Ray Foy's Literary Journey

Ray Foy's Literary Journey

Ray Foy worked in Information Technology in the southern US for over 30 years before becoming an author of speculative fiction. His stories and writings seek to understand humanity's situation, project the possible consequences of current trends, and inspire hope in dark times

You can find Ray's work via his website at www.rayfoy.com.

Review
5 Stars
Ray-view of Trump for President: Astrological Predictions
Trump for President: Astrological Predictions - John Hogue

So who is Donald Trump? Is he a rich, racist, misogynist, conceited clown who makes outrageous comments that only ultra-right-wingers could love? Or is he a ultra-savvy real estate tycoon who has amassed fortunes by wheeling-and-dealing in the richest and toughest markets in world capitalism?

 

According to John Hogue in Trump for President: Astrological Predictions, he may be both. He might also be next US president, if his stars align.

 

In 156 pages and 14 chapters, Mr. Hogue presents his take on who Donald Trump really is, what his chances are for winning the 2016 US presidential election, and how he would likely govern as president. While his book is heavy on astrological reckonings, Mr. Hogue also pulls from news reports, history, his personal experiences with Geminis, and Mr. Trump’s own writings, to paint his picture of “The Donald.”

 

The portrait he comes up with is of a man more complex than usually seen in the news or on The Apprentice reruns. We are shown a man with issues, but also with a record of material success who has the potential to use his abilities at this unique moment in history for the common good (even as he unabashedly promotes and adores himself).

 

There is a lot of astrology in this book, as you would expect since the title proclaims it to be a book of astrological predictions. It is, however, balanced with a lot of straight-forward prose, as well as with explanations and interpretations of the astrology jargon. In fact, Mr. Hogue even provides, in Chapter 3, some definitions for many of the astrological terms he uses.

 

There is also a link (this is an ebook) in Chapter 1 to a graphic of Trump’s birth chart. It’s interesting to see, though it would only be meaningful to someone who knows astrology and who could refer to it while reading the book.

 

With this baseline of Trump’s personality, Mr. Hogue goes on to talk about how Trump will affect the 2016 US presidential election, and how it will affect him.

 

All of this provides a more balanced view of Donald Trump than you’re likely to get outside of doing a lot of reading and research yourself. Mr. Hogue shows us that the man is neither a buffoon nor a messiah (although he may, at times, behave as the former and consider himself, at times, to be the latter).

 

I highly recommend Trump for President: Astrological Predictions as a topical work on the “force of growth and reconstruction” that is Donald Trump. In these momentous times, it’s another clue.

Review
5 Stars
Ray-view of The Razor’s Edge
The Razor's Edge - W. Somerset Maugham

From its widest scope, The Razor’s Edge looks at the meaning of life from at least six different viewpoints. Those views belong to six characters (or seven if you include the author, W. Somerset Maugham, who plays himself in this novel), all of whom live in the privileged classes in the years between the world wars in the early twentieth century. Most of their life-views are similar, except for that of Larry Darrell. Prompted by his experiences in WWI, Larry becomes a seeker-of-truth and so comes to eschew (for himself) the materialism of his rich friends. His existential crisis drives him to abandon the US for Paris, leaving his fiancee behind. To his friends, he is a bewilderment, and he stimulates conversations about his nonconformity but makes no converts. The book is largely an examination of Larry’s search for spiritual enlightenment contrasted to the materialistic pursuits of his friends, especially Elliot Templeton.

The Razor’s Edge was twice made into movies, in 1946 and 1984. I saw only the 1984 one where Bill Murray played the part of Larry, and it varied significantly from the book. Still, it piqued my curiosity enough to see it a couple of times and to finally read the novel, which is much better.

In the novel, Larry Darrell returns from WWI, where he served as an aviator, to Chicago and the rich friends he grew up with. He is engaged to Isabel Bradley, but his changed perspectives make him delay the marriage so he can return to Paris for a couple of years where he intends to search for some meaning in life beyond the conventional. Isabel waits for him, but after the two years she finds that Larry doesn’t want to return to the US. He feels his journey of enlightenment has just begun and he doesn’t want to abandon it. So he splits with Isabel. She returns to the US and eventually marries Gray Mautrin, a well-to-do man who affords her the comfortable life she desires.

Larry continues to seek the spiritual life in France, Poland, Germany, and finally in India. When he has achieved a degree of enlightenment, he tries to save the life of the “wanton woman,” Sophie MacDonald. Sophie was a childhood friend who had a penchant for poetry, but she became an alcoholic and drug addict in adulthood. She gets with Larry for a while and seems to be trying to reform, but she falls off the wagon before they can marry (through the machinations of a jealous Isabel), and she abandons him.

Larry recovers from the loss of her and carries on his quest until he finds redemption in the spiritual. His old friends in Chicago find their own sort of redemption in their more materialistic pursuits.

This story is told solely from the viewpoint of it’s author, W. Somerset Maugham (as a character in the novel), who relates the other characters’ stories as they are told to him. Mr. Maugham was an English novelist known for pulling heavily from “real life” to provide the characters, themes, and plots for his stories. It seems that for The Razor’s Edge, he had a conversation with a man who had sought and found enlightenment in India, and it impressed him enough to base a novel on it. That man was the model for Larry Darrell, and there have been those who tried to deduce who it was. I think a good candidate was found, but I’ll leave that discovery as an exercise for the reader.

Mr. Maugham seems to have been an astute observer of life, and it shows in the character portraits he paints in The Razor’s Edge. These are recognizable characters, even for those of us who don’t frequent the haunts of the “upper classes.” He paints in-depth characterizations for the two characters who are opposites in many ways, yet alike in others: Larry Darrell and Elliot Templeton.

Elliot is an uncle to Isabel and is acquainted with all the other characters. He is rich and very materialistic. He lives for rich society and attending parties where he can hobnob with the wealthy, the famous, and the royal. He is connoisseur of art and wine, and may even deal in art on the black market. But, as with all the characters in this novel, he is not a “black and white” personality. There is plenty of gray in him. Though shallow in many ways, he is very caring. He  provides for his sister in her old age, and for his niece and her family when they are wiped out by the crash of 1929. He becomes a Catholic in order to make social connections, but he becomes such a pillar of faith that the local Bishop considers his faults as only “surface.”

Larry Darrell, for all his spirituality and good humor, shows himself to be very self-centered and one-track-minded to the point that he can be quite abrupt with others. He leaves without a word of consideration, and appears unfeeling towards those that love him.

Such grayness in personality is typical for all the characters in this novel, and it adds a big dose of realism beyond most such works. Consequently, I identified with many of the feelings expressed, or at least, recognized many of them. For instance, there is a general consensus among the characters that Sophie MacDonald is just a low-life, born that way, and it’s the only way she’ll ever live because that’s the way she wants to live. For instance, Isabel says of Sophie:

“Evil doesn’t spring from good. The evil was there always. When that motor accident broke her defenses it set her free to be herself. Don’t waste your pity on her; she’s now what at heart she always was.”

I’ve heard that sentiment expressed many times, and it may not always be unwarranted. I have, indeed, known people who seem to just desire to live at a very low level. In this novel, it seems that’s what Sophie wants. Even so, in the midst of it all, she asks Mr. Maugham for a signed copy of one of his books. Apparently understanding his doubts, she tells him: “I can read, you know.”

And in her youth, she wrote poetry. So maybe people shouldn’t be written off so quickly. Maybe, she’s just given up on herself too quickly, or is so fearful of death and loss that she wants her joy now. The way she puts it:

“Life’s hell anyway, but if there is any fun to be got out of it, you’re only a god-damn fool if you don’t get it.”

And with that attitude, it’s maybe understandable why she breaks off her engagement with Larry. Though Larry is sincere in wanting to help her, it may be that she understands their incompatibility more than he does. She tells Mr. Maugham:

“Darling, when it came to the point I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ. No, sir.”

Larry is hurt by her abandonment of him, and by her eventual death, but he is the ardent seeker. He keeps on seeking.

And it’s Larry who is the most interesting character for me in this book. He’s the most interesting for all the book’s readers, I’m sure. Though he is flawed in the way he handles social relations, he is single-minded in his search for enlightenment, and will not allow any detriment to his quest.

Larry’s nonconformity is a bewilderment to his friends. They cannot understand why this rich young man does not want to follow the usual pattern of going into business and making more money than he can ever spend, get married and have a big house and fill it with lots of kids. They say of him:

“Well, he can get a job.”
“That’s just it. He’s not trying to. He seems to be quite satisfied to do nothing.”

and:

“A man ought to work. That’s what he’s here for. That’s how he contributes to the welfare of the community.”

These attitudes that Mr. Maugham describes, struck me as so very similar to the story Daniel Quinn tells in My Ishmael about the young man, Jeffrey (in the chapter, “My God, It Isn’t Me!”).

For such people, the normal way of the world is just not enough. It seems Mr. Maugham understood that. And so when Isabel begs Larry to leave Paris and return to “normal” life in Chicago, Larry says:

“I can’t darling. It would be death to me. It would be the betrayal of my soul.”

I can understand that. There are people like that, and Mr. Maugham says of them:

“…there are men who are possessed by an urge so strong to do some particular thing that they can’t help themselves, they’ve got to do it. They’re prepared to sacrifice everything to satisfy their yearning.”

Part Six of the book contains the conversation Mr. Maugham has with Larry concerning the time Larry spent in India, and the ultimate illumination he found there. It is, apparently, an accounting of the real-life conversation Mr. Maugham had with the person he later recreated as Larry Darrell, that so impressed him that he had to write a book around it. In this section, Larry is presented as more verbose than he is anywhere else in the book. He is talkative, and he tells of what he experienced, and learned, from the wise men he found in India.

This part was represented very inadequately in the film version of the story I saw. Mr. Maugham presents it beautifully, and, I think, expresses the idea that enlightenment comes to each of us (if it comes at all) very individually. For Larry, it was a moment of seeing, really seeing, the sunrise:

“…I can’t tell you, so as to make you see it, how grand the sight was that was displayed before me as the day broke in its splendor. Those mountains with their deep jungle, the mist still entangled in the treetops, and the bottomless lake far below me. The sun caught the lake through a cleft in the heights and it shone like burnished steel. I was ravished with the beauty of the world. I’d never known such exaltation and such a transcendent joy…I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained. I was so happy that it was a pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forgo it…”

There’s very much more in this book, and it’s very quotable, so I’m giving no spoilers here.

As I’ve indicated, this is a much more character-driven, rather than plot-driven, book. And as such, Mr. Maugham says a good bit on a number of things. One that struck me as interesting was his thoughts on money, specifically, on having enough of it. At one point, Larry is considering giving away the wealth that allowed him to travel without concern for money, and live truly day-to-day. Mr. Maugham advises him against it with words that indicate the true value of money beyond any greed to just accumulate it:

“It’s given me what I value almost more than anything else in life—independence. You can’t think what a comfort it’s been to me to think that if I wanted to I could tell anyone in the world to go to hell.”

And then, Larry has an interesting comment about writing and publishing when he tells Mr. Maugham about the book he wants to produce:

“I’m only writing it to get all that material out of the way, and I’m publishing it because I think you can only tell what a thing’s like when you see it in print.”

In other words, he wants to use writing as a way to process all the experiences and ideas he has accumulated, and see it all as a whole in the form of a book. I can understand that.

So I really liked this book. I like that it’s not shallow, with the characters either good or bad. It’s also not a condemnation of rich people and an advocating of poverty as the path to enlightenment. Rather, like the Buddha, it suggests a middle path.

I highly recommend The Razor’s Edge for anyone looking for insight into finding themselves.

URL
Star Wars

I never expected the Star Wars movies to be a "force" for all of my life, but it seems to be so. I've followed the movies as a fan all these years and recently saw the latest one (episode 7). It's time I said a few words about it in a Journal Entry.

Source: http://www.rayfoy.com/3/post/2015/12/star-wars.html
Review
5 Stars
Ray-view of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" by James Hilton
Good-Bye, Mr. Chips - James Hilton, H.M. Brock, Edward Weeks

It is easy for me to see why this little book, hardly more than a novella, is a literary classic. It touches on themes common to the human condition, and on scenes that most of us have played out in one form or another. It strikes chords we can all hum along with. It is a collection of passages from a good man’s life, that we can rummage through and always pull out something with which we can relate.

The plot vehicle is of an old man, Arthur Chipping (called, “Mr. Chips”), remembering his life as a beloved school teacher (or “school master” since this is a very English novel). So there is, of course, the major theme of “growing old.” Mr. Hilton distills that theme by means of a lot of flashbacks to episodes in Chips’ life. In doing so, he never looses the thread that this is all Chips’ recollections in a present time-line. But first, he provides a preamble, as such, that speaks to the experience of aging:

A great joke, this growing old— but a sad joke, too, in a way. And as Chips sat by his fire with autumn gales rattling the windows, the waves of humor and sadness swept over him very often until tears fell so that when Mrs. Wickett came in with his cup of tea she did not know whether he had been laughing or crying. And neither did Chips himself.

You recognize that feeling when you reach a certain point—when most of life is behind you, and you look back and try to come to terms with it all. Just what that entails is very specific to everyone who has ever lived. At some point in the process, though, it involves joy for remembered love, and tears for what’s been lost.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips reads like a long short story. Events are related from Chips point-of-view, but the overall POV is omniscient. That is, Mr. Hilton moves to the views of other characters when it’s suitable and he offers much comment, from a detached viewpoint, on Chips and the situations of his life, and how it all affected him.

Mr. Hilton introduces the reader to Chips when Chips has retired. He is renting a room across the street from the English boys’ school where he taught Latin and History for over forty years before retiring in 1913. He is still active and alert (even witty) though we get the impression he is rather staid and set in his ways. But that impression might not be completely accurate. Mr. Hilton implies such with a curious phrase in referring to Chips’ daily routine that ends in a slumber that is not so much different from his waking:

For his days and nights were equally full of dreaming.

It seems to me that the reader can take that phrase a couple of ways. Dreaming can be an avoidance of life, or a quixotic challenge to humdrum living. Chips’ life, I think, touched on both.

In his first 25 years of teaching at his school (Brookfield), Chips worked very competently, and was well-liked, though he was considered “…a dry and rather neutral sort of person.” But, in a nutshell, he worked himself over the years into a rut. Mr. Hilton’s description of Chips’ rut is specific to pedagogy, but is still apropos to most of us:

…giving the same lessons year after year had formed a groove into which the other affairs of his life adjusted themselves with insidious ease. He worked well; he was conscientious; he was a fixture that gave service, satisfaction, confidence, everything except inspiration.

Chips didn’t inspire because he was not inspired. But then he found Katherine Bridges, a young woman 23 years his junior. She was a radical for that time, believing in women’s suffrage, coed education, and even admiring socialist thinkers. Still, the attraction of opposites hit her, and she and the conservative Mr. Chips were soon deeply in love.

…and they were married in London a week before the beginning of the autumn term.

Chips’ marriage to Katherine was his “goodbye” to his staid, uninspired life. Kathie invigorated and inspired him, and it was apparent to everyone who knew Chips. Though he had always had a sense of humor, it came to be his defining trait during this period, to the point that friends and students came to anticipate the clever remarks Chips had to say about anything.

This change was the result of the influence of a good woman. One who was very compatible with Chips, though it would not appear so at first blush. Kathie did not change him so much as she brought out what was inside of him all the time. Mr. Hilton tells us:

She made him, to all appearances, a new man; though most of the newness was really a warming to life of things that were old, imprisoned, and unguessed.

We are very fortunate, indeed, if our cold, imprisoned, and unguessed potentials can be realized at any point in our lives. Showing us that transformation—the need for it—is a great joy of this book.

So while there is that idea of “inspired change,” this story is mostly about the changes that come through simply living: the passage of time, what we lose, regrets, sad and fond memories. That theme is amply shown in the scenes of Chips in his old age, but is foreshadowed in a scene where Chips meets a young man about to be shipped off to France at the start of World War I.

The man had been poor as a child, but part of a group from a poor school invited to play football (soccer) one year against the richer lads at Brookfield (an event resulting from the urging of the Brookfield staff by Chips as prompted by his wife). The man remembered, fondly, that day and the kindness shown him and his schoolmates by Chips’ wife:

‘One o’ the best days aht I ever ’ad in me life. Wish it was then and not nah— straight, I do. I’m off to Frawnce to-morrer.”

Facing an uncertain and harsh future, the man was desirous to return to a better time. He could not, of course. Life and time will move on.

Chips’ life at Brookfield during WWI is the other big time recounted in his story. He had retired by the time the war started, but the loss of staff to the war caused the Chancellor to ask him to return to his duties at the school. He did so, gladly, and even became acting Head of Brookfield when the official one fell ill. When the man died, the school governors asked Chips to remain as Head for the war’s duration.

This time was as inspiring for Chips as was the time of his marriage. And he grew in a similar way.

For the first time in his life he felt necessary— and necessary to something that was nearest his heart. There is no sublimer feeling in the world, and it was his at last.

Chips was a steady, calming influence on the students and staff during the war years. At one point, he even continued a Latin lesson while German bombs dropped outside. He simply thought the room they were in was as safe as any shelter, and they just as well continue lessons until they couldn’t.

With the war’s end, Chips returned to his retirement, but maintained his connection to Brookfield. He entertained students, showed up at school functions, and contributed every way he could on small duties (like editing a school directory).

As Chips had grown from the love and inspiration of his wife (she died two years after their marriage), he also grew from his time at Brookfield. The school became a replacement for his lost wife, and its staff and students became his family. He grew in that relationship in a way that is rare for a person to do with their job. Of that relationship, Mr. Hilton tells us:

It was a service that gave him freedom to be supremely and completely himself.

How very rare. But he was only able to achieve that relationship, I think, because he had loved Katherine.

The end of the book relates the end of Chip’s life. There is a pleasing balance in that relating, with the images of routine and sleep shown at the first of the book. Indeed, Chips’ death is depicted as him greatly needing to sleep, and of finally going to sleep, and dreaming of  a roll-call of students sang to him as a chorus.

What I see depicted so brilliantly in the account of Mr. Chips’ life is the very bittersweetness of this life. Especially, as applied to the lives of ordinary people, common people, good people; to those who are extraordinary in their commonness. Us. And among us, the inspirations we give to each other, allow us to in turn, inspire.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a short book. Mr. Hilton wrote it quickly in 1933 and felt it was as complete as it needed to be. That’s probably true, although it is obvious to me that the story could easily have been expanded into a novel of greater length. Would it have been better that way? I think maybe so. It would have added greater dramatic impact to all the scenes of the pageant of Chips’ life, especially of his marriage and the war years at Brookfield. And it would have made the ending even more touching and satisfying.

But even so, I rank this book as among my favorites—along with Mr. Hilton’s other great novel, Lost Horizon. It is a meditation on life: the living of it, and the ending of it, and how it is so greatly enhanced by the sharing of kindness and love.

Review
4 Stars
Ray-view of Dun Lady's Jess: The Changespell Saga
Dun Lady's Jess - Doranna Durgin

Author: Doranna Durgin
Publisher: Blue Hound Visions Tijeras, NM
Publication date: January 24, 2013
Pages: 352
ISBN-13: 978-1301722778
Type: Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Paranormal
Ray's rating: 4 stars
Characters: Carey, Lady/Jess, Arlen, Jaime, Mark, Dayna, Calandre, Eric, Sherra

Read: 12/04/2015


Fantasy books and movies have been rife with shape-shifting heroes and villains in recent years, mostly werewolves and vampires. The teaser for this book stood out from all that, however, in that it included a character who is transformed from a horse to a human. That intrigued me and so I read the Kindle version of the book.

The story is solidly a fantasy set in a parallel world to current-day earth, called Camolen. Camolen is very similar to our world, and is very much an Earth II, but not a duplicate. While it is Earth and is inhabited by human beings and the same species of animals, it is not the same people and animals. The level of civilization seems to be more-or-less medieval with the world ruled, or at least led, by wizards. And their level of technology is very low, with most of the functions that we handle by technology and machines, being handled for them by magic.

The storyline involves a spell that has been created by the good wizards (including the protag wizard, Arlen) that allows people to transcend dimensions and so travel between worlds (like between Camolen and our Earth). Work on the spell has been accomplished by a “networking” of the wizards via horse-riding couriers (which is less risky than using magic). But with the spell operational, the wizards are concerned that some “of the less conscientious” among them will use the spell to travel to other worlds to ravage them and bring back technology to wreak havoc in Camolen.

One such bad wizard is a woman named, Calandre, who has found out about the worlds-traveling spell and is seeking to obtain it. So Arlen purposes to send his lead courier, Carey, to an associate wizard, Sherra, who will create a “checkspell” that will prevent unauthorized use of the world-transversing spell (this is commonly done for all major magic).

It’s crucial that Carey not get caught with the spell (contained in a gemstone) and the documentation that goes with it. Arlen warns him to invoke the spell to escape if anyone tries to capture him. His escape will be to another world, where he can invoke it again to return to a safe-house in Camolen (since a connection between worlds will follow him and so give him access to the magic in Camolen). He’ll have to be careful, though, not to take along inadvertent stragglers within the spell’s range. Got that?

Now all of this struck me as pretty run-of-the-mill for fantasy stories and, while well-written, didn’t really grab me. Still, it held my interest enough to stay with it. I suspect strong fans of this genre will have no trouble remaining involved with the story.

So in a nutshell, Carey is attacked while on the road and flees riding his fast horse, Dun Lady’s Jess (he calls her “Lady”). To save his life and his mission, Carey is forced to invoke the worlds-transversing spell and it takes him and Lady to our Earth. One side effect of the spell is that is changes Lady into a woman.

About half the book concerns the adventures of Carey and Lady on our Earth. They find they have been followed by a minion of Calandre and so most of the action is the chasing and battling between them.

The strength of the book is the family of characters that develop around Carey and the transformed Lady (who as a woman is called, “Jess”). Ms Durgin handles those characters and their relationships very well. She also does well in developing Jess as a character—as both horse and human. Jess’ struggles to adjust to her new form are told believably and sympathetically, and are the fun of the book. And of course, there’s the complication of the transfer of her feelings of devotion for Carey as a horse, to her love of him as a human.

In the last half of the book, the action returns to Camolen where the worlds-traveling magic transforms Jess back to Lady. She is still a Point-Of-View character, however, and Ms Durgin handles those scenes well and we continue to pull for Lady as we pulled for Jess. We also see development in the other protagonist characters and their adjustments to a world where technology is replaced by magic.

Dun Lady’s Jess won the Compton Crook for Best First SF/F/H of the Year (in 2013, I suppose) and has a devoted following for it and it’s two sequels (it would make a good TV series, I think). And while it is a good book—well written with a great hook of the horse-to-human angle, and infused with an obvious love for horses, I do have a few criticisms.

First, while Ms Durgin does a good job with the characterizations of the protagonists, she leaves the antagonists (especially the bad wizard, Calandre) rather flat. We don’t really know what motivates Calandre other than just being a psychopath, and she’s not in very many scenes. Most of the “bad work” is done by Calandre’s minions and they are mostly just expendables without character. Actually, I think even Arlen could have been developed some more.

The idea of magic being used instead of technology in Camolen was kind of interesting but not quite believable to me. I did like, however, the idea that using magic has consequences of collateral damage and side-effects. Overall, though, the main storyline of the conflict between wizards struck me as weak. I didn’t get a feel of “high stakes,” and what battling there was between the wizards seemed to abbreviated.

Still, there were moments of insight that appealed to me. Like when Arlen asks Jaime (the horse expert) if there were evil people like Calandre on her world. She replies:

“Too many of them. Of course, they don’t have magic to play with. They have to make do with guns and bombs and blind political fervor.”

There’s a theme there that I think Ms Durgin could have enlarged on a bit.

I did like this book. I think Ms Durgin has come up with a unique, interesting, and sympathetic character in Jess the horse/woman who should be able to sustain a series. Ms Durgin just needs to ramp up her storytelling a bit and expand her character development to the bad guys.

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Ray-views Volume 1
Ray-views Volume 1

I have compiled over 40 of my book reviews into a book, arranged them by categories, wrote essays for each category, added relevant blog posts, and called it Ray-views. It’s available through Amazon in printed and Kindle editions. I’m really pleased with the results. I’ve posted a Journal Entry on my website with more info and links to excerpts from the book, and to where you can purchase either edition (they’re not expensive). You’ll find that Journal Entry here.

Source: http://www.rayfoy.com/3/post/2015/11/ray-views-my-book-of-my-book-reviews.html
Slade House by David Mitchell
Slade House: A Novel - David Mitchell

SLADE HOUSE is a more concise version of the imaginative, speculative, time-spanning tales with heavy doses of the paranormal, that David Mitchell is so adept at writing. At only 238 pages in a hardback edition with a trim size of only 5.50" X 7.25" it is much smaller than his usual 600+ paged novels, but it isn't short on quality. There is still that engaging prose, believable characters, and compelling plot that makes this potentially a one-sitting read.

The story is set solidly in the same universe as The Bone Clocks, to which it makes references and shares a major character. There is also a reference to a character from Cloud Atlas, though I don't see any other connection. Regarding The Bone Clocks, it could even be considered an extension of that story, which contained an element of horror that Slade House exploits to greater fruition. Reviews laud the book as a "modern haunted house story" and I can agree with that, but I consider it better storytelling than the usual ghost or "mad slasher" story. Like all of Mr. Mitchell's books (that I've read) it is a thoughtful story as well.

In five chapters Slade House spans the decades from 1979 to 2015. The plot centers on the spooky Slade House mansion that comes and goes from the physical world every nine years. Entrance is through a small, iron door set into the wall of a narrow, high-walled alley. Those who enter, find an unkempt garden before a classic brick manor house. What and who they find inside varies according to their personalities and whatever it takes to entice them to stay. Past a certain point, there is no leaving.

The secret of Slade House, and its owners, is revealed in stages through the five chapters, with each providing another piece or two of the puzzle. This process is done well and keeps you reading and guessing. There is a horror aspect, but more in the suspenseful, dreading a horrible death type than in the scary monster or gross death scenes type. This kind of horror story is harder to write and, in my opinion, is the better kind when done well.

There are enough connections to The Bone Clocks to provide clues to the nature of horror the story is dealing with before the end, and I did guess correctly on that point. That's not enough to spoil the story, however, since the particulars are unique to this book. The ending is very satisfying, and left open for a sequel, whether you've read The Bone Clocks or not, though it's probably more fun if you have.

I've noted in my other reviews of Mr. Mitchell's books, that he puts a strong paranormal element in them. It's not a mystical paranormal, however. I see it as positing a multidimensional universe that humans have always had a connection to, though it is mostly a "behind the scenes" kind of connection. Mr. Mitchell expounds further on this in Slade House by showing characters with abilities that seem magical, making a living by pretending to contact the dead. And though there are ghosts in the story, they are seen as a "residual" aspect of the human body, and even their souls are implied to be simply another aspect.

Slade House also deals with the issue of good-and-evil, which is another repeated theme in Mr. Mitchell's books. I find his attitude progressive in this, though I don't completely agree with all of his expressions of it. In this book, though, he makes an interesting observation through a "good" character's indictment of an "evil" one:

...from such an array of vultures...from feudal lords to slave traders to oligarchs to neocons to predators like you. All of you strangle your consciences, and ethically you strike yourselves dumb.

I think that harangue is very applicable to most of our ruling elites and his list of "bad guys" is accurate.

As I said, the book's ending is very satisfying. In fact, it ends with an image that, brilliantly and oddly enough, reminded me of the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I won't do a spoiler, I'll let you discover the fun for yourself.

If you like suspenseful horror stories, you'll like Slade House. But it is much more than a horror story. It is another engrossing look at the world and the connections of people in it through time and circumstance. And if you are a fan of David Mitchell's books, you won't be disappointed by this one.

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Ray-views Volume 1
Ray-views Volume 1

I'm publishing a book of my book reviews in mid December. I call it, Ray-views Volume 1. The Ray-views are arranged by categories:

 
Beyond the Usual
The Human Problem
On Prophecy
The Dystopian Potential
Inspiration
Storytelling

There are also essays for each category, related journal entries (from my website blog), and suggestions for further reading.

You can read an excerpt (the Inspiration essay) here.

Source: http://www.arbordinparkpress.net/1/post/2015/11/ray-views-book-excerpt-inspiration.html
Review
4 Stars
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke

I saw the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in 1968 when I was 12 years old. It was as incomprehensible to me as a child, as it was to most adults then. Even so, it was soon considered a classic science fiction film and I have spent most of life not really understanding why. I had heard that the book was much better, but I never got around to reading it until recently. It is, indeed, much better and I think there are several reasons why.

For one thing, the novel was written by Arthur C. Clarke, one of the best SF writers ever. But even so, this novel was written under special circumstances because the story was meant to be a movie from the start--a collaboration between Mr. Clarke and film producer Stanley Kubrick. That collaboration is described by Mr. Clarke in his Foreword to the edition of the novel that I read. He says Mr. Kubrick suggested they start with a novel from which they would derive the screenplay because "...a screenplay has to specify everything in excruciating detail, [and] it is almost as tedious to read as to write."

This is more or less the way it worked out, though toward the end novel and screenplay were being written simultaneously, with feedback in both directions.

That dynamic shows in the book. Though the narrative is engaging, owing to Mr. Clarke's skills, there are sections that seem to be explanatory for the sake of the film. Some of these take the point-of-view of the aliens in general--not of a particular alien character (e.g., chapter 37: "Experiment"). At one point, the narrative even takes the POV of the big monolith Bowman finds on Japetus. And then there are sections that are descriptions of various views in space of suns and moons and planets. They are well-done and intellectually informed, but with only a scant connection to the plot or a character. All these sections seem to be for informing the film producers and for the sake of writing the screenplay. They are informative for the novel reader because they fill in the holes left by the film's ambiguous images, but they lessen the novel's storytelling. They don't lessen it by much, though, mostly because Mr. Clarke was the author.

So the book answers the questions raised by the movie. For instance, it makes clear that the monoliths were tools used by ancient and god-like aliens to influence the evolution of other life-forms. Used on our non-human ancestors of three million years past, it exerted only a small nudge to launch them on the path to the tool-making that promoted the explosion of their intelligence. Understanding that, makes sense of the film's initial scenes of the ape-men and that image of the tossed bone morphing into the space shuttle.

We also better understand why the mission to Jupiter (actually, Saturn in the book) was undertaken. I don't recall whether the movie made it clear that the monolith found on Earth's moon sent a high-powered electromagnetic signal to Jupiter (in the book, it went to Saturn's moon, Japetus) and so prompted the human journey there. It is clear in the book. And the book does contain the sudden shift in narrative from the monolith's signal blasting out into space, to the spaceship, Discovery, as it passes through the asteroid belt. In the book as in the movie, this struck me as too sudden a shift, leaving out a needed bridge. It drops, too suddenly, the POV of Heywood Floyd, whom we had been following since the three million year scene-shift from the group of ape-men. It just doesn't feel right.

Actually, the book did offer a bit of a bridge with chapter Fourteen. There, we see, from the POV of several deep space probes, the flight of the monolith's signal across the solar system. Even a human at the Goddard Space Center is noted, though unnamed, as picking up the signal from the various probes. Then Mr. Clarke sums up the technical observation and dramatic turning point with some smooth, descriptive prose:

...it was as clear and unmistakable as a vapor trail across a cloudless sky, or a single line of footprints over a field of virgin snow. Some immaterial pattern of energy, throwing off a spray of radiation like the wake of a racing speedboat, had leaped from the face of the Moon, and was heading out toward the stars.

The part about the "mutiny" of the HAL 9000 computer in the book is pretty much in sync with what was presented in the movie. The book didn't contain the "lip reading" scene, though, which I thought was a nice touch by Mr. Kubrick. And then HAL's murder of the hibernating crew and attempted murder of Bowman are handled a bit differently, but retains Bowman's surviving for a few minutes in a vacuum without his helmet, and his "lobotomy" of HAL.

The last part of the story, though, is where the book is way easier to follow than the film. This concerns Bowman's investigation of the big monolith he found on the Saturn moon of Japetus and his subsequent capture by it, transport across the galaxy (the monolith is a "star gate"), and finally his transformation into the "Star-Child."

The book makes all this clearer mostly because we have Bowman's inner monologue about what's happening to him, supported by Mr. Clarke's prose exposition. This part contains a lot of those sections where I think Mr. Clarke was explaining things for the sake of the producers, but it still captures the extreme bizarreness of Bowman's evolution/transformation. The reader understands that it is being deliberately done by the aliens. In the movie, that's far less clear. The book notes that Bowman is quickly aware that the "hotel room" he lands in is an artificial construct. He finds proof by examining the objects in the room and from watching the television mounted in the ceiling over the bed. I think the movie would have worked better here for the audience if Mr. Kubrick had incorporated those points.

Finally, because the reader knows that Bowman has been transformed via some speeded-up process of evolution into the Star-Child, the final scene is much less enigmatic. We know that the Star-Child is David Bowman. He has been empowered by being freed from his corporeal body to become a being of energy and taking the form of the Star-Child. He begins to exercise his new power and freedoms and finds he can move across the galaxy at the speed of thought, and so returns to Earth.

All this is depicted in the movie, but not explained. I don't know how many viewers were astute enough to follow that thread.

Now Mr. Kubrick decided to leave his viewers with an artistic image of the Star-Child contemplating Earth. Most viewers were just left in confusion. Mr. Clarke's novel presents a less mysterious ending by keeping the POV with Bowman as the Star-Child and having him save the earth from destruction, making an anti-Cold War statement in the process. And he does this in a final chapter that is less than a page in length. I think it's a much more satisfying an ending.

Overall, I very much enjoyed reading the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I consider it a better presentation of the story. It contains all the enthusiasm for space age technology that was in the air in the 1960s as a result of all the PR for the "race to the moon." The imagination of that generation was captured by the possibilities of rocket and computer science for enabling space travel and manned missions to the planets. Mr. Clarke's writing reflects that enthusiasm for technology and is amazingly accurate in his extrapolation of it into the future. For instance, he notes the use of personal computers at a time when computers filled rooms. This passage sounds like Dr. Floyd is using an iPad:

When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-size Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth.

In this novel, Mr. Clarke not only makes accurate "predictions" as to future technology, but he expresses his love for it, and for its potential of providing humankind a better future. I remember this attitude and it had captured me in my youth, along with the heady desire for humankind's "leap into space." It is a hopeful attitude of the sort that made Star Trek a modern myth and made Carl Sagan's books popular. Today, it has been frustrated by the US "retreat from space" and the convergence of various calamities, but I think maybe it survives in the current escape into video games. But back then, many good people believed in this mythos of space travel and sought careers in technology to be a part of it. Writers wrote about it, as Mr. Clarke does in this book with passages such as:

When Earth was tamed and tranquil, and perhaps a little tired, there would still be scope for those who loved freedom, for the tough pioneers, the restless adventurers. But their tools would not be ax and gun and canoe and wagon; they would be nuclear power plant and plasma drive and hydroponic farm. The time was fast approaching when Earth, like all mothers, must say farewell to her children.

This was the belief and the hope that is all but squashed now by a space agency that is absorbed by a military pushing for constant war rather than space exploration. And it is apparent that Earth will be more than just tamed, she'll be pillaged and raped. And if any humans make it beyond Earth orbit now, they'll likely be soldiers bent on conquest and exploitation, rather than "tough pioneers" or "restless adventurers."

It is conceivable that the state of real-world technology in 2001 could have approximated what Mr. Clarke and Mr. Kubrick foresaw in their story, but the urge to make profits and subdue and rule the earth took precedence over space exploration. Consequently, there appears little hope for real space odysseys anytime soon. Even if an alien artifact such as the monolith were found, I suspect our rulers' would only be concerned with how to exploit it for profit, or how to militarize it.

Still, I understand now why 2001: A Space Odyssey is considered a classic movie, though I think it takes reading the associated novel to reach that understanding. The novel is a reminder for me of the heady days of the "space age" and the "moon race." I had all but forgotten them in these darker times. It may be that pointing out the gap between human dreams of a bold future, and the reality imposed by rulers motivated only by greed and personal power, is the greatest value of this novel. Sometimes truth-in-fiction comes indirectly.

Review
5 Stars
Francis and the Last Pope Prophecies of St. Malachy by John Hogue
Francis and the Last Pope Prophecies of St. Malachy - John Hogue

Will Pope Francis be the final pope? Will the years of his pontificate be the years of tribulation that lead to the Apocalypse and God's final judgement of humanity?

Those are the questions addressed by prophecy scholar John Hogue in his book: Francis and the Last Pope Prophecies of St. Malachy. This book is a primer on evaluating the St. Malachy Prophecies that count down the popes to the Apocalypse. In it, Mr. Hogue also points out the controversies and contradictions of the Roman Catholic Church, the pageantry and ritual of the pope selection process, and the portents that accompanied that process for the current Pope Francis (formally Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio). He also points out how many of our ideas about Jesus and Christianity (the virgin birth, a bearded Jesus, celibacy for priests, even the resurrection) are the results of the "Romanization" of Christianity. This is interesting material in itself and it provides a context for the St. Malachy material that should help the discerning reader decide whether Pope Francis is indeed the last pope before the End Times kick in.

Mr. Hogue's book examines an old document of "111 mysterious Latin mottoes followed by an apocalyptic coda forecasting the succession of popes unto Judgment Day." Legend says it was produced from the ecstatic utterances of St. Malachy (an Irish Prelate) around 1140 when he arrived at Rome at the end of a pilgrimage. Malachy gave his prophecies to the pope of that time, Innocent II, who then stored them in the Vatican vaults where they stayed until they were rediscovered in the late 16th century. Mr. Hogue points out that the first 76 mottoes are 100 percent accurate in describing those popes before 1595. He believes these were written after the fact, "sometime after 1557." That makes the remaining 35 mottoes to be actual attempts at foretelling the future, and as such, they are remarkable. Mr. Hogue judges them to have a "success rate" of about 89 percent at identifying future popes (relative to 1557 or so).

St. Malachy's (or whomever's) mottoes are just that--short phrases seldom more than three words in length. For example, #79 reads in English, "A Perverse People" and #83 reads, "Guardian of the Mountains." Each is supposed to identify the specific pope for that point in the succession of popes from St. Peter (although whether #1 actually identifies St. Peter, the disciple of Christ, is not noted). The identification of a given pope is derived from the associated motto by considering 11 prophetic clues. One or more of them should work to explain how the motto uniquely fits the man elected pope. Mr. Hogue explains this process in chapters Two and Four.

In chapter Two, Mr. Hogue lists the prophetic clues and gives examples of how they work with the mottoes to identify popes. In Chapter Four, he takes each of the 35 genuinely prophetic mottoes, starting with #77 ("A Roman Cross" identifying Clement VIII 1592-1605), and describes how they identify (a hit) or fail to identify (a miss) the associated pope. He goes all the way to #111 ("From the Glory of the Olive" identifying Benedict XVI 2005-?). The last motto is actually a paragraph coda that identifies the final pope. These chapters make for a compelling read. Mr. Hogue's knowledge of prophecy, history, and Latin lend credence to his examination of the mottoes. The many hits and few misses he describes should leave all but the most skeptical of readers with an appreciation for the outstanding nature of the St. Malachy document.

In chapters Five through Eight, Mr. Hogue offers some discussion on the pontificates of the latest popes, Catholic vs non-Catholic ideas about the Apocalypse, some positive thoughts about Pope Francis and whether Nostradamus identified him. In Chapter Nine, he gets to the main question: Is Pope Francis the last pope?

I won't give away Mr. Hogue's answer, but in considering it, you should bear in mind the fluid nature of prophecy and precognition. Seers may be seeing a particular future happening, but these events can change if factors leading up to them change, such as enough desire to make sure they don't happen. From such come prophetic misses, making the accuracy of the St. Malachy prophecies all the more amazing. It would seem that only a few men with destinies to be pope, didn't make it.

So if we're dealing with some real prophecy here, what do we make of it? It seems to me that the preponderance of the world's prophetic literature comes down to a time of unprecedented calamity followed by either human extinction or a turn to enlightened, sustainable living on the earth. The importance of the St. Malachy prophecies is that they seem to provide a specific time for this final time. The countdown of popes is a pretty definite clock and it is lent much credence from just being so accurate. Hence, the importance of this book that presents that timeline in its historic and prophetic context. It is another validation that we are living at a hugely momentous point in the long human drama.

Francis and the Last Pope Prophecies of St. Malachy is a little book that deals with a big subject, namely, the fate of humanity. For if the seer behind St. Malachy's prophecies has it right, we've reached the end of history: Yeshua will return to set us straight, or we'll pass through the fire that will prompt us to set ourselves straight, or we'll go extinct. Such are the ponderings prompted by prophecies, the events of our time, and whether Pope Francis is the last pope.

Review
5 Stars
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl, Harold S. Kushner

I have run across quotes from Vicktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning for a long time now. I see it referred to very often, usually in the context of considering a hopeless situation (i.e., many world events). Reviewers often refer to it as "life changing" and it remains one of the most popular books of all time.

So I finally got my own copy and I was greatly impressed. I'm not a big fan of modern psychology that sees people as no more than "brain containers," but Dr. Frankl saw (he died in 1997) beyond that, and his credentials were experiential and not just academic.

Dr. Frankl was a psychologist in Austria in the 1930s when the Nazis invaded. Though he had an American immigration visa and could have escaped, he chose to remain with his aged parents and so was arrested with them and the rest of his family. He then spent three years in concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz, until he was liberated by the advancing American army. His entire family (including his pregnant wife) died in the camps.

When Dr. Frankl was arrested (for being Jewish) he hung onto a manuscript he had been working on that was about logotherapy--a slant on psychology that he was the principal developer of, though others apparently contributed to its antecedents. Producing this book was his passionate project and he tried to hang onto the manuscript even though he knew it was hopeless in the face of prisoners having absolutely everything taken from them. He lost the manuscript but not his desire for creating the book.

In a nutshell, he found the strength to endure the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps from his sense of living for something more than himself. This sense included his desire to reunite with his wife (he didn't know until after the war that she had died soon after arriving at Auschwitz) and his desire to write his book. Of course, he didn't know that this was what was saving him until he evaluated his experiences afterwards, and his insights became Man's Search for Meaning (which was published under different names for different editions).

Dr. Frankl's insights gleaned from his time in the camps are the great value of this book. What he discovered about the meaning of life in the face of extreme oppression offers hope and guidance for anyone trying to cope with more common, day-to-day, oppressions. That hope comes from people finding a meaning to their lives, and Dr. Frankl tells us that it can be found in three ways:

(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

This indicates why pilgrimages can be such powerful bringers of insight. The thing to note about these three ways is their external nature. That is, they are a response to outside stimuli even if that stimuli is deliberately engaged (such as deciding to hike the Santiago de Compostela Camino). This leads to a central tenet of Dr. Frankl's:

Don’t aim at success— the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.

I can amen that in my life many times over. It's basically "trying too hard" and can even be compounded by hubris. Dr. Frankl goes on to emphasize this point:

The more one forgets himself— by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love— the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.

When people don't have something or someone to live for, they can come to a point of questioning what they are indeed living for. "What's the use?" is the question they want to answer but can't. Dr. Frankl calls this state an "existential vacuum." He says:

The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.

This can be a problem for workers and leads, in my experience, to job burnout. Dr. Frankl does not miss this and examines it in the light of people who have lost their jobs. The depression that results for them he calls, "unemployment neurosis." He says:

...being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless was equated with having a meaningless life.

I was most interested in this existential vacuum that gripped the prisoner and the corporate worker in similar fashion. I think a useful study might be made between the psychology of the concentration camp inmate and the modern worker. Based on the insights of this book, I would say they share a common crisis and a common solution.

Dr. Frankl avers the solution lies outside the self. Meaning, he says, comes from the world (universe) and is not imposed upon it. It is the individual's responsibility to find that someone and/or something that to them is worth living for, and that is transcendent to everything else. Achieving this insight, will allow them to endure suffering when it comes.

There are so many insights to take away from this book! Most thoughtful people will find something in it that speaks to them. Man's Search for Meaning is not a long book, but is one to be savored, over and over, and digested. It goes a long way towards making sense of the world as we experience it, and offering insight to deal with it, more than most books I've read. It deserves its place as a world classic in self-actualization literature.

By his own account, Dr. Frankl survived the death camps through a lot of luck and fortunate (for him) choices made by those around him. I like to think it was a benign force for good that preserved his insights in the face of the most oppressive of evils for the sake of we in this age, who so desperately need it.

Review
4 Stars
The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz
The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series - David Lagercrantz

In this fourth installment of the Millennium Series of novels begun by Stieg Larsson, Lisbeth Salander (antihero computer/math genius) and her sidekick Mikael Blomkvist (idealistic investigative journalist) take on a coalition of the Russian Mafia, rogue elements of the NSA, criminal anti-hackers, and an "evil twin," in their quest to reveal government crimes, solve the murder of a prominent computer scientist, exact revenge, and fight off a hostile takeover of Millennium magazine. As with the first three novels, there's a lot going on for our heroes to handle.

But I think the big question that greeted the release of this book was whether the author, David Lagercrantz, was able to continue the series created by the late Stieg Larsson and maintain the integrity of the storyline and characters that Mr. Larsson made so popular. The consensus seems to be that he did and I have to agree. I noted one reviewer who said she felt like she was reading Mr. Larsson's writing and I have to agree with that too. Overall, I would say that Mr. Lagercrantz must have loved the first three books and did a thorough job in his research of them. His initial foray into the world of Lisbeth Salander is pretty much seamless.

Now in my opinion, The Girl in the Spider's Web is technically better written than Mr. Larsson's books. Both the plotting and the prose are tighter and that resulted in a book that is 250 to 400 pages shorter than Mr. Larsson's books. I think the tighter prose is not because Mr. Lagercrantz is a better writer, but more likely because Mr. Larsson was pushed by ill health to get his manuscripts finished, and they weren't adequately edited. That is strictly my opinion, but I base it on that so much of Mr. Larsson's prose was sheer exposition and large sections were even irrelevant to the storyline, reading like backstory. Mr. Lagercrantz's version, by and large, eliminates these issues.

In spite of the technical difficulties of the first three books, they established a setting and characters that garnered a global host of ardent fans who elevated the antihero protagonist to cult status. That made producing a fourth book a gutsy proposition, but one that I believe Mr. Lagercrantz pulled off.

In Spider's Web Lisbeth Salander is satisfyingly edgy, brilliant, and antisocial. She has reconciled with Blomkvist enough to work with him, but still from a distance. We learn more about her history and it is a believable extension of what was revealed in the previous three books. I would assume it all came from Mr. Larsson's notes. We also see her relate to a child who is a mathematical savant. The boy, August Balder, is in some ways a reflection of Salander as a child and she recognizes that. The scenes with them are an interesting counterpoint to Salander's more hard-bitten ones where she is flouting authority or being vengeful.

Salander's foil, Mikael Blomkvist, is also presented true-to-first-books. He is still idealistic in pursuing journalism that "makes a difference," though he finds it tough resting on past laurels in a time when print magazines are going all electronic. Faced with becoming irrelevant, he must also endure the threat of his beloved Millennium magazine being cheapened, out of the need to obtain a financial rescue from a big publishing company led by an old rival. Blomkvist is uncomfortable with his fame and concerned with losing it only to the extent it might hurt Millennium. He is ever loyal to Salander and he gets involved in the mystery of the computer scientist's murder only when he learns of a connection between the man and Salander.

Most of the other characters established in the first books are here as well, and all struck me as true to form. Mr. Lagercrantz doesn't dwell on them as much, but that struck me as good because there is no need to. Still we still see the workings of the local police as well as of SAPO (Swedish Intelligence Agency) as they deal with the story's murders and mysteries. Here, Mr. Lagercrantz added an interesting aspect with the existential crisis undergone by the police inspector, Jan Bublanski. It adds a certain philosophical note to everything and might say something along the lines of "what's the point of all this?". A similar note is sounded with a new character, Gabriella Grane, of SAPO, through whom we get a word on the book's theme:

She shuddered at the creeping realization that we live in a twisted world where everything, both big and small, is subject to surveillance, and where anything worth money will always be exploited.

That might also be the theme of the whole series.

Of course, these books deal a lot with computer technology, given the vocation of the protagonist. Mr. Larsson's books were very true to that technology at the level it existed at around 2004. Mr. Lagercrantz's book brings it up to the current time (2015). And while he does a good job of that, where I think he didn't do as well as Mr. Larsson is in showing us Salander working at it. That is, we see her at her laptop, hacking and researching, but we're watching her from a greater distance than we were when Mr. Larsson was describing such scenes. Somehow, I got a greater feeling for Salander's devotion to her work and felt the dynamic of her pounding that keyboard for answers in a way more visceral than shown in Spider's Web. I could say the same for the workings of the publishing world in those scenes with Blomkvist at Millennium. It is there, but I felt it more in Mr. Larsson's prose. This is a minor criticism, however, and I expect most fans won't notice it.

Regarding the updating of the series' storyline, I have to give Mr. Lagercrantz kudos for attacking the issue of unlimited surveillance by government agencies. He even places scenes inside the NSA and, via one notable character, pits the NSA against Salander. But in doing so, he follows Mr. Larsson's lead in letting the NSA and other government agencies off too lightly. Their faults are seen as coming from "rogue elements" or "bad apples" rather than being systemic. Maybe the Swedes have more faith in authority than I do.

It also seems to me that, in spite of the tighter prose, there is a lot of exposition in the narrative--telling not showing. Again, it's not as bad as in the first books but it is noticeable. Maybe it's a Swedish thing or a result of the translation, but I thought it was too much and it cost a star in my rating.

At the ending of Spider's Web, there is a sense of "wrapping up" that is satisfying, but I don't think it signals the end of the series. Actually, about midway through the book I was beginning to wonder of the story threads spun by Mr. Larsson were going to wind up with this book. Then Camilla Salander popped up and was developed just enough to add the promise for a worthy antagonist for Lisbeth. That could carry another book or two if handled well.

It has got to be intimidating to pick up writing a fiction series that has developed a worldwide cult following, but it seems David Lagercrantz was the man for the job. I expect most fans will be pleased with his results.

Review
5 Stars
Enoch: A Bigfoot Story by Autumn Williams
Enoch: A Bigfoot Story - Autumn Williams

I have read a lot of books about things "paranormal" and generally recognize two types. One is the "scientific" book that considers all the facts about a phenomena and weighs them logically to reach a conclusion. The other is a recounting of a witness's involvement with the phenomena at a personal level. The second type can be very powerful if it comes off as believable. Enoch, by Autumn Williams, falls solidly into this second type.

Enoch is the story of one man's close involvement with the creature called, "bigfoot," or "sasquatch," or even "skunk ape." This involvement took place in the swamps of Florida over ten years and, as far as anyone knows, is still ongoing. The witness is a heavy equipment operator that Ms Williams calls, "Mike." She maintains his personal anonymity as well as the location of his encounters.

I have never read much of the bigfoot literature but I understand that stories of "long term" witnesses who "habituate" with the creatures are not unknown, though not as widely related as "road crossings" and film clips. This is the first such account I have ever read, and I found it credible and moving.

Ms Williams' interest in bigfoot began with her own sighting as a child. She was so impressed with the creature that she began a lifelong study of it (for as much as a thing not recognized by established science can be studied). This eventually led to her being the host of the cable TV program, Mysterious Encounters, which chronicled her leading a team of researchers across the country searching for the creature. The show was sensationalized and not serious. As Ms Williams says about it:

When the series finally began to air, I cringed, finding myself the poster-child for everything that was wrong with Bigfoot research.

But the series gave her a national platform and when it was over, she was able to devote herself to serious work, centering around the website she established (built around a database of bigfoot sightings in Oregon). Her notoriety is what prompted "Mike" to contact her about his involvement with a bigfoot he called, "Enoch." Mike was very reticent about telling his story out of wanting to protect this creature he had come to love as a close friend. Over the course of a year, Ms Williams gained Mike's trust through a series of phone calls and Internet exchanges that finally elicited Mike's story.

That story came from a time when Mike was seeking escape from personal problems in the solitude of the Florida swamp-lands. Like most men of that region, Mike was an avid hunter-fisherman and perfectly at home spending long stretches camping in the woods. During his extended time there he encountered a bigfoot creature (known locally as a "skunk ape") and deliberately tried to befriend it. He was eventually successful and so began a much extended time of interaction.

Mike's description of his habituation with Enoch sounds very much the process typically gone through with gorillas and chimpanzees, where the researcher basically hangs around the group, nonthreateningly, until he or she is accepted. Sharing food is also a big part of obtaining acceptance. In Mike's case, he also came to be accepted into a "group," but his interactions showed them to be much more than gorillas or chimps. Though Enoch was his primary contact, Mike interacted with numerous individuals, especially those that seemed to comprise Enoch's "family group."

The picture Mike presents of the sasquatch is that of a very intelligent and social primate. Like humans, they are omnivores--able to eat most anything, including raw flesh. Like early humans, they hunt and gather and even use tools much as chimpanzees do, though with more refinement. They will use a heavy stick as a club, and even hurl rocks and sticks to kill small game. They vocalize and seem to do so to communicate, though whether actual language is involved was hard for Mike to tell.

I have found that any study of sasquatch usually reaches a paranormal aspect sooner or later. As grounded in gritty reality as Mike's account is, even he seemed to find an extrasensory aspect to his involvement with the creatures. He found that he could pick up on emotion from them and that they seemed to use that as a means to communicate. For instance, there was a time when he had an altercation with Enoch and later, Enoch expresses his sorrow by reaching out to Mike with waves of sadness. It took a while for Mike to realize what was happening, but when he did, he understood the communication. He says:

I was feeling what he was feeling. It was almost like he was trying to let me know that he was afraid - afraid to show himself for fear of what might happen...Right after I got this understanding, I got a strong feeling that he was pleased and happy that I understood.

The fossil record tells us that at one time, there were a large number of hominids on the earth--human and not--and Mike's story indicates that one such race has survived along with us, mostly by being able to eat anything and by staying away from us. Are they as intelligent as humans? That's hard to say from such accounts. Were Neanderthals as intelligent as humans? It seems they were, but they expressed their intelligence differently, owing to a different brain structure. The case may be similar for the sasquatch.

Ms Williams came to accept Mike's story based on the strength of his character, as she came to know him, and on the consistency of his story--both within itself and with the knowledge of sasquatches she had accumulated over the years. In this process, she describes herself as evolving from a "researcher" to a "witness." This was the big epiphany for her in her understanding of what sasquatches are, and how to relate to them in trying to understand them. This cost her much credibility among bigfoot "researchers," but then, she came to realize that the researchers would only succeed in driving the supremely elusive bigfoot deeper into the woods.

I found Enoch to be a remarkable book. Like Ms Williams, I found the character and self-expressions of Mike to be true to the culture of the society he lives in, that I also grew up in. Also his anecdotes impress me as consistent with what I've read about the sasquatch that strikes me as believable.

I agree with Whitley Strieber that in regards to paranormal (or simply unknown) matters, it is best to maintain an attitude of "keeping the question open." Taking an unbendable stance in such matters, whether "scientific" or a pet theory, will only tend to prevent discovering the truth. To get the most from Mike's story, Ms Williams recommends that readers go beyond the existential question:

The question, “Does Bigfoot exist?” has been addressed time and time again. Let's move beyond that. For just a moment, let's assume that they do.

If you can do that, you may find the insight that can come from keeping the question open. And it may be an insight that will help you, if you one day find yourself in the deep woods, looking eye-to-eye at the reciprocal curiosity and fear of a truly untamed creature and distant cousin.

Review
4 Stars
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the last book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium novels concerning his literary cult creation, Lisbeth Salander. The series has generated at least two films and a rabid following. It's a deserved following, in my opinion, because Mr. Larsson came up with an updated version of Holmes-and-Watson and made it work. Unfortunately, Mr. Larsson's success was posthumous.

The Millennium trilogy is a single, three-part, work, although the last two parts are more connected than the first. I won't do spoilers or get to much into the twisting plot, but the book teasers do tell you that this story begins with Salander in the hospital with a bullet in her head. That should catch a potential reader's interest as well as it serves to carry readers from the second to third books. I thought it was gutsy of Mr. Larsson to kill off, then resurrect his popular protagonist in the second book. Of course, that further cements the series' connection to Sherlock Holmes, who was also killed-off and brought back by A. C. Doyle (though not in the same book). But Salander has problems besides her head injury. She is suspected of a triple homicide, sought by a villainous motorcycle gang, threatened with being locked up in a psych unit again by rogue government authorities, has put the closest things she has to friends in danger, and is cut-off from all computer access. That's good stage-setting for a lot of drama.

And that drama largely concerns just who Lisbeth Salander is: where she came from and why she is the way she is. Mr. Larsson does answer these questions and they are nature-nurture answers with the answers coming down mostly on the nurture side. Salander's upbringing was, to say the least, dysfunctional. That is hinted at in the first book along with the institutionalized abuse she suffered, but the reasons behind it all are revealed in this last book.

That reasoning concerns some intricate plotting at the core of which is an "unofficial" section of the Swedish security agency, SAPO (which seems to be an FBI-CIA look-alike), and its dealings to protect a Russian defector during the cold war. The agency's machinations (or at least of its rogue part) to protect the defector lead directly to the abuses suffered by Salander. Of course, they also lead to her creation as an antihero crimefighter (with a particular bent to work against woman abusers). With that foundation, Mr. Larrson unwinds his story, and it is a long unwinding.

The strength of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, as with the other books in the series, is undoubtedly it's protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. Though she spends a lot of the novel in the hospital, she does finally come to her trademark computer skills and antisocial behavior. She even, almost accepts friendships, though she fights the impulse. And though barely topping five feet in height, she still kicks butt when she needs to.

Another strength is the involved plot (though there is also a down side to it). It is entwined from many threads that connect a defecting Russian psychopath, a secret Swedish agency, and official corruption to Salander's dysfunctional childhood. Mr. Larsson comes at this plot from a number of different angles and in the process shows us a lot about the functionings of the Swedish government, the Swedish police, mental institutions, and the workings of large publications (at least Swedish ones). The latter was the most interesting for me. That, along with the sections when Salander is working her computer magic, provide inspiration for me for when I'm writing and makes me feel like I'm doing something. Maybe that's also a lot of Salander's appeal. Very few authors have been able to make sympathetic characters out of computer hacks and it's generally done with an antihero protagonist. Mr. Larsson does that with Salander, but goes further to create a truly interesting character.

Mikael Blomkvist is a good foil to Salander. His crusading, womanizing, straightness stands in contrast to her bend-all-the-rules approach to everything. It is her abused brilliance that comes out, however, and earns her respect from those who care enough to see it. It also earns her their loyalty and abiding friendship, even though she is not comfortable in accepting them. Blomkvist is the foremost of these loyal friends and he provides the establishment support she needs to get by without becoming an outlaw. And the fact that Mr. Larsson made him a journalist--a writer--makes him the Watson character who can provide the documentary evidence of Salander's exploits for posterity.

There are, however, some drawbacks to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Mostly, the book is too long. A long book is OK if it's long with storytelling. Unfortunately, Hornet's Nest is long with repetitions of plot threads (the same story section told from two or more viewpoints; in some stories this is OK but it's overdone here) and needless banter. Regarding the latter, there's a part where Berger is being given an overview of the security system she's had installed in her house and the talk goes on for several pages. For what was necessary for the plot, it could have been dispensed with in a paragraph. There are numerous examples of this, where characters go on talking about peripheral items like relationships and politics which have scant connection to the plot or anybody's character. It makes the narrative grind down to a point of prompting the reader to give up.

Also, Salander is in the hospital for about the first half of the book and she's not doing enough during that time. Even worse, there are long stretches where Salander is nowhere in sight. The other characters, except maybe Blomkvist, cannot support the story like she can. Indeed, like Sherlock Holmes, the story is very secondary to the character of its quirky protagonist. This book should have been greatly condensed around the characters of Salander and Blomkvist. Now all those sections where we see the workings of the police task force, and the SAPO section, and the magazine and newspapers where neat in their place, but they were too long and overshadowed Salander and Blomkvist when they should not have.

The "Note About the Author" at the end of the book says Mr. Larsson delivered the manuscripts (presumably to the publisher) for the entire trilogy shortly before his death. This makes me wonder if he actually completed them (although I suspect he had the very last sentence written long before the second two books were done). An awful lot of the "excess" I've noted for the second two books sounds like backstory to me, and a lack of editing. If that's true, then Mr. Larsson joined the likes of George Orwell in hurrying to complete a manuscript before his death. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but I think a sympathetic editor would have done better justice to the manuscripts.

Or maybe the Swedish have longer attention spans and they like their novels that way.

Regardless, I think the genius in Mr. Larsson's work is his main character. Watching Lisbeth Salander work and strike out against her exploiters is the fun of the books. It is great fun watching Ms Salander solve a mystery using her computer (like watching Mr. Holmes do it with his computer-like intellect) and being supported by her faithful, journalistic, companion (same as Holmes). In his Millennium series of novels, Stieg Larsson has created a literary character who is destined to become a classic, and a lot of fun for readers. It is a shame that he is no longer around to continue Ms Salander's exploits, but then, maybe the torch will be handed off.

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River of Dreams
River of Dreams

After a turbulent couple of weeks of book publishing, my wife and I took a little break. New journal entry:

Source: http://www.rayfoy.com/3/post/2015/08/river-of-dreams.html
Review
4 Stars
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second novel in the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium series featuring the troubled, but brilliant, Lisbeth Salander. It is a thriller driven by a murder mystery as well as the mystery of "the evil" that set Salander's life course. There are psycho bad guys, corrupt health care professionals, a genetically modified killer, a task force of well and not-so-well intentioned cops, and a band of crusading journalists. All are tossed around in a ball of plot-threads that are wide-ranging before they are tied up (or at least brought into proximity). It's all held together by Mr. Larsson's depiction of Salander's quirky character and the mystery of her early life and the threats on her current life, which will keep you reading to the end.

I have not read the first book in the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but I did see the two movies made on it (the Swedish one and the American one with Daniel Craig). So I knew the story and the Salander character, but didn't appreciate what made the books popular until I read the second one. In a nutshell, Mr. Larsson's formula is creating a Holmesian mystery to be solved by a very eccentric but brilliant protagonist with the aid of a much more grounded and moral partner. It worked for Arthur Conan Doyle and it worked for Mr. Larrson.

Lisbeth Salander is probably as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes, though her deductive skills are augmented with computer hacking skills. She's a genius in mathematics that carries over into a genius for computer technology. She is an accomplished researcher but, also like Sherlock Holmes, has minimal social skills. That social lack keeps her in trouble with coworkers and ultimately sabotaged her budding relationship with her partner, Mikael Blomkvist, in the first book. She sees life in black-and-white and is unforgiving. When she perceived Blomkvist as cheating on her in the first book, she turned completely against him. Regaining trust for Salander is a slow, painful, process and it is an aching progression in The Girl Who Played with Fire. Even so, it is interesting to see how Salander and Blomkvist are able to work together from a distance on the story's mystery.

So working apart, and with different motivations, Salander and Blomkvist apply their own skills to solving the murder of two of Blomkvist's journalist friends and of Salander's sleazy guardian--murders that Salander becomes the prime suspect of. This murder mystery thread is kicked off by Salander's guardian, Nils Bjurman, scheming to get free from Salander's blackmailing of him, which she did to be free of his brutal exploitation that occurred in the first book. That thread, however, is preceded by a chapter describing Salander's time in the Caribbean solving a mini-murder mystery, having a physical relationship with a teenaged boy, and weathering a hurricane. Nothing of that situation or its characters is raised again in the rest of the book, so it may have been to show a softer side of Salander before the main plot, or it just planted seeds for the third book (which I haven't read). Anyway, it struck me as bit of misdirection.

Once the main plot is kicked off, however, it becomes another engrossing read, for the most part. It is carried along by Salander's computer hacks (which struck me as pretty accurately depicted for pre-2004 technology), Blomkvist's journalistic research (and it's interesting to see the editorial workings of Millennium magazine, at least it was to me), and the investigations of the police task force. In all this, there are a lot of characters to keep up with, especially among the police. The major ones coalesce into characters, but many remain just names. In fact, there were so many characters with small threads entwining the main cable, that I nearly lost the flow a few times. The omniscient point-of-view added to the sprawling effect, with the POV changing sometimes from sentence-to-sentence. It never got too bad, however, and it was worth sticking with it.

Part of the story involves sex-trade trafficking and the reader learns a bit about that. We see that it's mostly done by low-level gangs of low-brow criminals rather than a high-powered mafia. Prostitutes are created from impoverished young women taken, or enticed, from eastern European countries to the more advanced ones, like Sweden. That creation is done brutally and provides a key plot element. But then there are sections where Mr. Larsson describes some very open-minded sexual attitudes among his characters, including Salander. They're so open-minded they seem unreal, but it may have simply been a device to contrast attitudes between regular people and the criminals. Still, some of Mr. Larsson's characters engage in some very casual sex to the point that it didn't seem believable and it seemed out-of-character even for Salander. Of course, maybe it's that way in Sweden.

My other little criticism is that there are long sections where the plot is advanced only by a lot of dialogue among characters and little action. I think Mr. Larsson took this a tad too far, but not enough for me to abandon the book. The dialogue is interesting but it is a lot of telling-not-showing, technically speaking. On the other hand, Mr. Larsson was skilled enough to get away with it, as the conversations were generally interesting. It's like listening in on professionals discussing an engrossing topic.

The story is told in four parts. Each part begins with a mathematical rule or theorem, implied as coming from a book of mathematics that Salander is reading. I supposed Mr. Larsson was making a connection from the math to the section of his story it headed. If that's the case, I'm not mathematical enough to appreciate it.

The last third of the book turns very action-oriented and leads to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion that is enhanced by Mr. Larsson making Salander a Christ-figure. It took some guts for him to make that come off well, and he did it.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is a continuation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo more than a sequel. The characters evolve, especially Lisbeth Salander, who does so in a believable and engaging way. She is already a new classic in literary characters and is the great strength of Mr. Larsson's Millennium series.