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review 2018-03-23 18:35
Zealot by Reza Aslan
Zealot. The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth - Reza Aslan

This is an accessible work of history, looking at what the historical evidence tells us about Jesus of Nazareth and his times. Not knowing much about the context of those times, I found it enlightening, though it sometimes seems that the author overstates the certainty with which much of anything about the ancient world can be known. In the end much of the book is educated guessing – worth reading because it is very educated, but not much can be proven.

Part 1 covers the context of first-century Palestine, a far-flung Roman province bursting with discontent about tribute requirements, leading to high taxes, leading to exploitation of the poor. Many men claimed the mantle of messiah, or the chosen one who would liberate their land from the Romans and restore God’s kingdom. Eventually the Jews revolted in 66 C.E. and kicked out the Romans, only for the Romans to return and wipe out Jerusalem four years later. In this milieu, and given the way the Romans executed Jesus (crucifixion was the standard punishment for sedition and treason, as a warning to others), the author builds a case for interpreting him as a political revolutionary. For instance, an act such as overturning the moneylenders’ tables at the Temple would have been a protest against the priests’ collaboration with Rome and enrichment of themselves at the expense of the common people.

Part 2 is more focused on the information in the gospels: what is credible from a historical perspective, and how Jesus’s words would have been understood at the time. Finally, Part 3 is about the early church in the aftermath of his death, particularly the schism between James (Jesus’s brother, who led the Jerusalem assembly) and Paul, who comes across as a bit of an egomaniac who reinvented Jesus’s message entirely, transforming it from a Jewish sect into an entirely new religion. Jesus claimed that he had come to fulfill Jewish law, while Paul decreed that he had replaced it; when Jesus was originally referred to as “Son of God,” the author argues that this designation meant simply the “chosen one” (David was also a “Son of God”) while Paul interpreted it literally. During his lifetime Paul did not have great success, but his version of Christianity was better suited to take off in a post-Jerusalem world, where the Jews had become pariah and the Temple no longer existed.

I found this to be an interesting and thought-provoking book. While not a fast read, it provides an engaging narrative and is readable and accessible to the non-academic reader. The author’s arguments in general seem extensive researched, well-documented and persuasive. When discounting sources or filling in gaps in the record, he generally explains his analysis rather than simply stating his conclusions as if they were fact.

However, it isn’t a perfect book. The organization can be a bit scattershot, jumping around in time and between general historical background and Jesus, especially in the early sections. There are no footnotes, and some assertions are supported by extensive endnotes while others are not. While not representative of the book as a whole, there are some eyebrow-raising arguments to authority, stating that “the overwhelming consensus” (204) among scholars tells us something, or that another author has “definitively proven” (240) something else. It is helpful to know which ideas are subjects of controversy and which aren’t, and I don’t expect the author to perform independent research on every single topic surrounding life in the ancient world, but it is an odd phrasing for a book premised on the method of drawing conclusions from primary sources even if they differ from established dogma.

More broadly speaking, the book’s analysis left me with big questions unanswered. If the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death by people who didn’t know him, and who did not live in a society where fact-checking and documentation were a thing (though the Romans kept extensive records on issues of interest such as tax collection), and were written as testaments of faith with the intention of converting non-Jews to their religion rather than as historical documents, then why remove some politically-charged bits but not others? The author argues that the Gospel writers must have changed the agency in Jesus’s execution from the Roman governor to the Jews for palatability to their intended audience, given that Pilate cared little to nothing what his subject population thought about anything, but why then leave in the overturning of the moneylenders’ tables, the sermon on the mount (which the author argues would have been about the new social order in God’s kingdom on earth rather than a spiritual promise), and other statements targeting the Temple and the Roman government? 

And if the writers needed to transport Jesus’s birth to Bethlehem to argue that he fulfilled the prophecies, why would they have explained this through a census story that their readers would have known to be false, because the census not only didn’t happen at that time but did not work that way (the Roman census was about tallying up property in order to tax it, and putting the economy on hold for months for everyone to travel to their home village without said property would have been absurd)? It’s fair to say that I am hopelessly modern and nonreligious and can’t claim to understand the mindset of a first- or second-century convert, but immersion in a story to me depends on finding it at least plausible. It also seems likely that a new religion isn’t trying to recruit skeptics who will question its facts but rather true believers who will accept the religious leaders’ word. But there still seems to me to be a difference between facts that can be disproven, and unverifiable assertions that must be taken on faith, and why hand your opponents the former if you can avoid it?

So I wish the author would have delved more into the historicity of the Gospels as a whole rather than focusing on specific passages one at a time; for me at least it would have been helpful in evaluating the overall argument. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and educational book of reasonably short length, and I’m glad I read it.

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review 2018-03-22 19:36
Folk Tales of the Maldives by Xavier Romero-Frias
Folk Tales of the Maldives - Xavier Romero-Frias

This is an enjoyable book of folklore from the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Though the author’s writing in the introduction is a bit stiff, the 80 tales included are characterized by strong storytelling, and paint a vivid picture of the traditional culture of the Maldives. The stories are perhaps best described as legends, featuring kings, ghosts and spirits, good and evil sorcerers, and monsters from the sea, alongside regular people who interact with all of the above, and of course a few animal stories. A few tales are based on recent historical incidents, while most seem to be set sometime in the distant past. Despite the large number of stories, ranging in length from 1-2 pages to 12 or 14, they felt fresh and engaging throughout. In fact, two different stories about a man who falsely sets himself up as an expert have opposite endings.

I would have appreciated more information about the Maldives and the storytellers, who are identified by name and place of residence but not otherwise discussed, though the author might reasonably have seen that as beyond the scope of this book. I was surprised to learn that the book is actually banned in the Maldives, which currently has a strict Muslim government; Islam has been in the islands for centuries and appears in many of the stories, but the stories treat it casually, as part of the backdrop. More information about life in the islands today, to put all this in context, would have been helpful. That said, I think this is an excellent choice for those who enjoy folklore, and I enjoyed reading it.

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url 2018-03-22 18:12
My [author Elizabeth Bear] Formative SFF: Forgotten Classics of the ’70s and ’80s
Sorcerer's Son - Phyllis Eisenstein
The Door Into Fire - Diane Duane
The Idylls of the Queen: A Tale of Queen Guenevere - Phyllis Ann Karr
Red Moon and Black Mountain - Joy Chant
Tomoe Gozen - Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Motherlines - Suzy McKee Charnas
Dreamsnake - Vonda N. McIntyre
Diadem from the Stars - Jo Clayton

I created a booklikes reading list at http://booklikes.com/apps/reading-lists/879/author-elizabeth-bear-s-formative-sff-forgotten-classics-of-the-70s-and-80s .

Source: www.tor.com/2018/03/20/formative-sff-forgotten-classics-of-the-70s-and-80s
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review 2018-03-21 19:32
The Accusation by Bandi
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith,Bandi

This is a collection of short stories criticizing the North Korean government. Purportedly, it was written by an anonymous North Korean official still living in the country, and smuggled out as a handwritten manuscript. Upon reading the first couple of stories, though, I began to wonder if that backstory is a publicity stunt. I’ve read a lot of contemporary English-language fiction, and a lot of fiction from countries around the world, and what struck me about this collection is that it is written in a style characteristic of modern English-speaking authors. This makes it easy reading for those audiences: it’s written with the immediacy and emotional intimacy with the characters that one typically sees in English-language fiction; it has that pleasing balance of dialogue and narrative, that easy-to-read plot-driven flow, that immersion in the characters’ thoughts and feelings that characterizes most popular fiction today. Authors from cultural traditions very different from the mainstream western ones rarely write this way unless they have immigrated to an English-speaking country, even though almost all of them would have ready access to popular fiction, unlike someone living in North Korea.

Having these doubts, I poked around on the Internet for more information about the book (the New Yorker article is worth a read). No one has proven it to be a hoax, and a vocabulary analysis apparently indicates that the writer used North Korean language, which has diverged somewhat from South Korea’s over the decades of separation. However, I found it significant that journalist Barbara Demick, author of the fantastic Nothing to Envy (a nonfiction narrative of life in North Korea, based on her research and defectors’ accounts) also doubts the official version. Her doubt seems to stem primarily from the author’s keen awareness of the regime’s internal contradictions; this is apparently an understanding that takes defectors significant time outside the country to fully comprehend.

As for the book itself, each of its seven stories is a quick and easy read, though they average around 30 pages each. However, after the first two or three stories, which were fairly enjoyable, I began to tire of their incessant drumbeat. All of the stories are about how the regime and life in North Korea crushes a character in one way or another (usually metaphorically, but in one case physically): there is no conflict that doesn’t have the Party at its base and no possibility of happiness. At the end of the final story, a character, gazing at the red-brick local Party office, reflects, “How many noble lives had been lost to its poison! The root of all human misfortunate and suffering was that red European specter that the [party official] had boasted had put down roots in this land, the seed of that red mushroom!” Perhaps I ought to take the idea that the government could be the cause of all human suffering as evidence that the author does in fact live in North Korea, but in any case, such a simplistic view of the world doesn’t make for high-quality literary work.

Whoever the author may be, the fundamental storytelling skills are certainly there, despite a singular political focus, and it will be an especially interesting book for those who haven’t read much about North Korea. But for those who want to learn more about the country, I recommend starting with the brilliant Nothing to Envy.

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review 2018-03-21 10:06
Our Dark Stars - Audrey Grey,Krystal Wad... Our Dark Stars - Audrey Grey,Krystal Wade

I received a review copy for the blog tour.

So I was really excited about this book. Been meaning to read it for some time so imagine my delight when I spotted the blog tour and the chance to review it before it came out! I just had to take it! And in the end I quite loved this book, I flew through it. There were some parts that I didn’t quite like, but for most the good parts won.

We have two characters; Will and Talia. Will’s parts take place in the now, a world ruled by mocks. Talia’s parts first take place in the past, a world that was at war, a world where mocks were servants or looked at with distrust. Later on it merges with Will’s timeline. And that is when the true fun and excitement starts.

I was a bit confused by Talia’s behaviour. In the past parts we can clearly see that she is a princess, but she isn’t treating anyone wrongly (like so many others do). She is actually pretty fun, kick-ass, and I loved her there. I loved how she was kind towards mocks, Ailat especially. How she actually didn’t feel like being a princess that much, how she just wants to hug or talk to her dad normally. She was just a teenage girl with a crown. Plus I loved the fact that she could fly a figher plane with ease. My heart broke when she had to do that to her best friend. I wish that she could have whispered something to her friend, told her it wasn’t meant to be like this. That she was doing it to save Ailat.
However, the Talia in the now was just a totally different girl. I get that what happened traumatised her, but for some reason she started to also act like your stereotypical princess girl. Asking the mocks (Will and his crew) for all sorts of things (sandwiches and such), being disgusted that she had to help out, being a total bitch towards the crew. And also making so many stupid mistakes that almost cost them all their lives. It was like during that time she was frozen she also lost a few of her precious kick-ass braincells. I just found it such a shame as I really loved Talia of the before. :(
Thankfully, around the middle/near the end she slowly started to show more of those kick-assness again, and I saw that she was caring for the crew, for Will especially. The ending it was just the old Talia again, and I was so happy, so delighted. Welcome back, don’t leave us again!

Will was just a delightful character. He also didn’t have a good past, so where Talia is distrustful of mocks, he is distrustful of humans. I loved Will from the start, he was interesting, plus I was curious to see how he would grow. Would he be able to stand up for himself? Would he tell his brother and father to stuff it? And what about his growing attraction to Talia? Would something bloom between them? Sure, he made some stupid mistakes, but I can forgive him. There is so much manipulation, so many lies, it is hard to see what is good and what is the truth. Plus he just wanted something better for him and his crew.

Then there is the crew. At first I didn’t like Lux, but that girl just grew on me until she was one of my favourite characters. Followed by Tandy (I get that she was a holo, but dang that girl is just too awesome and feisty, I wish we could get a book about her), and then Leo and Jane.

Who the Queen was? Gee, I knew from the start who that was. Though I was also secretly hoping there would be a twist, something different from all the other books with the same idea. But no, so in the end I probably startled my neighbours when I shouted: “I KNEWWWWWWWW ITTTTTTT!!” when the “revelation” was there.

I did like the mocks and the fact they could jump out of their bodies into a new one. That must be pretty awesome, though I am not too sure if I am into living forever.

Big plus points to the cover, I just adore it to bits, it is so gorgeous.

There is tons of action, and the book is really fast-paced. You won’t be bored one moment while reading.

I would definitely recommend this book to all.

Review first posted at https://twirlingbookprincess.com/

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