Thursday, 25 September 2014

Incontinent on the Continent / Jane Christmas

3 out of 5 stars
Since the beginning of time, mothers and daughters have had notoriously fraught relationships. "Show me a mother who says she has a good or great relationship with her daughter," Jane Christmas writes, "and I'll show you a daughter who is in therapy trying to understand how it all went so horribly wrong."

To smooth over five decades of constant clashing, Christmas takes her arthritic, incontinent, and domineering mother, Valeria;a cross between Queen Victoria and Hyacinth Bucket of the British comedy Keeping Up Appearances;on a tour of Italy.

Neither has been to Italy before, but both are fans of ancient art, architecture, and history. Will gazing at the fruits of the Italian Renaissance be enough to spark a renaissance in their relationship? As they wander along the winding Amalfi Coast, traverse St. Peter's Square in Rome, and sample the wines of Tuscany; walkers, biscuits, shawls, and medications in tow; they revisit the bickering and bitterness of years past and reassess who they are and how they might reconcile their differences.

This is the choice of my book club for November, but I got mixed up about which book was next and ended up reading it early. I’ve heard Jane Christmas interviewed on CBC radio (although not about this book) and had been curious to read some of her writing.

I came away from this volume wondering a bit about what kind of person Christmas actually is. She reveals herself to be impatient, intolerant, and overbearing and I’m not sure that was her intent. Mind you, we can all behave badly in stressful circumstances and she seems to find her mother’s presence to be one of the most stressful circumstances. I came away from the book thinking that both women lacked a certain amount of self-awareness.

On the other hand, I see many of my friends in my age range dealing with some of the same problems. For instance, can my parent still drive safely? Are they trustworthy in the kitchen or are they potential fire hazards? If we go to such-and-such a place, will they be able to make the required walking distance? If so, how quickly? It’s a fraught situation, as you want to make sure they are safe and comfortable, but you also want them to retain as much choice as they can. I have elderly friends and I see them clinging to the last remnants of independence. One shopped around for a doctor who would renew her driver’s license—I had to make a stand several years ago and tell her that I would no longer be a passenger in her car and I think the doctor that granted her request ought to have to ride with her a few times. But she’s not my mother (or any other relative), so it’s not my call and her sons seem to be willfully blind about the whole matter. Another friend was absolutely determined to stay in her house, until a health emergency landed her in hospital—because she had not chosen to move, she had to take what was available, thankfully a very nice, new facility. One can’t always end up in such happy circumstances. I’ve been travelling with both of these ladies, in fact I think I was along for each of their last international trips—and they experienced difficulties along the road (including altitude sickness, and yes, incontinence). About that, they are both realistic—one has limited herself to North America, the other will probably not ever leave our city again. The desire to take “one more trip” led to convincing themselves that they could do whatever the younger tour members were planning.

I can also see this from the perspective of someone who is starting to experience physical limitations of her own--arthritis in the knees, cataracts in the eyes, and much less stamina than 20 years ago. I’ve begun to use walking poles and choose my international tours carefully. I’m travelling as far afield as possible right now, while I still can do it and will restrict my destinations as my difficulties increase. I’m trying to use the examples of older friends as a guide and not end up being a drag on my travelling companions and tour groups.

Maybe I’ll have to do what one of my aunts did—a very religious lady, she decided to pray about whether she should continue to drive and she asked God to give her a sign. The next morning, she found her car had been stolen—sign received, and she quit driving and sold the car when the police recovered it. We should all be so lucky that the universe gives us that clear a message.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Good Advice from Bad People / Zac Bissonnette

2 out of 5 stars
Bestselling author Zac Bissonnette has gathered more than seventy-five jaw-dropping gems, including risk-management advice from the man who triggered the world’s largest hedge fund collapse and tips from gay-prostitute-patronizing pastor Ted Haggard on how to build a marriage that lasts a lifetime. The result will keep you smiling while you glean all the wisdom you need to build the life you want . . . if only you can follow it better than the people who gave it.

It was the title that attracted my attention—the potential was obvious. As it turns out, the book was less than I expected. There is a certain amount of humour in a book where Donald Trump gives advice on staying humble, Tiger Woods describes how to be a role model, and O.J. Simpson recommends taking responsibility for your actions. But the humour stayed at the gentle irony stage, where I had expected the author to take a bit more advantage of the incongruousness of the set-up. He limits himself to giving a quote from the bad person and then pointing out how far that individual has deviated from said advice. Once I determined that there was not going to be an emphasis on the ridiculous, I anticipated getting a bit more useful advice for identifying and avoiding the narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths of the world. This information was added, apparently as an afterthought, very briefly in the last two pages of the book. Summary: they are mostly men, they preach obvious things that we already know, people celebrate them without knowing very much about them and these folks milk their status for everything they can. Basically, narcissists and psychopaths dazzle us with charisma while taking advantage of our bedazzlement. Easy to say, hard to recognize when you are under the spell of the perpetrator in question. These are realizations that come with hindsight.

At least the book does not take too much time to read—the text is not dense, with many white spaces on the page and frequent portraits of the bad people in question. The format was to provide a quote and sometimes a photo on one or two pages, following by a page to a page and half of comments by the author. I was easily able to read the book while waiting in medical offices for blood tests, scans, etc. As it was easily interruptible, it was the perfect book to take as a time-passer during those waiting periods.

Neither very humourous nor very wise, this is a “self help” book that I would advise you to leave on the shelf. If you feel you must read it, borrow it from a library, as I did, rather than spending your own hard earned money on it. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry / Gabrielle Zevin

3 out of 5 stars
On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island-from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, but large in weight. It's that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

I wanted to love this book. I didn’t love it, but I certainly liked it. It *should* have been a hit with me. It features books, bookstores, and the importance of reading—all things dear to my heart. There is grief—something that I am all too familiar with—and overcoming it (done that too).

Grumpy, grief-stricken bookstore owner has a child abandoned in his bookstore and ends up adopting her. Very unlikely in my opinion, especially since said fellow has no experience at all with children. I have no experience with children and nothing in the world would convince me to adopt. My personal bias, I guess. Grumpy, grief-stricken bookstore owner also meets charmingly eccentric publisher’s rep and you can probably deduce the rest of the major plot points from there. There are also a couple of parallel plots involving members of Fikry’s circle—his sister-in-law, the chief of police—which I actually really liked. (And I loved that the Law Enforcement Book Club had to ban side-arms to prevent violence during differences of opinion).

If you don’t want to know about the book’s ending, stop reading here.

The ending was a major part my rather lukewarm response to the book. I guess I really have read too many “cancer books,” as one member of my book club calls them. Although I don’t necessarily demand a fairy-tale “happily ever after” ending, I did find this one to be only half ways satisfying. I would have rated this 4 stars if it had ended a couple of chapters earlier, although I would regret missing finding out the remainder of the parallel plot lines.

3 regretful stars.

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Keeper of Lost Causes / Jussi Adler-Olsen

4 out of 5 stars
Carl Mørck used to be one of Copenhagen’s best homicide detectives. Then a hail of bullets destroyed the lives of two fellow cops, and Carl—who didn’t draw his weapon—blames himself. So a promotion is the last thing he expects. But Department Q is a department of one, and Carl’s got only a stack of Copenhagen’s coldest cases for company. His colleagues snicker, but Carl may have the last laugh, because one file keeps nagging at him: a liberal politician vanished five years earlier and is presumed dead. But she isn’t dead … yet.
I know it’s a good book when I immediately want to book the next one at the library! But I’ll hold off for a bit, knowing that it’s also wise to leave a bit of space between books in a good series. They are like dessert, very enjoyable when widely spaced, but boring if they are a steady diet.

I was about half way through the book on Saturday night when I finally had to admit exhaustion and go to bed. As I was swimming towards consciousness on Sunday morning, I had a sudden epiphany—I know who the captor/killer is! Then it was a quick read to determine the accuracy of this not-so-early morning revelation. (I was right!)

I enjoyed getting the back story on Carl Mørck—how he ended up in Department Q, where the name of the department came from, and how he got mixed up with the mysterious Assad. Mørck has all the characteristics necessary in Scandinavian crime fiction—a screwed up past, a cranky disposition, problems with the women and children in his life, and a reluctant determination to solve the crimes that are presented to him. Despite his stereotypical set up, Carl is easy to appreciate—who amongst us hasn’t had woes at work, unreasonable bosses and coworkers, and stress from personal life impinging on our jobs? Carl’s situation is a bit more extreme than most of us (there’s very little PTSD in the library profession) but you can still easily put yourself in his situation.

I also like the shady Assad and will look forward to his further adventures with Carl!

Friday, 12 September 2014

Dead Lions / Mick Herron

3 out of 5 stars
London's Slough House is where the washed-up MI5 spies go to while away what's left of their failed careers. The "slow horses," as they’re called, have all disgraced themselves in some way to get relegated here. Maybe they messed up an op badly and can't be trusted anymore. Maybe they got in the way of an ambitious colleague and had the rug yanked out from under them. Maybe they just got too dependent on the bottle—not unusual in this line of work. One thing they all have in common, though, is they all want to be back in the action. And most of them would do anything to get there─even if it means having to collaborate with one another.

Now the slow horses have a chance at redemption. An old Cold War-era spy is found dead on a bus outside Oxford, far from his usual haunts. The despicable, irascible Jackson Lamb is convinced Dickie Bow was murdered. As the agents dig into their fallen comrade's circumstances, they uncover a shadowy tangle of ancient Cold War secrets that seem to lead back to a man named Alexander Popov, who is either a Soviet bogeyman or the most dangerous man in the world. How many more people will have to die to keep those secrets buried?

The denizens of Slough House are at it again—those slow horses, the disgraced spies, are trying to be relevant and get in on the Intelligence Service action. You’ve gotta love the repulsive head of Slough House, Jackson Lamb, who goes to great lengths to make himself look like a homeless guy and to torment all those under his supervision. Likewise, it’s hard not to be fond of River Cartwright, whose grandfather was a successful spy with MI5 back in the day—when River needs encouragement, he goes to visit the old man and listen to his war stories, gleaning hints to help him in his current predicament. Maybe you don’t love the other characters (or maybe you do), but they are entertaining and have their own back stories of banishment to Slough House. I must admit a soft spot for Roderick Ho, the stereotypical Anglo-Asian computer geek who can’t figure out why he is in the dog house. Turns out, he did nothing exactly wrong, but he is obnoxious and no one wants to work with him despite his virtuoso skills as a computer nerd.

Lamb isn’t one to let his slow horses loose in the field very often and they always manage to get into trouble when he does. Cartwright is probably the sharpest of them (except maybe the new guy with the gambling problem) and he still manages to get himself into situations where that “how to withstand torture” training comes in useful.

This book and its predecessor, Slow Horses, are extremely entertaining and perfect for those who enjoy the spy novel. References to the Cold War with the Soviet Union are especially à propos during these days of Russian and Ukrainian turmoil and posturing by both Putin and the United States, two former superpowers both struggling to retain their relevance in the 21st century.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Snow Queen / Joane D. Vinge

4 stars out of 5
The imperious Winter colonists have ruled the planet Tiamat for 150 years, deriving wealth from the slaughter of the sea mers. But soon the galactic stargate will close, isolating Tiamat, and the 150-year reign of the Summer primitives will begin. All is not lost if Arienrhod, the ageless, corrupt Snow Queen, can destroy destiny with an act of genocide. Arienrhod is not without competition as Moon, a young Summer-tribe sibyl, and the nemesis of the Snow Queen, battles to break a conspiracy that spans space.

This book is a modern re-telling of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale. Moon and Sparks are equivalent to Anderson’s Gerda and Kai, who grow up together and are devoted to each other. In the original tale, Kai is infected with a tiny piece of an evil troll mirror, which causes him to see only the bad and ugly in people. In Vinge’s version, Sparks gets left behind when Moon is chosen away to become a sibyl and he flounces off to the city of the Snow Queen to try his luck at becoming someone of importance. Just like Kai in Anderson’s tale, Sparks becomes a cruel and violent man. Gerda and Moon are each launched on a quest, to find their beloved friend/cousin and to save him from the Snow Queen to rejoin his people and his world. Both have transformative adventures and make interesting allies along the way.

There are so many parallels between the two stories that it would be boring in the extreme to list them all—but this is one of Anderson’s tales that I was less familiar with and I enjoyed comparing them. Both versions are populated by many female characters—indeed, it is women who are the prime movers, although they are supported or motivated by their love of the men in their lives.

I also couldn’t help seeing many parallels between Vinge’s Snow Queen and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Both take place on low-technology planets in large galactic empires and produce substances that extend human life span substantially, the waters of life or geriatric spice respectively. Each has a fabulous and misunderstood creature that is responsible for these substances, mers in the SQ and worms in Dune. Each has a mysterious “religious” class—sibyls (who can be either sex) in SQ and the Bene Gesserit (exclusively female) in Dune.

I also find it interesting that so many science fiction and fantasy writers deal with the issue of human life extension/immortality, since I certainly don’t aspire to live a particularly long time. For one thing, my finances would not allow it—one must be an aristocrat, a criminal, or an aristocratic criminal to have the funds for this kind of life plan! And one must be sure that the body & mind are going to cooperate before signing on for too many extra decades—but these fictional characters are never confined to nursing homes or assisted living! My mother used to be horrified by the prospect of losing her wits to dementia of some sort and I am watching elderly friends and relatives deteriorate as they progress through their 80s. It definitely gives me motivation to live a healthier life in the here and now, to try to improve my own old age. I guess that is the dream—to have a substance that doesn’t just prolong life, but prolongs youth and ability.

Eventually, I will have to read the next book in the series, The Summer Queen. I was sorry to read that Joan D. Vinge suffered minor brain damage in a car accident in 2002, leaving her unable to write. The good news is that by 2007 that she has recovered enough to resume writing. I will look forward to reading more by this author.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You / Dan Riskin

3 out of 5 stars
It may be a wonderful world, but as Dan Riskin (cohost of Discovery Canada’s Daily Planet) explains, it’s also a dangerous, disturbing, and disgusting one. At every turn, it seems, living things are trying to eat us, poison us, use our bodies as their homes, or have us spread their eggs. In Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You, Riskin is our guide through the natural world at its most gloriously ruthless.

Using the seven deadly sins as a road map, Riskin offers dozens of jaw-dropping examples that illuminate how brutal nature can truly be. From slothful worms that hide in your body for up to thirty years to wrathful snails with poisonous harpoons that can kill you in less than five minutes to lustful ducks that have orgasms faster than you can blink, these fascinating accounts reveal the candid truth about “gentle” Mother Nature’s true colors.

Riskin’s passion for the strange and his enthusiastic expertise bring Earth’s most fascinating flora and fauna into vivid focus. Through his adventures— which include sliding on his back through a thick soup of bat guano just to get face-to-face with a vampire bat, befriending a parasitic maggot that has taken root on his head, and coming to grips with having offspring of his own—Riskin makes unexpected discoveries not just about the world all around us but also about the ways this brutal world has shaped us as humans and what our responsibilities are to this terrible, wonderful planet we call home.

A catchy title designed to sell books. Obviously, Riskin decided to take a former host of Daily Planet (Jay Ingram) as a role model when he wrote this volume. (This made me realize how out of touch I am with the state of TV broadcasting in Canada, as I didn’t recognize his name at all –but I’m still glad I got rid of the television three years ago!) The author is a bat researcher and travels to see different bat species. As a birder, I was immediately on the band wagon. I believe that eco-tourism is one way of making wildlife valuable enough to convince governments to preserve it. If live animals bring in millions of dollars on a regular basis and dead ones yield only thousands for one time only, it becomes attractive to keep your wildlife alive and well.

The book is a combination of two things: use of the seven deadly sins to structure the chapters and a very Richard-Dawkins-lite (and I mean very lite) version of the world. The 7 Deadly structure was rather cutesy, but it provided a tidy framework to hang the stories on. If you are completely unfamiliar with Dawkin’s Selfish Gene theory and/or you are phobic about learning science/biology, this would be a good introductory read. I must confess that I find Dawkins a bit daunting, so I can imagine that many other folk would as well (although I think I understand his basic argument and have to say that I find it very powerful). However, Riskin’s harping on “Meat Robots” (that we are all bodies driven by our DNA) got on my nerves by the book’s end.

I think this would be an excellent book for a young audience—high school, perhaps, or as supplementary reading for freshmen university students taking science courses for non-science majors. It is fun and the science presented is very straight forward (dare I say easy?). There were a couple of “strange animal” stories that I had not heard before, but most of it was recycled material for me (I was a volunteer natural history educator for 17 years and had a long repertoire of strange and/or gross stories with which to regale my audience and I’m told I was very adept at hooking 8-9 year old boys with tales of poop and vomit).

I have to agree with one of his major ideas—just because something is “natural”, i.e. occurs in nature, that doesn’t mean that it is wonderful and harmless. You can justify almost any behavior through an animal example and parasites, disease, venom, and many other things that can threaten your well-being are very natural.

After spending the whole book convincing his audience that we are part of the natural world and dependent upon it, Riskin then switches gears to convince us that we can also rise above our genetic programming for selfishness and continue the human quest for human rights and prevention of environmental catastrophe. I have to agree with that sentiment as well.

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Girl with All the Gifts / M. R. Carey

4 out of 5 stars
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.

When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite. But they don't laugh.

Melanie is a very special girl.

A gripping novel which you could read just as a really good yarn. Or you could pay attention to a couple of the themes: what is the nature of humanity, and, how much should we care about one another?

Melanie is a student with adoration for one of her teachers. She is very bright and very emotional, but the reader can tell from the very first page that something is off kilter. Why is she confined to a cell? Why does she have to be tied into a chair every day before she can be taken to class? Why is there a whole class full of children being restrained in this way?

It reminded me somehow of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—who abandoned his monster instead of giving it the care and consideration that he owed it. This is the flip side of that scenario—and the monster tries just as hard as those who care about her. There is love and loyalty, which are entirely missing from Frankenstein. Are Melanie and those like her still human? What kind of consideration do they merit? Or should they be treated as science experiments and test subjects, as Caroline Caldwell cold bloodedly does? Who is more human, Melanie or Caroline?

It also made me think of I am Legend by Richard Matheson. When you become a tiny minority (Robert Neville becomes a population of one) are you still to be considered normal? Are you still on the right side of history when you hunt down and destroy those who are different from you?

I thought about all of this last night, as I purged the mysterious plastic containers from my refrigerator, trying not to gag when I discovered an antique yogurt container containing only dried, green mould! I was reading Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You at the same time as The Girl and the chapter about the ants that end up being hi-jacked by fungus DNA to do very un-ant-like things was very relevant. You will never look at those fuzzy growths in your fridge quite the same after this novel.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

419 / Will Ferguson

A car tumbles down a snowy ravine. Accident or suicide?

On the other side of the world, a young woman walks out of a sandstorm in sub-Saharan Africa. In the labyrinth of the Niger Delta, a young boy learns to survive by navigating through the gas flares and oil spills of a ruined landscape. In the seething heat of Lagos City, a criminal cartel scours the internet looking for victims.

Lives intersect, worlds collide, a family falls apart. And it all begins with a single email: “Dear Sir, I am the son of an exiled Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help ...”

419 takes readers behind the scene of the world’s most insidious internet scam. When Laura’s father gets caught up in one such swindle and pays with his life, she is forced to leave the comfort of North America to make a journey deep into the dangerous back streets and alleyways of the Lagos underworld to confront her father’s killer. What she finds there will change her life forever..

You can definitely tell that Will Ferguson has written travel books—the scenes in this book which are set in Nigeria are the most vivid and colourful sections of 419. By contrast, the Canadian parts are rather bland and cold, but perhaps he meant to have it that way.

It’s always interesting to see your own city portrayed in fiction and not only did the Canadian family live in Calgary, Laura lives in my neighbourhood. I recognized both the building that she lives in and the mall where she seems to do most of her eating. It’s not a fine dining establishment, but once again, perhaps that was the point. Laura has some “arrangement” which allows her to live in a condo tower that I couldn’t ever aspire to afford. These are Canadians who are getting by. By African standards, they are rich, but by North American standards they are just treading water. On my only trip to Africa in 2000, I visited Kenya—there are dozens of vendors at every toilet stop, aggressively selling their wares. As a not-very-well-travelled Canadian (at that point in time), I had difficulties, as I was on a budget and I am not by nature a bargainer. At least one woman told me, “You are rich, buy something from me!” I didn’t bother to argue with her—compared to her, I was rich, although I had used every spare dollar I had to make that trip.

One of my friends, the child of a diplomat, lived in Nigeria for a time. She claimed that it was every bit as awful as it is portrayed in the book—violence is rampant, environmental issues overwhelming, poverty is everywhere and politicans are corrupt. And yet, there are relatively decent people who live there and just want to survive and raise their children safely, just as Nnamdi does.

The enduring message that I came away with: there are people of all kinds in every society. Some are exploiters and some are exploited. And the world would be a better place if we could eliminate these exploitative relationships.