Search This Blog

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Speakers of the Dead: The Costs of Medical Progress

Back in the 1970's I read a historical novel about Dr. John Hunter, an 18th century Scottish physician who is regarded as a medical pioneer.   I can't recall the title or author and couldn't find it on the internet, but that book was the one in which I discovered that doctors once  stole corpses from cemeteries in order to learn about human anatomy.   More recently,  I read The Anatomy of Deception by Lawrence Goldstone, a historical mystery which took place in late 19th century Philadelphia only a few years after autopsies became legal.

The subject of this review, Speakers of the Dead by J. Aaron Sanders, is a 2016 historical mystery that takes place in New York in 1843 when resistance to medical dissection of human corpses was still extremely high in the United States.  So medical schools continued to break the law in order to teach students anatomy.


By choosing to center his story on a fictional medical school for women which didn't exist in New York at the time,  Sanders has epitomized the anxieties of an era.  Respectable women were regarded as The Angel of the House  during this period.  The Wikipedia article to which I've linked refers to a popular poem that was published more than a decade later, but it crystallized the attitudes that had been part of the Anglo-American zeitgeist for some time.  Women were expected to swoon if anyone so much as mentioned the darker aspects of life. According to Victorian ideology, women were supposed to be too delicate to be exposed to such things.  Men existed to shield women from reality.   This means that women who cut up corpses were total iconoclasts.  I had no difficulty in believing  that they in particular would be subjected to mass outrage as they were in this novel.   They hadn't merely stepped outside women's sphere, they had shattered it and left the wreckage behind them.  There was a women's medical school in neighboring Pennsylvania a few years later, so Sanders was tweaking the chronology a bit.  He confesses to altering chronology in his author's note. This didn't bother me because he set up such an interesting social conflict.

The real first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, was one of the medical students in Speakers of the Dead.  Her name was Elizabeth Blackwell, and she had an unusual background.  Sanders has Blackwell speak about her father as an abolitionist, but my research revealed a man who was generally at odds with society, and he raised a set of children who were dissidents.   Elizabeth Blackwell's sister followed her into medicine, and her brother Henry Browne Blackwell became a women's suffrage supporter who married the women's suffrage activist Lucy Stone.  The Wikipedia article dealing with him includes the protest against the marriage laws that they read aloud during their wedding ceremony.

I haven't yet mentioned the amazing protagonist of this book.  It's Walt Whitman.  Other reviewers say that this isn't the Walt Whitman that they knew.  I guess they didn't actually read all his poems.  I did, and I consider him one of the most brilliant and unconventional poets in the English language.  So it didn't surprise me that he was taking on the establishment of his day as a young journalist.

Some mystery readers dislike historical personages as detectives because they don't think it likely that they'd be investigating crimes.  Newspapers that report crimes are also expected to uncover facts about them.  So I would think they'd have no problem with Walt Whitman solving cases during the journalistic phase in his life.

Actually, Speakers of the Dead wasn't so much of a whodunit.  Walt's challenge was to convince the authorities to arrest the man he knew to be the perpetrator.  This turned out to be a very risky undertaking.   Even though I knew that Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Blackwell  would survive the events of this novel, I still found it quite suspenseful.

I definitely wouldn't mind reading more Walt Whitman mysteries.  This may be J. Aaron Sanders' first novel, but it already shows evidence that his future work may be astonishing.



Thursday, December 29, 2016

True Colors of Betrayal: Characters Don't Always Evolve In A Straight Line

I promised J.C. Kang that I would read True Colors of Betrayal in January when he sent me a review copy.  Well, I got to it a bit early thanks to my new one book at a time reading policy.  Reading print books at home and e-books on mass transit has not been a good idea for books in either category.   The digital review copies were being completed more slowly, and there were so many print books that weren't getting completed at all.  I'm already seeing a small improvement in the number of books that I'm getting read.

True Colors of Betrayal is the third book in J. C. Kang's Daughter of the Dragon Throne series.   The main protagonist of this YA fantasy series is Princess Kaiya, a member of the Imperial family in an alternate version of China known as Cathay and Hua.  I reviewed book one, The Dragon Scale Lute, here and book two, The Dragon Charmer, here.  As usual, this review is an honest one.


Based on the foregrounding of the male character on the cover, you might think that he was the protagonist.   I imagine that he is Tian.  Tian is Kaiya's childhood friend who was exiled from the Imperial court for reasons that you will discover in this novel.   His narrative role is mainly action hero, but he's protecting Kaiya.  Characters are seen in relationship to Kaiya who is still the protagonist.

If Kaiya had continued to progress in the direction that she was headed at the end of  The Dragon Charmer she would have been an even more formidable leader at the close of True Colors of Betrayal.  Unfortunately, her momentum was disrupted by trauma.  This is the fate of far too many women, but it isn't a natural stage of development.   Kaiya was hijacked on her life journey. She was transformed into a survivor who would never see the world in the same way again.

The antagonists in this novel are the Teleri Empire. I originally thought they might be an alternate Mongol horde.  Yet on reflection, after reading this book, the closest parallel to the Teleri seemed to be the Castor clones of the BBC science fiction series Orphan Black  for a number of reasons which would be serious spoilers.

There was a long chase sequence in this novel that I found rather uninteresting.  It has always seemed to me that all chase sequences are the same.  The only way they can diverge is by mode of transportation which doesn't really provide enough variety.  The plot picked up for me after Kaiya stopped fleeing though the resolution was rather bleak. 

I sincerely hope that Kaiya can fully recover from her victimization. Judging from the description of the fourth novel in the series, she has a rough row to hoe.



Friday, December 16, 2016

India Was One--A Cautionary Tale For Divided Nations

I apologize for being late with this review.  I promised the anonymous author a review in October, but blog tours and commitments to publishers over the last two months made it impossible for me to read and review India Was One until now.  I purchased the book on Amazon some time ago, but when I read books on my Kindle, they are almost always books that I've been asked to review by authors, publishers or promoters.  When the author contacted me on Goodreads and requested a review more recently, I put it on my priority list.

First, I need to explain that this isn't historical fiction about the partition of India and Pakistan by the British in 1947.   It's contemporary fiction taking place in current day India and the U.S.


I often discuss genre in books. India Was One straddles two genres.  The first 75% is a romance dealing with the relationship of Jai and Kaahi, the two protagonists.  The last 25% is a powerful thriller type plot dealing with how Jai and Kaahi are separated in a divided India.  Actually, there is a sub-genre of romance called romantic thriller.  This book could fit into that sub-genre.   Given the predominance of romance in the content that would be the best solution.

Unfortunately, the title and cover are marketing the novel to the wrong audience.   The audience segment that prefers their thrillers without romance is complaining about it in their Goodreads reviews.  Marketing for a romantic thriller novel could display the characters on the cover with barbed wire between them, and have a title which indicates that it focuses on them.  The new title could be something like Jai and Kaahi: Two Lovers Divided.   The cover and title are important signals about the content.   An Indian should consider what signals he wants to broadcoast to the book buying public. 

Now I'd like to address the Hindi vocabulary problem.  Books with a significant number of words from languages other than the main language of the text should  have glossaries.  So instead of bogging the story down with Hindi script followed by the English transliteration and the English definition, the transliteration alone could be included in the text.  Then readers could look it up in the glossary where they would find other information about these words if they're so inclined.  Most people associate glossaries with print books.  Yet glossaries can actually be facilitated in digital format by hyperlinking the words in the text to their definitions in the glossary.  This means that readers can go directly to the word in the glossary and then hit the back button to resume reading without losing their place.  The first time I saw this in a novel in e-book format it was Freedom of the Monsoon by Malika Gandhi, an excellent historical novel about the Quit India movement.   I reviewed it on my previous blog here

Although I learned a great deal about India from India Was One that did interest me, I would have preferred less cricket content.   I understand that cricket is culturally important in India, but I would still have liked to read less about the details.   Since I enjoy reading about martial arts and karate in particular, I would have loved to switch out pages about cricket for additional pages about Jai's participation in karate.   Indian readers of this novel would probably disagree with me.  To each their own.

I noticed that Kaahi was opposed to the violence of karate.  It wasn't until I learned that she was a Jain relatively late in this novel, that it made sense.  I had read about the Jain devotion to non-violence in other books.   Then it occurred to me that Jai must not have known that Kaahi was a Jain, or he wouldn't have invited her to watch karate.  This implies that religion isn't that important to Jai, or he would have discussed religious beliefs with her earlier in the relationship.  Sports seem to  play the role of religion in Jai's life.  I have encountered men for whom this is true, so I find it believable that Jai and other male characters in this book lead such sports centered lives.

The last quarter of the novel makes it more significant.  The theme of divided countries is of urgent importance for our current world. Many countries, including my own, are extremely troubled by ideological, economic and religious divisions.   If people believe that they can't live together in peace, then countries may splinter like North India and South India in  India Was One.  That last 25% of this book shows readers how this unwillingness to deal with diversity can have terrible impact.  Our world is in the process of imploding along its fracture lines.  Learning how to co-exist with differences is the most paramount priority of our time.




Thursday, December 15, 2016

Code Blue-An Israeli Dystopia That Seems Too Real

2016 has been an amazing year for dystopias.   There are currently two dystopias that are candidates for my top ten reads of the year, and there may be more by the time 2016 comes to an end.  I believe that this sub-genre has come of age.

 When I was a morose teen in the 1970's, I read nothing but dystopias for a while.   This was a time when the only dystopias that were widely read were 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World.  There were a number of other dystopias that had been written by science fiction writers.  Most people have still never heard of them. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to be inspired by my reading rather than depressed. As an adult, I only began selectively reading dystopias again relatively recently.  I feel no compulsion to read the most popular dystopias or all their imitators.  I am interested in dystopias that sound unusual and deal with themes that interest me.

Code Blue by Zvika Amit was on a list of indie books from a book promoter seeking reviews.  Even though I agree to review very few books, I always read these solicitations carefully in case I come across something that could be extraordinary.  This novel is an English translation of an Israeli book that takes place in the very near future in which Israel's government is overturned by a military coup that establishes a theocratic dictatorship.   I was so fascinated by the premise of this dystopia that I couldn't wait for the promoter to provide a free copy.  I wanted to get started on it right away, so I purchased it on Amazon.  As you will see, this is an honest review.


When I read this book, I thought the premise was completely original.  I have since learned from a  2005 review of Code Blue in Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, that it had a predecessor.  You can read that Ha'aretz review at Too Close For Comfort .  It deals with reaction to the book in Israel.  I found it highly illuminating.   I investigated the previous Israeli military coup dystopia.  It's called  The Road to Ein Harod  by Amos Kenan.  Based on reviews I read on Goodreads, Kenan's dystopia is apparently a reflective literary novel awash in allegory.  Some readers found it inaccessible.   Code Blue isn't at all similar.  It's a suspenseful narrative with a great deal of verisimilitude written in the style of a thriller.

Gavrush, the main protagonist, illustrates the dangers of West Bank settlement expansion.   He is a relatively moderate West Bank settler compared to the  coalition of extremist zealots that he assembles to bring about the coup.   Gavrush is a well-developed  character whose flaws are very credible.  Gavrush believes that he is acting in the best interests of Israel, but his primary motivation is a selfish one.  I also think that he has a myopic perspective since he didn't foresee the consequences of his actions.   This makes him typical of political leaders.  The unnamed Prime Minister whose overthrow Gavrush plots, has far more stature because he comes to understand that the West Bank settlements aren't viable in the long-term.  On the other hand, he doesn't foresee the short-term consequences of his policy proposals. 

Gavrush's mistress, Rinat, is also an important viewpoint character.    The Ha'aretz review has a dismissive attitude toward her, but I respectfully disagree. I thought that Rinat was intelligent, courageous and principled.   It may very well be the Rinats of Israel that will pull the country back from the precipice.   Those who say that Code Blue is about the ineffectiveness of those who share Rinat's views should re-read the book from beginning to end.  They should also consider the success of Gandhi.  Non-violent resistance isn't always ineffective. 

Although I recommend Code Blue, this edition wasn't exactly perfect.  The English translation of Code Blue was occasionally awkward probably due to lax editing standards .  I found one error very noticeable.  Apparently, an editor decided to initiate a global change of every incidence of "I am" and "you are" to I'm and you're.   This wasn't always appropriate.  There were numerous emphatic uses of I am and you are that should never have been modified.  Over the course of my reading, I began to find these infelicitous contractions annoying.   This problem could have been ameliorated by a thorough review of the manuscript by a native English speaker before publication.