Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Falling Free / Lois McMaster Bujold

3.5 stars out of 5

Leo Graf was an effective engineer...Safety Regs weren't just the rule book he swore by; he'd helped write them. All that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Leo was profoundly uneasy with the corporate exploitation of his bright new students till that exploitation turned to something much worse. He hadn't anticipated a situation where the right thing to do was neither safe, nor in the rules...

Leo Graf adopted 1000 quaddies now all he had to do was teach them to be free.

This book reminded me strongly of C.J. Cherryh’s book Downbelow Station. In both books a huge intergalactic company is using and abusing a population of people who are considered somehow “less than” humans. In DbS, it was an alien race, the Hisa (also known as Downers in human slang). Here in Falling Free it is the quaddies, the result of human genome manipulation, who have four arms instead of two arms & two legs, supposedly to be make them more suited to zero gravity.

There are strong hints of the Frankenstein story, with people often being physically ill when first meeting a quaddie. There is also a security agent on the nearest planet who reacts poorly to them, having envisioned monsters rather than people. So-called normal people react very negatively towards quaddies, just as people reacted with fear & hostility to Frankenstein’s creature.

I also couldn’t help but think of Octavia Butler’s work, dealing as it does with issues of slavery and power differentials. Butler’s works are much more powerful, but this novel does deal with some of the same themes. The quaddies are considered property, rather than employees, and the breeding program that the company had devised for them reminded me strongly of a slave owner using a stock breeding scheme for his slaves rather than acknowledging their personal relationships and preferences. Add to that the sexual exploitation of at least one of the female quaddies, and that parallel becomes undeniable.

This book takes place in the Vorkosigan universe, but does not mention the family at all (for those of you who are most interested in Cordelia and Miles). Once again, like with Ethan of Athos, I am left wishing that Bujold had continued on with this story line, instead of this volume being a one-off. It seems to me that the story is just really getting going at the novel’s end.

Book 225 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.

The Dark Lady's Mask / Mary Sharratt

3 out of 5 stars
London, 1593. Aemilia Bassano Lanier is beautiful and accomplished, but her societal conformity ends there. She frequently cross-dresses to escape her loveless marriage and to gain freedoms only men enjoy, but a chance encounter with a ragged, little-known poet named Shakespeare changes everything.

Aemilia grabs at the chance to pursue her long-held dream of writing and the two outsiders strike up a literary bargain. They leave plague-ridden London for Italy, where they begin secretly writing comedies together and where Will falls in love with the beautiful country — and with Aemilia, his Dark Lady. Their Italian idyll, though, cannot last and their collaborative affair comes to a devastating end. Will gains fame and fortune for their plays back in London and years later publishes the sonnets mocking his former muse. Not one to stand by in humiliation, Aemilia takes up her own pen in her defense and in defense of all women.

This is a serviceable little historical fantasy. If you are into all things Shakespeare or Aemilia Lanier, this book will be better for you than for others with no interest in either writer. The author takes quite a lot of historical points and then, like one of those children’s connect-the-dots pictures, creates an imaginative narrative that paints a picture that we may not have expected.

The writing is solid, the connections are original, plenty of famous names appear in the pages, but I didn’t find it to be un-put-down-able, if you know what I mean. I appreciated the girl power messages throughout, as Amelia struggles to become mistress of her own life and forges important friendships that help her (and her friends) in this regard. And it’s true that many a talented woman has had to use the men in her life to get her work out into the world. Aemilia “just happens” to run into or be related to an extraordinary number of co-operative men in this regard. Will Shakespeare turns from charmer to jerk (an entirely possible scenario, but one that I really didn’t care for).

Two things annoyed me—occasionally, a character would start a sentence with “marry” as a signal I guess of the time period. However, the rest of the time, they spoke like 20th or 21st century people. Easier to read, yes, but then let’s dispense with the odd “marry” and stay in one vocabulary or the other. Plus, there is one scene where a horse is described as “pulling a face” when mounted by a corpulent rider. Horses can roll their eyes, snort, grunt, sigh, many reactions—but I don’t think that “pulling a face” is one of them. The author is a horsewoman and should know better (or her editor should).

A good book and I’d be open to reading more of this author once I’ve made a bigger dent in my TBR list.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily / Katie Forgette

4 out of 5 stars
I attended a performance of this play last week and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The actor portraying Sherlock Holmes, Haysam Kadri, is a great talent and our city is lucky to have him.  (I saw him last month starring in MacBeth and he owned the Scottish play).

This play, at least as performed by Vertigo Theatre, is frothy and entertaining.  When Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde meet onstage, it can only mean good things.  There were a lot of knowing jokes, based on the current audience’s knowledge of historical events, a lot of references to the many witty epigrams that Wilde is famous for.

I maybe would caution the Sherlock Holmes purist—I know of at least one person who might get a bit sniffy about the portrayal of Dr. Moriarty!  He is a caricature of a comic book villain, not the deadly foe that Conan Doyle wrote in <i>The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes</i>.  Played for laughs and delivering them, he is never a serious adversary in this particular play.  Think more of Boris Badenov in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show or Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films.

My cousin enjoyed the play too, perhaps assisted by the fact that she hasn’t read Conan Doyle’s Sherlock and therefore wasn’t at all bothered by matters related to the Holmes canon.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Hidden Bodies / Caroline Kepnes

3 out of 5 stars
Joe Goldberg is no stranger to hiding bodies. In the past ten years, this thirty-something has buried four of them, collateral damage in his quest for love. Now he’s heading west to Los Angeles, the city of second chances, determined to put his past behind him.

In Hollywood, Joe blends in effortlessly with the other young upstarts. He eats guac, works in a bookstore, and flirts with a journalist neighbor. But while others seem fixated on their own reflections, Joe can’t stop looking over his shoulder. The problem with hidden bodies is that they don’t always stay that way. They re-emerge, like dark thoughts, multiplying and threatening to destroy what Joe wants most: true love. And when he finds it in a darkened room in Soho House, he’s more desperate than ever to keep his secrets buried. He doesn’t want to hurt his new girlfriend—he wants to be with her forever. But if she ever finds out what he’s done, he may not have a choice...

This book is every bit as well written & fast paced as the first one—so I have no idea why I had such a hard time to stay focused on it. I didn’t find it quite as enjoyable as You. Maybe because I already knew Joe Goldberg, so there was no “getting to know you” phase. I was just plunged back into his creepy, murderous world. This sounds twisted to say, but I think I liked Joe better as a stalker than as a serial killer.  Stalking provided more emotional tension.

There were some moments for sure. When Joe says things like, “God, I love her brain, all pink and mushy and suspicious.” Or when he recounts his string of murders, but says that since no one else knows, it’s “a when-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest” thing.

I assume from the ending of book 2 that there is a book 3 in the offing. I will most likely read it.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Dead to the World / Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse #4)

3 out of 5 stars
When cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse sees a naked man on the side of the road, she doesn't just drive on by. Turns out the poor thing hasn't a clue who he is, but Sookie does. It's Eric the vampire—but now he's a kinder, gentler Eric. And a scared Eric, because whoever took his memory now wants his life.

 I found this book (#4 in the series) to be the least enjoyable thus far, although I still read it in a single evening. To my way of thinking, this is a transitional volume—Sookie & Bill have broken up, so Sookie needs to find a new way to stay safe in the supernatural community that she is now aware of.

The good aspects? Harris continues her pretty accurate portrayal of small town life in North America (minus the vampires & werewolves, at least in my home town). It can be petty and gossipy, but when bad things happen, people come together to do something about them. Sookie becomes a free agent (Bill the Boring has been sent to Peru) and, because of who & what she is (a telepath), Sookie becomes the focus of a fair amount of supernatural male attention. After being ignored & scorned by regular guys for years, Sookie is starting to enjoy being the centre of attention for a change.

Another plus is that Sookie does not get beaten up in this episode and she starts to think about keeping herself safe, instead of leaving it up to the man in her life. I like her determination to belong to herself, not to any man of any stripe and to be capable of whatever she needs to be capable of.

Negatives? Well, Eric doesn’t remember the days that he has spent with Sookie once the curse is lifted from him, so they are back to square one. Amnesiac Eric is a much different guy than the regular Eric, confused and dependent. (And he unfortunately becomes a lot like Boring Bill). I need more background info on Eric—what was he like way back when he was human? How did he get to be the smart-mouthed Lothario that he currently is (when he’s not cursed)?

Although the vampires are quite well realized and have a logical framework to behave within, Harris just seems to throw in other beings with very little thought. The portrayals of witches and Wicca are down-right insulting, and she throws in a Maenad, shape-changers and fairies casually, just because she can.

This series is fluff & sugar, not great literature, but each volume represents an entertaining evening. Despite the drawbacks, I’m still enjoying the series and will definitely request the next book from the library sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet / Anne Marie MacDonald

4 out of 5 stars
In this exuberant comedy, MacDonald asks, What if Desdemona and Juliet were allowed to live? Constance Ledbelly, a tweedy academic, has ghostwritten the papers of her mentor for years, when suddenly he announces he's marrying a rival. Escaping into her research, Constance decodes the Gustav Manuscript, and discovers a pair of comedies that she believes are the source for Shakespeare's Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Transported into the world of her theory, she comes face-to-face with Desdemona and Juliet and discovers that, far from shrinking violets, they are hellions full of surprises. What follows is a riotous retelling of theatrical legend that brings Constance out of her gloom and straight into a new and confident self.

 I attended a performance of this play last week and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a joint presentation of Handsome Alice (a feminist theatre troop) and The Shakespeare Company here in Calgary. There was a large contingent of high school students in the audience, and judging from their response, it was entertaining for them too.

I’m not a laugh-out-loud-in-the-theatre type of person, but these performers gave me no choice. Laughing had to happen. And yet there was a serious side to the play as well, as we watch a young doctoral student realize that she has been used by a professor and that her lack of self-confidence is holding her back. How many young women (and maybe some not so young women) are there out there who believe that they are not quite enough? Feeling that they have to justify their existence by “helping” other people, to their own detriment? Being used by the people out there who can recognize their neediness? You know, those people who actually have to be reminded on airplanes to put on their own oxygen mask first, before helping others.

In this version of events, Constance (our student) watches her professor take credit for her work, get engaged to one of his other students, and take up a university position that she had hoped to claim for herself. In despair, she is transported into Othello, where she changes the balance of things to prevent Desdemona’s death and learns that Desdemona isn’t nearly as passive as the Bard’s play portrays her! Subsequent adventures among the Montagues and Capulets in Verona reveal a teenage Juliet who is obsessed more by death than by love. Between Desdemona and Juliet, Constance learns to take her life in her own hands and quit relying on the men (or other women) in her life to give her meaning.

Getting all these modern messages presented in blank verse is no mean feat. I admired how well the author had to know the plays, academia, and female psychology. This is a play worth watching, especially if you have a teenage girl in your life who is likely to enter the university world.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Children of Earth and Sky / Guy Gavriel Kay

4.5 stars out of 5
The bestselling author of the groundbreaking novels Under Heaven and River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay is back with a new novel, Children of Earth and Sky, set in a world inspired by the conflicts and dramas of Renaissance Europe. Against this tumultuous backdrop the lives of men and women unfold on the borderlands—where empires and faiths collide.

From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates, a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the grand khalif at his request—and possibly to do more—and a fiercely intelligent, angry woman, posing as a doctor’s wife, but sent by Seressa as a spy.

The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the accomplished younger son of a merchant family, ambivalent about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif—to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming.

As these lives entwine, their fates—and those of many others—will hang in the balance, when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world…

 I am admittedly and unabashedly a GGK fan girl. Since I read Under Heaven three years ago for my real life book club, I have been gradually chipping away at his works and have adored every single one of them so far. This too was a big, thick book and I read it in two days.

But this one wrapped up so neatly and completely—and I’m a person who loves ambiguous endings or slightly unhappy endings, the non-traditional unhappily ever after. That’s why this book didn’t rate the entire 5 stars for me. There were no threads left hanging, nothing unresolved, nothing that I could daydream about after it was done.

Still, the political machinations were fascinating and I’m thinking that I must read the historical text that Kay mentions in his afterword, namely The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel. I have some ideas of which cultures Kay based his characters on, but I would like to have a bit more background.

Even without an extensive knowledge of the history of the Mediterranean area of that period, I enjoyed the storyline. It was convoluted and told from many different points of view. As always, GGK provided some admirable female characters (and a couple of not so honourable women too, of course) that prevent this novel from being solely about scheming men. He is masterful at creating believable women, apparently believing that women are people. As we are.

I enjoyed it immensely, but would probably not recommend it as a first book to introduce oneself to GGK—for that honour, I would nominate either Under Heaven or River of Stars, both of which are set in an Ancient China-like setting and are absolutely stunning.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted / Harry Harrison

2.5 stars out of 5
Jim was left in the custody of the League Navy, this story opens with him escaping from his prison cell on the League base on Steren-Gwandra, where he is awaiting deportation back to his home world. He has discovered that Bibs, a crew girl from Captain Garth's ship, is also a prisoner. Jim holds Garth responsible for the Bishop's death, and plans to hunt him down, with Bibs' help. Garth is really the crazed Captain Zennor, head of an army which continually defies League peace treaties, and now plans to invade and conquer the planet Chojecki. The people of Chojecki are pacifists, having no armies and no police. But Garth's generals decide to attack anyway, since there are no medals for "generals who bring back the troops intact." Jim must save the people of Chojecki before he can face Garth.
The Stainless Steel Rat series is definitely an iconic one in the scifi community—it played with the idea of the charismatic criminal in that genre. It seems to me that Harrison’s SSR proved that science fiction didn’t need to just be space ships and ray-guns, it could also involve elements of the thriller and of comedy. In some ways, Jim diGriz reminds me of a more competent, less up-standing version of Maxwell Smart (of the Get Smart TV show) in the way he bumps along from problem to problem.

These books are light and fluffy. They are great when you need an easy read that will make you smile. As a female reader, you will have to put up with a certain amount of sexism, but at least to my mind it is sexism light. By this point in the SSR franchise, the ideas are quite tired and well worn. This volume is another prequel, dealing with Jim’s early life, but the ideas are basically the same—Jim must think his way out of various scrapes and problems quickly and often in extremely unlikely ways.

The basis of this book is making fun of the military, a rather easy target in many ways. Everyone “knows” that the food is awful, that recruits are worked to exhaustion and yelled at, and that the older men at the top stay safely behind while they send the younger men into battle. Harrison pokes fun at all of these ideas.

If you have found the previous books to be entertaining, you will probably enjoy this one too. If you were bored or disappointed by the previous volume, I would suggest quitting while you are ahead. These books are not getting better and might be arguably considered of lesser quality than the earliest ones.

Book 222 of my science fiction & fantasy project.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Pericles / William Shakespeare

3.5 stars out of 5
Probably not one of the best among Shakespeare’s plays, this romance is still quite enjoyable. The version which I saw was recorded in 2015 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario, Canada). It was extremely well acted and the presentation was beautiful. Instead of employing John Gower as a narrator, a chorus of priestesses of Diana were introduced. Some of the narration was even beautifully sung, a touch which I loved.

Many of the themes that Shakespeare was interested in make another appearance in Pericles. There is some exploration of what it takes to be a good ruler. People are lost and found again. Other people fall instantly in love (a perennial happening in the Bard’s plays). And purity, beauty, and royalty are rescued from the disaster.

For me, the most moving line was uttered by Pericles, when he finds the wife that he has believed dead for years. He himself had pushed her coffin overboard during the storm. When they are reunited, he declares, “O, come, be buried a second time within these arms.” That one little sentence brought tears to my eyes.

I can see where modern audiences might not be impressed by the lack of logic in several aspects of the play—for instance, why does Pericles wife become a priestess of Diana instead of contacting him to let him know that she is alive? Plus, the coincidence of Pericles, his queen, and his daughter, all ending up in one place at play’s end is beyond belief. Pericles acknowledges this when he cries, “This, this. No more, you gods! Your present kindness makes my past miseries sports.”

If you are a fan of the Bard, I would recommend that you see Pericles performed. If you are unsure about Shakespeare, try one of his better known plays, perhaps Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, and if you enjoy those, consider seeing Pericles.

The Lost Child / Caryl Phillips

4 out of 5 stars
Caryl Phillips's The Lost Child is a sweeping story of orphans and outcasts, haunted by the past and fighting to liberate themselves from it. At its center is Monica Johnson—cut off from her parents after falling in love with a foreigner—and her bitter struggle to raise her sons in the shadow of the wild moors of the north of England. Phillips intertwines her modern narrative with the childhood of one of literature's most enigmatic lost boys, as he deftly conjures young Heathcliff, the anti-hero of Wuthering Heights, and his ragged existence before Mr. Earnshaw brought him home to his family.

The Lost Child is a multifaceted, deeply original response to Emily Bronte's masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. A critically acclaimed and sublimely talented storyteller, Caryl Phillips is "in a league with Toni Morrison and V. S. Naipaul" (Booklist) and "his novels have a way of growing on you, staying with you long after you've closed the book." (The New York Times Book Review) A true literary feat, The Lost Child recovers the mysteries of the past to illuminate the predicaments of the present, getting at the heart of alienation, exile, and family by transforming a classic into a profound story that is singularly its own.

 Lost boys. And I’m not talking vampires or Peter Pan, but truly lost children.

An interesting book to read beside and following Lullabies for Little Criminals. Both books examine the situation of the child from an unprivileged upbringing, but I found that LfLC left me with a more hopeful feeling.

This book was Bronte inspired—there are chapters re-imagining the situation of Heathcliff and there is one chapter devoted to Emily and Charlotte. It examines hardship from three directions, really. The hardship of the poor clergyman’s children, struggling to make ends meet and survive on the moors. (By all accounts, the Bronte daughters despised teaching children, the only option besides writing that was available to them). Their brother, Branwell, is depicted as lost in alcoholism and ill health.

Then there is the story of Monica and her two sons, Ben and Tommy. This is the meat of the book, as an increasingly erratic and alcoholic mother loses her sons even while she is living with them (one literally, one emotionally). Their father, from some unnamed Caribbean country, leaves them only their mixed-racial heritage and some talent for football and is also a “lost boy” in some regards.

Combining the two are the chapters featuring Heathcliff, the abandoned child—also with dark skin & hair, rejected for his ethnicity. Mistreated by the family he is adopted into after his sponsor’s death, just as Ben and Tommy are bullied by the fortunate children in school. Emily’s obsession, even as she sinks away towards her death.

This novel is dark and brooding as the moors that Wuthering Heights is famous for. And although there seems to be some prospect of escape for those who remain, the survivors are few.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Lullabies for Little Criminals / Heather O'Neill

4 out of 5 stars
At thirteen, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about urban cruelties. Motherless, she lives with her father, Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter. Baby's gift is a genius for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness that fall into her lap. But her blossoming beauty has captured the attention of a charismatic and dangerous local pimp who runs an army of sad, slavishly devoted girls—a volatile situation even the normally oblivious Jules cannot ignore. And when an escape disguised as betrayal threatens to crush Baby's spirit, she will ultimately realize that the power of salvation rests in her hands alone.

 If you want to get a child to love you, then you should just go hide in the closet for three or four hours. They get down on their knees and pray for you to return. That child will turn you into God. Lonely children probably wrote the Bible.

We forget, as we get older, how vulnerable it feels to be a child. To not be in charge. Not responsible for where you live, what you eat, or where your money comes from. In fact, we tend to idealize those days, thinking wouldn’t it be wonderful to go back to the worry-free existence of a child? We forget that children have worries too, especially if they don’t have responsible adults in their lives.

This book also reminded me of lessons learned when I was old enough to go stay at friends’ houses: whatever you have grown up with is normal for you. Doesn’t matter how chaotic your own home is, you don’t realize it until you have a calmer home to compare it to (or vice versa). Your family’s regular foods will seem odd to others, your mom’s way of slicing a sandwich may even seem idiosyncratic to some. The “normal” routine may seem very exotic to those children who have no routine to speak of.

I was distinctly reminded of the memoir by Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle, where she and her siblings just accepted the way life was with their alcoholic father and dysfunctional mother. They learned early to take care of themselves, because their parents weren’t going to do it. And let’s face it, every family has their own dysfunctions—no matter how stable, there’s some weird thing that every family does that make it “unhappy in its own way.” (Thanks, Tolstoy).

Many lovely turns of phrase, lots of laugh-out-loud moments, plus that last sentence lifted my spirits with hope!

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Drawing of the Three / Stephen King

3 out of 5 stars
While pursuing his quest for the Dark Tower through a world that is a nightmarishly distorted mirror image of our own, Roland is drawn through a mysterious door that brings him into contemporary America.

Here he links forces with the defiant young Eddie Dean, and with the beautiful, brilliant, and brave Odetta Holmes, in a savage struggle against underworld evil and otherworldly enemies

 Did-a-chick? Dum-a-chum? Dad-a-cham?

I’m as dazed as all the lobstrosities that lurk just a little too close for comfort in this book. Certainly I will never go to Red Lobster in the same frame of mind ever again! I found The Drawing of the Three to be more readable than The Gunslinger, so I think I will be able to continue in the series, although I still doubt that it will ever be a favourite.

Oh, all the connections that I could see in this novel to King’s own fiction, not to mention other writers! The quest tale, familiar to all fantasy readers, but a dark, western environment rather than the usual medieval-ish setting. Odetta/Detta was very reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while Eddie Dean reminded me a great deal of Jack Torrence of The Shining. There was even a quick reference to the movie version of The Shining, not to mention Flagg from The Stand. The doors to other realities on the beach reminded me strongly of Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks which has a similar device.

Lots of Tarot imagery and suggestions of an Egyptian connection with the concept of the ka. A busy, busy book in other words.

Book 221 of my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Magic Bleeds / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
Atlanta would be a nice place to live, if it weren't for the magic. When the magic is up, rogue mages cast their spells and monsters appear, while guns refuse to fire and cars fail to start. But then technology returns, and the magic recedes as unpredictably as it arose.

Kate Daniels works for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, officially as a liaison with the mercenary guild. Unofficially, she cleans up the paranormal problems no one else wants to handle - especially if they involve Atlanta's shapeshifting community. When she's called in to investigate a fight at the Steel Horse, a bar on the border between the territories of the shapeshifters and the necromancers, Kate quickly discovers that there's a new player in town. One who's been around for thousands of years - and who rode to war at the side of Kate's father. This foe may be too much even for Kate and Curran, the Beast Lord, to handle. Because this time Kate will be taking on family.

 I just can’t leave the urban fantasy genre alone, especially Kate Daniels—as my friend Carol says, it’s like eating some addictive junk food, but without feeling guilty and gross afterward. I would also liken it to watching your favourite evening TV drama that has a soap-opera feel to it (without the extremes of the real daytime TV dramas). It reminds me of my old favourite, Dark Shadows.

It seems that the fourth book of a series is *the* time to bring a couple together. It has occurred now in this series and in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. The challenge from here on will be to maintain the dramatic tension without the “will they or won’t they” relationship questions. For Kate & Curran, butting heads over who will do what and when will probably still drive things forward for a couple of books.

Obviously, I’m addicted—I’ve actually started to acquire these volumes as I find them at my favourite used book store. *happy sigh*

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Penguin Lessons / Tom Michell

4 out of 5 stars
In 1975, twenty-three-year-old Englishman Tom Michell follows his wanderlust to Argentina, where he becomes assistant master at a prestigious boarding school. But Michell’s adventures really begin when, on a weekend in Uruguay, he rescues a penguin covered in oil from an ocean spill, cleans the bird up, and attempts to return him to the sea. The penguin refuses to leave his rescuer’s side. “That was the moment at which he became my penguin, and whatever the future held, we’d face it together,” says Michell in this charming memoir.

Michell names the penguin Juan Salvador (“John Saved”), but Juan Salvador, as it turns out, is the one who saves Michell.

After Michell smuggles the bird back to Argentina and into his campus apartment, word spreads about the young Englishman’s unusual roommate. Juan Salvador is suddenly the center of attention—as mascot of the rugby team, confidant to the dorm housekeeper, co-host of Michell’s parties, and an unprecedented swimming coach to a shy boy. Even through the collapse of the PerĂ³nist government and amid the country’s economic and political strife, Juan Salvador brings joy to everyone around him—especially Michell, who considers the affectionate animal a compadre and kindred spirit.

 What a charming memoir, featuring the adventures of a young Englishman in Argentina and the penguin he rescued/kidnapped off a Uruguayan beach in an ill-advised fit of conscience. I was particularly amused by the way that he managed to improvise his way through customs back to Argentina with the bird in tow. In our day of increased security, monkey shines like this are definitely a thing of the past. Michell was reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull when he discovered his penguin—Juan Salvador Gaviota in Spanish. In an instant, the penguin acquires his name: Juan Salvador Penguino.

Far more adventurous that I ever was or will be, Mr. Michell takes a first job at a boy’s school in Argentina during a restless time in that lovely country’s history. The monetary inflation in 1975 Argentina could double the prices of things in weeks, days, sometimes even hours. My first visit to beautiful Argentina was in 2002 and the banks were often closed for exactly the same reason! While we were in Buenos Aires, those who needed local currency went down to the leather-merchant just a few doors down from our hotel. He would look at your money, look in the air as if communing with the gods of commerce, and then offer you a sum of Argentine pesos. I have no idea if we got a reasonable exchange rate, but that should be the least of one’s worries when travelling. If you are well enough off to do the travelling, you can take a small haircut on monetary conversions, I think.

I have also been out to the Magellenic penguin colony at Punta Tombo that Michell describes so vividly. Nearly three decades later, there were (ineffective) barriers in place to keep tourists and penguins separate. Despite them, there were people manhandling some of the birds and treating them more like amusements than like wild animals. I was travelling with a small group, but entire cruise ships were disgorging vast crowds of people into the natural area. I was far happier on the following day when our local guide took us to a smaller, more remote rookery where we were the only people present.

Being a lover of penguins (all species), I could see myself falling completely in love with Juan Salvador just as many of the people from the boys’ school do. J.S. becomes a dear friend and confidant to many of the staff and boys as well as Mr. Michell.

Now I want to listen to tango!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Cry Wolf / Patricia Briggs

3 out of 5 stars
Anna never knew werewolves existed, until the night she survived a violent attack... and became one herself. After three years at the bottom of the pack, she'd learned to keep her head down and never, ever trust dominant males. Then Charles Cornick, the enforcer—and son—of the leader of the North American werewolves, came into her life.

Charles insists that not only is Anna his mate, but she is also a rare and valued Omega wolf. And it is Anna's inner strength and calming presence that will prove invaluable as she and Charles go on the hunt in search of a rogue werewolf—a creature bound in magic so dark that it could threaten all of the pack.

 Let me first state up front that I’ve become a fan of the Mercy Thompson series, which this book (and series) are firmly attached to. But it took me a couple of books to decide that, yes, I really did enjoy the Mercy-verse.

I have no doubt that I’ll get to that point with this series too. But first I’ll have to get past the fact that there was necessary information missing from this first book, namely how Charles and Anna met. There are a lot of assumptions made about the reader’s knowledge—basically that you have read the short story that apparently gives the pertinent info. This seems to me like cheating. Surely the first book of a series should provide all the information needed to enjoy it? Not, I guess, that it was too difficult to sort things out, but when I’m reading for brainless fun I don’t want to wonder what the heck the main characters are talking about.

A related rant: the cover art of these books just disappoints me. Briggs actually thanks the cover artist in this volume for a cover which I find amateurish and unattractive. I don’t recall any women with humongous breasts running around in tube-tops anywhere in the novel, so where does this chick on the cover come from? Is she meant to be Anna? Because if so, once again my inner vision and that of the cover artist are thousands of miles apart.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that I really didn’t like the book, so why did I give it 3 stars indicating that I did like it? Well, that would be because I really did enjoy the story and I’m sure that I will read future volumes. I’ll just read them at home where no one can see these embarrassingly cheesy covers.

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Real Planet of the Apes / David R. Begun

3 out of 5 stars
Was Darwin wrong when he traced our origins to Africa? "The Real Planet of the Apes" makes the explosive claim that it was in Europe, not Africa, where apes evolved the most important hallmarks of our human lineage--such as dexterous hands and larger brains. In this compelling and accessible book, David Begun, one of the world's leading paleoanthropologists, transports readers to an epoch in the remote past when the Earth was home to many migratory populations of ape species.

Drawing on the latest astonishing discoveries in the fossil record as well as his own experiences conducting field expeditions across Europe and Asia, Begun provides a sweeping evolutionary history of great apes and humans. He tells the story of how one of the earliest members of our evolutionary group--a new kind of primate called "Proconsul"--evolved from lemur-like monkeys in the primeval forests of Africa. Begun vividly describes how, over the next 10 million years, these hominoids expanded into Europe and Asia and evolved climbing and hanging adaptations, longer maturation times, and larger brains, setting the stage for the emergence of humans. As the climate deteriorated in Europe around 10 million years ago, these apes either died out or migrated south, reinvading the African continent and giving rise to the lineages of the gorilla, chimpanzee, and, ultimately, the human.

 I love the title of this volume, a text on paleoanthropology referencing the pop culture series, Planet of the Apes. Rather than looking forward to an apocalyptic future, Begun looks backward into the Miocene, when monkeys & apes were numerous and widespread.

Judging from several of his comments, he & I were undergrads at approximately the same time. I remember the state of fossil study from a couple of introductory anthropology courses that I took back in the early 80s and I’m somewhat jealous of his ability to continue on in this field. It was fascinating to study and I’m glad to get caught up on some of the more recent research.

I’m glad to see that more attention is being paid to fossils that are not thought to be in the direct line to humans, as well as the acknowledgement that there is a complicated path to human-ness that may be less direct than we could wish for. Just because species of apes are few in number today, we can’t assume that they have always been sparse.

Also interesting is the number of fossils being discovered in Europe and the Near East. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to be looking for apes in France, Spain, or Italy, and yet there they are! Begun introduces an interesting theory that some of the evolution towards humanity may have taken place in European environments and then been reintroduced to the African continent. Climate changes may indeed have moved populations back and forth between the two continents, making a more complicated evolutionary picture than we are used to.

It will be most interesting to see how future fossil discoveries fit into the jigsaw of human evolution.