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Mark Wakely (Lombard, Illinois)

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Then We Came to the End: A Novel
Then We Came to the End: A Novel
by Joshua Ferris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.89
55 used & new from CDN$ 0.29

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great first novel, March 31 2007
While Then We Came to the End has been touted for its humor- and it is a funny book- to read it as strictly a spoof of ad agency life would be to diminish what Joshua Ferris has accomplished in his clever novel. Filled with characters that inspire sympathy and revulsion, familiarity and curiosity- often at the same time- this notable first effort captures well what pressure-cooker corporate life can do to the human spirit, no small achievement for any novelist much less a brand new one.

Told from a collective "we" point of view, the characters nevertheless have distinct voices and viewpoints, with their own hopes and desires for life beyond ad life, desires (at times) at odds with their coveted, chosen occupation. Lording over Chicago from their lofty office perches, there's a pervasive sense not only of "how did we get here?" but also a disbelieving, disheartening "so this is it?" in their daily grind. Some resent the hucksterism inherent in the advertising world- despite having fought to be a part of that world- as if the ad world should somehow be more than what is, a corporate job that just so happens to rely on teams of brilliant, creative and quirky individuals for its ultimate success. Worse, by nature some of these unique individuals are nearly the antithesis of the very idea of teamwork, which alone provides some interesting conflict. Characters strive to do their best work, or creatively avoid doing any work, as rumors swirl about layoffs and clients lost and found. With their uncertainties and insecurities surprisingly at odds with their handsome, enviable salaries, they praise and complain, encourage and slander, all the while desperate to avoid the dreaded humiliation of being the next in line to be shown the door. It's this fear of the seemingly inevitable that propels the book forward, and how each character deals with that fear (or its reality) makes the book engaging.

Ferris breaks from the "we" to the first person singular only once, and that's for a stern woman supervisor who's been diagnosed with cancer. Her ruminations on her life and circumstances are poignant without being maudlin, and add an extra, unexpected dimension to the book.

Like other first novels based on real places and events, Then We Came to the End does a fine job of letting outsiders in as it exposes the unglamorous aspects of ad agency life. Readers who spend their allotted time in cubicles and offices anywhere will undoubtedly recognize many of these characters- and maybe even themselves- since corporate life is corporate life no matter where it's found.

Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

The Road (Oprah's Book Club)
The Road (Oprah's Book Club)
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.68
73 used & new from CDN$ 0.75

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Road Trip Through Hell, March 29 2007
Cormac Mccarthy's The Road is a dark, post apocalyptic journey through the remnants of the world as we know it, with the faintest flicker of hope at the end.

Destroyed by some never quite explained catastrophe, the Earth has become nearly inhospitable to life. A thick ash smothers everything and hangs in the sky, making a cold, quiet moonscape where things had once been green and alive. Through this nightmare world travels bands of desperate survivors, including an unnamed man and his son. The father's plan is to travel south to warmth and the ocean, where he hopes to find their salvation. Along the way they are confronted by cannibals, thugs and others as adrift as they are, a Darwinian struggle reminiscent to some degree of the lost boys in The Lord of the Flies, but far more sinister and disturbing. In particular, the image of the captives of the cannibals- who are being eaten bit by bit, shrinking grotesquely but kept alive so their flesh remains fresh- is a vision of Hell right out of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. Calling themselves "the good guys," the father and son still carry a gun- with two bullets- to end their lives if needed rather than suffer a crueler fate. The father also struggles with the ethical dilemma of having to "unteach" his son about compassion and empathy, afraid that the boy- who wants to help those equally in need- will only die in the attempt. This "every man for himself" situation is in stark contrast to everything the father believes, and how the boy has been raised. It's this struggle to hang on to the noble aspects of humanity while surrounded by the worse that makes the novel insightful, haunting, and a riveting read.

Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

Next
Next
by Michael Crichton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.76
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important, timely novel but not without its flaws, Nov. 30 2006
This review is from: Next (Hardcover)
Michael Crichton does in Next what he's always done so well in his novels- he explores the scientifically possible and shows us how our decisions to use (or misuse) new technologies can lead to unintended, even disastrous consequences.

Although a case could be made that there are enough characters and plotlines in Next for three or four novels, Crichton's intentions seem to be to deliberately overwhelm us with the dizzying pace of genetic research and all the opportunities for both tremendous good and alarming malevolence in its application. A true Pandora's box in that our scientific curiosity can sometimes get the better of us, the more we learn how to tinker with the very building blocks of life, the more temptations we face to play God. And as Crichton correctly demonstrates in his multi-layered novel, these temptations will not be meted out in some easily digestible fashion, they will come screaming at us in ever increasing numbers until our ability to distinguish the good from the bad is overwhelmed. And just like those multitude of spirits Pandora set free, there will be no going back into the box- discoveries might be lost, but they aren't unmade, particularly ones of this significance and magnitude.

The upside in Next: the end to most diseases and genetic defects is finally within sight. The downside: with all the money involved, there comes a loss of individual privacy and even certain freedoms.

Crichton's first question: are these remarkable discoveries truly worth the price? Crichton's next two questions: will we ever really know the answer to the first question, and will it come too late?

One misstep on Crichton's part: the abrupt switches between story lines- he makes readers work harder than they should have to in order to follow along. But given the timeliness and importance of the story, it's worth the extra effort even though the problem could have been mitigated by some restructuring.

Nonetheless, as thrilling as anything he's ever written- made even more dramatic by the potential for some of it to come true, and sooner rather than later- Next is a worthy read.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
by Barack Obama
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.69
121 used & new from CDN$ 0.39

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A prelude to the White House, Oct. 19 2006
Barack Obama's latest book reads like a hopeful springboard to the Presidency; indeed, the only concern he's voiced recently about a run for the White House is what his family might have to endure. Other than that, he sure looks and sounds like a confirmed candidate, and The Audacity of Hope only fuels that speculation.

Obama is my senator. I honestly can't tell you what he's accomplished for Illinois. Nothing particularly major or memorable- given his short tenure- but that's not to say he hasn't been successful; everyone in Washington seems to want him on this or that committee, and that's certainly good for Illinois. The more powerful and influential your senator, the more attention (and money) flows to your state. His voting record is what you might expect from a young freshman Democrat, but that's not a knock; he's been true to his word, and that's a plus.

He tries hard in Audacity to show he would be a builder of bridges and a healer of political wounds, and that might be true; time will tell. He's spot-on in the section titled Politics when he bemoans what modern politicking has become- far less about the issues than about how inherently evil your opponent is. Mudslinging has replaced party platforms as the main election tool, with orchestrated outrage and assertions of moral superiority at the top of the campaign agenda. Obama's call to return some integrity to politics by offering solutions rather than automatic fear and hatred of the other side is both timely and refreshing. It would be easy to argue that the polarization of the political right and left is complete and irreversible, but that's both the Audacity and Hope of the book's title.

What's not so convincing in Audacity is his portrayal of himself as a political Everyman. While he clearly demonstrates genuine empathy for those who don't share his beliefs, the middle ground he tries to capture seems more like quicksand- when you try too hard to be everything to everyone, you run the risk of being nothing instead, a perpetual question mark without a solid base to stand on. That's a risk he's obviously willing to take, but the centrist policies he then suggests are not only nothing new, they carry their own considerable risks and problems which he barely weighs. That's a concern, a surprise, and a shortcoming.

Good, effective politicians are like a good stew- there's substance in the pot, and it's well seasoned. While Obama clearly has the substance, the seasoning simply isn't there yet, which makes the Audacity in the title fitting in a way Obama hadn't intended. Americans sure are enamored of fresh, unknown faces in politics- maybe because we love Cinderella stories- but that's voting with your heart rather than your head. Now there's something to be said for intuition and "gut feeling" when selecting leadership, but when the fresh face is untested in so many ways, perhaps it would be best to go with the proven commodity- even if it isn't all that exciting- rather than the raw recruit, no matter how intelligent or charismatic he (or she) might be.

Charisma is great, but experience counts for so much more, especially in the troubled, difficult times ahead.

All that said, Audacity of Hope is an interesting look into the mind and heart of a young senator as he formulates his early political policies and tests the political waters.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

Echo Park
Echo Park
by Michael Connelly
Edition: Hardcover
76 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, Oct. 12 2006
This review is from: Echo Park (Hardcover)
For thirteen years, something's troubled Harry Bosch. Marie Gesto, pretty 22-year-old, was abducted and presumed dead, her body- and her killer- never found. Despite an exhaustive investigation, Harry's intuition tells him there's something about the unsolved murder he's overlooked, a critical piece of the puzzle that's staring him in the face but he just can't see, some telling detail out of hundreds in the case that points to the killer's identity but refuses to come into focus, maybe- just maybe- because of his overbearing ego, or some defect in his detective skills...

And then a break in the case. A killer caught, a confession and a body found. Case closed?

Harry's suspicions still tells him no, but he's not sure why. Maybe he should just let it go, swallow his pride and admit he could have caught the killer years ago. But things just don't add up, the confession too convenient for all those involved, his instincts nagging him that the real killer is still out there and now very, very close...

Welcome to Echo Park, Michael Connelly's latest installment in the trials and tribulations of Detective Harry Bosch. Unlike many one-dimensional fictional detectives, Harry is an expertly drawn character with all the flaws, foibles and contradictions that make humans...well, human. His cunning and street-smarts- along with his near paranoia and self-doubts- place him high up in the pecking order of memorable gumshoes. Better still, all the characters in Echo Park strike a true note, even the disposable ones.

And the plot! It's been said that good plots flow from good characters, and Echo Park proves that rule. The seemingly innocuous details and things said that take on new meaning and significance at the end, the way everything eventually falls in place, the stunning conclusion that's both proper and fitting...it takes a profound familiarity with your characters to put all that together and make it feel natural, and Connelly succeeds most splendidly.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein.

The War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds
by H. G. Wells
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 5.69
80 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why it's still in print a hundred years later..., Oct. 12 2006
H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds as a warning to the complacent, world-dominating British citizens of his era to not take the status quo for granted. The arrogance of some British politicians in particular rubbed Wells entirely the wrong way, particularly their sentiment that the British had an 'obligation' to 'civilize' the world (read: colonize) for its own good. Well's book was a rock thrown at that attitude-on-a-pedestal, and although he didn't knock it down, he made his point- and in spectacular fashion. In one way, the Martians *were* the conquering British, with their superior weapons and baffling ways that must have seemed incomprehensible to the natives of Africa and other areas colonized by force. Wells' dark tale was also a warning that even the British- despite their firm belief in their world destiny- could be squashed like so many bugs by an indifferent cosmos that didn't give one whit about the British (or anyone else's) false boast of superiority. In the end, though, it's a hopeful book- just as the Martians died off because they weren't biologically suited to live in this world, Wells also foretells the end of the British Empire because the British (alien) way was not the native way of life in the colonies, suggesting that the British wouldn't survive there long; the natives would eventually prevail. And they did. On top of all that, it's rousing entertainment that can be read just for its drama and suspense.

And that's why it's still in print a hundred years later.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale
by Diane Setterfield
Edition: Hardcover
35 used & new from CDN$ 5.38

24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant debut, Oct. 6 2006
This review is from: The Thirteenth Tale (Hardcover)
When a first novel is immediately (and enthusiastically) compared to the works of such literary luminaries as the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, a large dose of skepticism is in order. I read this book with a jaundiced eye, expecting to eventually uncover at least one unconvincing character, a plot twist that failed to surprise, or a passage less than vivid, unworthy of the masters.

I did not.

Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale carries the reader along like a turbulent river, with unexpected eddies and undertows you can't escape. The characters are absolutely true to the worlds of Dickens and Austen, but they're originals, not derivatives. They grieve and you do, they rejoice and you do, they die and you do- almost. The whole atmosphere of the book is powerful and sweeping, in the manner of Henry James or even Joseph Conrad. (Well, minus all those ships, of course.) If I had to pick one story that gave the same overall effect as Setterfield's book, I'd pick The Turn of the Screw, since the ghost element in Setterfield's book is equally shocking and unique, although James's classic novella lacks the grand span and scope of The Thirteenth Tale. Then again, Setterfield's characters could just as easily find a home in Dickens' dangerous London squalor or in the halls of a Bronte mansion, the air thick with secrets and heavy with troubled specters anxious to make themselves known.

Intriguing, daring and even downright heart pounding at times, The Thirteenth Tale might well give you nightmares at the end, but they'll be the best- and most original- nightmares you've ever had.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

I, Robot
I, Robot
by Isaac Asimov
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.79
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5.0 out of 5 stars Remembering the late, great Isaac Asimov..., Oct. 6 2006
This review is from: I, Robot (Mass Market Paperback)
Isaac Asimov was, of course, a mover and shaker not just in the field of science fiction, but as a science educator for the masses. His prodigious output of books and articles was one of the seven wonders of the modern world, yet it's a relatively small number of short stories and novels for which (I predict) he'll be remembered. Stories like "Nightfall," "Bicentennial Man," and of course his robot stories with their "three laws" will still be read and appreciated for years to come. By showing us how the three laws worked (or sometimes didn't) in these stories, he created a practical foundation for the future of robotics, and Carl Capek aside (who wrote one of the first robot stories, RUR, in 1921) Asimov is considered by many as the father of modern robotics. The Japanese in particular seem fascinated with robots and their potential, so it shouldn't be surprising that Honda named their sophisticated humanoid robot Asimo in his honor.

These stories do show the era in which they were written by the language, but the innovative theories behind them and the "why didn't I think of that?" reaction from readers remain.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

Life of Pi
Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
4 used & new from CDN$ 12.50

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing modern fable, Oct. 6 2006
This review is from: Life of Pi (Mass Market Paperback)
This novel works best when viewed not as a possibility- like most modern fiction- but as a fable, with the events exaggerated and elements of the fantastic present. Only then is it possible to accept the improbable here, and see the story as a clever means of conveying lessons about religion and faith. Like religious belief, Martel wants us to make a leap of faith with him, and consider the ramifications of the story he's telling rather than argue the details. On that level, the book is brilliant, and raises some important ideas that are worth mulling over when the book is done.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
58 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars One of Bradbury's best, Oct. 6 2006
This somber book, with its theme of government-encouraged anti-intellectualism, was written during an age when "eggheads" were suspected of being subversive somehow, maybe even godless commies. This distrust of intelligence and non-conformity is taken to the extreme by Bradbury, with stark and memorable results. By discouraging education and all forms of intelligent discourse, the future government is able to control the population not merely by force or threats, but by providing an endless flow of mindless entertainment, which (nearly) everyone happily accepts. Like sheep before the slaughter, the placated citizenry of Fahrenheit 451 simply doesn't know any better than to believe what the government pronounces at face value. This perverse form of "mind control"- enforced by keeping minds happily engaged in only the most trivial of pursuits- works only too well, since it is far easier to remain ignorant than struggle to form an opposing opinion that might require courage to express. And by burning the last remaining learning tools that threaten its empire- books- the government tries to erase the possibility that anyone could stir an uprising based on ancient philosophical principles such as democracy, liberty, and self-determination.

Ignorance becomes not only bliss, but a frightening way of life.

Bradbury is one of the original "Golden Age" science fiction writers, and that shows in this book. There's the element of the fantastic in the everyday gadgets here, more speculation and wonder that science. For this reason, it doesn't quite have the realistic edge that most mainstream fiction has, although the philosophical themes in the book elevate it to mainstream status. But if you like the "gee-whiz" in your science fiction, then that's another plus.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein

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