Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Guaranteed reading with intelligence
Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Monday, 27 April 2015

Backward Compatible: A Geek Love Story by Sarah Daltry and Pete Clark

Reviewed by Raymond Mathiesen

4 out of 5 stars

Is there someone for everyone?  Even me?

Time is passing and the Y Generation have now become young adults.  During this social period computers and the Internet have become household items, at least in the Upper and Middle classes.  Online gaming has now become a subculture complete with language, social activities and dress. The word 'geek' has become more a description of an alternate subculture than a derogatory term.  Daltry and Clarke take us on a wacky trip into the world of computer geeks, as they follow the hectic lives of Katie Garretty and George Lindell.  Will this young woman and man come together in a sweet romance, or will they be doomed to remain single forever?  Does being a computer geek mean you can never have self-respect, or can these young people grow in self-confidence?  Will the pair ever battle their way to the end of Fatal Destiny, the game which dominates their young lives? Backward Compatible is a romantic comedy that will entertain those who enjoy reading New Adult or Young Adult fiction.

Right from the start it should be pointed out that this book is a comedy and much of the humour revolves around politically incorrect views.  This book is full of foul language, sexual references and biases against minorities.  If you are looking for a book that will expand your social and political ideology you would do well to go somewhere else. If, however, you are looking for something that will make you smile, this is the book for you.

In tune with the gaming ethos of the book, the novel is divided into 15 "Levels", reminiscent of computer game levels in which each new stage represents a higher degree of complexity and difficulty.  The plot of Backward Compatible can roughly be divided into two halves.  The first half, Level 1 – 7, revolves around the issue of whether Katie and George will actually get together, and the complication of a possible relationship between Katie and Jeff Browning ("Seynar").  The second half, Level 8- Boss Level (15), covers Katie and George's budding romance and a gaming hunt for hidden keys, in order to win a $10,000 prize and a trip to Montréal. Both halves each contain an extended description of gaming play, so it should be pointed out that this novel is particularly designed for those interested in online games.  If you are not so interested, these sections may seem a little dull.  Most of the book, however, is of general human interest and so will appeal to a wide range of readers. The chapters are written alternately from Katie's, then George's, point of view. As a result we gain a look into both the female and male minds and lives of young adults. This book, then, should appeal to both male and female readers.  At 356 pages Backward Compatible is of average length, however, it is just a little too long for the content.  It could have benefited from some minor editing.

Daltry and Clarke have created a collection of likeable characters who the reader will instantly relate to. These characters will remind the reader of themselves or their friends.  Both Katie and George are bright and witty, and at the same time vulnerable.  We relate to their lack of confidence, and hope the best for them. Typical of the romantic comedy genre even the antagonist character, who I will not name in order to avoid spoiling the story, is not too bad: even they have endearing qualities.  The character of Katie has an arc of development spanning the whole novel.  We follow her as she progresses from an aching lack of self-confidence to a position of much more self-assurance and certainty. The character of George has two arcs of development. The first arc covers the first half of the story, and takes George from being a nervous young man who does not believe he will ever get a girlfriend to a happy young man who is now dating.  The second arc revolves around the issue of whether George will actually have sexual relations with Katie. The character of Katie is a little more fully developed than that of George. The internal monologues for Katie take us deep into her mind and experiences. The character of George also has internal monologues, but we do not get quite the breadth of characterisation. For example, we hear of George's physical longing for sexual satisfaction, but there are few detailed descriptions of this physical angst.  This is not to say that George does not live on the page.  The reader does relate to him as real.

In contrast to the new circumstances of the Y generation and technological development, as the subtitle suggests, romance is the central theme of Backward Compatible.  This ageless theme is fully developed to the reader's satisfaction.  It is a simple fact of life that for many of us at least part of the solution for lack of self-confidence is finding a partner who we can love and be with. Katie and George are not the only characters to pair off by the end of the novel. Family is a very secondary theme. The reader gains a brief look into the families of George, Katie and Lanyon (George's ever present buddy). We see parents who cramp their children's style, but are caring, and a brother who is competitive, but willing to help. These two themes fit well together, as one has a tendency to lead to the other.  Of course, a family is a long way ahead in Katie and George's future, and we do not know if it will eventually come to be, but the reader can hope.

The humour in the novel works quite well. There is a great amount of witty comment and repartee, slapstick humour and tongue in cheek events.  George and Lanyon are particularly a comedy duo a little reminiscent of The Three Stooges, although of course there are only two of them. For example, while George and Lanyon are at the store, at midnight, to buy the new release of Fatal Destiny George tries to pull Katie as a date by giving her his copy of the game to buy.  Seeing this Lanyon comments, "I mean, if you are going to give up a midnight release the least she can provide you with is a little midnight release."  During the same incident George comments of Katie, "her smile is more that of a hungry T-Rex than innocent ..."  At times the plot wanders a little into hyperbole. For example there is a three-storey climbing incident which is a little unreal, and certainly would not work in a less humorous and more realistic story. Similarly, in reality few friendships would last if a young man hit his friend in the testicles.  But as has been noted this is a comedy and the reader is not too upset by these unrealities.

From the perspective of Feminism women in the novel are represented as quite dynamic and forward.  Katie, despite her lack of self-confidence, can be very forceful in making her opinions known.  She is a talented gamer and an aggressive fighter in Fatal Destiny.  She is also an intelligent university student, an Art History major, who has gained entrance to Amherst College, a prestigious and exclusively selective university.  Allie, Katie's friend, is the first to turn against the antagonist character, deliberately killing their game avatar even though the antagonist is supposed to be on the same team.  Anna, Katie's best friend, is, however, more of a female stereotype. She is interested mainly in guys and clothes.  Anna certainly gets a ribbing from Katie, though, on these points.  Stacey and Vicki, two hussies who knew Katie in high school, also represent the female stereotype of get a man, have a baby and raise a family.  These two women, though, are hardly represented positively, and their lifestyle is certainly not recommended.

The male characters, when seen in terms of Gender Studies, are hardly sensitive New Age men.  Much of the humour comes from George and Lanyon's insensitive, macho dialogue about women.  Indeed, where women are concerned they seem interested in only one thing: sex.  Much of this, however, is purely a front, an adopted persona.  We see from the internal dialogue in his chapters that George in fact does have feelings, and indeed is quite sensitive, including being worried about his own masculinity.  In the second half of the novel there is an extended incident where a George very much goes out of his way to cheer up and console Katie, who is crying because of some abuse she has received.

The LGBTIQ minority are not represented in the novel, and indeed gays come in for quite a bit of bigoted humour. Much of this, however, arises because of George and Lanyon's insecurities about their own masculinity.  This could have been balanced, though, by including a positively described cameo of a gay character. 

The aged are completely absent from the text, but this is not a great surprise as Backward Compatible is a Young Adult / New Adult novel. Once again one cameo appearance could have been included to represent this much ignored minority.  It is certainly true that the age can make a positive contribution to the lives of young people.

In the terms of the Capitalist / Socialist debate there can be no doubt that Backward Compatible lies firmly in the Capitalist camp.  Both George and Katie live an alternate lifestyle and are hard up for money, but they are able to do this because of the largesse of their parents.  Neither of them, nor Lanyon, works during their winter break.  Indeed, they do not even attempt to find work.  All three attend university because of the generosity of their parents.  Katie, indeed, goes to a highly expensive college.  Also, much of the second half of the novel revolves around an attempt to win $10,000.  This is clearly a capitalist motivation.  Nonetheless, at one point in the story Katie clearly states that she does not wish to own lots of products, and that money is not important to her.  Also, George drives a car which is old and perpetually breaking down.  His parents have not gifted him with an expensive new vehicle.  Clearly this book will appeal to middle class and upper class readers.

The novel is quite sound in psychological terms.  Indeed, the split narration allows Daltry and Clarke to illustrate the concept of "mind reading".  In Cognitive Behaviour Therapy this is a classic error in thinking in which an individual imagines that they can read the thoughts in another person's head.  Usually the individual imagines the other person is thinking of them negatively, in reality this is simply not true. (Sarah Edelman.  Change Your Thinking: overcome stress, combat anxiety and depression and improve your life with CBT:­­__  New York, N.Y.: Marlowe, 2007, p. 53)  Both Katie and George engage in mind reading when in fact the other is thinking of them quite positively.

Backward Compatible is an endearing and humorous romp that will particularly entertain young adults, but also, more broadly, the young at heart.  The Katie / George split narrative means that the book will appeal to both male and female readers.  While the novel is centred in Y generation culture, the themes of romance and family are universal, and will appeal to many.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Neurotics Guide To Avoiding Enlightenment by Chris Niebauer, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Raymond Mathiesen

4 out of 5 stars

Deep thoughts about the self and self-improvement…

Even a quick look at the self-help shelf at any bookstore will quickly reveal that the industry is booming and that most of us seem to have a secret desire to ‘be a better person’.  We search for that magic formula which will give us enlightenment, hopefully the quicker the better.  But is enlightenment, as we understand it, really achievable?  If we did have a better life what would it be like?  Would it be very different from our current life?  Even more, what if we found that this ‘self’, which we are so bent on improving, turned out not to really exist, to be a myth, an unreliable creation of our own brain?  Can modern neuroscience throw any light on this subject, and if so do you have to be an expert to understand it?  If you are confused already get ready to have many of your ideas challenged by Chris Niebauer’s thought provoking book The Neurotics Guide To Avoiding Enlightenment: How The Left-brain Plays Unending Games Of Self-improvement.

Many self-help books are written from a New Age / Eastern Mysticism perspective and in a way Niebauer’s book fits into this category.  Niebauer is strongly influenced both by the mid twentieth century author Alan Watts and the contemporary writer Eckhart Tolle.  Watts wrote on a variety of Eastern Religions including Zen, Hinduism and Taoism and Tolle is greatly influenced by Buddhism.  To describe the book as being purely of this ilk, however, would be greatly misleading.  Also, to describe The Neurotics Guide simply as a self-help book, would be equally deceptive.  Certainly there are mind-exercises and meditation techniques included which the reader may find helps them achieve a new mind-state, and which gives them a new approach to life, but this is very much a book of theory / philosophy which concentrates on challenging our standard ideas about ourselves and our lives.  Niebauer is indeed “a college professor specializing in cognitive neuropsychology” (Preface) and the book has a heavy neuroscience content.  In essence Niebauer is attempting to give Eastern Mysticism a neuroscience framework, taking it from the world of pure ideas and giving it a firm background in science.

As the reader may by now be guessing this is not really a beginner’s book.  Some understanding of both Eastern Mysticism and psychology would be useful.  Niebauer’s ideas are unorthodox and very challenging, and need to be thought about quite a bit.  The first chapter, for example, may be a struggle to understand, but Niebauer’s ideas become easier to appreciate if you stay with the book and keep reading.  By the end you may not agree with everything Niebauer says, but you will certainly have been forced to think through much of what you believe about yourself and the world.

Despite the emphasis on theory, the book does not use technical terms or give lengthy, in depth scientific discussions.  There are illustrative examples from Niebauer’s real life and that of his family.  These examples help to make the text more personal and easier for the average reader to relate to.

As the subtitle suggests a great deal of this book has to do with the left-brain.  This is the hemisphere which is dominant, that is, which is most prominent in our thinking.  It is pattern seeking and sees the world in terms of categories.  It divides the world into nouns, that is stable ‘things’.  All this is fine except that much of the world is process, which is to say that things change, indeed often are in considerable flux.  Thus we tend to think of ourselves as a permanent ‘picture’.  We tell stories from our history which illustrate ’who we are’, when in fact we are a changing entity.  This idea is very much in agreement with narrative psychology (Dan P. McAdams. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths And The Making Of The Self:__ New York: The Guilford Press, c1993).  Taking another example, we tend to see enlightenment as a ‘thing’ which can be achieved, a permanent state in which our old self ends and a new self comes.  That is we see enlightenment as the ceasing of one stable thing and the beginning of another.  As Niebauer points out our left-brain will never cease operating, even if we become much more aware of our right-brain, process oriented, expanded awareness, therefore enlightenment is a continuing process of change, of seeing the world in a new way.

Much of the book centers on the discovery that, in the absence of solid data, the left brain confabulates, that is, invents perfectly reasonable sounding, yet untrue, explanations for why the world appears as it does.  That is when we have little information we see ‘patterns’ which don’t exist, at least not in the way we believe they do.  This discovery comes from split brain patients.  These are people who, usually because they suffer from extreme epilepsy, have had their corpus callosum cut.  The corpus callosum allows the left and right hemispheres to communicate.  It does not take much to remember an occasion in which we have ‘jumped to conclusions’.  At the time we are sure of our ideas, but later we come to doubt because we find information otherwise or because we see that we actually have no evidence.  The end result of these findings is of course that we should be much less certain of ourselves.  This is an idea Alan W. Watts proposes in his book The Wisdom Of Insecurity (New York: Vintage Books, c1951).

Niebauer proposes two main solutions to our problems in life.  The first is that we be aware of life, observing ourselves, and the things that happen to us, from a distance.  This allows us to truly observe, rather than jump to conclusions.  It also allows us to distance ourselves from the emotional drama of our lives.  We observe “I am upset’, but by the act of extended observation we are one step from our unsettledness.  This of course is what is known in Buddhism as mindfulness.  Niebauer’s second solution is to approach life with a playful attitude.  We take ourselves less seriously and do not know with the certainty which our left brain wants to assure us that we have.  Once again we are distanced from the drama of life.

Of course the three paragraphs above only just touch on the topics discussed in Niebauer’s book which range from as specific and real as what can be done about anxiety, to as broad and esoteric as what part of the self survives after death.  While the book is not long there is much in it, and the reader may prefer to only read one chapter a day in order to give the author due consideration.

One point of criticism is that all of Niebauer’s evidence comes from brain damaged patients and optical illusions.  These are not circumstances in which the ‘normal’ aspects of life apply.   This leads us to wonder how much these circumstances occur in ‘ordinary’ life.  It is not that we doubt what Niebauers is saying, but we wonder how often the circumstances occur.  How often do we, for example, jump to conclusions?  Niebauer would have it that we do this frequently, but is that so.  A little more evidence on this point would be useful.  But even if we disagree on the frequency Niebauer’s book is still certainly an eye opener.

The Neurotics Guide To Avoiding Enlightenment is certainly a book that will challenge most readers and give them much to think about.  We all tend to be reasonably certain that we ‘know ourselves’ and understand the world, but Chris Niebauer definitely makes us wonder just how much we really do.  Niebauer doubts that we can ever fully escape ourselves and become ‘enlightened’ as we so desire, but he does hold that we can be more aware.  If you are interested in Eastern Philosophy you will certainly find this book different from most on that subject which you own.  If you are interested in knowing more about how the brain works you will also be intrigued by this volume.  I am happy to rate this book as four stars out of five.

Chris Niebauer, Ph.D.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Finding Devo: A Novel Adventure by Seve Verdad

Reviewed by Raymond Mathiesen

4 out of 5 stars

Escape from the system?

Sports journalist Russell Martell is on holiday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico .  His wife Rosalita has recently died and Russell feels lost and hurt, drifting through life.  Then his journalistic senses begin to come alive as he starts to get the hints of stories: not sports stories, but crime and current events, with a hint of politics.  What is the real story behind a body found in strange circumstances near the beach front?  Is the rumor of a police raid on a suburban house really connected to drug cartels?  Who is the colorful character Devon (Devo) that appears to be making a splash in town, at least according to the bar scuttlebutt?  All these questions seem to draw together, but only more questions emerge.  Soon Russell and his friend, Johnny Miles, will become caught up in an adventure where mystery and uncertainty abounds.  How will ordinary citizens survive, let alone take action in a world of gangs, police and government?  Seve Verdad’s Finding Devo: A Novel Adventure is a story of mystery and action which will intrigue and excite the reader as they follow Russell and Johnny in their desperate attempt to escape disaster.

Verdad writes well and he lifts his prose with colorful phrases, giving interesting atmospheric descriptions and character details.  Describing Devo, for example, Verdad writes: “But he is smooth.  Smooth as a pythons belly.  Smooth as a razor blade, a bullet, a warhead” (Ch. 83).  Much of the book varies between chapters in first person narrative, giving Russell’s point of view, and chapters in third person narrative, giving the perspective of various other characters.  This change in viewpoint works well to keep the story complex and interesting.  The text contains quite a liberal scattering of Mexican Spanish.  Sometimes an English translation is given and sometimes not.  The lack of translation is at first annoying, but the reader soon notices that these phrases are not of critical importance to the plot.  The book can certainly be enjoyed without knowledge of Spanish.  There is occasional offensive language, both in English and Spanish, but probably less than occurs in most people’s common language.  Only the most conservative will be offended.  Occasionally there are nice hints of irony.  For example Joaquín ‘Garras’ de Jesús, a brutal federal agent, is depicted “imagining his garras [claws] wrapped around the necks of those who might be responsible for such a barbaric massacre” (Ch. 48).  Who is the barbarian we wonder?  Similarly there is a nice contrast between Garras meditating in order to concentrate his powers of destruction (Ch. 48) and Russell meditating in order to survive pain (Ch. 50).  As a point of criticism it should be noted that the first half of the book is, in sections, a bit too wordy.  The party which Russell attends gets quite a few chapters allocated to it even though it is just one night.  Similarly the revelations from the computer disk, which the police find, go on chapter after chapter, even though we quickly get the basic idea of what they are saying and their relevance.  Also the bomb explosion gets several chapters, each one from a different character’s perspective, even though the basic response of all is shock.  These sections could have been condensed to make the plot move at a swifter pace.  After Chapter 50, however, the book really takes off and never slows until the very finish.  This point should not be overemphasized.  It would be wrong to say that the first half of the book is boring: it is just a little slow in some sections.

The novel is divided into three parts.  Book I Fiesta (Ch. 1 – 28) gives an overview of the circumstances in all its many complications, introducing the reader to the book’s many main characters.  This section is characterized by questions and mystery.  Book II Rain (Ch. 29 – 83) is a narration of disaster, then capture and escape.  It begins slowly but escalates midway into a high action and adventure narration.  Book III Camacho (Ch. 84 – 114) is a further story of escape in which questions are answered and resolution is given.  It should be noted, however, that even at the end of the book there are still some open questions, and indeed the reader wonders if Verdad plans a sequel.  This is not a book where everything is tied up neatly.

The characters are nicely drawn and we immediately relate to them as real people.  We like Russell because of his inquisitiveness and initiative.  His background in sports makes him appealing to male readers.  His grief over Rosalita’s death shows him to be a man of some feeling, beyond his All-American bravado.  But as the plot progresses the reader begins to see some of Russell’s failings.  He is “egotistical” (Ch. 51) and “rash” (Ch. 7).  Also as we read further Russell evolves from an ‘ordinary’ man to one who deals decisively, if perhaps extremely, with extraordinary circumstances.  Devo, by contrast, remains throughout almost all the book a man of mystery.  He is rumored to be a “pot grower” (Prologue), but we never quite find out how he gets his money.  He is variously a “psycho” (Prologue), a “wildcard” (Ch. 52) or just a good guy engaged in “shenanigans” (Prologue).  Devo is quite a performer who carries off acts in which he appears to change height, change age, and even flawlessly change his voice.  He performs slight-of-hand (Ch. 25 & 72) and indeed Verdad manages to make Devo seem almost mystical and magical.  Devo of course has his limits.  At one point he comments “I don’ know everthin’” (Ch. 50), but he is certainly no ‘ordinary’ man.  By keeping this character an enigma Verdad instills in the readers a sense of intrigue which keeps him reading.  The book has quite a host of other characters which Verdad also successfully draws.  He even manages to sum up quite minor characters in just a few words.  Teachers’ union leader, Teodoro Viareal, for example, is described as having “the voice of an excitable Chihuahua” (Ch. 7).

Ambiguity is one of the novel’s chief themes.  As has just been noted Devo is a man of mystery.  We do not know exactly how to place him.  He could be a hero, but seen from other angles he is quite villainous.  Moral and political ambiguities are at a premium in the book.  Actions, circumstances and perspectives are described as having both good and bad points.  Government officials fight for good, against terrorism, yet they are themselves corrupt and inept.  Capitalism, Marxism and Anarchism are all made understandable, being both praised and criticized.  Verdad constantly poses the reader questions which are not easy to answer.  This is not a novel which teaches a ‘correct’ viewpoint: rather it opens up complexity.  Indeed isn’t the world just that: complex.  Aren’t different people, with different perspectives, able to interpret the same event in very different ways with very different conclusions?

Corruption is itself so central to this book that it must be considered as a theme in itself.  Vice impairs the function of institutions which could work to the good.  We all say about our little misdemeanors that ‘it doesn’t matter’.  We even say our ‘shadiness’ gives us ‘character’.  But when our dishonesty ends in real trouble we are left embarrassed, and even ashamed of our actions.  We immediately seek to emphasize what little good we can salvage and hide the bad.

The individual is a third important theme.  We are single units, yet we are also in systems.  Do our actions count or is the weight of the system too much for us to make a difference?  The individual struggles for survival, and yet so much that happens is a result of external circumstances which we cannot control.  As single people we have a certain ignorance of the system and even naivety.  Yet also as individuals we have our own talents which we can use to direct our future, and even contribute to the bigger picture.  Are we better off in a system or purely as individuals, or is a mix better?  Is anything other than a mix even possible?

Verdad’s novel is very much set in a male world of macho toughness and competition and so there are a scattering of anti-female descriptions.  Russell observes “a pair of bubble head dolls” (Ch. 2).  Police Lieutenant Benito Cuevas Romero thinks “Why stand women at all, but for one thing…?” (Ch. 8).  Women are reduced to body parts: “… breasts – important assets for a girl” (Ch. 7).  Gloria Infante Velázquez, however, stands out as a major female character who is capable, successful and dynamic.  Her husband would not be a successful mayor without her help, and he is completely guided by her strong political sense.  Indeed Gloria, if she had chosen so, “might have become mayor of Puerto Vallarta herself, or perhaps Guadalajara, her home town…” (Ch. 5).  Certainly Gloria has her failings, as any person does.  She is driven by power, money and prestige.  In the middle of one of her business negotiations we read: “Her eyes had darkened, become bland, almost dead.  Shark eyes’ (Ch. 7).   But Gloria regrets her part in the major disaster that occurs.  She has a strong sense of “guilt” (Ch. 43) and immediately sets about devoting all her energies to set things right.  When attacked by corrupt policemen Brenda, Russell’s new love interest, fights like a “wildcat” (Ch. 60) and her sister Araceli joins the fight by hurling a baseball at the attackers.  Feminist readers will be glad to find that, in this novel, women are not meekly subordinate adjuncts to men, but rather dynamic persons in their own right.

As has just been noted Finding Devo is, at least on the surface, a world of male machoism in line with 1950’s values.  Both Russell and Johnny live for sports, womanizing, drinking, cockfights and have dabbled in law breaking (minor for Russell’s part and major for Johnny’s part).  This comfortably male dominant world, however, is very much undercut when both men find themselves in real trouble.  Suddenly Russell and Johnny are victims who need to be rescued.  Their bravado wears thin as they find themselves in waters way beyond their depth.  Certainly it is a male who ‘saves’ them and certainly they are not completely helpless themselves, but the brash American male image takes a beating.  Quite a number of other male characters in positions of power are also undercut.  Their confident acceptance of corruption in various forms, as a bonus of their ‘tough-guy’ power, leads to their downfall and ineffectiveness.  Devo, as has been noted, remains an enigma.  He is certainly a ‘tough-guy’ hero, but we never quite know how to take him.  Is he to be admired or viewed with some doubt?  He ‘pulls the strings’, but to what end?  Rather than the traditional 1950’s ‘super-hero’ we have an ambiguous magician who even at the end leaves us with questions.  How much should we admire him?  Devo has intelligence, skill and charisma, but is hardly a New Age man of feeling.  Russell by contrast gains positive re-connection with his emotions and is able to associate with others in a mature way.

The indigenous people of Mexico are represented in the text, though not always in a positive light.  Those people in power in the novel do not view the Indians favorably.  They are described as “naco” a “pejorative word often used in Mexican Spanish to describe the bad-mannered and poorly educated people of lower social classes” (Wikipedia. Naco (slang):__  As early as Chapter 1 we read: “They have no respect.  Better to send them all north.  Let the gringos deal with them, fill their jails with them” (Ch. 1).  But the Anarchist Carlos Mansalva (Manco) takes up the cause for the Indians.  We read “The entire continent belongs to us, those of Indigenous blood” (Ch. 8).  Further we read of “Zapatistas” (Ch. 5 and following) the politically left Indigenous Mexican movement.  The indigenous are mentioned as demonstrating for their rights (Ch. 7).  Indigenous people are represented chiefly by two characters: Javier Menticlaro and Paulo Pepino Revueltas (Chimp).  Javier is an influential Zapatista leader, though he could be viewed as a ‘bad’ character.  Similarly Chimp holds the respected occupation of police officer, but is certainly not represented positively.  It must be remembered that ambiguity is strong in the novel and so both the good and the bad of indigenous people is discussed.  Javier is a particularly ambiguous character.  We can understand him as an indigenous person, but do not necessarily agree with his actions.

In turn with the macho atmosphere of the book LBTIQ characters are absent.  There are indeed a couple of anti-Queer comments made in Chapter 2.  Perhaps one positive character could have been included in the party, at the beginning of the book, and we know that police are not exclusively heterosexual.  In an novel which so emphasizes ambiguity, and which asks so many questions, it is perhaps a missed opportunity that LGBTIQ characters were passed over.

The Aged, a much ignored group, are also absent.  They perhaps would have been inappropriate in the heavy partying, high action world of the novel.

As has been mentioned ambiguity is prevalent in this novel and peaks when it is viewed from the Marxist / Capitalist debate.  The Capitalist U.S. is viewed as a very safe place compared to the Socialist Mexico, yet the Capitalist desire for money and prestige is a very major contributing factor in the crisis of the novel.  Indeed Gloria’s Capitalist ventures end in defeat, not triumph.  But similarly Marxism is represented as being falsely hollow. Media Minister Lazarito Charlado is an appointee of the Socialist Reform Party, but is interested in the “advance … [of his] … fortunes” (Ch. 3), that is, in the personal moneys he can amass and the power and prestige he can gain.  Even more the Socialist influenced Zapatista movement is depicted as violent and aggressive.  At the heart of both Capitalism and Marxism corruption can lead to a political culture where power, authority and legitimacy are undermined.  Anarchism, a political ideology more left than Marxism, is partially represented in the text by the activist Carlos Mansalva (Manco).  Manco makes quite good arguments against Capitalism and for the advancement of the indigenous Mexican people, but he has quite violent tendencies. Even more Maco is depicted as being falsely hollow, like Lazarito, being motivated by the large amounts of money he can earn for his dubious dealings with Chimp (Ch. 58). Despite this criticism, though, Anarchism has a prominent place in the novel.  The actions of private citizens are seen as being more effective than those of organizations.  But can even individuals be trusted to act for the ‘good’?  The questions abound.

Finding Devo is very much a postmodern novel in the sense that there are no hard edges or categories anywhere.  As Brenda observes: “People are brutal, Russell.  The whole lot of us” (Ch. 18).  Even the ‘good’ are capable of doing ‘bad’ given the right circumstances, and indeed what is good and what is bad depends on the observer’s perspective.  Even the ‘bad’ character Masked Apocalypse, who by his nom de plume is associated with the devil, is given human motivation.

Verdad has written an action adventure, rather than a more poetic book, and so there is not much imagery and symbolism in it.  There are, however, a few elements of the symbolic.  Devo’s nickname hints at the word devolution, suggesting escape from a system, but once again questions, rather than answers, arise.  Which system is being escaped from?  Is it good or bad, or perhaps both, to escape a system?  Is to devolve to go backwards, or is there still a creative forwards motion in it?  Where exactly is Devo taking Russell?  Similarly, through much of the novel unusual weather hangs over Puerto Vallarta.  Light rain hangs over the city like a “mist” (Ch. 60) obscuring the view, making people feel slightly at odds.  This is symbolic of the crisis of the novel where for most of the characters, the action remains a mystery.  Confusion abounds and truth is obscured.  People think they have the answer, but are deluded.

Looking deeper into symbolism and myth it should be noted that Devo is a magician.  He uses metaphoric smoke and mirrors to trick, to obscure, when it suits him.  We never quite know where exactly he stands.  He uses electronic ‘trickery’ to help him pull off his ‘secret agent’ stunts.  This element of the novel draws upon the cultural mythology represented by the Tarot card The Magician.  Sally Annett and Rowena Shepherd observe that this card implies both “rules … [and] .. cheating” (The Atavist Tarot:__ London: Quantum, c2003, p. 47), and both Arthur Edward Waite (The Pictorial Key To The Tarot:­­__ Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, c1971, p. 72)  and Giordano Berti and Tiberio Gonard (Tarot Of The New Vision:__ Torino, Italy: Lo Scarabeo, c2005, p. 19) note that the card implies both virtue and trickery.  Indeed going further Annett and Shepherd note that, when thinking of the card, “we must be aware that man’s ability to manipulate the elements can be used for evil as well as good” (Atavist Tarot, p. 49).  Berti and Gonard particularly emphasis that “ambiguity” (New Vision, p. 19) is the key to the card, and as has been noted this is a major theme in the novel.  Where exactly does Devo stand in the novel?  Is he a force for evil or good?  Karen Hamaker-Zondag notes of the card: “He has a vision or ideal to which he is devoted, and on which he expands his energies. [ … ] Hence The Magician possesses both flexibility and courage, and his vitality makes him want to do something worthwhile.” (Tarot As A Way Of Life: A Jungian Approach To The Tarot:__ York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1997, p. 132)  Devo is certainly heroic and his mind and actions are definitely set on a particular problem or project.  Sallie Nichols writes: “The Magician will include us in his plans.  He welcomes us on stage as his accomplice.  Some degree of cooperation on our part is necessary for the success of his magic.” (Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey:__ York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weisner, 1980, p. 46)  Russell and Johnny certainly become caught up in Devo’s plans and in a sense he needs them to work his magic.

Seve Verdad’s Finding Devo is an exciting adventure / mystery novel with interesting characterization and generally good writing style.  The plot revolves around the main themes of ambiguity, corruption and the individual.  There is a fairly strong political emphasis, though no one system is favored as being ‘right’.  Men and women are depicted realistically, and in terms that would be viewed positively by those interested in modern Gender Studies.  Indigenous Mexicans are depicted, partially favorably, partially unfavorably.  At 565 pages the novel is probably not a weekend read, though it can certainly be read enjoyably over a longer period of time.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, 12 May 2014

Pest On The Run by Gerry Burke

Reviewed by Raymond Mathiesen

4.5 out of 5 stars

Big trouble and light hearted investigations…

A beautiful stage show star, come whore house madam, is suddenly foully murdered, despite her apparent gangster protection.  A disgruntled Japanese business tycoon hires a hit man to assassinate Australia’s Prime Minister.  An unbeatable game show contestant takes a recreational bungee-jump, only to have her rope break in what her friend thinks is dubious circumstances.  Enter the low-life world of Paddy Pest, sometimes Private Investigator and sometimes secret agent for Australia’s spy bureau ASIO.  Pest is based in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, though is very frequently an international traveler.  He is a master of dubious disguises, and often manages to solve the case despite his shortcomings.  Here is a world where virtually everybody has a rancorous underbelly, and where murder is a common life event, but where good will eventually win out (even if by fluke).  These humorous short stories wil beguile you, entertain you and make you chuckle.  Gerry Burke's Pest On The Run: More Humorous Short Stories From The Paddy Pest Chronicles (iUniverse, c2012) is ideal for the lover of crime and murder mystery tales, but will also suit busy people looking for a witty amusement to fill a free hour or two.

Paddy is a frequent visitor of both upper class and lower class hotel bars, and these tales have the ethos of a pub yarn: unlikely events, boisterous pride, and male machoism lubricated to dubious heights.  The style is very chatty, with Pest narrating his stories as if he is talking to an interested acquaintance.  There are asides to the reader.  When pertinent, Paddy occasionally reminisces about his past, including his childhood.  With a flair for drama he sometimes skips over the more mundane details to get to the action and juicy bits.  These stories certainly deal with the darker side of life, and a few times death is narrated, but the great majority of these plots take place after the brutality is over.  This book is about solving crime, not depicting crime and is overwhelmingly light hearted.  Paddy is certainly a ladies man and the ticklish subject of sex is often alluded to, though not specifically depicted.  In tune with the ‘pub ethos’, Paddy’s descriptions of women can be quite humorously crude, without actually being offensive, except perhaps to the conservative.  There are several laugh out loud moments and every story will leave the reader smiling.  Most stories have moments of high drama, though here the unlikeliness of the action is taken tongue in cheek.  Occasionally Burke includes good phrasing that lifts the text.  We read for example the atmospheric and slightly philosophic sentence: “Often, when you visit a country with a different culture, it is difficult to break through the veneer of reserve that camouflages a human spirit that is primed to explode” (Burke, p. 25).  More of this care in writing would make the book even better.  There is occasional foul language, but this is completely in tune with the macho low-life spirit of the book and will not offend most readers.  This is a book by an Australian author and there is quite a sprinkling of colloquialisms and cultural references which may be unfamiliar to international readers.  Some are explained in the text, which erases any difficulty, but some are not.  These are, however, in no way essential to the text and will at the most cause a moment of wondering before the reader passes on.

In his collective stories Burke presents us with an interesting portrait of “Patrick Pesticide aka Paddy Pest” (Burke, p. v).  Paddy is of Irish heritage, though primarily Australian in outlook.  Burke thus combines both Irish luck and silliness, with the Australian macho male.  He is a gambler and bets on race horses, and has quite an eye for the women.  Paddy is of dubious background.  He says of himself “I would not say I was straight or bent – somewhere in the middle” (Burke, p. 4).  On the down side Paddy can be quite sexist, seeing women in many ways as bodies first.  Full of pride Pest sees himself as a “master of disguise” (Burke, p. 37), though others are not nearly as convinced.  While Paddy is in training in New Guinea one character comments on his being “dressed in a ridiculous head-hunter’s outfit” (Burke, p. 188).  By creating this mix of good and bad Burke has created an endearing, eccentric character that we can like because he gives us a slightly spicy escape from our ‘ordinary’ lives.  Paddy reminds us of the rough, tough boy at high school who everybody admired, but who never really did anything seriously wrong.  He is a ‘lad’ and the reader is charmed.  Paddy of course comes in a great tradition of incompetent Private Investigators / Spies.   We think of Austin Powers, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Agent Maxwell Smart and even Inspector Gadget.  Burke, however, has given us his own particular spin on the pattern, and we do not feel that we are reading a complete copy.

A few other characters pop up more than once.  There is Stormy Weathers, the totally competent ASIO agent, who has a cover job as barmaid at Sam’s Fly by Night Club.  There is Justin O’Keefe, the slacker police Inspector with an attitude.  Mostly these secondary characters are at a minimum.  Burke does, though, give them personality traits that flesh them out a bit.  Stormy, for example, is a jealous lover.  Occasionally Burke gives us a potted history of a character, giving us a summary of their eccentricities and adventures.  Murder victim Frankie Hogan, for example, is a memorable woman with true spirit.  Burke describes her in three pages giving the story depth and poignancy.  Burke is quite skilled at this kind of detail and his writing would benefit by including more of it.

As we have noted Pest himself can be quite sexist.  At one point for example he outrageously poses the equation that large breasts equals many friends (Burke, p. 200).  Much of the humor, however, arises from the fact that many women are in actuality much more competent than him.  As Pest himself says: “There had been two attempts on my life and, once more, I had been saved by a woman” (Burke, p. 77).  These stories are indeed filled with dynamic, no-nonsense women you would think twice about crossing.  There is a dangerous female assassin, successful business women, and several able female secret agents.  Frankie Hogan takes no sexual nonsense from men, has “personality” (Burke, p. 3), and is a success in all her career ventures.  Not to err too much on one side Burke has included one nasty, negatively-portrayed, female villain (Burke, p. 118).  On the whole this book will pass Feminist standards, though some may not take the humor.

Shifting to male roles and Gender Studies it should be noted that these stories are in some ways very much in the ethos of the 1950’s though they are set in contemporary times.  This is the world of the tough guy, the gangster, the merry bachelor.  Men should not really have soft feelings.  Hyman Finkelstein, a low-life criminal, doesn’t even like people looking at him (Burke, p. 151) let alone be able to have a mature relationship.  Fear is a sign that a guy must be a “nancy boy” (Burke, p. 230).  Paddy, on the other hand, is able to hug an old, male friend (Burke, p. 17).  Women are very much a sexual adjunct to the male ego.  Paddy does have a kind of steady relationship with Stormy, but even that is very much a breakable, uncommitted relationship.  This whole ‘retro’ male image is, however, held up to debunking humor.  This male world is on shaky ground.  The great male image repeatedly is out shone by women and needs females to save it.

As with the issue of women and Feminism, Paddy Pest, and those he meets, can be quite homophobic.  Paddy, for example, refers to gays by a disparaging name (Burke, p. 244), as does Hyman Finkelstein (Burke, p, 151).  Finkelstein is particularly negative about gays. The actual representations of LGBTIQ people, however, on the whole are not that negative about that aspect of their lives.  LGBTIQ people are primarily represented by two stories.  First there is The Candidate which spotlights Lindsay Dove and his life-partner Jay Sniggle.  Lindsay is a U.S. presidential candidate and Jay is an IT consultant.  Then there is Who Was That Masked Man? highlighting the ‘butch-fem’ caterer Cate Edwards.  Cate is a villain, but the story is not negative about her being a lesbian.  This second story indeed has Ellen DeGeneres making fun of Paddy’s cloddish ignorance of the LGBTIQ community.  Ellen is mentioned (as an LGBTIQ person) in another story (Burke, p. 84), as is k.d. Lang (Burke, p. 154).  Gay Mardi Grass are mentioned twice.  A number of times women are suspected to be lesbian (not in a negative way) and a ‘drag-queen’ secret agent is depicted canoodling with an unwitting male politican (Burke, p. 138-139).  On another occasion Paddy comes upon a not so pretty ‘drag-queen’ (Burke, p. 21), but this is the only negative description, and of course not all transvestites are necessarily beautiful.  Once again the issue should not offend interested parties as long as the humor is taken into account.

The often ignored Indigenous and Racial Minorities also feature.  Lindsay Dove is “black” (Burke, p. 79) as well as being gay.  In A Long Time Gone Australia’s Jewish minority is highlighted in the character of Hyman Finkelstein.  Hymie is a gangster villain, but Burke goes out of his way to point out that he is not being anti-Jewish (Burke, p. 158-159).  Louey is a successful “Polynesian” bar owner on Norfolk Island (Burke, p. 121).  In The Goodbye Wave, though, the head of Fiji is referred to as a “baboon” (Burke, p. 129).  This is a rather racist description, even for humorous purposes.  Overall this is a very multicultural book, with Chinese, Japanese, Philipino, Hong Kong, Russian, Balkan and Greeks mentioned with stories being set in many different countries.  We get a true sense of the world, rather than a monosyllabic, white Anglo-Saxon perspective.

The aged feature in a very minor way in these tales.  There is one uncomplimentary portrayal (Burke, p. 176) and one positive description of an older (though not necessarily aged) woman (Burke, p. 195).  Burke could lift his game a little here, as the world is not full of only those under 55 years, even though some agencies such as advertising would have us believe this.

From the Capitalism verses Socialism perspective wealth in these stories is certainly suspect.  These tales show only a very slim difference between corrupt businessmen and rich gangsters.  Politicians and even judges don’t exactly receive compliments.  The lower classes are not lauded, but they are not seriously criticized.  The Little people’ more often than not help Paddy.  The middle class is to a degree absent, but this is not so surprising as they are not likely to have the funds to hire a Private Investigator and are too ‘clean’ to have information on gangsters.

From the broader outlook of society in general, the Catholic Church is foot-noted as being anti-gay (Burke, p. 82 & 154) and rather a kill-joy for the more spirited members of the world (Burke, 149).  The Police are depicted as being often incompetent and corrupt.  These two institutions of society, perhaps in tune with Socialism, could be improved.

Before departing from these various social issues it should be stressed that these stories rely very much on outrageous statements and circumstances for humor.  The book is full of politically incorrect text, but we are meant to take everything tongue in cheek.  If we read these tales too critically we will be deeply offended, but Burke wants us, on the one hand to ‘lighten up’, and on the other hand to look a bit deeper.  If this is kept in mind the book can very much be enjoyed.

From a Postmodern perspective it can be noted that there are no hard edge binary oppositions in Pest On The Run.  There are definite ‘bad’ guys, but good and bad blur.  As has been noted, Paddy himself is shady.  We like him precisely because he is a ‘wag’.  In Murder Before Lunch Pest even works for a crime boss.  This blurring of categories makes for a more realistic and interesting read.  It adds ‘spice’ and avoids boring oversimplification.

Many stories have a mythological quality, and indeed these elements can be what attract us most to an author’s work.  For Paddy Pest we need only to turn to the Joker Card in the modern playing card pack.  As court jester, the Joker is dressed in a funny costume, and Pest similarly assumes dubious disguises.  The Joker’s cap has pretentious baubles and he holds a wand topped with a manikin of himself.   Pest is none to retiring in describing his own talents as a spy and lover.  Yet the Joker possesses almost magical powers that no other card has, and in its presence many a losing hand can be transformed into a winning hand.  Pest does solve the case, even if by sheer luck.  Of course, most of all, the Joker tells silly stories and jokes, and that is the overwhelming ethos of Burke’s book.

Gerry Burke has written a very entertaining book for the not so serious at heart.  He manages to take a look at a wide variety of social issues, such as Feminism, while at the same time making us laugh.  The dark world of crime is depicted, occasionally with the brutality described, but good always wins out and we are mostly entertained by a light hand.  Most stories are around 20 pages long, and are ideal reading if you are short of time.  Pest On The Run was a pleasure to read and I am happy to rate it as 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Friday, 28 February 2014

Armageddon and the 4th Timeline by Don Mardak

Reviewed by Susan McMichael

4.5 out of 5 stars

A thrilling ride from the first page…

Armageddon and the 4th Timeline by Don Mardak is a thrilling ride from the first page.  This science fiction novel combines time travel, spiritual themes, a fascinating mix of characters and modern intrigue to create an unputtable down novel.

We meet the CIA Director, Scott Cunningham, a former Navy SEAL, and his Assistant Lori Colbert, addressing a meeting after a terrible terrorists attacks.  We also meet husband and wife Kathy and Eric who are in Lhasa, Tibet, on a spiritual quest.  Through Eric's time travel, both worlds intersect.  Mardak's premise throughout the novel is that there "is a spiritual universe, and mankind has the ability to rise into a higher level of consciousness where all conflicts can be resolved peacefully without resorting to wars, or threatening a nuclear holocaust.”

Mardak's Armageddon and the 4th Timeline is a science fiction novel, containing elements of time travel.  It is set in 'the Present' with a clear aim of trying to reconcile what is happening.  There is a definite sense of good and bad in the novel.  Mardak’s fascinating use of the scriptural characters of Paul and Silas to both examine Christianity, and to change the future, is an amazing read.  How Mardak structures the novel is particularly well done, so that the ending is both satisfying, works in a science fiction way, and races to the finish, all at once.

The novel examines the various tenets of a number of the main religions (Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, and Judaism) using them as plot devices: e.g. Paul's Missionary Journey.  This exploration of religion is quite a wild ride, but worth it.

The first third of the novel introduces us to the characters: to the CIA, the issues related to Eric and Kathy, and to the Himalayan mystic Shimahn.  This first third also introduces broader geopolitical issues, as well as setting up the 'four dimensional world of space time'.  In the second section of the novel the actual time travel begins. We see its effects from Eric's point of view. He is an interested participant.  In this section Mardak makes good use of structure to make his point, but also to move the plot along.  The last third of the novel brings everything together: the time changes and the new ideas and perspectives.  There is an ending which is in some ways surreal, and which is beautifully realized.

One of the main themes of this book is religion.  It's a fascinating book because I believe many people see Religions as having "Truths" and this novel certainly plays with some of those.  Anyone who believes that the Bible is the written word of God will have a difficult time with this novel.  That said, it is far from Mr. Mardak's aim to make anyone annoyed about this.  I feel, quite the contrary.

The novel discuses time travel and how it can save the world.  What difference would it make to war?  Mardak also asks what kind of world are we creating?  How do we cause and prevent nuclear holocaust?  Armageddon and the 4th Timeline is also about an attitude of helping and working together to create change.

The relationships that are explored in the novel illustrate personal growth and caring.  Kathy and Eric, Colbert and Cunningham, Paul and Silas are all studies in how we see, how we relate, and how we can change.  The focus in Armageddon and the 4th Timeline is how this happens.

A minor quibble about the characters is the character of Kathy.  I didn't feel that she had very much to say for herself, and was a little too passive for my liking. Eric, however, is well written and his relationship with Kathy is nicely drawn.  The CIA group are depicted as a good bunch.  They sounded quite different to Eric and Kathy: they were exciting and gung-ho.  They were well drawn.

The scenes in the desert were particularly evocative and the relationships depicted there, though brief, remind the reader that some of the central ideas of the novel are relationship and awareness.  The different families in the desert remind the reader that families have many different shapes.  In terms of diversity and families there are a range of families: Lori Colbert is a divorced mother, Kathy and Eric have been married seven years and there are the families in the Sinai desert.  There is also the relationships between Shimahn and Eric and Kathy, and between Paul and Silas.  Mardak also emphasizes diversity by depicting various religions and mixing those religions in unique ways.

This novel runs along at a fast, fast pace.  At times it fairly gallops.  It has fantastic ideas about time and space and makes the reader think.

Armageddon and the 4th Timeline has a thoughtful purpose, but is highly readable and action packed.  Mardak's plot is well structured and he makes good use of characters.  From the first' gloomy Thursday in Langley…' I wanted to read on, to find out what was happening, what was going on.  The science fiction genre makes a twist with a spectacularly good ending.  I am happy to rate this novel as 4.5 out of five stars. 

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