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Friday, May 13, 2016

The Alchemist

My brother wanted me to read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. He wanted to know what I would think. I confess that I wasn't really interested, but took it at his insistence. Like he said, it's a short book that I'd be able to read through super quickly (totally true - I read the majority of it over the last four hours, which were interrupted several times when my cat wandered into the room wanting to play). My mom was interested in reading it, but she's in the middle of another book, so this was the perfect time to read it before giving it to her. Oh, and I had just gotten a little over 100 pages through Dean Koontz's By the Light of the Moon and decided I was going to stop because it failed to hold my interest. So now was honestly the perfect time to read through The Alchemist before sending it on its way.

The Alchemist is the story of a Shepherd boy who after having the same dream two nights in a row goes in search of his Personal Legend: he must journey to the pyramids of Egypt to find his personal treasure. Along the way he meets many interesting people: a gypsy, a king, a merchant, an Englishman, his soulmate, and the actual alchemist of the title. These people and his journeys, both directly and indirectly, teach him about the universal language and the Soul of the World. It is through these lessons that he will find his Personal Legend and the treasure that awaits him at the end of his journey.

The Alchemist is an interesting read that will (and does) appeal to many people. It's telling you how you too can pursue your dreams, just like the Shepherd boy. Follow the omens (the road map that will point you in the right direction) and the world will conspire to get you there. Your journey will be hard as the world will test you along the way (to make sure you've learned the lessons it has taught you), but getting to the end of your journey will be worth it.

Unfortunately, I found The Alchemist to be a very heavy handed read. It would have been better with more subtlety, leaving both you the reader and the Shepherd boy to discover things along the way. But it tells instead of shows every single step along the way. It's also super repetitive, telling you things over and over again, drilling stuff into your head to make sure you get it. It's a real shame, too. The Alchemist has a good message; I just wish it had been a whole lot less didactic.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Knife Fight and Other Struggles

I bought Knife Fight and Other Struggles last year at Ad Astra after I heard David Nickle read the first half of "The Exorcist: A Love Story."  He didn't finish reading the story and I HAD to know how it ended.  So I bought it and proceeded to leave it on my shelf for a year, untouched.  I don't know why I did that, because I was really excited by that story.  But stay on the shelf it did.  Until a few days ago when I finally decided to pick up the book and finish "The Exorcist: A Love Story."  

Knife Fight has 12 short stories in it.  13 if you count "Orlok," a prelude to Nickle's novel Volk.  Oh yeah, and a really  awesome introduction by Peter Watts.  Most of the stories were written in first person, but you always had an excellent sense of what the narrator was like; Nickle could write as a lovestruck young woman as easily as a jaded old man.  And Nickle's prose was almost hypnotic.  Whatever he was writing about, the stories sucked you in with their details.  This was true even of the stories that I honestly didn't get (and unfortunately there were a few of them).

I'm not going to give detailed thoughts on all the stories like I have been doing lately; instead I'll give a little more detail on my favourites and just mention the rest.

Oh course, starting the list is "The Exorcist: A Love Story."  The beginning of that story is just as good as I remember it being when I heard Nickle reading it a year ago.  It's told from the demon's perspective, who has inhabited a baby boy.  It turns out the demon has a very specific motive in its choice of inhabitants: the baby is the child of the girl the exorcist has had a crush on since high school.  

After (finally!) finishing "The Exorcist: A Love Story," I went back and started from the beginning of the book.  "Looker" was odd.  I honestly didn't get what was going on in "The Radejastians" (although that was the point where I felt like I really should have read the Lovecraft book I have before reading this).  "The Summer Worms" was super creepy (although that may also be because I have seen army worms and the thought of them congregating on a house and cocooning it is really creepy!)  "Basements" was another one that was weird and I didn't really understand it at all.  I liked a lot of the middle of it, but the beginning and end were weird and vague.  Who was the company?  Who or what was Mr. Nu?  These are questions I cannot answer.  "Oops" was a short one that was a bit weird, but okay.  Same with "Black Hen a la Ford."  Oh, and "Orlok."  I didn't really care for it unfortunately.  :(

Now on to the (other) awesome stories!

"Knife Fight" was pure awesome.  A mayor of a city (which may be based off of a rather infamous Toronto mayor) has a Fight Club with knives.  Battles go to the first blood.  Winner takes all.  His advisors and staff are made or broken in the fights (which ends with them losing their jobs - no one dies or anything).  The press gets wind of these fights, and one journalist challenges the mayor.  They end up fighting an epic, multi-week battle with no clear winner or loser.  It's quite the fantastic story.

"Love Means Forever" was a really powerful story.  A woman awakens from cryogenic sleep to find the man she loves no longer loves her.  The medical support staff who remained awake on the ship had gone crazy and ended up removing their feelings (it reminded me of Equilibrium quite a bit).  So she has to decide what she will do: move on, or remain with the man she loves, even knowing he isn't capable of loving her back.  (By the way, there's a scalpel fight in this story.  No details, but it made me laugh that another knife fight definitely happened).

"Wylde's Kingdom" was another really good read.  There's a super storm over the world called Atlantica (think of it like Jupiter's big red spot).  A man named Jerry Wylde has a boat in the middle of it (well, hanging out away from the storm).  He started a TV show with Max (who he insisted on calling Jim), who goes into crazy scenarios and survives (which really means killing a whole bunch of animals).  But Max ran away several years ago and wanted to be left in peace as the world ended.  But such was not to be; Jerry Wylde has tracked him down for a big comeback special - Max versus a whole nest of Kraken!  Max resigns himself to the show.  All seems set for the greatest comeback of all time...until they realize the Kraken are much more organized than they have any right to be.

"The Nothing Book of the Dead" was really interesting.  It was written as notes back and forth between a woman and her grandson.  But then the woman dies...but keeps correcting his grammar and writing him notes...this one was definitely worth the read!

"Drakeela Must Die" was a rather fun story.  There's a vampire in a kindergarten class, and some of his classmates have taken it upon themselves to vanquish him like they've seen it done in the old movies.  

So that, in brief, is Knife Fight.  It's an interesting collection of stories.  Like Peter Watts says, most of them are horror, in the broadest definition possible.  But Nickle is not limited to that genre, capable of writing other things as well ("Love Means Forever" is definitely sci fi, not a typical supernatural horror). There's no hack and slash stuff, which I really liked (I much prefer when things are left up to your imagination anyway, even though that's not really applicable here because there was no gore, implied or otherwise).  I do wish I hadn't put this off for so long.  But I wish even more that I had read some Lovecraft first.  So I'll probably be getting to that Lovecraft book I have sooner rather than later.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Other Kingdoms

I've been wanting to read Richard Matheson's Other Kingdoms for quite awhile now.  So after finishing Money Mindset and a few Macleans magazines, I decided it was the perfect book to finally get to.  I started reading it sometime last night, and finished it this afternoon.  It's a super quick, easy read.  One that sounded exactly like the type of thing I would really like.  I'm going to let the book's blurb do the talking for me here:

1918. A young American soldier, recently wounded in the Great War, Alex White comes to Gatford to escape his troubled past. The pastoral English village seems the perfect spot to heal his wounded body and soul. True, the neighboring woods are said to be haunted by capricious, even malevolent spirits, but surely those are just old wives’ tales.

Aren’t they?


At least that's what the back of the book says.  The Goodreads page goes on to add: 

A frightening encounter in the forest leads Alex into the arms of Magda Variel, an alluring red-haired widow rumored to be a witch. She warns him to steer clear of the wood and the perilous faerie kingdom it borders, but Alex cannot help himself. Drawn to its verdant mysteries, he finds love, danger…and wonders that will forever change his view of the world.
Other Kingdoms casts a magical spell, as conjured by a truly legendary storyteller.

The back of my version of the book made this sound like it was going to be an awesome ride through the woods with some terrifying versions of faeries chasing after Alex White.  I was pretty excited for it because I really liked the idea of seeing the more horrific version of the fae.  


Okay, so let me give you a little more of this story (warning - major spoilers follow).  Alex makes his way to Gatford after a friend in the trenches tells him to go there with his dying breath (while also telling Alex to sell his gold and buy a cottage there).  Having himself gotten a war-wound at the same time, Alex decides he might as well track Gatford down (because nothing is waiting for him back home except the father he loathes).  Despite its hidden location, Alex manages to find it.  Alex quickly finds himself a party interested in the gold and rents himself a small cabin.  Life seems alright (other than the leaking roof, which is quickly repaired by Joe) until Alex takes a walk into the woods and steps off the path.  

The first time it happens, he hears voices in his head.  The second time is when he is rooted to the spot, about to be trampled, only to be saved by Magda.  That's the point when he is led into her arms and they become lovers (even though he is many years her junior).  Their relationship is a strange one, made all the more so by Alex's increasing fear.  So when she leaves for a few days, he takes another wander through the forest and meets Ruthana, the angelic faerie girl who immediately captures his heart.  She saves him from her brother Gilly, who attacks again (although Alex does not see him).

This event leads to a sundering of his relationship with Magda.  Magda returns home and Alex no longer wants to have sex with her (even though he hadn't really wanted to for some time previously).  Magda realizes that his encounter with the faerie girl has changed his feeling for her, and orders him out of her house.  He returns to the cottage he was renting to endure two nights of terror.  After the first one, Joe appears, bringing Alex some food.  He gives Alex some advice for stopping the faerie attacks (because that's what they have to be, even though Alex refuses to believe that his Ruthana could do such a thing; I should note that both Magda and Joe made mention of the fact that Alex never saw Gilly, and so believed Ruthana was tricking him that she even had a brother).  Alex attempts this, but nothing works.  Determined that it must be a witch attack of some sort, Alex goes to confront Magda, who is highly insulted and upset that Alex would think she would do such things to the father of her child.  Yes, they have been having unprotected sex for awhile now, so of course she is with child.

They reconcile, and Alex moves back into her house for awhile.  But then a dream of Ruthana desperately trying to tell Alex to come back to her results in him returning to the woods.  He asks her about the attacks and she tells him that those are witch attacks; faeries are not capable of such things.  She introduces Alex to Gilly (ordering Gilly to leave Alex alone).  They make love in a pure (they made love, not lust...it was non-carnal) way.  Then Alex decided he had to go and say goodbye to Magda properly before running off with Ruthana forever (Magda is having his child afterall).

Well, things go badly.  Magda had already gotten rid of the child because it was going to be a girl, not the boy she wanted.  And she tries to take off Alex's head with a machete.  The only thing that saves him is some powder Ruthana had given him to protect himself with; it made Magda blind.  He then runs off into the woods to live happily ever after with Ruthana.  They marry and she is with child.

All is not well of course though.  Gilly keeps trying to kill the Human Being who lives among them.  Magda also attacks Alex by shapeshifting into a griffin (and kills herself somehow - I really did not understand how that happened).  But then the worst thing in the world happens - the shrinking potion he had used earlier to live among the faeries was wearing off.  Alex wanted to use another one, but the faeries said no, it could kill him.  So he was banished from their world (which for some reason meant leaving Gatford too, for some reason I could not fathom.  Couldn't he have just stayed there and lived near Ruthana?  Oh wait...he managed to alienate the villagers while he was there because he was an ass to almost everyone he met there).  And Ruthana dies of a broken heart a few months later.  But Alex lives to the ripe old age of 85.  Long enough to finally drum up the courage to narrate this whole tale at the age of 82.

Yes, that was honestly the end of the book.  It was really anti-climatic.  And didn't at all have the horror feel I thought it was going to have.  Sure, the beginning started out with that feel.  But Other Kingdoms became very much a love story before part two (out of three parts) was over.  

And the I'm not entirely sure how it became a love story either.  I mean, of the women who wanted Alex, Magda's motivations made a perverted sort of sense.  Alex himself said that she wanted to replace her dead son with him (and that he played the part for her perfectly).  Ruthana was the one who was truly and madly in love with him.  But why?  She was never given a reason for this love (beyond maybe love at first sight?)  So that made this latter half of the book all the harder to swallow.  

I do want to say though, the fact that an 82 year old Alex was narrating the story made it rather interesting.  Sure, it was tedious at times, as other people pointed out (he pointed out alliteration EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. IT. HAPPENED.)  But it was still an interesting (if not entirely successful) way to frame the story.  

And as much as I wasn't a fan of the ending of the book, I do not regret reading it.  Other Kingdoms hooked me in pretty quickly and was interesting enough to keep reading (and read really fast!). 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Money Mindset

Wow, Money Mindset by Jacob Gold is the fourth nonfiction book I've read so far this year.  I took it out a few weeks ago and didn't have time to sit down and read it.  But then today I noticed someone else had put it on hold so I figured I might as well get to it.  Luckily Money Mindset is a super fast read; I finished it in a few hours.

Money Mindset is Gold's attempt to show readers how to grow their wealth now that the rules that worked in the mid-20th Century are no-longer working.  He specifically wrote it for Gen Xers and Millennials, but hopes that people of all ages and financial savvy will get something out of this book.  Equating money to "financial energy," Gold takes you through a step by step process to help you determine your future money (ie retirement) needs and how to start getting yourself there (with the caveat that it is much better to start saving now rather than waiting until later).

Gold's book is very easy to follow along (which was a good thing because I'm a bit under the weather right now and wasn't sure if I'd be able to focus on it).  I now have a better understanding of the basics of how to grow my money, which is really what I was hoping to get out of this book.  I'm also planning on checking out some of the websites he recommends, like Vanguard's risk tolerance questionnaire.

A major complaint for me is that it is very much an American book.  I do believe that much of what he said is useful for people located elsewhere in the world.  But he only looks at American programs (like the 401 (k) and the IRA).  I realize that Gold is American and writing for an American audience, but for someone not located in the USA, the book was a bit off-putting at times (particularly the appendix, which details the history of energy in the United States - I honestly do not recommend reading that unless you're genuinely interested because it doesn't add a whole lot to the book as a whole and I'm glad he made it into an appendix instead of leaving it as the introduction to the book).

Overall, this is a great place to start if you know very little about financial planning for your future.  It's also a great place to look at how financial planning has changed and how to plan more successfully for your future in the 21st Century's uncertain economic times.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

If I Fall If I Die

Wow, I really haven't been reading much lately.  But then my brother lent me If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie and I needed to read it fast for a variety of reasons.  Michael Christie is originally from Thunder Bay, and he set this there, which was kind of exciting (the last book I read set here was Anna Dressed in Blood).

If I Fall, If I Die starts out as a very intriguing book.  Will lives with his mother Inside.  His mother has never forbidden him from going outside, but Will knows she would have a hard time handling his going (she's an agoraphobe who has gradually become too afraid to leave her house).  Besides, it's his job to protect her.  But when he hears a strange noise, he braves going Outside.  Of course, once he realizes that going Outside will not result in his immediate demise, Will starts wanting to venture Outside all the more.  But when he realizes that Marcus, his first Outside friend (Marcus set a smoke bomb off in Will's yard in order to steal Will's garden hose; despite slingshotting Will in the head during their first meeting, Will considers him a friend because Marcus said "sure, whatever" when Will asked) has disappeared, Will makes it his mission to find the other boy.  Will even decides to brave going to school to find him. 

What starts out as a wonderful exploration of the Outside takes a bit of a weird turn about 100 pages in.  Marcus was embroiled with a scheme of the local crime lord (I think?), the Butler.  The Butler's wolves (yes, he has wolves for some reason) attack another boy in school, Jonah.  Will and Jonah become friends determined to track down Marcus while becoming the best skateboarders in Thunder Bay.  They find themselves down in the waterfront where they meet Titus, a deranged man who was beaten up by the Butler.  They nurse him back to health in the hopes that he'll let spill a clue about Marcus's whereabouts.  But after getting threatened by the Butler, Jonah decides he wants out of the investigation.  Will goes to end things and confront Titus (because he also found Titus's fingerprints in his house), but the Butler arrives and captures them (and Jonah, who showed up at the waterfront too).  After threatening to kill the boys unless Titus tells the Butler what happened to Marcus, Will's mother shows up with Jonah's brothers, who quickly turn the tables and free the good guys.  And Titus ends up Will's long-lost uncle who the book makes you believe died years previously in an accident at the grain elevators.  So Will ends up with a bigger family and everyone is mostly happy, or will be in a few years when Will and Jonah are back in the same school (Will and Jonah cut class too many times skateboarding and caring for Titus so Jonah got sent to some other school).

That literally is what happens, even though it sounds kind of crazy.  And it was crazy.  From about the time of the wolf attack, I felt like this book was off.  Part of the problem was that it didn't feel like Thunder Bay (except, unfortunately, the racism against Native Canadians.  Sadly that is a very real problem here).  And that feeling of being off just culminated in the ridiculous action-packed climax that seemed to belong in another book.

But despite the craziness, this book is very well-written.  Christie's prose is beautiful.  I loved the stuff at the beginning of the book, when Will was first venturing Outside.  Even the way he saw his world Inside (like how the rooms of his house had different place names) was fantastic.  And how he was so unprepared to make friends, but was determined to try anyway.  Christie's characters were also wonderful.  Will at the beginning of the book is a fantastic character.  And his mother was so tragic, how she lost most of her family and was terrified of losing Will, too.  Unfortunately the plot became so crazy near the end that I felt like it honestly took away from what was an otherwise very enjoyable book.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How Smart Is Your Cat?

I honestly don't remember putting this book on hold at the library, but I randomly got notification about it last week.  It seemed interesting enough, so I decided to read it.

How Smart Is Your Cat? says it's devoted to seeing how smart your pet cat is.  From the description of the book, there were going to be tests to check their IQ and some instructions for teaching them tricks. Unfortunately that wasn't the case.  How Smart Is Your Cat is for someone totally new to owning a pet cat, not someone like me who has had a few feline companions over the years.  The book goes through all the basics of what cats are like.  You check their IQ by seeing how they behave, quite often with somewhat arbitrary tasks using a 3 star system.  For example, you pet scores one star for playing with different toys, two stars for playing games that you start, and three stars for playing a game that they initiate (this particular example is super relevant because it comes up repeatedly throughout the book).  Oh, or my favourite one: your cat shows interest when you are cooking (they're dumb then, only 1 star), weaves around your legs while you're cooking (slightly smarter, two stars), or routinely appears when you're cooking meat (super smart!  3 stars).  This isn't cat smarts - they're attracted to your food and want some!  Wouldn't a better idea be something like: they're begging for food (1 star), they watch you cook but don't actively try to get anything (2 stars), and they don't care that you're cooking because they know they won't get anything from you anyway (3 stars)?  Yeah, a lot of the examples of cat intelligence were routine based and kind of silly. 

Another serious flaw with the book was the section on outdoor cats, as it advocates letting your cat roam free.  This is not a good idea in modern cities because cats can get into fights, run over, poisoned, or eaten by bigger predators.  I am a big proponent to letting my cats out on a leash (with supervision whenever possible!).  This book devoted two pages of the about 30 to leashing your cat, and that was only in regards to walking him or her.

So basically, if you're a total beginner, this book is fine.  But anyone who has owned a cat for a few months or more will probably not benefit from this book.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Sex Criminals: One Weird Trick

I was talking at work with a friend about awesome comics and she recommended Sex Criminals to me.  So I took out volumes 1 and 2 from the library, and finally read Volume 1: One Weird Trick today.  It tells of Suzanne and Jon, two people who, when they orgasm during sex, end up freezing time.  So they decide to use their power to rob a bank.  Suzanne's father died in that bank, and Jon works there (but hates his job and his boss).  They'e decided to rob it to save the library Suzanne works at.  But unknown to them, there are more people out there like them (the Sex Police), who want to stop them from committing any crimes (I think it was to stop others from finding out about people who can stop time through sex).  It's an interesting concept, but the story didn't really grab me (truth be told, I almost didn't finish it, but decided I might as well since I was already halfway through the book).  I'm sure that Volume 2: Two Worlds One Cop will be giving more info about the sex cops, but I don't think I care enough to keep reading. 

Edit: Looking on Goodreads 3 star reviews, looks like a lot of people felt the same way I did: this book was kind of meh.  The premise is intriguing, the pictures are beautiful, but it was hard to care, even though the characters were interesting enough (although they didn't seem to have any connection beyond "omg you can freeze time too?").  Someone also made a great point about how the book treats sex workers - there was a fourth wall breaking moment that gets shut down because of the porn star's name, which was very unfortunate.  All these reviews said they'd keep reading though because the premise was intriguing enough.  I'm still thinking I won't be because I really don't care enough about the story.