Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Hercule Poirot's Christmas / Agatha Christie

4 out of 5 stars
Motives for Murder: A fortune in uncut diamonds, hidden by an eccentric old man - A woman's love, too freely given - A business empire built on ruthlessness. Each of them may have been a motive for the brutal slaying of wealthy old Simeon Lee. Coupled with Lee's family, each member of which hated him and wished to see him dead, they present Hercule Poirot with a baffling challenge--one which the astute detective solves only through his uncanny ability to see "the little things."

What does one get M. Poirot for Christmas? A bloody good murder, that’s what!

I love watching the skillful set-up in Agatha Christie’s books—the details that she lovingly points out to us, designed to lead our thinking astray! An excellent red herring meant I was looking the wrong direction when M. Poirot did his big reveal. I was so sure that I had spotted the killer that I didn’t pay attention to anyone else! (Christie – 7, Wanda – 2 so far in my reading of her oeuvre).

The murder victim is deliciously hate-able, the potential murderers are suitably complex people, the motives abound, as does the blood. As Poirot points out, when we are being forced to visit family that we might not normally & there is pressure for a certain type of behaviour, murder becomes a real possibility! So don’t lean on your family members too hard this Christmas—give them and yourself a bit of breathing room and avoid family bloodshed.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Deadly Sting / Jennifer Estep

3.5 out of 5 stars
Most people shy away from blood, but for an assassin like me— Gin Blanco, aka the Spider—it’s just part of the job. Still, it would be nice to get a night off, especially when I’m attending the biggest gala event of the summer at Briartop, Ashland’s fanciest art museum. But it’s just not meant to be. For this exhibition of my late nemesis’s priceless possessions is not only the place to be seen, but the place to be robbed and taken hostage at gunpoint as well. No sooner did I get my champagne than a bunch of the unluckiest thieves ever burst into the museum and started looting the place.

Unlucky why? Because I brought along a couple of knives in addition to my killer dress. Add these to my Ice and Stone magic, and nothing makes me happier than showing the bad guys why red really is my color.


I couldn’t resist another installment of Elemental Assassin—I need a regular supply of urban fantasy if I’m to be happy these days!

Estep continues to provide action-filled plots, consistent with the world of Ashland that she has created for our reading pleasure. Nevertheless, it’s the action between Gin and Owen that rivets the attention in book 8, as we wonder if these two star-crossed lovers will find their way back together again.

This time around, we see Gin doing the patient Griselda routine, while Owen tries to sort himself out. She’s not happy about it, particularly as it seems that Owen and his sister Eva seem to continually need her assistance to get out or stay out of the clutches of Ashland’s underworld. Owen is willing to accept the assistance, but not necessarily Gin.

Gin actually gets some self-reflection time in this book—time to realize that she does make very pragmatic, unromantic decisions mostly and that this may be hard for those closest to her to live with. But she certainly proves that she is a strong, independent woman—Owen may be “needing some space,” but she continues to run her restaurant, take courses, spend time with her friends, and defend herself from all the opportunistic villains who want to take her down!

With her sister Bria and her pals, Jo-Jo and Sophia Deveraux and Roslyn Phillips, we are definitely getting into Bechdel test territory. Certainly they do discuss the men in their lives, but plenty more besides that. That’s what I like to see—a woman realistically surrounded by supportive women friends who are there to listen, support, and help when they can! More of this, please, Ms. Estep.

P.S. All the Southern cooking got to me--I ended up making Cornmeal Cheese muffins half way through the book so that I could concentrate on reading again!

Magic's Promise / Mercedes Lackey

4 out of 5 stars
The wild magic is taking its toll on the land, and even Vanyel, the most powerful Herald-Mage to ever walk the world, is almost at the end of his strength. But when his Companion, Yfandes, receives a call for help from neighboring Lineas, both Herald-Mage and Companion are drawn into a holocaust of dark magic that could be the end of them both.

How wonderful to have a more mature and thoughtful Vanyel to narrate the second volume of this series. Not there is no angst, but it is dealt with in a much more adult way.

A depleted & exhausted Vanyel returns from the battle front, only to discover that his family insist on his presence at home—not the most restful place for the young man. His father is having difficulty accepting Vanyel’s sexual orientation and his mother frankly refuses to believe him, proceeding to push any and every attractive young woman at him. If that wasn’t enough, he has to deal with his former master-at-arms and the local priest, both of whom made his younger life miserable.

However, Vanyel is now a hero, his exploits sung about by the bards, and he & his companion, Yfandes, are called to rescue another young man & Companion during their visit. Demonstrating his magic, skill, bravery, and good judgement, Vanyel is able to start the healing journey for his family relationships.

Book number 268 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

Widow's Web / Jennifer Estep

3.5 out of 5 stars
Once an assassin, always an assassin. So much for being plain old Gin Blanco. With every lowlife in Ashland gunning for me, I don’t need another problem, but a new one has come to town.

Salina might seem like a sweet Southern belle, but she’s really a dangerous enemy whose water elemental magic can go head-to-head with my own Ice and Stone power. Salina also has an intimate history with my lover, Owen Grayson, and now that she’s back in town, she thinks he’s hers for the taking.

Salina’s playing a mysterious game that involves a shady local casino owner with a surprising connection to Owen. But they call me the Spider for a reason. I’m going to untangle her deadly scheme, even if it leaves my love affair hanging by a thread.


It really struck me as I was reading this volume of the Elemental Assassin series (number 7, if you’re counting) that Jennifer Estep is really working her way through all the relationship issues that a woman can have. The first couple of books revolve around being fixated on the wrong person—the one you’ve got chemistry with, but not necessarily shared values. The relationship that’s doomed from the start, but you’re still inexplicably drawn to (that would be detective Donovan Caine).

Then Gin meets Owen Grayson, someone she’s got things in common with—this is the stage where she’s found someone who could be compatible, but she’s not sure he’ll accept all of her, even the ruthless parts. They do the “do we really trust each other” dance for a couple of books, before seeming to settle into a pretty solid relationship.

The last book tested Gin’s commitment—bringing Donovan back into her life, seemingly anxious to reconcile. She passes on Mr. Caine, realizing that they still have polar opposite values and that it couldn’t possibly work. This book, its Owen’s turn, as his former fianceé Salina returns to Ashland, determined to get him back.

Things that I have complained about in earlier books—repetition, mostly—isn’t present in this installment. Estep seems to have either matured as a writer or found a much more stringent editor who doesn’t put up with it. As a result, the books are much more entertaining and my irritation quotient is dramatically reduced.

A nice little urban fantasy hit to keep my addiction alive!

The Drowned and the Saved / Primo Levi

4 out of 5 stars
The author tries to understand the rationale behind Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen. Dismissing stereotyped images of brutal Nazi torturers and helpless victims, Levi draws extensively on his own experiences to delve into the minds and motives of oppressors and oppressed alike. Describing the difficulty and shame of remembering, the limited forms of collaboration between inmates and SS goalers, the exploitation of useless violence and the plight of the intellectual, Levi writes about the issue of power, mercy and guilt, and their effects on the lives of the ordinary people who suffered so incomprehendingly.

How in the world do I rate a book like this? I guess its four stars, because I didn’t find it to be quite as engaging as Night or Man's Search for Meaning, but it was still an un-put-down-able book. I’ll be reading more of Levi’s work, without a doubt. The voices of these Holocaust survivors become ever more important as attrition takes them from us and their story becomes doubted by some.

The Drowned and the Saved is a powerful metaphor for the concentration camp experience. Those who emerged became the Saved, those who perished became the Drowned. As in the two books that I referenced above, Levi tells us that those who appear to be the Saved had to do some brutal things to get that status. He goes so far as to say that all the good people were among the Drowned. So how was he to feel about himself, supposedly one of the elect? His death in 1987 was ambiguous—officially ruled as a suicide, but it may have been an accident.

He says that the Saved were the prisoners who didn’t actually touch bottom while in the camps. It seems that he may have hit bottom well after the fact.

Friday, 8 December 2017

An Excess Male / Maggie Shen King

4.25 out of 5 stars
Under the One Child Policy, everyone plotted to have a son.

Now 40 million of them can't find wives. China’s One Child Policy and its cultural preference for male heirs have created a society overrun by 40 million unmarriageable men. By the year 2030, more than twenty-five percent of men in their late thirties will not have a family of their own. An Excess Male is one such leftover man’s quest for love and family under a State that seeks to glorify its past mistakes and impose order through authoritatian measures, reinvigorated Communist ideals, and social engineering.Wei-guo holds fast to the belief that as long as he continues to improve himself, his small business, and in turn, his country, his chance at love will come. He finally saves up the dowry required to enter matchmaking talks at the lowest rung as a third husband—the maximum allowed by law. Only a single family—one harboring an illegal spouse—shows interest, yet with May-ling and her two husbands, Wei-guo feels seen, heard, and connected to like never before. But everyone and everything—walls, streetlights, garbage cans—are listening, and men, excess or not, are dispensable to the State. Wei-guo must reach a new understanding of patriotism and test the limits of his love and his resolve in order to save himself and this family he has come to hold dear.


I have to hand it to Maggie Shen King—she takes several assumptions and trends, plays them out to their logical conclusion, and makes a dramatic book out of it. Plus I always enjoy speculative fiction that isn’t set in North America!

First, take the Chinese one-child policy. Add to that the preference for having a male child to inherit your goods. Mix in a good dose of authoritarian Communist party, which like most authoritarian regimes is ultra-conservative. This is the world that King introduces us to—where women are so scarce that men compete to be second and third husbands in polyandrous households. We meet Wei-guo, an excess male, who is rather desperate to become someone’s husband and the household that he aspires to join: that of May-ling and her two brother husbands.

Unattached young men are always a dangerous potential source of upheaval in a society, so despite the extreme shortage of women, the Chinese government frowns on single men. Many of these men, like Wei-guo, spend their free time playing war games out in the countryside, something that the government keeps close tabs on, seeing it as a potential challenge to the state instead of a way of venting aggression. Illogically, the government also disapproves of homosexuality, which really they should welcome in their demographic predicament. When the government disapproves of both of these safety values for their society, things are bound to go wrong.

All of these tensions come together to produce a human drama that is well worth your reading time.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Great Starvation Experiment / Todd Tucker

4 out of 5 stars
Near the end of World War II, thirty-six conscientious objectors volunteered to be systematically starved for renowned scientist Ancel Keys’s study at the University of Minnesota in the basement of Memorial Stadium. Aimed to benefit relief efforts in war-ravaged Europe and Asia, the study sought the best way to rehabilitate starving citizens. Tucker captures a lost moment in American history—a time when stanch idealism and a deep willingness to sacrifice trumped even basic human needs.

This was a fascinating read in that can’t-look-away-from-the-car-accident kind of way.  If you’ve read any books about dieting, you’ve probably heard about this study.  Indeed, if you’ve ever been on a restrictive, low-calorie diet, you know how your world begins to revolve around food and you have a hard time giving a damn about anything else.  Now I know exactly how normal this is!

It was an especially interesting book when read shortly after <i>Night</i> by Elie Wiesel and <i>Man’s Search for Meaning</i> by Viktor Frankl.  Both men describe the centrality of food in their lives during their incarceration in the prison camps.  They talk about not having the energy or the brain power to spare to help others, even family members.

Ancel Keys’ experiment would certainly never be green-lighted today.  Despite the fact that his subjects were volunteers (conscientious objectors who chose the experiment rather than military service) and they knew the experience would be difficult, they had no idea how grueling it would be.  It didn’t take long for their sex drives to disappear (Frankl mentions this in the concentration camps, that it actually kept the experience from being worse because no prisoners had the drive to victimize anyone sexually).  Some of the Keys’ guinea pigs (as they were known) continued to go to classes and listen to lectures, but it rapidly became too hard to pay attention.  Keys advised guest lecturers to mention food, which would rivet the men’s attention, at least momentarily.  Meals became the focus of their days and they would become angry & abusive if service was the slightest bit late or if the food was not piping hot (they also felt cold all the time, as their bodies tried to save energy).  A group of men who started out happy, healthy, and social became touchy, angry, and prone to sudden outbursts.  They performed strange rituals with their food—sometimes stirring it all together into a pile for instance.

The supposed object of the experiment was to find the best way to get people back to normal after periods of extreme hunger.  It turns out that the conclusion was to feed them!  The guinea pigs ate at least 5000 calories per day when they were permitted to eat freely again and one man distinguished himself by eating over 11,000 calories in one day!  No supplements made any meaningful difference—just food.  That’s the saddest part really, that these men suffered through the experiment and so little was actually learned as a result.