Monday, 30 June 2014

The Pride of Chanur / C.J. Cherryh

4 out of 5 stars
No one at Meetpoint Station had ever seen a creature like the Outsider. Naked-hided, blunt toothed and blunt-fingered, Tully was the sole surviving member of his company -- a communicative, spacefaring species hitherto unknown -- and he was a prisoner of his discoverer/ captors the sadistic, treacherous kif, until his escape onto the hani ship The Pride of Chanur.

Little did he know when he threw himself upon the mercy of The Pride and her crew that he put the entire hani species in jeopardy and imperiled the peace of the Compact itself. For the information this fugitive held could be the ruin or glory of any of the species at Meetpoint Station.

Number 144 on my SFF reading project list.  This was a rollicking good space opera--lots of alien life forms, plots of intrigue, plenty of things going boom!  I don’t know about you, but I can’t exist on a reading diet of only serious, thoughtful books and this provided a fun, relaxing romp through the universe when I needed one.

Cherryh writes aliens well.  I loved the lion people of Anuurn—The Pride of Chanur may have been the name of their vessel, but they are also socially arranged into prides, as are lions.  Just as in lion society, where the females do most of the hunting for the pride, the females of Chanur are sent out to do the important job of trading and bringing home the spoils.  They work in family groups with a lioness at the head of a group which includes nieces and cousins—leaving the unpredictable, impulsive males at home.  Male lions are valuable to lion society as the defenders of territory and cubs, holding land to enable the lionesses to hunt without hazard, both on the savannah and on Anuurn, the Chanur’s home planet.  Just as on the plains of Africa, younger males are always looking to push their way into the leadership position in a pride by defeating older males—this added level of intrigue on Anuurn ups the ante for the Pride’s crew.

I could understand why Tully, the human stowaway, would choose the Anuurnan ship as a potential safe haven—they shared mammalian characteristics and social structures which humans, as primates, are programmed to understand.  I also liked that Tully, although the nucleus around which the book revolved, was really a minor force in the action, putting humanity in its place as a new comer to the Compact and its alliances.  Too often, just as the Catholic church in Galileo’s time, we tend to put humans in a position of central importance and I appreciate it when an author resists that urge.

A fast, fun, thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Kindred / Octavia Butler

4 out of 5 stars
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stays grow longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.

This was book number 143 in my SFF reading project.  Octavia Butler was completely unknown to me until now and I am delighted to have found her.  I am also pleased to see that there are several more of her works on my reading list and I look forward to them, if Kindred is representative of her quality of writing.

This was a harrowing read.  Several times, I had to set the novel down and go calm myself because I was so emotionally invested in the main character, Dana, and I just couldn’t face what she would have to endure next.  I’m about as white as it is possible to be (despite having a reputed Métis woman in my ancestry), but being female I could relate to some extent to the change in status Dana experienced when she was dragged over one hundred years into the past.  White women may have ranked higher than the black population, but they were still largely subject to the whims of white men.  And one can be a competent person in the 20th or 21st centuries, but be absolutely clueless in the 19th century!  Just a small for instance: cooking.  I am a tolerable cook given my electric range, a microwave and a toaster oven, not to mention a refrigerator.  But when presented with a wood stove, I would be at a complete loss.  Plus, I am the farm girl who refused to clean chickens—under protest, I helped with feather plucking, but nothing in the world would induce me to plunge my hands into the body cavity of a recently deceased chicken! [I have difficulty just cutting up whole chickens where all the dirty work has been done for me].

As a genealogist, I was intrigued by the premise of Kindred—that Dana was dragged repeatedly into the past to ensure the survival of one of her ancestors, Rufous, who seemed to have a casual disregard for his own personal safety.  It seems to be up to Dana to ensure that her ancestress, Hagar, is conceived and born as is necessary for her own existence.  One of the joys of genealogy is that you can enjoy the exploits of your ancestors with no sense of guilt or responsibility—they are long dead and you had nothing to do with their choices.  I draw strength from the stories of certain amazing women in my own background and even the everyday life stories from the past can show endurance, patience and bravery.  This novel turns that notion on its head, making Dana complicit in the lives of her forebears.  [And I am aware of one forced marriage in my background that I have always wondered about—was this woman forced to marry her rapist?  I suspect so from the few details that survive, but I wouldn’t want to be transported to the past to mediate the events].

I think this book of Octavia Butler’s would be a wonderful one to be taught in schools.  I think the emotion of the work would appeal to young people and the moral questions would make for excellent debating opportunities. Should Dana help Rufous? Why did Dana's husband have such a hard time readjusting to the 20th century? So many things to talk about!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Late Nights on Air / Elizabeth Hay

3.5 out of 5 stars

You can’t get much more Canadian than this novel—it is written by a former CBC employee, it involves the national radio service, there are questions of identity, there is self-discovery through a wilderness trip, and it takes place in the North, mythologized by all of us southern Canadians.

Two young women, Gwen and Dido, come to Yellowknife to craft lives and identities for themselves through working on the radio.  I related to Gwen’s search for herself through her radio work, having worked a very public volunteer job where it was necessary to create a public persona for myself.  How useful that persona was; it created a framework upon which to hang the various facets of my life to display them to those around me, but most importantly to myself.

And where else do you search for yourself?  The North, of course, a mysterious place to those of us who live pressed up against the 49th parallel, much closer to our American neighbours than to the vast majority of Canadian territory.  The people, the wildlife, and the landscape of the Barrens are beautifully invoked, with the canoe trip of discovery forming a rather dreamy portion of the plot line.  It made me wish that I was one of the adventurous folks who went on camping trips, canoeing in the wilderness, identifying the delicate wildflowers and observing the skittish caribou.  I have friends who do these kinds of things and I long to have the ability and the courage.

Running in the background of Late Nights is the whole question of the MacKenzie Valley Pipeline Project and government/business relationships with the aboriginal populations.  In that way, it is a timely book for today, as struggles ensue over several pipeline projects and relations with our native populations are in turmoil.  

On a personal note, two situations in this book got me thinking about a woman that I was friends with long ago.  She became involved with a very possessive man and I think she mistook it for “love” as opposed to power.  I often wonder about her, as when I last talked with her it was obvious that he was controlling her to an extreme extent and I was very worried.  I was cut out of her life rather quickly, as he was busy separating her from her friends and family.  Recently we had a significant milestone school reunion and the organizer sent out lots of email to see who all she could round-up to celebrate.  My former friend, a gentle, polite woman, replied in a rather hostile manner and asked that she never be contacted again.  From this, I assume that she is still with her controlling partner and still acquiescing to his wishes.  I continue to wonder how she is, where she is, whether she will ever escape.

Perhaps that is why this book left me in a melancholy mood.  But for me, that melancholy feeling is a desirable one in literature and I enjoyed wallowing in it for the remainder of the evening.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Packing for Mars / Mary Roach

4 out of 5 stars

Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour?

To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

Let me begin with a shout out to Mary Roach—Mary, I would be willing to pay to have an extended coffee or a meal with you.  Your sense of humour and the things that you are curious about, both of those qualities match the same part in my brain extremely well.  We would either be BFFs or we would annoy the crap out of each other.  Speaking of crap, I worked at a zoo for 17 years—I can discuss sex, death, poop and vomit over a meal without missing a bite.  If you could get anyone in the lunch room there to talk about something besides poop or sex, it was a minor miracle!

Okay, I’m done fan-girling now.  Having read Roach’s book Gulp last year and enjoyed it, I moved on to PfM.  I’m considering it to be research to prepare me to read Andy Weir’s book, The Martian when it is finally my turn at my public library.  I must confess that I haven’t been tremendously interested in the space program, but Roach has convinced me.  I now have a bunch of books from her bibliography on my reading list, but I have a hunch those authors will not have the same irreverent attitude as she does.  Much as I loved Chris Hadfield’s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, it seemed he was a trifle too dignified to deal with some of the nitty-gritty issues that Roach tackles.  If I didn’t know it before, I do now—space is not the place for me.  And I also know why the astronauts on the ISS spend so much time fixing the toilet!  It turns out that in most life processes, gravity really is your friend.

If you are a fan of Mary Roach’s writing, this book is a must-read.  If you don’t care for her style, I would give it a miss unless you are a die-hard fan of the space program. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Lord Valentine's Castle / Robert Silverberg

3.5 stars out of 5
Valentine, a wanderer who knows nothing except his name, finds himself on the fringes of a great city, and joins a troupe of jugglers and acrobats; gradually, he remembers that he is the Coronal Valentine, executive ruler of the vast world of Majipoor, and all its peoples, human and otherwise...

This book may be about 35 years old, but the political issues that it deals with still resonate strongly today.  Majipoor is a very multicultural world, supporting many different races, including a persecuted aboriginal population largely confined to their own province.  Leadership is the prime issue, as Lord Valentine has been bumped out of his body and migrated into a different form.  He must decide if he wants that life back and if so, how to go about the process.

I sincerely doubt that Silverberg had Canada in mind when he wrote this story, but it certainly could be seen to apply to today’s situation.  What with Senate spending scandals, a lot of poo-slinging in the House of Commons, plus a lot of other rather undemocratic behaviour, the issue of good leadership is an important one.  It is beginning to feel like all of our politicians are crooks, just some of them haven’t been exposed yet!  What kind of leaders do we want?  How do we convince those people that they want to engage in the political process, when they are likely to have their reputations slagged, their motives questioned, their decisions second-guessed, and their private lives held up to the scrutiny of the chimpanzee-like political community?  [With apologies to chimpanzees, animals which I’m actually quite fond of].

Similarly, do we want our multi-cultural society to work and are we willing to admit our own prejudices?  Does it matter that your employer has four arms and is covered in thick coarse hair?  How will you deal with a displaced aboriginal population who resent the out-worlders who have taken over their planet/continent?  [I could visualize the Metamorphs participating in the Idle No More movement, for example].

Silverberg doesn’t directly answer any of these questions, but he does, I think, make some gentle suggestions.  Lord Valentine is a likeable protagonist—but his gentle ways and general good-naturedness make him a target for more brutal would-be rulers.  Can you be a nice guy and still be tough enough to govern?

It was fun to explore the world of Majipoor—I enjoyed the variety of races described, the elaborate festivals, and especially the sea-dragon hunting!  Not only Valentine, but most of the population seemed very much on the nicey-nice side, supposedly because of a long stretch of stable rule.  It was a bracing change when Valentine had to start dealing with bureaucracy—I was relieved to see that there was typical red-tape and crankiness!  Majipoor is not a Utopia.

A fun, light read, nice to intersperse with more difficult volumes.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Cockpit Confidential / Patrick Smith

For millions of people, travel by air is a confounding, uncomfortable, and even fearful experience. Patrick Smith, airline pilot and author of the web's popular Ask the Pilot feature, separates the fact from fallacy and tells you everything you need to know...

I heard the author of this book interviewed on CBC radio and decided that it wouldn’t hurt me to get a bit of reassurance from a pilot, especially given the amount of air travel that I do in pursuit of my hobbies.  I am not a nervous flier by nature, but I know people who are and hoped to gain a few words of wisdom to comfort them with.

I didn’t really care too much about airline logos and the mechanics of seniority among pilots, just to mention a couple of subjects that Smith covers.  I found the coverage of issues that scare people to be done quite well, but it was a very small portion of the book.  And I have to wonder how comforted they will remain when they get to the list of worst airline crashes in history—at least, as he points out, none of them are recent and technology has changed a great deal during the intervening years.

Basically, my own general feelings on flying were reinforced by this book—pilots and flight crew would not willingly sign up for these jobs if they felt that their lives were in danger in any way.  Since there are many people applying for each and every pilot’s job that comes available, it would seem most pilots feel pretty secure about the safety of flying.  Even small planes and obscure airlines have the same technology to work with and are safer than driving.  He quotes a study in American Scientist magazine:  "...if a passenger chooses to drive rather than fly the distance of a typical flight segment, that person is sixty-five times more likely to be killed."  This has been a belief of mine for many years, but people are still willing to get into vehicles and drive without being freaked out by the thousands of traffic deaths that take place each year.  (I actually do get a bit unnerved by having passengers in my car—I feel ultra-responsible for their welfare until I deliver them safely to the end destination, but this is a result of my parents being killed in a car crash while I was in my mid-thirties).  

Notable facts:  turbulence, even when it’s bad, is an inconvenience rather than a hazard.  You could be bumped, bruised, or have hot coffee spilled on you.  The first two can be avoided by keeping your seat belt done up—there really is a reason that they ask you to do that.  Also, even when crossing the Himalayas, there is always time to reach a safe altitude should the airplane lose pressure.  Don’t hyperventilate into the rubber cup over your mouth and nose, you are still very safe.  Plus, your plane has oodles of fuel on board to cope with possible detours and/or delays, so don’t get panicky if the airport is crowded and you end up circling it for a while.  

Re: health concerns, the air in the cabin is supplemented with fresh air from the engine compressors, so we’re not breathing only recycled air.  The reason that I catch a cold more often when I fly is very prosaic—it’s all those hard surfaces that we all touch, the touch screen TV, seat belt buckles, tray tables, bathroom door handles, probably even those well-thumbed magazines in the seat pocket.  Smith recommends some hand sanitizer (in the regulation small bottles).  I like some of that and usually use a disinfectant wipe on all of the hard surfaces in and around my seat, I don’t care how crazy I may look to my surrounding passengers as I swipe like a demented cleaning lady!

Having heard Captain Smith’s interview on CBC last year, I knew that he had said that lightning hitting a plane is not unusual and that it rarely causes any damage.  Imagine my surprise in March when I saw lightning hit the plane that I was in going from Bogata to Caracas!  I was even more puzzled when the pilot announced that we were returning to Bogata, instead of completing the flight.  I have come to the conclusion that it was the political situation in Venezuela that caused our turn around, rather than damage—they didn’t want to have anything wrong that might possibly prevent getting right back out of Venezuela.  I can’t say I blame the crew, although it turned my 8.5 hour layover in Bogata into a 26.5 hour marathon layover.  

My final thought:  This book is no substitute for psychological help if you have an ingrained phobia about flying.  I think in that case, you would be much better off finding a mental health professional who could work with you on de-sensitizing your fears.  Those like me, who are basically comfortable, will find the words you need to understand the flying environment better and stay happy.

The Bees / Laline Paull

Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive's survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw but her courage and strength are assets. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect pollen. She also finds her way into the Queen's inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous.

But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen's fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, her society—and lead her to unthinkable deeds.

The GoodReads description of this book says: “The Handmaid's Tale meets The Hunger Games.”  I’ve never read The Hunger Games, so I can’t comment on that comparison and it’s been decades since I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale.   However, I did come to the same conclusion on my own (before reading the GR blurb)—there were definitely echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale  in The Bees [the supervision of reproduction aspect especially].  I was also reminded strongly of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Zamyatin’s We [the “Serve, Accept, Obey” slogan, for example, or the Fertility Police].  Several other reviewers whose opinions I respect have also pointed out some parallels with Watership Down [mostly because of the anthropomorphic nature of thinking/talking animals, I speculate].  

 The Bees was an enjoyable read and a quick one—if I had an earlier start, I would have finished it in one evening.  [I had two chapters left when I realized that I would be miserable at work the next day if I didn’t bundle myself off to bed immediately].  Although I had foreseen the end of the novel by about 2/3 of the way through, it was still fun to see how it was realized.  I find the scenes where bees used brooms and/or dustpans a little bit twee, and would have preferred that those human artifacts hadn’t been mentioned—I found they jarred me out of the narrative a bit, especially when the natural behaviour of the insects was generally so well represented.

One thing that makes The Bees unlike the books above is the commentary on environmental issues—the dearth of flowers to supply food for the hive and the repercussions of pesticide use on crops.  Since I personally am a recovering arachnophobic, I really identified with the horror of the spider scenes.  I know that spiders are necessary in the Circle of Life and I leave them alone unless they come into my home, but they still bother me.

One part that I was especially fond of was the tying together of the first and last chapters, using the family of the home in whose yard the bee hive sits.  Perhaps because I’m the age where, under normal circumstances, I would be dealing with living arrangements for elderly parents, I found this very touching.  My parents died young and in many ways, I would love to have this problem to cope with—instead my sisters and I dealt with possessions and sold the family farm house almost 20 years ago.

I’m not sure what kind of staying power The Bees will have over the long term.  How many books are instant classics?  I’m unsure of that and it will likely be up to future readers to grant or deny “classic” status on any of today’s books.  Past classics weren’t up against the flood of titles available in the 21st century and I often wonder if or how many of the current year’s offering will end up durable and memorable enough to achieve that kind of status.  But I think it does at least have a chance and I’m very glad that I read it.