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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Review of NORTH OF DAWN by Nuruddin Farah

3 Stars
The author of this book is a celebrated Somali novelist who apparently has been a frequent contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I was unfamiliar with him until I came across a brief plot outline of this book in The New Yorker and the premise sounded interesting.

Mugdi, a former Somali diplomat, and his wife Gacalo have lived in Oslo for two decades.  Their son Dhaqaneh, raised in a secular, upper-middle-class home in Norway, was radicalized and joined Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group in Mogadiscio.  He died in a suicide bombing.  Though Mugdi disowned his son because of his jihadist activities, Gacalo maintained contact and promised to look after his wife Waliya and his two stepchildren.  Gacalo convinces her husband to sponsor the family and bring them to Norway.  

Events take place over a five-year period.  Waliya makes no effort to integrate and keeps company with members of a radical mosque.  The children, 12-year-old Naciim and 14-year-old Saafi, are torn between their mother’s ultra-conservativism and the freedoms offered by Norwegian society.   Mugdi and Gacalo’s lives suffer upheaval as they contend with their daughter-in-law’s hostility and try to do what they think is best for their grandchildren.  

This novel often reads more like non-fiction with long passages extoling a point of view:  “As his eyes move from the face of a Caucasian woman to a man with Middle Eastern features, and from a woman in a sari to an African man in an agbada, Mugdi is sad that scenes such as this, where a variety of races congregate at a public arena, are unavailable in Mogadiscio.  As he watches the expressions of the faces of some of the Norwegians, he can spot some whose gentle features stiffen, turning ugly when they come face-to-face with a Muslim woman in full Islamic gear.  Maybe a woman with a Muslim headscarf is seen as a threat, whereas a sari-wearing woman is viewed as unusual and fascinating in this part of the world.  Mugdi remembers reading about a judge in the state of Georgia in the US who barred a woman with a headscarf from entering his court.  Would the same judge turn away a Jewish man with a yarmulke or a nun in her habit?”  Conversations often become mini-lectures:  “’here in Norway, the Somalis are very much unwelcome, being black Muslim refugees at a time when migration is now viewed both as a political problem and as a threat to the Norwegians’ continued existence as a “pure race.”  Right-wing groups see the Somalis as real pests, worse than bubonic plagues.’”  

The reader learns a lot about changes in religious attitudes in Somalia:  women dressing “in the ‘Saudi’ way . . . has lately become fashionable among Somalis” and “’Lately, many Muslims are practicing a different Islam . . . Whereas in former times, Somalis were relaxed about the genders mingling and spaces were not necessarily allotted to specific genders, our people have recently adopted the more conservative, stricter Wahhabi tradition which stipulates that different entrances are assigned to the two genders’” and “’Besides, in much of Somalia, old men your father’s age have lately been marrying girls even younger than Saafi’” and “lately Somalis have developed the bizarre habit of making little tykes don veils” and “traditional clothes the religionists have lately described as un-Islamic and therefore forbidden” and “Recently he has had the displeasure of extending his hand to shake that of a woman whom he has known for years, only for her to say, ‘I’m sorry, no handshakes’”  and “the new social convention prevailing among Islamists in Somalia nowadays discourages men from speaking directly to women except via a Mahram.”

Dialogue is particularly problematic.  Everyone speaks in a stiltedly formal way.  Would one teenager say to another, “’Nothing would give me more joy than to come with you and to make their acquaintance’”?  Would a 17-year-old tell a parent, “’How can you expect me to be good when a great number of our people kill, when the weak are massacred with impunity?  We Somalis pay lip service to the faith while we live a life of lies.  This is why the dissonance in our hearts continues to flourish, why there is no letup in the usual struggles within our minds, why the strife in our land rages on unabated’”?  Conversation is awkward and artificial because often its primary purpose is to convey information to the reader:  “’Incense burning is traditional in our culture and it lends an odiferous liveliness to the burial process.’”

Extraneous details are included.  Do we need to have the Norwegian flag described:  “flags bearing blue crosses outlined in white on a red background, the colors borrowed from the French tricolor, seen as a symbol of liberty”?  Do we need to be taught how to make an omelet:  “Mugdi brings out a skillet and some butter, cracks two eggs, which he beats together in a bowl, adds a drop of water, and then seasons the mix with black pepper and salt.  When the butter has melted, he pours the mix into the frying pan and waits until it is fully cooked on all sides and ready to serve”?   Do we need to know what people order to eat in a restaurant:  “He orders sautéed scaloppini, Timiro all’arrabbiata, and Eugenia sole in white wine”? 

The plotting is uneven.  There are instances when there is a build-up of suspense but then nothing happens.  This is definitely the case with Arla.  She is Waliya’s best friend but she isn’t mentioned until late in the first half of the book.  Later, she seems to pose a threat but that peters out to virtually nothing.  And the purpose of her first encounter with Mugdi is never explained!  And why is she always described as wearing something “see-through”?!  Other aspects of the book that should have been developed aren’t.  For example, Saafi’s trauma because of what happened in the refugee camp is not sufficiently explored.  Saafi receives short shrift throughout.  One minute she loses a job and the next, she “is setting up her seamstress business after obtaining her qualifications.”  The passage of time is often unclear.  We are told that a widower still misses his wife “almost a year and a half after her passing” but he tells a friend there have been several interruptions in his life and some “’more recently, because of my wife’s passing’”? 

The book often gives the impression that it was translated rather than written in English.  Mugdi and Gacalo rent an apartment for Waliya and the children but a police officer identifies the former “’as the apartment tenants’”?  A mother and daughter, distraught at being separated, would cry and weep and sob but calling their emotional outpouring as “ceaseless sniveling” seems a poor choice of words.  Some of the diction is complex and then there are clichés like “she has cased the joint” and “He moves like greased lightning”!  Clearly, editing was cursory.  Naciim buys several Norwegian flags and he lets his mother see only “one of them” but somehow she cuts up several flags, though he has successfully hidden the rest?  A man accused of sexual assault must give “blood and urine samples” when earlier he is told “to give samples of blood and semen”?  We are told that “Dhaqaneh accorded [Naciim] a greater preference, inducting him into the position of a Mahram, the male head of the household” but later we are told “The initial mistake was Waliya’s, when she singled Naciim out for his maleness in a household of females and assigned him the role of Mahram”!

Mugdi is translating Ole Edvart Rølvaag’s novel Giants in the Earth into Somali, and comparisons are constantly made between the Norwegian immigrants in the Dakotas and Somali immigrants in Norway:  “Beret, in her fear of the prairie, covers the windows of her sod house and bars the door at the slightest worry whenever her husband is away.  And the Somalis conceal their bodies with all-enveloping tents when they are outside the house, afraid of whom they may run into” and “Just like Beret, Waliya is forever creating havoc, unable to come to terms with her new country’s climate, culture, or faith, nor able to tear herself loose from all that defined her back in the land where she was raised.”  These comparisons serve to remind the reader that immigrants regardless of country of origin have struggled, but would a man in the midst of grief really think about the death of a character in a novel?

The book touches on important topics.  It examines the impact of religious radicalization.  It explores the struggles immigrants face in integrating into a different culture.  It points out that Somali immigrants in Norway are really “’caught between a small group of Nazi-inspired vigilantes and a small group of radical jihadis claiming to belong to a purer strain of Islam.’”  The problem is that the book is clunky with numerous issues that need to be addressed.  The impact of its important message is greatly lessened by the book’s lack of literary quality. 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review of OUR HOMESICK SONGS by Emma Hooper

4 Stars
Because Newfoundland is my favourite Canadian province, I love reading novels set there and was thrilled to come across this book. 

The setting is the outport of Big Running in the early 1990s.  The cod have disappeared and so people are leaving the community to make lives elsewhere.  The Connors are the last family to remain, though Aiden and Martha take turns working in the oil fields of Alberta.  Each leaves the family in the care of the other parent for a month.  Meanwhile 14-year-old Cora transforms abandoned houses into countries she dreams of visiting.  And 10-year-old Finn makes it his mission to lure back the fish, using a folk tale for inspiration. 

Sadness permeates the narrative.  Finn witnesses the disappearance of fish and boats and people, including members of his family.  The government has told the family they have only months to leave so they mourn the loss of the only home they’ve known as well as their way of life.  Clenched hands become symbols of the tension everyone feels and the desire to hang on to the life they love.  When Aiden and Martha were courting, “In clenched fists, Martha would bring Aiden sea glass, round and smooth and blue and green and clear as sky.  Mermaid’s tears, they called them, in the Runnings.  Cried for people left back onshore, hardened by distance.”  Throughout her absences from home, Martha keeps a clenched fist:  “Her left hand, the one with the ring . . . in a tight fist.  A hard, safe ball.”   

Music is also ever present.  Aiden sang when he went fishing and that singing, which Martha interpreted as coming from mermaids, brought them together.  Cora plays the fiddle and Finn, the accordion.  Whenever members of the community gather, they bring music.  At a funeral, “there were two fiddles, three guitars, one banjo, one bodhran, three whistles, two accordions, and almost everyone singing”; at a community meeting, “there were three fiddles and three guitars and two bodhrans and four whistles and two accordions and one flute and one set of pipes.”  Mrs. Callaghan, Finn’s music teacher, tells him that “singing together makes you allies.  Automatically.  Always.” and “Even when you don’t have anything, you can always sing.” 

In particular, Mrs. Callaghan talks about the power of music to help remember a place.  She speaks of sailors coming from Europe to fish and “the only, the best, way for them to remember home was through singing, through the songs and tunes they knew from home.  When they were homesick, when they needed to remember where they were from, they could sing to see, to remember.  They could close their eyes to block out where they were, and sing and remember where they used to be.”  And singing together is even better:  “Every new voice would make a bigger, better picture of home, filling in some gaps, bits they might forget alone.”  Though Big Running will be a deserted place, its former residents can remember it through song. 

The style is spare but lyrical.  Some passages, like the description of a storm, are almost stream-of-consciousness:  “First the lightning, then the thunder, then the wind and the waves, the waves and the wind and the night-white water, all of which were the same, all one, pushing and reaching and pulling and pressing in on them, on every side, wind, waves, water, everything wet and loud and black and white, deep night, then light, then night, then light, and everyone was awake now, Aidan’s mouth moving like talking but just the sound of the wind and the waves and the water, just a moving mouth, only visible when the light hit, then gone again, his arms up and grabbing things, something, a snake, a rope, just a rope, Martha stepping out, toward him, black-white, the wind grabbing her hair, punching her back, deep, heavy against her gut, and something, something else, on her arm, pulling her back, a hand in unison with the wind, pulling her, sudden, and she fell back, away from Aidan and back inside and the hatch banged shut.”

This is a haunting, moving novel that will linger in my memory.  I recommend it being read while listening to some Newfoundland folk songs by Great Big Sea or The Fables or Simani or The Punters.  Or listen to “Grey Foggy Day” by Eddie Coffey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uY2nVUXeXzY) or “Saltwater Joys” by Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZmQj5rRULU).  

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review of THE SUSPECT by Fiona Barton

3 Stars
Two English 18-year-old girls, Alexandra O’Connor and Rosie Shaw, go missing while backpacking in Thailand.  A veteran reporter, Kate Waters, becomes interested in their story and gets to know the parents.  When bodies are discovered after a fire in a guesthouse, Kate flies to Thailand to get the full story while at the same time looking for her son Jake who went to Thailand two years earlier and has had only sporadic contact with his family since.  She discovers that Jake lived in that same guesthouse and may know something about the fire. 

The novel is narrated from alternating points of view; most often, it is Kate and Alex’s mother Lesley who are the focus, but the viewpoint of DI Bob Sparkes, a police officer facing the impending death of his wife, is also given as he takes charge of the investigation on the British end.  Alex’s voice is also heard in the emails she writes to her best friend.

The book touches on several topics.  For instance, it addresses the way people edit their public lives on social media.  Alex’s postings suggest that she is having a wonderful time but her private emails to her friend tell the truth:  things are not going well between her and Rosie who is not really interested in exploring the country.  It also examines what it is like to be on the receiving end of media attention; when Kate’s son becomes a person of interest, Kate, the newspaper reporter, says, “We’re taught that the truth is all that matters. . . . Everyone wants to know the truth.  Except those who don’t.  Those who stand to lose by it.  I know that now.”  The question of how well parents know their children is also asked; Kate starts to wonder about how well she knows Jake, and Rosie’s mother seems very much unaware of her daughter’s behaviour. 

Alex and Rosie are foil characters; the former is the good girl and the latter is the bad girl.  Alex is the responsible one who is interested in seeing Thailand while Rose is the partier who is really interested only in boys.  There are other stereotypes too.  There’s one young man who feels his parents have pressured him too much and another who is the product of the foster care system.  The incompetence of the Thai police is unbelievable. 

There are subplots that are unnecessary.  For example, the terminal illness of Sparkes’ wife serves little purpose except to arouse sympathy for the policeman.  The tensions between Rosie’s divorced parents are irrelevant. 

Some elements leave the reader mystified.  What parents would let their young daughters go unsupervised to Thailand?  Alex is supposedly the mature girl who is aware of possible dangers for young travelers yet she is so naïve?  Why do the girls continue to stay in a rooming house which is certainly substandard? 

This is an easy, undemanding read.  The chapters are short and the clues so obvious that the villains are easily identifiable.  It might be a good book to take on a plane, though perhaps not on a flight headed to Thailand.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Review of THE GEOGRAPHY OF FRIENDSHIP by Sally Piper

4.5 Stars
Three women (Samantha, Lisa, and Nicole) in their forties re-enact a 5-day hike on an isolated coastal  trail.  When they began this hike 24 years earlier, they had a confrontation with an aggressive man in the parking lot at the trailhead. Thereafter he watched them and deliberately instilled fear by making silent but threatening gestures.  It is obvious that something happened before the end of the trip; whatever transpired changed the three and destroyed their friendship because they have not spoken to each other in over 20 years. 

Lisa convinces the other two women to take the hike again.  She suggests they can reshape the memories of the original experience, thereby healing the wounds that were inflicted.  Perhaps too their fractured friendship can be mended; she hopes “to have the qualities of their friendship returned to her and all the goodness that might come with it if it can be.”  There is certainly no doubt that the experience had a major impact on their lives.  Lisa thinks of how the landscape and what happened “Damaged them.  How much of what happened here has been carried with them into the everyday, washed up in their lives like those fragments of stone.”  Samantha thinks of how “their friendship had unraveled and Samantha doesn’t think she’s felt good about herself since.”  Nicole thinks about how “She didn’t believe or trust in herself to succeed [because everything] . . . that was strong and good about her was taken away . . . [and] She lost her faith in humanity that day.”

It is not until the end that the reader learns exactly what happened on that fateful hike, so there is a great deal of suspense in the book.  As the women walk the trail in the present, there are flashbacks to what occurred along the same sections of trail.  There was a pervasive air of menace and even the rugged landscape seemed threatening.  Though the timeframe has changed, the locale is the same so the women are anxious, and because of their 20-year estrangement, there’s tension among them.  All of these emotions are passed on to the reader.

Each of the women emerges as a distinct individual with clearly identifiable traits.  For instance, one is motivated by anger, another is the peacekeeper, and the third distrusts people.  This differentiation is achieved by the novel’s structure.  Each woman is the focus of an equal number of chapters.  We hear her inner dialogue as she remembers the past, thinks about the choices she made then, and considers how subsequent decisions in her life were influenced by the past:  “Who or what might she have been if these things hadn’t happened to her?” 

Each of the women is dynamic.  Mostly each learns about herself.  Lisa, for instance, acknowledges that when they drifted apart, “they weren’t running from each other.  They were running from themselves.”  At the beginning, it is easy for them to blame each other for what happened:  “Trying to make her say Yep, all my fault, so she can have a clear conscience.”  Eventually, however, each must acknowledge her role in what happened during the hike and the dissolution of their friendship:  “Memory might try and serve it differently, that one person instigated . . . more than another, but in truth they were all complicit . . . ”. 

The book examines the dynamics of friendships.  Samantha describes their friendship:  “They were tight.  Inseparable.  Individual slights led to collective umbrage.  Heart scars were shared.”  Nicole agrees:  “They only had to be themselves.  That’s what made their friendship strong.”  On the first hike, the friendship was tested; as they faced increasing fear, their stress caused them to turn on each other.  And after the first hike, “It only took two weeks to undo eight years [of friendship].”  Each mourns the loss of the friendships.  One of them acknowledges “She still feels the loss of what they had.  She registers it as an irretrievable absence inside her” and another thinks her friends would have helped her, that maybe “they’d have looked out for her and steered her away from a man they would have recognized as good at manipulation.”  Can the women repair their relationships if they realize that a friendship has “to be nurtured and cared for, like a garden” and that if one lightens the burden of another, “She doesn’t notice the extra weight after a while.  It soon becomes a part of her own”? 

As soon as I started reading this book, I was totally absorbed.  It is so emotionally immersive and thought-provoking that I will not soon forget it.  I keep asking myself how I would have reacted in similar circumstances. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review of A DEADLY DIVIDE by Ausma Zehanat Khan (New Release)

3.5 Stars 
I’ve read all the Rachel Getty/Esa Khattak books so was interested in this one, the fifth in the series. 

This time Rachel and Esa are called to Saint-Isidore-du-Lac in Quebec after a massacre at a mosque.  Twelve people are killed.  Christian Lemaire, the officer in charge, has a young Muslim man, Amadou Duchon, taken into custody though he was helping the wounded.  On the other hand, Etienne Roy, the local Catholic priest, is found at the scene with a gun in his hands but he is not apprehended and never seriously considered a suspect.  As the investigation continues, Esa and Rachel are convinced that the Wolf Allegiance, an ultra-nationalist group, and a right-wing radio host are connected to the mass shooting.

The mystery is interesting with several suspects with possible motives.  The identity of the murderer is not easy to guess, though looking back there are sufficient clues.  I understand the murderer’s initial motivation but there are subsequent actions that are less strongly motivated and so less convincing. 

The novel tackles relevant issues in Quebec and Canadian society.  It explores anti-immigration sentiments, Islamophobia, and white nationalism.  Rather than focusing on the radicalization of young Muslim men, it examines the radicalization of young white men.  The book mentions topics which have been in headlines in Quebec:  biker gangs, discrimination in the Sûreté du Québec, Hérouxville’s Code of Conduct, Quebec’s Charter of Values.  Some online chats and blogs which promote hate are included in the narrative; they are unquestionably realistic though disturbing to read.

In my review of the fourth novel in this series, I mentioned that the constant romantic tensions became tedious.  In this novel, the romance element is also over-emphasized.  Every woman who meets Esa seems to fall in love with him?!  He is unmoved by such amorous yearnings, but the love of one person has a dramatic impact on his mood and attitude.  Rachel, on the other hand, is attracted to someone with whom she has to work closely though she doesn’t know if he can be trusted.  These romantic concerns serve only as an unnecessary distraction, especially over-the-top passages like this:  “She struggled to regain her composure, blinking several times rapidly and running a dry tongue over her lips.”

Another aspect which is tedious and annoying is the many references to eyes:  “Their eyes met and held, eloquent with fear” and “the answering flame in her eyes” and “that still-banked fury in his eyes” and “her eyes were locked on his” and “The priest’s eyes slid to his” and “something dark and nameless in her eyes” and on and on.  Everyone communicates so expressively with their eyes?!  Dialogue and actions should be used more to convey thoughts and feelings.

As with the previous book in the series, this one is also sometimes bogged down by lengthy passages of exposition that would be more appropriate in an essay:  “But in effect, that’s what the Code of Conduct – and the succeeding legislation – stood for.  It was dressed up in language about religious neutrality and the values of Québec – it resisted encroachment; it spoke of erasure – but at heart it was a repudiation, of what was considered different . . . other . . . barbaric.  Debates about the Muslim veil had created the specter of a foreign invasion – an intolerable usurpation delivered by the hands of a community who sought religious freedom.  The language of Bill 62 . . . suggested it applied to all communities equally.  But its neutrality was a veneer.  Its practical application was to exclude those in religious dress from joining in public life.  In starker, more specific terms, the proposed legislation stripped a Muslim woman of her dignity and her choice.”
There is a lot of focus on the difficulties women face in a male-dominated workforce:  “Unwanted, unwelcome attention that hindered a woman’s performance of her job” and “What do you think it’s like for me?  For any woman who tried to slog her way to the top?” and “He’d heard it from many of his female colleagues, frustrated by unnecessary obstacles or by the difficulty they’d faced being treated with respect by the men who stood in their way.”  The reader does not need to be reminded over and over again about this problem. 

I had problems with a few things in the novel.  First, there’s the portrayal of the fictitious town, Sainte-Isidore-du-Lac.  It is a “small town on the fringes of Gatineau Park” about “an hour and a half from Ottawa.”  This small town has a mosque, a synagogue, and a university.  What small town, especially one so close to a city that has two, would have a university?  Then a character who works as a spokesperson for the premier of the province is summoned to Montreal?  The provincial capital is Quebec City so it is more likely she would have to go there.  A Muslim man speaks of the type of woman he would like to marry:  “A girl I can take to the mosque who will stand by my side in prayer.”  Perhaps I’m being too nit-picky but in a mosque, women pray separately from men!

This is not really a standalone novel.  I would strongly recommend that it be read in the proper sequence.  The relationships among the characters will be much better understood if the previous four books in the series have been read.  In addition, all the investigations of these prior installments are mentioned.  The next book in the series is foreshadowed at the beginning and the end with the appearance of a shadowy figure who follows and threatens Esa.  The identity of this person undoubtedly lies in the previous novels. 

This book examines the consequences of hate, and considering events in both Canada and the U.S., it is very relevant.  A Muslim police investigator as a protagonist is a welcome addition to the mystery/crime genre, and the character of Esa continues to provide insight into the tenets of Islam and the mind of a devout but moderate Muslim.  He and Rachel are an odd partnership but their working relationship is based on mutual understanding, respect, and affection.  Though the book is not flawless, it is of sufficient quality that I will continue to follow the series.

Note:  I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Review of THE SEVEN DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE by Stuart Turton

3 Stars 
Last year the Costa First Novel Award went to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; this year, it went to The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.  These two books are so very different that about the only thing they have in common is the use of a woman’s name in the title.

This is a time-travel detective story with a locked room mystery.  The narrator, later identified as Aiden Bishop, is attending a masquerade party at Blackheath House; the Hardcastles’ youngest son was murdered 19 years earlier and for some reason they “have decided to mark the occasion by reopening the house where it happened and invite back the very same guests who were here that day” (48).  At this party, another murder takes place and Bishop must identify the killer in order to escape from Blackheath.

Of course, Bishop cannot solve the murder in the usual way.  A masked figure, the Plague Doctor, tells Bishop that he will relive the same day 8 times; each morning he will wake up in the body of a different person present at the party.  In other words, his 8 hosts allow him to see the same event from 8 different perspectives.  If he doesn’t succeed in identifying the killer, his memory will be wiped clean and he’ll have to start the process all over again, as he apparently already has perhaps hundreds of times.  Two other people at the party are also trying to unmask the murderer.  Since only one person can be freed from the time loop, Bishop is motivated to succeed, especially because a knife-wielding footman is hunting down Bishop’s hosts and killing them. 

Though the events occur in the 1920s, the book often feels like a Victorian Gothic novel.  It certainly has many elements of Gothic literature.  There’s a remote, crumbling manor house with dark, creepy corridors and gloomy chambers; it’s surrounded by mysterious forests and has an old graveyard nearby.  There are touches of the supernatural and more than one damsel in distress.  Torture, murder, suicide and insanity all make an appearance. 

In many ways, the book is an intellectual puzzle.  The reader must be willing to invest time and become actively involved while reading this book.  A passive reader will give up in frustration, especially because almost everyone is unreliable and untrustworthy.  At one point, Bishop thinks, “Too little information and you’re blind, too much and you’re blinded” (378).  The reader will find him/herself in the latter position because the number of details becomes almost overwhelming.  The author has stated that he used a wall of Post-it Notes and an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the plot pieces, characters, and perspectives, and the reader must almost resort to similar tactics to avoid total bafflement. 

Characterization is interesting.  We never see Bishop outside of a host’s body, and he has no memory of the type of person he was:  “I have no idea who I am beyond Blackheath, or how I think when I’m not wedged inside somebody else’s mind” (236).  We get only snippets of his personality as traits emerge while he occupies a host’s body.  The problem is that Bishop finds he is losing any sense of self as the personalities of his hosts intrude and often overwhelm him.  The Plague Doctor tells him that he is allowed only eight hosts because, “Any more than that and your personality wouldn’t be able to rise above theirs.”  Bishop agrees, “My hosts are getting stronger, and I’m getting weaker” (269).  At first Bishop tends to be very judgmental and his constant deriding of one man’s obesity and another man’s cowardice do not initially endear him to the reader.  Later, however, he acknowledges the coward’s compassion and the fat man’s intelligence.  A positive trait is his desire to prevent the murder because if it does not happen, he cannot gain his freedom which has been promised only if he identifies the murderer.  For me, much of the interest was in trying to determine what kind of person Aiden Bishop really is.

This novel is very intricately crafted and the writer has justifiably earned praise for his cleverness.  Of course, I couldn’t be bothered to determine if there were any plot holes!  I appreciate the cleverness, but I think a great book is more than just an intellectual puzzle, and for me, this book is not much more than that.