Thursday, 31 July 2014

Slow Horses / Mick Herron

3 out of 5 stars
Slough House is a dumping ground for British intelligence agents who’ve screwed up a case in any number of ways—by leaving a secret file on a train or blowing a surveillance. River Cartwright, one such “slow horse,” is bitter about his failure and about his tedious assignment transcribing cell phone conversations.

When a young man is abducted and his kidnappers threaten to broadcast his beheading live on the Internet, River sees an opportunity to redeem himself.

Is the victim who he first appears to be? And what’s the kidnappers’ connection with a disgraced journalist? As the clock ticks on the execution, River finds that everyone has his own agenda.

This was an excellent "it's too hot to think too hard" summer book. If you are into spy fiction, you will probably enjoy this novel.

The slow horses are the intelligence agents who have screwed up big time and have been exiled to Slough House to grind away at boring statistical tasks until they quit or die.

When River Cartwright gets a small surveillance task to perform, he actually starts paying attention to the currents flowing around him and notices a lot of details that start knitting together into a somewhat coherent whole. What he does with this information and deciding who to trust turns this into a page-turner.

No international espionage, but plenty of "this branch against that branch" sort of conflict.

Perfect for light summer reading.

Missing Microbes / Martin J. Blaser

3 out of 5 stars
Tracing one scientist’s journey toward understanding the crucial importance of the microbiome, this revolutionary book will take readers to the forefront of trail-blazing research while revealing the damage that overuse of antibiotics is doing to our health: contributing to the rise of obesity, asthma, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. In Missing Microbes, Dr. Martin Blaser invites us into the wilds of the human microbiome where for hundreds of thousands of years bacterial and human cells have existed in a peaceful symbiosis that is responsible for the health and equilibrium of our body. Now, this invisible eden is being irrevocably damaged by some of our most revered medical advances—antibiotics—threatening the extinction of our irreplaceable microbes with terrible health consequences. Taking us into both the lab and deep into the fields where these troubling effects can be witnessed firsthand, Blaser not only provides cutting edge evidence for the adverse effects of antibiotics, he tells us what we can do to avoid even more catastrophic health problems in the future.

I've been doing a lot of research lately about the inner biome of the human being--all the micro-organisms which share space with us and help to keep us healthy. This book distills a great deal of that information into one coherent volume, which is great.

We have more bacterial cells in and on us than we have body cells. They help us with digestion, hormonal regulation, and immune responses. Without them, we would be hooped. Evidence is accumulating that the use of antibiotics has drastically changed our inner landscape, wiping out some friendly bacteria which help us to live a more healthy life--we can perhaps blame celiac disease, food allergies, and asthma on changes in our gut bacteria.

You know that an author is seriously devoted when he is excited that anthropologists have found a group of South American indigenous people who have never encountered Western medicine and is thrilled to get fecal samples from them! To see a natural intestinal fauna which antibiotics have never decimated.

Like many authors with a relentless focus, Blaser is on a bit of a soap box. Doctors have been giving out antibiotics "just in case" and considering that they do no harm. He discusses antibiotic resistant infections and the real danger that we will soon have no treatments that work on diseases that we thought we had under control.

I was hoping for advice on what the average person could do to cultivate their garden, so to speak, but didn't find many suggestions, besides not pressuring your doctor to give you a prescription for every cold or cough that presents itself. I've been taking a probiotic supplement, which Blaser says is probably not harmful, but no one has proven that the organisms in the supplements are helpful ones either.

But this is a hot area of research, so I plan to stay tuned!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Goblin Emperor / Katherine Addison

4 out of 5 stars
The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisers, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the na├»ve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend... and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

This is a charming tale of an unprepared young man, launched into a world that would be daunting even if he had been trained for it.  Exiled by his father, abused by his guardian, disregarded and despised by everyone but his mother, Maia must find his way in a court that is complicated, unforgiving, and hostile.

I appreciated some of the real world concerns that found their way into this work of fantasy:  the issue of skin colour, the status of women, the ways that people treat one another as “lesser than.”  I also enjoyed the steampunk details included in the book.

Although there is violence—it begins with the airship explosion that kills the Emperor and the three sons ahead of Maia for the throne after all—this is not a novel about war, battle or force.  This is a tale about kindness conquering all and about how much it matters who the man or woman at the top of the hierarchy is.  Years ago, I was involved in a large organization as a volunteer when said organization hired a man of dubious reputation as CEO.  Rumour had it that he had quit the last executive position before sexual harassment charges could catch up with him.  Soon, all the women in our organization were on high alert and knew to never be alone with this creep.  Eventually even the men on staff figured things out and finally Mr. Creepy CEO was turfed, but the organization continues to suffer from the years he spent at the helm.  One of my male friends told me that he had always considered that it really didn’t matter who was at the top of the heap, that he just ignored that detail and did his job—until this situation, when he realized that company culture really does emanate downwards from the person in charge.

Having said all of that, Maia demonstrates that the Golden Rule is an excellent way to run one’s life or one’s kingdom—do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  He doesn’t win every encounter by practicing this philosophy, but by unflinchingly attempting to be fair, to really listen to people and to care, he shows the qualities of a real leader.

Two criticisms, both to do with names:  one, Maia to me sounds like a female name and it bugged me attached to a male character.  Two, there were too many very complicated names.  If the names had dissimilar or if there had been fewer characters, I might have had a hope of keeping them straight.  As it was, when one turned out to be important, I had to backtrack a bit and figure out exactly who they were.  Otherwise, I just treated them as background wallpaper and didn’t try to distinguish one from another—and this despite the fact that I am usually good with names and that fictional names actually matter a great deal to me.

Despite the naming issues, I enjoyed this book very much and in fact stayed up much too late one evening to finish it.  I am still trying to catch up on sleep, but The Goblin Emperor was worth it.

The Martian / Andy Weir

4.5 stars out of 5

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there.  It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

“If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”—Red Green (for whom duct tape is the handy man’s secret weapon).  Apologies to those unfamiliar with the Red Green TV show.

Mark Watney is indeed a handy kind of guy, right out of the Red Green mold.  Mind you, astronauts have to be problem solvers and able to tackle everything from malfunctioning water dispensers during space walks to fixing the space station toilet [see Chris Hadfield’s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth].  Mark demonstrates this ability to take on whatever the planet Mars throws at him.   [In this case, he is nothing like Red Green & the Possum Lodge members, whose motto is “If all else fails, play dead.”]

Reading this book was like eating peanuts—once I got started, it was really hard to stop.  I found the device of log entries to be delightful, as I always have loved books that use the form of exchanged letters or journal entries.  I also found Watney to be a charming narrator, if a bit of a smart aleck.  Some reviewers have found his upbeat way of looking at his situation to be tiresome, but the log entries are always made after the worst of the crisis is over and Watney has survived to write another missive.  He fully realizes his situation (“I’m fucked”), but chooses realistic optimism over simply giving up.

So, I enjoyed the form, the attention to scientific detail, and the humour.  The pacing was relentless—just when the situation would settle down to a dull roar, the author would throw yet another problem at Watney.  I was reminded of a GoodReads friend of mine, talking about a writer in the noir detective genre, who would fix inaction in his plots by having a man with a gun walk through the door.  Yet another equipment failure in The Martian replaces the man with a gun.  As a reader, I was always anxious to know how he solved this problem.  Although the journal entries were great, I was also glad to have the NASA view point interspersed with them, giving me another voice and viewpoint besides Watney’s.

The GoodReads summary of the book describes it as “Apollo 13 meets Cast Away.”  No accident to describe it in movie terms, rather than bookish terms, I think.  And I understand that 20th Century Fox has purchased the film rights—I think it has potential to be a good movie and I will definitely go see it.  I have mused before about whether modern books have the potential to become “classics” and I think this may be one novel that does have a chance at that status.  Despite the moaning of the publishing industry, there seems to be a tidal wave of new titles produced each year and only time will divide the wheat from the chaff, but in my opinion The Martian stands a good chance of being in the wheat category.  Or perhaps in this case it’s a potato!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Burning Times / Jeanne Kalogridis

2.5 stars out of 5
"Of the Black Death, they said it was the end of the world; I knew better. The world can withstand the sickness of the body, but it remains to be seen whether it will survive the sickness that eats at the souls of our persecutors..." So professes Mother Marie Franoise, born Sybille, a poor midwife who is taught pagan ways and magic by her grandmother and is forced to take refuge among the Franciscan sisterhood as the Inquisition threatens. Her extraordinary life story unfolds when a monk is charged with determining whether the mysterious abbess is a saint or a witch.

Sybille is possessed of exceptional powers, and she is in full command of them -- practicing white and black magic, winning the hearts of people with her wisdom, and terrorizing church authorities with her cunning. But even witches are not immune to earthly love, and Sybille embarks on a passionate, dangerous quest to be reunited with her beloved. As she confronts an exceptional destiny -- one that will require her to face the flames in order to save others like her -- she relates a tale of impossible triumph that forever changes the inquisitor who hears it.

This was a decent book, although I had issues with it. I think the depiction of peasant life in the Medieval period is relatively well done, although I think it is hard for 21st century people to have any clue how difficult, dirty, dangerous, and restricted life was in that age. I wish that I had already read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, as I’m sure that Medieval France was very, very similar (and wouldn’t you just know that neither of my libraries have this book, so I may end up buying it).

My biggest issue with The Burning Times involves the depiction of witchcraft in the novel. I have read Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, and a number of other New Age/Wiccan books, nature religions being a minor fascination of mine. TBT depicts Medieval witches as doing the same things as the modern Witchcraft revival practitioners do (casting circles, raising a “cone of power,” etc.), all of which are highly unlikely in my opinion. I think when Witchcraft/Wicca was getting going in the 1960s and 1970s, everyone who went public as a Witch thought they had to have an ancient grandmother who initiated them into the religion. Nobody wanted to admit that they were making up a religion that they desired but couldn’t find and so “ancient” grimoires were published and circulated and Witches chose to ignore or deny the recent origins of their religion. I think Adler put it best, that Wicca and Neo-Paganism are religions that you find, they don’t find you. So TBT not only depicts modern witchcraft rituals, it perpetuates the mistaken idea that these rituals were passed down in an unbroken chain from time immemorial. I don’t think there’s any shame in manufacturing your own religion if that’s what gives your life meaning and I see no reason to try to avoid admitting that you have done so, but I do wish we could quit trying to impose the present on the past.

From what I have read, most of the women who were burned as witches did practice folk medicine or midwifery or they were old and alone and/or mentally ill/deficient and unable to act in self-protective fashion. There is absolutely no doubt that the Inquisition did torture people in hideous ways and “convinced” them to confess to damn near anything just to get the agony to stop. The power exerted by the Catholic Church to retain their power seems like using a sledgehammer to swat flies—until you realize that poor women were tortured to “reveal” who was in their covens, and they would often name high-born folks in order to defend their own family and friends. The Church could then put nobles on trial and could perhaps cash in on their wealth and property.

I should have guessed from the title, actually, that this would be the path of this book—read anything by Leo Martello about Witchcraft and you will hear plenty about The Burning Times (for example his Witchcraft : The Old Religion).

On a more petty level, I also rapidly tired of Sybille and Luc refer to each other as “My Beloved.” For heaven’s sake, just use the person’s name! (I actually had to pause for a little bit there to remember their names, as they used “My Beloved” so much).

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Leftovers / Tom Perrotta

3 out of 5 stars

What if — whoosh, right now, with no explanation — a number of us simply vanished? Would some of us collapse? Would others of us go on, one foot in front of the other, as we did before the world turned upside down? That's what the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, who lost many of their neighbors, friends and lovers in the event known as the Sudden Departure, have to figure out. Because nothing has been the same since it happened — not marriages, not friendships, not even the relationships between parents and children.

Kevin Garvey, Mapleton's new mayor, wants to speed up the healing process, to bring a sense of renewed hope and purpose to his traumatized community. Kevin's own family has fallen apart in the wake of the disaster: his wife, Laurie, has left to join the Guilty Remnant, a homegrown cult whose members take a vow of silence; his son, Tom, is gone, too, dropping out of college to follow a sketchy prophet named Holy Wayne. Only Kevin's teenaged daughter, Jill, remains, and she's definitely not the sweet "A" student she used to be. Kevin wants to help her, but he's distracted by his growing relationship with Nora Durst, a woman who lost her entire family on October 14th and is still reeling from the tragedy, even as she struggles to move beyond it and make a new start.

The premise of this book is excellent—an event somewhat like the Rapture happens and those “left behind” have to deal with loss and uncertainty.  Especially since those who were taken are such a mixed bag: the Pope (natch), Vladimir Putin (huh!), Jennifer Lopez (?).  Plenty of True Believers didn’t go anywhere and are plenty mad about it.

This was a wonderful bit of summer fluff reading—the whole book felt rather like a soap opera, following a number of people as they decided how the Sudden Departure is going to affect their lives.  So it makes sense that the book is being turned into a television series.  I actually think it will work better as a TV program than it does as a novel.  Not that the novel doesn’t work, but to me it felt rather superficial—like the author had not lost anyone of great significance in his life (and he’s my age, so I wonder if that’s even possible in your mid-50’s?)  I guess that’s my way of saying that I didn’t emotionally connect with these characters—I felt that they were an assortment of “types,” the good student-gone-bad, the wife with survivor’s guilt, the mayor trying to hold the town together, etc.  I think that a decent actor will be able to give these characters some subtext and make me care a great deal more about them.  

I do like Perrotta’s conceptions of some of the cults that might arise from such an event:  Holy Wayne and his followers, the Barefoot People and the more sinister Guilty Remnant.  Once again, I think that TV can do these groups more justice and, like the Dexter series, I think a team of writers will be able to take the plot in interesting directions that one author can’t dream up by his or her self. 

Little, Big / John Crowley

3 out of 5 stars

Little, Big tells the epic story of Smoky Barnable -- an anonymous young man who meets and falls in love with Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes to live with her in Edgewood, a place not found on any map. In an impossible mansion full of her relatives, who all seem to have ties to another world not far away, Smoky fathers a family and tries to learn what tale he has found himself in -- and how it is to end.

It seems to me that John Crowley had both older fairy stories and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in mind while he was writing Little, Big.  There is a parallel world beside (or maybe simultaneously inhabiting) Edgewood, and, like older versions of fairy stories, its inhabitants seem to be maybe indifferent or maybe hostile to humanity.  Smoky spends his life like many of the men who marry into the Drinkwater/Bramble family, wondering what exactly is going on and not really getting a straight answer from the women-folk.  It is very reminiscent of old tales where one must be very careful of the fairy folk and avoid angering them.  Unfortunately, keeping the details murky for the main characters also keeps the reader in a fog of uncertainly about exactly what was, what is, and what will be.  As a reader, I thought that some people knew more than they actually did—Daily Alice and Sophie, for example.  All the characters seem strangely passive, just accepting that they are part of The Tale and not striving to understand what’s going on.  Even those who start trying to figure things out seem to get strangely stalled or distracted and give up before they get very far.  Nobody talks, nobody explains their feelings, nobody gets angry.  Only Auberon throws a real fit and that only when it’s impossible to discuss it with the person he is angry with, and he inflicts his anger on himself in self-destructive ways.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Smoky and Daily Alice’s son is named Auberon (i.e. Oberon, King of the Fairies in Shakespeare) and that Auberon’s great love is Sylvie, who confesses to him at one point that she is also known as Titania (Shakespeare’s Queen of the Fairies).  By book’s end, the reasons for those names will become abundantly clear.

The writing is beautiful, the descriptions are lush, the family connections are complex—my only complaint is that not much seems to be going on.  It’s like a soap opera, where you can tune in weeks after your last episode and still have a pretty firm grip on the plot.  Not much will have happened while you are gone (and Auberon and Sylvie actually do work together for a while writing scripts for a soap opera in the City).  Maybe I will re-read this someday, trying to find the hook that seems to have caused so many people to adore this novel.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Gravity's Rainbow / Thomas Pynchon

“A screaming comes across the sky. . .” A few months after the Germans’ secret V-2 rocket bombs begin falling on London, British Intelligence discovers that a map of the city pinpointing the sexual conquests of one Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, U.S. Army, corresponds identically to a map showing the V-2 impact sites. The implications of this discovery will launch Slothrop on an amazing journey across war-torn Europe, fleeing an international cabal of military-industrial superpowers, in search of the mysterious Rocket 00000, through a wildly comic extravaganza that has been hailed in The New Republic as “the most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II.”

POLONIUS: “What do you read, my lord?”
HAMLET: “Words, words, words.”

While reading Gravity’s Rainbow, I often felt like Hamlet. I am out of practice reading stream of consciousness narrative and had to struggle to find my footing.

The book alternately attracted and repelled me, which, as one of my reading friends pointed out, isn’t how gravity works at all. When I would get into the flow and get reading, whole evenings would disappear. But after I set down the book each evening, it was a struggle to pick it back up the next day.

It is densely written text. There is very little white space on the page and very few breaks in the text, so when I set myself a goal of reading 90-100 pages per evening, I had no idea what kind of commitment I was making. It can be done, but it leaves no time for other books (an unacceptable proposition in my life). I am accustomed to polishing off 200-300 pages in an evening so this was a shock to my system. I couldn’t have the radio on either—I had to keep my attention sharply focused on the page (although I did find Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach to be acceptable as background music). A lesson in humility—with Gravity’s Rainbow telling me, “Look what easy stuff you usually read. You really need to stretch yourself a bit more.” When I realized that I would never finish before the book was due back at the Public Library (and that some other brave soul had a hold on it), I turned that copy in and retrieved a copy from the University Library where I work. There was no way that I was willing to pay overdue fees on this one.

Things that I liked: there were some beautiful descriptions—storm clouds the colour of wet cement sticks in my mind—I’ve seen those and it’s a perfect match. I was rather fond of the octopus that Slothrop eventually discouraged by bashing it with a wine bottle. [In fact, this scene from Rainbow was referenced in the non-fiction book on squid that I recently read, causing me to squee with delight]. Additionally, I loved how many characters wandered in, out, and through the work—that sudden jolt of realization that I’d read about them earlier and then settling in to see what they’d do next.

I think I will have to mull over the whole worship of war & rockets aspect of the book, the fetishizing of the rocket. Absolutely no doubt that Gravity’s Rainbow gives the reader a lot to ponder.

Am I glad that I read it? I think the answer is yes. Mostly I am just grateful to be finished and to have more time to go back to reading some fluff for the summer. In retrospect, June/July was not the ideal time of year to attempt such a work.