Monday, 28 March 2016

The Wasp Factory / Iain Banks

3.5 out of 5 stars
Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda more or less on a whim.

That's my score to date.


I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.

Enter - if you can bear it - the extraordinary private world of Frank, just sixteen, and unconventional, to say the least.

The inaugural entry on my “Horrible Humans” bookshelf.  To be fair, I knew going into this book what the subject matter was—and I chose to read it anyway.  What I didn’t realize that was two such books would come in at the public library for me mere days apart!  So the second entry is waiting for me at home, when I’ve finished a couple of books with nearer due dates.

What an interesting first (published) novel for Mr. Banks!  It is extremely well written—there were parts which made me cringe as I read them, I even set the book down and walked away for a while.  But any devoted reader of true crime books will tell you that Frank is pretty mild in his awfulness compared to other, older (and real) offenders.  One of the reasons that I gave up cable TV (and eventually TV in general) was an unhealthy obsession with true crime series which were seriously messing up my ability to trust the people around me.  I may still be a little less trusting than the average person, but living in a city of over a million people, that seems to me to be a reasonable state of affairs.

And should I admit that I recognize many of Frank’s behaviours?  What country child hasn’t spent hours outdoors, picking around old rubbish heaps if they are available, splooshing through water (I filled many pairs of wellies full of cold water during the run-off each spring), and developing my own little rituals to celebrate the seasons.  Unlike Frank, I spent many happy hours just watching wild animals in our farm pasture land—convincing ground squirrels that I wasn’t going to do anything untoward and that they could go about their usual activities while I watched.  Frank, however, has taken these childish past-times and given them a dark, heinous twist.  He has taken the natural world and his violent thoughts and made his own private “religion” out of them, horrifying in its complexity and personal logic.

I can see where Banks considered this to be a work of almost-science fiction, getting into the head of someone who is confused and violent.  Not recommended for those who are squeamish about scenes of animal cruelty.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

100 Million Years of Food / Stephen Le

4 out of 5 stars
There are few areas of modern life that are burdened by as much information and advice, often contradictory, as our diet and health: eat a lot of meat, eat no meat; whole-grains are healthy, whole-grains are a disaster; eat everything in moderation; eat only certain foods--and on and on. In One Hundred Million Years of Food biological anthropologist Stephen Le explains how cuisines of different cultures are a result of centuries of evolution, finely tuned to our biology and surroundings. Today many cultures have strayed from their ancestral diets, relying instead on mass-produced food often made with chemicals that may be contributing to a rise in so-called "Western diseases," such as cancer, heart disease, and obesity.

Travelling around the world to places as far-flung as Vietnam, Kenya, India, and the US, Stephen Le introduces us to people who are growing, cooking, and eating food using both traditional and modern methods, striving for a sustainable, healthy diet. In clear, compelling arguments based on scientific research, Le contends that our ancestral diets provide the best first line of defense in protecting our health and providing a balanced diet. Fast-food diets, as well as strict regimens like paleo or vegan, in effect highjack our biology and ignore the complex nature of our bodies. In One Hundred Million Years of Food Le takes us on a guided tour of evolution, demonstrating how our diets are the result of millions of years of history, and how we can return to a sustainable, healthier way of eating.

This author tackles a variety of interesting topics, each one feeling like it could be the basis for its own book.  He plunges right in, pointing out that many primates are insectivorous and that many traditional cuisines include insects on the menu.  Fortunately or unfortunately (whichever way you choose to look at it), most of us have lost our taste for the chitinous creatures and our prejudices have rubbed off on those who earlier in history did enjoy this high protein foodstuff.  (Just for the record, I will NOT be joining this movement!)

Wherever you look nowadays, there is someone who is willing to tell you what you should be eating and why.  Should we give up meat?  If so, should we eat dairy products or should we go vegan?  Should we be eating fish?  How about agricultural staples like wheat or legumes?  You can find opinions on all of these questions, just hunt around on the internet for a little while.

As Stephen Le points out, some of these issues are going to boil down to sustainability issues.  We are rapidly depleting the ocean’s fish and clearing the oxygen-generating forests to create grazing land for cattle, which are quite inefficient at converting vegetation into flesh.

What I really liked was his sensible suggestion that we quit looking at food in terms of specific nutrients and instead consider it in whole cuisines.  So a person should consider their genetic heritage and try eating more foods consistent with what their own specific ancestors ate.  As a descendant of Danish immigrants, I am probably fine eating dairy products (while many Asian and Native Canadians lack the digestive enzymes to deal effectively with lactose).  I should also consider including more fish in my meal planning (pickled herring, anyone?) to mimic the ancestral condition.  However, I am a devoted maker of curries and stir fries, not very Scandinavian!

Lots to think about, but nothing startling.  Yes, we should exercise more (going walking this evening), eat more like our ancestors (without worrying about going all Paleo), worry less about vitamin pills (as my doctor says, they just produce expensive urine), and eat real food (shades of Michael Pollen).

A nice summary for those who aren’t sure about all the food wars raging in cyberspace.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Moon Over Soho / Ben Aaronovitch (Peter Grant #2)

4 out of 5 stars
London constable and apprentice Peter Grant suspects sorcery when Soho area musicians drop dead, their brain scans showing magical draining. Victim Cyrus left girlfriend Simone, who beds Peter. His dad "Lord Grant" taught him jazz, but master mage DCI Nightingale still recuperates, and a Pale Lady bites off essential bits for an animal chimera slave ring.

I do like Peter Grant! I find him a charming narrator, as he attempts to balance being a copper and being an apprentice wizard. Both roles are complex and the combination can be overwhelming at times.

I do love his insistence on quantifying and measuring his abilities, his attempts to understand magic using the scientific method, and his various ways of trying to protect his mobile phone from being fried by magic. I was also amused by his use of online translation tools to try to deal with Latin texts, because I do the same thing as a library cataloguer—typing titles, tables of contents, and occasionally whole paragraphs into Google translate, trying to determine which call number and subject headings to assign to a book that I can’t really read. You do get the kind of scrambled translation that Grant has to deal with! (Because those translation tools are largely based on United Nations documents, published in multiple languages and used as a basis for the translation, they are not always useful for personal and emotional subject matter).

I also love the setting—London itself is very much a character in these novels and it is clear that the author loves the city a great deal.

I will definitely continue to follow the adventures of Peter Grant.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Ides of March / Thornton Wilder

4 out of 5 stars
The Ides of March, first published in 1948, is a brilliant epistolary novel set in Julius Caesar's Rome. Thornton Wilder called it "a fantasia on certain events and persons of the last days of the Roman republic." Through vividly imagined letters and documents, Wilder brings to life a dramatic period of world history and one of history's most magnetic, elusive personalities.

In this inventive narrative, the Caesar of history becomes Caesar the human being. Wilder also resurrects the controversial figures surrounding Caesar -- Cleopatra, Catullus, Cicero, and others. All Rome comes crowding through these pages -- the Rome of villas and slums, beautiful women and brawling youths, spies and assassins.

I can’t believe that this was published in 1948! It truly has not aged, possibly because it was dealing with much older history. It still felt fresh and I was intrigued.

I began reading this on the Ides of March (I live in hope that my local Shakespeare Company will perform Julius Caesar in March one year, so that I can attend it on the Ides). I adore books that are written in letter format, so I was predisposed to appreciate this one.

It is surprising how well people can be characterized through their written documents. I felt I came to know the main players remarkably well. I came to love the scheming Roman women and found Cleopatra to be quite fascinating. Wilder included quite a number of female characters, recognizing their political and religious significance.

My studies of classical history took place in my distant past and are hazy in my recollections now. Some courses, I know, were done in summer school, where one tries to distill a whole term’s worth of work and learning into 6 weeks. As a result, I knew it well enough to write the exam, but it has not retained its place in my memory as most other subjects have. I would be most curious now to read some Roman history and refresh my memory concerning Caesar. 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Birds of America / Lorrie Moore

3 out of 5 stars
Birds of America is the stunning new collection of twelve stories by Lorrie Moore, one of our finest authors at work today. With her characteristic wit and piercing intelligence she unfolds a series of portraits of the lost and unsettled of America; each story shines with humor, heartbreaking pathos, and warm understanding.

I’m not a huge fan of short stories, and I feel like I was rather fooled by the cover of this book into tackling it. I have worked with the Whooping Crane reintroduction program here in Calgary, exercising young crane chicks, and I simply couldn’t resist the pretty cover with the Whooping Crane on it. Plus that alluring title (for a birder), Birds of America. How either the image or the title relate to the stories within remains a mystery to me.

Moore’s stories are rather bleak views of human relationships—told from all kinds of angles but with similar disappointments to go round. As in this dinner party exchange:

"The thing to remember about love affairs," says Simone, "is that they are all like having raccoons in your chimney."
"Oh, not the raccoon story," groans Cal.
"Yes! The raccoons!" cries Eugene.
I'm sawing at my duck.
"We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney," explains Simone.
"Hmmm," I say, not surprised.
"And once we tried to smoke them out. We lit a fire, knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they
dropped dead."
Simone swallows some wine. "Love affairs are like that," she says. "They all are like that."

I don’t believe I’ve ever had a love affair which ended quite so spectacularly. Clearly, I am doing it wrong.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Darkness at Sethanon / Raymond E. Feist

3.5 out of 5 stars
An evil wind blows through Midkemia. Dark legions have risen up to crush the Kingdom of the Isles and enslave it to dire magics. The final battle between Order and Chaos is abotu to begin in the ruins of the city called Sethanon.

Now Pug, the master magician sometimes known as Milamber, must undertake an awesome and perilous quest to the dawn of time to grapple with an ancient and terrible Enemy for the fate of a thousand worlds.

A satisfying end to an acceptable fantasy series. The Riftwar books suffer by comparison to modern high fantasy series, but in their day, they were the next step for those looking for a LOTR substitute. At least Feist came up with his own version of The Enemy to deal with, instead of just dusting off Tolkien’s idea, changing a few names and calling it good.

Yes, there are elves, goblins, trolls, and such—and although they share some characteristics with their counterparts in other fantasy literature, Feist does try to make his versions stand off a little way and have some new & interesting characteristics. Pug/Milamber (both rather awful names for the same man) is a Gary Stu, seemingly able to learn everything and only rarely make mistakes (and those few then seem to work out in his favour). Enough familiar faces perish to make things more believable, as not everyone can live through such momentous battles. And some less familiar faces re-appear and make a much better impression in their second time around.

The siege and battle at Armengar was impressive, only vaguely resembling the siege of Minas Tirith (and that mostly in timing of the battle). I was happy to learn about the rather mysterious creation of the city before the book ended.

This final entry in the series was extremely light on what was happening with the female characters that we got to know in earlier installments. They seem to have been relegated to household and maternal duties and no longer get to truly participate in the action. I thought that some scenes from Anita’s or Carline’s points of view might have been interesting or at least a good contrast to the battle zone.

All the major characters seem to be suitably paired off by book’s end, leaving us to assume that things proceed happily ever after, but Feist doesn’t linger around examining the aftermath. The story ends when it is clear that all will be well—there is no “Scouring of the Shire” type follow-up.

Very good for its day and probably still a good choice for young readers searching for another story of noble quests and fierce battles. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Taming of the Shrew / William Shakespeare

4 out of 5 stars

The Taming of the Shrew has to be one of the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays for a modern woman to appreciate. I don’t know about you, but I found it difficult to watch an independent young woman being “tamed” into a Stepford wife.

I went to the cinema to see a version filmed at Stratford, Ontario (Canada’s Shakespeare capitol) and I have to say that they did it extremely well. The drunken tinker at the beginning of the play became a drunken blogger, being belligerent in the audience. The music & humour began immediately and continued throughout the play. I haven’t laughed out loud so many times in a theatre in a long, long time. Plus, during the intermission, there was a “behind the scenes” tour of Stratford—all the prop and costume workshops which I’m sure the regular festival attendee doesn’t regularly get to see. Good stuff!

This is a very physically demanding play. I really admired the energy that Ben Carlson (Petrucchio) and Deborah Hay (Kate) put into the roles. Ms. Hay especially had a lot of roaring, flouncing, and flailing to do and seemed to be having a really good time letting it rip! An interview (also during intermission) reveals that the two are a real-life couple and were able to bring their own chemistry to the performance. Hay acknowledged that becoming the extremely subservient wife was a difficult part to play, but that she felt that Kate & Petrucchio have “an understanding” about how Kate will behave when they have an audience. And she plays the “tamed Kate” role with an undertone of the possibility of the volcanic eruption of “shrewishness.”

Much of the humour came from the inflections and tone of voice of the actors, giving the archaic phrases modern meaning—and a few reworked bits of dialog that made the play more accessible for modern people. I think that Shakespeare himself would thoroughly approve of pleasing the audience and I found the changes to work well.

Although this will never be my favourite play, it was extremely well performed and a lot of fun.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Iron Kissed / Patricia Briggs (Mercy Thompson #3)

4 out of 5 stars
Mechanic Mercy Thompson can shift her shape - but not her loyalty. When her former boss and mentor is arrested for murder and left to rot behind bars by his own kind, it's up to Mercy to clear his name, whether he wants her to or not.

Mercy's loyalty is under pressure from other directions, too. Werewolves are not known for their patience, and if Mercy can't decide between the two she cares for, Sam and Adam may make the choice for her...

Stefan! Where are you??? Seriously, he is MIA in Iron Kissed. Bloody vampires, they think they have all the time in the world….

One of the things that I appreciate about Mercy Thompson is her loyalty to her friends. And she has to be very loyal indeed to make her way through this third installment of the tale, because everyone seems to be trying pretty hard to convince her not to trust them anymore.

She takes a big risk to fulfill her obligation to the Fae and what do they do? Make her life miserable! Even her mechanical mentor Zee is reportedly saying nasty things from the jail cell that he has ended up in. Despite the fact that she is trying to exonerate him and the rest of the Fae seem to be willing to let him take the fall.

Plus, the werewolves are behaving like werewolves (i.e. bossy, pushy, insistent) when maybe they ought to just tone it down a notch. There’s a reason that Mercy is such a tough cookie, and it’s from dealing with them for her whole life. At least by book’s end, it seems that Mercy has made a choice between Adam and Sam, and it seems well reasoned and sound.

Mercy needs some women friends in the worst possible way. Much as I love Kyle and Warren, they just can’t replace what female friends have to offer—people to talk to, no holds barred, about the things that are bothering you, not trying to fix, just to listen while your sort it out for yourself by trying to explain it to a trusted other. As strong as Mercy is, she could be even stronger with a woman or two on her side.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Living Dead in Dallas / Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse #2)

4 out of 5 stars
Cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse is having a streak of bad luck. First her co-worker is killed, and no one seems to care. Then she comes face-to-face with a beastly creature which gives her a painful and poisonous lashing. Enter the vampires, who graciously suck the poison from her veins (like they didn't enjoy it).
The point is: they saved her life. So when one of the bloodsuckers asks for a favour, she obliges - and soon Sookie's in Dallas, using her telepathic skills to search for a missing vampire. She's supposed to interview certain humans involved, but she makes one condition: the vampires must promise to behave, and let the humans go unharmed.
But that's easier said than done, and all it takes is one delicious blonde and one small mistake for things to turn deadly...

The second installment of the Sookie Stackhouse series, and a bit of a struggle for the author, I think, to figure out exactly which way she was headed with the series.

Sookie and Bill start to have a few more misunderstandings and a major row and have to decide whether they will continue their relationship. It’s unclear to me whether vampires in this series have emotions or are just possessive—maybe book 3 will clear that up for me. The fact that she is “loaned out” to the Dallas vampires to help them solve a missing-vampire case rather emphasizes the human-as-chattel idea, making me question Bill’s motivations.

Meanwhile, we get to know Bill’s vampire boss, Eric, a little better and frankly I’m starting to wonder why Sookie chooses Bill over Eric. Yet another reason to read book three. By book’s end, we see Bill being forcibly reminded of his human past and genetic ties to the living, and at that moment, I understand Sookie’s attraction to him.

Also introduced is the anti-vampire Fellowship of the Sun association. Sookie gets a lot of physical abuse in this installment (much of it at the Fellowship’s hands), and it seems to me that her vampiric associates should be doing a much better job of protecting their investment! The Fellowship of the Sun has great potential, which I hope to see realized in upcoming books.

Despite (or many even because of) my doubts and reservations, I look forward to having time to read the next book.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A Fantasy Medley 3 / edited by Yanni Kuznia

4 out of 5 stars
This slim volume contains 4 short stories. I was only familiar with one author (Kevin Hearne) who happens to be the only male author of the four. His story, Goddess at the Crossroads is a fun little junket back in time with Atticus O’Sullivan telling a story of his adventures with William Shakespeare and relating to MacBeth. Very fun and lighthearted.

The other three stories are all very entertaining as well, with Jacqueline Carey’s offering, One Hundred Ablutions, being the best of the four for me. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work and I know she’s coming up in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project. Of the four stories, this one to my mind examines the weightiest issues, the relationship between conqueror and conquered.

At some point, I would like to read Laura Bickles’ full length works, but I found myself confused by Aliette de Bodard’s magical Paris, and unsure if I want to know more.

With 3 out of 4 stories at 4 stars and one at 3 stars, I am going with a 4 star rating for the whole volume. Books of short stories are difficult to rate!

Monday, 7 March 2016

The Brimstone Deception / Lisa Shearin

4 out of 5 stars
The agents of Supernatural Protection & Investigations (SPI) know that fighting evil is a full-time job, especially when a new designer drug—with mind-blowing side effects—hits the streets...

It’s called Brimstone. And after the first few hits, you’ll see every supernatural beast sharing the sidewalk, train, or office with you. After that, you’ll start seeing the really scary stuff.

I’m Makenna Fraser, seer for the SPI. And the collateral damage caused by Brimstone is something I’d like to unsee: dead drug dealers missing their hearts—and souls. Because your local pusher doesn’t stand a chance against the new cartel muscling its way into New York. And since the drug can only be produced with magic and molten brimstone fresh from Hell, that means a rift to the underworld is open somewhere in the city.

And when—not if—the cartel loses control of it, well...

It’s going to be Hell on earth.

The SPI Files is a delightful series! I will be anxiously awaiting book 4 in 2017.

Makenna is a charming main character—a seemingly ordinary woman with an extraordinary ability (to see through magic glamours) but who knows her limitations. She knows that she will never be able to kick butt like many of her fellow SPI agents, but allows them to do their thing while she does hers. On the theory that one should be a pleasant coworker as well as a useful one, she is always quick with a quip or a smart remark to break the tension.

One of the things that I appreciate about the series is that there is very little swearing—cuss words are used sparingly and when they are appropriate. One of the lessons my mama taught me: swearing all the time takes all the magical shock value out of the words. If you rarely swear, when you do people sit up and pay attention. Save it for when you really need folks to take you seriously. It works! And Shearin has obviously had similar coaching.

I know that some readers will also be frustrated with the glacial slowness of the romantic subplot of the SPI files too. For me, that is another one of its charms. Love is in the air? Hand me a gasmask! Eventually, however, the author will have to fish or cut bait.

It will be difficult to wait a whole year for the next installment.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Waking Up to the Dark / Clark Strand

3.5 out of 5 stars
In the tradition of Thomas Merton’s spiritual classic The Seven Storey Mountain or Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, Waking Up to the Dark is a deeply resonant and personal project—a modern gospel that is an investigation of the relationship between darkness and the soul. The darkness Clark Strand is talking about here is literal: the darkness of the nighttime, of a world before electricity, when there was a rhythm to life that followed the sun’s rising and setting.

Strand here offers penetrating insight into the spiritual enrichment that can be found when we pull the plug on our billion-watt culture. He argues that the insomnia so many of us experience as “the Hour of the Wolf” is really “the Hour of God”—a wellspring of rest and renewal, and an ancient reservoir of ancestral wisdom and inspiration. And in a powerful yet surprising turn, he shares with us an urgent message for the world, received through a mysterious young woman, about the changes we all know are coming.

What a weirdly interesting little book! I heard the author interviewed on CBC radio and was intrigued. He starts the book by recounting a story: that when home electricity was first introduced, people were horrified by the result. Suddenly, it was easily seen how tatty and dirty their homes were. You could tell how worn down the furniture was or that you hadn’t scrubbed the walls for a while. It was the beginning of ushering in our era of consumerism and the desire for a show-case type home.

That was the hook. That and the fact that I’m aware of the issue of light pollution and that I’m longing to find some time to spend out in the countryside, gazing at the night sky. So imagine my surprise when I got a book of mysticism—the author has spent time in a Buddhist monastery and has studied Paleolithic art, the Black Madonna, the role of Mary in Christianity, among other esoteric subjects.

He recounts his own history, starting with middle-of-the-night walks as a boy to seeking darkened environments as an adult and the spiritual experiences that he has had as a result of this. His main thesis seems to be that we have let electricity (lights, televisions, computers, smartphones, etc.) take over our lives and lead us into imbalance with the natural world and with our spiritual selves. Living in the middle of a city of over a million people, I have sympathy for this outlook. I just this morning had to explain to a well-meaning coworker that I don’t have a television nor do I pay for home internet, so I had not seen a particular TV show. I spend 7-8 hours a day working at a computer and my shoulders & arms hurt from it. I do whatever I can to reduce my time at staring at screens outside work hours.

I was somewhat surprised that the author seemed so unaware of the concept of Gaia, the female personification of the Earth and all of the goddess traditions. He was startled when the darkness in female form spoke to him. But as he admits, even the Buddhist tradition is very male-centred, tracing back through male teachers to Buddha.

I also found him rather fatalistic—implying that humanity will have to be wiped out by Our Lady of Climate Change before balance can be restored. Even someone like me, who would enjoy more darkness for various reasons, can’t imagine giving up electric cooking and lighting or completely giving up the internet (especially my book sites like Goodreads).

Interesting, thought provoking, well-meaning. But like Mark Boyle’s book The Moneyless Man, I wonder how practical it is in the long run.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Year of Living Danishly / Helen Russell

4 out of 5 stars
Denmark is officially the happiest nation on Earth. When Helen Russell is forced to move to rural Jutland, can she discover the secrets of their happiness? Or will the long, dark winters and pickled herring take their toll?

A Year of Living Danishly looks at where the Danes get it right, where they get it wrong, and how we might just benefit from living a little more Danishly ourselves.

Apparently, genetics do count for a great deal. I may be only half Danish in ancestry, but I have somehow come to enjoy many of the same things that the Danes do. I’m glad to know that there are other people out there who light the long winter nights with plenty of candles. As an enthusiastic consumer of coffee and wine, I am living up to my genetic heritage. And I must confess that I cook and eat a great deal of pork and potatoes, so I have that in common with the people of “Sticksville-On-Sea,” where the author lives. Combine that with a love of spending time with my family, and I think I would fit in rather well in rural Denmark. I have been practicing hygge without knowing it.

I liked the author’s light-hearted way of looking at her Danish adventure. Her nicknames for those about her match a tendency of my own to bestow monikers known only to myself on the people around me. While she has Friendly Neighbour, American Mother, and the Viking, however, I have Monkey Boy (he climbed up the balconies on our building when he forgot his keys), Spatially Challenged Woman with Big Truck (who has thankfully moved), and Peking Man (who rather resembled a caveman and spent a lot of time peering out of his venetian blinds).

I rarely laugh out loud while reading, but the exploits of Ms. Russell’s dog had me in tears on a couple of occasions, I laughed so hard. Perhaps I was a trifle over-tired. Like many other facets of life, Danes consider dogs to be fine if they are well trained and well controlled. Unlike this particular British dog, which mortifies his owners on a regular basis with his uncontrolled antics.

Russell doesn’t shrink from telling the not-so-wonderful parts of living in Denmark either—the subtle and not-so-subtle sexism, the rather self-congratulatory assumption that their way of life is superior to the rest of the world, and the problems accepting outsiders. Like Iceland, Danes are all quite closely related compared to other countries and they have some issues with those who are not like them. But even a country as multicultural as Canada struggles with that issue. By and large, the problems seem to be well balanced with the advantages. Denmark’s problems are definitely first world problems.

It seems that most of the Danes who were restless moved to other countries long ago, and left behind those who enjoy the quiet pleasures. I know I will be living life a bit more consciously Danishly from now on.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Dawn / Octavia Butler

4 out of 5 stars
Lilith Iyapo awoke from a centuries-long sleep to find herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali. Creatures covered in writhing tentacles, the Oankali had saved every surviving human from a dying, ruined Earth. They healed the planet, cured cancer, increased strength, and were now ready to help Lilith lead her people back to Earth--but for a price.

What an unsettling little book! I stayed up late last night to finish it and I awoke this morning with it still on my mind (and I think I dreamed about it too). Octavia Butler is skilled at making me re-examine my beliefs about humanity.

The Oankali are interesting and somewhat threatening aliens. Their evolutionary history seems to have come from the echinoderm or cnidarian branches of the tree of life and their appearance is initially terrifying to any human. Our protagonist, Lilith, has to be conditioned and altered biochemically in order to interact with them. Their motivations are very opaque and they are in no hurry to reveal them.

Once again, Butler is exploring the nature of power dynamics, with the Oankali having the upper hand in the relationship, setting all the rules. Humans are treated like lab animals, like livestock, and like pets, although by the end of the book there are complications that cannot completely be explained by those relationships. However, the new relationship still feels very exploitative.

Also examined is the matter of genetic change—how much alteration can be done to a genome before you say that a species has been altered to become a new species? Is survival worth such a transformation? How much would I be willing to endure merely to survive?

Dawn asks many more questions than it provides answers to and I will be most interested to read the second and third installments in the series.

Book 213 in my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Fifteen Dogs / Andre Alexis

4 out of 5 stars
" I wonder", said Hermes, "what it would be like if animals had human intelligence."
" I'll wager a year's servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence."

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old 'dog' ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

André Alexis's contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.

An interesting novel, which has obviously caught the attention of a number of Calgarians. I had to wait a very long time to get it from our public library and when I returned it this morning there were 543 people waiting their turn. It reads quickly, despite the fact that it is jam packed with ideas.

If any of you have read Jo Walton’s The Just City, this book has a similar feel, with the Ancient Greek gods intervening in the lives of 15 dogs—giving them human consciousness and wagering on whether they will be happier or unhappier with this addition by the end of their lives. The Ancient Greeks believed that a person’s life could not be judged until after death—one could live a wonderful life, but die an awful death and thus be a failure. Hermes and Apollo seem to generally agree with this style of evaluation.

Also contains echoes of Orwell’s Animal Farm in regard to the dogs’ negotiations of relationships with humans.

Nominally about dogs, the book actually explores what it is to be human. Are we happier than the other animals on the planet? Or does our awareness of the past and the future entail a burden? How do we judge a life to have been a happy one?