Monday, 31 August 2015

Lagoon / Nnedi Okorafor

4 out of 5 stars
When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself. Lagoon expertly juggles multiple points of view and crisscrossing narratives with prose that is at once propulsive and poetic, combining everything from superhero comics to Nigerian mythology to tie together a story about a city consuming itself.

At its heart a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future, Lagoon touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction, and ultimately asks us to consider the things that bind us together – and the things that make us human.

H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds meets Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, all taking place in modern Nigeria.

Speaking as someone who reads a fair bit of science fiction, Lagoon felt refreshingly original. Not that the theme of aliens coming to Earth is a new one—it’s actually very common. What was so welcome was that said aliens did not land in North America, but in Lagos harbour in Nigeria. Just that tweak, and the story becomes so much more interesting.

Okorafor’s familiarity with Nigeria is what makes this book. Her parents are Igbo Nigerian and presumably she still has family in the country. She admits in her acknowledgements that she had help with the local dialects that some of the conversations are written in. For the North American audience, these sections may be the largest barrier, but with a bit of perseverance, I got into the swing of it. It is certainly no more difficult than the Nadsat slang in Clockwork Orange or the devolved English of Riddley Walker. Aliens as seen through the lens of different Nigerian factions—all the 419ers looking for their way to make a buck on the event and the predictable kidnapping attempt—what a treat!

Also fun was the role of social media in the tale—how inevitable it would be to have all kinds of cell phone video of events circulating on the internet and the frenzy of speculation that would ensue, including the disbelief of the developed nations that aliens would choose Africa for their first contact.

Another plus—a strong, well-educated female lead in the person of Adaora, the marine biologist. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really get another woman to truly interact with, unless you count the visiting alien, who takes on human female form (when it isn’t sulking about human behaviour while re-shaped as a monkey). But since we can't be sure that these aliens even really have genders, I can’t unequivocally say that Lagoon passes the Bechdel test.

If you are a fan of first contact stories, you shouldn’t miss Lagoon.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Jack the Bodiless / Julian May

3 out of 5 stars
In the year 2051, Earth stood on the brink of acceptance as full member of the Galactic Milieu, a confederation of worlds spread across the galaxy. Leading humanity was the powerful Remillard family, but somebody--or something--known only as "Fury" wanted them out of the way.
Only Rogi Remillard, the chosen tool of the most powerful alien being in the Milieu, and his nephew Marc, the greatest metapsychic yet born on Earth, knew about Fury. But even they were powerless to stop it when it began to kill off Remillards and other metapsychic operants--and all the suspects were Remillards themselves.
Meanwhile, a Remillard son was born, a boy who could represent the future of all humanity. His incredible mind was more powerful even than his brother Marc's--but he was destined to be desroyed by his own DNA...unless Fury got to him first!

I was introduced to Julian May’s Galactic Milieu in her Saga of Pliocene Exile series (I’ve read three out of four and find them fabulous). So when I found the first two books of her Galactic Milieu trilogy at my local used book shop, I grabbed them fast and headed directly to the till.

Although I enjoyed this novel, I didn’t find it nearly as entrancing as the Pliocene books and it’s taken me a little while to figure out why. There are multiple points of view, which I’m okay with. I think what surprised me is that none of those POVs are female, and that to me was one of the strengths of the Pliocene Saga. And there was a perfect opportunity to feature Jack’s mother, Teresa, to do just that.

There was also a lot of religious discussion (done as Teresa and Uncle Rogi explaining things to Jack). Add to that an awful lot of description of various medical and mechanical technologies (certainly in more detail than I’m interested in), and I was finding myself skimming a number of paragraphs to get back to the good stuff.

May is at her best when she is dealing with interpersonal dynamics and intergalactic politics. Still, I will read the second book and then decide whether to keep looking for the third one.

Visions of Heat / Nalini Singh

***Wanda's Summer Festival of Reading Fluff***

Used to cold silence, Faith NightStar is suddenly being tormented by dark visions of blood and murder. A bad sign for anyone, but worse for Faith, an F-Psy with the highly sought after ability to predict the future. Then the visions show her something even more dangerous - aching need...exquisite pleasure. But so powerful is her sight, so fragile the state of her mind, that the very emotions she yearns to embrace could be the end of her.

Changeling Vaughn D'Angelo can take the form of either man or jaguar, but it is his animal side that is overwhelmingly drawn to Faith. The jaguar's instinct is to claim this woman it finds so utterly fascinating and the man has no argument. But while Vaughn craves sensation and hungers to pleasure Faith in every way, desire is a danger that could snap the last threads of her sanity. And there are Psy who need Faith's sight for their own purposes. They must keep her silenced - and keep her from Vaughn.

Book two in the Psy-Changeling series. I could basically copy and paste my review for book one. This is exactly the same plot, just renaming the main characters.

+ very sex-positive depiction
+ Singh gives those of us who are less interested in the sex scenes a little bit of plot to play with
+ Psy are not always portrayed as cold-hearted, manipulative parents

-Very much a repeat of book one’s plot, except this time we know that Faith can leave the Psy-Net without danger
-Reading about large cats in “packs” and having “alphas” is just silly
 -Once again, I am stymied by this whole wanting to be completely dependent on a man thing

Now, I get that we as women want to choose men who respect us, want us, and want to spend time with us and have hot sex with us. But do we really want men who always think they know better than we do? Do we want to be shackled to them by our psychological needs? Do we want their whole family group telling us what to be doing all the damn time? It’s like these female main characters are emotionally frozen in the little girl stage of development, all fixated on being rescued by Prince Charming (who is gorgeous and capable of having hot cat sex with us, of course, but respects us in the morning). What happens 10 years down the road, when everybody has reached brain maturity and found out that they resent the limitations of these relationships? And they are tied together by some “mate bond” that they now can’t escape from?

I can’t help it. I’m old. I think about these things.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think the books are good. Singh is a good writer and she obviously provides exactly what her audience is looking for.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Hexed / Kevein Hearne

3 out of 5 stars
***Wanda's Summer Festival of Reading Fluff***

Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, doesn’t care much for witches. Still, he’s about to make nice with the local coven by signing a mutually beneficial nonaggression treaty—when suddenly the witch population in modern-day Tempe, Arizona, quadruples overnight. And the new girls are not just bad, they’re badasses with a dark history on the German side of World War II.

With a fallen angel feasting on local high school students, a horde of Bacchants blowing in from Vegas with their special brand of deadly decadence, and a dangerously sexy Celtic goddess of fire vying for his attention, Atticus is having trouble scheduling the witch hunt. But aided by his magical sword, his neighbor’s rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and his vampire attorney, Atticus is ready to sweep the town and show the witchy women they picked the wrong Druid to hex.

Second books are always difficult. How do you live up to the expectations generated by a good first book? Despite the fact that I have given book two the same rating as book one, there were a few disappointments in the second installment.

First, there is not nearly enough of Oberon, the wolfhound. His character made the first book for me and although he features prominently in book two, his page time had been cut down. I miss all his dopey doggy comments. And this despite the fact that I am not a dog person.

Second, Atticus now has an apprentice, Granuaile, who really doesn’t get to do an awful lot in this book. Perhaps she will get her spot in the sun in upcoming volumes, but it was a shame that she had to spend what little time she got concocting alibis for Atticus and pretending to be his girlfriend (and, unbeknownst to her, distracting him with her feminine attributes—I mean really, this guy is supposed to be 1000 years old and he is still that easily distracted by a pretty woman?)

Third, there are lots of women in this book. Lots. And it still fails the Bechdel test miserably. The women don’t talk to each other in any meaningful way—they are all focused on Atticus. They are all merely plot devices to make him look powerful or solve a problem for him.

However, I am willing to continue for at least another book before I decide to abandon this series. I like the Celtic mythological aspects. I like the druid angle. I love Oberon. I see potential in Granuaile.

Summer is winding down, and as it does, I will have less time for this urban fantasy fiesta that I have happily indulged in. But I have definitely enjoyed it and will continue to read in the genre as time allows.

Shadows Linger / Glen Cook

4 out of 5 stars
The continuing saga of the Black Company, a group of mercenaries who will have been hired by The Lady, an undead ruler whose evil is possibly preferential to that of her trapped-in-his-grave husband, The Dominator.

Shadows Linger explores the everyday evil of human existence, through the person of Shed Marron, an innkeeper in a remote city where the Company finds itself stationed. Shed is a miserable coward, scared of physical harm, poverty, and the judgment of his neighbours. When he gets money, he foolishly squanders it on fine clothes, women, and booze. I don’t know about you, but I know people like Shed—I’ve wasted a few dollars in my day, which would have been much better used if I’d saved them for emergencies. However, we all learn from our poor judgment—experience, it’s called. Shed ends up in debt to a money-lender and embarks on a dark side-business to dig himself out of the hole.

In many ways, it is by following the story of every-man, Shed, that this novel shines. I, as reader, couldn’t help but empathize with him, when he starts out with small deeds and gets sucked into a much larger situation, which he has far less control of. Isn’t this how many people end up involved in criminal activities? One seemingly safe action may lead you in unanticipated directions; if you have stood up and said ‘yes’ once, you may end up not being able to say ‘no’ later. This is the way that good people end up doing despicable things.

Mirroring Shed’s struggle, the Black Company must decide whether they can stay in The Lady’s employ, or if they also have reached the limits of their capacity to endure evil. Have they also waited too long to get free?

Second books are rarely better that the first of a series—they are often transitional. But Shadows Linger was much more engaging for me that the first book.

Book number 185 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Midnight Blue Light Special / Seanan McGuire

4 out of 5 stars

***Wanda’s Summer Festival of Reading Fluff***

Verity is ready to settle down for some serious ballroom dancing—until her on-again, off-again, semi-boyfriend Dominic De Luca, a member of the monster-hunting Covenant of St. George, informs her that the Covenant is on their way to assess the city's readiness for a cryptid purge. With everything and everyone she loves on the line, there's no way Verity can take that lying down.

Alliances will be tested, allies will be questioned, lives will be lost, and the talking mice in Verity's apartment will immortalize everything as holy writ--assuming there's anyone left standing when all is said and done. It's a midnight blue-light special, and the sale of the day is on betrayal, deceit...and carnage.

“…I collected all the knives I’d thrown at the various dart boards—it was a surprisingly high number, given how little time I’d had, but I guess stress makes me stabby…” (Verity Price)

The Covenant of St. George has come to Verity’s city to check on the progress of their member, Dominic De Luca (Verity’s kinda sorta boyfriend). There aren’t many men out there that wouldn’t be intimidated by Verity’s physical skills and cryptid knowledge, so she’s anxious that he may choose a side and that it won’t be hers. When Verity is kidnapped by her Covenant cousin, Margaret, choices will have to be made.

Once again, Verity’s colony of Aeslin mice make the book for me—they are a delightful creation, offering intelligent humour during the course of the book. For example, when the city’s cryptids are planning their offensive, it’s agreed that the mice could be excellent spies.

“The family has coexisted with Aeslin mice for generations, which brings us to the one possible flaw in this plan,” said Uncle Mike. “We don’t know for sure that this Margaret woman doesn’t have a colony of her own.”

“If we encounter heretics while on the search for our brave Priestess, we will smite them down with the Fury of a Thousand Angry Rolling Pins!” squeaked the High Priest of the mice.

In short, this is a delightful second book of the series and I would highly recommend it to fans of the urban fantasy genre.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Moon Called / Patricia Briggs

3 stars out of 5
***Wanda's Summer Festival of Reading Fluff***

Mercedes "Mercy" Thompson is a talented Volkswagen mechanic living in the Tri-Cities area of Washington. She also happens to be a walker, a magical being with the power to shift into a coyote at will. Mercy's next-door neighbor is a werewolf. Her former boss is a gremlin. And she's fixing a bus for a vampire. This is the world of Mercy Thompson, one that looks a lot like ours but is populated by those things that go bump in the night. And Mercy's connection to those things is about to get her into some serious hot water...

1. Mercy is a mechanic (and a good one).
2. She is a capable person who runs her life responsibly and has compassion for others.
3. I love Warren, the gay werewolf and his human partner, Kyle. They are great.
4. I also enjoyed Stefan, the friendly vampire.

1. Have you looked at that cover? Mercy is never depicted as dressing that way in the book. She’s a jeans-and-T-shirt gal. Not a book I would read in public just because that cover would embarass me.
2. Loaded with alpha-male werewolves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but what woman in her right mind would actually want to put up with one, let alone two as Mercy does? In real life, that’s abusive behavior and I really can’t figure out why there’s so damn much of it in current pop fiction. I am mystified.
3. I wonder what a person of aboriginal heritage would think of the whole story? I guess if you’re making up things about aboriginal people, that’s not cultural appropriation?

On the whole, I liked to the story and I will probably read more of the series in the future because of the pluses mentioned above. 

Storm Front / Jim Butcher

3.5 stars out of 5
***Wanda's Summer Festival of Reading Fluff***

Harry Dresden -- Wizard Lost items found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment. Harry Dresden is the best at what he does. Well, technically, he’s the only at what he does. So when the Chicago P.D. has a case that transcends mortal creativity or capability, they come to him for answers. For the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things — and most of them don’t play well with humans. That’s where Harry comes in. Takes a wizard to catch a — well, whatever. There’s just one problem. Business, to put it mildly, stinks. So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name. And that’s when things start to get… interesting. Magic. It can get a guy killed.

If this had been the first urban fantasy that I had ever read, I think I would be far more impressed that I am. Don’t get me wrong, I really did like it. But I felt like the first half of the book consisted of Butcher feeling his way, trying to find out who Harry Dresden is. Somewhere around chapter 14 or so, something clicked into place and Harry solidified for me. The last few chapters were wonderful.

Storm Front may take place in a city, but parts of it felt more like a Western to me, particularly with Harry always in his duster (except while facing a demon while in the nude, of course). He seems to alternate between acting like a sheriff (when investigating) and being an outlaw (as he is investigated).

Butcher is also playing with aspects of the Noir detective genre, with Harry being down on his luck, short of cash, and unlucky in love. Plus having an uncertain relationship with the police department.

All these references either work for you or they don’t. As I said before, I found the first half of the book rather busy with them, pulled between the Western vibe and the Noir vibe, but when the plot coalesced and started moving quickly, all was forgiven. I will definitely read the next book in the series to see where Harry goes from here.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Anubis Gates / Tim Powers

3 out of 5 Stars
This review contains spoilers--if you don't want to know, don't read any further.

I’m not sure exactly what I think of this time-travel adventure. There are aspects that I love, some that leave me confused, and at least one that produces both sensations.

I loved the Ancient Egyptian connections—hieroglyphs, gods & goddesses, the great boat of Ra. I appreciated that it wasn’t easy for the time-displaced person to fit into the new society that they found themselves in. Coming from the privileged twentieth century didn’t mean beans when it came to supporting oneself in the late 19th century, something which I think many writers forget or discount. I also loved the use of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” as a signal amongst the time-travelers in old London, something that every 20th century person of a certain age would be familiar with.

One of the confusing aspects of the book for me was the role of the Gypsies. I’m unsure why they were inserted into the narrative—perhaps because there was once a line of thought that the Romany people had originated in Egypt? Also, at least one of the characters, Dog-Faced Joe, has the ability to switch bodies. At points in the latter part of the book, I just couldn’t keep up with who was housed in which body—it became a little much, especially as they were busy eliminating one another.

What was both wonderful and confusing was the poetry of Ashbless. Brendan Doyle has studied Ashbless’ poetry in the 20th century and indeed memorized it (a lost skill these days). While waiting in an inn for Ashbless to show up, he writes out a poem from memory. Doyle is confused when Ashbless does not arrive, as he remembers his history—Ashbless was to spend time at the inn & write that specific poem there, leaving Doyle to wonder if history is being changed. At that point, I realized that Doyle had to actually become Ashbless and write the rest of his poetry from memory—leaving the wonderful paradox: if he learned the poetry in the 20th century, wrote it from memory in the 19th century, where did the actual poetry come from? A lovely circular dilemma for the reader to enjoy.

An interesting ending as well, in that most writers would probably want to bring their main character home to the 20th century and Powers chose not to do that, a detail that I consider to be more realistic (if one can speak of such things in the context of time travel).

The Black Company / Glen Cook

3 out of 5 stars
Grim. Violent. Dark. That sums up The Black Company in three words. This is a switch-over from the good vs. evil high fantasy form of the early twentieth century to a grittier, darker fantasy realm. Sure there is wizardry, but there seem to be no innocent, upright parties. All the sides of the conflict are varying shades of evil; no side can be labelled noble or righteous.

Told from the point of view of Croaker, the Annalist (history keeper) of a mercenary force known as the Black Company, we get the story from a man who seems to have a sense of honour, even if it is twisted. The member of the Company are all known by a single nickname or title (Captain, One-Eye, Goblin, etc.) as they have left their previous lives behind and will leave the Company only through death. If these men have any loyalties, they are to their Company comrades and secondarily to their current employer.

Fantasy novels frequently have momentous battles in them (LOTR, the Belgariad, the Rift War saga, etc.) but these are usually witnessed from an overarching view point, with a sense of good winning over evil. The Black Company changes the view point—suddenly, it’s the guys in the trenches, the ones bleeding and dying, who are supplying the story. The ones who are following orders without seeing the big picture; the ones who are fighting because they signed up, not because they necessarily believe in the cause. We get the down-and-dirty view of the battle field. It reminds me of gritty historical fiction like The Whale Road, a Viking story by Robert Low.

By contrast, the Lensman series from the 1940s and 50s looks like na├»ve poppycock, with its belief in the essential goodness of its main characters and their ideals. There is none of the nobility of purpose that the reader enjoys in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Black Company would seem to have roots in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series and in R.E. Howard’s Conan—all men who betimes pledge their swords to an employer in hopes of a financial reward. Each has their own personal concept of honour, within which they attempt to live. The Black Company takes things one step further with a whole group of men participating in this arrangement. It shares some similarities, I think, to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, which places a member of the Torturers’ Guild into the role of main character, a morally enigmatic choice if ever there was one.

Much more realistic—showing the mud, the blood, and the gore, as well as the moral ambiguity of war itself, I can see where this series is likely one of the many roots in fantasy literature than has led to the current Grim-Dark branch of the genre.

Book number 184 in my science fiction/fantasy reading project.

Magic Bites / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
4 stars—I liked it (3 stars) and I figure it has potential (plus one star).

So many people have read/are reading this series and giving it high marks, that I felt I had to give it a go. And when better to try it than during my Summer Festival of Fluff?

I like Kate—she has the capacity to become a truly interesting character. Perhaps it’s my Viking heritage, but I love a woman who carries as many bladed weapons as she can conceal on her person. I also appreciate that the writers have given a fresh spin to each supernatural creature. Vampires don’t sparkle and aren’t charming. Shapeshifters aren’t your garden variety werewolves. Magic is a state which ebbs and flows—you never know how much of it will be available at any given time.

So this first volume seems to be mostly world building—constructing a setting in which Kate Daniels will be able to shine. We get to know the surroundings, meet the major players, and learn the dynamics between the groups. We learn that our main character has her issues, but that she is also a decent person who wants to do the right thing (although, like all of us, she sometimes only sees in retrospect what the right thing may have been).

If I didn’t have a veritable mountain of library books already, I would put a hold on book 2 immediately. As it stands, I have to read at least half a dozen books before I can justify that action—I’ve been a bit hasty with the trigger finger, pushing that “Place Hold” button far too frequently lately!

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Great Zoo of China / Matthew Reilly

2.5 stars out of 5
Not an awful book, but for me, it somehow missed the mark. I was glad to have a female main character, but was disappointed that she was some kind of female Terminator or Jack Reacher, a biologist who not only knew how to make and use flame throwers, but could cling to speeding vehicles and McGyver her way out of every situation. It would appear that the author made her female just so she could be better at “bonding” with animals—you know the old story, women are closer to nature than men, blah, blah, blah. Talking to the snake in Eden, and all that malarkey.

I was glad that I read Jurassic Park just before I started The Great Zoo of China, as JP is obviously a major influence for this author. I’ve read a few reader responses—it’s either an homage to JP or a rip-off, depending on your point of view. It certainly has many, many of the same elements, including the illustrations of computer screens.
It started out well. The dragons were interesting animals, their social structures were complicated, their senses and behaviours intriguing. But when the plot took a turn towards Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, that’s where I let go and couldn’t regain my respect for the narrative.

I also must confess that I thought it was entirely too easy to make the Chinese government and army into the evil, evil bad guys without any redeeming qualities, with or without the equally awful Westerners that chose their side of the operation.

But that’s just me—others may love this combination of Jurassic Park and Pern. It’s a quick read and definitely a page turner, so you haven’t wasted much time if you try it to see how you like it.

Dragon Conspiracy / Lisa Shearin

4 out of 5 stars
****Wanda’s Summer Festival of Reading Fluff***

I liked the first book in this series and I really enjoyed this second installment. In fact, I had so much fun that I picked up the book the next day and read it again! And I started contemplating purchasing my own copy. It is that amusing.

I really like the lightness of attitude and the intelligence of the series. It is rather like the Men in Black movies crossed with James Bond, perhaps with a sprinkling of Austin Powers and/or X-Files? In other words, it plays with all the tropes in a fun way without taking itself too seriously.

I like the friendships that are building between Mackenna and her fellow SPI agents, including her dragon lady boss. I am also amused by her Southern sensibilities and the fact that she is just a regular woman (not depicted as some ultra-beautiful person, often ending up covered in food) and that she is sometimes the rescued and sometimes the rescuer.

What can I say? I can hardly wait for book three to be published in January 2016.

Jurassic Park / Michael Crichton

3.5 stars out of 5
I figured that it was time to read the original Jurassic Park, as I recently went to see the fourth movie, Jurassic World. Basically, JW follows the same pattern as previous movies—people create dinosaurs, dinosaurs get loose, much running & screaming ensues. Still it was worth every penny just for the scene in which the Mosasaur leaps out of a pool in a SeaWorld like setting.

In many ways, this novel, which started the whole franchise, is better than the corresponding Jurassic Park movie—the science is more obvious and better and the plot is a bit more complex. However, for characterization, the movie probably gives the viewer more sympathy for those doing the running & screaming. The novel does include an awful lot of computer programming diagrams & jargon—probably trendy at the time of its publication, but a bit dated now.

Crichton seems to have much the same message in mind as Mary Shelley did when she wrote Frankenstein—science often seems to out-strip humanity’s moral development and just because we are able to do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Where Shelley left it for the reader to develop this thesis on their own, Crichton gets down right preachy, hitting the reader over the head with this message repeatedly (as articulated by the mathematician). And this whole idea that nature can’t be contained and that it’s hubristic of people to try—this seems to me to be a very “city folk” way of looking at the world. Ask anyone who grew up on a farm, complete with livestock, and we will tell you that there is no such thing as a fool-proof fence! Try to out-smart a pig—it’s not as easy a task as you might think. I’ve ended up using reverse psychology (open two gates, chase them towards the gate you don’t want the pigs to go out). Ever try getting a large beast like a cow or a horse to do something they don’t want to do? Good luck! You will need many people in order to accomplish the task. The horse may do what you want if you have a very good working relationship with it (I think about each year here in Calgary at Stampede time when some brave soul takes a horse up the Calgary Tower and attempts to get it to stand on the glass floored part of the observation deck—I wouldn’t do it and neither will any sensible horse!) Farmers and ranchers know their limits—they have no illusions of control when it comes to animals. I also know a substantial number of zoo keepers and they have a keen respect for their charges and know that zoo animals have plenty of time to contemplate the weak spots in their enclosures and that they are willing to test those weak spots when all the zoo staff have gone home for the evening. If it’s hard to convince a cow to do something, it can be downright dangerous to ask an elephant to do something it has an aversion to. While zoo keepers know these things, it often seems that zoo administration is clueless about animal behaviour & intelligence. When things go wrong (e.g. when an animal escapes), it is often because administration and/or architects discount the warnings of animal care staff. When Calgary Zoo opened a new building, the Colobus monkeys climbed right out of their supposedly-secure new enclosure and were found in the rafters the next morning. Modifications, previously suggested by zoo keepers and disregarded, were put into place.

And seriously, how many city folk can’t even get their dogs to be obedient?

So, a very good novel with good suspense and a fun premise (who wouldn’t want to go to a safe version of Jurassic Park?), but I am knocking off a star because I was smart enough to see the message without being beaten about the head & ears with it!

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Siege of Bitterns / Steve Burrows

4 out of 5 stars
A charming first book from a man who is a dedicated birder himself. A Brit living in Canada, his main character is a Canadian living in the U.K. And not just anywhere in the U.K., in Norfolk, an area well known for its birding opportunities. He writes convincingly about the expat experience.

My very first international birding trip in 1999 led this Canadian birder to that very area—I have wonderful memories of birding at Cley & Titchwell and learning about British birds from our knowledgeable leader. Indeed, we six Canadian women on the tour had no idea how much it would affect our lives. Five of us have stayed fast friends ever since, continuing to travel together to many far flung places as well as in our own home area. One of the original six has passed away, another has severe dementia, a third is well into her 80s and not really getting out much anymore, but the remaining three are still plotting and planning the next travel.

I personally belong to the group of birders who are actually interested in the birds as creatures in their own right—how they live, what they are doing, their behaviours, etc. If I can watch an individual for a length of time, that is most enjoyable. I keep a list, but I am far from fanatical about it—the listing is the least enjoyable part of the hobby for me. I also try to avoid people who restrict their interests only to biriding—I prefer people with varied interests, with people skills, and more conversational flexibility. As a result, I now make it a priority to try to find birding field trip leaders who have a little more going on in their lives than just birds. The more well-rounded human beings are just more pleasant to travel with, talk with, and observe birds with.

That worldview is studied in A Siege of Bitterns; the sad states of the lives of the men who are totally consumed with birding (or with business) to the exclusion of all else. The mystery itself is as muddy as the marsh where it takes place. In fact, I would say that for me, it was the birding aspect that charmed me about this novel, rather than the mystery. Recommended for birders with well-rounded lives who enjoy reading.

Forever Amber / Kathleen Winsor

2.5 stars out of 5
Wow, this is a door-stop of a book and apparently when the publisher accepted it for publication, they cut it down to one fifth of its original size. I can’t imagine having to wade through even more pages to get to the conclusion, so I thank the editors profusely!

It’s difficult, from our 21st century perspective, to see what the fuss was about in the 1940s. This is one of the novels that began the path that led us to 50 Shades of Grey. It caused a stir for all the sex (which is not graphic at all) and for the sexual manoeuvring of the main character, Amber St. Claire. I suspect some of the fury was about the depiction of a woman who (gasp) enjoyed sex and had some ambition to rise in her society. Maybe the female ambition was even more objectionable than the frank discussion of sex, who knows?

I was reminded of some other novels that I enjoyed in the past, namely the Angelique series by Anne Golon (under the pseudonym Sergeanne Golon in the 1950s). Angelique is a French adventuress, in much the same vein as Amber. Instead of one huge novel, Golon published about 10 books, each detailing its own swatch of history. I blush to confess that I learned a lot of French history from these books--when other university students complimented me on my knowledge, I did not admit that I learned it from somewhat erotic novels!

Also brought to mind was Victoria Holt’s book My Enemy the Queen, published in 1978 and set in the court of Elizabeth I of England. It was the sexual rivalry of its main character Lettice with Queen Elizabeth that reminded me strongly of Forever Amber.

I was frustrated by several personal beliefs of Amber’s, namely that sexuality was the be-all and end-all of life, that conspicuous consumption was THE way to go, and that everyone thought about life the way she did (and if they didn’t, then they should).

I think that we 21st century women can view Amber, et al., as markers of how far we have come—to a place where women are actually considered to be persons, i.e. we can vote, we can choose who we marry or if we marry, we can support ourselves—at least here in the Western world, we are no longer completely dependent on men to defend and support us and we have more autonomy than ever before. I think my biggest annoyances in reading Forever Amber were the limitations that Amber put on herself. She keeps saying that she won’t remarry—until a man shows up who is richer or of higher station than herself, and then she just can’t seem to resist the urge to jump into matrimony again. Plus, being an introvert myself, I couldn’t empathize with the constant drive to be at court, to be involved in all the back stabbing and plotting that went on there.

Incidentally, I believe I have added a new word to my vocabulary—I can hardly wait until I encounter someone who I can call a “varlet.” I think it will be highly satisfying.

Discount Armageddon / Seanan McGuire

4 out of 5 stars
Cute. Smart. Snarky. Exactly what is necessary for my Summer Festival of Fluff.

“Never tell anyone to be careful, never ask what that noise was, and for the love of God, never, ever say that you’ll be right back.”

Verity Price belongs to a family of cryptozoologists who have been studying monsters/cryptids for centuries, protecting humans from them and them from humans. Verity also has ambitions as a professional dancer and has moved to New York, both for dance opportunities and a little space from her rather overwhelming family.

Aeslin mice: Sapient, rodentlike cryptids that present as nearly identical to noncryptid field mice. Aeslin mice crave religion and will attached themselves to "divine figures" selected virtually at random when a new colony is created. They possess perfect recall; each colony maintains a detailed oral history going back to its inception. Origin unknown.

Verity has a group of Aeslin mice living in her NY apartment, worshipping her as their goddess. Hail! That said, her love life gets a little complicated:
I gasped, "Oh, God, the mice!"
"What--?" Dominic stared after me, bewildered, as I grabbed the sack, jumped to my feet, and ran to the bedroom door.
"Bedroom privileges have been revoked for the remainder of the evening!" I shouted, chucking the chicken bag into the middle of the hallway, where it was immediately besieged on all sides by tiny, furry bodies. "I invoke the Sacred Law of Food for Privacy! Feast, and leave me alone!"
When I finished the book last night, I immediately returned to the beginning and re-read all of the mouse passages! I absolutely adore the mice and wish I had my own colony to sing my praises daily and remember all of the important events of my life! In fact, it was tempting to try to quote ALL of the cute mouse bits and I’ve restrained myself. So if you read the book, there is unknown cuteness waiting for you. Honestly, I wish this kind of book had been available 30 years ago—my younger self would have eaten this up with a spoon. Even my jaded older self enjoys it a lot. The romance is rather predictable, but I do think that every man should have to face an army of mice the first time he stays over at a woman’s house!

Okay, so this will never again be mentioned in the same breath with Of Mice and Men (sorry John Steinbeck for this one instance), but I’m sure that was not what McGuire was aiming for. I suspect that this level of cute, smart, and snarky will be difficult to maintain, but I am willing to check out the next book simply to see what the mice are doing!

Friday, 7 August 2015

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me / Jennifer Teege

4 out of 5 stars
Family secrets are toxic.

Everyone wants to know who they are. I think the question is especially keen for adopted children—who are my people and why am I not with them?

What if the answer to that question brought unbelievable turmoil?

Jennifer Teege is a grown woman with children of her own, part of a loving adoptive family. Despite this, in her late thirties, she is struggling with depression. While in the library’s psychology section, looking for books on depression, she happens to pick up a little red book. On the cover, she sees a photo of a woman who looks an awful lot like her biological mother. She reads the dust jacket—and it is her biological mother, talking about being the daughter of the concentration camp commandant, Amon Goethe. If you’ve seen Schindler’s List, you’ll know of him. Jennifer’s world is torn apart at that moment.

Ms. Teege is a Nigerian-German woman, but looking at the photos of her and of her infamous grandfather, you can see distinct resemblances. Ironically, in her twenties she lived in Israel and did her university degree in Tel Aviv. She speaks Hebrew well and has many Israeli friends. And suddenly, she is afraid of who she really is.

This memoir covers her struggle to come to terms with her heritage and family genetics. It is wrenching and yet encouraging to see her face the situation, despite her depression, and figure out what it all means to her. It also displays the pain and turmoil caused to German citizens when their past is denied or ignored.

If you read this book, I would also encourage you to read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which is a testament to the psychic damage done to Jews during World War II. Children of both Nazis and Jews have suffered from the silence of their parents and it seems to be the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will finally be able to speak the truth for all to hear.

10% Happier / Dan Harris

3 stars out of 5
This book surprised me—I guess I hadn’t realized that it was a memoir of an American news anchor who suffered an on-air panic attack and went searching for a way to untangle a rather complex, stressful life. As a rather non-religious person, he was as surprised as anyone when he found his answers in the practice of meditation and the study of Buddhism.

If you are currently considering beginning meditation, you would probably find this book encouraging. It’s something that I have been pondering for a while, and I think I will seek out a class of some kind this autumn, sooner rather than later now that I have read this book.

Harris tells fascinating stories of the behind-the-scenes in the news biz. I was surprised at how much dirt got dished, especially considering that he seems to be earnestly trying to be a better person. As a memoir, there is an awful lot more information on Harris and his life than there is about meditation per se.

I was attracted to the title, as I think that 10% happier is a reasonable goal. I was also interested to learn that the word “happy” comes from the same root as haphazard and happenstance, a root which references luck. Harris’ primary message is that one need not rely on luck for happiness—meditation can provide a reliable mechanism to increase one’s well being.

Magician : Master / Raymond E. Feist

3 out of 5 stars
Lots of plot, very little characterization. The young men of the first book, Pug and Tomas, grow up and by second book’s end are reunited. Several things felt a little off to me—that both youngsters should have such an easy time becoming very powerful men, that Macros would instigate treachery rather than negotiate with the Midkemians & Tsurani, and that everyone at book’s end would just be so accepting of that whole situation. In fact, so many potentially highly charged situations are solved easily through a few questions & answers—very unlike the real world of politics and family relations.

I did acquire a fondness for Prince Arutha that I didn’t have in the first book. He is probably the most well-rounded character in the second volume. I suspect that at some point in book three, he will be happily married off to Princess Anita, who is showing herself to be a remarkably sensible young woman. I look forward also to his altered relationship with Martin Longbow.

In many ways, the plot is tied up with a nice bow at the end of book 2 and one wonders if Feist meant to go on writing the series. He has left just enough loose ends to justify a 3rd volume, but it is hardly a cliff-hanger ending that would impel the reader on to the next installment.

Enjoyable in a “what happens next” sense, but pretty disappointing if one is interested in complex characters.

Praise be to interlibrary loan, which meant that I did not have to pay to read this book!

This is book number 184 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.