Thursday, 30 January 2014

Never Go Back / Lee Child

After an epic and interrupted journey all the way from the snows of South Dakota, former military cop Jack Reacher has finally made it to Virginia. His destination: a sturdy stone building a short bus ride from Washington D.C., the headquarters of his old unit, the 110th MP. It was the closest thing to a home he ever had.

Why? He wants to meet the new commanding officer, Major Susan Turner. He liked her voice on the phone. But the officer sitting behind his old desk isn’t a woman. Is Susan Turner dead? In Afghanistan? Or in a car wreck?

What Reacher doesn't expect to hear is that Turner has just been fired from her command. Nor that he himself is in big trouble, accused of a sixteen-year-old homicide. And he certainly doesn't expect to hear these words: ‘You’re back in the army, Major. And your ass is mine.’

This selection for my book club starts our "Year of Reading Fluff."  After last year, in which we had two books featuring people dying of cancer, one member declared that she didn't want to read any more "cancer books" and the idea for the fluff year was born.

This was my first Jack Reacher adventure and it is apparently number 18 in the sequence, so there were a few assumptions made about the reader's knowledge of Reacher that I couldn't possibly be privy to.  I was certainly able to enjoy the book despite that, as it rattled along at high speed to an inevitable conclusion.

There are a fair number of women involved in this book--Turner, the military commander that Reacher rescues/kidnaps because he liked "the sound of her voice"; both of the lawyers assigned to Reacher's cases; and of course Samantha, Reacher's potential daughter out in California.  But they are all, of course, focused on Jack and barely register each other's existence.  Bechdel test:  Fail.  And I ended up wondering what Turner saw in Reacher, who seemed very sociopathic to me, even though he seemed to have a "code" which he more or less adhered to (rather like Dexter in that regard).  Reacher is definitely an anti-hero and not particularly likeable, though as a reader I didn't find that I held that against him.

Just like a good murder mystery, but with military trappings instead of forensics, the novel keeps you reading, just to see how Child is going to wrap up all the loose ends and explain why it all got started.  Reacher and Turner are, of course, completely exonerated (despite a fair bit of criminal activity) and return to their previous existences.

Not bad, as fluff goes, but not a series that I will be pursuing in the future.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Grain Brain / David Perlmutter

What is it with conspiracy theories?  Why do people love them so much and apply them to absolutely everything?  Including food?

I dislike the evangelical tone of books like Grain Brain and Wheat Belly.  I can appreciate that the doctors who wrote these two books truly believe what they are preaching—but I am not a convert.

I am disturbed by the cherry-picking of the medical literature and the use of studies which say “this is suggestive of a link and more study needs to be done.”  Exactly.  More study needs to be done.  Having said that, I have found that my life is more comfortable without gluten.  Rashes that I have been smearing with prescription cream for decades are gradually clearing up.  My joints are not as sore and stiff as they used to be and my feet seem to feel more, thus staying upright on ice and rough surfaces is easier.  What started as an experiment may be sticking around as a permanent life style.

But I am very wary of any diet plan that eliminates lots of fruit and many vegetables from the menu.  Humans have been eating these plants (or similar foods) for millennia and human evolution didn’t just stop at some undetermined time in our history.  (Read Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk for more on that notion).  Of course, different populations have been under different evolutionary pressures.  Many Europeans benefit from having ancestors who adapted to be able to digest cow’s milk products, while many Asians and North American aboriginal populations did not.  It makes sense that gluten sensitivity, just like dairy sensitivity, would vary according to genetic history as well.  I have northern European ancestry—milk doesn’t bother me, but it seems that gluten does.

However, I will not be giving up fruits and vegetables any time soon.  Nor will I be purging the legumes, rice and other non-glutinous grains from my pantry.  I completely agree that a person’s diet should not be weighted towards baked goods.  [I have always enjoyed the process of baking and will probably continue to do so, but I have never baked vast quantities for my own consumption; it is something that I do when I will be sharing with others].  But I refuse to believe that carrots and potatoes are equivalent to poison.

I am also uncomfortable with being urged to increase meat consumption, when we live on a planet with limited resources.  We all can’t eat copious quantities of meat and feed everyone adequately.  Something has to give and it will probably be heavy meat consumption.  Plant proteins currently used to feed animals could feed a tremendous number of hungry humans in this world and that would be a better use of them.   I do think Perlmutter is correct when he says that we shouldn’t avoid foods with cholesterol, like eggs or shrimp, but that is no excuse to load up on them either.  But you also have to take into account where these foods come from—is that fish that you are eating for omega-3s fished in a sustainable fashion?  Will this resource still be available to your great-grandchildren or will it be extinct?  [To his credit, Perlmutter does recommend sustainable seafood, but it is well towards the end of the book].  See Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe for good coverage of the seafood question.

BTW, I do agree with Perlmutter that 1) exercise is good for every part of the body, including the brain, and 2) getting enough sleep is absolutely essential for good health.

I find it darkly amusing that the author talks about mesmerism as junk science in his epilogue, when I think the same charge could be leveled against him!  In the meantime, I think books like this fuel a conspiracy-theory mentality, an obsession with “blaming” someone or something rather than taking personal responsibility, and confusion among those who depend on mass media to run their lives.

In short, I think we should consider many factors when choosing our groceries:  What are we allergic to?  Avoid eggs or peanuts or whatever gives you an allergic reaction.  What provides nutrition?  Load up on fruits, vegetables and legumes.  Consider the future and choose fewer animal products and shop for seafood according to its sustainability.  And chuck the one-sided pop-science diet books into the bin.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

River of Stars / Guy Gavriel Kay

5 out of 5 stars
Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

I was almost scared to start this book, knowing that it has been less than a month since I read Kay's Under Heaven, which I absolutely adored.  But my hold came in at the library and I plunged in quickly.

And I love it every bit as much.  There are references to the first book, but not so many that it would bother someone who hadn't read UH.  I love the historical fantasy setting--Ancient China.  It's a world that I know very little about, but Kay's version feels very authentic and I feel like I know a little more about Chinese history than I did before reading them.

This book takes place significantly later than the events of UH, but the world is still very recognizable and familiar.  I loved both of the main characters, but especially Lin Shan.  I adore the way that Kay writes women.  They are smart, they are resourceful, they have goals and purposes of their own, and they are real people.  He really doesn't write them any different from the male characters, except that they are restricted by their culture.  Bingo!  So many male authors write female characters as if they are aliens, instead of good old Homo sapiens inhabiting the other gender.

The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but it works for me.  It left me with exactly the same pleasant melancholy that I experience when I read the King Arthur cycle.  That little ache in the heart, wishing that things would have worked out better, but knowing that was impossible.  I treasure that feeling and my favourite books produce it.

I am really looking forward to reading more of Kay's work.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Swords in the Mist / Fritz Leiber

3 out of 5 stars
SWORDS IN THE MIST, book three in the Lankhmar series, thrusts our indentured sword-swinging servants into the question of hate, its power and its purpose. You see, it happens to be lean times in Lankhmar, illuminating that link between money and love. Luckily, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser don't always believe in love. When Lankhmar gets too gritty, our travelers take to their other, less harsh mistress, the Sea. But the Sea can play tricks on men, and so can the Sea King. He can break a man or worse yet, curse him. But when he's away it's all play for the formidable swordsmen and the Triple Goddess...and two luscious sea queens. But luck may not always be there as they discover on the way to Ningauble, their wizard employer. After a long journey in defense of their control over their own fates, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser find themselves pawns in a life and death chess game, all of Lankhmar being the pieces. How many pawns will be left on the board before someone wins?

This third book in the series was slightly less enjoyable for me than the first two--but I still found it easy to read and inviting to return to after setting it down to attend to life.  I think that's because of Leiber's writing--the man had a vocabulary and wasn't afraid to use it.  Plus he takes well-worn story lines and give them his own spin.

It also doesn't hurt that Fafhrd and the Mouser are good-hearted rogues.  Despite a parting of the ways between them in this volume, it becomes obvious that they are still, in fact, a team.  They may live on the wrong side of the law, but their loyalties to friends, employers, and each other hold solid.

Beautiful writing always wins my heart.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Longer I'm Prime Minister / Paul Wells

4 out of 5 stars
Are you a member of our current Prime Minister's fan club?  Or are you completely confused by Stephen Harper and wondering what in the world makes him tick?

I think either faction would enjoy reading this book.  Paul Wells takes us behind the scenes in Canadian politics.  Want to know what makes Stefan Dion or Michael Ignatieff really angry?  The Conservatives figured it out and now you can know too.

Wells has a way with words.  The National Post is quoted on the book jacket: "Wells is lucid, funny, revealing, opinionated, and sometimes wickedly snarky."  The snark makes it all worthwhile.  As when he describes some of the caricatures of Harper, including "The floating brain in a jar in the basement of 24 Susses Drive, surrounded by cats and the souls of crushed Liberals."  Or when he describes a document of then-Liberal-leader Ignatieff's, trying to explain his past positions on Iraq: "Parts of it were nearly incoherent, as if Google translated from Finnish."

Plus, I think Wells has identified a trend in our voting habits:  Canadians are sick and tired of negativity, of political fighting and mud-slinging.  In the last election, the NDP made enormous gains because their leader, Jack Layton, was perceived as a decent guy that it would be pleasant to have a beer with.  The NDP's current leader is a prickly sort who should probably take a good look at that image if he wants to maintain his party's current status.  He is making Harper's life miserable in Question Period, but that may not be endearing him to the Canadian public, although it is admired on Parliament Hill.  And the polls tell us that any losses the Conservatives are suffering are going to the Liberals, rather than the NDP.  Could that be because Justin Trudeau is perceived as a nice guy to spend time with?  I'm thinking its so.

Harper has spent many years now making small changes to Canadian government that will be difficult to reverse when the opposition finally finds the key to his downfall.  I will be interested to see where we go from here.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Book review: The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! / Harry Harrison

2.5 out of 5 stars
I started this book this week because I had the post-Xmas-vacation blues really badly and needed something to make me smile.  There was more than enough silliness in this book to achieve my aim.

Just like in War of the Worlds,  Earth is being menaced by cephalopods of all shapes, sizes and degrees of sliminess.  James Bolivar DiGriz (Slippery Jim, the Stainless Steel Rat) is called upon by the Special Corps once again to save the universe!  First he has to break his sons out of jail, rescue his wife from the taxman and build himself his own slimy disguise to become "Sleepery Jeem."

There are LOTS of bad jokes, like aliens named Sess-pul.  The aliens, it turns out, speak many different languages, but have settled on Esperanto to communicate amongst themselves and Jim of course knows Esperanto.  Things get complicated when the Moralty Corps shows up and put the kibosh on several of Jim's slippery plans.  Some very irreverent antics ensue!

I probably read this too soon after The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, and I think Harrison was running out of good ideas at this point, so I didn't find it quite as much fun as previous books.  But it still helped me lift a very grumpy mood,

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Book review: Norstrilia / Cordwainer Smith

Tells the story of a boy from the planet Old North Australia (where rich, simple farmers grow the immortality drug Stroon), how he bought Old Earth, and how his visit to Earth changed both him and Earth itself.

A very eccentric novel, a bit frustrating at times, but quite entertaining.  It was frustrating in that there were so many potentially interesting issues that could have been pursued--and they were left unexplored.  For instance, telepathy is just a given in Norstrilian society and if you are judged to be disabled (i.e. not a telepath), you are executed at age 18.  The reason given for this is population control--but surely that is easier to do before the children are born, rather than executing 18 years olds?  Once they have passed this test, they have qualified to take the longevity drug, Stroon, and live a long life producing more of the drug for export.  Population control and extreme long life seem to be at odds with each other, and no discussion of this conflict happens.

Rod McBan has great difficulty passing this test--he is an irregular telepath, although he is a nice enough fellow and his friends and family are distressed that he is likely to be executed instead of becoming the head of the farm and family.  Except one man, a childhood frenemy, who really has a hate on for Rod.

After passing through the Garden of Death unscathed, Rod must deal with realities--he needs to get off Old North Australia in order to remain safe.  With the help of his antique computer, he uses his Stroon wealth to buy the planet Earth (aka Manhome) and sets off on a wild adventure.

The most interesting part of the book for me was the "Underpeople" class, developed from animals such as cats, dogs, cows, even rats.  They are treated as disposable, used to do the messy or boring work that "real" humans are reluctant to perform, despite their obvious human-ness.  Once again, the history & development of these persons is glossed over, but the exploration of discrimination is well developed and the critique of institutionalized discrimination is organic and not preachy.  (There were also a number of religious themes that might interest some).

Nowadays, this story would be done as a series, exploring all the history and fleshing out all of the characters.  This book rattles from beginning to end in less than 300 pages, just hitting the high spots.

Things I particularly liked:  attention to Australia, a country which rarely gets mentioned in science fiction; Rod's sensual appreciation of the environment of Old Earth.

Other observations:  this books follows in a tradition of the 1960s science fiction that deals with telepathy as a real thing; it joins books like Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House in dealing with longevity and population control issues.

A fun, fast, and quirky read.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Book review: Time Enough for Love / Robert A. Heinlein

1 out of 5 stars
Time Enough for Love follows Lazarus Long through a vast and magnificent timescape of centuries and worlds. Heinlein's longest and most ambitious work, it is the story of a man so in love with Life that he refused to stop living it.

I know that a lot of people love Heinlein and I have enjoyed a number of his novels too.  This one, however, suffered from the need of editing--it was much too long and repetitious, especially if you have already read Stranger in a Strange Land or Friday.  These books make me wonder what kind of person RAH was and what it would have been like for his wife to live with him.  Maybe to her it felt like 2000 years, Lazarus Long's putative life span.

Heinlein is a great proponent of being self-reliant--but the farther we get from the horse and plough, the more reliant we become on others to build our devices, be they mobile phones, computers or spaceships.  We live in a society where we have to rely on others--I don't know how to make cloth or even how to turn cloth into clothes (and despite Heinlein's obsession with nudity, I don't see clothing going anywhere any time soon).  Someone else does my farming, gardening and butchering and it will be that way until the replicators show up (and even then I'll be reliant on the replicator repairman!)  Even farming with horse & plough, we were still relying on someone to mine the metal and build that plough.

RAH also seems to have some odd ideas about what women want (here's a clue, we don't necessarily want umpteen babies!).  It seems like Lazarus Long always has some woman hanging onto his leg, begging to be impregnated.  That got really old for me after the first time, let alone after the 20th time!  Research has proven that when women get educated and have access to birth control, birth rates go down.  We prefer to have fewer children and to invest more in those children, rather than produce dozens, and I'm sure women of the future, no matter how long they live, will continue to feel that way.  The cover also bugged me--why is Lazarus clothed?  Plus the woman on the left looks anorexic.

Basically, I was irritated with the women characters for the duration of the book--they are not like any women that I know.  In the end, I think they say much more about Heinlein than they do about women or the future of humanity.

Read Stranger in a Strange Land and/or Friday--give this book a miss.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Book review: Under Heaven / Guy Gavriel Kay

5 out of 5 stars!
Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.

You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

Exquisitely written, completely engrossing and extremely satisfying.  Shen Tai is an unusual man--thoughtful, but also a man of action.  A scholar, but capable with a weapon.  He must decide if he will pursue the dangerous life of a man at court when he returns from his self-imposed exile among the ghosts of the battlefield, and he must make his decision at full speed with assassins pursuing him and members of the Imperial Court trying to use him.

Kay's poetic writing is perfect for this Tang Dynasty China adventure.  There is rarely a word out of place.  I will look forward to reading the next book in this setting, River of Stars.