Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Book Review: Before Long


Before Long: Sheer Romance of Finding a Home by Auralee Arkinsly relates the house hunting endeavours by a couple, Ernst and Esme, who find their perfect home with all the characteristics that they have dreamed of (a house with an orchard in the country) only to find their dream becomes a nightmare. Undeterred, they move and find a place in the city, but the gritty reality of city life is off-putting. Again, undeterred, they move… and so the story unfolds with each dream home and location turning into disaster, expenses, and disillusionment… Orchards unfortunately do attract fruit flies and roosters think it is their duty to wake the world up at 4 a.m. Will they ever find their perfect dream home? Does a perfect dream home even exist in the real world?

What an absolutely hilarious and charming story. I loved the format of photos of the various houses and settings and captions. Like many readers, I have bought and sold and moved a few times. I nodded and shook my head reading about the couple’s antics, new decisions, bad decisions, hopes and dreams so easily destroyed. The bills and repairs, the things you only find out after living in a place for a while are so true to life. No one tells you about the winters, the bad parts, the potential problems, and even the neighbourhoods themselves that can seem picture perfect at the start.

The beauty of this deceptively simple book is that at the end of their litany of disastrous choices, Ernst and Esme had learned significant lessons about the kind of home that would be right for them, what they needed (such as a stable internet), the kind of ‘tribe’ they would like to socialize with, how to integrate a balance of work and play, and how to budget for those inevitable home ownership expenses. Plus, they learned – as one hopes readers will – that having dreams is great, but not dreams that only exist in movies. They also learned that although the perfect dream home might not exist, with a bit of creative thinking, they could make a ‘nearly there’ home into something that suited them perfectly! Some lovely and relevant lessons for readers who might just be house hunting right now.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Book Review: Finding Myself in Borneo


Finding Myself In Borneo is a colorful memoir with a difference! The book is described as author Neill McKee's honest and buoyant chronicle of a young Canadian man's adventures during 1968-70, while teaching secondary school as a CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo). But it is much more than that for any reader. Neill relates with detailed, vivid descriptions his ups and down with the various cultural, social, and political markers of the era that readers will recognize.

However, for me, this is less a memoir and more of an immersive adventure for the reader who might be interested in memoirs but is also bitten by the travel bug and the desire to explore foreign climes and cultures. Neill has a descriptive style of writing that is quite wonderful. He is able to insert into the narrative an enormous amount of information about the country, the climate, the cuisine, the culture, and the mindset of the people without overwhelming the reader. The writing could be described as cinematic as I certainly found myself absorbed in the narrative and was able to visualize the colorful details especially with the inclusion of photos in the text.

Neill is totally honest about his experiences, ranging from learning to teach in a totally foreign environment to learning about life in general and indeed learning about love in particular. His interpretations of the people and religion, politics and culture come from a positive and open mind, and a willingness to embrace a new ethos. The years of his stay in the region were punctuated with disruption and danger at times, clashes between various groups and political rumblings. This was the dark side of the seemingly paradisiac environment in which he felt he’d initially arrived. Interestingly, his time in Borneo sparked his enthusiasm for movie making and an adventure taken as a young man resulted in a career and a life of travel and exploration.

One of the most charming features of this book was the discovery that North Borneo is, indeed, J.R.R. Tolkien's famed Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings! He and his American Peace Corps buddy, Peter Ragan, established the North Borneo Frodo Society, an organization Tolkien joined. What an honor! Interestingly, Neill was able to match up various elements of the story with the landscape, including the discovery of Mount Doom! A history of the NBFS is found at the end of the book. I liked the references at the close of the book for readers interested in learning more about the region and its history. There is also a detailed bibliography. A brief history of North Borneo as an end note puts the location into historical and political context. A glossary of Malay words and expressions is also included.

About the Author: Neill McKee is a creative nonfiction writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. McKee, who holds a B.A. Degree from the University of Calgary and a Masters in Communication from Florida State University, lived and worked internationally for 45 years and became an expert in communication for social change. He directed and produced of a number of award-winning documentary films/videos and multi-media initiatives and authored numerous articles and books on development communication. During his international career, McKee worked for Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, UNICEF, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Academy for Educational Development, Washington, D.C. and FHI 360, Washington, D.C. He worked and lived in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda and Russia for a total of 18 years and traveled to over 80 countries on short-term assignments. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Book Review: The Walk of the Wandering Man


The Walk of the Wandering Man by Ric Szabo is an epic story of humanity that starts 5000 years ago in the harsh environment of Central Europe. The story begins with the intertwining of the fates of a young boy called Konli, and a young man, Vratu, a Mesolithic hunter, brought together by tragedy. When Vratu is sent on his rite of passage, to walk with the Earth Spirit, he has no idea what the gods have in store for him, and how his quest will bring him manhood, pain, suffering, joy, and ultimately love. He knows treachery and killing, finds his conscience and learns compassion, and discovers a moral certainty to do what is right. Who is the mysterious boy with the strange tattoo, and the intriguing necklace? Why has Vratu been chosen to protect him?

Fans of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series will absolutely love this book. The plot is complex in that it encompasses the lives and deeds of a number of characters and their clans. The reader embarks on a journey with Vratu that informs as it entertains. The age of the hunter-gatherer was ending as the farmers began to assert their right to land. Clashes and killings, and some degree of xenophobia were inevitable as the fight over resources raged. Alliances are formed, then broken, then remade in an intricate story line. The reader who enjoys prehistory and its detail will be impressed, as I was, at the meticulous research done to bring the epoch to life. The author writes in a lyrical style that is appropriate for the genre, slightly archaic but most pleasing to read. A modern author voice would not have worked, and Szabo gets it just right.

I enjoyed the descriptions which are vivid and immersive; indeed, readers find themselves thrust right into the action, be it fighting to survive the elements or in the midst of battle. The story takes the reader back in time most amazingly. One wonders how early man managed to survive, how they learned to create tools, to make clothing, shelter, medicines, all the things that the modern reader wouldn’t give a second thought. Social constructs and mores, traditions, customs, and laws are explained by seamlessly integrating them into the plot. The themes of spirituality and worship, and the place of nature in emerging society’s ethos are clear. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, although the prologue starts with action and mystery, and death. This is an epic adventure and one that belongs not only to Vratu, but to the communities he encounters and the people he calls his friends and companions. A thought-provoking, instructive, and extremely enjoyable read.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Book Review: The Final Wars Begin


Could one man tip the balance of world power to set off the final wars? It’s possible. Bastien Lyons, once an orphan in New Paris on Earth, finds himself back in his old stomping ground as he escapes the colony on Mars, Port Sydney, where he was accused of a heinous crime. Everyone seems to be after him because there’s a bounty on his head. After World War 3, Earth is uninhabitable on the surface, and not much remains anyway. Earth has the colony of New Paris; the Moon has Nippon One; and Mars has Port Sydney. New Paris is the sewer-like habitat of the remnants of humanity, ruled over by self-styled Queen Marie, part cyborg, and the rest of her a drug-riddled, narcissistic egomaniac. But although he’s being hunted, New Paris is Bastien’s best place of refuge since he knows it so well. But if only he wasn’t so conspicuous with those yellow irises as well as being hunted by a seven-foot robot…

This is a short read and serves as a prelude for undoubtedly a much longer exposition by the author in the subsequent books of this trilogy. I really enjoyed it! The Final Wars Begin by S.A. is well written, with touches of unexpected humour. The author’s ability to describe the fetid, stinking atmosphere of New Paris, then contrast that with the sterility of Port Sydney makes for an excellent visual, almost cinematic unfolding of events. The main characters are developed into real people, although Bastien is by far the most realistic and charismatic. Interestingly, I found the bounty hunter robot Cube to be very appealing, with his penchant for the piano piece Fur Elise.

I enjoyed the various themes and questions raised in this story: does the butterfly effect exist, and could artificial intelligence become so self-aware that it takes over humanity? The chapters move from one character’s perspective to another, which gives the reader a very detailed look at the back history of the war, the colonies, and past events, as well as clarifying just what everyone wants to get in the end – all this without the proverbial info dump. The story starts with a bang, and the pace continues at the same speed. The end is a cliff-hanger but surprisingly, it works, and one closes the book not feeling dissatisfied but eager to get the next instalment. This is the kind of story that sci fi and dystopian fans will love. A hero with standards and a conscience, a believable dystopian world, a complex plot driven by the main players’ needs and greed, and the promise of more action and adventure.