Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Fledgling / Octavia Butler

3.5 out of 5 stars
Fledgling, Octavia Butler's new novel after a seven year break, is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly inhuman needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: She is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. Forced to discover what she can about her stolen former life, she must at the same time learn who wanted - and still wants - to destroy her and those she cares for and how she can save herself. Fledgling is a captivating novel that tests the limits of "otherness" and questions what it means to be truly human.

Read to fill the Diverse Authors square of the Halloween Book Bingo that I am participating in.

Octavia Butler is such an interesting author—I have come to expect good things from her work. This one is slightly less wonderful. Maybe call it a 3.5 star book. This is Butler’s take on the vampire myth and she moves it in her own unique direction. As usual in her writing, there is an exploration of power dynamics and (also as usual) some animals are more equal than others. The Ina, as these vampires call themselves, live in communes which also house their symbionts (non-Ina blood sources). These relationships are generally based on mutual choice, although once a vampire has fed from a person a certain amount, that person becomes addicted to the vampire’s venom and cannot leave. So the decision to go must be made with good speed or there is no escape. Some free-will, quickly replaced by dependence. Also, as each Ina needs 6-8 symbionts, there can be interesting household dynamics, rather like living in student dorms.

Also explored is the matter of skin colour. Shori, the main protagonist, has been genetically engineered (shadows of Butler’s Xenogenesis series) to have darker skin and an ability to stay alert and active during daytime hours. Do some within the tall, pale Ina object to these changes in appearance?

I stayed up far too late on Saturday night to finish this volume. Although it is a stand-alone novel, in my opinion it could quite easily have become a multi-volume series. It is unfortunate for all of her fans that Butler suffered from depression and writer’s block in her later years and as a result Fledgling remained a stand-alone. Ms. Butler died much too young.

On Her Majesty's Occult Service / Charles Stross

3 out of 5 stars
Bob Howard was just a typical hacker until he accidentally re-discovered the darkest secret of computational math and nearly summoned an Elder God. He soon found himself working at The Laundry - a bureau so secret even the government barely knows it exists - trying to fight eldritch horrors while fending off the dreaded paper clip audits

 James Bond meets H.P. Lovecraft, with a strong dose of Dilbert. Try being a geeky Bond-wannabe, saving the world from the tentacle monsters, while fending off the pointy-haired boss.

A lot of mileage is made with the requirement to fill in multitudinous forms in triplicate, having to account for every last paper-clip even when saving the world, and other tasks which any office drone (including myself) can identify. (As in Dilbert, when the boss proclaims that all passwords must contain letters, numbers, doodles, sign language, and squirrel noises).

This is a combined volume of the first 2 installments of the Laundry Files, The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue. I had to order it on interlibrary loan, which is why I chose the combined volume, just being my usual efficient self. However, I think the two volumes could have used a bit more breathing room between them. TJM was a definite improvement over TAA (the use of Nazis in the first book put me in danger of getting my eyes stuck back in my head due to frequent eye-rolling).

I was amused and will probably continue on with it at some point. In the meantime, I have developed a strong desire for some calamari.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Richard III / William Shakespeare

4 out of 5 stars
If ever there was a monarch who should have ended up buried under a car park, it is Shakespeare’s Richard III, “that bottled spider.”

I attended a performance of the play by Calgary’s Shakespeare Company and Richard was embodied by Haysam Kadri, who played Macbeth masterfully last year.  He plays the villain extremely well and gave us a Richard with an impish gleam in his eye, giving the audience wry asides about his plans.  I will go see this man in anything he should choose to act in—he is marvelous.  I heard him interviewed about the play on the radio Saturday morning, where he did the “winter of our discontent” soliloquy and I was immediately squee-ing like a fangirl.

Conventional wisdom had it that Shakespeare had magnified Richard’s deformity, to match his twisted mind.  However, the body recovered from under the car park and identified as Richard III definitely had severe scoliosis.  Kadri must have needed badly to stretch after this performance, spending most of it bent over, with one heel rarely touching in the floor.

This was an abridged version of the play, condensed into a two hour performance.  As a result, the action seldom paused for very long and the plot proceeded at a break-neck pace.  A couple of the roles were gender-reversed, to make more parts for women in the production and that mostly worked (although there was one scene where the woman who played Catesby appeared as a dominatrix and it just seemed extremely awkward and out of place).

Now I am just disappointed that I will be out of town during the next play, All’s Well That Ends Well and that they have chosen to remount the extremely successful Macbeth instead of choosing another play for this season.

Magic Rises / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
Mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate, Curran, the Beast Lord, are struggling to solve a heartbreaking crisis. Unable to control their beasts, many of the Pack’s shapeshifting children fail to survive to adulthood. While there is a medicine that can help, the secret to its making is closely guarded by the European packs, and there’s little available in Atlanta.

Kate can’t bear to watch innocents suffer, but the solution she and Curran have found threatens to be even more painful. The European shapeshifters who once outmaneuvered the Beast Lord have asked him to arbitrate a dispute—and they’ll pay him in medicine. With the young people’s survival and the Pack’s future at stake, Kate and Curran know they must accept the offer—but they have little doubt that they’re heading straight into a trap…

How do you keep the romantic tension in a series where the two lovers have come together?  Well, make them doubt each other, that’s how.  Plus, introduce Hugh to the mix—plausibly a much better match for Kate than Curran.  Still with the arrogant, overbearing thing going on, but as long as she’s being strategic about things, why not go with the more powerful guy?

This whole dominance/submissiveness dichotomy that so much UF & PNR seems to retread endlessly still baffles me.  Perhaps because modern women (at least here in North America) have much more responsibility for their own lives now (going to jobs, paying for mortgages, buying groceries, raising children on their own), we like to fantasize about not having to make all the difficult decisions every damn day?  I know that’s why I take tour-type vacations.  The tour leader will tell me when & where to meet him/her each day, what we will do, where we will eat, and where we’re going to stay.  I get a vacation from all of those decisions plus I get to visit a new country & see great new birds.  Win-win.

Reading books like these make me glad that I’m hooked up with one of the anti-alpha males, who just wants a peaceful existence and whose worst fault is that he maybe doesn’t pay quite enough attention.  But I suspect if he started paying more attention, I’d be the one smiling the large psycho smile, fingering a weapon, and plotting where to dispose of his body, so it’s all good.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Station Eleven / Emily St. John Mandel

4.5 stars out of 5
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Twenty years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

Because survival is insufficient
I am vasilating between 4 and 5 stars for this novel, one of the best post-apocalyptic stories that I have encountered. Being a fan of Shakespeare, I had to love it, especially as I am also a fan of Star Trek. The references to both made it irresistible.

I also can appreciate the nods to Stephen King’s The Stand, which is one of his most loved books. However, I prefer Station Eleven because it doesn’t draw the lines between good and evil quite as starkly as King did, and because it acknowledges that this pandemic is a worldwide problem and doesn’t limit the story to the United States.

I am struck by all the links between the actor, Arthur, and the role he was acting, King Lear. Lear had three daughters, Arthur has three ex-wives. In Lear, everyone linked back to the King. Everyone of significance in Station Eleven links back to Arthur: Clark, his best friend; Miranda (The Tempest?), his first wife; Tyler/The Prophet, his son; Kirsten, one of the child actresses on stage the night that he died. It is Arthur’s funeral which draws all of them (except Miranda) to North America just before the pandemic puts an end to air travel. Arthur and Tyler both pursue lives focused on their own vision, letting others fall by the wayside as they go. The Prophet, like so many religious leaders before him (Jim Jones, David Koresh, etc.) claims the right to multiple wives. So did his father, but he generally divorced one upon choosing the next. And I cannot ignore that Arthur dies at about the same age as Shakespeare himself, fifty two.

I found it hopeful that so many of the characters devoted themselves to preserving knowledge—The Traveling Symphony, with their attached Shakespearean repertory, Clark’s Museum of the world before the pandemic, Miranda’s Dr. Eleven comic books that Kirsten carefully preserves. In fact, those comic books represent holy scripture to both Kirsten and to Tyler, with much different results.

At the book’s end, I was left feeling uplifted rather than depressed. I shall have to read it again, in a couple of years, making this a special book for me.

Read by candlelight to fill a square on my Halloween Book Bingo Card.

Measure for Measure / William Shakespeare

3.5 out of 5 stars
Measure for Measure is among the most passionately discussed of Shakespeare’s plays. In it, a duke temporarily removes himself from governing his city-state, deputizing a member of his administration, Angelo, to enforce the laws more rigorously. Angelo chooses as his first victim Claudio, condemning him to death because he impregnated Juliet before their marriage.

Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is entering a convent, pleads for her brother’s life. Angelo attempts to extort sex from her, but Isabella preserves her chastity. The duke, in disguise, eavesdrops as she tells her brother about Angelo’s behavior, then offers to ally himself with her against Angelo.

The last of Shakespeare’s comedies and I get the distinct impression that he was already done with that genre and somehow got convinced to do “just one more.” As part of my goal to see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed, I attended a screening of Measure for Measure, filmed in Stratford, England. If you struggle with Shakespeare, I can’t recommend highly enough that you see performances of his works, rather than try to read them. In this production, I appreciated how well they used the stage, the scenery, costumes, dance, and music. The actor who played Elbow and Barnardine was shaped like a cannonball, but was remarkably light on his feet and extremely agile. At one point, he amazed the audience by tumbling across the stage (as Elbow). The actor who played the Duke took some cues from John Cleese, who he reminded me forcibly of while “blessing” people and reciting religious invocations while pretending to be a friar.

Why do I think that Shakespeare was done with comedies? Well, the ending is happy, as required, but it felt artificial and contrived. The marriage between the Duke and Isabella just feels wrong—what happened to her strong religious vocation? Same issue with the marriage of Angelo & Mariana. Why would an eligible woman want to marry a man who rejected her when her dowry went missing and was so cold and unfeeling? Why on earth would she want to sleep with him, fooling him into thinking that she is Isabella? And yet, she happily complies with the Duke/Friar’s subterfuge and then willingly marries the man.

But the part of the play that resonated the most strongly with me was the point where Angelo has tried to make a bargain with Isabella, her virginity for the life of her brother. When she threatens to reveal his true nature to the world, he turns to her and says:
“Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, th’ austereness of my life, My vouch against you, and my place i’ th’ state, Will so your accusation overweight, That you shall stifle in your own report, And smell of calumny.”
A cold shiver went down my back, and I couldn’t help but see Jian Ghomeshi in my mind’s eye, telling the women who he punched and mistreated, “I’m a celebrity. Do you think that anyone will believe you?” My God, this play was first performed at court in 1604 and here we are in 2016, and men are still saying this to the women whom they abuse! Its still “he said, she said” even in courts of law, as we continue to watch men get away with these crimes.

Anyone who thinks that Shakespeare is out of date hasn’t ever attended his plays. He deals with universal human issues that everyone can identify with.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Sparrow Hill Road / Seanan McGuire

3.5 out of 5 stars
Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.  It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.

They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.  You can’t kill what’s already dead.

It pains me to give a book by Seanan McGuire less than 4 stars. In this case, it is truly not the book, it is me. I’m just not that into ghost stories, although I liked this one as much as I am capable of enjoying a ghost story.

Those of you who have been reading my reviews for a while will know that supernatural aspects to books send me to bed with the covers over my head more often than not. Both The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House required that I read them only during bright daylight hours and then I had to distract myself with other literature as the shadows lengthened. So I was pleasantly surprised when this book was told from the perspective of the ghost, Rose. It made all the difference in the world to me, and I wasn’t bothered by my usual scaredy-cat feelings at all.

McGuire does for the ghostly world what she did for the cryptid world in her Incryptid series—she catalogues, names, and assigns limitations, duties, and dangers to each type of spook. There is even a passing reference to the Healy family (part of the Price family amalgam in the Incryptid books) which makes me believe that Sparrow Hill Road takes place in the same weird North America as that series.

The book reads more like a series of short stories which follow one another chronologically. Rose is a “hitcher,” a spirit who must hitchhike and who can sense which drivers need her help to avoid accidents or other mishaps. As in McGuire’s October Daye series, smell is an important sense—in that series, October can identify each member of the Fae by the scent of their magic. Her own smells of copper and cut grass, if I recall correctly. Similarly, Rose diagnoses what kind of problem she has been summoned to through the combination of smells that emanate from the mortal she comes in contact with.

Although this will never be my favourite of McGuire’s series, I’m sure that I will read future volumes in it should they be published. I read this to fill the Ghosts square of my Halloween Book Bingo.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Halfway to the Graveyard / Jeaniene Frost

2 out of 5 stars
Half-vampire Catherine Crawfield is going after the undead with a vengeance, hoping that one of these deadbeats is her father - the one responsible for ruining her mother's life. Then she's captured by Bones, a vampire bounty hunter, and is forced into an unholy partnership.
In exchange for finding her father, Cat agrees to train with the sexy night stalker until her battle reflexes are as sharp as his fangs. She's amazed she doesn't end up as his dinner - are there actually good vampires? Pretty soon Bones will have her convinced that being half-dead doesn't have to be all bad. But before she can enjoy her newfound status as kick-ass demon hunter, Cat and Bones are pursued by a group of killers. Now Cat will have to choose a side . . . and Bones is turning out to be as tempting as any man with a heartbeat.

There’s a lid for every pot, but this lid doesn’t fit my particular pot. Despite the fact that I do adore urban fantasy, I did not care for this book. Plus I would argue that it leans more toward being a paranormal romance than UF.

My main beefs with it are vulgar vocabulary and situations. I found it ironic that the author thanked God in her acknowledgements and then went on to write a novel with such crude vocabulary in it (and way too much dirty talk between Kat & Bones, IMO—I far prefer innuendo). Also, the whole idea that an attractive young woman had to dress like a prostitute and go commando to attract a vampire seemed ridiculous to me. Attractive young women don’t have to do that to catch the attention of ordinary human men, let alone vampires. (Yes, I know, I’m talking like vampires really exist, sorry).

Plus, I have naming issues. Names of main characters are important to me. Calling your main vampire character “Bones” just rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn’t help but picture him as DeForest Kelley (Bones of the original Star Trek) which simply clashed with the author’s description of the guy. I also didn’t buy his “English accent.” It seemed to come and go, and sounded very inauthentic to my ear. I have close friends from London and northern England, and they sound NOTHING like this guy.

Cringe-worthy dialog and uninspired writing. What can I say? Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series starts to look like fine literature by comparison, and at least Harris can write convincing relationships and sex scenes that aren’t icky. She doesn’t shy away from the odd swear-word or vulgarity, but they are placed for emphasis or with a particular reason, not because she has no other vocabulary to choose from.

There are a couple of interesting ideas in the book—the idea of Cat inhabiting the limbo between the human and vampire worlds and having unusual abilities because of that situation, and Bones being a vampire bounty hunter for example. I could even have lived with the romance if Cat had been less juvenile about it.

I would never discourage others from reading this book—just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean that you won’t love it. Its rating on Goodreads is just over 4 stars, so I am clearly in a minority here. But I personally would never have read beyond the first couple of chapters if I wasn’t reading it to fill the Graves & Graveyards space on my Halloween Book Bingo card. Needless to say, I won’t be reading any further in the series.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Dinosaur Knights / Victor Milan

4 out of 5 stars
Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often cruel world. There are humans on Paradise but dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden, and of war. Armored knights ride dinosaurs to battle legions of war-trained Triceratops and their upstart peasant crews.

Karyl Bogomirsky is one such knight who has chosen to rally those who seek a way from the path of war and madness. The fact that the Empire has announced a religious crusade against this peaceful kingdom, the people who just wish to live in peace anathema, and they all are to be converted or destroyed doesn't help him one bit.

Things really turn to mud when the dreaded Grey Angels, fabled ancient weapons of the Gods who created Paradise in the first place come on the scene after almost a millennia. Everyone thought that they were fables used to scare children. They are very much real.

And they have come to rid the world of sin...including all the humans who manifest those vices.

I enjoyed the first volume, The Dinosaur Lords, but the second volume The Dinosaur Knights is better. The world is already established, the reader knows the main characters, and the action is already underway. The dinosaurs continue to be awesome and the “rules” of their behaviour in Paradise (our non-Earth setting) are refined a bit. Now it is clear to me why the Tyrannosaurs don’t run amok. What is less clear (and may be fodder for future installments) is who exactly the Creators are and what their aims may be.

There are an awful lot of gritty battle scenes in both books, which generally are not my thing. However, to counter-act that, we have Imperial Princess Melodía joining the rebels and learning to be something besides an imperial princess. This book continues to honour the Bechdel test, as Melodía discovers unexpected female friends along the way. My only reservation is that these amigas seem to be very expendable and Milan eliminates them almost as quickly as he introduces them and never gently. There are fewer sex scenes, which is a blessing, as I don’t care for Milan’s execution of them.

I think the trick to enjoying these books is to go into them with an open mind. Probably it helps for me that I have never read any of George R.R. Martin’s books, to which Milan’s books are compared, most notably on the dust jacket. Milan shares Martin’s willingness to dispose of characters, and a certain gritty, somewhat medieval-like setting. Empty yourself of any other expectations before entering the world of Paradise, and you will be free to enjoy what Milan is offering.

There are a certain number of editing errors which bugged me along the way (‘our’ instead of ‘your’ and similar little glitches that would require re-reading of sentences to figure out what was meant). But over all, these small snafus didn’t ruin the reading experience.

Dark and Stormy Knights / edited by P.N. Elrod

4 out of 5 stars
A very enjoyable collection of 9 urban fantasy shorts. I have only read 3 of the authors before (Ilona Andrews, Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine), but I will certainly search out more work by the other authors in the volume.

Of the 9, there was only one which I found a bit confusing, perhaps because I haven’t read more of her work. With the Ilona Andrews and Jim Butcher offerings, I was familiar enough with their worlds to make these two short works quite enjoyable.  The authors playfully filling in the bits between their major stories.

If you are a fan of urban fantasy and looking to explore authors that you aren’t familiar with, these collections can be a great starting point.

I read this volume for the “Dark & Stormy Night” square of the Halloween Book Bingo 2016.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Miss Zukas and the Library Murders / Jo Dereske

3 out of 5 stars
Meet Miss Zukas . . . the very proper, exceedingly conscientious, and relentlessly curious local librarian of tiny Bellehaven, Washington--and one heck of an amateur sleuth! The Bellehaven police are baffled when a dead body turns up right in the middle of the library's fiction stacks. But Miss Helma Zukas--who never fails to make note of the slightest deviation from the norm of everyday life--is not willing to let this rather nasty disruption stand. Her precious literary sanctuary has been violated, and if the local law cannot get to the bottom of this case, Miss Zukas certainly intends to--with the help of her not-so-proper best friend, Ruth, a six-foot-tall bohemian artist with a nose for gossip and a penchant for getting into trouble. But their research project is bringing them a little too close to a killer . . . who'd like nothing better than to write Helma and Ruth out of the story completely!

I’ve been having a grand time of late reading books about libraries and librarians. This first book in the Miss Zukas series was quite enjoyable and an easy, quick read at the end of a long-feeling week.

The book is chock full of librarian stereotypes—enjoyably so, as the author was a librarian at one point and uses them kindly and fondly. Miss Zukas inhabits an area somewhere between Nancy Drew and Miss Marple.  She is no longer so young as Nancy Drew, but still single & overbearingly precise about things, somewhat reminiscent of Miss Marple.  The author also uses her Lithuanian background to supply a family for Helma Zukas, a case of writing what one knows.

I loved Helma’s friend Ruth and their long friendship based on their surnames starting with letters at the end of the alphabet—in school, they were always at the end of any activity requiring a roll call. I found that true to life—sometimes your childhood friendships hinge on these little quirks.

I’ve always been rather puzzled but the concept of a cozy mystery—how can anything involving murder actually be cozy? But this murder mystery will never made you look over your shoulder with any sense of dread (even if you work in a library, as I do).  I would have to say that it gets sewn up satisfactorily and could probably be considered “cozy.”

I will definitely read more Miss Zukas at some point in the future, but it will be awhile. My public library doesn’t have the early volumes of the series, so I will have to interlibrary loan them, as I did with this volume.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

3 out of 5 stars
I’m not sure what I expected when I began this translation of the original compilation of folk tales. I guess I anticipated some surprises, stories which I had never heard before.  And there were a few of those, but mostly what surprised me was how many of these tales were familiar to me!

Virtually everyone knows about Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin, and Hansel & Gretel. It was fun to see the older versions, un-Disneyfied and unadorned.   But what a walk down memory lane, reading stories like The Frog Prince or The Swan Princes.  And the 6 princesses who were each mysteriously wearing out a pair of dancing slippers every evening, dancing underground with 6 handsome princes.  Glass mountains to be climbed, witches to be outwitted, sleeping potions to be avoided, there are always obstacles for the heroes to overcome.  And those heroes seem to be split between princes and paupers, even princesses and common maidens get to star in many of them.

Although there are pious Christian messages overlaying a few of the stories, more of them seem to hint at a pre-Christian past in a tantalizing way. Well worth a read if you are interested in the origins of some of our literary conventions.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow / Washington Irving

3 out of 5 stars
Are all the lights on?  Is there a parent in the house?  Are the windows shut and locked? Double-check!  They HAVE to be if you are going to read this book, which is undoubtedly the scariest rendition of one of the greatest ghost stories ever told: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  While you may have heard of Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and the Headless Horseman, you've never SEEN them quite like this -- through the macabre imagination of the inimitable Gris Grimly.  So, take a deep breath and take a long look. And you may want to bring a flashlight to bed with you tonight....

I have come to realize over the last several months that I owned an impressive stack of comic books as a child, and that they were a very eclectic mix of super heroes, fairy tales, and Classics Illustrated. I’m reasonably comfortable in asserting that it was from one of these comics that I originally became acquainted with Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman.

So for the Pumpkin square on my Hallowe’en Bingo card, I decided to read Washington Irving’s ghostly tale. Imagine my surprise to find it nearly impossible to find the unaltered original story in either my public library or university library!  They were all either illustrated children’s versions (one of which I ended up with), simple versions for ESL students, or scripts for plays.  Both libraries had copies of the original at one time or another, but they have all gone missing.  I’m starting to feel like there was a ghostly conspiracy to keep the original story out of my hands!

As it turns out, I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations of Gris Grimly. His horses were especially delightful.  Ichabod Crane was as gangly and long-nosed as you could imagine and Brom Bones was the bulky bully that I expected.  Katrina Van Tassel was a trifle disappointing to me, not really inhabiting much space in the artwork—I’d be interested to read the original to see how much stage-time she received in it.

A charming story, well illustrated. Someday, I will get my hands on the real deal and be able to contrast and compare.

The Golden Compass / Philip Pullman

4.5 stars out of 5
Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called "Gobblers"—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

The Golden Compass was the last hurrah in my 2016 Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature.  It just squeaked in under the wire, as I read it during the Labour Day weekend.

I rate it at 4.5 stars.  I found it completely engrossing and hard to put down.  Published about 15 years too late for me to read as a child—but how I would have loved it!  It is a dark novel, full of mysterious daemons, a threatening Church, plots of uncertain origin, sinister disappearances, and duplicitous adults.

All the stuff that I still enjoy!  Unfortunately for me, this first of the series came out just as my own life was imploding and I have only recently recovered enough to get seriously reading again.  Twenty years delay in discovering this marvelous introduction to His Dark Materials.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Clean Sweep / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is...different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, "normal" is a bit of a stretch for Dina.

And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night....Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything.

Urban fantasy with a tiny bit of a twist.  I have come to expect good things from the Ilona Andrews writing team, and this book did not disappoint me.  I enjoyed reading about the semi-sentient house which doubles as an Inn (note the capitalization).  Innkeepers have a symbiotic relationship with their buildings, and that bond provides power for doing necessary things like protecting the grounds and the guests.

So, Dina is an Innkeeper, dealing with guests from off planet.  Usually, vampires and werewolves are treated as Earth-dwellers, so I found it piqued my interest that they come from other worlds in this book.  This arrangement provides the authors with the ability to use novel villains and to let Dina travel on some interesting side trips.  We learn the rules that govern Innkeepers, werewolves, and vampires in this universe as we proceed in the story.  (As an aside, for some reason the Inn made me think of Clifford Simak’s Way Station--perhaps it was having to deal with potentially cranky, off-planet visitors.)

Quotes like this amused me:

“I have spent my spare time studying literature popular with young women of this planet. One should always study the battlefield."
Sean glanced at him. "And?"
"I suggest you give up now. According to my research, in a vampire-werewolf love triangle, the vampire always gets the girl.”

Because of course there is a bit of paranormal romance included.  So far, it is contained in Dina admiring both “men” for their physical appearance (and one rather intense kiss).  I know that I have said before that the love triangle trope does little for me, but at this point it is merely amusing and does not over-power the problem solving aspect of the story.

This series has proven impossible to find via the used book stores in my city, so I must confess that I purchased both this book and the second of the series as an early birthday present for myself.  The introduction states that the series is an on-going experiment in creation with input from the fan base.  This first book suffered a bit from that process, but I am still happy that I bought the second book and I look forward to having time to enjoy it too.

Read as part of my Halloween Book Bingo 2016 project, to count towards the Vampires vs. Werewolves square.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban / J.K. Rowling

4 out of 5 stars
As a newbie to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, I’m amazed at the devoted following that J.K. Rowling has built!  Child and adult, those who read it as children but continue to adore it as adults, devotées of all ages.

I love the names that she assigned to characters—of course someone named Lupin is going to be a werewolf!  (The French for wolf being loup.)  It’s these little treats that appeal to adults reading this series.  Rowling nails the angst of school, too, with the dread of being mocked by one’s peers, the fixation on who wins what game, the anxiety about test scores, the rows with friends, and doubting one’s abilities.  These are the worries of childhood which morph into our adult problems.  Everyone can identify.

And the teachers!  As Robertson Davies wrote in Fifth Business, “If a boy can't have a good teacher, give him a psychological cripple or an exotic failure to cope with; don't just give him a bad, dull teacher. This is where the private schools score over state-run schools; they can accommodate a few cultured madmen on the staff without having to offer explanations.”  I personally sometimes learned interesting life lessons from the teachers who hated teaching or who were on the brink of a nervous breakdown.  They may not have been the best at teaching chemistry or English or whatever, but I learned to cope with people who had power over my life and who were not having a good time.

Read as part of my Halloween Book Bingo 2016, to count towards the Witches square.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Tricked / Kevin Hearne

2.5 stars out of 5
Druid Atticus O’Sullivan hasn’t stayed alive for more than two millennia without a fair bit of Celtic cunning. So when vengeful thunder gods come Norse by Southwest looking for payback, Atticus, with a little help from the Navajo trickster god Coyote, lets them think that they’ve chopped up his body in the Arizona desert.

But the mischievous Coyote is not above a little sleight of paw, and Atticus soon finds that he’s been duped into battling bloodthirsty desert shapeshifters called skinwalkers. Just when the Druid thinks he’s got a handle on all the duplicity, betrayal comes from an unlikely source. If Atticus survives this time, he vows he won’t be fooled again. Famous last words.

 This book is an improvement over the third one in my opinion, but not as good as the first two books in the series. I was glad to have Oberon the wolfhound back, being his usual goofy self. I was also glad to know a bit more about apprentice Granuaile and to get some background info on Atticus.

I was sorry that Atticus and Leif ended up at odds with one another—I will miss their Shakespeare quote battles and Atticus instructing the unwilling vampire on how to appear more modern, something which Atticus excels at.

For someone who is supposed to be preserving the earth, Atticus spends an awful lot of time haring off on missions determined by others. Some of this was pay back, of course, paying back Coyote for services rendered and dealing with blow-back from the book 3 mission under taken to humour Leif. One would think that a Druid as aged as Atticus would be less focused on honour and more focused on the big picture—keeping the earth healthy and building the relationships that will help him through the next 1000 years.

I still feel that Granuaile is being under-utilized—hopefully this will be rectified in upcoming books. My hope is also that Atticus can settle down again and develop another circle of interesting friends (similar to the first two books). Having an awesome main character is great, but good supporting characters can kick things up a notch, in my opinion.

Still, some good ideas and I will definitely continue on to the next installment.

Ink and Bone / Rachel Caine

4.5 stars out of 5
Ruthless and supremely powerful, the Great Library is now a presence in every major city, governing the flow of knowledge to the masses. Alchemy allows the Library to deliver the content of the greatest works of history instantly—but the personal ownership of books is expressly forbidden.

Jess Brightwell believes in the value of the Library, but the majority of his knowledge comes from illegal books obtained by his family, who are involved in the thriving black market. Jess has been sent to be his family’s spy, but his loyalties are tested in the final months of his training to enter the Library’s service.

Now I work in a library, so I am predisposed to love novels which feature libraries prominently, as this one does.  The Library of Alexandria to be exact, which has survived into the 21st century.  And I also love dystopian books like 1984, Brave New World, and We, so when The Library also turned out to have a dark, controlling side, I was right there digging it.  And of course, there were conspiracy theories galore, giving the whole thing a thriller vibe.

Jess Brightwell, whose family is involved in the book black market, is accepted by The Library as a competitor for a potential Librarian position.  Do they know his background?  Does he have a chance to go straight?  Does he want to?  Jess meets his classmates and they start the grueling competitive process together, students falling by the wayside as they go.  The relationships which develop are intense and sometimes dark.  I loved the intensity, the frenemies, the intertwining of lives, and the sometimes gladiatorial nature of the competition.  Who is on which side? The Library, the black market book sellers, or the Book Burners?

This book intertwined so many threads that I find alluring, it couldn’t help but be a high scoring read for me.  It may be classified as Young Adult, but that didn’t stop this older adult from falling for it.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Candid Creatures / Roland W. Kays

4 out of 5 stars
In "Candid Creatures," the first major book to reveal the secret lives of animals through motion-sensitive game cameras, biologist Roland Kays has assembled over 600 remarkable photographs. Drawing from archives of millions of color and night-vision photographs collected by hundreds of researchers, Kays has selected images that show the unique perspectives of wildlife from throughout the world. Using these photos, he tells the stories of scientific discoveries that camera traps have enabled, such as living proof of species thought to have been extinct and details of predator-prey interactions.

Each image captures a moment frozen in the camera's flash as animals move through their wild habitats. Kays also discusses how scientists use camera traps to address conservation issues, creating solutions that allow humans and wild animals to coexist. More than just a collection of amazing animal pictures, the book's text, maps, and illustrations work together to describe the latest findings in the fast-moving field of wildlife research. "Candid Creatures" is a testament to how the explosion of game cameras around the world has revolutionized the study of animal ecology. The powerful combination of pictures and stories of discovery will fascinate anyone interested in science, nature, wildlife biology, or photography.

Have you ever bookmarked a webcam? Maybe one at an African watering hole or at a bird’s nest?  Have you found yourself obsessively checking back, to see what’s been happening, which animals are visiting or what the parent birds are feeding their chicks?

This book gives you another look into the secret lives of animals. Biologists are getting more & more creative about collecting data without invading animal lives overtly.  I’ve read in the past about setting bait with barbwire surrounds, meaning that the animals that claim the bait will leave behind hair on the barbs from which genetic info can be gleaned, but this is even less invasive—let a remote camera gather your data.

The only downside that I can see is that animals DO notice the cameras, with greater and lesser amounts of hostility. Chimps check them out, but generally leave them alone once they’re sure the camera isn’t harmful.  Elephants, on the other hand, seem to use the “Hulk smash” form of camera exploration.

I spent over 15 years in volunteer natural history education, often feeling like I had been studying for that position since I first began to read, and yet there were animals covered in this collection that I had never heard of. Plus interesting ways of using camera trap data to learn more about these elusive creatures’ lives.  However, the book begins with an animal we all feel familiar with: tigers.  (Because the world and the internet are all about teh kittehs.)  Field work with big predators can be difficult (they are elusive) and even dangerous (the big ones can kill humans), so remote cameras are a boon to the researcher.

Covering animals from Aardvarks to Vampire bats, in this book you get the “greatest hits” from camera traps from all over the world. I particularly appreciated a few illustrations from the Canadian Rocky Mountains, just west of my city.  U of Calgary’s Environmental Design department featured a display a number of years ago of photos from some of their trail cameras which were fascinating.  A group of hikers on a trail, followed seconds later by a cougar or a grizzly bear.

Nature lovers will be rewarded with interesting & up-to-date info, plus the great photos. Since I recommended that our public library purchase this book, I am very pleased that it is such an interesting volume.