Review: Alif the Unseen

Thank you Netgalley and Grove Press for the opportunity to read Alif the Unseen before the July 2012 release!  I have to confess that this is not the type of book that I typically pick up.  The story is an unbridled mesh of technology, fantasy, religion, revolution, and romance.  In other words, it’s a bit of a wild ride, with characters that range from a 23-year old self-proclaimed computer geek, to shadowy demons that materialize at the worst possible moments.

The story takes place in a Middle Eastern State.  Your unwitting hero is Alif, a young Arab-Indian who lives with his mother (Alif is not his given name, but rather is his handle.)  Thanks to his technological prowess, he makes his income by creating hacker shields for a long list of clients, who include everyone from revolutionaries to Islamists.  In other words, he keeps his clients hidden within the online spectrum, so the oppressive State Security cannot find them.  They may blog as they wish.  In a world where speaking critically of your government will land you in prison (or murdered), anonymity becomes invaluable.

… Alif foresaw disaster in this new wave of regional monitoring.  Hacked accounts were only the first step.  Inevitably, the censors would move on to hack lives.

Trouble brews pretty quickly for Alif, when he discovers that his lover’s new fiancé is the head of the security system that is bent on destroying him.  The manhunt drives Alif underground, and he takes his neighbor and childhood friend Dina with him.  For their plight, they somehow manage to enlist the help of century-old creatures from a world that is unseen by most humans.  (Some creatures are half man/half animal, some are mere shadows, while others are full-fledged demons, capable of scaring the wits out of just about anyone.)  What is fascinating about these characters is that in an oppressive society, their humanity often shines brighter than their human counterparts.  Their faith in history, their loyalty to religion, and their unblinking philosophical views really strike a chord.

I loved reading the dialogue in this book.  It was sharp, witty, and real.  The banter between the characters caught me off guard more than once, and at times, I found myself laughing out loud.

Alif’s adventure will definitely keep your pages turning.  Will he finally write enough code to get himself and his friends to safety?  Will he finally get “The Hand?”  (State Security’s sprawling online presence.)  Will he be brave enough to do what is necessary, now that he’s forced out of his unseen online world?

Even if you aren’t normally drawn to hacker stories, fantasy books, or religious undertones, I still think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Alif the Unseen.  It’s an immensely entertaining read, and I promise that you’ll never look at your computer the same way again.  😉

4 stars.

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Review: The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace is indeed impressive historical fiction. Betrayal, intrigue, espionage, an evil and selfish empress, chaos, maddness, torture and banishment in the court, to end with a final coup. Ms. Stachniak spins this tale beautifully.

Synopsis: (from Goodreads) The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.

Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.

With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia.

If you are however, thinking this novel is solely about Catherine and her greatness as ruler of Russia, you may wish to take note that it is far more about the palace spy Vavara and her fight to keep Catherine relevant and help her rise to power.  Barbara, the Polish bookbinder’s daughter, the foreigner, handed a more appropriate Russian name of Vavara for when she succeeds in becoming the palace tongue. Vavara is groomed for the Empress Elizabeth, but her strong connection and favour to Princess Sophie is what sets her on the path to do everything in her power to assure Catherine succeeds in taking over the crown.

I knelt on the ground, recalling the first time I saw her, a child of fourteen arriving in Moscow, unsure of her fate. I thought of the young woman she became, branded by injustice and pain, singed by humiliation. Much had been taken from her and yet her heart had not been broken. My Empress, I thought.

You need to wait until the final 80 pages or so before you are able to read about the Catherine that is to be “Catherine the Great”. And it is here that the story really grabs hold of you. But never mind that, because it is all fulfilling and fun as we listen to Vavara weave her interesting tales of betrayal and secrets and her undying love and support for Catherine. This is more of a tale of friendship between Vavara and Catherine.

So that all Elizabeth had destroyed could be repaired, all that she had filled with secrecy could be illuminated by the truth of the new reign

The Winter Palace is however wonderful and Stachniak’s writing is vivid and full with delightful details. I did feel slightly disappointed though as you are led to believe this is more about Catherine, and her time as ruler, given the full title, (The Winter Palace: A novel of Catherine the Great) but I then I decided to sit back and enjoy the fact that this was a story written through the eyes of Vavara, and her determination to see Catherine as the successor to Empress Elizabeth. It is Vavara’s story giving us insider information about palace betrayal and the secretive nature of Imperial Russia and her growing dislike for the life shrouded in secrecy and betrayal.  

The words that come to me are simple, though I will have to disguise them in my letter: I know what power does to your heart. I know the price of fear. Your world is not the world I want for my child.

Some parts around the middle did begin to drag, and some were a bit tiresome to hear repeated like Empress Elizabeth’s continuing fear, jealousy and selfishness, but overall, a highly worthwhile and very enjoyable story. 3.5 stars.

I read this too for Random House Canada’s Historical Fiction Challenge. You can check the Challenge out here, as you still have until the end of February to challenge yourself to read their selected list of titles.

You may wish to watch the Winter Palace Book Trailer here

Visit Eva Stachniak’s website here

For second opinions:

Read The National Post’s Review here

Review: Arcadia

I really enjoyed Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton so i was very excited to be able to read this book before the March release date, thanks to Netgalley for that!

Of course, everybody knows Arcadia best as the Duran Duran spin-off group from 1985 featuring Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor (So Red the Rose— such an awesome album!!). This book is not about that Arcadia. It starts with Hannah and Abe– parents to be– who decide to follow the magnetic, musician “Handy” to his Utopian community called Arcadia. It is the late 1960’s when hippie communes are all the rage. Hannah’s baby comes early and “the littlest bit of a hippie ever made” is born. Ridley “Bit” Stone is the first-born Arcadian and this is his story.

The first 2 parts take place in Arcadia: We first meet Bit at 5 and he charms the pants off you right from the start! He is living amongst the “Free People” where everything is peace, love and good times. The Arcadia House mansion is finally finished (thanks to Abe’s engineering background and strong work ethic) and Hannah will be feeling better now that spring is coming (she gets the winter blues). Bit is surrounded by love and a cast of colourful characters. Life doesn’t get any better than this!

Fast forward 10 years and Arcadia has become over grown. There are too many hippies and not enough space, food or love to go around. The pigs are onto their “Pot Plot” and Handy’s annual concert attracts 1000’s more people than Arcadia can handle. Bit is now a teenager subject to free love, free drugs and his “new” relationship with a long time friend confuses him. He struggles to keep it together. The disaster that is “Cockaigne Day” ends up breaking the commune apart and Bit’s small family leaves to live in the cold “outside world”.

The last 2 parts take place outside of Arcadia: Bit is in his 30’s now and has a 3-year-old daughter named Grete. The mom is out of the picture but she IS someone from his past (won’t say who). We watch Bit struggle as a photography teacher and single dad dealing with post September 11th New York City, a student crush and keeping in touch with the old gang from the commune.

The book ends in 2018, Grete is 16 or 17 and Bit is almost in his 50’s. Oddly, the world is in the midst of some kind of pandemic viral outbreak. Abe and Hannah decide to move back to Arcadia to live out their golden years in the place where they were the most happy. Hannah is eventually diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Bit and Grete are called upon to help. This puts a strain on their already complicated relationships.

Wow! I didn’t really mean to write such a large summary! So, the verdict– like in The Monsters of Templeton, it is obvious that Lauren Groff is a master of description– you could smell that stinky hippie commune a mile away! Her characters were real and you wanted to know everything about them. I did think that the gap between Arcadia and post-Arcadia made the story seem a little incomplete though. The transition from “hippie love commune” to the “cold outside world” was basically glossed over and what information you did find out was more about other characters rather than Bit. As heart touching as it the end part was I would have easily traded it out to hear about Bit’s adjustment period– that it would have made quite the story in itself! Still, a unique and interesting read– 3 and a half stars.

Review: The Funny Thing Is

I have had the very good fortune of meeting Ellen Degeneres on more than one occasion.  In a million years, she’d never recall, since each time, I was in a gaggle of co-workers and clients, and we were all gaping at her, star-struck.  One of those times took place many years back, when we went to a taping of her talk show.  Our parting gift was her audio book The Funny Thing Is.  I confess that it’s taken me this long to pop it into the player of my car.  For shame, because listening to Ellen is a thousand times better than anything I can get over the radio.

The Funny Thing Is encapsulates Ellen’s thoughts and musings on a wealth of subjects.  All of them will make you smile.  More than one of them will make you laugh out loud, so that the folks in the vehicle next to you will think you have issues.  Ellen covers everything from how to handle awkward party moments when you forget someone’s name (solution: give everyone the same nickname, such as “Itchy”), or how she truly feels about exercise (her favorite form is walking briskly a couple of blocks to the corner store to buy fudge). 

If you’ve seen her stand-up, you’ll recognize some of the material, but it’s even funny the second time around.  Hearing how frustrating it is to get a roll of toilet paper going in a public restroom, how outfits of years past should have been outlawed (case in point: sailor shirts), or how none of us can function without a cell phone all poke at life’s truths. 

At times, her material will make you think while it makes you laugh.   Her observations are right on the money.  We can’t stand silence.  We never stop moving.  And dressing room attendants really, really need to leave us alone while we’re changing.

In summary, if you want to be reminded of how funny, witty and charming Ellen is, feel free to pick this up.  It’s much better than your radio.

3.5 stars.