On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Read: 29 February, 2016

John Chandagnac was a puppeteer-turned-accountant on his way to Jamaica to reclaim his birthright from his thieving uncle. On the way, however, his ship was captured by pirates. Chandagnac must become the pirate Shandy to defeat the magic-wielding pirates, save a magician’s daughter, and claim his family fortunes.

I really enjoyed most of the book. As with Anubis Gates, the writing style is tremendously exciting, and this time he’s got swashbuckling pirates to work with instead of just Romantic poets. I tore through the first 80% of the book, hardly able to put it down. But then, as with Anubis Gates, it just lost me. The book seems to lose focus toward the end. When I read Anubis Gates, I got the sense that Powers had just become bored with the story and was trying to end it quickly so he could move on. On Stranger Tides seems to have suffered from the same problem. The killing of Blackbeard, a terrifying character throughout and the prophesied goal for our main character (according to Woefully Fat, the bocor who infodumps the information Shandy will need to accomplish his goals) is over in a flash, and his character lacks all the menace that had been cultivated throughout.

The saving of Beth Hurwood felt rushed, and the reclaiming of the Jamaican estates is just dropped entirely – despite being the stated goal from the very beginning and despite Shandy’s uncle being narratively brought back from the dead in order for it to happen.

The magic system itself is a bit of a touchy subject. There are, of course, real Vodun practitioners, and they are not typically the kids of people who have a lot of social power. The taking and using of their religious beliefs for the entertainment of outsiders is a problem. That said, the magic system worked quite well in the context of the story, it paired well with the plot.

There were some gender issues with the book as well. There are very few main characters, with only two who are meaningful to the plot. One of those is dead, and the other is a helpless, even catatonic damsel through most of the plot (though she does have some potential when she’s conscious). Other female characters include the mother of a bad guy with an Oedipus complex, and a few women in the pirate camp who are either sexually available or attached to a male pirate (or both). Even more offensive, one of these latter women is named Ann Bonny. That’s right, one of the most famous female pirate captains is here reduced to a pirate wife and potential sexual distraction for the main character. The erasure of women in fiction and history isn’t exactly uncommon. Whole worlds are constructed where women just don’t seem to exist at all, or they exist elsewhere, or they hang around in the wings to provide goals, distractions, and the next generation of characters. It’s annoying, but at least Powers has the excuse that he’s grown up in a culture where this is normalized. Naming one of these background characters Ann Bonny, however, just feels nasty. Better to pretend she doesn’t exist than to remake her as little more than a wife and potential sexual conquest.

I still found the story gripping, and it was full of wonderful ideas and creepy imagery. But aspects of it, particularly on the gender side and how the baddies were constructed, made it feel very dated.

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Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Read: 3 December, 2013

Fat Charlie’s father died while singing karaoke, and that was only the start of his troubles.

I’ve been listening to people recommend Gaiman for years and finally gave Sandman a try recently. I was unimpressed. But, I did want to give him a second shot, so I picked up Anansi Boys, and I’m very glad I did!

This book is wonderful, pretty near perfect. The use of mythology is, of course, right up my alley, but that alone wouldn’t have sold it. Anansi Boys is also clever and hilarious. The narration was a joy to read, and the characters were entrancing.

I was really blown away!

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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Read: 10 April, 2013

When we read Jane Eyre in my Victorian Lit course in university, the professor mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea as an interesting further exploration of Bertha Mason and her relationship with Rochester.

For some reason – perhaps because I’d associated it with Jane Eyre – I assumed that Wide Sargasso Sea would be a large tome, something that would require a substantial investment of time, so I put off reading it for years. But when it came up in my search for books to read for my Reading Around the World project, I decided it was time to just bite the bullet and get ‘er done.

It’s a very interesting story, covering Bertha Mason (or, rather, Antoinette Cosway)’s childhood as the child of white former slave owners – rejected by the English as “Other” and half savage, yet rejected, too, by her black neighbours. She is hated by all as her mother, after a series of tragedies and mistreatments, loses her mind.

The story continues in Rochester’s voice after their marriage, as he struggles to understand this mysterious woman who is so different from the English women he is familiar with. Recovering from a fever, confused, frightened in an unfamiliar environment and with unfamiliar people, he turns against his new wife.

It’s an interesting story, and a very interesting companion to Jane Eyre. It’s a short read and interesting, though rather feverish in its stream of consciousness (it does, after all, show a descent into madness), but I found that the added perspective greatly enhanced my relationship with Charlotte Brontë’s work.

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Carnival Music in Trinidad by Shannon Dudley

Read: 4 August, 2007

The book begins with a discussion of carnival and its place within Trinidad’s society. From there, it discusses the various settings for carnival music (including “on the road” (or during the masquerade march) and in the tent) and some of the more popular artists. Calypso is discussed a great deal, as is the multiplicity of Trinidad’s cultural heritage (including those of European, African, and Indian ancestry). Several musical styles are described. The book includes a CD with samples from various artists and styles discussed, as well as activities that include listening to certain songs on the CD while paying attention to certain elements.

Certainly not an exhaustive exploration, this book is best for where it was intended – in the non-Trinidadian classroom to give students their first exposure to a foreign culture and musical style. It is a great book for musicians looking to expand their stylistic influences and for students of culture looking for a starting point in their research. The inclusion of a CD adds much to the experience of reading the book and helps to bring the text to life.

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