Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Use of Weapons / Iain M. Banks

3.5 stars out of 5
Cheradenine is an ex-special circumstance agent who had been raised to eminence by a woman named Diziet. Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the drone, had saved her life and it believes Cheradenine to be a burnt-out case. But not even its machine intelligence can see the horrors in his past.

Somehow, I had come to think of Iain M. Banks’ Culture as a pretty ideal society. This book shattered that somewhat for me, as it contains a lot of war & violence, plus a really cruel twist as the end of the novel. What can you do if you live in the Culture, but you’re not an easily entertained, peace-loving guy? Well, you can sign up for Special Circumstances and become a sort of super-soldier, getting horrifically injured, revived, regenerated, and going off to fight another battle. Even some of the Machine Minds in this one seem to be destructive and cruel.

But Banks accomplished what I think he wanted to—making his readers rethink what the Culture is all about (and maybe rethinking some the assumptions about their own culture). I look forward to tackling State of the Art next.

Book 265 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

The High Window / Raymond Chandler

4 out of 5 stars
A wealthy Pasadena widow with a mean streak, a missing daughter-in-law with a past, and a gold coin worth a small fortune—the elements don't quite add up until Marlowe discovers evidence of murder, rape, blackmail, and the worst kind of human exploitation.


I read this book for the “Noir” square of my 2017 Halloween Bingo card.

I didn’t enjoy The High Window quite as much as I loved The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely, but I still really liked it. Marlowe is a great main character—he’s idealistic, realistic and cynical, all rolled into one. I think someone close to the end of this book calls him a “shop-soiled Galahad,” and that really struck me as accurate. I also loved a couple of the literary allusions that he made, just assuming that the reader would be able to follow him. I love it when an author expects sophistication on the part of his readers!

The plot in this one seemed a bit simpler to me, although there was still a bit of a surprise at the end. Of the three of Chandler’s books that I’ve read, this one seemed the least noir to me, although it certainly still fits in the genre. Chandler is an exceptional writer and I am so glad to have found his novels!

Carmilla / Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

3.5 stars out of 5
I read this book for the “Classic Horror” square of my 2017 Halloween Bingo card.

I know that I owned this book way back when! I think I bought it through the Scholastic Books program at our school during Grade 6. I’m pretty sure that I remember a sense of creeping horror when I read it, but I didn’t remember any details beyond the overturned carriage at the beginning of the book.

What I hadn’t realized until now was that Carmilla predated Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula. I can definitely see where he may have borrowed a few details from Le Fanu’s creation to put towards his own. I thought it was interesting that Carmilla was able to be active during daylight, as long as she had spent some time buried in her native earth. (Now I see where Chelsea Quinn Yarbro may have been drawing inspiration for her St. Germaine chronicles).

Reading this now, as an adult, there really wasn’t much dread left. Mind you, when I read this as a twelve year old, I had never encountered the vampire in fiction and it was all brand new. This book is really more of historical interest now, as there are so many books that include iterations of the vampire mythos.

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Diary of a Young Girl / Anne Frank

4 out of 5 stars
I finally got around to reading this heart-warming and heart-wrenching document.  I attempted it as a much younger person and didn’t get very far, perhaps because I was a teenager myself with my own angst to deal with.

There’s no doubt that Anne was right about her own writing abilities.  If she had lived, I think she definitely had a chance to become a significant author.  She could have edited her own diaries to begin with and perhaps written more about the Jewish experience during WWII.

I think her father (the only surviving member of those concealed in the Annex) was a brave man to allow her journals to be published.  He and his wife do not always come out of them looking good.  However, we, as readers, are continually reminded that the people confined in this small space are bound to clash with one another repeatedly.  Imagine having no space to truly call your own, having to share cooking & food supplies, not having easy access to a toilet and not being able to flush during certain hours, and having to be quiet during the workday so as not to alert the employees working below them!  Prisoners in jails have better living conditions!

I am also impressed by the courageous Dutch folk who hid their Jewish friends and kept them supplied with the necessities of life for so long.  That’s a big commitment and they fulfilled it for two years with very few glitches (health problems for all of them sometimes made for erratic food delivery).  How many of us would have the fortitude and the bravery to attempt such a feat?

The saddest part of the book was definitely the afterword—Anne’s last entry is absolutely ordinary (in an extraordinary circumstance) and then they are betrayed and sent to concentration camps.  They had lasted so long and the end of the war was just a year away (although they had no way to know that).  I was left with the melancholy question of what might have been.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children / Ransom Riggs

4 out of 5 stars
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.

A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.


  I chose this novel to fill the “Chilling Children” square of my 2017 Halloween Book Bingo.

I was pleasantly surprised by this young adult fantasy. An interesting amalgam of “found” photographs and a fantastical tale and the two work very well together. Jacob Portman has had an uneasy relationship with the stories that his grandfather, Abraham, tells about his childhood orphanage and its occupants. We get to share in his confusion, as he attempts to ascertain which elements of the story are true and which are tall tales.

In many ways, we all have to perform this task—examine the family stories and family history and see how much of it is useful or relevant to those of us in the present. I’m a family history researcher, so perhaps I see value where others don’t, but I don’t feel that any family information is useless. If nothing else, it tells us where our family attitudes and habits come from. At best, it can show harmful family patterns that a person can discern and avoid. No need for a young woman to marry an abusive man and learn the hard way—examine your ancestress’ lives and either find a caring man (or woman) or choose to stay single.

I also liked Jacob’s father, who was lured to the Welsh island by potential birding opportunities. I’d be right there beside him! If I have any complaints, it would be the lack of resolution at the book’s end, requiring the reader to move on to the next volume for closure (and since there’s a 3rd book, I’m sure the same will be true of the second book).

The Secret Life of Germs / Philip Tierno

3 out of 5 stars
They're on everything we touch, eat, and breathe in -- on every inch of skin. And despite the advances of science, germs are challenging medicine in ways that were unimaginable ten years ago. No wonder the world is up in arms -- and using antibacterial soaps.
From the common cold, E. coli, and Lyme disease to encephalitis, mad cow disease, and flesh-eating bacteria, Tierno takes readers on a historical survey of the microscopic world. Rebuffing scare tactics behind recent "germ events" Tierno explains how the recycling of matter is the key to life. Yes, he'll tell you why it's a good idea to clean children's toys, why those fluffy towels may not be so clean, and why you never want to buy a second-hand mattress, but he also reveals that there is a lot we can do to prevent germ-induced suffering. You'll never look at anything the same way again.


I chose to read The Secret Life of Germs because I have often heard the author on CBC radio, brought in as an expert on microbial issues. It was published back in 2001, so some of the information it contains is out-of-date, though it was cutting edge at the time.

There is still plenty of good info in this volume. If nothing else, the author’s attention to prevention of disease was an excellent reminder as the cold & flu season approaches. I’m washing my hands more often and for longer than I had been—its so easy to get lazy about this! And handwashing goes so far towards keeping us healthy.

If I have any quibbles, it is with referring to all microbes as “germs.” To me, a germ is a disease causing agent, not a benign or helpful microbe. But I am sure that this title caught a bit more attention through using “germs” in the title than it might otherwise have garnered.

If you are interested in microbiology, may I recommend I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, which offers more recent information, also in an easy to read format.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Northanger Abbey / Jane Austen

4 out of 5 stars
'To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive'

During an eventful season at Bath, young, naïve Catherine Morland experiences the joys of fashionable society for the first time. She is delighted with her new acquaintances: flirtatious Isabella, who shares Catherine's love of Gothic romance and horror, and sophisticated Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who invite her to their father's mysterious house, Northanger Abbey. There, her imagination influenced by novels of sensation and intrigue, Catherine imagines terrible crimes committed by General Tilney. With its broad comedy and irrepressible heroine, this is the most youthful and and optimistic of Jane Austen's works.


I chose this novel to fill the “Gothic” square of my 2017 Halloween Book Bingo.

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen turns the gothic novel inside out, having some fun with all of its parts. Catherine Morland, our main character, is not a stereotypical gothic heroine—she isn’t tremendously beautiful, she isn’t sophisticated or educated, and she’s not even too bright! But she does read gothic romances, like The Mysteries of Udolpho to use as a guide for her behaviour. Unfortunately for her, her frenemy Isabella turns out to be a gold-digger, her visit to Northanger Abbey produces no murders nor secret passages, and there turn out to be no impediments between her and the man of her choice. The most ungothic of gothic romances!

I do have to wonder a bit about Henry, who is obviously intelligent and amusing, if only Catherine had the wits to understand him! I’m afraid he will be singularly bored, unless she can be enlivened a bit.