Canadian author Shane Joseph grew up in the 70s and 80s in post-colonial Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), immigrating as a young man. His boyhood a...moreCanadian author Shane Joseph grew up in the 70s and 80s in post-colonial Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), immigrating as a young man. His boyhood and youth have apparently furnished grist and inspiration for his fictional vision before (though this is the first of his works I've read), and it certainly does here, with all seven of the stories set wholly or mainly in the island nation. The Goodreads description simply reproduces the back cover copy verbatim. That may have been designed more to sell than to describe, and arguably overstresses the immigration theme; most of the main characters do, or have, immigrate(d), but two of them don't, and in any case the focus isn't on the immigrant experience. It's on the mother country, in all of its particularity; but its particularity is, as in all great fiction, a setting for universal themes.
Shane and I are Goodreads friends, and he offered me a review copy of the collection last month, with no conditions on the quality of the review. I don't automatically give five stars to friends' books, or even necessarily ever read their books; and I warned him at the outset that my impression was that this wasn't the type of fiction I usually read, and might be of a type I wouldn't like. He was game to take a chance that the latter wouldn't be true, and he guessed correctly!
Of course, statistically, most of my reading is speculative and genre fiction. Mainstream, descriptive, general fiction hasn't bulked large in that corpus, comparatively speaking, and the kind set in our own time is an even smaller subset. So, truthfully, this isn't the kind of thing I usually read. To be sure, that partly has accidental causes, and doesn't mean I don't like well-done contemporary general fiction. But I avoid self-consciously "literary' fiction like the plague; "experimental" or "meta-fictional" style, aversion to plot, and cultivation of hack "political correctness" and bored nihilism are NOT keys to my literary heart, and I initially feared that was what this collection might be. That, however, proved to be far from the truth. It's certainly serious, realistic fiction, with an interest in tackling significant psychological, moral and social themes (it could define what the term "literary fiction" might have meant today if the critical community hadn't made the term a not humorous joke). But the author presents this by creating a real story, with well-crafted, vivid characters and careful attention to literary technique. These are stories that are actually very much in the tradition of what Conrad and Kipling wrote, allowing for the facts that the setting is more recent, that Shane has his own style and vision, and that his style incorporates much more grittiness than a former generation of editors or readers would have accepted.
Grittiness is indeed present in spades. The violence born of civil war and domestic terrorism is a factor in several stories; coarse, bad language (including the f-word) isn't uncommon in the dialogue, though I'm guessing that this actually reflects the speech the author heard growing up, rather than being dragged in unrealistically; and sexual references and situations also appear, most prominently in the title story and in "A Lie Oft Repeated." (In both stories, some of these scenes involve what we could call "explicit sex," but they're very brief, not detailed.) Darkness is a very real, omnipresent factor in all the stories. We have plot elements like the horrors of a violent, war-torn, oppressive political order where the unaccountable "haves" treat the "have-nots" like dirt, and the latter respond with viciousness of their own; government-sanctioned murder; old-fashioned private murder (or is it justifiable, defensive homicide?); exploitation of humans by others in all kinds of ways, including sexual (and including what's essentially homosexual prostitution --the narrator protagonist of "Inheritance" is also homosexual, though there's no described homosexual sex in that story); patriarchal sexism and loveless marriages; infidelity; poisonous family dynamics and lousy parent-child relationships. But the stories aren't about darkness in a nihilistic way (though the slightest story, "Nombera Eka (Number One)," a character study of a tourist-swindling, predatory con artist sociopath, could be mistakenly read as one; I think, though, that we're really to take him a negative example who inspires revulsion, rather than as a role model). Rather, they're about positive steps and choices against the background of darkness -about love, courage to do what's right, constructive relationships; hope.
A reader who knows very little about Sri Lanka (which describes me; I'd vaguely heard of the Tamil insurgency, but that's about all I knew when I opened the book) could painlessly learn a lot about the country from these stories. (A glossary of Sinhala-language terms in the back is a helpful feature, though a few more could have been included and some definitions are less than clear. A map would have been useful, too, for those who don't automatically place city/locality names). The country, its culture and its ethnic groups --European-descended Burghers like the author; the Buddhist Sinhalese majority; the more disadvantaged Hindu Tamils-- come alive here in a real way. There's a strong cross-cultural theme in most stories, an exploration of the interaction of South Asian and Western/Anglo ways. (Except for "Inheritance," all the stories have Burgher protagonists, but there are major Sinhalese characters as well.) You learn more than you might want to know about the legacy of colonialism, and the social injustice that's still continuing. Shane's an excellent story-teller, captivating you with a desire to find out what will happen to these people you've come to care about, and endowing scenes like the old-style reading of a deceased family patriarch's will with real drama and suspense. The natural beauty of the Sri Lankan countryside is evoked with the skill of a painter in some places, as well.
If you're interested in serious short fiction, Canadian literature, or cross-cultural literature with a South Asian flavor, this is definitely a collection you should consider. And Shane's definitely become a writer whose work I want to explore more fully!(less)
Given that this book is ultra-new to the Goodreads database, you might ask, how did I read it so quickly? The answer, of course, is that I was privile...moreGiven that this book is ultra-new to the Goodreads database, you might ask, how did I read it so quickly? The answer, of course, is that I was privileged to beta-read it earlier this year (ignore the Jan. 1 date, which is a Goodreads glitch!), as I was the preceding volume that opens the series, Mareritt. (My review of the latter book is here: www.goodreads.com/review/show/635693987 . Many of the comments there apply to this book as well, since they have the same main characters, style and flavor.) Yes, I'm a fanboy of the author, and of this series; but she earned my approbation, and keeps it, by consistently delivering high-quality, well-crafted writing!
A crucial requirement for most series fiction is a main character(s) who we as readers genuinely like and want to continue to spend time with. For me, Tobias and Sam admirably fit that bill. Another requirement is a plot that has the essential series characteristics --here, awareness of spiritual and moral reality in the light of Christian faith, and a dance of interaction between the natural and supernatural, the human and the divine, the living and the dead. (What, you say that's impossible, the dead can't interact with the living? Well, you haven't chatted with my perfectly mundane neighbor about her matter-of-fact observations in her "haunted" house....) At the same time, it needs to be distinct enough not to clone what went before. Vingede successfully walks that tightrope, too. We have a compelling mystery here, that kept me as riveted as the first book did.
To fit the series into its literary context, Tobias can be seen as an heir to the "occult detective" tradition, following in the footsteps of figures like Flaxman Low, Carnacki, or John Thunstone (though he's a distinct individual in his own right). It also fits into the "urban (or, at least, suburban) fantasy" subgenre, with the regular incursion of the invisible world into the normal setting of modern life in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. It's on the more cerebral end of both spectrums, though, in that Tobias isn't the kick-butt type (he prefers to keep his gun locked in the safe rather than carry it, and is more of a thinker than a fighter). So we don't have any violence here; and the horrific element comes, not from the incursion of the supernatural into the natural, but from dragging into the light the dark horrors of human depravity and what some humans are capable of doing to others. There's a component of (disturbed) sexuality to the mystery here, and some realistic (wholesome) sexual tension between our lead characters; but no sex as such; and the only bad language is an s-word that Tobias lets slip once, and that I know the author agonized over. (But as Surak of Vulcan would probably have observed, "The cause was sufficient." :-) ). So it can be unabashedly recommended to both teen and older supernatural fiction fans who like some depth to their reading. Bottom line: a fine continuation to a promising series!(less)
Because of their line of work, the owners of Hearthside Books in Bluefield, WV are frequently favored by publishers with advance review copies of fort...moreBecause of their line of work, the owners of Hearthside Books in Bluefield, WV are frequently favored by publishers with advance review copies of forthcoming books. Last month, they offered some of these free, for a limited time, to their customers; and this was the one I snapped up, intrigued by a glowing review from another member of the Book Review Exchange group. (She didn't steer me wrong!) The nearly month-long time it took me to read this isn't really indicative; it's a brisk-paced tale with easily flowing prose that would be a quick read for most folks. I put it aside at midpoint for some time only because I was doing some beta reading for a friend; otherwise I gave it priority, since it was an ARC (though I didn't even have to agree to review it in order to get it) --and I was very glad to, since it's the sort of book you open eagerly every time you read in it!
Technically, this could be called fantasy, since it's set in an alternate England; I classified it as what I call "supernatural fiction" because --aside from the Problem and its ramifications-- the setting is otherwise so much like the real world. (For much of the book, I thought it might be supposed to be our world, decades into the future, but a reference to capital punishment existing in England at the time of a 50-year-old murder precluded that idea.) But the ramifications of the Problem are big. For half a century, ghostly apparitions have become VERY common in England (it's not said whether that's true in the rest of the world), and universally recognized as real. The ghostly Visitors aren't always malevolent; but they can be, and their touch can kill. Curfews keep people indoors at night, iron and other charms are commonly used to ward buildings and people, and agencies that deal with apparitions are respected and profitable. But though most agencies are run and supervised by adults, only some children gifted with the sensitivity can see, hear or sense ghosts directly; and they lose this sensitivity as they become adults. So the field operatives of these agencies are tweens and teens; well-paid for their work, but subject to lethal danger all the same. Lockwood and Co. is atypical in not having adult supervisors; the teen owner and his two associates are on their own.
This brings us to one point that's admittedly unrealistic. I don't mean the idea that society would countenance putting minors in harm's way; if that's what it took to handle something like the Problem, politicians and pundits who now wax eloquent about protecting children and the merits of child labor laws would hesitate about one nanosecond (if that). But it's not likely that they'd tolerate three teens living together on their own and running their own business. True, Lockwood's an orphan. But he'd been "in care" at one time, and I can't see them voluntarily letting him out of it. Lucy's a runaway, though not without some reason; and the fact that her Talent made her the main breadwinner for her mother and sister would give the former a big incentive to want her back. (Her cavalier abandonment of her family is the one blot on her character for me; I can see leaving, but not just abandoning without a goodbye or any further thought or contact.) We don't know where George's parents are; they're not even mentioned. This is Stroud's way of freeing his teen characters to act on their own without adult guidance, and let his teen readers vicariously fantasize about being free to have their own adventures and show the mettle they think ((sometimes with a basis!) that they have, even if adults don't agree. It's certainly a conceptual flaw in the premise, though. (Like Ilona Andrews, he also doesn't deal with the massive revolutionary social and ideological implications that a cultural admission that the supernatural is real would have.) If I could deduct half stars for that, I suppose it would be fair to. But I rounded up without batting an eye, because this was a great read.
With its teen characters, this is marketed as a YA novel. In keeping with that, it has no sex, hardly any bad language, and no wallowing in ultra-grisly or gross violence (though the feeling of danger is very real). But it's not in any sense a dumbed-down or pablum read; it's a quality work, which can easily command the appreciation of adult readers. Stroud delivers a well-constructed plot, excellently drawn main characters whom you readily like (with the single caveat above) and root for, and a style that's about as pitch-perfect as one could ask for. The tone is mostly serious, and the author is one of the best I've read at evoking a menacing Gothic atmosphere in the right places. (This is one of the great haunted house yarns of literature, an instant classic in that respect; if you're a buff of that type of thing, you owe it to yourself to "visit" Combe Carey Hall --vicariously, with the light on.) But he also knows when to insert a light leavening of humor, and the interactions of his three teens are as real-seeming as they come. Lucy has a great narrative voice, and I'd classify her as an action heroine, given how she handles herself here. Intensely romance-allergic readers (yes, Mike, this means you! :-) ) can take note that there's none of THAT here --though I could imagine Lucy and Lockwood as a couple in a few years. And Lockwood's a smart, resourceful, capable hero, in the psychic detective mold.
Bottom line: this is good, clean supernatural fiction, as it's meant to be! I think most readers of the genre will eat it up with a spoon.(less)
I've classified this book on my "Christian life and thought" shelf, which is one of my nonfiction shelves. Technically, one might argue that this is a...moreI've classified this book on my "Christian life and thought" shelf, which is one of my nonfiction shelves. Technically, one might argue that this is a work of fiction, a made-up narrative that uses the device of a dream vision to supposedly describe places to which no earth-bound human has ever been. But here, as with some of Hawthorne's short stories/essays, the fiction is so message-driven that any dividing line separating it from an essay is thin indeed. It's very much a narrative about ideas, and the fictional framework is just a vivid stage for these, with a few props, and the use of dramatic dialogue; here (unlike in his Chronicles of Narnia series or the Space Trilogy) Lewis' didactic purpose so overwhelms the story that it's not fair to evaluate it as fiction.
A professor of medieval literature, Lewis was quite familiar with Dante's The Divine Comedy. I am not; but I can recognize the conceptual similarity from general descriptions of the latter. Here too, we have a journey that encompasses Heaven and Hell (which, Lewis suggests, also serves as Purgatory for those who don't choose to stay there); and here, too, the narrator is furnished with a guide in the person of a famous author. (One of my Goodreads friends calls this work a "rip-off" of Dante's classic; perhaps we could more accurately call it a sort of homage, or an extended literary allusion.)
Whatever Dante's purpose was, however, Lewis clearly states in the short Preface to this work that it's not intended as a literal speculation as to what the real Heaven and Hell may be like. Rather, he uses his narrator's fictional journey as a literary conceit to make a series of major and minor points about how God relates to human beings, and how we relate to God and each other. A key message here is that God doesn't will any humans to be damned. (This would exclude the idea of Calvinist predestinarianism, despite Lewis' suggestion that the eternal perspective obviates some earthly theological distinctions such as this.) Rather, there are those who exclude themselves from Heaven, because their attitude won't let them embrace it. As the book suggests (and the Goodreads description quotes), there are two kinds of people, those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God ultimately says, in sorrow, "Thy will be done." (We could also characterize them, based on the portrayals here, as those willing to recognize a God outside themselves, and those determined to be the god and center of their own universe.) The author holds up a kind of moral mirror in which readers can see how their own attitudes and actions reflect --and it's one that reveals a lot of human self-centeredness, blaming of others for everything we refuse to take responsibility for, self-deceit and hypocrisy. The type of fictional framework, ostensibly a description of unseen realities but not intended to be taken as literally so, and the quality of the rigorous, uncompromising, spiritually-grounded ethical thought, is reminiscent of the author's (also excellent) The Screwtape Letters.
Unlike some Christian works, this one doesn't come across with the "all Christians are moral exemplars, and non-Christians are scumbags" vibe that non-Christians understandably tend to find offensive. Both God's judgment and grace, Lewis suggests, probe much more deeply into the heart and soul than surface religious affiliation; there are professed Christians (even an Anglican bishop!) in his Hell, and we hear of at least one pagan who's found his way to Heaven. However, I'd recommend this more to Christian than to non-Christian readers. That's not to say that some open-minded non-Christians wouldn't be interested in reading it, or couldn't profit from doing so. But I think Lewis presupposes some basic Christian concepts about God and the afterlife that, probably, most non-Christians would find hard to take as starting points. It's more suited, I think, as a stimulus for Christian moral and theological reflection about how we live, think, and relate to God and others. (Nonfiction Lewis works that I'd more readily recommend for non-Christian readers would include Mere Christianity, Miracles, and God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.)(less)