Review | Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly

29947651I’m a huge space geek. I remember being a child and meeting a family friend who worked at NASA. I no longer remember exactly what he did, but I do remember demanding he tell me everything about his job. He showed me a photo of a space shuttle before he left, and I wanted nothing more than to work in NASA someday. My love for space eventually found its outlet in science fiction, thanks to a high school Biology teacher who was a super-nerd for Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and introduced our class to the series. But real-life astronauts and real-life space missions have always held a fascination for me.

I’ve heard of Scott Kelly because of the Twin Project, which studied the effects of space on the human body. Scott and his twin brother Mark, both astronauts, presented an incredible opportunity to science when Scott was assigned to spent a year in the space station while Mark stayed here on Earth. I was fascinated by this study, and to be honest, had originally thought Endurance would have a lot more information about the project and its findings, so was somewhat disappointed that it didn’t. Kelly does mention in the book that findings are still being studied by NASA scientists, so likely we’ll learn a lot more about the results years down the road.

In the meantime, Endurance is a wonderfully quotidian glimpse into life in space. Kelly talks about his fellow astronauts and how their lives on the space station differ from here on Earth. He writes about learning some Russian, since he and other American astronauts will be working alongside their Russian counterparts, but mostly their experiments and studies appear to be fairly independent.

Kelly has a light-hearted humour that at times belies the potential seriousness of what he says. For example, he jokes about why their supplies include an equal amount of chocolate, vanilla and butterscotch pudding when science clearly dictates that the chocolate ones will run out much quicker than the other flavours. A lack of chocolate is a minor inconvenience on Earth, but beneath his jocular tone is a reminder of how dependent the astronauts are on supplies from home. Poignantly, another scene shows him and other astronauts chatting about the food they miss most from Earth — Kelly mentions a beer he barely enjoys on Earth yet inexplicably misses in space. More seriously, Kelly later talks about a couple of supply shuttles from Earth being delayed, often because they were destroyed en route. Suddenly, we are reminded that it’s not just chocolate pudding in limited supply, but all their food and equipment needed to keep the space shuttle running and habitable. Kelly talks about the challenges they face mostly in passing — the water purifier needed repair, they made a mistake disposing of a piece of equipment because the shuttle bringing the replacement was destroyed, etc. He acknowledges the risk, but responds so immediately with practical action that it’s alarmingly easy to forget at times that most of these challenges have life or death consequences.

Kelly talks as well about the challenge of being so far away from your loved ones. He writes about how he and Mark try to stagger their space flights, so that if anything happens to them in space, or to one of their loved ones on Earth, the twin on Earth can step in to provide support. He also talks about using video conferencing to talk to his family. In probably one of the most relatable scenes, he and his partner Amiko get into an argument when Kelly tries to instruct her on how to fix the pool and she clearly wants to leave the pool for another time. The connection breaks abruptly, and Kelly realizes that if something happens to either of them, their last memory of the other would be an on-screen image frozen in a look of annoyance.

Endurance is a fascinating glimpse into the life of Scott Kelly and his time at the Space Station. I personally found Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth more engaging and better at capturing the absolute wonder and awe of being in space. Hadfield as well is a bit clearer at explaining the structure of life in space, and the way in which astronauts must train their minds to solve multiple complex problems practically by rote. So Kelly’s book was a bit of a letdown in comparison. But it’s still a strong book, and a fascinating glimpse into a life very few of us will ever get to experience.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Heather, the Totality, Matthew Weiner

Heather, the Totality (October 2017)
by Matthew WeinerFrom the book description and the author’s work on Mad Men, I was expecting Heather, the Totality to be a taut, sophisticated grip lit. I expected Heather to be a rich young woman who falls in love with a bad boy and unfortunately sets into motion a dangerous collision course between him and her family.

The reality is quite a bit darker, yet not quite as thoroughly developed. Heather Breakstone is a 14-year-old girl with remarkable empathy who brightens the day of everyone around her and sees into other people’s souls. She lives in a Manhattan apartment with her overprotective parents: beautiful and dissatisfied mother Karen, and plain-faced father Mark. The disturbed young man who threatens their safety is Bobby, an arrogant psychopath ex-con who thinks he’s above humanity and takes pleasure in torturing animals. He gets a job working construction at the Breakstone’s apartment building, where he sees Heather and finds himself drawn to her.

It’s a disquieting premise, and one I’m not completely sure Weiner pulls off. He opts for a sparse, detached writing style, which creates a bit of a fantastical urban fairy tale feel. Rather than seeming like a real person in a dangerous situation, Heather feels more like an idealized princess figure, sprinkling joy and happiness with her innate goodness. Her enhanced empathy is matched only by her idyllic innocence — she looks at Bobby and sees his humanity, but not his danger. I can imagine a 14-year-old being this innocent, but I wish the story had developed her character a bit more, and showed us the girl amid all the goodness.

To Weiner’s credit, Bobby does come off as truly villainous. His delusions about how girls respond to him and his creepy fantasies about building a life and a home with Heather are enough to make any reader shudder.

It’s a dark book with a thoroughly satisfying ending, but its darkness is mitigated somewhat by its style. Weiner’s approach is clearly deliberate; he invites readers to dive between the lines and shudder at the insights into human nature. Some readers will likely be blown away by the cleverness of this approach, while other readers will be left cold. I thought it could have been so much more.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review & Author Guest Post | Siege of Shadows (Effigies #2), Sarah Raughley

34109695I’ve always loved the concept of the Effigies series — kickass superpowered teenage girls who also need to deal with being online celebrities and heroes to teens around the world. Fate of Flames (Book 1) felt to me like Captain Planet meets early Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a dose of CW teen issues and an awesome group of heroines of colour. My only snag with Book 1 was the world building, as it still felt confused and like the author tried to cobble together so many disparate bits of mythology that didn’t quite gel. The end also bugged me with the reveal of a male Effigy, after an entire book of building up the Buffy-type mythos that all Effigies were female and none of the characters batted an eye at this oddity.

Fortunately, Siege of Shadows kicks off with a much more confident tone, trusting that its world has been established and pitching us right into the heart of the story and its characters. In this instalment, Maia and the other Effigies are on the hunt for Saul when they discover some biologically engineered soldiers with Effigy-like abilities. The emotional stakes are higher as well, as Maia’s ability to scry into the memories (remnant spirit?) of the former Fire Effigy Natalya reveals uncomfortable truths about the guy she likes, and compels her to keep secrets from the other Effigies. I especially love how Raughley portrays the dangers of scrying — we realize how and why Maia fears tapping into this ability, but we also understand why she needs to. There’s a scene near the beginning where she needs to touch upon Natalya’s memories with only lab-controlled conditions protecting her from being possessed completely, and Raughley writes it so realistically that Maia’s reluctant agreement feels even more heroic than the action-packed battle scenes.

I also enjoyed learning a lot more about the other characters’ lives and pasts. What we learn about Rhys’ family reveals much more vulnerability than his cool persona indicates, and I wish his relationship with his brother is explored much more in future books. Chae Rin’s conversations with her sister about their mother’s health makes real how much she has sacrificed to be an Effigy, and I like that even though despite all her outward toughness, she clearly remains conflicted to the end about the choices she makes. Belle’s past is also a revelation, as we begin to understand why she’s so loyal to Natalya, even at times to the expense of Maia’s safety and the Effigies’ mission.

Siege of Shadows starts off somewhat slow — the scenes were packed full of action, but lacked the rising urgency to make me want to keep reading. Fortunately, as the pace picks up and the emotional chords are set into play, the story became more compelling. The relationships between the characters and their pasts made this book for me, and the final half or so was just impossible to put down.

And the ending — OMG. What an amazing, emotional wallop! It took one of the most emotionally charged plot threads and just propelled it to a conclusion that was unexpected, but almost felt inevitable. It also raises the stakes tremendously for Book 3, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Author Guest Post: Sarah’s Superheroes

Since Sarah created such a kickass group of superheroes, I was curious about which other superheroes Sarah fangirls over. I asked who her favourite superhero is, and if she’s ever dressed up as one. It turns out she shares my love for the Ninja Turtles and Buffy the Vampire Slayer!

I am really boring because I don’t think I’ve ever dressed up as a superhero. Although I may have gone as a Ninja Turtle when I was, like, seven? If I can remember that far back. And yes, I love the ninja turtles and would want to list them in my top ten fave superheroes. Justice for the 2007 movie!

I don’t know if I have one favorite superhero, but I respect those who feel a little imperfect, a little weak, or even sometimes a little amoral, because that’s what makes them human to me. When I see heroes struggling under the weight of a huge destiny, slipping and falling, but fighting anyway – those are the heroes that inspire me the most. Buffy throwing books at Giles in the Season 1 Finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she’s told that she’ll have to die to save the world is far more relatable than a hero who always does everything right. This is why I always, for example, gravitated towards Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender, and why I came to appreciate Usagi of Sailor Moon who was a hero despite all of her flaws.

One hero I don’t think gets enough credit because so few people know this anime series is Ahiru from Princess Tutu. She is literally a duck- like a literal duck swimming in a pond. She has so little power and yet through the force of her own determination (with a little bit of magic sprinkled in) can make miracles happen. The human element is always a must in stories of superheroes because that’s how I personally connect to them as a writer and reader: it shows that the power of determination and human will is greater than any super power.

Siege of Shadows Blog Tour

Check out the rest of the blog tour this week!

BlogTour_SiegeOfShadows

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Sleeping in the Ground (Inspector Banks 24), Peter Robinson

34409094A wedding ends in tragedy when an unknown sharpshooter opens fire. The investigation reveals the culprit early on — a retired dentist whose body is found with the weapon — but further evidence reveals the possibility that the dentist himself was as much a victim as the wedding party.

Sleeping in the Ground is a wonderful slow burn of a character-driven mystery. The sudden violence of the crime is in sharp contrast with the killer’s meticulous planning, and as the investigation progresses, Detective Superintendent Banks and his team realize the motivation may lie deep within the past.

I love the way Peter Robinson peels back the many layers of Banks’ investigation. Sleeping in the Ground has the feel of a classic mystery, where nuanced conversations and thoughtful examination of evidence are the keys to solving crime. Early in the novel, Banks dryly observes that following a paper trail to the murderer is far less sexy than a high speed car chase and violent shootout. This mystery does have its climactic action scene, but the overall feel is certainly much more subdued, though nowhere near as dry as simply following a paper trail. I love the interviews with people involved with the wedding, and the people being approached for clues to the gunman’s identity. Robinson does such a fantastic job creating complex characters, and even a thrift store employee who appears in a single chapter is memorably real.

The series characters are also a major reason this book is so good. I felt for Banks as I read of him dealing with his grief over the death of his first love, and dealing with what he discovers about the real reason she left him. I enjoyed the light-hearted banter in the subplot about DI Annie Cabott’s father crashing with Banks while he looks for a new place. I especially love the professional rivalry between DI Annie and the psychologist profiler (and Banks’ old flame) Jenny Fuller — many books and shows set this up as a debate between hard evidence and soft skills, but Annie defies stereotype by being very intuitive and empathetic herself. Her discomfort with having to take Jenny’s ideas into consideration is purportedly because she feels psychological profiling is superfluous or perhaps just needs more time to get used to the ‘new girl,’ but Robinson does a great job of suggesting at a deeper insecurity that makes Annie so uncomfortable.

Overall, Sleeping in the Ground is a wonderfully nuanced, patient mystery that begs to be savoured.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | A Legacy of Spies, John Le Carre

34496624I watched the Evening with George Smiley event at the movie theatre, where John Le Carre spoke to an auditorium in England about his history with his beloved character. In his talk, Le Carre spoke about the time of Smiley, the era Le Carre himself was in the British Secret Service, with a sort of nostalgic wistfulness. It wasn’t that spies were much nicer back then — Le Carre’s novels are rife with corruption and double dealing — but there was a simplicity to their work that Le Carre imagines is very different from spy work today.

This nostalgia comes through clearly in Le Carre’s latest novel A Legacy of Spies. The story takes place in the present day, with Smiley’s colleague Peter Guillam being investigated by the Service for Operation Windfall, which took place years ago and resulted in the death of a fellow agent Alec Leamas. Legacy of Spies is a treat for Le Carre fans, combining Guillam’s memories of espionage with his present-day battle of minds with the investigators’ pointed questioning. I love the cat-and-mouse game of the present day, with Guillam being forced to take the investigators to the old safe house and Smiley’s old files, but using cunning and double speak to keep them from digging too deep.

More than that, as a big fan of the Gary Oldman version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I absolutely loved seeing Smiley, Haydon, Prideaux, Bland and Alleline together again, and in full scheming mode. As in the movies, the value of human life is secondary to that of the actual mission, and I loved the idea of a retired spy like Guillam being called to account for actions in his distant past. One of the characters calls Guillam a foot soldier, simply following Smiley’s orders, and wonders if that should exculpate him from responsibility in the wrongs the team committed. From the complex emotions that come through in Guillam’s memories of the events, the answer seems to be a clear no.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book and tickets to the Evening with George Smiley movie event in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Bellevue Square, Michael Redhill

33595663I was once tagged on a Facebook photo of an event I did not remember at all. After a moment, I realized that the friend who tagged me made a mistake, and the woman she thought was me was someone else completely. The woman’s features were somewhat obscured by sunglasses, but the resemblance otherwise was enough to confuse even me for a moment. I’ve had people before tell me they’ve seen my doppelganger around, but I’ve always dismissed those as exaggeration. The Facebook photo was the closest experience I’ve ever had of seeing a possible doppelganger for myself, and it was disquieting.

So I was immediately hooked by the premise of Michael Redhill’s Giller Prize-nominated book Bellevue Square. A bookseller named Jean learns from customers that she has a doppelganger walking around in Bellevue Square, Kensington Market. Kensington Market in Toronto is a vibrant neighbourhood, with lots of small shops and people from different walks of life. I can imagine the goldmine it provides to a novelist’s mind, and Redhill does a great job in bringing the neighbourhood to life. I enjoyed reading about familiar streets and landmarks, and imagine that the people Jean encounters in her investigation are people I may have passed on the street.

From the premise, I imagined an Andrew Pyper-esque supernatural twist on the doppelganger’s identity, but Redhill takes the story in a completely unexpected (for me) direction. What begins as a straightforward enough mystery reveals itself to be an exploration of obsession and mental illness, and just as I think I finally understand what’s happening, Redhill throws in a scene that makes me question the validity of the scientific explanation. Bellevue Square is mystery, horror, medical drama and existentialism all in one, with some fourth-wall-breaking references to the author himself thrown in. I don’t think I completely understand what was going on, nor, to be honest, was it quite trippy enough to completely blow my mind, but I thought Redhill did a good job.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin

According to Gretchen Rubin, we all fit into one of four tendencies: Upholder, Obliger, Questioner and Rebel. You may take the quiz on her website to find out your tendency, and in the nutshell, the four tendencies are as follows:

FourTendenciesJacketBasedGraph

Some readers have commented that this categorization is reductive, and even Rubin herself admits that people often exhibit traits of more than one tendency (see: the overlap in the Venn diagram above). I don’t quite have that issue. I took the quiz when it first came out with Better than Before, I took it again with this book, and I’m very firmly an Obliger. Even when I read the various chapters, I recognized myself most strongly in the Obliger section. Which is probably why, while part of me questions the validity of the framework (a lot of it feels self-fulfilling, e.g. you answer X therefore you are an Obliger and you are an Obliger because all other Obligers answered X, and I wonder how the quiz was constructed and people grouped before these categories even existed), for the most part, I pretty much take the framework at face value.

33607642It’s fairly logical, and I like that the framework is pretty non-judgemental — it’s not that one tendency is better or worse than the others, it’s that we need a different approach to motivate people of various tendencies. The Obliger is pretty much the Hufflepuff of the four tendencies (we do stuff for other people, but struggle to do stuff for ourselves), so it’s a relief that this framework recognizes that any tendency has just as good a chance as any other at succeeding in various careers and leadership positions.

The book goes into some good tactics to deal with people with a different tendency than yours. For example, if you’re a manager of a Questioner, you need to give them a logical explanation for the tasks you assign. If you’re the spouse of a Rebel, you need to give them the freedom (or the illusion?) that the decisions they’re making are because they want to, and not because you told them to. There’s also a really good section on Obliger rebellion, where Obligers get fed up with doing things for others and then just stop without warning. I also like the insight that we often see our loved ones as extensions of ourselves, and so we treat our obligations to them the same way we treat our obligations to ourselves.

The book itself feels a bit thin, and a lot of the content felt repetitive. Once you get a grasp of the differences between the tendencies, a lot of what she advises feels like common sense, and not worth going into detail for over 250 pages. As an example, if you’re an Obliger and respond best to external motivations, it seems obvious that you need to create external accountability (e.g. workout buddy, mid-point deadlines enforced by your manager).

I also felt that while the book dealt in-depth with how to motivate and deal with people of other tendencies, it doesn’t at all tackle how we can manage our own behaviour given our own tendency. Rubin will likely say this is my Obliger self coming through, but I couldn’t help wondering — the chapter on Questioners explains all the ways in which we can provide endless logical explanations to make Questioners do what we want/need them to do, but that puts all the onus on the people the Questioner interacts with and none on the Questioner themself. How can a Questioner manage their own desire for rational explanations and make themselves just go to work when their manager or spouse no longer has time to justify the task? Similarly, how do Upholders manage their own behaviour so that they don’t seem self-righteous when loved ones don’t meet obligations as easily as they do?

The chapter on Obligers advises them to create artificial deadlines and people to call them out on missing their obligations, but nothing about managing their emotional need to please people. To address Obliger burnout, Rubin recommends coming up with a conflicting obligation that must be met (e.g. I can’t work overtime on X project because my family needs me home for dinner. So my family’s needs trump my boss’s needs), which may be effective, but may also simply turn Obliger burnout in another direction. I think a section on self-care and realizing the importance of your obligation to yourself is just as important.

I like the Four Tendencies framework in general. I just wish this book delved a bit deeper into how we can manage ourselves and our own tendency to work and live more smoothly with people of other tendencies.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.