Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Streams of Sliver / R.A Salvatore

2.5 stars out of 5
"Yer eyes'll shine when ye see the rivers runnin' silver in Mithril Hall!"

Bruenor the dwarf, Wulfgar the barbarian, Regis the halfling, and Drizzt the dark elf fight monsters and magic on their way to Mithril Hall, centuries-old birthplace of Bruenor and his dwarven ancestors.

Faced with racism, Drizzt contemplates returning to the lightless underworld city and murderous lifestyle he abandoned. Wulfgar begins to overcome his tribes's aversion for magic. And Regis runs from a deadly assassin, who, allied with evil wizards, is bent on the companions' destruction. all fo Bruenor's dreams, and the survival of his party, hinge upon the actions of one brave young woman.

 Reading this series is more fun that doing housework. So that’s what I’ve been doing—reading this book, and not doing housework (which actually needs to be done quite badly at the moment).

Now, I never played Dungeons & Dragons, so I don’t really understand how these Forgotten Realms books fit into that whole scene, but I did obsessively read and re-read Tolkien as a teen (and I still re-read him on occasion, when I need comfort). So it’s pretty difficult for me to overlook how much of this whole plot is lifted directly from The Hobbit and LOTR. Specifically, Thorin Oakenshield Bruenor Battlehammer and the Mines of Moria Mithril Hall. I would have felt better about it had Salvatore tried to change things up a bit, but by and large he used many, many of Tolkien’s details. It had been done before (The Sword of Shannara anyone?), but I still find it strange that an editor would let it pass.

I get the impression that Salvatore was one of the first writers to cash in on the cultural phenomenon of D&D and fantasy literature. It seems that publishers in the 1980s figured out that these fantasy quest tales would sell, whether they were well written or not, and flooded the market with a ton of such material. Perhaps Salvatore was one of the better ones? Is that why he made it on the NPR’s list of notable science fiction & fantasy? I note on Wikipedia that there is a listing of D&D writers—of the 60ish listed, I recognize only 5 names (and only Salvatore for the D&D writing). His writing is very florid and everything, even eating, is very dramatic.

If you enjoy these books, read them. Far be it from me to discourage your enjoyment. But if you, like me, find them a bit lackluster, let me make some recommendations: if you really enjoy Bruenor the dwarf or Regis the halfling, read Tolkien (if you haven’t already). If Wulfgar the barbarian is your favourite character, try Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books. If you enjoy the magic and the adventure, look for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. All three of these authors can really write—the plots flow, there are shades of gray in their heroes and villains, and their vocabulary is excellent, and they write beautifully.

Since I’m certainly at risk here of sounding like a cranky old woman, let me also note that I think these books would be excellent for young readers—the violence isn’t excessive or described in too much detail, the romance is very chaste, good & evil are very obvious, and the vocabulary shouldn’t be too taxing. (But do try to encourage them to read the good stuff like the books listed above once you have them hooked on reading—you’re never too young to read the good writing).

This is book number 235 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Taltos / Steven Brust

3.5 stars out of 5
Journey to the land of the dead. All expenses paid!

Not my idea of an ideal vacation, but this was work. After all, even an assassin has to earn a living.

The trouble is, everyone knows that a living human cannot walk the Paths of the Dead, and return, alive, to the land of men.

But being an Easterner is not exactly like being human, by Dragaeran standards anyway. Thus, the rule doesn't apply to me... I hope.

Another prequel, as we learn both how Vlad came to the be ruthless assassin that he is and how he got involved in/survived one of his old war stories. Brust must not have figured out yet how to move on after book 3, in which Vlad and his wife, Cawti, find themselves in conflict over a resistance movement.

A return to the past gives us the old Vladimir, who is cheerfully amoral and who only experiences twinges of conscience from time to time. The wise-cracking Loiosh (his familiar, a flying lizard) provides some comic relief, as do Vlad’s wry comments. I am sure that Brust must have been familiar with Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series—he created another charismatic criminal in Vlad, though maybe not quite so conscience-free as Slippery Jim DiGriz. Giving Vlad magical talents was an inspired addition.

Because there are two stories involved, there is a fair bit of shifting back and forth between the two. This can be a bit confusing until you get into the rhythm of it. Once you are aware of what to expect, things go smoothly.

Series like this one foreshadow the snarky, smart-cracking main characters that I currently enjoy in urban fantasy. Vlad’s weakness (teleportation makes him nauseous) humanizes him a bit. He also builds a group of people around himself—perhaps not friends, but at least co-operative allies. Those are perhaps some of the reasons why Vlad’s stories appeal to me as much as they do.  I can see Vlad as the predecessor of characters like Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files) and Atticus O'Sullivan (The Iron Druid).

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Hag-Seed / Margaret Atwood

4.5 stars out of 5
Hag-Seed is a re-visiting of Shakespeare’s play of magic and illusion, The Tempest, and will be the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion -- starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing and her sense of humour. I also really enjoy Shakespeare’s works—in fact, I’m working on a project of seeing all 37 of his plays performed. So this modern retelling of The Tempest was right up my alley.

Felix (Atwood’s Propero) is reduced from the avant-garde theatre director of the Makeshiweg Festival to an older guy living in a hovel in the countryside. Maybe not quite as dramatic as being a deposed Duke, but these changes never feel good. Felix takes a number of years to come to terms with the loss of the job that he had derived most of his identity from, tacked on to earlier tragedies which deprived him of his wife and daughter, Miranda. Eventually, we see him take his talents to a correctional facility to teach literacy and theatre arts to prisoners. [Atwood seems to be using some of her research from The Heart Goes Last and using a prison setting again]. Felix is surprised to find that he enjoys the work and that the inmates seem to benefit from it too.

And then the opportunity for revenge presents itself! As I knew it had to, to mirror the original work. I also was aware that The Tempest isn’t the most logical or sensible of plot lines—there’s a lot of magic and mayhem. The revenge plot in Atwood’s version is also highly unlikely—that’s the main reason for my deduction of half a star from my rating, but I’m dithering about whether that’s even fair, given the unlikelihood of the events in the original. But somehow, Atwood makes it work quite well, getting everyone appropriately punished, restored, and/or married, just as Shakespeare did.

Bonus points for Felix only allowing his students to swear in Shakespearean form—they must scour the play for the swear words and use only those while in the class space! [I notice that Atwood lists a Shakespearean insult generator as a source in her bibliography]. And for all the ways that Felix makes The Tempest more palatable to the men with useful reinterpretations.

For those who are interested in seeing the prison system from the inside, I would recommend Stephen Reid’s brutally beautiful memoir A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, which was also in Atwood’s bibliography.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

One Wild Bird at a Time / Bernd Heinrich

3 out of 5 stars
In his modern classics One Man’s Owl and Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich has written memorably about his relationships with wild ravens and a great horned owl.   In One Wild Bird at a Time, Heinrich returns to his great love: close, day-to-day observations of individual wild birds. There are countless books on bird behavior, but Heinrich argues that some of the most amazing bird behaviors fall below the radar of what most birds do in aggregate. Heinrich’s “passionate observations [that] superbly mix memoir and science” (New York Times Book Review) lead to fascinating questions — and sometimes startling discoveries. A great crested flycatcher, while bringing food to the young in their nest, is attacked by the other flycatcher nearby. Why? A pair of Northern flickers hammering their nest-hole into the side of Heinrich’s cabin deliver the opportunity to observe the feeding competition between siblings, and to make a related discovery about nest-cleaning. One of a clutch of redstart warbler babies fledges out of the nest from twenty feet above the ground, and lands on the grass below. It can’t fly. What will happen next?   Heinrich “looks closely, with his trademark ‘hands-and-knees science’ at its most engaging, [delivering] what can only be called psychological marvels of knowing” (Boston Globe).   An eminent biologist shares the joys of bird-watching and how observing the anomalous behaviors of individual birds has guided his research.

If you are a back yard bird watcher who keeps a nature journal, you might well take inspiration from Bernd Heinrich. He takes it a step further than most of us would, I suspect, because of his background as a biology professor. For instance, I don’t know how many people would be willing to thaw, count, and examine grouse scat in order to prove a theory!

The writing certainly reminded me that the author has an academic background. It is not as stiff as a professional paper, but neither is it as conversational as I would prefer for such a work. Having said that, it is inspirational in the level of observation and effort that Heinrich was willing to put into his record. A birder doesn’t have to travel to the far-flung places on the map in order to have a satisfactory birding life—looking deep into the world just outside the window has its rewards. His illustrations are admirable (much superior to anything in my field notebook) although certainly not up to field guide quality, encouraging to those of us who will never be professional artists.

I would imagine that this book would have a limited audience of those who are devoted birders or nature enthusiasts, but I think such people would find it a worthwhile read. Definitely an stimulus to me to spend more time in the outdoors and in the environments right around my own city and to take more time to watch each bird and its behaviour.

A Court of Thorns and Roses / Sarah J. Maas

3.5 out of 5 stars
When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she's been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow grows over the faerie lands, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.

This story is an interesting mash-up of a couple older stories—there are elements of Beauty & the Beast plus the old Tam Lin fairy tale. Please don’t go into this expecting anything too complex! I read it while stranded at home with a throat infection and it was the perfect antidote, easy to follow (or swallow?).

The first part of the tale, Feyre’s abduction & captivity in fairy lands, is very much a Beauty & the Beast tale, as she gets to know Tamlin and realizes that he is not the brute that she has anticipated. Once that is achieved, she is ready to take on the semi-impossible tasks that are set for her by the Queen, as in the old Tam Lin story. Feyre is very much a Mary Sue character, the strong one who has taken care of her mortal family, taught herself to hunt and to paint. That she could immediately paint well enough to impress the magically talented fae was pretty difficult to believe.

I did find that the heroine, Feyre, changed rather easily, suddenly, and conveniently. I enjoyed the tale despite that, but then I have a definite soft spot for the world of Fairy. Just once, however, I would like it if the big bad enemy could be a Fairy King instead of an evil Fairy Queen.

I’m surprised at the maturity of the themes explored in a young adult novel—it had been my impression that they didn’t usually explore sexuality explicitly, which Roses & Thorns definitely does. I am also left wondering at the ending and where there is left for the author to go with this tale. But, there seem to be 6 books planned in the series, so I will check out A Court of Mist and Fury in the near future to see what Tamlin and Feyre get up to next.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Magic Shifts / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
After breaking from life with the Pack, mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate—former Beast Lord Curran Lennart—are adjusting to a very different pace. While they’re thrilled to escape all the infighting, Curran misses the constant challenges of leading the shapeshifters.

So when the Pack offers him its stake in the Mercenary Guild, Curran seizes the opportunity—too bad the Guild wants nothing to do with him and Kate. Luckily, as a veteran merc, Kate can take over any of the Guild’s unfinished jobs in order to bring in money and build their reputation. But what Kate and Curran don’t realize is that the odd jobs they’ve been working are all connected.

An ancient enemy has arisen, and Kate and Curran are the only ones who can stop it—before it takes their city apart piece by piece…

Another enjoyable installment in the Kate Daniels series and I am now caught up to the latest volume that my library has. Magic Binds is still ‘on order’ and I’m tenth in line for when it arrives & gets processed. Yay!

I’m enjoying the new mythologies being used, in line with Kate’s discovery of her Middle Eastern heritage and how the authors are incorporating creatures from previous books (ghouls) into their new framework.

In many ways, this story should have been over in the last book, but after that Star Wars-esque “I am your father” moment in Magic Breaks, how could we not want to know how Kate’s relationship with her god-like father would go? Just like all the rest of us, she gets occasionally cornered into doing things that she doesn’t actually want to do (dinner at Applebee’s, anyone?) and despite her protests, there is father-like interference.

I enjoyed the running gag through the book of random people telling Kate how obnoxious the Beast Lord is, always when she had Curran in tow. The humour in the series is one of the huge pluses for me. I also enjoyed seeing an equal relationship between Kate & Curran and getting a glimpse into what is happening in the Pack that they have left behind. Most entertaining!

I am almost sorry to be caught up on this series—I’m going to be waiting impatiently for the as-yet-untitled number 10 sometime in 2017.

The Player of Games / Iain M. Banks

4 out of 5 stars
The Culture--a humanoid/machine symbiotic society--has thrown up many great Game Players. One of the best is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel & incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game, a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game and with it the challenge of his life, and very possibly his death.

First, let me say how much I want to live in The Culture! Where even some of the machine drones go bird watching! I really enjoyed Consider Phelbas earlier this year and I liked The Player of Games even more.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh (Gurgeh to most people) is well known in The Culture for his game playing abilities—there isn’t a game of strategy that he doesn’t excel at and he’s spent his life either playing the games or writing about them (and other game players). This is totally foreign to me, as I avoid almost all games as often as I can—I don’t find them fun, I find them boring. Why would I spend my valuable time on something that produces no real effect in my world? That’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about The Culture—people have unlimited time for anything that catches their fancy.

The interesting thing about the beginning of the book is that Gurgeh has started to share my boredom with the game playing scene. His ennui is palpable during the first pages, as he realizes that he’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt. This is how he gets tempted to try the official game of the Empire of Azad, a non-Culture society, a game with real-life consequences because the winner becomes Emperor. Gurgeh re-discovers his enthusiasm as he wades into the fray—adrenaline & testosterone seem to be the spices that wake him up from his torpor. But is the famous game player being played?

A teensy bit predictable, but a very enjoyable journey to get to that ending. Banks tends to wrap things up more neatly that I care for—I prefer a more ambiguous ending—but as I say, the drama on the journey makes up for that. I look forward to Use of Weapons sometime in 2017!

Friday, 2 December 2016

The Eyes of the Dragon / Stephen King

3 out of 5 stars
Once upon a time - there was terror and dragons and princes... evil wizards and dark dungeons... and an enchanted castle and a terrible secret. With this enthralling masterpiece of magical evil and daring adventure, Stephen King takes you in his icy grip and leads you into the most shivery and irresistible kingdom of wickedness... The Eyes of the Dragon.

 This seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate—how strange to find myself right in the middle! I’ve never been one of King’s Constant Readers and have only read a few of his books over the last number of years. This one is written very much in the form of a fairy tale and is dedicated to his daughter, who may have heard the first versions of it as bedtime material? I was disappointed that the dragon of the title was only a mounted head on the wall—live dragons are much more entertaining.

King recycles some material here—anyone who has read The Stand will recognize the villain, Flagg. There is also some overlap with the Dark Tower series.

I found The Stand to be a very black & white tale, with very little nuance. The Eyes of the Dragon takes that to a whole new level, despite the fact that King tries very hard to convince us that Thomas isn’t as bad as he seems. However, that is the nature of fairy tales, so it fits in this case.

I chose to read TEotD because it was on the NPR’s list of Science Fiction & Fantasy finalists back in 2011 (they were asking people of vote on the top titles in the field). Other children’s books were omitted from the list (e.g. Harry Potter) so I’m not sure how this one squeaked through to be included.

It is the 232nd book that I have read from this NPR list.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Masked City / Genevieve Cogman

4 out of 5 stars
Librarian-spy Irene is working undercover in an alternative London when her assistant Kai goes missing. She discovers he's been kidnapped by the fae faction and the repercussions could be fatal. Not just for Kai, but for whole worlds.

Kai's dragon heritage means he has powerful allies, but also powerful enemies in the form of the fae. With this act of aggression, the fae are determined to trigger a war between their people - and the forces of order and chaos themselves.

Irene's mission to save Kai and avert Armageddon will take her to a dark, alternate Venice where it's always Carnival. Here Irene will be forced to blackmail, fast talk, and fight. Or face death.

 The Masked City is definitely more focused than The Invisible Library, which was seething with ideas, not all of which actually contributed to the plot line. This installment has fewer distractions and more Fae, which is always a good thing in my books.

Irene is faced with a lot of challenges in this book: a kidnapped apprentice, a trip into a highly chaotic alternate world, an uneasy alliance with the notorious Fae Lord Silver, uncertain support from the Library hierarchy, and having a large, extremely powerful dragon sitting in judgment of her actions. And yet, she does what so many people have to do—she just keeps moving, keeps thinking, keeps doing, despite what life throws at her.

May I say that if I could get the very cool Library tattoo, I would. I, who have steadfastly refused ink for 55 years. I wish that real-life library work was remotely as exciting as Irene’s world (she says as she sits surrounded by old, grimy military tomes). Also, if I was Irene, I’d be pursuing Mr. Vale, the Sherlockian detective, and seeing where his restrained, Victorian admiration would take me.

However, I must say that the ending of this volume was a bit abrupt in my opinion. It had a definite cliff-hanger element to it, shall we say, which disappointed me. What appeared to be more pages of story ended up being little side tales—Irene’s favourite book heists, an interview with the author, and a preview of the third book. That will teach me for being one of those people who never flips to the last page of the book before I actually get there. I would immediately rip into the third volume for satisfaction except that my public library still has it ‘on order,’ but not yet received or processed! Obviously I’m not the only one waiting with bated breath—I’m tenth in the line of people with holds on the new book, trying to be patient. **Just checked and this 3rd book will be published in December, that's why I can't get my grabby hands on it.**

Monday, 28 November 2016

All the Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr

4 out of 5 stars
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

This is the December pick for my real-life book club. I always shy away from World War II books, if left to my own instincts. My father was too young to participate in WW2, although he was old enough to be obsessed with it and remembered listening to the radio, hanging on every word of the reporting. I think he was just old enough to get kind of romantic about the bravery & necessity of fighting that war. As an adult, he read piles of non-fiction about the war, went to Remembrance Day services every year and I think he really wished that he’d been of age to join up.

I have no such romantic ideas about war. It’s a dirty, dangerous business and I’m glad that Dad never had the opportunity to get mixed up in it. So I have reservations about fiction concerning this war—I don’t want it glorified or romanticized any further.

All the Light We Cannot See doesn’t romanticize, despite the fact that it is beautifully written, well plotted, and a rather seductive read. Indeed, it is the tension of people doing things that they know aren’t right or doing things that they consider dangerous that gives the book its tension.

I was reminded by Werner’s part of the tale of Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief. As an orphan, Werner’s options are scanty, but he has intelligence on his side. But what if the only outlet for that intelligence is working with the Nazis? Should he have chosen to go down into the mine that killed his father? And even if he did, wouldn’t the flow of minerals still be aiding the Nazi war effort? There are no good choices, not even for the rich (as the story of his friend Fredde shows us).

I also loved the scenes set in the Museum of Natural History, being a museum worker myself. Plus, I loved Fredde’s obsession with birds and Marie-Laure’s appreciation of shells. Having pursued a life-long amateur study of natural history, I could see myself in these pursuits.

So if you, like me, are sitting on the fence about reading this book, I recommend that you give it a try. Yes, you will read about the brutality of war, but you will also meet people who will give you hope for humanity.

Whispers Under Ground / Ben Aaronovitch

4 out of 5 stars
It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher—and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom—if it exists at all—is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as “the Faceless Man,” it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and—as of now—deadliest subway system in the world.

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah—that’s going to go well.

If you haven’t yet met Peter Grant, main character of this series, may I suggest that you find the first book (Rivers of London/Midnight Riot) and make his acquaintance.

This is urban fantasy, but not like the UF that I usually read. Somehow, the magical elements of Aaronovitch’s fiction just melt into the story and don’t stick out like sore thumbs. Peter is primarily a copper and only secondarily an apprentice wizard. And despite the warnings of his wizardly mentor, Nightingale, Peter continues to try to analyze, quantify, and extemporize with his magical abilities.

Speaking of Nightingale, I would definitely like more information on his background! Aaronovitch deals out a few more details in this installment, but I would love more history on him, the Folly (where he & Peter live), and Molly, their creepy live-in caretaker.

Have I mentioned that Peter is funny? That he can wryly explain London and the police force in ways that make me smile every time? Sure, he can be a bit of an asshole from time to time, but really who among us isn’t? He is much gentler with his injured partner, Lesley, than I would have expected from previous books. And his impulsiveness is kept in check by Stephanopoulous and Guleed, not to mention American Kimberley Reynolds. He has many good women in his life!

I also appreciated the many pop culture references—everything from “Holy paranormal activity, Nightingale - to the Jag mobile,” to an inscription on a demon trap written in Tolkien’s Elvish (which incidentally, Peter is nerdy enough to be able to read).

A true pleasure to read. I look forward to the next installment, Broken Homes.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Magic Lost, Trouble Found / Lisa Shearin

4 out of 5 stars
A girl with attitude. An all-powerful amulet.  This could only mean trouble.

My name is Raine Benares. I’m a seeker. The people who hire me are usually happy when I find things. But some things are better left unfound… 

Raine is a sorceress of moderate powers, from an extended family of smugglers and thieves. With a mix of street smarts and magic spells, she can usually take care of herself. But when her friend Quentin, a not-quite-reformed thief, steals an amulet from the home of a powerful necromancer, Raine finds herself wrapped up in more trouble than she cares for. She likes attention as much as the next girl, but having an army of militant goblins hunting her down is not her idea of a good time. The amulet they’re after holds limitless power, derived from an ancient, soul-stealing stone. And when Raine takes possession of the item, it takes possession of her.

Now her moderate powers are increasing beyond anything she could imagine—but is the resumé enhancement worth her soul?

A charming introduction to a series that is new for me and which I will definitely read to the end. I love Lisa Shearin’s SPI Files and picked up the first three books of this series when I found them in my favourite used book store. A good impulse, that.

While not without its flaws, I found this to be an excellent distraction from the boredom of sitting most of a day in an airport in Santiago, Chile. One flight got in at mid-day and the next didn’t leave until after 10 p.m. Distraction was definitely necessary!

If you like your elves regal and beyond reproach, set this book aside immediately. Raine Benares isn’t that kind of elf. She is the white sheep of a family of pirates, trying to make a living as a Seeker (someone who finds lost objects or people). Fierce, loyal, brave, and funny, Raine is a woman I’d love to have as a friend. And that is one of my only criticisms of the book—Raine needs some female friends to make her a bit more real. All the male characters are just fine and treat her pretty well, but a girl needs someone to really confide in, someone to bitch to, and someone to have her back when things don’t work out.

Also, be warned that there is some romance involved—certainly the book doesn’t qualify as a paranormal romance, but if romantic attraction gives you the hives, walk away immediately. The romantic elements don’t bury the plot, but they are significant. There are also signs of a love triangle to come, so those who hate the trope would do well to stay away. However, it is well set up: Raine (herself conflicted over the whole good/bad dichotomy) is attracted to both a goblin bad boy (Tamnais) and to a white-knight elf (Mychael).

Although a lot takes place and we learn a lot about the world that Raine lives in, not much time passes in this novel and not much progress on the plot line takes place (much the same as SPI Files, honestly). But I found that I could cheerfully put up with that because of the delightfulness of the world and the fun that I was having along the way.

Ms. Shearin’s sense of humour appeals to me strongly, so I enjoyed this adventure a lot. Also appreciated, the cover depicts Raine fully clothed and of a normal figure (i.e. not some scantily clad, wasp-waisted, busty comic book character).

Sweep in Peace / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
Dina DeMille doesn’t run your typical Bed and Breakfast. Her inn defies laws of physics, her fluffy dog is secretly a monster, and the only paying guest is a former Galactic tyrant with a price on her head. But the inn needs guests to thrive, and guests have been scarce, so when an Arbitrator shows up at Dina's door and asks her to host a peace summit between three warring species, she jumps on the chance.

Unfortunately, for Dina, keeping the peace between Space Vampires, the Hope-Crushing Horde, and the devious Merchants of Baha-char is much easier said than done. On top of keeping her guests from murdering each other, she must find a chef, remodel the inn...and risk everything, even her life, to save the man she might fall in love with. But then it's all in the day's work for an Innkeeper…

Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.

Dina learns a lot about Murphy’s Law when she agrees to host a peace arbitration at her Inn, Gertrude Hunt. Three species with a lot of history will be coming: the Holy Anocracy (space vampires to you & me), the Hope-Crushing Horde (also known as otrokars), and the Merchants (cunning little blue foxes). Dina’s job is to house them, feed them, keep them from murdering each other, and cater to their every whim, all while making sure that no earthlings find out what’s going on. Add to this an Arbitrator who doesn’t always play by the rules, and there is yet another kink in the works. If that sounds like an impossible task, well it’s pretty close.

With many of the specifics of this world established in the first book, the Andrews writing team is free to devote a bit more time to characters and plot in this installment. There’s a lot going on and they keep the reader on their toes, reading furiously to keep up with all the developments.
My favourite new character? The Quillonian chef, Otro, who reluctantly agrees to cook for this crew. A true professional (despite the fact that someone was poisoned at the last banquet he catered), we see him produce beautiful and delicious meals out of ordinary ingredients. When one of the vampires is punished by being left in a water world to fight sea monsters for a half hour, Otro collects the head of one of the vanquished beasts to produce delectable sushi. Making the best of it, that’s Otro!

The very gentle love triangle which got its start in book one seems to be resolving itself to some extent in book two. But this part of the tale is so slow burning, that I don’t feel that I can count of the situation staying stable. I have been corrupted by the amount of urban fantasy that I’ve read this year—I’m starting to find these romance tropes more entertaining than annoying! Dear me!

I tip my hat to the Andrews—they write a fun and funny urban fantasy. Now I want to read their Edge series, which I understand has cross-over characters with this one.

Local Custom / Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

4 out of 5 stars
Master trader Er Thom knows the local custom of Liaden is to be matched with a proper bride, and provide his prominent clan Korval with an heir. Yet his heart is immersed in another universe, influenced by another culture, and lost to a woman not of his world. And to take a Terran wife such as scholar Anne Davis is to risk his honor and reputation. But when he discovers that their brief encounter years before has resulted in the birth of a child, even more is at stake than anyone imagined. Now, an interstellar scandal has erupted, a bitter war between two families-galaxies apart-has begun, and the only hope for Er Thom and Anne is a sacrifice neither is prepared to make...

Local Custom has been described as a Regency romance in space. I would have to agree with that assessment. The romance between Er Thom and Anne is the major plot of the book, highlighting the differences between the two. They are not only of different social classes, but from different planetary societies. It is very much a novel of manners, as Anne tries to deal with the very honour-bound and visciously polite Liaden society that Er Thom inhabits. Think “going to Japan” on a grand scale—meeting people requires an appropriate bow, the inclination of which depends on the status of the person you are meeting relative to yourself. Add to that numerous levels of speech--high, low, familial, etc.--and the pitfalls are treacherous. Plus, like many if not all societies, outsiders are not desirable as marriage partners for one’s children. The barriers between Er Thom and Anne are substantial to say the least.

Anne at least has the advantage of being familiar with Liaden language, as she is a comparative linguistics scholar and has specialized in Liaden literature. She has also produced a son, Shan, for a family line that is desperate for children. You would think that both of these attributes would make her a desirable daughter-in-law, but that would remove the major conflicts of the story line. In true romance novel style, she is too tall, too different, too foreign—too difficult for the elder generation to accept.

Also true to romance norms, there is miscommunication. Er Thom assumes that his society is clear to Anne and although she realizes that she’s not fully comprehending the implications of their actions, she doesn’t feel safe asking for the required clarification.

I was reminded strongly of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books about Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan (Shards of Honor and Barrayar). There is a similar flavour to the romantic problems, as both Cordelia and Anne struggle to comprehend a foreign culture, deal with prejudice, and somehow salvage a relationship of great importance.

Although I’ve never been an ardent fan of the romance genre, I thoroughly enjoyed this, my first dip into the Liaden universe. It is book number 231 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Halloween Party / Agatha Christie

3.5 out of 5 stars
A teenage murder witness is drowned in a tub of apples... At a Hallowe'en party, Joyce—a hostile thirteen-year-old—boasts that she once witnessed a murder. When no-one believes her, she storms off home. But within hours her body is found, still in the house, drowned in an apple-bobbing tub. That night, Hercule Poirot is called in to find the 'evil presence'. But first he must establish whether he is looking for a murderer or a double-murderer...

 My first Hercule Poirot novel—probably not the best one to start with, but still very enjoyable. Having enjoyed David Suchet’s portrayal of M. Poirot, I felt I had the basis of the character and was quite comfortable jumping in at number 36 (!) of the Poirot mysteries.

I really enjoyed getting a contemporary look at the late 1960s in Britain in this novel—the young men with their sideburns and their fancy fashions! Plus, Dame Agatha is such an accurate observer of the human condition. She includes all the types that I would expect to find in a small town: the catty gossips, the one woman who seems to organize everything and is simultaneously appreciated and resented for it, the cads, the bounders, and the decent men.

Probably not the strongest entry in Christie’s canon, but it filled a very enjoyable evening.

Read to fill the Set on Halloween square on my 2016 Halloween Book Bingo card.

Uncle Silas / Sheridan Le Fanu

3 out of 5 stars
In Uncle Silas, Sheridan Le Fanu's most celebrated novel, Maud Ruthyn, the young, naïve heroine, is plagued by Madame de la Rougierre from the moment the enigmatic older woman is hired as her governess. A liar, bully, and spy, when Madame leaves the house, she takes her dark secret with her. But when Maud is orphaned, she is sent to live with her Uncle Silas, her father's mysterious brother and a man with a scandalous--even murderous--past. And, once again, she encounters Madame, whose sinister role in Maud's destiny becomes all too clear.

Could a book get any more gothic? An orphaned “girl” (she is 17 after all, a young woman really), a sinister uncle, a crumbling house on a neglected estate, a conniving cousin, a sinister governess, and everyone with mysterious reasons for their actions.

The horror of this novel is all atmosphere and the unknown. Our main character, Maud, is a strange combination of naïve and knowledgeable, with just enough knowledge to keep her alive and enough naiveté to keep her bumping along into trouble.

A major part of the suspense is waiting for the death of Maud’s eccentric father and then watching as her affairs are left in the hands of a man whom she has never met, her father’s disgraced brother, Silas. Typically Victorian, we do not meet the man who gives the book its title until we are into the 190s page-wise. I was also left wondering how deeply involved in the actual nefarious schemes Maud’ father actually was—he seemed to be aiding & abetting on more than one occasion. If you can’t trust the men who are appointed by society to run your life, what’s an inexperienced heiress to do?

Modern women will be left with a great sense of relief that we can now be responsible for our own futures and relationships, without being expected to obey the dictates of men who clearly have their own best interests at heart, rather than ours.

Read to fill the Classic Horror square of my 2016 Halloween Book Bingo card.

Libriomancer / Jim Hines

4 out of 5 stars
Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of the secret organization founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg. Libriomancers are gifted with the ability to magically reach into books and draw forth objects. When Isaac is attacked by vampires that leaked from the pages of books into our world, he barely manages to escape. To his horror he discovers that vampires have been attacking other magic-users as well, and Gutenberg has been kidnapped.
With the help of a motorcycle-riding dryad who packs a pair of oak cudgels, Isaac finds himself hunting the unknown dark power that has been manipulating humans and vampires alike. And his search will uncover dangerous secrets about Libriomancy, Gutenberg, and the history of magic. . . .

How could I resist Isaac Vainio, the main character of Libriomancer? Not only does he work in a library, but he is a cataloguer like myself, although my job has not yet required me to fight off vampires nor take on the care and feeding of a fire-spider. Isaac has been banished to “just” library work, after having a bit of a “magical incident” and is trying to earn his way back into the action.

Nor is Isaac the only character to enjoy. There are some great secondary characters who also have interesting back stories. Not to mention the Porters, the organization of Libriomancers—those folk who can use works of fiction to produce swords, truth serums, guns, gems, etc. in the real world. Plus there are various “strains” of vampires, depending on which era’s fiction they are pulled from (“Sparklers” being the Twilight series’ offering in this regard). Arming himself with books, Isaac attempts to go right some wrongs—well-read science fiction readers will get a smile out of many of his choices.

This is very much a first offering in the series—there is an awful lot of mutual explaining done between Isaac and the other characters to help the reader into the pictures. With any luck, there will be less info-dumping in the next volume and we can just get on with the adventures!

May I also say that I am a recovering arachnophobic, but Smudge the fire spider didn’t trigger any strong reactions for me. Having said that, I don’t react to such things nearly as strongly as I used to (the giant spiders in The Hobbit and Shelob in The Lord of the Rings caused me some nightmares when I was a young person!)

The whole idea of “agent banished to desk work for bad behaviour” reminded me strongly of Mick Herron’s Slough House series, in which failed British secret service agents are sent to do the most boring & repetitive intelligence work to encourage them to quit and move on.

Read to fulfill the Creepy Crawlies square of my 2016 Halloween Book Bingo card.

Crooked House / Agatha Christie

3 out of 5 stars
In the sprawling, half-timbered mansion in the affluent suburb of Swinly Dean, Aristide Leonides lies dead from barbiturate poisoning. An accident? Not likely. In fact, suspicion has already fallen on his luscious widow, a cunning beauty fifty years his junior, set to inherit a sizeable fortune, and rumored to be carrying on with a strapping young tutor comfortably ensconced in the family estate. But criminologist Charles Hayward is casting his own doubts on the innocence of the entire Leonides brood. He knows them intimately. And he's certain that in a crooked house such as Three Gables, no one's on the level...

A nice evening’s reading. One of Dame Agatha’s stand-alone novels, not featuring any of her famous sleuths. It’s a decent little story but I was somewhat disappointed to have guessed the identity of the killer fairly early on in the book. Quite unlike And Then There Were None. Nevertheless, an interesting glimpse into British society right post-World War II. How much society has changed—never today would a police department allow an amateur detective to hang around and pollute their crime scene and witness pool, no matter if he is tentatively engaged to one of the family in question!

As one would expect of a female author, there are a number of strong female characters (plus the normal assortment of weaker vessels, but that is also true of the men). Women had taken on more duties & responsibilities during war time and it would be hard to give them back up. Christie gives us an interesting man as narrator, probably much more rational and clear thinking than your average person, but useful in this context.

Read to fill the Closed Room Mystery square on my 2016 Halloween Book Bingo card.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Huntress Moon / Alexandra Sokoloff

4.5 stars out of 5
FBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke is closing in on a bust of a major criminal organization in San Francisco when he witnesses an undercover member of his team killed right in front of him on a busy street, an accident Roarke can’t believe is coincidental. His suspicions put him on the trail of a mysterious young woman who appears to have been present at each scene of a years-long string of “accidents” and murders, and who may well be that most rare of killers: a female serial.
Roarke’s hunt for her takes him across three states...while in a small coastal town, a young father and his five-year old son, both wounded from a recent divorce, encounter a lost and compelling young woman on the beach and strike up an unlikely friendship without realizing how deadly she may be.
As Roarke uncovers the shocking truth of her background, he realizes she is on a mission of her own, and must race to capture her before more blood is shed.

Santa Muerte, that was good!

This book is a perfect example for me of the role of timing in whether I enjoy a book or not. I tried to read Huntress Moon earlier in the month, but I went into it with an “urban fantasy” mindset, expecting something a bit on the lightish side, something with a bit of humour. If that is what you want, this is not the droid you are looking for. There are a few fantastical elements, but I wouldn’t characterize it as urban fantasy at all.

This is an intense drama of an FBI agent in search of a serial killer. We even know who the killer is, so the tension develops mostly from the “can Matthew Roarke put the pieces together” question, as well as determining the motive of our killer. When I returned to HM with no particular expectations, this story grabbed me by the collar and made me pay attention. Roarke is a former member of the Bureau’s Behavioral Sciences unit, fighting with his own history as he struggles to get a handle on this case.

Recommended for fans of the Criminal Minds television show or of FBI/BAU nonfiction.

Read to fill the Full Moon square of my 2016 Halloween Book Bingo card.

The Woman in White / Willkie Collins

3.5 stars out of 5
'In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop... There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white'

The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.

Very Victorian. When I start to read books of this vintage, I have to remember to slow myself down and get ready to appreciate a story told in a different way from today’s literature. One of my earliest literature loves was H. Rider Haggard’s She, giving me an early appreciation of the Victorian novel which I can tap into when starting new works. The story is approached more slowly and circuitously.

I can certainly see why The Woman in White is considered a classic. Collins builds an intriguing mystery and a wonderful cast of characters. What a wonderful villain Count Fosco is! With his white mice, canaries, and cockatoo in tow!

The tale gives me great sympathy for the gentlewomen of the time—the course of one’s life determined so strongly by the choice of marriage partner. Once chosen, there was no escape and a woman was expected to stick by her husband, no matter how dreadful. Cheeringly, Laura’s lawyers seemed to be very protective of her, but one can consider how much they were protecting the woman versus the fortune.

And anyone who doesn’t like how their boss is treating them should attend to the life of a servant in this novel—where one can be yelled at, belittled, ignored, mistreated, even physically punished, all at a whim. [Just as an aside, do you suppose this is where the unfortunate tendency of some people to abuse staff at restaurants and retail stores comes from? People treating them like the unfortunate servants of the past?]

Definitely a worthwhile read if you are interested in the evolution of the mystery genre. Get a glass of wine, settle in for a leisurely evening or three, and prepare to make your way slowly through the evidence.

The Monstrumologist / Rich Yancey

3.5 stars out of 5
These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me . . . and the one who cursed me.

So starts the diary of Will Henry, orphaned assistant to Dr. Pellinore Warthorpe, a man with a most unusual specialty: monstrumology, the study of monsters. In his time with the doctor, Will has met many a mysterious late-night visitor, and seen things he never imagined were real. But when a grave robber comes calling in the middle of the night with a gruesome find, he brings with him their most deadly case yet.

A gothic tour de force that explores the darkest heart of man and monster and asks the question: When does man become the very thing he hunts?

A pseudo-Victorian novel set in 1888, The Monstrumologist has the same rather over-wrought style of that time period and is chock full of orphans, including our protagonist Will Henry. But this is very much a product of the twenty first century, being much more direct and much more graphic than the standard Victorian novel.

On full display is the mad scientist stereotype. The doctor whom Will Henry serves is depicted as amoral, pursuing scientific knowledge without much reference to morals or emotions. He attempts to be the ultimate unbiased observer. There is some exploration of the danger of obsession , with references to Nietzsche (referencing his statement: If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you). Indeed, by book’s end, the reader can certainly see where the doctor’s childhood has shaped the nature of the conflict, which is interesting considering that Sigmund Freud’s theories were developed during the Victorian period and are generally accepted into popular thinking today.

The mad scientist stereotype always frustrates me, appearing as it does from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein right through to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. It makes a good story, which is why it continues to be used, but it also feeds that strain of scientific ignorance and fear that seems to run just beneath the surface of so many issues of our times. Both industrialists and environmentalists who refuse to believe various scientific studies, for example, and have dug into their positions. Rather than actually think and truly negotiate, they merely refuse to believe each’s other’s positions and go nowhere and nothing changes. (Science is a method of investigation, not a religious belief.)

For those with delicate sensibilities, this may be a book to avoid as there is a lot of what I found to be gratuitous gore. But there are a few interesting ideas being bounced around and once again, I find myself impressed a work of YA fiction.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Crystal Shard / R.A. Salvatore

3 out of 5 stars
Akar Kessel, weak-willed apprentice mage, starts events that find a magical device, the crystal shard. Dwarf Bruenor rescues barbarian Wulfgar from the ruins of Ten-Towns, for 5 years of service - and friendship. With help from renegade dark elf Drizzt, Wulfgar becomes a warrior with brawn and brains. Can the trio stave off the crystal shard forces?

I can see where this would have been an extremely popular book in its time. It does, however, very much show its status as first published book by this author and as a high fantasy published in the 1980s. It reminded me strongly of the Shannara series by Terry Brooks, which started off very dependent on The Lord of the Rings for races, imagery, and even some plot points, but which eventually moved off in its own direction. I think nowadays we could refer to works like these as LOTR fan fiction. LOTR was immensely influential and writers were trying to recreate the experience for eager readers, who were tired of re-reading Tolkien’s epic to get their fix.

To give credit to Salvatore, he moves things off in his own direction quite quickly. He may have halflings with furry feet (thankfully, he doesn’t call them hobbits), elves, dwarves, goblins and orcs, but they march to his drum and he doesn’t just copy Tolkien’s plot lines. The good people may have slight shadings of grey to their goodness, but the villains are definitely mustache-twirling, evil-laughing baddies, very typical of the time period. There is some battle detail, but certainly nothing resembling the nitty-gritty of the grim-dark fantasy that is currently popular. The reader can be quite confident that all the main characters will survive to have another adventure and that good will conquer in the end.

Salvatore adds some imaginative elements—for example, Drizzt, our Dark Elf main character, has a magical panther companion. Instead of a pastoral setting, all of his characters live on or right beside the tundra. The barbarian tribes make interesting enemies and eventually allies (frenemies perhaps?) for the settled humans. I was particularly amused by the knucklehead trout, the skulls of which were ideal for carving, rather like ivory in our world.

Also typical of the 1980s, female characters are scarce and barely have names, let alone roles to play in the action. But this is merely the first book, so there is room for development. The ending leads me to believe that the second book will be the more familiar quest tale.

Book number 229 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Uplift War / David Brin

4 out of 5 stars
As galactic armadas clash in quest of the ancient fleet of the Progenitors, a brutal alien race seizes the dying planet of Garth.  The various uplifted inhabitants of Garth must battle their overlords or face ultimate extinction.  At stake is the existence of Terran society and Earth, and the fate of the entire Five Galaxies.  Sweeping, brilliantly crafted, inventive and dramatic, The Uplift War is an unforgettable story of adventure and wonder from one of today's science fiction greats.

David Brin writes entertaining aliens! The Gooksyu-Gubru clan made me see space chickens in my mind and I just loved them. They remain neuter (and white) until they are allowed to form a triad (and run a project), at the end of which they gain both gender & colour. Then the bird at the top of the pecking order becomes a queen and the other two become her princes. So, a lot is riding on the outcome of their “crusade” against Earthling humans and neo-chimpanzees.

The galactic manoeuvring in this series remind me very much of complex Byzantine politics—there are patron races and client races. Earth is unique in that humans “uplifted” themselves to a space travelling race, seemingly without the intercession of a patron race (although there is debate about whether an unknown race uplifted them & then disappeared, the Von Daniken hypothesis). And then humans had the temerity to uplift both dolphins and chimpanzees before they made contact with the Eatees, putting some of the elder patron races’ noses out of joint. Hence the desire of the Gooksyu-Gubru to prove that the Neo-Chims are not really uplifted and that the Earthings are mismanaging the planet Garth that they have been assigned to rehabilitate.

The pleasure is in the details for me—the details of Neo-Chim society in this book. The dance clubs which replicate the “rain dance” experience of wild chimps on Earth, their oaths (By Goodall), their tremendous senses of humour, and the ability to undertake guerilla/gorilla warfare. In this universe, species that possess an appreciation of humour have to stick together!

Very enjoyable. This was book 228 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall / Vaughan Entwistle

3.5 stars out of 5
Arthur Conan Doyle has just killed off Sherlock Holmes in "The Final Problem," and he immediately becomes one of the most hated men in London. So when he is contacted by a medium "of some renown" and asked to investigate a murder, he jumps at the chance to get out of the city. The only thing is that the murder hasn't happened yet—the medium, one Hope Thraxton, has foreseen that her death will occur at the third séance of a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research at her manor house in the English countryside.

Along for the ride is Conan Doyle's good friend Oscar Wilde, and together they work to narrow down the list of suspects, which includes a mysterious foreign Count, a levitating magician, and an irritable old woman with a "familiar." Meanwhile, Conan Doyle is enchanted by the plight of the capricious Hope Thraxton, who may or may not have a more complicated back-story than it first appears. As Conan Doyle and Wilde participate in séances and consider the possible motives of the assembled group, the clock ticks ever closer to Hope's murder, in The Revenant of Thraxton Hall by Vaughn Entwistle.

I chose this book to fulfill the Mystery square on my 2016 Halloween Book Bingo card. It was another book that has been on my TBR list for a while and this was a perfect excuse to read it.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the main character, with Oscar Wilde in tow, as they investigate mysterious happenings which begin in London and quickly move to Thraxton Hall. Historically, these two men did meet, got along very well, and inspired each other’s writing. So it’s a plausible assumption that they could have shared an adventure or two (although there’s no historical record of that happening). Also, Conan Doyle was a pretty committed spiritualist, including being buried standing up (apparently as part of his belief system). May I say also that I appreciate that the author used Conan Doyle as a main character, instead of Sherlock Holmes as other authors have done--I saw a play this year which teamed Wilde and Holmes, the real and the fictional--and while it is entertaining, I think the author Doyle deserves some time at the centre of things instead of his creation.

Although dealing with men and women of the Victorian age, the writing had an extremely modern feel. It was very cleverly plotted and the situations were appropriate, but the words which the characters used to express themselves rang just a bit too 21st century for me. I also felt that Oscar Wilde was used rather stereotypically, with his concern about his appearance and his enormous ego being used to create humour. Nevertheless, it was fun and I was certainly motivated to keep reading and find out who was behind the goings on.

There were a few annoying typos in my volume (confusing quotation marks) and I think that I shall be reading a biography of Oscar Wilde before I tackle the second volume of this series. Definitely a fun series which I intend to continue with.

Friday, 7 October 2016

London Falling / Paul Cornell

3.5 out of 5 stars
The dark is rising . . .
Detective Inspector James Quill is about to complete the drugs bust of his career. Then his prize suspect Rob Toshack is murdered in custody. Furious, Quill pursues the investigation, co-opting intelligence analyst Lisa Ross and undercover cops Costain and Sefton. But nothing about Toshack’s murder is normal. Toshack had struck a bargain with a vindictive entity, whose occult powers kept Toshack one step ahead of the law – until his luck ran out.

Now, the team must find a 'suspect' who can bend space and time and alter memory itself. And they will kill again. As the group starts to see London’s sinister magic for themselves, they have two choices: panic or use their new abilities. Then they must hunt a terrifying supernatural force the only way they know how: using police methods, equipment and tactics. But they must all learn the rules of this new game - and quickly. More than their lives will depend on it.

I chose this novel to read to fill the Fall into a Good Book square of my 2016 Halloween Book Bingo card. I’d been wanting to read it for a while, since it was recommended by none other than Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Peter Grant series which I really like.

And I can see some basic similarities. Both authors obviously know & love London city. They also both see the city’s potential for magical history. But I find Aaronovitch’s series to be more optimistic and more playful. Cornell shows us a much darker, grittier, and more threatening magical system.

I also felt like the whole book was set-up, which may pay off in the second book. For me, things didn’t really snap into place until the very last chapters. Up until that point, I could have walked away without finishing the book and had no regrets. However, those last few pages have convinced me that I need to know where things go from here.

As I approach the end of several other beloved series, I am experiencing anticipatory mourning, so it is good to have another good series queued up and ready to roll. The Shadow Police will definitely help me with the loss of my favourites.

Darkness, Take My Hand / Dennis Lehane

4 out of 5 stars
The master of the new "noir," Dennis Lehane magnificently evokes the dignity and savagery of working-class Boston in this terrifying tale of darkness and redemption.

Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro's latest client is a prominent Boston psychiatrist running scared from a vengeful Irish mob. The private investigators know something about cold-blooded retribution. Born and bred on the mean streets of blue-collar Dorchester, they've seen the darkness that lives in the hearts of the unfortunate. But an evil for which even they are unprepared is about to strike as secrets long-dormant erupt, setting off a chain of violent murders that will stain everything--including the truth.

  I read this book to fill the Set in New England square on my 2016 Halloween Book Bingo card.

Wow, this was gritty and dark. A part of Boston that had never, ever crossed my mind—the Irish working class and the mafia that sprang from them. And the two investigators, Patrick and Angela, not only share this background but have stuck around & continued to work in it.

I missed the first book and truthfully I don’t know that I will read another in the series. One dose of bleakness may be sufficient for my needs. If you have difficulty with explicit murder and/or torture scenes, you may want to give this book a miss. I finished it shortly before bedtime and must confess that it spawned a series of unsettling dreams overnight.

As the book starts, it seems like our two investigators are getting their lives in order. Then they are offered what seems like a simple job, surveillance of a college boy. And with that, they are pulled into a whirlpool of intrigue. Lehane does a remarkable job of fleshing out their relationships with the community and each other without doing a recognizable info-dump. Very well written.

If you are a fan of noir, I would recommend Darkness, Take My Hand.

A Cast of Falcons / Steve Burrows

4 out of 5 stars
The threat from above is an ever-present danger.  A man falls to his death from a high cliff face in northern Scotland. From a distance, another man watches. He approaches the body, tucks a book into the man’s pocket, and leaves.  When the Scottish police show Inspector Domenic Jejeune the book, a bird guide bearing his name, he can truthfully say he that he has no idea how it came to be in the dead man’s pocket. What he does not tell them is that he recognizes the book instantly. So, while puzzled, he is not entirely surprised when his brother Damian emerges from his fugitive existence to reveal that the dead man is a notorious “taker” — a poacher of live wild falcons.

The case gets personal in a way Jejeune has never experienced before. He is acutely aware that with each passing day, rare birds are being illegally taken from the wild. And hovering over his every move is the threat that if he gets this one wrong, no one in the North Norfolk Constabulary will escape the wrath of the nation’s highest-placed officials.

If you are a birder and you like murder mysteries, you are already predisposed to like the Birder Murder Mysteries by Steve Burrows. This third installment of the series returns the reader to the Norfolk area of England, to see what Inspector Domenic Jejeune is involved in now—obviously from the title, falcons feature as an important part of the action.

Developments include Jejeune’s relationships with his partner Lindy, his sergeant Danny Maik, and his superior officer Colleen Shepard, among others. Plus we finally get a peek into the family backstory that has been alluded to in the previous two books.

Burrows uses his life experience as a birder and as a Brit transplanted to Canada to craft an engaging main character (Jejeune is a Canadian ex-pat in Norfolk).

The plot gets a bit messier, just like real life, and the entanglements get more difficult to sort out. Justice proves a little more difficult to achieve. A satisfying story—but I can see the possibilities for the next book A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, which I will be on the look-out for next year.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Dead in the Family / Charlaine Harris

3 out of 5 stars
Sookie Stackhouse is dealing with a whole host of family problems, ranging from her own kin (a non-human fairy and a telepathic second cousin) demanding a place in her life, to her lover Eric's vampire sire, an ancient being who arrives with Eric's 'brother' in tow at a most inopportune moment. And Sookie's tracking down a distant relation of her ailing neighbour (and ex), Vampire Bill Compton.

In addition to the multitude of family issues complicating her life, the werewolf pack of Shreveport has asked Sookie for a special favour, and since Sookie is an obliging young woman, she agrees. But this favour for the wolves has dire results for Sookie, who is still recovering from the trauma of her abduction during the Fairy War.

 Not as much fun as earlier books, but still a good way to see my way through the first migraine headache that I have had in many years! This was a good distraction.

Although Sookie and Eric seem to have gelled into a couple, this actually takes away much of the plot tension from the story. Despite the fact that Eric is often away, they seem to have lost the push and pull in their relationship that made previous books so addictive for me.

On the plus side, we get to know Sookie’s little telepathic cousin, Hunter, a little better and her fairy cousin Claude moves in and becomes marginally more likeable. Sookie’s brother, Jason, seems to have matured a bit as well, even if he has moved on awfully quickly from his marriage to the late & unlamented Crystal.

And it’s not only Sookie’s family that gets time in this installment—Eric’s vampire sire and “little brother” show up. Of course his sire is an ancient Roman and the “brother” is the Russian Romanov prince who was so damaged by the time he became a vampire that he is unstable and dangerous (shades of Anne Rice in both of these matters). Plus, Sookie finds a “sister” of Bill’s, someone to assist him in regaining his health after his gallantry in book 9. (However, she very much resembles Bill’s mortal wife from the 1800s, so we will have to see how Sookie deals with that kind of competition for Bill’s affection, little dog-in-the-manger that she is).

All in all, a very appropriate title for this volume, as there are many family ties explored. Also included: some heavy foreshadowing, as Sookie contemplates her age and how long Eric or Bill will remain interested in her when she is no longer young & pretty. Since there have also been discussions of how much more blood exchange can take place between Sookie & Eric without turning her, this will no doubt be an issue dealt with more thoroughly in the last 3 books.

Dead and Gone / Charlaine Harris

3.5 stars out of 5
The vamps have been out for years, and now the weres and shifters have decided to follow the lead of the undead and reveal their existence to the ordinary world. Sookie Stackhouse already knows about them, of course - her brother turns into a panther at the full moon, she's friend to the local were pack, and Sam, her boss at Merlotte's bar, is a shapeshifter.

The great revelation goes well at first - then the horribly mutilated body of a were-panther is found in the parking lot of Merlotte's, and Sookie agrees to use her telepathic talent to track down the murderer. But there is a far greater danger than this killer threatening Bon Temps: a race of unhuman beings, older, more powerful, and far more secretive than the vampires or the werewolves, is preparing for war. And Sookie is an all-too-human pawn in their ages-old battle...

This seems to be the point in this rather long series where the author was losing interest in these characters but was still being encouraged to produce books by her publisher.  While still entertaining, they are becoming cookie-cutter books, with predictable characters in predictable predicaments solving their problems in predictable ways.

This should have been the book to deal with the “coming out” stories of the Were community, and instead it gets hijacked by fairy drama.  So, while I would have liked more detail on Sam, for instance, instead we get a pointless war, complete with the death of Claudine, the only fairy character that I actually liked.  The horrible death of Sookie’s shifter sister-in-law gets almost glossed over and it seems that no one actually misses the poor woman.

Eric gets much more attention in this installment, as he tricks our gullible heroine into a vampire marriage.  Supposedly this is to protect Sookie from the new vamp hierarchy, but it seems pretty self-serving, especially when a quick conversation could have straightened everything out.  By contrast, Vampire Bill comes out of this smelling like a rose, having proven himself devoted to Ms. Stackhouse.

One wonders how many more “wars” can be invented to be the centre of each new book.  I do truly enjoy the setting and many of the characters, but can appreciate why others would quit reading around this point.  For me, this was an easy read during a struggle of my own with a migraine headache (which may actually have affected my enjoyment and account for the crankiness of this review).

One Salt Sea / Seanan McGuire

4.5 out of 5 stars
October "Toby" Daye is finally doing all right—and that inevitably means it's time for things to take a turn for the worse. Someone has kidnapped the sons of the Duchess Dianda Lorden, regent of the Undersea Duchy of Saltmist. To prevent a war between land and sea, Toby must not only find the missing boys, but also prove that the Queen of the Mists was not behind their abduction. She'll need all her tricks and the help of her allies if she wants to make it through this in one piece.

Toby's search will take her from the streets of San Francisco to the lands beneath the waves. But someone is determined to stop her—and whoever it is isn't playing by Oberon's Laws. As the battle grows more and more personal, one thing is chillingly clear. When Faerie goes to war, not everyone will walk away.

Another fabulous fae book from Seanan McGuire. I was finishing it up in the lunch room at the museum where I work and was dismayed to find myself weeping uncontrollably. The military guys already have their misgivings about me and I really didn’t need to get all emotional over black squiggles on a slice of dead tree to prove to them that I’m a little different than they are. Fortunately, I had chosen an odd time to go for lunch and I got to cry surreptitiously. I went home and re-read the last few chapters and allowed myself to have a really good, ugly cry.

Normally, crying wouldn’t be a reason that I would recommend a book, but I find myself very emotionally invested in this series and I was relieved when I checked and confirmed that I am only half way through the series. Plenty of Toby Daye adventures are still in my future!

So what were the good points of this book? Toby gets herself a squire, none other than young Quentin. We learn more about the sea witch, the Luidaeg, and I couldn’t help but appreciate her more! Plus the undersea Fae were both interesting and inventive. Anyone who has been in the presence of an Orca whale will likely be willing to think of them as mysterious representatives of the undersea world!

The sad points? Well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. There are a lot of people unhappy by book’s end—kidnapping victims injured, dear ones dead, irreversible bargains made. As Toby is reminded, everything has a cost and it seems that all the main characters have to pay a bit in this one. As do we all.

So there was sadness, but the decks are clear now for more adventures and more happiness in the next book Ashes of Honor.