What does the Near Future Hold? Review of Cycling for Asylum by Su J. Sokol

Originally Published for TheNerdistheWord January 2017

At The Nerd is the Word, we love bringing attention to local nerdy literature! Why not check out the fascinating novel Cycling for Asylum by Su J. Sokol? Visit the local Ottawa bookstores Books on Beechwood or Perfect Books for a copy, or visit one of these links :
Create Space Publishing , or BookstoRead

Science-fiction as a genre is an exploration of the imaginative “possible”. We use it to explore the likelihood of eventual space travel, meeting new peoples, and exploring undiscovered locations; anything that could one day, perhaps, exist. Near-future science-fiction is the soup-du-jour in the world of Speculative Fiction, genres such as dark satire, dystopian fiction, and cyberpunk being very popular. This level of storytelling can affect a reader in shocking ways, as it explores possibilities we may well experience within our lifetimes. Who knows which of our musings or fantasies might come to pass this year, this month, this week, or tomorrow?

Su J. Sokol in Cycling for Asylum explores the consequences of a repressive American Government, bringing up issues that are very real for us living in the “past”(our present), such as police brutality, systemic discrimination and bureaucratic tyranny. This remarkable piece of local literature takes the pulse of many modern readers and resonates across the very newscasts North Americans see daily.

As an activist living under a false identify, the character of Laek lives in constant fear of being apprehended, or barred from the benefits of living in New York city with his family. He becomes gradually more anxious as the policies and decisions of the American government start to put undocumented residents and ethnic groups at risk. After recovering from a serious injury following a violent protest against new oppressive legislations, Laek and his wife Janie make the decision “go underground” and escape the country. Without making their teenage daughter Siri and their son Simon aware of the reasons why they must depart, they set off on their bikes for a permanent “vacation” in Montreal, which has become a universal haven for migrants.

Settling down in a new place is not easy; Siri rebels when finally told that Montreal is their new home, while young Simon struggles to understand. As the family incorporates itself gradually in francophone Canada, they realize that their plight is not unique; countless newcomers have escaped unsafe environments and governments to make Montreal their new home. Janie and Laek attempt to acquire refugee status, but how to explain that staying home in the United States was dangerous, when to the rest of the world is it still considered a stable place? Such refugee claimants already exist contemporarily, and many refuse to accept their stories as true. Who believes allegations of torture, or of imprisonment without a trial, from the American Government?

Laek’s reasons for living with a false identity are unraveled during court proceedings, putting his family’s place in their sanctuary at risk. As the couple fights to prove they are not part of the danger they are trying to leave behind, they desperately strive to earn the trust and respect of Quebecers. Cycling, their favorite eco-friendly mode of transportation, as luck would have it, becomes the common ground between migrants and locals, and paves the way to the family’s acceptance.

Sokol delivers an emotionally charged novel, where the tensions between family members feel visceral and very real. The chapters alternate in points of view between the four characters, thus sometimes the same events are described by different people. This provides the reader with important insights and interesting perspectives, but also begins to feel a tad tedious at times. The sociological aspects of this novel are very thought-provoking, offering a gentle example of Sokol’s philosophical views which endeavours to inspire a better world. Some elements, of Sokol’s future world, however, are somewhat lacking in imagination; more specifically, the inventive advancements of the near-future. As an example, Sokol’s views on futuristic videogames seem to match your cranky great-aunt’s distaste for them. The novel places the natural world on a pedestal, reaching for a return to simpler pastimes, and consequently describes upcoming virtual realities as nothing but ridiculous opportunities to slash and dash avatars to pieces, body parts and blood soaring. This can come across as disappointing for nerdy readers who have higher hopes for innovations in future gameplay and immersion.

As mentioned, Sokol’s particular flavour of speculative fiction allows us to imagine the immediate future. As opposed to space opera or dystopia authors who prefer to depict the upcoming eras of humanity by jumping over large gaps of time, Sokol brings us an image of a transitional era, a guess as to how the advanced world, for better or for worse, must have come about. If literature is meant to be a mirror held up to society, Sokol’s writing is a stern and blunt warning against problems that are easily conceivable, with solutions that could be undertaken – provided we take her cautionary message seriously, in the here and now.

Reviewers and fans are calling Cycling for Asylum a work of prophecy, and believe the outcome of present events will turn out exactly the way Sokol predicts. This week, the media has been filled with theories regarding to what the drastic change in American politics will bring for our southern neighbours, and by consequence, our nation. The rise of attention for issues such as police violence, xenophobia, and the erosion of bureaucratic justice are just a few examples of very real problems that Sokol presents in an only slightly mutated form. At least we can take some small consolation in the fact that, in Sokol’s future world, Canada is the safe paradise at the end of the journey.

Don’t forget to visit the local Ottawa bookstores Books on Beechwood or Perfect Books for a copy of Cycling for Asylum, or visit one of these links: Create Space Publishing, or BookstoRead

The Elf Conspiracy by Kass Williams; A local book review!

Originally Published on TheNerdistheWord November 2016

Want something fun to curl up with this holiday season? Check out Kass William’s novel The Elf Conspiracy, the first volume of the Hy Brasail Chronicle, available at Books on Beechwood in Ottawa, as well as on Amazon (digital copy) and Indigo (also digital).

It is always fun to picture the mythology of Christmas in the modern world. The magic behind toy making elves, flying reindeer and an old man passing through chimneys gets a little wild when you start to consider labour right, global toy markets, satellite positioning and air traffic control, or personal home security systems. The mystery behind Santa Claus’ strenuous trip around the globe to visit every child across all continent in one night seems to be incompatible with our current way of life. We might even consider, should Santa be real, that we would be a danger to him and his North Pole?

An Original Twist

Don’t be mislead by the adorable cover of this book; this isn’t a children’s novel. Reading this story aloud to children at bedtime wouldn’t be bad at all, but it will get you a great deal of questions. Pieces such as “Are all Bishops Santas?”, “Is it the CIA that really brings presents” or “What’s the deal with North Korea” might emerge. Anyway, gather round for this touching little tale. After the strange year, we’ve had, everyone needs a little dose of William’s Christmas magic.

Not your Typical Christmas Story

Kass Williams tells of Kris Kringle, our beloved jolly old man. Each year, he crosses the dimensional rift that separates the world of humans and the world of elves, continuing a tradition that both spreads happiness, and protects one world from the other.

Kringle is having a hard time. His elves are planning a coup d’état, genius teenagers have found a way to hack into his dimension, his secret operatives in our world are on the run, and his Mrs. Claus is planning a divorce, or worse. On top of it all, his former slave/former servant, the mysterious Peter Pumpkin Eater (yes, from the nursery rhyme), has returned from his dictatorship escapades. Christmas is in danger, and Kringle hasn’t missed a delivery in a millennium, he isn’t about to start now!

Kass Williams and her Grumpy Cat signing copies of The Elf Conspiracy at Books on Beechwood

 

Winter Wizardess

The Elf Conspiracy is a little package exploding with suspense and plot development. The lack of chapter or section cut-off allows for the action to continuously unfold. Williams is very apt in wordsmithing and like a winter wizardess controls the tension expertly, making the reader eagerly await what could possibly happen next. Events unfold in both an unpredictable and logical succession, and plot devices are more-or-less seamless, making the story, despite it’s outlandish twits, perfectly believable.

Williams explores the mysteries behind the modern construct of Christmas, finding the sources of our imagination within the myth she brings to life. By fearlessly pulling in some of the historical origins behind the story of Santa Claus, the novel finds a mind-blowing anchor. These reminders of our own past bring the complexity that this flashy tale needs, without overpowering the modern flavour of the events portrayed.

William’s characters are busy bees, continuously on the move trying to solve the next problem on their hands. This sadly gives little time for character development, giving the cast a bland effect. The four teenagers feel a bit like cardboard cut-outs of their real selves, and our elf villains are merely punch lines. The depths explored between Kringle and Peter are about the only moments where a flash a true humanity jumps out of the page. Peter status as a freed slave in an elf’s dimension, left to help Kringle, an immortal and dominant figure who loves him like a son, but can never elevate to his level, is truly fascinating. This reviewer would even enjoy a book centered on this character dynamic alone.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

We know fully well who places the presents under the tree, yet some sort of charm keeps on twinking year after year. Something makes us keep on telling the story of the man in the sleigh, who loves children so much that he leaves them presents once a year. Find the magic again with Kass William’s novel The Elf Conspiracy, the first volume of the Hy Brasail Chronicle, at Books on Beechwood, or on Kindle or Kobo .

A Study in Aether: A Baker City Mystery by Éric Desmarais!

Tired of traditional fantasy novels? Want something different out of the Sherlock Holmes trend? Present shopping for a teen and out of ideas? Why not invest in local literature with Ottawa’s Éric Desmarais and his novel A Study in Aether: A Baker City Mystery! We at The Nerd is the Word got an exclusive read of this little gem of a mystery and are incredibly excited to share our discovery with you.

A Study in Aether: A Baker City Mystery is available on Amazon in both Kindle format and Paperback!

Local Writers

Headed to your local chain bookstore to purchase the current bestselling novel converted high budget film? If you feel like literature aimed at young adults has been over hyped lately, why not look for something a little closer to home? Ottawa is home to many authors who travel our streets incognito. We, their fellow residents, are mostly unaware of their existence, as they strive in silence to publish quality works that the over saturated and largely foreign market rarely notices. It is up to us to nourish the local nerdy culture and encourage writers to continue creating.

 

A Study in Aether

The imaginary town of Baker, Ontario is obsessed with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. What used to be an in-depth tourism stunt takes on a perilous new significance when a real mystery, worthy of an Arthur Conan Doyle novel, strikes the small city. A missing English teacher, swarms of killer kittens, a cafeteria condemned under strange circumstances? Elizabeth Coderre is a prodigy mystery solver who, despite her elders encouraging her to stay away, can’t ignore these weird events. Alongside her loyal friends, Jackie and Angela, she must delve into Baker’s secrets and discover a world where detective work meets magical power.

 

The Ontarian Landscape

A Canadian writer often holds perspectives into traditional and philosophical views of our region that can truly speak to us as readers. This experience of seeing and feeling ‘home’ in a novel is both a cozy and refreshing experience for local bookworms. Éric Desmarais creates a small Ontarian municipality that Ottawa residents can easily slip into. The Victorian architecture in the urban areas in Baker seem date back to the Confederation, giving the town a strictly “Canadian” Sherlockian feel. Much of the mythology surrounding Baker is built from an environment a Canadian reader can easily identify with. On your travels through an urban centre’s snow saturated winter, have you ever noticed the large number of abandoned gloves and mittens left around? Desmarais has a magical explanation for that!

 

Real Young Adults

The characters of Elizabeth, Jackie and Angela feel like true teenagers. If you are tired of seeing 15 year old characters unrealistically portrayed as devoted soldiers and revolutionaries in mainstream young adult fiction, Desmarais’ story is for you. Elizabeth is firstly a 9th grade student who struggles with genuine issues that affect the youth of today, such as obesity, bullies and homework. Meanwhile, strange grizzly bears and cackling evil witches roam the streets as more Baker residents mysteriously disappear. Even when magical evil-doers threaten her entire town, Elizabeth’s more down to earth problems don’t simply cease to be. She still spends mental energy wondering what to wear to the school dance, or whether her crush might return her feelings. This jumping back and forth between real life and magical complications is understandably difficult to juggle, yet Desmarais expertly shows us that even though magical realms exist, the world still keeps on turning.

Elizabeth, like any teen, is somewhat trapped between childhood and adulthood; wanting to be included in grown-up discussions, but still benefitting from the protection and oversight of her elders. This is an issue Desmarais’ target audience can easily relate to; the frustration of being kept in the dark for your own good, while not fully trusting that adults can solve your problems for you. This is what makes this heroine special! Despite her many flaws, when adults fail to unravel the alarming menace in Baker City, Elizabeth steps up with every intent of defeating the dangers that threaten her town, and saving everyone.

 

Let’s be Honest

Éric Desmarais’, A Study in Aether: A Baker City Mystery is remarkable, but hits a few snags. A few more clichés than this reviewer can handle seem to populate this little mystery. Desmarais is quite adept at creating exciting and detailed scenes, but the transition between these events can be a bit awkward. In some cases, the plot’s tension seems to be poorly managed and revelations that should be exciting instead fall flat. For a first novel, this author has done a stupendous job, yet some of the cheesy dialogue and predictable, inelegantly-worded passages could, in future works, be polished a bit better.

Despite these little drawbacks, we at The Nerd is the Word find ourselves eager to find out more about Elizabeth and her friends. Many little loose ends and hints make this reviewer very curious. Theories as to the true identity of characters, possible future events and unexplained appearances have already begun forming.

 

More to Come!

The Baker City Mysteries are not anywhere close to being finished! Eric Desmarais has supposedly two more novels in the final editing stages and would like to see the character of Elizabeth continue to grow up and solve magical mysteries for a possible total of nine novels. Keep your eyes peeled!

The Nerd is the Word recommends A Study in Aether for young readers and adults alike!

Check it out on Amazon!

Make sure to stop by Éric Desmarais’ Website!
A library of short stories is on display as well as the JenEric Designs line of products that include geeky coffee, amazingly crocheted nerdy things, and more!

Book Review- Brain Twister by Mark Phillips

Originally published on The Nerd is the Word.ca on April 25, 2016
http://thenerdistheword.ca/index.php/2016/04/25/1305/

Countless works, the origins of our nerdy fandoms today, have been freed of their copyright limitations and entered the magical world of the Public Domain. Before you spend your hard-earned paycheck on the newest best-seller, why not explore these massive literary shelves, amazing pieces unfortunately overlooked and made available for free?

Chronicles of the Public Domain
Mark Philips’ Brain Twister
by Elyse Turcotte

“In nineteen-fourteen, it was enemy aliens.

In nineteen-thirty, it was Wobblies.

In nineteen-fifty-seven, it was fellow-travelers.

And, in nineteen seventy-one, Kenneth J. Malone rolled wearily out of bed wondering what the hell it was going to be now.”

Remember the book or film The Men Who Stare at Goats? The funny prelude, where a U.S.  Army General attempts to pass, by psychic means, through a wall (Platform 9¾ style), might not be as far-fetched as you might suspect. The world of the mid-twentieth century didn’t consider psychic military programs to be merely science-fiction, as we have come to accept today. Important people were involved, and large budgets spent to achieve mind reading, telepathic communication, and even long-distance attacks. The novel Brain Twister by Mark Philips, available in the public domain, is a worthy literary example of the insanity behind mixing paranormal research and espionage, that might not simply be fiction.

Mark Philips is the pseudonym of two renowned science-fiction authors, Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer. They published Brain Twister under it’s original title That Sweet Little Old Lady in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine, and it was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1960.  According to the introduction of the novel, their collaboration was certainly a humorous one: “Mr. Garrett handles the verbs, the adverbs and the interjections, Mr. Janifer the nouns, pronouns, and adjectives.” They may very well have written Brain Twister in a matter of days, while consuming copious amounts of alcohol. The authors take care to introduce themselves in an almost fictional way at the start of the book, setting the overall tone of the protagonist’s crazy adventure. Mr. Garrett, for one, describes himself as a flowered-vest-wearing round-ish fellow with a beard, who practices the ‘sports of close-order drill and river pollution’, and who intends to marry his fiancé when they run out of excuses. Mr. Janifer, on the other hand, portrays himself as a man who wears horn-rimmed glasses, is fascinated by women but has never met any yet, carries a souvenir NYC subway token at all times, and practices hobbies such as humming and blinking.

Brain Twister shadows the strange investigation of drunken FBI Agent Malone, who is tasked with exploring the possibility of an intelligence leak within secret government programs. With the help of an elderly ‘psi’, Malone tracks down psychic spies invading the minds of U.S. scientists.  The ‘Sweet Little Old Lady’ firmly believes she is the immortal Queen Elizabeth I, and turns the FBI team into her 16th century costume-wearing royal guard. Pure absurdity governs the domain of the paranormal; logic ultimately fails Malone, as he strains to remain alert through a succession of wacky happenings.

Chasing psychic spies was not always a ridiculous notion within itself… Many interesting psychological warfare concepts were developed amidst the escalation and technological arms race of the Cold War.  While researching the potential of paranormal military application, the possibility that the enemy might also access secure information, by psychic means, caused intense paranoia and terror for those involved.  Experiments around ‘Remote Viewing’ (the ability to perceive events occurring far away, and sometimes that haven’t happened yet) were being conducted by organizations and scientists within the general U.S Intelligence community, reaching a zenith of popularity towards the mid-1970s. The fear that the enemy could be training psychics to infiltrate valuable research was very real.

Garett and Janifer may have even predicted the emergence of the secret program, known as Stargate (haha, not that one), which involved individuals who could see events happening overseas in minute details. As a result of their participation in psychic experiments, some were driven to madness, not unlike our Sweet Little Lady. Those who attempted to protect research from enemy psychics were lost in maddening intrigue; perhaps creating an atmosphere not unlike the one described in Brain Twister. Who knows, even with the end of the Cold War, perhaps some of these secret programs are still active today?

Arm yourself with laughter and give Brain Twister by Mark Philips a try. Train yourself to understand the insanities of science-fiction the way only the insane can.

Brain Twister can be read for free via Project Gutenberg (CAN/US) Click Here for the Full Text!  If you are in outside North America, make sure you check the applicable. copyright and public domain laws.  

You can also listen to the audiobook for free via LibriVox, read by Catharine Eastman: Click here to access!

References:

Philips, Mark, Randall Garrett, and Laurence M. Janifer. “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Brain Twister.” Project Gutenberg. N.p., 2 Oct. 2007. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. (http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/22332/pg22332-images.html)

Smilios, Maria. “Journeys of a Psychic Army Spy.” Narratively. SquareSpace, 14 May 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. (http://narrative.ly/journeys-of-a-psychic-army-spy/)

Fowlkes, Greg. “Brain Twister – Editor’s Notes.” Resurrected Press. Intrepid Ink, 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2016. (http://www.resurrectedpress.com/brain-twister-editors-notes/)

Image CC0 Public Domain ; Rujhan_basir, https://pixabay.com/en/users/rujhan_basir-3348348/