Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Burn for Me / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
Nevada Baylor is faced with the most challenging case of her detective career—a suicide mission to bring in a suspect in a volatile case. Nevada isn’t sure she has the chops. Her quarry is a Prime, the highest rank of magic user, who can set anyone and anything on fire.

Then she’s kidnapped by Connor “Mad” Rogan—a darkly tempting billionaire with equally devastating powers. Torn between wanting to run or surrender to their overwhelming attraction, Nevada must join forces with Rogan to stay alive.

Rogan’s after the same target, so he needs Nevada. But she’s getting under his skin, making him care about someone other than himself for a change. And, as Rogan has learned, love can be as perilous as death, especially in the magic world.

 I enjoyed this first book of a new series by the Ilona Andrews writing team and I’ll definitely be waiting impatiently for the second volume to be published this year.

That said, I can objectively see where a lot of this is simply a re-write of the Kate Daniels series. Nevada is the Kate clone—a tough, independent young woman with hidden talents waiting to be revealed and protective instincts that guide her behaviour. Connor “Mad” Rogan is the Curran substitute—the overpowering and arrogant alpha male. He’s pretty cliché, actually, being all the things that we women are supposed to desire, sexy, rich, and powerful. Switch out the Pack from the Kate Daniels series and put in Nevada’s family, including a heavy-duty-mechanic grandmother, a magical sharpshooter mother, and variously talented siblings.

The thing is, I like these people. I like Nevada. I love her grandma. I appreciate Nevada’s moral outlook on the world, i.e. everyone is someone’s child, parent, sibling, or loved one and deserves to be protected. I will wait to see how Rogan will be converted into someone less self-involved, less cold & calculating. The Andrews have set him up as rather psychopathic—a condition which has no cure in the real world, especially as psychopaths see absolutely nothing wrong with their state. (Actually, he’s maybe closer to Hugh D’Ambray than to Curran, which may make for some interesting plot points).

Obviously, this is a winning formula for the Andrews. I can’t blame them for re-constituting it, giving it a somewhat different spin, and getting some more mileage from it. And they have given us a differently magical world in this series—so far, no vampires or were-animals. The Primes are magic users with semi-god-like powers, reminiscent of Kate’s father and/or Hugh D’Ambray, but they are far more human in their outlooks.

Now, I must settle in to wait until the end of May for the next installment.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Knight and Knave of Swords / Fritz Leiber

3 out of 5 stars
Dark Horse's republication of Fritz Leiber's immortal tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser reach a turning point with this new edition of Leiber's final stories of the two intrepid adventurers. Their journeys have taken them from one side of Nehwon to the other, facing life-risking peril at every turn. Now, in a set of stories that show us Fafhrd and the Mouser both on their own and together, they will face some of their most challenging obstacles, and - against assassins, angry gods, and even Death himself - the duo must battle for their very lives. With a mixture of high adventure, moving drama, and broad comedy, The Knight and Knave of Swords is a perfect endpiece to Leiber's stories of the stalwart comrades.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Cranky Old Men edition

We’re old, we’re gray, get off our lawn.

A somewhat unfair assessment of the last FatGM book by Fritz Leiber, who died 4 years after it was copyrighted, at age 81. A few statements within the first few pages seemed to indicate that he was writing to placate fans of the series—you know us fans, we are always clamouring for more adventures of our favourites! I imagine that it’s hard to scrape up enthusiasm for a project that feels rather forced on the writer, especially after 50 years of writing these adventures.

Fafhrd and Mouser are reluctant adventurers in this installment. They would far rather settle down with their current lady-loves, go on the odd commercial venture, and live comfortably for the rest of their lives, but when your life is entwined with nosy gods there are bound to be interruptions.

Leiber was obviously concerned with issues of mortality while writing this, as Fafhrd and Mouser end up with a spell on them, making them elderly in outlook before their time. His earlier beautiful vocabulary gets much coarser in Knight and Knave and I don’t think he got the same delight out of writing about these two rascals anymore.

It was rather sad to watch the decline of the barbarian and the cut-purse, just as it is sad to watch the subtle decline in an elderly relative.

Book 238 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

The Yard / Alex Grecian

3.5 out of 5 stars
Victorian London is a cesspool of crime, and Scotland Yard has only twelve detectives—known as “The Murder Squad”—to investigate countless murders every month. Created after the Metropolitan Police’s spectacular failure to capture Jack the Ripper, The Murder Squad suffers rampant public contempt. They have failed their citizens. But no one can anticipate the brutal murder of one of their own . . . one of the twelve . . .When Walter Day, the squad’s newest hire, is assigned the case of the murdered detective, he finds a strange ally in the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley. Together they track the killer, who clearly is not finished with The Murder Squad . . . but why?

 I liked The Yard. I really wanted to love it, but a couple of things stood in my way. I really felt like it was a modern forensic mystery being forced into a Victorian corset—and details were frequently straining to escape.

A little research has helped me like it more. This really was the time period during which fingerprinting became a thing that police forces did and autopsies were practiced. I found the resistance of some members of the police force to these procedures to be believable—perhaps more believable than the easy acceptance of them by the main characters.

I probably would have been more enamoured by this novel had I not been reading some of Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent Rivers of London series recently. Aaronovitch, as a Londoner, has such an advantage with the dialog—his sounds authentic, he uses slang expertly, his dialog sounds natural. This is a difficult task for a North American author to duplicate. Grecian’s characters inevitably end up sounding somewhat American. A couple of references to the modern myth of families needing "closure" especially rubbed me the wrong way, particularly since I really don't believe that there's any such thing! Having lost family traumatically in a car accident, I can tell you that there is never closure, just the careful construction of a new reality.

I didn’t get a strong sense of place in The Yard either. London is such a wonderful, rich location for a story--Rivers of London or the Slough House series by Mick Herron make the city an integral part of the action.

Still, this was an interesting first book in the series and I wouldn’t be surprised if I read at least the second book at some point to see if the author finds his footing. There are a number of interesting people who seem poised to become regulars and the possibilities are intriguing. If you enjoyed this book, I would also recommend Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye, a book which I feel captures the flavor of the period a little better.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Paper and Fire / Rachel Caine

4 out of 5 stars
With an iron fist, the Great Library controls the knowledge of the world, ruthlessly stamping out all rebellion and, in the name of the greater good, forbidding the personal ownership of books.

Jess Brightwell has survived his introduction to the sinister, seductive world of the Library, but serving in its army is nothing like he envisioned. His life and the lives of those he cares for have been altered forever. His best friend is lost, and Morgan, the girl he loves, is locked away in the Iron Tower, doomed to a life apart from everything she knows.

After embarking on a mission to save one of their own, Jess and his band of allies make one wrong move and suddenly find themselves hunted by the Library’s deadly automata and forced to flee Alexandria, all the way to London.

But Jess’s home isn’t safe anymore. The Welsh army is coming, London is burning, and soon, Jess must choose between his friends, his family, and the Library, which is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone in the search for ultimate control…

 Not surprisingly, the second book of The Great Library series is slightly less awesome than the first book. But having said that, the first was so overwhelming—that’s a difficult standard to maintain.

However, Caine keeps the Library overbearing, uncaring, and brutal, exactly what it needs to be in this dystopian world. Even those that should be trustworthy are sometimes traitorous and support comes from unexpected quarters. Difficult choices must be made—who to save, who to leave behind, who to forgive, who to forget. We get a glimpse into the Iron Tower, into the Black Archives, into the human condition.

The writing continues to impress me. The characters continue to fascinate me. The plot draws me onwards, making me wish that book three (Ash and Quill) was going to be available before July 2017. I want the adventure to continue.

Conflict of Honors / Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

3.5 out of 5 stars
Sixteen-year-old Priscilla Delacroix was declared legally dead by her mother, High Priestess of the Goddess. Banished to survive on her own, Priscilla has roamed the galaxy for ten years as an outcast—to become a woman of extraordinary skill. . . .

An experienced officer assigned to the Liaden vessel Daxflan, she's been abandoned yet again. Betrayed by her captain and shipmates, she's left to fend for herself on a distant planet. But Priscilla is not alone. Starship captain Shan yos'Galen is about to join Priscilla's crusade for revenge. He has his own score to settle with the enemy. But confronting the sinister crew will be far easier—and safer—than confronting the demons of Priscilla's own mysterious past.

 A chance to catch up with Shan yos’Galen, whom I met as a youngster in another Liaden universe book, Local Custom. In addition to seeing how life is for a grown-up healer, I got to see the fireworks when he meets a woman of the same talents, who is even more an outsider than he is. His human blood makes him suspect on his home planet of Liad and a nebulous act in the past of Priscilla Mendoza has caused her to be banished from her homeworld.

Shan has a reputation for collecting strays (much like Miles Vorkosigan in The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold). Priscilla has been betrayed by her employer and shipmates and abandoned on an obscure planet. When she obtains a job interview with Shan, the reader may be assured that she will get a job. Now she has to decide whether she wants revenge or merely to live a good life (on the theory that is actually the best revenge). As so often happens in life, the decision doesn’t get left up to Priscilla alone.

Probably the weakest of the Liaden universe books that I have read thus far, but still a very enjoyable book.

Scout's Progress / Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

4 out of 5 stars
All of her life, Aelliana Caylon has lived by the rules of her overbearing brother, the head of the Caylon family. Though she is a brilliant mathematician, he has convinced her that she has no worth beyond what value she might have in an arranged marriage.

Then, on a dare, she plays a game of chance—and wins a starship. It is her way to escape her home, her planet, her drab life—if she can qualify as a pilot.

Enter the accomplished Scout and Master Pilot known only as Daav. Aelliana hires him as her instructor. She finds him gifted teacher. He finds her a quick study.

And they also find an unexpected attraction, one that could have dangerous repercussions for them both . . .

 A flip of the traditional Cinderella story, where Cinderella knows who the prince is, but he has to investigate to identify her. In Scout’s Progress, Aelliana only knows who she is—a terrified woman trying to escape from an abusive relationship with her brother plus she is a brilliant mathematician. When she uses that mathematical talent to win herself a starship, she has no idea that the man helping her to get her pilot’s license is more than he seems. Daav yos’Phelium is head of the house of Korval, foremost house on the planet of Liad (a charming if not entirely handsome prince).

The stakes were pretty high for Cinderella—escaping from a life of drudgery, lorded over by the evil step-sisters—but for Aelliana it may actually be a matter of life and death. I found the portrayal of an abuse victim to be moving, especially as the friendly people around her start to put the pieces together and insist on helping her. One of my inner circle was in a mentally & emotionally abusive relationship, and I know from personal experience the frustration of being limited in what you can do to help. In short, the abused person must be “ready” in order to leave and they are the only ones who can determine when they have reached that point. It is difficult for friends and family to watch as that person prepares herself/himself. I was thankful that my loved one had an excellent councilor, who assured us that most women take at least 5 years to actually make the fateful decision to go—their abusers have them convinced that they are nothing on their own and that they will never survive outside the abusive relationship.

It was marvelous to watch Aelliana grow as a person and to realize her own worth, to gain skills and confidence. Since I’ve watched it in real life, complete with new, healthy relationship when the battle is over, I really enjoyed this fictional version.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Rivers of London : Body Work

4 out of 5 stars
An all-new Rivers of London original comic series, written by Ben Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel!
The members – all two of them – of London’s most secret police force are on the trail of a self-driving killer car. But it takes something weird to catch something weird and soon they are behind the wheel of… The Most Haunted Car in England!
Written by Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch (Remembrance of the Daleks) and set in the world of his own bestselling novels, with Doctor Who showrunner Andrew Cartmel.
Rivers of London – Body Work is written in continuity with the novels – not an adaptation.

 I am the first to admit that I don’t always fully appreciate graphic novels and I will also confess that I prefer the full Aaronovitch novels to the graphic novels, but I still enjoyed my first graphic foray into the London of Peter Grant. I know for a fact that I’ll be buying future installments as they become available in print in Canada.

I think that’s my biggest frustration at this point—if I used an e-reader, I could have all the graphic novels, but here in Canada there are only two paper copy titles available and they are not being produced in order either! How to drive a library worker crazy!

I’m fond of the depiction of Peter—I wasn’t sure at first, but it grew on me. Also liked Beverly Brook. (Particularly the James Bond-ish artwork at the very beginning of this issue, with Peter looking suave and Beverly emerging from the water, reminiscent of Halle Berry in Die Another Day). The best of them all? Toby, the dog! He is exactly the yappy little dog that I had in my head as I read the novels. I’m hoping that Nightingale and Molly grow on me as well. Nightingale needs to look a trifle older in my opinion and Molly needs to look a bit creepier, perhaps somewhat reptilian?

I had time on Boxing Day (before anyone else in the house was awake) to read Body Work two or three times, so I eventually sorted out the story. Did anyone else find that the jumps from present to past were a bit confusing? I’m sure that my lack of experience with the graphic format has something to do with it, but with a bit of study I was able to follow the action.

Last 3 books of the Sookie Stackhouse series / Chairlaine Harris

 There are secrets in the town of Bon Temps, ones that threaten those closest to Sookie—and could destroy her heart...

Sookie Stackhouse finds it easy to turn down the request of former barmaid Arlene when she wants her job back at Merlotte’s. After all, Arlene tried to have Sookie killed. But her relationship with Eric Northman is not so clearcut. He and his vampires are keeping their distance…and a cold silence. And when Sookie learns the reason why, she is devastated.

Then a shocking murder rocks Bon Temps, and Sookie is arrested for the crime.

But the evidence against Sookie is weak, and she makes bail. Investigating the killing, she’ll learn that what passes for truth in Bon Temps is only a convenient lie. What passes for justice is more spilled blood. And what passes for love is never enough...

 Okay, this is where I admit that I binge-read the last 3 books in the Sookie Stackhouse series in two days. Part of me is sad that I did this to myself—concluded a series that I’ve been stretching out and planning to savour for as long as possible. But once I had the final books in my hands, I just couldn’t quit reading!

I can see why others were disappointed with this ending, but to my eye it was foreshadowed from the very first book. What was required was for Sookie to gain some life experience and to learn some hard lessons about life and the motivations of other people. That’s what our twenties and early thirties are for—learning that the way that you were raised isn’t shared by everyone, not even your own family or the community where you grew up. Learning that not everyone who arrives when you have a problem is there to help you. Figuring out what you can live with and what you can’t, who you can trust and who you shouldn’t. Who is supportive of who you are and who will never be?

Sookie couldn’t have ended up in a happy relationship if she didn’t have some problematic ones to compare to. I can say from personal experience that I was much shallower in my salad days and much more impressed by personal appearance in a love interest than perhaps by his values. And I cried my share of tears when the heartless & handsome disappeared out of my life. Nowadays, I appreciate kindness more than a full head of hair, thoughtfulness over a handsome face. But you have to get there! The mating issue is the biggest thing to be dealt with during the second decade of life and we are making important decisions while inexperienced—a recipe for potential disaster.

Basically, this series of 13 books follows the growing up experiences of a naïve but good-hearted young woman. If I have any criticism, it’s that Sookie seems to become more concerned with Christianity during the last few books, something which felt off to me. For the whole series, Harris gives us far too much information about Sookie’s personal hygiene, what she does with her hair, and what she’s making for supper, but she also gives us the angst of those years, the hard experiences, the growing up, and eventually making better choices.

Possibly the best first & last lines in this series—from I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar. to I’m Sookie Stackhouse. I belong here. I’m already missing having another Sookie book to read—I hope to re-read them at some point in the future.

The Genius of Birds / Jennifer Ackerman

4 out of 5 stars
Birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. In fact, according to revolutionary new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence.  Like humans, many birds have enormous brains relative to their size. Although small, bird brains are packed with neurons that allow them to punch well above their weight.

In The Genius of Birds, acclaimed author Jennifer Ackerman explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds and how it came about. As she travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research— the distant laboratories of Barbados and New Caledonia, the great tit communities of the United Kingdom and the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states—Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are revolutionizing our view of what it means to be intelligent.

 The insult “bird brain” has always bothered me—how exactly is this insulting? I suppose if the only birds you are familiar with are domestic chickens and turkeys, you might think it’s appropriate, but if you’ve ever studied wild birds, you’ll know that it’s completely off the mark. Detailed observation of the domestic fowl might change your mind, too.

Think of the hummingbird—with a brain smaller than a pea, it manages to migrate long distances and maintain detailed mental maps of nectar sources in its territory, knowing when each flower will be refilled with sweet goodness and ready to be drained again! Or think about the Gray Jay, with its multitudinous stored foodstuffs, to be recovered before they have spoiled. Even the lowly pigeon can do amazing things—witness the homing pigeons, used successfully by people to communicate over great distances.

This book, while enjoyable, it not a scientific tome. Much of it consists of anecdotal evidence, which seems self-evident, but hasn’t necessarily been peer reviewed. If you are searching for a definite science textbook on bird intelligence, this book may leave you frustrated, but if you are a bird enthusiast you will enjoy gaining a new appreciation for our feathered neighbours.