Back in the early 70s, I encountered this wonderful series through the first of the books to be written, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (BelowBack in the early 70s, I encountered this wonderful series through the first of the books to be written, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (Below, I quote most of my review of that book, insofar as it applies to the whole series). I subsequently discovered the whole series, and in the 90s read it to my wife, who loved it as much as I do. We didn't read it in this omnibus edition, but as individual books; and for a long time, I intended to eventually review each book separately. But since the series has so much commonality, I decided that reviewing it as a single entity is more practical.
Note: This omnibus volume lists the seven books of the series in their internal chronological order, starting with The Magician's Nephew, which describes Aslan's creation of Narnia; and this is the order in which Lewis himself recommended that they be read. Barb and I, however, read and experienced the series in the order in which the books were written. Lewis fans debate which order is preferable, and I can see both sides of that. Usually, my preference is to read a series in internal chronological order. But the way that we read this one probably provides for more of a feeling of resonance in the later ones, as certain things that were mysterious before fall into place later.
Most people know that C. S. Lewis was an effective Christian nonfiction apologist, using the tools of reason and logic to build the philosophical case for Christian faith. But he ultimately became convinced that an even more effective apologetic is available through the "truth of art," the instinctive and emotional appeal that stories exert -- especially the kinds of stories that draw on the deep, mythical archetypes of fantasy to illuminate the real universe. The Chronicles of Narnia, his classic fantasy series, was the fruit of that discovery, set in Narnia, a magical land whose world lies in another universe, in which magic works and time moves differently than it does here, and in which Christ is incarnate as the great talking lion Aslan. The first book of the series presents one of the most powerful symbolic literary presentations of the Christian gospel ever written. Although the intended audience, in Lewis' mind, was children (and his various direct addresses to the readers as author presuppose this), there is nothing invidiously "juvenile" about the quality of the writing; it can be enthusiastically appreciated by anyone who loves tales of imagination and adventure, fantasy and wonder; and the truths here, like those in Jesus' parables, are simple enough to speak to children but profound enough to challenge adults.
The Christian message is an essential part of all of the books in the Narnia series. We all react to fiction based partly on how we feel about the message(s) it conveys, and that's appropriate. So readers whose view of Christianity, or of religion in general, is highly negative could hardly be expected to give the Narnia series unqualified praise. (The converse applies, of course, to books like the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, who avowedly seeks to be the "anti-Lewis;" it isn't surprising that his work is less appreciated by readers who hold a very negative view of militant atheism.) That's a subjective assessment, and fair enough as such. Some other criticisms of Lewis' series, though, are intended to be more objective, and can be debated objectively. (This discussion might contain some "spoilers.")
One reviewer states that the series "has no real conflicts" because Aslan can exercise miraculous power to resolve them. But if this is so, then the theistic view of real life is that it has no real conflicts either, since God has miraculous power to resolve them. But no theists that I'm aware of view real life in that way, least of all Lewis, as his other writings indicate (and insights from all of his writings are valuable in interpreting the Narnia books, since his thought was highly unified). As his writings on miracles make clear, he believed that God can intervene in the natural order miraculously --but doesn't do so very often, because intervening on a wholesale basis would negate the predictability of natural law (and leave us unable to recognize a miracle when one did happen!) And, very importantly, God doesn't make people's choices for them; they exercise free will, which requires that their choices have meaningful consequences --good or bad. So in Narnia, as in the real world, Aslan doesn't intervene very often; and most readers observe quite a bit of conflict. Bad things happen, and they aren't always deserved; evil isn't automatically and instantly punished; and good characters suffer and inevitably die, some well before their time. And characters experience a good deal of conflict in struggling to decide on the right course of action --or on whether or not to do what they think is right, when all the rewards would appear to gained by doing wrong. In one of the books, Eustace is indeed changed back from dragon to boy --but only after he learns a lesson about the value of human friendship; and that doesn't come easily to him. And in the first book, yes, Aslan will be resurrected after giving his life for Edmund --but his death is still an awful experience that he undergoes for someone whose welfare, viewed from a coldly objective standpoint, is nothing to him; most of us wouldn't undergo it, even with the guarantee of resurrection.
Like most non-vegetarians, Lewis views eating of meat as appropriate when the meat is that of a non- rational, nonthinking creature; eating a being who can speak is cannibalism, no matter what that being looks like. Whether or not one regards that as a significant distinction, or how significant it's seen as being, is a matter of opinion; but it is a genuine distinction between humans and, for instance, cattle.
Probably the most significant criticism here is the accusation of ethnocentrism and racism in the portrayal of the Calormen. Calormen are darker in color than Narnians; their culture differs from the Narnian one; and their government is a despotic empire that would like to add Narnia to its domains. (Neither Narnian nor Calormen culture are identical with any culture in our world, though like all fantasy writers Lewis uses this world's cultures as a grab-bag from which he can pull various features. Calormen is mostly desert, but its polity is much more Turkish than "Arab-like," and the idolatrous cult of Tash doesn't resemble Islam.) Some readers assume that any mention of dark skin means that the people so depicted have to be racially inferior; that race and culture are the same thing, with the former dictating the features of the latter, and that the character of a government mirrors the character of a people; and that if Narnia and Calormen's governments tend to be hostile and suspicious toward each other, that must mean that everything Narnian is good and everything Calormen is evil. But there are good reasons to think that Lewis didn't share these assumptions, nor want to convey them.
Two of the most sympathetic and positively treated characters in the series are the Calormenes Aravis and Emeth. Aravis is a strong, gutsy and capable heroine; she winds up marrying Prince Cor, and their son grows up to be Archenland's greatest king. And Emeth (whose name, not coincidentally, is the word for "truth" in Hebrew) is readily welcomed by Aslan into heaven, having amply demonstrated his moral worth. This certainly suggests that Lewis judges, and wants his readers to judge, Calormenes "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." It's also instructive that a character in That Hideous Strength, Lord Feverstone, advocates "liquidation of the backward races" --but he's a spokesman for the anything-but-nice N.I.C.E., whose social program represents everything Lewis detested.
In the latter novel, closer to the end, Lewis lays out a theory of human cultures in which all of them, at their best and truest, are unique and distinct embodiments of moral and social truth, making a kind of truly multicultural mosaic in which the differences are respected and appreciated. This idea is reflected in The Last Battle, where Aslan's true country is made up of the Platonic ideal of every created country --including Calormen, where Lucy sees the towers of the true Tashbaan. So Calormen's cultural differences from Narnia can be viewed in this light --there is no reason to think Lewis' view of "shoes turned up at the toe, scimitars, suffixed phrases of praise, 'son-of' lineage declarations" was "unfavorable." The latter are found in the Bible (a book Lewis certainly viewed favorably!), and some of his writings suggest that he rather liked stately formal courtesy in social interactions. He contrasts the Calormen oral story-telling tradition favorably with English teaching practices; and if Calormen culture is called "cruel" in one place (which, Lewis would say, is a deformation caused by sin), it's also called "wise." Finally, King Miraz and his gang --who are all white-- aren't viewed as any more benevolent than the Calormen Tisroc and his toadies; the actions of both are due, not to race and nationality, but to the common experience of human fallenness.
This is far and away one of my favorite fantasy series. I'd highly recommend it for any readers who appreciate imaginative literature, and I believe most would find it both intensely entertaining and thought-provoking....more
Before reading this book, Tami Hoag was just another author's name to me. Of course, I'd seen her books for sale when I window shopped at Wal-Mart andBefore reading this book, Tami Hoag was just another author's name to me. Of course, I'd seen her books for sale when I window shopped at Wal-Mart and similar venues; but being prejudiced against best sellers, and against any books characterized as "thrillers," I'd never had any interest in reading any of her work. However, for my birthday last month, my 11-year-old grandson Philip (who knows that I like to read as much as he does!) decided to gift me with a book when he spotted a special sale at the local public library --paperbacks for a quarter!-- and this was the one he picked. My expectations for it weren't particularly high, but I thought the kindness of the gift deserved a prompt reading. I was delighted to have my prejudices stood on their heads!
This is officially characterized (though not in the cover copy) as the fourth book of the author's Doucet series. However, that nominal "series" is apparently very loosely connected, only by having main or other characters from the fictional Doucet clan; and a Doucet appears in this novel, though not as the protagonist. Our protagonists are sheriff's deputies Nick Fourcade, a detective, and Annie Broussard, a uniformed deputy who'd like to be a detective. (The book is also counted as the opener of the Broussard and Fourcade series, which is apparently more connected; but it has a resolution to the mysteries involved in this volume, while leaving things open for new ones.)
Back in the late 80s, I visited the rural Cajun country of south Louisiana, where this book is set. So I could visualize the scenery, hear the accents and dialect, and appreciate the immersive evocation of place and culture that Hoag conjures. (Hoag herself was born in Iowa and lives in Florida; but she's clearly very familiar with this area, and has frequently set her fiction here.) The plot is very taut, respecting all of Aristotle's classical unities; it unfolds over a period of about two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (a season which is a big deal in heavily Catholic south Louisiana) mostly in and around the small town of Bayou Breaux, population around 7,000. As the book opens, we learn that one Marcus Renard has just been set free on a technicality after being arrested by the sheriff's office for the hideously savage rape and murder of a prominent local businesswoman. (The authorities are certain he's guilty --but is he?) Soon after, the community begins to be terrorized by a serial rapist.
Like all serious fiction, this novel is fundamentally concerned with moral issues, the answers to which aren't obvious and force readers to think. Here, the issues particularly revolve around the relationship of law and justice, and the ethics of vigilantism. (Personally, my view of the latter is more nuanced and less unconditionally condemning than some people's; but Hoag forces us to consider the dangers of too facile a resort to extra-legal vengeance, and the valid reasons why our and other civilized legal systems provide safeguards for the accused.) The solution to the crime(s) is anything but obvious; early on, I was 100% convinced of the identity of the killer, only to change my theory much nearer the end to another solution I was equally certain of --only to be wrong both times. I was totally blindsided by the denouement. But this isn't just an intellectual puzzle; it's a story about vividly-drawn, three-dimensional people and their interactions.
This can be a very dark novel (and I'm told that's often characteristic of Hoag's work). The murder and rapes themselves aren't directly described; and the sufferings of the victims, and the gory details of the crime scenes, aren't alluded to more than they actually have to be. But while the average modern American doesn't have any real sense that genuine moral evil is a reality which he or she could ever have any need to take into account, Hoag clearly has a very lively sense of that reality, and she doesn't intend to let us close the book without sharing it. (In a fallen world that wants to try to hide its fallenness, that's not a bad authorial aim.) While it's not a romance, the book does have two instances (in 590 pages) of explicit unmarried sex. Obviously, I didn't approve of this behavior; but I did understand the psychology of it, and the scenes aren't in themselves actually disgusting. But disgust would be a healthy reaction to the sexist and lewd attitudes of many of the male cops, and readers might want a barf bag handy when perusing some of the comments from these characters. (Hoag isn't presenting these as role models; disgust is the reaction she wants there.) There's also a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, much of it reflecting the real-life tendency of this kind of speech to be a feature of cop culture.
Action heroine fans should take note that, though the cover copy doesn't stress this aspect, Annie packs heat, and her police training has given her skills in hand-to-hand combat and using firearms --which just might turn out to come in handy. (And fans of action heroes will appreciate the fact that while Nick isn't Superman, he can take care of himself very well in a fair fight.)
I have to mention a bit of "reader response" criticism here. My wife is a fan of the TV series Handcrafted America, and I sometimes see parts of it when she watches it. A recent episode featured the construction of an instrument called the frottoir, resembling a solid metal washboard with distinctive bending, which is an essential element in performing zydeco music, a characteristic Cajun musical style developed in the last century. That was quite interesting to me; and in this book, I encountered several references to zydeco music. It was pretty cool to have seen this background on TV, in time to allow me to understand what this is and what it sounds like!
Since I'm trying not to get drawn into another open-ended series right now, I'm not planning to pursue this one. But I'd definitely recommend Hoag as a serious mystery writer, and I'd be open to reading more of her work sometime....more
Greene divided his own fiction between the novels and stories he considered more serious, such as The Heart of the Matter, and those he viewed as lighGreene divided his own fiction between the novels and stories he considered more serious, such as The Heart of the Matter, and those he viewed as lighter "entertainments." This relatively short (247 pages --and not all of them with text) novel is one of the latter; and like many of the "entertainments" it draws on the author's World War Ii experiences as a spy for Britain's M-16 intelligence agency. (And it's obvious here that these weren't experiences he looked back on fondly.) Set in pre-Castro Cuba, it also draws on Greene's personal observations from his time in Cuba in 1957, when he was secretly smuggling warm clothing to Castro's rebels in the eastern hills. (He apparently continued to admire Castro until Greene's own death in 1991, though by 1983 he had come to have second thoughts about the Cuban dictator's authoritarianism.) Despite its supposedly "lighter" tone, however, this book does make philosophical statements. It also reflects Greene's status as an ambivalent and not very saintly Catholic, who was particularly disassociated from the Church's teaching on sexual morality because of his numerous extramarital affairs; Catholicism here is mainly represented by the protagonist's teenage daughter, who's outwardly scrupulous about the minutia of religious observance, but very far from modeling responsibility and altruism.
Stylistically, this book has certain things in common with the earlier one I cited above (and which is the only other Greene novel I've read). Greene wrote well, in that his prose flows quickly, he tells an attention-holding and often suspenseful story, and that he's insightful regarding human character and interactions when he's trying to be serious. It also has in common with the other book the fact that despite the relatively exotic setting, there's little sense of a physical and cultural setting outside of the transplanted bubble of the expatriate Europeans, and what we observe of the non-European world is primarily sordid; we get the impression that the primary industry of 1957 Havana was prostitution/pornography. (What aspects of an unfamiliar place a foreign observer actually observes, of course, may tell us more about the observer than about the place itself.) Afro-Cubans are twice designated, by sympathetic characters, with the n-word (one usage slaps you over the head as the very second word in the first sentence), a term that appears in the older book as well. But this book differs in that it often tries for a tone of satirical humor in places; too often, it tries too hard, making the dialogue ridiculous and the characters and situations unrealistic caricatures, and the juxtaposition of the serious and the satirically humorous doesn't always gel.
Greene's main philosophical message here seems to be that any loyalty higher than that to family and friends --particularly, any abstract loyalty such as patriotism or support for a social principle-- is misguided and misplaced. To be sure, loyalty to human beings we love will naturally, for most of us, take precedence over loyalty to abstractions; and when it comes to guiding our actions, moral principle must always trump political or social agendas. (It should also trump family interests --swindling a bureaucracy out of money doesn't become moral if we're doing it for a son or daughter, though Greene here may come close to suggesting that it does.) But the wall-to-wall cynicism of Greene's view of the Cold War, as purely a struggle for power between morally equivalent shady rivals, which decent people would be better off to ignore, doesn't ultimately convince this reader. (And I lived through much of the Cold War period, being born in 1952.) In the broader landscape of espionage fiction, Greene's worldview is much like le Carre's in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (though the latter book is a lot more serious), rather than, say, Manning Coles.' But in hindsight, most people in the captive populations behind the Iron Curtain might well have had a perspective more similar to Coles' (while not canonizing M-16 and the CIA)....more
Normally, I don't read much while I'm visiting family on a vacation (so as to spend my time with them, not with my nose in a book), and I also usuallyNormally, I don't read much while I'm visiting family on a vacation (so as to spend my time with them, not with my nose in a book), and I also usually don't read the second book of a series before the first. So this book was an odd case on both counts. Ten years ago, on my previous visit to Australia, I'd noticed the striking cover of the book (the one peculiar to this edition, not the more generic art of the one that Goodreads treats as the main edition!) while my oldest daughter and her husband were showing me their local public library. I thought my wife, being a fan of both action heroines and Westerns --especially when the two go together!-- might be interested in it; but I didn't have pen and paper at the time to note the author and title, and had forgotten both by the time I got home. (Also, I had no idea it was part of a series.) But I knew I'd have no trouble recognizing the cover if I saw it; so when I returned to Australia last month, I made a point of visiting the library, with pen and paper this time. To my surprise, my son-in-law was intrigued enough with it to check it out on his card so we could both at least skim it a bit. After doing that, I was interested enough to read it through, here and there at odd moments during the visit when other people in the household weren't awake yet, or otherwise occupied. (At 172 pages, it's a relatively short read, and doesn't require a lot of thought.)
This time when I picked up the book, I recognized the author's name (though I hadn't previously read any of his work). He's the son of acclaimed Western author Wayne Overholser (whose 1950 short story "The Patriarch of Gunsight Flat" I read some years ago, and liked), who's followed in his father's footsteps as a writer of Westerns; both father and son have been Spur Award winners. The younger Overholser created the character of Molly Owens as the protagonist of one of his early novels, Molly And The Confidence Man (1975), and went on to write five more novels featuring her. Orphaned young, Molly and her now-deceased brother survived a rough childhood on their own; after he came West, she answered an ad and went to work for the Fenton Detective Agency, which is fictional, but modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Agency --which actually did employ women detectives, Kate Warne becoming the first in 1856 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Warne ). Overholser set much of his work in his native Colorado; Molly's based in Denver, and his tale is set in the real-life Colorado mining boom town of Cripple Creek in ca. 1893. That setting is actually drawn with considerable accuracy, and the depiction of the community's history and labor troubles in that period reflects actual realities, with some license and changing of names. (I'll give Overholser credit for doing serious research.)
While I wouldn't describe the author's characterizations as sharp, Molly comes across as a kind person who cares about justice, as well as both brave and capable. She approaches her detective work with good observation skills and intuition (and isn't above picking a lock or two if that's what it takes to hunt for evidence). While Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, debuting in 1982 in A Is for Alibi, is usually considered literature's first gun-packing female detective who could handle rough stuff if the baddies wanted to throw it at her, Molly preceded her by seven years and is no shrinking violet where combat is concerned, either with her double-action Colt or with her fists and feet (and she can deliver a pretty nasty head-butt as well); she just was never noticed by mystery-genre critics because her venue is in a different genre. Here, her assignment calls for her to get to the bottom of a pregnant prostitute's bogus paternity suit against a newly-rich prospector; but the case soon morphs into an unauthorized murder investigation, in the context of a labor dispute between mine owners and mine workers that threatens to become a blood bath. (Some on both sides are up for illegal violence, but the mine owners and their thugs are the more dangerously violent.)
As is true of some other works in this genre that I've read, the author's prose style is mediocre, adequate but uninspired, workmanlike pulp that does the job in an undistinguished way; he tells the story and allows you to picture the action and settings, but this isn't a novel you'd read for scintillating dialogue, vivid turns of phrase, telling details, or description that soars and sings. His plotting is on a similar level; towards the end, a couple of characters make some decisions that serve the storyline, but struck me as dubiously likely to have been made had this been a real-life narrative in the same situation. The mystery element isn't very deeply mysterious in the long run. And while the bad language, of the d-word/h-word sort, is minimal and Molly herself pretty clean in her own speech --I wouldn't guarantee that she never lets a cuss word slip under stress (I don't have the book in front of me to check, obviously) but she certainly doesn't make it a noticeable habit-- there are three explicit sex scenes. (They can be skipped over with no loss of anything.) However, this isn't a romance as such, nor is it a trashy "adult Western;" and I wouldn't describe Molly's character as sexually predatory or deliberately exploitative. Her attitude is actually probably characteristic of many single, career-oriented young secular women in the 70s and 80s when the books were written (and subsequently) --neither marriage-oriented nor obsessed with sex, but open to it in cases where they have a strong attraction to a guy that's more than physical. Whether that's very realistic for the 1890s, before the Pill and when legally-binding marriage still existed as a reality that both genders looked to for security and stability (and when employers like the Fenton Agency were concerned with social "respectability") would be another question.
Despite its flaws,though, I basically liked the book as passing light entertainment, and liked and admired the heroine for her genuine good qualities. Personally, I wouldn't bother seeking out the rest of the series; but if you're a Western fan who doesn't demand much from your books and read for recreation, you could certainly pick a lot worse books, with a lot worse messages. :-)...more