October Reviews: Part Two

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, once again I return with a collection of book reviews. Work is still occupying half my days and the rest I am trying to dedicate to writing. Best of luck to everyone taking part in NaNoWriMo 2014, have a good November.

The Oblates Confession
William Peak

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Secant Publishing
1st December 2014 ISBN:9780990460800
Price: US$25.99
Edition:Hardcover

BLURB
England, the 7th century. Petty Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (I object to this description, there was nothing petty about the kingdoms; the kings and bishops sometimes acted like children throwing petty temper tantrums though…)make war upon one another and their Celtic neighbors. Christianity is a new force in the land, one whose hold remains tenuous at best. Power shifts back and forth uneasily between two forms of the new faith: a mystical Celtic Catholicism and a newer, more disciplined form of Catholicism emanating from Rome. Pagan rites as yet survive in the surrounding hills and mountains. Plague sweeps across the countryside unpredictably, its path marked by death and destruction.

In keeping with a practice common at the time, an Anglo-Saxon warrior donates his youngest child to the monastery of Redestone, in effect sentencing the boy to spend the rest of his life as a monk. This gift-child, called an oblate, will grow up in the abbey knowing little of his family or the expectations his natural father will someday place upon him, his existence haunted by vague memories of a former life and the questions those memories provoke.

Who is his father, the distant chieftain who sired him or the bishop he prays for daily? And to which father, natural or spiritual, will he owe allegiance when, at length, he is called upon to ally himself with one and destroy the other? These are the dilemmas the child faces. The answers will emerge from the years he spends in spiritual apprenticeship to a hermit who lives on the nearby mountain of Modra nect – and his choices will echo across a lifetime.

My Review

The character of Winwaed the narrator and titular Oblate is well realised, as are the influences on his life, most especially the hermit Father Gwynedd. The harshness of life in a Northumbrian monastery and the political upheavals of the time are also well described.

The story is interesting but is slow to get to the point; though in fact it never does seem to get to a climax. We never learn the cause of Winwaed’s confession. After 400 pages of reading about his boyhood struggles, it was really quite anti-climactic to find that, other than the usual round of farming, bad harvests and disease, nothing much actually happens.

I liked the potential political intrigue but it was a minor driver for the plot and not really made as much of as it could have been. I thought the naivete of the narrator, though the book is written from the point of view of an older man writing about his childhood, was very affecting as we see only partial truths of a child’s perception along side the adult understanding of the whole picture. The story is higgledipiggledy, the way memories from childhood pop up, sometimes out of order, some things more important than others and some details remembered while others are forgotten.

That said, there was one element, briefly mentioned though it was, that irritated me; the writer has done a lot of research clearly but he makes the mistake that many people do and conflates pre-Roman, Roman and post-Roman Britons with the English. People were aware of their tribal origins and knew they were different tribes. Read Bede; he makes it quite obvious that there was a time before the English kingdoms and the time after. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell the same story. No one would have considered themselves part of the same peoples. The author has obviously read the primary sources, from the details he includes about the Synod of Whitby, the politics of the rival churches and clergy, and the complexities of the early English kingdoms, so I’m surprised he made this mistake. It irritates me because he’s perpetuating an historical fallacy; yes there was some cultural continuity across all of northern Europe and across time, yes there was a lot of intermarriage during the Migration Age and after, in the early Middle Ages, but people were aware of their own history and they did know that the English originated on the continent. The story is set in the mid to late six hundreds, only two hundred years after the migrations and less than one hundred years after the first Roman Christian monks arrived in Kent. I have to admit the author does go on to correct – and contradict – himself, although the mistake should probably have been removed in editing.

Also, I’m puzzled as to why the author named the mountain ‘Modra nect’. The word can be found in ‘On the Reckoning of Time’, Bede’s contribution to the dating of Easter argument. It refers to a festival in the pre-Christian English calendar celebrated during Geol (Yule).

And the description given on netgalley.com, which I’ve quoted above, is really bad. Someone needs to do some research about the different Christianities present in the British Isles during the post-Roman and early medieval periods.

But, despite my puzzlement and occasional irritation, feeling that the book never comes to a point, etc., I enjoyed the story. I read half of it in one sitting, while I was ill; it was so engrossing it took my mind off my queasy belly and nasty headache. I read the second half in another sitting. While I am not a Christian, and quite frankly would have happily seen Augustine of Canterbury and Paulinus drowned before they got anywhere near our shores, the story is affecting and will no doubt stay with me.

3/5

Next up is, I suppose, seasonally appropriate.

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2014 Edition
Edited by Paula Guran

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Prime Books

Published: 17th June 2014

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No matter your expectations, the dark is full of the unknown: grim futures, distorted pasts, invasions of the uncanny, paranormal fancies, weird dreams, unnerving nightmares, baffling enigmas, revelatory excursions, desperate adventures, spectral journeys, mundane terrors, and supernatural visions.

You may stumble into obsession — or find redemption. Often disturbing, occasionally delightful, let The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror be your annual guide through the mysteries and wonders of dark fiction.

Edited by Paula Guran, with stories from Laird Barron, Elizabeth Bear, Neil Gaiman, Joe R. Lansdale, Tanith Lee, Sarah Monette, Brandon Sanderson, Carrie Vaughn and others.

My Review

I definitely recommend this anthology; it gave me the chills with every new story. Well written by a huge variety of authors and edited by Paula Guran, who Neil Gaiman called ‘the secret mistress of the genre’, this book really does show case the best in dark fantasy and horror.

Go on, scare yourself, you’ll enjoy it.

5/5

Plucked:A History of Hair Removal
Rebecca M. Hertzig

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NYU PRESS
Published: 3rd February 2015
ISBN:9781479840823
Price:29.95USD
Edition:Hardcover

BLURB
From the clamshell razors and homemade lye depilatories used in colonial America to the diode lasers and prescription pharmaceuticals available today, Americans have used a staggering array of tools to remove hair deemed unsightly, unnatural, or excessive. This is true especially for women and girls; conservative estimates indicate that 99% of American women have tried hair removal, and at least 85% regularly remove hair from their faces, armpits, legs, and bikini lines. How and when does hair become a problem—what makes some growth “excessive”? Who or what separates the necessary from the superfluous?
In Plucked, historian Rebecca Herzig addresses these questions about hair removal. She shows how, over time, dominant American beliefs about visible hair changed: where once elective hair removal was considered a “mutilation” practiced primarily by “savage” men, by the turn of the twentieth century, hair-free faces and limbs were expected for women. Visible hair growth—particularly on young, white women—came to be perceived as a sign of political extremism, sexual deviance, or mental illness. By the turn of the twenty-first century, more and more Americans were waxing, threading, shaving, or lasering themselves smooth. Herzig’s extraordinary account also reveals some of the collateral damages of the intensifying pursuit of hair-free skin. Moving beyond the experiences of particular patients or clients, Herzig describes the surprising histories of race, science, industry, and medicine behind today’s hair-removing tools. Plucked is an unsettling, gripping, and original tale of the lengths to which Americans will go to remove hair.
Rebecca M. Herzig is the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Bates College. Her previous work includes Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America and, with Evelynn Hammonds, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics.

My Review

I found this History interesting, and easy to read. The author writes in an easy fashion blending science, history and an almost anthropological approach to the subject of body hair and its removal. The book does focus almost exclusively on the US, which probably reduces its relevance to me personally, but I think it addresses the subject in a way that can be applied to other nations and cultural groups. We’re all subject to similar social pressures in the area of body hair.
Removing the majority of body hair is, relatively speaking, a new idea, fed by changing social norms and advertising. Body hair has been the focus of scientific and political debate for generations, from early anthropologists who deplored the ‘mutilated’ faces of beardless Native Americans, to scientists who tried to point to a link between hair and ‘race’ including Darwin who got himself into a tizzy because he couldn’t reconcile relatively hairless humans and evolution through natural selection (being hairless has its disadvantages in both hotter and chillier climes), to feminists arguing that the pressure to shave is a part of that form of slavery that keeps women confined to domesticity.

Interesting, thought provoking volume.

4/5

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