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Magee Book Blog

The Magee Book Blog is a place for Magee students and teachers to share their reading with each other.  Students and staff are invited to make submissions.  Just send them to Mr McLennan for posting.

Steelheart, by Brandon Anderson. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 15, 2016

This is Book I of The Reckoners series. The premise of the series is that a strange sun-like object in the sky has somehow been giving ordinary human beings super-hero traits. The trouble is that the Epics, as these transformed people are called, become super-villains rather than super-heros, and the stronger their powers, the nastier they seem to be. When David’s father is killed by Steelheart, David commits himself to defeating him. He joins the Reckoners, which is a secret organization that fights the Epics. The book is a fun read, full of action and suspense. The super-villains have corny action-comics names and abilities, and the good guys need to be resourceful to defeat them. The end of Steelheart left me wanting to read the sequel, Firefight.

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 15, 2016.

Terry Pratchett is one of my go-to authors when I want to read something fun and easy.  His Discworld series has about 42 titles, so if you try him and like him, there’s plenty to read. The Wee Free Men is the first installment of the Tiffany Aching series (a sub-set of Discworld), the only series written specifically for younger readers, and a good access point for Pratchett. Tiffany is a ten-year-old girl who learns to everyone’s surprise that she’s a witch. Pratchett’s witches are down-to-earth practical problem-solvers. That might make them sound dull, but they’re anything but. Witches don’t take any guff from anyone. With the help of the Mac Nac Feegle (the "wee free men" of the title) who are Pitcsies (not pixies) six inches tall, covered in tattoos and who love nothing better that drinkin’ an' fightin’ an' stealin’, Tiffany’s common sense and courage save the world (of course) from a supernatural incursion.  Subsequent books in the series are A Hat Full of SkyThe Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. Pratchett is very funny, but also perceptive and humane—the absurdities in his books pointing to absurdities in life. He's one of my favourites. 

Winger, by Andrew Smith. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 15, 2016.

Ryan Dean West is only fourteen years old, but he’s a senior at a posh private boarding school. Because he's younger, he feels like he's treated as less-than by many of the older kids, and he's always trying to prove himself. He ends up in the dorm for miscreants and misfits, and rooms with the biggest jerk on the rugby team. The friendships (and the animosities) in this book are intense, and Ryan Dean makes quite a few mistakes, but he learns some gritty lessons about love and hate from them. The ending is sad.

Variant, by Robison Wells. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 15, 2016.

I read this book after I had read James Dashner’s Maze Runner. I know many people have enjoyed Maze Runner, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t see the point of the huge maze thing. If you want to test people’s resourcefulness, a giant moving maze seems like an absurdly expensive and inefficient way to do it. Reading Variant feels a little like reading Maze Runner—you’re not quite sure why certain things are happening, or exactly where the threat is coming from. Unlike MR though, Variant makes sense eventually. The protagonist, Benson, has won a scholarship to a special boarding school. At first it seems like it’ll just be a story of personality conflicts in a boarding school, but eventually we learn that the problem is much bigger than that. The ending is quite thrilling, and changes the situation in an interesting way, presenting an entirely new problem. If you read this you’ll probably want to read the sequel, Feedback.

Lexicon, by Max Barry.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 15, 2016.

I picked up this novel at Kidsbooks in their adult-novels-of-interest-to-teens sections, so unlike most of the titles here, it isn’t specifically a YA title. It was a Time magazine top 10 fiction book of the year for 2014, and received accolades from many reputable publications. It reads like a sort of dystopic spy thriller. The premise is that words have power. Not just aesthetic power, but the power to control people. Everyone has a special word that gives others control over them, and certain people have special sensitivity to knowing and using power words. The protagonist is Emily, a street kid who ends up on a quest for the one word that rules them all (ha!—see what I did there?). There’s rather a lot of blood and violence in this book, but it’s a taut, thrilling read.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 15, 2016.

This family drama has received plenty of critical praise. Like in The Lovely Bones, we learn that a teenaged girl has died, and we trace the process of grief and blame among the family members, gradually learning how and why she died. The family dynamic is complex and the family members have varied motivations and emotions, and differing versions of family history. It’s set in a very white college town in the American mid-west. The father in the family is Chinese, while the mother is white, so the novel also deals with questions of race and identity.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies, by Raziel Reid.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 15, 2016.

This relatively short novel was winner of the Governor General’s Medal in 2015, and was selected by the CBC for Canada Reads. It’s a very gritty novel—references to sex and drugs and violence are quite explicit. It’s the story of a gay teenager in a conservative small town on the Canadian prairies. He’s an outcast who copes with persecution with flamboyantly gay behavior, treating the negative attention that this garners by imagining himself a movie star, and his persecutors his fans. The reader follows his destructive and self-defeating behavior with horrified feelings of sympathy. While not a book for everyone, it’s genuinely moving and very sad.

City of Thieves, by David Benioff.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 15 2016.

Benioff is a screenwriter for Game of Thrones. His novel City of Thieves perhaps reflects his cinematic sensibility. It would make a great movie. The novel is based—we don’t know how closely—on the experiences of Benioff’s grandfather during the Nazi siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. A teenager imprisoned for violating curfew, the elder Benioff meets the charismatic and irrepressively optimistic Kolya, who’s been jailed for desertion. Expecting to be executed in the morning, they are instead taken to the all-powerful Colonel in charge of policing the city. His daughter is getting married and his wife believes it would be bad luck not to have a wedding cake. The pair of prisoners is sent on a seemingly impossible life-and-death quest for a dozen eggs for the cake. What follows is both a "buddy" story and a "road trip" story, but it's also a war story set amidst the desperate privations of the seige. The novel is by turns charmingly humourous, and then brutally violent. Not for the faint of heart, it’s still one of my favourite novels.  This is not written as a YA novel.

Don’t Turn Aroundby Michelle Gagnon.  Reviewed by Mr. Mclennan, Jan 15, 2016.

A tough and resourceful street kid wakes up on some kind of operating table in a strange warehouse-like building. After a bold escape, she ends up connecting with a teenage boy, who is an intelligent and principled computer geek from a wealthy, privileged family. They are connected by the website that the boy runs which exposes corporate malfeasances. Together they uncover a sinister conspiracy that seems to reach to the highest levels of government. Sequels are Don’t Look Now and Don’t Let Go. This action-packed novel is addictive reading; if you read the first one you’ll want to read the series.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

This beautifully written novel won the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards. Set mostly in Germany and France, mostly during the Second World War, it follows Werner, an essentially gentle boy (and then young man) with a special genius for radio, and Marie-Laure, a French girl who is connected to Werner by radio transmissions of her great-uncle.  One of the things I like about this novel is the way it presents aesthetic appreciation and scientific wonder as more-or-less the same thing. It might sound like a corny cliché, but the characters search for beauty and meaning and morality amidst the chaos of war. 

Ready Player One, By Ernest Cline. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

The world’s economy has fallen apart, largely because of an extreme energy shortage and environmental collapse. Fortunately (I guess), there’s OASIS—the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation—which is a computer simulated alternative reality, or sort of a global video game. The creator of the game, who’s a billionaire many times over has died, and has stipulated in his will that his entire fortune will go to whomever finds the Easter Egg—an item hidden in the game. The plot follows the protagonist, Wade, as he tries to find the Easter Egg. Plenty of other people and a couple of sinister corporations want to find it too, so there's some interesting conflict in that, plus the game itself is a fun adventure. The novel takes a while to get moving—there’s quite a bit of explaining needed at the beginning because the world of the novel is complex. Once it gets going though, it’s an engaging story in which the lines between the simulation and reality blur in an interesting way. Much of the search for the Easter Egg is based on 1980s pop culture, but I think a reader could enjoy the book without knowing a lot of 80's trivia. The novel doesn’t do much to address the dystopic idea that for many people in the world, the artificial reality is more real and more important than their actual lives. Still, it's a fun read.

Scan, by Walter Jury and Sarah Fine.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

This book has some fun-to-read action sequences, but it’s also full of huge plot holes. The premise of the book is that aliens live among us, and have done so for 400 years. Most of them don’t even know they are aliens, and, looking and behaving exacty like human beings, they are completely integrated into human societies. When they interbreed with humans though, the progeny are 100% alien, so the human species is in danger of disappearing. Tate learns that he is a member of one of fifty families world-wide that somehow know that they are purely human. The “scan” of the title relates to a scanner developed by Tate’s father that can identify who’s alien and who’s human, but he’s just invented it. There was previously no apparent way for anyone to know who’s an alien and who’s human, which puts the entire premise for the plot into question. And the notion of species purity sounds a lot like an extreme form of racism. And why keeping things "pure" matters is not really explained, since almost no one--not even most of the aliens themselves--is even aware that the aliens are there. There’s a sequel called Burn. Maybe it all makes sense there.

The Fifth Wave, by Rick Yancey. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

Aliens need a new planet. They’ve chosen Earth, but they need to cleanse it of human life first. They’ve attacked in four waves so far, inducing natural disasters and a plague. There are few survivors. Now it’s the Fifth Wave, in which apparent human beings are somehow possessed by an alien presence, forming beings which are simultaneously human and alien. Like in Scan, our protagonists can’t tell who to trust because everyone looks human, but in The Fifth Wave, the aliens are nasty, having exterminated most of the human species. The action is desperate; the human race seems doomed.  It’s written from three different points of view, and the reader needs to be patient initially for the shape of the plot to become apparent, but then it becomes a page-turner with a bit of romance, lots of action and plenty of plot twists. The second book on the series is The Infinite Sea, and a third is in the works.

Now is the Time for Running, by Michael Williams.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

Deo is a Zimbabwean boy forced by violence to leave his home village and escape to South Africa as a refugee. After a difficult journey, and facing xenophobic feelings in South Africa, he ends up representing his country in the Street Soccer World Cup on a team with other refugees. The novel realistically presents some of the difficult political and social realities facing Africa, and also presents a note of hope in the redemptive power of sport.  

Hush, Hush, by Becca Fitzpatrick. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan. 18, 2016.

You might want to take this review with an especially large grain of salt, because I am clearly not the intended audience for this book. I liked the cover a lot. And the idea seemed interesting—something about fallen angels on earth. Having read Milton’s Paradise Lost, I know that fallen angels can be interesting, so I had high hopes for Hush, Hush.  Unfortunately though, it’s mostly a silly romance (take salt here). Our protagonist, Nora, thinks Patch, a guy in her bio class seems kind of dangerous. But he’s so hot. But kind of dangerous. But so hot. Etcetera. Yes he’s the angel. Goodreads gives it more than 4/5, so there are people who like it. They’re probably not middle-aged male English teachers though.  

Quiet, By Susan Cain.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

In this work of non-fiction Cain examines the idea of introversion, arguing that for the last hundred years or so, extraversion has been favoured in Western society. The favoured status of extraversion, she says, arose with increasing urbanization and anonymity early in the 20th century and she cites Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as marking a beginning of the cult of personality. She shows that the introverted personality style confers advantages in many contexts, and claims that favouring extraversion has had costs for individuals and for society. She relates her experience at Harvard Business School, and shows that extaversion is the ideal there. HBS graduates go on to hold many of the most influential positions in American business. She suggests that 2000 Wall Street crash was a result of extravert risk taking. Introvert Warren Buffett was largely unaffected by the crash. Her point is that both extraverted personalities and introverted ones have their strengths and weaknesses, and as a society we've largely undervalued introversion. This widely read book has positively influenced attitudes toward introversion. It’s readable and engaging and is a good introduction to popular non-fiction.

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan. 18, 2016.

Not to be confused with the story of the Swan Lake dancer, this is a challenging but engaging work of non-fiction mainly about probability and prediction. The Black Swan is sub-titled “the impact of the highly improbable.” A “black swan event” is one that is almost entirely unexpected and which has a profound effect, like the First World War, or the Internet, or the financial crash of 2000. The central thesis might be that people expect the future to be much like the present because we can’t predict what we can’t predict. But we can,Taleb says, predict that something unpredictable may happen in fragile systems that don’t obey normal distribution curves. For example, if we had a stadium full of people and we plotted their heights on a graph, we would predictably get a normal distribution. If we plotted their net worths we might also get a normal distribution, unless Bill Gates were there. Gates' presence would skew the normal curve so much as to make it meaningless. We get complacent about things as they are because we assume that the way things are is normal, but often they're not normal at all. They're just usual. The subject perhaps sounds dry, but Taleb presents it with an acerbically dry wit and lively intellect. In a way, the book is about clear thinking, and the limits of what we can claim as knowledge, and what we can predict. The author has strong beliefs and doesn’t worry about offending anyone with what he says. He has an especially low regard for political pundits, economists (except Daniel Kahneman), investment managers, and the French (except Michel de Montaigne). The Black Swan is a book that can change how you see the world.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

Thursday Next is a literary detective—she works for the branch of Spec Ops responsible for maintaining the continuity of narratives. She has a pet dodo. There are Neanderthals.  She goes into books to make sure the characters behave. It’s sort of James Bond meets Monte Python meets Charlotte Bronte meets Douglas Adams. In a bookstore. This is a great book for book nerds, filled with plays on words and plays on books. Subsequent books in the series include Lost in a Good BookSomething RottenThe Well of Lost Plots, and One of Our Thursdays is Missing.

Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy D. Wilson. Reviewed by Mr. Mclennan, Jan. 18, 2016.

In this work of non-fiction, Wilson examines how modern psychological research has led to a reconception of the unconscious part of our mind as an “adaptive unconscious,” or "cognitive unconscious," showing the extent to which our thoughts and actions run on a kind of autopilot. It’s humbling to see how little conscious, rational control we have over what we do and think. This is a challenging but worthwhile read.

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

I haven’t read any of Prose’s novels, though she has a terrific name for a novelist. I enjoyed Reading Like a Writer though, partly because Prose’s prose (I had to do it) is so elegantly readable. She considers writing at the level of words, then of sentences, then paragraphs.  Then she examines narration, characters, and dialogue. She looks at details and gesture.  The book is like a long love letter to books and reading. I recommend it for avid readers and aspiring writers.  

On Writing, by Stephen King. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 18, 2016.

I keep meaning to read a Stephen King novel, but haven’t yet gotten around to it. Maybe I’m scared of being scared. I enjoyed On Writing though. It’s a sort of writer’s autobiography. King writes about how he got started with writing, and how he gets and develops ideas. He says he starts by speculating “What if. . .?”  He says he doesn’t know what his characters are going to do until they do it—he doesn’t plot out his books at all. About halfway through writing this book, King was hit by a truck while he was walking along a highway. It nearly killed him, and it changed his perspective on life and work. The latter part of the book is largely a consideration of these changes. There’s some good simple advice about writing in this book (e.g., omit adverbs), and an interesting look into the mind of one of America’s most successful and prolific writers.

The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 19, 2016.

I’d been meaning to read this for a while because I’d heard good things about it. When I finally picked it up I found the first few chapters heavy going. It seemed slow. I think it might have felt that way because I’ve been reading a lot of YA fiction lately, and much of it starts with intense action to hook a reader. Another reason that it seemed slow might be that the protagonist is quite a young child, and her concerns, at least initially, seem childish. Sometimes though, a bit of patience with a book leads to a rewarding read. So it was for me with The Golden Compass. I like the way that the world of this novel is parallel to ours, but different. It’s set partly at Oxford University, and partly in London, and partly elsewhere, but none of the places are exactly the places in our world. And the characters too are like us but unlike us. The people have companion daemons, which are a sort of external manifestation of their soul, taking the form of an companion animal that is both seperate from the person, but also is the person. I found it an appealing idea. It's also an idea that becomes integral to the plot. Lyra, the protagonist, is a character of the feisty ten-year-old girl type, who shows surprising courage in the face of awful danger, and whose fate is tied to the fate of the world. The characters around her are not always what they appear to be, leading to interesting plot twists. Also, the quality of the writing itself is several cuts above much of the YA fiction I’ve been reading. Plus, there are panzerbjoern--giant talking armoured polar bear warriors. How can you go wrong with that? Once I got going with this book, it was hard to put down. I’ve got the next book in the series, The Subtle Knife, on hold at VPL.

There Will Be Lies, by Nick Lake.  Reviewed by Isabella Wong, Jan 21, 2016.

In a world where reality is muddled with fantasy, the novel There Will Be Lies, by Nick Lake, certainly lives up to its title. The life of deaf 17-year-old Shelby Cooper revolves around baseball games, ice-cream-for-dinner nights, and her way over-protective mother.  Then she gets hit by a car. Just like that, everything she knows about herself and her life is turned into a sugar-coating that obscures the dark reality, and her mother, her loving mother who is always right turns into a complete stranger.  “There will be two lies. And then there will be the truth.” In a quest to avoid losing her identity completely Shelby gets lost between real life and a dream, confused about who she can trust. Along the way, she learns of her true identity, a shocking revelation nothing in the world could have prepared her for.

The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt. Reviewed by Isabella Wong, Jan. 21, 2016.

Poetic, astonishing, and heart-warming,The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt is a book that grasps the reader from the very first chapter. The Underneath is two separate stories that are 1000 years apart, both highlighting the power of friendship, set in an ordinary yet magical forest. It begins when an abandoned mother calico cat, about to have kittens, is entranced by a sad song sung by Ranger, the chained up dog. Upon meeting each other, they bond in an extraordinary friendship.  A thousand years back, a moccasin snake known as Grandmother is betrayed by her daughter Night Song, and is trapped inside a jar. Both dark, yet calm and peaceful, the two stories are beautifully woven together into a world of friendship, bitterness, betrayal, and love.

The Subtle Knife, by Phillip Pullman.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Jan 26, 2016.

I read the first book of the His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass, recently. The Subtle Knife is the second book. I’d heard that the series was an atheistic response to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, but I didn’t see much evidence of that in the first book, except that “dark materials” is an allusion to John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which is a retelling of the story of Satan’s fall from grace, and the subsequent seduction to disobedience of Eve and Adam. While I wasn't really aware of any religious content in The Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife addresses the subject quite directly. While it seems to me to be anything but atheistic, it does challenge the Christian version of God and of angels, and the nature of knowledge and even the nature of reality.  Like The Golden Compass, this book has an intense, engaging plot, and characters who, despite their imperfections and despite our uncertainty about their goals, we want to see succeed.  I’m looking forward to The Amber Spyglass, the final installment of the series to see how Pullman resolves both the plot and the ideas.

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, February 9, 2016.

We Were Liars was one of the hot books from 2015, receiving a lot of glowing reviews which, having now read the novel, I think it deserves. It’s the story of a seventeen-year-old girl, Cadence, whose wealthy New England family gathers every summer on their private island. The summer she was fifteen, she was found half-dressed and unconscious in the water, but she doesn't remember how she got there. She struggles to remember. The book is partly a mystery, but mostly it’s an examination of the various dysfunctions of the extended family. I found We Were Liars to be a gripping read, mostly because I was constantly speculating about what had happened to Cadence. I was pretty sure that I knew. I was wrong. The ending is . . . well . . . read it. Then we can talk about the ending.  Lockhart also wrote The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which also got great reviews, and which I’ll probably read as well. She also wrote several books with “Boyfriend” in the title. I’m not tempted to read those because teen romances aren’t particularly my thing, but having said that, I liked her depiction of both the teen characters and adult characters in Liars. Lockhart has a spare, evocative, lyrical style that leaves the reader’s imagination room to work. Maybe you should read one of the “boyfriend” books and send a review to the Magee Book Blog.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, February 11, 2016.

I first read this when I was about ten years old, but I don’t remember much about the experience. I reread it when I was in high school and was home sick for a week. Rereading more than forty years later, I’ve been surprised to find that I remember certain scenes from my earlier reading and that I can remember how I pictured the scenes at the time even as the pictures I formed in the present reading were different. I also had in mind scenes from the films, making the reading of this book a multi-layered experience.

The Lord of the Rings is of course a classic of high fantasy. It’s conscious of having an epic scope and consequently it doesn’t rush to the ending. The first half in particular asks some patience of the reader as it presents some genealogies, mythologies, geography, and ancient histories that are important to the plot and are part of what makes The Lord of the Rings a masterpiece of imaginative literature, but which don’t immediately move the plot forward. The latter part of the book—say, after the death of Boromir—moves more quickly or at least more steadily.  I found that despite knowing the ending, I was completely wrapped up in the agony and bleak hope of Frodo and Sam as they made their march to Mount Doom, and in the desperate courage of the Aragorn and his army as they faced the gates of Mordor.

Tolkien’s style in The Lord of the Rings tends to be formal, and the dialogue even ceremonial at times, reflecting the epic tone. Some of it is also beautifully poetic, such as Gimli’s description of the caves at Helm’s deep, and at other times it is simple and frank, especially in the thoughts and dialogue of the hobbits. There are a lot of invented languages too, such as Elf language and Orc language, which are also poetic—the Elf language sounding melifluous and musical, while that of the Orcs is harsh and grating. In the names and place-names of Men, especially the Riders of Rohan, one hears echoes of the Germanic languages that Tolkien had studied. He was an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature.

The Lord of the Rings has been on my list of books to someday reread, but I think I’d resisted because its over 1200 pages of tiny type seemed a little daunting. I found it a rewarding read though, both for the way it was the same as when I read it before, and for the ways it was different.

Reality Boy, by A.S. King.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, May 4, 2016.

Gerald’s highly dysfunctional family was featured on a reality TV show when he was a young child.  Reality Boy encounters the protagonist as a seventeen-year-old trying to shed the infamy he gained as the messed-up child everyone knows from his television past. Though readers might not particularly identify with Gerald, we can understand his anger as he tries to make his world make sense, and as he struggles to find a path for his life that’s not based on the lies and manipulation and prejudices that he grew up with. Some YA novels present teen characters that are really just different kinds of stereotypes. Reality Boy avoids this. It’s a YA novel that doesn’t read like a YA novel. Recommended.

Good Omens, bNeil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, May 12, 2016.

Good Omens was written soon after Pratchett had received attention for The Colour of Magic, the first book of his 42-volume Discworld series. Pratchett and Gaiman met when Gaimam interviewed the other author about the initial success of his first book. They collaborated on Good Omens before either had established the reputations that they enjoy today. The book has apparently become a bit of a cult classic, and I understand that there are plans to film it as a mini-series.  (I can see Benedict Cumberbatch as Aziraphale.)

 It’s the story of the apocalypse as foretold by “the Nyce and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch,” and involves the actions of Aziriphale, the guardian angel of the Earth, and his demonic counterpart and friend, Crowley, both of whom have gotten used to each other and Earth and its inhabitants. Neither is keen on seeing the End. It’s a comic novel in the vein of Douglas Adams—irreverent and even absurd at times, but also giving a light-hearted consideration to some serious philosophical questions.  

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, July 28, 2017.

 Neil Gaiman was enthusiastically recommended to me by a student a few years ago. I read Coraline, which I’d bought for my own kids. It’s pretty creepy. And I more recently read Good Omens, which Gaiman wrote with Terry Pratchett, and which is reviewed above.  American Gods won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, both awarded for best science fiction or fantasy novel. Apparently the BBC is making a TV adaptation of American Gods, so the book has been getting a bit of buzz recently, leading me to give it a try.

 In the intro to the novel, Gaiman explains that when he first visited America (he’s a Brit), he was struck by its lack of a conventional traditional mythology. The premise of American Gods is that when immigrants arrived to America from their homelands, they brought their gods with them, but since gods are sustained by people’s belief in them, the imported gods’ continued existence is threatened as belief wanes. They are threatened too by the new American gods of commercialism and technology. All of the gods have blended into human society with human roles and personas, though they are hundreds or thousands of years old. They are pretty entertaining characters.

 The human protagonist is, perplexingly, named Shadow. It’s a name the screams SYMBOL! But I didn’t get it. Maybe if you read the book, you can explain it to me. It seems like it should be obvious. We first meet him in prison, where he’s looking forward to his release in a few days, and where he’s been a model prisoner. He’s a big, powerfully built man, but seems gentle and good-hearted despite having been jailed for assault. We like him.

 Released from jail, Shadow is on the road home when he encounters Mr. Wednesday who hires him as some kind of ill-defined assistant, and that’s when the story gets rolling. It’s a war of the gods with a human protagonist drawn into the middle of it.

 At 750 pages, it’s a longish novel, but Gaiman uses humour and action and mystery  and plenty of plot twists to keep a reader engaged. We’re not really sure why things are happening as they are until the end, but it doesn’t feel manipulative. At least it didn’t to me. I enjoyed this novel enough to go pick up a copy of Anansi Boys, which is half the length. Anansi is the African trickster figure. I’m anticipating further interactions between gods and humans. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, by Susin Nielsen. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, July 23, 2017.

Susin Nielsen is a Vancouver writer. I like the thought of reading local writers. It’s a sort of loyalty thing. You know, patronize the local talent. But it’s also, well, patronizing, as if we should read them just because they’re local even though they’re not really very good.  The thing about Susin Nielsen though, is that she is very good. So while I took some pleasure in recognizing that Henry lives on Broadway in Vancouver, and is in grade 8 at Kitsilano Secondary (though it’s not called that in the novel), the characters and their problems are genuinely interesting. It’s a deserving winner of a Governor General’s Literary Award.

Henry’s journal is “reluctant” because he’s writing it at the behest of Cecil, his psychologist at the Coastal Health Centre. Cecil is helping Henry get through a horrible family trauma that has dislocated Henry from his hometown on Vancouver Island (I imagine it’s a small town like Campbell River maybe), and sent his mother to more intensive therapy in Ontario where she has gone to live with her parents. 

Henry feels broken, and his father feels broken and his mother feels broken. He eventually and somewhat reluctantly becomes friends with a group of nerdy misfits (including Scrabble champion Ambrose, who you might know from Nielsen’s previous novel Word Nerd) who eventually learn the details of the family trauma that Henry has been trying to conceal. He and his father also develop friendships with two very different and interesting neighbours in their apartment building. And running through the novel is Henry’s fascination with WWE wrestling.

The novel has a satisfying ending in which friendship triumphs over bullying and emotional emptiness. But it’s not a pat happily-ever-after. The challenges that Henry and his family face haven’t gone away, and it’s clear that they will never go away entirely.

This is a great little novel.  It’s a quick read at 240 small pages, and through its quirky but recognizable characters it blends the emotional darkness of extreme trauma with humour and understanding. Nielsen’s other novels include Word Nerd; George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother; We Are All Made of Molecules; and in 2017, Optimists Die First. And I've just learned that she he also wrote some Degrassi Jr High books, and some others for younger readers.

How Music Works, by David Byrne.  Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Oct 27, 2017.

This is one of those books that’s been on my I-should-read-that-sometime list since it came out in 2012. Byrne, you may know, was the front-man for the edgy 80’s band Talking Heads.  The title refers not to music theory—not to scales and chords and whatnot—but more to how the context of music shapes its form.

The book is organized more-or-less chronologically, with two main themes: music in general, and Talking Heads music specifically. Most of the chapters could stand alone as essays, and it’s probably not necessary to read them in the order that they’re published.

The music-in-general theme considers context: for example, Medieval church music is ponderous and modal because the large stone spaces it was performed in are like huge echo chambers, and other musical forms would turn into sonic mud. He considers the effect of context on other musical forms too, such as traditional African drumming, and American blues, and disco, and house, and many others.

What we think of as the “music industry” mostly means for us the recorded music industry. While recorded music is only a little more than a hundred years old, and music itself is much older, the recording industry is critical to the context of much of the music that we hear. Byrne examines how the technological context, both in the technology of producing, recording, and reproducing sound, and in the technology of distributing music have affected the music that we listen to.  He considers too how the industry affects the working lives of musicians, including issues about copyright and how musicians get paid.

A reader doesn’t need to know the music of Talking Heads to get something out of the sections of the book that relate to the band, though it probably helps. These sections are more about the creative processes of the band, and how various factors, including the spaces they worked in, the technology that they used, the musical influences they had, and the relationships they shared shaped the music that they made. Byrne also tells us about work he’s done since Talking Heads. These chapters too are about context, but at a more personal level.

To me, the highest praise I can give a work of non-fiction is that it lead me to think about something differently. I can say this about How Music Works. And while it’s much more than a biography of an aging rock star (it’s not really a biography at all), I found myself liking Byrne by the end. I've always thought of him as an intellectually adventurous artist and have maybe subconsciously thought that he might be an arrogant or condescending artiste, but there’s something in the voice of the book that is humble and likeable while it’s intelligent and thoughtful. How Music Works measured up to the high expectations that I had for it.

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Nov 1, 2017.

Published in 2003, The Da Vinci Code was controversial because it makes claims for the existence of a secret society devoted to preserving the “actual truth” about Christianity, which the Catholic Church has conspired to keep hidden. It was a very popular book.  My interest in it was piqued when I read about it (maybe in Stephen King’s book On Writing) as an example of really bad writing.  Googling critical responses to it I found reviewers who loved it and others who hated it.

I can understand some of the negative responses.  Some of the historical “facts” are true, but a lot of it is conjecture and conspiracy theory presented as truth. The plot progresses awkwardly. The characters are weakly developed. The style lacks polish.

The story is that the famous curator of the Louvre is murdered in the museum and leaves a strange symbol-laden death scene. He had been scheduled to meet an American symbol expert, Robert Langdon, who becomes one of the protagonists (and is suspect in the murder). The other protagonist is Sophie, who is a master code-breaker and the estranged grand daughter of the murdered man. She helps Robert. There’s also a murderous albino monk and a bishop who leads a powerful and secretive American Catholic sect, and an eccentric British peer who is also a sort of symbol expert.  The heart of the story is a quest for the Holy Grail, but the Grail isn’t what we imagine it to be. Robert and Sophie obtain what may be a map to the location of the Grail, but have to solve some coded riddles to even see what they have, and they have to do this while being pursued by the police who want them for murder, and the murderous albino monk who wants what they have. There are some surprising (contrived?) plot twists to keep the reader’s attention.

Despite its many flaws, I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. It’s a fast easy read and the mystery is, well, mysterious. Its pseudo-history is imaginatively appealing even though it’s not true, and that’s pretty much the job of fiction.

It helps to start with low expectations. I enjoy watching Transformers movies with my eleven-year-old son. They’re terrible movies, full of plot holes and flat characters and clichés. But they are probably the best movies ever made about an alien race of bio-mechanical creatures that fight each other and people to secure control of Earth. If you want to watch giant alien machines battle each other, these are your movies! But don’t expect a lot of subtlety. So it is with The Da Vinci Code.  The action isn’t all that plausible, but it moves quickly, and the history is mostly fake but is engaging to read about and feels smart. It’s not capital "L" Literature, but take it for what it is and it can be a quick and gratifying read.


Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami, trans. Philip Gabriel. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, November 10, 2017.

Murakami ‘s novels can be fun but can also be challenging. He often comes up with playful, novel turns of phrase or figures of speech, which is fun, but he writes a kind of magic realism that requires readers to keep their imaginations on a pretty loose leash and just accept the impossible or the irrational. That’s what makes his books difficult. Sputnik Sweetheart is a more accessible Murakami novel.  Readers have to accept only one impossible thing, and one highly unlikely one. That’s not too much to ask. And it’s only about 200 pages, so it doesn’t demand much patience.

“K,” the narrator is as young teacher who loves Sumire, his best and perhaps only friend, whom he met at college. Sumire dropped out of college to become a writer, but while she writes copiously, everything is either a beginning without an ending or an ending without a beginning. Sumire meets and instantly falls in love with Miu, an older woman who seems to have it all together—she’s slim and poised and wealthy and runs an international business. She also has a secret in her past.

It’s a love story. “K” loves Sumire. Sumire loves Miu. Or maybe Sumire. It’s also a sort of mystery, but I can’t tell you much more about that without spoiling.  What I enjoyed most was the characters, who are intelligent and honest and are all yearning for something just out of reach.  I think I liked the characters too partly because they all like each other and the conflict they experience is more about the way that life can be rather than some nasty sort of egoism.

Sputnik Sweetheart is an easy introduction to a challenging writer who has been perennially in the running for a Nobel prize for literature.


Feed, by M.T. Anderson. Reviewed by Mr. McLennan, Dec. 21, 2017. 

I heard about this YA novel when I was checking UBC first year English course reading lists. It was described as a satirical dystopia addressing the Internet, consumer culture, and corporatism.  Anderson also wrote the well-known novel The Astonishing Life of Ocatvian Nothing.

The premise of the novel is that people have an internet feed installed in their heads at birth, and live their lives constantly on-line, able to ask any of the questions we can ask the Internet, and able to communicate with mental “texting”, but also constantly bombarded by advertising that is directly targeted to them based on their on-line activity and also their moods. This Internet (or rather the corporations that run it) knows virtually everything about everyone who’s on the feed, because this Internet lives in people’s heads.

The story focuses on a group of older teenage friends who have all had the Feed since birth. A romantic relationship develops when Titus meets Violet, who had the Feed installed when she was about eight years old, and is consequently different from the others, and conflict develops because of that. Despite the romantic relationship, this really isn’t the story of a romance. Plot is secondary to ideas in this novel, and Violet’s purpose is to provide contrast to the thinking of the other characters to reveal the world that they live in.

We recognize many elements of this world—the Internet and its connection to consumerism, and the way some corporations use data gleaned from our on-line behaviours. The teen characters are obsessed with shopping and fashion and fads—some of them grotesque—that change almost hourly. We also see that the world of the novel is falling apart, but the characters are so distracted that they don’t seen to notice.

As soon as I started reading, I was impressed by the language. It reminded me of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange in its use of an invented slang. The language simpler than the Burgess book and more similar to our own but it’s similarly effective in creating a sense of the mindset of the characters. The characters lack the language ability to say much. Even the adult characters who seem to hold high-paying jobs that would presumably require some intelligence speak like caricatures of the most inarticulate teenagers you can imagine. 

Feed is worth reading. I’m not sure it leads us to know anything new about the world but it perhaps leads us to feel things about it, and it’s the feelings that give things meaning.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami. Reviewed by Tony Yue, April 4, 2020.

 Twisted and imaginative, Hard-Boiled Wonderland is a piece of science fiction treasure that, believe it or not, tries to conceptualize the complexity of the human mind across two subtly interweaving narratives. In one, a coding specialist, an aged scientist, and his barely legal granddaughter find themselves living in Japan with a political structure designed around information-warfare. In the parallel narrative, a guest is drawn into a strange self-enclosed town, where a single gate gives access to mythical creatures. The book is a crazy thrill-ride that will make readers rethink their own realities.

Haruki Murakami is a well known figure in the literary world. He is Japan’s most widely read author, as well as its most successful author internationally. Having grown up in the port city of Kobe after the second world war Murakami’s imagination is suffused with western influence: the crime stories of Raymond Chandler, the nightmares of Franz Kafka, the jazz of Miles Davis, the operas of Gioachino Rossini, and the pop music of the 50s and 60s: western readers will find a lot that is familiar in Murakami, including lots of Marlboros and whisky. His writing is straightforward and interior, yet somehow surreal. The bizarre and the normal mix beautifully on the page. This was the first Murakami book that I read, and I have to say: it left me quite astonished. The quotation on the book cover captures it best: “Murakami is some kind of wizard”. I plan on rereading this book several times over the coming years, as well as exploring everything else that Murakami has to offer. I recommend readers to do the same!


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