Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Hercule Poirot's Christmas / Agatha Christie

4 out of 5 stars
Motives for Murder: A fortune in uncut diamonds, hidden by an eccentric old man - A woman's love, too freely given - A business empire built on ruthlessness. Each of them may have been a motive for the brutal slaying of wealthy old Simeon Lee. Coupled with Lee's family, each member of which hated him and wished to see him dead, they present Hercule Poirot with a baffling challenge--one which the astute detective solves only through his uncanny ability to see "the little things."

What does one get M. Poirot for Christmas? A bloody good murder, that’s what!

I love watching the skillful set-up in Agatha Christie’s books—the details that she lovingly points out to us, designed to lead our thinking astray! An excellent red herring meant I was looking the wrong direction when M. Poirot did his big reveal. I was so sure that I had spotted the killer that I didn’t pay attention to anyone else! (Christie – 7, Wanda – 2 so far in my reading of her oeuvre).

The murder victim is deliciously hate-able, the potential murderers are suitably complex people, the motives abound, as does the blood. As Poirot points out, when we are being forced to visit family that we might not normally & there is pressure for a certain type of behaviour, murder becomes a real possibility! So don’t lean on your family members too hard this Christmas—give them and yourself a bit of breathing room and avoid family bloodshed.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Deadly Sting / Jennifer Estep

3.5 out of 5 stars
Most people shy away from blood, but for an assassin like me— Gin Blanco, aka the Spider—it’s just part of the job. Still, it would be nice to get a night off, especially when I’m attending the biggest gala event of the summer at Briartop, Ashland’s fanciest art museum. But it’s just not meant to be. For this exhibition of my late nemesis’s priceless possessions is not only the place to be seen, but the place to be robbed and taken hostage at gunpoint as well. No sooner did I get my champagne than a bunch of the unluckiest thieves ever burst into the museum and started looting the place.

Unlucky why? Because I brought along a couple of knives in addition to my killer dress. Add these to my Ice and Stone magic, and nothing makes me happier than showing the bad guys why red really is my color.


I couldn’t resist another installment of Elemental Assassin—I need a regular supply of urban fantasy if I’m to be happy these days!

Estep continues to provide action-filled plots, consistent with the world of Ashland that she has created for our reading pleasure. Nevertheless, it’s the action between Gin and Owen that rivets the attention in book 8, as we wonder if these two star-crossed lovers will find their way back together again.

This time around, we see Gin doing the patient Griselda routine, while Owen tries to sort himself out. She’s not happy about it, particularly as it seems that Owen and his sister Eva seem to continually need her assistance to get out or stay out of the clutches of Ashland’s underworld. Owen is willing to accept the assistance, but not necessarily Gin.

Gin actually gets some self-reflection time in this book—time to realize that she does make very pragmatic, unromantic decisions mostly and that this may be hard for those closest to her to live with. But she certainly proves that she is a strong, independent woman—Owen may be “needing some space,” but she continues to run her restaurant, take courses, spend time with her friends, and defend herself from all the opportunistic villains who want to take her down!

With her sister Bria and her pals, Jo-Jo and Sophia Deveraux and Roslyn Phillips, we are definitely getting into Bechdel test territory. Certainly they do discuss the men in their lives, but plenty more besides that. That’s what I like to see—a woman realistically surrounded by supportive women friends who are there to listen, support, and help when they can! More of this, please, Ms. Estep.

P.S. All the Southern cooking got to me--I ended up making Cornmeal Cheese muffins half way through the book so that I could concentrate on reading again!

Magic's Promise / Mercedes Lackey

4 out of 5 stars
The wild magic is taking its toll on the land, and even Vanyel, the most powerful Herald-Mage to ever walk the world, is almost at the end of his strength. But when his Companion, Yfandes, receives a call for help from neighboring Lineas, both Herald-Mage and Companion are drawn into a holocaust of dark magic that could be the end of them both.

How wonderful to have a more mature and thoughtful Vanyel to narrate the second volume of this series. Not there is no angst, but it is dealt with in a much more adult way.

A depleted & exhausted Vanyel returns from the battle front, only to discover that his family insist on his presence at home—not the most restful place for the young man. His father is having difficulty accepting Vanyel’s sexual orientation and his mother frankly refuses to believe him, proceeding to push any and every attractive young woman at him. If that wasn’t enough, he has to deal with his former master-at-arms and the local priest, both of whom made his younger life miserable.

However, Vanyel is now a hero, his exploits sung about by the bards, and he & his companion, Yfandes, are called to rescue another young man & Companion during their visit. Demonstrating his magic, skill, bravery, and good judgement, Vanyel is able to start the healing journey for his family relationships.

Book number 268 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

Widow's Web / Jennifer Estep

3.5 out of 5 stars
Once an assassin, always an assassin. So much for being plain old Gin Blanco. With every lowlife in Ashland gunning for me, I don’t need another problem, but a new one has come to town.

Salina might seem like a sweet Southern belle, but she’s really a dangerous enemy whose water elemental magic can go head-to-head with my own Ice and Stone power. Salina also has an intimate history with my lover, Owen Grayson, and now that she’s back in town, she thinks he’s hers for the taking.

Salina’s playing a mysterious game that involves a shady local casino owner with a surprising connection to Owen. But they call me the Spider for a reason. I’m going to untangle her deadly scheme, even if it leaves my love affair hanging by a thread.


It really struck me as I was reading this volume of the Elemental Assassin series (number 7, if you’re counting) that Jennifer Estep is really working her way through all the relationship issues that a woman can have. The first couple of books revolve around being fixated on the wrong person—the one you’ve got chemistry with, but not necessarily shared values. The relationship that’s doomed from the start, but you’re still inexplicably drawn to (that would be detective Donovan Caine).

Then Gin meets Owen Grayson, someone she’s got things in common with—this is the stage where she’s found someone who could be compatible, but she’s not sure he’ll accept all of her, even the ruthless parts. They do the “do we really trust each other” dance for a couple of books, before seeming to settle into a pretty solid relationship.

The last book tested Gin’s commitment—bringing Donovan back into her life, seemingly anxious to reconcile. She passes on Mr. Caine, realizing that they still have polar opposite values and that it couldn’t possibly work. This book, its Owen’s turn, as his former fianceé Salina returns to Ashland, determined to get him back.

Things that I have complained about in earlier books—repetition, mostly—isn’t present in this installment. Estep seems to have either matured as a writer or found a much more stringent editor who doesn’t put up with it. As a result, the books are much more entertaining and my irritation quotient is dramatically reduced.

A nice little urban fantasy hit to keep my addiction alive!

The Drowned and the Saved / Primo Levi

4 out of 5 stars
The author tries to understand the rationale behind Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen. Dismissing stereotyped images of brutal Nazi torturers and helpless victims, Levi draws extensively on his own experiences to delve into the minds and motives of oppressors and oppressed alike. Describing the difficulty and shame of remembering, the limited forms of collaboration between inmates and SS goalers, the exploitation of useless violence and the plight of the intellectual, Levi writes about the issue of power, mercy and guilt, and their effects on the lives of the ordinary people who suffered so incomprehendingly.

How in the world do I rate a book like this? I guess its four stars, because I didn’t find it to be quite as engaging as Night or Man's Search for Meaning, but it was still an un-put-down-able book. I’ll be reading more of Levi’s work, without a doubt. The voices of these Holocaust survivors become ever more important as attrition takes them from us and their story becomes doubted by some.

The Drowned and the Saved is a powerful metaphor for the concentration camp experience. Those who emerged became the Saved, those who perished became the Drowned. As in the two books that I referenced above, Levi tells us that those who appear to be the Saved had to do some brutal things to get that status. He goes so far as to say that all the good people were among the Drowned. So how was he to feel about himself, supposedly one of the elect? His death in 1987 was ambiguous—officially ruled as a suicide, but it may have been an accident.

He says that the Saved were the prisoners who didn’t actually touch bottom while in the camps. It seems that he may have hit bottom well after the fact.

Friday, 8 December 2017

An Excess Male / Maggie Shen King

4.25 out of 5 stars
Under the One Child Policy, everyone plotted to have a son.

Now 40 million of them can't find wives. China’s One Child Policy and its cultural preference for male heirs have created a society overrun by 40 million unmarriageable men. By the year 2030, more than twenty-five percent of men in their late thirties will not have a family of their own. An Excess Male is one such leftover man’s quest for love and family under a State that seeks to glorify its past mistakes and impose order through authoritatian measures, reinvigorated Communist ideals, and social engineering.Wei-guo holds fast to the belief that as long as he continues to improve himself, his small business, and in turn, his country, his chance at love will come. He finally saves up the dowry required to enter matchmaking talks at the lowest rung as a third husband—the maximum allowed by law. Only a single family—one harboring an illegal spouse—shows interest, yet with May-ling and her two husbands, Wei-guo feels seen, heard, and connected to like never before. But everyone and everything—walls, streetlights, garbage cans—are listening, and men, excess or not, are dispensable to the State. Wei-guo must reach a new understanding of patriotism and test the limits of his love and his resolve in order to save himself and this family he has come to hold dear.


I have to hand it to Maggie Shen King—she takes several assumptions and trends, plays them out to their logical conclusion, and makes a dramatic book out of it. Plus I always enjoy speculative fiction that isn’t set in North America!

First, take the Chinese one-child policy. Add to that the preference for having a male child to inherit your goods. Mix in a good dose of authoritarian Communist party, which like most authoritarian regimes is ultra-conservative. This is the world that King introduces us to—where women are so scarce that men compete to be second and third husbands in polyandrous households. We meet Wei-guo, an excess male, who is rather desperate to become someone’s husband and the household that he aspires to join: that of May-ling and her two brother husbands.

Unattached young men are always a dangerous potential source of upheaval in a society, so despite the extreme shortage of women, the Chinese government frowns on single men. Many of these men, like Wei-guo, spend their free time playing war games out in the countryside, something that the government keeps close tabs on, seeing it as a potential challenge to the state instead of a way of venting aggression. Illogically, the government also disapproves of homosexuality, which really they should welcome in their demographic predicament. When the government disapproves of both of these safety values for their society, things are bound to go wrong.

All of these tensions come together to produce a human drama that is well worth your reading time.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Great Starvation Experiment / Todd Tucker

4 out of 5 stars
Near the end of World War II, thirty-six conscientious objectors volunteered to be systematically starved for renowned scientist Ancel Keys’s study at the University of Minnesota in the basement of Memorial Stadium. Aimed to benefit relief efforts in war-ravaged Europe and Asia, the study sought the best way to rehabilitate starving citizens. Tucker captures a lost moment in American history—a time when stanch idealism and a deep willingness to sacrifice trumped even basic human needs.

This was a fascinating read in that can’t-look-away-from-the-car-accident kind of way.  If you’ve read any books about dieting, you’ve probably heard about this study.  Indeed, if you’ve ever been on a restrictive, low-calorie diet, you know how your world begins to revolve around food and you have a hard time giving a damn about anything else.  Now I know exactly how normal this is!

It was an especially interesting book when read shortly after <i>Night</i> by Elie Wiesel and <i>Man’s Search for Meaning</i> by Viktor Frankl.  Both men describe the centrality of food in their lives during their incarceration in the prison camps.  They talk about not having the energy or the brain power to spare to help others, even family members.

Ancel Keys’ experiment would certainly never be green-lighted today.  Despite the fact that his subjects were volunteers (conscientious objectors who chose the experiment rather than military service) and they knew the experience would be difficult, they had no idea how grueling it would be.  It didn’t take long for their sex drives to disappear (Frankl mentions this in the concentration camps, that it actually kept the experience from being worse because no prisoners had the drive to victimize anyone sexually).  Some of the Keys’ guinea pigs (as they were known) continued to go to classes and listen to lectures, but it rapidly became too hard to pay attention.  Keys advised guest lecturers to mention food, which would rivet the men’s attention, at least momentarily.  Meals became the focus of their days and they would become angry & abusive if service was the slightest bit late or if the food was not piping hot (they also felt cold all the time, as their bodies tried to save energy).  A group of men who started out happy, healthy, and social became touchy, angry, and prone to sudden outbursts.  They performed strange rituals with their food—sometimes stirring it all together into a pile for instance.

The supposed object of the experiment was to find the best way to get people back to normal after periods of extreme hunger.  It turns out that the conclusion was to feed them!  The guinea pigs ate at least 5000 calories per day when they were permitted to eat freely again and one man distinguished himself by eating over 11,000 calories in one day!  No supplements made any meaningful difference—just food.  That’s the saddest part really, that these men suffered through the experiment and so little was actually learned as a result.

The Mummy Case / Elizabeth Peters

4 out of 5 stars
Radcliffe Emerson, the irascible husband of fellow archaeologist and Egyptologist Amelia Peabody, has earned the nickname "Father of Curses" -- and at Mazghunah he demonstrates why. Denied permission to dig at the pyramids of Dahshoor, he and Amelia are resigned to excavating mounds of rubble in the middle of nowhere. And there is nothing in this barren area worthy of their interest -- until an antiquities dealer is murdered in his own shop. A second sighting of a sinister stranger from the crime scene, a mysterious scrap of papyrus, and a missing mummy case have all whetted Amelia's curiosity. But when the Emersons start digging for answers in an ancient tomb, events take a darker and deadlier turn -- and there may be no surviving the very modern terrors their efforts reveal.

“Catastrophically precocious”—this is how Amelia Peabody Emerson describes her young son, Walter Emerson (better known as Ramses, for his demanding nature). Several times during this novel, a chill runs down her spine when she wonders just where her darling son is and what mischief he has found in which to embroil himself!

The fact that the author herself is an Egyptologist really makes these books fun. She uses all the historical archaeologists as characters for Emerson to roar and bellow at when he is not debating archaeological issues with vicious thrust-and-parry.

I still love Amelia, armed with her parasol, seeking out clues. Ramses is lawyer-like in his reasoning, endeavouring to manoeuvre around her prohibitions. But “da cat Bastet” really steals the show in this installment—somehow I picture her as a haughty Siamese.

Artemis / Andy Weir

4 out of 5 stars
Jazz Bashara is a criminal.  Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you're not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you've got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she's stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.


Well, we all knew that this second novel by Andy Weir couldn’t be as good as The Martian, didn’t we? Not that it’s a bad novel, but very few books could live up to the level of that his first effort. I think the author is brave to issue it and keep on writing. I’ll be willing to read his third novel, too. The Martian was great because the mission was pretty simple: Get the hell off Mars! This story has more complexities, as there are many other people involved and not all of them want our protagonist Jazz to succeed.

I’d also be willing to bet that Weir has read Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress more than once. Jazz is certainly a competent & independent woman, albeit a little less voluntarily subservient than Heinlein’s supposedly strong, independent women. (Weir credits a number of female friends & acquaintances for proof-reading to make Jazz more realistic—there are still hits & misses, I think, but overall it’s not an awful portrayal). And like Heinlein, Weir is really, really interested in technical details (welding in a vacuum, anyone?).

In Weir’s world, the Moon city Artemis is sort of a colony of Kenya—a surprising little twist that I really liked. I did wonder a little bit about the correspondence between Jazz and a pen-pal in Kenya—it was a moderately useful tool, but I also found it a bit confusing, until I figured out that Jazz really was unwilling to be honest with anyone, sometimes even herself. But I adored Fidelis Ngugi, the “mayor” of Artemis, with all her plotting & planning!

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu / Joshua Hammer

4 out of 5 stars
To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.


I was fascinated by this account of the libraries/archives of irreplaceable old manuscripts in Arabic and other languages of North Africa and the Middle East. The first chapters introduce us to the main players in the manuscript biz, as they try to find & trade for these delicate, rare documents and set up local archives to store them.

I think many people forget how sophisticated the Arab world was, back when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages. They were responsible for maintaining scientific knowledge, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy, while Europeans were being held back by a repressive Church. The Renaissance began when Europeans re-discovered the books that had been preserved by the Arabs.

I don’t know about you, but I remember being taught the history of civilization in grade school. I think it must have been about Grade 5 or 6 that we learned about the Mesopotamia being the Cradle of Civilization and being part of the Fertile Crescent. And still, Western governments & researchers seem to be surprised to discover that non-European people had complex civilizations complete with books & universities. I was glad to see the people of North Africa hanging on to their patrimony and keeping these manuscript collections in their own countries, as they have the expertise to read and interpret them. Too often this kind of collection gets whisked off to some Western repository where it attracts limited interest and travel costs prevent African scholars from accessing them.

Reading about the history & variety of extremists in the area certainly gives one pause. So many of the names of the major players were familiar to anyone who follows the news, especially the kidnap victims. I was interested to fill in the details on why these events happened and what else was going on behind the scenes. I still don’t really comprehend the level of hostility of groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban to art, culture, and literature, but I understand that they have a potentially mistaken idea of what early Islam was like (just as many fundamentalist Christians seem to have a skewed view of what early Christians were like). It seems like most fundamentalists have the same view of the world, i.e. that it is just a temporary waiting room before the real deal, the hereafter. What a limiting way to look at the world!

As a library worker who has dabbled in archival and museum collection description, I have to say that I was sincerely jealous of the people who got to work with the marvelous collections described in this volume. I would give my eye teeth to be involved in the cataloguing & digitization of such a significant resource!

Friday, 24 November 2017

St. Peter's Fair / Ellis Peters

4 out of 5 stars
The great annual Fair of Saint Peter at Shrewsbury, a high point in the citys calendar, attracts merchants from far and wide to do business. But when an unseemly quarrel breaks out between the local burghers and the monks from the Benedictine monastery as to who shall benefit from the levies the fair provides, a riot ensues. Afterwards a merchant is found dead, and Brother Cadfael is summoned from his peaceful herb garden to test his detective skills once more.

What a pleasure it is to find a character and a series that I consistently enjoy. Four books into the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, and I am well and truly hooked. So I am well pleased to see that I still have 16 books ahead of me. The trick will be not to read them too quickly!

Brother Cadfael is a wonderful medieval sleuth—he’s participated in the Crusades, he’s had love affairs, he’s a man of the world, but he has chosen “retirement” in Shrewsbury Abbey. I think his philosophy would be that God helps those who help themselves, although in this installment he receives one of his greatest breakthroughs by withdrawing to the chapel to pray. Abbey politics also feature in these books and Cadfael is getting used to a new leader (and they seem to see eye to eye).

People are people, regardless of time period. Young people are going to have strong opinions, occasionally drink too much and embarrass themselves, fall in love, and generally do the things that young people do. Including getting implicated in crimes. Cadfael is wonderfully non-judgmental for a monk and full of quiet wisdom. A person who notices small details and can put them together quickly & accurately, he is an excellent forensic investigator before such a thing was considered.

A joy to read this comfortable, entertaining series.

The Julius House / Charlaine Harris

3 out of 5 stars
Love at first sight turns into newlywed bliss for former librarian Aurora Teagarden-until violence cuts the honeymoon short.

Wealthy businessman Martin Bartell gives Roe exactly what she wants for their wedding: Julius House. But both the house and Martin come with murky pasts. And when Roe is attacked by an ax-wielding maniac, she realizes that the secrets inside her four walls—and her brand-new marriage—could destroy her.


When your hobby is studying True Crime stories, what do you want as a wedding present? Well, a mysterious house where the whole family has vanished without a trace, that’s what. And that’s exactly what Aurora Teagarden gets from her new husband, Martin. She gets a few other secrets rolled into the bargain without her knowledge, however, that lead her to wonder whether she’s made the correct choices for her life.

The amount that I enjoy Charlaine Harris’ mysteries seems to depend more on my frame of mind than anything else. When I’m in a receptive mood, I’m willing to just go with whatever scenario she dishes up. When I’m perhaps a bit cranky, I start questioning those plot choices and I don’t enjoy the story quite so much.

This time out, I feel a bit cranky about things. Although I thought that the reveal of what actually happened to the Julius family was very well done, I found the relationship developments between Roe and Martin to be questionable. Who in their right mind goes into a marriage with unanswered questions of that magnitude? When you have an opportunity to question the ex-wife, why would you shut her down? And why would you ever go to your former date for marriage counselling?

Yeah, yeah, small town, limited number of people, blah, blah, blah. I’ve lived in a small town and I don’t find it realistic. But I’ve never lived in the Southern States, so what do I know?

I actually own a copy of the next book in the series, which I picked up in a second-hand bookstore. So I guess I will be continuing on at some point, when I have the crankies under control.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Stiff / Mary Roach

4 out of 5 stars
Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

Mary Roach never disappoints me. She is interested in unusual subjects and she approaches them with a slightly off-kilter sense of humour. However she has finally found a subject that I can’t read about while eating--I had to save this book for after-supper reading.

We hate to be brought face-to-face with our mortality and that is exactly what human cadavers do. We have to consider who they were before death and that we will be like them some day. I think even Ms. Roach found herself testing her usual gung-ho boundaries during this research. She talks about the line that she had to ride, to be sufficiently respectful of the dead (who, after all, still have people in the world who care about them) and her usually irreverent self. She retains the humour by making fun of her own reactions.

As a society, we don’t like to think about death, yet we get all emotional about using human bodies (which were donated by those who used to inhabit them) in safety tests of various sorts. I guess it’s not as dignified as we expect the dead to be treated. It also seems to be extremely uncomfortable for those doing the testing.

Weird and wonderful, this is everything you wanted to know about being dead, but were afraid to ask. Mary is rarely afraid to ask. If you enjoy this book, I would recommend her logical companion volume, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Kiss of Deception / Mary E. Pearson

3 out of 5 stars
She flees on her wedding day.  She steals ancient documents from the Chancellor’s secret collection.  She is pursued by bounty hunters sent by her own father.  She is Princess Lia, seventeen, First Daughter of the House of Morrighan.  The Kingdom of Morrighan is steeped in tradition and the stories of a bygone world, but some traditions Lia can’t abide. Like having to marry someone she’s never met to secure a political alliance.

Fed up and ready for a new life, Lia escapes to a distant village on the morning of her wedding. She settles in among the common folk, intrigued when two mysterious and handsome strangers arrive—and unaware that one is the jilted prince and the other an assassin sent to kill her. Deceptions swirl and Lia finds herself on the brink of unlocking perilous secrets—secrets that may unravel her world—even as she feels herself falling in love.


Holy Mother of Love Triangles, Batman!

However, having said that, it’s a common trope in Romance novels, and is used quite effectively in this YA novel. Of course our main character is a princess, one who has become a runaway bride. Unwilling to marry for political purposes to a young man that she’s never even met, Lia takes off on her wedding day and sets her sights on becoming a commoner.

Enraged that his bride has kicked over the traces, her betrothed goes looking for her. He seems unsure of quite why—maybe he just wants to look at the woman he’s lost, maybe he wants revenge. Also pursuing the fugitive bride is an assassin from a neighbouring kingdom whose job it is to eliminate the princess and thus make sure that these two countries don’t unite against his.


The inevitable (in romantic fiction) happens and both young men unexpectedly find that they really like Lia. They both (unwisely) spend time with her and learn the reason that she fled and the things that matter to her. Lia finds that she likes both young men, not knowing that they have ulterior motives for spending time in her company.

I have to say that it took me 2/3 of the book to figure out which name belonged to which man! I could have sorted it out, but preferred to just plough on until the matter sorted itself out. I didn’t really find the assassin’s task to be a sensible one—just let the princess stay lost and the situation resolves itself! Plus, Lia’s quick adaptation to working at an inn seemed too easy. Despite those misgivings, I think that my teenage self would have loved this book. It makes at least as much sense as the Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart books that I was devouring at that age!

Path of the Eclipse / Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

3 out of 5 stars
The willow bends and does not break, but the wind that blows from the west has a name...and that name is Khan--Jenghiz Khan.  It is to the north of ancient China where lies the greatest danger and no one is safe, especially foreigners.The man known to the Chinese people as Shih Ghieh-Man faces the greatest danger.  He is an enigma--a man of strength with no perceivable vices.  To survive the coming storm, he allies himself with the beautiful T'en Chih-Yu, a woman warrior desperate to save her people from the Mongol horde.But the man who offers his help has another, older name-and a terrible secret.  For he is the Count St. Germain...and the greatest gift he can bestow can be bought with blood...or death.

 This installment of the Saint-Germain chronicles didn’t quite hit the spot for me—it seemed to cover a lot of ground (literally), a lot of tragedy, and did it all without much point. It wouldn’t have taken much to push it into 4 star territory, just a bit more focus. As it stands, this book felt to me very much like two excuses to push Saint-Germain into a Chinese and an Indian woman’s beds, and little else.

I can certainly see why female readers find Saint-Germain a sympathetic character—age doesn’t mean much to him, considering how old he is, so even we older readers can envisage ourselves as possible love interests for this enigmatic vampire. Plus, as the Indian woman, Padmiri, discovers, he is all about female sexual satisfaction. She describes a subsequent lover as willing to get her aroused because he knows that it will benefit him, but her arousal & satisfaction are not truly that man’s focus.

Two enormous, diverse countries are explored in this novel and both got short shrift. When the story begins, Saint-Germain has already been in China for some time, long enough for a university to decide that they would like him to leave. At no point is the reader told why Saint-Germain chose China or what he was trying to accomplish there. India is just a way-station on his travels “home,” and the potential for interesting adventures is hemmed in by the rather histrionic plot in which a young priestess of Kali attempts to capture & use Saint-Germain as a sacrifice to her goddess.

For me, the most engaging and interesting part of the book took place as Saint-Germain and Roger over-winter in a Buddhist monastery and get to know the nine-year-old lama in charge of the lamasery. It is a small section, disappointingly quick to pass.

What should have been a more pressing problem—Saint-Germain is running out of his supply of his native earth—doesn’t get nearly the attention that it should. Especially since he and running water don’t get along and he will need to put to sea to get home. Another irritant (for me), was a series of letters from two Nestorian Christians travelling in China, but who remained completely unexplained. It is not until the very end of the book that the survivor of the pair crosses Saint-Germain’s path and I assume that it is a set-up for another volume.

Still, despite my criticisms, I enjoyed this fluffy little fantasy tale and I will definitely continue on with the series.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Night / Elie Wiesel

5 out of 5 stars
An autobiographical narrative in which the author describes his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, watching family and friends die, and how they led him to believe that God is dead.  Night is Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps.

I chose this book as one of several Remembrance Day reads. I read Viktor Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning just before it and, although there are many similarities, there are also interesting differences.

Reading about life in a concentration camp is a brutal experience. Frankl had the advantages of being a grown man and a psychiatrist when he entered the system—he understood human behaviour, both good and bad, and could make assessments that the teenage Wiesel wasn’t able to. The fact is that anyone who survived the death camps ended up doing things that were selfish in order to survive and people who are starving don’t have the emotional energy to spare to care about others. They are numb to both their own suffering and that of even their own family members. Knowing that other prisoners were in worse shape and could have used more help and/or sympathy left these survivors with terrible guilt, feeling that they were faulty human beings who should have done better. They saw horrible things, they did things that they judge themselves for, and it is absolutely no wonder that they had psychological issues for the rest of their lives.

Where Frankl emerged from Auschwitz with a renewed sense of purpose, Wiesel seems to have changed profoundly—from an innocent, religious, and scholarly young man, he became a crusader to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. This book is a testament to his experience, his survival, and his mission.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Allan Quatermain / H. Rider Haggard

3 out of 5 stars
Allan Quartermain is a sequel to the famous novel King Solomon's Mines. Quatermain has lost his only son and longs to get back into the wilderness. Having persuaded Sir Henry Curtis, Captain John Good, and the Zulu chief Umbopa to accompany him, they set out from the coast of east Africa, this time in search of a white race reputed to live north of Mount Kenya. They survive fierce encounters with Masai warriors, undergo a terrifying subterranean journey, and discover a lost civilization before being caught up in a passionate love-triangle that engulfs the country in a ferocious civil war.

I have read Haggard’s She and King Solomon's Mines, and I basically knew what to expect when I began Allan Quatermain. In many ways, AQ is a combination of the other two novels, but not quite as good as either one of them. It’s an adventure fantasy, starring rich Englishmen in deepest darkest Africa. They shoot a lot of animals and incidentally kill off quite a few African servants in the course of their quest. And what are they searching for, you ask? Why an unknown civilization of white people in an area where almost no one has gone before.

When the men find their Lost Civilization, Haggard doubles down on a good thing. Instead of one mysterious white woman ruling the area (as in She), he provides two of them in this novel! And just to show that the love triangle trope is not unique to modern romance literature, both of these queenly personages fall head over heels in love with Allan’s companion, Sir Henry. To say that this causes problems is an understatement. Also similar to She is Allan’s position vis-à-vis Sir Henry, just as Horace Holly played wise, humbler advisor to his young companion Leo.

I adore Haggard’s She, having discovered this portal to fantastical adventure during my high school years. I feel affection for all of his work because of that and it is impossible for me to rate it objectively, but if you are only going to read one of his adventure fantasies, choose She and get to know She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Allan is just not quite as much fun.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Man's Search for Meaning / Viktor E. Frankl

5 out of 5 stars
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl's theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos ("meaning")-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.

If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.

This seemed like a fitting book to read on the Remembrance Day weekend, especially since I recently read Anne Frank’s Diaries. It is a harrowing reading experience, but also strangely comforting. Frankl details his concentration camp history in order to show us the how and why of survival.

I think it was Frankel’s even-handedness that impressed me the most. He sees evil when it presents itself, in the form of sadistic guards and other prisoners who lord it over their peers, but he also acknowledges the presence of good people in difficult situations—the server in the food line who always scoops from the bottom of the soup pot, giving everyone a chance at one of those longed-for peas, the guard who nudges the weaker prisoner towards lighter duties, the fellow marcher who offers a hand.

Survival is often a matter of luck—choosing the right work assignment or choosing a favourable move to another camp, but each person was also responsible for their own luck by paying attention and helping others when they were able or stroking the ego of a guard when the chance arose. Frankl points out that most of those who survived had a bigger goal—a loved one to be reunited with or a project to be finished. He credits his half-finished book with getting him through a bout of typhus during his imprisonment.

A tale of grim survival, leading to a sympathetic psychiatric theory. Have you identified your purpose?

To Green Angel Tower / Tad Williams

4 out of 5 stars
As the evil minions of the undead Sithi Storm King prepare for the kingdom-shattering culmination of their dark sorceries and King Elias is drawn ever deeper into their nightmarish, spell spun world, the loyal allies of Prince Josua desperately struggle to rally their forces at the Stone of Farewell. And with time running out, the remaining members of the now devastated League of the Scroll have also gathered there to unravel mysteries from the forgotten past in an attempt to find something to strike down their unslayable foe.

But whether or not they are successful, the call of battle will lead the valiant followers of Josua Lackhand on a memorable trek to the haunted halls of Asu'a itself - the Sithi's greatest stronghold.


A satisfying ending to an engaging trilogy. I can see why this final tome was originally published in two parts—it was a definite door-stop! I sprained my wrist two years ago, and I found that old injury aching at the end of lengthy reading sessions!

However, the size of the volume was necessary in order to tie up the many, many loose ends from the first two books. I especially appreciated the return of “Rachel the Dragon” as an honoured elder lady, even as I grieved the loss of other characters. I also have to say that I appreciated the focus on Miriamele, despite the fact that she often came across as spoiled and irrational. I was able to endure that portrayal because Simon was often angry and petulant for no particular reason that I could discern either. Equal opportunity bad behaviour!

I appreciated that Osten Ard was not just a clone of Middle Earth. Williams gave the world his own structure and rules, and created unique creatures and challenges for his characters. I really liked the ending--it worked for me. I always feel the tug of emotion as the war ends and the circle of friends must split up to return to their own lives—happy to get back to normal, sad to be parted.

Book number 267 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Library at Mount Char / Scott Hawkins

4 out of 5 stars
Carolyn's not so different from the other people around her. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. Clothes are a bit tricky, but everyone says nice things about her outfit with the Christmas sweater over the gold bicycle shorts.  After all, she was a normal American herself once.  

That was a long time ago, of course. Before her parents died. Before she and the others were taken in by the man they called Father.  In the years since then, Carolyn hasn't had a chance to get out much. Instead, she and her adopted siblings have been raised according to Father's ancient customs. They've studied the books in his Library and learned some of the secrets of his power. And sometimes, they've wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God. 

Now, Father is missing—perhaps even dead—and the Library that holds his secrets stands unguarded. And with it, control over all of creation.  As Carolyn gathers the tools she needs for the battle to come, fierce competitors for this prize align against her, all of them with powers that far exceed her own.  But Carolyn has accounted for this.  And Carolyn has a plan.

The only trouble is that in the war to make a new God, she's forgotten to protect the things that make her human.


4 dark and twisty stars.

I spent the first couple of chapters of this book wondering WTF? What is going on here? Who are these people? Are they really people? Then things started to weave together for me—if not exactly making sense, I could start to see a pattern developing and it intrigued me. By the end, I was enjoying the hell out of it.

I’m a pretty devoted fantasy reader and I chose this book for my real-life book club as a horror choice. I had to sit and think about that once I was finished. Was this horror? I had to go look up some definitions of the horror genre, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it does indeed slot into that classification. It has supernatural elements. It is surreal and sometimes gruesome. It is unsettling. I guess that I associate horror with being scared and because I wasn’t hiding under my bedcovers, this felt more like dark fantasy to me.

It’s been decades since I read The Epic of Gilgamesh, but I thought about it when reading about David, who reminded me a bit of Enkidu, the Wildman. I have to say that all the resurrections and being children of a god made me think of the New Testament too and its stories about Jesus. The lions, Dresden and Naga, brought C.S. Lewis’ Aslan to mind as well, so there were just threads pulling all over the place to all these other works.

What made me laugh, after I was done, was reading the author’s biographical note and seeing that he’s very involved in dog rescue, including owning a “pack” of foster dogs. One of the more disturbing events in the book is a scene where Steve and the two lions must fight off an unending stream of supernaturally determined dogs!

I love it when an author doesn’t get all explainy and lets you sort things out for yourself. I also love it when details that seem like throw-away items early in the book become suddenly significant when the chips are down.

A very impressive debut novel and I shall be very interested to see what this author produces next.

Bitten / Kelley Armstrong

3 out of 5 stars
Elena Michaels is the world’s only female werewolf. And she’s tired of it. Tired of a life spent hiding and protecting, a life where her most important job is hunting down rogue werewolves. Tired of a world that not only accepts the worst in her–her temper, her violence–but requires it. Worst of all, she realizes she’s growing content with that life, with being that person.

So she left the Pack and returned to Toronto where she’s trying to live as a human. When the Pack leader calls asking for her help fighting a sudden uprising, she only agrees because she owes him. Once this is over, she’ll be squared with the Pack and free to live life as a human. Which is what she wants. Really.


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

I keep reminding myself that this is a first book in a series and that I often like later books better, once the author has found their groove. I’m fence sitting with a 3 star rating on this one because I’ve got some issues with it, but I found it interesting enough to finish it, and not just for the sake of my Bingo game!

Elena, the main character, drove me crazy. She should actually be a cat of some kind, because no matter where she was, she thought she wanted to be somewhere else. If she was in Toronto, she was thinking she’d be happier in Stonehaven. Then she’s pissed off when she gets summoned to Stonehaven and wants to be back in Toronto. She’s supposedly trying to build an ordinary life for herself with Philip in Toronto, but pretty much immediately is having sex with Clayton when she returns to the werewolf fold. Rinse and repeat the pattern above—whichever man she’s currently with, she wants the other one.

Philip, although we see very little of him (and never from his point of view), haunts the background of most of the book. He’s an unusually patient man, who spent months trying to get to know Elena and who seems to have been stealthily sneaking more ties into their relationship as time passes. What he finds attractive is somewhat of a mystery—he is sleeping with a woman who sneaks out in the middle of the night regularly and doesn’t explain why. She’s slim, of course, from all that nocturnal wolf running and starving herself so as not to display her amazing werewolf appetite, but she admits that she hates clothes shopping and doesn’t concentrate too much on her appearance. She’s secretive, understandably to those of us in the know, but not the slightest bit creative about her excuses for her behaviour and Philip doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to interrogate her in the way I think a normal lover would.

In the foreground is Clay, who doesn’t care about people at all, just werewolves. He liked Elena, so he made sure to bite her in order to trap her in his world. He’s not the alpha (that would be Jeremy) but he’s still an overbearing a-hole who only listens to Elena when he wants to. Mind you, he has some reasons for that, since she seems to lie to herself quite regularly about what she truly wants and what is realistic for a woman in her situation.

So the ending of this volume was no surprise to me—there was only one way things could resolve, it was just a matter of the path that Armstrong took me on to get there. I know that a lot of my GR friends who like urban fantasy love this series, so I am going to persevere for a book or two more to see if I can get into it. After all, I would love to support a Canadian writer and to read fantasy set in my own country.

Monday, 30 October 2017

What the #@&% is That? / edited by John Joseph Adams & Douglas Cohen

3 out of 5 stars
Ranging from irreverent humor to straight out horror, What the @#&% Is That? grew from a meme on Twitter when iconic comic book artist Mike Mignola painted a monster. Nobody knew what the F it was, but they loved it.

Renowned editors John Joseph Adams and Doug Cohen then asked some of the best writers in the fantasy, horror, and thriller genres including Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Christopher Golden, and Scott Sigler to create a monster story that included the line “WTF is that?”

This anthology is a feast for the imagination for anyone who loves monsters.



I read this book to fill the ‘Free’ square of my 2017 Halloween Book Bingo card.

Horror is not really my genre, although I use Halloween each year as an excuse to stretch my boundaries a little bit.  Short stories aren’t my preferred format either, so I expect for horror aficionados who enjoy short fiction, this would be an excellent anthology.

As promised in the introduction, each story in this volume eventually has a character who asks, “WTF is that?”  As usual with short fiction collections, some are better than others (and not always the ones that you would expect in either the good or bad categories).  By and large, the pieces tended towards the playful rather than tremendously scary, which a casual horror reader such as myself can appreciate.

At the Mountains of Madness and other works of weird fiction / H.P. Lovecraft

2.75 stars out of 5
'At the Mountains of Madness' is a crucial work in Lovecraft's 'Cthulhu Mythos', the author's first interpretation of his occult paroxysms in science fiction terms, dating dark entities back to the primordial aeons of Earth's existence.

 I read this book to fill the ‘Monsters’ square of my 2017 Halloween Book Bingo card.

I’ve read a few accounts of Antarctic exploration and At the Mountains of Madness starts out in exactly the same style, but then it veers dramatically off course--the tale becomes an H. Rider Haggard adventure novel crossed with a cheesy horror movie! Lovecraft is very skillful at making the readers use their imaginations—he doesn’t describe the horrors experienced by the men of the expedition. Instead, he shows us a destroyed campsite and lets the expedition leader tippy-toe around the ancient ruins, jumping at every sound. There is a lot of hinting and alluding to mysterious writings, rather than descriptions of actual creatures, which would have become silly quite quickly. Much better to let each reader’s mind fill in the details that they would find the most horrifying.

It has taken me a long time to get around to reading Lovecraft, probably because I’m not much of a horror reader. If you are going to read any significant amount in this genre, a basic knowledge of Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos will stand you in good stead. I now realize that I have been missing allusions to his work in a number of short story collections that I’ve read in the past.

The Severed Streets / Paul Cornell

4 out of 5 stars
Summer in London: a city in turmoil. The vicious murder of a well-known MP is like a match to tinder but Detective Inspector James Quill and his team know that it's not a run-of-the-mill homicide. Still coming to terms with their new-found second sight, they soon discover that what is invisible to others - the killer - is visible to them. Even if they have no idea who it is.

Then there are more deaths. The bodies of rich, white men are found in circumstances similar to those that set the streets of London awash with fear during the late 1800s: the Whitechapel murders. Even with their abilities to see the supernatural, accepting that Jack the Ripper is back from the dead is a tough ask for Quill's team. As they try to get to grips with their abilities and a case that's spiralling out of control, Quill realizes that they have to understand more about this shadowy London, a world of underground meetings, bizarre and fantastical auctions, and objects that are 'get out of hell free' cards.


  I read this book to fill the ‘Darkest London’ square of my 2017 Halloween Book Bingo card.

I really must give Neil Gaiman credit for being a very good sport—I am not sure how I would feel about becoming a character in someone else’s fiction, especially if that author gave me some rather dodgy motives, as Cornell does.

I liked this second book in the series considerably more than the first one. It’s like the majority of the world-building has been settled now and Cornell can get on with telling us the dark and twisted tale of what’s going on under the surface of London!

There is a walking tour of Jack the Ripper sites, where two of our coppers see ghosts of each of the victims, there is an auction of supernatural items, and a mysterious Ripper-like murderer at work in the great city. Our team of Shadow Police get ripped apart in several ways and kind of patched back together eventually. I’ve got to get to the third book, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?, as soon as I can arrange, to see if their team can survive these upheavals.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Gap into Conflict : the Real Story / Stephen R. Donaldson

3 out of 5 stars
Angus Thermopyle was an ore pirate and a murderer; even the most disreputable asteroid pilots of Delta Sector stayed locked out of his way.  Those who didn't ended up in the lockup--or dead.  But when Thermopyle arrived at Mallory's Bar & Sleep with a gorgeous woman by his side the regulars had to take notice.  Her name was Morn Hyland, and she had been a police officer--until she met up with Thermopyle.
But one person in Mallory's Bar wasn't intimidated.  Nick Succorso had his own reputation as a bold pirate and he had a sleek frigate fitted for deep space.  Everyone knew that Thermopyle and Succorso were on a collision course.  What nobody expected was how quickly it would be over--or how devastating victory would be.  It was common enough example of rivalry and revenge--or so everyone thought.  The REAL story was something entirely different.


I have a negative past with Stephen R. Donaldson’s work. I loathe the Thomas Covenant series and I could only read the first book of the Mordant’s Need duality. I had the second book on my TBR until I realized that the thought of picking it up depressed me profoundly and I decided to let it go.

So it was with distinct reservations that I picked up The Gap into Conflict and no one was more surprised than me when I actually enjoyed it. The subject matter is difficult, but the insights into the main character, Angus Thermopyle, were worth the struggle. And, as Donaldson promises, we get the “real story” about what is going on in his psyche. It’s not pretty, but it is truthful, as he confronts his feelings and admits to himself that he maybe isn’t as rough & tough as he likes to think. It was kind of like getting a peek into the mind of someone like Ariel Castro, the Cleveland kidnapper.

I liked that no character was locked into a role, that everything kept shifting as the novel unfolded. Morn Hyland starts as a victim, but certainly doesn’t end that way. Nick Succorso is set up to look like a hero, but a small foreshadowing by Donaldson indicates that he is no white knight.

I never thought I would ever say this: I’m looking forward to the next book in this Donaldson series!

Book number 266 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

Wise Children / Angela Carter

3.5 out of 5 stars
Dora and Nora Chance are a famous song-and-dance team of the British music halls. Billed as The Lucky Chances, the sisters are the illegitimate and unacknowledged daughters of Sir Melchoir Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. At once ribald and sentimental, glittery and tender, this rambunctious family saga is Angela Carter at her bewitching best.

Read to fill the “Magical Realism” square of my 2017 Halloween Bingo card.

The large cast of off-beat characters in this book reminded me strongly of Canadian author, Robertson Davies. And all of the links back to Melchior Hazard, Shakespearean actor, made me think of Station Eleven! But Carter definitely makes this tale all her own, despite the echoes with other authors.

Like the Shakespeare that permeates the novel, there are lots of twins, sudden changes in fortune, costumes, and a lot of uncertain parentage. As the old saw goes, it’s a wise child that knows its own father. Dora Chance, Melchior’s illegitimate daughter and twin to Nora Chance, tells the tale and it unrolls like an article in a gossip rag. Whether you can trust all she says or not is a Chance that you’ll have to take! The Lucky Chances, as the sisters are known, can only be considered lucky in comparison to others in the tale. For instance, they were raised by a woman who seemed to actually care about them, rather than by their biological parents and in this, they seem to come out ahead.

Dora and Nora sound like they would be a lot of fun to have a gin and tonic with, but I wouldn’t want to stay in their house!

Late Bite / John Matsui

2.5 stars out of 5
What would happen if a real vampire were captured in Toronto. In Canada he wouldn't be decapitated or have a stake driven through his heart. He would receive benefit of the law. And that's what happens to Dragul Mangorian who appears to be the sole-surviving member of a sub-species of homo sapiens that through evolution is forced to feed on human blood. His trial creates a world-wide sensation and after an unusual defence, is acquitted. As a vampire, Mangorian is the ultimate 'bad boy.' He becomes television's #1 Late Night talk show host and with his lawyer/partner Al Hamblyn enjoy fortune and world-wide fame . . . until the murders start up.

Read to fill the “Vampires” square of my 2017 Halloween Bingo card.

I love a good vampire yarn and I was pleasantly surprised to find one written by a fellow Canadian. My library didn’t have it, it didn’t appear to be available for interlibrary loan, so I took the unusual step of buying it. I won’t say that I’m disappointed, but I will say that I won’t be purchasing the next two volumes of the series.

Dragul Mangorian isn’t your garden variety vampire—in Matsui’s world, vampires are a parallel branch of human evolution, just like Neanderthals and Homo floresiensis (the “hobbits” found in Indonesia). A large, large part of the book deals with courtroom drama, establishing the legal status of vampires, whether harm has been committed or not, etc. The voice of the book is that of Mangorian’s lawyer, Al Hamblyn, who has worked his way up from poverty to being a celebrity thanks to his client.

As a concept, many of the ideas are interesting ones. The problems are in the execution, with wooden characters behaving in stereotypical ways. I really wasn’t too interested in either Hamblyn or Mangorian. Despite the new ideas, the story ended up being very cliché.

I would encourage other readers to try it for themselves. This isn’t a bad novel, but not as good as I was expecting. Those with different expectations may experience it differently.

Doctor Sleep / Stephen King

4 out of 5 stars
On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless - mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and spunky 12-year-old Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the "steam" that children with the "shining" produce when they are slowly tortured to death.

Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father's legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant "shining" power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes "Doctor Sleep."



Read to fill the “Modern Masters of Horror” square of my 2017 Halloween Bingo card.

I must be getting tougher as I read more in the horror genre—I barely twinged when the Overlook ghosts showed up in this sequel to The Shining! As sequels go, I thought this one was done really well. I read it all in one sitting, stayed up until 2 a.m. to do so, and I didn’t cower under the bedclothes once!

What really impressed me was King’s depiction of struggling sobriety. As Dan sits outside a dive bar and longs to go in to sample that first drink that will wreck 15 years of being straight, I felt that longing right along with him, the desire to drown myself in booze, despite the fact that I have never had an alcohol problem. Write what you know, the advice goes, and this seems to be absolutely true in this instance. I’m betting the author has felt that same desire on more than one occasion!

As with The Shining, the true horror in this story is what regular people can do to each other and themselves, the destructiveness of addiction, and the rarity of kindness.

The Only Child / Andrew Pyper

3.5 stars out of 5
As a forensic psychiatrist at New York’s leading institution of its kind, Dr. Lily Dominick has evaluated the mental states of some of the country’s most dangerous psychotics. But the strangely compelling client she interviewed today—a man with no name, accused of the most twisted crime—struck her as somehow different from the others, despite the two impossible claims he made.

First, that he is more than two hundred years old and personally inspired Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker in creating the three novels of the nineteenth century that define the monstrous in the modern imagination. Second, that he’s Lily’s father. To discover the truth—behind her client, her mother’s death, herself—Dr. Dominick must embark on a journey that will threaten her career, her sanity, and ultimately her life.


I read this to fill the “Genre: Horror” square on my 2017 Halloween Bingo card.

I really quite enjoyed this offering from Andrew Pyper and no one was more surprised than me when I was able to read it without my usual fearful quivering. (His book The Damned scared the crap out of me!)

There was definitely a sense of creeping dread throughout the first half of the book, as the reader is piecing together the details. Lily, our protagonist, at first seems to keep her wits about her. I understand her desire to know who her patient is and what relation he has to her life, but by the second half, I couldn’t completely understand her actions. But, as I have written before, I am a chicken who would have been in hiding (and would never have had a job like Lily’s interviewing the worst of the worst psychotic criminals).

What I did love were his sidelines into Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Dracula. I’ve read all three of these classics and I thought Pyper used their details well in this novel.

The ending, I suppose, was inevitable. It did leave me wondering if Pyper was leaving himself some room to write a sequel somewhere down the road.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Use of Weapons / Iain M. Banks

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

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

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

Book 265 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

The High Window / Raymond Chandler

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


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

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

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

Carmilla / Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Diary of a Young Girl / Anne Frank

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

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

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

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

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