‘The Bloodgate Guardian’ by Joely Sue Burkhart

This book is not about the anti-Jones.  Er, sorry, I mean, the ‘Un-Indiana Jones‘[sic].  I don’t usually venture anywhere near the realms of light romance novels, so I won’t comment on my thoughts about the voice, romance themes or narrative structure.  I’ll work with the things I care about: the archaeology.

The backstory is that Dr. Jaid Merrit, an archaeologist, lost her mother in early childhood at an on-site cave-in.  With a phobia of fieldwork she has spent her academic life teaching, grading papers, and doing lowly ignoble translation and research mainly to help her father with his own South-American based investigations.

My main big issue was with ‘Maya’.  There’s been some debate in archaeological, anthropological and historical communities over whether to use ‘Maya’, ‘The Maya’ or ‘Mayan’.  You can read a great study of the particulars here, and the simple rule of thumb is to use ‘Mayan’ for the plural and whenever referring to language.  The terms ‘Maya’ and ‘The Maya’ only tend to crop up in this e-book when the entire past population (plural, I’d hope) or the language and writing itself are mentioned.  It was quite distressing, especially at some points the writer seemed to at least try to research the topics she wrote about.

Another quibble I had was with the inconsistency used in identifying Mayan proper names, place names and other terminology.  Not only were half of the names not explained or given any context where they appeared, but there was a seemingly randomised flipping between using English and traditional terms (Xibalba, Blood-Gatherer, and so on).  Consistency should have been employed so that terms were not so easily confused, it seems like the author went out of her way to obfuscate some of her own world-building and research.  When there were explanations of concepts and words they were usually accompanying terms that had been translated into English.

Archaeological terms and ideas were hilariously or catastrophically misused, depending on your perspective on these things.  ‘Dig’ is used universally in the place of ‘site’, ‘excavation’, ‘fieldwork’, and ‘ruins’.  While at least the word ‘ruin’ shows up gratuitously later on, I often felt like bashing my head against a wall.  I could not, as it appears, ‘dig’ it.  Mainly from Jaid’s perspective, the narrative goes out of its way to emphasise how rational and archaeological her mind is.  Then most of her observations about the significant items skip over the fascinating parts of the archaeology and focus instead on banal daddy issues and buzzwords.  Throughout the book the actions of characters show that Burkhart had done enough research to know about the objects and concepts; ignorance cannot be an excuse here.  Dr. Jaid Merrit as a character simply does not act or think like an archaeologist.  She is, at best, a slightly dim linguist.  Finally here, much is made of an archaeologist who does not do fieldwork.  There are many of these archaeologists in the world, and some of the best universities for archaeology in fact focus on research more than fieldwork.  The premise that preferring to research using existing data is somehow shameful or weak is ludicrous.  As a matter of fact, some of the best and most influential archaeologists are entirely research based.

Money is a conundrum.  Very little money is seen in this book directly, but there’s a constant oscillation between technology that is incredibly overpriced for field-work (wifi-capable digital cameras with tripods, the military style hut-hotel compound, an archaeologist being kept overseas for years on uni budget just to keep his daughter also employed in the faculty) and work-arounds that imply very little money to be had (overhead transparencies instead of digital projectors in the university itself, digital photographs rather than scanned images of documents, the need to bring in external funding).  While the external funding could cover some of these and presumably did, there is never a time where the organisation and sourcing of technology and money and funding are explained adequately.

A lot of this stuff could have worked, but it’s often just short of an adequate explanation.  At  times it just feels insulting to archaeologists, who tend to fund themselves or work with grants.  It all hinges on support from the huge shadow of a sinister company, and there is never any resolution regarding that, no explanation of the repercussions of the final climactic scenes.

The climax of the hilarious inaccuracies and contradictions in this book came with a simple revelation to Jaid: she realised that historical documents were subject to the bias of the writers and not reliable as concrete truth.  Even when they were mythologies instead of more reliable historical documents.  In my first year classes, we addressed this very subject.  History is subjective, and archaeology is sometimes able to dispel the egos of past writers and show physical evidence that corrects or even directly contradicts historical documents.  History is human and biased and fallible, though it can be used to enhance our cultural context for skeletal remains and material culture.  It’s first-year stuff, and no graduate archaeologists have any reason to be operating under the misconceptions that Jaid does.

Oh, and the word ‘dichotomy’ appears to have been used in a confusing and possibly inaccurate way.  Though I could understand what Burkhart was trying to say, the structure of the sentence was awkward and confusing.  Since ‘dichotomy’ is a popular word in engendered archaeology, it’s just a point of interest; there are far worse offences to the English language in this book, with less exciting words.

In the end, I have a headache.  But I’ve also had a few laughs.  What’s funniest of all is that Burkhart intended Jaid Merrit to be the opposite of Indiana Jones as a character, but she has in the end sustained that popular culture secret-rune-spy, old-boy’s-club, sexy sensationalist voice.  With ‘The Maya’ and the usual quivering Harlequin standard manflesh, it’s one of those iconic misinterpretations of archaeology that pop culture loves so much, but without any of the panache or finesse that came with the spectacular Mr. Jones, and none of the humility and honesty I found in The Janus Stone.

I’ve found another review of it at The Book Smugglers that is a bit more generous and positive, should you wish for a different perspective.

What makes a writer Australian?


Australian Coat of Arms (adopted 1912)
Image via Wikipedia


It’s a debate or argument or concern that’s been had in any country with a national or local prize for creative art.  What makes an Australian (or American or Japanese or British) writer (or artist or singer or actress or scientist)?  Within the Australian book publishing industry and general readership, things get more confused.  It’s pretty well known that internationally most – and I say most because there’s always an exception or two – crime and genre fiction set in Australia does not fare very well.  If we only included fiction set in the country, we’d be excluding some of our best writers and books, ones that really deserve recognition.

We can’t simply count any book published in Australia for two reasons:  firstly, there’s a good chunk of American and British and translated novels being published locally.  Secondly, many Australian authors who have set their books in fantastical settings or more global locations can find their agents and publishers outside of Australia, and often their true nationality escapes the notice of readers and publishers.

There isn’t an algorithm to define whether citizenship or residency or birth defines “Australian” for the purposes of publishers, readers or writers concerns.  The waters are muddied by expats and short-term visitors of other nationalities sometimes including Australiana in their writing and of the added veracity a claim on Australian cultural identity can bring to an ‘about the author’ section in these books.

But in my mind, the real measure of a book and its worth and cultural value is not the author’s background.  It is the book’s content.  If a book is set in Australia or about Australia, it counts as fiction about Australia.  And by quite reasonably clear definition if a book is published in Australia and written by an Australian resident or citizen, it is viable for a number of awards that internationally sourced books are not.  I’ve never thought it needed more debate than this; there are heaps of culturally biased and insensitive books out there in the world, after all.  It is just as likely that a native or resident writer will produce fiction offensive to or unrepresentative of Australian culture as it is that such content comes from overseas writers.

I suspect that many readers, especially of popular fiction and dust-jacket blurbs, have learnt somehow to confuse cultural context and a sense of veracity and quality with geography.  ‘Australian writer’ arguably does not mean anything more than that the writer is or has been in possession of an Australian passport, birth certificate or residency visa.  But there’s a lot more to the quality, accuracy and flavour of Australian-based literature that can lie outside those legal lines, and getting caught up in arguments over it all is more likely through waste of time to deprive individuals of good reading time than it is to ever result in a satisfying definition of ‘Australian’.  Unless you’re judging an annual and geographically specific award, little else should matter.

‘Strangers’ by Taichi Yamada


Asakusa Buddhist Temple - Gate 4
A temple in Asakusa visited in the book, by Kincuri via Flickr


I hope that we can get away with re-reads for the A to Z list.  I’ve been meaning to re-read this book for some time now, and the letter Y seems as good a reason as any.  I read this book before I even had a copy of Death of a Salaryman (my review) and the contrasts between Yamada’s sparse descriptions of television production team socialisation and Campbell’s belaboured exaggerations are possibly one of the things that so upset me when I read her book.

The main character, Harada, has recently divorced.  It is approaching the O-bon festival of the dead(find out more at wikipedia), and he is living in a rented apartment building in Tokyo.  As the narrative begins, Harada observes that the building is unnaturally silent; these apartments are mainly hired as day offices, and he is perhaps the only person who stays overnight.  In a very liminal stage in his life – middle aged, his personal and work relationships changing and adrift, he is isolated – Harada meets a woman who also inhabits the strange half-life of the apartment block after hours.  He is drawn to his childhood neighbourhood, Asakusa, and while reminiscing about the death of his parents and the home-life he once had, he meets a man and woman who look just like his young parents must have before their deaths.

This is, as the flyleaf asserts, the first of Mr. Yamada’s books to be translated into English.  It was published in Japan in 1987, and took until 2003 to be published in the US, 2005 in the UK.  I’m not sure if I’m glad, because the translation balances cultural context and storytelling quite well, or regretful that I didn’t get the chance to meet this book earlier in my life.  Faber and Faber did a good job of the cover, and although stiff the dustcover and plain yellow paperback are a little reminiscent of the smaller pulpier mass-market Japanese paperback this may have been in 1987.  It made for a nice tactile experience.

This is another of these books whose ending I cannot really gather the courage to spoil.  There are hints and symbols that really make it worth a re-read, especially if you go into your first time without much background on the O-bon festival and the nature of the spirits of the dead in Japanese folk-tales.  But the most compelling part of this book is not the spiritual or supernatural themes and symbolism; it is the way that the relationships and rapport Harada has with the dead in his life are portrayed.  The ways that his encounters with the young couple in Asakusa heal the shock and heartbreak caused by his parents’ sudden deaths in his childhood parallel the way that his relationship with the woman in his apartment block heals him from his numbed and detached divorce proceedings.  There’s more than just simply alive and dead in this story, there’s many shades of grey, including the ways that social distance arises between Harada and his colleagues, his son, and his ex-wife.  This is what interested me most.

There’s also a something to the in-character perception of metaphysical differences between life and death, and the ways that ghostliness is portrayed; how, after all, can a ghost get a mosquito bite?

Judging from other book reviewers, the Japanese culture (card games, food, the death festival) did not confuse, though perhaps some of the small interesting notes were missed.  Namely references to visiting graves (sometimes unattended spirits wander), time elapsing, and the significance of Harada living on floor number seven (a number at times associable with the word for death); just small things that really emphasise the sense of in-betweeness, liminality, of the story.

When I finished reading this time, I felt a very strong sense of peace and comfort.  Also a niggling urge to go and visit my grandfather’s grave, just in case.

Other reviews:

My Friend Amy who was sold on the book by a review in Dutch

kimbofo at Reading Matters seems to have found the book far sadder than I did, but wrote a great review

Bookie Mee however seems to have seen no transitions in Harada’s character, and thinks the book wasn’t what it could have been; it’s a good review to balance out the excited gushing here.

‘Thérèse Raquin’ by Émile Zola

Publicité pour Thérèse Raquin - ca 1877
Image via Wikipedia

This novel zooms in.  First we see an alleyway, then come to understand the true nature of those who walk along it.  Then we see some shops.  Then an empty damp dark shopfront.  Back in time, we are introduced to Thérèse and Madame Raquin through the eyes of a distant passer-by, at various times of the day.  Only then are we introduced to the characters, the nature of Thérèse’s upbringing and the ways in which her life has been dictated to her; her marriage to her uninterested cousin and her distaste with the dingy store she works in.  We know from the very start that there will be a tragedy, something that removes the Raquins from their dull but stable lives.

Quite honestly Zola admitted that he wrote not to provide characterisation, but a more clinical assessment of the effects of status, circumstance and temperaments on behaviours and events.  The storytelling techniques switch perspectives – mainly between the characters Thérèse and Laurent – to showcase these temperaments and the thoughts, observations and conditions that produce the final tragic scenes of the book.

It is fascinating.  Though I had a bit of trouble empathising with the characters, their ‘timorous desires’ and the cascade failure of social and personal troubles that befall the characters was hard to turn away from.  So too the objective assessments that often accompanied scenes and characters; their complexion and reactions and words are often described in a logical manner, mentioning this childhood trauma or that selfish desire as an explanation.  Most of the knowledge involves insight that none of the characters have, and seeing them suffer in this almost absolute lack of self-awareness is an interesting type of storytelling.

All the ways in which we lie to ourselves, especially in matters of love and fear, are laid bare before the reader through this.  In some ways it is the honesty of this, rather than the symbolism or the selfish fear of the characters, that is the really thrilling part of the story.  The implicit concept that not only would anyone with the opportunity for a crime commit it, but that we would attempt to punish and absolve ourselves after the fact.  Zola used the originally serialised medium to explore what ways other than the law that humans in this situation would be punished, and he pulls off the fear, paranoia, guilt, and denial so effortlessly that it is hard to believe that Thérèse and Laurent are fictional.

The commas, of course I, found, somewhat confusing and frustrating in the earlier chapters.  Either they were a result of the translator’s early clumsiness, or I simply became blind to them as I was drawn into the story.  If like me you find uneccessary  commas unnerving, please, endure the first few chapters as I do believe it is much more readable by page fifty or so.

I have never read Zola’s writing before, though I’ve seen the name here and there and always intended to pick up a book or two.  I chose Thérèse Raquin solely because it was available on Project Gutenberg, and was a stand-alone novel of his.  I am very glad that I did give it a try.  I’ve had a lovely evening, and though I have never been very curious about Paris, I can’t help but feel that I have seen a glimpse of the Paris that Zola saw.  Perhaps the highly descriptive opening chapters are to blame.  Even with their commas, the scene was very well set.  The book has impacted so strongly on me that my brain has been considerably blown, and I hope this review is at least partway lucid.  I plan on looking in to the rest of Zola’s work soon, but for the moment I will turn my attentions to the letter Y and my next hurdle in the A to Z reading challenge.

Other reviews of Thérèse Raquin:

The Guardian website has a short review with some insight into symbolism

Shelflove and caribousmum wrote interesting and in-depth reviews as part of a ‘classics tour’ series.

The Asylum has a review that summarises the story and mentions the sexual honesty in the book, especially for its time.

A Challenging Commitment


Alphabet 03
Image by Leo Reynolds via Flickr


I’m not yet very well networked with the book blogging community, and the further I read bookblogs the more I notice challenges.

Some of them seem quite odd and simple; read one Japanese book, for example, is a challenge that baffles me a little.  Why not two, or even five?  Others seem to be interesting ideas, but also a little pointless for me to undertake.  Why register for a challenge to read between three and twenty novels that are historically themed when it won’t be challenging or in any way deviating from my comfort zone?

The challenges themselves are a great idea, of course; I simply have never been sure if they’ve been appropriate for me.  But I stumbled across Bibliobabe’s list of challenges and I’ve decided I might as well pick one challenge to see out the year with.  It may be a little ambitious, but I’m going to take the A to Z challenge, hosted by Becky.  It will add a bit of a challenge to my traditionally haphazard reading habits, and hopefully make me venture out of my comfort zone and into sections of my bookshelves that I have been meaning to visit but never quite got around to.  I won’t count any books I’m currently reading, so there may be a lag of a couple of weeks before my list begins to update, but I’m planning on starting with the least common letters and then relaxing into the easier ones.

‘The Collected Sherlock Holmes’ – Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes
Paget's illustration of Holmes, image via Wikipedia

This is the first time that I’ve ever read the novellas and short stories.  Any of them.  I partly blame the way that Holmesians play their games and how Sherlock Holmes is such a prominent and echoed figure in our culture.  I knew already that there were more misquotations and misinterpretations than there was truth to the original characters and stories, and that itself has put me off trying the series at times, but I hadn’t realised how bad it actually was.  Rather, how different the original stories are from their pop-cultural reinterpretations.

Perhaps this has more to do with general perceptions of forensic science and logical reasoning and accuracy.  But even with the CSI effect and allowing for my own training in some of these disciplines, I find it odd that so many people think so highly and seriously of the series.  There are a lot of jokes – silly, cute, over-the-top jokes – at the expense of police officers and often at Holmes’ own expense.  There’s silly and exaggerated portrayals of women and men of every profession.  Then we’ve got the bohemian rogue, the clinical genius, and the sycophantic friend.  As much as I loved the characters of Holmes and Watson, I found it baffling that so many people who read books could possibly think that Holmes was a genius, or that Doyle was an innovator.

Not that Doyle didn’t do a lot in his work that others did not, or write well, because he did.  But he himself cites influences (for example, Poe’s Dupin) within the text of his series; he’s tipping his hat to the influences in crime and mystery fiction that he drew upon.  Ignoring even that Holmes ‘deductive’ logical reasoning is quite obviously more often ‘inductive’ than anything else, there’s been mentions of super-sleuths in fiction and non-fiction for as long as humanity has been around, as well as forensic science and high-speed footchases in busy cities.  If the most notable part of Doyle’s stories was that he inspired popular crime fiction – thus creating the CSI effect and all stupid questions asked of experts at parties – then I would have to shake my fist.

But luckily this is not the case, and my frustration with the hype aside, I did enjoy reading the novellas and stories.  I was a bit frustrated that half of the plots were recycled, dealing with the same hysterical women time and time again.  I am sad to say that what I liked the most about it all were the moments of insight into the interpersonal relationships; Holmes and Lestrade and Watson and Mrs. Hudson.  The long clumsy adumbrations and smarmy expositions were cute but far less rewarding.  I can see where the fans get their inspiration from; I myself would much prefer to discover the more scandalous cases merely hinted at by Watson’s narration or to see the central characters interacting with each other instead of dashing off to obvious conclusion number three.

Still, I had a lot of fun reading the stories, and aside from some niggling issues with accuracy of terms and the odd exclusion of some contemporary and useful crime-fighting technologies (photography,the chemical analysis hinted at in the first novel, etc) I found it to be a much better read than I had expected.  I was happy to read my secondhand copy, which contained facsimiles of the original magazine pages, but now that I’ve read further I’m quite interested in one day finding the Baring-Gould annotated version.

Some other thoughts and reviews of the short stories and novellas:

Libri Touches is quite good, though mistakenly thinks that there is one (not three) novellas featuring Holmes.

Jules’ Book Reviews has had a look at The Adventures collected in to one volume, as does Fabula.

‘The Night Manager’ by John leCarré

It is hard to summarise a novel about spying without giving too much away.  I shall stick to the limits of the copy on the back of my secondhand paperback edition.  There is a big game afoot involving arms trading and intelligence operatives, and on occasion those involved conduct their business in hotels.  A hotelier by the name of Jonathan Pine is unfortunate enough to be just the right man for the job.  I hope that is not too vague.

I must confess to a bit of a bias here; I first encountered leCarré’s writing (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) in audiobook form at the start of a romantic relationship.  Not only do I hear a wonderful voice as I read leCarré’s prose these days, but I suspect a lot of my appreciation for his stuff is tied into positive personal associations and experiences.

All associations and personal taste aside, leCarré is one of my favourite writers for characterisation.  There is just something about the language and mannerisms of his characters.  Even though I felt quite distant from the characters at times, I came away with a distinct feeling that I had met the people themselves.  leCarré has a way of being entirely honest about the ways that humans are hideous to each other and themselves without vilifying or condemning them.

The true villain is obvious, of course, in the story.  But there’s none of the blame or reduction to a caricature that can occur to side-characters; a lot of villains in my experience of thrillers tend to be completely reprehensible and selfish, often acting simply for financial gain or out of fear.  leCarré’s villains tend to be unclassifiable; there are personal nuances that derail situations, human moments in all characters that the reader can resonate with.  Heroes themselves are just as deceitful and manipulative and driven as their foils are, and the real moral dilemma are not of positive versus negative personalities, but sympathetic versus destructive end goals.

In The Night Manager the observational habits of Jonathan Pine and the efforts of Burr to support him hooking Roper the villain showcase this quite well.  What is most climactic about the novel is perhaps not the actual crisis and resolution, but the changing attitudes of bit-players; wives, lovers, and children and how they either are kept ignorant of events or rationalise their own ethical viewpoints with the lives they lead.  There is so much to it that I cannot really explain it here; you might as well read the book itself because you really can only earn these moments through context and immersion.

I was not expecting the end of the book, which is partly my own fault; I’ve read some of his more recent, more issue-based novels in the last few years and I was half expecting a bleaker, more tragic resolution.  Not that the ending was not wonderful, of course, but in retrospect the highest point for me was that initial delight as the leads and bit players were introduced and I could revel in the intimate insightful glimpses into their psyches.  I suspect I shall always remember the wig story, even though those involved dropped out of the story’s focus only a few pages or so in.  I could not stop smiling, reading that scene.  It’s not often that a  book provokes such delight in my heart.

Other reviews of The Night Manager:

At Entertainment Weekly a somewhat spoiler-ridden one, but quite positve.

Between the Covers reveals even more, but has some insight on characterisation and storytelling.

Oh dear, in fact, all the reviews I can find seem to reveal all the plot.  There aren’t any huge secrets or twists, but I do feel that coming to The Night Manager unaware of the exact ending and the major events was a great reading experience, one that I would not want to rob anyone else of.  Please consider reading the book before diving into any other reviews!