On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is an interesting and frightening review of some of the most troubling moments in world history. What makes it especially disturbing is that Snyder connects each of these moments with a current event or situation, articulating the similarities in clear detail and noting why we should all be concerned about what is happening in the United States, Europe, Russia, and China. Ultimately, each lesson is a rule for how to resist tyranny, and these rules come together to create a kind of resistance ethos. The historical moments connected to current events make the problems clear, and Snyder’s lessons remind us that, in the end, power rests with the people, even when all seems lost.

The twenty “rules” laid out in this book are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Even a cursory look at this list gives one an idea of how to go about the process of resisting authoritarianism, as well as subtle reminders of when and how fascism has manifested itself in the past. Of these rules and reminders, all of which are crucial, a few stood out to me.

First, “do not obey in advance.” Snyder recounts an experiment that was conducted to determine how willing individuals would be in causing pain to others if an authority figured (like a doctor) deemed it safe and necessary. The results were not encouraging, to say the least. Snyder reminds us to trust our own instincts and morals, and to put them into deep consideration against the instructions of any authority figure. Just because someone says “temporary pain is necessary for” whatever, doesn’t make it true. Should we ever inflict pain or hardship on anyone else? Really?

Another remarkable moment for me, in reading this short guide, is the call-to-action for defending democratic institutions. “We need paper ballots,” Snyder writes, and he is right. After what Russia did in the most recent election cycles, including in France and the United States, we must rise up at the local and state levels and demand that our representatives ensure the integrity of our electoral process. That probably means eliminating electronic polling machines, at this point, and returning to the paper process. It might take longer, but isn’t the effort and patience worth it, if it means rebuilding confidence in our process?

Snyder also asks us to “be kind to our language,” by which he means, don’t succumb to hyperbole and double-speak. Read books. Learn history (real history), and avoid the twenty-four-hour news cycle that treats everything like “breaking news” and conditions us to be always on the lookout for the next tragedy or event. This particular presidential administration seems masterful in its use of “breaking news” as devices of distraction. I hope that what we are seeing out of the Parkland students’ reactions is the beginning of a new mode of thinking, one which encourages long-term engagement and attentiveness.

“Believe in truth” is a particularly powerful idea right now. A long-feared problem has manifested itself in these last few years, one which has been predicted for a half-century by luminaries such as Isaac Asimov and George Orwell: the destruction of truth and fact; the creation of an environment wherein everything is true and false at the same time, and where opinions are treated as equally valid to fact. This has caused quite the nightmare for those of us who do deal in truth, but I think is even more damaging to those who haven’t yet recognized what is happening. We have to vocally and vehemently re-assert our right to truth and speak up in support of it whenever possible. Truth does exist. Not all opinions are valid. At some point, this is more important than hurting someone’s feelings.

Finally, taking personal action in the form of making friends, creating a private life where you surround yourself with like-minded people, and looking people in the eye, your neighbors and colleagues, is another important reminder. When tyranny rises, as it did in Nazi Germany and as it did during the “Red Scare” in the United States, it becomes only too easy for people to turn on their friends, co-workers, and neighbors. But we can make it harder by getting to know the people around us and building trust with them. There’s no easier prey for the state than a person with no friends or support. This also means, get active in one’s community and support the causes that one believes in. Chances are, when you are there for others, others may be more likely to show up for you, if and when you really need them.

These are just a few reactions to the twenty very important lessons Snyder details in his short but powerful book. I think fans of history and politics will enjoy this one for its blend of past and present, and the clear parallels Snyder draws between “then” and “now.” But I also think it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about the survival of democracy and the rule of law over the rise of tyranny and authoritarianism that encroaches more and more each day.


Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was first published by Broadway Books in 2011. I’ve had it on my “to be read” pile for about six years and finally decided to read it as part of my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge because the movie adaptation is releasing this March. The story is set in the United States, in the year 2044. The world is a bleak and dismal place. War, disease, and famine has become a world-wide problem. Economic, social, and government institutions have all but collapsed, and income inequality is at its greatest levels of all-time. Despite these problems, technological advancements have continued and the new ideal world is one called the “OASIS,” a virtual space unlike any we could currently imagine, where people can be whomever they choose. People can meet and get married in the OASIS, children go to school and earn their diplomas through the OASIS. It is a beautiful and powerful opportunity and, as it turns out, also deadly dangerous. When the creator of the OASIS dies, leaving behind an immeasurable fortune plus control of his company, an international, play-to-the-death quest begins. The first person who can solve each riddle and beat each boss, wins it all. Billions of dollars. Total control of the OASIS. But despite years and years of effort by individuals, groups, and corporations, the scoreboard remains empty. Empty, that is, until one lonely, poor, awkward geek named Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, figures out the first test and beats it. Then all hell breaks loose.

Ernest Cline’s style is effective in creating this science-fictionalized, virtual reality cross-over world, where people exist in two places simultaneously, sometimes as themselves but often not. He creates great tension in the idea of this universal split-personality, where everyone is someone else and where people are often only truly honest in the virtual world. The tone, too, is appropriate given the content and topic. Cline writes with a kind of frenetic irreverence that suits the abundance of geeky reference, nerd history, and 1980s pop culture that permeates the narrative. It is crystal clear who this story is about and what kind of audience will be attracted to it, though I don’t think the book will be appreciated only by self-professed geeks like me. This is because the prose itself is engaging, the pace is fast but not overwhelming, and the two worlds being created are delicately balanced and well-treated so that both seem believable, each with its own graces and terrors.

THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. One of the most common and powerful critiques I’ve read from other reviewers about this book is its lack of characterization or problematic issue with stereotyping, and I get it; there might be some problems here. First, though, I want to start with what I think was a great strength for this novel’s characterization: the antagonists. The bad guys. They are so realistically normal, and so realistically evil, in that deeply human way, that I found them horrifying and compelling at the same time. What is the nature of their evil? Greed and a consuming desire for power. That said, some reviewers have pointed out weaknesses in character development, as when Wade Watts, having fallen in love with a girl, realizes that he is overweight and thus commences to get in shape (the process of which is described in just a few sentences so, sure, that’s a bit unrealistic). The rather fanciful and laughably easy weight-loss/fitness process aside, I’m not sure what the primary resistance is to that character’s impulse. How many of us, especially when we were young, tried to modify our appearance to impress a person we were interested in romantically? I appreciate that the “message” isn’t great, but is it unrealistic?

In addition, some have argued that Ready Player One is just another cis-white-het-male fantasy because the protagonist is a white heterosexual male. Do we need more diversity in fictional protagonists? Yes, particularly in the still male-dominated genres of science-fiction and fantasy. That said, I can’t fault a good novel and its interesting-if-flawed hero because of the fact that he is a straight white male. I also appreciated the diversity of his friendships (though, as I will discuss in a moment, reviewers have found plenty to fault there, too).

SPOILER AHEAD. I’ve also read critiques about the way Cline draws some of the diverse characters: Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto (OASIS character names for real people). Wade’s best friend in the OASIS is Aech, whose character is a heterosexual male but who, it turns out, is a black lesbian woman in real life. When the two finally meet, Wade is taken aback for a moment, and then they have a good laugh and carry on like the best friends they are. Some have taken issue with the fact that Wade was shocked by Aech’s real gender/race/sexuality, and others have said the character was drawn that way to tic all the “diversity” boxes. I simply didn’t read it that way. To me, seeing a straight white teenage male discover his best friend is a black lesbian woman, and then shrug it off as entirely unimportant, was a welcome and powerful statement, especially in the science-fiction genre which remains heavily heteronormative.

SPOILER AHEAD: There have been complaints, too, about Daito and Shoto being stereotyped by their race. There are a few pages where the two, plus Wade, repeatedly mention the word “honor” as in, was someone’s actions honorable or not. At first glance, I could see how this might come across as racist: you’re drawing Japanese characters and scripting them with cheesy samurai film clichés? But, wait. Daito and Shoto identify as samurai. They talk about honor because they care about honor. I’m not convinced that this is the author being lazy or making a racist mistake in narration or dialogue; to me, it is an expression of what is important to the two characters themselves, and it aligns with their backgrounds and their other actions throughout the novel. (But do Parzival and Art3mis both need to repeat it in the span of a few pages? No, probably not – I hear you, there.)

SPOILER AHEAD: Lastly, I’ve read criticisms about the love-interest, Art3mis, and the development of Wade’s and Art3mis’s relationship. Some have said she “succumbs” too quickly in the end, after rejecting his advances for so long. I’m again on the opposite side of this debate, I guess. The two were the top competitors in a prize that would change not just their own lives, but the entire world. Art3mis took the smart route, which was to focus on the tasks at hand. Wade couldn’t get past his feelings for her. What’s wrong with either of these responses? And who is to say that, once the competition ends, particularly given all that the two go through and all that Wade does for Art3mis, Aech, and the others in the real world, where all of their lives are at risk, the two wouldn’t come together after all?

Ultimately, I do agree that characterization is the weaker element for this novel. I think there’s enough to make us care about Wade’s success and about the fate of his friends, but there are also things that happen too quickly or perhaps go without enough explanation. Wade, too, makes some decisions which leave us wondering whether or not we should be thinking of him as a hero, but as Aristotle suggests, an effective hero is mostly admirable and to be rooted for, but he is not necessarily perfect.

The Huffington Post calls Ready Player One, “The Grown-Up’s Harry Potter.” This isn’t quite right. Although there are some comparisons between the Muggle/Wizarding world and the Real/OASIS worlds, and between the orphaned lives of Harry Potter and Wade Watts, Ready Player One is much more of a realistic science-fiction novel than it is a fantasy. As a child of the 1980s, and a self-confirmed geek, I saw much more of Stranger Things in this novel. It’s a dystopian thriller for contemporary society. And I loved it. Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Ready Player One is Book 3 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle


“The darkness was rising, but much was still hidden by the shadows.” From the Moors of Devonshire to 221B Baker Street comes Dr. James Mortimer. His aged and aristocratic friend, Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall, has died under mysterious circumstances. It seems a vicious hell-hound has returned to the grounds, reigniting an old family curse that appears to be extinguishing the Baskerville heirs one-by-one, until only one—Sir Henry—remains. Mortimer and Sir Henry explain the family history, and a threat against Sir Henry, to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, begging for help and for answers. After spotting a bearded man following Sir Henry and Dr. Mortimer around London, the famous detective and his equally famous partner soon realize the threat is real. Holmes, too busy with a number of cases to leave for Devon, and worried that he has been spotted by the criminal anyway, elects to stay in London, asking Dr. Watson to play the role of primary observer, detective, and bodyguard to Sir Henry. But can Watson alone keep Sir Henry safe from a supernatural evil, especially when a new love enters the picture and threatens to further endanger the heir’s life?


Being one of the few novels in the Sherlock Holmes series, there is more opportunity to introduce multiple characters and for those characters to develop somewhat over the course of the 160-ish pages. That being said, I did not find the same depth or detail as in A Study in Scarlet. I was blown off course slightly in the early part of the book by the circumstances of one character in the Baskerville family lineage, but as it turns out that was a clever red herring, which caused me to mistake the real villain (although I was close and it became obvious not much later). Some have claimed that The Hound of the Baskervilles is a bit lazy for Doyle, that there is not as much heart or interest in it, possibly because Doyle had hoped to be finished with the series but felt pressured to continue it (pressured by a rabid fan base and by his publishers). I cannot agree with that opinion, although I do believe that The Hound of the Baskervilles is definitely different from Doyle’s previous installments. This feels a different kind of mystery, a different kind of detective story, and with a different kind of hero and villain.

Dr. Watson, for example, gets the most amount of page time. As the usual narrator for these stories, it is not unusual to get his perspective most of the time, but in this case, he is actually the first-hand protagonist, too. Sherlock is present only in the beginning and, of course, in the end, to take the credit as usual. Nevertheless, Holmes is much more genuinely complementary of his partner and even the Inspector than ever before. Could he be growing up? And the villain, who/which shall remain nameless, is both what he/it appears, and not. The secondary characters, from the crotchety old telescope man who sues everybody in town for the fun of it, to the two female characters, and the Baskerville housekeepers, are interesting and add something to the universe being created in this little moorland scene.


Something I will never get used to is how quickly I sink into a Sherlock Holmes story, and how rapidly I move through it. This one came in at 160 pages in my edition, a Bantam Classics with tiny font. And yet, I read the entire thing in less than 3 days. The reason for this is not just that the stories are always gripping, clever, and humorous, but that the writing is special, too. I think Doyle was a kind of anthropologist-philosopher who always had unique and enlightening things to say about the human race. An example that struck me came late in the book, when the speaker remarks, “[it] may have been love or may have been fear, or very possibly both, since they are by no means incompatible emotions.” What a special little insight there, unexpected and yet so wholly relevant both to the plot and to human nature more generally. As a master of pace and suspense, clever logic and word play, and good old-fashioned human psychology and emotional insight, Doyle has few peers, particularly in this genre. It makes reading the Sherlock Holmes tales both fun and meaningful.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

SERIES SPOILERS AHEAD! If you have not read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmesand/or “The Final Problem,” you might want to skip this next part. Understood? Well, then, if you are ready, let’s carry on:

This is the first Sherlock Holmes installment following “The Final Problem” (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) wherein the detective apparently gives his life to end Moriarty’s evil machinations. As it turns out, Holmes did not die, but readers will not be treated to an explanation in this first “return.” There were certainly enough reasons why one might conclude, after reading “The Final Problem,” that Holmes might still be alive. One thing I would have liked to see, here, would have been a reckoning of that particular series plot hole, even though it might not have anything in particular to do with this specific installment. That aside, the novel is filled with insights into science and mythology, superstition and the nature of evil. What I think I found most appealing about this particular installment is that it balances a history of bad luck with the opportunities that arise for a true villain to capitalize on myth and on peoples’ fears. A small castle in a small town on the moors of Devonshire seems a perfect setting for the story that unfolds in The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is the reality of daylight, where one can walk safely through the moors if one follows the visible pathways, juxtaposed against the true danger of the night, where even a lifelong resident might get lost in the fog and disappear forever. The metaphor is a treat. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

This is the first book completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

After reading Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in college, I certainly appreciated Hardy and was grateful to him for truly piquing my interest in the classics. Now, after reading Far from the Madding Crowd, I can absolutely call myself a fan. It is no wonder that Hardy has multiple entries on the infamous “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” master list, including Far From the Madding Crowd. This story revolves around a love-triangle (or love-square, really) between Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, resourceful young woman who comes into ownership of her Uncle’s farm, another farmer from a neighboring town, Gabriel Oak, who finds himself ruined and goes to work for Bathsheba as a shepherd (after having met and courted her previously, before she became owner of the farm), a dashing young soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy – whom, had the term existed then, would have been known as a “player,” and, finally, Bathsheba’s neighbor-farmer, Mr. William Boldwood, whose mild manner and temperance masks an inner-passion and danger that only Bathsheba can unleash –unwittingly and, ultimately, remorsefully. The three men court Bathsheba in their various ways, and the town goes on around them, filled with the regular gossip, up-and-down seasons, and mild mysteries and adventures. 

The two things that first made me fall in love with Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge were its style and its characters. Far from the Madding Crowd is no different. Although the story does not move along at a rapid pace and although the majority of it is rather mild and calm in nature (though there are some surprises and moving moments, for certain!), Hardy has a way of making everyone and everything so very interesting, as if we the reader are a part of the plot, rather than an observer of it. The characters, from major to minor, are original, unique, and distinguishable from one another. The poor desolate Fanny, beautiful but tragically ruined, is a sideline character, but one of utmost importance. The workers, Jan Coggan, Joseph Poorgrass, and Cainy Ball are exactly the type of men you would hope (and assume) to find on a prosperous but familial farm. Liddy Smallbury, Batsheba’s maid, is sweet but mildly devious, and the aptly named Pennways, Batsheba’s former bailiff (accountant) is fittingly slimy. These minor characters move the story along and interplay with the primary characters and themes in a way that is subtly intricate. Most importantly, all of the characters are realistic both in their flaws and in their strengths, which strengthens the genuineness and believability of the story as a whole. 

As I mentioned above, one of Hardy’s great strength is his writing, including prose and style. He has the ability to engage his readers in stories which are interesting, but not necessarily enthralling. Although much of the story is about everyday life, with love’s toils interspersed throughout, the book is never boring. Much of this is thanks to the interestingly drawn and loveable (or despicable) characters, but the principal reason for the story’s success is that Hardy is such a fantastic storyteller. His narrative voice is interesting and distinct from the main characters’ tones; they, too, are independent of each other, and the dialogue is wonderful. The descriptions are lovely and lucid, without being overwrought (e.g. Proust, Radcliffe), so they complement the story without overshadowing it. 

Simply put, Far from the Madding Crowd is a story about love and life. It is a story about growth and maturity, and how true maturity only comes about through experience. Each of the characters in this story, excluding perhaps Gabriel Oak, have made grave mistakes, and each character must suffer in his or her way for the choices they have made. Some, like Bathsheba, do seem to learn from what they have experienced and grow into better people. Others, like Troy, seem to be so immature and self-absorbed that little growth can be expected from them. And still others, such as Mr. Boldwood, are doomed to suffer from choices instigated by the follies of others.  The themes of independence, self-worth, female leadership, and human companionship are explored.

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“It is safer to accept any chance that offers itself, and extemporize a procedure to fit it, than to get a good plan matured, and wait for a chance of using it.”

“It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession.”

“There are accents in the eye which are not on the tongue, and more tales come from pale lips than can enter an ear.”

“She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made.  She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.”

Background on the Title:

“Far from the madding crowd” means, essentially, safe from the crazies. It refers to a quiet and rural place.  Hardy took the line from a passage in Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchard, 1751:

“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”  –Thomas Gray

The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper


Harper Perennial calls The Marbled Swarm, Dennis Cooper’s “most haunting work to date,” and it is impossible to disagree. Although this latest from Cooper is more psychological and subtle, in many aspects, than most of his other works, it is perhaps because of those reasons that it is even more effective. The book is disturbing, as is typical from Cooper. The narrator, a deeply troubled young man with fantasies of incest on the brain, is consumed by homicidal and cannibalistic tendencies. The layers of his mind are just as twisted, concealed, and misleading as the secret passageways and hidden rooms that encompass his father’s voyeuristic mansion. The book, at its core, is a mystery story, which parallels the physical reality with the narrator’s subconscious, and what the reader finds in both places is darkly troubling.   

A narrator who refuses to identify as gay, but whose sexual perversions include raping and killing boys (particularly of the “Emo” type), then eating them; a father who spies on his sons, and who slowly and subtly persuades them to become sexually infatuated with each other; a boy who lies about being raped by his father to his brother, and by his brother to his father, with the hope that one of them will rape him; men who kidnap boys, alter them through plastic and bone surgery so they will look like their fantasy type, then sell them for sexual favors to men with twisted desires. These are just some of the characters in The Marbled Swarm. Individually, each is sick, twisted, and alarming in his own right; together, they create a world of psychological distrubia. The narrator and main character is the most interesting of the bunch, perhaps because the reader witnesses some of his secrets unfold chapter-by-chapter. His younger brother and father are also fascinating, in a “this car crash makes me want to vomit but I can’t turn my head” kind of way. Ultimately, the group serves to progress the story’s purpose, which is a commentary on language and communication, as well as Cooper’s modus operandi – exposing the terrible side of humanity and the evil side of desire. 

Cooper’s writing style is nearly unmatched; he is a type of writer that has been unknown in American Literature since William Burroughs. Although his themes are twisted and hard to stomach for most, his ability as a writer are laudable to say the least. His mastery of language, his ability to advance a plot seamlessly, and the sickeningly playful way he messes with his readers minds are impossible to overlook, despite how unsavory the subject matter. In The Marbled Swarm, Cooper has accomplished all that his previous works attempted, which is saying much, because his previous works were groundbreaking in their own right. In retrospect, though, it is clear to see that Cooper has been developing over time, getting better and better; and this latest, his masterpiece, is proof of how hard he has been working to perfect his craft. 

After admiring Cooper’s work for nearly a decade, I can say that, though I have loved and been fascinated by almost every book, poem, and essay the man has ever written, this is the book all previous works were helping to develop. It is, by far, Cooper’s most complex piece to date, and also his finest in craft, in theory, and in delivery. The fluid prose, disturbing subject matter, and psychological warfare (within the story and between narrator and reader) make this book a demonstrable work of genius. Had this been just a story about a disturbed young man who had sexual attractions for his brother and father, and who liked to eat human flesh, the book would have been sick, sad, and confusing; however, though that is technically what happens in the book, it is not what the book is about. This is a story about desire and depression; it is a story about cravings and theatrics;  it is a story about the pleasure of playing “the witness” in horrifying situations and, most importantly, it is a story about story-telling. 

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0



Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein

The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay is an interesting retelling of the young life of Merlin’s arch-nemesis, Morgana. The story takes place in the late 400s; the Romans have fallen and Christianity is on the rise, reaching the superstitious, pagan-rich lands of Britain and Ireland. Young Anna, whose father is a powerful governor father and whose mother is the beautiful Ygraine, a timid witch, is forced to flee Britania from the wrath of Uter Pendgragon, who kills Anna’s father (with the help of the Enchanter) to be with and have a child by Ygraine. At sea, Anna is reborn as Morgan, and it is in Ireland that she is both enslaved and freed. She falls in love with an Irish warrior, uses her magical abilities and military background to help him rise to greatness, before leaving Ireland to return home and take vengeance upon Uter Pendgragon. Unfortunately, not everything goes according to plan, and Morgan, though victorious, will ultimately meet another great and legendary new leader instead.

The majority of the story is spent with its main character, Morgan. Fortunately, Epstein has drawn her to be rather interesting. There are inklings of Morgan’s adult personality, with which many familiar with Arthurian legend will be familiar, and Epstein allows these traits to manifest gradually and with believable impetus. Morgan’s youth and rise to power and self-discovery is satisfying, though more time spent on the magic itself (and understanding it/helping the readers to understand it) would have improved the relationship between reader and Morgan’s journey. The minor characters, too, are interesting – though many (like Uter) do not get as much page-time as one might expect. We get the sense, for instance, that Uter was a bad, power-hungry man, but there is only one hint as to why, and it comes near the very end. Still, others, like the various Irish clans, the lover-interest Conall, and the Christian colony (Salvatus, Befind, and Luan, in particular) are well-developed so as to supplement and progress Morgan’s story.

The story flows well because it is broken into logical segments and because the language and prose are conducive to the age range and maturity level of the story. Once into the story, it easy to become engrossed in it, wanting to know what will happen next. It took this reader, for example, just over two days to read the entire 300-page book. One criticism, however, is the relatively simple sentence structure. For middle grade readers this might be fine, but the story is more advanced than that, so the structure should be as well. At certain points, the short sentences certainly serves the purpose of creating a sense of action, as is true in general; however, much of the prose is made up of relatively short, simple sentences, when more complexity in the structure could have added substance, positive complication, and engagement.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is not just that it is about Morgan Le Fay, which is a fascinating subject; in fact, one of the most interesting elements was the conflict between the budding Christian culture and the well-established but threatened pagan religions. Added with the various nationalities – the British, the Irish, the Saxons, and (in some relative respect) the Romans- the book becomes a fascinating culture study. It also tackles aspects of family, revenge, and forgiveness. This is certainly an appealing and creative re-imagining of the young life of Morgana, and one can only hope that it will be the first book in a series that will expand further on her life and times. The book’s website also contains some great background and historical information on Morgan and this era, which is a great benefit to readers who have a deeper interest.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0