In the first Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker receives no more than a few hours of instruction in the Force from Obi-Wan Kenobi. That instruction amounIn the first Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker receives no more than a few hours of instruction in the Force from Obi-Wan Kenobi. That instruction amounted to "stretching out with his feelings" to sense objects he couldn't see. The Force could be used to influence the weak-minded and to improve your aim when firing torpedoes. By the beginning of the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke had progressed enough that he could telekinetically pull his lightsaber out of snowbank, although he almost didn't get it in time to avoid being a Wampa's lunch.
What I wondered then, in 1980, was how did Luke improve his Force abilities after Obi-Wan's death? What happened in between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back? This novel gives the first "official" look at that time period (one of the only other novels set in that time, Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye, is now considered part of the "Legends" catalogue and is not canon).
In Heir to the Jedi, Luke is still a junior officer in the Rebel Alliance. He is assigned to reconnaissance and scouting missions, but is also given a chance to extract a high-value prisoner, a cryptographer with knowledge of Imperial codes, from the Empire. He is partnered with the daughter of a rich businessman with her own spaceship. She acts as sounding board for his curiosity about the Force, and as a love interest. Luke also comes across a Jedi artifact, the study of which teaches him a few things as well.
Overall, this is a fairly straightforward action story, with some starfighter battles, some ground action, some attempts to use the Force, and a little romance. It's a decent story with an emotional climax. It took me a while to get into the story though, because the entire novel is told in the first person from Luke's point of view. Remember, Luke is about 20 at this point, a farm boy with little exposure to the galaxy at large. The narrative voice is far too sophisticated and literate to resemble Luke in any way, and I found it very jarring at first. Author Kevin Hearne sometimes remembers that Luke is naive and basically a teenage boy, but the occasional scenes of embarrassment and awkwardness do not make up for the overall tone.
Still, Luke's tentative experiments in using the Force (almost always for telekinesis, interestingly) do a good job of portraying how he might have reached the point where he could plausibly escape from the Wampa's lair....more
Don Tillman is extremely intelligent, can memorize almost anything, is an associate professor of genetics at an Melbourne university, has only a few cDon Tillman is extremely intelligent, can memorize almost anything, is an associate professor of genetics at an Melbourne university, has only a few close friends, loves schedules and routines, is distressed by surprises and close physical contact with other people, and is almost certainly on the autism spectrum. He also wants a life partner. To achieve this, he devises a Wife Questionnaire to rule out all the unsuitable candidates. Unfortunately, all candidates are unsuitable. Gene, one of Don's few close friends, sends an acquaintance of his named Rosie to Don. Rosie is not, in fact a candidate wife (although Don doesn't realize this right away), but she is in need of a geneticist to help her identify her real father. As Don sets out to help Rosie, he finds himself behaving in ways he never has before, and enjoying it.
This novel is narrated by Don, so it has to walk a fine line. Don understands that he is different from other people, but he doesn't really understand how different he is. The narration has to tell us about the characters and situations so that we understand what's going on better than Don does. Author Graeme Simsion mostly succeeds, but occasionally the narration is unconvincing. It seems unlikely for Don not to understand the social and psychological motives and impacts of his and other characters' actions, no matter how baffled he is by normal social conventions.
Don reminded me very strongly of the Sheldon Cooper character from the TV show The Big Bang Theory. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Sheldon was at least a partial inspiration for Don. Like the TV show, this book is quite funny. Don's oddness is played for laughs, and Don admits he took on the role of class clown in high school because it was better to make people laugh on purpose than to endure them laughing at him for reasons he didn't understand. Sometimes, the supposedly funny scenes go over the top, such as a situation where Don escapes a meeting by climbing out a fourth-floor window and scaling down the exterior wall.
The writing is clear and direct. Simsion has given Don a unique and consistent voice, although I'm not entirely convinced that it's an accurate representation of a high-functioning, mildly autistic person. Don is by turns lost in his own mind and deeply insightful about what others might be experiencing. He is uncomfortable in social situations, yet is the centre of attention at a couple of parties. As someone who can relate to people like Don, I found him to be not totally realistic or believable. In addition, the story's ending felt rushed. Everything is wrapped up just a little too quickly and a little too neatly.
Despite its flaws, however, this is an enjoyable, funny read. It does have a few moments of genuine tenderness without becoming maudlin. If you have a soft spot for geeks and nerds, I recommend this book....more
A New Dawn is an origin story of sorts. It tells of the first meeting between Hera Syndulla and Kanan Jarrus, two of the main characters on the animatA New Dawn is an origin story of sorts. It tells of the first meeting between Hera Syndulla and Kanan Jarrus, two of the main characters on the animated TV show Star Wars: Rebels. Approximately 10 years after the events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Hera is a crack pilot and striving to do something, anything, to fight against the galactic Empire. Kanan is a former Jedi; he was a partially-trained apprentice when the Emperor gave the infamous Order 66 that nearly wiped out the Jedi Order. Hera is scouting out potential contacts and informants who can embarrass the Empire when she runs into Kanan. Both are overtaken by local events when an Imperial efficiency expert drops into their star system to improve the output of critical mining operations.
Overall, this is a decent adventure story and Hera and Kanan join forces with a couple of other characters to thwart a destructive Imperial agenda. The plot is perhaps overly complicated and is based on shady economic dealings and attempts to corner the market in a rare mineral. The settings are well-described, but I still found it hard to picture some of them in my head. There were several scenes set in large factory or industrial locations whose geographies were not entirely clear. Some of the climactic scenes were a bit predictable, but still enjoyable.
The novel does a good job of giving some back story to Hera and Kanan, fleshing them out beyond what the TV show has portrayed so far. Overall, I'd call this a satisfying read for a Star Wars fan....more
I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse aspect of this story more than I thought I would. This Star Wars novel is set about 10 years before the events of the moviI enjoyed the cat-and-mouse aspect of this story more than I thought I would. This Star Wars novel is set about 10 years before the events of the movie Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. It focuses on Moff Tarkin ("Moff" is what governors in the Star Wars galaxy are called), the character who commanded the Death Star in A New Hope. At the time of this novel, Tarkin is overseeing the secret project to build the Death Star. Early chapters reveal Tarkin's back story, how he was raised on a poor industrial planet removed from the major planets of the galaxy. He had early military and survival training, which along with an innate talent for strategic analysis, earned Tarkin recognition and grooming by then-Senator Palpatine, who eventually declares himself Emperor. When a minor act of rebellion against the fledgling Empire occurs, an act that involves the theft of Tarkin's personal, heavily-armed, and technologically advanced space cruiser, Emperor Palpatine decides to pair Tarkin and Sith lord Darth Vader together to find the criminals. Through the course of the chase, the ship thieves are a couple of steps ahead, but Tarkin slowly pieces the puzzle together.
This book has the difficult job of making a tyrant a semi-sympathetic main character. We admire Tarkin's intellect even as we abhor his brutal tactics and blind obedience to "law and order". I found real suspense in the chase as Vader and Tarkin trail the thieves from system to system. You almost root for Tarkin to get his ship back.
My major beef with this book was the dialogue. Although it suited the story, it didn't suit the characters. It was hard to picture the movie actors speaking these lines. By comparison, I found it very easy to imagine the actors speaking the dialogue of Lords of the Sith. Still, I think Tarkin is a solid addition to the new Star Wars canon....more
More a biography than a conventional story of crisis, conflict, and dramatic tension, this historical novel tells of the life of Alma Whittaker, bornMore a biography than a conventional story of crisis, conflict, and dramatic tension, this historical novel tells of the life of Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 to a wealthy merchant of botanical products in Philadelphia. Over the course of her life, Alma studies a great deal, travels some, and tries to understand the meaning and purpose of life. She spends more than half her life on the estate where she was born, studying and becoming an expert in mosses. She also helps her father run his business of shipping plants and plant-derived pharmaceuticals all over the world. Along the way, Alma's life intersects with a few other interesting characters, including an adopted sister, a flighty friend, and a few men who stir feelings in her that she understands, but doesn't know how to handle. Eventually, Alma leaves home to find answers to questions that the massive library in her father's home cannot satisfy.
This story is written in a 19th-century style, and is told well. The imagery is vivid, the settings believable, and I particularly liked how the real scientific discoveries of the age factor into the narrative. What bothered me most about this book were the characters. Each character felt like too much of an example of a specific character trait. Alma is almost too studious and learned. The adopted sister is too proper and polite. The flighty friend is too manic. No one in this book is normal. These characters are more than stereotypes; they are archetypes: patterns or models on which all similar things are based. They are difficult to relate to because of this.
I also found that the author relied a little too much on other characters to explain to Alma what's going on at various points. The action essentially stops while someone puts things into perspective for her. Alma seems rather incompetent at understanding other people and expressing what matters most to them.
There are many themes touched on here, including science, religion, mysticism, women's role in society, slavery, mental illness, and sexuality. So much ground is covered, it's hard to say whether the story has a clear focus. If there is one, I think it might be that happiness, or at least contentment, comes from examining one's own life and recognizing one's successes and failures (I remember seeing this idea discussed in detail in Mark Kingwell's In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac). In the end, Alma has regrets, but recognizes that she's done about as well as could be expected, given the circumstances that life presented to her. It's not a novel observation, but it's engagingly presented. This book may not appeal to readers who like less science and more action in their stories....more
The stated goal of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun is to examine why some Americans "believe monumentally stupid things about guns and why theiThe stated goal of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun is to examine why some Americans "believe monumentally stupid things about guns and why their beliefs... are so immovable." Author A.J. Somerset calls the answer to these questions the Wellspring of Crazy, and compares his search to Ponce de Leon's quest for the Fountain of Youth. Somerset's credentials are that he is a retired Canadian soldier and current bird hunter. He knows guns. He likes guns. But he doesn't like what some Americans (and Canadians) feel and believe about guns.
This is a mixed book. Somerset at times comes across as smug and sarcastic. He certainly sympathizes with some issues around gun ownership, but deeply disagrees with others (such as the perceived need to carry a loaded handgun in one's purse, just in case, while shopping with the kids at Wal-mart). At other times, Somerset is deeply disturbed by gun violence and cynical about our chances of changing the current frequency and volume of gun deaths.
Somerset is a good stylist, but I found some of his metaphors were over-used, such as his constant references to the state and the government as the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. Part history, part political commentary, this book covers a wide range of topics. Somerset touches on American myths of the Rifleman and the Western gunslinger, heroes who save the day with guns. He spends some time looking at the Second Amendment, the NRA, and armed militias used to break up railroad workers' and coal miners' strikes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He looks at the modern cultures of self-defence and survivalists.
In the end, Somerset concludes that most non-suicide gun violence (about two thirds of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides) is angry young men doing what angry young men have always done: lashing out at a society that doesn't live up their inflated expectations of what the world owes them. Only now, they have easy access to firearms.
This book will not convince gun activists that they're in the wrong. It won't give anti-gun activists any really new arguments to sway the unconvinced. It's a broad, stylish survey of a complex topic, but doesn't really contribute much to the ongoing discussion....more
A competent Star Wars action story about Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious in the years shortly after the events shown in the movie ReveA competent Star Wars action story about Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious in the years shortly after the events shown in the movie Revenge of the Sith. The main story is a plot by freedom fighters on the planet Ryloth to assassinate Vader and Palpatine. We also get to see inside the mind of Darth Vader and how he motivates himself after his turn to the dark side of the Force. This exploration of a fallen hero's psyche is interesting, if not really deep enough to fully explain the utter callousness of a Sith Lord. As an aside, the leader of the freedom fighters is the father of a character in the Star Wars: Rebels animated TV show....more
Here's something you don't see every day: a Star Wars action-adventure romance. Based on unused scripts from the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated TV serHere's something you don't see every day: a Star Wars action-adventure romance. Based on unused scripts from the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated TV series, this novel features a Jedi Master named Quinlan Vos, who is sent to team up with former Sith apprentice Asajj Ventress to assassinate Count Dooku, leader of the Separatist forces in the galactic civil war. Structurally speaking, the assassination plot is a pretext to put these characters together. Star Wars fans will know that Dooku is killed by Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
A sup-plot deals with the morality of the Jedi contemplating assassination, but most of the story is the growing romance between Vos and Ventress as they prepare for and attempt their mission. I found their relationship well-written, although it does follow the typical plot points: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, etc. The resolution to their relationship and the personal trials they have faced is both poignant and compelling. I think this is one of the better Star Wars books I have read in quite some time....more
For over 20 years, Lucasfilm, the company behind the Star Wars franchise, has been publishing new works set in the Star Wars universe. Through novels,For over 20 years, Lucasfilm, the company behind the Star Wars franchise, has been publishing new works set in the Star Wars universe. Through novels, children's books, comic books, video games, trading card games, and more, Lucasfilm established a rich environment known as the Expanded Universe. Han Solo and Leia Organa got married and had three children. Luke Skywalker scouted the galaxy for Force-sensitive recruits and established a new Jedi Order. He, too, eventually found love and had a child. Many new characters, planets, and alien species were introduced that we Star Wars fans came to know as well as the main characters from the movies. Ask any fan about Mara Jade, Kyle Katarn, Grand Admiral Thrawn, or Jacen Solo.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm and decided to release new Star Wars films, they had to decide what to do with the Expanded Universe. If they forced new movies to fit into the timeline, which extended for decades past the then-final movie in the series, Return of the Jedi, they would be severely limited in what stories they could tell. In the end, Disney made what was really the only sensible choice: they relegated the Expanded Universe to an alternate reality that is now collectively called Star Wars Legends.
This book, Star Wars: Aftermath, is part of the post-Legends universe. Everything that we knew about Star Wars beyond the movies and TV shows never happened. This novel is set just a few months after Return of the Jedi. Some remaining admirals and politicians of the Empire are trying to decide who's in charge now that the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead. The Rebel Alliance is trying to consolidate its gains and bring new planets into the fold. The story centres around a group of new characters who are thrown together by circumstance and end up trying to thwart a high-level Imperial summit.
The main Star Wars characters, Luke, Han, and Leia, barely appear. Leia is seen in a propaganda video asking planets to join the Rebel cause. Han and Chewie have one scene, away from the main plot, where they make a decision that is likely to have repercussions in the new movie (which débuts a few days from now, as I write this). Luke doesn't appear at all. A recurring secondary character, Wedge Antilles, plays a role throughout the book, but he is still just a secondary character, even in this story.
I have to admit, it was really hard to warm up to these new characters and their situations after more than two decades of the Expanded Universe. Although the book is full of new alien species and planets, there are also occasional references to things from the EU. Clearly, Disney is keeping a few minor elements, but this makes the new universe even more confusing. The story is okay, but I honestly found it a bit boring without the main characters. There is clearly the potential for this unlikely band to have continuing adventures, but I wonder at my age whether I have the stamina and the patience to learn a whole new universe. If The Force Awakens is really good, then I may be interested in learning what happened in the intervening 30 story years between Episodes VI and VII. Time will tell....more
I came to this murder mystery/courtroom drama with some preconceptions. I'd seen the movie at least 20 years ago, and I knew it had some kind of twistI came to this murder mystery/courtroom drama with some preconceptions. I'd seen the movie at least 20 years ago, and I knew it had some kind of twist ending, but I couldn't remember the exact nature of the twist. Narrator "Rusty" Sabich is a deputy prosecuting attorney in an unnamed American city. He is charged with leading an investigation into the murder of a female colleague, with whom he'd a brief but intense affair several months earlier. The investigation proceeds slowly, until suddenly Rusty is indicted for the crime and put on trial.
Rusty is the narrator. The story is told mostly in the present tense, but some scenes are flashbacks in the past tense, even if the flashback is only half a day earlier. I think that, because of what I vaguely remembered about the movie, I found the story less suspenseful than it might have seemed if I'd come at it without that history. The story is well plotted, but the clues left for the reader are few and far between. There simply isn't enough information for the reader to deduce who the culprit is. The story is certainly crafted to make Rusty look guilty and innocent at the same time.
I found the writing to be stilted. I don't know if this is Scott Turow's usual style or if he was trying to assume the voice of a stilted, uptight narrator, a lawyer who is obsessed with a woman who eventually spurns him. The details about the law and trials were interesting, but because it's an American book and I'm a Canadian, it's not as personally relevant to me. Our legal system has enough differences from the American one that the book's details are a curiosity, but nothing more....more
I wouldn't say there's a common theme running through these stories, but many of them deal with love, chances taken, or opportunities missed. The title story, Away From Her, surprised me by having a different tone than the movie. The movie protagonist seems sweeter and gentler; in the story, however, he's just as noble, but a little more calculating in achieving his ends.
I think my favourite in this collection is Nettles, about a woman who encounters a man she had a brief crush on when they were both much younger.
The writing is unhurried and elegant. There is no violent action or melodramatic emotion. These are just ordinary people looking for love or happiness. Some find it, some don't. Some, I think, prefer the search....more
This is a very unusual book. It's a historical-fantasy-comedy. Set in a period with steam locomotives but no electricity in an unnamed European-like sThis is a very unusual book. It's a historical-fantasy-comedy. Set in a period with steam locomotives but no electricity in an unnamed European-like setting, Lucien "Lucy" Minor travels from his small village to take up the position of undermajordomo (assistant to the majordomo) in a castle owned by an unseen Baron. His main job every day is to take a letter, written by the Baron to his absent Baroness, down to the village train station, where he holds it up so the engineer of the passing train can grab it and, presumably, deliver it. In the meantime, Lucy meets and falls in love with a girl from the village. Unfortunately, she is engaged to a soldier, who leads a small band of soldiers in a perpetual war against an unseen enemy in the hills above the castle. A confrontation between Lucy and the soldier is inevitable.
The writing is absurdist and very funny. The dialogue is sharp. It reminded me of Douglas Adams, although I believe the author cites Raold Dahl as an influence.
There is one quite bizarre and disturbing scene where the Baroness has returned and she and the Baron host a dinner party that takes a turn to debauchery. At this point, the tale seems most like a Swiftian satire of high society. Part love story, part journey of self-discovery, this is a delightful tour de force of English writing, although I did find the ending a bit underwhelming....more
When Frito-Lay first introduced its tortilla chips in the mid-1960s, they were plain triangles of baked corn, with just a little salt. They didn't selWhen Frito-Lay first introduced its tortilla chips in the mid-1960s, they were plain triangles of baked corn, with just a little salt. They didn't sell very well. The product manager suggested making them taco flavoured. Frito-Lay's executives laughed at him and said a taco was a thing, not a flavour. But after some experimentation, he produced taco-flavoured corn chips, called them Doritos (Spanish for "little pieces of gold"), and, according to author Mark Schatzker, launched a revolution in the food industry.
Schatzker's thesis is that as farmers bred livestock and crops that were bigger, faster-growing, and disease-resistant, they inadvertently bred out flavour and nutrients. Modern chicken, beef, tomatoes, and other foods are bland and of less nutritional value than their ancestors. To compensate, the industry invented synthetic flavours. They were so successful, that we now eat far more than our grandparents did, which has led to the current obesity epidemic.
Schatzker traces the history of flavourless food, the rise of synthetic flavour, and very recent efforts to breed flavour back into our meats, fruits, and vegetables. The writing is clear and easy to follow, although it does sometimes come across as a bit preachy. Schatzker is a food writer and tends to look down on those of us who like everyday food. The book is peppered with the names of the chemicals that make up our favourite flavours, but you don't have to understand chemistry to appreciate what he's saying. This book offers food for thought, although it's not clear that there's much consumer demand for food with inherent flavour, when the chemists are so good at synthesizing the tastes we love....more
Beach Music is a sprawling, moving, beautifully-written novel of the struggle for love in the face of tragedy and the terror of existence. There wereBeach Music is a sprawling, moving, beautifully-written novel of the struggle for love in the face of tragedy and the terror of existence. There were passages that brought me to tears. And yet I also felt it had flaws in its plot and structure that took me out of the world Pat Conroy tries so eloquently to depict.
Jack McCall narrates a story of multiple plots. The novel is set in motion by the 1980 suicide of Jack's wife Shyla. Having run way to Rome with his young daughter to escape his dysfunctional and abusive family and Shyla's, Jack is compelled to return to his home town and his relatives and in-laws when, in 1985, his mother is diagnosed with cancer. That home town is the fictional city of Waterford, in the low country of South Carolina. He is also compelled to confront long-simmering anger at his best friends from childhood. Jack tells us that one of those friends has been hiding from the law and his family since they all attended university in the late '60s, but we don't find out until near the end of the book why. The book is peppered with flashbacks of Jack's youth, his mother's childhood, Shyla's parents' wartime experiences, and even the back story of a Waterford department-store owner. We witness the horrors of World War II through the eyes of Jewish survivors and the trauma of Vietnam on a generation of American youth. In the midst of all this are: a commission to write a television miniseries about Jack's youth, troubles with one of Jack's mentally ill brothers, and moving past his wife's death with a new love. In addition, a lot of large meals are cooked.
For me, the sequencing of the flashbacks felt contrived. Some of these stories are crucial in shaping Jack's character and outlook on life, but they come to us late in the tale. Some of the episodes, like the store-owner's tale, seem to have little to do with the main story, even though they are told in a powerful, compelling voice. I think the story of the fugitive friend is meant to say something about the entire Vietnam experience and the generational conflict and bitterness it engendered, but to a reader like me, who is Canadian and was a young child during that era, its impact is minor.
I have quibbles with some plot points, but almost all of them involve significant spoilers, so I won't go into detail. Suffice it to say that, while overall the book seems well-plotted, I think there are some holes here and there.
If this is meant to be a window into a generation of U.S. Southerners, it is sometimes a smudged window for those not of that time and place. The language is magnificent, but sometimes strays into purple prose and melodrama. This is a very long book, and some scenes just didn't work for me. Some of the final scenes, however, were intensely emotional and worth the journey to get there....more
Larry's Party chronicles approximately 20 years in the life of Larry, a fairly average guy, from his late 20s to his late 40s. After a mediocre high sLarry's Party chronicles approximately 20 years in the life of Larry, a fairly average guy, from his late 20s to his late 40s. After a mediocre high school experience, Larry takes a course at a community college in flower arranging and ends up working in a florist's shop. On his honeymoon in England, Larry encounters a hedge maze and begins a lifelong fascination with mazes.
Each chapter in the book covers anywhere from a few days to a few months of Larry's life, with usually a year or two in between chapters. It's clear from the publishing data that the first chapter was originally published as a short story and, in fact, each chapter could be read as a self-contained story. While references are made to past events, characters are re-introduced as they appear and life events are summarized for context. Throughout, author Shields keeps it fresh, so it never comes across as annoyingly repetitive.
Each chapter has a specific focus. One is about Larry's job, one is about his friends, another is about his parents, and so on. The stories are often very funny, although there are also moments of doubt and sadness. Larry doesn't have a plan for his life and isn't always happy with how it turns out. He wonders what his purpose in life is and, more generally, what it means to be a Canadian man in the second half of the 20th century.
What was most interesting was to read a woman's take on what it's like to possess a male body, with all its strengths and weaknesses. Although Larry seems a little slow to mature into his manhood, I have to say that some of Shields's observation are spot on. She clearly did her research!
Although I sometimes wished Larry would just stop wallowing in self-doubt and angst, this was still a funny and enjoyable read....more
Nancy Abrams is a journalist and historian of science and has been a lawyer. She is married to a world-class physicist who is doing ground-breaking woNancy Abrams is a journalist and historian of science and has been a lawyer. She is married to a world-class physicist who is doing ground-breaking work in dark matter and dark energy. She is also an atheist. Some years ago, when acknowledging a severe food addiction, she turned to a 12-step support group. One of the techniques the group taught her was to "talk" to a "higher power". She felt foolish at first when she found herself essentially talking to herself, but she also, surprisingly, found it worked; she was able to control her urges to eat. But this only worked when she thought of her conversational partner as something outside herself, not just one part of herself. She wondered why this worked. The results of her study and investigation led to this book.
Abrams spends some time explaining why the traditional view of God as an independent, self-aware, cosmos-creating, all-powerful consciousness is not possible within the real universe as science currently understands it. That God was acceptable when our understanding of the universe was more limited, but our knowledge has changed, and so must our view of God. She suggests that God is an emergent phenomenon of human activity, in the way that the global economy is an emergent phenomenon of the actions of individual buyers and sellers, or in the way that an ant colony is an emergent phenomenon of the behaviour of individual ants. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We, as individuals, may have a vague sense of the existence some higher-order something, but because we are the sources of that something, we can't quite grasp it, except through meditation and prayer -- mindfulness, essentially.
Abrams goes on to explain her theory and what this view of God means for spirituality and our sense of our role in the universe. She ties this in with our duty to take care of planet Earth for ourselves and for all future Earthly life. Several times, Abrams says we are living in a critical era where our actions in in this century will decide the fate of humanity, and if we don't get our concept of God right, if we spend our time arguing or even engaging in violence over different views of God, we may make the wrong choices.
Abrams's arguments and theories aren't exactly new; as I mentioned above, much of her suggestions on how to interact with God remind me of modern mindfulness instruction. Some of her ideas also reminded me of Scott Adams's book God's Debris : A Thought Experiment, which asks readers to consider the idea that God, who had never experienced death, killed himself by causing the Big Bang, and all the particles of Creation, including us, are little parts of God re-combining themselves into God once more. God is us and we are God. That said, I haven't seen these ideas combined in quite this way before.
Abrams is definitely enthusiastic about her theory, and it seems clear that this view has helped her gain control over her life. As Desmond Tutu says in the foreword, however, many people from established religions will have a hard time accepting her view of God as limited, bound to our species and our planet, and emerging from our actions. While this book is obviously sincere and heartfelt, and although it is well written and easy to read, I don't think it has the narrative, mythical power that a new conception of God is going to need to succeed against existing traditions. And yet...
I remember a few times in my early 20s (about 30 years ago), when I was into naked-eye astronomy, looking up at the stars and imagining myself as a speck on a rotating planet. I tried to imagine how big, how three-dimensional, space is. For a few moments, I truly felt like I understood my scale and place in the cosmos, yet at the same time I felt a part of it. That very activity is part of Abrams's instruction on how to interact with God. So I do get that there is something in what she says. I admit I haven't tried to recapture that feeling in decades. If you see me out in a field late at night with my face to the sky, just give me a few minutes....more
Although Fall On Your Knees is Ann-Marie MacDonald's first novel, it's the third I've read (the other two are The Way the Crow Flies and Adult Onset).Although Fall On Your Knees is Ann-Marie MacDonald's first novel, it's the third I've read (the other two are The Way the Crow Flies and Adult Onset). After three books, certain themes and motifs are evident in MacDonald's work: culturally mixed marriages (in this book, a Scottish-heritage Cape Breton Islander marries a Lebanese-born young woman), dysfunctional and sometimes violent families, military service, and telling stories as a way of remembering, if not outright creating, our personal histories.
This is the tale of a family in the first half of the 20th century in small-town Cape Breton Island. James Piper and his wife Materia marry young and raise a family of four girls. Kathleen, the oldest, has a beautiful singing voice and James hopes to have her trained as a classical opera singer. Mercedes is next, and takes after her mother, particularly in her strong religious faith. Frances is the problem child. She loves her family, but can't seem to keep herself out of trouble. Lily is the baby of the family, with a polio-ravaged leg.
The Pipers are not a happy family, although there is real love in their household, but they reach a crisis when James's plan to send Kathleen to New York City in the 1920s for professional voice lessons has tragic consequences. This crisis is hinted at in the prologue and is described about one quarter to one third of the way in. The remainder of the novel addresses how the Pipers cope with their tragedy and the unfolding of the century (such as miners' strikes, the Depression, and World War II). Interspersed with this are flashbacks in various forms (such as letters and diaries) to Kathleen's time in New York and what really happened there. No one, including the reader, knows Kathleen's full story until near the end of the book, but the sisters create stories for each other about her to fill a need for completeness and understanding.
As always, even in this first novel, MacDonald is a writer of great power. Her prose is compelling and her characters are distinct and highly individual. There are some scenes of love and laughter, but, ultimately the book is a tale of perseverance in the face of great hardship. Although this is by no means a happy tale, I found the final scenes to be satisfying and right, in the sense that sins have been forgiven and family ties have been honoured, despite the all-too human flaws and failings of almost everyone. Without a doubt, this is a Canadian classic....more
I've heard of Neil Gaiman, mostly because I've seen his books on the shelves when I browse the science fiction section of my book store, but I'd neverI've heard of Neil Gaiman, mostly because I've seen his books on the shelves when I browse the science fiction section of my book store, but I'd never read anything of his. When a friend handed me this book, which she'd picked up at a sale, I was more than willing to give it a try.
This enthralling tale is hard to categorize. It's a blend of science fiction and fantasy. It reminded me at times of The Neverending Story and The Night Circus. There are things going on behind the façade of everyday reality, things that are ancient and magical and terrifying. And sometimes, you have to be seven years old to accept that they exist. This story features youth and age, courage and fear, memory and forgetfulness, all pushing and pulling each other to illuminate some of the fundamental, capital-M Mysteries of life.
Beautifully and powerfully written, this short book is a quick read that lingers long after you've finished. If you like stories of alternate realities, monsters and ancients sages, you should like this. If fantasy is not your thing, you'll likely find this confusing and pointless. I feel a little bit sorry for those people....more
Spam Nation is a thoroughly researched investigation of the heyday of online pharmacies (in the late 2000s) and the unsolicited e-mail, known as "spamSpam Nation is a thoroughly researched investigation of the heyday of online pharmacies (in the late 2000s) and the unsolicited e-mail, known as "spam", that is used to sell pills to people around the world. Spam involves a complex ecosystem of hackers, programmers, and businessmen. Hackers take over personal computers and then use them to send out billions of e-mail messages advertising medicines, fake anti-virus software, sexual enhancement aids, and other products. Programmers write the web sites that actually sell the merchandise. Corrupt business owners, many of them Russian or Eastern European, host the web sites, process the payments, and ship the products.
The main thrust of this book is an examination of how two of the largest figures in this semi-legal world of online pill-pushers got into a feud that almost destroyed their so-called industry. Although hundreds of millions of dollars are involved in this market, there are so many players and middlemen taking a cut, that very, very few actually get rich doing it. Amazingly, they get by largely on repeat customers, most of them American, who can't afford their prescriptions through legitimate pharmacies and turn to the Internet for cheap meds. More often than not, the pills bought from Indian manufacturers through Russian web sites posing as Canadian pharmacies are actually chemically identical to the brand-name drugs. The businesses couldn't survive if they sold bad drugs that didn't do what they're supposed to do.
A combination of the feud between leading players and increased scrutiny from credit card companies, brought about partly by Brian Krebs's reporting, finally started to shut down the pharmacy trade. Banks stopped processing payments when threatened with crippling fines by the credit card companies.
Krebs writes well, but sometimes the intricate details of the financial transactions and the shell companies and the Russian names becomes overwhelming. What really comes through is how easy it can be to make money off trusting consumers who can't tell a phony Russian online pharmacy from a legitimate company. On the Internet, no one can tell you're a dog, or a Russian selling cheap, knock-off, Indian-manufactured pills....more
I assume it's no secret that The Girl on the Train is the murder-mystery best seller of the year. It gets off to a good start, but I found it flaggedI assume it's no secret that The Girl on the Train is the murder-mystery best seller of the year. It gets off to a good start, but I found it flagged in the middle, and the resolution seemed implausible. It wasn't the identity of the killer that bothered me so much as the way in which the mystery was solved.
The story is told in the first person by three alternating narrators. Rachel is the titular girl (actually a thirty-something divorcée) who rides a commuter train past the backyards of the street where she used to live when she was married. Megan lives on that street, a few houses down from Rachel's old house, which is now occupied by Anna, the woman who lured Rachel's husband away. Rachel sees something during her train ride one day that is relevant to a missing-person case. The story unfolds from there as the intersection of the case, the fraught relationship between Rachel and Anna, and Megan's attempts to deal with a troubled past.
As I said, the set-up, which is perhaps the first quarter of the book, is tense and suspenseful. Once the victim goes missing, however, the story stumbles through each woman's psychological hangups and character flaws. Suddenly, the characters identify the killer almost by accident, using some rather weak clues.
My main issue is that none of the narrators is likeable. It's difficult to empathize with any of them. You try to root for and sympathize with Rachel, but she keeps making bad choices and hating herself.
The writing is decent, but not exceptional. It's very British, so some of the vocabulary and imagery might sound odd to Canadian readers....more
Joseph Boyden's The Orenda is set in 17th-century New France and describes the first dealings between a Huron community and French Jesuits. At the sJoseph Boyden's The Orenda is set in 17th-century New France and describes the first dealings between a Huron community and French Jesuits. At the same time, the Huron are at war with nearby Iroquois clans. It is a story of colonialism, religion, magic, war, torture, family, and survival. At times, the novel is almost Homeric in its scope and battle descriptions. It is nothing less than the violent and brutal meeting of multiple cultures that will all be changed by the experience.
The Orenda is told from the perspective of three different characters. Bird is a senior Huron war-bearer who is mainly responsible for his people's defence and for their relations with the French, who are newly arrived and want to trade with the Huron for furs from the interior. Christophe is a Jesuit missionary who has been sent to convert the "sauvages" to Christianity. Snow Falls is a young Iroquois woman whom Bird has abducted in exchange for the deaths of his wife and children in an Iroquois raid several years earlier. Thus, all three of the major groups of the era are represented. All the characters tell their tales, in alternating chapters, with grace and considerable literary power. There is not much plot, in the sense that there is no clear conflict driving the characters. They go about their lives, working with, for, and against each other to achieve their individual missions and goals. Overall, nobody comes out a pure saint and no one is a total brute. All sides are governed by arrogance and a sense that those from other backgrounds are not as worthy of consideration as family and friends. More than once, a character muses that the others are not so different after all and wouldn't it be nice if we all got along.
As the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown, what Europeans and, later, Canadians have done to First Nations people is inexcusable. But after reading a story like this (which, although it is fiction, is clearly meticulously researched), I wonder whether, if the balance of power had favoured the First Nations, the outcome would have been any less horrific. Tribalism, the tendency to protect "us" and attack "them", seems to be an inherent human trait. We all need to be aware of our history and agree that we will never repeat the mistakes of the past....more
This book is Karen Armstrong's response to assertions that religion is inherently violent and the source of much of the world's misery. That responseThis book is Karen Armstrong's response to assertions that religion is inherently violent and the source of much of the world's misery. That response boils down to this: humans and civilization are inherently violent. Religion is an activity of human civilizations, so religion partakes of the "structural violence" of civilization.
Civilization requires some people to be in charge of the community and most people to produce food and other necessary commodities for the benefit of everyone. The people in charge must use various means of coercion and oppression to make society run smoothly. The leaders' main tasks include redistribution of wealth (traditionally by force, until the development of market economies), defence, and expansion of the community (usually through raids or warfare against neighbouring communities). This is what Armstrong calls the structural violence of society, and it goes back to the very beginnings of organized agriculture, some six thousand or more years ago.
Until about the 16th century, religion was inseparable from everyday life. The separation of church and state that is now common in the advanced economies was unthinkable just a few hundred years ago. Armstrong acknowledges that many communities, city-states, kingdoms, etc., used their religious beliefs to support the community's internal oppression and external wars. At the same time, many religious thinkers and academics asserted that the core message of their faith was to love and treat everyone as you yourself would like to be loved and treated. Therefore, religion is not inherently violent; societies perverted the message of religion to commit violence in religion's name.
The writing is clear and direct, although there is a lot of historical detail here that may overwhelm some readers. It did sometimes seem to me that she tried too hard to defend religion. I also found that she blamed civilization instead of humanity, leaving the impression that we could reduce violence if we just followed the true messages of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, etc. Armstrong was reluctant to admit that her own research shows that we have evolved to kill. I don't think we can devise any form of society that is completely without violence. But I'm sure we can do better than we're doing right now....more
This murder mystery is an ambitious novel with some genuinely moving scenes, but also with some clunky, slow-moving scenes and a very complex plot. SeThis murder mystery is an ambitious novel with some genuinely moving scenes, but also with some clunky, slow-moving scenes and a very complex plot. Set in the Vatican in 2004, The Fifth Gospel revolves around the shooting death of Ugolino Nogara, a curator at the Vatican Museums who is mounting an exhibit about the Shroud of Turin and the Diatessaron (the so-called "fifth gospel" that merges the contents of the four traditional gospels into a single story). Father Simon Andreou, a Roman Catholic priest, is a prime suspect. The story is narrated by Simon's brother, Alexander, an Eastern Catholic priest who teaches in the Vatican seminary. Alex is raising his five-year-old son alone (Eastern Catholic priests may marry before they are ordained) because his wife left him while suffering post-partum depression. Alex takes it upon himself to investigate the crime because Vatican officials seem to be trying to suppress evidence.
Major themes in the novel include reconciliation and self-sacrifice. Simon was working with Nogara on his Shroud exhibit as a way to reconcile the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. Alex is willing to sacrifice everything to protect his brother and his son. Another theme is the role of art in Christianity, with discussion of the prohibition against "graven images" in the early church.
I can't put my finger on why I found the writing, particularly in the first half of the novel, to be un-engaging. It seemed dry and matter-of-fact; Alex is not an entertaining story-teller. As far as the plot goes, I had a hard time understanding the motives of most characters. It just didn't seem like the stakes were high enough that someone would kill for them. In the latter half, however, the story picked up steam and became much more interesting. Although Ian Caldwell tries to convey a sense of living in the Vatican, it was hard to picture; a map of the city-state would have helped, I think.
This book covers a lot of territory: the Shroud, Vatican life, the schism between Romans and Orthodox, brotherly love, Christian art, Biblical scholarship, murder investigation, and the aforementioned themes of reconciliation and sacrifice at both institutional and personal levels. It's a lot to grasp and sometimes you may get lost in the details. Yet despite that, Caldwell manages to deliver a few powerful scenes in the closing acts that remind us that love is what gets us through....more
The premise of this novel is simple, but it's hard to categorize. Narrator Yolandi von Reisen, nicknamed Yoli, struggles to protect and preserve her sThe premise of this novel is simple, but it's hard to categorize. Narrator Yolandi von Reisen, nicknamed Yoli, struggles to protect and preserve her suicidal older sister, Elfrieda, a world-renowned concert pianist. The sisters are products of a Mennonite family from a small prairie town in Manitoba. Their father killed himself some years earlier. Yoli tries to understand why Elf, who seems to have a wonderful life, would want to kill herself while she, Yoli, feels like a failure in her own life, yet doesn't want to die. Supporting characters include the girls' mother, Lottie, a resilient survivor; Nic, Elf's loving husband; Yoli's teenage daughter Nora, and Yoli's childhood friend Julie. The action takes places mostly in Winnipeg, where Elf has her home with Nic, but some scenes are set in Toronto, where Yoli lives.
There is both sadness and humour in this book, which is why it's hard to pin down. These characters face tragedy and loss, yet keep going forward. Sometimes, they manage with grace, but most often it's a type of resigned acceptance that there are some things they can't fix. This is at times a depressing story, but it remains compelling.
The narrative voice is a pleasure. Yoli writes simply but evocatively. She doesn't use quotation marks to mark dialogue, which gives the text the feel of something she's telling you in person, rather than writing down for you. The story feels intimate, like Yoli needed to confide something, to explain her sister to someone else so that she can explain Elf to herself. If you can handle the themes of suicide and mental illness, you will enjoy the power and poignancy of the writing....more
In setting and plot elements, this reads like a science fiction novel. But Michel Faber does not appear to be a science fiction author. So this comesIn setting and plot elements, this reads like a science fiction novel. But Michel Faber does not appear to be a science fiction author. So this comes across as a science fiction story written by a literary stylist. It's a bit surreal and not as detailed as a classic "hard SF" novel would be. It involves a born-again British pastor named Peter Leigh who has been selected to travel to an Earth outpost on a planet called Oasis to minister to the local aliens, at the aliens' explicit request (the previous minister had gone missing). Peter leaves behind his wife, Bea (short for Beatrice), who was not allowed to accompany him.
The two main themes of the story are Peter's joy working with the aliens, who are already familiar with Jesus through the work of the previous minister, and his dismay at his wife's circumstances back home as natural disasters and global societal collapse wreak havoc on Earth. They can communicate only by a form of e-mail. The book explores the foundations of faith, love, relationships, and belonging through language that is simple and precise. Peter seems to take what he experiences at face value, but the reader senses that there is more going on beneath the surface. What is the purpose of the human base on Oasis? Why are the workers there so detached? Why are the aliens so enthusiastic for the message of Jesus?
The planet of Oasis contributes to the oddness. It is flat and featureless and seems to consist of only the human base and the alien settlement. The very air, almost saturated with moisture, worms its way under people's clothes and into their bodies. The planet doesn't make sense, yet Peter is enthralled by it and yearns to understand it.
This book evokes some of the same sensations as a mystery novel; you keep going so that you can get to the answers. Along the way, Faber has things to say about being human that may not be new, but that are presented from a different perspective....more
Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, is now the author of the popular web comic xkcd (xkcd.com) and the associated "What If?" blog, wherein peoplRandall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, is now the author of the popular web comic xkcd (xkcd.com) and the associated "What If?" blog, wherein people ask absurd questions and Munroe answers them with science and humour. And liberal doses of his stick-figure cartoons. Most questions are about extremes: What would happen if all the water in a thunderstorm fell as a single giant raindrop? Can you stir tea quickly enough to heat it to boiling? What would happen if you could drain all the water from the Earth's oceans? Munroe applies known scientific principles to these reader questions to show how these principles apply to everyday life. The tone is light, the math is an absolute minimum, and the explanations are clear and straightforward. You'll probably get more out of the book if you're comfortable with science, but I think anyone would find it entertaining and enlightening.
I read the e-pub version of this book and have one complaint about that format. Every chapter has anywhere from one to a half-dozen or so footnotes. The footnotes are funny but difficult to access in an e-book unless they happen to fall in the middle zone of the screen. Any footnote references towards either side of the screen just causes the book to page forward or backward. I assume that's the Overdrive reader app causing the problem....more
Kim Zetter makes a strong case that that the computer virus known as Stuxnet was the world's first cyberweapon. The evidence is sometimes circumstantiKim Zetter makes a strong case that that the computer virus known as Stuxnet was the world's first cyberweapon. The evidence is sometimes circumstantial (although the Snowden documents are corroborating some claims), but the consensus is that the U.S. and Israel developed Stuxnet (and a few related malicious software programs) to hamper Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Stuxnet infected computer components that controlled the operation of centrifuges in an Iranian plant for enriching uranium. The virus caused the centrifuges to malfunction and break down.
Zetter lays out in detail the history of Iran's nuclear program, interwoven with reporting on how computer security experts discovered and decoded Stuxnet after it started affecting systems worldwide in 2010. Although she manages to keep the discussion from getting too technical, the fact is these topics will seem dry and tedious to many readers. In addition, there is a lot of cloak-and-dagger secrecy around this issue, and it's hard to know how much of the book's conclusions are true and how much is just speculation.
I would have liked to see less focus on the intricacies of Stuxnet and more on the theme of the final chapter, where Zetter discusses the legalities and ethics of cyber warfare. That was truly thought-provoking and troubling. Our society depends on computer-controlled systems (water, food production, electricity, chemicals), and those systems are vulnerable to to hackers. Stuxnet showed what was possible. Some day, someone is going to try again....more
For someone of my generation, this novel about black slavery in America brings to mind "Roots", the 1970s TV miniseries based on the book of the sameFor someone of my generation, this novel about black slavery in America brings to mind "Roots", the 1970s TV miniseries based on the book of the same name. "Roots" described the experiences of several generations of a black family descended from an African sold into slavery in the late 1700s. The Book of Negroes is about one woman who is taken from her village as a teenager in the mid-1700s and spends most of her adult life as a slave in America. I think this book gives a better historical context of the overall course of slavery than the "Roots" miniseries, but it lacks some of the emotional depth of the show. Ultimately, The Book of Negroes is about the Black Loyalists, slaves and former slaves who worked for the British during the American Revolutionary War and were rewarded for their service by being shipped to colonies in British North America as freed men.
The narrator is Aminata Diallo, an intelligent and skilled girl and woman. She endures much, but also manages to learn to read and write, is an excellent midwife, and never lets go of her dream of returning to her homeland. She is an above-average person and is therefore a little hard to relate to. She tells her story in a matter-of-fact way that is very descriptive, but not always engaging. It reads as a cross between a memoir and a history book. That being said, it's an excellent depiction of a time and place (although the author acknowledges some deliberate historical inaccuracies for the sake of the story).
Just because its subject matter is more limited in scope than that of "Roots" (Black Loyalists vs. an average black American family), I suspect this work might have a narrower appeal than the older story. Still, The Book of Negroes is a thorough and well-researched tale of a shameful period in history....more
The Goldfinch is a book with many layers. The surface plot is one layer: Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, a New York City native, suffers post-traumaticThe Goldfinch is a book with many layers. The surface plot is one layer: Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, a New York City native, suffers post-traumatic stress and depression after his mother is killed in an act of violence. I don't want to say too much about the plot because it's a journey each reader should experience for himself or herself. I'll just say that Theo, already a teen with a tendency to break rules, makes unwise choices. You begin to wonder how he survives long enough to tell us this story. Eventually the extended flashback brings us back to Theo's late 20s, where the opening scene took place.
And Theo's narrative voice is another layer. Theo tells us his story in the first person, when he is an adult. His style is erudite, thoughtful, and wonderfully evocative. This is a powerfully and beautifully written story, even if many of the events and people described are sad and depressing. Considering how poorly Theo applies himself to his schooling, you wonder not only how he survived, but where he picked up this ability to describe the world with such mastery.
During his teen years, Theo discovers an affinity and appreciation for art, particularly antique furniture, but also paintings. The power of fine art to move us and inspire us is yet another layer in this novel. Theo has a particular devotion to a painting of a small, chained pet bird, for which the the novel is named. The Goldfinch is one a handful of surviving paintings by Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt and a master of Vermeer. Fabritius died young, in a violent accident, and most of his works were destroyed along with him. But The Goldfinch survived and Theo latches onto its symbolism at least in part as a way to hold on to his mother.
Literary symbolism is deep in the novel, and is the basis of the next layer. There are references to Dickens and to Harry Potter. The book contains errors and anachronisms that I believe are symbolically linked to a recurring motif about the restoration of antique furniture. Sometimes, you have to use modern materials because original materials are unavailable. You use tricks to age them carefully to make them match. A superficial examination reveals nothing amiss, but a closer look shows the different grains, colours, and textures. I think, like a restored chair or table, this book grafts artifacts from different decades onto its narrative frame to show us that truth and beauty are contingent and in the eye of the beholder. I think most people won't even notice these errors and anachronisms but will still enjoy the language and the story. But if you notice them, your appreciation for what the author has done may deepen. The artistry of the story-telling mirrors the artistry of the furniture restorers (or vice versa).
As this long novel draws to a close, it takes a sudden turn in tone and setting. Again, I'll contend that this is deliberate and is meant to jar us and disorient us, the readers. Life is unpredictable and random. While we aspire to seek after light and joy, some of us are born to seek dark and despair. The question is, can any of us find contentment? We may, like the goldfinch in the painting, be chained and limited, but still find the energy and hope (and luck) to live....more
I want to really like this novel. The premise was very good, but the writing needs work.
The story is about the wife of an Air Force pilot, Ellen MichaI want to really like this novel. The premise was very good, but the writing needs work.
The story is about the wife of an Air Force pilot, Ellen Michaels. As the book opens, Ellen learns that John, her husband of 24 or 25 years (more on dating problems later), has died in an accident. The story then flashes back to when Ellen first met John in high school. Chapters alternate between widowed Ellen dealing with her loss and young Ellen and John courting, marrying, and starting a family (not necessarily in that order). Early on, Ellen is raped by a senior officer, Frank Fielding, who threatens John's career if she talks. Fielding shows up in her life every few years with similar threats. A year after John's death, Ellen meets someone from her past and starts to face the feelings of fear, grief, and guilt that have plagued her. The entire novel is narrated by Ellen in the present tense, which is a bit jarring since the story is not told chronologically.
To provide context for this review, I need to give some personal background. My father was in the Canadian Forces. I grew up moving from base to base. I also served in the military for 11 years and then retired to a civilian job. I also lost a spouse in my mid-40s. So I can relate to Ellen's military life and to the upheaval of a mid-life loss.
A key theme here is the life of a military spouse. Ellen is often left alone for days or weeks at a time while her husband is on missions. She is forced to move every couple of years and has only one or two close friends. She has no one to reveal her secrets to. She loves John deeply, and he loves her. They have the usual squabbles, but overall are a happy couple, or as happy as they can be without a steady home. But when John dies, Ellen realizes the military no longer has any purpose for her; she is part of John's "dependents, furniture, and effects". She must move out of her military-provided home within a year. John wasn't the only one who sacrificed a normal life for his country, and Ellen rightly feels the system has not been kind to her.
Another theme is that of rape and harassment and a woman's inability to tell anyone what's happened. The power imbalance is frightening and debilitating. Ellen feels completely abandoned and without recourse. In light of the recent Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby stories, this sub-plot is quite timely.
Within the context of this plot and these themes, the story is good. There are some emotionally intense and powerful scenes, such as Ellen's wedding, her first Christmas with her children after John's death, and the novel's climax. Sometimes, however, the story strays into melodrama reminiscent of a soap opera or a romance novel. Some plot points depend on highly unlikely coincidences. Ellen's highs and lows seems overwrought at times. I did like the way the story was resolved. It could have gone in an unbelievable direction, but author Brenda Corey Dunne kept it realistic.
I could have overlooked the slightly overheated nature of the plot if the writing had been better. I have four main issues with the writing. First: the dates. Every chapter is dated with a month and year, ranging from October 1980 to June 2009. It's possible from the dates and story details to figure out when off-stage events happened. The book gets Ellen's kids' ages wrong, gets the length of her marriage wrong, and gets the intervals between attacks by Fielding wrong. This doesn't affect the story, but if you're going to include dates and ages, make sure they're consistent.
My second issue is the military details: Ellen gets pregnant right out of high school, before John enters military college. By the time he graduates, she has two children. The impression is given that the military college supported John and his growing family, possibly by giving them living quarters. I went to military college in the 1980s, and while it was not unheard of for a cadet to have a child, it certainly wasn't condoned and cadets were not permitted to live with their wives or girlfriends. Fielding is introduced as a Lieutenant Colonel, which puts him in his late 30s or early 40s, in 1983, and is still serving, as a General, in 2009. That's a military career of over four decades, which seems unlikely, although it's perhaps not impossible.
My third issue: location. Dunne is Canadian, served in the Canadian Forces, and is married to a Royal Canadian Air Force officer. I naturally expected the story to be set in Canada. Yet the book never once mentions what cities, bases, or even country Ellen and John lived in. It could be Canada or the U.S. I suspect Dunne set the story in Canada but her publisher asked her to make it generic so it would sell better in America. But this leads to all sorts of odd details. Hockey (popular Canadian sport) is mentioned often, but football (popular American sport) never is. John works for the "Department of National Defense" (Canadian, but with the American spelling of "defense"). Military cadets have red dress uniforms (like they do in Canada but don't in America). Sometimes it's a "military college" (Canadian term), and sometimes it's a "military academy" (American term). There are separate colleges for the Army and the Air Force (American; Canada has tri-service colleges). I have no firm idea where this novel is supposed to be taking place.
Finally, Dunne's writing needs more polish and editing. I noted at least two odd spellings: "Gees" instead of the more common "jeez" as an expression of exasperation. "Pee-on" instead of "peon" for a person with low status. The first-person, present-tense narration allows for more relaxed and colloquial language, and certainly draws you into Ellen's inner world, but it makes the other characters barely more than cardboard cutouts. John is basically a puppy: loving but clueless. Fielding is pure evil. Another character who enters mid-way is too good to be true. We know nothing about any of their motives. Ellen's voice doesn't seem to change much between the ages of 14 and 45; I'd expect older Ellen to have a different tone and outlook than teenage Ellen, but they sound the same. The overall style can get a bit breathless at times. And when Ellen is mad, she. Talks. In. One. Word. Sentences.
I think women will like this book better than men, and people with little military experience will like it better than those who have lived a military life. Those who pay attention to little details like dates and character ages will be annoyed and distracted from what is otherwise an engrossing story of struggle, loss, and growth....more