Review: Company Town by Madeline Ashby

2017: 21
4 of 5 stars
Published May 2016

New Arcadia is a city on a massive oil rig out in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Newfoundland. It is the future with advanced technologies and corporations that own and run a lot more than the governments do. The Lynch family’s corporation has just bought New Arcadia where everyone works in the industry or supports it. Prostitution is legal and unionized but the women generally bring bodyguards with them on their “dates”. That’s where Go Jung-Hwa comes in. She’s a bodyguard.

Most people have their bodies augmented and implanted and genetically engineered, but Hwa is 100% organic and because of that, she has no internal coding that can be hacked. She’s also battling an illness which manifests itself in seizures, and physically, with a stain over much of one side of her body and face. It has kept her as an outsider all her life. Even her mother rejects her most of the time. Her beloved older brother died in an explostion on the oldest part of the rig three years previously. She has trained and made herself strong and can kick major ass when she needs to. She is a survivor. She is tough. She has her own moral code and given her upbringing with an abusive mother, she could have gone down a much darker route to self destruction but is a decent person under that hard shell defensive exterior. She seems to want to do the right thing, protect people, right the wrongs, and she doesn’t let her disability keep her down in spite of most of society finding her looks repulsive if they don’t actually edit what they see in the first place.

Enter the Lynches. They need a bodyguard for the youngest of the family, teenage Joel, who is the heir apparent, though has older half-siblings. He is his elderly father’s choice but needs to be protected from recent death threats and trained in self defence. Hwa is offered the job. She must report to Daniel, the security head.

But then, the prostitutes start dying. Someone seems to be after them, or are they after Hwa? Are the deaths related to the threats against Joel? Hwa suspects maybe they are. Who can she trust? Is Daniel all that he seems? there is mystery in his past as well.

I really liked this book. I think Ms. Ashby did a great job building this world and the characters. Even many of the minor characters are diverse and distinctive. Hwa’s self confidence and defiant attitude masks a broken girl who has managed to survive the odds. She’s not a nice “sweet” person but she’s admirable in her loyalty and vulnerability when she lets it show. She doesn’t trust easily and keeps to herself a lot and I did like her. There is a subtle romantic vibe between she and Daniel but it’s not what the story is about. Joel is a good kid growing into a massive amount of responsibility.

The plot moved along quickly though I have to say the ending got a bit confusing in its circumstances, just a bit. I think the end had a bit of timey wimey other worldy about it which came out of nowhere. Now and then, Hwa’s Newfoundland accent comes to the surface and it comes across as a bit awkward, especially since she’s half Korean and speaks that language as well to her mother. You wouldn’t expect her to have a broad Newfoundland accent that she mostly doesn’t use. The message of the book, or one of them, seems to be a warning against all this technology, changing our physical bodies to the point where we are little more than a long living shell, nearly an artificial intelligence.

It is one of the books up for the competition in the 2017 Canada Reads. It should provide some interesting debate. I am also going to use it in my Bingo Challenge as a Canadian-written mystery.

Review: Doctor Who: The Legends of River Song

2017: 17
3.5 of 5 stars
Published June 2016
Authors: Jenny T. Colgan, Jaqueline Rayner, Steve Lyons, Guy Adams, Andrew Lyons

Dr. River Song is the erstwhile wife of timelord Doctor Who. If you have followed the tv series in the past 10 years, you’ll be familar with her. She’s brash, sassy and ever stylish. She is also in Stormcage prison for killing The Doctor. But that’s another story. River Song has kept a diary of all her adventures with The Doctor and solo as well and this book gives us 5 of them, a romp through space and time, adventures on her own terms.

Each of the stories is actually written by a different author. A couple of them also feature The Doctor, Matt Smith’s incarnation since that’s the majority of the time she was on the show. Some stories work better than others in both the story and in capturing the essence of River Song. It’s fun for fans of the show.

Review: Quantum Night by Robert J Sawyer

2017:16
4 of 5 stars
Published March 2016

This book is about human consciousness and conscience, psychopathy and philosophical zombies. The premise is that all human beings are p-zeds (aka followers or “sheep”), psychopaths (no conscience) or those with a conscience. In the year 2020, Jim Marchuk is a psychology professor at the University of Winnipeg. He discovers, while testifying at a trial, that he’s lost 6 months of memories from 19 years ago when he was in university. In the quest to find out what happened, he reconnects with the woman he dated during those six months, a relationship that ended very badly. She’s a scientist as well, dealing with quantum physics and psychology.

During the course of the story, we find out what happened to Jim and he finds out some of the things he did during those lost months. There’s a lot of science and quantum terminology being flung about that frankly, went way over my head but I think I got the gist of it. The author takes the theory to the extreme but it’s an interesting point of view. If you can change someone from one type of person to another, would you? What would happen to them if you did?

Meanwhile, violence and hate crimes are rising. There are riots breaking out all over Canada and as they spread across the world, the unthinkable happens. Jim, Kayla and her coworker may have an unthinkable solution. Should they implement it? Would it even work? It really does come down to “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”.

It’s a bit far fetched in some ways and as I said, the science is a bit difficult to follow sometimes. There was a slow build up, too slow really. It took a really long time for things to get moving and the major turning point didn’t happen until almost 70% into the book with the climax unfolding over the last few chapters. I wish it had moved along a little quicker but I did enjoy the unfolding at the end. The book is riddled with pop culture references to the point of irritation at times, where you wonder how much the author got paid for all that product placement! And yet that ubiquitous Canadian icon, Tim Horton’s, never made an appearance, I don’t think.

This book is going to be debated in this year’s Canada Reads on CBC at the end of March and it will be interesting to hear the debates around some of the moral dilemmas that this book brings up. Overall I enjoyed it.

Review: Nostalgia by M. G. Vassanji

2017: 9
Rating 4 of 5 stars
Published September 2016

In the future, perhaps by the end of this century, people who can afford it will be able to live practically forever. You can have new body and even new memories,  a whole new past for you. But the brain is not as easy to change. Even though new memories can be installed, sometimes old memories leak through. This is called Leaking Memory Syndrome, aka Nostagia. It can kill you so you go to a specialist doctor like Dr. Frank Sina who will plug the memory leak.

Presley Smith came to Dr. Sina for help. He was troubled by a few random thoughts. “The Lion comes out at midnight”. He assumed they were from his former life. In the end, he didn’t want Frank’s help and was determined to suppress the old memories himself. Frank becomes somewhat obsessed with helping Presley though he doesn’t really know why this patient has affected him more than others. He’s not even put off when it turns out the government is also interested in Presley’s whereabouts and ordering Frank to leave it alone. Why is Frank determined to help Presley? Who is Presley? Who is Frank?

This world is also divided, with a long border manned to keep a section of the world that was decimated by a nuclear accident isolated. The government (s?) would have you believe that anyone that lives behind the wall is a terrorist or has the potential to be one. It is not safe, the people are poor yet it’s also a tourist destination for the curious. A young female reporter, Holly, goes in to a village compound to bring the sights to the outside world and is abducted. She ends up understanding and supporting the dogma of the society.

In society, the people that live with the memories over and over are taking jobs and making the younger generations hungry and unemployed and there’s a vast movement afoot to urge the regenerated people to let themselves die out. There are religious factions that also protest the immortality. Frank becomes aquainted with a Buddhist woman who believes in reincarnation.

Holly, Frank and Presley are all tied together somehow but neither we nor Frank know how. Frank only knows he feels invested in Holly’s predicament and Presley’s mental health.

The story is intriguing though not full of action. It’s all kind of subliminal and low key. The theme of whether people should live forever and the ethics of it, the complications and the divide between those that can afford to do it and those that can’t are explored.

Nostalgia is one of the books on the shortlist for Canada Reads 2017. Whether it’s voted as the one book all Canadians should read or not remains to be seen. It’s an interesting concept and it might be a good book to teach in high school.