Review | Mr g, Alan Lightman

After reading Alan Lightman’s Mr g, I tweeted: “Mr g is the story of creation as narrated by Sheldon Cooper. I feel smarter already.” A couple of excited Big Bang Theory fans immediately tweeted me back, wondering where they could find this amazing book. With a twinge of guilt, I realized my tweet had been misleading. Thus, corrected: Mr g is the story of creation as narrated by god, who happens to have Sheldon Cooper’s IQ. (Minor aside – authors, there appears to be a market for novels narrated by Sheldon Cooper. Any takers?)

I don’t know what I expected when I heard Mr g took god’s point of view in telling the story of creation. I knew from the first sentence that I wasn’t in for Biblical language: “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” Still, that led me to expect a tongue-in-cheek Christopher Moore-ish take on a careless, impulsive deity who somehow lucked into creation. Add to that a meddling aunt and uncle, and I figured I was in for a hilarious read.

Mr g does have its humour, but it also presents a god I never would have imagined. Mr g is a nerd, an existentialist, philosophizing nerd. Upon creating the universe, he decrees that it should be governed by three laws: The universe should be simple (symmetry of position and movement). There are no absolutes, only relatives. Finally, every event should be necessarily caused by a previous event. Mr g then explains how his three laws tie time and space together and keep everything moving in a logical, rational order. I was struck by how scientific Mr g’s mind is. A Google search showed me these aren’t the three laws of physics, as I’d originally thought, but does anyone know if they correspond to any current set of scientific laws? Lightman is a physicist and Mr g’s approach to creation strikes me as very scientific.

Most interesting to me is that Mr g applies scientific thought in a creative way. He doesn’t create a hypothesis and perform experiments; rather, he creates the universe on a whim, institutes some basic laws of logic and symmetry, then steps back, cocks his head and observes. He views his creation with wonder, not the excited eyes of a child, but the fascinated view of a scientist. Because of his laws, the evolution of the universe “followed inexorably and irrefutably” and all Mr g had to do was “sit back and watch.” With all the debate about creationism versus evolution, I love how Lightman reconciles both in his novel, and explains this in such a logical manner.

Logic, indeed, is paramount to Mr g. (Perhaps he’s more Mr Spock than Sheldon Cooper?) A fellow supernatural being in the Void, Belhor, asks Mr g if he will create laws of morality for sentient beings. It’s not so much that Mr g says no that I find striking, as that Mr g clearly finds the idea so illogical. Sentient beings will already be governed by the three laws for the natural world; what use is there of creating new laws to constrain behaviour?

Belhor provides an interesting moral contrast to Mr g. For Mr g, sentience and morality both follow naturally from the natural world. He is stricken with guilt when Belhor shows him how people suffer, yet remains firm to his initial promise not to interfere with human affairs. Belhor, of course, has understood the potential for suffering and immorality from the beginning, and has no compulsion about interfering. Lightman provides a fascinating glimpse of the limitations of logic, that cannot fully comprehend the existence of illogic. I wanted to learn more about Belhor’s motivation. The creatures with him, especially, appear petty, almost childish, and while Belhor is clearly intelligent, he is also as inscrutable to us as he is to Mr g. What does Belhor want from the universe? Why does he interfere with human affairs? Mr g doesn’t know, and neither do we.

I especially enjoyed reading about Mr g’s aunt and uncle. They provide humorous, almost human, breaks in the midst of Mr g’s scientific descriptions and his philosophical discussions with Belhor. The aunt’s desire for a pink dress made of stars, for example, is wonderfully whimsical, while her complaint that Mr g’s creation of time forces her to think about something she’d rather forget is a fascinatingly existential take on the actual length of eternity.

I also like the political commentary Lightman makes with one of the other worlds in the universe. In that world, the nerves in women’s hands are severed at an early age, so that they grow up completely dependent on men. Both genders accept this as completely natural, and even though Mr g wonders why the women don’t rebel, he leaves that world’s society alone to its own natural evolution. He does consider what a fascinating case study it would be to have that world with the gender roles reversed, and having the inhabitants of both worlds meet. I love the social commentary in that concept, and think it would make a fascinating novel on its own.

Mr g is a short book, and despite the scientific jargon, a fairly easy read. Things unfold naturally in Mr g’s universe, and, despite Mr g’s occasional flashes of guilt, he mostly rationalizes events as being natural results of the past. In this, while Lightman’s book begins with a lot of questions about the meaning of existence and the consequences of consciousness, it ends up providing more answers than it raises questions, simply because everything, save perhaps Belhor, is logical. Mr g presents a new take on god, and like him, we experience the wonder of the universe without immersing ourselves in it. As Mr Spock would say, fascinating.

* Thanks to Chatelaine Book Club, I was fortunate enough to have met Mr g author Alan Lightman. He’s an intelligent, interesting man. My post here.

Review | Arranged, Catherine McKenzie

After a string of bad relationships, Anne Blythe signs up at what she thinks is a dating service, but actually turns out to be a company that facilitates arranged marriages. She decides to go for it anyway, and in a few months, she travels to Mexico to meet her future husband Jack. Catherine McKenzie’s Arranged is an absolute pleasure to read. It’s fun, flirty and romantic — I spent a day off from work with this book, and just had a great time getting lost in Anne’s search for love, and in her growing relationship with Jack.

Think about all the awkward blind dates are — you’ve probably been on a few. Now imagine going on one and knowing that the man across the table from you is the man you will marry. It’s actually not that far-fetched a concept. McKenzie points out that arranged marriages have actually been the norm for centuries — romantic love is a fairly modern invention — and, in fact, some cultures still practice arranged marriages today.

To be honest, some of the tenets from the arranged marriage company in this book make a lot of sense to me. Not the part where a company chooses your spouse for you, but the company’s ideas on romance. A company psychologist tells Anne that many people have unrealistic expectations about romantic love and marriage. He also says that the type of marriages the company arranges are based on friendship, and his counselling sessions are designed to make the couples focus on cultivating that friendship rather than search for romance. True enough, I thought. I actually didn’t really see how the company’s methods were supposed to cultivate friendships other than matching couples up according to shared interests, but I did get their romance-squashing message, at least.

Anne, however, is very romantic, and fortunately for her, she and Jack hit it off almost immediately. The psychologist cautions them against falling in love so quickly — old patterns might resurface, and their relationship might fail like their previous ones had — but Anne finds herself genuinely falling for Jack. Anne’s a fantastic heroine — smart and far from love-sick, but still emotionally vulnerable. Jack is also a loveable hero — fun and adventurous, with a bit of a temper, but that will be explained later on in the book. Hint: Jack has his secrets.

Arranged is a fun, romantic read, perfect for a weekend afternoon or a long commute. The book’s cover asks, What’s love got to do with it? In Arranged: everything.

WIN A COPY OF ARRANGED!

I won this book from Harper Collins Canada, when I was randomly selected as one of their Facebook fans of the week. They have over 60,000 Facebook fans — what were the odds, eh? It was such a fantastic surprise, and a wonderful way to end a particularly hectic work week. Thank you for that, Harper Collins Canada!

Now, I’d like to pass on this bit of literary goodness, and give one of you a wonderful surprise this Friday. I’ve read Arranged, and loved it, and am now passing on my copy to one of you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

So, how do you win? Along with the Facebook fans of the week, Harper Collins Canada does a lot of other great things to thank their readers and to generally involve their readers in literary fun. One of my favourites is their HCC March Madness tournament for books. More fun than basketball, but I, a lifelong bookworm, may be biased.

Since I got to read this book through the generosity of Harper Collins Canada, I figured it’s only fair to give a little something back and give a shout out to another of their fun book programs. So, to enter the draw for a copy of Arranged, all you have to do is cast a vote at hccmarchmadness.ca. Then, comment on this post to let me know. Just for fun, I’d also love to know which book you want to win HCC March Madness and why. Lots of really good books competing this year!

Need help deciding which book to vote for? If you’re a Catherine McKenzie fan, her book Spin is in the running. I’m a total Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot fan, so heads up on the fantastic Death on the Nile as well. I also have this post, with a few other suggestions, some of which I hope are still in the running.

BONUS: If you vote in all four brackets, you can enter a draw to win all 64 books in the tournament! Pretty cool, eh?

Contest ends this Friday, March 16th.

Author Q & A | Robert Hough (Dr. Brinkley’s Tower)

I loved Dr. Brinkley’s Tower! Not only did it transport me to 1930’s Mexico, but I was also struck by how relevant some of the themes still seemed today. The story is lush, romantic, beautiful, and I fell in love with the characters. You can read my review here and comment for your chance to win a copy, courtesy of House of Anansi.

House of Anansi was also kind enough to set up an interview for me with Dr. Brinkley’s Tower author Robert Hough. From the publisher website:

Robert Hough is an award-winning novelist. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Visit Robert Hough’s website:
http://www.roberthough.ca

Follow Robert Hough on Twitter:
http://www.twitter.com/robert_w_hough

Q  & A with ROBERT HOUGH

1. Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is based on an actual historical figure. What about the real-life Dr. Brinkley inspired you to write this novel?

It wasn’t so much Brinkley himself that inspired me: it was more the effect that his radio tower had on the town. When living next to a million-watt radio transmitter, you can’t get away from the signal. It broadcasts through anything metal: braces, fencing wire, forks, weather vanes, you name it. Also, at a million watts, radio waves light up green in the skies. So I just imagined these poor Mexicans being driven crazy by the radio tower’s signal, and not being able to sleep at night. In other words, it was an irresistable environment in which to set a novel.

[BLOGGER’S NOTE: I’m fascinated that the part about the signal actually causing radio waves to transmit through metallic objects is based on fact. This causes quite a few problems for the residents of Corazon de la Fuente. The effect of this phenomenon on one resident in particular actually made me downright detest Dr. Brinkley for erecting that tower in the first place. – JQ]

2. Among my favourite scenes in the novel are the gumball contest and the scene where the Corazon de la Fuente mayor stands up to a racist foreigner. Having grown up in the Philippines, I was struck by how real your depictions of poverty and racism were. Why did you decide to make these themes so prominent in your novel, and did you do any research on this?

In the book, the townsfolk are delighted when Brinkley decides to build his tower: they’re poor and emotionally drained from the Mexican revolution, and they need the jobs and sense of promise it will bring. Of course, they don’t wager on the tower being such an obnoxious presence. As the tower starts to drive them all crazy, it stirs up old divisions and resentments, and they all start to fight; yet it all hinges on them being poor and desperate at the beginning of the book.

As for research, I already knew Mexico pretty well, though I did take a trip to northern Mexico, where I was just the third visitor to a tiny town on the border that served as a model for my fictional town.

[BLOGGER’S NOTE: You can read about Robert’s visit to this tiny Mexican town in his essay for the National Post. – JQ]

3. With such a colourful cast of characters, is there any character in particular who surprised you while you were writing this book? As well, is there any character particularly close to your heart?

I loved all the characters in the book, even the bad guy Brinkley. The great thing about Brinkley is that he really did believe that his goat-gland operation had merit, and that his radio transmitter was helping the people of Corazon de la Fuente. As for all the Mexicans in the book, I just liked them all because each one was so colourful in his or her own right. They were a pleasure to spend time with, and I think the reader picks up on how much fun the book was to write. People are telling me that they’re reading the book in one or two sittings, and that’s really what I’d hoped for.

[BLOGGER’S NOTE: They were a pleasure to read about! – JQ]

Thank you very much to Robert for participating in the Q & A, and thank you to Trish from House of Anansi for organizing this!

GIVEAWAY

Again, just a reminder that I’m giving away a copy of Dr. Brinkley’s Tower. Details on my review.

Review | Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, Robert Hough

Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is a lush, beautiful novel about Mexico in the 1930s. The tiny town of Corazon de la Fuente has just survived a long, bloody revolution, the scars of which are beautifully illustrated in the condition of a mirror in the opening scene. A century of the Ramirez family’s use has created “undulations” in the glass and “a spidery hairline crack near the bottom,” but the “real dissolution” is the faint, sour smell that still lingered from the time Francisco Ramirez’s father hid the mirror under fermenting wheat to keep it away from government soldiers during the revolution.

It is easy to lose oneself in Corazon de la Fuente. Hough’s writing portrays the flavour of the small town beautifully. We are overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the town coming together for a lucha wrestling match, our ear quickly becomes attuned to a natural blend of Spanish and English, and we are absolutely captivated by the fragility of this town’s innocence. At times, Hough gets heavy-handed with his symbolism. For example, a character describes tequila as “the taste of Mexico, captured in a glass.” What an apt, beautiful and evocative metaphor! Unfortunately, I found its impact diminished by the almost overbearing two pages of description that preceded it. That being said, I enjoyed the language overall. The publisher’s description compares Brinkley to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and while the novel isn’t magical realism at all, there is a strong sense of nostalgia, and the potential for magic, throughout.

Central to the story is the romance between Francisco Ramirez and Violeta Cruz. I love, absolutely love, this love story. Francisco’s Quixotic devotion to Violeta is simply endearing, and I hated Dr. Brinkley before he even appeared, simply because I knew from the publisher description that Dr. Brinkley will catch Violeta’s eye. Violeta is torn between the wild animal passion she feels for Francisco, and the escape from Mexico offered by a relationship with Dr. Brinkley, so while I was rooting for Francisco all the way, I did understand her dilemma. Hough does a fantastic job portraying the town in its socio-economic context. Because Corazon de la Fuente is poor, and poorer still for the effects of the revolution, Dr. Brinkley’s radio tower does appear as a god-send, providing jobs and enticing foreigners with deep pockets to spend money in the town.

I grew up in the Philippines, where many live below the poverty line and, unlike in Canada, there is no social safety net to ensure everyone has food, housing and education. I was struck by how relevant this tale of 1930s Mexico can still be relevant today. After an incident where a contest literally leads to a riot over gumballs, Violeta realizes how much she longs “to live in a place where a simple contest didn’t turn into a showcase for violent degeneracy.” It’s a sad state, yet I remember an incident years ago where people were trampled while trying to enter a contest for money. Poverty leads to desperation.

Also striking is a scene where the Corazon de la Fuente mayor encounters racism in his own town:

– No speeky the Spanish, said a large gringo at the front of the line. – Go back to Mexico…

– I am in Mexico, said the mayor in English. – And you’re in my country, pendejo.

My ARC has that passage underlined and, in the margin, a scribbled “Yay mayor!” It’s an odd form of racism, yet it’s all too prevalent. Growing up in the Philippines, I remember how many skin whitening products are advertised, and also how much more intimidating it is to be berated in English rather than the local Tagalog, simply because the use of the English language is viewed as intellectually superior. I remember a story my aunt once told me, about a sales clerk who signalled for a tourist to jump the queue simply because he was Caucasian. The tourist was embarrassed and refused to do it, but it bothers me that it was the Filipino sales clerk who slighted other Filipinos in the first place. So when I see the mayor of this tiny (albeit fictional) town stand up for himself, I raise my glass to him. One of my favourite passages in the book.

The radio tower Dr Brinkley introduces to Corazon de la Fuente brings progress and prosperity, but it also creates problems. Other than the racism and the increase in homelessness, the radio waves also cause sound to come from metallic objects. It’s the classic debate between progress and purity — does the town sell its soul for a few pesos? — and Hough’s prose has a wonderful, nostalgic, rather regretful tone that makes his stance clear. The cast of characters is colourful. I already mentioned how much I love the mayor and the young couple in love. Also memorable is the cantina owner who goes for Dr. Brinkley’s infertility treatment (extracted from goats!) so he can make love to his wife again — such a charming man! Finally, there is the aging molinero and Laura Velasquez, a plain woman who nevertheless is the heart of the town:

In the workings of a small town, the satisfaction of a person like Laura Velasquez functioned as a sort of inspiration for those who were far luckier but who nevertheless considered themselves to be having a bad day. Her inner peacefulness… functioned as a source of illumination, particularly in difficult times…

I love that a plain woman has such a vital role in the town, and precisely because of her plainness! I also love that the molinero, a Don Juan all his life, sees her beauty, and falls in love with her. It’s a beautiful romance, and one that made me cheer.

Hough makes you cheer for the characters, and for their town, as they struggle against the compromises imposed by “progress.” I especially love how relevant this story feels, even as I felt transported into the past. Above all, I fell in love with Corazon de la Fuente and with Francisco, Violeta, the mayor, at all their neighbours.

AUTHOR Q&A

Stay tuned to my blog tomorrow for a Q&A with author Robert Hough!

WIN A COPY OF DR. BRINKLEY’S TOWER!

Would you like to be transported to 1930s Mexico? Win a copy of Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, courtesy of House of Anansi!

To win, simply comment on this post, and answer this question:

If you could re-visit any place from your past,
where would you go and why?

Contest ends March 22, 2012. (Canada only)

Vote for Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile in HCC March Madness!

How awesome is Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile?

It has ROMANCE: Spurned woman Jacqueline follows her ex-fiance and his new wife (Jackie’s best friend Linnet!) on their honeymoon.

It has ADVENTURE: The murder takes place on a cruise of the Nile river. Luxurious cruise in an exotic locale — where better to commit a murder, eh?

It stars HERCULE POIROT! Nuff said.

Death on the Nile has been adapted for TV at least twice. The first one, in 1978, stars Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, and features amazing actresses Bette Davis (All About Eve!), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall, anyone?) and Angela Lansbury (best known for Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote, but she’ll always be Mrs. Potts to me.

Check this out:

In 2004, Death on the Nile was adapted again, for the Agatha Christie’s Poirot TV series, starring David Suchet. Anyone recognize the actress playing Linnet? (hint: She’s also in Devil Wears Prada and The Adjustment Bureau.)

Amazing novel, and just as exciting on TV! Death on the Nile is also competing in this year’s Harper Collins Canada March Madness. I say we get Agatha Christie into Round 2, eh? Best part, every day you vote, you are entered into a draw to win all 64 books in the tournament! Have five minutes? Head over to hccmarchmadness.ca and vote now! Vote for your favourite books in the tournament, and, just for our favourite egg-headed Belgian detective, cast a vote for Death on the Nile as well.

Need a bit of help choosing from all the books in HCC March Madness? Permit me to offer a few suggestions.

And if you still haven’t read Death on the Nile, do read it. Such a great book!

Review | The Infernal Republic, Marshall Moore

Marshall Moore’s short story collection The Infernal Republic is darkly comic, at times downright disturbing, yet in some ways also strangely endearing. Moore’s stories feature characters who, for some reason or other, are alienated from their community, and therefore voice desires that we may censor ourselves from even contemplating. Yet at the root of even the most twisted desires is usually the almost desperate need to connect. Moore’s stories are intense and, when he resists the urge to throw in a surprise twist at the end and just allows the situation to play itself out, his stories are powerful.

Take for example “The Infinite Monkey Theorem,” which attracted me to this collection in the first place. Yahweh and Lucifer have placed bets on the idea that ten thousand monkeys with typewriters will, given an infinite amount of time, be able to re-create the complete works of Shakespeare. The story’s protagonist is Beëlphazoar, a demon tasked with supervising the monkeys and the team of demon guards. I love the concept — it’s absolutely ludicrous! — and Moore amps up the absurdity throughout. For the few thousand years, Beëlphazoar is so bored by his job that he teaches himself Mandarin, then Cantonese and other Chinese dialects. The demons get so desperate they beg Beëlphazoar to count “Some1” and “saxifrage” as words. “This isn’t Scrabble,” Beëlphazoar argues, but even he is soon desperate enough to consider cheating. As his fellow demon Nabob points out, “Boredom is death when you can’t die.”

The story itself kept me laughing throughout, but beneath the humour is the utter despair of all these demons stuck with a thankless, ultimately pointless job for all eternity. If you’re fortunate enough to have never felt that way about your job, watch Office Space. Beyond that is the relationship between Yahweh and Lucifer. Beëlphazoar describes the rift between Yahweh and Lucifer as a “vicious divorce,” and I was struck at the depth of emotion suggested by that term — one deity the spurned party, longing to rekindle the relationship, and the other unwilling to take him back. So when one party looks “crestfallen” at the outcome of the bet and Beëlphazoar suddenly understands what was at stake, I just love all the emotion seething just beneath the lines.

Much darker and angrier than “Infinite Monkey” is “Town of Thorns,” possibly my favourite in the collection. The story is almost painful to read — Michael was the victim of a hate crime and deals with the experience by getting tattoos, which alienates his partner Wade. “The heartbreaks, like the gods, are in the details,” Wade thinks. Michael has changed so much of his physical appearance that the only thing that remains unchanged are his sexual organs. “Why are you looking at my dick like that?” Michael asks, and Wade thinks but is unable to say aloud, “Because I miss the guy it’s attached to.” Just as Michael is having difficulty dealing with the violence to which he’d been subjected (which the cops claim is a matter of bad luck rather than gay-bashing), so is Wade unable to break through the barriers Michael has put up. Michael’s hate, fuelled by pain, is almost palpable, as is Wade’s love, both his desire and his inability to help Michael move on from the experience. We want Wade and Michael to re-connect, to be as happy as they were before the crime, yet we also feel Wade’s helplessness, that maybe things have just changed too much or, worse, maybe Wade had never really known Michael at all. I love the push and pull within this story, the pushing away and the clutching on. This is probably Moore’s most serious story in the collection and, for me, the most powerful.

I also liked the story “Flesh, Blood and Some of the Parts,” about a suicidal teen in a world where children were literally indestructible. How can one kill himself if doctors can easily remove one’s arms? It’s a twisted concept, yet also thought-provoking: how far would you go to prevent someone from taking his own life? Another story has a couple of strangers bonding over a man about to jump off a ledge, while still another has the narrator running over the man he loves and wanting to make love to his injured victim. Both stories very much twisted, and the narrator of the latter story actually psychotic. Yet Moore’s writing is compelling, and while I may not sympathize with the characters, I certainly perceive their obsessive need to connect. I also loved “Still Life with Pterodactyls,” about a man who has the power to make people disappear, but is unable to control it. He is doomed to loneliness, and I love how this is downplayed by Moore’s matter-of-fact recitation of disappearances.

Some of Moore’s shorter stories — about a condo literally ejected from its building or a woman who recruits beautiful young women for supernatural beings — just fell flat for me. They felt gimmicky, and I was left at the end wondering, so what? “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” inspired by the Damien Hirst piece of the same name had potential, but also left me with the “so what?” feeling at the end.  “215,” about a house that has become self-aware and whose owners want to convert it to an apartment complex, had an interesting horror-story approach but was a bit heavy-handed with the existentialism.

Infernal Republic is an intense short story collection. Some of the works try a bit too hard to be funny or to have a surprise twist, but many others delve deep into the darkness of human desire. The stories I enjoyed in the collection are disturbing and, more importantly, compelling. The experience of reading this collection is much like the cover image suggests — it’s a wild, unpredictable ride, and like Moore’s characters, you dive deep, looking for something to break your fall.

The Infernal Republic isn’t available on Indigo, but can be purchased on Kindle and Amazon.ca.

Harper Collins Canada March Madness 2012

It’s time for March Madness for book nerds! Here’s how it works: Harper Collins Canada has posted 64 of its books on the HCC March Madness website and you vote for your favourites until one book takes the title. You can vote once per hour, and — here’s the best part, for book lovers everywhere — you get to enter once per day for the chance to win all 64 books in the tournament! Cast a vote, win 64 books — can’t beat that, eh?

The tournament just started, and there are still so many awesome books in play! Not sure how to vote? Let me make a few suggestions…

ROOM, EMMA DONOGHUE

Room is so powerful that it prompted me to begin this book blog in the first place. Seriously: check out my very first post Emma Donoghue’s Room lives up to the hype. It’s an emotional, gripping tale from the perspective of a five year old boy, Jack, who has known nothing but the tiny room in which his mother had been held prisoner. I particularly love the incongruity between the innocence of the narrator’s perspective and the horror his mother had to face every day. When the mother tells Jack that she wants to escape and Jack wonders why, my heart just ached for them. On one hand, I totally understand where the mother is coming from, yet on the other hand, the experience of freedom is as strange and frightening for Jack as the experience of captivity would be for us. Amazing book.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, HARPER LEE

To Kill a Mockingbird is probably my sister’s favourite books of all time, and so it has a special place in my heart. It’s definitely a classic — how can you resist this story about the young, feisty Scout and her strong, admirable father Atticus? It’s a tale about the fight for idealism in a world where injustice and discrimination are believed to be natural. How often do we watch the news and wish Atticus Finch is real, or that lawyers could be more like him? To Kill a Mockingbird is far from an idealistic story — the truths it reveals are downright harsh — yet it has become a beloved classic because its characters still believe in the potential of idealism. Atticus and Scout still believe that right can triumph over wrong, and that good has to triumph over evil. We cheer for them, we cheer for their belief, and we wish we could believe as they do.

DEATH ON THE NILE, AGATHA CHRISTIE

If you follow me on Twitter, or read my posts on last year’s HCC March Madness, you know what an Agatha Christie fan I am. I love Agatha Christie books so much that I even challenged Jason from Harper Collins Canada to a Christie Quiz: Challenge and Results. Christie is the Queen of Mystery, and for good reason — her books revolutionized the mystery genre, introducing ridiculously complex twists and turns while still adhering to the “fair play” principle.

Death on the Nile not only features my favourite detective of all time — Hercule Poirot — but it also has one of my favourite Christie plots of all time. A woman named Jackie loses her fiance Simon to her best friend Linnet. It’s a soap opera, until Poirot runs into the trio in Egypt three months later, on Simon and Linnet’s honeymoon, which Jackie has crashed. To escape Jackie, Simon and Linnet join a Nile river cruise that Poirot is on. Unfortunately for them, Jackie gets on the same ship, and in a fit of rage, shoots Simon in the leg, and has to be confined to her room with a nurse. The next morning, Linnet is found murdered, and the nurse swears Jackie was in her room the entire night. Who, then, killed Linnet?

It’s an English country house mystery transplanted onto a cruise ship, where everyone on board is a suspect, and only Poirot’s little grey cells can unravel the various psyches and motivations. The answer to whodunnit is nowhere near as important as the whys, and in true Christie fashion, Death on the Nile takes us into the minds of an entire cast of fascinating characters.

Only one could win when Jason and I duked it out, Christie style, last year. But anyone who reads Christie is a winner, in my book. If you haven’t read her yet, definitely, definitely, check out Death on the Nile or any of her other books. And definitely, vote for her in HCC March Madness!

DEAD SIMPLE, PETER JAMES

Peter James is one of the nicest authors I’ve met, a soft-spoken librarian type who happens to ride along with police officers and write about crime. I absolutely adored his Perfect People, and the latest Roy Grace mystery, Dead Man’s Grip, turned me off smoked salmon for weeksDead Simple is the first in the Roy Grace series, and begins with an interesting premise: four friends pull a stag night prank on the bridegroom by locking him in a coffin and leaving him for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, they are then killed by a van. Now bridegroom’s fiancee has asked Roy Grace for help to track him down. Honestly, locking someone in a coffin — even with air holes — is such a horrible, twisted, nightmarish prank to pull. What were these friends thinking? The Roy Grace books are fast-paced, thrilling stories, with James showing all perspectives.

DOOMSDAY KEY, JAMES ROLLINS

I love the Sigma Force novels! Think scientists with guns — kick ass nerds! Each of the Sigma Force characters is a specialist in some kind of science or technology field, and they are therefore assigned the weirdest mysteries that ordinary agents can’t understand. In Doomsday Key, a geneticist, a Vatican archaeologist, and a U.S. senator’s son are killed, each in a different continent. The deaths are connected by a Druidic pagan cross burned into the victims’ skin. If you like Michael Crichton, Dan Brown and Simon Toyne, you’ll love James Rollins. His books are always meticulously researched, so even the weirdest scientific twists have some basis in fact. It’s hard to put a James Rollins novel down — it’s just too exciting! — and it’s great feeling smarter after having read one.

HUNCHBACK ASSIGNMENTS, ARTHUR SLADE

I cannot gush about Arthur Slade’s Hunchback Assignments enough. It’s an innovative, endearing concept — a hunchback named Modo has the power to change his appearance for limited periods of time and is therefore trained to be a secret agent from a young age. He is in love with beautiful fellow agent Octavia, and too shy to show her how he really looks. I fell in love with this book when I read it. It has adventure (steam punk!), romance, and the all too relatable tragedy of feeling self-conscious about your physical appearance. I’ve recommended this for reluctant young readers — I think the adventure and excitement will get them to fall in love with reader. I also highly recommend it to book lovers everywhere. Amazing, amazing book, and the beginning of a wonderful series.

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