Monday, 29 February 2016

As You Like It / William Shakespeare

5 out of 5 stars

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
I am always charmed when I go to see a Shakespearean play and hear familiar phrases. As You Like It certainly has its share of those.

A cinema chain near me offers showings of the National Theatre (London) on a regular basis and I went this week for my first experience of this play. As expected, I enjoyed it a great deal. The only issue was a slight falter in reception (and regrettably this was during the famous “All the world’s a stage” scene).

It has all the elements that say “Shakespeare” to me—mistaken identities, disguises & cross-dressing, instantaneous loves, and questions of loyalty.

The stage set for the Arden forest was extremely interesting—the forest itself was created from furniture suspended from the ceiling, which I know sounds weird but somehow it worked well. Watching the transformation of the stage to this arrangement prompted intake of breath among the audience. It was amazing to watch as things gradually swept up into place.

Also fabulous was the music and singing, which really enhanced the experience and which I wouldn’t even have realized I was missing, had I merely read the play at home. Truly, the plays are meant to be experienced, rather than simply read and this one was a great pleasure on so many levels.

White Teeth / Zadie Smith

4 out of 5 stars
Epic in scale and intimate in approach, White Teeth is an ambitious novel. Genetics, eugenics, gender, race, class and history are the book's themes but Zadie Smith is gifted with the wit and inventiveness to make these weighty ideas seem effortlessly light.
The story travels through Jamaica, Turkey, Bangladesh and India but ends up in a scrubby North London borough, home of the book's two unlikely heroes: prevaricating Archie Jones and intemperate Samad Iqbal. They met in the Second World War, as part of a "Buggered Battalion" and have been best friends ever since. Archie marries beautiful, buck-toothed Clara, who's on the run from her Jehovah's Witness mother, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad marries stroppy Alsana and they have twin sons: "Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks."
Big questions demand boldly drawn characters. Zadie Smith's aren't heroic, just real: warm, funny, misguided and entirely familiar; reading their conversations is like eavesdropping. A simple scene, Alsana and Clara chatting about their pregnancies in the park: "A woman has to have the private things--a husband needn't be involved in body business, in a lady's ... parts."
Samad's rant about his sons--"They have both lost their way. Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave--acutely displays "the immigrant fears--dissolution, disappearance" but it also gets to the very heart of Samad.

If you have been (or your parent has been) an immigrant, White Teeth will probably speak to you. My father was the first member of his family born in Canada. He desperately felt the need to fit in, to be Canadian. As a result, when his parents spoke in Danish at home, he always answered them in English. In later life, he could understand Danish, but not speak it, a situation which was sometimes frustrating when dealing with relatives who only spoke Danish. My grandfather came to Canada first, alone, and started out working in the lumber camps of Northern Alberta. He was a religious man and was mortified when he learned that the first English words that he acquired were cuss words. My grandmother is my hero—she came by boat to Quebec and then boarded a train to come to Western Canada. She spoke no English and no French, had 3 small children, a bag of apples, and no money. And yet they all made it to Athabasca to meet Grandpa.

Now, you may think that Danish immigrants would have felt a warm welcome in Canada in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Still, they didn’t fit in because they didn’t yet speak English and they had some different customs. Also, the Danes and the Ukrainians settled in the same area and there was some kind of weird rivalry between the two ethnic groups. Several generations later, and both groups of immigrants fit into Canada like they have always been here. It’s hardest for the first two generations.

So I could identify in a small way with the situation in White Teeth where people trace their heritage back to Jamaica and Bangladesh and are trying to fit into an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon society.

But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance.

When your culture is very different from the new country (like Samad and Alsana’s Islamic life), you dread your children acclimatizing to their new surroundings—the religion that you cherish has potential to be lost (Magid) or changed until its unrecognizable (Millat). Contrast that with ever-so-Anglo-Saxon Archie, who ends up with a black daughter. Irie will always be considered foreign, even though she has just as many English ancestors as many Caucasian English, and she really feels her foreign-ness despite being born in North London. Hence her romantic notions of “the homeland” of Jamaica.

It’s amusing to watch Archie—unworthy recipient of white male privilege—seemingly unaware of all the ramifications of racial and class politics that swirl around him. Samad is the intellectual of the two and his intelligence is rarely recognized, while stolid, thick Archie wanders through life seemingly without impediment. Samad is torn between wanting the pleasurable things of life and being a devout Muslim. He literally tears his twin sons apart, sending Magid back to Bangladesh to become a “good boy” and leaving Millat in London, taking on the bad-boy half of the equation (and in many ways, living out some of his father’s desires).

There are lots of good things and many shrewd observations in WT, but to my way of thinking there were too many ideas being bandied about. It seemed to try to tackle everything: colonization, migration, class, race, prejudice, history, genetics—all intertwined, but maybe a bite that is just a little too big to chew. No wonder the book is over 400 pages.

Two weeks ago, I went to our university’s distinguished lecturer series to hear the author, Zadie Smith, speak. As a result, I having been hearing her lovely voice in my mind’s ear as I read, as if she is reading the novel to me. If you ever get a chance to hear her in person, go, do it. She is every bit as direct and funny as her prose would lead you to believe. I think she would be a lot of fun to have lunch with!

Friday, 26 February 2016

Orbiting Jupiter / Gary D. Schmidt

4 out of 5 stars
When Jack meets his new foster brother, he already knows three things about him:

Joseph almost killed a teacher.
He was incarcerated at a place called Stone Mountain.
He has a daughter. Her name is Jupiter. And he has never seen her.

What Jack doesn’t know, at first, is how desperate Joseph is to find his baby girl.  Or how urgently he, Jack, will want to help.  But the past can’t be shaken off. Even as new bonds form, old wounds reopen. The search for Jupiter demands more from Jack than he can imagine.

This tender, heartbreaking novel is Gary D. Schmidt at his best.

You can tell all you need to know about someone from the way cows are around him.

This is Jack’s opinion concerning his new foster-brother, Joseph, who may have trouble with teachers and the other kids in school, but he is loved by Rosie the cow. Generally, I do find animals’ responses to people to say a bit at least about their mood. Horses certainly know whether you are paying attention or not (and will plant a big hoof on your foot if they are displeased with your lack of regard).

Milking cows, as Jack and Joseph do, is an intimate task. I learned to milk as a youngster, with a gentle old cow named Stubby. Stubby had her tail frozen off as a calf and so couldn’t whip you with it as you milked—a bonus for us apprentice milkmaids. I remember that my dad had twine tied by the other cows, so that he could capture that tail and avoid being slapped by the frequently-urine-soaked tassel at the end of it. And if a cow is unhappy with you, they will whip you with that tail and stomp their feet. Milking takes a while, crouched on a little stool, with your forehead pressed against the warm flank of a cow. If you aren’t calm at the start, you will be by the end—it is a meditative task, perfect for a young man who needs to calm down and contemplate his life as Joseph does.

I must confess, I have warned certain of my friends, “Dogs don’t like that guy—stay away from him.” This from a woman who is none too fond of dogs (mostly because they refuse to just be mildly friendly but insist on taking liberties). In Cuba at dinner one night, my friend suddenly asked me, “What’s wrong?” One of the stray dogs was under the table, determinedly licking my toes! Apparently I taste delicious, as excessive licking is one of several complaints I have about dogs. I’m not sure what that says about me, however.

This is a young adult novel—easily read in an afternoon and it depicts farm life extremely well. If I have any quibbles with it
(spoiler show) . To balance that, there are a variety of adults, many supportive, some jerks, just as in real life—giving the reader a sense that not everyone will be against them always. Generally, I would not hesitate to recommend it to young readers or their parents.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Cordelia's Honor / Lois McMaster Bujold

4.5 out of 5 stars
Shards of Honor - Betan Cmdr Cordelia Naismith and enemy Barrayaran Aral Vorkosigan are attacked and marooned together. Aral, misnamed "Butcher of Komarr", captures her. They exchange meanings of honor and love, separate for homes. Later demoted to Captain, Cordelia runs into Aral, after his sadistic cousin Vorrutyer, and warped ugly bodyguard Sgt Bothari. Cordelia flees Betans who ignore truth.

Barrayar - Aral is appointed Regent of baby heir by dying Emperor. Cordelia, now pregnant Lady Vorkosigan, breathes antidote to poisonous gas. Her son Miles has fragile bones that break on birth and will limit his adult height and durability.

This is a combined volume, consisting of numbers 1 & 7 of the Vorkosigan saga, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. It is hard for me to believe, but although they are two halves of the same story, there was about 10 years between their original publication dates. I am really glad to have read them together.

I really enjoyed Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan as a main character. She was practical, capable, smart, and sensible. And despite all of that, she fell in love with a guy on the wrong side of a war.

This was kind of an anti-fairy tale romance. Cordelia and Aral are mature people, not impulsive 20-somethings. They talk about the things that are bothering them and they count on one another for support. In short, they have a real relationship.

Cordelia is from a rather Gene-Roddenberry-esque culture, that of the Beta Colony. Decisions are made rationally, government is democratic, knowledge is valued, sexual preferences are publically acknowledged, and frank discussions are seen as normal. Sure, a scientific expedition of Betans is rather like herding cats—everyone thinks they get a vote—but the aim is reasonably pure. I adored Bujold’s idea of uterine replicators to take the nasty part out of pregnancy—and all their medical procedures are first rate.

Contrast that with Aral’s society on Barrayar. A military hierarchy, a royal family, inequality of men and women, hidebound by tradition, a bit primitive in medical technology. As Cordelia struggles to figure out all of the nuances of this society, there are bound to be misunderstandings. Add to that political intrigue, and you’ve got a recipe for a good story.

I also appreciated that there’s no pretense that people have forgotten Earth and its history. They discuss Medieval history and one character in particular has become a devotee of the Marquis de Sade. I’ve always thought it would be a bit weird to have a society forget its roots while still having enormous databases full of information.

Favourite bits: The Betan psychiatrist and the fish tank; Cordelia’s use of a shopping bag at the end of Barrayar. This is my first venture into Ms. Bujold’s writing, but I think I can safely say that I love her style and will happily work my way through this whole series.

Books 211 and 212 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Real Tigers / Mick Herron

4 out of 5 stars
London’s Slough House is where disgraced MI5 operatives are reassigned to spend the rest of their spy careers pushing paper. But when one of these “slow horses” is kidnapped by a former soldier bent on revenge, the agents must breach the defenses of Regent’s Park to steal valuable intel in exchange for their comrade’s safety. The kidnapping is only the tip of the iceberg, however, as the agents uncover a larger web of intrigue that involves not only a group of private mercenaries but also the highest authorities in the Security Service. After years spent as the lowest on the totem pole, the slow horses suddenly find themselves caught in the midst of a conspiracy that threatens not only the future of Slough House, but of MI5 itself.

This series is really growing on me. Who can resist the slow horses, the failed MI-5 agents, these anti-Bonds?  All of them desperately want to be back in the espionage game and not pushing paper after boring paper over in Slough House, a facility so obscure many members-in-good-standing of MI-5 don’t even know it exists.  So when any excuse presents itself, they fall all over themselves to get out there and try to kick some butt.

For me, it’s the characters that really make these stories work. I can’t help but root for River Cartwright, who ended up at Slough House when a practice op that he was running was sabotaged by a frenemy and went horribly wrong.  I’m cheering for him to finally be able to prove his worth and go back to the main office.  All the denizens of Slough House have some horrible failure in their backgrounds—alcoholism, gambling addiction, a reliance on cocaine, you name it.  And then there’s my favourite—Rodney Ho, who is just so obnoxious that no one wants him in their office.  Rodney has no social skills, a vivid fantasy life, and the ability to work the internet like no one else in the office.  If you’re a Criminal Minds fan, think of him as a male version of Garcia with no redeeming human graces.  His misguided attempts to blackmail the other slow horses or try to attract romantic attention provide the light moments in these thrillers.

Of course, there is always Jackson Lamb, the rather revolting supervisor of this motley lot. Messy, rude, bigoted, and able to produce a reeking fart at will, he is about as far from the Bond ideal as you can get, and yet he proves himself a very capable agent on many occasions.  One of the reasons that I keep reading is to figure out exactly how Lamb got to this situation.

If you’re tired of professional spies wearing slick clothes and drinking sophisticated cocktails, give the Slough House bunch a try. I think you’ll be totally entertained.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Seventh Son / Orson Scott Card

3 out of 5 stars
From the author of Ender's Game, an unforgettable story about young Alvin Maker: the seventh son of a seventh son. Born into an alternative frontier America where life is hard and folk magic is real, Alvin is gifted with the power. He must learn to use his gift wisely. But dark forces are arrayed against Alvin, and only a young girl with second sight can protect him. 

You may have heard—O.S. Card is a Mormon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just makes this little story a trifle more interesting, because you see, our main character Alvin goes through A LOT of the things that Joseph Smith did, growing up. Like Smith, Alvin has parents who disagreed about religion and like the Smith family, Alvin’s family practices a religious folk magic in addition to Christianity. Smith also claimed, like Alvin, to be confused about the claims of competing religious denominations, a situation which is resolved by a religious vision. In addition, Smith suffered from a bone infection in his boyhood, although presumably not from having a mill-stone fall on his leg, the scenario in Seventh Son. Interestingly, Joseph Smith had an older brother named Alvin. [For all these details of Smith’s life, I am reliant on Wikipedia—not the most reliable of sources, but not the worst either].

Add to that the alternative history aspect of the story—a North America which gets settled and governed in a radically different way (George Washington, for example, gets beheaded for treason). Here the hex signs on the Pennsylvania Dutch barns (which began as pure decoration) are used to suggest a whole practical magical system for this timeline (and the author presumes that they actually spoke Dutch rather than Deutsch). Add to that a rather odd Puritan set of names for characters (Alvin’s twin brothers Wastenot and Wantnot, for instance and his brother Calm). Somehow this odd mixture of religions does make a rather understandable system.

Seventh Son’s main character, Alvin, does suffer rather badly from “chosen one” syndrome, but as a seventh son of a seventh son, it seems he just can’t help it. He is destined to be special because seven is viewed as being such a lucky number. In addition to his birth order, Alvin is born with a caul (membrane) over his face—yet another omen of a child destined for great deeds. Card has pulled out all the stops and made Alvin into the special-est snowflake that he possibly could.

I have to say that the religiousness of the book’s characters (especially in the beginning) was a bit off-putting for me, but by about half way through I had reached some kind of stasis and was enjoying the story more. However, I found the ending rather abrupt. At least there wasn’t a cliff-hanger, but a reader wanting to know “how things end” will very obviously have to continue reading the series.

This was book number 210 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project. 

Friday, 19 February 2016

Rosemary & Rue / Seanan McGuire

4 out of 5 stars
The world of Faerie never disappeared: it merely went into hiding, continuing to exist parallel to our own. Secrecy is the key to Faerie's survival—but no secret can be kept forever, and when the fae and mortal worlds collide, changelings are born. Half-human, half-fae, outsiders from birth, these second-class children of Faerie spend their lives fighting for the respect of their immortal relations. Or, in the case of October "Toby" Daye, rejecting it completely. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the fae world, retreating into a "normal" life. Unfortunately for her, Faerie has other ideas.

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the secret regents of the San Francisco Bay Area, pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening's dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby is forced to resume her old position as knight errant to the Duke of Shadowed Hills and begin renewing old alliances that may prove her only hope of solving the mystery...before the curse catches up with her.

”There’s rosemary and rue. These keep seeming and savor all the winter long. Grace and remembrance be to you.” –William Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, Act 4, Scene 4.

Add to that quotation Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who tells us that rosemary, that’s for remembrance. And the name of the plant rue has become synonymous with regret and repentance. There’s a lot of remembering and regretting in this book.

October (Toby) Day is spending a lot of time remembering her family, her old job, the circumstances which separated her from both of those, her childhood, you name it. If she was to choose a Facebook status, she would have to select “it’s complicated.” You see, she’s a changeling—half human, half fae—not truly accepted by either community. And she spent 14 years as a fish (a koi in an ornamental pond), cursed when she ran afoul of a couple of powerful fae when she was following them in her former role as a private investigator. Nobody knew where she was (until the spell finally wore off) and her mortal husband & daughter now want nothing to do with her. Since those relationships have been ruined, October isn’t really in the mood to re-contact the fae either.

But sometimes you don’t get a choice in these matters. Despite her lowly Safeway job, as she tries to catch up with 14 years of societal progress, one of her powerful full-blooded faerie frenemies binds her once again—this woman (who knows that she will be killed) tasks October to avenge her murder using her investigative skills.

There is copious use of one trope that really bugs me—that of the person who is absolutely sure that no one wants to hear from them or spend time with them because of something they have done. This is October completely, despite the fact that she was “done to” rather than “doing.” And truly, when in life do you actually find this? Maybe among middle school children, but certainly not among adults! Toby’s rejection of all overtures from any of her former friends is incomprehensible to me, no matter how prejudiced they might be, no matter how much she may envy their status or their families. It’s even more frustrating when it becomes obvious as the story progresses that many of them are delighted to have her back in their lives and are most forgiving considering what a cold shoulder she has given them. As a side note, I also can’t imagine that her husband and daughter would actually reject her—most families welcome long-lost family members with open arms. But that will surely be an issue for another book.

In spite of this, I found Rosemary and Rue to be a fun read, keeping me guessing about who did what and why. I hope now that October has re-connected with friends and family, that I will feel less annoyed with her behaviour in book 2 and be able to completely enjoy the story. And I feel that a mythology refresher would be helpful before the second installment—who knew that the fairy folk came in so many versions?

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Consider Phlebas / Iain M. Banks (Culture series #1)

4 out of 5 stars
The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.

Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.

I don’t know about you, but I remember reading exercises done when I was in Grade 5 that suggested that by now, we would be living in “the Culture”—work would be handled by machines of all kinds and humans would be living in a leisure-based society, post-money, able to do pretty much whatever we could dream up for ourselves. I seem to recall that this utopian ideal was to be in place by about the year 2000….I feel somewhat ripped off, now, that I’m still heading to work every day and saving my shekels for retirement.

I started out intrigued by the title, apparently a line in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I’ve already requested Eliot’s work from my library—to do with the Holy Grail and the Fisher King, I think it will be interesting and right up my alley. Wikipedia tells me that its first section is The Burial of the Dead which “introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair.” Which is basically what Consider Phlebas does for the Culture series.

I found myself fascinated with the main character Horza and his devotion to the Idrian side of the war—not the side that I would have chosen! I am a Culture woman—give me that opportunity to do my own thing for a much-lengthened life in excellent health. Yes, there are intelligent machines (in fact many are much more intelligent than humans), but they don’t seem to hold any grudges against humanity, in fact they seem to have a protective role for vast numbers of races, preventing the religiously-driven Idrians from taking over their planets and forcibly converting them. Plus, human intuition can still sometimes surprise the machine minds—leading to them having certain intuitive humans “on call” to make predictions.

Maybe the biggest take-away message from CP is the pointlessness of this war. There is bravery and treachery on both sides of the Idrian/Culture conflict. Many years are spent in the struggle, but at book’s end the casualties are tallied, and really not much has been accomplished, little has changed.

One of my favourite parts was the “card” game called Damage. What a mild name for a game of high strategy and violence! I’ve done {an admittedly cursory) search for a video game that would try to recreate Damage, but I haven’t found one. I’d generally rather read than play games, whether video or card games, but even I could see the appeal of this one.

This is my first Iain Banks novel, but it will not be the last. The man could write. I sincerely regret that he lost his life to cancer (so recently!) and will not be penning any more adventures of any kind. I have book two, The Player of Games, waiting on my bookshelf for me to be ready.

Book 209 of my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Undermajordomo Minor / Patrick deWitt

3 out of 5 stars
Lucy Minor is the resident odd duck in the hamlet of Bury. He is a compulsive liar, a sickly weakling in a town famous for begetting brutish giants. Then Lucy accepts employment assisting the majordomo of the remote, foreboding Castle Von Aux. While tending to his new post as undermajordomo, he soon discovers the place harbours many dark secrets, not least of which is the whereabouts of the castle's master, Baron Von Aux. Thus begins a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery, and cold-blooded murder.

Undermajordomo Minor is an ink-black comedy of manners, an adventure, and a mystery, and a searing portrayal of rural Alpine bad behaviour, but above all it is a love story. And Lucy must be careful, for love is a violent thing.

Hindsight is 20/20. I should have re-read a fairy tale or two before tackling Undermajordomo Minor. I think it would have been useful to have the fairy tale structure in my head to compare to this work.

I do love the way deWitt plays with names. His outlaws with the surname Sisters in The Sisters Brothers and now Lucien Minor who takes on the position of Undermajordomo in this novel.

I snorted when the Majordomo, Mr. Olderglough, says, “I find the constant upkeep of the body woefully fatiguing, don’t you?” I have been known the claim that if I did everything every day that all of my health care professionals recommend that I do, I’d have no time to go to work. Perhaps I exaggerate a trifle. Perhaps.

Alas, I find that I don’t fully connect with Mr. DeWitt’s writing somehow—I like his work, but I always come away feeling that I’ve missed something crucial which would have transformed them into a fabulous experience. 

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Spinster : Making a life of one's own / Kate Bolick

3.5 out of 5 stars
“Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.”

So begins Spinster, a revelatory and slyly erudite look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single. Using her own experiences as a starting point, journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick invites us into her carefully considered, passionately lived life, weaving together the past and present to examine why­ she—along with over 100 million American women, whose ranks keep growing—remains unmarried.

This unprecedented demographic shift, Bolick explains, is the logical outcome of hundreds of years of change that has neither been fully understood, nor appreciated. Spinster introduces a cast of pioneering women from the last century whose genius, tenacity, and flair for drama have emboldened Bolick to fashion her life on her own terms: columnist Neith Boyce, essayist Maeve Brennan, social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and novelist Edith Wharton. By animating their unconventional ideas and choices, Bolick shows us that contemporary debates about settling down, and having it all, are timeless—the crucible upon which all thoughtful women have tried for centuries to forge a good life.

Intellectually substantial and deeply personal, Spinster is both an unreservedly inquisitive memoir and a broader cultural exploration that asks us to acknowledge the opportunities within ourselves to live authentically. Bolick offers us a way back into our own lives—a chance to see those splendid years when we were young and unencumbered, or middle-aged and finally left to our own devices, for what they really are: unbounded and our own to savor.

 I’m always interested in what motivates people—I know what moves me and find it fascinating to compare to other people’s experiences. That’s what drew me to Spinster. I remember having a few lonely times when I was in my 20s, and the epiphany at about age 28 when I realized that I would always be lonely unless I became a good companion to myself. I remember there was a passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Palm Sunday that I would read again and again as I processed this idea (note to self, re-read Palm Sunday soon). Literature pointed me in the right direction, as I always expect it to.

That’s another lure of this volume, the author’s examination of the lives & works of some notable single women writers: Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton. Not all of them spinsters by strict definition, but definitely with unconventional relationships for their times and a need for personal space in which to be creative. This has definitely pushed Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman up my “to read” list and added the other women to my radar for future reading adventures.

I also learned a name for something that I have been practicing for years: Living Apart Together. (Wasn’t it Katherine Hepburn who said, “Men and women should live next door and visit occasionally.” I don’t even want him next door, where he could keep much too close an eye on me!) I’m very much an introvert. I’ve had roommates over the years, but have spent the last 20 years living by myself and I can’t imagine letting anyone else permanently into my living space ever again. When people ask, I tell them there just isn’t enough closet space. (BTW, isn’t it amazing what people feel entitled to ask?) Visitors are welcome but departure dates have to be clear.

It’s strange how people treat you when you are on your own—I remember many years ago going camping by myself. As I was setting up camp, people on either side of me made pleasant conversation until they realized that I was a woman on her own. Suddenly, no one would make eye contact and conversation ceased. If it wasn’t for a campground employee who stopped by for a chat each day, I would have had no one at all to talk to. After two days of that nonsense, I phoned my parents & asked if they would care to join me. They were happy to share my camp space and suddenly neighbouring campers treated me like a human being again. People are weird.

But being single is no longer odd. More & more people are—widowed, divorced, never married, we are numerous. Someday, we may even be considered normal. Bring on that someday!

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Carressed by Ice / Nalinai Singh

4 out of 5 stars
As an Arrow, an elite soldier in the Psy Council ranks, Judd Lauren was forced to do terrible things in the name of his people. Now he is a defector, and his dark abilities have made him the most deadly of assassins - cold, pitiless, unfeeling. Until he meets Brenna...

Brenna Shane Kincaid was an innocent before she was abducted - and had her mind violated - by a serial killer. Her sense of evil runs so deep, she fears she could become a killer herself. Then the first dead body is found, victim of a familiar madness. Judd is her only hope, yet her sensual changeling side rebels against the inhuman chill of his personality, even as desire explodes between them. Shocking and raw, their passion is a danger that threatens not only their hearts, but their very lives...

Forgive me, but I’m going to come at this review a bit obliquely. When I was in middle school, my sisters and I used to get off the school bus and head to the living room to watch TV for a while. One of the must see programs was Star Trek (Original Series). We watched Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock adventure their way around the universe, always with Mr. Spock being the ultra-rational one and Nurse Chapel trying to convince him that perhaps he needed a woman in his life.

Reading this novel was like watching Nurse Chapel win the fight! Judd gets cast in the cold, unemotional role inhabited by Spock. He is from the Psy race, who have completely suppressed emotion—like the Vulcans, the emotion is still there but he has been conditioned since childhood to ignore it and shut it away. Unlike Spock, he has not necessarily been a nice guy and has been an assassin for his Psy Council.

In this aspect, this novel reminded me quite a bit of the old Zane Grey western romances—they often featured a “simple cowboy” who felt unworthy of a “delightful young woman” who has recently arrived on the frontier. The plot mainly consists of the young lady convincing said cowboy that she only has eyes for him. This is Brenna’s role in Caressed by Ice.

Why is this such a powerful fantasy trope for women? Why is it that we so want to wring emotion from the “strong silent type”? I’m guessing that we want to be special—the woman so wonderful that he is shaken out of his cool silence. I’m also guessing that it works much better in fiction that in real life.

I must confess to being somewhat embarrassed to admit that I've been reading a romance (and especially that I enjoyed it). Highly illogical.


Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Fool Moon / Jim Butcher (Dresden Files #2)

3.5 out of 5 stars
Harry Dresden--Wizard
Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.

Business has been slow. Okay, business has been dead. And not even of the undead variety. You would think Chicago would have a little more action for the only professional wizard in the phone book. But lately, Harry Dresden hasn't been able to dredge up any kind of work--magical or mundane.

But just when it looks like he can't afford his next meal, a murder comes along that requires his particular brand of supernatural expertise.

A brutally mutilated corpse. Strange-looking paw prints. A full moon. Take three guesses--and the first two don't count...

For me, this was a slightly better read than the first book, in that I feel that Harry’s character has somewhat solidified—I feel like he’s a bit more consistent, there are fewer things pulling him back and forth between the noir detective and the western genres. Choices have been made and patterns established.

Harry is established as a bit of a magical bad boy (apparently because women like the bad boys). He’s still pretty silly in his relationships with women—why be concerned if your skin is getting saved by a woman? Like that’s a bad thing! Just be happy someone is bothering to save you! Men out there, you do not have to be rescuers! We women like men who treat us like equal human beings. On the other hand, there are plenty of competent women doing interesting things in this novel—being equal human beings, in other words, and getting to demonstrate that they are just as able to lead the action.

This is a werewolf tale, but it kind of felt like Butcher looked at all the different versions of the werewolf and said, “I can’t decide, so let’s use them all.” And there was one story line, with one group of wolves, that didn’t really get resolved. Unsure if that will carry over into book 3 or if we are just supposed to pretend it never happened. (I did finish reading this pretty late at night, so I may have missed the details).

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Inconvenient Indian / Thomas King

3 out of 5 stars
The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope -- a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.

”[For] me at least, writing a novel is buttering warm toast, while writing a history is herding porcupines with your elbows.”

I might never have read this book, had it not been a selection for my real-life book club. I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s novel The Back of the Turtle last year—it was one of my 5 star selections. His humour and style are both very appealing to me and reading it was like buttering warm toast. But I’m not much of a non-fiction history reader. I feel like I did my time reading history while taking my Canadian Studies degree, and now I want to concentrate on fiction and non-history non-fiction, if you understand me there.

So, I approached this book with trepidation. And what can I possibly say about Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian? It is well written—I would expect nothing less from so able an author. He herded his porcupines well.

It is tough. Tough on the dominant society, as it should be. For me, it was tough to read. I imagine as a white Canadian reading this, I felt very much like men feel when they read feminist critiques of modern society. A bit bewildered—okay, I know that things need to change, but how? I didn’t come out of this book with a clear idea of what should be done or if there is anything that I can do to improve the situation.

I would have appreciated a bibliography or a few notes or something—to point me to other reading material should I decide to pursue one of the topics he references.

An important book in the Canadian conversation and one that should be read widely, perhaps taught in our high schools.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Mess / Barry Yourgrau

4 out of 5 stars
Hilarious and poignant, a glimpse into the mind of someone who is both a sufferer from and an investigator of clutter.Millions of Americans struggle with severe clutter and hoarding. New York writer and bohemian Barry Yourgrau is one of them. Behind the door of his Queens apartment, Yourgrau’s life is, quite literally, chaos. Confronted by his exasperated girlfriend, a globe-trotting food critic, he embarks on a heartfelt, wide-ranging, and too often uproarious project―part Larry David, part Janet Malcolm―to take control of his crammed, disorderly apartment and life, and to explore the wider world of collecting, clutter, and extreme hoarding.Encounters with a professional declutterer, a Lacanian shrink, and Clutterers Anonymous―not to mention England’s most excessive hoarder―as well as explorations of the bewildering universe of new therapies and brain science, help Yourgrau navigate uncharted territory: clearing shelves, boxes, and bags; throwing out a nostalgic cracked pasta bowl; and sorting through a lifetime of messy relationships. Mess is the story of one man’s efforts to learn to let go, to clean up his space (physical and emotional), and to save his relationship.

What a mix of emotions I felt while reading this memoir of an extreme clutterer and how he, as the subtitle says, cleans up his house and his act.

First, I felt sympathy. After all, I know what my guest room currently looks like. It has become a dumping ground for unmade decisions and it’s one of my projects for February—get it fit to receive guests once again. It’s very hard in a society such as ours, which pushes consumerism and acquisition as the route to salvation, to keep clutter under control.

Second, I felt just a touch of panic. Could I end up in the same situation as the author? Not wanting to allow people in my house. Not being willing to have maintenance people in to fix malfunctioning plumbing or to paint or repair windows.

Third, I felt anxiety. I couldn’t help it, sometimes it just twisted off the page and wrapped itself around me. The tremendous anxiety that Mr. Yourgrau felt while trying to sort out his life was palpable. As a somewhat anxious person myself, I could identify with this feeling very strongly.

Fourth, I felt relief. I was happy for him that he managed to get his life under his own control again, that he was comfortable to have people in, and that he was enjoying his surroundings. Plus, I went to my paper nightmare and proceeded to purge, sort, and file like a boss and felt some relief of my own.

I find it interesting that many creative people have problems with “stuff.” I don’t consider myself to be in the creative category, but one of my sisters definitely is and her clutter problem is somewhat worse than mine. Just as for Mr. Yourgrau, she feels an emotional attachment to every article of detritus in her home and finds it wrenching to let go. Although she does not feel the need to destroy things, as he does, so that no one else will ever be able to use them.

On a final note, if I ever end up with a landlord again, I am going to steal his nickname for his: The Bubonic Weasel.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Magic Burns / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
Down in Atlanta, tempers – and temperatures – are about to flare…

As a mercenary who cleans up after magic gone wrong, Kate Daniels has seen her share of occupational hazards. Normally, waves of paranormal energy ebb and flow across Atlanta like a tide. But once every seven years, a flare comes, a time when magic runs rampant. Now Kate’s going to have to deal with problems on a much bigger scale: a divine one.

When Kate sets out to retrieve a set of stolen maps for the Pack, Atlanta’s paramilitary clan of shapeshifters, she quickly realizes much more at stake. During a flare, gods and goddesses can manifest – and battle for power. The stolen maps are only the opening gambit in an epic tug-of-war between two gods hoping for rebirth. And if Kate can’t stop the cataclysmic showdown, the city may not survive…

Is it just me, or have the writing team here taken a page from Shakespeare, specifically The Taming of the Shrew? With the main character being named Kate, I have to wonder. Curran has obviously been cast in the role of Petruchio, tormenting the unwilling Kate, who is stubbornly resisting him.

This is a story line of some antiquity and it continues to entertain us to this day. I do look a bit askance at it, as it would seem to reinforce that male belief that “no” just means “be more persistent.” Despite these reservations, I did enjoy the story and will undoubtedly be picking up the third book in the series (remembering, after all, that this is entertainment and fantasy and not a blue print for life).

I do enjoy Kate—her self-reliance, her strength, and her determination to succeed. Like all of us, she sometimes lacks a bit of perspective on her life, but she is as honest as she is able to be. I thought the introduction of the child, Julie, allowed the authors to let Kate reflect on her own life, thereby giving the reader some background without it just being a huge info dump.

Most enjoyable and I will anticipate book 3 with pleasure.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Dead Until Dark / Charlaine Harris

4 out of 5 stars
Sookie Stackhouse is a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Louisiana. She's quiet, keeps to herself, and doesn't get out much. Not because she's not pretty. She is. It's just that, well, Sookie has this sort of "disability." She can read minds. And that doesn't make her too dateable. And then along comes Bill. He's tall, dark, handsome--and Sookie can't hear a word he's thinking. He's exactly the type of guy she's been waiting for all her life....

But Bill has a disability of his own: He's a vampire with a bad reputation. He hangs with a seriously creepy crowd, all suspected of--big surprise--murder. And when one of Sookie's coworkers is killed, she fears she's next....

So finally, I meet Sookie Stackhouse. I am late to the party by about 15 years, but I really enjoyed making her acquaintance. I polished off the book in one evening and could quite happily have turned around and read it again right away. In fact I did go back and read my favourite sections again.

I found Sookie to be a smart and feisty main character. Instead of her telepathy being an advantage, she has found it the ultimate in distracting, almost like a learning disability. So when she runs into vampire Bill and finds that she is unable to hear his thoughts, she is immediately impressed. I loved her independence—she does her own dirty work, for the most part, not relying on her boss, Sam, or her brother, Jason, to bail her out.

Bill is an interesting vampire, in that he is so different from all the Lords of Darkness that one usually runs across in fiction. Here is a guy who has returned to his old home town and who seems to want nothing more than to settle back into small town Southern life. In that regard, his vampirism is a disability, bringing with it unwanted responsibilities and relationships.

So, is there any future for this human-vampire couple? I note that there are many more books, and once I have made a dent in my current stack of library books, I’ll be ordering the second one to check up on them.