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1) To have monthly author spotlights in which I will write about the authors themselves and give several reviews of their different books.

2) Biweekly book reviews. I will review one book but also discuss similar books of the same topic. Because one book is never enough.

3) Newbie writer alert will review books of new unheard writers whose work deserves to be heard.

4) I will endeavor to talk about Canadian writers and titles.

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Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Truth or Lies, What’s Your Preference? Book Review of The Placebo Effect by David Rotenberg

Quote of the Week

The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
Oscar Wilde
The Canadian author David Rotenberg has a new novel called The Placebo Effect, Book one of The Junction Chronicles, a very Canadian story filled with both Canadian humor and locations drawn up in clear crisp detail.  As you are aware I love reading Canadian and was happy to have won this book, a story which I very much enjoyed, from Simon and Schuster in a first reads Goodreads contest.  David Rotenberg like his main character Decker Roberts has a history of directing, lives in a suburb of Toronto called the Junction, and works as an acting coach.  From this I surmise that Decker is an alter ego for David or at least a microphone to voice his own opinions on life, and has taken  an opportunity to give his view point on the state of the union.  I read this very thought provoking book in the late fall and have been sitting on the review.  This is one of those books where there are so many things to talk about, I barely knew where to begin, my ideas multiplying like rabbits on Viagra.  Since, I just have had too many ideas to discuss I have been busy trying to willow them down.  (This is, of course, very difficult as I am notoriously long winded and a huge fan of all ideas Jackleen; I would no sooner trash a good idea than give away one of my own children.)  While The Placebo Effect is a thriller, it is a story about what is true and real in our lives and how the popular culture of North America has evolved as a false (placebo) form of faith for generations living superficially in the now.  What follows are my thoughts on truth inspired by The Placebo Effect.

North American culture has a great stake in the truth. Journalists dig deep for current stories to ‘reveal the truth.’  Politians and celebrities lives are brought under the daily scrutiny of the masses because ‘we deserve to know the truth.’  Wars and other violent murders are examined in depth for our ‘glorification of the truth.’  The most popular books and movies are concerned with ‘digging out secrets’ and ‘exposing the truth.’  Our favorite characters are those who fight against ‘powerful forces’ and ‘conspiracies of silence’ because ‘The Truth is out there,’ and in order to ‘conquer the lies’ and ‘against all odds,’ the hero will ‘up hold the truth.’  The darker and deeper the secrets, the more we, the public, clamor for detail.  Would Dan Brown be the success that he is if he had not taken on and ‘exposed the greatest secret of our times.’  (AKA, the Catholic Church lied about the beginning of Christianity.  Let’s be serious who really knows what happened 2000 years ago, I have enough trouble remembering what happened last week.)  At the time the book caused a great controversy which of course led to the sale of even more books.  But, millions would not be shaken from their faith and 10 years later it is a bestseller for sure, but in the end, just another book on the shelf. Of course there are hard horrible truths that arise in society that we must accept; truths we must learn from in order to never again repeat these atrocities.  However, from what I see on the nightly news the human animal is greatly handicapped in the memory department; we seem to keep making the same mistakes; every night that little screen is filled with wars, murders and violence.  The truth, versus lies and deceptions, what are we really more comfortably living with?

Of course, there are truths we must accept, but seriously, would you always want to be told the truth?  Do you really want to know that your husband thinks you have gained a little weight?   Or if he told you instead, you look fabulous, is that not better for your self esteem?  And, in the end are we not just happier?   Everyone gets along so much better if we sometimes avoid the cold hard truth.  Those little white lies smooth out conversations and, prevent unnecessary domestic conflicts.  As Ray remarked in the Everyone Loves Raymond TV series, “honesty is overrated.”    Recently, I was reading one of the news magazines my husband Paul is fond of, in which an older Canadian journalist, He_whose_ name_ I_ have_ forgotten, (look Joanne, I can do it too) was complaining about the change in dinner conversations at parties in our ‘post Oprah bare our soul times.’  He talked about how people have forgotten how to lie politely in a genial conversation.  It was an amusing article, but, for me, a nurse and magnet for all people diseased, perhaps, a little too close to the… well, truth.  To paraphrase the journalist, He_ whose_ name_ I have_ forgotten, years ago, when a person greeted another with the familiar “how are you?”  The answer to this was always, “Fine, thank you and you?  To which the response would be, “Yes, I am very well.”  Both people could be hemorrhaging to death, but too polite to mention it.  Now, when asking “how are you?” people tell you the truth which may well include the full details of every medical ailment from the past year or decade.  Do I really need to know about someone’s hemorrhoids over coffee?   Have we gone too far with this truth and honesty business?  Or is that we just do not know what truth to tell?

Despite the fact we are cautioned don’t believe everything you read or every thing you see on TV,  the media now has great influence over what becomes seen as true.  The words of Michael Jackson, “ …be careful what you do, because a lie becomes the truth,” have even greater meaning then when he first wrote Billie Jean.  We believe the rumors and speculations because ‘popular culture’ has now been taken on as the new faith.  Actors and the Hollywood movie machine are our gurus of this new faith.  The number of actors representing influential foundations has sky rocketed.   It is admirable that these people take the time to help the less fortunate and aid in bringing attention to world disasters.  However, the problem is we are also taking our cues on how to behave, how to talk, how to dress and finally, how to think, from people who spend their days pretending to be a character they are not.  From films and books, we look for ‘good role models’ for our children.   But am I not pushing my own parenting tasks off on to a person who is at best a fictional character or at worst a teenager who was hired on the basis of their looks?  Is the make believe world of acting over shadowing what is real?  Is our faith in these people misplaced? Do not misinterpret what I am saying; I love my books and movies as much, if not more, than the next person.  Actors and directors in the film industry, as well as, authors and journalists in the publishing business do a great deal to bring much needed attention to social issues and do a wonderful job of raising public awareness of very real horrors occurring both here in North America and abroad.  But, once given this information should we not at least begin to think for ourselves or at the very least remember?  Should we not act on these horrors and do something.  We seem to be as a society addicted to crises, from the weather channel on up.  We are all plugged into our new church and spend hours kneeling before our new alters of TVs, computers, and Ipads, all of which provide a gratifyingly quick fix for our short attentions spans.  The situation I believe is somewhat slippery as faith is that slope we slide down to reach truth. At the bottom, I wonder if we will find that we all have become ADD and any ‘realized truth’ we gain from this pop culture faith is really just the latest shiny new ball on the horizon.

So while we serf on our gadgets, wonder if Brangalina will adopt yet another kid, have superficial chats with our 350 friends on facebook and watch TVs the size of airport hangers, real life passes by our windows.  Should we know every personal thought and action of various celebrities sent fast and furious over twitter when we barely know how our own child spent his day?  Perhaps it is time to unplug, talk to real people, go outside and engage real life and have real life experiences with family and friends.  In short, live a life that is balanced between what is a truth and a placebo; what is real and what is make-believe; distinguish between the importance of knowing the truth about everyone’s dirty little secrets and what you truly need to know about your family and friends; and, have faith in yourself in order to make yourself happy in the life you have now in the concrete world.  In short maybe we should all learn to think for ourselves and learn to distinguish between what is important, real and true and what is just plain hype.

‘Art reveals truth’ and ‘life imitates art’ but to each of us is granted a separate life and individual path to follow and what you will believe, where you place your faith, and, what you see as truth is personal and no one’s business but your own. But please, if you feel a big reveal coming on vis a vis your hemorrhoids or, God help me, your recurrent vaginal yeast infection, save it for your doctor who is mentally prepared to hear about gross stuff, I mean your medical condition, and is most probably not eating his lunch at the time of your conversation. As my husband Paul would say, this is a lot of yak what about the book!  The Placebo Effect is a thriller with many layers, meanings and concepts.  And, if you only want to read a good exciting story, it is all that too. 

Summary from Goodreads:

Decker Roberts has the dangerous gift of detecting the truth (synaesthesia). But when his carefully compartmentalized life starts to fall apart he has to go on the run and figure out why he’s being targeted. There’s also a government agency hunting him down who seems to know everything about him and other people of “his kind.” How will Decker find out which truth was endangering his life? Who betrayed him and revealed all his secrets? Decker needs to find answers quickly, before knowing the truth turns from a gift into a deadly curse

Book Review: The Placebo Effect

Genre: Thriller, some paranormal elements
Depth: Serious tone
Topic: A man who is able to know if a person is lying is being hunted by both good and bad characters, some of whom want him dead.
Book complexity: Multi-character, Multi-layered, need to pay attention to detail to follow story
Writing style: Quick and concise
Rating: 4 stars. Great Book
Received from: Simon and Schuster Canada Firstreads Goodreads contest

The new novel The Placebo Effect, book one of The Junction Chronicles by David Rotenberg, Canadian thriller with Canadian locations and Canadian humor, is a very thought provoking smart story in addition to being a fast paced action packed adventure crossing from one end of North America to the other.  With a cast of colourful characters, and a truly fascinating concept hook, the story addresses the repercussions of always knowing the truth about strangers while at the same time never being unable to understand or read those closest to us.

The colourful troupe of characters are well drawn and everything you would expect in a good thriller and yet incredibly unique and interesting.  What will distinguish a really good book from a mediocre book, for me at least, are the characters, particularly if the main character stands out in my mind. And, Decker definitely stands out.  Even if I do not always like Decker, he did manage to get inside my head, if not always my heart.  Decker is so well formed that I would expect to find him wandering about the Junction. Decker Roberts is a synaesthete who receives visual clues in front of his closed eyes to distinguish between the truth and a lie.  Yslan Hicks is in charge of the file for synaethesia for a secret government organization and is hunting Decker down; Yslan would very much want to investigate, if not apply, Dickers skills.  Emerson Remi is a Princeton educated journalist in hot pursuit of the next big story for which he believes Yslan to be the key and is busy tracking Yslan’s every movement.  Henry-Clay Yolles is a pharmaceutical executive on the surface but in reality a gangster complete with hit men, on the brink of making a huge amount of money from the production of a new antidepressant drug and who to his absolute delight has found out about the synaesthetes network and is busy taking full advantage of this secret knowledge.  Mike, ratio-man is a synaesthete whose talent of being able to determine the correct balance and ratio for anything, is coerced into working for Yolles Pharmaceuticals by Henry-Clay, and in doing so has exposed the synaesthetes world. Mac Macmillan is a thug and hit man of Henry-Clay whose latest job is to take out Mike and then, Decker who both know too much.  Eddie is Deckers best friend and confidant who manages Deckers real life and keeps in contact with Seth, Deckers estranged son.  Seth is sick and suffering alone with cancer but wanting absolutely nothing to do with his father. 

The story is delivered in short quick sections from third POV from all the above characters and their divergent storylines flow neatly into each other. The writing is crisp, direct and concise and together with the structure of short chapters and the rapid shift between characters, the story maintains a fast pace.

The settings for the book of both Canadian and American cities are very well described.  Although I have never been to most of the American cities described, I can say that Rotenberg’s’ description of Toronto was right on the money.  The Junction in particular was brought to life in full colour and is both evocative and moody.  (Clusters of churches guarding evil right in the middle of the Junction, I will be on the next train out!)  I grew up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and he caught the mood and tone of Stanstead perfectly; a small town inundated with tourists and outsiders for whom the townies must give way. (Don’t we know it.)

Decker Roberts is a human lie detector.  He is blessed, or cursed depending on point of view, with the ability to tell if a person is speaking the truth, due to a condition called synaesthesia.  (This is a real medical condition that can sometimes be found to develop after head injuries, and reasons unknown, in which a person’s neurological pathway of the senses for vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste get scrambled.  So a person with synaesthesia sees what he tastes or hears what he touches.)  Decker sees patterns before his eyes when someone speaks to him and these patterns change shape when someone is lying.  This skill is limited as he is unable to use this skill with people he truly cares about.  Decker in his normal job is an acting teacher. Working as an acting coach, he teaches young actors to reach for the emotions and feelings within themselves and apply these to the character they are to portray in film or on stage.  On the side and in secret, Decker has been applying his lie detection skill in the corporate world and making a great deal of money.  Decker’s world begins to unravel when his house is burned down, his credit cards cancelled and the building from which he leases a studio for his acting classes is condemned.  It seems Decker may have uncovered a truth better left buried.  Now he is trying to back track through his latest truth detecting jobs to determine who is out to get him.  With Yslan, Remi, Mike and Mac following in Dickers’ wake, the race is on and the truth for Decker is unusually elusive. 

The underlying themes of The Placebo Effect, are in fact about the placebo effect both in medicine and generalized to our popular culture.  First, let us review a quick definition of the placebo effect.  A placebo is an inert medicine or treatment used in what is called double blind medical studies in order to measure the true effectiveness of a new drug or medical treatment.  Double blind just means neither doctor/nurse nor patient know if they received the real medication so that the results are not influenced either way.  The placebo effect is a beneficial effect, produced by a placebo drug or treatment, that cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient's belief in that treatment.  In other words, patients will improve given any medication or treatment due to their (blind?) faith and belief that the doctor or the medicine will make them better.  In short a placebo is a fake, artificial, a lie. Rotenberg is efficient at pointing out all manners of things that are placebos and fake and weaves this theme through the backdrop of The Placebo Effect. Decker like many people in our North American society has lost faith, faith in him, and faith in others.  As Decker believes that he harms those closest to him when he uses his gift of lie detection, he keeps a distance from others. Decker is lonely. He really has only one friend and a few acquaintances that he meets through his job as an acting coach.  His wife is dead, he and his son are estranged and he maintains a very superficial relationship with all he meets.  There is a network website for synaesthetes run by Yslan in order to study and keep track of these special people.   Decker only feels good when he is in the chat room of the synaesthetes site connecting with people with similar traits to him.  A social media site, in short, a social placebo, his new faith, to which even on the run from killers, Decker will log into in order to feel good. 

This extremely interesting novel concept of being able to distinguish the truth from a lie carries the whole story.  As a basic thriller recipe, The Placebo Effect starts with the mandatory fast paced exciting story, mix in the type cast sad lonely good guy and evil corporate guy turned evil scientist guys, sprinkle in the mysterious government agencies, and add all the running about that we expect from a good thriller, at the bare bones the story is all ready well on to being a wonderful book.  The icing with all those sugary sprinkles that the kids like is the commentary that Rotenberg adds to this story. We are given an examination of our society from the point of view of Rotenberg, a man who has spent many years directing and teaching in the acting business.  A business based on fabrications and illusions.  Rotenberg’s insights into the current influence of pop culture are very revealing if not dead on.  Those sugary sprinkles are the insightful examination of what is real and true in our lives, family and friends in which we can invest our faith and belief, as opposed the false, pretend, placebo pop culture that has infiltrated North American.

My only complaint is that there is a lot thrown into the mix, some of it brilliant, some of it distracting.  I admit to be confused and lost at points in the story.  To be honest I am not sure all the threads got tied off at the end or if I missed something or if I am just to find out that bit within the ongoing story of the series.  But, who said reading is suppose to be easy.  But, whether it was me not being able to keep up or the manner of the delivery, I docked the book a half star.  
Thrillers are usually fun to read and there is a lot that can be learned from this genre.  James Rollins has taught me much about quantum physics and when reading John LeCarre I gain a better understanding of the state of the world politically.  Rotenberg has done something completely new and unexpected; he has included a thread of philosophy about life, faith and love and the North American culture in general.  I am looking forward to the next book in the Junction Chronicles, A Murder of Crows.


  1. I was amazed by so much detail in the review. I also find the premise of knowing starngers better than those around us very interesting.
    M.C.V. Egan

  2. Hi Catalina,
    I try not to put spoilers in the reviews, more little hints but this review was a bit longer than usual.