Book Review: The Woods Out Back

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Book: The Woods Out Back
Series: Spearwielder’s Tale
Author: R.A. Salvatore
Genres: fantasy, adventure

 

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“The first in the Spearwielder fantasy adventure series–from the author of the New York Times bestseller The Legacy. In a magical spot in a forest, Gary falls asleep . . . and wakes up in a dangerous realm of elves and dwarves, witches and dragons. There he discovers he is the only one who can wear the armor of the land’s lost hero–and wield a magical spear.”

 

Notes of Interest:

I am a huge R.A. Salvatore fan via his Forgotten Realms books with Drizzt Do’Urden. But I never heard of this series until I came across it by accident. I was surprised to find it’s quite old: 1993. But it was on discount, so I decided to see what he would write outside of a familiar setting.

For me, this book brought up the controversial topic of author “brands”. A “brand” for an author or other creative professional is when fans come to expect something specific from the products offered. It’s controversial because marketing gurus say the best way to sell your work is by having a niche. A narrow scope of expertise tells the audience what it can expect from you, and niche fans are more likely to return. Case in point: I’ve read many of Salvatore’s D&D novels in the Forgotten Realms setting, so the reason I purchased this book was because I loved those books.

But creative professionals sometimes feel caged by “branding” their work because it limits their creative expression. The niche market becomes a trap, so that they can’t do anything else because experimental projects in different genres (or whatever) might not fit expectations of established fans.

Anne Rice became famous for writing about vampires. But she has also written about angels, Jesus, and (under a pen name) erotica. She is perhaps unique in that each of her niches has a wide following, depending on which books led that particular subset of readers to become fans. Somehow she manages to handle the broad scope of differing (often opposing) opinions well. But I for one will only ever be interested in her vampire books. I can’t really explain why. It’s not like I have anything against her writing other types of literature. I feel authors should be free to write about whatever they please. But from that spectrum, vampires are the only topic and style that suit me. So that is where my expectations, or reader bias, exists.

J.K. Rowling was a huge success with her Harry Potter series. But her other works have not measured up to the same success, not because the other books aren’t good, but because fans expect more of the same. The world of Harry Potter is Rowling’s brand.

So, this quickly became my dilemma with The Woods Out Back. When R.A. Salvatore is mentioned, the book that comes to mind is Homecoming. It’s one of my all-time favourites, therefore I have come to expect more like that from him. I tried not to let my expectations get in the way of my impressions while reading something completely different, but they intruded anyway. I couldn’t help it.

In the review that follows, I acknowledge my bias and will try to work around it as much as possible. Opinion pieces, which is what all reviews are, will always have a measure of bias shaping those opinions. In this case, I admit brand reared its ugly head, but I am 100% supportive of authors and artists having the freedom to explore different venues with their works. Moving away from a brand might not win over loyal readers from one subset to another, but doing something different can win a whole new subset of readers. And there’s no good reason why an author shouldn’t be allowed to do that, as long as they understand brand expectations can work against new, experimental projects.

 

What could have made it better for me:

The story starts off well enough with Gary, an average Joe at work in a modern setting, then turns into a portal story. I love portal stories. But because I was expecting characters like Drizzt Do’Urden to come to life in a D&D-type setting, the introduction of a leprechaun, complete with Irish accent and snarky attitude, felt … cartoonish. A more typical D&D-type elf showed up after that. So, of course, I loved him. But then there was a goblin who was a typical “grunt” laboring to please his queen in all the wrong ways. The evil queen dressed in black with her shape-shifting skills, spies, and minions made me think of Snow White’s wicked step-mother. And there was a dumb giant who had a vocabulary of “duh” in between dialog of a little more substance. In other words, what came to mind was every major stereotype for every fantasy archetype.

I do have a good sense of humor, so it’s not a matter of taking the story too seriously. But I think I was expecting a little more in terms of unique character development versus tongue-in-cheek placeholders for archetypes. For example, I loved the idea of a dragon named Robert! How could you not love a dragon with such a mundane moniker following in the footsteps of dragons with such legendary, exotic names like Smaug, Falcor, Draco, and Paarthurnax? But in the end, Robert was a typical, blustery dragon who hates to lose and hoards treasure. Robert had such potential to be something utterly unexpected, but even he was predictable. But it seems that was the goal for this tale: writing about magical creatures using the typical archetypes the way everyone expects them to be.

I think I could have found iconic mascots coming together for a tongue-in-cheek tale like this more enjoyable had I not been expecting the more individual depth and persona that is a given in settings like Forgotten Realms.

 

What I liked about it:

Since I am a fan of many kinds of fantasy, I don’t dismiss fantasy intended to be taken less seriously. Therefore, in spite of what I said above, seeing a blatantly stereotypical group pursuing a very typical quest actually turned out to be something different. The whole thing had a very tongue-in-cheek approach that made me think of Terry Pratchett’s books, but with more action/adventure and a more subtle humour. Salvatore is a master of writing fight scenes, so the writing itself was bold, vivid, and moved at a good pace through each chapter along the quest.

Gary—the average Joe protagonist—felt very real. His down-to-earth personality becomes spasmastic in a way most people could relate with after having been transported through a fairy portal … being funny, frustrated, frightened, and courageous in all the appropriate places. In my opinion, he was the best developed character of the bunch. And because he is new to magic and myth, his naivety is something I don’t usually get to see in Salvatore’s writings. That would be the major difference between a portal story and a story in which the characters are already expert swordsmen and mages; so it was interesting to see how he handled that difference, and he handled it well.

Technically, the book is a clean and easy read. The plot’s objective and action is straightforward and classic, rather than intentionally complicated with deep, controversial themes or gritty ambiguity. Because of that, it does not have a lot of the dark matter some of his other books do. So, it makes for a lighter read, too. I love both dark, deep literature and fun, light literature, depending on my mood. So, this balanced out the darker, more serious nature of the other book I’m currently reading. Variety is good.

 

Recommendation:

If you are a fan of Salvatore’s more serious works, go into this one knowing it’s meant to poke fun at fantasy stereotypes. Don’t compare it to his D&D works if at all possible; it should be enjoyed as something completely different. I have not yet decided whether I will be purchasing the rest of the series. I enjoyed it enough that I might return to it. My expectations will be different for the second book after reading the first, so that should help. It’s a good book for anyone wanting a light read about a portal story or a classic hero’s quest.

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Book Review: Mrs. Saint and the Defectives

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I’m taking a brief break from my articles on how I craft my novels to offer a review for the book I just finished reading.  🙂

Book: Mrs. Saint and the Defectives
Series:
Author: Julie Lawson Timmer
Genres: Literary

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Markie, a fortysomething divorcée who has suffered a humiliating and very public fall from marital, financial, and professional grace, moves, along with her teenage son, Jesse, to a new town, hoping to lick her wounds in private. But Markie and Jesse are unable to escape the attention of their new neighbor Mrs. Saint, an irascible, elderly New European woman who takes it upon herself, along with her ragtag group of “defectives,” to identify and fix the flaws in those around her, whether they want her to or not.

What Markie doesn’t realize is that Mrs. Saint has big plans for the divorcée’s broken spirit. Soon, the quirky yet endearing woman recruits Markie to join her eccentric community, a world where both hidden truths and hope unite them. But when Mrs. Saint’s own secrets threaten to unravel their fragile web of healing, it’s up to Markie to mend these wounds and usher in a new era for the “defectives”—one full of second chances and happiness.”

 

Notes of Interest:

I found out about this book via Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited. I chose it because I’ve become very keen on reading fiction about single and divorced women, now that this is a personal topic in my own life. Perhaps it’s a need to see how other women solve their problems, even if it’s still framed in a fictional, happily-ever-after-as-a-strong-independent-woman or new-love fairy tale. Or perhaps it’s just instinct to want to know I’m not alone. Or to know there is a light at the end of the “long, dark dungeon with no music,” as one friend so aptly described divorce. The story is not really about divorce, though. It’s about coming out from under the rock after a life-altering event and learning how to put the pieces back together. More specifically, it’s about learning how to open your mind and heart to reconciliation and new relationships after being in a broken state of retreat, for whatever reason.

What could have made it better for me:

I had absolutely no complaints about this book. The character of Mrs. Saint did get under my skin a bit at first, and not liking certain characters can make a story difficult to stick with. But that is entirely what Mrs. Saint is supposed to do. She gets under Markie’s skin. Since her persistence and insistence is a personality type that usually irritates me in reality, the author succeeded at making Mrs. Saint very real in that sense. In other words, this isn’t a complaint, but more so a congratulations, and a reminder that I need to be more patient-yet-firm myself when it comes to well-intentioned people who tell me what I should do to “fix” my life, whether I asked for their opinion or not.

What I liked about it:

Besides the relativity of the subject matter, I liked the warmth and personality of the writing. This includes Mrs. Saint’s “French-Canadian” accent, Markie’s inner dialogs, and the narrative voice itself. The characters are all unique in their presentations and personality quirks. And I love that the theme of this story is flawed character traits and the fact that everyone has them. It demonstrates that no one is perfect, so accepting people as they are without expectations can save yourself and them a lot of grief. I started off focusing on Markie and her narrative, but a few chapters later I found myself wanting to know more about the defectives and wishing they lived next to me. (Of course, that is where I remind myself to balance fiction against reality. When real people with character flaws antagonize each other, conflict resolution may never happen.)

The author had some wonderful nuggets of wisdom in her narrative. The two I’ll remember are these: “She had a past to reconcile and a future to sort out, and she couldn’t do either without solitude,” and later, “The thing about setting your life up so you could be completely alone was that you ended up completely alone.” To me, this perfectly sums up what it’s like to need time to lick your wounds and heal. By the time you’re ready to face life again, everyone else has left you behind. This is true of any life change that drastically alters us and requires a period of transition to settle into a new and very different normal.

As the story unfolds further and some of the secrets truths about the characters are told, it truly does go from being a story about a divorceé and her son, to being about the defectives and their nosy, stubborn guardian. In the end, I was lead to question the balance between my focus on healing myself and helping others. We all wish someone was “stubbornly” there for us when we’re imperfect, flawed, and hurting, but few people have the patience, time, or compassion to be available to others in those situations. In the end, Markie realizes she has as much to learn from her defective neighbours as she does about them … particularly Mrs. Saint. And that is a universal lesson for all of us.

Recommendation:

This book was an easy read, but has a literary genre quality to it. It has a wonderful, light sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, but is also rich with drama, past and present. The writing is clean and textured. In a word, it was a delight. I’m glad I took a chance on adding it to my collection.

Book Review: The Conquering Dark

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Book: The Conquering Dark
Series: Shadow Revolution, Book 3
Author: Clay and Susan Griffin
Genres: fantasy, steampunk, Neo-Victorian, Gothic horror, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“A thrilling new Victorian-era urban fantasy for fans of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and the Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Robert Downey, Jr.

The Crown and Key Society face their most terrifying villain yet: Gaios, a deranged demigod with the power to destroy Britain. To avenge a centuries-old betrayal, Gaios is hell-bent on summoning the elemental forces of the earth to level London and bury Britain. The Crown and Key Society, a secret league consisting of a magician, an alchemist, and a monster-hunter, is the realm’s only hope—and to stop Gaios, they must gather their full strength and come together as a team, or the world will fall apart. But Simon Archer, the Crown and Key’s leader and the last living magician-scribe, has lost his powers. As Gaios searches for the Stone of Scone, which will give him destructive dominion over the land, monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane, alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther, gadget geek Penny Carter, and Charlotte the werewolf scramble to reconnect Simon to his magic before the world as they know it is left forever in ruins.”

Notes of Interest:

This is the third book in the Shadow Revolution series. The first is Crown and Key, which I reviewed here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/book-review-crown-and-key/ . The second is Undying Legion, which I reviewed here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/book-review-undying-legion/ . This third book closes the trilogy.

As I stated in the previous review, I chose to read this series because of how much I enjoyed the Vampire Empire series by the Griffins. The third book in this series was closure for the first two, obviously, but it has all of the same good qualities as the previous two.

What could have made it better for me:

As with the previous book in this series, there was nothing of note that pulled me out of the story. All the basics I look for when considering “stars” to award were there: good technical work on grammar and elements of composition, well-developed “living” characters, no plot holes or burdens in style that damage the ability to suspend disbelief, etc. So, I present this book free of warning labels. 🙂

What I liked about it:

While writing this review, I realized I was having trouble coming up with new ways to describe the third volume in the series separately from the first two. (In fact, parts of this review are copy/paste sections from the previous reviews.) That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means there is a sense of continuity, which is very necessary in any series. I was a little confused at first because my mind was on the characters that the second book ended on, and this book seemed to be heading somewhere completely different, but it did pull everything together in the end.

Characterization and plot were well-defined and action-packed, as usual. The characters are turning into a real family unit in this volume, but they also undergo some transformations as individuals: Simon having to cope without his magic, while Kate advances her alchemical skills and Penny invents new mechanical weaponry; Malcolm growing a soft spot amid all those bristles, while Charlotte and Imogen make progress on stability. And then there are the questions of loyalty surrounding Nick, Ash, and several other minor characters, as to whether they will ultimately play into the hands of the demi-god Gaios and his plans for revenge. Without knowing who to trust, they must find a way to fix Simon’s magic and fix their inability to access the portals before Gaios gets his hands on the Stone of Scone to destroy London.

Wit among dialog and circumstance wins big points from me when it comes to enjoyment of literature. I think my favourite line in the book belonged to roguish Simon after enduring a glamour spell cast upon him by his old friend and mentor Nick. Upon seeing himself in the mirror, he said, “Could you have made me any uglier? Was a leper beyond your ability?” And you can just feel his dismay at actually not being attractive for the probably the first time in his life. So, little inserts like that can go a long way for me in making a read enjoyable.

These books have a distinct “superheroes save the world” feel to them … but blended with horror and a steampunk style. The premise of the third book reminds me a little of the Dr. Who spin-off series Torchwood, in that after everything that has already happened, you end up with this task force of magicians and supernatural creatures whom the king can call upon to take care of unusual threats of a dark nature that endanger the crown, the citizens at large, or national security. It’s a good premise, and I tend to enjoy seeing it explored. Whether or not we see more from this particular task force as Princess Victoria comes of age, remains to be seen, but the outcome of their endeavors lends itself to being open to future possibilities. The ending is bittersweet, but offers satisfying closure for the entire set. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers. 🙂

Recommendation:

If you are into this kind of literature, I think you’ll enjoy this series. It is adventurous escapism at its finest with credible characters, delightful dialog, imaginative settings, and an immersive atmosphere.

Book Review: The Places That Scare You

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Book: The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
Series:
Author: Pema Chödrön
Genres: Non-fiction, Self-Help, Meditation, Buddhism

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“We always have a choice, Pema Chödrön teaches: We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder. Here Pema provides the tools to deal with the problems and difficulties that life throws our way. This wisdom is always available to us, she teaches, but we usually block it with habitual patterns rooted in fear. Beyond that fear lies a state of openheartedness and tenderness. This book teaches us how to awaken our basic goodness and connect with others, to accept ourselves and others complete with faults and imperfections, and to stay in the present moment by seeing through the strategies of ego that cause us to resist life as it is.”

Notes of Interest:

I bought this book because I’ve been at a very tough place for the past four years, and my gut instinct tells me things are going to get worse before they get better. Meditation has been a real game-changer for my depression and anxiety. But lately I’ve been feeling I’m going to need a deeper practice to get me through the next several bumps in life. This book was among some Goodreads recommendations by Elizabeth Gilbert, and at a glimpse, seemed to be just the dose of wisdom I need and will continue to need for future reference.

This book has a Buddhist spiritual context because the author is a Buddhist monk. But meditation itself can be used as a secular and scientifically proven psychological aid. And the advice presented here can serve as tool for coping with secular, psychological obstacles without having to be Buddhist.

What could have made it better for me:

I honestly had no negative notes or feelings about this book. The language is clear. The content is well-organized. Pragmatic examples of the principles discussed are clearly illustrated. And it’s technically flawless. But most importantly, it’s exactly what I needed. And I think that might be key to anyone considering purchasing it. If you are looking for a quick fix for your anxiety and phobias, this is not it. This is not a book for people offended at Buddhist principles or terminology, either. Nor is this a book for people who are not ready and willing to look in the mirror and begin making changes within themselves to overcome their problems.

What I liked about it:

I think this work has earned the most highlights I have ever given to a book. Seriously. There is probably at least one highlight on every page. I loved it that much and found it that relevant. That makes it extremely difficult for me to pull out the shiniest pearls of wisdom to show off in my review. But I will attempt to summarize the basic concept behind this book as I understand it.

The Buddhist concept of the compassionate warrior presented here can be used on a secular level, or dug into deeper as a study of “bodhichitta” or enlightenment. I’m going to speak of it on a secular level because I feel so many people could benefit from it, regardless of faith, or lack thereof.

In a nutshell, the practice of the compassionate warrior is this. You have to train yourself to confront what you fear in order to make it lose its power over you. To sit with your discomfort, your anger, your fear, all your negative emotions takes courage. After all, it’s uncomfortable. But all emotions, good and bad, are fleeting. So, training comes in learning to not hold onto the “good” ones or shy away from the “bad” ones. Grasping and aversion is what causes suffering. We’re not happy when we can’t have what we DO want. And avoiding what we DON’T want is running away from problems, so that doesn’t solve anything.

We start with meditating on self-compassion because if we do not have compassion for ourselves, we cannot generate compassion for anyone else. We often criticize ourselves for our reactions to things that frighten us, make us anxious, or otherwise put us in that place of discomfort. We often reach for exterior comforts (food, alcohol, escapism, etc.) because we never truly learned how to love and comfort ourselves. So, the compassionate warrior sits with discomfort until she can let it go, and this is an act of self-love, self-compassion because holding onto past hurts or running from future worries causes more suffering.

When we can face our fears, being kind and forgiving of ourselves for having those negative reactions, and learn to let go, the next step is learning how to support our loved ones in a similar fashion (rather than reacting with criticism when things don’t go the way we want). When you can do that and you’re ready for a challenge, the next arm of the outward spiral is to train with compassion for the difficult people in your life. (Yeah, that person that gets under your skin every time he opens his mouth, or every time she backs you into a corner.) This in itself is a means of confronting, staying, and releasing any fear or other negative emotions associated with our difficult people, so that compassion has a chance to create a different dynamic in the relationship. And if you train long enough to build that muscle of compassion, you can learn to develop compassion for strangers and finally all living beings.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Human nature is reactive. We get upset when our desires are blocked or not met. So, training the mind to react differently is a lifetime challenge, even for the meditation expert. Moving your mental practice from the mat into your daily life is always going to be difficult because you have no way of knowing what life is going to throw at you every day. Every day will present at least one opportunity for you to practice staying with and letting go of negative reactions. But the goal is to gain enough experience diffusing difficult situations that it becomes easier and more natural over time. This is how fear loses its power over us.

Recommendation:

I highly recommend this book for anyone struggling through difficult times, particularly for anyone coping with anxiety issues. I will be buying her other book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times next. And I’m sure I will consult both books frequently over the coming years because our society does not teach children (or adults) how to fail, how to have resilience. The goal is always to win, to succeed, to not appear weak in any way … perfection. Our parents tell us this. Our teachers tell us this. The business world tells us this. The media tells us this.

But that picture of success is not the same thing as integrity. So when things fall apart — and they WILL — the more tools we have for coping and then moving beyond the difficulties, the better.

If you were ever curious about meditation or the study of Buddhism, this book provides a simple and clear introduction to terms and practices. But one need not be Buddhist to benefit from the psychological advice given here.

Book Review: 1984

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Book: 1984
Series:
Author: George Orwell
Genres: literary, dystopian

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind. Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.”

Notes of Interest:

This is actually the fourth time I’ve read this book. My first reading was in high school while attending a private religious school. My second reading was in college, also a private religious school, but with an open-minded English professor. My third reading was with my own children when they were studying high school English. And recently I picked it up again, like many other people, because of some uncanny parallels between this piece of fiction and our current events in reality. It never ceases to amaze me that every time I pick up this book, I find something new I didn’t notice before. It is timeless. It is universal. It is a true classic. It is not an easy read, but it’s well worth it, in my opinion.

I haven’t written a review on it in decades. And while I don’t have previous reviews on hand for comparison, this last reading was done from a liberal, secular perspective. Each reading was influenced by political or religious background, so it’s interesting to see the scope from right to left shift as to how this book’s “prophetic” themes can be interpreted. There is so much to say about this book that I feel very limited on this blog. Since it has been reviewed and studied copiously enough on a technical analytical level, I’ll try to stick to the theme of divisive interpretation.

What could have made it better for me:

The short and sweet of it is this book is perfect the way it is. My only complaint is that it’s dated, coming from the post WWII era, but that’s not really a complaint so much as an acknowledgment that a certain level of awareness of history is necessary with period literature. It’s a bit of a hassle to ponder lessons for today from studying the past … but that’s the whole point of history, right?

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What I liked about it:

The most important thing I picked up from the book this time around was a better understanding of fascism. While reading this book, I simultaneously did on-line searches for definitions, examples, and warning flags regarding fascism. I looked at articles from the right and the left to be fair and to try to answer a question that deeply puzzled me. How is that both the right and the left can accuse each other of being fascist?

Was fascism a creation of the right or left? Is it secular or religious? The simple answer is … both. But of course to understand it, you have to dig deeper than that.

Most of the articles I read put fascism in the conservative political camp because of the authoritarian approach to policy. Authoritarianism is a predominant characteristic of conservative culture and politics. But several conservative articles found that idea ludicrous because fascism requires loyalty to a collective, and collectives are predominantly from liberal culture and politics, i.e. the government. Since conservatives generally hate the government, how could they possibly buy into a collective ideology?

Well, there is more than one kind of collective. For example, nationalism. Nationalism should never be mistaken for patriotism. Patriotism is support for one’s country. But nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism that usually exhorts the superiority of one nation above all others. Did you catch that very important word that defines the differences? Extreme. It’s okay to be proud of your origins and support your country. But there is a tipping point when love of country becomes nationalism, where globalism no longer matters and one nation’s interests come at the expense of others. When that happens, the nation becomes the collective … the party … the authority. Even without a big government, collectivism can exist in the form of a republic, a religious organization, a social organization, or a business organization. Collectivism simply means “group priority”. So, contrary to some of the arguments I’ve seen otherwise, it IS possible for a conservative culture that disavows “big government” to buy into a different kind of collective dogma. Combine that with authoritarian tendencies, push them into the extreme camp, and you have the perfect storm for fascism. Whether you agree or disagree, this why most sociologists consider fascism to be conservative, even though the world’s first taste of fascism did come from secular, socialist governments.

This might be a difficult concept to grasp because it does straddle the fence in terms of collectives. But it’s important to understand the role that authoritarianism plays in making fascism what it is.

Both conservative and liberal cultures name the same warning signs when it comes to fascism (suppression of freedom of speech, suppression of freedom of the press, dehumanization of a chosen subgroup of people, etc.)Each side has similar arguments that accuse the other of being fascist, but for different reasons. For example, conservatives may point to abortion rights as dehumanization because a fetus is not valued as equally as the mother. Liberals might point to defunding of public welfare projects or anti-immigration policies as dehumanizing because of how the lives of the poor or of a particular religious sect are not as valued as the rich or religious majority. Regardless of whether those definitions of dehumanization are valid or not, both camps are in agreement that dehumanization is bad. In both cases, the “evil” collective that enforces the laws is the government. But whether the government is big or small, religious or secular, it is the absolutism of authority that leads to dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Therefore, it’s important to understand this is a book that the right will attempt to use against the left. And the left will attempt to use it against the right. Because Orwell’s examples of authoritarianism are sometimes similar to, but sometimes vastly different from, what we’re experiencing in today’s world.

This is a book that rebukes the removal of religion from human culture while at the same time condemning the indoctrination of children.

In Orwell’s day, there was a fear of shortages on consumer goods because of communist and socialist government-controlled production. Today we fear unregulated capitalism that not only floods the world with consumer goods, but takes a toll on our environment, permits discrimination, displaces workers, and takes advantage of people for profit.

Orwell clearly disliked having to trade his Imperial measurements and familiar, old-fashioned words for metrics and politically correct rephrasing. But that mindset ignores the fact that Imperial measurements and words are called “imperial” for a reason — one universal standard is easier for business, math, and dictionaries. Yet new words enter living languages every day with new technology and trade. It’s just how living languages work. The only unchanging language is a dead one. The only unchanging civilization is a dead one. Mark Twain once said, “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.” I think this is true, except I would change it to say the radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow … because if we’re comfortable with the world we’ve built for ourselves, we don’t want to see someone else change it. Change is scary, even if progress is a good thing. (And in terms of human history overall, most of us would say humanity has changed for the better when we compare our lives today with what they had 100 years ago, 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, and so on.)

So, a sense of what was happening at the time that Orwell wrote this book is essential to understanding why it’s not the left or right arguments that matter. Try not to get stuck in the details of labeling which “side” of modern arguments he’s on. It also helps to acknowledge that Orwell himself had his preferred world view and things he didn’t want to see change in the name of progress. But the main target of Orwell’s criticism and anger, the thing which he brilliantly attacked in this masterpiece, was and always will be totalitarianism.

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Totalitarianism can exist on the right or the left, conservative or liberal. Totalitarianism is what Orwell reminds us to pay attention to regardless of what individual arguments are about. And he does that best through language because when you remove words and suppress language and freedom of communication, you perpetuate ignorance. When you confuse someone’s language, you confuse their ability to think in abstract terms and distance them from their cultural heritage.

Here he gives us the government of Oceania. Big Brother is the father figure that Winston and his peers are to look to for guidance and justice. Big Brother’s not a real person … or maybe he is. Or maybe he changes. The details don’t matter. Big Brother is ageless, eternal, powerful. Big Brother perpetuates war with varying enemies to keep the population of Oceania productive, fatigued, and compliant. They celebrate hate on a daily basis; it’s required to know who their enemies are (since that often changes) and maintain loyalty to the party.

Winston, the story’s protagonist, works at the Ministry of Truth. The sole purpose of the Ministry of Truth is to fabricate propaganda for the party in the daily news and every other printed text in existence. They knowingly rewrite history so that they always come out victorious. But they no longer have a sense of the past because the only thing that matters is blind obedience in the present … and a sort of blind faith toward empty promises about future victories. Winston spends more time erasing the truth than printing it. “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It is their final, most essential command.”

They talk in doublespeak saying things like, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” To understand these concepts, you have to think in terms of dichotomy because one concept is used to rationalize its opposing principle. I could write an essay on these three statements alone, but if you’ve ever experienced someone punishing you out of “love” that’s the gist of how this works. It’s otherwise known as “gas-lighting” and is a psychologically abusive tactic often used by narcissists to control their partners. In fact the place where political prisoners are tortured is called the Ministry of Love because they equate coercion toward the one and only correct path with an act of compassion.

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They invade privacy, spying on every aspect of your life … judging acts (and thoughts, so don’t talk in your sleep!) as moral or immoral according to their party ideology. Society is based on class divisions according to party loyalty (a.k.a. cronyism). And relationships are reduced to arrangements for procreation, rearing of the next generation to be indoctrinated in party politics, and shallow love affairs held in secret (which are punishable by torture and death because meetings, public or private, are automatically suspect for conspiratorial opportunities). The elements of human existence that most people would cherish are deliberately removed by the party, and they don’t care who knows this because the fear that knowledge produces gives them leverage.

They are absolute, invincible, and forever … just like their patron. They are so sure of their ability to control the masses with fear and hate that when they spot potential dissidents, they bait them with rumors and books from an organization that may or may not be a real group of freedom fighters. Caught in the trap, the dissidents are broken and corrected back into party alignment through means of isolation and torture. Then they’re sent back to their assigned work, until the party has no further use for them. Those no longer useful, disappear … from the present and the past. They never existed. Only Big Brother and the party are timeless. That is the way it has always been.

Recommendation:

I copied dozens of page references and quotes to include in this review, but there simply isn’t time or space to expand on them. So, I will end with this final thought.

You cannot read this book without doubting your own sanity a few times. You can’t read it without thinking of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, or any of the other experiments in totalitarian nationalism that crept across the world following the Great Depression … that still exist in some parts of the world today. Nor can you read this book without seeing parallels in current events as totalitarianism and nationalism rear their ugly heads again looking for scapegoats to blame for the world’s problems … looking for excuses to start more wars in order to feel more in control.

Totalitarianism is a regression, no matter what party backs it. It hearkens back to the days of monarchy rule without representation of the people. Representation of a diverse and democratic people is crucial to preventing totalitarian power grabs. And we must be ever-watchful of the language we use to discuss propaganda and fake news, history and ideology, loyalty and patriotism, us and them. If we don’t call out lies when we see them, if we don’t speak up while we are free to do so, if we don’t listen when someone’s human rights are oppressed … when we reject compassion and empathy for the sake of profit, privilege, or power … when we let fear, hatred, and isolation reign … democracy and freedom go down the “memory hole” toward incineration. This is Orwell’s wake-up call to never allow totalitarianism to take over the world again.

Book Snobbery

"Book Reviews" by Merodinoongaku
Diversity in book reviews is normal.

What it is.

Book snobbery is what happens when a reader values one book above another as if such a thing could be objective. That means judging a book without emotion or opinion. Grant it technical aspects of writing can sometimes be judged objectively. But when speaking of the book as a whole? Never.

This happens a lot when comparing literary genres. For example, people love to feel that literary genre is superior to fantasy, horror, romance, young adult, or comics. Book lovers also tend to feel books in general are superior to screenplays for films or TV or stage performances.

Or book lovers tend to strongly dislike particular authors or series due to personal biases, especially in the age of the Internet, where it’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this book.” The anti-fan might mock the author and fans, destroy the author’s career, or possibly even threaten his or her life.

Most book snobs don’t view themselves as snobs at all, though. They’re more likely to think younger generations are simply not smart enough to appreciate old-fashioned literature because of modern attitudes or digital addictions. Or they’re more likely to think the author they dislike lacks talent. Or they think fans are sheep for flocking to whatever current trend is popular. But while those certainly could be true scenarios, there are no absolutes when it comes to why people like or dislike what they do or don’t. Humanity has always been and will always be diverse when it comes to the arts.

I have read studies that reinforce notions that books are better than visual storytelling because they encourage imagination, that literary genre is better than pulp fiction because of realism. I know that some authors had no training or knowledge of the craft of writing and publishing because their work started as fan fiction that was gobbled up because of topic popularity regardless of professionalism. It is easy to fall into the trap of book snobbery if you love to read or write. But why does this happen, and why is it bad?

Why it happens.

1. It is precisely because human beings are subjective when it comes to the arts that we judge our favourite to be superior over whatever we dislike. I try to keep this in mind when I review anything. If I am aware of my own personal biases before going into a reading, I will try to be fair and give back one star when reviewing if I didn’t like it. I feel very strongly about the differences between a poorly written book and a book that was well-written, but just not my cup of tea. And since the purpose of my review is both to inform the author how I felt about the book and hold the book up to fellow readers to make their own judgments about whether or not they think they would like it, I shouldn’t let my personal bias taint the review with more criticism than the work itself deserves. If I don’t like football, I’m going to assume books about football are boring. But that’s not fair to the author or other readers who might be football fans. My reviews need to reflect this. So, personal bias, I think, is the most common contribution to book snobbery.

2. Type of medium is probably the second biggest contributor to literary prejudices. Books are often viewed as superior to other forms of story-telling because books have a more educational and academic reputation than TV, film, stage productions, games, etc. But there are many ways to tell a story — each with its own limitations and blessings. And, again, how well a story is received is really up to individual taste of the reader.

Some people have a more visual intelligence than others. That means they take in information about the world around them through their eyes. Others are aural-intelligent, so their biggest input comes from being able to hear. Others are kinetic, or touch-intelligent. They need to move and handle things. So, if an aural or kinetic child falls asleep or can’t sit still reading a book, it doesn’t mean they’re being disrespectful of the book. It means they need access to stories in different means. Not lesser means — different means. Audio books, stage performances, films, and games will appeal more to people who are not primarily visual learners. But a well-rounded individual should be able to enjoy story-telling in any format without shame.

There is no shame in preferring to watch Moby-Dick over reading it. The point is to enjoy the story, however you can best receive it. Personally, I thought Moby-Dick was the most god-awful book I ever tried to read … second only to The Life and Diary of David Brainard (both school assignments, by the way). For most of my life I hated Moby-Dick because I could not get into the author’s writing style. But decades later, I watched the film version of it and loved it. Now I believe it’s a fantastic story, and I see why it’s such a classic. But Herman Melville’s writing style put me to sleep! Later, I was astounded in college to be able to take a film-literature class, and to realize that visual story-telling is not lower-class literature. It’s just a different medium. The story-telling can and should still be top-notch. (People must keep this in mind when speaking of derivative works like film adaptations of books.)

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Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in a 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick. The ultimate lesson in letting go of an unhealthy obsession …

3. Level of quality is probably the third offender. Is George Orwell’s 1984 better than J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? If you think the answer to this is yes, you are ignoring the fact that books are written for different genres, about different topics, and for different audiences for a reason. I cannot stress this enough: literature is not a competition between best and worst. Literature is one of the few things in life in which there is something for everyone. Literature is inclusive. You can like 1984 AND Harry Potter. You can like comics AND classics. Some of the best stories around come from children’s literature, while some of the most snore-worthy things ever written have perfect, textbook, college-level prose. Level of quality boils down to level of appreciation. And there are no limits on that.

4. Finally, I mentioned that there are technical, objective areas that matter in arts. And in my opinion this is the only area where it is okay to have a certain amount of expectations. But even there, people can differ in how important or unimportant they think technical aspects are. You would think grammar is essential to being uniform in the literary world … and yet if you study grammar deeply enough, you will see that English grammar rules are a mess. So, there’s a lot of grammar that is up to the author or publisher or reader to decide whether it’s appropriate, and each of them may differ. Ellipses are the perfect example: is there no space before and after the three dots, one space after the three dots, or one space before and after the three dots? The answer will depend on which rule book you consult, what the publisher demands, what kind of composition you’re trying to write, and author’s preference! So the real rule for ellipses is, “Pick one format and be consistent.”

But because we are also talking about literary art forms, we have to acknowledge that many writers intentionally break the rules. Consider E.E. Cummings, who did away with capital letters altogether in his poetry, so that even capitalizing his name feels somehow wrong. You may also notice my own rebellion when it comes to placement of punctuation in regards to quotation marks. The reason American English always place commas within quotations is because of the way typeset printers were built. Same goes for why we spaced twice after periods. Some punctuation keys were smaller and more fragile than others. So, they simplified a grammar rule for the sake of antique technology. Nowadays, the double-space-after-the-period rule is no longer enforced anywhere. And if you look at British English, logic is still applied to how punctuation relates to quotation marks. Rather than simplifying the rules for the sake of machines we no longer use, I prefer to apply logic. If the punctuation in quotations ends a sentence, it goes inside. If not, outside.

In such cases, we have to ask whether works that break rules are “poorly written” or “intentional”. (See what I did there? I’m such a rebel.) 😉 Poorly written work deserves to be called out as poorly written with thoughtful analysis as to how it could be improved. But artistic differences or controversial options (such as Oxford commas), are what they are. And unless they destroy the reader’s ability to comprehend the story, they should be left alone as part of the author’s intentions, for whatever reason.

Why book snobbery is bad.

Book snobbery is something all lovers of stories should try to avoid because in all cases, fostering the love of reading is better than discouraging it. Most human brains are flexible enough to appreciate the nuances of differences for what they are, as long as they are free to enjoy literature as one of life’s little sweetnesses. If someone is badgered into reading materials they don’t like or can’t easily absorb, or if they are shamed into giving up what does interest them because someone else called it inferior, their love of reading may be damaged ever after. And the one thing every scientific and sociological study has in common regarding reading or literature is the fact that stories are good for human development. Literature improves empathy, imagination, communication skills, and critical thinking skills, however we choose to digest it.

If you need some snappier answers on the subject, check out Matt Haig’s blog article, “30 Things to Tell a Book Snob” (http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/writing/online-writer-in-residence/blog/558/). My favourite is number 17: “Freedom is the process of knocking down walls. Tyranny is the process of building them.” … Very relative to my books … and current events, in many ways.

Book Review: Undying Legion

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Book: Undying Legion
Series: Crown and Key series, Book 2
Author: Clay and Susan Griffin
Genres: fantasy, steampunk, Neo-Victorian, Gothic horror, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“A thrilling new Victorian-era urban fantasy for fans of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and the Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Robert Downey, Jr.

With a flood of dark magic about to engulf Victorian London, can a handful of heroes vanquish a legion of the undead?

When monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane comes across the gruesome aftermath of a ritual murder in a London church, he enlists the help of magician-scribe Simon Archer and alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther. Studying the macabre scene, they struggle to understand obscure clues in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the victim’s heart—as well as bizarre mystical allusions to the romantic poetry of William Blake. One thing is clear: Some very potent black magic is at work.

But this human sacrifice is only the first in a series of ritualized slayings. Desperate to save lives while there is still time, Simon, Kate, and Malcolm—along with gadget geek Penny Carter and Charlotte, an adolescent werewolf—track down a necromancer who is reanimating the deceased. As the team battles an unrelenting army of undead, a powerful Egyptian mummy, and serpentine demons, the necromancer proves an elusive quarry. And when the true purpose of the ritual is revealed, the gifted allies must confront a destructive force that is positively apocalyptic.”

Notes of Interest:

This is the second book in the Shadow Revolution series. The first is Crown and Key, which I reviewed here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/book-review-crown-and-key/ .

The fact that I’ve returned for the second book tells you how much I liked the first one. As I stated in the previous review, I chose to read this series because of how much I enjoyed the Vampire Empire series by the Griffins. The second book in this series was exactly what I hoped it would be, so the Griffiths are quickly moving up my list of “go-to” authors when I have a literary itch to scratch.

What could have made it better for me:

As with the previous book in this series, there was nothing of note that pulled me out of the story. All the basics I look for when considering “stars” to award were there: good technical work on grammar and elements of composition, well-developed “living” characters, no plot holes or burdens in style that damage the ability to suspend disbelief, etc. So, I present this book free of warning labels. 🙂

What I liked about it:

Characterization is really well-put together for this unusual bunch. A druid, an alchemist, a hunter, an artificer/ inventor, and a werewolf … take on a necromancer, zombies, a cult, and a demon goddess. Aside from each character’s distinct personalities and contributions to the cause, there is also a growing number of noteworthy tertiary characters … like Imogen, the sister of Kate, who was the victim of a mad scientist’s experiments gone horribly wrong in the last book. These characters have enough fantasy-team archetype to feel familiar, but are unique enough in their own right to feel fresh.

I found the action scenes well-choreographed and “just right” in terms of how much or how often to offer encounters of physical conflict. I mention this because I’m currently reading a book in which the plot points seem to be nothing but one fight after another, but as much as I love adventure and action in stories, it’s too much. Perhaps it’s the difference between action and fantasy genres, but it serves as a reminder to appreciate stories like Undying Legion, which are stories with encounters, rather than it being a story about encounters. The goal, of course, is to stop the necromancer, but its a multifaceted plot connected to a handful of subplots that tie everything together … which, in my opinion, almost always creates a more complex and more interesting tale. Consistency in the plots between the first and second books is carried over well, too.

As always with the Griffins, I appreciate their style in word use and description. I often find myself looking up words I didn’t know to add to my own vocabulary, but without getting bogged down. The story flow is vivid and a good blend of imagination, action, horror, and comedy.

In my last review, I expressed how much I really liked their concept of Victorian druidism. I found it to be unique and interesting. So in this book I was pleased to see how they expanded on that concept, to explain in a little more detail how Simon’s magic works in their alternate history of the world. And yet they’ve explained it in a way that it blends seamlessly with the Victorian era obsession with the occult (opium dens, magicians, ancient Egypt, old gods, spirits of the dead, etc.) and popularity of poetry and painting. Personally, I love it when stories do this kind of thing, so this is all right up my alley. I’m always eager to enjoy these kinds of settings, more so when they are well done. And as for the elements of horror, the atmosphere in these books still embodies the penny dreadful “feel” that I expect when I pick up a book like this.

Without giving too much away regarding spoilers, I have to say I like the twist at the end regarding the necromancer’s character and objective. I won’t say it was a complete surprise because I picked up on the foreshadowing dropped here and there, but it was a nice monkey wrench in the usual outcome for a “get the bad guy” type of plot. I like books that offer antagonists where there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Recommendation:

I absolutely recommend the first two books in this series, if you are into this kind of literature. I will definitely be purchasing the third book in the series. The way the book ended changed several major attributes about the characters and the setting, so I’m very curious to see what happens now that some game changers have taken place. And I look forward to seeing how the previous incarnations of trouble will coalesce into this new and present evil that the increasingly close-knit “misfit” protagonists will have to face.