Cover Image: Compass


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After reading the synopsis, I wasn't sure what to expect from this book, but it was tedious for me to get through. I DNF'ed around 20%.
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Compass took quite a bit of time to get into, and I almost DNF’d it several times.  It turned out to be one heck of an unbelievable ride. It read like a memoir, and I constantly forgot it was a novel. As I read, I thought about Into the Wild and Frankenstein’s monster roaming through the Arctic. The conversations he began having entertained me, and I laughed out loud at their ridiculousness while being intrigued at the depth of thought put into them. 

Although I enjoyed the story, I was left confused by the story as a whole. In the end, I questioned what the point of the story was and why it was written. That said, I’m not 100% sure how to feel, but I do not regret the time spent reading. 

Voluntarily reviewed after receiving a free copy courtesy of NetGalley, the Publisher and the author, Murray Lee
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A bumbling inept and unreliable narrator par excellence takes on the Arctic in this compelling novel. Having written about and lectured on but rarely actually travelled to extreme regions of the world, Guy, as he is called by the Inuit he ventures amongst, decides to go to the Edge. Equipped with an indigenous guide but otherwise singularly unprepared for what is to come, it’s not surprising that events don’t quite pan out as hoped. The novel becomes increasingly dark and disturbing when Guy finds himself alone on the breaking ice and his attempts at survival become increasingly surreal. I found it a gripping read, well-paced, and with some satisfyingly unresolved questions left at the end. As Guy’s grip on reality fades, so does the reader’s grasp of what is real and what is hallucination. As well as the excitement of the survival narrative, there’s much to think about here, not least man’s attitude to nature and his right to go where he pleases even if that puts others at risk, The portrait of life in the remote settlement in convincing and respectful – and often used to comic effect in Guy’s failure to understand what’s going on. All in all, a really enjoyable and compelling read. Pity about the cover though.
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My first encounter with the novel left me a little adrift, like the main character, but a second time through I enjoyed it very much. I had the feeling throughout that the author knew what he was talking about--the details of some anecdotes were fascinating.
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This book isn’t really like anything else I have read before…and by that I mean it’s extremely weird.  But unique and weird are not the same as bad and I genuinely enjoyed the story.  It reminded me more of Castaway that it did Life of Pi, but overall it was an easy book to get through.  I didn’t care much for the narrator but I think he was constructed to be disliked so he really worked.  I did like the Intuit folklore woven into this story, and I found an adventure in the Arctic very interesting and not something I have seen much.  The narrator, typically referred to as Guy, started out as a historian but has morphed into more of a story teller or entertainer and lost a lot of his authenticity in the process.  He has told tales of the floe, an amazing phenomenon in the north but he has never seen it and after being called on this he decides it’s something he should see.  This starts him on an adventure like he couldn’t have imagined and one that others will twist into their own stories.   The writing was good and left me curious what else the author may come up with in the future.
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I debated on what to rate this for a while. I found it interesting and entertaining (4) but considered DNFing it for the first 25% (3). I thought the opening pages were magnificent (4) but that some of the text left something to be desired (3 -- one notable simile that almost made me close the book was "As emails dropped like constipated turds into my inbox"). I was intrigued by the mystery of the timeline and events on the floe (4) but so disliked our protagonist that I was not invested in him surviving — even though I knew he would, since the story is told in first person past tense (3). 

It is this last point that swayed me to a 3. I have no problem with disliking a character, but when your narrator is on an adventure, you want to be able to root for him to solve whatever problem is in front of him. Think of Tom Hanks in Castaway, or Matt Damon in The Martian: they have to be somewhat likable, because even when they make stupid mistakes, you have to feel like you can root for them. And that was my issue with "Guy" — he's such a buffoon, and so out of touch with his white male privilege, that I disliked him to the point of hoping a polar bear would eat him. I kept searching for even a couple redeeming qualities, but personally found none.

That said, as much as I disliked Guy, Lee has created an interesting story here, one that reminds me in some regards of Life of Pi. {{Spoiler!}} In one version of the story, Guy was stranded in a Twilight Zone loop, stuck on the ice for weeks, where he was visited by talking animals and attacked by Sedna, the sea witch. In another, he was only there for 4 days and hallucinated everything. Which is the better story?

Lee does a great job of creating the feel of being stuck out on the ice and creating a true Arctic adventure. I'm sure this has to do with his background of being a doctor for the Canadian Arctic. I was mostly charmed by the wit of Guy when he would discuss past explorers, even if I found his treatment of local Alaskans a bit tone-deaf. But that's the point, right? Explorers make a big deal about an expedition, but the people who live there wear less and travel further to do routine errands. 

"Repulse Bay; Turnabout Point; Starvation Cove. These are the English names. The Inuktitut names are much less melodramatic: Naujaat (nesting place of seagulls); Igloolik (place of many houses); Qaviqsiti (place where you do a funny dance to make someone laugh)."

In all, a good read, especially for Lee's debut novel.
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Introducing his protagonist, Guy, as a cynical writer and would-be arctic explorer who plainly says his survival story is probably a lie, like the stories of all famous explorers, rising author Murray Lee proceeds to invite the reader in on the tale. It’s an invitation I’m glad I accepted.

The ride’s an intimate thrill. The storytelling is vivid. The bonus for me was the sparkling humor at every turn.

In Compass, Lee poignantly captures Man’s struggle against mortality as space, time, and reality collapse upon him. As Guy’s misadventure unfolds and the losses click in, our explorer stands alone facing ever less ground to stand on than the moment before, wondering if a rescue would come, and with it salvation. 

It’s a story for our times. One I’d recommend to anyone interested in tales of Man pressed up against the uncaring forces of nature, struggling to find meaning in the adventure of being alive.
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Thank you to Netgalley for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

So this book is comparing itself to Life of Pi. Which just happens to be a book I absolutely love. There are certainly superficial similarities to Life of Pi, but Compass is nowhere near as good as Life of Pi. 

At the heart of this book is the type of character I find infuriating: entitled white men who go around bumbling through life, often causing some measure of harm to others (in this book some very substantial, real harm to others), oblivious to that harm, with few consequences to themselves. And that type of person drives me crazy. (Especially since I know people like that.)

I have mixed feelings about this book. The prologue was interesting and got me reading. Part 1 was deadly dull, very slow and made me want to quit. It did get a lot more interesting in Part 2 though, when Guy finds himself stranded on an ice floe in the Arctic trying to figure out how to survive.

We know up front he gets rescued (that's not a spoiler, it's literally in the prologue). So it's just a matter of us seeing how he manages to stay alive until that happens. But still, he does stupid things along the way, and frankly, he's responsible for being in this situation to begin with, his own stupidity is what gets him there. And the lack of real consequences, that's what is making me feel I didn't like this book as much as I could have. 

Some of that is addressed in the Epilogue, but I found the Epilogue a bit mean spirited and it makes me wonder how the author feels about this character of his to begin with.

I think the writing was good (once in Part 2), and the story is almost compelling. 

But mostly, this makes me want to revisit Life of Pi.
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I love this book. Just check out that cover! What's inside is just as humorous, surreal and colorful as it is possible to be in a first novel set in an impossible landscape. As a fan of both nonfiction and fiction set in high places and cold places, I was immediately drawn into this heady mix of geography, myth, animal life and human stupidity. Our antihero is a type seen more and more often in public life where a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.
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There is an significant line--you might call it "the Edge"--between do-ers and writers.

The do-ers hold readers' attention across centuries. They fascinate and inspire. But they are seldom good writers. Those who "do" often reveal extreme bias, a blindness to history. Those do-ers who try to write often diminish themselves. The do-ers who write well--John Krakauer, Patti Smith, baseball's Jim Bouton, Barack Obama--are rare as gemstones

The writers, on the other hand, often make incompetent adventurers, not for want of trying. Competence with the typewriter and an advanced grasp of vocabulary mean little to Nature or nation-building.

The main character of <i>Compass</i> is a chronicler of explorations who gets called out on his lack of knowledge about "The Edge," the hazy, arctice frontier between land and sea, made nebulous by ever-shifting ice. There is a lot about "Guy" that seems half-baked. In the eyes of other characters he comes across as pretentious and dissembling.

There is a greater "character" to be found in the book, however, and that is the nature of the Arctic itself, revealed by a first-time novelest but long-time traveler between the North and South (i.e. the lower Canadian provinces). Murray Lee, who has long practice medicine among the Inuit, brings real insight into the Arctic world and its people.

Guy's voyage to geographical Edge pushes him beyond other edges: the line between sane and insane, between myth and history, between man and beast. Nothing is certain in the Artic's Edge: not the size of an ice floe, the length of a day, the thoughts of creatures on and around whatever patch of ice seems like "home." One of the books funniest takes is the difference between a guy who walks out of REI with the best arctic gear, and a guy dressed by in cast-off clothes by an Inuit grandmother

<i>Compass</i> draws comparisons with <i>Life of Pi</i>, and they are apt. There are talking seals and walruses. Isolation and survival are two key themes. There is an epilogue at the end, using others' perspectives, that will make the reader want to re-read part one. I must say, however, that <i>Compass</i> is the funnier of the two; its setting more vividly described.

Like LOP, however, it takes Lee a long time to get to the plot. The first time through, the first 100 pages (Part 1) drag with descriptions of Inuit lore and life in the far north, but once Guy and his guide, Sim, set off for The Edge, I had trouble putting it down.

If there is a takeaway from this book that will stay with me, it is the aura of the arctic summer in which the novel is set--the murky daylight that shines at all hours, the disorientation one must feel without sunset to set the time. 

Special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in return for this honest review.
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A gripping read, worth checking by readers interested in intriguing worldbuilding, solid characterization, and clever plots. Recommended.
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Thanks to NetGalley for the free arc of this engrossing story. 
The main character is a failed academic who travels the lecture circuit regaling audiences of the adventure stories of the world's great explorers. In an effort to add credibility to his work, he sets off to experience the edge of the Arctic. Ill-prepared except for the stories of the brave explorers before him and an interest in Inuit mythology, his adventure quickly takes a disastrous turn.
Lee's writing is engaging. His descriptions of the Arctic are beautiful and his introduction to the Inuit culture and mythology are fascinating. The main character remains nameless --although his Inuit guide justly refers to him as Guy. (The) Guy knows just enough to be an inept and dangerous travel companion. Lee manages to straddle a fine line creating an unlikeable main character we are still engaged with.
Readers who enjoy travel adventure and learning about other cultures will enjoy this book.
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This armchair travel novel offers not just an Arctic adventure but a dive into mythology and the culture of Intuits, their lives and beliefs—all cased in a lovely cocoon of gentle wisdom. I adored the parts with the talking animals. And the cover is fabulous!

A writer of the finest order, hopefully Mr. Lee will grace us with more absorbing novels.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy.
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This is certainly unpredictable and different, and it's also well written. I wasn't sure what to expect, but came away with a memorable story. Recommended.

I really appreciate the free ARC for review!!
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COMPASS is the best book I've read in at least a decade.

The story follows an unnamed professional raconteur who has been making a living by telling stories about brave white explorers to audiences on cruise ships, affecting personal experience he does not in fact have, and cashing in on histories heavily edited to be inspiring tales of heroism rather than the often foolhardy, poorly planned, catastrophic expeditions they actually were. When a colleague calls him on the lie that he's been to the Arctic Floe Edge, the line where the ice—an extension of the land—stops and the sea begins, he sets out on his own expedition, as ill-conceived as anything in history.

What ensues as "Guy" (so called by his Inuit guide, Simeonie) travels from the village of Iviliiq to the Edge is both fascinating and hilarious, and at the same time terrifying, since Guy's purely theoretical knowledge of the Arctic almost immediately begins to cause problems, some of which escalate quickly into disaster and tragedy. Almost before he realizes it, Guy's struggling for his very life.

One of the things that makes COMPASS work so well on so many levels is its multilayered self-awareness. Guy has just enough understanding of himself to make him the perfect narrator. He's only semi-reliable, as adept at lying to himself as to his audiences. We can’t help but like him, though, because his intentions aren't evil or wicked. He's just a well-intentioned, well-educated, middle-aged white guy. But if there's anything Guy should have learned from the "heroic" tales he peddled, it's that well-intentioned, well-educated, middle-aged white guys tend to do a lot of damage, and it's obvious that author Murray Lee understands that, even while his protagonist is careening naively and catastrophically around the Arctic.

Another thing that makes the novel a delight is the humor. It's seriously, laugh-out-loud funny throughout. We're not talking easy laughs, either, but the genuine "didn't see that coming" juxtapositions that make you bark like a seal.

Which leads me to my favorite thing about the book, which is Murray Lee's writing. It is, in a word, gorgeous. Not in a self-conscious, overly stylistic way that screams "look at me, I'm a fancy writer!" but in a masterful way that uses word choice, rhythm, flow, balance, and grace to convey nuances and subtleties of meaning, and quite often make you stop to savor them. It's vivid, clever, and elegant.

COMPASS is that rara avis, a novel that's beautifully written and page-turningly suspenseful. It's insightful, informative, hilarious, and surprisingly poignant. I cannot recommend it enough.
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COMPASS brings about the collision of the South and the North, the spirit and the body, the idea of survival and its spartan reality. In the Arctic, an anonymous writer, dubbed ‘Guy’ by his local Inuit guide, sets out to glimpse The Edge for himself.

Where the ocean seeps into the sky, he hopes to blur the gap inside him. But what he ends up enduring there leaves him permanently inverted.

Despite the severity of the world Guy slips into, the novel itself is truly, shockingly funny. This ambush firmly dislodges expectation from reality, enhancing the ambiguity of the events to come. Suffice to say, his comical outlook on life — forever chasing its prime — is filled with enough zingers to startle a squeal out of the most somber reader.

The friction between the protagonist and the tedium of life in the Arctic gives way to a memorable account of insomnia. The state he’s in is as relentless as it is disorienting, and leaves him floundering through several insanity-driven impulses.

The protagonist’s focus on the suspension of time produces a tale that is as amusing as it is tinged with despair, foreshadowing a fierce overlap of sensation. And there’s a certain ingenuity in Lee’s treatment of time. Handled differently across cultures, it’s nevertheless an abstract notion that we have all subdued with logic.

By wrapping the narrative around the Inuit community’s unique interaction with it, the author allows an unfamiliar land to appear accessible. What’s more, the cultural clashes rocking Guy’s frame stir the muteness of the land, turning his imprint into a neverending source of drollery. 

The story’s absurdity reaches its climax shortly before the long-awaited departure for the floe edge. And yet, the trip’s swift unraveling soon catches up to the Kafkaesque levels of surrealism that preceded it. That’s because giving up on the convention of time loosens up the narrative, allowing illusion and fabrication to pitch an entirely separate reality. 

We experience a blend of the surreal and the acutely physical. While putting the body through its paces, the protagonist is propelled towards heated, two-way arguments with creatures native to the land. And yet, the mysticism of these interactions is never addressed outright. 

Instead, his psyche — the fabric of which is under constant strain — takes it in as something inherent to the Arctic, both feral and wildly misjudged. His step towards madness is, in many ways, masked by the very fluidity of movement demanded of him.

The smoothness of this transition leads us to a very unsettling realization. Namely, that cause and effect are not all that distinguishable away from the sterile plane of civilization.

The protagonist is so imperfect that, to many, he may appear as an anti-hero. But, having admitted to appropriating his colleagues’ work to advance his own career, he betrays a note of compelling self-awareness. The prospect of death is consequently treated as an end resisted by biological instincts, not the smothering of a bombastic mind. 

His life is no more meaningful than that of the next person, the resonance of his name is faint enough to prove inconsequential. He’s everyone, and he’s no one. This is why his story holds so much appeal, and why the reader has no choice but to persist. 

To learn the end of his journey is to have glimpsed the potential outcome of one’s own behavior in similar circumstances. The fact that this process of self-discovery is compressed between layers of witty, delightful prose is an added reward; one that speaks to Lee’s innate talent.

The story is told retrospectively, fostering a foreboding sense of things to come. And in this deeply immersive world, where language serves as a metaphysical portal, emotion prevails over action.

That is to say, on the face of it, not much happens following the story’s pivotal — albeit quiet — tragedy. Guy’s memory of it transforms into a black hole, into which his senses are tossed. Always with a certain levity, though.

Instead of sensationalist events, we’re mesmerized by the point of hysteria that can be reached —  and sustained — during a moment of stillness. Lee captures the static din of distress exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that it feels like a pinprick drawn along the edge of consciousness.

As such, it mirrors Guy’s physical entrapment in the open spaces of the Arctic. This produces a sense of disorientation, leaving the sky at our feet and the sun dragged from spot to spot by ocean currents.

Again, time is wrung and dissected. The body is made into a clock, turning the environment into a commodity that’s decidedly scornful of reason. And so, Guy’s sleeplessness creates an “undiluted intensity” that expresses elements of the subconscious. 

COMPASS’ world is an unruly one, fixed in a place of constant reactivation. The protagonist, overwhelmed by how impotent he is in the face of it, morphs into a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. But where myth and truth merge, a mystery is born; one that leaves him estranged from the human world that pulls him back.

Overall, Lee’s novel is a debut of startling prowess. Fiercely-written prose pinches the folds of the narrative to form a tale of survival; one that drifts along with the current of its underlying mysticism. Above all, the ambiguity of both deed and thought is allowed to outlive the last page, paying heed to the ferocity of the unknown.
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Compass combines a lot of my favourite themes — Far North nature writing, Indigenous mythology, a person being pushed to the limits of survival and sanity — and as a medical doctor who has served as a fly-in physician for a traditional Inuit community on the Arctic Circle for the past fifteen years, author Murray Lee is well-placed to tell this outsider tale of an arrogant adventurer who mistakenly believes that the North has been tamed since the dangerous heydays of polar exploration. From early on we know that some tragedy will befall this character (dubbed “Guy” by his Inuit hosts and otherwise unnamed) — so, while a thriller, the plot is less about what ultimately happens than what leads up to it — and by making Guy essentially unlikeable and unself-aware, Lee sets up a situation that gives the reader a delicious feeling of schadenfreude. I liked everything about this — Compass certainly doesn’t feel like a debut novel — and I hope that for a small release it gets a big reception.
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