Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Review - Scenes From A Life

This is not a review blog. I will say that up front. But sometimes I get a review copy from someone, or I pick one up for whatever reason, and I always try to leave a review as a courtesy. In this case, I was given a review copy free of charge with no expectations in advance. After I left a few comments on Amazon, I decided that it deserved a little more.

The book was Scenes From A Life, written by +Richard Abbot, a British academic with a strong background in the ancient  Middle East. Which is highly appropriate, since the protagonist of the book is a scribe in New Kingdom Egypt. This was around the end of the Bronze Age for that part of the world. The story describes the protagonist's journey of self-discovery, both physical and emotional, as he investigates his own origins and comes to terms with his place in the world.

It is written in a literary style. What I mean is that the primary focus of the book is what goes on inside the protagonist, rather than events in the outside world. Things do happen around him, they certainly do, but they serve mostly to trigger periods of introspection and/or personal revelation in the main character. The only time anyone's pulse accelerates is when he has a nightmare. Except for one small fight, where they fort up behind a locked door and poke anything that sticks through the hole. And one bout of serious partying after his crew finishes a major project.

But that's the whole point. That's what the book is about. The character's life. Who he is, how he became the man he is, and what he eventually wound up being. Hence the title.

Ordinarily, this is not my kind of book. I write, and generally prefer to read, speculative fiction. That means science-fiction, science-fantasy, epic fantasy, some horror, slightly weird stories with fantastic elements, etc. The common point among most of the books I like is an action oriented plot, preferably one with serious conflict in it.

In other words, escapist literature. I tend more toward Conan than Kafka. I have read all kinds, of course. I am not an illiterate barbarian. But, to give an example, if I were writing the story "Metamorphosis" it would be about three paragraphs long. The guy would wake up as a cockroach, his family would scream, and his sister would split his carapace with the nearest baseball bat. And keep hitting until he was paste. Finis.

I do read historical fiction, however. Usually stories about Mongol attacks, the American frontier, and the destruction of the Roman Empire. You get the drift. Richard Abbot's book is a bit more peaceful than my usual fare. Oddly, I found myself getting caught up in it. It's a rather vivid travelogue of life in ancient Egypt. It was kind of like "Life On The Nile" instead of the Mississippi.

We learn about the little villages that dotted the banks of the river. We learn about the politics and geography of the regional alliances that the New Kingdom Pharohs made with their neighbors, and the military mechanisms that they used to hold their empire together. We learn what people had for supper. We learn about their slavery, and concubinage, and the dangers of childbirth. We learn about the techniques of tomb painting, and how to add salt to the oil in a lamp so soot wouldn't stain the ceiling. We learn about navigation on the Nile, and how not to get eaten by crocodiles. We learn about temple orphanages, and the religious significance of the seasonal floods, and how to play ancient Egyptian board games.

What we don't learn is much about the inner hearts of anybody but the protagonist. His love interest is described as pretty, and we know he thinks she's hot. Her actions when he meets her indicate that she is honorable, stubborn, and smart. All desirable qualities for sure. She also just happens to come from the area that will turn out to be his origin place. Surprise! But she's as passive as a rug. I always got the impression that women in Egypt during that time held a fair amount of real power. She never acts, only reacts. Her purpose for existing is to provide the protagonist with a sounding board, and to keep him warm.

The main reason I got unhappy about her, and the reason I am going on about this, is something that the SOB did late in the book. By all right and reason she should have kicked him in the nuts for it. Instead, she mildly forgave him and took him back with a grateful smile. Right. Maybe it's just my American indoctrination. Try that kind of thing here and now and see what happens. I just couldn't identify, and it threw me out of disbelief suspension like a bucket of icewater.

The other characters were a lot better, from my point of view. The protagonist's best buddy is a fascinating character, and one that I really would have liked to have seen more developed. His wife was a walk-on, but she seemed to have a lot of potential too. Several others were decent. Some of the protagonist's clients, both past and present, were well drawn.

But there were too many walk-on characters who appear, speak their lines, and disappear forever. They serve no real purpose. They certainly do nothing to advance the plot, and any character development they provide could have been offered a lot more compactly. Although one set of walk-ons, specifically the family that the protagonist was apprenticed to, do offer us a serious look at his quality as a person. It wasn't a pleasant sight. I didn't like the guy nearly as much after that.

The one thing that was done well with the characters, in my opinion, was dialogue. It flowed well and naturally. In fact, all of the character interactions were completely believable. More believable, in some cases, than the characters themselves.

Bottom line, the book is a quasi-biographical trip back to ancient Egypt to document the life of a scribe who decorated tombs for a living, and finally ended up getting married and moving back to his birth homeland. He's not a bad guy. He's not a real good guy either. Just a regular guy trying to get by. The strength of the book is the setting. When I finished it, I honestly felt as if I had stepped back in time three thousand years. Not too many books can do that.
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