Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Girl on the Train / Paula Hawkins

4 out of 5 stars
Three women, three men, connected through marriage or infidelity. Each is to blame for something. But only one is a killer in this nail-biting, stealthy psychological thriller about human frailty and obsession.
      Just what goes on in the houses you pass by every day?
     Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and evening, rattling over the same junctions, flashing past the same townhouses.The train stops at the same signal every day, and she sees the same couple, breakfasting on their roof terrace. Jason and Jess, as she calls them, seem so happy. Then one day Rachel sees someone new in their garden. Soon after, Rachel sees the woman she calls Jess on the news. Jess has disappeared.
     Through the ensuing police investigation, Rachel is drawn deeper into the lives of the couple she learns are really Megan and Scott Hipwell. As she befriends Scott, Rachel pieces together what really happened the day Megan disappeared. But when Megan's body is found, Rachel finds herself the chief suspect in the case. Plunged into a world of betrayals, secrets and deceptions, Rachel must confront the facts about her own past and her own failed marriage.

Another offering in the rather new genre of Chick Noir (a.k.a. Domestic Noir or Amnesia Thrillers), in which domestic life is no longer the safe place everyone assumes it will be. Unreliable women as narrators are hot right now (think Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, The Devil You Know, as well as The Girl on the Train). Chick Noir is aimed at women (mirroring Chick Lit), but there is no happily-ever-after and husbands are not necessarily people whom women are able to trust.

The novel is told from the points of view of 3 women—Rachel (the alcoholic ex-wife), Anna (the irritated current wife), and Megan (the woman-next-door). Along with the differing interpretations of events that you would expect from three different people, we also learn that there is truth to the old saying that those outside a marriage really have no idea what is going on within that marriage—this proves true for all three women.

It’s difficult to say anything substantial about the plot without giving away the fun bits, so I will resist the temptation to say too much. This is a 4 star read instead of 5 for me because I guessed the who-dunnit about 2/3 of the way through the book—I really like to be kept guessing!

The Girl on the Train (really, couldn’t it have been The Woman on the Train? Rachel is well over 16!) puts the fun in dysfunctional.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Switch / Chip & Dan Heath

2.5 out of 5 stars
Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives?

The primary obstacle is a conflict that's built into our brains, say Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the critically acclaimed bestseller Made to Stick. Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two different systems - the rational mind and the emotional mind - that compete for control. The rational mind wants a great beach body; the emotional mind wants that Oreo cookie. The rational mind wants to change something at work; the emotional mind loves the comfort of the existing routine. This tension can doom a change effort - but if it is overcome, change can come quickly.

I'n giving this book 2.5 stars—absolutely average. Because I think that I have seen it all and tried it all before. And I think the book could have been cut by several chapters without being hurt at all.

I like the basic metaphor of this book: the emotions as an elephant, the intellect as mahout. The rider (as the Heaths call the mahout) has limited amounts of strength and will-power to use to direct the elephant; the elephant has to be cooperative, or the rider won’t get where she wants to go. Also discussed is the path—the environment which we can manipulate to steer ourselves into the desired habits and behaviours. [See also: Slim by Design by Brian Wansink re: changing the environment to facilitate change].

I think the examples given in Switch are much more applicable to the work place than to the individual household. I’ve been trying to get myself to do basic housework as I go each week, rather than storing up misery for myself on the weekends. But so far, I just can’t get my elephant to give a damn about the situation. The mahout tries her best, but very little housework gets done.

The authors also use an example of teaching a monkey to use a skateboard, using mango bits as rewards. They suggest that lavish use of rewards will help with eliciting the desired behaviour. I have used this strategy on myself with limited success—do X and then you can read a chapter of your book or phone someone you want to talk to. The tricky thing is then to stop at one chapter and do another chore before reading the next chapter (my elephant is a tricky one).

Another suggestion in the book is linkages of behaviours—look for a bright spot in your routine, something that you have no problem doing, then link it to another desired action. This was how I trained myself to floss my teeth EVERY evening. I slotted that task in between washing my face and brushing my teeth. After a year and a half of this, I am finally to the point that it takes a major catastrophe to prevent me from flossing. However, I’m still working on linking setting up my coffee maker in the evening to doing any dishes that won’t go in the dishwasher. That was my one New Year’s Resolution for 2015 and at the 6 month point, I still haven’t performed this task reliably. Unfortunate, as both my elephant & mahout enjoy getting up to a clean kitchen.

The Heaths also take a page out of the FlyLady’s book [Sink Reflections : FlyLady’s Babystep Guide to Overcoming Chaos] by recommending breaking tasks down into tiny sections—making the goal so small that the emotional elephant isn’t spooked by it. Marla Cilley (the FlyLady) recommends 5 minute cleaning bursts on the theory that you can force yourself to do almost anything for only 5 minutes and that a small success will almost always carry you along to do more. This works for me to some extent—some days I designate as “It bugs me so I fix it” days. If I notice a dusty window sill, I go get a cloth and clean it. Then I may go and check all the other window sills and make sure they are clean too. I notice a grimy light switch—suddenly it’s “clean all the light switches” day.

I also have experience with trying to manipulate my environment to make being tidy an easy option. [See Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern for more tips on this]. I’ve moved my filing cabinet to the dining room where I seem to like to open the mail. Sometimes the contents make it into the files, but once again, not on a reliable basis.

So, I need to find myself a reliable EMOTIONAL reason to keep up with these tasks—and I haven’t come up with one yet. My solution to the situation is usually to invite guests, spurring myself to spruce up my apartment. So far, peer pressure is the only thing that works every time for me! And the Heaths also recommend that, so I may just have to stick with it and invite folks in more often.

Wish there was a little more to the book than that—I am apparently an awfully recalcitrant housekeeper.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Wreckage / Michael Robotham

3 out of 5 stars
Billions of dollars are missing from Iraqi banks, and journalist Luca Terracini will risk everything to discover where it is. His Iraqi-American background has made it easier for him to infiltrate the darkest corners of the war, but death of his beloved Nicola in a suicide bombing has made him reckless. He has nothing left to lose.
In pursuit of the money, he meets UN representative Daniela Garner, who seems to know more about the heist than anyone else. She's a valuable asset in Baghdad where the possibility of an explosion lurks at every checkpoint. Luca's investigation proves volatile as well, and as he gets closer to the missing money, his actions begin to reverberate around the world.
In London, Richard North, a top-tier international banker and the one person who might be able to explain where the money has gone, vanishes. The manhunt for him will get Luca evicted from Iraq, separated from Daniela, and possibly end both his investigation and his life.
As usual, it's all about the money: who has it, who's lost it, and who's ultimately going to pay, as clandestine agents emerge from the shadows and powerful nations seek to control information and bury secrets, whatever the cost.

I picked up this novel because it is the July 2015 choice of my book club. I was dreading it, having read the dust jacket and thinking that it was really not my thing. Once again, I am grateful that my book club compatriots have stretched my reading comfort zone.

Having said that, it still really wasn’t my cuppa tea, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t get pulled along for the adventure. Just like the Jack Reacher novel that we read last year for book club, it’s hard to resist finishing the book. I was surprised to find that it was 5th in a series (Joseph O’Loughlin series) and that the guy named in the series doesn’t appear until about 2/3 of the way through the book.

The retired policeman, Ruiz, is the one who most reminds me of Jack Reacher—he always seems to be planning ahead in order to stay one step ahead of the bad guys and always can find something to use as a weapon at strategic moments. The journalist Luca’s sections benefit from the author’s experience in the field, as do the multiple settings (Bagdad, London, Washington). It is refreshing to read a thriller that is not set exclusively in the USA. On the other hand, it is rather depressing to get a glimpse into post-war Iraq. One wonders if there will ever be peace in that area of the world.

Men are certainly portrayed at their worst—most are on the take either monetarily or sexually. If they are half-way good, they are damaged beyond repair. I would like to believe better of the men in my life, one of the reasons why I usually avoid this hyper-masculine type of fiction. You can practically smell the testosterone emanating from the pages!

Interestingly, all three women in the book seem to have no friends.  They talk to no other women, they simply focus exclusively on the men in their lives.  I know absolutely no women who are like this.  We all have friends and we talk to them regularly.  In a book with a lot of unrealistic plot elements, I thought this was the most glaring.

Also the banking industry—please tell me it’s not really like this! Like a stately ancient tree that looks lovely and flourishing on the outside, but is rotten and hollow on the inside.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Shakespeare's Sonnets

4 out of 5 stars
Well, if one goes by the information in the sonnets, Shakespeare's Facebook relationship status would definitely read "It's complicated."

The Golden Torc / Julian May

4.5 out of 5 stars
By A.D. 2110 nearly 100,000 humans had fled the civilized strictures of the Galactic Milieu for the freedom they thought existed at the end of the one-way time tunnel to Earth, six million B.C.
But all of them had fallen into the hands of the Tanu, a humanoid race who'd fled their own galaxy to avoid punishment for their barbarous ways.
And now the humans had made the Tanu stronger than the Firvulag, their degenerate brethren and ritual antagonists. Soon the Tanu would reign supreme. Or so they thought . . . .

Lots of nice twists & turns in this second installment of the Saga of the Pliocene Exile. The worm turns, when humans turn out to be nastier and craftier than their Tanu overlords ever imagined. For one thing, humans are willing to fight dirty. It’s reminiscent of the British facing Native Americans, two different codes of conduct ending in unexpected victories for the less-well-armed side of the conflict. Honour means different things to different cultures and May exploits those differences masterfully.

I love May’s involvement of geology in this book, and the couple of appearances by plesiosaurs! Despite the fact that we’re pretty sure that those massive marine reptiles didn’t live in the Pliocene, but still, plesiosaurs!

We also discover that becoming psychically operant is not for the faint-hearted, there is pain involved and even necessary for that transformation. Just like childbirth, there is pain & struggle, but once the end product is achieved, there is joy. Unknowingly, the Tanu’s torment of certain humans opens the doorway for operancy.

Also an interesting revelation: Mercy (the woman who drew the anthropologist Bryan into exile) has been genetically tested and though she came from the future, she is almost full-blooded Tanu. Which begs the question of how that was possible—presumably some hints will be given in later books.

Aiken Drum continues to be a wild card—showing odd moments of compassion, but mostly looking out for number one, this psychopathic human has angered all sides of the conflict now, Tanu, Firvulag and Human. It remains to be seen if all three cultures can agree on his elimination!

A lovely balance of male and female roles, which passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. A pleasure to read.

Book 177 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Monday, 15 June 2015

On the Move / Oliver Sacks

3 out of 5 stars
When Oliver Sacks was twelve years old, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote in his report: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” It is now abundantly clear that Sacks has never stopped going. From its opening pages on his youthful obsession with motorcycles and speed, On the Move is infused with his restless energy. As he recounts his experiences as a young neurologist in the early 1960s, first in California, where he struggled with drug addiction and then in New York, where he discovered a long-forgotten illness in the back wards of a chronic hospital, we see how his engagement with patients comes to define his life.

With unbridled honesty and humor, Sacks shows us that the same energy that drives his physical passions--weight lifting and swimming--also drives his cerebral passions. He writes about his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists--Thom Gunn, A. R. Luria, W. H. Auden, Gerald M. Edelman, Francis Crick--who influenced him. On the Move is the story of a brilliantly unconventional physician and writer--and of the man who has illuminated the many ways that the brain makes us human.

This was a GoodReads first reads giveaway, which I won in April. The publisher provided an uncopy-edited proof.

I will admit that I have heard of Oliver Sacks, but have never read any of his other books and I entered this giveaway on a whim. (I did, however, see the Robin Williams film Awakenings based on Sacks’ work with postencephalitic patients.) So I have no points of comparison, to be able to judge Sacks’ writing in this book vs. his other works.

I was surprised at how little self-analysis went into this autobiography—for a man who was able to interpret the lives of people with major brain dysfunctions, he seems to be either unable or unwilling to observe his own life in the same way. For instance, he mentions repeatedly that he identifies people by their voices, rather than their faces, but he doesn’t connect this lack of facial recognition with his own fascination with neurology. It would seem to me that this would be a major motivator in his interests, to understand one of his own foibles.

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating story—Sacks’ parents were interesting people in their own right with thriving medical careers and he was obviously extremely fond of them and the rest of his family. It is a shame that he felt that his homosexuality separated him from them in important ways. The lack of acceptance of such a fundamental part of his being seems to have been the motivating force that kept him “on the move” for the majority of his life. I don’t think that it is coincidental that he has finally found a stable relationship after the death of his parents—it seems unlikely that his mother would ever have been accepting of such a situation. [This reminds me a bit of Canadian author Robertson Davies, who claimed he was unable to write novels until his parents were gone].

Sacks had adventurous interests—motorcycles and weight lifting, in addition to venturing into medical areas that others avoided. Also a swimmer and a walker, he seems to have had a very balanced life in the sense that he had a vigorous intellectual life with an equal emphasis on physical challenges. He also balanced science and the arts, with an acute appreciation of music and literature.

Although I enjoyed this memoir, I think I would probably have appreciated it more had I read some of his other books first. Still, it is an interesting life review by a man now facing his mortality due to cancer. Although he has not followed an easy path in life, he has achieved a great deal.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Under the Visible Life / Kim Eclin

5 out of 5 Stars
Fatherless Katherine carries the stigma of her mixed-race background through an era that is hostile to her and all she represents. It is only through music that she finds the freedom to temporarily escape and dream of a better life for herself, nurturing this hard-won refuge throughout the vagaries of unexpected motherhood and an absent husband, and relying on her talent to build a future for her family.

Orphaned Mahsa also grows up in the shadow of loss, sent to relatives in Pakistan after the death of her parents. Struggling to break free, she escapes to Montreal, leaving behind her first love, Kamal. But the threads of her past are not so easily severed, and she finds herself forced into an arranged marriage.
For Mahsa, too, music becomes her solace and allows her to escape from her oppressive circumstances.

When Katherine and Mahsa meet, they find in each other a kindred spirit as well as a musical equal, and their lives are changed irrevocably. Together, they inspire and support one another, fusing together their cultures, their joys, and their losses—just as they collaborate musically in the language of free-form, improvisational jazz.

This was a GoodReads first reads giveaway, which I won in March. The publisher provided an uncorrected proof, but no one has attempted to influence my opinion in any way.

Patience is bitter, but it has a sweet fruit.

. These are the struggles than women all over the planet have to deal with every day. Being taken seriously as professionals. Juggling marriages, children, housework, careers. Getting stuck doing all the stuff that no one else wants to do.

But that makes this book sound pedestrian and it is anything but boring. From the first paragraph, I was entranced and stayed that way throughout the book. I just couldn’t look away. The only way I had to make it stretch out was to read it only on my lunch hour—that slowed me down and allowed me to savour each chapter, as they alternate between Catherine and Mahsa.

It is also a book about race—Catherine’s mother is Canadian and her father is Chinese before that is socially acceptable. As if that was not enough, Catherine marries a black American man and has three children with him. Mahsa’s father is American and her mother is Afghan. Her Afghan uncles murder her parents because they do not approve of the marriage and Mahsa eventually escapes to Canada. Nevertheless, she ends up forced into an arranged marriage and becomes mother to two children.

So many of the situations that Catherine and Mahsa find themselves in are similar to events in my own life—I think that I appreciated these story lines so strongly because I haven’t followed a traditional life path either. And yet, I think these two women represent so many women’s experiences, whether traditional or not. The choices that we have to make as women—do we get married? Have children? Pursue the safe path or strike out in something more risky? Are our families helpful or disapproving? Are we strong enough to pursue our own path and hell take the hindermost?

What is absolutely heroic is the way both women hang on to their music and insist on having their own life and their own careers, despite all the societal barriers to it. They pour their hearts and souls into jazz when there is little energy leftover for anything else. They show complete dedication and determination to make it in the music scene. It makes my career look pale by comparison—I wandered into my line of work and never really had enormous struggles, just the everyday irritations that occur in almost any job. I’m not sure that I have ever had anything that I would dedicate myself to the way these two women do. [In fact I cried a couple of years ago when I got a 30 year award from my union—I felt it meant that I had no ambition].

It leaves me feeling conflicted—I have never had to worry about racial discrimination and no one has stood in my way as I’ve planned my life, so I’m very lucky. But I find myself envying these women in their drive, their commitment, and that they so clearly know their vocation and are willing to work so hard for it. Yet I know that in my own way, I have played my role in the world too.

A good book to partner with this one: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Also about jazz musicians, black men playing jazz in Europe as the Second World War looms.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Magician's Gambit / David Eddings

3.5 stars out of 5
Ce'Nedra, Imperial Princess of Tolnedra, was confused.

Everyone knew that the tales of the Orb that protected the West from the evil God Torak were just silly legends. But here she was, forced to join a serious and dangerous quest to recover that stolen Orb. No one believed in sorcery. Yet Garion's aunt and grandfather seemed to be the fabled sorcerers Polgara and Belgarath, who would have to be thousands of years old. Even young Garion was learning to do things that could only be sorcery.

Garion! He was nothing but a farm boy, totally unsuitable for an Imperial Princess. Then why did she have such an urge to teach him, to brush his tangled hair, and to comfort him?

Now he was going to a strange tower in the centre of all he believed evil, to face some horrible, powerful magician. And she wouldn't be there to watch over him. He might be killed! She'd never see him again...

The pace has picked up from the first two books and things are moving along quite well. Belgarath and Polgara have actually started to give Garion some information (which would have been more useful to him earlier, truth be told). But, better late than never, and his sorcerer training has finally begun.

One writing tic that Eddings displays—Belgarath scratches his beard about every second page! The poor old sorcerer either has anxiety issues or fleas! I’m amazed that no editor caught that irritating repetition.

While trying not to give away the ending, I was disappointed that a feared opponent (whom Belgarath has been working against for centuries) was defeated when he made a beginner-type mistake. Evil bad guys usually don’t just eliminate themselves. That was a bit anti-climactic.

Also, Princess Ce’Nedra seems to have been abandoned and I will have to wait for the next book to get a clue about how she is doing. I thought a little check-in with her would have helped to maintain the continuity of the series. However, I know that she is not abandoned permanently, as Eddings has very obviously telegraphed her role as future love-interest for Garion.

Love the religious fanatic who is actually confronted by his god and told in no uncertain terms to quit judging others and get on with making himself a better person. Eddings takes some pointed jabs at fanaticism which endears him to me. I will be interested in seeing where that particular story line goes!

Onwards! I hope to read the fourth book at some point this summer!

This is book number 176 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Tastemakers / David Sax

4 out of 5 stars
Tastemaker, n. Anyone with the power to make you eat quinoa.

Kale. Spicy sriracha sauce. Honeycrisp apples. Cupcakes. These days, it seems we are constantly discovering a new food that will make us healthier, happier, or even somehow cooler. Chia seeds, after a brief life as a novelty houseplant and I Love the ’80s punchline, are suddenly a superfood. Not long ago, that same distinction was held by pomegranate seeds, açai berries, and the fermented drink known as kombucha. So what happened? Did these foods suddenly cease to be healthy a few years ago? And by the way, what exactly is a “superfood” again?

In this eye-opening, witty work of reportage, David Sax uncovers the world of food trends: Where they come from, how they grow, and where they end up. Traveling from the South Carolina rice plot of America’s premier grain guru to Chicago’s gluttonous Baconfest, Sax reveals a world of influence, money, and activism that helps decide what goes on your plate. On his journey, he meets entrepreneurs, chefs, and even data analysts who have made food trends a mission and a business. The Tastemakers is full of entertaining stories and surprising truths about what we eat, how we eat it, and why.

I found this an interesting book—in the same ways that Michael Pollan’s food books are endlessly fascinating to me. Sax is also trying to figure out how the world of food works, but he is looking at it from more of the marketing point of view. He still talks to a LOT of influential folks and attends a LOT of events.

Significantly (to me at least), he debunks the whole notion of a “superfood,” a notion which has always bugged me. Who decided that pomegranates are a superfood? Why a pomegranate producer, of course! Sponsor a rather anemic study and then get out there and proselytize, baby! It makes me grumpy despite the fact that I love the fruit and have never been known to turn down a pomegranate martini. Eat your veggies and fruits, people! They all have valuable nutrients and anyone who is trying to tell you that you should skew your consumption towards one plant is trying to make money from you.

On the encouraging side of the equation, it seems to be a very hit-or-miss proposition as to whether a carefully planned campaign will actually achieve full blown trend status. As much as Indian cuisine has been attempting to become trendy for decades now, it keeps misfiring (at least in the US). I found that mystifying, as when I go out with friends we more often than not choose an Indian restaurant and curry is one of my absolute favourite things. Seriously, I have 2 friends who hate it and I have a hard time cooking for them when they come to my house—I use a lot of curry!

Another positive revelation: although the food establishment may try to declare a trend over, the people of the world do not necessarily listen to them! Hence the enduring appeal of cupcakes and bacon! The chapter on Baconomics contains amazing stories of the strength of the love of cured pork bellies.

Basically, food suppliers are attempting to imitate the fashion industry, with “what’s in and what’s out” each year. Perhaps this works in the world of clothing, but consumers feel very strongly about the food that they take into their bodies and they are not going to stop loving cupcakes just because a few food bloggers are tired of them!

Just for the record: I love bacon and pomegranates, I tolerate quinoa, and I absolutely loathe kale (and can hardly wait until it’s in the “what’s out” category). I am agnostic on the matter of cupcakes.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Normal / Graeme Cameron

3.5 stars out of 5
He lives in your community, in a nice house with a well-tended garden. He shops in your grocery store, bumping shoulders with you and apologizing with a smile. He drives beside you on the highway, politely waving you into the lane ahead of him.

What you don't know is that he has an elaborate cage built into a secret basement under his garage. And the food that he's carefully shopping for is to feed a young woman he's holding there against her will—one in a string of many, unaware of the fate that awaits her.

This is how it's been for a long time. It's normal... and it works. Perfectly.

Then he meets the checkout girl from the 24-hour grocery. And now the plan, the hunts, the room... the others. He doesn't need any of them anymore. He needs only her. But just as he decides to go straight, the police start to close in. He might be able to cover his tracks, except for one small problem—he still has someone trapped in his garage.

Discovering his humanity couldn't have come at a worse time.

The success of the Dexter novels and TV show has obviously started a bit of a trend. I’m thinking of Dan Wells’ novel I Am Not a Serial Killer, a story of a young man struggling with his urges, and now Normal, which features a killer as the main character, with limited success at making him a sympathetic character.

If you are squeamish, stay far away from this novel. Its first pages include a dismemberment and the whole thing includes multiple murders. The twist is that our main character (who never is given a name that I can recall) finally discovers a woman who makes him wish he was normal. Fortunately or unfortunately, the police are closing in and he still has a “guest” in his underground bunker. The tension of the book derives from his juggling of various half-finished crimes, police investigations, and a couple of new “relationships.”

It is an entertaining, quick read if you don’t take it too seriously. In my opinion, women (even those who have been severely abused) simply would not act that way that Erica does and that Rachel (the potential love interest) would never be as unaware and half-accepting as she is portrayed (the vast majority of women aren’t so desperate for a relationship that they are willing to overlook a habit of kidnapping & murder in their potential partners). Nor would a predator of the main character’s caliber be as easily manipulated by one of his prisoners.

If you are willing to overlook these deviations from true human behaviour and you have a strong stomach, you may find this novel worthy of a few hours of your time.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Mindkiller / Spider Robinson

2.5 stars out of 5
Wireheads, addicted to an electric current fed into the pleasure centers of the brain, are the new junkies. Karen, a former wirehead who barely escaped death by pleasure, is determined to bring down those who sell the wireheading equipment, but she and her lover Joe instead turn up evidence of a shadowy global conspiracy-not to control the world, but to keep anyone from realizing that the masters of mind control have been controlling us all for some time now . . . .

It’s very difficult to give this novel a star rating—some of it is very good, some of it is very predictable, some of it is not so good.

First the good: The plot is tight and interesting up until the last couple of chapters, where things get a bit loose and baggy, with a bunch of completely unbelievable coincidences. There are two plot lines that keep the reader’s brain actively trying to figure out how they relate to each other for the majority of the novel. Plus, I appreciated that substantial parts of it were set my home country of Canada.

The predictable: Well, of course there is a conspiracy to run the world.

The not-so-good: The characters are pretty cardboard—Robinson seems to think that giving them sexual partners and having them take various drugs contributes to character development. The women are particularly poorly written, depicted more as pseudo-men than as women. Men and women really do have differences in psychology (vive la difference!) and this book does not really acknowledge this situation.

I understand that this is the first in a trilogy, so the (for me) unsatisfactory ending is obviously not the last word, but I am completely unmotivated to seek out the second book. I just don’t care what happens to these people. The book also suffers from unintended problems of time—it is set in the 1990s, published in the early 1980s, and although Robinson got many things right, there are many details that are jarring to a modern audience. Not his fault, even Arthur C. Clarke’s masterful 2001 suffered from these (after all, we still don’t have a moon base and travel to Jupiter/Saturn is still only a dream in 2015).

Overall, I really wonder how this book was included in the NPR’s list of best science fiction and fantasy. It is very average—I am giving it the absolutely average rating of 2.5 stars. It was good enough to finish but not good enough to continue the series.

This is book 175 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Magician : Apprentice / Raymond E. Feist

3.5 out of 5 stars
To the forest on the shore of the Kingdom of the Isles, the orphan Pug came to study with the master magician Kulgan. But though his courage won him a place at court and the heart of a lovely Princess, he was ill at ease with the normal ways of wizardry.

Yet Pug's strange sort of magic would one day change forever the fates of two worlds. For dark beings from another world had opened a rift in the fabric of spacetime to being again the age-old battle between the forces of Order and Chaos.

It is interesting to be reading the Belgariad by David Eddings and the Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist at the same time. Published very close together in time, they have some striking similarities and I can see why they were very popular in their day. Both feature boys becoming men and also becoming sorcerers/magicians.

For me, the Riftwar Saga is much more engaging of the two. I like Feist’s writing better and I find that the plot moves along at a slightly swifter pace than the rather glacial Belgariad. Feist also introduces a very interesting plot device—a rift in time/space that allows another culture to invade. I am used to this device’s use in science fiction and in a technological environment, but I found its use in a rather medieval fantasy setting to be interesting. I believe it was Arthur C. Clarke who said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so it is appropriate that it is apparently magicians who have control of this rift in spacetime. (The rather unbelievable part of the plot is that both civilizations on both sides of the rift have virtually identical technologies otherwise).

Pluses: fast moving plot, innovative way to introduce enemies, interesting magical system.

Minuses: not much for female characters to do (and they are depicted as moody & changeable, very stereotypical), can’t stand the name Pug for the main character.

I wonder why we, as fantasy fans, are so enamoured of medieval-type settings? What is it about swords and horses that we prefer to ray guns and spaceships? Why do we romanticize that very difficult way of life? Mind you, I know that many or most science fiction & fantasy fans love both, but I wonder why there are so many of these fantasy worlds with medieval technology in print.

Also noticeable: reflections of LOTR’s Galadriel and Lothlorien. A settlement in the tree canopy is frequent in these epics (see Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant as well as Feist).

Now, my main problem is finding book 2, Magician: Master, which is not to be found in either library that I have access to. Interlibrary loan, here I come!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Wolf Winter / Cecilia Ekbäck

4 out of 5 stars
Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.

While herding the family’s goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson’s widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice.

As the seasons change, and the “wolf winter,” the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family’s survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers’ secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.

This book came to my attention when I heard the author interviewed on local radio—she is Scandinavian, but she now lives in Calgary with her family. What I heard in the interview intrigued me and I waited quite a long time to receive the book from our public library. Wolf Winter is basically a medieval murder mystery set in 16th century Sweden.

Should you read this book? Well, if you like historical fiction, murder mysteries, and Scandinavian fiction, all with a touch of the supernatural, this will be your book. The author is extremely good at producing an aura of creeping dread (to go with the usual rather bleak and somewhat gloomy haze that permeates most of Scandinavian fiction). The reader is left to decide for themselves whether the supernatural elements really happen or if the circumstances are all the result of damaged people (somewhat reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw, I felt).

None of the characters is overwhelmingly good—they all have their own baggage and problems that they are dealing with, some more complicated than others. Correspondingly, no one is absolutely evil, although a couple of characters move closer to that line than most do.

Not a book for everyone (what book is?), but very enjoyable for me.