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I’ve been putting off writing a review of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. The novel profoundly bothers me as a  reader and a reviewer. I love novels that are patchworks of various narratives, which is what I believed Her Fearful Symmetry to be. Sadly, it is in literary purgatory. The grey area of I didn’t hate it, but I cannot say it was great, but it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t particularity fascinating either. Her Fearful Symmetry is highly problematic, with occasional meditative moments and tidbits of greatness.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a patchwork of stories taking place in and around Highgate cemetery in London England. The majority of the novel focuses on a set of mirror twins, Julia and Valentina, who inherit their estranged Aunt’s apartment over looking the cemetery. Before the twins can sell the apartment, they must live in it for one year and their parents may not set foot in it.  The apartment is haunted by the ghost of their deceased Aunt, Elspeth, who is an identical twin to the younger twins’ mother, Edie. If you’ve read any books about twins or ghosts you’ll quickly figure out where that narrative strand is going, yes it really is that predictable in a twisted Parent Trap way.

As for the twins, Julia is set on being with her sister at all costs, believing that Valentina cannot live without Julia , since Valentina is shy and sickly. Valentina slowly expresses her wish to live her own life away from Julia. Both are caught in the typical twin metaphor of being thought of as one soul in two bodies. This conflict of interest between the sisters could have taken quite a dark turn or developed into something interesting, but it simply does not.

SPOILER WARNING (Skip to ‘End of Spoilers’ if you care too)

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Instead, Valentina, who shows no symptoms of suicidal tendencies, starts to dwell on killing herself as a way to separate herself from her sister. Valentina believes that her death and resurrection via her spectral Aunt is the only way to be free of the burden of the societal expected shared existence of being a twin. (Somehow, Valentina did not think that  talking to her sister or that moving away was an option.)

The other problem is that few of the characters seem realistic and many of their decisions are forced, easy solutions for a ending that tries too hard to be poetic.  For example, I had a hard time buying that Elspeth’s devoted lover of 13 years, Robert, would only take one year to mourn her and then move on to dating one of her nieces. Many of the characters are completely vacant and lacking in any kind of self reflection or critical thinking. (hmm could my apparition of Aunt be angry that I am dating her boyfriend? No, sadly that thought never crosses Valentina’s mind.)

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END OF SPOILERS

The potential break up of the twins sounds beautiful, but it is bogged down in a multitude superfluous ideas and quick resolutions and non-resolutions that are pulled out of a hat. It is these strings of unresolved ideas and jumping conclusions that in part make the novel problematic. As though it needed to be edited down to focus on a well elaborated narrative strand or two, instead of swimming in a sea of abandoned notions.

Julia’s relationship with upstairs resident, Martin, is easily a favourite part. Martin is the most well developed and provocative character in the novel, though sadly not the main character. He is an intellectual and crossword creator suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which makes him a prisoner to his apartment. Martin’s long time wife, Marijke, finally decides to leave him since she wants to be free of the demands of of his OCD rituals. She dares him to venture to follow her Amsterdam. Julia becomes fascinated with Martin and his routines. She sets out to help fix and investigate him. It through Martin that we learn more about Julia and her particular quirks that develop her into a separate and unique being from Valentina. As I said this is a patchwork of stories, Martin’s story is the best one and by far the most enjoyable. This side story of Martin, Julia and Marijke’s interaction and affection is gloriously romantic and unusual.  Martin’s story is almost enough to make me forgive the other mistakes, but sadly it is only a small section of the book. It is these moments of clarity and development in the novel that make me love it, but the rest of the novel, as I have said, lacks cohesion, which is disappointing.

There is a part of the book where Niffenegger describes Robert’s Ph.D thesis as though it had expanded and lost all perspective. That sentiment is a metaphor what happened to Her Fearful Symmetry. Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger spends a lot of time setting up great ideas, and then quickly forgets them as she proposes them. Her Fearful Symmetry truly embodies this scatterbrained-ness which only miffed me in The Time Traveler’s Wife, but now deeply irritates me. I am frustrated with Her Fearful Symmetry, because I can see an awesome story about Martin, his wife and Julia, but it is clouded by dregs of former ideas and a vacant fascination with identical twins.

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Steel Traveler of Urth
Lilley Press
August 2009
Saul Al. Roberts

Steel Traveler of Urth follows post-apocalyptic archaeologist, Jason Father, on a dangerous expedition to the treacherous and brutal Wastes to collect a rare piece of forgotten technology. I assure you, my darling readers, this is not your stereotypical pith helmet and boring old archaeologist.* Jason Father is your silent, Lara Croft ass kicking, sexy, tomb raiding kind of archaeologist. Yes, sexy. Saul Al. Roberts does not disappoint, but delivers an action packed adventure and a steamy made-me-blush sex scene. On his journey, Jason is eventually accompanied by Reggie, a down to earth renegade anthropomorphous spider and Leane, a feisty mutant sex slave with a tail.

The wastes are desolate and at constant threat of a travelling persistent and deadly taint, a remnant of the old world. Even the most innocent appearing plants and creatures are corrupt and seeded with madness. In Urth, the hierarchy of power has dramatically shifted from humans to insects. Humans are victims of slavery, they work to get out of the wastes and into Urthian dream of owning a small farm and no longer being owned. Humans and mutants (and the odd insect) a like, are subjected to cruel punishments and technological experiments at the hands of their insect owners, resulting in their complete transformation into re-programmed cyborg creatures or unintentional magical monsters at the mercy of their owner.

Despite my love of science fiction movies and televisions shows, I’ve had a strong aversion to sci-fi literature. Bad experiences with poorly written sci-fi had left me thinking that sci-fi must include a monumental glossary of invented terms and irrelevant and tedious technological detail. Steel Traveler of Urth revolutionized my world for sci-fi novels. It was an incredible surprise to this disgruntled sci-fi fan that I could once again curl up with a good sci-fi novel. Roberts quickly sucked me into his world and I did not put the novel down until I reached the very end. There are no narrative lulls, nary a superfluous or tedious detail, only an riveting adventure.

Roberts picks his battles for creative invention. Roberts avoids strenuous and tedious details, but at the same time manages to create a world that is technologically and visually different from our world. Roberts’ new terms for races and measures of time are intuitive and easily remembered. My favourite inventions are the proverbs for the different insect races such as “Never believe an opponent dead until you’ve severed his head!” I was pleased that Roberts did not try to overly humanize the insect characters, each still prescribing to their insect culture and mating habits.

Steel Traveler of Urth is what I want a good paperback to be; adventurous, daring, occasionally humourous, a touch of romance and well scripted action. The cover is, admittedly, off putting. However, like the old bipedal proverb says: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

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threshold-titledLucky’s World: Beyond the Wizard’s Threshold

by Loretta Sylvestre

Lilley Press

2009

Reviewed by Diana Poulsen

Beyond the Wizard’s Threshold is a contemporary-fantasy novel set in Sylvestre’s version of Earth and the fictional world of Ertha.  The novel gradually gains momentum and accelerates to break-neck speed as the book draws to a conclusion. Beyond the Wizard’s Threshold centres around the wizard Thurlock, his servant Han, and the young amnesiac Lucky.  When Lucky was eleven years old he awoke in a strange ravine, remembering only his first name and nothing of where he came or his identity.  Now fourteen years old Lucky finds himself scraping by,  when he is approached by old man named Thurlock and his servant Han who are not from Earth. Lucky, Thurlock and Han are in a race against time to help Lucky recover his memories and discover who he truly is meant to become. The three are  always under the constant threat of a looming evil and the rash decisions of a homeless teen.

Sylvestre writes in exceptional detail making much of the action in the novel vivid, as though it was a fully blocked and storyboarded film script.  Her writing style is so detailed you know how these characters would sound if they were to talk aloud. She leaves enough to the imagination to allow for the reader to imagine their own variation of the characters, but the reader will have a powerful awareness of how the characters and monsters act. As well as an ethereal description of the powerful and at times eerily cold magic. Sylvestre’s writing also combines unusual ideas such as wizards using public transit or driving a Ford Crown Victoria. This mix of magic and technology is blended seamlessly within the chaotic battle scenes and the normalcy of breakfast.

Sylvestre makes references to Harry Potter and Star Wars, however I think as the series progresses many of these references will be shed into background. In her defence, it’s a difficult feat to write a story with a powerful young boy and an old wizard as main characters and not automatically remind the reader of Harry Potter and Dumbledore.  Also, Thurlock’s temporary use of an umbrella as a magical apparatus does not help shake the initial similarities.  However, the umbrella  is where the similarities end.  Lucky and Thurlock are not  the typical boy and wizard duo. Lucky is at times very resistant to his destiny and Thurlock tends to be more of scholar rather than a loving grandfather figure. Lucky, unlike other fictional magical boys, is sceptical of the other characters’ intentions toward him and forces the other characters work to earn his trust. Lucky chooses to run away in sheer disbelief and denial of his importance. Many readers may be initially annoyed with Lucky’s inability to trust. Conversely, to me, there’s nothing more annoying than a character who accepts everything and questions nothing. I found Lucky’s sceptical nature made him believable, since he reacts and acts like a fourteen year old on the run.

Beyond the Wizard’s Threshold is the beginning of a larger story that I hope will be developed in further books. Sylvestre introduces a variety of  quirky and dynamic secondary characters, L’Aria and Lemon Martinez come to mind, that I hope will be elaborated upon.  Slowly as Lucky’s past is revealed many details and mysteries are introduced, but few are fully resolved and other larger looming questions remain.  Sylvestre on the last page, at the very last sentence leaves us with a cliff hanger, enticing us to patiently await the next book.

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Tamora Pierce
Bloodhound
Book 2: The Legend of Beka Cooper
There are very few authors I regularly read and devotedly followed. I have consistently read Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Universe series for the last 15 years. Every time one of her books is released it is an event for me. Family and friends know that once I start reading a delightfully crafted Tamora Pierce book I no longer exist in this world. I leave the tedium of this world to become a silent observer in Pierce’s. However, this time I was a little disappointed with the journey.
Bloodhound is the second novel in the Legend Of Beka Cooper series. Since it is set 250 years prior to the other Tortall novels. Readers of Pierce’s novels will appreciate meeting famous characters’ ancestors, as well as finding out how women will become socially lower than men, since in this time they are equals. Beka Cooper, a member of the Provost’s Dogs  (basically a cop),  is a strong and cunning  protagonist. In Bloodhound  Cooper is lost, she cannot find a partner that as good or as interested in stopping crime as her.  She excels above most of the other Dogs and therefore often finds herself growing frustrated with her struggle to change the world, while being bounced back and forth from her old bosses to her new reluctant partners.
Once again we are thrust in the streets of poverty stricken and working class Corus. Pierce gets down to the nitty gritty details of the filth that plagues the population and then transports the reader into the exotic Port Cayann. Cooper finds herself thrust into unfamiliar territory and begins to collect evidence, in a very ‘CSI: Tortall’ style. However, this time our intrepid Cooper is not hunting a child killer, but stopping counterfeiting.
At times Bloodhound reads like a struggle to convince both the reader and the author that counterfeiting is interesting.  The constant repetitive conversations on how counterfeiting is bad, seem to fill an extra 50 or so pages. I felt a need to tell Pierce, don’t worry, you have taken me on many journeys I trust your decisions. Though, admittedly reading about economic devastation is fitting for the time.
The Beka Cooper series has not been a favourite. I appreciate Pierce’s attempt to try a new style, the entire series is written as journal entries, however at times it can be a bit limiting and annoying. One of the joys of reading is getting an idea of what the other characters are thinking, or at least being a silent observer that sees more than the main character.  It’s frustrating to have an to an intense emotion or sexual moment come to pass and the character refuses to divulge the juicy details, citing their inability to express such moments in words. Yes, Beka Cooper is a reserved medieval policewoman of sorts, probably her grasp of writing romantic literature is weak and admittedly out of character for her to dwell on such things.  Despite that, it is frustrating. However, for remaining in character the entire novel I must praise Pierce for sticking with her journal entry style.
Despite my criticisms, Bloodhound is still essentially a good read. It is well written, the story is vivid, there is an awesome sewer chase scene and many of the new characters are interesting, however, you do get the feeling you may never read about them again.  Also, it’s enjoyable to read about Cooper when she is a complete fish out of water, but still manages to remain her strong, industrious, relentless lawful self.  There is adventure, mystery, riots, police work and romance. Just don’t expect any juicy details, Cooper doesn’t kiss and tell.
Bloodhound cover
Bloodhound
Book 2 of Beka Cooper – A Tortall Legend
Tamora Pierce
Random House 2009

Reviewed by: Diana Poulsen

There are very few authors I regularly read and devotedly follow. I have consistently read Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Universe series for the last 15 years. Every time a Pierce novel is released, it is an event for me. Family and friends know that once I start reading a delightfully crafted Tamora Pierce book I no longer exist in this world. I leave the tedium of this world to become a silent observer in Pierce’s. However, this time I was a little disappointed with the journey.

Bloodhound is the second novel in the  Beka Cooper series and it is set 250 years prior to the other Tortall novels. Readers of Pierce’s novels will appreciate meeting famous characters’ ancestors, as well as learning  how women in the future will become socially lower than men, since in this time they are equals. Beka Cooper is a member of the Provost’s Guard or Dogs  (basically a cop) and  is a strong and cunning  protagonist. In Bloodhound, Cooper is lost; she cannot find a partner that is as good or as interested in stopping crime as her.  She excels above most of the other Dogs and therefore often finds herself growing frustrated with her struggle to change the world, while being bounced back and forth from her old bosses to her new reluctant partners.

Once again we are thrust into the streets of poverty stricken and working class Corus. Pierce gets down to the nitty gritty details of the filth that plagues the population and then transports the reader into the exotic Port Caynn. Cooper finds herself thrust into unfamiliar territory and begins to collect evidence, in a very ‘CSI: Tortall’ style. However, this time our intrepid Cooper is not hunting a child killer, but stopping counterfeiting.

At times Bloodhound reads like a struggle to convince both the reader and the author that counterfeiting is interesting.  The constant repetitive conversations on how counterfeiting is bad, seem to fill an extra 50 or so pages. I felt a need to tell Pierce, don’t worry, you have taken me on many journeys I trust your decisions. Though, admittedly reading about economic devastation is fitting for our current real world situation.

The entire series is written as journal entries, I appreciate Pierce’s attempt to try a new style,  however at times it can be a bit limiting and annoying. One of the joys of reading is getting an idea of what the other characters are thinking, or at least being a silent observer that sees more than the main character.  It’s frustrating to have an intense emotional or sexual moment come to pass and to have the character refuse to divulge the juicy details, citing their inability to express such moments in words. Yes, Beka Cooper is a reserved medieval policewoman of sorts,  probably her grasp of writing romantic literature is weak.  And it is admittedly out of character for her to dwell on such things, since Cooper really only writes about information pertinent to case she is trying to unravel. Despite the aforementioned, it is still frustrating to miss out on the details.  However, for remaining in character the entire novel I must praise Pierce for sticking with her journal entry style.

Despite my criticisms, Bloodhound is still essentially a good read. Pierce is a master of dialogue and building solid character relationships. The story is vivid, there is an awesome sewer chase scene and many of the new characters are interesting, however, you do get the feeling you may never read about them again.  Also, it’s enjoyable to read about Cooper when she is a complete fish out of water, but still manages to remain her strong, industrious, relentless lawful self.  There is adventure, mystery, riots, police work and romance. Just don’t expect any juicy details, Cooper doesn’t kiss and tell.

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Survive! Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere - AliveSurvive – Essential skills and tactics to get you out of anywhere – Alive
Les Stroud
Collins 2008
By Diana Poulsen
I am not a survival expert and I have a distaste for anything even remotely related to camping. I enjoy being outside, but I’d rather not sleep or go to the washroom in nature. For me, it’s simply not natural. However, watching Les Stroud’s television series, Survivorman, made me become interested in the outdoors and wonder of what would I do if I was stranded? How would I survive?  For those of you that are not familiar with Stroud’s series it follows him as he tries to survive in the wilderness, arctic, desert and a plethora of other locations for a week. Typically he has minimal supplies or pretends to be injured. He films his survival with a several cameras that he has to lug around from location to location, while trekking for water, food or sometimes the nearest civilization.
Survive provides readers with the advice and lessons that Stroud teaches on his show with exceptional detail and pictures. It is not a difficult read and the instructions make logical sense. Stroud offers the reader a variety of different survival skills. For example, there a plethora of ways to start a fire and Stroud gives a description for each of them, including his preferred methods and their level of difficulty. Stroud provides a various ways for gathering and distilling water and how to collect it yourself, in case you are in an arid region, using a somewhat difficult to construct solar still. Stroud himself will admit when some of his constructions are more difficult to make, however he always offers the reader an alternative solution for those of us that aren’t terribly handy.
Stroud’s novel is written in a friendly tone mixed with tips and real life examples. The stories he recounts of survival, helped me to remember the tips he was offering. For example, the story of his survival in the Ontario wildness and how he kept drinking lake water every so often as a way to feign off boredom and fear. This story helped me remember that doing something, even simply regularly drinking water,  keeps the mind from eating at itself.
Survive also tackles issues such as fear and loneliness. It is comforting to know that even a trained survival expert can be afraid and many people are afraid of the dark. Stroud writes about how the mind can be the survivor’s worst enemy. If you believe you are gonna die and fail, chances are you will. If you don’t give up and believe you will make, despite how hard it may be to imagine, your odds of surviving are much better. Yes, all those years that our families have been telling us to believe in our selves is actually the best advice for surviving in the wilderness, that and being resourceful. Everything can be used and don’t be afraid to break precious items. A watch or camera can be replaced, you cannot be. The last pages in his book are labelled fire starter, now you have permission to burn them to save yourself.
Initially, I was a little disappointed that the book is geared toward people that have camping experience. There is also the assumption that you may have certain camping items on you, like a knife or water purification tablets. However, that was my reaction during the first section, later sections teach the survivor how to make your own knifes. For once that pre-historic archaeology class I took which talked about making knifes from bone or rock will one day come in handy. There is even a short section on surviving a disaster at home.
Overall, it is a good read with both fact and a little bit of narrative to keep a reader’s interest.
Survive! Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere - AliveSurvive – Essential skills and tactics to get you out of anywhere – Alive
Les Stroud
Collins 2008

Reviewed by:  Diana Poulsen

I am not a survival expert and I have a distaste for anything even remotely related to camping. I enjoy being outside, but I’d rather not sleep or go to the washroom in nature. For me, it’s simply not natural. However, watching Les Stroud’s television series, Survivorman, made me become interested in the outdoors and wonder of what would I do if I was stranded? How would I survive?  For those of you not familiar with Stroud’s series it follows him as he tries to survive in the boreal wilderness, arctic tundra, deserts and a plethora of other locations for a week. Typically he has minimal supplies or occasionally pretends to be injured. He films his survival with a several cameras that he has to lug around from location to location, while trekking for water, food, shelter and sometimes the nearest civilization.

Survive provides readers with the advice and lessons that Stroud teaches on his show with exceptional detail and pictures. It is not a difficult read and the instructions make logical sense. Stroud offers the reader a variety of different survival skills. For example, there are a plethora of  descriptions on  the variety of ways to start a fire,  including Stroud’s preferred methods and their level of difficulty. Stroud provides several ways for gathering and distilling water as well as how to collect it yourself, in case you are in an arid region, using a somewhat difficult to construct solar still. Stroud will admit when some of his constructions are more difficult to make, however he always offers the reader an alternative solution for those of us that aren’t terribly handy.

Stroud’s book is written in a friendly tone, mixed with tips and real life examples. The stories he recounts of survival helps me remember the tips he was offering. For example, the story of his survival in the Ontario wilderness and how he kept drinking lake water every so often as a way to feign off boredom and fear. This story helped me remember that doing something, even simply regularly drinking water, can keep the mind from eating at itself.

survivorman_lstroud_400
Survive also tackles issues such as fear and loneliness. It is comforting to know that even a trained
survival expert can be afraid and many people are afraid of the dark. Stroud writes about how the mind can be the survivor’s worst enemy. If you believe you are gonna die and fail, chances are you will. If you don’t give up and believe you will make it back to civilization (home, family, friend, your dog, etc), despite how hard it may be to imagine, your odds of surviving are significantly better. Yes, all those years that our families have been telling us to believe in our selves is actually the best advice for surviving in the wilderness, that and being resourceful. Everything can be used and don’t be afraid to break precious items. A watch or camera can be replaced, you cannot be. Actually, the last pages in his book are labelled as fire starter, now you have permission to burn them to save yourself.

Initially, I was a little disappointed that the book is geared toward people that have camping experience. There is also the assumption that you may have certain camping items on you, like a knife or water purification tablets. However, that was my reaction during the first section. The later sections teach the survivor how to make their own knifes and how purify water without tablets. For once that pre-historic archaeology class I took which talked about making knifes from bone or rock will one day come in handy. There is even a short section on surviving a disaster at home.

Overall, it is a good read with both fact and a little bit of narrative to entertain the reader.

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