Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Bone Clocks / David Mitchell

4 out of 5 stars
Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.

For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

What a difficult book to review! Compounded by the fact that I had to take a hiatus in the middle of the book to deal with a dead refrigerator—the new one couldn’t be delivered for 2 weeks and, as I camped in my own kitchen, I found I didn’t have the energy for The Bone Clocks or anything much else.

Despite these complications, I did really enjoy the book, especially when I picked it up the second time to finish it. (Feeling the pressure to have it read before book club and knowing there were holds waiting at the public library both helped push me back into reading it).

I really liked Holly Sykes and was glad that she was such an integral character all through the novel. Even in the Crispin Hershey section, there she was, intruding into his consciousness. I even became somewhat sympathetic to crusty, cranky Hershey. I have to wonder how much of himself the author injected into Hershey and how much was borrowed from the lives of others (apparently including Martin Amis, if the critics are to be believed).

I enjoyed the flow of language and there were many turns of phrase that I found lovely. Having never read any other works by Mr. Mitchell, I couldn’t appreciate the links to his other works through re-appearing characters. However, I am familiar with the concept, having enjoyed that phenomenon in the works of Kurt Vonnegut. (Kilgore Trout, anyone?)

The fantasy elements of the novel are nothing new to a science fiction & fantasy fan such as myself, but I can see where they would be disquieting to the serious literary crowd. I thought that the presence of the Horologists shook me out of the here-and-now, asking me to consider life decades down the road. There was a very strong environmental consciousness which culminates at the novel’s end, making one think of the consequences of just living life in the now, not thinking ahead. Recalling the Biblical story, we are being inconsiderate grasshoppers right now, enjoying our privileges and ruining things for future generations, when we should be industrious ants, getting a handle on conspicuous consumption and mindless carbon emissions. And yet, how hard it is to give up my car! Alas for difficult choices!

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / Mark Twain

4 out of 5 stars
Finally, I have read something substantial by Mark Twain. It has taken a very long time—Mr. Twain’s works have never been assigned reading for me in any high school or university courses that I have taken. Here in Canada, we are much more likely to be assigned the classic of Stephen Leacock’s, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (I may have read that, although it does not stand out in my memory).

I borrowed a 1918 printing of Huck Finn from our university library, so I got a politically incorrect edition, complete with copious use of the N word. It is jarring to the modern reader, but it provides a look back into the heads of people in the past that is intriguing. Scholars will probably continue to debate whether the work is a critique of racism or not, but to my way of thinking, Twain humanized those who were considered to be “other.”

Common wisdom would have it that a writer should avoid using dialect, but Twain does this masterfully in Huckleberry Finn. The book is very readable and comprehensible, especially considering that it was the dialect of the 1880’s southern states and I am a Canadian reading it in the 21st century. I’ve certainly encountered science fiction books with more difficult language (the slang in Clockwork Orange for example, or pretty much all of Riddley Walker).

What struck me hardest, I think, was the persistence of social problems—Huck’s drunken & abusive father, the judgments of society on poor people, and the difficulty of making a living when you are on the fringes of society. In some ways, Huck was lucky because he could hunt and fish to provide for himself—many of our modern folk living on the edge are in cities and don’t have those avenues available to them.

As many have pointed out, few people would criticize Huck for escaping from his abusive father, so his flight would likely be considered legal, despite his status as a minor. Jim is doing exactly the same thing, but his skin colour makes his escape illegal. The reader must wrestle with this dichotomy and make their own determination of the rightness or wrongness of the situation. This may be the crux of why people object to the book—Twain doesn’t get preachy on the subject. He doesn’t come right out and tell us what to think. The story is what it is, and he considers his readers intelligent enough to come to their own conclusions.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Diabolical Miss Hyde / Viola Carr

3.5 stars out of 5
In an electric-powered Victorian London, Dr. Eliza Jekyll is a crime scene investigator, hunting killers with inventive new technological gadgets. Now, a new killer is splattering London with blood, drugging beautiful women and slicing off their limbs. Catching "the Chopper" could make Eliza's career—or get her burned. Because Eliza has a dark secret. A seductive second self, set free by her father's forbidden magical elixir: wild, impulsive Lizzie Hyde.

When the Royal Society sends their enforcer, the mercurial Captain Lafayette, to prove she's a sorceress, Eliza must resist the elixir with all her power. But as the Chopper case draws her into London's luminous, magical underworld, Eliza will need all the help she can get. Even if it means getting close to Lafayette, who harbors an evil curse of his own.

Even if it means risking everything and setting vengeful Lizzie free . . .

** spoiler alert ** I find myself unable to discuss this book without revealing details of the ending, so be warned here in the first sentence and read no further if you are bothered by such things.

Having read the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde earlier this year, I was intrigued by this modern steampunk version, featuring Dr. Jekyll’s daughter, Eliza, and her alter-ego, Lizzie Hyde. Set in an electrified Victorian London, the book certainly speaks to the repression of women. Despite her education and competence, Dr. Eliza Jekyll is sidelined by the Old Boys Club amongst the constabulary, which still believes that women should be restricted to needlepoint and producing babies. As infuriated by this attitude as she is, there are no legitimate routes for a gentlewoman to protest these conditions. But as Lizzie Hyde, she unleashes her ambition, her sexuality, and her street-smarts—and sometimes Lizzie is convinced to help her solve a crime.

I appreciated the little touches—the addition of a journal of Victor Frankenstein, for example. The Royal Society as a repressive regime, persecuting renegade scientists rather than religious heretics. Eliza’s mysterious guardian, whom she meets only on his terms, never knowing what he looks like.

I sense a second book in the making, as Eliza has not made a clear decision between the potential men in her life by book’s end. Ironically, Lizzie is drawn to the Royal Society man (with secrets of his own) and Eliza is lured by the criminal whom she saved from the gallows.

Playful and easy to read, I would recommend it to fans of steampunk and of the Jekyll & Hyde story.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Shakespeare Undead / Lori Handeland

4 out of 5 stars

Something wicked this way comes . . . and it keeps coming and coming and coming. . . .
William Shakespeare was one of history's greatest writers, a master of words with a body of work that is truly impressive . . . some may say a little too impressive for a single man to accomplish in one lifetime. Perhaps, as many have speculated, he had assistance. Or perhaps the explanation is more . . . unusual. 
Who was William Shakespeare?
Who was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets?
Why are the undead stalking the alleyways of London?
And can they be stopped?
Something is definitely rotten in the state of Denmark. 
So brace yourself for a wild ride through twisted streets and shadowed graveyards of Elizabethan London, where you'll discover how the Bard got his Bite.  

Cute, fun, and refreshingly literate, with plenty of au courant pop-culture references.

Yes, William Shakespeare is a vampire (how do you think he had time to write all those plays and sonnets?) and yes, he does fight zombies. Get over it, and enjoy all the references to the Bard’s various works, including, most admirably, the sonnets. Find out who the Dark Lady really was. ;)

Is it silly? Yes. But is it a great way to spend an evening? Hell, yes.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Dorito Effect / Mark Schatzker

4 out of 5 stars
In The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker shows us how our approach to the nation's number one public health crisis has gotten it wrong. The epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are not tied to the overabundance of fat or carbs or any other specific nutrient. Instead, we have been led astray by the growing divide between flavor - the tastes we crave - and the underlying nutrition.

Since the late 1940s, we have been slowly leeching flavor out of the food we grow. Those perfectly round, red tomatoes that grace our supermarket aisles today are mostly water, and the big breasted chickens on our dinner plates grow three times faster than they used to, leaving them dry and tasteless. Simultaneously, we have taken great leaps forward in technology, allowing us to produce in the lab the very flavors that are being lost on the farm. Thanks to this largely invisible epidemic, seemingly healthy food is becoming more like junk food: highly craveable but nutritionally empty. We have unknowingly interfered with an ancient chemical language - flavor - that evolved to guide our nutrition, not destroy it.

With in-depth historical and scientific research, The Dorito Effect casts the food crisis in a fascinating new light, weaving an enthralling tale of how we got to this point and where we are headed. We've been telling ourselves that our addiction to flavor is the problem, but it is actually the solution. We are on the cusp of a new revolution in agriculture that will allow us to eat healthier and live longer by enjoying flavor the way nature intended.

The author provides a three point summary of his book close to the end:

Humans are flavor seeking animals. The pleasure provided by food, which we experience as flavor, is so powerful that only the most strong-willed among us can resist it.

In nature, there is an intimate connection between flavor and nutrition.

Synthetic flavor technology not only breaks that connection, it also confounds it.

We’ve been so busy trying to squeeze more food out of fewer resources, that we lost sight of the fact that food should be flavourful and nutritious—think of tomatoes, carrots, and chicken purchased in the grocery store. All of them are pretty tasteless. The vegetables are woody and unpleasant. The chicken requires brining, marinating or saucing in order to render it edible.

A hundred years ago, a typical tomato plant was twelve feet tall and carried four or five ripe tomatoes at any one time, with a few green babies still weeks away….A tomato plant now tops out at six feet and carries as many as ten ripe tomatoes at once. That’s too many….It doesn’t have enough leaves to power all that fruit, so it undergoes the plant equivalent of a brown-out. Like a frantic parent, the plant fills its fruit with the only thing it can: water. And the tomatoes taste like what they’re filled with.
Animals and people eat what they need because it tastes good. Experiments done with sheep and goats reveal that plants taste better to the animals when they need the specific nutrients that the plants provide. I remember our farm days, when the first garden lettuce was a matter of celebration, inducting us into a summer of fresh produce after a winter of more limited menu.

Now, we have a whole industry that has learned to mimic the flavours of nutritious food. When we eat it, our systems are fooled into thinking that we are getting nutrition when all we are getting is calories. Since we need the vitamins and minerals, our bodies drive us to eat more of the same food in search of those necessities. (Have you ever found yourself obsessively eating cookies or Doritos or some other processed food, seemingly unable to stop? This is what’s going on!) We can’t reach satiation, because we haven’t met our requirements for vitamins, minerals and fibre.

The food problem is a flavor problem. For half a century, we’ve been making the stuff people should eat—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unprocessed meats—incrementally less delicious. Meanwhile, we’ve been making the food people shouldn’t eat—chips, fast food, soft drinks, crackers—taste ever more exciting. The result is exactly what you would expect.
This has been a very motivating read—time to remove even more processed foods from my diet and search for fruits, vegetables, and meats that really taste like they’re supposed to, like those I remember eating while growing up on the farm.

Walls : Travels along the Barricades / Marcello Di Cintio

3 out of 4 stars
What does it mean to live against a wall? In this ambitious first person narrative, Marcello Di Cintio travels to the world’s most disputed edges to meet the people who live alongside the razor wire, concrete, and steel and how the structure of the walls has influenced their lives. Di Cintio shares tea with Saharan refugees on the wrong side of Morocco’s desert wall. He meets with illegal Punjabi migrants who have circumvented the fencing around the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. He visits fenced-in villages in northeast India, walks Arizona’s migrant trails, and travels to Palestinian villages to witness the protests against Israel’s security barrier.

From Native American reservations on the U.S.-Mexico border and the “Great Wall of Montreal” to Cyprus’s divided capital and the Peace Lines of Belfast, Di Cintio seeks to understand what these structures say about those who build them and how they influence the cultures that they pen in. He learns that while every wall fails to accomplish what it was erected to achieve – the walls are never solutions – each wall succeeds at something else. Some walls define Us from Them with Medieval clarity. Some walls encourage fear or feed hate. Some walls steal. Others kill. And every wall inspires its own subversion, either by the infiltrators who dare to go over, under, or around them, or by the artists who transform them. 

A very timely book club selection, with Hungary currently madly building a wall to keep Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees out of Europe and a few cock-eyed Americans threatening to build a fence along the Canadian border to match the one on their southern border.

To all the wall builders, I give you this poem.

“Home” by Somali poet Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.