Books

Not full book reviews, but recommendations, impressions and random thoughts.

A Big Read

I bought a copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead (the translation by E.A. Wallis Budge) a couple of years ago, when I was thinking about writing a novel set in Egypt. It sat around gathering dust until last week, when I started reading it in the hope that it would pump up some enthusiasm for that work in progress, which so far consists of a measly 10,000 words.

This book was first published more than a century ago, so easing into it via a 2008 introduction by archaeologist John Romer was helpful. The intro warned me that Budge had rendered the Egyptian texts into the English of the Bible — King James version — full of  “thees” and “thous” and verbs ending in “eth.” This reminded me of my intention, some years ago, to read the Bible, which never really got off the ground. Not too promising.

But I was surprised and intrigued to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien “described the inhabitants of Middle Earth as ‘best pictured in Egyptian terms’,” with helmets apparently modeled on some pictured in vignettes from Budge’s Book of the Dead. Hard to believe, but fascinating. Another surprise was that the structure of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake follows that of the Book of the Dead. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Faulkner also found something worthwhile in it; then there’s Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. All in all, it seems that quite a few writers have found inspiration in this tome.

I’ve already noted quite a few pages with exciting stuff that has made me rethink some of the fundamental premises of my barely-started WIP. I’m excited about realizing these ideas in words; to do that, of course, I’ll have to write my way to that point.

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Notes for the work in progress and the Book of the Dead

And I haven’t even started reading the actual texts. The various introductions and prefaces and table of contents total ccxliv pages. (That’s 244 for those out of practice with Roman numerals). I’m only on page cxlviii (148). When I finally get to page 1 there will be 697 more. I’ll be immersed in this antique milieu for some time.

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Parts of Chapters 26 and 27

The printing even looks old-fashioned, somehow, full of parenthetical and bracketed stuff and bristling with footnotes. I actually need glasses to read it. In his introduction, Romer advises the reader “to slide through its texts as one might read Finnegan’s Wake, marvelling all the while at the expansive scholarship, and at the lilt and span of its exotic prose.”

Indeed. I’ve never tackled Finnegan’s Wake. I hope to slide, rather than struggle.

Comfort Reading

You know how sometimes you just want “comfort food?” No fancy stuff, no fretting about nutritional balance, just something simple, starchy and familiar.

It’s the same with books. When I’m dealing with something difficult, or am just fed up with the complications and nastiness of the world, I want to read something low-key and predictable. No tension, no conflict, no edginess or dark themes. It’s more than escapism; when even fictional adventures in an imaginary world with its own history and rules are too stressful, I want to send my battered mind into a safe, quiet space where I know exactly what’s going to happen. Spoilers are definitely not an issue.

The degree of tension and turmoil — present and anticipated — in the world these days makes ordinary life challenges, such as interpersonal rubs, illnesses and the losses inflicted by time, harder to bear. Books may be applied like compresses to these psychic sores.

Books for comfort reading are found in all genres, with the possible exception of those requiring violence and gore, although if such a book is dear and familiar, it might just do the trick. That’s the thing about books — the choice is an intensely personal one.

Cozy mysteries are often just the thing. Sure, there are dead bodies, but they are presented in contexts that are, well, cozy, and often furnished with characters ranging from charming to quirky. In the past couple of months, I found myself re-reading the Needed Killing Series by indie author Bill Fitts. The five books are described as “cozy mysteries with a Southern flair.” The pace is slow, the mysteries are just puzzling enough, and they all include animals (cats and dog) as significant characters. The plots always involve a lot of food, so you can vicariously enjoy good cooking (and drinks) while you read. Gentle distractions for a troubled mind.

You’ll notice I mentioned re-reading. That’s the key to comfort reading. When even fictional troubles seem like too much, it’s time to visit the bookshelf of rubbed and tattered books that are like old slippers, or old friends.

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Local Author Book Review #12: Hunter’s Daughter by Nowick Gray

This book is part of the 2016 Emerging Local Authors Collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

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From the back cover:

Northern Quebec, 1964: Mountie Jack McLain, baffled by a series of unsolved murders, knows the latest case will make or break his career. Eighteen-year-old Nilliq, chafing under the sullen power of her father in a remote hunting camp, risks flight with a headstrong shaman bent on a mission of his own. Their paths intersect in this tense mystery charting a journey of personal and cultural transformation.

Despite the reference to murder and a Mountie, and the word “mystery” above, this book is not a conventional “murder mystery.” Instead, it’s a character-driven, in-depth examination of cultural and personal change in Canada’s arctic. While the murders propel the plot, the substance of this book is a complicated dance of the principal characters, examining relationships and events from different points of view.

Sections narrated in first person by Jack McLain alternate with third-person chapters related from the point of view of Nilliq. This is entirely appropriate, since the author is a white man whose experience of the North was several years of teaching in Quebec Inuit villages. He does not presume to speak with the voice of an Inuit woman, but makes a great effort to represent her culture accurately. All other characters are seen through the eyes of these two; in some cases the same events and people. Rather than repetitious, I found these reiterations helpful in solidifying my understanding of events and relationships.

McLain and Nilliq are people in transition. He knows his term of service is coming to an end, due to imminent bureaucratic changes. Disillusioned with trying to administer justice in a rapidly changing and idiosyncratic cultural situation, but without any solid prospects elsewhere, McLain is a somewhat sad figure, an intelligent and well-meaning individual who too easily sees the dark side of things, but with a fundamental love for the northern way of life. Nilliq teeters on the edge of womanhood, increasingly aware of the exploitation of women by the men around them, and longing for wider horizons. Opposing them and one another are the enigmatic hunter and shaman who calls himself Wallin, although he also has other names, and the menacing figure of Nilliq’s father Sandlak.

The prose is spare and direct, tracing the narrative in a linear way, but permitting the characters to show background complexities in their interactions and conversations, finally taking the reader to a point where the issue of the murders is largely resolved, allowing the main characters to move on to new situations.

Hunter’s Daughter is a tale well told, with special relevance and interest at this time when many Canadians are trying to learn more about their country’s native peoples.

My rating: 9/10 stars.

An Almost Local Author Book Review: Adventure on Whalebone Island by M. A. Wilson

A while ago I decided to write reviews of some of the books in the Emerging Local Authors Collection at my public library. There were strict geographical criteria as to what constituted “local.” Michael Wilson, the author of Adventure on Whalebone Island, lives outside of the defined area, but I think I can bend the rule (this is my blog, after all), to include a resident of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, where the book is set.

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The book is aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. Here is a brief description:

Ryan and Kendra have come to Maple Harbour on the BC coast to spend their summer holidays with their aunt and uncle. They’re expecting a leisurely holiday swimming and playing on the beach with their cousins Claire and Nathan. Claire, however, has other ideas – exploring islands in her sailboat and searching for sunken treasure. But what’s hidden on mysterious Whalebone Island? Have the four of them come across a secret that others don’t want discovered? Join these four intrepid adventurers and their fearless dog Meg in the summer escapade of a lifetime!

The story is simple and straightforward, with the main focus being a series of adventures. The children get re-acquainted, go swimming, sailing and enjoying the natural world. In the course of these activities, each of them has to deal with challenges involving self-confidence, getting along with others and learning new things. The action intensifies when they start looking for a sunken boat and survive a storm at sea, seeking shelter on Whalebone Island. While camping on the island, they encounter unexpected hazards presented by a group of criminals. Each child must call upon their inner resources to extract themselves and each other from dangerous situations.

The characters are sufficiently distinct from one another to give most readers someone to identify with. The situations are realistic and plausible, but the world in which these kids live is essentially a safe and secure one. There is no family dysfunction, corrosive personal anxiety or urban grittiness. This is a sunny adventure, perfect for entertaining its intended audience, who may also vicariously enjoy a lot of good food while reading about the meals and treats partaken of by the four adventurers.

The elements of this book — pre-teen children on a summer holiday, small sailboats, camping on an island, a quest for treasure, unexpected hazards — necessarily reminded me of Arthur Ransome’s books. Adventure on Whalebone Island may be favourably compared with those classics, incorporating the key elements in a present-day setting on the coast of British Columbia. One difference is these children inhabit the same world as the adult characters. There is no attempt on their part to create an alternate reality like the kids in the “Swallows and Amazons” stories. This is not a fault, but having made the comparison, I thought it worth mentioning.

The illustrations, by Vadym Prokhorenko, are notable for their elegant simplicity.

Further information, including purchase links, may be found at the website of Rainy Bay Press.

This review is based on a review copy of the ebook version.

Book Review: The Song of Narne by Bill Fitts

Bill Fitts The Screaming Sword

In a significant genre change from his Needed Killing series (“cozy mysteries with a Southern flair”), that feature amateur sleuth James Crawford, author Bill Fitts has turned to the realm of fantasy with two novels — The Screaming Sword and Sokhal’s Star. They are the first two books in Song of Narne, a promising series intended for young adults, but entirely suitable for not-so-young adults as well.

Bill Fitts Sokhal's Star

The necessary elements of classic fantasy are present — a perilous quest in a land of mountains and plains, an old, dangerous city, a lost empire, an ancient library, a wandering people who hold a tradition of prophecy, an artifact of power. And characters of all kinds — soldiers, thieves, assassins, merchants, magicians both good and evil. And cats. Cats are more than incidentals in these stories; they take an active role in furthering the plot.

The story centres around the young mage Kenrad and his faithful companion, reformed thief Blumgar the Fat. Kenrad must contend with a tragic loss in his childhood, and the development of powers he neither fully understands nor controls. He carries an artifact of power which is, unbeknownst to him, sought by an evil magician. Blumgar is always at Kenrad’s side to protect him from dangers and to ground him in the earthy matters of life — food and drink, companionship and humour.

Three over-arching elements become evident as one reads — the peril of magic, the Song of Narne, and a mental discipline necessary to those who seek knowledge and understanding. Magic isn’t simple or easy in these books; it is elusive, perhaps damaged, and feared by most. The Song of Narne emanates from nature, and when perceived and interpreted by skilled women called Listeners, it may reveal the future. The Listeners employ a meditation technique called Omeras to connect with the Song.

The principal characters, and many of the secondary ones, are fully developed, realistic and memorable. Their interactions are conveyed in lively dialogue, often presenting essential information about the world they inhabit and its history. It’s easy to feel at home in this world, and engaged with its peoples. Ordinary, non-magical activities of trade and commerce, travel and camping, strategy and the use of arms are worked into the plot in ways that are interesting and informative.

Fitts carefully crafts each scene to introduce settings, situations and groups of characters, moving from place to place, but clearly building up a mosaic which becomes increasingly complex and interesting. The reader is never at risk of losing track of the plot threads or becoming confused.

The author has supplied an extensive glossary of characters, places and concepts. In the best fantasy tradition, there is a map of the lands in which the books take place, but I found it a little hard to read the place names on my e-reader. Displayed on a computer screen, it was perfectly legible. A direct link to the map in the table of contents would help a reader easily find it when needed. (A colour version of the map is available on the author’s website).

Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis will enjoy these two books and hope for more. I suspect there will be more, because there remain many enticing loose threads at the end of Sokhal’s Star. The books must be read in order, starting with The Screaming Sword; although subplots are resolved at the end of each one, elements introduced in Book 1 are necessary to enjoy Book 2.

Information about the books and their author is available on his website.

This review is specific to the ebook versions of these books. I received free copies with no expectation of reviews.

A Find!

With my interest in Herbert West, you would think I would have known about this before now — a comic book version of the first episode in H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator,” illustrated by Tealin.

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The illustrations are beautifully done, with total fidelity to the original. Herbert is portrayed as per HPL’s description — slight, blond, blue-eyed and bespectacled — complete with the gleeful insanity expected of a mad scientist. You can tell the illustrator has, in her own words, “a soft spot for the monomaniacal little fiend.”

The story is visible in its entirety on her website.

¡Fascination is live on Amazon!

Given the turmoil and angst-inducing events in the world (you know what I mean!) this is a perfect time to escape into a better world by reading Kevin Brennan’s delightful novel, Fascination. It’s now available on Amazon.

WHAT THE HELL

cover-smallClick me, s’il vous plaît!

Yesterday, with no fanfare whatsoever, I published Fascination on Amazon.

I know. Unexpected, right?

You can probably guess why I did it. Two main reasons: One, that after an initial blast of sales to, pretty much (no, exclusively), people who read this blog, I couldn’t give away a copy. There was no follow-up, no word of mouth, and though a number of potential readers expressed interest via comments on reviews of the book on other blogs, none of them pulled the trigger. Two, aside from the blog and Twitter, there’s no way to market the thing. I knew this going in, of course, but I’d hoped that Janey would tell Jenny and Jenny would buy it and then tell Jackie, who’d buy it herself and then tell Jill. It’s #guerrillapublishing, right? The word spreads and strangers start showing up. Six degrees of separation.

Just…

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