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Ready Player One: A Novel
Ready Player One: A Novel
by Ernest Cline
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.88
217 used & new from $3.54

5.0 out of 5 stars Pop culture to its logical absurdist conclusion, June 14, 2016
Ready Player One seems like a risky proposition on the surface. It is, effectively, a ode of love to '80s pop culture - television, movies, music, and most importantly video games. Such an ode is going to leave some things out and overemphasize others. It's going to depend on in-jokes and a knowledge base that not everyone will have (in fact it reminded me very much of Jo Walton's "Among Others" except with a more modern accessible influence) The plot: '80s pop culture guru and developer of the world-changing virtual reality game OASIS has died. His will stipulates that he leaves everything, including a controlling interest in the OASIS company (à la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), to whomever can solve a his quest in the game. The challenges in the quest involve playing vintage Atari 2600 games, knowing obscure trivia about TRS-80 text adventures, and being able to recite the correct lines as you become a character in an iconic 80s film. (Hint: if you don't know what an Atari 2600 or a TRS-80 are, you might find this book to be hard slogging.)

Wade, known by his avatar's name Parzival (deliberately mispelled because "Percival" was already taken), is just the person to tackle the quest. Having immersed himself in 80s culture through OASIS's ability to recreate anything from any time, he is the first to find the "copper key", the first step in the quest. His rivals are Art3mis and Aech, equally well-versed and obsessed with the quest. His enemy: the souless but well-organized and violent "Sixers", employees of rival company IOI who want to stage a hostile takeover and "properly monetize" the OASIS brand.

First off, I must admit that this is the fastest I've read a book in 5 years or more. It is a page turner, if only because you want to know what game/song/show comes up next (and, admitedly, hoping to see a personal favourite). The plot is not intricate nor subtle - the Sixers are pathalogically evil, Parzival and his friends are the plucky misunderstood outsiders who are going to save the day, etc. But the journey is the important part, and presumably the reader who enjoys it most will be the reader who grew up in the 80s and enjoyed the pop culture of the era, as I did. Certainly I found some points to nit-pick over: the overemphasis on Atari games, for one (a platform that effectively died in 1983, neglecting the newer Calecovision and C64 games that I grew up on). At another point, Rush's album 2112 becomes important, in spite of the fact that it was released in 1976 (why not choose, for example, Styx's Kilroy was Here from 1983?). Okay, so Rush is the greatest band in the world (and you didn't ask but yes, I am Canadian).... so I guess I'm not really complaining, just making an observation.

At any rate, there is nothing subtle or "literary" about this novel. But it is great fun. And exciting. And it'll probably make a great movie (Spielburg optioned it, and it's right in his wheelhouse). Don't expect plot or character development - if you lived in your aunt's laundry room and spent all your time online (like Parzival does) you wouldn't develop much character either!


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
by Randall Munroe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.91
264 used & new from $2.86

5.0 out of 5 stars His writing is fast-paced and funny. You can read it all in one sitting ..., May 24, 2016
Clearly Randall Munroe has a well-honed sense of the absurd. When asked how much power it would take for a laser to show up on the surface of the moon (if it was pointed at the moon from someone on Earth), he takes the readers through many iterations, from a Staples red laser pointer up to (and beyond) the "Star Wars" lasers designed for missile defense. This is clearly not a science book in the strictest sense of the word. Munroe is not interested in what is practically possible. Not even what is a reasonable extrapolation of what is currently possible. No, he goes all the way in answering the question. What would an earthquake of Richter level 15 do? He has a 1-word answer: Alderaan. If you don't understand this reference, perhaps this book is not for you: he invokes pop culture from Star Trek to Marvel superheroes to The Proclaimers (the Scottish band). His writing is fast-paced and funny. You can read it all in one sitting or leave it on the coffee table (or bathroom) and pick it up for 5 minutes at a time. It never gets dull - even questions you didn't know you had, or that you thought might not be interesting are, in fact, interesting once you've finished with Munroe's explanation.

Do you need to know a lot of science to appreciate the book? Perhaps a full suite of grade 11 science courses (and that you remember the information!) would be a prerequisite to following along with all the vignettes; on the other hand, I suspect that most of these are general enough for those that have forgotten the details of their science education. There are lots of cartoons to help illustrate points, which helps, and the conversational style is easy to read.

Such an analytical review does not do the book justice, however. It's really about what the world would look like if the oceans were drained by pulling a plug at the bottom (and then what Mars would look like if all the water ended up there). It's about what would happen if you stacked the actual elements on top of each other to make a periodic table (you won't even get to the end of the second row without killing yourself). It's about whether Yoda lifting Luke's X-Wing uses more power than the Emperor's Force lightning. And even if you've never wondered about any of these things, you'll have lots of fun reading the answers to these questions and more.


The Emperor's Soul (Hugo Award Winner - Best Novella)
The Emperor's Soul (Hugo Award Winner - Best Novella)
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.99
121 used & new from $6.26

5.0 out of 5 stars What really makes a man??, May 24, 2016
A successful impersonation, especially in a time before high-resolution photography and television, depends more on mannerisms and tone than it does on physical resemblance. Various cast members of Saturday Night Live know this. The Royal Canadian Air Farce troupe knows this. Robert Heinlein knew this and, in fact, also wrote an entire book on it - Double Star. Brandon Sanderson decided to take a new twist in The Emporer's Soul - what happens if you wipe a person's mind? You still have the physical vessel (and therefore an exact physical likeness), but what would you really need to know to recreate the person? What led to their mannerisms? What led them to react rationally to situation X while they would react emotionally to situation Y?

This is the connundrum that faces Wan Shai Lu, a "forger". Imprisoned and facing a death sentence, she is given a chance: reforge a soul for the Emporer, rendered soul-dead by an assassin, that will allow his current crop of ministers to retain control of the government. Thus, Shai must set out to learn all she can about the Emporer, implying from his reactions and manners what he is really thinking, making implications that his closest friends (and enemies) have not understood. And that is the whole story. Well, except for palace intrigue among the ministers, undead guardians awaiting Shai's inevitable escape attempt, a captain of the guard who is just looking for an excuse to fulfill the death sentence, etc. etc. Sanderson is a skilled writer - in a mere 167 pages, he fills out the rules of the universe, the major players involved, their interconnections and rivalries, etc. Unlike so many longer books, this one is exactly as long as it needs to be: no shorter, no longer.

I was brought to Sanderson the same way (I suspect) that many others were: because he was chosen by Mrs. Jordan to finish her late husband's Wheel of Time series. Because this is a novella, the pace is faster, the number of characters is fewer, but fans of that series will find a lot to like about The Emporer's Soul. The self-consistency of the world's rules and how the story fits within it would put most Hollywood screenwriters (and novelists, for that matter) to shame. It is not without flaws, or at least irritants - Shai is self-righteous and narcisistic, using the common excuse of graffiti artists that she is beautifying the thing she is defacing, and if you don't agree you are a Philistine. But these are not important enough to matter. The short length prevents any time for resenting traits or characters, and the story is exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story. You can't ask for more than that.


The Ionian Mission (Vol. Book 8)  (Aubrey/Maturin Novels)
The Ionian Mission (Vol. Book 8) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels)
by Patrick O'Brian
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.45
273 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Finally: blockade duty for Jack and Stephen, April 24, 2016
For those that were growing weary of intrigues by land, of Stephen Maturin's intelligence work, who wanted to get back to sea with Lucky Jack Aubrey - well, this is the book for you. Capt. Aubrey is now in command of a 74-gun line-of-battle ship, sent to the Toulon blockade (the French Mediterranean naval base). Unfortunately for Jack, HMS Worcester is English-made (it is a truism in the Age of Sail that British ships were terribly built and expertly crewed.... and the opposite was true of the French and Spanish). Leaky, sluggish, and past her best-before date, the Worcester is still formidable in the hands of a skilled sailor like Jack Aubrey. Further complications ensue - the Vice Admiral o the fleet was cuckolded by Jack some years before. The Admiral, while admiring Jack's skill, is feeble and worn out by years on a dull station. The Ottoman Empire is fractious and internecine warfare is likely to break out at any time between pro-French, pro-English, and ambivalent beys who will sell their ports to the highest bidder.

But wait: perhaps the last is an advantage after all. After failing at an ambiguous mission designed to start a shooting war with a French squadron in a neutral port, Jack is given a second chance: take his old frigate Surprise, along with Stephen and a Turkish professor in the employ of the Foreign Office, to decide which of three rebellious beys will be able and willing to attack a French-held town in Ottoman territory. Naturally, Jack sees this as a military mission, requiring quick decision and overwhelming use of force. The diplomat, on the other hand, sees this as a delicate dance to extract concessions and formal treaties, possibly taking months to complete. Obviously this leads to conflict!

To say that the book is slow-moving is probably fair. That's not to say it isn't interesting, but those who do not care to be submerged in the world of Napoleonic Era Royal Navy life should probably pick something else. No other book in the series, so far, so readily encapsulates the actual job that the Royal Navy did during most of the war. After the Nile and Trafalgar, the French no longer left their ports, except in non-confrontational sorties that led to a lot of blundering around trying to find them in a storm, followed by a rapid French retreat back to the port without anyone having fired a broadside. The real action lay in the frigates, albeit usually in the North American station, where American privateers and their large frigates were eager to fight. Luckily for Jack and for this novel, there is at least one (fictional?) Turk willing to fight, and so we end the book with the Surprise trading shots with a modern and well-fought Turkish ship in a hectic and exciting battle. If you're willing to wade through 200 pages of blockade, jibs, and bully beef, you will be rewarded for your patience. And those 200 pages of blockade, jibs, and bully beef are actually pretty entertaining too.


A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $6.00
207 used & new from $0.33

4.0 out of 5 stars Bears, snowstorms, and scrambles... oh my!, April 24, 2016
Bill Bryson has done a lot, seen a lot, and written a lot. Most of his books are surveys, covering lots of ground (literally and figuratively). The pace of the Appalachian Trail, the focus of this work, is not amenable to such a treatment. When you are covering a maximum of 10 miles a day, on foot, often not seeing another human being for days on end, often seeing nothing but trees for entire days, there is no way to keep the journey itself interesting for 250 pages. Thus, Bryson does what he does best - find out all the details and parse them down to the most interesting and/or funniest.

The Appalachian trail is one of the longest in the world. It is not for the faint-of-heart: sometimes it is 10 days between towns. Sometimes it is hot or cold, sometimes the wind threatens to blow you off the peak you spent the last 6 hours climbing. There are bears and other forms of potentially life-threatening wildlife. You have to take all your food with you. If you are a good hiker - and lucky - you can do the whole trail in one summer, but most people (Bryson included) do it in sections. Luckily, Bryson takes us along for the ride, and if this book is not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of his other offerings, it is perhaps more pointed. Some of his observations regarding political machinations and conservation are trenchant, as is his observation, after reading about a law that would ban the teaching of evolution, that "The people of Tennessee are not so much in danger of being descended from apes as of being overtaken by them." He calls one of his fellow hikers"the stupidest person in the world". On the other hand, there are many genuinely heartwarming experiences, interacting with fellow travelers and the owners of bed and breakfasts.

So this is a journey worth taking. I can't say that the subject matter appealed to me that much at first, but soon I was deep in the Shenandoah Valley trekking along with Bill and his buddy Katz, footsore and sick of instant noodles, counting the days when "we" would emerge from the forest and see that most welcome of sites: a burger joint in a truck stop with showers. Paradise!


Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy)
Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy)
by Jeff VanderMeer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.35
156 used & new from $1.97

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric, yes, but wore out its welcome too quickly, March 18, 2016
Annihilation is a creepy, atmospheric book that attempts to find horror (in the classic sense) in a group of people sent off into the unknown, and having that unknown attack them in bizarre and unexpected ways. In this (dystopian?) future, mankind has been pushed out of a geographical zone (called Area X), which is surrounded by a "boundary". The exact nature of the Area X and the boundary are a mystery, at least to "The Biologist", who narrates the story. All she knows is what she's been told, and she knows that the authorities cannot be trusted to tell the whole truth. Nonetheless, after her husband returns from a trip into Area X, she finds that his personality has been drained, along with his emotions. hus she makes the, perhaps suicidal, decision to join the next group of 5 explorers going into the zone.

Once there, the group immediately finds a building that is not on the maps (even though all other buildings and features in the vicinity are clearly marked). One member of the mission "leaves" (or is she dead?). The Biologist is infected with unknown spores. Fluorescent writing with pocalyptic warnings appears on the walls of the unknown building. The Biologist catches the Psychologist attempting to use post-hypnotic suggestions on other members of the team. And that is just within the first 40 pages! VanderMeer keeps up the suspense and throws in a few surprises along the next 100 pages, keeping the reader turning the pages.

Then, unfortunately, the story runs out of steam. Without giving away any details (which would be unthinkable in a thriller/horror story review!), I found the last 60-75 pages to be a slog. There are too many things that aren't really explained, and some of the reveals (for example, the origin of the fluorescent writing) seemed arbitrary and therefore unsatisfying. Granted, Annihilation is the first of a trilogy, so perhaps more is explained in future episodes, but this raises another negative against the book - if the first book of a trilogy is a mere 200 pages, it strikes me as simply greed or hubris to publish it separately, rather than combining it into one volume with another part of the story. Not having read the already-released 2nd and 3rd books, which are longer (350 pages), I'm sure there is a logical reason to split the overall story into three pieces.... but still, compared to, say, a Michner book, one can't help but think that these three literary pieces should be sold as one physical entity.


How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
by Mike Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.59
64 used & new from $3.13

5.0 out of 5 stars Planet-finder turned planet-"killer", February 23, 2016
Late in this book, author and planet-hunter Michael Brown tells of an encounter with a Pluto-as-planet supporter, who asked, rather rudely I thought, what his daughter would think of him having killed Pluto. He correctly and scientifically points out that his daughter will grow up in a world where there are 8 planets, and someone telling her Pluto used to be considered a planet would be as odd as someone from 1820 telling a modern person that Ceres, Pallas, Vesta, and Juno are planets. Three of these are now considered asteroids, and modern textbooks will call Ceres, Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, and Eris "dwarf planets". This is the meaning of the title "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming" - Mike Brown, as discoverer of multiple dwarf planets, caused the upheaval that resulted in the astronomical community revisiting what is meant by the terms "planet", "asteroid", etc. In that process, Pluto was found to be only one of a very large number of small planetoids, and as a result the number of planets needed to be redefined.

This book is really a biography - both in the scientific and the personal sense. Not only do we see young Dr. Brown struggling with cloudy nights at the observatory, but also on vacation at his in-laws' house, dancing his newborn daughter to sleep, and teaching a course in introductory geology.... a course that he himself never took and therefore he had to learn the material along with the class. The tale is richer for it, personalizing the various discoveries and placing them in the context of a professor's research efforts. Anyone familiar with the scientific process, or life at a university (as student or employee) will fondly recognize the foibles and frustrations documented herein. Further, the book is written in an engaging style, highlighting the big points without getting bogged down in some interesting but perhaps redundant stories (e.g. his Brown's discovery of Ceto is not mentioned at all, nor are the literally dozens of unnamed objects he and his group are credited with discovering).

Another interesting part of the book (obviously told only from Brown's side) is the controversy over Eris - discovery was claimed by another group, Brown and others have claimed serious ethical breaches in the rival group's claim, and the IAU has never really investigated the matter to Brown's satisfaction. While it is sure to provide ample fodder for critics of the Western Way of doing science, it also highlights the "high-risk, high-reward" nature of cutting-edge science. He also addresses the plight of all successful people: the "haters" who try to tear him down merely because he is successful (and, probably, because he is American) - ask any star athlete, actor, businessman, or singer and they'll tell you about the irrational few who hate them seemingly just for the fun of hating them. Unfortunately science is no different.

Not so positive are some of Brown's dismissals of other proposals that were debated by the IAU at the time of Pluto's demotion. For example, he (disengeniously, I think) mocks the creation of a double-planet definition by saying that the Jupiter-Sun system would fall under the definition, conveniently ignoring the fact that the Sun is undoubtedly a star (defined by the fact that it is burning fuel in a fusion reaction) and therefore not a planet. He also makes a big deal about "size" but only uses the definition of radius, when surely mass is a more important measure of size, especially in the sense of the gravitational forces holding the solar system together. However, I think he's right when he mocks the term "dwarf planet" when the one-word term "planetoid" is surely a better descriptor.

So, overall this is an entertaining and very informative book. I think anyone with even the slightest interest and literacy in sciences will enjoy the book. It is not technical (in the mathematical sense) but it is rigorous, showing all the ins and outs of a scientist as he works on his research and, at the same time, lives his life.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 28, 2016 10:36 PM PDT


Cryptonomicon
Cryptonomicon
by Neal Stephenson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.19
312 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A reformed cyberpunk takes on cryptography, February 9, 2016
This review is from: Cryptonomicon (Paperback)
Perhaps it is not fair to try and put a label on Neal Stephenson (nor any other writer for that matter) but I have previously grouped him firmly in the cyberpunk-influenced camp of writers. Because I'm not a particular fan of the genre, I overlooked the work that Stephenson was doing in contemporary fiction. Without knowing anything about his other work, you would certainly not put that label on Cryptonomicon. As the jacket points out, it's more like a cross between Michael Crichton and Robert Michener: here is the first (that I've read) multi-generational techno-thriller.

The story seamlessly interweaves multiple stories in two time periods (WW2 and present day), related through the theme of cryptography. The reader knows there is some relationship between the various characters between the time periods. After all, how many people are named "Shaftoe" or "Waterhouse" - it would be the laziest kind of hack misdirection if characters with such distingtive names were not related! The fun is figuring out how the various characters and stories intertwine: We start with USMC Pvt. Bobby Shaftoe in Shanghai and socially awkward Lawrence Waterhouse doing mathematics research at Princeton (among many others). We know that these people will eventually relate to each other and to maritime salvage diver Amy Shaftoe and silicon valley entrepreneur Randy Waterhouse. The unifying theme comes through cryptography - Waterhouse Sr. is at Pronceton with Turing, who works on the first computer in order to break the Enigma ciphers, who then ..... you get the idea. The story arc ends up being deceptively simple yet satisfying when all the threads are finally joined together in the last few hundred pages.

Yes, I said the last few hundred pages - this is a hefty book coming in (for my "pocket" paperback edition) at 1168 pages. Luckily it is not a slow read - the narrative switches back and forth between stories/time periods every chapter, and the chapters are not long. You are sure to keep turning pages to find out what happens next. Unfortunately, there are times in the middle of the book when I felt that there was too much of the same. For example, Randy's companies get sued three times over the course of the book... twice by the same person! I'm sure that intellectual property law is interesting and can provide ample conflict for a novel (I'm looking at you, John Grisham), but it just dragged on repetitively in this book.

Overall, though, this is a very enjoyable read. There are bursts of humour (even some laugh-out-loud moments), there is mathematics (but not difficult), there are even diagrams and graphs. But most importantly Stephenson holds together the threads of the story through time and space to give an overall package that holds together as well as any industrial espionage/war thriller (in fact, better than most).


At the Sharp End Volume One: Canadians Fighting The Great War 1914 To 1916
At the Sharp End Volume One: Canadians Fighting The Great War 1914 To 1916
by Tim Cook
Edition: Hardcover
11 used & new from $34.98

4.0 out of 5 stars The Canadian Corps in the mud of Flanders and the Somme, January 6, 2016
Just to be clear at the outset - Tim Cook's book is not exactly the a history of "Canadians fighting in the Great War." It is, rather, a story about the infantry and the Canadian Corps - i.e. the army - and their land battles. One might argue that there was no such thing as the RCAF, and the RCN was effectively useless, but there were thousands of Canadians in the RN, the Royal Flying Corps, and of course the merchant marine running the U-Boat gauntlet. Similarly it seems almost petty to not include the trials of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment; it's true that Newfoundland was not part of Canada at the time, but they are now and they fought at the Somme just as the Canadians did. Perhaps these are quibbling points, but I would like potential buyers to know exactly what this book is about: it is about the contributions of Canada to the trench warfare of the Western Front - first as units spread through the BEF and later as a coherent Canadian Corps, consisting of 2, then 3, and ultimately 4 divisions of army troops contesting the ground of eastern France and western Belgium with the Imperial German army.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. If you recall the opening scenes of "Saving Private Ryan", you will have some idea of the brutal nature of artillery and machine gun fighting, and you'll recognize the brutally graphic descriptions this book contains. Yes it is extremely graphic in places, but the gore is never described simply for shock value - to the author's credit, he is trying to realistically portray the horror and hopelessness of fighting in the tranches. He succeeds. l totally agree with one of the quotes written on the back of the book: "You'll feel the mud of Flanders sticking to your feet". Yes, dear reader, it is easier to picture life in the trenches after reading this book than after seeing any number of Hollywood films.

Fortunately, Cook spaces the trench warfare horrors out with a variety of more practical descriptions - movement of troops, explanations of training regimens, maps, and a healthy dose of typical soldier griping culled from letters sent back home. He discusses in detail the influence of politicians (i.e. Sam Hughes) and generals. Without making it into a narrative point, he naturally shows the progression of the fighting quality of the Canadian Corp, where you can clearly see by the end how certain Canadian units came to be known to the Germans as Stosstruppen - Storm Troops - in the later years of the war (this is the title of Cook's second half of this 2-volume history). But most importantly, he covers in detail each of the Canadian Corps' various offensive and defensive battles, starting with 2nd Ypres (the first large-scale gas attack on the Western Front), through to the set-piece battles of the Somme. I was especially glad to see an entire chapter devoted to the Battle of Courcelette, which is where my great uncle perished in September of 1916. This is where Cook shines - even a battle that rages for 3 days for the end result of only a few hundred metres of progress reads briskly and coherently.

If there are some flaws, perhaps they are inherent with the subject matter - 2 years of trench warfare and spending hundreds of thousands of casualties for no particular gain does not lend itself to a stirring narrative structure, and is bound to be repetitive. Cook does not help his cause by overusing terms like "the sharp end" (it sounds like a gimmick, given that it's the name of the book). With the return of more mobility with the German final offensive, and with Vimy and Passchendaele upcoming, I expect I will like the second volume better. I'll also hope that he includes a little more on Canadians in the North Atlantic and in the air (surely a Canadian history of WWI must include mention of Billy Bishop!).


Midnight's Children: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)
Midnight's Children: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)
by Salman Rushdie
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.60
199 used & new from $1.87

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a little bit of everything: just like India, November 13, 2015
There is no doubt, based on Salman Rushdie's debut novel, that he is a very talented writer. He writes intellegently but not pompously, he is serious and very funny (sometimes at the same time!), and he can effortlessly weave characters and situations in and around themselves without losing the reader. I couldn't remember exactly everything about every character (who could? - there are so many of them!), but while you were reading it, you didn't need to. You never felt lost or confused. Unfortunately, there are a few important problems that were significant enough for me to drop the rating to 3/5.

The plot: India officially gained independence from the Great Britain at midnight on 15 August 1947. Saleem Sinai, the protagonist/narrator of the book, was born at the exact same moment. Thus he (and everyone else born in India's first hour of independence) is imbued with a special power due to the "magic" of that first hour: he has the ability to read the thoughts of others and to communicate directly (brain-to-brain) with all the other Midnight Children. Also, right at the stroke of midnight, was born Shiva, whose power (bizarrely) was enormously powerful knees, a squeeze from which can (and does) kill, and whose strength give him superhuman stamina and physical ability. As Saleem and the nation grow, they suffer and celebrate together. In a "Forrest Gump" kind of way, Saleem is present and influences key events in the fledgling nation's development. We also get an intimate look at life growing up in India (albeit as a highly privileged child) and, later, in Pakistan. It is an unflattering look, and at times Saleem's life is downright grim: every one of his cousins suffers debilitating physical and mental abuse from their parents, almost all of the marriages are loveless battles of dominance between the husband and the wife, almost every one of Selim's relatives dies violently and/or painfully, etc. That's not to say that the book is a horror from end to end: far from it, long passages are heartwarming, charming, funny, and full of love of life. Unfortunately, for me the long grind of loveless marriages, abuse, and the forced sterility campaigns of the Emergency wears down and ultimately overwhelms the joy of the story (and, in fact, the joy of reading Rushdie's prose).

The ultimate overwhelming of the bad by the good (at least in the grand scheme of the story's narrative) is not, however, why I give the book only three stars. One could argue that Saleem's family is perhaps accurate - child abuse and loveless marriages probably do run through several generations at a time, so there surely are cases like his (although Rushdie himself is clear that Selim is not an autobiographical character). Rather, it is the first 30 pages and the last 75 that drop the rating of this book from a strong 4-5 into the 3/5 rating I give it. Frankly, the first chapter is unreadable. Similarly, most of the last 100 pages are also unreadable. It is not the subject matter, it is the style. Rushdie circles around in the head of his protagonist and writes out his doubts on the page thusly: "Now we come to the end (no, don't tell it!) - but I must. So here it is in the plain truth. Don't judge me when I ..... but we'll come to that. For now let me start (please don't make me!) ..." This is not an exact quote, but imagine 75 pages of this kind of prose, and you get the end of Midnight's Children. The book doesn't end, it rather peters out in a soul-gnashing bout of self-loathing and vascillation.

So, Rushdie doesn't adhere to the classic story-telling rule: get the beginning and the end right, and the rest will take care of itself. Rather, Midnight's Children starts badly and ends badly. The middle is quite delightful, however, and I'm happy to recommend it, so long as you are prepared to brace yourself for a truly unpleasant (artistically and thematically) ending.


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