Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove

Earlier this month I started reading the six-volume Crosstime Traffic series by Harry Turtledove. The first novel that I read I enjoyed, while the second one not so much. Fortunately, this story was more like the former than the latter.

Like all of the Crosstime Traffic books this tale takes place in an alternate earth with a different historical timeline. In this case, the story is set in a North America that is divided into numerous autonomous states, in which the United States never came to be. The book opens with Beckie Royer, a teenager from the independent territory of California, travelling to the country of Virginia with her grandmother who is visiting relatives. During their visit, a war breaks out between Virginia and Ohio, both of which are separate nations, and which sees Ohio use biological weapons by spreading a virus that was created in a laboratory.

The other main protagonist is Justin Monroe, a teenage boy and employee of Crosstime Traffic, the company in the "home" earth that has discovered the ability to travel between alternate worlds. As part of his assignment, he travels to Virginia where he meets Beckie, and then is stranded due to the Virginia-Ohio war. The resulting narrative is a captivating story that is pretty good.

This book is meant for young adults, and as such much of it's language is written in PG form. In the hands of a weak writer this could be a big problem. Fortunately, Turtledove is able to convey the idea of swearing without actually using the F-word or other cuss-terms. The result is a funny literary style that is fairly witty. However, while the language is PG, much of the content is not. Covering such themes as racism, oppression, the horror of war and the political history of the United States, this novel allows teenage readers to think about some fairly heavy subjects.

Out of the three books that I have read so far in this series this is the best. In total I have enjoyed two and given the thumbs-down to one. Hopefully the others will be as good as this one.

3 1/2 stars out of 5

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Curious Notions by Harry Turtledove

This novel is the second book in the six-volume Crosstime Traffic science-fiction series for young adults. The premise of the series is quite interesting: Set in the 2090s, a company called Crosstime Traffic has discovered technology that allows company employees to travel to other earth-like worlds that have alternate histories.  Each book tells the story of a different set of characters, so the only overlapping element among each of the books is the common premise.

Earlier this month, I read The Gladiator, which is the fifth volume in the series. While that book was not spectacular, I enjoyed it enough to pick up another book in the collection. Unfortunately, Curious Notions is a pretty weaker novel. Set in San Francisco in a world in which Germany wins the First World War and then conquers the United States after bombing it with nuclear weapons, the story revolves around Paul and Lawrence Gomes, a father-and-son duo who run a store called Curious Notions. As employees of Crosstime Traffic, they sell gadgets from the "real" earth in order to buy produce from local farmers in order to meet agricultural shortages in the home timeline.

When the German authorities start to wonder where these strange gadgets come from, they shut down the store and arrest Paul's father. While trying to rescue his dad, Paul teams up with Lucy Woo, a teenage girl who works in a shoe factory. As the novel progresses, the mysterious Chinese Triads who operate in San Francisco's Chinatown put pressure on Lucy to find out who Paul is and where he really comes from.

In most contexts, this plot would produce a very good novel. In what is a big disappointment, however, this interesting storyline is converted into Disney-like mush. In order to make the tone appropriate for "young" adults  a big emphasis on the word young  the dialogue, content and plot twists are reduced into pretty bland stuff. It is one thing to write a book for teenagers, it's quite another to treat them like children. In too many parts of the book the narrative flow sounds like a children's film from Disney, rather than an interesting science fiction story for teens.

Now that I have read two books in the series I will like finish all six volumes. My hope, however, is that the other books are more like The Gladiator and less like Curious Notions.

2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gladiator by Harry Turtledove

Crosstime traffic is a six-volume series for young adults by science fiction writer Harry Turtledove. Set in the late 21st century, the premise revolves around a company called Crosstime Traffic, which has developed a technology that allows people to travel to different earth-like worlds that have alternate histories.

In The Gladiator, we are introduced to a place in which the Soviet Union has won the cold war, and communism has become the dominant global ideology. The title of the book refers to a game shop of the same name, in which capitalist-inspired board games from the "real" earth are sold. The aim of the shop is to subtly subvert the totalitarian control of the Marxist governments that rule the different countries in this alternate world.

Set in Milan, Italy, the story revolves around two teenagers called Gianfranco and Annarita whose family share the same apartment. Gianfranco is a regular at The Gladiator shop where he regularly plays a board game called Rails across Europe. However, when the authorities become suspicious of the game shop, they decided to shut it down, and in the process radicalize the two teenagers. Their desire for freedom becomes especially acute when they discover that there is another world in which capitalism has triumphed and in which people are free.

This book was a fun read. While the politics are pretty simplistic  the struggle between capitalism and communism is presented in an almost childlike fashion  the story is enjoyable. While this novel is no masterpiece, and the writing can be pretty wooden at times, it is entertaining. If you are looking for a serious discussion on political theory, then this book is not for you. However, if you want to be entertained with a light and quick read on a grey weekend afternoon, then this story may be what you are looking for.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Sea by John Banville

Picture the following scene: You are having dinner with a brilliant, erudite and cosmopolitan person. Initially, your guest mesmerizes you with stories of travelling around the world and meeting famous people. However, as time passes by, the conversation begins to drag on, and what was once magical is now slightly annoying. By the time dessert arrives, you want dinner to end and your guest  to go on his way.

For me, reading John Banville's The Sea was like having dinner with the aforementioned fictitious guest. For many people this statement is likely outrageous, especially given that this novel won the 2005 Man Booker Prize. Banville is without a doubt a magnificent writer, and to say otherwise is bound to create criticism. However, if I were to be completely honest, I must confess that this book slowly started to wear on me. It's true that in the opening sections I was captivated by the writing. However, with each passing page, I become increasingly (dare I say it?) bored. The intriguing ending saved the novel for me, but not enough to make me rave about this book. Yes, I could write numerous English PhD theses on the book's different themes, while making varied commentaries about art, death and longing. Yet, to be perfectly frank, I have to say that I found some of the commentary on this book to be a tad pretentious.

This story tells the tale of Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who returns to the seaside town where he spent his holidays as a child. Dealing with the recent death of his wife, he recalls his time with the Grace's, a wealthy family in which he experienced love and death for the first time. On the surface this is an interesting premise, and I really enjoyed parts of the book. Nevertheless, by roughly the middle part of the story, I couldn't help but want the novel to end. I am glad that I read this book, and I do plan to read other literary works by Banville. That being said, I did not fall in love with this story.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson

This book for young adults is listed in the collection, "1001 children's books you must read before you grow up". After finishing the novel I am not sure why it is considered a must read.

The story itself is interesting: A young orphan girl in the western mountains of the Han Empire is held captive by a cruel master. In a sudden moment of bravery, the girl frees a dragon named Danzi, who is also imprisoned by the master. Following their escape, they proceed on a journey across China towards the eastern sea, in which they come across kind peasants, cruel dragon hunters, the emperor and necromancers. Throughout the journey they protect a mysterious dragon stone.

As a fan of fantasy the story caught my interest, and I was definitely predisposed to enjoying this book. Unfortunately, I found the writing to be a bit stale, and by the end of the novel was not that particularly engaged. The characters sounded wooden, while the action seemed contrived, reminding me of a forgettable action movie filled with obligatory explosions and car chases. Although this is the first book in a series, I am not sure if I will read the other volumes.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Wealthy Barber by David Chilton

I have wanted to read this book for a long time. A Canadian classic in the field of personal finance, I have heard for years about this groundbreaking work. Written as a novel, the book focuses on a character called Dave, a married father who requires financial advice. After asking where he can get such advice, he is told to go to visit Roy, the local barber who has become a millionaire by implementing a common-sense financial plan.

Thus begins a series of monthly lessons in which Roy offers his wisdom on such areas as insurance, RRSPs, saving 10 per cent of your income and whether to implement a personal budget  his answer to the latter may surprise you . Amazingly, even though the book was first published more than 20 years ago, it is still highly relevant to the contemporary reader.

Given the plethora of financial books available today, a lot of the tips in this book have since been repeated elsewhere. For instance, the "pay yourself first" mantra is a staple of many financial authors. What is really impressive about this book, however, is that it was providing groundbreaking advice more than two decades ago, years before many of today's popular financial planning authors. While I do not agree with all of the advice, (e.g. I found the section on funding the post-secondary education of children to be outdated), I found many of the tips incredibly useful.

In short, I think this is an excellent book that is worth the read. It's true that a lot of newer books say many of the same things, and that in certain areas you would be better served if you read more recent books. This is especially true if you want to know more about Registered Education Savings Plan. (Here is one suggestion to find out more about RESPs). However, if you want to become familiar with the basics of sound financial planning and want to do so by reading an easily accessible book, then this novel / financial planning guide provides an excellent start.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton

This book reminds me of a bound volume filled with nothing but famous quotes. Instead of providing a cohesive thesis that builds over several sections, The Wealthy Barber Returns is comprised of very short "chapters" (i.e. think between 2 to 5 pages) that contain a wide range of David Chilton's financial ideas. Some of his thoughts are quite interesting, such as the point that people who associate with others in a similar social class spend less money. His views on the wisdom of index funds is also very insightful.

Many other chapters, however, are filled with scattered thoughts that contain folksy and cheesy humour. While the The Wealth Barber is considered a Canadian financial classic, and I fully intend to read it, this "sequel" seems more like a rushed job than a collection of solid analysis.

This book would be perfect for a waiting room in an office or a bathroom, as the chapters are short enough to read in a few minutes. There are also enough good ideas to spark several interesting train of thoughts in a reader. Like a book of quotes, however, this work only scratches the surface. There is no cohesive theme, and many of the profound ideas are only discussed in a superficial manner.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Stuart Little by E.B. White

Watching my little baby girl grow up has inspired me to read children's books. One of the novels that I recently read was the classic Stuart Little, the ageless tale of a small mouse who is born to a human family in New York. Despite his diminutive stature, Stuart proves to have an explorer's heart, as shown by his adventures sailing a toy boat and his scuffles with the house cat.

His greatest adventure, however, arises when his best friend Margalo, a little brown hen-bird, escapes from his nest. Determined to find his trusted companion, Stuart starts off on a quest to find him.

This book is very well written and wonderfully told. Like Kafka's classic novel Metamorphosis, in which a travelling salesmen wakes up one day as a bug, the reader can easily suspend disbelief and accept the fact that a tiny mouse can be born into a human family. If I had one small critique, however, is that the book ending seems a bit rushed. The final scenes do not seem like the logical consequences of the story, but rather as the quick scribbles of a tale that needed to end suddenly.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to the day when I can read it to my daughter.

4 out of 5 stars

Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle (Translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone)

As a new parent, I recently decided to start reading children's literature. One of the first books that I borrowed from the library was Toby Alone, a harsh tale about a small boy named Toby who is only one-and-a-half millimetres tall and lives in a tree.

Although advertised for young people, this book tackles many adult-themes. For instance, the subject of dictatorship is raised through the character of Joe Mitch, a very coarse, brutal and disagreeable man who connives to take control of the tree, which serves as the world for Toby's tiny race. The depletion of natural resources and climate change are also discussed through the actions of Joe Mitch's men, who are mining, carving and building in the tree at an unsustainable rate.

The plot of the story is quite interesting, even if it is a bit violent. The novel centres around the family of Toby, whose father is a great scientist. One day, Toby's father makes an incredible discovery, but fearful of how it could be used in the wrong hands, refuses to divulge its secret. In retaliation, the family is banned to the lower branches of the tree, far away from their family. The story revolves around the consequences of this exile, while Joe Mitch's men are rapidly destroying the tree.

As pure story-telling this book is excellent. The imagination required to write this story is quite impressive, as is the skillful combination of hard themes into a tale that children can understand. Nevertheless, I must admit that the level of violence in the novel disturbed me. The scenes of beatings, fighting, death and mentions of executions were unsettling. While I would recommend this book to my adult friends, I am not sure if I would feel comfortable giving it to my daughter before she turns into a mature teenager.

4 out of 5 starts

Where's Spot by Eric Hill

My baby girl is now a toddler who loves to waddle around the house. Although she can can't form sentences yet, I want her to appreciate books, so I have been borrowing some from the library for her.

Where's Spot? is a cute pop-up book for little children that allows them to "search" for Spot the dog who is hiding somewhere in the house. The book is a lot of fun, even if some of the reviews are a bit over the top. (Parent magazine said: "Spot is one of the essential experiences of childhood," which is a bit much). That being said, this is a great story that will encourage your little ones to love books.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

This masterful book is a wonderful work of art. Set in Paris in 1931, the story revolves around a 12-year-old orphan boy called Hugo Cabret, who lives in a busy railway station. After the death of his father, the boy is taken to the train station by his uncle where he works as a clock keeper. (Hugo’s mother, who is never mentioned, is assumed dead).

After his uncle disappears, little Hugo continues to live in the railway station where he maintains the station's clocks. What truly inspires him, however, is his almost obsessive work in fixing an automaton that his father, who was a fixer of clocks, discovered before his death. In order to repair the mechanical robot, Hugo steals mechanical pieces from a toy store inside the railway station, which is manned by a man named Georges.

The ensuing story is a masterpiece of children’s literature. With 158 pictures and 26,159 words, Brian Selznick reveals George’s cinematic secret, the magic inside the automaton, the incredible story of young Hugo, and the friendship that develops between the boy and Isabelle, the friendly girl who lives with her godfather Georges and his wife. The combination of illustrations and written text is an aesthetic delight, which is like nothing I have ever read before. If I had to use a metaphor, I would say that this book is a literary sculpture, in which the story is told through text and images.

In a publicity letter, Selznick writes that the book is a, “531 page novel in words and pictures. Unlike most novels though, the images inside don’t just illustrate the story, they help tell it. … [T]his is not exactly a novel, and it’s not quite a picture book, and it’s not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things.”

This book was so captivating that I read it in a single sitting. The illustrations are beautiful, the story magical, the writing masterful and the combination of pictures-and-text a true work of art.

5 out of 5 stars

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker

This is a brilliant novel. The book revolves around an unnamed 22-year-old Cambridge graduate student in French literature, who is writing a thesis on the work of Paul Michel, a fictitious homosexual French novelist. In the beginning, our narrator is not interested in Michel the man, but only in his written work, which first emerged in the 1960s. However, after his girlfriend tells him that Michel has been held for years in a mental institution after being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he decides to go to France to meet the author of the books he is studying.

Once in France, the narrator meets Michel and falls in love with him. After pleading with the hospital to release the famous author, the two men embark on a road trip that changes both of their lives. Hiding in the background, meanwhile, is the ghost of French philosopher Michel Foucault, and his mysterious relationship with Paul Michel.

The central theme of this book is the relationship between author and reader. Some hold the view that this relationship should be limited to the printed page, and that the life of a writer outside the confines of their work is not important. In this excellent novel, however, Duncker turns this proposition on its head, by presenting a vivid portrait of the novelist Paul Michel, while keeping anonymous the name of the “reader”, presented in the form of the young Cambridge student.

In the hands of a less talented writer, this book could have been incredibly pretentious. In the skillful hands of Duncker, however, questions of love, human relations, the role of literature, and the symbiotic interaction between author and audience are presented in a captivating and thought provoking way.

A great book that should be read by anyone who loves literature.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

Andrew Crumey is a literary contradiction. On the positive side, he is capable of being a brilliant novelist who can weave literary magic. When he’s at his best (which is often the case) his words are a sheer delight to read and his narrative flow hypnotic. Unfortunately, he can also come across as an academic bore, and in the process affirm the worst stereotypes of university English departments. He is also not shy about getting weird, as is the case with the creepy sex scenes in this novel that are borderline porn. To use a metaphor, reading Crumey is like listening to a breathtaking symphony, but just as the orchestra is building to its climax, the music suddenly stops and a crazy person – with a whoopee cushion in hand – suddenly starts making fart noises while taking off his clothes. As I said, this book is part-genius, part-child-prank.

This is the third novel by Crumey that I have read. The first I thought was so-so, while the second I loved. This book falls somewhere in between. From a stylistic point of view Mr Mee is extraordinary. Crumey’s ability to construct a single, unified tale by combining three separate stories is masterful. While it’s true that he uses the same narrative structure as in Music, in a Foreign Language, his writing is so good one can easily overlook the fact that he’s recycling a previously used narrative structure.

But not everything is perfect with this novel. In certain parts, the narrative flow comes across as the dry musings of an old, boring literature professor, whose pedantic whine will put anyone to sleep. In his defence, Crumey could argue that the character in question is a middle-aged literature professor, and that my problem is that I don’t like this character, not that he is poorly written. There is some truth to this. Nevertheless, a boring personality is still a bore, and no amount of literary analysis can say otherwise.

On the opposite spectrum, some of the sex in this book is unnecessarily voyeuristic. This disturbed me a bit, as I got the feeling that the final sex scene was inserted not because it fit, but because Crumey simply wanted to write a creepy sex scene. If the central theme of your book deals with sexual taboos (e.g. Lolita) then it makes sense to include otherwise shocking sexual acts. If your book does not require it, however, then inserting gratuitous sexual behaviour in an otherwise excellent book is simple gratuitousness.

What about the plot? Well, this novel weaves together three separate tales. The first narrator is Mr Mee, a mind-boggling naïve Octogenarian who is searching for the mysterious Rosier Encyclopaedia, an 18th century work that reportedly proves the non-existence of the universe. The second narrator is a middle-aged professor in the same town as Mr Mee, who writes a book about two men called Ferrand and Minard, two minor characters who appear in the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third story describes the adventures of Ferrand and Minard, which may or may not have been written by the middle-aged professor. In masterful strokes, this novel blends these three stories into a coherent whole. This otherwise fantastic work, however, is undermined by certain chapters that are mind-numbing, as well as some sex scenes whose only purpose it would appear is to allow Crumey to write them.

In short, this novel is half-Beethoven-genius, half-whoopee cushion clown.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Goldman's Theorem by R.J. Stern

I have a suspicion that Ron Stern is a great guy to hang out with. A full-time mathematics professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Prof. Stern decided to write a novel a few years back. According to the 2009 press release from Concordia,  "Stern's goal was to write something satirical and over-the-top, but that still spoke truth about academia. The 'feel' of the story might be described as The Big Lebowsky meets Sideways in a campus novel."

My take? This is the work of an interesting academic who likes to push his personal boundaries, which explains why a mathematician is dabbling with fiction. As for the final product? Well, the novel leaves much to be desired, even if it is funny in parts.

Goldman's Theorem tells the story of Simon Goldman, a mathematics professor in the fictional University of Northern Vermont near the Canada - United States border. After years of apparent inactivity, Goldman announces that he has cracked the P versus NP Problem, which is one of the millennium problems. The news sparks a flurry of activity from the university's administrators who are eager to capitalize on this breakthrough. Yet amidst this joy from the university community, doubts begin to emerge on whether the proof is accurate.

This book left me with mixed feelings. When I first started reading it I thought it was terrible. It's true that Stern wanted to write a comedic book that poked fun at academic administrators, and that the slapstick humour was presented on purpose. This desire for high comedy, however, seemed to me like a veiled attempt to hide literary naivety. Stern is an accomplished mathematician, but an experienced fiction writer he is not, which comes across clearly in this book.

Nevertheless, things picked up about half-way through the story. Certain passages were quite funny and the writing significantly improved. My thoughts are that Stern got better as an author as he practiced writing fiction, which is why the second-half is much better than the first. As a result, by the end of the book, I become quite interested in the characters and the final outcome. That being said, if I had to do it again, I probably would not have picked up this book.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Body of Intuition by Claire Daniels

I read this novel by accident. While logging onto my online library account, I noticed that there was an interlibrary loan book on hold for me. Not recognizing the title, I called the library to make sure there hadn't been a mistake. I was told that there was no error and that I had reserved the book.

I then went to the library to pick up the book and immediately saw that someone else's name was on the interlibrary loan reservation sheet. Instead of returning the book, however, I decided to read the plot summary on the back cover. The story revolves around a character called Calypso Lazar ("call me Cally") who is a former lawyer turned new-age healer. After one of her clients describes how her husband died in an apparent suicide at an intimacy workshop, Cally decides to investigate and soon discovers that the death was the result of murder.

This oddball plot was so corny I had to give it a shot. I don't know what I was expecting, but I soon discovered that this is a terrible novel. The writing is atrocious, the characters one-dimensional, the dialogue so cheesy I could barely believe it, and the narrative pace very choppy. In fact, at times I felt that this was the work of a high school student rushing through an English assignment instead of the work of a professional author. The only positive thing I can say about this book is that the story idea is highly imaginative and the main character is a quirky, if implausible, creation.

1 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

Quebec City-born animator Guy Delisle spent two months in North Korea working for a French animation company. During his stay in Pyongyang, the capital of this isolated and remote country, he experienced first-hand its Stalinist-state.

In this excellent graphic novel, the reader is presented with a portrait of a country that lives in a completely different reality from the rest of humanity. In one particularly chilling section, Delisle is reading George Orwell's 1984 while staying in a creepy, run-down hotel built for foreigners. The juxtaposition between the fictitious dictatorship described by Orwell and the real-life horrors of North Korea (e.g. constant state control; prison camps; outrageous state propaganda that would be funny if not so tragic) was particularly disturbing.

This is a good work that provides a rare picture of this hermetic communist state. Overall, the animation is pretty good and the story captivating. If I had one criticism, however, it would be that Delisle's doesn't address the role that some Western countries have played in North Korea. For instance, on several occasions, the reader is told about how a French company worked on a certain project in the country. While critical of China's role in North Korea, the book does not comment about France's business relationship with Pyongyang. Given that this book is meant to be a personal memoir of his trip, perhaps this criticism is a bit unfair. Nevertheless, this thought did cross my mind after I finished the book which, overall, is quite good.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt

I am not sure how to react to this novel. Although it is beautifully written, impeccably researched and filled with several fascinating details, (the world painted here is so rich it could be an epic movie), this book still made me feel, "blah".

This novel is based on the incredible true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematical genius who worked as a clerk in India, before being invited to Cambridge University after writing a letter to the famous English mathematician G.H. Hardy. In the ensuing pages, a vivid portrayal of England just prior and during World War I is presented, while a cast of famous characters (such as the renowned philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as the British mathematician John Littlewood) are scattered throughout the book.

So why am I so blasé about this story? The main problem is that Ramanujan, who is supposed to be the central focus of this book, comes across as an afterthought, playing second fiddle to Hardy's life. In fact, on various occasions, I had the sense that I was reading a literary biography of Hardy, rather than a novel about Ramanujan. As a result, after reading 478 pages, I still had no clear sense of who this brilliant Indian mathematician was, and instead was left with the sensation of having been given a long, generic sketch that could have been gathered by reading a Wikipedia entry.

The second problem with the novel is that it comes across as wooden in many parts. To use an image, the book reminded me of those stodgy, British-dramas that one only sees on TVO or PBS, and which despite looking interesting you never watch, because you know deep down inside that they will bore you. Coming to this realization after completing this book really upset me for I was really looking forward to reading it.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Music, in a Foreign Language by Andrew Crumey

This novel is very impressive. In a previous review, I was fairly critical of Andrew Crumey’s work. This book, however, made me see why so many critics have raved about this British author.

The captivating story revolves around two friends, Charles King and Robert Waters, as they struggle to live in a fictional police state in England. After publishing an underground pamphlet called Flood as youth, the two grow up to be professionals, with King becoming a physicist and Waters a historian. However, when Waters is tapped by the government to write a book on the English revolution in this alternate Britain, their subversive past catches up with them, and both are put under immense pressure to betray each other.

Besides this intriguing story, what really blew me away was the multilayered narrative style. The book is anchored by a mysterious narrator who, we are told, wants to write a novel about two people named Duncan and Giovanna who meet on a train. As Giovanna enters the train car, Duncan is reading a book by a surreal Italian writer called Alfredo Galli (who does not exist in real life). In due course, we learn that Waters is the father of Duncan, and the role that King plays in Duncan’s life.

The ensuing story is a collection of multi-layered plots that is beautifully written. There is the mysterious narrator (whose true identity we discover at the end of the book), the story within Alfredo Galli’s fictional novel that Duncan reads while on the train, the thoughts of Duncan, who is seeking to find the truth about his father's death, and the relationship between King and Waters, who must grapple with defending their friendship from betrayal. Like a beautiful musical work with several layers, this rich story blends and weaves various plots together to tell a wonderful story.

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

A housekeeper is hired to take care of an old mathematics professor with a head injury. Due to a car accident in 1975, the professor’s memories stop in that year and any new memories are limited to 80-minutes. Once this period of time has passed, the new memories are replaced with other experiences that are 80-minutes long, in a process that is repeated endlessly. This lack of short-term memory, however, is compensated by the professor’s ability to maintain his mathematical knowledge, which he puts to constant use in the various math puzzle contests that he enters.

The professor’s sister-in-law explains this strange situation to the housekeeper before she begins her job. The sister then retreats to her house where she is no longer seen, leaving the housekeeper to take care of the professor – who lives in a neighbouring cottage – all by herself.

So each morning, as she arrives for work, the housekeeper must reintroduce herself to the professor, whose suit is filled with notes that remind him of important things, many of them mathematical, but others about new realities such as the presence of the housekeeper. From this unusual dynamic a beautiful friendship is born. The relationship becomes even stronger when the housekeeper’s son (who the professor calls “Root” because his flat head reminds him of the square root sign, a fact that he writes down in a note that is clipped onto his suit with a binder clip), begins to come to the cottage. The ensuing interactions between the three awaken a love of math in the housekeeper and her son, as they both come to see the beauty in numbers, and also the kind heart and soft nature of the professor.

In this lovely and touching novel, Yoko Ogawa paints a beautiful portrait filled with tenderness, true friendship and the wonder of mathematics. This book also declares that even in a world where memory is short (in this case, only 80-minutes long) humanity can still flourish, and friendship nurtured by the magic and wonder of numbers.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 23, 2012

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

When this book was published in 2004 it was hailed as a brilliant novel. The British press in particular went gaga, as they gushed over the complicated tale based on quantum mechanics. My opinion is less sanguine. While conceding that it is very well written, this is not the ground-breaking work that so many reviewers described.

The story revolves around a physicist named John Ringer and the idea that parallel universes are possible. This idea is made plausible by a plot line involving a corporation that wants to use quantum computers to build a global communication network. When approached by a former student who is working to establish this network, Ringer replies that the quantum computers, if ever put into effect, could cause irreparable harm to the fabric of reality as they could unleash a wave of parallel worlds crashing into each other.

Within this context, the reader is faced with a whirlwind of characters that include, among others, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the composer Robert Schuman and the writer Herman Melville. These scenes overlap with the story of John Ringer, as he visits a remote village in northern Scotland.

As a science fiction fan this book should be right up my alley. Furthermore, given that Crumey is an excellent writer (the narrative flow is quite good) this would seem like a certain home run. When I finished the novel, however, I couldn't help but shrug my shoulders.

To begin with, this book does not deal with a ground-breaking theme. The Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson, which was first published in the late 1970s, discussed parallel universes and the implications of quantum mechanics. The famous Schrödinger cat experiment, meanwhile, which plays a key role in Crumey’s book, has appeared in numerous other books. This doesn't mean that writers should shy away from quantum mechanics. In fact, as a sci-fi fan I would argue the opposite. However, we also can't pretend that this novel deals with previously unexplored themes.

On a more annoying note, Crumey occasionally descends into moments of banality. For instance, some of his sex scenes are pointless, while certain pieces of dialogue come across as blather. It’s as if Crumey, who has a PhD in theoretical physics, assumes that he can’t explain certain ideas to a regular reader (he could be right), so he throws in mindless dribble for amusement (which is annoying). To use an analogy, it’s like a cutting-edge comic who suddenly loses his intelligent creativity and in a moment of panic reverts to fart jokes.

This book is definitely ambitious and deals with a subject that is quite hard. (You try to write a novel based on quantum mechanics and parallel universes involving, inter alia, classical musicians, philosophers, physicists and members of the Nazi party). Credit must therefore be given where it's due as this book does aim to be intelligent. Just because a book is ambitious, however, does not make it good, and simply because a novel is well written does not mean it is a masterpiece.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pythagoras’ Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery by Arturo Sangalli

This could have been a good novel. Unfortunately, weak writing and an inconsistent narrative flow undermine what is an otherwise interesting premise.

The story begins with a curious job interview between Jule Davidson, a mathematics professor at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, and a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Smith. After passing a peculiar math test, Davidson is offered a strange job that is connected to the famous ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras. In due course, the reader discovers that a manuscript from Pythagoras (who in real life left no written records) might exist.

The original plot revolves around various elements. There is a modern-day, neo-Pythagorean sect that is searching for the reincarnation of Pythagoras. Parallel to this religious search, Elmer Galway, a professor of classical history at Oxford University, discovers an Arabic scroll that hints at a written manuscript by the ancient Greek master. Then there is the world renowned mathematical genius Norton Thorp who proves than the vast majority of math problems are unsolvable. How all of these pieces fit together is the point of the book.

That is why it is disappointing that the storytelling is so jarring and jumpy. Characters are introduced and then discarded quickly, only to re-emerge later in a clunky way. Narrative pieces that should weave together nicely instead come across as awkward. Then there is the ending that seems rushed (one gets the impression that the author just wanted to finish the novel), which is too bad, as the idea behind the finale is quite interesting.

This book would have been a lot better if it had undergone a more thorough editing process. Some of the ideas are intriguing, such as the “proof” by Thorp that a majority of mathematical problems are unsolvable, and then the implication elsewhere in the book that this is a false proof that has been presented for malevolent reasons. Instead of fleshing out this and other excellent ideas, however, the novel is undermined by a poor narrative, ho-hum writing and fairly wooden characters.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal

Awesome, absolutely awesome. This brilliant novel was a delight to read and I cannot recommend it enough. In the last month-and-a-half, I have been fortunate to come across several excellent books that have captivated my imagination. This fantastic story, however, is by far the best work of fiction that I have read in a long, long time.

This masterful tale revolves around Ravi Kapoor, a Stanford University student who by chance enrols in a course on infinity. Despite leaning towards a career in investment banking, Ravi befriends Nico, a jazz-loving math professor who encourages him to study mathematics and eschew the world of finance.

During the ensuing semester, Ravi discovers that his late grandfather Vijay Sahni, who was a mathematician, had been arrested in a small New Jersey town in 1919 for blasphemy. Surprised by this discovery, he begins to investigate the case which, to the surprise of him and his friends, shares common themes with Nico’s lecture on the infinite.

This book accomplishes so many things it is difficult to know where to start. First, the book explains complex math in a language that is accessible to everyone. Whether it’s the discussion on infinite levels of infinity, or the section dealing with non-Euclidean geometry, this book manages to describe high-level mathematics in an everyday tongue.

Second, this book touches on a myriad of powerful themes, such as the need by some people to find absolute truth in life; the role of faith in both science and religion; the power of friendship; the boundaries of human knowledge; and even hints of love. Page after page is filled with so many captivating ideas and thought provoking vignettes that it is sometimes difficult to keep up.

Finally, the philosophical and mathematical discussions are wrapped up in a wonderful story that is pure literature. The writing is exquisite, the pace of the story spot on and the characters are so alive they appear to be right in front of you. At times, the story was so engrossing I felt that I was beside Ravi and Nico as they discussed infinity, the meaning of life, the role of faith and the case of Ravi’s grandfather.

If I could give this book more than 5 stars I would. Easily the best book I have come across in years.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pythagorean Crimes by Tefcros Michaelides (Translated from the Greek by Lena Cavanagh)

Michael Igerinos is shocked to hear that his best friend of 30 years, Stefanos Kantartzis, has been murdered. While interviewed by the police, Michael begins to recall his long-friendship with Stefanos, which begin in 1900, when both met as young men at the Second International Congress of Mathematics in Paris.

In the ensuing decades, both men share a myriad of adventures that see them drink in Montmartre with the then undiscovered Pablo Picasso, cross-paths with the famous Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge, share romances, fight in war, clash with a criminal gang involved in prostitution, and all the while discussing the latest advancements in mathematics.

Lurking in the shadows of this novel is the mysterious story of Hippasus of Mesapontum, the ancient Greek philosopher who legend has it was killed by the Pythagorean sect after he discovered that the square root of two, and hence the Pythagorean Theorem, was irrational. Does Hippasus’ death contain any clues on the murder of Stefanos? Or was his death simply the result of an act of revenge by an embittered criminal? This fascinating story filled with mathematicians, painters, poets, pimps, prostitutes, soldiers and rich upper class snobs provides a captivating answer. Michaelides's has produced a wonderful work that manages to combine complex mathematics with brilliant literature. A true triumph.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Parrot’s Theorem by Denis Guedj (Translated from the French by Frank Wynne)

Max Liard was in a Paris flea market when he noticed two men trying to catch a parrot. Disturbed by the fight between men and bird, the young Max, who is deaf, decides on the spot to save the colourful wing creature. This interesting scene is the opening act in a highly original novel that manages to recite the history of mathematics, while simultaneously doubling as a mystery book.

The story revolves around the Parisian bookstore of Mr. Ruche, an elderly wheelchair-bound man who lives with a woman named Perrette and her three children, one of which is Max. One day Mr. Ruche receives a letter from Elgar Grosrouvre, an old friend who he hasn’t seen in decades and who lives in Brazil. In his note, Elgar tells his former wartime comrade (both fought together during World War Two) that he was sending him a vast library of mathematical books, comprised of volumes that were published over a span of hundreds of years.

Surprised by the arrival of this gem of a collection, Mr. Ruches soon finds out that his old friend Elgar was working on ground-breaking mathematical proofs, but for reasons that are unclear died in a fire in his home in Manaus. Was it murder? Suicide? An accident? And what does the parrot have to do with all of the strange events in Brazil and the two men in the Paris flea market? While this mystery forms the backbone of the story, the real meat of the book lies with Mr. Ruche’s “presentations” on the history of mathematics to Perrette and her children that are based on Elgar’s library.

This book, which was originally written in French, is reminiscent of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, which outlined the history of philosophy through a highly imaginative novel. The Parrot’s Theorem echoes Gaarder’s classic work by showing how math evolved from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century. For the reader, this brilliant story turns the history of mathematics into a piece of literature that is full of romance, obsessions, tragedy and genius. If I had one critique, however, it is the somewhat weak ending. While the original plot and history of mathematics makes this a must read, the weak finale takes away from what is otherwise a brilliant book. 

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw

The great Archimedes, arguably the most brilliant mathematician of Ancient Greece, is thriving in the intellectual hotbed of Alexandria when he hears the tragic news: His beloved father has fallen gravely ill and he must return to his native Syracuse. To make matters worse, his hometown is now at war with the Roman Empire, casting a menacing cloud over his family, friends and neighbours.

This intelligent and intriguing novel is set in 264 BC during the First Punic War. Archimedes and his slave Marcus (note: large parts of this story are fictionalized) arrive in Syracuse after spending three years in Ptolemy’s Museum in Alexandria. Eager to help in the defense of his home city, the young Greek quickly impresses with his engineering genius. His catapults are so powerful they are considered to be the strongest in the world, a view that is quickly confirmed when they crush invading Roman troops. His knowledge of mechanics, meanwhile, allows him to stun his fellow citizens of Syracuse by moving a ship with a lever. In the midst of battle, family sorrow and displays of technical brilliance, Archimedes learns about love, true friendship, loyalty and the horror of war.

Gillian Bradshaw is a wonderful writer who has a delightful eye for detail. In this excellent novel, she brings Ancient Greece to life and is able to take the reader into the heart of Archimedes’ home. Although the ending was a tad too soap operaish for my taste, I was still drawn in by this book and really enjoyed reading it.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is a wonderful novelist and one of my favourite science fiction writers. When I open up one of his books I expect to read an intriguing story chock-full of brilliant ideas. This high standard explains why I was disappointed with this novel.

Like much of his previous work, this tale tackles a fascinating concept and – at least at the beginning – is a page-turner. Describing the story of Webmind, a vast consciousness that emerges from the complex network of the World Wide Web, Sawyer presents an intriguing plot line that is half-AI speculative fiction, half-action novel. For amidst the birth of this new sentient being is a top Pentagon military official by the name of Colonel Hume who becomes convinced that Webmind is a threat to the world. To counter this danger, he begins to search through the hacker underground for computer experts that can shut down this new intelligence. Meanwhile, a blind 16-year-old teenage girl named Caitlin Decter who first discovers Webmind aims to protect her "friend" from the forces that want to destroy it.

So far so good. Then, about a third of the way into the book, the story starts to break down. Instead of advancing the plot with his usual skill, Sawyer begins to use his characters as mere excuses to present his ideas on artificial intelligence. As the book progresses, the story and characters become less and less important, until the reader is left wondering what the purpose of the novel is, i.e. to tell a story or to express ideas.

Science fiction writing cannot forget its dual parts. The "science" (which this book does very well) is meant to capture the readers’ attention with far-reaching and thought provoking concepts. The "fiction" element is meant to present these ideas in an interesting literary form. This book (to my surprise) sacrificed the story at the altar of the scientific idea. The result is that characters that were initially interesting devolved into plot robots with little personality of their own.

1 1/2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt

Feeling that he has failed as a mathematician, Isaac Swift retreats to his apartment to wallow in his sorrow. Alone in his study, he begins to work on Beauregard’s Wild Number Problem, a puzzle that has stumped mathematicians for centuries. As he slowly searches for a solution, his intellectual quest drives him to the brink of madness until (to his complete shock) he writes a proof.

After overcoming his initial disbelief of what he has done, Isaac approaches his university colleague, and world renowned math genius, Dimitri to review his work. With painstaking detail, Dimitri reviews the proof step-by-step, until concluding that his fellow professor has found the secret to one of the world’s most important problems. Lost amid the joy of this discovery, however, are the deranged fantasies of a mature student named Mr. Vale, who accuses Isaac of plagiarizing his solution to the Wild Number Problem. Quick to maintain his innocence, Isaac must deal with Mr. Vale’s erratic threats, while also maintaining in check his own descent into lunacy.

This book is a captivating read that highlights the fine line between genius and madness, success and failure. Though heavily focused on mathematics, the story is accessible to all readers, and can capture the imagination of a wide audience. As well, while the writing does sound wooden at times, the story has an excellent pace that captivates to the end. It also handles a difficult subject matter in an entertaining an accessible way, and also leaves the reader thinking about whether poor Isaac has truly gone mad.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 17, 2012

An Invisible Sign Of My Own by Aimee Bender

Mona Gray is a 20-year-old, Grade 2 math teacher with curious habits: a compulsive need to knock on things, whether trees, walls or desks; a desire to quit everything that she is good at (except for math); and a knack of noticing strange things, like the unusual practice of Mr. Jones (her former school math teacher and now owner of the town hardware store), who wears wax necklaces of individual numbers that switch daily to indicate his changing moods.

In the background to this offbeat life, is the shadow of Mona’s father who has been sick for years with an unspecified illness. He hovers over Mona’s thoughts and feelings, and is omnipresent when she interacts with her seven-year-old students and other teachers, especially Mr. Smith, the new science teacher who is bound to be fired in no time.

This book is spectacular. Despite being only her second novel, the writing comes across as the work of a master. The literary flow in this book is so good that you sometimes forget that you are reading a story and start to imagine that you are peeking into the mind of a peculiar woman, who comes across as both brilliant and simple, insightful and hopefully naïve. Without a doubt this is a gem and a delight to read. An excellent work that is in a class of its own.

5 out of 5 stars            

Coyote Moon by John A. Miller

After watching his brilliant and close friend Arthur Hodges die, (a world renowned thinker who held an endowed chair of mathematics at MIT), quantum physicist Benny Rhodes has an epiphany: He must quit his job as a university professor and divorce his wife. In what seems like a flash instant, he leaves Boston and travels across the country where he meets a woman who is more than 30 years younger in the parking lot of a drugstore in Oklahoma after their cars collide. The new couple soon find themselves in a trailer park in the Mojave desert, where they meet a strange German couple who believe (or at least the husband does) that they have all come together for a special, perhaps even mystical, reason.

Meanwhile, in Scottsdale, Arizona, a mysterious young man just out of the army, and who has never played formal organized baseball in his life, shows up at the training camp of the Oakland A’s. First dismissed as a nonentity, the player is told flat out that he has no chance of making the team. But when his playing ability reveals him to be a bona fide superstar (some are so shocked by his skill that they wonder if he made a pack with the devil) he is quickly offered a professional contract. Even weirder than his raw talent, however, is his bizarre mathematical ability, and his knowledge of advanced physics. When the player finds himself in the trailer park in the Mojave desert, a debate ensues about whether he is the reincarnation of a scientific genius.

This wonderfully original book was a pure joy to read. With amazing literary skill and a wonderful imagination, John Miller has written a book that is worthy of extensive praise. If this novel were a symphony, it would receive a standing ovation for several minutes from an adoring audience.

5 out of 5 stars

The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen

Three math professors in three different U.S. states are found dead. At first glance, none of the cases appear related, except for the odd fact that all three were experts of fractal geometry. Convinced that this link is not a mere coincidence, math professor Jayne Smyers from Boulder, Colorado, hires private detective (and former Marine JAG) Pepper Keane to investigate.

In the ensuing search, Pepper finds himself travelling to several states, taking a road trip with his best friend, and unravelling a mathematical secret that was designed to beat the stock market. As he gets closer to the truth about the three dead professors, he finds himself falling in love with the affable Prof. Smyers, all the while working through the fascinating (but poorly written!) philosophical classic Being and Time from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

This fast-paced novel is a fun read that will appeal to mystery fans and lovers of math / philosophy alike. A good, fun book that is worth picking up.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 20, 2012

Why Swim With the Sharks: An Unconventional Guide to Early Retirement by Diana Salomaa and Henry Dembicki

Every once in a while you read a book that makes you think differently about about life. This is one of those books. In this easy to read work, some of the most common myths about retirement are debunked. Among the so-called "truths" that are shown to be false are the following: a) You need at least 70 per cent of your pre-retirement income to retire; b) You need a million dollars (or more) nest egg to retire; and c) Don't count on public pensions to meet the bulk of your retirement.

As made clear in this book, these "truths" are in reality myths that are perpetuated by financial institutions who have a vested interest in selling their products to the public. Consequently, instead of getting unbiased advice on how to save for retirement, Canadian's are constantly being bombarded by incorrect information.

For example, the 70 per cent rule quoted above is a common rule of thumb. Yet the problem with this rule is that it assumes that a retired person will have the same level of expenses when they stop working as during their wage-earning years. In reality, the daily cost of living for a retired person is much lower. To demonstrate this point ask yourself the following question: How much money do I currently live on once I subtract the mortgage, car payments and contributions to RRSPs, RESPs, CPP and EI? Now, what would my life be like if I didn't have any debt nor had to save? If you can pay off your house and car before you retire, then it's completely realistic to think that you can retire on less than 70 per cent of your pre-retirement income. This is even more true when we recall that a retired person can avoid spending money of CPP, EI, RRSPs and other savings.

Based on well-thought out arguments and practical advice, this book is a must-read for anyone who does not want to buy into the rat race. It also makes the indispensable point that money is only one component of retirement. Other factors, such as having strong relations with your family and friends, as well as having interests outside of the office, are critical to a happy retirement.

That said, I don't agree with everything in this book. For example, the suggestion to write down everything that you spend (even right down to the penny) seems excessive. I tried this technique and I found that it produces a lot of work for little return. Personally speaking, I find that a budget achieves the same ends without causing me to be overly anal. Overall, however, I found this book to be an excellent resource and recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Lazy Investor by Derek Foster

I don't want to be snide, but this book could have been called, The Lazy Author: How to write a sequel without making a new point.

For those who don't know, Derek Foster shot to fame when he published his first book, Stop Working: Here's How you Can!, in 2005. The book chronicled how Foster was able to retire at age 34 by investing in strong, dividend-paying stocks. The book was intriguing and containing several excellent investment tips.

The Lazy Investor is Foster's follow-up book and contains an explanation on how to enroll in SPPs (stock purchase plans) and DRIPs (dividend reinvestment plans). It also has a section on how to teach children about money. The section of SPPs and DRIPs is interesting, but by no means groundbreaking. The discussion on children, meanwhile, is highly questionable. For instance, Foster is not a proponent of registered education savings plans (RESPs) which is fair enough. His "analysis" of why his hold this position, however, is very weak, as his "calculations" of future education costs come across as blue-sky chit-chat rather than firm financial analysis. As a case in point: Foster predicts that it will be easier for young people to find part-time work in the future because of the impending retirements of the baby boomers. Consequently, his children should be able to partly-fund their education in the future, which reduces the need to invest in RESPs. This may or may not be true, but this "logic" is not conclusive proof of anything. This is something you would say while having a beer with friends, but not a rigorous financial analysis when making an investment decision.

The rest of the book contains a lot of information that can be useful, e.g. only investing in Canada, concentrating on dividend paying stocks, living frugally and only buying stocks for recession resistant companies. However, all of this information was already in his first book, so this discussion does not add anything new. Furthermore, I found the writing style to be grating at times. To use an analogy, reading this book is like reading the blog of a bright but self-centered high school student, i.e. while containing some interesting points, the tone is very casual, the simplistic explanations try to come across as expert advice, and the context is always self-referential. In fact, I got the sense that Foster wrote this book so he could tell the world how great he is, and how lucky we are hear his great investing tips.

Now, to be fair, I did enjoy Foster's first book, and as such am interesting in reading his other works. That being said, I would not recommend The Lazy Investor as it is, well, a lazy book.

1 1/2 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 16, 2012

How to Pay Less and Keep More for Yourself by Rob Carrick

As the personal finance columnist for the Globe and Mail, Rob Carrick has been writing about about financial issues for almost two decades. The author of four separate books, including two on E-trading and investing, he is a renowned expert in his field.

In this book, Carrick provides practical advice on how Canadians can lower the fees that they pay on a wide rage of financial products, from chequing accounts, mutual funds and stock commissions, to interest rates on consumer debt and mortgages. By finding ways to lower these fees, the book shows how investors can increase their real rate of return, and in the process also find the best financial instruments for them.

Overall this book is very helpful and accessible to all types of investors. Whether you are a young, internet savvy stock trader, or an older, more conservative investor who prefers face-to-face meetings instead of online banking, you will find something useful in this book. As a person who does almost all of his banking online, I really liked the explanation on why TD's e-series mutual funds are an excellent investment option.

If I had one critic, however, it is that the book sometimes loses its focus by providing investing advice on how to allocate assets. While Carrick's recommendations are interesting, (e.g. there is a section on how investors can build a personal pension fund with exchange-traded funds), this side-discussion does not really advance the main point of the book, which is to educate investors on how to stop paying so much money in bank charges, commissions and other fees. That being said, this minor critique does not take away from the fact that this is an excellent book.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 13, 2012

Personal Finance for Canadians for Dummies, 4th edition, by Eric Tyson and Tony Martin

This comprehensive book covers all areas of personal finance. Among the numerous topics covered (and there are many) are the following: how to pay down debt; cut back on expenses; save for retirement; invest in such financial instruments as the stock market, bonds, mutual funds and GICs; advice on purchasing insurance, whether life, home, auto or disability; how to decide if you need a financial planner, and if you do need one, how to go about finding the right planner for you; how to save for education; and how to assess financial information that you come across in newspapers, TV, the radio, newsletters and the Internet. In fact, this book is so complete, it could serve as a textbook for an introduction to personal finance class.

If you are looking for a good text that provides an overview of personal finance, then this book is for you. By explaining essential financial concepts and providing practical advice, this work is quite impressive. That being said, this book is less suitable for experienced investors, or those who are already well versed in the subject of personal finance. On the other hand, one cannot expect a "For Dummies" book to be written for experts!

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Is Your Mortgage Tax Deductible: The Smith Manoeuvre by Fraser Smith

Would you like to make the interest on your mortgage tax-deductible? This book can show you how (or more precisely, how to convert your mortgage into an investment loan). Using a very creative approach, Fraser Smith explains how a reversible mortgage can be used to reduce one's taxes. In a nutshell, a reversible mortgage is a financial instrument that is comprised of two parts: first, the mortgage on the house; and second, a line of credit that allows a homeowner to borrow from the equity in their house. The line of credit increases as the principal on the house is paid down. For example, if you pay off $600 of principal in a month, then you can borrow $600 from the line of credit.

The trick to this strategy is found in the tax rule that allows Canadians to deduct interest from investment loans. Using this rule, if a homeowner uses their line of credit to purchase investments (e.g. stocks, mutual funds, investment properties, bonds, etc.), then they can deduct their interest payments on this line of credit from their taxes. As such, the strategy does not allow a person to deduct the interest on their mortgage per se from their taxes, but rather to deduct the interest on their credit line that is based on the amount of principal that has been paid off.

In the first step of the Smith Manoeuvre, a homeowner will use all of their tax refunds to pay down their mortgage as quickly as possible, and then borrows an amount equal to the paid-off principal to buy more investments. Through this process a person can convert their mortgage from a "bad debt" (i.e. a loan in which interest cannot be deducted) to an investment credit line that is a "good debt" (i.e. a loan in which interest is tax deductible).

In the second step, once the mortgage is paid off, the homeowner can either use the tax refunds on their investment line of credit to buy more investments, or decide to use their now sizeable investment portfolio to pay off their line of credit.

I liked this book because it proposes a very creative approach to investing. As long as you are comfortable with having the same amount of debt, (this strategy doesn't reduce debt, but  rather converts it from a non-deductible mortgage to a deductible investment line of credit), you can use the Smith Manoeuvre to build up an investment portfolio much faster than you could have otherwise.

On the downside, I found this book to be very, very repetitive, with the same point being recycled numerous times. As well, the rates of return that are projected are highly unrealistic. In several parts of the book examples are given with a rate of return of 10 per cent. In this economic climate, it is highly unlikely -- if not delusional -- to expect an investment portfolio to grow by 10 per cent per year. It is also unfortunate that Fraser Smith does not acknowledge the risks in his strategy. For instance, in 2008, anybody using this strategy could have found themselves holding onto an investment portfolio that was worth less than the value of their house, while still having to pay interest on an investment line of credit. Most people in this scenario would not be calmed with the knowledge that interest paid on this line of credit is tax deductible. That being said, this is an interesting concept and the book does prevent food for thought.

3 out of 5 stars

Enough Bull: How to Retire Well Without the Stock Market, Mutual Funds, or Even an Investment Advisor by David Trahair

The 2008 financial crisis convinced David Trahair that the stock market is too risky for anyone saving for retirement. After watching the investment portfolios of too many people evaporate into thin air, he wrote this book to make the case that one can ignore the stock market altogether and still retire comfortably. With interesting arguments, Trahair counsels that one should first pay off all debt (and in particular mortgage-debt) before even considering to invest. Bucking conventional wisdom, he even advises people to stop making RRSP contributions until they are debt free.

But what about compound interest? Won't a person miss out on the slow accumulation of wealth if they wait until their late-40s or 50s to make RRSPs contributions? Not so, says Trahair, who is a chartered accountant. Relying on straightforward calculations, he points out that a person who is debt-free in their early-50s can: a) save significant more amounts of money than someone in their 30s or 40s who is paying off a mortgage and / or raising children; and b) because they are reaching their top earning years their tax refunds will be much higher. These refunds, in turn, can be used to make more RRSP contributions.

When analysed this way, the "tax turbo-charged RRSP" strategy is much better than the "start early" approach. To paraphrase the book, one can save $200 a month in RRSPs during their 30s, 40 and 50s, (and in the process pay off their mortgage more slowly, resulting in higher interest charges), or alternatively, one can focus on paying off their mortgage during their 30s and 40s and then, once debt free in their early-50s, save $1,500 a month in RRSPs for 10 years. At the end of the day, the latter approach will result in greater savings. (Note: This example is not in the book, it simply paraphrases the argument).

What should someone invest in when they have paid off their debt? The book's answer is clear: Guaranteed Investment Certificates (GICs). After watching the stock market plunge in 2008, Trahair is adamant that stocks are too risky. Furthermore, he argues that the rate of return on GICs are not that much different from stocks.

It is at this point that the book's thesis starts to weaken. Given the financial meltdown in 2008 and the ensuing recession, it is understandable why some people would want to swear off the stock market. However, Trahair's analysis is overly pessimistic. In order to make his point, he repeatedly mentions how the TSX crashed in 2008, and how this crash destroyed the rate of return for stocks. Unfortunately, this analysis ignores the partial-recovery that has taken place since then. As well, his analysis of the returns of GICs versus stocks tends to ignore dividends, which skews his argument.

Trahair makes a solid argument when he states that Canadians should first pay off debt before investing. He also makes a plausible case that GICs are a much better investment than people think. Where he starts to go off the rails, however, is in his claim that the rate of return for GICs are comparable to those of stocks. This is simply not true. Yes, stocks are risky (you can lose all of your money) but the returns can also be much greater. If you want to protect your investment then it makes sense to consider the GIC, tax turbo-charged RRSP strategy. If you are looking for stock-like returns with GIC safety, however, then you won't find that in this book because such a scenario does not exist.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 26, 2012

Debt Free for Life (Canadian Edition) by David Bach

Sometimes a good financial planner is also a cheeseball. In this best-selling book, David Bach provides some very good advice on how to become debt free. Unfortunately, this common sense approach is often undermined by a writing style that is (how can I put it) akin to a 16-year-old girl writing in her diary about the cute boys in class. Other parts of the book, meanwhile, sound like an informercial, as various sections contain "testimonials" from readers about how great Bach's lessons are. This reader feedback is then interspersed with semi-regular sales pitches on how you can buy some of his other books, such as his highly popular work The Automatic Millionaire.

To give you an example, Bach REALLY likes to write the occasional word in CAPITAL letters in order to make it clear that his point is really IMPORTANT. This "cute" technique -- it would be a bit cruel to call it "childish" -- often gets in the way of an otherwise sensible book. While not ground breaking, Bach provides a lot of useful tips on how to lower and eventually eliminate your debt, including: how to fix your credit score; how to negotiate with credit card companies about lowering your interest rate; how to pay off your mortgage quicker; and how to find a good debt counsellor that can help with any serious debt repayment problems. True, a lot of this advice is common knowledge and can be found elsewhere, but by putting all of these tips in a single book the reader can use it as a workbook to help them reduce their debt.

It is clear from reading this book that Bach has transformed himself into a product and that he can't help but market himself.  Make no mistake, this book is the literary equivalent of an infomercial that is selling debt-counselling advice. In fact, at certain points, one almost expects to see a 1-800 number at the bottom of the page accompanied by a two-for-one special that will give the reader a special gift (but only if the readers acts now by buying another of Bach's books). That being said, it is also true that this book contains a lot of common sense, and that it can be quite useful for anyone who is having problems getting their financial house in order. So before we make too much fun of this REALLY IMPORTANT book that will help you become DEBT FREE FOR LIFE we should also recognize that it does contain a lot of good advice.

3 out of 5 stars

The RESP Book by Mike Holman

Mike Holman has produced a very useful handbook that explains the intricacies of Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs). From how much money can be invested into an RESP, to how much grant money an account can receive from the Government of Canada, to excellent tax advice on how to withdraw money once the RESP beneficiary enrols in a post-secondary institution. What happens if the beneficiary decides not to have a post-secondary education? This book clearly explains the consequences of this scenario, while offering good advice on how to minimize your tax bill and any penalties.

This easy-to-read book should be studied by anyone who wants to open up a RESP for a child, young relative or family friend. Its practical advice (which can easily be digested in an afternoon) provides great tips that can be used for the entire life of an RESP account.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Financial First Aid for Canadian Investors by Michael Graham, Bryan Snelson and Cindy David

Imagine that you are at a dinner party and a guest starts talking in a slightly annoying voice. Given that you are interested in the subject matter -- i.e. how to improve your investment portfolio -- you ignore the awkward speech and concentrate on what is being said. After about 10 minutes, you must admit that the speaker knows what he is talking about, and that some of his advice is quite useful. As the evening progresses, however, you can't overlook the occasional cliché, nor hide the fact that your fellow guest sometimes sounds like a professor reading a dictionary. At the conclusion of the evening, while driving home, you recall some of the insights that you heard, and agree that the speaker made several excellent points. But then you remember the annoying voice, his sometimes rambling babble, and those weird moments when he would refer to himself in the third person.

Reading this book is a little like listening to such a dinner guest. On the plus side, Financial First Aid offers many great tips on how to improve as an investor. From what questions to ask when picking a financial advisor, to a good summary of the different strategies that an investor should engage in when buying stocks, bonds, insurance and other financial products, there are many useful parts to this book. I also appreciated the chapters that outline the common errors that investors make, the strong tips on how to research a company, and the practical summary on what fees investors have to pay when investing, and how to minimize these fees.

This good advice, however, is undermined by an occasionally annoying writing style. In too many parts, the text reads like a newsletter rather than a book, which is made worse by a weird tendency of the authors to refer to themselves in the third person. I understand that the use of the third person is sometimes necessary when a book is written by multiple authors, but when overdone (as in this case), the result is a tone that comes across as part-cocky and part-schizoid.

If you want to read a useful book that contains practical advice for the Canadian investor then this is a good choice. But if you do read this book, be prepared to be annoyed by the occasional boilerplate statement, some chapters that read more like a power point presentation than a book, and the overuse of the third person.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stop Working, Here's How You Can by Derek Foster

Want to retire at 34? Investor Derek Foster found a way to do so by investing in solid, dividend-paying stocks. The story of how he managed to quit working at an age when some people are only starting their careers is a fun read. It also helps that the book is written in an informal, easy to read style that contains several good investment tips.

Among the book's many attributes are the following: good advice on how to research companies before investing in them; strong suggestions for which companies to invest in; a clear explanation of why it is so important to have dividend paying stocks in your portfolio; and interesting insights into how taxes work. (In a nutshell, the book explains how income from dividends or capital gains attracts a much lower tax rate than employment or tax income. The book therefore argues that one should rely as much as possible on investment income in order to pay less tax).

After reading this book I was left with a high opinion of this author. Some further research, however, led me to discover some things that were quite ironic. For instance, this book, which was published in 2005, strongly argues for the buy-and-hold approach to stock investing, i.e. one should NEVER sell their stocks once purchased. Nevertheless, in February 2009, Derek Foster broke his own rule by selling all of his stocks in order to move to cash. As well, his original philosophy of buying dividend stocks and then holding them forever was a little misleading, as he also owned Income Trusts which are a different beast than large-cap companies that pay dividends.

As the warning at the beginning of this book makes clear, one should not take the advice in this book literally. On further reflection, one can find problems with the investing advice that is being espoused. That being said, as a purveyor of strong general concepts of how to invest, this is a good book that provides a lot of valuable suggestions, and for that reason it is worth the read.

4 out of 5 stars