Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Speed of Dark - an extraordinary science fiction novel

So there I was, happily blathering away about reading mysteries this very warm summer, and then I picked up The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon from the library. It won the 2004 Nebula Award, and I can say now after reading this extraordinary novel, it was deserved. You know me by now, I use the word extraordinary rarely when reviewing books. I find it easy to lavish praise on books I think are very well written, so I save a few words for those books that shine above in the realm of the written word. The Speed of Dark is a book like that.

It is a book about an autistic man, who has had some minor enhancements that are scientifically possible in the future, that enable him to speak and to express his thoughts. We see Lou Arrendale's world through his eyes. I think this book is brilliant. It is a rare insight into how an autistic person focuses, and how difficult it is for them to focus when there is so much sensory data around. It makes me wonder how much more our own brains can manage, which can sift through the enormous data we now have swirling around us, with cell phones and I-Phones and laptops to connect us as well just the daily movement and noise we have to navigate to get anywhere safely. Are we truly taking the world in now? I wonder........An autistic person can't determine what to focus on, can't sort through many different distractions at the same time. Patterns are easier, and enormously concentrating. The enhancements Lou had as a child, - sometime in the next century although we don't get an exact date, our century is referred to as an earlier century - enable him to use what he sees in patterns, and see them in everything. This enables him to work on computer programs - an interesting idea, and I would be very curious if it was possible - and live on his own without assistance, although as we see through the novel, anything new does cause him alarm and he needs to think his way through how to deal with it. It is a glimpse into a world that is simplified to the basic meaning of everything. Not simple, just the clearest way of saying something, where Lou expresses how he sees the world by using the complex patterns he works with. It is amazing, and thoughtful, and familiar too, like it's how we all, normals and autistics, do navigate in this world at the same level, in our deepest selves. Certainly in this book how Lou sees us reveals us as people who don't always say what we mean, who do unconsciously understand social cues that he cannot grasp. The ability to grasp social cues and to know how to react to them, along with the ability to verbally communicate, are the biggest differences between autistic people and normal people. This book is also revelation of how much we take for granted, that confuse autistic people - language we use that has many meanings, understanding how someone who could be a friend could also turn into someone who hates us, questions like is dark at a place before light gets there? What is the speed of dark, is it faster than light? the same as? What does it mean if we develop the ability to change how a brain processes information? How do we know how a person likes us, whether they are interested in us as more than friends or not? How do we really feel when other people come into our space? Are our lives more ordered than we would like to admit? How much of Lou do I have in me? It makes me wonder if we all start off as sorting through the world the same way as infants, and then autistics shut off part of their processing ability - or it never develops in the same way as a brain is capable of working. That at some deep level, we all process information the same way, but normal people find a way to communicate it better and can manage the daily changes that are part of life better.

This novel is about what it means to process information. Lou is offered - at first coerced, and then later is offered the choice - to go ahead with an experimental program that will refire his neurons so that he will keep his autistic ability to understand and see highly complex patterns, but he will have the neurons that understand social cues enhanced so he will be more normal. The heart of this book is Lou thinking through the ramifications of this dilemma, even as he teaches himself the science behind how the brain learns, to understand as fully he can what he is facing. Lou learns that autistic people can, and do, change. That change comes to everyone, and the choice is whether to accept it, or have it forced upon you. This is an amazing revelation for him. And when Lou makes his choice, I cried. I didn't want him to change, I didn't want to lose the Lou that existed. What does that say about memory? About our lives? What makes us human? If we need to experiment, do we understand really what we are asking the human volunteers to do?

This is an extraordinary novel. Elizabeth Moon has captured what each day, daily life, is like for an autistic person, and she has given us the gift of seeing what an autistic person can offer us, the value of their lives to the world.

I have deliberately chosen not to use science fiction here, in my desire to get as many people as possible to give this book a try. Seeing this now, I see I am doing a disservice to the science fiction genre. I don't like labels for books when it means a book won't be read because of how it is classified, and this is something science fiction books suffer under almost more than any other gentre of books. However, maybe what I should be doing is shouting from the rooftops: Look! Look everyone! This is what science fiction can do! This is the very best kind of book, and it uses science fiction to explain what could happen, and what could be. We look ahead into the future. In our current science exploration of the mind and the brain and the body, do we want to move towards a world where we can modify the brain? Give the chance to be fully the best they can to someone whose brain doesn't work like ours, no matter how the brain is originally wired? And does that mean that we lose what autistic people do give to the world, and anyone else who is 'different', special, needing special services? Is our desire to make everyone normal to make our lives easier, or theirs? These are all questions Lou asks, that his company makes him ask, and this is what the very best of novels in any genre, what the very best writing does: it entertains, it excites, and it makes us think. Science fiction, when it is written like this, is the very best kind of book for showing us the future and guiding us to where we want to go.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Summer time reading is mysteries

I don't know about you, Gentle Reader, but this is a very warm summer where we are in Ottawa. Certainly the warmest for at least 3 years. We had a heat wave at the beginning of the month, which is over now. The temperatures have to reach 90F for three days in a row to be declared a heat wave. We have been hitting the mid-80's for the past several days. Today it's 88F and all the fans are running. What's a girl to do in the heat but......READ. It's bliss, pure bliss, to be so hot that all I can do is read.

I have discovered that this summer, I want to read mysteries. In January, I had set my goal of reading 50 mysteries this year, and after my abysmal reading in May (one book!!) I've been more determined to get reading. I've read 7 mysteries since May 30, 15 books in total since May 30. 20 mysteries in total this year. Almost half-way there! I have two shelves full of mysteries waiting to be read, series I want to catch up in, new series to start. There are so many mystery series out there, the field has exploded in the past twenty years. My local Chapters store has 5 long shelves devoted solely to mysteries - the middle of the floor shelves, that pack a lot of books in them. So I thought I'd ask you, my dear readers, and try to answer myself, this question: what makes a mystery worth reading? How do you find the series that you love?

Things I Look For in Mysteries

- layered plot
-intelligent hero/heroine, cast of characters
-clues sprinkled throughout
- sense of morality
- asks why
- the crimes have repercussions experienced through following the victims too. so we see the cost in human terms, and we see the ripple effects in the community.

How do I find mysteries to read?
I mostly find my books through browsing in stores, reading reviews from various sources, and you, my dear book bloggers. You have brought me Susan Hill (I wasn't aware really of this series before), Martin Edwards, Elly Griffiths (still to be reviewed, very good first mystery), Jo Nesbo, Peter Lovesey, Christopher Fowler........My mother is a big source, as are my friends who read mysteries. I'm always looking for a new series to read, new detectives to bond with.

The five series I'm going to talk about are ones I've been reading this summer.

Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler series, Graham Hurley's DI Joe Faraday series, Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series, Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series, and Martin Edward's DCI Hannah Scarlett series. These are all police procedurals. I've realized that I am attracted to the search for justice within the police services. In real life, men and women who join the police do so usually because they want to protect, to defend, and to solve mysteries. The detectives in mysteries represent the same ideals, I think. Each author brings something different to the their detectives and to the themes or issues they are interested in exploring.

Susan Hill: Like PD James' Adam Dalgleish, Simon Serrailler has a secret other life: he is a painter. He goes away on breaks to his hideaways and sketches, that he develops later into paintings. It sounds faintly ludicrous, that a DCI could be an artist as well as chief Inspector, but in Susan Hill's hands, it more than works. It is thrilling and like with Dalgleish's poetry, I really wish I could see Serrailer's art! I think that because Simon is at some remove from his detective work - he enjoys it, is passionate about finding the killers and bringing closure to cases - that, also like Adam, neither are defined solely by their police work. They bring a detachment that allows them to view colleagues and the crimes with intelligence unmarred by political ambition. It is also a way for them to hang on to their souls when faced with the hideous crimes and actions they witness every day.

I really like the Simon Serrailler mysteries. They are quite addictive. I have to know more about Simon and his twin sister Cat Deerborn, who is a GP and happily married to another GP. Their house is another sanctuary for Simon, who is single. They are actually part of a set of triplets, but the third child, Ivo, is in Australia and so far (end of book three) we haven't met him yet. There is a deep sense of humanity in the Simon Serrailer mysteries. The crimes, when they occur, are sometimes terrible. Hill is good at depicting all the characters involved in each mystery, all the secondary characters and their inner lives, and how the crimes affect them. I find this fascinating. The killer in books 2 and 3 is an amazing portrait of a psychopath. I can't recommend this series enough. The first three books I've read so far - and if you note, Book 2 and Book Three do follow on one another, so this series should be read in order.
The Various Haunts of Men (read and reviewed last year **can't find it, still looking)
The Pure in Heart - 5/5
The Risks of Darkness - 5/5

Graham Hurley - DI Joe Faraday is a widower raising a deaf son. He is also a bird-watcher, and the first book in the series, Turnstone, takes its name from one of the many birds that live on the shores of the beaches around Portsmouth, where this series takes place. It's how he gets away from it all, when he needs to. It's interesting that in today's crime novel, detectives need to have some interest away from work, in order to keep their sanity. Something to balance the horror.

Faraday is set up against DC Paul Winter, who is a lone wolf in the detective force. Winter sets his own rules, and has directly wrecked one of Faraday's investigations in revenge for trying to reel him in. In the Portsmouth police force, there is as much betrayal within the police department as without. Most of all though, is Joe Faraday, who still makes the effort to connect to the people affected by the crimes, and through whose eyes Portsmouth the ancient port, once proud Naval bastion of England, comes to grips with grim, modern life. It's not a pretty city, but it does have its places of charm and beauty, despite the rampant crime the police face. This is a nitty-gritty police series, where every step of the investigation is detailed, and it's fascinating and gripping. There are 10 books in the series now, I've read three:
The Take

Angels Passing 4.5/5

Louise Penny: Inspector Gamache is from the Surete Du Quebec, the provincial police force called out on major crimes. The first three books are centered around Three Pines, which for a tiny village has alot of serious crime! Three Pines is so beautiful and cosy that everyone who reads about it wants to move there, myself included. It's not a real place, but is set in the real countryside of Quebec.

Inspector Gamache himself is unusual - quiet, charming, intelligent, and very, very observant. He also has a team of detectives under him, and pulled from nearby forces for local knowledge and help, that come with him when he goes out on cases. Over the three books I've read so far in the series, we've seen Gamache fight for his life with both the criminals and from betrayal within his force. He is so good at his job that he has incurred much jealousy, and in the third book, The Cruellest Month, it comes to a head. How Gamache escapes, and how a seance features, makes for a very creepy ending. The Cruellest Month was very good. Gamache's team are interesting because they vary from novices to experienced detectives, so we get a range of what working on an investigation - and the mistakes made - as well as the leaps of intuition that Penny has so skillfully written that we feel brilliant too, reading these books. Very, very entertaining. Penny is my personal favourite of our Canadian mystery writers.
All three of her books that I read, are linked in the post I did on Louise Penny last fall:
Still Life
Dead Cold
The Cruellest Month

Martin Edwards: DCI Hannah Scarlett heads up the newly formed Cold Case Review Team in England's beautiful Lake District. Aiding her is Daniel Kind, son of Scarlett's former detective partner, Ben Kind. When the series opens, Daniel comes to the Lake District in an effort to understand a little bit about his recently dead father, and ends up buying a cottage and staying with his girlfriend. As he gets to know the locals, he often investigates on his own initiative, though by The Cipher Gardens, the second book, both Hannah and Daniel are beginning to be aware they are attracted to one another. DCI Scarlett views her position on the Cold Case team as a setback, a punishment for failing on a big case before the series opens. She wants to get back to the real work, in the serious crimes division, but has realized that Cold Cases have their own satisfaction when they are solved.

Hannah Scarlett is interesting and I almost wish we could have more of her. I like her personal struggles as well as her professional ones. She is not a detective who has it all together, but because of this, we get to see her learn about herself as well as her team and the part of the Lake District she lives in. Daniel Kind is a fun character. He is a historian, which in the books they make comparisons to being a detective. Because these are cold cases, of course Daniel is used to questioning and looking for clues in historical facts and stories, and he easily slides into finding local knowledge, though not without some personal risk to himself. It's going to be interesting to see how this relationship develops. There is danger of course, as secrets long held are finally exposed. I'm really enjoying watching the Cold Case team decide if they should follow anonymous tips or letters received about old unsolved crimes or not. I've read two out of the existing 5 books in the series so far.
They are:
The Coffin Trail (read and reviewed earlier)
The Cipher Garden 5/5

The others are on my shelf, waiting their turn to be read this hot summer!

Jo Nesbo: You all know from my previous reviews (see links just below) how much I love Harry Hole. He's the detective I've fallen in love with. He is the loner here, the wild card, the one who goes off on his own, protected by his immediate boss when he would be thrown out of the force - mostly for insubordination, and not always telling his bosses exactly what he's doing until he's done it. But he gets results, almost always because Harry is persistent. Dogged. Determined. Heroic in the best sense of the word. Certainly not angelic and brings about his own problems. I love how he wants the truth, no matter how much it costs.
The Redbreast

All the above detectives wonder at times what they are doing in the police force, and that the job isn't what it used to be. There is a melancholy about these detectives as they fight their often lonely battle against crime, against criminals who don't care they are breaking the law, and often battle elements within the police force itself - pointless paperwork and staying within the law.

Mostly, these characters have become characters I care about, revealing the world we live in, often standing between us and the darkness that crime threatens to pull us all into. All of these books are very well-written, gripping adventures, heart-breaking in places, with excellent characters and interesting stories to tell. I have the next books in all the series lined up on my shelves to be read shortly. It seems to be a mystery reading summer for me.

What are you reading this summer? Is it unusual for you to be reading what you're reading, or do you have a normal summer fling - beach read - that you reach for when the temperature is hot and all you can do is read? Where you are, have you found you've been doing more reading or less, in our above-average hot summer?

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Last World Cup 2010 thoughts, it's hard when you have players on both sides.....

My heart is breaking. How is it possible to be happy that one team one won and so sad that the other lost? For sure half of my heart was with Spain, who had never made it this far in the World Cup before, who feature the wonderful Cesc Fabregas, already one of the best midfielders in the world and captain of my beloved Arsenal club. I'm such a huge fan of his and love watching him play. So I knew if they won, it would cement his skill and leadership qualities even further. He set up the winning goal! I was so happy to see Cesc lift the Cup, I am truly thrilled for him and for the Spanish team, who for sure have given hope back to their country as they fight economic woes. It was almost a perfect victory from a team that got stronger as the World Cup progressed, even though Fernando Torres, expected to be one of their key strikers, was fighting an injury and was not himself for most of the tournament. Most teams would crumble if one of their expected leaders and strikers had a bad tourament, but Spain got stronger. It was a very strong performance from them, and worthy of hoisting that gold trophy.

The other half of my heart though was with the Dutch, who had been to the finals two times before, oh so long ago. I have been half in love with this country's team ever since watching Dennis Bergkamp's fabulous volley up and away and over the heads and into the net from the far right side of the pitch. That was a beautiful goal and the exact moment I fell in love with the game, July 1998, the first year the World Cup was shown in full on a channel here in Canada. Going into this match I thought the Netherlands had a slight edge over who I wanted to win. I was wrong. I didn't know how much I wanted the Dutch to win today, until they lost.

I didn't cry until I saw the players still standing on the pitch while the Spanish team celebrated. They didn't want to leave, they didn't want it to be over, and no victory, again. Wesley Sneijder, and Robin Van Persie, who is the main striker for Arsenal also - did I say my heart was in half watching this game? A player from the club I support on either side? And there was Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, a former Arsenal player, who played the tournament of his life, who scored the amazing goal of the tournament in the semi-final that took the Dutch into the finals. When he was taken off the pitch late in the match today I turned to my husband and said, "Oh no, he's been marvelous defending, preventing at least three goals directly, what are they doing?" and sure enough, several minutes later, the winning goal came from the corner of the pitch he had been defending before. Now I know I really wanted The Netherlands to win the World Cup.

Afterwards, my 5 year old came up to me and said his favourite player had been Carlos Puyol, the Spanish defender who was superb in this game, and I agreed with him that he had been one of the outstanding players today.

Best of all, both kids were dancing to the World Cup Soccer song from South Africa:

as we heard the song for the final time. Wavin Flag, by K'Naan. What a wonderful song for a World Cup that was hosted not without problems, but with so much energy and spirit and goodwill that the South Africans, and indeed all of Africa, can be proud of. This was a fun World Cup, despite all the heartbreak and the joy. Maybe because of it. Because I believe that sometimes in defeat, we can find a way to win the next time. And there will be a next time. Not for all the Dutch players - or Spanish players, or any other team in the World Cup. A next time for all the national teams themselves, everywhere the world over, to try again to get to the World Cup, and then win it. Who knows? Maybe Canada will qualify next time around. Because more than anything, the World Cup is about dreams, and making them real.

Congratulations Spain, it took you so long, so many years and attempts, to find a way to win. You did it. Hurray! and Netherlands - thanks for playing so very very well. There were only minute differences between you and Spain. It was a game of inches. And thanks for breaking my half my heart, because now I know I love you.

Goodbye, World Cup 2010. It was fun, it was fabulous, it was surprising, it was often beautiful, and beyond words, it brought the world together for one precious month. It's the beautiful game.

*****Edited to add: Marg over at Adventures of an Intrepid Reader also wrote about the World Cup, here.
Let me know if you did also, Gentle Reader, and I'll add your link.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Blackout by Connie Willis

What a wonderful book. I read it in one day, which is lucky for me, because this book is written at such a breathless pace that it's a very difficult book to put down. Blackout is a return to Willis' time-travelling world set in 2150, which we saw previously in Dooms Day and Say Nothing of the Dog, featuring Mr Dunworthy as the head of the time travelling history department. In these books, Willis has created a science fiction world of time travel done by historians who go back in time to learn what history was really like. In this book, some of the time travellers - focusing on three specific time travellers, Merope, Polly and Michael - go back to England during WW2. They go to Dunkirk, the evacuation of the children from London to the countryside, and the beginnings of the Blitz - London in 1940. And from the opening lines as Colin searches for Polly to give her a message, to the last line when a mysterious 5th time traveller comes to London just as the bombs are about to fall, this book is enchanting. There is a fourth time traveller who we get part of the story for, but nothing in depth as the first three. That will come later, I expect.

I felt like I was really there during the Blitz, hearing the bombs fall, the airplanes as they droned over the city, the air raid sirens, the explosions. We see London through the eyes of Polly, who is undercover as a shopgirl, we see the evacuated children in the countryside through the eyes of Merope, who is working as a maid in the country house, and we see Dunkirk through Michael's eyes. The switch from character to character works very well here, and Willis is an expert at leaving the chapter just as things get interesting. I really could not put this book down. My only warning is that this is part one of two, as the publisher broke the book into two parts, and All Clear will be published in October of this year - thankfully, I do not have too long to wait!

This book is a great beach read. By this I mean, you could read it in one day, laugh out loud and cry, and come away completely satisfied. It is enjoyable, well-researched, filled with interesting characters and even has some funny moments, as well as some of the best secondary characters in all of fiction. Every character is memorable, and I really feel as if I had just taken a trip back to London my self.

Even though I qualify it as a beach read or excellent book to read in the heat (which means you can't do anything except read anyway, hurray for summer!), it does have some interesting ideas about history and time travel. If time travel existed, how do we know if our actions will affect history or not? Are we allowed to do anything, and if we do, what happens? does it matter if we get involved in locals' lives? In Willis' theory of time travel, the net - the transportation site to and from historical locations - won't let you in if you arrive at a crucial point in history because the danger of affecting it is too great. But Polly, Michael and Merope end up trapped in the Blitz, when their pick-up times pass and their nets won't open. If the science theory that observation changes the outcome of the experiment is applied to time travel, has Mr Dunworthy discovered too late that sending people back in time is more dangerous than anyone realized? That history has indeed been changed already? Even though time travel doesn't exist yet, these are questions I find myself asking while reading this book, which is a sign that even though I haven't been aware of it, Willis has been asking them all along. What does it mean to time travel? Is it safe? What happens when the way back home is temporarily closed? Are there any moments in time that it is safe to become part of, if you weren't there the first time around? Very interesting questions, I think. I'm really looking forward to Part Two in October.