Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The First Signs / Genevieve von Petzinger

4 out of 5 stars
Imagine yourself as a caveman or woman. The place: Europe. The time: 25,000 years ago, the last Ice Age. In reality, you live in an open-air tent or a bone hut. But you also belong to a rich culture that creates art. In and around your cave paintings are handprints and dots, x’s and triangles, parallel lines and spirals. Your people know what they mean. You also use them on tools and jewelry. And then you vanish—and with you, their meanings.

Join renowned archaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger on an Indiana Jones-worthy adventure from the open-air rock art sites of northern Portugal to the dark depths of a remote cave in Spain that can only be reached by sliding face-first through the mud. Von Petzinger looks past the beautiful horses, powerful bison, graceful ibex, and faceless humans in the ancient paintings. Instead, she’s obsessed with the abstract geometric images that accompany them, the terse symbols that appear more often than any other kinds of figures—signs that have never really been studied or explained until now.

Part travel journal, part popular science, part personal narrative, von Petzinger’s groundbreaking book starts to crack the code on the first form of graphic communication. It’s in her blood, as this talented scientist’s grandmother served as a code-breaker at Bletchley. Discernible patterns emerge that point to abstract thought and expression, and for the first time, we can begin to understand the changes that might have been happening inside the minds of our Ice Age ancestors—offering a glimpse of when they became us.

I’ve been fascinated with cave art since I was about 11 or 12 years old. I blame Children’s Digest. I don’t know who started my subscription to that periodical, but it started quite an assortment of interests which I still read about whenever possible. I distinctly remember a story about a young girl who fell in a hole in Spain and accidentally discovered the Altimira cave system, with its profusion of cave paintings.

So imagine my frenzied fangirl squee-ing when I discovered that one of the leading researchers into the meaning of the abstract & geometrical cave paintings & engravings is a woman and a Canadian. Colour me impressed. And she’s young—there will be more to come from this researcher.

Studying the symbols in cave art seems to be a field whose time has come. This book is partially a travelogue, detailing many of the caves that the author has explored and the symbols recorded. Now that computers are up to the task of keeping track of age, place and position of each symbol, patterns can be discerned and intriguing theories can be concocted. The author is careful to tell us that she hasn’t “translated” these signs yet, but progress is being made. I think it is incredible that there are only 32 basic signs used and that they show pattern and purpose.

One of her most interesting theories is that this “vocabulary” of symbols came with the first humans to Europe and wasn’t invented on the spot. Researchers must turn their eyes back to Africa to see if the beginnings of this tradition can be sussed out.

Also of note (although disappointing to me personally), is that these symbols are probably not entoptic phenomena (visual effects that have their genesis in the eye with no outside stimulation). I’ve seen entoptic effects during visual migraines and they are frightening until you realize what they are. They are flashing arrows, zigzags, circles, Xs, etc. that (for me anyway) were produced when my neck muscles clenched so tightly that input to the optic nerve was cut off. Not only did I think I was going blind, but I was seeing neon-flashing symbols! An earlier theory had postulated that cave artists were merely transcribing their own entoptic symbols from either the sensory deprivation of long, dark cave meditations or from drug-induced trances. The statistics just don’t support this interpretation, however, as the symbols aren’t evenly spread. Unless these cave artists just ignored some symbols, they should all be represented.

A very enjoyable read, clearly written and accessible to those of us who haven’t been keeping up with the research in the field. Now, more than ever, seeing some original cave art is on my bucket list.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Magic Slays / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
Plagued by a war between magic and technology, Atlanta has never been so deadly. Good thing Kate Daniels is on the job.

Kate Daniels may have quit the Order of Merciful Aid, but she's still knee-deep in paranormal problems. Or she would be if she could get someone to hire her. Starting her own business has been more challenging than she thought it would be now that the Order is disparaging her good name, and many potential clients are afraid of getting on the bad side of the Beast Lord, who just happens to be Kate's mate.

So when Atlanta's premier Master of the Dead calls to ask for help with a vampire on the loose, Kate leaps at the chance of some paying work. Turns out this is not an isolated incident, and Kate needs to get to the bottom of it fast, or the city and everyone dear to her might pay the ultimate price.

Four reasons for four stars:

1. Grendel the attack poodle. Grendel is worth a star all by his own self.
2. Yay for female friends! Andrea & Kate are a wonderful team.
3. Curran proves that he’s more than just a pretty face
4. Julie. She escapes from a school that she hates & survives despite all odds. Tough, stubborn girl and a perfect match for Aunt Kate.

But don’t take my word for it. If you’re this far along in the Kate Daniels series, pick up this book and get reading. You won’t regret it.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Hunting Ground / Patricia Briggs

4 out of 5 stars
Anna Latham didn’t know how complicated life could be until she became a werewolf. And until she was mated to Charles Cornick, the son — and enforcer — of Bran, the leader of the North American werewolves, she didn’t know how dangerous it could be either...

Anna and Charles have just been enlisted to attend a summit to present Bran’s controversial proposition: that the wolves should finally reveal themselves to humans. But the most feared Alpha in Europe is dead set against the plan — and it seems like someone else might be too. When Anna is attacked by vampires using pack magic, the kind of power only werewolves should be able to draw on, Charles and Anna must combine their talents to hunt down whoever is behind it all — or risk losing everything.

I think I like this splinter series of Patricia Briggs more than her original Mercy Thompson series.  The first Alpha & Omega book annoyed me because it assumed that I knew things that I didn’t.  I hadn’t read the short story that kicked things off.  But with that in the past, I can appreciate this second book for exactly what it is.

I always love urban fantasy that includes the Fae.  They are far superior to vampires & werewolves in my reading experience.  I’m not sure what it is about the fairy tale aspects that grabs me—maybe it’s my Scandinavian background that makes me love a good troll.  And this story contains just enough Fae elements to keep me happy.

Then there is Charles and Anna’s relationship.  It’s a done deal and it’s working well.  There’s none of the “will s/he or won’t s/he” questions that occupied so much time and energy in the first several books of the MT series.  This seems to me to be much more interesting—how do two people work out their differences and make a relationship work?

A very satisfying urban fantasy and I will definitely be moving on to the third installment soon.

Friday, 22 July 2016

White Fang / Jack London

3 out of 5 stars
In the desolate, frozen wilds of northwest Canada, White Fang, a part-dog, part-wolf cub soon finds himself the sole survivor of a litter of five. In his lonely world, he soon learned to follow the harsh law of the North—kill or be killed.

But nothing in his young life prepared him for the cruelty of the bully Beauty Smith, who buys White Fang from his Indian master and turns him into a vicious killer—a pit dog forced to fight for money.

Will White Fang ever know the kindness of a gentle master or will he die a fierce deadly killer?

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

Well, Jack London got to have his cake and eat it too, didn’t he?  White Fang is like the mirror image of The Call of the Wild.  While The Call of the Wild was about a domestic dog going wild, White Fang is the tale of a (predominately) wolf becoming domesticated.

It’s a very sentimental story, structured to get us to identify with the animal.  The structure sets us up to view Gray Beaver as fair but unloving, to see Beauty Smith as hateful, and to understand that White Fang’s final owner is the ideal.

Oh the changes that our society has been through since these two books were published!  London makes a lot of assumptions.  He assumes that European culture is superior to that of Native Americans.  He assumes that domestication is superior to being wild (it was in Call too, when Buck was owned by John Thornton).  He assumes the rightness of the class structure.  Each of White Fang’s owners slots into his spot in this world view.

I remember have the Classics Illustrated comic book version of this story when I was a child, but I didn’t recall a single detail of the story.  It was good to read it again in the unabridged version.

I think it is still an excellent book to help children identify with “the other,” to think about the lives of other creatures.  It is an empathy building book.

A Wizard of Earthsea / Ursula K. LeGuin

4 out of 5 stars
Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth.

Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

Even the greatest sorcerer has to begin somewhere—and Ged gets a harrowing beginning thanks to getting a bit too big for his britches.  The little juvenile novel is all about balance.  Balance in the world and balance within a human being.  I’m truly sorry that I never ran into it many years ago.

I can definitely see why it was compared to both Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Lewis’ Narnia, because the world building is excellent.  I have to wonder if J.K. Rowling ever read it, after reading about the school for wizards and all the masters teaching their specialties.  Plus those instructors help to set Ged on the course to right the wrong that he created in moment of pride.

Another theme is that power is dangerous if used incorrectly.  The balance between wanting power for its own sake and wanting power in order to help others.  When Ged deals with dragons, he uses power to help others.  When he sets a dark power loose in the world, he was serving his own ego.

It’s a shame that this series isn’t better known.  It seems to have been overshadowed by Tolkien, Lewis, and now Rowling.  It deserves much more attention and it has valuable things to say to people of all ages.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Call of the Wild / Jack London

3 out of 5 stars
Buck, a sturdy crossbreed canine (half St. Bernard, half Shepard), is a dog born to luxury and raised in a sheltered Californian home. But then he is kidnapped and sold to be a sled dog in the harsh and frozen Yukon Territory. Passed from master to master, Buck embarks on an extraordinary journey, proving his unbreakable spirit...

First published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is regarded as Jack London's masterpiece. Based on London's experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness and his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence, The Call of the Wild is a tale about unbreakable spirit and the fight for survival in the frozen Alaskan Klondike.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

Maybe I would have been more impressed with this book as a child or if I was a dog lover. It was waaaaay too anthropomorphic for my taste. Although I have no doubt that animals think and have feelings, I don’t believe that they experience the world exactly as people do. Buck exhibited far too many “thoughts” and was far more dependent on “reasoning” to be believable for me.

But, I do think that animals can learn and adapt to new circumstances and that part of Buck’s behaviour no doubt came from London’s observations of real dogs in real situations. And there’s no doubt that big powerful dogs like Buck can return to wild behaviours fairly easily. Likewise, I have watched a kennel of sled dogs, realizing that a sled will be leaving soon. The chaos that ensued as all the dogs in the kennel entreated to be one of the chosen was amazing. All those dogs wanted to run and they let their owner know it! So that desire to run and to work was highly realistic.

I was also struck by the romanticism of the novel. London portrayed the hardships of the frontier quite honestly, but at the same time made it seem much more desirable that I think it really was. John Thornton’s depiction I think idealizes the image of the tough, wise frontiersman, just as Buck is the ideal dog, tough, smart, and devoted to Thornton. Only Thornton’s death releases Buck from his last remaining ties to civilization.

The theme of the civilized vs. the primitive also permeates the novel, adding to its romantic nature. Somehow, the primitive condition is right for the dog, the civilized condition is better for the humans, unless they are particularly strong individuals. The three greenhorns who buy Buck and his sled team are weaker specimens, unable to survive outside their luxurious civilization and unable to listen to instruction. Their deaths are unlamented.

I’m surprised I didn’t read this as a child, but I must have been preoccupied with horsey literature. I do think that I would have been much more impressed with it back then.

Silver Borne / Patricia Briggs

3.5 out of 5 stars
Being a mechanic is hard work. Mercy Thompson, for instance, just spent the last couple of months trying to evade the murderous queen of the local vampire seethe. And now the leader of the werewolf pack, who's maybe-more-than-just-a-friend, has asked for her help. A book of fae secrets has come to light and they're all about to find out how implacable - and dangerous - the fae can be.

OK, so maybe her troubles have nothing to do with the job. But she sure could use a holiday...

A 3.5 star read, but I still read it in one day and was reluctant to put it down. Despite this volume’s being named for a Fae artifact, the Silver Borne, this object does not play much a role in the plot. This book could have been fantastically Fae, but disappointed me with their lack of strength. After Bone Crossed in which the deadliness (haha) of the vampire community is explored, this installment makes the Fae look pretty wishy-washy by comparison.

Once again, the female werewolves are hostile to Mercy, envying her position, rather than being her friends and allies. I’m getting very tired of that theme of female competitiveness instead of friendship. Of course women can be competitive, as can men. But we are just as likely to bond as friends, especially since we are forced into each other’s company for any length of time. Why can’t Mercy have some female friends?

Plus, the werewolf men are so bossy and possessive. What woman in her right mind would put up with that shit? Let them go boss each other and leave to find someone more agreeable, that would be my strategy. Obviously, Briggs and I have much different visions of what’s sexy.

Despite my bitching, there is no doubt that I will read the next installment.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Molokai / Alan Brennert

2.5 stars out of 5
This richly imagined novel, set in Hawaii more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place - and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka'i. Here her life is supposed to end---but instead she discovers it is only just beginning. With a vibrant cast of vividly realized characters, Moloka'i is the true-to-life chronicle of a people who embraced life in the face of death.

 This novel had a great plot line, which suffered I think from the author’s rigid adherence to historical fact. I think he would be much better at writing text books than fiction, which is not the insult that it sounds, as both are separate skills and both necessary in our world. But this could have been such a good story and it missed its mark for me by such a huge margin.

It’s such a wonderful setting—the lushness and harshness both of Hawaii. The situation of a remote island leper colony offers so much opportunity, much of which the author made use of, but mechanically rather than artistically. The story just seemed to plod from plot point to plot point, methodically telling the tale without really inspiring too much emotion from me. Perhaps I’m just hard-hearted, but all of the piling on of miseries just overwhelmed me. How much more could be thrown at a character? And although we are told that they are suffering, it was more telling than showing. It was more like reading a non-fiction account than like reading a novel.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Vinegar Girl / Anne Tyler

5 out of 5 stars
Shakespeare's controversial comedy "The Taming of the Shrew" sees wilful, independent Katherina transformed into a willing, obedient wife to Petruchio. It is one of Shakespeare's most re-visited plays, with adaptations including "Kiss Me Kate," and "10 Things I Hate About You."
Anne Tyler's delightful "Vinegar Girl" features Kate, a socially awkward young woman, adored by the preschool children she teaches but misunderstood by her peers. Her father is a scientific genius, but not so great on emotions. About to lose his (equally genius, equally socially inept) research assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov, because of visa problems, and desperate to save the project that is his life's work, he comes up with a plan: Kate will marry Pyotr who will then be able to stay in the country and finish the project. The plan sounds perfect, except for one small hitch: Kate.

I am really enjoying this Hogarth Shakespeare series, where prominent authors are retelling Shakespeare’s works. I must confess that I’ve not read anything by Anne Tyler ever before, but I will check out her other works based on how much I loved Vinegar Girl. This is Tyler’s version of The Taming of the Shrew which is NOT my favourite Shakespearean play, although I did enjoy the latest version of it that I’ve seen performed.

I wondered how Tyler would make the basic plot more palatable to the modern woman and I think she did a fantastic job. Kate is the daughter of an absent-minded science professor and neither of them are good at social skills—they’re very blunt and often don’t know what to do with other people. The father’s Russian research assistant (who is equally clueless about non-science issues) is in a bind—his visa is running out—and Kate’s father determines that the easiest solution would be for Kate to marry him. There are a lot of humourous situations as Pyotr pursues Kate and as Kate considers her options.

I loved the conversation which gives the book its title—Kate quotes that old saying, that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, to which Pyotr replies “Why would you want to catch flies, vinegar girl?”

Also fabulous: Kate’s final speech at the book’s end about how difficult it is to be a man in our society. She decries the societal norms that put so much career pressure on men and expect them to go through life stoically, hiding their emotions. A wonderful, fresh spin on a part of the original play which annoys me a great deal.

Monday, 11 July 2016

All Together Dead / Charlaine Harris

4 out of 5 stars
Louisiana cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse has her hands full dealing with every sort of undead and paranormal creature imaginable. And after being betrayed by her longtime vampire love, Sookie must not only deal with a new man in her life—the shapeshifter Quinn—but also contend with the long-planned vampire summit.

The summit is a tense situation. The vampire queen of Louisiana is in a precarious position, her power base weakened by hurricane damage to New Orleans. And there are some vamps who would like to finish what nature started. Soon, Sookie must decide what side she'll stand with. And her choice may mean the difference between survival and all-out catastrophe.

Yay, Sookie finally has a woman friend! We are getting into Bechdel test territory, as they are close to having conversations about something besides men and Bob the cat (an unfortunate man turned into a cat by Sookie’s friend Amelia, when trying some magic that she shouldn’t have been messing with).

And if Sookie doesn’t get the vampire-employee-of-the-year award for her performance in this book, I want to know the reason why. The undead had better acknowledge her courage and value in the next installment.

I know that a lot of people see casual racism in the Sookie series, but Harris does tackle the prejudice issue in this novel, albeit the bias of the living against the undead and the vampires and werewolves against each other. Easier to tackle in fictional creatures than in actual populations, perhaps (like the memorable Star Trek episode with the half black/half white aliens who discriminate based on which side of the face is black or white).

Having finished the previous novel, I picked this one up immediately and plunged forward. When I looked up, it was 2 a.m. and I had just set myself up for a draggy Saturday.  Despite that, I have no regrets, but I will try to resist the next installment until I’m caught up a bit on my library books.

Definitely Dead / Charlaine Harris

4 out of 5 stars
Since Louisiana cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse has so few living relatives, she hates to lose one - even her cousin Hadley, undead consort of the vampire Queen of Louisiana. Hadley's left everything she has to Sookie, but claiming that inheritance has a high risk factor. Some people don't want her looking too deeply into Hadley's past, or Hadley's possessions. And they're prepared to do anything in their power to stop her. Whoever it is, they're definitely dangerous - and Sookie's life is definitely on the line...  

Another installment in the Sookie Stackhouse soap opera and I am still enjoying these books far more than I would ever have believed that I would! The whole set-up is ridiculous, but it is so much fun.

No one ever gives Sookie credit for her ideas, but she comes up with more solutions than all of the supposedly ancient vampires put together. And more often than not, it is just like when women pitch ideas in a meeting—the men ignore the ideas and then pitch the same ideas themselves later and congratulate themselves on finding the solutions.  Sookie is getting better at having her ideas acknowledged though.

Another positive development—she seems to be developing some female friends, some back-up for when all the men in her life become difficult. Because let’s face it, lovers come and go, but friends are there through thick and thin.

I just hit the jackpot in my local used book store—apparently someone was cleaning off their bookshelf and turned in a whole whack of Sookie books, so I have the next several novels queued up and ready to go. Now the temptation will be to read them all at once, which I suspect would decrease my enjoyment of them substantially.  Self-control will become important and I’m not sure that I’ve got it this summer.

Julie of the Wolves / Jean Craighead George

3.5 out of 5 stars
Miyax, like many adolescents, is torn. But unlike most, her choices may determine whether she lives or dies. At 13, an orphan, and unhappily married, Miyax runs away from her husband's parents' home, hoping to reach San Francisco and her pen pal. But she becomes lost in the vast Alaskan tundra, with no food, no shelter, and no idea which is the way to safety. Now, more than ever, she must look hard at who she really is. Is she Miyax, Eskimo girl of the old ways? Or is she Julie (her "gussak"-white people-name), the modernized teenager who must mock the traditional customs? And when a pack of wolves begins to accept her into their community, Miyax must learn to think like a wolf as well. If she trusts her Eskimo instincts, will she stand a chance of surviving?

***Wanda's Summer Carnival of Children's Literature***
Although I know that I read Julie of the Wolves when I was about 11 years old, I could not recall a single detail of it, just a general impression that it had been an enjoyable book. I think I got much more out of it reading it as an adult!

What I can truly appreciate now is the wonderful depiction of the natural world, the Arctic environment. The author spent some time in Alaska, doing biological research, and her knowledge of the area just shines through. Not just wolves, but lemmings, skuas, foxes, and a variety of other birds and animals populate these pages, strongly appealing to the naturalist in me.

As a child, I certainly did not understand the sadness about the changing way of life of the people of the Arctic. George was obviously sorry to see the Native people losing their traditional way of life and becoming initiated into regular North American culture. The ending is particularly heart wrenching, as Julie faces the fact that she must also join in settled life. I experienced similar feelings when visiting Bhutan—the young people were all excited about the internet and joining in world culture, but as a visitor, I saw that their culture risked losing so much of its uniqueness as a result. Yet who in their right mind would deny them the right to modernize? It’s a balancing act, to take the best of other cultures while retaining what is best of your own.

I think there are echoes in this book of the idea that Native peoples and their cultures would inevitably die out, something which so many are still struggling against. So many indigenous languages are quickly going extinct, being replaced by European languages. Hopefully, these communities will be able to hold the line against further erosion of their cultures and languages.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Island of the Blue Dolphins / Scott O'Dell

3.5 out of 5 stars
In the Pacific there is an island that looks like a big fish sunning itself in the sea. Around it, blue dolphins swim, otters play, and sea elephants and sea birds abound. Once, Indians also lived on the island. And when they left and sailed to the east, one young girl was left behind. — This is the story of Karana, the Indian girl who lived alone for years on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Year after year, she watched one season pass into another and waited for a ship to take her away. But while she waited, she kept herself alive by building shelter, making weapons, finding food, and fighting her enemies, the wild dogs. It is not only an unusual adventure of survival, but also a tale of natural beauty and personal discovery.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

Well, this was a blast from the past! I remember reading this (probably several times) during grade 5 or 6, maybe both. Funny what I remember from those childhood readings—my take away from it was that girls could do whatever they needed to and just as well as anyone else.

Looking at it now through adult eyes, I see a lot more of what the author was trying to do. His wildlife conservation message is “thump you on the head” obvious to me now. I can also admire how he took a historical fact (an Indian woman who had lived alone on a small island off the coast of California for 18 years) and filled in quite believable adventures for her to experience.

I can see where nature-loving mini-me would have been captivated by her taming of wild dogs, Western Tanagers and sea otters. Being a child with no playmates of my own age living close by our farm, I also spent a lot of time adventuring alone and could relate to her solitude.

For me, this one stood the test of time.

Susanna Moodie : Roughing it in the Bush / Carol Shields and Patrick Crowe

3.5 out of 5 stars
A subject of fascination for writers like Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley, Susanna Moodie was a Romantic writer from a celebrated literary family whose life changed forever when she and her husband embarked from England for the backwoods of Canada in 1832. Misled by land merchants, the Moodies discovered that settlement in Upper Canada was far from pastoral, but rather a wild frontier. Utterly unprepared for pioneer life, they soon found themselves starving in a hostile wilderness. With her husband absent in the army during the 1837 Rebellion, Susanna began publishing her writing to feed and clothe her growing family. The result was the novel Roughing It in the Bush—Moodie's aggravated and acerbic testament of pioneer life was praised in England but turned her into a controversial figure. Two centuries later she is now honored as an early feminist and literary pioneer.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

This is an iconic Canadian book—I remember coming across it while doing my degree in Canadian Studies. It is also lauded as a feminist book as Mrs. Moodie had no choice but to become a strong and resourceful woman. If you don’t have a taste for 19th century writing or a whole-hearted enthusiasm for Canadian history, but still want to know what all the fuss is/was about, then this graphic novel version is the thing for you!

It’s a painless way to get your little bit of Canadian history and determine whether you want to tackle the original book. You certainly see clearly how unprepared this impoverished English gentlewoman and her army-officer husband were when confronted with the Canadian wilderness. In all fairness, many of the settlers coming to Canada were shamefully misled about conditions here and should probably never have come. I have to admire Susanna Moodie—she withstood more trials and tribulations that I have the stomach for. She lost a child, had her house burn down practically around her, and dealt with thieving neighbours and extreme poverty while raising a passel of children. And if this account is accurate, she seems to have retained a fondness for her somewhat inept husband. I did have to smile at her tolerance for native people and escaped slaves, but her dislike and resentment of her American neighbours. Canadians, making a habit out of disliking Americans since the beginning of settlement. (It’s just a hobby, American friends, we don’t hate you too much).

This graphic novel is not based entirely on Susanna’s journal—the authors consulted her correspondence, as well as the reports on the archaeological excavation of the Moodie cabin site. Well researched and accurately portrayed.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

An Artificial Night / Seanan McGuire

4 out of 5 stars
October "Toby" Daye is a changeling-half human and half fae-and the only one who has earned knighthood. Now she must take on a nightmarish new challenge. Someone is stealing the children of the fae as well as mortal children, and all signs point to Blind Michael. Toby has no choice but to track the villain down-even when there are only three magical roads by which to reach Blind Michael's realm, home of the Wild Hunt-and no road may be taken more than once. If Toby cannot escape with the children, she will fall prey to the Wild Hunt and Blind Michael's inescapable power.

I’m not sure why I find this series so charming—I think it is because I absolutely adore the world of the Fae that McGuire has created here. I love how complex it is, how many kinds of fae entities exist in it, and learning the rules that govern it.

I’m hoping that the main character, Toby, improves over the arc of the series. I’m tired of her refusing to use a perfectly serviceable brain (although if she experiences too much more head trauma, I’m not sure that it will remain intact). I’m tired of her whining about how hard things are—use your head and figure things out. I’m tired of watching her push away all the people who want to help her. Just because you are a knight and a hero doesn’t mean that you can’t accept assistance from others, especially when there are powerful others who obviously care deeply about you. Hell, I find myself caring about her, despite all the things that drive me crazy.

I also hope that there will be more information on Toby’s mother, Amandine, at some point. There was a great big tease in this book, and I really want to know more details of the crazy fairy mother.

Once I pick up one of the October Daye series, I find I can’t set it down happily until I’m at the end and I then want the next book asap, please. So obviously, I will keep reading. I’m just trying to pace myself so that I don’t burn out on them.

The Black Stallion / Walter Farley

3.5 out of 5 stars
Published originally in 1941, this book is about a young boy, Alec Ramsay who finds a wild black stallion at a small Arabian port on the Red Sea. Between the black stallion and young boy, a strange understanding grew that you lead them through untold dangers as they journeyed to America. Nor could Alec understand that his adventures with the black stallion would capture the interest of an entire nation.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

Wow, talk about fantasy! And yet this is the book which ignited my passion for reading. Totally unrealistic and it was totally captivating to an 11 year old, horse-crazy girl. This is the book which started my life-long habit of identifying with male characters, because I wanted to be Alec Ramsey. I am also truly lucky to have had an indulgent father who purchased my first pony, Nippy, at an auction sale for $50. (We left home with a truck full of pigs and returned home with a Shetland pony). Nippy & I came to have a very close relationship, which I no doubt modelled on Alex & the Black. Fortunately for me, Nippy was much more like old Napoleon in this tale than like the wild black stallion.

It was a treat to re-read this novel and to remember my total adoration of this series, despite the fact that it really doesn’t turn my crank anymore as an adult. Still, like a first love, I will always have fond memories of The Black Stallion.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Treasure Island / Robert Louis Stevenson

4 out of 5 stars
A treasure map where X marks the spot, a schooner set to sail, a onelegged seaman with a parrot on his shoulder, a boy whose bravery will be tested by murder, mutiny, and betrayal — Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved tale is the ultimate swashbuckling adventure. Sweeping a path from the sleepy English coast to the raging high seas to a tropical island concealing a buried treasure, this story of friendship and greed, loyalty and courage stars an unforgettable cast of characters: young Jim Hawkins, the terrifying Blind Pew, the wild man Ben Gunn, and one of literature’s most dastardly villains, the charming, crafty, and utterly unscrupulous Long John Silver.

 ***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

Shiver me timbers! I wonder what Robert Louis Stevenson would think of Captain Jack Sparrow? Because a lot of Jack Sparrow’s DNA can be found in Treasure Island. I choose to think that Stevenson would be delighted by how influential his book had been.

This is a book that I never was interested in as a kid—pirates just didn’t appeal to me, I guess. But I was missing a pretty good yarn and I’m glad I was finally inspired to read it as an adult. The assumptions of class were really brought home to me during the reading—the upper classes expect to be obeyed and are right royally ticked off when their subordinates aren’t cooperative with that assumption. The pirates are portrayed as completely controlled by their baser desires (although no sex was allowed!) and this makes them vulnerable to defeat by the more self-controlled gentlemen. Despite that, I was left feeling rather sympathetic to Long John Silver, despite his weasel ways.

I think a re-watch of Pirates of the Caribbean is in order now!

My Side of the Mountain / Jean Craighead George

3 out of 5 stars
Every kid thinks about running away at one point or another; few get farther than the end of the block. Young Sam Gribley gets to the end of the block and keeps going--all the way to the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. There he sets up house in a huge hollowed-out tree, with a falcon and a weasel for companions and his wits as his tool for survival. In a spellbinding, touching, funny account, Sam learns to live off the land, and grows up a little in the process. Blizzards, hunters, loneliness, and fear all battle to drive Sam back to city life. But his desire for freedom, independence, and adventure is stronger. No reader will be immune to the compulsion to go right out and start whittling fishhooks and befriending raccoons. 

 ***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

This was one on my favourite novels as a youngster and it was a pleasure to revisit it. It is a completely unrealistic fantasy about a young boy who runs away to the ancestral land in the Catskills mountains and who proceeds to learn how to live off the land for a whole year.

First let’s point out the obviously unreasonable plot points—a young boy runs away from a large New York family and no one comes after him. Not until Christmas, several months into the adventure, does his father show up to see what he’s doing. Adults along the way help him to get there and keep his secret instead of turning him in. No matter how successful his venture, they should have been intent on returning him to his family and getting him back in school. Sam is very much a Gary Stu character. He is able to train a falcon by reading about it in a book, seems to be surrounded by careless hunters who helpfully “lose” deer that they have shot, and has more of a taste for cat tail roots and flower bulbs than most young men of my acquaintance.

Despite all of those fantasy elements (or maybe because of them) I really got into this book as a kid. I loved the idea of living in a tree, of having a falcon as a companion, learning to live with friendly racoons and weasels. I was a farm child, so I could at least experience the local wildlife (weasels, ground squirrels, hares) somewhat like Sam, and that was enough for me.

This book really spoke to my early love of nature. I don’t think I ever thought of it as a “how to” guide, I recognized the fantasy aspect. (And I think that most children do recognize the fantastic elements of things, whether adults give them credit for it or not).

Monday, 4 July 2016

1222 / Anne Holt

3.5 stars out of 5
1222 is the story of how a small group of people find themselves stuck in a hotel during an apocalyptic snow storm. Following a dramatic train derailment at Finse, the conflict between the survivors escalates while a furious hurricane threatens the unprotected village. Nobody is there to help, and there is no way out of the inferno for the survivors hiding out. On the first night at the hotel, a man is found shot and murdered. The victim is Cato Hammer, a priest known nation-wide for his ability – and desire – to get in the papers. Hanne Wilhelmsen, retired Inspector at the Oslo Police, is drawn into a race against time, a murderer, and the worst storm in the Norwegian alps on record. She loses the first round. Soon, another one of God’s servants is murdered, when an icicle cuts through his body…

A mystery more typical of Agatha Christie than most Scandinavian authors. In fact, Ms. Christie is mention several times and I think this novel is meant as an homage to her. It is a “closed room” mystery—although the surroundings are a hotel by a train station. The train has derailed and the passengers are rescued, all during a howling blizzard. The severity of the blizzard keeps everyone in place and inside. One by one, their numbers decrease, sometimes through natural causes, but also through unnatural events, i.e. murder.

The main character, Hanne, is a former policewoman. She is dependent on her wheelchair, she is curmudgeonly, she is a lesbian, and I liked her a lot.

Very enjoyable, even reading one-eyed with unfamiliar reading glasses! I seem to have started at novel number 8 of the series, but I could definitely be convinced to try more of Anne Holt’s work.

After London, or Wild England / Richard Jefferies

2 out of 5 stars
Jefferies’ novel can be seen as an early example of post-apocalyptic fiction. After some sudden and unspecified catastrophe has depopulated England, the countryside reverts to nature, and the few survivors to a quasi-medieval way of life.

The first part, The Relapse into Barbarism, is the account by some later historian of the fall of civilisation and its consequences, with a loving description of nature reclaiming England. The second part, Wild England, is an adventure set many years later in the wild landscape and society.

The book is not without its flaws but is redeemed by the quality of the writing, particularly the unnervingly prophetic descriptions of the post-apocalyptic city and countryside.

First book read after my first cataract surgery and if I hadn’t been trapped at home, I’m not sure I would have finished it. The first whole section is primarily an info dump—how the U.K. has changed since some rather nebulous apocalypse (or maybe it was nebulous to me because I was struggling to read with one eye, a harder task that I anticipated).

I don’t require that the main character be likeable—I’ll take a curmudgeon any day as protagonist, but this young man was pretty clueless and it’s a wonder that he survived the book. And that despite the fact that very little happens. Then, at the end, when things begin to happen, the author yanks him out of the plot again, and sends him off on a mission that seemed to me to be quite hopeless. The end.

I am very unsure how this novel ended up on the Guardian’s list of 1000 novels that everyone should read. I could only recommend it as an example of many things that should not be done in a post-apocalyptic novel. Read The Earth Abides or Alas, Bablyon instead and leave this one in the library. Certainly save your money and do not buy it.