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Clover Doves by Courtney Filignezi - Book Review

Clover Doves - Courtney Filigenzi

 

Struggling towards the light

Emma Fiorello is sixteen and deeply in love with Eric Florentino, a bright and caring, but wayward youth.  They have a very special connection which Emma felt virtually as soon as they met.  According to Emma they are “soul mates”.  Eric knows what she means, but is perhaps a little less ‘spiritual’ in his outlook.  Life is fresh and good, but Emma also senses that perhaps she and Eric will not stay together.  Suddenly Emma is attacked and raped and her life begins the swift process of falling apart.  Can Emma survive this turmoil and will she and Eric struggle through it, or will the premonition of relationship break-up come true?

 

Clover Doves could be classified as a paranormal romance: it is a love story with references to precognition, empathic telepathy and ghosts.  The novel is, however, also part spiritual philosophy and part self-development/psychology.  This is not to imply that Clover Doves is overly ‘preachy’ or contains lectures on these subjects: the philosophy and psychology arise naturally from the plot and characters, and are quite skilfully woven into the novel.  It is clear, though, that Filigenzi has done much reading and thinking about the subject of human potential.   Beyond these specialized subjects the novel is also very much about ‘ordinary’ life struggles: family, friends, love relationships, suffering, conflict and death.  Clover Doves is skilfully written and will appeal to a quite wide variety of readers, especially those willing to keep an open mind.

 

The plot is divided into three sections of equal length.  Part 1: The End begins with a peak of disaster and descends in a spiral of crises as life falls apart for Emma and Eric.  Part 2 adds further development and complication, and consists of a series of revelations about the past.  Several years after Part 1 Emma meets Jared, a very loving and understanding college student who seems to have his future well planned and who is very much interested in Emma.  Part 3: The Beginning once again starts with a peak and continues with increasing sadness, but also increasing joy, as relationships are developed and worked out, and plot details are resolved.  Emma must face the complicated issues of her love for both Eric and Jared, her dislike of her drunken mother, Cassie, her need for other friends, and the general question of meaning and development in her life.

 

Filigenzi writes well and the plot moves its readers along, never boring them or dwelling too much on any particular point.  There are a number of plot twists to surprise us and keep us wondering where we are going.  At times the writing is quite poetic and at other times it is full of tension.  The two chapters describing Emma’s rape and subsequent experiences in hospital are very well written.  The emotion is quite palpable.  As just one example the reader should note the subtle comparison between the rapist’s “dark, rough whiskers” which “scratched” Emma’s face and the “scratchy hospital blanket” which covers her when she awakes from her ordeal to face yet another ordeal of investigative prying.  The narration shifts from character to character and we see experiences from first one point of view and then another.  This Postmodernist technique allows us to see deeper into the narrating characters and reveals the inadequacies of point of view.  What one character thinks of another is incomplete, biased and occasionally quite wrong.  There is one example of imagery associated with the title of the book (which I will not describe in order to avoid spoiling the reading experience), but beyond this symbolism is absent.  Just as a word of warning, there are mild sex scenes in the novel and occasional course language, both of which may offend conservative readers.  Clover Doves, however, would certainly not qualify as erotica.  Sex is of course a normal part of romantic relationships and most modern readers will have no trouble accepting Filigenzi’s tasteful depictions.

 

The characters are very likable, though they possess personality failings, and the reader immediately empathises with them and hopes the best for them.  Even Cassie, who is a classic ‘bad’ mother, has hidden depths as we come to know her better, recognising our own failings.  All of the five main characters, Emma, Eric, Jared, Cassie and James, Emma’s guilt ridden father, are well rounded, having a mix of good and bad points, which makes them quite believable and lifelike.  All of these characters must struggle to grow and in some way, great or small, overcome their failings.  Jared is the most ‘perfect’ character, but even he has moments of jealousy and suffers from some lack of thought about the implications of his relationship with Emma.

 

As has already been indicated, the main theme is suffering and overcoming pain and difficulty.  As Buddhist philosophers point out, the First Noble Truth is that life inherently involves “dukkha” or suffering, and that even in our happiest moments there is latent pain (Michael Carrithers.  Buddha: A Very Short Introduction: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 55 - 57).  Why do we suffer and what are we to do about it?  Can we grow toward happiness, or is this the idle fantasy of the optimist?  Does spirituality and psychological development offer at least some reconciliation with pain and suffering?  These are the types of questions Emma must struggle with.  There is also a related theme of relationships (in the form of family, friends and lovers).  Personal connections can cause us pain, but can also heal.  As the Existentialist Gabriel Marcel points out in Man Against Mass Society (Gateway, 1970) modern people “lack a sense of their own worth and are strangers to themselves and one another” (Thomas Flynn.  Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 90).  We are lonely, afraid and hurt but aid is near if we can overcome our resistance, our defensiveness.  But of course no relationship is perfect or runs entirely smoothly.  Death is the final, inevitable affliction and it too appears as a prominent theme in this novel.  Once again from a Buddhist perspective, “without an awareness of death, life can only be lived on a shallow level” (Jane Hope.  Introducing Buddha: Allen & Unwin, 1999, p. 31).  We fear death, feel life is made meaningless by death and deny our own death (because when young it seems unreal and with age it seems too close).  Since prehistoric times people have speculated about death and an afterlife and Emma, along with many, many others in this long tradition, is forced to contemplate her own mortality from a very young age.  At sixteen she is beaten almost lifeless and the implications of this last for years to come.  Closely allied to death is the theme of violence and war.  Aggression is of course usually avoided, but is it sometimes a solution to extreme problems?  Do we sometimes walk lightly into violence and what are its consequences?  Is the immediate victim the only one to suffer?  Of course life is complex and there are not always clear answers, and Filigenzi’s text does not always offer hard and fast rules or solutions.

 

As has already been noted spirituality features prominently in this novel.  We see references to the concepts of “Yin” and ”Yang”, “soul mates”, “guardian angels” and the “afterlife”.  This is not surprising in a book which talks so much about death.  The void of the unknown naturally comes to mind as we all contemplate our mortality.  As Emma comments:

 

“Facing death with no spiritual belief is difficult, especially as a child.  You’re left with so many unanswered questions.”

 

The spiritual philosophy presented is not Orthodox.  “God” is mentioned, but church-going Christians come out looking not so nice.  Jared talks about the garbage that “so-called religious people” talk about abortion.  The “faith” presented is “personal and private” with a New Age flavour, that is a mix of Hinduism and modern mysticism.   The paranormal aspects of the novel are given a distinctly spiritual aspect.  Emma regularly watches the popular TV program “Spirit Hunters” with her friends.  They have a light hearted party, but later she remembers those days with a much more serious attitude.  Her paranormal experiences give her strength and peace of mind, helping her to face difficult circumstances.  Just as an aside it should be noted that the paranormal ideas concerning “electromagnetic fields” comes from real research by the university academic Michael Persinger (Wikipedia.  Michael Persinger: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Persinger).  Persinger has conducted an extraordinary number of experiments and studies on this subject.

 

Psychology naturally goes along with spirituality.  As Emma comments, she finds peace of mind, strength and meaning in “a belief system outside myself”.  Clover Doves is jam packed with details which will be noticed by those interested in the mind.  Filigenzi has obviously done library research into psychology and her characters and plot are much more real and believable as a result.  The psychological effects of rape on the victim are vividly depicted, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder flash backs, rage, guilt and feeling ‘dirty’ (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 for anger and guilt).  The plot also includes society’s tendency to blame and bully rape victims (Psychology Today.  The Blame Game: Rape And Bullying I Teen America:  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/youth-and-tell/201106/the-blame-game-rape-and-bullying-in-teen-america).  The therapeutic techniques of deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness as a way of dealing with psychological pain and stress are also alluded to.  The most notable psychological concept explored in the novel is the idea of the “Other”.  As the psychoanalysis Jaques Lacan pointed out (Lionel Bailly.  Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide: Oneworld, 2009, Ch. 7), we are very much haunted by a sense of lack and separation from the world.  We see ourselves as an isolated ‘I” and believe that we are cut off from others and they from us.  We are even ‘other’ to ourselves, that is cut off from self-understanding.  We consequently feel a void, a longing, a desire for connection and true understanding.  We long for unity with someone truly ‘like us’, who comprehends our experiences and perspectives and who we can comprehend.  This longing is central to Clover Doves.  According to Lacan the sense of separation from the ‘Other’ can never really be overcome, but Filigenzi, following a more mystical path of ‘Oneness’, peruses the ideas of connection and of finding those who truly understand us (for one of many books on Oneness’ see – Alan Watts. The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are: Vintage Books, 1972).

 

Clover Doves largely deals with a very individualistic view of life, but the larger perspective of society is present to some extent.  Much of the action takes place in the “small town” of Ellicott City, Maryland.  We are not presented with the much celebrated view of small town America, but instead we see a rather shallow, nasty, gossip ridden, small-minded place.  Rather than producing individuals of character this part of the U.S. is depicted as resulting in high conformity.  The girls who torment Emma all have the “same fake disgusted look”: they are carbon copies and artificial at that.  From the perspective of the Marxism/Capitalism debate we see that the pursuit of money and power is virtually completely absent from Emma’s life.  She decides on a career in “Special Education” helping “autistic students” because it gets her out of her own problems and gives her personal satisfaction and meaning.  Cassie, on the other hand, is lost in a pursuit of the good life: wine, parties, clothes, make-up and money.  She is depicted as a result of this attitude as being a hollow and bad mother.  Successfully, or unsuccessfully, Marx tried to create a more humane society (Gill Hands. Understanding Marx: Hodder Education, 2011, Ch. 6) and criticised Capitalism for being exactly the opposite.

 

Feminists will be pleased to note that Emma as a sixteen year old is a physically fit young woman who enjoys outdoor sports, like jogging.   She has a positive attitude and is already contributing to society in a caring way through her part-time job at the local veterinary clinic.  The great bulk of the book of course deals with the personal effects of rape, which is an overwhelmingly male crime and one which is proposed by Feminists to be at least partly motivated by a desire for power (Wikipedia.  Rape:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape).  As we have already noted Filigenzi depicts the ‘re-rape’ which the interview and legal process inflicts on the victim (Susan Alice Watkins & Marta Rodriguez.  Introducing Feminism: Allen & Unwin, 1999, p. 136-137).  Emma is very much disempowered by the rape, but the capable 16 year old is never completely lost, and we can admire her as a woman who struggles through difficult circumstance.  Emma’s friend, Erica, who appears in Part 3:The Beginning, is a caring woman willing to go to considerable trouble to help her friend, travelling long distances to aid Emma.  Cassie, by contrast, is a ‘painted lady’, following the values of male dominated society and representing much of what Feminism stands against.

 

From the wider perspective of Gender Studies Eric in some ways fits the Western stereotyped view, which was propagated in the 1950’s, of the ‘tough guy rebel’ who others know to leave alone.  His room is messy and his temper is short.  Eric, however, is also loving and sensitive towards Emma, and has hidden depths and understanding.   As he develops through time he, like Emma, overcomes his failings becoming a much more rounded, non-stereotypical male.  Jared is sensitive and loving from his first appearance in the book.  Emma is surprised by his apartment noting “how clean it was inside”.  As we have noted he does have some stereotypical male qualities: he is unthinking.  He is, however, much more a New Age man of the Men’s movement type: strong but feeling.  James, Emma’s father, first appears in the text as the typical retro-1950’s father who feels he must be strong and who is insensitive to others’ needs.  As the story progresses, though, he gains at least some contact with his caring side.

 

LGBTIQ readers will be unhappy to find that they are negatively represented by Eric’s paedophile gay Uncle Tim.  Not all paedophiles are gay and not all gays are paedophile, but this is the wide spread accusation in popular culture.  Of course gay paedophiles do exist, but we wonder why this character could not have been balanced by a more positive LGBTIQ portrayal in another minor character?  The statistics clearly reveal that LGBTIQ people contribute positively to society (Prudential Financial.  The LGBT Financial Experience: 2012-2013 Prudential Research Study: Prudential Financial, c2012,  http://www.prudential.com/media/managed/Prudential_LGBT_Financial_Experience.pdf).  There is in fact some evidence that these people contribute more than other groups, although it should be noted that these studies have been criticised on methodological grounds (for one example of extra contribution see – Richard Florida.  Technology And Tolerance: The Importance Of Diversity Too High-Technology Growth: Center On Urban & Metropolitan Policy, The Brookings Institution, June 2001,  http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/1000492_tech_and_tolerance.pdf).

 

African-Americans also receive representation in Filigenzi’s novel, though in this case the representation is positive.  Erica, a friend Emma’s meets later in the book, is described as having “chocolate brown skin” and we can infer from this that she is African-American.  Erica is represented as bright, caring, a good friend, and married to a successful officer in the Marines.  Dr. Reynolds, similarly has “brown skin”.  He is an “oncologist” and has a “kind” and gentle manner.

 

The elderly are referred to in the absent character of Emma’s grandmother.  Here, once again, we have a positive depiction of an often forgotten group.  Emma remembers her relationship with this elderly woman with a sense of “peace”.  The aged sometimes, though not always, have an experience of the world and a kindness towards the very young.  In our very nuclear family world these connections and contributions are often ignored and it is good to see that Filigenzi has not completely ignored them.

 

American Indians and the disabled are unfortunately absent from the plot.  The novel only has 3 main characters and 3 lesser characters and it is therefore more understandable that these groups, which are so often passed over in society, are not represented.  We wonder, though, if they could have appeared as minor characters?

 

From the perspective of Structuralism we note that, in line with the binary theory of Claude Levi-Strauss (Boris Wiseman.  Introducing Levi-Strauss and Structural Anthropology: Allen & Unwin, 2000, p. 87, 96, 149), Filigenzi’s novel centres on a number of complementary pairs.  They are: Emma/Eric, Emma/Jared, Eric/Jared and Eric/Cassie.  In each case these characters have something in common: both Emma and Eric, for example, suffer from very painful pasts.  The members of these binary pairs are of course individuals and not exactly alike, but the comparisons are notable.  In terms of ethics we also see the good/bad dichotomy, although in this case the binary relationship is opposed.  Emma, Eric, Jared and Erica are ‘good’ while Cassie and the school kids of Ellicott City are ‘bad’.  This dichotomy is not always sustained though, and, in line with Postmodernist thought, good and bad blends into grey.  We see that people behave as they do partly because of circumstances, and that we are not necessarily simply one thing or another.  This is certainly a more mature view of the world and ethics.

 

Continuing with Levi-Strauss’ anthropological version of Structuralism it should be noted that myth plays an important role in Clover Doves.  The paranormal and spiritual elements of the book give it a mythic quality, though I do not mean to imply that it is pure myth.  The Emma, Eric, Jared love triangle is a type of element that often appears in myth, and indeed in life, both really and metaphorically (Sallie Nichols. Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1984, p. 130-131).  If we take the Tarot card The Lover as one example we can very much see the pertinence to Filigenzi’s tale.  In the Marseilles Deck, the ‘traditional’ version, we see a young blond haired man standing between two women.  On his right we see a woman with a different visage, who is perhaps older and who touches him on his shoulder (near his head).  On the youth’s left is a blond haired woman who has similar facial features to the young man, and who touches him on his heart.  The lover’s head is turned to the first woman, but his body turns to the blond.  Above them all, and presumably unseen by them, hovers the god Cupid, his arrow aimed at the Lovers heart. Cupid can be said to represent fate, or natural forces, or greater unseen powers (Sallie Nichols. Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1984, p.135-137).  In the Waite Deck Cupid is replaced by “a great winged figure with arms extended, pouring down influence” (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.92).  This “winged figure” is in essence an angel.  It is said that the first, older woman could represent intelligence and things of the mind, and the blond woman the emotions and matter of the heart and body (Sallie Nichols, p.130).  In Filigenzi’s novel we have a woman and two men, but the circumstances are otherwise quite similar.  Emma has “brown eyes” and “gorgeous brown hair”.  Eric also has “brown eyes” and “soft brown hair”.  Jared, by contrast has “blue eyes” and “long locks of blond hair”.  Emma is very attracted to Eric, emotionally and physically, but her mind (especially later in the book) and her intuition tells her that things will not go smoothly.  When Emma meets Jared her emotions make her hesitate, but on reflection she decides on a rational plan of openness and honesty which will enable her to have a sensible love relationship with him.  For Emma fate and other ‘spiritual’ forces will play a great role in her relationships with both Eric and Jared.  Interestingly a number of people who positively influence Emma are referred to as being like a “guardian angel”.  Much more could be said about this comparison between the mythic quality of The Lover card and Clover Doves.

 

Courtney Filigenzi has written a novel which is in essence a paranormal romance, but when examined is much more than that.  A spiritual philosophy is developed in the book.   Psychological accuracy adds to the reality of the characters and plot.  Some comments are made about society, including observations about the pursuit of riches and ‘the good life’.  Women, African-Americans and the elderly are represented positively.  The negative depiction of LGBTIQ people, though, is open to criticism.  Viewed from a Structuralist and Mythic perspective the book is complex and shows considerable depth of thought and sophistication.  But beyond all this Filigenzi has written a novel that has much to say about life: the circumstances we face, and how we develop.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 and a half stars.

 

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

Hindered or helped by our minds

The Power, the Miracle & the Dream: A Beginner's Guide to Lasting Happiness - Don De Lene

Hannah Lane is seven years old and lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  She has terrible asthma and has learned to think of herself as not much good at most of what she sets out to do in life.  She does, however, have an active imagination and has been interested in fairies for quite some time.  She has a collection of fairy dolls which she plays with often.  Imagine her surprise, though, when one day she finds Brenda,  a fairy, in her garden.  Brenda is not so convinced that Hannah is without talent.  She sets about guiding Hannah to a wiser and happier life.  Hannah’s 11 year old brother Harvey thinks she is a little “crazy” (Book 1, Ch. 2) and that Brenda’s advice is a bit beyond belief.  Is Hannah crazy and will she ever really improve her life?

Particularly as children, but also through most of our life, we all have secret wishes and hidden dreams about the person we would like to be.  Remember that fantasy career you longed for but never went after?  We convince ourselves that we are not good enough to achieve these goals, that we are unrealistically aiming too high, and perhaps that we do not really deserve such fulfilment.  It is not unusual to reach 40 years and ask, “What happened?” and “Does what I have done really mean anything to me?”  If you are in this situation Don De Lene’s book is specifically for you.  The book is subtitled “a beginner’s guide to lasting happiness”’ and is filled with interesting, surprising and useful advice on how to achieve exactly that.  This book is part novel, part self-development manual and part spiritual philosophy.  Those who are “open-minded” (Book 1, Ch. 6) and have “a little willingness to believe” (Book1, Ch. 4) will benefit the most.  The book is aimed at children and youth, but adults can certainly enjoy it and benefit; indeed, perhaps more so.

De Lene’s book was originally written as a trilogy and is still divided into three books, however, the text very much hangs together as one unit, being very united in content development and plot progression: the ideas and the story progresses neatly from beginning to end.  At the end of each “Book” the reader may want to put the text aside for a short period in order to digest the content.  It is best, though, to pick the book up again soon as what first seem like simple ideas are elaborated and expanded later in the text.  Criticisms of De Lene’s ideas, for example, which at first may occur to the reader are often dealt with in the next “Book”.

Book 1 Hannah’s Power deals with the title character, and concentrates on the problem of the conflict between fear and happiness.  It introduces the idea of “the power in our own minds” (Bk. 1, Ch. 2) to handle every situation that arises in a positive way.  Harvey is the main character in Book 2 Harvey’s Miracle.  This section of the text takes a more complex look at the general subject of happiness.  It examines the problem in terms of the conflict between the “ego”, that is “the self-centered” part of ourselves (Bk. 2, Ch. 6), and the “Self” (Book 1, Ch. Ch. 13), a ‘higher’ part of ourselves referred to throughout the whole book as “the power”.  This section of the text concentrates very much on disbelief and counter arguments.  Book 3 Jonathan’s Dream once again takes Harvey as the main character and looks again at the basic question of happiness in the same terms as Book 2, that is ego/power.  This last book, though, very much examines the real life implications of the ideas, dramatizing how choosing one or the other side of our selves, can result in life taking a very different course.  This is the least ‘instructional’ part of the text and most narrative driven.

The characters in the novel are very likable and we immediately associate with them and wish the best for them.  Hannah does not have a good opinion of herself, but is cheerful and good natured.  Harvey is outwardly boisterous and has a level head.  He is by nature cautious and the reader likes him because he expresses many of our own questions and doubts about the personal development ideas contained in the book.  Brenda is both wise and funny.  In one incident her “garland of flowers” (Bk. 1, Ch. 4) repeatedly goes awry.  Caesar, a talking German Shepard and Harvey’s advisor, is both gentle and stern.  We like him, as we would like any pet, but we also respect the advice he gives.  Hannah and Harvey both very much have an arc of development and the novel leaves us with a feeling that we have truly gone somewhere.  Of course people are not necessarily exactly what we think they are and De Lene plays with the varying point of view of the novel to surprise us and keep us interested.

One point of criticism is that the plot of Book 1 is at times slightly unrealistic.  We expect Hannah to learn about life, but she learns just a little too well.  In one incident, for example, she goes from being the slowest runner in her class to suddenly beating all the girls.  Surely it is more likely that there would be an intermediate state, and perhaps it would be more believable if she simply improved rather than came first?  No doubt De Lene would accuse us of ego driven self-limiting doubt, but that is exactly what the book is about and these are the thoughts of his readers.  Perhaps children are more open to such ideas and so more likely to actually excel with them, and perhaps not.  Interestingly this sudden outstanding achievement is not the case with Harvey, for example with his bad spelling (Bk. 3, Ch.4), and indeed Books 1 & 2 do much to make up for the slightly exaggerated ethos of Book 1.  Plot wise Book 3 is certainly the most interesting and imaginative as the story takes a more surrealistic turn with alternate futures, shifts back and forth in time and  a slightly science fiction twist.  There is in this last book one truly ‘Oh my God’ moment to grip us and keep us turning the pages.  The whole book is set mainly in Australia; however, readers from other counties will not have any cultural difficulty or misunderstandings reading it.  This story could take place anywhere, at least in the European world.

As I have already said, the book is part self-development manual and De Lene has used various techniques to emphasise his ideas.  We see direct instruction from Brenda and Caesar, and repetition of this instruction with further elaboration.  We see important points written in italics. We see some of the instructive points illustrated by dramatic events.  In Book 1 Chapter 5, for example, Hannah acts out her ego driven fear by literally building a ‘fort’.  On occasions we also see more symbolic elements which illustrate on a more unconscious level.  The most obvious symbolic element is of course the idea of fairies who stand for the intuitive, ‘magic’ part of our mind.  Interestingly all the techniques I have just listed are used in hypnosis.  Milton H. Erickson, an eminently successful hypnotist, maintained that trance “is a common, everyday occurrence” that occurs, for example, when “reading” (Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_H._Erickson).  Erickson recommended the use of “story” and “metaphor” (Wikipedia).  Christopher Hyatt and Calvin Iwema in their book Energized Hypnosis (New Falcon Publications, 2005), which is in essence a hypnotic induction script, use italics to add emphasis to critical wording.  De Lene, in his book, specifically recommends the hypnotic techniques of deep breathing and mantra like repeated phrases to induce personal change (Bk.1 Ch. 13 & following).

The core message of De Lene’s book is summed up in the words:

“Don’t resist life’s’ experiences.  Embrace them with the willingness to learn from them.” (Bk.1, Ch.1)

This is an essentially Eastern idea.  It is, for example, also the key notion in Chris Prentiss’ Zen And The Art Of Happiness (Power Press, c2006). Beyond this De Lene advises the reader to: (1) be aware of your personal circumstance, (2) remember that wrong thinking causes problems, and (3) ask the power within your mind (your higher self) to help you (Bk.1, Ch.4 & following).  Awareness is a key notion in Eastern personal development theory.  Awareness: the key to living balance by Osho (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001), for example, is one of many books on this approach to life.  Observation is of course also the first step in the scientific method.  Correcting wrong thoughts is the key notion of cognitive therapy (Albert Ellis. How To Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons: Citadel Press, c1994, Ch.1).  Martialling our natural, inner resources of relaxation and focused concentration, that is “the power within” (Stanley Fisher & James Ellison. Discovering The Power Of Self-Hypnosis: 2nd ed.: Newmarket Press, 2000, Ch. 1), is a central aim of hypnosis.  Carl Jung proposed that the human mind (including its resources) was comprised of more than what we are consciously aware of (M.-L. von Franz.  The Process Of Individuation, in Carl G. Jung, ed. Man And His Symbols: Doubleday, c1964, p. 161-163) and also maintained that there are parts of it that are independent, like personalities that can be addressed by our consciousness (Anthony Stevens. Jung: a very short introduction: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 13 & 17).

Of course De Lene’s book contains much more advice than what we have noted above.  What I have tried to indicate is that his ideas have a strong background in both spirituality and psychology.  To provide just one more example of the psychological accuracy of the book it should be noted that De Lene includes a good description of the physiological responses associated with “resistance” (Bk. 1, Ch. 6).  The wandering mind and sleepiness which Harvey feels in response to Caesar’s advice (which he does not want to believe) are close to “demifugue” which is essentially stress response, that is, an inbuilt capacity to ignore, to in essence ‘fly away’ from a problem in our mind (Martha Stout. The Myth Of Sanity: divided consciousness and the promise of awareness: Penguin, 2001, p. 35-36).  Stout gives specific examples of this exact sleepiness (Stout, Ch. 10).

Some readers may be a little worried by the ‘spiritual’ aspects of the book, however, it should be noted that De Lene takes a mainly practical, rather than religious approach to those facets.  It is true that Hindu reincarnation is mentioned, but this is not a necessary or key part of the main thesis.  Intuition, for example, is simply described as knowing something which is not really obvious from the 5 senses (Bk.1, Ch. 4) and “the power of knowing or understanding something immediately, without reasoning or being taught” (Bk. 1, Ch. 8).  As Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking (Penguin, 2005) points out, scientists have known about swift unconscious thought for quite some time.  Synchronicity is another apparently mystical idea which De Lene refers to, however, much of it is simply explained by the notion that things occur to a pattern and that elements of this patter repeat, so we experience similar events to those we have experienced before (Bk.1 Ch. 10).  As James Gleik describes in Chaos: Making A New Science (Penguin: rev. ed.: 2008) even chaotic events have a form of order and this order includes repeating patterns in a fractal like structure.

As has been mentioned this book is written primarily with children in mind, though that certainly is not the limit of the possible audience.   As a consequence De Lene makes simple statements without going into too complicated a discussion.  This may at first lead parents and adult readers to conclude that the book is misleading.  In Book 1 Chapter 6, for example, Hannah is encouraged by Brenda to do what she really wants, but we may well object that some people’s inner prompting are hardly the ‘right’ thing to do even when they think they are right.  Brenda’s advice to “follow your heart” (Bk.1, Ch. 9) seems naive.  The problem of evil is certainly very real in the world, even in children’s lives.  De Lene certainly realizes this and it is best to keep reading as deeper issues like this are dealt with later in the text.  Books 2 and 3 certainly detail the emotive ego-traps we can fall into, which we can mistake as our “heart” and which can lead us into deep trouble.

Of course De Lene’s novel contains much more than could possibly be summed up in this review.  The author has written a simple story which contains much, and which a child will discover in increasing degrees as they grow older.  A child of Hannah’s age, 7 years, may only read the first book, but an adolescent of 15 or 16 will gain much from the whole book.  As I have indicated adults, also, will certainly be entertained and learn much.  This is truly a multi-levelled book.

In The Power, The Miracle and The Dream De Lene has written a novel which is both (1) endearing and entertaining, and (2) deep and insightful.  While containing ‘spiritual’ elements it is not deeply religious.  The book has a strong background in both psychology and eastern philosophy, but these ideas are put to the reader in a very agreeable manner.  This is not at all a dry, scholarly tome.  At just 240 pages it is a quick read: ideal for children and excellent for busy adults.  De Lene’s novel was truly a delight to read and I am happy to rate it as 5 stars out of 5.


The Power, The Miracle & The Dream (Book ed.)

The Power, The Miracle & The Dream (Kindle ed.)

The Power, The Miracle and The Dream by Don De Lene – Book Review

5 out of 5 stars

Hindered or helped by our minds

Hannah Lane is seven years old and lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  She has terrible asthma and has learned to think of herself as not much good at most of what she sets out to do in life.  She does, however, have an active imagination and has been interested in fairies for quite some time.  She has a collection of fairy dolls which she plays with often.  Imagine her surprise, though, when one day she finds Brenda,  a fairy, in her garden.  Brenda is not so convinced that Hannah is without talent.  She sets about guiding Hannah to a wiser and happier life.  Hannah’s 11 year old brother Harvey thinks she is a little “crazy” (Book 1, Ch. 2) and that Brenda’s advice is a bit beyond belief.  Is Hannah crazy and will she ever really improve her life?

Front cover: lighteningParticularly as children, but also through most of our life, we all have secret wishes and hidden dreams about the person we would like to be.  Remember that fantasy career you longed for but never went after?  We convince ourselves that we are not good enough to achieve these goals, that we are unrealistically aiming too high, and perhaps that we do not really deserve such fulfilment.  It is not unusual to reach 40 years and ask, “What happened?” and “Does what I have done really mean anything to me?”  If you are in this situation Don De Lene’s book is specifically for you.  The book is subtitled “a beginner’s guide to lasting happiness”’ and is filled with interesting, surprising and useful advice on how to achieve exactly that.  This book is part novel, part self-development manual and part spiritual philosophy.  Those who are “open-minded” (Book 1, Ch. 6) and have “a little willingness to believe” (Book1, Ch. 4) will benefit the most.  The book is aimed at children and youth, but adults can certainly enjoy it and benefit; indeed, perhaps more so.

De Lene’s book was originally written as a trilogy and is still divided into three books, however, the text very much hangs together as one unit, being very united in content development and plot progression: the ideas and the story progresses neatly from beginning to end.  At the end of each “Book” the reader may want to put the text aside for a short period in order to digest the content.  It is best, though, to pick the book up again soon as what first seem like simple ideas are elaborated and expanded later in the text.  Criticisms of De Lene’s ideas, for example, which at first may occur to the reader are often dealt with in the next “Book”.

Book 1 Hannah’s Power deals with the title character, and concentrates on the problem of the conflict between fear and happiness.  It introduces the idea of “the power in our own minds” (Bk. 1, Ch. 2) to handle every situation that arises in a positive way.  Harvey is the main character in Book 2 Harvey’s Miracle.  This section of the text takes a more complex look at the general subject of happiness.  It examines the problem in terms of the conflict between the “ego”, that is “the self-centered” part of ourselves (Bk. 2, Ch. 6), and the “Self” (Book 1, Ch. Ch. 13), a ‘higher’ part of ourselves referred to throughout the whole book as “the power”.  This section of the text concentrates very much on disbelief and counter arguments.  Book 3 Jonathan’s Dream once again takes Harvey as the main character and looks again at the basic question of happiness in the same terms as Book 2, that is ego/power.  This last book, though, very much examines the real life implications of the ideas, dramatizing how choosing one or the other side of our selves, can result in life taking a very different course.  This is the least ‘instructional’ part of the text and most narrative driven.

The characters in the novel are very likable and we immediately associate with them and wish the best for them.  Hannah does not have a good opinion of herself, but is cheerful and good natured.  Harvey is outwardly boisterous and has a level head.  He is by nature cautious and the reader likes him because he expresses many of our own questions and doubts about the personal development ideas contained in the book.  Brenda is both wise and funny.  In one incident her “garland of flowers” (Bk. 1, Ch. 4) repeatedly goes awry.  Caesar, a talking German Shepard and Harvey’s advisor, is both gentle and stern.  We like him, as we would like any pet, but we also respect the advice he gives.  Hannah and Harvey both very much have an arc of development and the novel leaves us with a feeling that we have truly gone somewhere.  Of course people are not necessarily exactly what we think they are and De Lene plays with the varying point of view of the novel to surprise us and keep us interested.

One point of criticism is that the plot of Book 1 is at times slightly unrealistic.  We expect Hannah to learn about life, but she learns just a little too well.  In one incident, for example, she goes from being the slowest runner in her class to suddenly beating all the girls.  Surely it is more likely that there would be an intermediate state, and perhaps it would be more believable if she simply improved rather than came first?  No doubt De Lene would accuse us of ego driven self-limiting doubt, but that is exactly what the book is about and these are the thoughts of his readers.  Perhaps children are more open to such ideas and so more likely to actually excel with them, and perhaps not.  Interestingly this sudden outstanding achievement is not the case with Harvey, for example with his bad spelling (Bk. 3, Ch.4), and indeed Books 1 & 2 do much to make up for the slightly exaggerated ethos of Book 1.  Plot wise Book 3 is certainly the most interesting and imaginative as the story takes a more surrealistic turn with alternate futures, shifts back and forth in time and  a slightly science fiction twist.  There is in this last book one truly ‘Oh my God’ moment to grip us and keep us turning the pages.  The whole book is set mainly in Australia; however, readers from other counties will not have any cultural difficulty or misunderstandings reading it.  This story could take place anywhere, at least in the European world.

As I have already said, the book is part self-development manual and De Lene has used various techniques to emphasise his ideas.  We see direct instruction from Brenda and Caesar, and repetition of this instruction with further elaboration.  We see important points written in italics. We see some of the instructive points illustrated by dramatic events.  In Book 1 Chapter 5, for example, Hannah acts out her ego driven fear by literally building a ‘fort’.  On occasions we also see more symbolic elements which illustrate on a more unconscious level.  The most obvious symbolic element is of course the idea of fairies who stand for the intuitive, ‘magic’ part of our mind.  Interestingly all the techniques I have just listed are used in hypnosis.  Milton H. Erickson, an eminently successful hypnotist, maintained that trance “is a common, everyday occurrence” that occurs, for example, when “reading” (Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_H._Erickson).  Erickson recommended the use of “story” and “metaphor” (Wikipedia).  Christopher Hyatt and Calvin Iwema in their book Energized Hypnosis (New Falcon Publications, 2005), which is in essence a hypnotic induction script, use italics to add emphasis to critical wording.  De Lene, in his book, specifically recommends the hypnotic techniques of deep breathing and mantra like repeated phrases to induce personal change (Bk.1 Ch. 13 & following).

The core message of De Lene’s book is summed up in the words:

“Don’t resist life’s’ experiences.  Embrace them with the willingness to learn from them.” (Bk.1, Ch.1)

This is an essentially Eastern idea.  It is, for example, also the key notion in Chris Prentiss’ Zen And The Art Of Happiness (Power Press, c2006). Beyond this De Lene advises the reader to: (1) be aware of your personal circumstance, (2) remember that wrong thinking causes problems, and (3) ask the power within your mind (your higher self) to help you (Bk.1, Ch.4 & following).  Awareness is a key notion in Eastern personal development theory.  Awareness: the key to living balance by Osho (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001), for example, is one of many books on this approach to life.  Observation is of course also the first step in the scientific method.  Correcting wrong thoughts is the key notion of cognitive therapy (Albert Ellis. How To Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons: Citadel Press, c1994, Ch.1).  Martialling our natural, inner resources of relaxation and focused concentration, that is “the power within” (Stanley Fisher & James Ellison. Discovering The Power Of Self-Hypnosis: 2nd ed.: Newmarket Press, 2000, Ch. 1), is a central aim of hypnosis.  Carl Jung proposed that the human mind (including its resources) was comprised of more than what we are consciously aware of (M.-L. von Franz.  The Process Of Individuation, in Carl G. Jung, ed. Man And His Symbols: Doubleday, c1964, p. 161-163) and also maintained that there are parts of it that are independent, like personalities that can be addressed by our consciousness (Anthony Stevens. Jung: a very short introduction: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 13 & 17).

Of course De Lene’s book contains much more advice than what we have noted above.  What I have tried to indicate is that his ideas have a strong background in both spirituality and psychology.  To provide just one more example of the psychological accuracy of the book it should be noted that De Lene includes a good description of the physiological responses associated with “resistance” (Bk. 1, Ch. 6).  The wandering mind and sleepiness which Harvey feels in response to Caesar’s advice (which he does not want to believe) are close to “demifugue” which is essentially stress response, that is, an inbuilt capacity to ignore, to in essence ‘fly away’ from a problem in our mind (Martha Stout. The Myth Of Sanity: divided consciousness and the promise of awareness: Penguin, 2001, p. 35-36).  Stout gives specific examples of this exact sleepiness (Stout, Ch. 10).

Some readers may be a little worried by the ‘spiritual’ aspects of the book, however, it should be noted that De Lene takes a mainly practical, rather than religious approach to those facets.  It is true that Hindu reincarnation is mentioned, but this is not a necessary or key part of the main thesis.  Intuition, for example, is simply described as knowing something which is not really obvious from the 5 senses (Bk.1, Ch. 4) and “the power of knowing or understanding something immediately, without reasoning or being taught” (Bk. 1, Ch. 8).  As Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking (Penguin, 2005) points out, scientists have known about swift unconscious thought for quite some time.  Synchronicity is another apparently mystical idea which De Lene refers to, however, much of it is simply explained by the notion that things occur to a pattern and that elements of this patter repeat, so we experience similar events to those we have experienced before (Bk.1 Ch. 10).  As James Gleik describes in Chaos: Making A New Science (Penguin: rev. ed.: 2008) even chaotic events have a form of order and this order includes repeating patterns in a fractal like structure.

As has been mentioned this book is written primarily with children in mind, though that certainly is not the limit of the possible audience.   As a consequence De Lene makes simple statements without going into too complicated a discussion.  This may at first lead parents and adult readers to conclude that the book is misleading.  In Book 1 Chapter 6, for example, Hannah is encouraged by Brenda to do what she really wants, but we may well object that some people’s inner prompting are hardly the ‘right’ thing to do even when they think they are right.  Brenda’s advice to “follow your heart” (Bk.1, Ch. 9) seems naive.  The problem of evil is certainly very real in the world, even in children’s lives.  De Lene certainly realizes this and it is best to keep reading as deeper issues like this are dealt with later in the text.  Books 2 and 3 certainly detail the emotive ego-traps we can fall into, which we can mistake as our “heart” and which can lead us into deep trouble.

Of course De Lene’s novel contains much more than could possibly be summed up in this review.  The author has written a simple story which contains much, and which a child will discover in increasing degrees as they grow older.  A child of Hannah’s age, 7 years, may only read the first book, but an adolescent of 15 or 16 will gain much from the whole book.  As I have indicated adults, also, will certainly be entertained and learn much.  This is truly a multi-levelled book.

In The Power, The Miracle and The Dream De Lene has written a novel which is both (1) endearing and entertaining, and (2) deep and insightful.  While containing ‘spiritual’ elements it is not deeply religious.  The book has a strong background in both psychology and eastern philosophy, but these ideas are put to the reader in a very agreeable manner.  This is not at all a dry, scholarly tome.  At just 240 pages it is a quick read: ideal for children and excellent for busy adults.  De Lene’s novel was truly a delight to read and I am happy to rate it as 5 stars out of 5.


The Power, The Miracle & The Dream (Book ed.)

The Power, The Miracle & The Dream (Kindle ed.)

Sonata by Blair McDowell – Book Review

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.)