Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Annals of the Heechee / Frederick Pohl

3 out of 5 stars
Deep inside a nearly solid ball of energy called the kugelblitz, just outside the halo of the Milky Way, lurked the would-be destroyers of the universe.

Humans called them the Foe. Heechee called them the Assassins. No creature that had ever seen them had lived to tell the tale. But ancient ruins scattered about the galaxy, and the shattered remnants of races such as the Sluggards and the Voodoo Pigs, were evidence of the Foe’s devastating power—and their cold-blooded determination to destroy all intelligent life. For eons now, the Foe had been strangely silent, but galactic history made clear that they could strike again at any time. So Heechee and human had joined in a constant vigil at the edge of the kugelblitz.

Advanced Heechee technology had enabled Robinette Broadhead to live after death as a machine-stored personality. But even he, virtually immortal and with unlimited access to millennia of accumulated data, could not discover what the Foe were—or how to stop them.

Now it looked as if the Foe had ventured out again. As humans and Heechee rallied their forces to defend against an alien race that had never met defeat, Robin Broadhead found himself the only one able to deal with the Foe face to face—a meeting which would determine the future of the entire universe…

I must confess, I liked this book enough to finish it but I am glad the series is finished.  Robinette Broadhead is a dull, histrionic main character and this book contains waaaay too much lecturing and philosophizing.  A lot of that is done through Pohl’s usual device in this series: the computer program known as Albert Einstein.

You would think that when Rob Broadhead died, we would be free of him as main character.  Instead, he is uploaded into a computer environment and survives to remain the focus of the series.  I do take issue with a stored intelligence being as moody, weepy, and “gloopy” as Pohl writes Rob—without the brain structures to support emotions, I just doubt that emotion would be able to run someone’s life so completely.  But what do I know?  We are so far away from being able to do this, that there isn’t any way of judging.  And all this anxiety now seems to be pointless—Rob is basically immortal, still wealthy & influential, and has his lady love stored with him.  His only worry should be maintaining the machinery that comprises his new environment and keeping up to technological changes.

And OMG, the astrophysics that gets booted around this novel!  I never minded it from Arthur Clarke, who made it a part of the story without long info-dump interludes, but Pohl gives Albert way too much screen time.  Although he keeps telling Rob that he’s “making it as simple as he can,” I get the sense that Pohl was enjoying giving little lectures and I really wish that his editor had been more brutal.

What I did enjoy was getting a better sense of the Heechee, although I have still never figured out where that name came from.  Pohl introduces other life forms as well, the Sluggards and the Voodoo Pigs among them.  I think he could have used some help with better names for his aliens and with making them more interesting and relevant to the story.  Having said that, when we do finally discover life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder how much of it will be bacteria, algae, or coral-like?  Not really something that we can interact with in a meaningful way.  But this is fiction, and I persist in wanting interesting aliens (like in Brin’s Uplift universe).

What a contrast to the work of Arthur Clarke!  Pohl’s work is sticky with emotion, while Clarke’s is cooly intellectual.  Both Pohl and Clarke have humans dealing with vastly superior alien civilizations, but Pohl’s seems menacing while Clarke’s seem to be mildly interested (<i>2001, Childhood’s End</i>) to indifferent (<i>Rendezvous with Rama</i>).  Clarke’s work left me longing to know more about these aliens, while Pohl’s left me dissatisfied that they had been so involved, and yet I knew next to nothing about them.

Book number 226 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Missing, Presumed / Susie Steiner

4.5 stars out of 5
At thirty-nine, Manon Bradshaw is a devoted and respected member of the Cambridgeshire police force, and though she loves her job, what she longs for is a personal life. Single and distant from her family, she wants a husband and children of her own. One night, after yet another disastrous Internet date, she turns on her police radio to help herself fall asleep—and receives an alert that sends her to a puzzling crime scene.

Edith Hind—a beautiful graduate student at Cambridge University and daughter of the surgeon to the Royal Family—has been reported missing for nearly twenty-four hours. Her home offers few clues: a smattering of blood in the kitchen, her keys and phone left behind, the front door ajar but showing no signs of forced entry. Manon instantly knows this case will be big—and that every second is crucial to finding Edith alive.

The investigation starts with Edith’s loved ones: her attentive boyfriend, her reserved best friend, and her patrician parents. As the search widens and press coverage reaches a frenzied pitch, secrets begin to emerge about Edith’s tangled love life and her erratic behavior leading up to her disappearance. With no clear leads, Manon summons every last bit of her skill and intuition to close the case, and what she discovers will have shocking consequences not just for Edith’s family, but for Manon herself.

This is an excellent novel and although I have learned to distrust book blurbs, I would have to say that Susie Steiner’s writing does remind me in some ways of Tana French.  I am glad to see on Steiner’s author page that there appears to be a second DS Manon book in the works, and I will definitely read it.

The book mostly (but not completely) alternates between the POV of the missing young woman’s mother and that of DS Manon Bradshaw, one of the investigating officers.  If you pay attention to the chapter headings, you know exactly who is narrating and it is not at all confusing.

Steiner is an excellent wordsmith, although she may not yet have the mastery that French displays in her writing, but I think she will get there, quickly.  Just as important to me, the solution to the case was not obvious from the beginning and she managed to surprise me on several fronts.  Steiner is willing to give us flawed and realistic characters, people that we maybe don’t like much, but whose circumstances compel the reader to keep going.

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Ninja Librarians : The Accidental Keyhand / Jen Swann Downey

4 out of 5 stars
Just a little story about your average sword-swinging, karate-chopping, crime-fighting ninja librarians

Dorrie Barnes had no idea an overdue library book would change her life. When Dorrie and her brother Marcus chase her pet mongoose into the janitor's closet of their local library, they accidentally fall through a passage into Petrarch's Library -the headquarters of a secret society of ninja librarians who have an important mission: protect those whose words have gotten them into trouble. Anywhere in the world and at any time in history.

Dorrie would love nothing more than to join the society. But when a traitor surfaces, she and her friends are the prime suspects. Can they clear their names before the only passage back to the twenty-first century closes forever?

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

Dorrie is not your typical little girl—she lives to re-enact swordplay and loves her acting coach. So imagine her excitement when she and her brother Marcus fall through a hole in a closet in their public library and discover the mysterious world of Petrach’s Library.  Training for ‘lybrarians’ here is somewhat different from our world, including cataloguing, deception and impersonation, publishing law, stealth and illicit entry, library organization, unarmed combat, research skills, armed combat, book repair, fire and explosives, patron relations, horsemanship, water training, espionage, escape and concealment, meteorology, geography and field survival, amongst other skills.

I never went to library school, but this one sounds a bit more intriguing!

Dorrie and Marcus have lots of obstacles to overcome and it is a grand adventure. Very entertaining even for adult readers (at least those who love libraries).

Friday, 26 August 2016

I Hunt Killers / Barry Lyga

4 out of 5 stars
What if the world's worst serial killer...was your dad?  Jasper "Jazz" Dent is a likable teenager. A charmer, one might say.  But he's also the son of the world's most infamous serial killer, and for Dear Old Dad, Take Your Son to Work Day was year-round. Jazz has witnessed crime scenes the way cops wish they could—from the criminal's point of view.

And now bodies are piling up in Lobo's Nod.  In an effort to clear his name, Jazz joins the police in a hunt for a new serial killer. But Jazz has a secret—could he be more like his father than anyone knows?

After a summer of reading and enjoying children’s literature, I suddenly find that I am being pulled towards the dark side. My library holds are coming in and there is a definite theme developing! First it was In Cold Blood, now there’s this young adult novel I Hunt Killers.

Teenager Jasper Dent (known to his friends as Jazz) was raised by notorious serial killer Billy Dent, who did his best to make his son into Satan’s little helper. Billy is in jail at this point and Jazz is living with his bat-shit-crazy grandmother, trying to keep Social Services at bay, and trying to figure out how much of his father’s criminality he is responsible for. When a corpse appears in Jazz’s small town, he is convinced that there is another serial killer on the loose, but the cops aren’t willing to listen to a teenager, even if he is a serial killer’s son.

Although there is a reasonably good little mystery written into this work, the main thrust of it is a matter of responsibility. How much are parents responsible for how their children turn out? Are children responsible for their parents’ actions? Nature vs. nurture. How do you know what your true nature is when you’ve been trained in a certain way?

I was reminded of Dan Wells’ John Cleaver series (which begins with I Am Not a Serial Killer), but I prefer Lyga’s version because it doesn’t go paranormal on me. I truly believe that the whole serial killer idea is scary enough with adding supernatural elements to the story. I think that fans of the Dexter and Criminal Minds tv shows would also appreciate this book.

Quantum Night / Robert J. Sawyer

3 stars out of 5
Experimental psychologist Jim Marchuk has developed a flawless technique for identifying the previously undetected psychopaths lurking everywhere in society. But while being cross-examined about his breakthrough in court, Jim is shocked to discover that he has lost his memories of six months of his life from twenty years previously—a dark time during which he himself committed heinous acts.

Jim is reunited with Kayla Huron, his forgotten girlfriend from his lost period and now a quantum physicist who has made a stunning discovery about the nature of human consciousness. As a rising tide of violence and hate sweeps across the globe, the psychologist and the physicist combine forces in a race against time to see if they can do the impossible—change human nature—before the entire world descends into darkness. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, there is a good, tense plot. On the other hand, there is an awful lot of philosophizing. Now, I’m the girl who sat through two lectures in a university philosophy class and then dropped that thing like a hot potato. It seemed to me like a bunch of pointless wrangling over things that a person should be sensible enough to know to do or not do without some complex philosophical position. I’ve since learned that not everyone is that sensible and that some people really do require being told to do the right thing.

So if you are interested Utilitarian philosophy and in exploring questions about how many people have a conscience & how many psychopaths wander through our world, and you also have an abiding love of quantum physics, this will be a 5 star novel for you.

Me, I appreciated some of the details outside the main plot points. I live in Calgary and we currently have the first Muslim mayor in Canada, Naheed Nenshi. He’s a pretty popular mayor (and his religion was never an issue during elections). Sawyer is writing about the near future (2020) and has Nenshi becoming Prime Minister of Canada, something that I could truly see coming true. Heck, I’d vote for him. And Nenshi is an avowed nerd, so I would imagine that he has read this book.

The political background to the action was fun—how many books do you read where the United States invades Canada? And then Russia’s Putin and the American president (tactfully not named after any current figures) get into a power struggle, with Putin being willing to “liberate” Canada? Pretty ironic, after Crimea, yeah?

I often feel like I’m being held at emotional arms-length by Sawyer’s writing. Rob Sawyer is an intellectual guy and I completely appreciate the amount of research he did (how many novels have a bibliography at the end?) and the complex issues being dealt with, but I never really found myself caring a great deal. Finishing the book was driven by the mechanics of the story, not by an emotional need to see how things ended.

Fair Game / Patricia Briggs

4 out of 5 stars
They say opposites attract. And in the case of werewolves Anna Latham and Charles Cornick, they mate. The son-and enforcer-of the leader of the North American werewolves, Charles is a dominant alpha. While Anna, an omega, has the rare ability to calm others of her kind.

Now that the werewolves have revealed themselves to humans, they can't afford any bad publicity. Infractions that could have been overlooked in the past must now be punished, and the strain of doing his father's dirty work is taking a toll on Charles.

Nevertheless, Charles and Anna are sent to Boston, when the FBI requests the pack's help on a local serial killer case. They quickly realize that not only the last two victims were werewolves-all of them were. Someone is targeting their kind. And now Anna and Charles have put themselves right in the killer's sights...

I’ve finally put my finger on why I love urban fantasy so much—there’s a reasonable plot, but the true focus of the book is the relationships, be they political, spiritual, friendship or romance. And of course, a good plot is necessary to reveal those relationships in all their complexity.

Now, I’m also a fan of the mystery genre and Briggs gives us a good dose of that in this installment, as Anna and Charles are sent by Bran to help the FBI with a serial killer investigation. Long ago, when I had a TV, I was a devoted fan of Criminal Minds and this installment reminded me a bit of that show.

And that ending! Wow! I’ve been trying to pace myself through a bunch of different UF series, trying to drag out the enjoyment like a kid waiting for Christmas, enjoying the anticipation. But that fabulous ending has me champing at the bit to get on to the next book!

Well done Patricia Briggs!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

In Cold Blood / Truman Capote

4 out of 5 stars
On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

A hypnotizing look at a real crime. I’m giving this 4 stars for the reading experience, which usually means “I enjoyed it a lot.” But I can’t actually say that I enjoyed this book, more like I couldn’t look away.

It’s obvious from the book that Capote had sharp observational skills and a good ear for dialog. Taking an actual news story and making it fit a dramatic arc is a distinct skill, something uncommon in the “true crime” genre, where stating the facts sometimes takes precedence over telling a good story. Capote never lost sight of the shape of the narrative, while weaving the facts into a riveting book. The most amazing thing that he accomplished with this work, in my opinion, is humanizing everyone, even the killers.

It is “creative nonfiction” which probably means that Capote created some conversations and situations which make the story work better. At the time of writing, he was certainly accused of these inventions. Despite that, I thought that he treated all involved fairly. The Clutter family are presented as successful, community-minded, and unlikely victims of crime. The reader cannot help but feel for their remaining family members and their community. Neither, however, can you ignore the families of the killers, who also suffer in a different way, nor the law enforcement officers who were traumatized by the murder scene and exhausted during the long investigation.

Although we learn the facts of the murder, the gory details are not lingered on and the two murderers are not glorified in any way. Indeed by book’s end it is difficult to have any sympathy for them at all, as it is obvious that they care for no one but themselves. Rather ironically, Hickock was not nearly the tough guy that he liked to pretend he was and Smith was certainly not the sensitive soul that he portrayed himself to be. They cruise through the story like sharks, striking at others whenever they are given a chance. And yet, both of them are lonely and seem to desperately want real friends. Instead, they only get each other and notoriety for a crime which neither one would have committed without the other.

Not a book for sensitive souls, In Cold Blood looks evil in the face without flinching.

From Dead to Worse / Charlaine Harris

4 out of 5 stars
After the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the manmade explosion at the vampire summit, everyone human and otherwise is stressed, including Louisiana cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse, who is trying to cope with the fact that her boyfriend Quinn has gone missing.

It's clear that things are changing whether the weres and vamps of her corner of Louisiana like it or not. And Sookie, Friend to the Pack and blood-bonded to Eric Northman, leader of the local vampire community is caught up in the changes.

In the ensuing battles, Sookie faces danger, death, and once more, betrayal by someone she loves. And when the fur has finished flying and the cold blood finished flowing, her world will be forever altered.

Flufftastic. The Sookie soap opera rolls along in yet another installment. Life in Bon Temps, Louisiana, is never dull. This series is showing its longevity at this point, with an awful lot of threads to keep weaving, making this book very much a busy pattern.

Relationships are always the main focus of these novels, and lots of things shake out in this installment. Quinn gets kicked to the curb for being a mama’s boy, Alcide becomes an also-ran but gains in werewolf pack status, Bill attempts to re-enter the running for Sookie’s affections, Eric regains his memory of his time as Sookie’s favourite, Calvin has successfully moved on, and it seems to me that Sam is still quietly in the running. On the friend front, Sookie gains another female roommate who has potential to be a friend as well as a witchy helper. Yay for women friends!

There’s a lot of conflict in the book, as there are upsets in both the Were and Vampire worlds that Sookie must adjust to. She, of course, ends up in the middle of both of them, but at least not grieviously injured in either. In fact, she proves once again to be more street-smart than her vampire friends on at least one occasion. We also learn more about Sookie’s genealogy and about fairly lore in the Sookie universe (which I am glad to report is not all flowers and unicorns). When questioned by Sam about whether she would like her quiet “before” existence back, Sookie declares that all the trouble that she has been through has been worth it for the shake-up of her previous boring existence.

The writing is still not the best quality, but the story line is fun and pulled me along in the best serial-adventure style. The series is getting a bit convoluted and somewhat tired, but I’m still enjoying them.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Romeo and Juliet

3.5 out of 5 stars
The Stratford Zoo looks like a normal zoo . . . until the gates shut at night. That's when the animals come out of their cages to stage elaborate performances of Shakespeare's greatest works. They might not be the most accomplished thespians, but they've got what counts: heart. Also fangs, feathers, scales, and tails.

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

The second installment of this graphic novel series and it is every bit as cute and smart as the first one. More lessons on what theatre is all about. The lion, who played Macbeth in the first book, now plays Juliet’s parent-approved love interest, Parry. When a young monkey in the audiences says, “Look, there’s Macbeth,” his mother explains to him about actors and that in this play the lion is Parry.

The two old vultures in the upper balcony reminded me strongly of the two hecklers in the Muppet Show, although they merely comment on various topics rather than heckling the actors.
Romeo is a rooster from a petting zoo and Juliet is a bear, living in “the wild” (say that like the penguins in Madagascar for an authentic feeling, I think). Romeo longs to walk on the wild side, while Juliet spends some time contemplating what it would feel like to be petted. They both just want to be best friends and have regular play dates. The whole petted vs. wilder dichotomy is reflected in the audience too, as a young monkey and a lamb begin as kids who don’t like each other and progress to build a friendship.

There are running gags, like bears always wanting to pee on woodchucks and the roosters putting on Lone Ranger type masks and being perfectly disguised. Once again, the elephant arrives late (this time with a date) and blocks the rest of the audience during a crucial scene.

Very cute. If you enjoyed the Macbeth version, you will also enjoy Romeo & Juliet.

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth

3.5 stars out of 5
The Stratford Zoo looks like a normal zoo... until the gates shut at night. That's when the animals come out of their cages to stage elaborate performances of Shakespeare's greatest works. They might not be the most accomplished thespians, but they've got what counts: heart. Also fangs, feathers, scales, and tails, in The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth.

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

This is a very cute introduction to both the play Macbeth and to the theatre experience. Don’t go into it thinking that you’re going to get the dark, intellectual version of Macbeth—this is very much a kids’ version, but like any really good children’s book, there is an adult level in it too.
The pictures are every bit as much about the audience as about the play. The introductory plate has a fox who doesn’t want to sit beside a skunk and two rabbits who are disgruntled about sitting behind a giraffe. Adult theatre goers will recognize the problems of sitting behind tall people and sitting close to anyone drenched in aftershave/perfume. The artwork is wonderful—how do you make an elephant look sheepish and regretful, coming in at a crucial point in the play, trying to find his seat? (He interrupts the “brief candle” speech, which needed to be mentioned, but may not be to the taste of juvenile readers). Also brilliant is Macbeth’s companion, Banksy, depicted as a hyena in tartan, which must have been a blast to draw.

Two little monkeys in the audience debate issues like whether Macbeth is a good guy or a bad guy, how to understand poetry, and other theatre skills that kids may need someday (likely if their parents are buying them these graphic novels).

So, Macbeth is acted by the zoo’s lion—bored with all the food rewards for winning battles, he follows an intriguing new scent and is led to the weird sisters. There, he is tempted to eat the king in order to gain power. Eventually, his leopard wife nags him into action, and on the way down the hallway to consume the king, he has a vision—“Is this silverware I see before me?” He soon realizes that in order to avoid detection, he must eat Banksy as well. He receives the traditional assurances from the witches, no one with a mother will be able to depose you, the woods will have to move before you lose power. The zoo twists on these two stories are cute & understandable for children.

Zookeepers, like adults in most children’s literature, are clueless about what the animals are doing. All in all, if you have children who are able to read, I would recommend this graphic novel. If you are an adult, perhaps give it a pass unless you have children in your life—it is very much juvenile fiction.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Nice Girls Don't Date Dead Men / Molly Harper

3.5 out of 5 stars
With her best friend Zeb’s Titanic-themed wedding looming ahead, new vampire Jane Jameson struggles to develop her budding relationship with her enigmatic sire, Gabriel. It seems unfair that she’s expected to master undead dating while dealing with a groom heading for a nuptial nervous breakdown, his hostile werewolf in-laws, and the ugliest bridesmaid dress in the history of marriage.

Meanwhile, the passing of Jane’s future step-grandpa puts Grandma Ruthie back on the market. Her new fiancé, Wilbur, has his own history of suspiciously dead spouses, and he may or may not have died ten years ago. Half-Moon Hollow’s own Black Widow has finally met her match.

Should Jane warn her grandmother of Wilbur’s marital habits or let things run their course? Will Jane always be an undead bridesmaid, never the undead bride?

I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as book 1. Still a very enjoyable read and came very close to being as much fun as the first book.

I have to laugh at Jane’s mother and grandmother who both seem to believe that marriage and children are the only worthwhile things in a woman’s life. I’ve had to put up with a fair bit of that attitude myself and I love that Jane’s not taking it sitting down. On this note, I loved the Titanic themed wedding planned by Jolene, Zeb’s fiancée. I only hope that the marriage doesn’t suffer the same fate as the ship.

I also appreciate the circle of friends that Jane is building
although I wish that her new bookstore boss hadn't died so soon.
  I get a kick of out of her vampire buddy Dick Cheney (much less scary that the politician) and I have a hunch that there are more werewolves in Jane’s future. Looking forward to some more information on Gabriel, who is acting entirely too much like human males do with his disappearing and refusal to talk about certain subjects, like where he’s been. Frankly, Dick may be the one on the sketchy side of the law, but he is seeming like the more honest guy.

Unfortunately, the “mystery” of what is wrong with her BFF Zeb is overly transparent and Jane’s brainy-girl status is threatened by not putting the pieces together quicker. I’m still enjoying the snarky dialog, but it will get tiring in the third book if the plot doesn’t move along a little quicker.

Still, a very cute series. My problem may be that I’ve read books 1 & 2 too close together. I’ve got a little late summer urban fantasy extravaganza planned, but I’ll leave Harper’s books out of that mix for the time being. I really want to keep on enjoying them.

Friday, 19 August 2016

A Pitying of Doves / Steve Burrows

4 out of 5 stars
With murder, everyone pays a price ... Why would a killer ignore expensive jewellery and take a pair of turtledoves as the only bounty? This is only one of the questions that piques Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune s interest after a senior attache with the Mexican Consulate is found murdered alongside the director of a local bird sanctuary. The fact that the director s death has opened up a full-time research position studying birds hasn t eluded Jejeune either. Could this be the escape from policing that the celebrated detective has been seeking? Even if it is, Jejeune knows he owes it to the victims to solve the case first. But a trail that weaves from embittered aviary owners to suspicious bird sculptors only seems to be leading him farther from the truth. Meanwhile, Jejeune is discovering that diplomatic co-operation and diplomatic pressure go hand in hand. With two careers hanging in the balance, the stakes have never been higher for Inspector Jejeune. And this time, even bringing a killer to justice may not provide the closure he s looking for.

Second book in the birder murder mystery series and I have enjoyed both of them a great deal.  This second installment feels more solid, now that the stage is set and the main characters have been introduced.  I like the main character, Domenic Jejeune, despite the fact that he is difficult to get to know, maybe even because he is elusive.

This is another muddy mystery, quite literally as a van has to be hauled out of a marsh.  The landscape of Norfolk is very much a character in these books and I’m glad that I have visited there and can picture some of the locations quite clearly.  (This could also be an excuse to go back, of course, and reacquaint myself with this lovely birdy part of the world, for as Jejeune notes, birders do like to retrace their steps).  Of course the case hinges on the doves of the title—but in an intelligent way, not just a kitschy way.  Burrows delves into real conservation issues to provide the clues for his detective.  I was fooled for a little while, thinking thoughts about Passenger Pigeons and cloning, a red
herring which I am pretty sure Burrows intended.  If he didn’t, it worked anyway!

I don’t think there’s a birder out there who hasn’t wondered at some point whether s/he could turn the hobby into a source of income.  We all flirt with the idea of how wonderful it would be to escape our current employment treadmill to spend every day in the field.  Jejeune may be a fabulous detective who can’t shut his mind off just because his superior asks him to, but he longs for a change in vocation.  Obviously, since there is a third book, he hasn’t found an escape just yet!  That is also typical—field work doesn’t pay very well and being a tour leader has its own kind of drudgery.

Secondary characters are asserting themselves a bit more this time around, and Jejeune’s relationship with Lindy assumes greater importance.  Is she going to be able to stick with this quiet, obsessed man for the long haul?  (Any of us who have dated birder men frequently ask ourselves the same question).

A solid second book, recommended for those who enjoy both mysteries and birding.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Adventures of Tintin / Hergé

3 out of 5 stars
Features: 'Red Rackham's Treasure'; 'The Seven Crystal Balls'; and 'Prisoners of the Sun'.

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

This volume of Tintin is a 3-fer, containing 3 stories. I was unfamiliar with Red Rackham’s Treasure, a lovely escapist little adventure, but it does introduce the reader to Professor Cuthbert Calculus, a rather deaf and very absent-minded academic. Like Tintin, who is a reporter who never seems to report to any news franchise, Prof. Calculus doesn’t seem to have a university to answer to and can spend his time dowsing with a pendulum, in pursuit of whatever the Tintin bunch have on the go.

Where my nostalgia was engaged was the two remaining stories, The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun. These two stories were serialized in a children’s magazine that I read in the 1970s and I remember being rather creeped out by some of the details (for example, a seemingly animated Peruvian mummy). I also seem to recall that each month’s offering would end on rather a cliffhanger, too, leaving the young readers to agonize until the next installment.

Reading it now, as an adult who has been to Peru, I can appreciate a lot of the artwork and the detail that I didn’t properly notice as a youngster. It’s obvious that Hergé had familiarity with and love for Peruvian culture. As a child, I loved the spitting llamas, poor old Captain Haddock being their chief target.

Another trip down memory lane.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

River Marked / Patricia Briggs

3 out of 5 stars
Mercy Thompson is a shapeshifter, a talent she inherited from her long-gone father. And she's never known any others of her kind. Until now. As Mercy comes to terms with this new information, an evil is stirring in the depths of the Columbia River. Something deadly is coming, facts are thin on the ground and Mercy feels ill at ease.

For me, this was a lull in the Mercy Thompson series. Too much lovey-dovey stuff for someone as completely unromantic as I am. There’s Mercy & Adam’s wedding (planned by other people, no less, and seeming to include much more fluff than someone of Mercy’s tastes would generally choose) and the resulting honeymoon. Of course, their honeymoon has been carefully choreographed by Uncle Mike and the Fae, steering them towards a potential trouble spot.

Trouble, however, is good in my books, because it gets us away from all of the “OMG, how much we love each other” and the “look how much sex we are having” stuff that seems to be necessary to engage the paranormal romance crowd. And make no mistake, I read some PNR, but I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as urban fantasy without all the PNR tropes. However, for a good story I will put up with it.

I did enjoy Mercy’s exploration of her own heritage and Native American mythology. I felt that Briggs was really happy and engaged while describing the landscape, the pictographs, and the history. I suspect, but don’t know, that the villain was something that Briggs made up, rather than a real creature from Native American tradition. I maybe wasn’t comfortable with the whole set up, but I could definitely see where it fulfilled its purpose in the series story arc.

I was also glad to see that our friendly neighbourhood vampire, Stefan, is back is a substantive way. I’ve missed Mr. Tall, Dark & Dangerous. Plus I’m much more comfortable with writers using the good old European folklore tropes—it feels so much less like cultural appropriation.

I am getting repetitive, but Mercy needs some women friends in the worst way possible. All the dudes are fine and dandy, but she needs a soul sister and a confidant who will have her back. I would have been so happy to have one of the Native characters introduced in the novel be a medicine woman. Entirely plausible, and highly desirable—someone who lives in the nearish area and could become that go-to female friend. But, we have to make do with a medicine man and his male apprentice instead, an opportunity bypassed.

Basically, I think this is book 6 and there was bound to be a “pause and regroup” book. Briggs has filled in some of the holes in Mercy’s past, accustomed the reader to Mercy & Adam’s new status as a married couple, and is in the process of pivoting to pursue a new book that is refocused on the familiar secondary characters again (at least I hope so).

A very pleasant evening’s reading.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Cold Hillside / Nancy Baker

5 out of 5 stars
Generations ago, the last remnants of a dying empire bargained with the Faerie Queen for a place of safety in the mountains and each year the ruler of Lushan must travel to the high plateau to pay the city’s tribute. When an unexpected misfortune means that the price is not met, the Queen demands the services of Teresine, a refugee.

Cold Hillside could have been written especially for me. It has so many things that just make me happy. There’s a dark, somewhat threatening atmosphere. The chapters alternate between two related women, telling their tales, and the reader gets to fit the pieces together. In the background are the Fay—and they’re not the cute, perky fairies of Disney. No, Baker goes back to European fairy tales and produces a Fairy Queen who is powerful, unpredictable, threatening, and unknowable. Most in the fairy realm don’t understand why she does things and we mere mortals must acknowledge that we are only guessing about her motivations. There is a definite hostility towards humanity.

I must confess that I had guessed one of the plot secrets quite early on, but that did not detract in any way from my enjoyment of the process of the reveal. It may actually have enhanced it, as Baker played with the characters, eventually letting them know all the details too. I think the reader is expected to see it and enjoy watching Lilit struggle to find the knowledge that she needs. And Teresine is a much stronger woman than I am—I would have knuckled under much quicker than she, both at the Fairy Court and on return to Lushan.

Baker’s writing was beautiful and skillful. The story was dark and melancholic. The ending left me with questions. I adore all of those things. I will definitely be seeking out more of Baker’s fiction.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Invisible Library / Genevieve Cogman

4 out of 5 stars
One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction...

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen.

London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.

Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself...

While not perfect, this book was certainly enjoyable for me. It had many of the things that appeal to my reading sensibilities—libraries, book collecting, an urban fantasy vibe, espionage, detectives, and it was not overloaded with romance. It reminded rather strongly of Lisa Shearin’s SPI Files, which in my books is a good thing.

It was kind of overloaded with concepts, however, which prevents it from reaching the pinnacle of 5 stardom, in my opinion. So many different kinds of creatures/people just got thrown in, it was almost overwhelming. Vampires, Fae, werewolves, black magicians, dragons (who can appear human), not to mention the somewhat shady librarians. The one vampire, for example, just seems to get tossed in—he only makes an appearance as a body, truly dead this time. Add to that the use of the expert detective, à la Sherlock Holmes, plus alternate realities, and there was an awful lot going on. In fabric, I’d say that the pattern is “busy.”

Still, I enjoyed every page of this adventure. It is a first book of a series and I hope that the clotting of too many ideas will even out a little in the second book. And that second book is still “on order” at my public library—this will force me to pace myself while reading this series.

Highly recommended to others who toil in libraries and sometimes feel unappreciated!

Friday, 12 August 2016

The Secret Place / Tana French

5 out of 5 stars
The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

So I am all caught up-to-date now and I’m ready for the new Tana French novel which comes out this summer (The Trespasser). As I have now come to expect from French, I was drawn into The Secret Place immediately.

I loved the alternating chapters (present, past), like waves driving the story along. French writes young people masterfully. Their voices seemed pitch-perfect to me, although I am far removed from the world of high-school, so I am willing to be wrong on that. I thought her phrasing of their statements, with a question mark at the end, really made me hear the up-talk that has become so common now.

It was a treat to see Frank Mackey again and to see the world through his daughter’s eyes. I appreciate how French centres each book around a different member of the Murder Squad—it keeps things fresh, unlike some series where it gets boring to be constantly accompanying the same people (Patricia Cornwell, I am looking at you!) Still, it was pleasant to have this book circle around to visit with Frank again.

Also liked that French pulled such a peripheral character, Stephen Moran, from Faithful Place to be the lead in this one. A wanna-be Murder Squad member, grabbing his chance. He and Holly Mackie have both matured considerably since that time.

I wonder if Ms. French will ever return to any of her previous narrators? I’d love to see how some of them are getting along now and what murder cases they are solving. But as long as she keeps writing, I’ll keep reading.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Peter Pan / J.M. Barrie

3.5 out of 5 stars
Welcome to Neverland!  For three lucky children living in London, nothing could seem better than a faraway world where you were free to play all day. In this magical world, there would be no school. And no parents to tell you to brush your teeth. Or to sit up straight, or to eat your vegetables. Best of all, in this make-believe world no one would ever grow up..

Children would remain children forever.  As Wendy, John, and Michael and are about to discover, this far away land is not so very faraway after all. In fact, it is but a short dream away. On a world within a cloud called Neverland. It truly is a dream come true!

But no dream lasts forever.

Every child has to grow up eventually. Unless, of course, that child is named Peter Pan.

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

I remember my mother reading this aloud to my two younger sisters. I was fancying myself to be “too old” for such tales, but found myself doing something or other, close enough that I could listen in. I think it must have been a Disney-fied version of the tale, because there were several aspects to the story which startled me this time around.

I was surprised at how shark-like Peter actually was, both in his toothiness and his lurking, waiting for an advantage over the adults in the book. Also surprising was the level of violence when dealing with the pirates. I can’t remember if the Redskins featured in my childhood version (I don’t think so), so I found that whole aspect to be unexpected.

Tinker Bell isn’t quite such a sweet little Disney character in the original, is she? Rather more vindictive and jealous than I would have previously thought. And apparently she lounges in a negligée in her cubby hole, as Peter threatens at one point to open the curtain and display her to all the boys that way.

The female characters (Tinker Bell, Wendy, and Tiger Lily) are all set up to be rivals for Peter’s attention. Wendy sort of wins the competition by being willing to play mother, although it’s pretty obvious that none of them are completely sold on that particular role. But if it’s the only gig going, what choice is there? I was surprised at all the sexual undercurrents that seemed to swirl under the surface of the story, although I think I caught a whiff of that during my mother’s reading.

I wonder if Peter Pan is what got William Golding’s mind working towards Lord of the Flies? It’s got me thinking that I want to finally read that classic as well.

The Stars My Destination / Alfred Bester

4 out of 5 stars
n this pulse-quickening novel, Alfred Bester imagines a future in which people "jaunte" a thousand miles with a single thought, where the rich barricade themselves in labyrinths and protect themselves with radioactive hit men - and where an inarticulate outcast is the most valuable and dangerous man alive. The Stars My Destination is a classic of technological prophecy and timeless narrative enchantment by an acknowledged master of science fiction.

You pigs, you. You rut like pigs, is all. You got the most in you, and you use the least. You hear me, you? Got a million in you and spend pennies. Got a genius in you and think crazies. Got a heart in you and feel empties. All a you. Every you...

You’d think that something written in the 1950s wouldn’t have too much resonance now, in 2016, wouldn’t you? And yet, The Stars My Destination still speaks to me. Now we have so many advantages. Things like the internet, for example, which is so useful and fun. And yet so many people seem to use it only to be nasty and unkind. Got a million in us and spend pennies.

I can’t say that I liked the main character, Gully Foyle, but I couldn’t ignore him either. I wanted to know what happened to him. I was pleasantly surprised to realize how many female characters Bester employed, all with substantive roles. I also enjoyed Gully’s vernacular speech, a foreshadowing of novels like A Clockwork Orange or Riddley Walker.

Plus, Jaunting (teleportation) seemed to be a great way to completely change society. And yet it changes in completely predictable ways. The wealthy create labyrinths to protect their wealth and their women (for you have to know the co-ordinates of a location to jaunte there). Back to the future, women stuck in the home once more. And still, men with dollar signs in their eyes seem to be in control of things.

Who would think that gutter-talking, face-tattooed, criminal Gully would end up being the key to change? Got a genius in him and thinks crazies. Challenging the status quo of money and big corporations running everything.

I’ve heard from several people that this novel is like The Count of Monte Cristo in space. That’s inspired me to finally read that famous work in the near future.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians / Brandon Sanderson

5 out of 5 stars
A hero with an incredible talent...for breaking things. A life-or-death rescue a bag of sand. A fearsome threat from a powerful secret network...the evil Librarians.

Alcatraz Smedry doesn't seem destined for anything but disaster. On his 13th birthday he receives a bag of sand, which is quickly stolen by the cult of evil Librarians plotting to take over the world. The sand will give the Librarians the edge they need to achieve world domination. Alcatraz must stop them! infiltrating the local library, armed with nothing but eyeglasses and a talent for klutzines

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

Cute, funny, and smart. Add in a coterie of Evil Librarians, plus magical skills acquired through the wearing of lenses (i.e. glasses). Also very meta, in that the author talks directly to the reader. A lot.

Of course, working in libraries, I was predisposed to love this. (Although I shouldn’t—I should be suppressing this work, like a good Evil Librarian).

I would recommend it for children who are dismayed about needing glasses. I think it would be an encouraging book for them and make their glasses seem more like the useful tools that they actually are.

Tintin in Tibet / Hergé

3 out of 5 stars
“NEPAL AIR DISASTER — NO SURVIVORS.” This newspaper headline transforms Tintin’s holiday into an extraordinary adventure. The little reporter learns that his friend, Chang, was in the aircraft that crashed, and that there were no survivors. Nevertheless, the strength of their friendship and some powerful and vivid dreams convince Tintin to set off to rescue Chang, whom he believes is still alive. Accompanied by his faithful companion, Captain Haddock, Tintin sets out for the site of the crash.

The trek through the Himalayas is merciless. Despite several major setbacks and the fact that his companions seem to give up hope, Tintin’s faith is unshakable. Unfortunately, finding Chang is made even more difficult by the presence of the “Abominable Snowman” (the Yeti) — a mysterious, wild beast.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***
Would you believe that this particular adventure story was the cause of my very first financial crisis? I was a devoted reader of Children’s Digest, which brought all kinds of interesting topics to me out on our small Canadian farm and serialized in the centre of each issue was The Adventures of Tintin. I don’t even know who started my subscription, but I know that I had to save my money to keep it renewed. I gladly did so because I so enjoyed the eclectic variety of information that I received each month.

I remember my excitement when I saw the advertisement for Tintin in Tibet and I learned a bit about the yeti. I absolutely knew that I needed to read this adventure! But I had also received a renewal form, warning that my subscription was going to lapse before this new adventure got underway. I can’t remember what other demands on my limited childhood budget were facing me at that point—I just recall the complete meltdown that I had while trying to decide which of those things I could afford to do, and which ones I would have to give up.

Reluctantly, I decided to let go of Children’s Digest. I was getting a little bit old for it anyway, but I did bitterly regret that I wouldn’t be able to read about Tintin and the yeti. Tears were cried. Temper was displayed. Blue blistering barnacles! But I put my money elsewhere.

Lucky for me, the magazine continued to come—I’m still not sure if some sympathetic adult renewed it for me or if the publisher just lost track and kept sending it. I was able to enjoy years more entertainment without straining my budget, a bonus.

Looking back at Tintin now, I can see where it stoked my desire to travel. I have to admire how well illustrated the Buddhist dzongs in Tibet are portrayed (I’ve visited dzongs in Bhutan now, fulfilling that childhood desire). I do remember, even as a child, noticing how Euro-centric the cartoons were (although I didn’t have those words to use). I have to wonder now that the alcoholic, profane Captain Haddock was considered appropriate for children, although I think he was an excellent negative example! I found him amusing back then (and still do, truth be told). I love his oaths, his loyalty to Tintin, and his weakness for liquor.

Professor Calculus, Thomson and Thompson, Captain Haddock, and Tintin—old friends rediscovered this summer.

Anne of Green Gables / Lucy Maude Montgomery

4 out of 5 stars
Everyone's favorite redhead, the spunky Anne Shirley, begins her adventures at Green Gables, a farm outside Avonlea, Prince Edward Island. When the freckled girl realizes that the elderly Cuthberts wanted to adopt a boy instead, she begins to try to win them and, consequently, the reader, over.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***
Finally, I met Anne of Green Gables. Honestly, it’s taken me so long that I’m surprised my Canadian citizenship hasn’t been revoked. (I never watched the TV show, either). I don’t know the source of my prejudice against the tale, but it was unwarranted. I quite enjoyed Anne with an E. It is definitely a tale of an earlier time in Canadian history.

Actually, in many ways it reminded me of stories that my parents told of the one-room school houses that they attended here in Alberta. The kids they got along with and the kids that were difficult. Knowing everybody else’s business in small communities. The teachers they liked and the teachers that they merely endured.

In that time period, people really did “acquire” orphans in this way. Lucky children were actually part of the family, as Anne was. Unlucky ones were more like indentured servants and worked half to death. Child welfare has changed considerably!

In a small community, you make the best friends that you are able to in the small pool of people that you have to choose from. If you are lucky, you find a few to be your secure circle as Anne does. I had my dependable 3-5 people in our small town school and I’m still in some form of communication with several of them. This book brought back many happy memories of good friends, good teachers, and the thrill and anxiety of leaving home for the big city.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Late Eclipses / Seanan McGuire

4 out of 5 stars
October "Toby" Daye, changeling knight in the service of Duke Sylvester Torquill, finds the delicate balance of her life shattered when she learns that an old friend is in dire trouble. Lily, Lady of the Tea Gardens, has been struck down by a mysterious, seemingly impossible illness, leaving her fiefdom undefended. Struggling to find a way to save Lily and her subjects, Toby must confront her own past as an enemy she thought was gone forever raises her head once more: Oleander de Merelands, one of the two people responsible for her fourteen-year exile.

Time is growing short and the stakes are getting higher, for the Queen of the Mists has her own agenda. With everything on the line, Toby will have to take the ultimate risk to save herself and the people she loves most—because if she can't find the missing pieces of the puzzle in time, Toby will be forced to make the one choice she never thought she'd have to face again...

Best book so far in the October Daye series. Toby doesn’t get so physically beat up in this go-round, plus she actually has a coterie of friends, including women friends, who have her back. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are headed into Bechdel test territory, with other significant female characters who talk to Toby about significant subjects. This makes my heart happy.

I also got my wish, namely to learn more about Toby’s mother Amandine. Not everything, mind you, McGuire is portioning it out slowly, but I can appreciate that. As long as I’m getting some new intel with each book.

Relationship-wise, Toby is being set up into a bit of a love triangle, not my most favourite thing. Tybalt is winning me over, but Toby is still ambivalent about him. Connor seems to be her front-runner, and McGuire has set him up to be more eligible in this installment. This trope from the paranormal romance genre is one that I could live without, but I seem to be in the minority on that.

Still loving this Fae world and all the beings that inhabit it. Can’t wait to have time to move on to the next book. I’d schedule myself an urban fantasy marathon if I wasn’t scared that it would get hum-drum that way. I suspect is better to save these fluffy books for filler between more serious stuff.

Year of Yes / Shonda Rhimes

3 out of 5 stars
The mega-talented creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and executive producer of How to Get Away With Murder chronicles how saying YES for one year changed her life―and how it can change yours, too.

With three hit shows on television and three children at home, the uber-talented Shonda Rhimes had lots of good reasons to say NO when an unexpected invitation arrived. Hollywood party? No. Speaking engagement? No. Media appearances? No.

And there was the side-benefit of saying No for an introvert like Shonda: nothing new to fear.

Then Shonda’s sister laid down a challenge: just for one year, try to say YES to the unexpected invitations that come your way. Shonda reluctantly agreed―and the result was nothing short of transformative. In Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes chronicles the powerful impact saying yes had on every aspect of her life―and how we can all change our lives with one little word. Yes.

A combination of memoir and self-help book, The Year of Yes was a quick and easy read.  It is written in a very conversational tone (unlike many books in the self-help genre) and that may put off some readers.  So help me, I had absolutely no idea who Shonda Rhimes was and I must confess that I have never seen any of her TV shows.  The writing in this book left me wondering about the writing for the shows—she must put on a different hat for writing those, for I can’t imagine this style producing award winning programming.

If you are looking for a little inspiration to get out of any ruts that you have become comfortable in, this book may be helpful.  I might warn you away from it if you are unemployed, as her obvious enjoyment of her high-powered job could be a bit hard to take.  But I do think she shines a much-needed spotlight on some particularly female career problems, namely being able to claim our success without embarrassment and not shying away from telling our workmates exactly what we want and need.  I’m sure that non-caucasian readers will benefit from reading about Rhimes’ experiences with being asked repeatedly about being a successful African-American woman.

One chapter which younger readers will potentially find useful was the one on sorting out real friends from hangers-on.  Not all of us are successful enough to have hangers-on, but I think we all at some point or another realize that not all the people we hang out with are really our friends.  They are there for what they can get and when you actually ask them to give in return, you will see their true faces.  To bravely purge these people from your life is a liberating experience and Rhimes describes it well.

I admired Rhimes’ honesty regarding her refusal to get married.  As she said, when she was engaged, she received more approval from friends and family than she did for all of her other achievements (not inconsiderable) combined.  Why does society still do this to women?  You may have a full, wonderful life, but if you aren’t married, you quickly get the message that nothing else matters.  As one of those rebels who refuses to marry, I very much appreciated her description of her decision to break off wedding plans, despite the disappointment of her family.  She has chosen to adopt children, which I find admirable.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet / Eleanor Cameron

3.5 stars out of 5
In print since the 1950's, the Mushroom Planet series is back with a new design by illustrator Kevin Hawkes. Don't miss the adventures of Chuck and David, two boys who travel to the alien planet Basidium in their homemade spaceship. This timeless series is a classic that is sure to be read over and over again.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***
I’m pretty sure that I was in Grade 6 when I first read this book. I was also busy reading Children’s Digest during those years and I’m pretty sure that’s where I had been reading about mushrooms & fungi before encountering this little adventure. I remember being completely enamoured of the Mushroom Planet and going on to make many spore prints from mushrooms found in a little grove of trees in my uncle’s pasture. (My mother was a very patient woman, now that I look back on it. She put up with so many of my little biological projects. Flowers being pressed in the encyclopedia, mushrooms releasing their spores under jars, snails doing their thing in goldfish bowls).

I actually had to request this book through interlibrary loan in order to revisit it. It was worth the effort. Probably not too exciting to today’s children (it was, after all, written before the moon landing, which I remember watching on TV during Grade 2) who are used to Mars rovers and space craft visiting Pluto and Jupiter. But it also had the magical elements of a gentle fantasy that endeared it to me yet again.

Good memories.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs / Molly Harper

4 out of 5 stars
Maybe it was the Shenanigans gift certificate that put her over the edge. When children's librarian and self-professed nice girl Jane Jameson is fired by her beastly boss and handed twenty-five dollars in potato skins instead of a severance check, she goes on a bender that's sure to become Half Moon Hollow legend. On her way home, she's mistaken for a deer, shot, and left for dead. And thanks to the mysterious stranger she met while chugging neon-colored cocktails, she wakes up with a decidedly unladylike thirst for blood.

Jane is now the latest recipient of a gift basket from the Newly Undead Welcoming Committee, and her life-after-lifestyle is taking some getting used to. Her recently deceased favorite aunt is now her ghostly roommate. She has to fake breathing and endure daytime hours to avoid coming out of the coffin to her family. She's forced to forgo her favorite down-home Southern cooking for bags of O negative. Her relationship with her sexy, mercurial vampire sire keeps running hot and cold. And if all that wasn't enough, it looks like someone in Half Moon Hollow is trying to frame her for a series of vampire murders. What's a nice undead girl to do?

Many of you who read my reviews regularly know that I am a devotee of urban fantasy and that I work in a library. The result of these two facts? When I read that there was an urban fantasy series that featured an unemployed children’s librarian who becomes a vampire, I absolutely had to give it a try! And I found it quite entertaining, too.

Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs owes quite a debt to the Sookie Stackhouse series, I think. Like Harris’ series, this one is set in a small town in the Southern States. As in the Sookie books, vampires have recently come out of the coffin (now that there is a source of artificial blood available) and they have a rather hazy and somewhat threatening hierarchy that they are not over-fond of sharing. Quite quickly, we also have a werewolf showing up, so other supernatural people are obviously going to feature in this series too. Also, Jane, the heroine of this series, begins as a relatively sexually inexperienced woman, similar to the virginal Ms. Stackhouse. Several bad experiences have persuaded Jane to just focus on her career and put relationships on hold.

This is where she parts from the Sookie mold, however, because Jane is a well-educated, well-read, feisty and sassy heroine. Her smart cracks remind me much more of Seanan McGuire’s writing (both Toby in the October Day series and Verity Price in the InCryptid series). Once she becomes a vampire, Jane acquires the ability to see ghosts, à la Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson. And her Aunt Jettie’s ghost has a number of wise and hilarious things to say.

I like that the author doesn’t take the whole thing too seriously, but I still completely comprehend her sense of humour. Perhaps because Jane has a tendency to quote Dr. Seuss and obsesses over organizing book shelves, I like her a great deal. It will also be interesting to see Jane continue to deal with her overbearing Southern mama. So far, Harper is following the "no female friends" pattern that most urban fantasy seems to adhere to--I'd be thrilled if Jane acquired a woman friend in the next installment.

So, yeah, I’ve found another series that I’ll be working my way through as I have time. So, yay?

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets / J.K. Rowling

4 out of 5 stars
All Harry Potter wants is to get away from the Dursleys and go back to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he's packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature named Dobby - who says that if Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike.

And strike it does. For in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck-up new professor, Gilderoy Lockheart, a spirit named Moaning Myrtle who haunts the girls' bathroom, and the unwanted attentions of Ron Weasley's younger sister, Ginny.

But each of these seem minor annoyances when the real trouble begins, and someone--or something--starts turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, whose mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects... Harry Potter himself.

***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***
While the excitement for the Harry Potter play just published is evident everywhere, I decided there was no better time to tackle book #2 in the Harry Potter series. I haven’t much to say to add to the conversation regarding this series—just that I can certainly see where it would be ideal to get reluctant readers engaged and excited about the reading process.

This book was certainly well structured, producing tension in all the right places and drawing the reader along quickly. The world building is definitely one of Rowling’s strong suits, as Hogwart’s school feels like a place that I could maybe find my way around now.

I also loved the fact that it made me think of other books—for example, the awful Dursleys reminded me strongly of Jane Eyre’s Aunt Reed and her family. And Harry’s distrust of adults actually brought my most recent read, The Goldfinch to mind, and Theo with his reluctance to tell anything at all to an adult, feeling that nothing good would come of it! But I would have to say that Harry Potter is far easier to read.

A charming tale. I was in my late 30s when Rowling published these books—how I would have loved them as a child!

The Goldfinch / Donna Tartt

3 out of 5 stars
It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

Well, I am thankful that is over! This book is about 350 pages too long. I read quite happily and easily until around page 515, then I had to flog myself to finish it. And then suddenly, the last 30-50 pages redeemed it somewhat.

I know that I am not alone in having difficulty with The Goldfinch. One of my friends sent me a link to an article that quoted research by Kobo—only 44% of people who buy the book on Kobo actually finish it. ( And isn’t it somewhat creepy that Kobo can monitor if you finish a book or not? But that’s a subject for another post.

At any rate, I started the novel with great sympathy for Theo, as I lost my parents suddenly in a car accident. The difference between us being that I was 34 years of age, not 13, but I could imagine the way that it would devastate a young person’s life. Tartt writes traumatic loss and grief extremely well. I could identify with a lot of what Theo experiences—living in a kind of fog, not really being tremendously motivated, dreaming of the absent parent, thinking I saw the departed at the edge of a crowd, things like that.

But after that point, there were at least 300 pages which just bored me rigid. I just didn’t care about Theo & Boris and their exploits. But this was a real-life book club selection, so I forced myself onwards. I had just about come to the point where I was willing to admit defeat, read the last chapter after skipping 100-150 pages, when fate intervened. Namely my upstairs neighbours! Last night, they held a rockin’ party (to which I was not invited, not that I would want to be.) But, unable to sleep with the bass notes of the music permeating my apartment, I settled in to do battle with the last bit of The Goldfinch. And something strange happened—I actually really enjoyed the last 50 or so pages, the philosophizing about the meaning of life and art. I still can’t actually say that I would recommend the book to anyone except the most dedicated of readers. This despite the fact that I regularly finish books that are very nearly as long with ease (Guy Gavriel Kay’s works are often around 600 pages) and I’ve read more difficult long books (Gravity’s Rainbow or Dhalgren for example) and I’ve even finished really long, really bad books (Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard).

So, I have become one of the 44% of those who have finished the book. I enjoyed those last few pages. And the glow of those two things raises the rating for me from 2 stars to 3 stars. Your mileage may vary.

And Then There Were None / Agatha Christie

4 out of 5 stars
First, there were ten - a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they're unwilling to reveal - and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.

So, last night I was supposed to be finishing that huge bloody tome The Goldfinch. What was I doing instead? Enjoying my very first Dame Agatha book, that’s what. And I regret nothing. So there, Donna Tartt.

There’s not much that I can say about this little mystery that hasn’t been said before. It moves along quickly, my brain was working continuously, and before I knew it, Christie had surprised me. Pulled the rug out from under me, in fact. Because I never saw that ending coming.

It was a pleasure to get to know one of the accepted masters of the mystery. I’ll try to squeeze in another of her books soon.