Category Archives: Random House

Book Review: Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

9780345815767Us Conductors 

by Sean Michaels
ISBN: 9780345815767
Random House, 2014

Odd questions crossed my mind when I was reading Us Conductors. 

How long did Sean Michaels spend coming up with “DZEEEEOOOoo” as the proper translation of the theremin sound? It captures perfectly the eerie sound of the instrument invented by the novel’s main character, Lev Sergeyevich Termen.

Under what circumstances did Michaels receive the inspiration to add Kung Fu to Termen’s list of interests? That one aspect to his character strikes me as . . . out of character.

And why haven’t I heard of the many inventions and exploits of the “Russian Edison”, a man who seemed to be able to invent on demand? We have him to thank for everything from motion-activated lights to a clear picture on our televisions.

The breadth of those questions summarizes my overall impression of this novel.

First, Michaels is not a poetic writer, but he has a knack for encapsulating an image or feeling. The theremin sound is one example, and later in the novel when Termen has to brush off rusty musical skills after a lengthy and harrowing imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, he writes: “I was about to wrench open an overgrown gate.” Perfect.

Second, bits and pieces of the novel perplex me, because they don’t seem to fit. The Kung Fu is curious. And Termen’s first wife is there—and not there—in an inexplicable, and mildly annoying way.

Finally, it enlightened me. I learned so much. This book is fiction, but based on real people and real events from history: Russia at the time of Lenin, New York City in the Jazz Age and later the market crash of 1929, and then the harsh Siberia of Stalin’s time.

Michael’s double-edged epigraph at the beginning of the Giller Prize-winning book is prize-winning in itself: “This book is mostly inventions.” It lets the reader know that the author intends to play fast and loose with facts, which Michaels does, but it also refers to the many brilliant inventions of the main character.

The Lev Sergeyevich Termen of this book is scientifically brilliant and socially inept. Unable to navigate his way to a meaningful loving relationship, unable to leave either Russia or America behind, and unable to manage such banalities as personal finances, the man is the master of his own demise.

This book won’t warm your heart. You won’t come to the end of it, close it with a sigh and hold it close to your chest. Aspects of it might frustrate you. But if you read it, you have the opportunity to admire some insightful writing, and you probably will learn something.





Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

9780553418026The Martian 

by Andy Weir
ISBN: 978-0-553-41802-6
Broadway Books, 2014

The first thing you should know: If you are not a math or science geek, you will skim many sections of this book.

The second thing you should know: If you are not familiar with 1970s TV, music or movies, you might miss out on some of the cultural references.

The third thing you should know: In November 2015, Matt Damon will star in the movie version of this story. This is a good thing.

I need to give you the back story behind why I came to read this book, because it is not the kind of book I would usually read. My son is a fussy reader. When he was about eight years old, I tried to encourage him to read all the kinds of books boys his age read: Geronimo Stilton, Hardy Boys. He said to me: “Why would I want to read about something that’s not real?”

Okay, so he’s into non-fiction, I get that. Still I try. So this past Christmas I challenged two guys at the local bookstore: “Recommend a book that my son will not be able to put down,” I said.

The Martian,” they both replied.

My son received his copy of the book for Christmas. When he sat down to read it in the lull of holiday break, his body language did not reassure me. He rolled his eyes some. He set it down regularly.

“So, what do you think?” I asked.

“He’s so . . . so . . . stupid,” he replied.

Huh. Given that story is about an astronaut, I wasn’t sure how that could be, and my husband was curious too, so he gave the book a try. As he was reading, I said, “So? What do you think?”

“I’m not sure how he could say this guy is stupid,” he replied. “The main character is a genius. I really like this book.”

So, I had to read it for myself. The deciding vote.

The first thing I noticed was that Andy Weir really, really wants his geek audience members to know the mathematical and scientific plausibility of this story. Gobs and gobs of math and science fill the pages. I started skimming. There’s a reason I’m not making my living laboratories.

I said to my husband (no math whiz, himself), “Didn’t you find it kind of math- and science-heavy?”

“Oh, I just skimmed those parts, he said.

Okay then. I carried on. At the ends of scenes or chapters, Weir throws in jokes about Three’s Company, and disco, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and such things. My son, born in the late 1990s, would not know the finer points of the Chrissy or Cindy Three’s Company debate, or that General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard was a car, so that humour would be lost on him. And I suspect that if my son were to participate in a mission to Mars, he is the type who would take the assignment very, very seriously, and he would not include boobies (•) (•) in his communications with NASA, so I guess that’s why he drew the “He’s so . . . so . . . stupid” conclusion.

In the end, I laughed out loud at the jokes, especially the boobies, and I skimmed the gobs of math and science, and I liked this story about a man’s experience on Mars. 

When Hollywood gets hold of this, they will synthesize the math and science into palatable bites, and they will light Matt Damon beautifully, and they will make one fun and interesting movie.


Book Review: Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

9780345808325_0Elizabeth Is Missing 

by Emma Healey
ISBN 9780345808325
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014

Not so long ago, I spent years supporting a family member who progressed through the stages of senile dementia. It was a heartbreaking, fulfilling, patience-testing, rewarding thing to do, and the experience touched me in a deep place. Because of that experience, I hesitated to read Elizabeth Is Missing. Did I really want to go there?

I am glad I did. I flat out admire what Emma Healey does here. 

Her main protagonist, Maud, is aging, and her memory loss is progressing. Her short-term memory suffers, but her long-term memories remain mostly intact. Her daughter, Helen, is responsible for her care, with other support workers popping in too.

Healey captures the nuances of aging and memory loss accurately without crossing over into schmaltzy preaching. She moves back and forth between the present (those short-term memory challenges) and the past (the long-term memories) seamlessly. Using clear but subtle clues, she portrays the progression of the memory loss (Maud’s short-term memory issues worsen throughout the book) at exactly the right pace. And always she keeps us reading because we’re wondering, is Elizabeth missing?

We feel such empathy for Maud. We feel equal empathy for Helen, who we know has to be driven mad by the repetitions, the missing pieces, and the wanderings.

Healey pulled at my memories of my experience to just the right extent. I remembered, but I never wanted to turn away from her story.

Now I know you’re wondering: Who is Elizabeth, and is she missing? Right. That’s the other side of this book. It has a mystery, and the solving of it keeps us turning those pages.



Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

9780143191278_0The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry 

by Gabrielle Zevin
ISBN: 9780143191278
Penguin Canada, 2014

My wish would be that all readers would enter this book blissfully unaware of the main plot points, so they could let the story unfold in its beautiful way.

That being my wish, I choose not to give away secrets. A.J. Fikry, owns a book store on a tourist-destination island. As he approaches middle age, he must confront and overcome some quirky character flaws, a few strained relationships and a series of unexpected events. From the twists and turns of his life, he learns some lessons, and he passes those lessons on to those who love him through comparisons to his favourite short stories. Each chapter in the book begins with A.J.’s critique of and reference to one of these stories.

Zevin’s book is intelligent, cozy, surprising and touching. My favourite line? “Someday, you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”

Good advice, right? Enjoy that and other such wonderful nuggets when you read this book. 

Book Review: Zealot by Reza Aslan

9780679603535Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Reza Aslan
ISBN 9780679603535
Random House, 2013

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” —Matthew 10:34

Reza Aslan begins Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth with the above quote above as the epigraph. It made this peace-loving Christian squirm. I sat up and prepared to have my assumptions challenged.

Aslan described himself as a man “raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists . . .” At age 15 he “found Jesus,” and then still later unchained himself from the belief that Bible stories were literally true. The author with Muslim/atheist/Christian background studied and sought more meaningful truth in our ancient texts. Out of his studies grew an interpretation of what the Jesus before Christianity would have been like.

“Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

Aslan builds a mind-world for us. He re-creates in vivid detail the “obscure hamlet” of Nazareth and first century Palestine. Within the Nazarene peasant homes  of “whitewashed mud and stone” he sets the kind of man who would arise out of such a place. He shows what he believes Jesus of Nazareth, a man shaped by the people, the geography, and the politics of that impoverished village would be like.

Aslan’s insights into Paul and the unforeseen affect his actions would have on the shape of the church were particularly interesting. When Paul called Jesus “Jesus Christ” instead of “Jesus the Christ,” for example, his slant rippled down through the centuries to the Christians of today. Jesus the man dealt with the earthy bodily concerns of his people. He fought against poverty and oppression, he resisted Roman authorities, and he struggled for justice. Paul and others minimized Jesus’ nationalistic human concerns and transformed him into a universal spiritual leader. Out of that grew a new religion, something Jesus wouldn’t have imagined.

“. . . practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive . . .”

Every reader will come to this book with different amounts of knowledge of the Bible and other historical writings, and with different interpretations of what they know. Some of the historical facts Aslan shares will surprise some readers; some of his assertions will upset others.

This book will kindle conversations about Jesus, Paul and Christianity, and it is a worthy read for that reason alone.









Book Review: Rush Home Road  by Lori Lansens

9780676974515Rush Home Road 

by Lori Lansens
ISBN 9780676974515
Vintage Canada, 2003

A friend went into a bookstore and asked the owner to recommend a book “with teeth.” My friend left the bookstore with Rush Home Road in hand, and she liked the bite of it so much, she passed it on to me. That is how I encountered Rush Home Road eleven years after it was published.

The title refers to the road leading away from, and back to, the town of Rusholme—a fictional all-black community based on the real-life community of Buxton, Ontario. Rusholme was a southern Ontario landing spot on the Underground Railroad, the path to freedom for slaves fleeing from the United States, and Lansens’ heroine grows up in the town during the prohibition years. When Addy Shadd  is on the cusp of womanhood,  a tragic event, and an even more tragic misunderstanding, cause her to take the road out of town. Years later, when she is a 70-year-old living in a trailer park, a young child comes into her care. The challenges the child, Sharla, faces mirror those Addy faced as a child. In guiding Sharla to a better life, Addy unearths her own buried memories and traumas and clears the way for a return to Rush Home Road.

Two stories intertwine here: a short one involving Sharla and the reasons for her abandonment, and a seven-decade long one detailing Addy’s eventful life. To tell the interconnecting stories, Lansens crisscrosses present day and memory, but she does so seamlessly; flashbacks don’t stand out as flashbacks. Lansens writes convincingly from the child-like view of Sharla and from the age-worn view of Addy. The result is a book that is both plot-driven and character-driven.

This story is surprisingly uplifting, given that the two main characters are a poor black woman and a mixed-race trailer park child, both abandoned by their mothers. Lansens infuses the characters and the stories with such hope and humanity that the tale never feels too daunting. There are irretrievable losses and failings left unforgiven, but there are also friendships, new loves and salves applied to wounds.

The bookstore owner was right. This story has teeth, and I liked it.

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