Thursday, 11 January 2018

It's All Relative / A.J. Jacobs

4 out of 5 stars
A.J. Jacobs has received some strange emails over the years, but this note was perhaps the strangest: “You don’t know me, but I’m your eighth cousin. And we have over 80,000 relatives of yours in our database.”

That’s enough family members to fill Madison Square Garden four times over. Who are these people, A.J. wondered, and how do I find them? So began Jacobs’s three-year adventure to help build the biggest family tree in history.

Jacobs’s journey would take him to all seven continents. He drank beer with a US president, found himself singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and unearthed genetic links to Hollywood actresses and real-life scoundrels. After all, we can choose our friends, but not our family.


I would call this a book about genealogy for people who aren’t really all that interested in the subject. It is genealogy lite. Which is not to say that it isn’t a good book or that I didn’t like it. I enjoyed it a great deal.

I’ve been doing genealogy since I was a teenager and discovered our family Bible, with my great-grandfather’s handwritten records of the family in it. It’s huge & heavy and he bought it from someone in a California train station for 25 cents back in the day. He was a lumberman and his family lived in New Brunswick (and he got migraines—he’s who I blame my headaches on!).

Maybe not the most exciting of stories, but you find all kinds of interesting tales when you start investigating. I haven’t made time for this pursuit for years, but reading this book has encouraged me to get thinking about it again.

I had read in a genealogy book that if you have European heritage, the very furthest apart you can be related to others with similar ties is 10th cousin. Jacobs’ research takes things a step farther: the farthest apart you can be related to anyone on Earth is 70th cousins. Start singing Kumbaya, folks, because we really do belong to the Family of Humankind.

The strange thing is, we do have a bias for treating our family just a little better than others—cutting them some slack when they do things that we don’t understand, for example. What better way is there to increase the kindness quotient in the world than to realize that we are all relatives and all deserve that kind of treatment.

Pie in the sky, I know, but both the author & I wish that it could come true.

Read for the PopSugar reading challenge to fill the “Book tied to your ancestry” choice.

A Promise of Fire / Amanda Bouchet

3 out of 5 stars
Catalia "Cat" Fisa lives disguised as a soothsayer in a traveling circus. She is perfectly content avoiding the danger and destiny the Gods-and her homicidal mother-have saddled her with. That is, until Griffin, an ambitious warlord from the magic-deprived south, fixes her with his steely gaze and upsets her illusion of safety forever.

Griffin knows Cat is the Kingmaker, the woman who divines the truth through lies. He wants her as a powerful weapon for his newly conquered realm-until he realizes he wants her for much more than her magic. Cat fights him at every turn, but Griffin's fairness, loyalty, and smoldering advances make him increasingly hard to resist and leave her wondering if life really does have to be short, and lived alone.


Okay, I admit that I enjoyed this little paranormal romance. I almost missed a meeting at work because I unwisely was reading it on my coffee break (oops!). Yet I had a few issues with it. Let me tell you about them.

So there are heaps of the usual romance tropes—Griffin’s an exasperating alpha-male, Cat is a kidnap victim, so there’s the whole enemies-to-lovers thing going on. On the plus side, until Cat actually gives consent there is no sex--no rapes for our hero. Cat doesn’t think of herself as a beauty (but of course she is) and Griffin shouldn’t be ruling a kingdom by the norms of the day (and yet he is). So really, just part of the background radiation, romance-wise.

Here’s what bugs me—the time period of the book (old type Greek gods intervening in lives, fighting with swords & bows and arrows, plenty o’ magic) versus the modernity of the banter, language, and general attitudes. For me the two things just scream at each other “this is wonky.” I mean, this kind of banter works in Ilona Andrews novels because they are set in a modern, urban world. The combination made this historical-fantasy-world feel off-kilter for me.

Speaking of Ilona, there are almost more Kate Daniels parallels than I can detail in one short review. Heroine with powerful magic? Check! Powerful parent lurking in the background to screw with her life? Check! Can’t leave her blood lying around to lead the predatory parent to her? Check! Heroine has been trained in strategy & martial arts since childhood? Check! Caring deeply about anyone is seen by the heroine as giving said parent a way to manipulate her? Check! This is very much a Kate Daniels clone.

Having said that, it’s still an okay story. If I wasn’t already familiar with Kate, I probably would have enjoyed it more. Despite that, with the cognitive dissonance between the setting and the dialog, this novel can’t rate higher than 3 stars for me. I’d never dissuade someone from reading it, but probably wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it either. However, if you’re suffering Kate withdrawal (that re-reading won’t assuage) this might be your book.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo / George Saunders

3.5 out of 5 stars
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.


The format of this book will mean that its not going to appeal to everyone. It is told in multiple voices—book excerpts, newspaper quotes, and numerous ghostly voices. It can feel a bit chaotic and I often found myself searching to determine who was speaking.

Despite that, if you can live with the writing style, this is a tale of grief and love. Not only between Lincoln and his son Willie, but the love of all the poor souls who inhabit the bardo in hopes of being “just sick” instead of dead. Saunders’ vision of what this half-life would be like is original and interesting.

I found it curious that Abraham Lincoln, a respected president today, could be so reviled during his tenure. The brutality of the Civil War, of course, was the reason for the mixed opinions, leading me to muse a bit about how the leaders of the last number of decades will be remembered.

This novel touches on all the big themes—love, death, politics, religion—sympathetically but with humour too.

Read to fill the PopSugar reading challenge—a novel based on a real person.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Great Hunt / Robert Jordan

4 out of 5 stars
The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and pass. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow. For centuries, gleemen have told of The Great Hunt of the Horn. Now the Horn itself is found: the Horn of Valere long thought only legend, the Horn which will raise the dead heroes of the ages.  And it is stolen.

My second step on the Wheel of Time! The best part about it was that it got me feeling things about these characters. I mean, I wanted to bash heads together with Rand being all stubborn and Mat not helping himself a bit and Perrin not accepting who he has become! And despite that, I realize that these would be hard realizations to come to—they aren’t just country lads anymore. Plus, Nyaneve irritated me every bit as much as I appreciated her.

The echoes of the King Arthur story are strong—Galad, Gawyn, and Elayne have been added to the cast. And there was a reference to a sword in a stone that only the Dragon Reborn could use. References to the legendary warrior Arthur, who is born again in the Dragon—like Arthur Pendragon, who is said to be asleep and ready to return to the world if he is needed.

The Horn of Valere and its ability to summon warriors of the past reminded me of Tolkien’s Paths of the Dead. It felt to me like this was being used up awfully early in the course of the WoT—after all, this is only volume 2 of 14!

There are obviously many unanswered questions and I shall look forward to reading The Dragon Reborn as soon as possible. (One of the advantages of getting a late start on this series is that they are all available now.)

Book 270 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

The Lunatic Cafe / Laurell K. Hamilton

3.5 out of 5 stars
You don't volunteer for slugfests with vampires. It shortens your life expectancy. And you don't fall in love with a werewolf. It interferes with your work. Especially when you're a preternatural expert, like me. My business brings me up close and personal with all shapes and sizes of monsters. And not all of them want to kill me.

Take, for instance, the local pack of lycanthropes - that's werewolves to you. A number of them are missing, and they've come to me for help. Maybe because I'm dating the leader of the pack. I've survived a lot - from jealous vampires to killer zombies - but this love thing may kill me yet...


What a treat, to find out you have a cousin who shares your reading habits! My public library has this book on order and I’ve been waiting for it for months! While visiting over New Year’s, my cousin & I got discussing this series, and she sent me home with a suitcase full of reading material—a happy New Year indeed.

Although some aspects of the series are silly, I’m enjoying it despite that. I mean Anita accepts a marriage proposal from a man (well, a werewolf) she really barely knows—and that becomes more and more obvious as the book progresses—and even though she has serious misgivings, they keep on as if they were actually going to go through with a wedding. Then her vampiric nemesis, Jean-Claude objects, stating that if she has feelings for him too, he should get equal time to press his suit. And Anita takes this bit of sophistry seriously. I mean, last time I checked, women were allowed to marry as they chose and didn’t have to give anybody equal time to make an impression! (Besides, I’m usually of the opinion that if a woman really does have feelings for two men, she shouldn’t have to make a decision between them!)

I will also confess to a bout of severe eye-rolling when I read Anita’s reasons for not sleeping with either of them. Betrayed by her first fiancĂ©e? OMG. But, as a plot device to keep the love triangle stretched out, it works beautifully. Will I continue to read? Of course! Especially since I now have a suitcase full of Anita Blake books to keep me supplied.

The Difference Engine / William Gibson & Bruce Stirling

3 out of 5 stars
1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. And three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with history - and the future: Sybil Gerard - dishonored woman and daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward "Leviathan" Mallory - explorer and paleontologist; Laurence Oliphant - diplomat and spy. Their adventure begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for...

As many others have pointed out, this book is one of the first in what we now know as the Steampunk genre. It explores the question of what would happen if the Industrial Revolution and the development of the computer had coincided—what would Victorian society have looked like?

It’s a complex novel, with a lot of layers. I read most of it in airports and on planes and didn’t have the best circumstances to be able to concentrate on those details. On the other hand, if it had been really riveting, I wouldn’t have noticed my surroundings, so I apparently didn’t find it all that compelling.

I appreciated the re-structuring of British society, from being run by the blue-blooded to being administered by the scientific. It was nice to see paleontologists and poets being recognized for their skills and not just dismissed as soft science or whimsy. And there must always be a resistance movement, which was well realized and sported realistic details, in my opinion.

The story frequently got bogged down in the details, however, and then just eventually petered out, leaving me disappointed. After a strong start, the weakness of the ending was a let down.

Book number 269 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading project.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The House on Mango Street / Sandra Cisneros

4 out of 5 stars
Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous, The House on Mango Street tells the story of Esperanza Cordero, whose neighborhood is one of harsh realities and harsh beauty. Esperanza doesn't want to belong--not to her rundown neighborhood, and not to the low expectations the world has for her. Esperanza's story is that of a young girl coming into her power, and inventing for herself what she will become.

 I started reading The House on Mango Street without really researching anything about it. I could really tell that the author is also a poet—the beauty of the language and the descriptions was stunning. If you are looking for something plot-driven, this is not your book. But if you are willing to savour each chapter/vignette for what it is, you will enjoy this artistic little volume.

Each chapter is like a perfectly cut and polished gemstone, offering the reader a peek into the Chicago of the 1950s and 1960s. What I really related to was the naivetĂ© of Esperanza—at her age, I was similarly clueless about the allure of boys (or what one would actually do with a boy that parents were always worrying about). Despite that lack of knowledge, I struggled against societal expectations, just as Esperanza did. I too watched my mother struggle to express her artistic self, while trying to juggle life as a mother and a wife and I learned the same lesson: support yourself so that you can do the things you need to do in life.

We are also allowed a look into the world of immigrant Mexican families of that time—the strictness of the fathers, the dilapidated housing, the restraint on expectations. The importance of family. The reliance on community.

Esperanza gets her name for a reason—there is Hope that a true artistic life can be achieved. And if this book is any indication, Sandra Cisneros has certainly met those expectations.