Monday, April 27, 2009

Brain Surgeon by Keith Black, MD with Arnold Mann

Brain Surgeon: a Doctor's Inspiring Encounters with Mortality and Miracles by Keith Black, MD with Arnold Mann

A very impressive book, almost autobiographical in nature, with real life cases and the inspiration arising from them. Dr. Black has let the reader in on how the patients respond to their struggles with optimism and faith, and how much this can affect the outcome of surgery and treatment. His examples and descriptions of the types of tumors, surgeries, and treatments are fascinating. He shows a profound connection with his patients which I found exceptional. The book also goes into how patient response and variations (“odd observations”) often help the surgeons to discover new possibilities in their research into brain tumors, malignant or benign. Perhaps one of the most intriguing parts of the book to me, is his outlook on the use of alternative medicine working alongside the synthetic drug therapies normally used (chemotherapy), citing Chinese medicine, homeopathy and Indian medicine among others.

Apart from the case stories, Dr. Black delves into his own background, and brings the reader in touch with the realities of trying to achieve his goals as a black man in a still mostly segregated era; the struggles, his extremely high rate of academic achievement notwithstanding, the faith that propels him, and the parents who raised him to believe in himself. Dr. Keith Black is, as of this writing, “ internationally renowned neurosurgeon and scientist...”, “...chairman of the department of neurosurgery and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.”*

The third main theme involves the research this prestigious surgeon takes a major role in, such as how research evolves, where ideas come from, and how the “odd observation” can contribute to the pursuit of better methods of treatment. Overall, I definitely recommend this book. I found it to be absorbing, upbeat, inspiring and educational.

*Quotes from the book.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Wow! This is going to be a great trilogy! Written by two masters of the genre, this is book one in The Strain trilogy. This is also film-maker Guillermo del Toro's debut novel, co-authored with excellent, established author Chuck Hogan. Great writing, total attention grabber, completely absorbing. I was very reluctant to put it down. A story that will fit the genres of suspense, medical thriller, paranormal, horror and more. An ancient legendary tale with a twist, not my usual genre but I really enjoyed the book and am happy to review it. The book opens with a legend told to a young child in Armenia prior to WWII. The story begins in 2010.

A very large passenger plane arrives in New York City at JFK airport with a perfect soft landing, immediately loses all power, and nobody gets out. Everything begins for the reader from this unusual event and the tension and horror builds steadily throughout the book. Hundreds of instantaneously dead passengers and crew with no sign of trauma and no detectable reasons. A strange virus which doesn’t fit anything known and defies identification. Will the human race survive? I’m hooked, will definitely have to read the full trilogy and expect to enjoy every minute; I may even have added another genre to my list of favourites. There is not a lot I can write in this review without adding spoilers. That said, in this preview copy I love the way the sections are divided by black pages and a symbol, very impressive and fitting the drama well. The use of technology, mixed with ancient tools, is fascinating; the combination of heroes is interesting and fun, and perfect for the task. Each with their own talents and knowledge, this ragtag team must work together quickly while at risk by both good and evil. There is so much going on in this book, more depth than might normally be expected, it will carry you away, yet this first book in the trilogy only covers four, possibly five days and nights. Incredible story-telling, twists and turns, darkness and light, good and evil, all wrapped up tightly for our enjoyment. Exciting and disturbing, in a class by itself!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Spy Game by Georgina Harding

Reviewed for Penguin Books

An unusual plot line, a little disconcerting at first until you really get into it. Georgina Harding demonstrates how non-verbal family relations can create false imagery to young children. The novel centers around the mysterious disappearance of the mother of two children and how they try to cope. They are told nothing about the disappearance, simply that she has died in an accident. There is no funeral, the last sight to them was of their mother driving off on a foggy, frosty morning as she has so many times before. However, with lack of knowledge comes lack of closure for these youngsters. No one will talk to them about it. To them, she has simply disappeared.

The parents met in Germany in the aftermath of WWII. The father is English and the mother is thought to be German, or is she really Russian? The book covers past, present, and later jumps to the children as adults. In the present, the Cold War has a firm grip on reality and nobody trusts anybody yet they all keep silent. This story becomes quite fascinating, with glimpses of what life was like in the Cold War, glimpses of what life was like at the end of WWII, the hunger, the desolation, and the trauma of putting lives back together. The children demonstrate how their minds fill in the blanks when their father won’t talk about their mother, and how they interpret what the Cold War is about. This is a good read of a strange time in history. It’s even comical sometimes to see where their minds take them and what they learn in the process. Children are adaptable, but they need to know what to adapt from.

This review is based on an advance reading copy and so I am not commenting necessarily on the finished product, but I did note in this copy that although the book is in five parts, no chapters are marked and sometimes the reader finds him/herself suddenly in a different time period with no warning. This confused me at first, but I did get the hang of it. Perhaps in the finished book this won’t be a problem. If the reader is looking for a thriller or a book on fighting in a war, this is not necessarily the book for you. For imagery, imagination, and coping, for a story about people, then definitely I would recommend it. This novel is suitable for young adults and older.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Running from the Devil by Jamie Freveletti

Jamie Freveletti has come up with a winner in her debut thriller. Taking place primarily in Colombia, there are far-reaching implications of involvement in Washington. Emma Caldridge, biochemist for a cosmetics firm, competitive speed runner and more, could give Xena (pop culture icon) a run for her money.

This book is action packed from Emma thrown clear of a hijacked jet passenger plane when it crashes, through a high-stakes race for her life through the jungles of Colombia. There are several survivors, all of them kidnapped and to be held for ransom by a maniacal terrorist, Rodriguez, a devil incarnate. But everyone from the drug cartels to special forces and a few with their own agendas, is searching for someone on that plane. Enemies are sometimes fighting each other and other times working together to find one person. The book delves into drugs, terrorism, arms smuggling, but also the medicinal properties and poisons found in the jungles of South America. Cat and mouse, three escapees on the run, give us the mystery of who is most important internationally that this whole scenario has been worked out. This is an enthralling book and I found it hard to put down long enough to sleep. A great debut! I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Journey Prize Stories #20, featuring The Best of Canada’s New Writers

The Journey Prize Stories has been presenting for 20 years “some of our most exciting up-and-coming new [Canadian] writers” (cover quote). This anthology is filled with varied stories. Though a bit depressing, and some seemed to end very suddenly, they are so descriptive, and such definitive characters, I enjoyed most of the stories. They are very well-written; some I may not have enjoyed as much were a matter of my personal preferences, and nothing to do with the quality or the stories themselves.

The first story, “Chaperone” by Clea Young, is a portion of an early draft of her novel. It is very current, honest and resounds with teen angst. Chaperoning a group of teens, four adults include an exhausted, well-wrapped-around-the finger father who is clearly out of his depth with his teen daughter. He hasn’t come to terms yet that she is older, at least in life experience, than he realizes.

“Breaking on the Wheel” by Oscar Martens brings to mind the“Dirty Thirties”, although the time appears to be current. The desperation of a man who makes all the wrong choices in life and can’t see why, nor what he is doing to his family, grabbed hold of this reader. The storyline is told in a very unique way, gets its point across in a few pages, and had me in tears for the plight of the young teen daughter who is quietly dealing with so much grief in her family. She is the only one who can see clearly what is happening and where it will all end.

“The Guiding Light” by Naomi K. Lewis. Wonderful characterizations involving two women, one a Canadian “self-help” author and lecturer, the other a first-time interviewer for the local paper in Arizona. I thought this story was entertaining and illuminating in the interplay of the two characters.

“Steaming for Godthab” by Dana Mills. An honest and compelling descriptive of how isolation of a group within a small space creates a complete set of rules of its own. A group of fishermen on a small boat in the North Atlantic for two months reach the breaking point. Quoting from the story “... like cabin fever times a thousand in a house that won’t sit still.”

“Whale Stories” by Theodora Armstrong. A young boy trying to deal with the loss of his exciting father, and living in a new location. He does what he thinks needs to be done to protect his family, and is unprepared for the outcome of his choices. Well-developed characters.

“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” by Mike Christie. This is the author’s first published work and I found it very entertaining despite the theme, cocaine. The author knows what he is talking about, he has worked in this despairing area and also in psychiatric care facilities, so much was spot on. The story amused me with its layout like a science project. I really liked this one, I would like to read a novel by Mike Christie if he chooses to expand his writing.

“The Gifted Class” by Scott Randall. This gifted Grade 2 class is just far too precocious for its tender age. They discuss such things as the benefits of Dexedrine versus the controversial Ritalin. The characters of Marla and Belman are endearing, the interaction of the teacher and the principal amusing. Overall I’m left with the feeling that these children will continue to mature to the level of their “gifts” be alright after all.

“Some Light Down” by S. Kennedy Sobol. A mystery conveyed completely in a short story. This is not a story of suspense, we know the “who” in the first sentence; this is the journey of the “what”. Working backwards after the death of her friend by a serial killer much of the story is of Cookie’s search for the truth. After the body of her friend is discovered she is determined to find out what happened. An interesting way of telling the story and a good read.

“At Last At Sea” by Sarah Steinberg. This is a story a lot of people can relate to, especially adult daughters. Although the unnamed daughter is afraid of being on the water, she finds herself on a cruise with her mother. Their relationship is extremely strained and neither seems to know or really care about bridging the gap. The characters once again are well-defined and I enjoyed the storyline.

“The Polar Bear at the Museum” by Anna Leventhal. This story is well-written, fairly typical of experimenting, bullying teens, and broken families. I’m sure the museum themes are very important to the structure of Beth’s life, perhaps an emptiness, but this is my personal “readers block”, and it tantalizes me. Simply said, the story made an impact on me regardless of my lack of perception. It is worth the read.

“My Three Girls” by Saleema Nawaz. A story of grief over a dead baby and how it affects the family, especially the mother through the years. The two older sisters are impacted by the death and the mother’s grief from childhood. As adults, new life brings hope.

Overall, though I found this book somewhat depressing, some enjoyable parts gave me breathing space. All the stories are well-worth reading, and gave in-depth insight into many of today’s lifestyles.

Anatomy of Success: The Science of Inheriting Your Brain’s Wealth & Power While You’re Still Alive! by Saleem Bidaoui

I can not say enough about this marvelous book! By the time I had read half of it I was already changing my outlook on life. Saleem Bidaoui has a way with words that gives the reader the feeling he is talking to them directly. The book is in two parts, Part 1 dealing specifically with the physical and scientific makeup of the brain and how its network runs. This is important. Where many books will present very similar ideas toward positive thinking, rarely do we read about the brain itself. What is even more amazing is that it is fully understandable to anyone. I learned what part of my brain receives what part of my consciousness, more surprising in the presentation than what I would have thought.

There are many examples from his own life that allow a strong perception that this man knows what he is talking about because he has experienced it himself firsthand. The book flows beautifully and conversationally. It reads like a speech, and yet not like a lecture. There are many wonderful and sometimes witty quotes throughout the book and a couple of times I laughed out loud, not something you would normally expect from a book on psychological aspects. I reiterate, this book is phenomenal in reaching even a mind such as mine which has held on to too many negative feelings... until today!

Part 2 of the book gives the reader the means to turn the mind to positive. Unlearn the negative so to speak, focus on what you want out of life, whether riches, or just to be a happy, positive human being. For me as a senior citizen this will mean feeling fulfilled, being active, leaving the negative past behind and making new memories. These are some of the lessons learned. I would have read the book all in one go, it read so easily, but I often found myself reading some passages again just to bring them foremost to my goals. I enthusiastically recommend this book for everybody! Easy to understand, and by his own words "not a magic pill", it is an adventure in getting the most out of life, and I for one am looking forward to the ride of my life!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Written from the inside of the brain of an autistic savant, it is almost impossible to think of this as a work of fiction. Mark Haddon’s work with autistic individuals and his teaching skills have stood him in good stead. This is an amazing and touching story. The characters remain true to themselves consistently, the fictional author Christopher is fully formulated and becomes a voice for how the autistic mind differs and how outside influences affect it. The story also demonstrates how this anomaly affects families. The character of Siobhan is wonderful, she seems to have a complete grasp of how Christopher’s mind works, and how to convey to and converse with him, guiding him toward a calmness when his fears become exacerbated by his surroundings.

Autism by its very nature is obviously a specialized challenge, and yet the mind compensates in other areas, often with miraculous clarity. Aside from learning how the autistic mind works, I also learned how much a “normal” mind misses. I learned a lot from both sides in this book, the fallibility of the “normal” brain and the preciseness of the autistic brain. I also learned of the similarities, accentuated in autism but shared by everyone, especially in regard to sensory overload in the current world. There have been times when I have felt close to what Christopher feels when too much happens at once. Haddon has created a magical masterpiece with his perception and creativity. This is a wonderful book that everyone can and should read, it humanizes us all. Highly recommended.

Murder is Binding: a Booktown Mystery by Lorna Barrett

First in a new series, Lorna Barrett has captured the quintessential small town, with wonderful quirky characters, a unique plot and a fascinating cozy murder mystery. I loved this book, related to many cozies, but with a twist. The settings are described beautifully and the characters clearly defined while still being mysterious throughout the book. Oh, yes, and recipes included, too.

The decision of Stoneham, a small dying town, to invite booksellers to open shops in a special rejuvenated section has become a success. Newcomer Tricia Miles, as a fan of the mystery genre, has opened the shop “Haven’t Got a Clue” which has become very popular. She even has the traditional bookstore cat, Miss Marple. But not all is happiness amongst the various booksellers and Tricia soon finds herself under fire and a murder suspect. The sheriff seems overwhelmingly determined to arrest her for murder and refuses to consider any other prospects for the murder.

Thus begins this delightful romp as Tricia and her sister decide to solve the case themselves. I will certainly be following this new series, I can see already that it is going to become one of my favorites! Crisp and fun, well worth the read.