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.

Book Review: The Paper Magician

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Book: The Paper Magician
Series: The Paper Magician series, Book 1
Author: Charlie N. Holmberg
Genres: neo-Victorian, steampunk, adventure, fantasy, Gothic horror

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.
Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.
An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.
From the imaginative mind of debut author Charlie N. Holmberg, The Paper Magician is an extraordinary adventure both dark and whimsical that will delight readers of all ages.”

Notes of Interest:

This book interested me because of its genre elements. It looked and sounded like something steampunkish in setting, but with plot emphasis on magic. It ended up being more neo-Victorian than steampunk, but it does have steampunk elements. To me, the differences are that neo-Victorian is more about an alternate history for the Victorian time period, while steampunk focuses on science fiction from a historical perspective. They are often interwoven, but fantasy prioritizes magic, whereas science fiction priorities machines. This book is the former. But the magic takes place within an scientifically invented magical system. For example, the paper glider is engineered. The excisioner must know anatomy like a doctor. Plastics, rubber, and glass are separate magics, too. And when I realized the magic of this world was set up based on man-made elements, that in itself was the selling point for me. I think it’s a unique, refreshing concept to say magic comes only from man-made items, rather than natural elements. So, it’s an unusual concept to think that paper or human tissue might contain magic because man creates them, but earth, water, air, and fire do not because man has no influence there.

What could have made it better for me:

I’m pleased to say this is one of those books I feel is perfect just the way it is. There were no technical distractions pulling me out of the story. The characters are well-developed as you get to know them. The plot is an easy-to-follow mix of alternate history, ingenuity, magic and fantasy, romance, and horror, all of which I love.

What I liked about it:

I’ve already mentioned its unique use of man-made items for the foundation of magic as its main selling point for me. Though this book focused on only two types of magic — paper and excisioner — I’m very interested to see how other magics are handled. And that alone is enough to make me want to delve into book two, never mind the characters or plots. Paper magic is basically origami combined with magic skills learned at a college. Excisioner magic is anatomical necromancy. So, I imagine the other magics mentioned could involve manipulation of machinery and technology.

The imaginative details on how paper folding could be used in unexpected ways was pleasantly surprising. The author was right to choose it as a medium that the main character, Ceony, would underestimate, but then gradually become fascinated with and learn to appreciate its potential the more she masters it. So we see her grow in knowledge and skills as a magician as she advances in her craft. And it isn’t a boring progression with burdensome details, like many books that detail the magics in their worlds, because of the creative ways in which the spells are learned and used.

Ceony’s apprenticeship intertwines with Mg. Thane’s background and current troubles to provide the challenges to employ what she learned in order to save her teacher and prevent magic from being misused for harm.

Her journey through Mg. Thane’s heart has a lot of symbolic, nostalgic themes, but by contrast also delves into a surreal and horror-filled scope of a hunt for a magician who seeks to control and harm other people. So, while the story starts with a bit of a Mary Poppins feel, it ends up feeling more like something akin to Messrs Jekyll and Hyde.

The relationship between Ceony and Mg. Thane also hints of Jane Austin a bit, though their characters are revealed to the reader, and each other, through learning to appreciate someone based on what you learn about them, rather than over a course of frequent interaction. I’m sure the second book picks up more on the interaction of the relationship. But “listening” to someone’s heart to understand what makes him tick is just as important as “speaking” to it. I guess you could say Mg. Thane’s heart is the figurative “clockwork” aspect of this story, and Ceony must try to figure out what happened to it before she can save it or fix it.

Recommendation:

If you enjoy the aforementioned genres, I think you’ll like this book. It was a quick, clean read with a lot of potential for branching out in the series. I look forward to reading the second book.

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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Book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Series: –
Author: Marie Kondo
Genres: Non-fiction, self-help, organization

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“This #1 New York Times best-selling guide to decluttering your home from Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes readers step-by-step through her revolutionary KonMari Method for simplifying, organizing, and storing. Despite constant efforts to declutter your home, do papers still accumulate like snowdrifts and clothes pile up like a tangled mess of noodles? Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again. Most methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which doom you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever. The KonMari Method, with its revolutionary category-by-category system, leads to lasting results. In fact, none of Kondo’s clients have lapsed (and she still has a three-month waiting list). With detailed guidance for determining which items in your house “spark joy” (and which don’t), this international bestseller featuring Tokyo’s newest lifestyle phenomenon will help you clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home—and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.”

Notes of Interest:

A non-fiction book, for once! I mostly read and review very imaginative fiction like fantasy and sci-fi, so this is a departure from my norm (these days). It was recommended to me by my cousin, who found it useful before her move. And since I face a big move in the upcoming future, she thought I might find it useful, too. Have I tested the KonMari method? Not fully — not yet. I have dabbled. And I think most people who read this will dabble, which is precisely what she advises against. But for some of us, life does not have a pause button to make time to do things like this. Perhaps I will be more fortunate in the future to afford the spare time to get better organized. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a thing or two that I could use right now.

What could have made it better for me:

I have no critique on how this book could have been better. It’s well-organized. (And I chuckle as if I just stated a pun.) It has a good flow for comprehension and future reference as a handbook, of sorts. It’s not boring. It’s actually kind of quaint. But I suppose that’s getting into what I liked about it. So …

What I liked about it:

This book had some special attractions for me as to why I enjoyed it. For one thing, I do love to be organized. And for the most part I have always been a tidy person. But I do feel like I’m falling behind these days because I have to devote 120% to finishing one stage of life before I can cope with starting another. That has lent itself to stacked dirty dishes, missed laundry days, towering magazines I have yet to read, and things in the fridge that have more hair than I do. In the next couple of years or so, I will need to move from a large, three-bedroom house to a small apartment. Just thinking of it makes me feel like puking some days. And I fear it will take me at least a year just to sort through everything and get rid of most of it. Hence, the recommendation and reading of a book on minimization and organization.

For another thing, this book’s author and business are Japanese. I used to live in Japan. Out of twenty-two addresses over the course of my life, Japan was my most favourite place in the world to live. So, many of the things mentioned in this book felt familiar, gave me a chuckle, or made me feel warm and cozy all over with good vibes. Japanese minimization is different from Western cultures. It is an art form. Western decluttering seems to clear away some stuff not being used, so that you have more space for new or other stuff. But Japanese decluttering focuses on what is beautiful, necessary, and uplifting … or what sparks joy. I love that most of all about this book, I think. This is where the “quaint” feeling comes from. It’s as if the author is a good friend helping you sort through your accumulations and helping you select what warms your heart the most, as opposed to most organization methods that feel sterile and impersonal. And yet her organization suggestions are rather stringent.

But even if I wasn’t moving, or hadn’t lived in Japan, I would consider this book a lovely addition to my home because it is practical. And that is its most important feature. Her ideas are doable, include a hint of feng shui, and yet they are unique. She claims it is doable for everyone, and perhaps it is. But I think it would be difficult for someone to stick to it without some deviation. For one thing, she insists that you do everything at once for each category of items being sorted. This is non-negotiable if you wish to break bad habits. But, as I said, I don’t have time to not do other things in my life that are on deadlines right now, so that I can give organization my undivided attention. And it’s not really my habits that worry me; it’s my circumstances. So, I tested the water by trying out her ideas for sorting clothing … just a little. I love the results, so I might be willing to dive in completely when my circumstances are different. I reorganized my closet and drawers about two months ago, and they are still the way I organized them. I have been able to more easily let go of excess that does not bring me joy. And I’ve found it easier to shop when I do need something new. I can take one look at my closet now and see I have nothing yellow, except two shirts that don’t fit very well. So, I know those two shirts have to go as soon as I can replace them with a new yellow shirt that fits better. They’re good shirts, but if they don’t fit well, I never wear them anyway. And every time I open my closet this is reinforced with a one-second glance because I no longer have to search for anything.

The book claims that using the Konmari method of organizing teaches you to trust your ability to make good decisions. I would agree with that. I have noticed I have an easier time questioning why I hold onto things. And it’s easier to let them go.

My only word of caution about this book has to do with “minimalist lifestyle” changes in general. Simply put, I am a tree-hugger at heart, so the consequences of consumerism is something I consider with every purchase and every release. I also grew up in poverty, so I will never be able to brag about how many trash bags of stuff I threw out because throwing anything out that might be helpful to someone else feels like a waste. If you are at a place in life where you are ready to purge your belongings, put on your “good steward” cap and try to think of better ways to get rid of your stuff than sending bags and bags of trash to the landfills. Our planet and the lives of people who live near these ever-growing mountains of trash are affected by them. Most items can be recycled or reused via donations to shelters, thrift stores, or other forms of second-hand sales. Just remember there is no such place called Away. When you throw something it always goes Somewhere. And since nobody wants to live in trash or have their drinking water polluted with it, dumping your trash in someone else’s river or backyard isn’t a wise or compassionate solution. Landfills should be last resorts when deciding what to do with things we get rid of. (Okay, hopping off my little soap box now.) 🙂

Recommendation:

I really appreciate this book. I had fun reading it. I had fun attempting to put some of the principles into action. I did learn new behavior and get a neater closet and drawers out of it, and so far those changes are holding strong. I’m looking forward to using it as a handbook in the future when that big, inevitable move comes. Fitting an entire house and lifetime of memories into a studio won’t be easy, so I’m glad I will have at least one helpful resource to survive it. If you are already a tidy person, this book will enhance your appreciation of your possessions and organized spaces. If you are not a tidy person, this might inspire you to roll up your sleeves and get down to the business of learning about who you are and why you possess the items that you do. The “spark joy” concept may seem flaky to some, but it’s a principle that every aspect of our lives could benefit from. Who are we and why do we hang onto old, tired things, jobs, relationships, dreams, etc. that no longer serve us or help others? Sometimes we have to endure things that don’t bring us joy. That’s just life. But if we do have a choice, why not truly let go of what clutters our breathing space so that we can better appreciate that which we truly love?