmillan Press, 1976, Pt. VII, p. 227- 228).  As Hannah’s ‘spirit-guide’ Brenda certainly gives very wise advice, even if the reader does not agree all the time.  Eric Ackroyd (A Dictionary Of Dream Symbolism:__ Cassell, 1993, p. 167) indeed says that “in a woman’s dream the fairy symbolizes her mother, her own femininity, or some part of her which, if allowed to participate in the conscious organisation of her life, would bring enrichment.”  The approach to life outlined by Brenda could certainly be said to be more intuitive, more feeling, more relational, and thus more feminine, and as has been said enriching.

 

In The Only Way Out De Lene gives deeper insights into life, concentrating particularly on forgiveness, though the teaching goes much further than that.  The book also examines success, and takes a balanced stance in the Marxist/Capitalist debate.  The characters capture our interest and will be pleasing to those readers interested in Feminism and Gender Studies.  De Lene quite competently draws on psychology to make his novel more factually based, and there is some interesting symbolic content.  I am happy to rate this book as 4.5 stars out of 5.

Source: http://raymondmathiesenbookreviews.blogspot.com.au/p/blog-page.html

Change Your Perspective by J. Poet – Book Review

Change Your Perspective - J Poet

By Susan McMichael

 

4 out of 5 stars

 

Different perspectives, interesting times and reliance …

As a long time singer of Church music, both hymns and songs, and as a poet, I was looking forward to this book.  Christian poetry’s framework and structures have changed over the past thirty years, in much the same way as secular poetry has: using much more free verse.  Following in this heritage this is a book of free verse.  I appreciated Change your Perspective's hopeful tone of getting the reader to enjoy their life, to see how God and Christ could make a difference to people's lives.  In the poetry in Change Your Perspective: A Collection Of Inspirational Poetry, the reader is asked to take a journey from the physical reality of imperfection to the spiritual view of change for the better through Christ.  Despite this emphasis on the spiritual this is not a book of ‘grandiose’ events, but rather of the very ordinary.  Following along these lines Poet uses the common, vernacular speech to bring God into these poems: “When your chips are down... you say you want / To be married / You say this will / Make your life / Whole” (Ladies – Give God A Chance).

The book is a series of small recipes for getting your life back together, for changing your ideas.  It is divided into three main sections: Broken, The Almighty God and Emerge.  It delves into the everyday, including those feelings and actions that we like to deny.  In Home Remedies we read:  “We have / Jealousy / Hypocrisy / Adultery”.  The book’s remedies are equally home-spun and practical, though effective.  In Illusions we read: “Be cool / Chill / Relax”.  Poet shows God's interaction with us and what can happen for good, when we rely on God and Christ.

Christian poetry is as old as the Bible: the Psalms and Song of Songs come to mind.  Christian poetry has been written by a variety of poets around the world, from T.S. Eliot, in England, and W.H. Auden, in America (at the beginning of the Twentieth Century) to John Berryman’s Collected Poems 1937-1971.  In the late twentieth century many Churches modernised by modifying buildings, building new, modern places of worship, or using school auditoriums, to allow more people to worship at Church.  The proponents of Christian poetry also modernised.  Like its secular siblings, in the late 1970s, Christian poetry rid itself of structure and form.  Modern Christian poetry, compared to previously, is thus necessarily more diverse and comes from a range of sources, using more free range verse, and a less metrical style.  It is in this poetic tradition that Poet's new book, Change Your Perspective, is situated.  Brought up in Church, with hymns and music, and having studied poetry, I was glad to read this book of contemporary Christian poetry which continues a long tradition, though in modern form.  I was also glad to read this book because, despite the plentiful nature of evil acts in the Bible, good always triumphs: God generally rescues, providing Manna, solace from whales and floods as well as returning to one's friends after three days.  Similarly, in this book God and good triumph.  It’s a cheerful collection: we know that God works for good and that through the author’s life experiences God will be there:  “I need / Understanding / Need / Peace in my heart / Want a little less confusion... I am asking you to / Be my guide / Lord” (I Need You).  God is there.

In Christian theology Atonement Theory sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), Penal Substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus' saving work being, as Galatians 3:13 says, his substitution in the sinner's place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution- accessed 27/09/2013).  In poems such as I Cried Out Poet uses this perspective to show God and Christ working in people's lives:
“My life was torn / I was in a rut / I was torn / Deep within my bones....I cried out / He instantly became my glue… / Know that Jesus / is your remedy”.

Change your Perspective also uses the Moral Influence view of the atonement which teaches that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity.  This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection (Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_influence_theory_of_atonement - accessed 27/09/2013).  Seeing Jesus, and admiring him, we imitate, we obey, we change.  In a poem such as God's Will, we learn that: “When the time presents itself / God will let me know / Jesus / Put me on earth for a reason... I will fulfil God's desire”.

The Protestant principle of Sola Fide states that no matter what a person's action, salvation comes through faith alone.  Ephesians 2:8–9 reads, "For by grace ye are saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast" (KJV).  According to Protestants, salvation is God's gift at God's sole prerogative and our resulting metamorphoses comes through his power.  Were salvation achieved by works, men could take pride in their efforts toward holiness, and God's gift of grace would be diminished in contrast to man's efforts (Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_fide - accessed 27/09/2013).  In the poem We shall be Y2K Compliant, the narrator tells Mr Millennium: “We are the / Believers... We have God's / Power / Embedded deep down”.  It is God’s power, given through faith, which is at work: not simply man’s effort.

This is an enthusiastic collection, full of happy poems where God is present.  God's presence is sought, lost and found again.  Poet uses everyday experiences (jobs, family and relationships) to bring both questions and answers about God's presence in our lives.  In these poems Poet asks God for help, for guidance and for assistance.  Throughout the book God and Jesus assist man in daily life and through hard times, making life happier, more bearable, more able to be understood.


As one point of criticism I might have liked a few more poems to make use of different forms.  There is a uniformity of style that becomes a little repetitive.  Variation would have added more points of highlight. 

 

I enjoyed Change Your Perspective very much.  I liked its enthusiasm, the concepts of God and Christ in the everyday, and the book's overall sense of purpose.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 stars out of 5.

 

 

http://goo.gl/X5SMcL  (Change Your Perspective - Book ed.)

http://goo.gl/Ucv71F   (Change your Perspective - Kindle ed.)

 

Source: http://raymondmathiesenbookreviews.blogspot.com.au

Do the right thing…

The Children Shall Be Blameless - W. Jack Savage

Richard Smith had a life before he lived at St. James Orphanage, St. Paul, Minnesota, but that was too long ago to remember.  Even his first days at the orphanage seem hidden under a strange cloud of forgetfulness.  One thing Richard does remember is that, no matter what, he must not eat the “cornmeal mush” (Ch. 1 and following) the nuns serve for breakfast.  Refusing this meal is against the Orphanage rules, and Richard’s insistence over the years, as he grows up, marks him out as a trouble-maker.  Faced with the harsh bureaucracy of the Catholic Church Richard decides that all talk of God is a fake, but he is determined to do what is really “right” (Ch. 1 and following) by people, regardless of what the church says.  From a very early age ethics, rather than morals, interests this young thinker.  As Richard grows up he changes in some ways, but in many ways he stays the same.  What will the course of his life be?

 

The Children Shall be Blameless is a story about real life, taking a very practical and pragmatic view of things.  It is, however, also a ‘spiritual’ (rather than religious) story asking deeper, philosophic questions about how to live and how we find meaning.  Richard does not claim to have all the answers, and neither does W. Jack Savage, but if you find yourself often wondering  ’what is the right thing to do’ this is the novel  for you.  Savage’s story is interesting and in parts very exciting, and the novel is not in any way preachy.

 

The plot of the novel is divided into basically two parts.  The first part covers Richard’s early life and his adult search for his birth family, and also for a partner and family of his own.  The second part takes a new direction as Richard finds himself involved in the intrigues of crime, though the themes and plot arc of the first part is never lost.  Chapters 1 to 3 cover Richards youth, narrating his growth as an individual.  This is a section of increasing complexity of story and themes.  Chapters 4 to 5 describe Richard’s early adulthood, particularly his time in the army.  This section is unfortunately in large part rather a hiatus, in some ways simply repeating the themes and plot devices of the first section.  It should be pointed out, though, that this ‘dull’ section is a necessary character device which provides the motivational impetus for the next section.  Chapters 6 to 8 narrate Richard’s journey of discovery as he delves into his distant, ‘forgotten’ past.  Chapters 9 and 10 form the midpoint of the novel and are marked by a peak of adventure and danger both in terms of character development and events.  Chapters 11 to 14 involve the new plot direction of crime and adventure.  Much of this section works well, however, in parts we feel Savage is struggling for plot line.  When Richard is knocked unconscious and loses his memory for a third time we feel it is one time too many.  Chapter 15 serves as an epilogue.  This last Chapter is too compressed in narration, with too many events happening all at one time (especially in one short section).  We feel that Savage is rushing to get the story completely finished, and is perhaps under editorial direction concerning page numbers.  This is an unfortunate end to a very good book, but does not spoil the overall effect of the novel, which is for the most part finished anyway.

 

Virtually all of Savage’s characters are likable, though imperfect, and the reader immediately relates to them as ‘real’ people.  Even the ‘bad’ character, Shirley Stanton, is in many ways likable in perhaps a dangerous way.  We are beguiled by her ‘charm’ and double dealing.  Richard is good, tough, practical and pragmatic, and hides a remarkable athletic ability.  His failing is that in many ways he is ignorant of his own motivations, especially where his life’s direction is not going right.  His character has some mystery as he keeps to himself in some circumstances, but is extroverted in others.  Father Allen  Brown, Richard’s mentor, is good, but not rigid in his ethics, as well as practical and loving.  Sargent Bill (William) MCaully, a friend Richard makes in the Army, is very tough, but extremely harsh in his self-judgement and depressed in his attitude to life.  He expresses the kind of emptiness, ennui  and “nihilation”  that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre so effectively described ( Richard Appignanesi.  Introducing Existentialism: Icon Books, 2001, p. 128-133).  As the story continues Bill evolves into a more happy character.  Shirley Stanton, as we have said, is an ambiguous character, and is certainly an interesting element in the novel.  She could have been the stereotyped, beautiful ‘hussy,’ but she is a much more complex character than that.  This gives her a ‘reality’ which is difficult to achieve in a villain.  As an example of a more minor character, Teddy, a small town reporter, is motivated to do good, determined and capable, but haunted by an alcoholic past.  Savage’s novel is a fictional biography and so has many characters that we only get to look at briefly.  Particularly in the second half of the novel, though, Savage displays a flair for summarized biographies in which he gives us a lively glimpse into some minor character’s lives and personality.  Greg, in Chapter 12, is a good example of this.

 

Savage’s novel is for the most part realistic in style, though in Chapter 10 the plot takes on a macabre, larger-than-life aura, which is spiced with more than a twinge of humour.  This style continues on into Chapter 12, which is very aptly titled “Dickens.”  Dickens is of course the master of slight hyperbole and character study.  Other parts of the story have less surreal humour, and there are occasional moments of bitter irony.  There are quite a few “Oh my Gosh!” moments and surprise chapter endings to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.  I must warn that there is occasional foul language and mild references to free sex.  This is completely in line with the characters and plot circumstances, but it may offend conservative readers.

 

Justice and ethics, in the broadest sense of those words, is the central theme of the novel.  Richard develops a set of personal values throughout the novel, which guide him in his actions.  He is interested, at the most, in guidelines, rather than a set of rules for correct behaviour.   These values include stepping up for the down-trodden (Ch. 1), equality (Ch. 2), tolerance (Ch. 3) and loving the people you find yourself with (Ch. 8).  Most of us want to do our best, what is right, but why is this so important to us?  We could simply let the whole problem slip and say, “Who cares!”  Our need for connection, the next theme to be discussed, seems to propel us towards “goodness” (Ch. 2 and following).  These moments of “goodness” have great meaning to us and repeatedly in the novel we hear that certain events “changed me” (Ch. 1 and following).  Criminal justice makes an appearance in the second half of the book, but the theme is never fully developed.  The issue of criminality is rather dealt with in terms of the personal values we have just been talking about.  None the less we face issues such as: (1) are the law enforcers necessarily good, (2) is justice necessarily always done, and, (3) what is our correct response to crime?

 

The importance of family is the second major theme of The Children Shall Be Blameless.  What is family and why do we seem to need it?  In the 1950’s life seemed simple and we all knew that a family was a mother and a father and two children.  Now we have fractured families, blended families, birth families, adopted families, single parent families and LGBTIQ families.  Indeed, some of these types of families appear in the novel.  In keeping with the ‘spiritual,’ rather than religious, attitude of this novel the approach to families is “non-traditional” (Ch. 7).  We all, even orphans, have families of some kind, but it is tempting to romanticise the notion: we dream of the ‘ideal family’.  Richard very much likes movies, but must learn that while they reflect life, and give us ideas to think about life, they are not life (Ch. 2 and Ch. 8).

 

Bureaucracy appears as a strong minor theme.  We seem to need some rules and organisations, but they in themselves can become the source of injustice.  This injustice is very easily denied and swept under the carpet when it is an embarrassment.  How can we be “spontaneous” (Ch. 2) in the face of bureaucracies?  There is also a sub-theme of the horror of war.  This is not exactly an anti-war novel, but it is also not war affirming.  How should we treat soldiers and veterans?  Can those who do not go to war ever really understand what it is like?

 

Much of the novel is set in the late 1960s and early 1970’s, which allows Savage to capture the role of women right at the Twentieth Century changing points.  Sister Carmella, the Head of the Orphanage, represents the traditional 1950’s view of women in its very conservative role.  Sister Carmella is caring and to a certain extent proactive about helping the children in her care, but we detect a restraint about her that limits her effectiveness.  Indeed the nuns in general support their ‘establishment’ and those who do not fit in with it are ‘bad’.  Far be it from a nun, a woman in a male hierarchy, to question the establishment.  Only Sister Michael Ann (Ch. 2) seems to have any individual spirit and we wonder if such a woman will have a smooth path in this rigid female order.  Overcome by a sense of ennui  after his time in the Army Richard finds himself entering whole heartedly into the ‘free love’ attitude of the Counterculture, but that era was actually a time when the new morality was easily diverted towards using women for physical pleasure, then throwing them away, and vice versa.  Richard wonders why he never finds a permanent partner, but this ignorance is typical of the era.  As the plot moves into the 1980’s the reader finds imperfect, but dynamic women achievers emerging.  Teddy is an overcomer who has got past both “bipolar disorder” (Ch. 7) and alcoholism (Ch. 8) to become a successful small town reporter.  Teddy has a special nose for the news and goes out of her way to get the story.  Her namesake, but no relative, Shirley Smith, is the boss of a regional wing of a drug smuggling operation.  In many ways the reverse of Teddy, she is still a go-ahead, no nonsense operator, also very good at what she does.  Over all Savage’s novel gives an accurate and interesting picture of the history of the role of women and the effects of Feminism.

 

The history of male gender role is also depicted and delved into.  The character of Father Brown represents the type of man who began to emerge in the late 1950’s, and who initiated the Vatican 2 reforms of the Catholic Church.  He is less driven by a sense of ‘authority’ and more interested in interpersonal relationships.  Rigid systems are viewed with doubt, and caring, goodness and development are valued.  This is the kind of thought that later resulted in the development of ‘relational theology’ (Bruce Larson.  No Longer Strangers: An Introduction To Relational Theology: Reprint ed.: Word Book, 1974).  Bill McCaully represents the men before the Father Browns of the world.  A career soldier he is dedicated to the authoritative, male power structure to the hilt.  This partly satisfies him, but only partly.  The whole space of relationships opens up to him like a vast, unsuccessful vacuum, and when he is not occupied by the structure only alcohol will suffice.  Feelings are “unmanly” (Ch. 3).  But Bill will change and evolve as the story progresses.  Richard very much represents the new man: practical and tough, but caring (Robert Bly.  Iron John: Men And Masculinity: Rider, c1990).  Richard is a ‘New Age man’ long before there was a late Twentieth Century New Age Movement.  But, as we have seen, Richard’s relationships with women do not run smoothly.  He must grow and evolve, find his footing in uncertain territory, and this novel is valuable to Twenty-First Century men who, despite all the development in male gender roles that have occurred, still find themselves uncertain as to how to be a good man and a partner.

 

LGBTIQ roles make an appearance in Savage’s novel, although the main character, Richard, is at times at pains to point out that he is not gay.  The traditional derogatory attitude to gay men is clearly depicted early in the book (Ch. 3), but later we see the very minor character of David Gannon, a successful, gay restaurateur, depicted without any animosity (Ch. 4).  A more prominent character is revealed to be gay quite late in the book, however, I will not go into details in order to avoid spoiling the story.  This character allows Savage to display a much more accepting attitude to gay characters.  Lesbian relationships are much more prominent in the book and acceptance is equally prominently displayed.  At first we come across Danika Gusard  and her lover Deputy Donna Mills and “Rosie’s [ … ] a gay bar” (sic.).  Mills is of course a successful woman and this relationship is never depicted in a derogatory way.   Next we see Edie Charboneau, a capable nurse, and her neighbour, Norma Haslett, mutually attracted, and described in a sympathetic way, though at this point the story certainly has overtones of a 1950’s attitude.  Then later in the book we see Edie, once again, and Teddy in a lesbian relationship, this time fully sympathetically depicted, and allowing love to bloom.  This is an important dimension in a novel dealing so much with relationships, and the book would have been very much less without these plot lines.

 

The aged first appear early in the book in the character of Monsignor Poferal.   The Monsignor is represented as having been a vigorous worker, but now ‘tired’ (Ch. 1).  The Monsignor is quickly eclipsed by the young Father Brown.  This is in some cases a realistic picture of the elderly, but hardly flattering to this much ignored and often derided group.  Much later in the novel we come across an aged Bill McCaully.  This time we are presented with a determined, smart man, though he is physically limited.  This aged McCaully is to a certain extent successful in his objective, though unfortunately not completely so.

 

Minorities make very brief appearances.  Very early in the book we meet Maya, a Mexican descent girl who experiences bigotry in the playground (Ch. 1).  Richard stands up for her but parents of the bullies describe her as a “dirty little Mexican” (Ch. 1).  Later, Clete, an African-American soldier, does not need defending and is an amiably described co-conspirator in R&R shenanigans.  African-Americans are positively described as having an astute awareness and practicality.  They are described as having a “seemingly innate ability to stay in and even celebrate the present.”  It should be noted though that the word “innate” may be greeted with ire by some, no matter how well intended.  Later again the Black Rights campaign is touched on as Richard notes and stands against discrimination in his job at UPS (Ch. 5).

 

From the point of view of Structuralism we note the obvious opposing “binary pair” (Boris Wiseman.  Introducing Levi-Strauss and Structural Anthropology:  Icon Books, 200, p. 87, 96 & 149) good/evil, however, this dichotomy takes a decidedly Postmodern slant early on in the novel with the “black and white” (Ch. 3) dichotomy being abandoned and a much more complex view of ethics being adopted.  The young Richard comments to Father Brown that ethical questions are “not always that simple” (Ch. 2).  In terms of character comparison we see the complimentary pair of Richard/Father-Brown, though there is some opposition there with the Father being ‘inside’ the traditional system and Richard firmly out of it.  Sister Carmella and Brown are complimentary in that they are ‘insiders’ who try to rise above the system, but they are opposing in that Carmella is more ineffective in opposing bureaucratic wrong and Brown considerably effective.  Shirley and Teddy at first appear as opposing pairs.  Teddy having come from a difficult background ends up an upright citizen, but Shirley, coming from a similar background, chooses a life of crime.  Later, however, the contrast is nowhere near as clear.  Teddy displays weakness in facing her past, while Shirley experiences extreme doubt about her whole life.  Finally there is a Richard/Shirley dichotomy: he on the side of right and she on the side of crime.  Once again though, as the plot continues this clear spit becomes fuzzy.  Richard chooses to help the person, rather than, for example report crime, and Shirley, as we have just seen, proves to be less firmly set on the side of crime.  In this last case we should note that Bertrand Russell has observed that both strong contributors to society and criminals often spring from the same personality type, the difference being that one has a chance to express their creativity in an approved way, while the other is denied this (Bertrand Russell.  Authority And The Individual: Unwin Hyman, 1977, p. 41-46).

 

Levi-Strauss has proposed that myth is a kind of inherent process which the mind imposes on reality and that deep down we all view the world in this way (Wiseman, p. 135).  Any novel dealing with ‘spiritual’ ideas further lends itself to this kind of interpretation and The Children Shall Be Blameless, despite all its hard headed practicality, can be viewed in this way.

 

Turning to traditional knowledge, therefore, it can be noted that the Tarot card of The High Priestess, also called the “Female Pontiff” (Arthur Edward Waite. The Pictorial Key To The Tarot: U.S. Games Systems, c1971?, p. 13) is important to the opening chapters of Savage’s  novel.  Sallie Nichols (Jung And The Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1980)comments of this card that the Priestess represents the idea that “Pure Spirituality is pure nonsense” (Nichols, p. 72).  She further notes that: “She wears the ceremonial robes and trivia of the Church” and holds a “no doubt [ … ] holy book” (Nichols, p. 72), which Waite identifies as the “Tora” (Waite, p. 71).  Yet, of course, the Priestess is a woman, making a mockery of the whole institution.  Nichols further links this card to the medieval Pope Joan myth, which The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (Curious Myths Of The Middle Ages: Jupiter Books, 1977, p. 69-73) links to views that the Catholic Church was corrupt and lost to God.  This whole description is very close to the young Richard’s view, and, as we have noted Sister Carmella, while contemplating good is less effective in actually fighting evil.  None of this is to say that Savage views the Church as completely wrong, but rather that taking itself too seriously (rules and bureaucracy) is its downfall (Ch. 1).

 

On the positive side it should be noted that Richard takes from his Catholic Orphanage upbringing a serious concern with the ‘good’.  This is the central topic of the Church and, though he disagrees in detail, this is Richard’s central touchstone.  Nichols comments of the Tarot card The Pope that it represents “man’s striving for connection with the godhead” (Nichols, p. 119).  She further notes that according to Carl Gustav Jung “the religious aims to unite the opposites” (Nichols, p. 119) and that the “prelate .. twins” who kneel before the Pontiff “symbolize par excellence [ … ] the dual aspects inherent in all life” (Nichols, p. 122).  As has been observed above the dichotomy of good/evil tends to undergo a Postmodern collapse in the way in which Jacques Derrida claimed it would (Mary Klages. Literary Theory: A Guide For The Perplexed: Continuum, 2006, p. 59-60) when the center shifts to relationships and ambiguous people, rather than rules.

 

As we have seen, Richard is guided in ‘spiritual’ matters by practicality and pragmatism.  For this reason the Tarot card Temperance applies to the novel as a whole.  Nichols describes the card in this way: “the Angel Temperance blends two opposite aspects or essences, producing life-giving energy” (Nichols, p. 249).  Richard’s dynamism comes from the combination of his very down to earth realism and his desire to act by higher, more ideal values.  Writing further Nichols notes of the card: “The liquid which flows between the two jars [one blue and one red] is neither red nor blue but is pure white, suggesting that it represents a pure essence, perhaps energy” (Nichols, p. 250).  Except for the directionless and possibly depressed period after his time in the army, the adult Richard pursues his life-plan with a great energy and vigour, and the reader is left with the sense that this character truly knows how to ‘live life’ and achieve.  In order to create a successful mix of opposite elements Nichols suggests that: “As in any conflict situation, a creative first step towards resolution is to find an arbiter – someone whose wisdom and understanding can encompass both sides” (Nichols, p. 250).  Again and again throughout the plot Richard refers back to Father Brown, the equally pragmatic spiritual mentor who first befriended him in his youth.  Speaking of encounters with angels Nichols writes: “Such visionary experiences mark dramatic turning points, personal and culturally” (Nichols, p. 250).  As has been noted, we repeatedly hear that particular events “changed me” (Ch. 1 and following).  This is a story of personal growth.  It is, though, also a story of cultural change.  As has been noted above the cultural shift in the roles of women, men and LGBTIQ people is documented in the novel.  Nichols comments on the relationship Temperance has with the astrological sign of Aquarius (Nichols, p. 249).  Nicholas Campion (Zodiac: Enhance Your Life Through Astrology: Alhanbra House, c2000, p. 161) notes of this traditional wisdom sign that: “Its strengths are its inventive genius and its strongly held ideas.”  Very early in the story Sister Carmella notes that the young Richard is “aggravating” because of his firm ethical ideas and wonders who has been tutoring him in these advanced notions.  Writing further of Aquarius Campion notes: “Its weaknesses are its failure to understand its emotions and its refusal to compromise with signs that do not share its vision” (Champion, p. 161).  Father Brown repeatedly observes that Richard is ignorant of, or does not want to face, his true motivations, and, particularly in his early romantic relationships we see an inability to negotiate with, or come to a compromise with, women concerning his need for a family.  Aquarius represents the problems which Temperance must solve.   Pragmatism and temperance, as revealed in the card Temperance, and the sign Aquarius, can indeed be seen as the summing up of Savage’s message.

 

W. Jack Savage’s The Children Shall Be Blameless manages to successfully achieve the difficult task of combining high adventure with ‘spiritual’ insight.  It takes the themes of ethics and family and places them in a story of both personal development and cultural change.  The roles of women, men, LBGTIQ, the aged and minorities are depicted and examined in some depth.  The characters are likable and of enough complexity to be related to as ‘real’ people.  At 410 pages this is probably not a book suited to a weekend read, but those who pick it up will find from the first pages that they have encountered a beguiling and interesting novel.  These qualities will certainly sustain the reader through this longer read.  I am happy to rate this book as 4.5 stars out of 5.

The Hidden Realms of Firestone by Linda M. David - Book Review

The Hidden Realms of Firestone - Linda M. David

4 out of 5 stars

Guest Book Review by Susan McMichael

 

Volcanic Lava Logs and an awesome holiday...

A mysterious figure is looking at a featureless wall.... then Agathea Fulstropp arrives with the bang of the car door.  She doesn't want to go on holiday seeing things: “I want to go the beach with granddad.”  She knows quite well where she wants to go: to school, on another planet and her parents aren't going to stop her.  However, lots of other people have plans for Thea and she is kidnapped....

 

Who has kidnapped her?  Where is she?  Returned to the school with little knowledge of what happened Thea is simply delighted to be back.  All, however, is not well, with a new girl spoiling everything.  Will Thea ever again be friends with Annalije?  Will she be able to find out who kidnapped her, before she is kidnapped again?

 

Linda M. David's The Hidden Realms of Firestone is an engrossing Fantasy/Science-Fiction book for teenagers.  It will also appeal to those teenage readers who enjoy the School Story genre.  Beyond this David’s novel can be read and greatly appreciated by adults who wish to recapture a little of their youth.

 

 

"Thea had a great adventure and even managed to help you out of your ...erm...situation but now ... well maybe it's time for her life to get back to normal."

"I was ...quite intrigued about your encounter with the legendary Winged-Zaphina.  You must have been absolutely terrified!"

"Well no, not really", said Thea taking another mouthful of her Lava.  Shake, "it turned out to be a very kind and friendly creature - not frightening at all."(Chapter 2)

 

In Planet Aruuliah, David presents a complete (other) world, filled with interesting characters, and with new animals (the Cheebles, the Gruzzlings), food and people.  The book is interestingly described and well structured.

 

The issues that the novel deals with (friendship, loneliness, and difference and acceptance) introduce a strong and engaging character.  Thea is real and not always likeable.  She is sulky, rude and precious about her friendship and her clothes:

 

"Every item of her clothing was strewn across the bed...and an oblivious Annalije posing before the floor length mirror...

“What do you think you're doing?" spluttered an incensed Thea as she strode in; snatching the garment from her with such force she almost ripped it in two." (Chapter 3)

 

Thea has an opinion, and is able to do things and get things done.  The above scene is well written and explores the dynamics of friendship.  During the course of the novel various friendships are explored in detail.  Thea's relationship with Jojan is a lovely look at friendship: the two share an interest in the Garden of Meditation.  Jojan helps Thea at the beginning.  David explores a changing relationship very well and the ending is pleasing.

 

The Hidden Realms of Firestone also explores the importance of family.  Thea has an interesting relationship with her parents.  Her mother is distant at the beginning and we are not surprised Thea wants to go to another planet!  Having both parents employed as archaeologists is a nice touch.  Thea’s relationship with her grandfather is a particularly well drawn one: it shows how different generations can coexist and enjoy each other's company, and it emphasises the importance of grandparents to the family structure.

 

The novel's predominant structure is that of the milieu: we are interested in the world of Planet Aruuliah and its Academy; in the food, including Volcanic Lava Logs, Foaming Froth Cups, Thunderbolt Sizzlers and Chilly Shocks; in pills which turn into food; and in the technology that surrounds Thea and which she makes use of.  There are also elements from the story which are beautifully structured; for example, when things happen in the villages, that the class are creating, it is reflected in the larger world of Planet Aruuliah and the Academy.

 

David owes some debt to J.K. Rowling: some elements in the novel reminded me of Harry Potter; for example, the Gardens of Meditation & Tranquillity, were similar to the forest outside Hogwarts.  However, in this genre I don't see being reminded of other books as a problem; being reminded is more of an expectation that a world has been created, and the expectation is fulfilled.

 

The Hidden Realms of Firestone has an omniscient narrator.  Our main focus is on Thea who is well drawn.  We understand her, learn about her and sympathise with her desire to be at school, with her friend Annalije, and when things go wrong with Annalije and Ruganwyn, we are on Thea's side.

 

David, however, has skilfully drawn characters and their relationships keep us reading.  What is so weird about Ruganwyn?  Why does she treat Thea the way she does?  The answer is interesting and reminds the reader that though the Fantasy/Science-Fiction novel depicts another world, it mirrors our own.

 

As a reader of the School Story genre, I liked this story.  Thea was an engaging student and many of the lesson pieces and school sets appealed.  The school friends are also well drawn as characters.  The relationships between all of them (Jojan and Thea, Thea and Annalije, Ruganwyn and Annalije) are complex and treat loneliness, difference and friendship sympathetically.

 

The animals and magic dolls are an interesting aspect of the plot, and add to the believable world which David creates.

 

The novel is well structured.  Although it is the second in a series, I didn't feel I needed to read the first.  That said I am interested to go back and read the first one.  David’s hints at what happened in the first novel were intriguing and have left me curious: "Qualon... or Maladour ...whatever his name was!  What if he's found a way to return from the grave and has come back to finish what he started?“  David makes good use of various devices to move the plot along, including an object or objects with some great power, kidnappers, evil and technology:

 

"You see, portals have such an adverse effect on Earth's atmosphere that only a limited amount can be opened per year, each of which has to be sanctioned by the authorities."

 

The characters in the novel all come from different planets and so there is a great deal made of how 'people' look.  Ursula K Le Guin one of the foremost writers of Fantasy/Science-Fiction has “often made use of alien cultures to examine structural characteristics of human culture and society and their impact on the individual” (Wikipedia, Marilyn Strathern, ‘Gender as it Might be’ RAIN, No. 28, 1978 pp. 4-7, accessed August 13 2013).  David’s Planet Aruuliah asks us to look at society and people:

 

“There were so many students in the Halls of Dining that she did not know where to look first.  There was an absolute multitude of skin colours, from the palest to the darkest imaginable in a variety of patterns and markings.  There were also a range of appendages and attachments, from tails and horns to tentacles and feelers, additional skin augmentations in the form of spikes and ridges, fur and feathers, not to mention talons, claws and webbed feet!"

 

Everyone makes fun of Thea because of what she can’t do, for example change her skin colour like Ruganwyn, who comes from the Planet Chameleon, and also because Earth is technologically challenged, so Thea has issues with technology.  However, with the help of various friends Thea is able to defeat the enemy and work out who the enemy is.  There is also an interesting discussion of exactly who is alien on Planet Aruuliah.  The Hidden Realms of Firestone does a great deal for tolerance and understanding about diversity.

 

Linda David's The Hidden Realms of Firestone is a strong novel about friendship, combining elements of the School Story, Fantasy and Science Fiction.  The book is well written and provides both a story in itself, as well as tantalising hints of what happened in a first book in the series.  It will appeal to a wide raging of readers, having a strong plot line, and an opinionated and thoughtful main character.  I highly recommended this book and am happy to rate it as 4 out of five stars.

Past suffering and future bliss?

Delighting in Your Company - Blair McDowell

5 out of 5 stars

 

Amalie Ansett is a busy working professional who part owns an advertising agency in Los Angeles. California.  She has just suffered a painful break-up of her marriage and while cleaning her family home, which is now on the market, she discovers an unopened letter to her mother from a previously unknown cousin, Josephina Ansett.  Josephina lives on St. Clements, a small island in the Caribbean.  The letter invites Amalie and her mother, who is now deceased, to a visit on the island.  Sorely in need of a break Amalie decides to go.  Imagine her surprise when, while touring on St. Clements she learns of another Amalie Ansett, who lived in the early 1800s, and who looks remarkably like her twenty-first century descendent.  Life takes on an even stranger turn when Amalie is visited by the ghost of Jonathan Evans, the 1810 lover of the Amalie of the past.  Jonathan died in strange, unexplained circumstances and asks for Amalie’s help to solve the mystery.

 

Blair McDowell’s Delighting In your Company is an exciting, action packed novel of the paranormal romance/erotica genre.  Much more than this, though, the book gives a glimpse of life in the early 1800s, especially for women and slaves.  Most of all this is a novel about Amalie’s need to come to terms with her very present and very ‘real’ life problems.

 

McDowell’s novel has a more unusual and complex narrative structure.  There is a short introductory section, set in L.A. (Ch. 1), followed by an introduction to St. Clements and its history (Ch. 2 to Ch. 4).  Next there is a sequence of three visits to the past, each successively moving towards some kind of resolution of Jonathan’s problem.  After each visit there is a further working out, in the present, of the consequences of the stay in the past.  These three sections are: First visit and its consequences (Ch. 5 to Ch. 6); Second visit and its consequences (Ch. 7 to Ch. 9), and Third visit and its consequences (Ch. 10 to Ch. 12).  Finally there is an Epilogue which neatly wraps up and resolves both the past and present plot lines.  This more unusual plot line serves well to keep the reader interested, while at the same time allowing questions to remain open until the very end.  The three visits involve a little repetition, but are in no way boring.  Rather McDowell skilfully works in many new details, weaving more and more complexity as the novel proceeds.

 

Delighting In Your Company is written in omniscient narrator mode, but mainly centres on Amalie’s perspective.  There are, though, a number of shifts to Jonathan’s perspective, and that of other characters.  The novel contains a number of surprise plot twists and “Oh my God!” chapter endings.  There is also some humour, especially in the early part of the book, including a “hair-raising” drive from the St. Clements airport, chauffeured by Andrew, Josephina’s half-blind, hired hand (Ch. 2).  There is also here and there a touch of irony to remind us of the bitter truth of life’s suffering.  All of this goes to make an interesting and well written text with plenty of stylistic flair.  It should be noted that sex is quite openly depicted in the novel and that this may offend conservative readers.  While it containing erotic elements the novel is not pure erotica.

 

McDowell’s ‘good’ characters are suitably likable, though most not perfectly so, and we relate to them even though many come from a past, unfamiliar time.  Amalie is a capable woman, but in emotional need.  Josephina, at 80 years old, is suitably wise and motherly, though perhaps a little “fey” (Ch. 3).  Jonathan is caring and kind, but is certainly to some extent trapped in the male bigotry of his era.  McDowell’s ‘bad’ characters, chiefly Charles Benstone the 1800s “Island Administrator” (Ch. 2), is suitably dastardly, though as a point of criticism he is perhaps slightly too evil to be ‘real’.  Perhaps just a bit more insight into his history and motivations could have made him more rounded.  The name Amalie is a variation of the name Amelia, which itself is a blending of Emilia and Amalia (Patrick Hanks & Flavia Hodges.  A Concise Dictionary of First Names: Third ed.: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 10).  Emilia means “rival” (Hanks, p. 79) and Amalia means “work” (Hanks, p. 10).  Amalie finds that her past counterpart is in many ways a competitor for the affections of Jonathan, and certainly has much labour set out for her in solving the mystery of the past.  Jonathan means “God has given” (Hanks, p.131) and he has certainly been blessed with wealth and position, though this name has some irony as those are the very possessions which he seems to have been stripped of.  Josephina means “God shall add (another … [child])”  (Hanks, p. 132) and she indeed acquires a ‘daughter’ in the form of Amalie.

 

The novel very much resolves around the theme of possession.  How firmly do we hold our land or place in society?  Should one person ever ‘own’ another (slavery)?  More broadly are we free to think beyond our culture, or are we trapped in it, ‘possessed’ by it?  We all surrender a little of our ‘control’ to others, whether we like it or not, but surely the human spirit reaches for the maximum freedom pragmatically available?  In another direction we as free individuals often choose to co-operate, and this indeed is a theme relevant to Western culture, and perhaps particularly to U.S. society.  We value frontier individuality, but much of the ‘West” was won by teams of people working together.  In modern society the 1960’s marked the beginning of the ‘I” culture, but as Rollo May has pointed out in Freedom and Destiny (W.W. Norton, c1981) we have the restraint of responsibility to others on us, and beyond this history has shown that we truly achieve by co-operation (Robin Dunbar, Louise Barrett & John Lycett. Evolutionary Psychology: A Beginner’s Guide: Oneworld, c2007, Ch. 11).  What are the limits of the hard headed U.S. individualist?  Indeed they can achieve much, but at what cost?  Finally open-mindedness is an important theme which builds upon the last two mentioned.  To see beyond what our society tells us about possession and individuality we must have an open mind or we are forever subject to ‘enculturation’, trapped.  Are other cultures religious beliefs completely foolish?  Are we doomed to repeat our history by the rigid bounds of the society we are ‘constructed’ in, matured in?  Are psychic phenomena completely foolish as we are likely to say in a ‘pat,’ off-hand way, or are there possibilities beyond our experience?

 

The female characters in Delighting In Your Company are virtually all capable women who enjoy a challenge and have skills to meet it.  Amalie and her business partner, Lorna Cummings, were “two women in a class of twenty men” (Ch. 1), but never-the-less they graduated from the UCLA with business degrees.  “They watched and commiserated with each other as less competent men were promoted over them,” but in the end set up their own “L.A. advertising agency”.  “Lana’s support through all these circumstances and more very much reminds us of the second wave feminist’s “consciousness-raising” rap groups in which they shared their experiences, successes and failures, and gave each other support (Cathia Jenainati.  Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, c2010, p. 81, 95, 102).  Josephina proves more wise than “fey” (Ch. 3).  Amalie of the 1800s is “no shrinking violet” (Ch. 5).  She was a “tomboy” (Ch. 5) as a child.  She swims and rides horses like a man and is a very forward lover.  Gustavia Graham, a descendent of St. Clement’s slaves, administers the Island museum by herself.   Elvirna Jones, one of Josephina’s employees proves savvy to the goings on of St. Clement’s society. Even Jemma and Krishia, slaves though they are, show their worth as loving, caring individuals where they could easily be haters and betrayers.  The position of women of the 1800s as ‘protected” (Ch. 7) individuals who should not worry their “pretty little heads” (Ch. 5) about important matters is very much portrayed, with considerable condemning comment from Amalie.  But even the position of post second wave feminist women is examined.  In chapter 1 Amalie reveals that she sees herself as “mousy” and “over-weight”, though Lorna strongly denies this.  This whole conversation is highly ironic as Amalie has fallen victim to the very myth perpetrated by the advertising business.  We immediately think of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (William Morrow, 1991).  In general Feminists will enjoy this novel as a work looking at both past injustices, present achievements and present difficulties.  As we have observed even the history and current position of African descent women is looked at.

 

Following from Feminism, those interested in Gender Studies will find the depiction of Jonathan worth examination.  As a man of the early 1800s Jonathan’s view of women in some ways quite fits the bigoted attitude towards women of his time.  When Amalie tries to inform him of the shady business deal her father has got himself entrapped in Jonathan doubts her word very much and insists that he will sort the whole issue out himself by discussing the matter man to man (Ch. 10). Jonathan must be gently “persuaded” (Ch. 10) to listen to Amalie.  On the other hand Jonathan is very much a non-stereotypical, caring man.  He is in many ways very tender with Amalie.  He also cares very much for the slaves on his plantation.  In this time of transition from slavery to freedom (1810) he is the only plantation owner on the island experimenting with new crops which are less labour intensive and involve much more humane working conditions.  He secretly plans to free his slaves.  Samuel, Jonathan’s freed African descent companion, is also a caring man.  Having seen and experienced the cruelty of the slave system he has every right to be vengeful and aggressive, but he is very much above this kind of macho behaviour: instead he is a man of deep thought and caring, as well as action.  Benstone, on the other hand is the epitome of 1800’s male bigotry and stereotype, being motivated by power, and a female dominator to boot.

 

Gay characters are completely absent from the novel.  This is an unfortunate oversight in a book dealing so much with the notion of typed roles, exclusion and rebellion.

 

The aged are of course represented by the 85 year old Josephina who is depicted as having a wise understanding of life, in all its complexity and strangeness, and a loving, caring and open personality.  The absent characters of Amalie’s mother and father are also described as being caring people who supported their daughter with affection, a listening ear and wise advice (Ch. 1).  Of course not all of the aged are wise and caring, but it is excellent to see this often overlooked, and frequently demeaned, group depicted positively.

 

The idea of wealth verses personal fulfilment is prominent in the novel and this notion will quite appeal to those interested in the Marxism/Capitalism debate.  Marx was very much interested in “the relationships between individuals and the society they lived in” (Gill Hand. Understanding Marx: Hodder Education, 2011, p. 67), and in allowing people to reach the full potential they are capable of.  Early in the story Brett, Amalie’s ex-husband, is revealed to be only interested in Amalie for the social connections her family offers: connections to wealth and success.  Benstone also is interested in ”conquest” (Ch. 6) in all its various forms.  The “Hollywood Hills” lifestyle (Ch. 1) is contrasted with the quieter, but more personally fulfilling, existence of St. Clements.  Marx of course was very much interested in the evils of, and the countering of, Colonialism (Hand, p.44-46), and Delighting In Your Company very much deals critically with the suffering of slaves, and the drive for money and power, in the British Colonial Caribbean.

 

As we have just said, Dowell’s novel spends a considerable amount of time looking at English colonialism and its implications.  The part of the world depicted in the book, both in the present and in the past, is not post-colonial.  In the present Josephina is a white land owner, with African descent employees, sitting in her, certainly much faded, but not past estate.  The Island museum enshrines only colonial history.  There are no African descent items on display, and certainly no archaeological items from the original, indigenous Caribbean occupants.  In the past Colonialism is of course very live and well.  This colonial ethos, however, certainly does not go unquestioned or uncriticised: far from it.  In her first tour of the museum, for example, Amalie is struck by the harsh conditions of the cook house, where the slaves worked, with its very low roof and no windows, thus trapping the heat of the oven (Ch. 2).  In the past the horrors of the “boiling house” (Ch. 4), where the sugar cane is cooked is even more graphically described.  As has been noted many of the African descent characters are positively portrayed.  As one further example Edward Sloan, Josephina’s lawyer, is of African descent and is quite prosperous and successful.  The African Obeah religion is in many ways positively represented, and the negative qualities are compared with the adverse qualities of Christianity.  The novel could be criticised for weaving a ‘mystical’ aura around the Caribbean in a similar way that Edward Said noted the West romanticises the East (Orientalism: Vintage Books, 1979).  Much of this mystery, however, comes from the shifting, multi-cultured circumstance of the narrative, which is very much in line with Post-Colonial Theory (Peter Barry. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary And Cultural Theory: Third Ed.: Manchester University Press, 2009, p. 189-190).  St. Clements is in the Caribbean, but is part English /  part African, and the island is visited by an American.  We freely move through these cultures and through time, none of which is represented as perfect, and none of which is unfairly condemned.

 

Structuralists, particularly those influence by Levi-Strauss (Mary Klages. Literary Theory: A Guide For The Perplexed: Continuum, 2006, p. 42-43), will observe that McDowell’s novel includes a number of paired characters.  The complimentary pairs are: Amalie of the present/Amalie of the 1800s, Amalie (both present and past)/Jonathan, Amalie/Josephina and Brett/Benstone.  The opposing pairs are Amalie/Brett and Amalie/Benstone.  The novel very much revolves around a good/bad dichotomy which is quite marked.  As we have observed the ‘good’ characters are rounded, having faults, but Benstone is very much the arch villain.  As we have also seen there is a man/woman dichotomy and s slave/master opposition, though these tend to reconcile, in a more Postmodern fashion, as the book progresses.

 

Postmodernists, influenced by Jacques Derrida, will note that white/upper-class/male is the centre of the system of the 1800’s, as depicted in the novel, and that, as we have just said above, this centre becomes destabilized as the plot progresses (Klages, p. 55-60).  Giving details would of course spoil the book.

 

Delighting In Your Company very much depicts Jacques Lacan’s idea of the “Other” (Lionel Bailly. Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide: Oneworld, 2009, Ch. 7).  We all desire ‘something’ which we feel is missing in our life and which is possessed by, and can be fulfilled by another person.  According to Lacan the sense of the Other can never completely be fulfilled, and indeed McDowell has interestingly depicted the Other as a ghost, a real yet unreal, ephemeral thing.  The novel can be read as a symbolic therapeutic journey:  a suffering woman who has lost her parents and husband goes to an island to find answers from the past to resolve her current circumstances.  The ocean can be a symbol of the consciousness, of “our psychic depths” (Kathleen Martin, ed. The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images: Taschen, c2010, p. 36) and indeed, one way or another Amalie must delve into her psyche to resolve issues regarding her parents, divorce and rushed business life.  The ocean also has mother/creative-force aspects (C. G. Jung. Symbols Of Transformation: An Analysis Of The Prelude To A Case Of Schizophrenia: second ed.: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 217-219), and interestingly on St. Clements Amalie finds a mother figure.  Ghosts can refer to “unfinished business,” specifically “unresolved grief and persistent attachment,” and “tender ghosts … return to console” (Martin, p. 788).  Jonathan could very much be said to comfort Amalie in her time of need.  Much of the story revolves around the need for a key to a safe.  For Freud the key is a sexual symbol (Sigmund Freud. The Interpretation Of Dreams: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 471) and indeed sex and sexual need is fairly prominent in the plot.  More broadly the lock and key is symbolic of “transformation,” as something that “will give access to the object of longing – self-discovery, peace of mind, the enigmatic heart of the beloved” (Martin, p. 562).  McDowell’s novel is indeed a depiction of a search for these longed for matters.

 

As it has paranormal content McDowell’s novel very much lends itself to mythological interpretation.  As we have seen the plot contains an Amalie of the present and ‘twin’ Amalie of 1810.  As Claude Levi-Strauss points out in his essay ‘Harelips And Twins: The Splitting Of a Myth” (Myth And Meaning: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 24-33) twins, in American indigenous culture, are often depicted as rivals, and indeed in McDowell’s book both women are competitors for Jonathan’s affections.  In astrology “Gemini represents a search for self through the mental process …” (Kim Farnell. Astrology: New Illustrated: Starfire, 2002, p. 86)  In the Northern Hemisphere this sign falls at the seasonal time of year when “more light is being shed on this world so that it can be seen, contemplated and understood in its myriad expression” (Farnell, p. 86).  As we have just seen in the preceding paragraph the novel can be seen as a therapeutic journey.  Gemini is ruled by the planet Mercury, the servant of the Gods (Farnell, p. 86) and Amalie finds herself called to solve a kind of “cosmic error” (Ch. 7).  For those born under Gemini “life’s different options can be identified” (Nicholas Campion. Zodiac: Enhance Your Life Through Astrology: Quadrille, c2000, p. 49) and “fresh possibilities” are explored.  In McDowell’s novel Amalie must try several different solutions before she is successful.  Gemini is sometimes represented as a couple (Campion, p. 53) and Amalie and Jonathan, both blond haired characters, must together work to restore order to the past.

 

Continuing on with the mythological aspects of McDowell’s novel it can be noted that the tarot card of The Devil is relevant to the book.  As we have noted, Benstone is depicted as a quite malicious person, with no redeeming features.  He manifests throughout the book as an arch enemy and evildoer.  Sallie Nichols in her analysis of this tarot card notes that the Devil is known for “arrogance and pride,” that he has “too much ambition,” that he has “charm and considerable influence,” and that “Temptation … [is] … his specialty” (Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1980, p. 261).  This is Benstone to a T.  He uses his position of Island Administrator to charm Amalie’s father into a very lucrative, but very shady deal.  He is puffed up with his own power, intelligence and conceit.  Further Nichols notes of the devil that he is known for “temper tantrums and … vengeance” (Nichols, p, 262), and indeed Amalie encounters exactly this behaviour when she moves to cross Benstone.  Waite, in his commentary on The Devil card notes that it represents those “fallen into the material and animal state” (Arthur Edward Waite. The Pictorial Key To The Tarot: Being Fragments Of A Secret Tradition Under The Veil Of Divination: U.S. Games Systems, c1971, p. 135), and indeed Benstone is motivated by money and power, and prone to rather animal emotions.   The traditional Marseilles Deck shows to characters, perhaps one male and one female (they are ambiguous), chained to the alter on which the Devil stands.  In the early twentieth century Waite Deck these figures are definitely man and woman.  Amalie of the past and Jonathan are unwitting, and apparently inextricably, trapped in Benstone’s mesh of intrigue and deceit.  Even Amalie of the present  finds it extremely difficult to break the chains which bind those two characters to disaster.

 

In her commentary Nichols notes that the psychological state represented by The Devil card connects to that of the next card, The Tower (Nichols, p, 287), and indeed this second card is also relevant to McDowell’s novel.  The Tower depicts a small, stone keep struck by flames/lightening with two people falling from its walls.  Nichols notes that these two people “are being thrown from a position of lofty security into one of exposure and confusion” (Nichols, p.283).  Amalie and Jonathan of the past are certainly thrown from their colonial positions of privilege and certainty, and Jonathan’s mansion will literally go up in flames.  In a broader sense Crowley, in his commentary on the card, notes that it represents “destruction of the old-established Aeon” (The Book Of Thoth: A Short Essay On The Tarot Of The Egyptians: Samuel Weiser, 1974, p. 107).  As we have seen Delighting In Your Company very much has to do with slavery, Colonialism and the end of these systems.  Nichols notes that in order to break from the state of the card the individual must break free of “rigid system” (Nichols, p. 285).  Jonathan, as we have seen, is experimenting with new crops, different from the tried and tested, but cruel, Colonial crop of sugar cane.

 

Blair McDowell’s Delighting In Your Company is a novel of considerable complexity and depth of thought, dealing with issues that will interest those fascinated with Feminism, Post-Colonial Theory and Marxism.  The psychological aspects of the book are also intriguing, particularly in terms of the depiction of the therapeutic journey.  On one level the novel can be read for the pure pleasure of paranormal romance, but on another level it will give the reader much to think about.  It is certainly not a dry scholarly tome; indeed, this is an exciting and very enjoyable read.  This novel also has much to say about ordinary human experience, touching on issues of possession, co-operation and open-mindedness.  Most of all this is a book about the search for human fulfilment.  I am happy to rate this book as 5 out of 5 stars.

Sonata by Blair McDowell – Book Review

Sonata - Blair McDowell

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

The music of life: practice, performance, the closing notes

 

Sayuri McAllister left home as a very young adult to study cello performance in Europe and then study there.  Now she has returned home as a 29 year old to find her family home in Vancouver, Canada, much changed and in turmoil.  The most prominent upset is that the family mansion, Point Grey, has been burgled and “two million” dollars’ worth of jewellery stolen.  To her surprise Sayuri finds that the burglary is being investigated by an old high school flame, Detective Michael Donovan.  How will Sayuri adjust to her family’s changes?  Should she pick up loose threads with Michael?  What is the secret to the mystery of the burglary?

 

Blair McDowell has extensive experience as both a musician and a university music lecturer and this book draws upon that knowledge to create a realistic picture of a professional musician’s life, particularly the stresses of true dedication.  Sonata moves along skilfully, never boring the reader.  The book is of mixed genre: part romance/erotica, part crime/mystery/thriller.  McDowell is equally skilled at both styles and her novel is quite a success.

 

Sonata has a fairly standard, but quite competent, structure.  As we have noted it begins at a high point which poses a number of mysteries and open questions.  The first half of the book then proceeds, as the opening questions are elaborated.  Will, for example, Sayuri even date Michael?  Extra complications and confusions are also added as the story progresses.  At midpoint there are a number of clarifications, and then in the second half there is a swift and direct progression to the conclusion, though there are still one or two confusions to trick the reader along the way.  The book ends with a peak of crisis, followed by a final chapter in which all the plot lines and themes very neatly tied up together and resolved.

 

The novel has an omniscient narrator and McDowell uses this technique well.  While most of the book is written from Sayuri’s point of view we are given flashes of other character’s experiences.  This reveals facts which are counter to what Sayuri believes to be true, often resulting in humour and irony.  Humour also comes in other ways.  In Chapter 3, for example, Sayuri thinks that Alyssa, the partner of her father and a woman she certainly does not like, looks “incredibly young and innocent.  Rather like the princess in a Disney version of a fairy tale.”  Along the way there are one or two “Oh my God!” moments to knock us off our chair.  One minor criticism is that McDowell twice (Ch. 7 & Ch. 16) has Buttercup, Michael’s female dog, pee “against a tree.”  Of course that is the action of a male dog: females squat.

 

Sonata’s main theme is balance.  We have many demands, needs and goals in our life and amongst all of these pressures we need to find some way of devoting time to all of them.  Career takes up much of our time, but as social beings we need family and friends, as well as relaxation and entertainment.  But how is this to be done?  Is it really achievable?  Closely related to this is the theme of clear thinking.  In our careers we need to rationally weigh things up, but do we always need to be like that?  Surrender to the moment, even just acceptance of the moment, can be a great release and a great source of joy.  Clear thinking, at times can become cold rationality and needs to give way to a more holistic approach to life, including our whole selves: our emotions, our longings, our unmet needs.

 

McDowell’s characters are certainly adequately motivated.  Sayuri is driven by her dedication to her music and feels a deep need to be “in charge” (Ch.2) of her life.  As a child she was “lonely” (Ch. 2) and we wonder if that is still the case.  She is, for a 29 year old woman, also rather surprisingly naïve about other aspects of life.  She has, for example, never had a stable home of her own, living out of suit cases as she travels on the concert tours circuit.  This aspect of her character makes her rather interesting and unusual, and raises a ‘parent’s concern’ for her in the mature reader and an immediate connection in the younger reader.  Sayuri is certainly a likable woman and we immediately care about her and want the best for her.  Michael is likable also, particularly with his boyish “lopsided grin” (Ch. 2 & Ch. 11).  He is a guy with ordinary desires and goals that men can immediately relate to.  At high school he was a ‘jock’.  He is successful in a moderate way, having achieved his personal goals, and has his moments of real command and assurance.  In Chapter 3, decked out in his new suit, he is compared to “James Bond” and indeed there are moments when this ordinary police man shines.  Michael is motivated by simple love, but with a touch of guilt and regret.  McDowell, as you can see, has made her characters complex enough to seem real.  As, for example, Sayuri comments, Michael is “a study in contrasts” (Ch. 2).  Sayuri has an arc of development that maintains our interest through the book as we wonder exactly what each next decision will be as she comes to terms with her new circumstances.  McDonald has included some interesting comparisons and contrasts between characters, such as between Sayuri and Hugh James, Alyssa’s brother (Ch. 5).  These contrasts help us see how to achieve the right balance in life that the book is so much concerned with.

 

Symbolism is lightly used in the book if one cares to consider it.  Ireland is referred to repeatedly throughout the text.  All of the main characters have ‘a touch of the Irish even though distantly.  The McAllister family are Irish by name.  Hugh has spent most of his life in Ireland.  Alyssa was born in Ireland, though she has spent most of her life elsewhere.  Michael’s family came from Ireland, and he has a cousin there.  This image is ambiguous, calling to mind likable notions such as ‘blarney’, charm, as well as negative ideas such as stupidity (Irish jokes) and extended internal conflict (the sectarian war).  Throughout the book we see references to Brahms’ Cello Sonata and music in general.  This symbol is also ambiguous.  As Roger Scruton points out in his philosophical work Beauty: a very short introduction (Oxford University Press, c2011, p. 2-4) art, including music, can inspire us to our very best, indeed can have an almost divine aspect, but can also mask evil.  As a crime mystery Sonata is of course about getting to the truth of the matter, and as a romance it is about finding truth in love.  Clear answers, though, are not always available.  Are ‘bad’ people completely bad?  Can a question, especially one about relationships, always be answered by a simple yes or no?

 

From the perspective of Feminism McDowell presents three women, Sayuri, Alyssa and Nora Banks (the McAllister’s housekeeper and cook), all of whom are working women, all quite capable successful and determined, each in their own way.  Sayuri is not only a talented musician as well as a successful music teacher (Ch. 2), but is also physically fit.  In Chapter 6 she jogs quite happily next to Michael.  Sayuri is described as having an “almost boyish form” (Ch. 2).  This calls to mind the writings of the Postmodernist Feminist Judith Butler in her “questioning of notions of ‘femaleness’ which are taken for granted in society” (Cathia Jenainati.  Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 163).  Quite early in the book (Ch. 3) the subject of the career/relationship dichotomy is discussed.  Betty Friedan, in her book Feminine Mystique (Reprint ed.:  W.W. Norton, 2001) argued that:

 

… if women learned how to juggle their various domestic duties, they would find the time and energy to engage in professional careers.  This would ensure them private and public satisfaction.”  (Jenainati, p. 92)

 

As many of Friedan’s contemporary feminists asked, though, can this idea practically and reasonably be achieved?  Is every woman a ‘superwoman’?  What will the actual details of this dual life be?  Some may be annoyed to find that Sayuri seems to have “female intuition” (Ch. 3), but later in the book Michael too has his own premonitions.  Male domination also appears in the book.  It is certainly mainly depicted as very undesirable.  Interestingly, though, Michael is quite praised for being old fashioned enough to open a car door for Sayuri (Ch. 2).

 

From the broader point of view of gender studies men are depicted as both strong and caring/emotional beings.  We do not have here the ‘stern, hard, tough guy’ so much favoured by traditional society.  Rather we see the strong, but feeling, New Age man of Robert Bly (Iron John: men and masculinity: Rider, 2001, Ch. 8) and the Men’s Movement.  Michael is a competent police detective, but very sensitive to Sayurei’s needs.  He also is an accomplished cook (Ch. 2), something that three decades ago boys certainly did not learn in school.  Sean, Sayuri’s father, is a very committed businessman, but also caring.  Emotions are not at all depicted as weakness in men as traditional society would have it.

 

Readers interested in the LGBTIQ perspective will be disappointed to find that it is completely absent in the book.  To be fair, though, there are only five main characters in the novel, plus 4 very minor characters (2 couples).  Perhaps a party guest, or one of Sayuri’s music colleagues, could have represented this minority in passing?

 

The post-colonial contingent is represented by Sayuri’s Japanese grandparents, “Sofu and Sobo Akatsuko” (Ch. 3 and following) and Sayuri’s mother, none of whom appear directly in the text.  They are all referred to as absent characters.  The difficulties of leaving one culture and entering another are discussed (Ch. 12).  It should be noted that, while respected, the Japanese culture is not idealized and comes under some criticism (Ch. 4 & Ch. 7).

 

The Canadian indigenous are fleetingly referred to in a reference to “Inuit art” (Ch. 2).

 

Other racial/ethnic minorities living in Canadian society are of course represented by Sayuri herself, who is half Japanese.  Michael reports that he experienced teasing from his class mates for dating a Japanese girl (Ch. 2).

 

The disabled are absent from the story, but as with the LGBTIQ, they would be harder to include because of the limited number of characters.

 

Sayuri’s grandparents of course also represent the elderly.  They definitely are guided by past tradition, which is both represented positively and criticised.    The tradition of the old is seen as reinforcing useful values now increasingly ignored by society, such as respect for those who have seen more of life.  Any value, though, is of course relative.  It is good to see this increasingly large, but ignored, section of the community at least referred to in the text, if not depicted.

 

Looking at the book in terms of society, and more specifically the Marxism/Capitalism debate we see money, career and success depicted as very important in Canadian society.  The McAllister’s world is that of big business.   Sean is a super-rich, rather driven computer technology businessman, and the family home is a “mansion” (Ch. 1 & Ch. 16).    Sayuri is also guided buy success, though not necessarily by wealth.  This wealth enabled Sayuri to go to Europe to enable her music career, and the family’s life is certainly good in terms of luxury.  It is, though, this very wealth that brings misfortune to the family through theft and other means.  The working class is represented by Michael and he is happy in his life and successful on his own terms.  He went to university on a “scholarship” (Ch. 2) and he drives a very ordinary car.  The Banks, being lower middle class, find themselves suddenly reduced to wearing uniforms like servants, though previously they were treated like one of the family (Ch. 2).  In all of this we can see a tension between Capitalist values and the Marxist critique, which tries to argue for a fairer, more humane way of life (Gill Hand.  Understanding Marx: Hodder Educational, 2011, Ch. 6).  Marx “thought deeply about the relationships between people within [ … ] society” (Hand, p. 67).  McDowell has written a book very much about these relationships.

 

In terms of Structuralism McDowell has written about the fundamental binary of good/bad.  Many ordinary people tend to view the world as ‘nice’ because they believe themselves to be basically ‘good’ and their lives are reasonably comfortable.  Those who have suffered, though, can easily see that this is certainly naive.  As the story progresses, however, this essential, simplistic view of life is abandoned for a more Postmodern, complex view.  Are we simply good units or simply bad units?  Surely life is organic and we are a variety and mixture of many things?

 

McDowell also draws on the body of knowledge of psychology to make her character and events more ‘real’.  Sayuri experiences the difficulty that many young adults have to deal with when they return home as an adult.  She notes that she is made to feel like a “guest in her own home” (Ch. 2). Surely, though she is just that, a guest, and this is no longer her home, but her parents.  She expects life at her parent’s home to be just the same as when she left, and is very surprised to see that it is not.  Carl E. Pickhardt in his article When “Grown” Kids Boomerang Home to Stay (Psychology Today: . http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201107/when-grown-kids-boomerang-home-stay) notes precisely this kind of “regression”, or inappropriate return to the past.  Adult children must learn to be precisely that: adult.  They need to realize that they must face the new realities of a shift in relationship with their parents.  The scenario arises, which I will not detail in order to avoid spoiling the plot, in which the victims of abuse blame themselves for the actions of the perpetrator.  The victims of such crimes have certainly been observed to suffer from precisely this kind of, “guilt”, “shame” and “self-blame” (Craig Malkin.  Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?  Psychology Today: .  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/romance-redux/201303/why-do-people-stay-in-abusive-relationships, and, Craig Malkin. Why You Blame Yourself for Bad Relationships – and How to Stop.Psychology Today:  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/romance-redux/201205/why-you-blame-yourself-bad-relationships-and-how-stop).  Finally it should be noted that McDowell has Sayuri repeatedly imagine that there must be some reasonable explanation to the very undesirable goings on in her life: she dismisses evil from her mind.  The psychologist and university lecturer Martha Stout, in her book The Sociopath Next Door (Broadway Books, c2005, Ch. 8) observes that this is exactly what people around sociopaths do (including their own tortured family).  As was observed in the paragraph about the Structuralist view of the book, we tend to be naive, thinking that the entire world is ‘reasonable’ and ‘nice’.

 

Blair McDowell has written an entertaining and interesting romance/crime novel that raises a variety of issues worthy of consideration.  McDowell looks at personal issues, such as increasing maturity and love, but also considers the wider issues of career, the family, victims of crime and society.  McDowell shows a wise and considered understanding of the life of a musician, but also of life itself.  The novel is paced and structured well, and the characters are realistic.   I am happy to award this book 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Sonata by Blair McDowell (Book ed.)

Sonata by Blair McDowell (Kindle ed.)

Source: http://raymondmathiesenbookreviews.blogspot.com.au/p/blog-page.html

Sonata by Blair McDowell – Book Review

Sonata - Blair McDowell

4 out of 5 stars


The music of life: practice, performance, the closing notes

Sayuri McAllister left home as a very young adult to study cello performance in Europe and then study there.  Now she has returned home as a 29 year old to find her family home in Vancouver, Canada, much changed and in turmoil.  The most prominent upset is that the family mansion, Point Grey, has been burgled and “two million” dollars’ worth of jewellery stolen.  To her surprise Sayuri finds that the burglary is being investigated by an old high school flame, Detective Michael Donovan.  How will Sayuri adjust to her family’s changes?  Should she pick up loose threads with Michael?  What is the secret to the mystery of the burglary?

Blair McDowell has extensive experience as both a musician and a university music lecturer and this book draws upon that knowledge to create a realistic picture of a professional musician’s life, particularly the stresses of true dedication.  Sonata moves along skilfully, never boring the reader.  The book is of mixed genre: part romance/erotica, part crime/mystery/thriller.  McDowell is equally skilled at both styles and her novel is quite a success.

Front cover: celloSonata has a fairly standard, but quite competent, structure.  As we have noted it begins at a high point which poses a number of mysteries and open questions.  The first half of the book then proceeds, as the opening questions are elaborated.  Will, for example, Sayuri even date Michael?  Extra complications and confusions are also added as the story progresses.  At midpoint there are a number of clarifications, and then in the second half there is a swift and direct progression to the conclusion, though there are still one or two confusions to trick the reader along the way.  The book ends with a peak of crisis, followed by a final chapter in which all the plot lines and themes very neatly tied up together and resolved.

The novel has an omniscient narrator and McDowell uses this technique well.  While most of the book is written from Sayuri’s point of view we are given flashes of other character’s experiences.  This reveals facts which are counter to what Sayuri believes to be true, often resulting in humour and irony.  Humour also comes in other ways.  In Chapter 3, for example, Sayuri thinks that Alyssa, the partner of her father and a woman she certainly does not like, looks “incredibly young and innocent.  Rather like the princess in a Disney version of a fairy tale.”  Along the way there are one or two “Oh my God!” moments to knock us off our chair.  One minor criticism is that McDowell twice (Ch. 7 & Ch. 16) has Buttercup, Michael’s female dog, pee “against a tree.”  Of course that is the action of a male dog: females squat.

Sonata’s main theme is balance.  We have many demands, needs and goals in our life and amongst all of these pressures we need to find some way of devoting time to all of them.  Career takes up much of our time, but as social beings we need family and friends, as well as relaxation and entertainment.  But how is this to be done?  Is it really achievable?  Closely related to this is the theme of clear thinking.  In our careers we need to rationally weigh things up, but do we always need to be like that?  Surrender to the moment, even just acceptance of the moment, can be a great release and a great source of joy.  Clear thinking, at times can become cold rationality and needs to give way to a more holistic approach to life, including our whole selves: our emotions, our longings, our unmet needs.

McDowell’s characters are certainly adequately motivated.  Sayuri is driven by her dedication to her music and feels a deep need to be “in charge” (Ch.2) of her life.  As a child she was “lonely” (Ch. 2) and we wonder if that is still the case.  She is, for a 29 year old woman, also rather surprisingly naïve about other aspects of life.  She has, for example, never had a stable home of her own, living out of suit cases as she travels on the concert tours circuit.  This aspect of her character makes her rather interesting and unusual, and raises a ‘parent’s concern’ for her in the mature reader and an immediate connection in the younger reader.  Sayuri is certainly a likable woman and we immediately care about her and want the best for her.  Michael is likable also, particularly with his boyish “lopsided grin” (Ch. 2 & Ch. 11).  He is a guy with ordinary desires and goals that men can immediately relate to.  At high school he was a ‘jock’.  He is successful in a moderate way, having achieved his personal goals, and has his moments of real command and assurance.  In Chapter 3, decked out in his new suit, he is compared to “James Bond” and indeed there are moments when this ordinary police man shines.  Michael is motivated by simple love, but with a touch of guilt and regret.  McDowell, as you can see, has made her characters complex enough to seem real.  As, for example, Sayuri comments, Michael is “a study in contrasts” (Ch. 2).  Sayuri has an arc of development that maintains our interest through the book as we wonder exactly what each next decision will be as she comes to terms with her new circumstances.  McDonald has included some interesting comparisons and contrasts between characters, such as between Sayuri and Hugh James, Alyssa’s brother (Ch. 5).  These contrasts help us see how to achieve the right balance in life that the book is so much concerned with.

Symbolism is lightly used in the book if one cares to consider it.  Ireland is referred to repeatedly throughout the text.  All of the main characters have ‘a touch of the Irish even though distantly.  The McAllister family are Irish by name.  Hugh has spent most of his life in Ireland.  Alyssa was born in Ireland, though she has spent most of her life elsewhere.  Michael’s family came from Ireland, and he has a cousin there.  This image is ambiguous, calling to mind likable notions such as ‘blarney’, charm, as well as negative ideas such as stupidity (Irish jokes) and extended internal conflict (the sectarian war).  Throughout the book we see references to Brahms’ Cello Sonata and music in general.  This symbol is also ambiguous.  As Roger Scruton points out in his philosophical work Beauty: a very short introduction (Oxford University Press, c2011, p. 2-4) art, including music, can inspire us to our very best, indeed can have an almost divine aspect, but can also mask evil.  As a crime mystery Sonata is of course about getting to the truth of the matter, and as a romance it is about finding truth in love.  Clear answers, though, are not always available.  Are ‘bad’ people completely bad?  Can a question, especially one about relationships, always be answered by a simple yes or no?

From the perspective of Feminism McDowell presents three women, Sayuri, Alyssa and Nora Banks (the McAllister’s housekeeper and cook), all of whom are working women, all quite capable successful and determined, each in their own way.  Sayuri is not only a talented musician as well as a successful music teacher (Ch. 2), but is also physically fit.  In Chapter 6 she jogs quite happily next to Michael.  Sayuri is described as having an “almost boyish form” (Ch. 2).  This calls to mind the writings of the Postmodernist Feminist Judith Butler in her “questioning of notions of ‘femaleness’ which are taken for granted in society” (Cathia Jenainati.  Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 163).  Quite early in the book (Ch. 3) the subject of the career/relationship dichotomy is discussed.  Betty Friedan, in her book Feminine Mystique (Reprint ed.:  W.W. Norton, 2001) argued that:

… if women learned how to juggle their various domestic duties, they would find the time and energy to engage in professional careers.  This would ensure them private and public satisfaction.”  (Jenainati, p. 92)

As many of Friedan’s contemporary feminists asked, though, can this idea practically and reasonably be achieved?  Is every woman a ‘superwoman’?  What will the actual details of this dual life be?  Some may be annoyed to find that Sayuri seems to have “female intuition” (Ch. 3), but later in the book Michael too has his own premonitions.  Male domination also appears in the book.  It is certainly mainly depicted as very undesirable.  Interestingly, though, Michael is quite praised for being old fashioned enough to open a car door for Sayuri (Ch. 2).

From the broader point of view of gender studies men are depicted as both strong and caring/emotional beings.  We do not have here the ‘stern, hard, tough guy’ so much favoured by traditional society.  Rather we see the strong, but feeling, New Age man of Robert Bly (Iron John: men and masculinity: Rider, 2001, Ch. 8) and the Men’s Movement.  Michael is a competent police detective, but very sensitive to Sayurei’s needs.  He also is an accomplished cook (Ch. 2), something that three decades ago boys certainly did not learn in school.  Sean, Sayuri’s father, is a very committed businessman, but also caring.  Emotions are not at all depicted as weakness in men as traditional society would have it.

Readers interested in the LGBTIQ perspective will be disappointed to find that it is completely absent in the book.  To be fair, though, there are only five main characters in the novel, plus 4 very minor characters (2 couples).  Perhaps a party guest, or one of Sayuri’s music colleagues, could have represented this minority in passing?

The post-colonial contingent is represented by Sayuri’s Japanese grandparents, “Sofu and Sobo Akatsuko” (Ch. 3 and following) and Sayuri’s mother, none of whom appear directly in the text.  They are all referred to as absent characters.  The difficulties of leaving one culture and entering another are discussed (Ch. 12).  It should be noted that, while respected, the Japanese culture is not idealized and comes under some criticism (Ch. 4 & Ch. 7).

The Canadian indigenous are fleetingly referred to in a reference to “Inuit art” (Ch. 2).

Other racial/ethnic minorities living in Canadian society are of course represented by Sayuri herself, who is half Japanese.  Michael reports that he experienced teasing from his class mates for dating a Japanese girl (Ch. 2).

The disabled are absent from the story, but as with the LGBTIQ, they would be harder to include because of the limited number of characters.

Sayuri’s grandparents of course also represent the elderly.  They definitely are guided by past tradition, which is both represented positively and criticised.    The tradition of the old is seen as reinforcing useful values now increasingly ignored by society, such as respect for those who have seen more of life.  Any value, though, is of course relative.  It is good to see this increasingly large, but ignored, section of the community at least referred to in the text, if not depicted.

Looking at the book in terms of society, and more specifically the Marxism/Capitalism debate we see money, career and success depicted as very important in Canadian society.  The McAllister’s world is that of big business.   Sean is a super-rich, rather driven computer technology businessman, and the family home is a “mansion” (Ch. 1 & Ch. 16).    Sayuri is also guided buy success, though not necessarily by wealth.  This wealth enabled Sayuri to go to Europe to enable her music career, and the family’s life is certainly good in terms of luxury.  It is, though, this very wealth that brings misfortune to the family through theft and other means.  The working class is represented by Michael and he is happy in his life and successful on his own terms.  He went to university on a “scholarship” (Ch. 2) and he drives a very ordinary car.  The Banks, being lower middle class, find themselves suddenly reduced to wearing uniforms like servants, though previously they were treated like one of the family (Ch. 2).  In all of this we can see a tension between Capitalist values and the Marxist critique, which tries to argue for a fairer, more humane way of life (Gill Hand. Understanding Marx: Hodder Educational, 2011, Ch. 6).  Marx “thought deeply about the relationships between people within [ … ] society” (Hand, p. 67).  McDowell has written a book very much about these relationships.

In terms of Structuralism McDowell has written about the fundamental binary of good/bad.  Many ordinary people tend to view the world as ‘nice’ because they believe themselves to be basically ‘good’ and their lives are reasonably comfortable.  Those who have suffered, though, can easily see that this is certainly naive.  As the story progresses, however, this essential, simplistic view of life is abandoned for a more Postmodern, complex view.  Are we simply good units or simply bad units?  Surely life is organic and we are a variety and mixture of many things?

McDowell also draws on the body of knowledge of psychology to make her character and events more ‘real’.  Sayuri experiences the difficulty that many young adults have to deal with when they return home as an adult.  She notes that she is made to feel like a “guest in her own home” (Ch. 2). Surely, though she is just that, a guest, and this is no longer her home, but her parents.  She expects life at her parent’s home to be just the same as when she left, and is very surprised to see that it is not.  Carl E. Pickhardt in his article When “Grown” Kids Boomerang Home to Stay (Psychology Today: July 11, 2011. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201107/when-grown-kids-boomerang-home-stay) notes precisely this kind of “regression”, or inappropriate return to the past.  Adult children must learn to be precisely that: adult.  They need to realize that they must face the new realities of a shift in relationship with their parents.  The scenario arises, which I will not detail in order to avoid spoiling the plot, in which the victims of abuse blame themselves for the actions of the perpetrator.  The victims of such crimes have certainly been observed to suffer from precisely this kind of, “guilt”, “shame” and “self-blame” (Craig Malkin.  Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?  Psychology Today: March 6, 2013.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/romance-redux/201303/why-do-people-stay-in-abusive-relationships, and, Craig Malkin. Why You Blame Yourself for Bad Relationships – and How to Stop. Psychology Today: May 11, 2012.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/romance-redux/201205/why-you-blame-yourself-bad-relationships-and-how-stop).  Finally it should be noted that McDowell has Sayuri repeatedly imagine that there must be some reasonable explanation to the very undesirable goings on in her life: she dismisses evil from her mind.  The psychologist and university lecturer Martha Stout, in her book The Sociopath Next Door (Broadway Books, c2005, Ch. 8) observes that this is exactly what people around sociopaths do (including their own tortured family).  As was observed in the paragraph about the Structuralist view of the book, we tend to be naive, thinking that the entire world is ‘reasonable’ and ‘nice’.

Blair McDowell has written an entertaining and interesting romance/crime novel that raises a variety of issues worthy of consideration.  McDowell looks at personal issues, such as increasing maturity and love, but also considers the wider issues of career, the family, victims of crime and society.  McDowell shows a wise and considered understanding of the life of a musician, but also of life itself.  The novel is paced and structured well, and the characters are realistic.   I am happy to award this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Sonata by Blair McDowell (Book ed.)
Sonata by Blair McDowell (Kindle ed.)

Source: http://raymondmathiesenbookreviews.blogspot.com.au/p/blog-page.html