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Friday, October 26, 2012

A Turk Among Vikings



I'm actually a fan of fiction that humanizes the Vikings and re-creates their worldview.  That's why I selected  the short story "Tyrker's Tale" by Robin Ingle when it was offered to me by The Bookplex.  This story seemed particularly unusual because the viewpoint character is a Turkish thrall.  The author places him within the 10th century historical context by mentioning real people and events.   My review is below.

                                                   



Tyrker, the viewpoint character, is a thrall of a real historical personage known in English as Eric the Red.  Tyrker’s perspective is that of a warrior in his prime who is well-traveled and has had many exploits that impress Eric’s children.  Even though a short story is a limited canvas for a writer, Robin Ingle manages to show us something of the harshness of life in the tenth century.  It is a world that may seem very alien to 21st century readers that know nothing of the period.   The author doesn’t shy away from the awful impact of slavery.

On the other hand, I thought that Robin Ingle portrayed Eric the Red more positively than I would have expected based on what is known of him.  Since this is fiction, I am willing to imagine that this notorious brawler who was continually getting into trouble with the authorities, was quite different toward members of his own family and household.

I was interested in the character of Runa.  I wanted to know more of her history.  I hope that there will be more about Runa in future stories in the World’s Edge series. 

“Tyrker’s Tale” involves mature themes. There is a forbidden romance. I thought that it was handled tastefully.  There is no explicit sexual content, but I would not recommend it for young children. 

I consider this a successful short story that is well-written.  I anticipate that these short stories are really only appetizers for the novel dealing with these characters that Robin Ingle will eventually write.
                                                        
                                                  *****************************

For more information about Eric the Red, you may consult the following websites:

 The Saga of Eric the Red This is the original Icelandic saga translated into English.
Danish website on Eric the Red  Very good summary of his life translated to English from Danish
Greenland Page About Eric the Red  This is a page on the Greenland tourism website in English.

                                   
                                                     

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Silver Scorpion Challenges Biases and Bridges Cultures

I was delighted to download  the upcoming graphic novel release, Silver Scorpion, under the auspices of Net Galley. It was made available by Dynamite Entertainment which is the print publisher of the English version of this international superhero comic book. (It is also available in Arabic at Silver Scorpion--Arabic Edition .) I was a fan of  Dynamite's Zorro. That comic book series focused on a multi-cultural incarnation of the masked hero along the lines of Isabel Allende's novel in which the daring crusader for justice in early California is depicted as half Native American.  Given the success of their Zorro title, I thought they were a perfect home for the English print version of the equally multi-cultural Silver Scorpion.

                                                 
The history of the creation of  Silver Scorpion is an amazing one. The Open Hands Initiative  sponsored a Youth Ability Summit for American and Syrian differently abled teenagers which took place in Damascus in 2010.   These young people created a Middle Eastern protagonist in a wheelchair who undergoes a metamorphosis into a superhero. The Open Hands Initiative partnered with the digital publisher Liquid Comics and Dynamite Entertainment to realize their vision.   For a video about the origins of this project see The Making of the Silver Scorpion Comic Book .    

Silver Scorpion is the first publication from Net Galley that I am reviewing for this blog, and the first graphic novel that I read on my Kindle.  My Kindle 1 is not an advanced e-reader, so what I have to say about my experience may not apply to later models.  First, I definitely missed seeing color illustrations.  I feel that it lessens the impact of  the work which was intended to be viewed in color.  Secondly, the font was tiny and I found that I wasn't able to adjust the size.  Thirdly, my screen tended to freeze when I tried to navigate backward to check on earlier panels in order to confirm my impression of their content.   If I had a print copy in front of me and been able to turn pages, it would certainly have simplified my review process.  So for me, reading on Kindle was not the best way to enjoy Silver Scorpion.  I was able to see the opening of Silver Scorpion in color by viewing the four part animated web series at MTV Voices  which is an excellent teaser for the graphic novel.

Despite problems with the Kindle format, I was impressed with the character of Bashir, the young Syrian sculptor who becomes the Silver Scorpion.  Bashir lives with his uncle Tamim, who is a scrap metal dealer. According to the sources I consulted, Tamim in Arabic means strong, solid and impeccable.  Tamim in Hebrew is used to describe a  fully-committed spiritual relationship with God.  The character Tamim is a wise mentor for Bashir.  He provides stability through Bashir's transformative ordeal.

 The tale is a melange that included some familiar elements. The Silver Scorpion's powers might be considered similar to the powerful Marvel mutant anti-hero, Magneto . I also recognized tropes from my old favorite, Witchblade.   Ron Marz, one of the Silver Scorpion co-authors, has written quite a bit of Witchblade  for Top Cow which is the original publisher and owner of the Witchblade  franchise.  See Top Cow's Witchblade Page . The Witchblade is a powerful and intelligent artifact that chooses its female wielders. The historical personage Queen Zenobia  of ancient Syria is central to the Silver Scorpion origin story, but she is also part of Witchblade continuity as a previous wielder of the Witchblade. For more information see Witchblade Page From Image Comics, a former publisher of Witchblade.  If you scroll down on that page, there is a list of  Witchblade wielders that includes Queen Zenobia as Zenobia Septima which is her Latin name according to the Wikipedia article linked above.
 
There have been other comic book heroes who sit in wheelchairs, but have extraordinary abilities.  Marvel's Professor X, the leader of the X-Men, is probably the most famous of them. He was born Charles Xavier and became a powerful telepath.  Another comic book hero in a wheelchair, known as Oracle , was a tremendous inspiration to a great many people. She didn't have any superpowers, but she was a former librarian and wielded the formidable power of information.  She was born as Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Police Commissioner Gordon of Gotham City, the home of Batman, the world renowned Caped Crusader of DC Comics.  For the complex history of this DC character see The Wikipedia Article on Barbara Gordon.  Barbara Gordon continues to have adventures in the relaunched DC continuity, but Oracle is gone. I have seen her tombstone and have mourned her.  The Silver Scorpion can't replace Oracle, but I do recognize him as a successor who can play a similarly important role.

I think that it's the character of Sandstar that is the most original contribution of Silver Scorpion to the annals of  comic book heroes.  Sandstar  emerges from the desert.  She seems to be inspired by Arabian legends of spirits such as the Jinn.  They are usually seen as evil, but I located An Islamic Page on the Jinn which states that Allah created the Jinn , and that when they are righteous they will be rewarded.  Within  Silver Scorpion's narrative, Sandstar represents the urge of Islamic women to educate themselves and defend their rights.  She can become a role model in Syria and other Islamic nations.  My only complaint about this character is that she is inconsistently called Sandstorm later in the storyline.  So I am uncertain about whether her official name is Sandstar or Sandstorm.

What happens when our heroes are in wheelchairs, or they are women who refuse to be marginalized?  I hope that what happens as a result of this graphic novel is positive change like the transformation of Bashir into the Silver Scorpion.

                                         
                                                     



Monday, October 15, 2012

Solution for Solutions America: Get an Editor!



 Everyone has run across indie books with errors.  It reflects poorly on the author, the book and on indie books in general.  Some readers may tar all indie books with the same brush after experiencing one too many of them that haven't been edited.  Editing is not the same as running a spellchecker!  The reasons can be seen in my review of  Solutions America by John Ndege which is the subject of this blog entry.  A professional editor would have been a really good investment for this book  if  Ndege wants to be perceived as producing a quality product.  

I was initially interested in Solutions America due to the author's history and experiences.  I thought he might have some unique observations.  That's why I requested his book from The Bookplex.   Unfortunately, I have to tell you that the process of reading  Solutions America was challenging for all the wrong reasons.  My review can be found below.

                                                          
                                               

This book by a Ugandan author with a background in banking in his home country represents a different perspective.  I can see how John Ndege’s experiences have led him to his outlook on America’s political and economic systems. Although I have numerous disagreements with this author, I was interested in what he had to say about the positive impact of Ronald Reagan’s policies on the third world, and I thought that his observations about immigration issues were particularly valuable and cogent.  I did think that Ndege doesn’t have a good understanding of the American political spectrum.  His idea that the extreme left of the Democratic Party was responsible for drafting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will amuse left of center readers who favor the single payer universal health care plan of Europe and Canada. 

This book’s biggest flaw, however, is lack of editing. Ndege actually states that he didn’t think the book was ready for publication.  It’s very probable that he went against his better judgment in order to air his arguments before the U.S. presidential election this November.  He should have hired an editor and delayed the release of this book.  An editor could improve the book’s coherence and professionalism.  I normally don’t comment about editing if there are a few spelling errors here and there, but in this case the volume of errors is egregious.   It’s particularly noticeable that all words spelled with two letter L’s have had one L removed, leaving a space in the words.   I believe there was an attempt to use a spellchecker early in the manuscript.  My evidence is the substitution of incorrect words for correct words that are evidently not in the spellchecker’s dictionary.  One example was the substitution of “Shiatsu” for “Shiites”.  Having an incorrect first name for President Herbert Hoover probably isn’t a result of spellchecking, but it’s nevertheless an important error. There are also missing words and grammatical errors.  At some points in this book, I had to pause for a moment to make sure I understood Ndege’s original intention.  Clarity is so important.  Readers should not have to struggle to grasp an author’s meaning.  I also think that the outline structure further contributes to the impression that this book is a rough draft that isn’t really finished.  

                                            

Love of Shadows: A Novel In Praise of the Persecuted



I have a tendency to read books in a series out of order if I am drawn to the description of a later book.  The author generously provided me with an ARC when I expressed interest in reviewing this book.   Here is my review.

                                                 

Although this is the second book in The Healer’s Shadow series, I didn’t hesitate to plunge into it without any previous acquaintance with the work of Zoe Brooks.  I always expect that an author will want to make sure that readers like me aren’t too much out of the loop.  I am happy to report that Love of Shadows, the sequel to Girl In The Glass stands on its own. 
                                                              
Reviews of the first book categorize it as magical realism.  I initially imagined that the Shadows might be similar to Jane Yolen's Dark Sisters in Sister Light, Sister DarkYet after reading this second novel in its entirety, I actually thought this series is more similar to Ursula Le Guin’s books set in the fictional country of Orsinia.  Like Malafrena and Orsinian Tales, Zoe Brooks deals with a real world type of setting with realistic characters and problems.  Her fictional country could be any second or third world country where old traditions have been condemned by rulers who are certain that modern Western ideas are superior. The mysterious Shadows could be any despised minority who are viewed as less than human by minds darkened with fear of difference. 

 Judith, the traditional healer protagonist, has no paranormal powers.  She has learned how to recognize and utilize the plants that have been used in healing for many centuries.  Herbalism is often viewed as primitive superstition because modern people have forgotten that many drugs prescribed by doctors are synthetic forms of  the plant medicines in the herbalist’s pharmacopeia. 

I didn't know about the connection between herbs and modern medicine until an herbalist friend offered me willow bark tea for a toothache.  She then added that aspirin is synthetic willow bark.  See the history of how willow bark became aspirin at White Willow Bark on About.com 

When I researched the specific plants mentioned in this book, I learned some facts I hadn't known.  For example, Judith purchased "sweet balsam suffused with amber".  I discovered that amber starts off as a tree resin, not as jewelry. The jewelry is made with fossilized amber.  See Amber on Wikipedia  . I also found out that both balsam and amber are "tree exudates" which is anything that oozes out of a tree according to Exudate in plants on Green Facts .  The difference between a resin and a balsam is that Cinnamic acid is added to a balsam.  How To Use The Healing Power of Balsam Fir  recommends this balsam for sore throats, congestion and as an antiseptic.  I could not find any healing use for amber that is well-attested. In my search for "smorage" , I came across two inquiries about it from Zoe Brooks.  This shows that she was making an effort to be authentic in her herb lore.  If  Love of Shadows had been a fantasy novel, she could have invented plants that exist in her fantasy realm, but she chose not to do that.  Zoe Brooks described on   Herb Society Forum and  Wise Woman Forum  how her grandmother used a plant she called "smorage" in the hopes that someone on one of these two sites could identify it.  The first speculated that it could be plantain.  The second imagined that it could be borage.   There is a link there to a page about the uses of borage  at Herbal Remedies Info

 Zoe Brooks  dramatically illustrates how the issue of prohibition of herbal medicine is also an economic one. When the herbalists that served village communities are banned, it is the health of those who can’t afford doctors that suffers most.  This is shown without preaching through allowing us to experience the events of a well-devised plot.

Although it was not included with the ARC of Love of Shadows, I have read Zoe Brooks' essay about the persecution of traditional healers on her blog.  In the contemporary U.S. context, there aren't denunciations of herbalists as witches, but there are occasional articles that wonder if plants are really safe, or mention that some people who haven't studied herbs  had become ill using them because they didn't know the proper dosage.  I ought to mention that this problem of overdosing is far more common with pharmaceutical drugs.  Neither herbs nor drugs should be used by untrained persons without previous consultation with a professional.  People should be educated on this issue, and treat herbal remedies with respect.  Zoe Brooks' fictional Judith studied herbs for some time.

Love of Shadows is the work of a writer who is hitting her stride.  Zoe Brooks writes about issues that she cares about, and teaches her readers to care about them by creating characters that get under our skins and into our hearts.

                                                  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Oscar Pistorius: Athletic Phenomenon and Anti-Landmine Activist

I normally don't watch track events or interviews with runners, but I happened to catch a TV story about Oscar Pistorius of South Africa at the London Olympics this summer.  Pistorius is the first differently abled runner to participate on equal terms in the Olympics with normally abled runners.  Pistorius has no legs, and runs on very lightweight prosthetics developed for athletes.  He's set records running in the Paralympics. I thought that his story was amazing and I wanted to find out more.  So I obtained a copy of  Oscar Pistorius's memoir, Blade Runner.  Below is my review.


Oscar  Pistorius's parents decided to have his legs amputated when he was 11 months old because he was born with malformed legs.   Prosthetics were his only chance to walk, but he got blisters and tumors which sidelined him at times.   Pistorius ascribes the tumors to a condition called neurofibromatosis (known as NF), but definitely implied that it was caused by the prosthetics which didn't fit properly.  This is why it is so essential that amputees have prosthetics that fit them.  When I looked up neurofibromatosis on Wikipedia, I discovered that it's genetic.  See neurofibromatosis on Wikipedia .  I am not sure if Pistorius was mistakenly diagnosed or if in fact there is a form of NF that can be acquired.

Pistorius has been criticized for wanting to compete in the Olympics.  Many feel that he's denigrating the Paralympics.  I don't think so.  In figure skating, the sport I know best,  a World Figure Skating Championship title is not considered worth as much as an Olympics title.  It's not because the World Figure Skating Championships are inferior.  It's because they aren't the Olympics. The Olympics is the premier sports competition.  For example, Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning has had a phenomenal career.  I consider him one of the greatest figure skaters in history.  He is certainly a favorite of mine.  He was the World champion four times, but he never so much as medaled at the Olympics.    Maybe it shouldn't matter for an athlete at so high a level of accomplishment as Kurt Browning, but it certainly did matter to him because he even re-qualified for the Olympics after he'd started skating professionally.  For more information about Kurt Browning see The Kurt Files .   It seems to me that Oscar Pistorius probably feels the same way about the Olympics as Kurt Browning did.  The Olympics was an opportunity to reach for the pinnacle of his sport. He didn't medal, but just being able to compete was victory enough for Pistorius.

In this memoir Pistorius deals with the charge that his prosthetics give him an advantage over able-bodied athletes.  He appealed to the Court of Arbitration For Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland arguing that only the advantages of his prosthetics had been considered, not their disadvantages. He won his appeal and was thus able to compete in the London Olympics.  

Being a great athlete isn't the only extraordinary thing about Oscar Pistorius.  He apparently cared about those who lost limbs to landmines, and had made this his cause even though he was not a victim of a landmine.    He did speaking engagements as an ambassador for The Mine Seeker Foundation, an NGO dedicated to locating and removing landmines.   He also assisted The Mine Seeker Foundation in establishing mobile prosthetic clinics.  (See Pistorius and Mobile Prosthetic Clinics) In Blade Runner he says that he consulted with a scientist about the best prosthetics for landmine victims in Africa.  He was advised that they need to be low maintenance because Africans generally don't have nearby facilities or funds for follow ups.  Yet what about blisters resulting from prosthetics that need to be refitted? That certainly requires follow up.

Update June 2013

Unfortunately, given recent events, Oscar Pistorius is no longer considered a role model for anyone. The justice system in South Africa will decide whether Oscar Pistorius is or is not guilty of murder, but I have to say that the defense arguments I have seen indicate what seems to be very poor judgement on his part. 

As I seek to come to grips with Oscar Pistorius actions this past Valentine's Day,  I encountered a very insightful article about Oscar Pistorius, South Africa and the relationship that had developed between them.  It's Oscar Pistorius: The End of the Rainbow from the UK Guardian.   Pistorius apparently had a pattern of reckless behavior.  An eventual tragedy may have been an inevitable result.

                                                         

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interview With Hilary West




When last heard from I reviewed Apollyon, a contemporary novel dealing with the impact of school bullying.  Here, as promised, is my interview with UK author, Hilary West, the author of Apollyon.

                                                               Hilary West
                                                    
                                             
Shomeret:  
As I indicated in my previous blog entry, I understand that St. Dominic's is not a public school, but I did see similarities between Apollyon and the genre of public school novels. Were you influenced by any particular public school novel?

Hilary West:   No, I was not influenced by any particular public school novel, though of course everyone knows of Flashman. I drew on my own experiences at school which was not a private school at all, just an ordinary comprehensive, so I was writing pure fiction. St. Dominic’s is a private school as I wanted to portray a certain class. The Farnhams are middle middle to upper middle class and this really precluded a public school but not a private school which took day boys. I have since read The Clamour King by David Muirhead which is about public schoolboys.

Shomeret:  
Did you do any research on Dominican schools, or the Dominican order in general before writing Apollyon ?

Hilary West:   No, I did not do any research into the Dominican order or Dominican schools. Really this book is not supposed to be about Dominicans as such. It again is a fictional order which I made up. I called it the order of San Paolo of Padua and it could be anything. I made the brothers Catholic as I had heard of abuse in Catholic schools,  and Catholicism is central to the story. Julian Farnham is very much a Catholic schoolboy, hence his stint as an altar boy at the Abbey. Although the book is very definitely Catholic in tenor it is not about any specific order of brothers.

Shomeret:
   What are the current attitudes toward bullying and harassment in schools in Britain? What do you think are the causes of bullying? What role do you think Apollyon can play in bringing about a positive change in student behavior?

Hilary West:   I think the attitude towards bullying in schools in Britain is very healthy. Because for a start we are all aware it goes on. I think years ago it went on unnoticed and this is where the real damage was done. Now it is out in the open we have a chance to address it and everybody I know wants to stamp it out. The causes of bullying I guess are many and varied. With Julian, he was a very sensitive boy and I think the more aggressive, sporty boys picked on him because of his limp after he had fallen down the stairs, and also the fact he was a quiet boy who took an interest in Art. Sometimes it is something as innocuous as being a bit of a teacher’s pet which wrankles with other less popular pupils. A kind of jealousy if you like. I think the role Apollyon can play in bringing about a change in the attitudes towards bullying is by showing the devastating effect it has on Julian’s life. It completely wrecks it. The other two boys he goes around with become outcasts and they are ostracized by the majority. The result in later life is a complete breakdown. Julian only wanted to be popular but this was denied him by bullies. Bullying is seen as a deleterious evil with far reaching effects that persist long after the time it was happening.

Shomeret:  
What if the protagonist of Apollyon had been a girl who went to a girl's private school? How do you think that would have changed the book? Could you have written a similar book about Julia instead of Julian?

Hilary West:   I think if my protagonist had been a girl it would have been a very different book. For me, it was often the ‘macho’ in boys that created the problems, so this would not happen with girls. I have heard girls can be just as bad at bullying but I think I would have found it really difficult to write this book with girls in the frame rather than boys.

Shomeret:  
Since I have an undergraduate degree in history, I am interested in how history is taught. You portray Julian as bored by history. What is your experience of history in school? Was it interesting to you?

Hilary West:   Julian is bored by the history lesson; it is true. I was merely wanting to show that sometimes the teaching at St. Dominic’s was uninspired and pedestrian, although on the whole it is a good school academically. They depend on results to survive, but it is a bad atmosphere and we often feel, do they really care; are they just selfish people only bothered about themselves? I myself liked history at school and took it at advanced level. But I must say the teaching was uninspired. All the teacher did was read out his notes and we were expected to take them down lesson after lesson. Yawn.

Shomeret:   Given the way the psychotherapist character in this book is portrayed, I feel I have to ask about your view of psychotherapy. Do you feel that psychotherapy is effective?

Hilary West:   Yes, I feel psychotherapy is effective, though I must admit to knowing only a little about it. I do know that it is by facing the truth you get better. That is why the psychotherapist puts all sides to Julian. By going over his youth, Julian begins to realize what people really were, and he sees the good and the bad. There were angels and demons in his life.

Shomeret:  
Is there anything else that you want readers to know about Apollyon or about your work in general?

Hilary West:   I would like my readers to know I wrote all my novels with my tongue in my cheek. And they are all vaguely about fun and laughing at a complex world. I people my books with a lot of different types of characters, just like life really. I feel I write varied novels and no one book is like another.

   Shomeret:  Thank you, Hilary West.  For more information see his profile on Goodreads at
   Hilary West on Goodreads