Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Palace / Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

3.5 stars out of 5
Renaissance Florence 1490-1498. They say his palazzo is to be a magnificent work of art-a dazzling edifice to rival the most opulent in the city. Its owner is a stranger to Florence, a wealthy foreigner who dresses in black silk and practices the age-old secrets of alchemy. But the man who calls himself Francesco Ragoczy da San Germano conceals his own dark secrets that have exiled him to a life of blood-filled torment and eternal wandering. Yet in the sensation-craving Estasia, cousin to Botticelli, San Germano has found a woman whose unquenchable passions could exceed his own. And in the fanatical monk Savonarola, he has found a powerful enemy: a dangerously obsessed ascetic who exerts a hypnotic power over the citizens of Florence. Savonarola is embarked on a reign of terror that will not end until every thing of beauty is destroyed and every heretic burned at the stake. As the city becomes a hotbed of religious fervor and escalating violence, San Germano is faced with an impossible choice that could doom those he loves forever...and transform his own existence beyond recognition.

CQY writes excellent historical fantasy. I appreciate the amount of research that she obviously put in to get Renaissance Florence just right. I don’t know enough Italian to know if that language was being used appropriately, but it sounded good to my untutored ear.

I like her main character, Saint-Germain, but sometimes I think he is not quite “vampirey” enough, if you know what I mean. He is altogether too nice and thoughtful and gentle—rarely does he use his vampire strength or powers of persuasion. Although the books’ covers display ladies’ necks with puncture wounds, the reader really doesn’t see very much to that effect in the novel. There seem to be more problems with being a vampire and fewer impressive powers.

I’m also intrigued with Yarbro’s version of the vampire, where the combination of blood & sex is better than just blood. Apparently Saint-Germain is limited to lips & hands to stimulate his partner (not such a bad thing from a female perspective). However, it would get boring in the long-term, as it does for Estasia in this adventure, leading her to threaten Saint-Germain with exposure and becoming a tricky adversary for him to deal with. This was where I figured he should just drain her and eliminate a problem, and his reluctance to do so made no sense to me. Plus, there is a scene where Saint-Germain visits his alchemical apprentice in prison—the sexual dimension of their meeting when his assistant had just been tortured just felt icky. I know they needed to do a blood exchange if she was to escape, but as I say, the sexuality felt inappropriate to me during that scene.

The recurring theme seems to be loneliness—Olivia writes frequent letters asking Saint-Germain to come to Rome, which for some inexplicable reason he is unwilling to do. S-G seems to be frequently creating new vampires, who then get upset about their situation (despite the fact that they asked for the transformation) and they head out on their own.

Obviously, an eternal vampire gives an author the excuse to research & write about whatever historical setting they are interested in. While the historical angle is great, I wish the vampiric nature of the main character was more apparent.

Venom / Jennifer Estep

3.5 stars out of 5
It’s hard to be a badass assassin when a giant is beating the crap out of you. Luckily, I never let pride get in the way of my work. My current mission is personal: annihilate Mab Monroe, the Fire elemental who murdered my family. Which means protecting my identity, even if I have to conceal my powerful Stone and Ice magic when I need it most.

To the public, I’m Gin Blanco, owner of Ashland’s best barbecue joint. To my friends, I’m the Spider, retired assassin. I still do favors on the side. Like ridding a vampire friend of her oversized stalker—Mab’s right-hand goon who almost got me dead with his massive fists.

At least irresistible Owen Grayson is on my side. The man knows too much about me, but I’ll take my chances. Then there’s Detective Bria Coolidge, one of Ashland’s finest. Until recently, I thought my baby sister was dead. She probably thinks the same about me. Little does she know, I’m a cold-blooded killer . . . who is about to save her life.


Gin Blanco is ready to quit skulking in the shadows and declare war on the criminals who are worse than she is. That’s right, our assassin main character is done being the patient Spider and is ready to deal with the Big Bad that is controlling everyone in her town of Ashland. She begins small, by trying to protect Finn’s vampire lady friend from a large, aggressive stalker (who is, of course, one of the triumvirate who holds the town hostage).

Gone is a lot of the annoying repetition of certain phrases, although some instances remain. Gone also is the brooding, guilty, conflicted love interest—and good riddance. But somebody’s gotta be the ultra-good guy, so enter Gin’s long lost little sister, Bria, as the new arrow-straight lawman (or woman) in town. This arrangement is perfect—Gin gets have her hot-as-Tabasco love relationship, but still have a law-abiding cop to court, since Bria doesn’t know of their relationship.

Although there is still a lot of focus on Gin’s romantic life and on her relationship with her foster-brother, Finn, this installment shows hope that she may get some female BFF’s soon, with whom to share secrets and drink gin. Creeping closer to Bechdel test territory, I hope the next book reaches the tipping point with this situation.

I am looking forward to attending some sessions at the When Words Collide conference in August where this author will be speaking.

Shakespeare's Champion / Charlaine Harris

3.5 stars out of 5
There's something rotten in Shakespeare... — Lily Bard was running from shattering memories when she moved to Shakespeare, Arkansas. Now cleaning houses pays her bills. Working out helps her heal. Still protecting her scars, she hides a hard body and impressive skill at martial arts under baggy sweats. And nobody knows how strong she is until racial violence has her looking behind closed doors for a killer -- doors to which a housecleaner might have the key.

When Lily uses her training in goju to help a black man jumped by white teens, she does it for justice...only to hear he's been abducted and beaten to death a few weeks later. Then a bodybuilder is killed at her gym. Both incidents jar Lily's need for security and refuge. Looking into closets, sweeping under rugs, she soon uncovers enough dirt to confirm that something sinister is growing in her adopted town. Getting involved could endanger her life. But Lily is seeing a new man and dreaming new dreams. And no one can make this strong woman run again.


  I would rate this book just a touch below the first book, maybe 3.5 stars, perhaps because I am now familiar with the setting and with Lily. I still like Lily a lot and she continues to surprise me. Harris introduced a love triangle at the end of the first book and I was anxious to get reading to see where it went. Boom! 
Lily dumps them both! Gotta like a girl who’s decisive like that. Plus, she’s no dog-in-the-manger. She is quite happy to see her exes move along with other women—quite different from Sookie Stackhouse, Harris’ other small town gal, who always seemed to resent any women that “her” men took up with after their break-ups.
 
It’s a treat to read about a woman who can protect herself and develop her strength to overcome past trauma. However, I’m a bit disturbed by her current love-interest, who also has a traumatic past, knows Lily’s situation, and seems drawn to her because of it. I will be interested to see if he lasts in the relationship for more than one book. I’m also hoping that Lily can come out of her hard, protective shell a bit more. At least in this book, she is starting to allow people into her life gradually, even if she has mixed feelings about it. There is true potential for this series to pass the Bechdel test.

On the other hand, after protecting her personal secrets in book one, all of a sudden it seems that everyone and their pet cat knows about Lily’s past in this book. Which is an uncomfortable situation if you’re still sensitive about the details (it seems Lily is, though it was no fault of her own) and you live in a very small community. Lily has been a discreet cleaning lady ever since she came to Shakespeare, but suddenly people are questioning whether they want someone “like her” to clean for them. Another way of blaming the victim, something we can read about in the current media.

An enjoyable sequel and I shall look forward to the next installment when I have the time to read it.
 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Shakespeare Saved My Life / Laura Bates

4.5 stars out of 5
Just as Larry Newton, one of the most notorious inmates at Indiana Federal Prison, was trying to break out of jail, Dr. Laura Bates was trying to break in. She had created the world’s first Shakespeare class in supermax – the solitary confinement unit.

Many people told Laura that maximum-security prisoners are “beyond rehabilitation." But Laura wanted to find out for herself. She started with the prison's most notorious inmate: Larry Newton. When he was 17 years old, Larry was indicted for murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. When he met Laura, he had been in isolation for 10 years.

Larry had never heard of Shakespeare. But in the characters he read, he recognized himself.

In this profound illustration of the enduring lessons of Shakespeare through the ten-year relationship of Bates and Newton, an amazing testament to the power of literature emerges. But it's not just the prisoners who are transformed. It is a starkly engaging tale, one that will be embraced by anyone who has ever been changed by a book.


My inspiration to read this book was Margaret Atwood’s fiction Hag-Seed (and secondarily The Heart Goes Last), as well as a memoir by former prisoner, Stephen Reid (A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden). Additionally, I had just finished If We Were Villains, in which Shakespearean plays may have played a role in sending the main character to prison, the very opposite of this memoir.

Now, I am predisposed to enjoy a memoir of the redemptive value of literature, particularly Shakespeare, for whom I have an abiding love. Add to that the fact that I have considered doing literacy work with prisoners (although I have not yet taken the plunge) and I appreciated Laura Bates’ description of the perils and the pluses of doing such work.

This is real-life, not fiction, so I didn’t get exactly the story that I hoped for. There is no ending, really, because Larry Newton will never get out of prison. All projects must come to an end eventually, and the author is no longer teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. Still, it was very readable and inspirational. If nothing else, I am encouraged to study the works of the Bard more closely myself.

Shakespeare's Landlord / Charlaine Harris

4 out of 5 stars
TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE — To Lily Bard, the sleepy town of Shakespeare, Arkansas, was the perfect place to hide from the violence that nearly destroyed her life years before. Today Lily is strong, confident in the martial arts she studies, her looks disguised by her closely cropped hair and baggy clothes. Working as a housecleaner, Lily comes and goes without anyone noticing -- until she witnesses a murder.

What Lily Bard saw on that dark night has stripped away her, anonymity and earned her the unwanted attention of a homicide detective and a suspicious community. And with her intense, married, karate instructor showing a passionate interest of his own, Lily's plan of a private, well-ordered life is coming unhinged. The killer of an unlamented landlord is lurking close by. And while Lily knows the dirt on her neighbors' dust, drawers, and private live , must admit to a secret of her own: that in the shadow of a brutal murder, she is coming alive again...
 
I really enjoyed this little mystery, set in Shakespeare, Arkansas. Lily Bard, the community cleaning lady, has chosen this small town on a whim because of her last name. It seems like the perfect sleepy little community in which to avoid her traumatic past and live a quiet life.

Harris excels at portraying small town life, using ordinary people as characters. Lily is not someone that most people pay a lot of attention to—as a cleaning lady, she tends to blend into the background. The only place where she stands out is in her karate dojo, where she excels. She reminded me of Harris’ other small town character, Sookie Stackhouse, who is often overlooked because she is “just” a bar maid, but has unknown talents (telepathy).

Lily has a skill that many women have—she pays attention to detail and she can analyze those details to come to accurate conclusions. Not the most exciting mystery that I have every read, but I am already invested in Lily’s life and hope to read the next book in the series very soon.

Silence Fallen / Patricia Briggs

4 out of 5 stars
Attacked and abducted in her home territory, Mercy finds herself in the clutches of the most powerful vampire in the world, taken as a weapon to use against alpha werewolf Adam and the ruler of the Tri-Cities vampires. In coyote form, Mercy escapes only to find herself without money, without clothing, and alone in the heart of Europe...

Unable to contact Adam and the rest of the pack, Mercy has allies to find and enemies to fight, and she needs to figure out which is which. Ancient powers stir, and Mercy must be her agile best to avoid causing a war between vampires and werewolves, and between werewolves and werewolves. And in the heart of the ancient city of Prague, old ghosts rise...


A very satisfying installment in the Mercy Thompson series—in fact, it may be my favourite of the entire run.

I always love the books where the vampire seethe figures prominently, and this book is all vampires all the time! My only disappointment is that Stefan doesn’t get quite as much page time as I would like, while the Master of Milan (Jacob Bonarata) gets lots, but isn’t nearly scary enough. After all of the foreshadowing in previous books, I thought he was remarkably easy to get along with!

Also refreshing was the setting—Europe. Quite a change from the Pacific Northwest and very enjoyable. Grumpy European werewolves and plentiful European ghosts aid Mercy along the way. Also interesting in that we get to know a bit more about Adam’s friendly witch, Elizeveta. Not to mention some insight into submissive wolf, Zack.

Mercy, as usual, is underestimated by the people who don’t know her and she uses that lack of expectation to her advantage. Like the old Timex watch ads, she takes a licking & keeps on ticking! And thinking and planning. She’s smart, strong, and skilled. What a nice way to see a woman portrayed in fiction.

If We Were Villains / M.L. Rio

5 out of 5 stars
Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingĂ©nue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

Part coming-of-age story, part confession, If We Were Villains explores the magical and dangerous boundary between art and life. In this tale of loyalty and betrayal, madness and ecstasy, the players must choose what roles to play before the curtain falls.


Wow, that was a first novel? For me, it was perfection. A good twisty mystery, lots of Shakespeare, and THAT ENDING.

Dellecher Classical Conservatory is like Hogwarts for Arts students and this novel focuses on the fourth year Drama students. They’ve been marinating in Shakespearean drama for four years and have maybe absorbed more than they think. The narrator, Oliver, is most often cast as a supporting character and the others agree that he is a giving actor and a giving person. Despite that, the reader realizes that he seems to be pretty clueless—not very observant, he makes some of his most important realizations during performances of the Shakespearean tragedies.

The little that we see of Oliver’s family indicates that there is something desperately wrong—Oliver doesn’t want to go home to them and can hardly wait to leave. One of his sisters has a serious eating disorder and Oliver resents that his family can’t pay for her treatment AND his tuition. There is a serious attitude of entitlement, not only in Oliver, but in all of these students. I didn’t like a single one of them, but I loved the story!

I would love to be able to conduct conversations in Shakespeare quotes! That level of expertise in the plays would delight me. If nothing else, this book has certainly inspired me to continue with my project to see all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Every Heart a Doorway / Seanan McGuire

4 out of 5 stars
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.


What if you weren't reliant on authors to be transported to another reality? What if, like Alice, you really fell down a rabbit hole, or like Dorothy, you were carried off by a tornado to a magical world where you fit in perfectly? When the saying, "There's no place like home" sounds like a curse.

You've been forced back to "reality" and find that no one believes your story or even cares about it. All they from you is a return to "normal," a state which you've always hated.

There's grief, mourning your lost perfect world. Now surround yourself with others in the same predicament from very different worlds, doing group therapy to try to come to terms with this old, unsatisfactory existence.

This lovely little novella explores this dilemma beautifully. I think each of us probably has a "golden age" in our past that we remember with nostalgia and we can recognize that longing in this book.


 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Shadow Games / Glen Cook

4 out of 5 stars
After the devastating battle at the Tower of Charm, Croaker leads the greatly diminished Black Company south, in search of the lost Annals. The Annals will be returned to Khatovar, eight thousand miles away, a city that may exists only in legend...the origin of the first Free Companies.

Every step of the way the Company is hounded by shadowy figured and carrion-eating crows. As they march every southward, through bug infested jungle, rivers dense with bloodthirsty pirates, and cities, dead and living, haunted by the passage of the Company north, their numbers grow until they are thousands strong.

But always they are watched--by the Shadowmasters--a deadly new enemy: twisted creature that deal in darkness and death: powerful, shadowy creatures bent on smothering the world in their foul embrace. This is the first round in a deadly game, a game that the Black Company cannot hope to win.


A smattering of the Black Company still remains and they have decided to head back to their beginnings, heading south to the legendary city of Khatovar.  They are in search of the lost Annals of the Company, so you may be sure that this operation is being headed by our cranky Annalist, Croaker.

Croaker isn’t sure that he likes being in charge, but he shows an aptitude for it, thinking up sneaky surprises for the enemies that they encounter and showing that knowing some history gives a leader a good grasp of the many things that can go wrong.  He informs the reader that “I guess I suffer from an impoverishment of the sociopathic spirit necessary to go big time.”  He is selling himself short.

Finally, I see why so many other readers love Lady.  She is down, but not out.  She still has the governing touch and retains buckets full of knowledge about battle, administration, and politicking.  And she’s not afraid to use it.  A peek at the next book reveals that she will take up the pen as Annalist and I can hardly wait to get her take on things.

Book 258 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Sweet Scent of Blood / Suzanne McLeod

4 out of 5 stars
'My name is Genny Taylor. I work for Spellcrackers.com. It’s a great job, pays the rent, lets me do the thing I’m good at – finding magic and cracking it – and the bonus is it’s run by witches, which stops the vamps from taking a bite out of me.

Not that vampires are the big bad any more, not since they launched a slick PR campaign – ­ oh, and they brought the goblins on board. Now the vamps are sought-after celebrities, and Getting Fanged and taking the Gift are the new height of all things cool.

But only if you’re human.  And I’m not.  I’m Sidhe fae.  And I know firsthand just how deadly a vampire can be.’

When Mr October, a sexy calendar pin-up vamp, is accused of murdering his girlfriend, an old debt is called in and Genny is forced to help prove his innocence, risking her job and the protection it offers – and threatening to expose her own dark secrets. Searching for the killer plunges Genny deep into the hidden heart of vampire society. It’s not long before she realises that she and Mr October are both unwitting pawns in a centuries-old power struggle between London’s non-human communities . . . and it’s not just her own neck that’s at stake, but the lives of all London’s supernaturals.


I am a fan of all things Fae, so I was predisposed to enjoy this book. The main character, Genny, is Sidhe fae and she reminded me a little bit (but only a little bit) of October Daye (written by Seanan McGuire). McGuire’s fae world doesn’t include vampires, witches, or goblins, so McLeod has taken things in a very different direction.

As in so much urban fantasy, the vampires have ‘come out’ of the coffin and have become wildly popular, but regular humanity doesn’t know everything that the other supernatural creatures know. Genny has an interesting history with vampires, which will no doubt shape upcoming books.

As is traditional in this genre, there is a bit of a love triangle, between Genny, the handsome Satyr who she works with, and an alluring vampire. It doesn’t overwhelm the plot, thankfully, but will probably provide some tension for at least one more book.

I chose to start this series as I’ve heard through the rumour-mill that characters from another favourite series (Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London) make an appearance in this one at some point.

Crocodile on the Sandbank / Elizabeth Peters

4 out of 5 stars
Set in 1884, this is the first installment in what has become a beloved bestselling series. At thirty-two, strong-willed Amelia Peabody, a self-proclaimed spinster, decides to use her ample inheritance to indulge her passion, Egyptology. On her way to Egypt, Amelia encounters a young woman named Evelyn Barton-Forbes. The two become fast friends and travel on together, encountering mysteries, missing mummies, and Radcliffe Emerson, a dashing and opinionated archaeologist who doesn't need a woman's help -- or so he thinks.

If Jane Eyre starred in an H. Rider Haggard novel written by Agatha Christie….you would get Crocodile on the Sandbank. First published in 1975, Peters overlays feminism over the gothic romance (which usually had mysterious goings-on too) and produces this engaging mystery. Extra points for using an Egyptian setting and getting the archaeology right. Amelia Peabody is a bit of a bossy bones, but you get enough of her history to see the why of it. (I’m probably more like her than I care to admit.)

If you enjoy a good mystery set among pyramids and ancient tombs, this book is for you.

Friday, 12 May 2017

No Bed for Bacon / Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon

4 out of 5 stars
Shakespeare's in love, perchance, in this rollicking send-up of the Age of Elizabeth. A very funny look at Elizabeth I, Will Shakespeare & the Elizabethan era which shows the Queen at her riotous best and the author unappreciated.

It’s a tribute to William Shakespeare that we are still interested in him, 400 years after his death. His life provides just the right mix of known facts and mysteries. We know the bare bones of his life—who he married, how many children he had, details of his career, and elements of his reputation.

What’s missing are the personal details—how did he feel about things? What kind of person was he to work with? What were his religious beliefs? Was he a faithful husband? Who was that Dark Lady of the sonnets, anyway? Did he really write all those things attributed to him?

This leaves authors lots of lee-way to write their own adventures for the Bard. I’ve enjoyed the likes of Shakespeare Undead and The Dark Lady's Mask, not to mention a short story involving Atticus O’Sullivan of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series (Goddess at the Crossroads). Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of collated list of fiction featuring Shakespeare as a character, but No Bed for Bacon is the earliest that I have yet encountered. I’m surprised that there aren’t many more novels with Shakespeare figuring prominently as a character! If you know of any, please let me know in the comments, I’m intrigued to read more. There are tons of books written as reinterpretations of his works, but fewer which feature the Bard himself.

Despite being first published in 1941, No Bed for Bacon still feels remarkably fresh to me. Reputedly, it is the basis for the movie Shakespeare in Love.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

A Beautiful Truth / Colin McAdam

3.5 out of 5 stars
Told simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, set in a Vermont home and a Florida primate research facility, A Beautiful Truth at times brutal, at others deeply moving is about the simple truths that transcend species, the meaning of family, the lure of belonging, and the capacity for survival.

A powerful and haunting meditation on human nature told from the dual perspectives of a Vermont family that has adopted a chimp as a surrogate son, and a group of chimpanzees in a Florida research institute.

Looee, a chimp raised by a well-meaning and compassionate human couple who cannot conceive a baby of their own, is forever set apart.  He’s not human, but with his peculiar upbringing he is no longer like other chimps.  One tragic night Looee’s two natures collide and their unique family is forever changed.

At the Girdish Institute in Florida, a group of chimpanzees has been studied for decades.  The work at Girdish has proven that chimps have memories and solve problems, that they can learn language and need friends, and that they build complex cultures. They are political, altruistic, get angry, and forgive. When Looee is moved to the Institute, he is forced to try to find a place in their world.


I have always maintained that the best way to understand office politics is to spend some time studying chimpanzees or other apes. You will see all of the same drives and personalities, but you will see them without the veneer of civilization. Wherever you get 3 people or 3 chimps in one place, you will have politics.

This book reminded me of human hubris—the belief that we are somehow separate and different from the rest of the animal kingdom, that we are superior to other apes.

In a strange way, this book made me think of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild or White Fang. All the ways in which wild animals can or can’t be tamed and how tame animals (including humans) can become wild. It is a cautionary tale about keeping wild animals in private homes, but it is about trust—trusting those animals, trusting our friends, trusting our spouses. It is about the dangers of assigning human motivations to other species and the peril of deliberately ignoring the drives that we obviously share. Also the risk of assuming that our friends and acquaintances think about things the same way that we do. Who is worthy of our trust and why do we trust them?

ABT is also an interesting meditation on the study of our nearest kin, the chimpanzee. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, while trying to understand the evolution of speech among humans, people started to raise chimpanzee babies in their homes, hoping to encourage speech in the apes. Chimps like Gua (the experiment was terminated when her human “sibling” began to get much more chimpanzee-like than she got human-like) and Vicki (who eventually produced 4 very simple words with extreme effort). Then came Washoe, who was exposed to American Sign Language, with limited success (as were Nim Chimpsky and Koko the Gorilla), the reasoning being that apes might be unable to speak, but might still be able to grasp language. ASL should be easier for them as it uses hand gestures rather than vocal apparatus. They do seem to be able to acquire vocabulary, but show much less grasp of grammar or the significance of word order. Unsurprisingly, they possess the first stirrings towards spoken language, but humans are the only ape species to have developed it significantly. I would be more surprised if no other primates showed any aptitude for vocal communication.

Some aspects of the Girdish Institute in the book are likely based on the Yerkes Institute in real life. The Yerkes Institute developed a keyboard of lexigrams (as alluded to in ABT) which became known as Yerkish. There has been a certain amount of success using this method, including one super-star bonobo, Kanzi (born at Yerkes, but moved to the Language Research Centre at Georgia State). He communicates via keyboard and has picked up a bit of ASL as well.

All of the apes mentioned above learned to understand some human-spoken language and to respond appropriately to it (when they were in the mood). Part of the problem with these experiments is that they do not interest the apes as much as they do the humans. Interestingly, dogs seem to naturally understand human hand gestures, like pointing, more easily than chimps do. Dogs look where the hand is pointing, while apes look at the hand. Our thousands of years co-evolving with canines is showing through.

I’m impressed by how many details of human-chimp history are represented in this fictional account. I recognized many of them from non-fiction books that I’ve read over the years. If you are interested in more details on chimpanzees (and bonobos), I would recommend Frans de Waal’s excellent book Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. I also highly recommend de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Blood Memories / Barb Hendee

3.5 out of 5 stars
Eleisha, a vampire, is far older than she looks and makes men yearn to care for her. Then she usually kills them, since self-preservation comes first. So when an old vampire friend kills himself, Eleisha is shocked. And what she finds in his home shows how world-weary he had become; hoarding corpses and keeping records of vampires actual names and addresses. Now the police know who Eleisha is, and more alarmingly, what she is. But she soon realizes that being known may have its uses, even if it puts her and her kind at risk.

A pretty good vampire yarn. Great for those looking for just vampires. No annoying werewolves, faeries, or other supernatural creatures. The vamps are after blood, not sexy times, and have limited abilities. The main character has been made a vampire (against her will) to do a specific task and left without instruction or assistance from her maker.

It would seem that there are only half a dozen vampires in her world and that number is shrinking, as Eleisha’s current companion commits suicide. Chances to learn from another are limited and her abilities are changing in ways that startle her.

Reminiscent of Anne Rice’s vampires, as there is a fair bit of angst about the need to kill to survive. There are also hints that vampire history may become a focus, as it does for the Vampire Lestat. However, without the same powers as Rice’s vamps, these characters must learn human skills like driving, managing money, and renting hotel rooms.

Eleisha is in many ways an abused woman who is learning to own her power and to run her own life. I wasn’t crazy about her at first, as she starts out timid and overly dependent on others, but she gains momentum during the course of the book, eventually leaving her in a much more independent place.

An interesting exploration of the concept of immortality—what will keep an immortal being engaged & interested in life? What interests or skills will keep them anchored in their society and in sanity? So many speculative fiction books deal with enormously long human lives, but don’t really consider this problem.

It looks like I will have to request book 2 by interlibrary loan if I am to continue the series.

Magic for Nothing / Seanan McGuire

4 out of 5 stars
As the youngest of the three Price children, Antimony is used to people not expecting much from her. She’s been happy playing roller derby and hanging out with her cousins, leaving the globe-trotting to her older siblings while she stays at home and tries to decide what she wants to do with her life. She always knew that one day, things would have to change. She didn’t think they’d change so fast.

Annie’s expectations keep getting shattered. She didn’t expect Verity to declare war on the Covenant of St. George on live television. She didn’t expect the Covenant to take her sister’s threat seriously. And she definitely didn’t expect to be packed off to London to infiltrate the Covenant from the inside…but as the only Price in her generation without a strong resemblance to the rest of the family, she’s the perfect choice to play spy. They need to know what’s coming. Their lives may depend on it.

But Annie has some secrets of her own, like the fact that she’s started setting things on fire when she touches them, and has no idea how to control it. Now she’s headed halfway around the world, into the den of the enemy, where blowing her cover could get her killed. She’s pretty sure things can’t get much worse.


A fabulous Friday night read. A glass of wine and another volume of InCryptid.

In this installment, we get to know the youngest Price, Antimony (Annie), as she gets drafted into the family’s plans. Her carnival and roller derby past will serve her in good-stead as she attempts to infiltrate the Covenant of St. George.

We learn more about the Covenant and Price family dynamics, plus McGuire manages to neatly tie in her ghost characters, previously explored in Sparrow Hill Road. For me, the best part was Annie’s companion Aeslin mouse, Mindy, who makes contact with the Aeslin who remained in the U.K. I love her new companion, Mork, who joins Annie & Mindy to serve & protect cryptids. McGuire is obviously old enough to have seen & enjoyed Robin Williams’ first TV show, Mork & Mindy, which I hadn’t thought of in years.

As per usual, the mice make the book for me. I adore them and I’m not sure I would love the books the way I do without the magical mice.

How long until the next book?

Carpe Diem / Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

4 out of 5 stars
On the run from assassins, Val Con yos'Phelium and Miri Robertson are stranded on a distant planet and must learn to trust each other if they're going to survive and learn to love each other if they're going to heal the dark wounds of their past.

Carpe Diem picks up where Agent of Change left off, continuing the story of Miri Robertson and Val Con yos’Phelium. There’s good action, interspersed with more character development, both of which entertained me.

Lee & Miller have created some memorable aliens—I hope at some point to get more info about the Yxtrang, the race that everyone seems to fear & dread. I love The Clutch, the giant sapient turtles who view humanity rather like Tolkien’s Ents—we are hasty, but interesting. Of them, Edger, Val Con’s friend & adopted brother, steals every scene in which he appears!

And of course, we get more insight into Liad itself and Val Can’s family, who form the nucleus of this series. I find myself intrigued by the way that family works on Liad—and how this family is definitely different. Not only have they accepted Terrans into the fold, but they seem to be more genuinely fond of one another that other Liadan families. They also seem to have a predilection for life-mating, making the whole system of contract marriage that prevails on Liad a bit difficult for them.

Actually, I can see this series as an ancestor to the urban fantasy genre that I so enjoy today—it introduces the idea that fantasy and science fiction can contain a romantic story. Plus, the whole life-mate idea seems to be a predecessor of the mate-bond found in works like Mercy Thompson or Sarah J. Maas’s Court of Thorns and Roses series.

Book 256 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project. Looking forward to Plan B to get the next installment of the tale.

The Urban Fantasy Anthology / edited by Peter S. Beagle & Joe R. Lansdale

3 out of 5 stars
Star-studded and comprehensive, this imaginative anthology brings a myriad of modern fantasy voices under one roof. Previously difficult for readers to discover in its new modes, urban fantasy is represented here in all three of its distinct styles—playful new mythologies, sexy paranormal romances, and gritty urban noir. Whether they feature tattooed demon-hunters, angst-ridden vampires, supernatural gumshoes, or pixelated pixies, these authors—including Patricia Briggs, Neil Gaiman, and Charles de Lint—mash-up traditional fare with pop culture, creating iconic characters, conflicted moralities, and complex settings. The result is starkly original fiction that has broad-based appeal and is immensely entertaining.

An interesting collection of short fiction. For those who think that urban fantasy consists only of paranormal romance, this volume will surprise you. The Mythic fiction and Noir Fantasy sections may be just what you’ve been wanting. At least one of the stories reminded me strongly in atmosphere of Stephen King’s novel The Stand.

I was particularly enamoured of the Patricia Briggs story, Seeing Eye, which fills in some backstory in the Alpha & Omega series, namely the story of the blind witch Moira and her werewolf companion. The volume was a worthwhile read for me with just this one story.

I also found Susan Palwick’s “Gestella” to be a haunting story, well worth the read.

A nice selection of stories to read “in the cracks” between other books.

Prentice Alvin / Orson Scott Card

2.5 out of 5 stars
The Tales of Alvin Maker series continues in volume three, Prentice Alvin. Young Alvin returns to the town of his birth, and begins his apprenticeship with Makepeace Smith, committing seven years of his life in exchange for the skills and knowledge of a blacksmith. But Alvin must also learn to control and use his own talent, that of a Maker, else his destiny will be unfulfilled.

This has to be one of the oddest fantasy series that I have ever read. O.S. Card gives early American history his own strange, imaginative torque. Cross Pilgrim’s Progress with the Belgariad, add in a dash of chemistry, alchemy, and magic, and you get this weird combination of the chosen one quest tale and religious allegory.

Alvin is definitely a “chosen one” with characteristics of Jesus and Joseph Smith both. His quest is to become a Maker, kind of an apprentice creator to God. Like the protagonists in most quest tales, he must learn to control himself as well as to control his talent. He is up against the Unmaker, the Satan stand-in for this series, which reminds me strongly of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry series.

The last volume dealt with race relations between settlers and Native Americans, which leaned heavily on the Noble Savage concept of the 19th century. This volume explores the relationship between white owners and black slaves. Both of these volumes leave me wondering what exactly Card is trying to accomplish in this regard—whatever it is, I didn’t get it.

Book 255 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Paranormalcy / Kierstan White

3 out of 5 stars
Evie’s always thought of herself as a normal teenager, even though she works for the International Paranormal Containment Agency, her ex-boyfriend is a faerie, she’s falling for a shape-shifter, and she’s the only person who can see through paranormals’ glamours.
But Evie’s about to realize that she may very well be at the center of a dark faerie prophecy promising destruction to all paranormal creatures.
So much for normal.

Young adult novels can be hit-or-miss for me. This one is kind of in the middle, because I quite enjoyed the story while being disappointed by the writing.

There are so many good elements—Evie herself has great potential, as a teenage agent for the International Paranormal Containment Agency. But she’s a teen, so she has teen concerns like forging an identity for herself, getting motivated to do school work, wondering if she’ll ever meet a boy, and trying to figure out what “normal” life is.

Evie’s best friend is a mermaid who runs the command centre at IPCA and they communicate through a translator of some kind. When Lisha, the mermaid, gets riled, her curses are translated by the machine as “bleep.” Resulting in Evie using “bleep” a lot in her everyday conversation. A neat way around the swearing dilemma in YA fiction.

The ability to see through glamours is Evie’s special talent and she actually “sees” and apprehends the young man who becomes her boyfriend during the course of the novel. Once again, fitting with the YA format, this relationship is very chaste and they get no further than hand-holding and kissing.

My major complaint is the lack of emotional depth to Evie. When people important to her IPCA life are killed, she seems to barely register these deaths, but instead concentrates on prom dresses and whether her boyfriend actually likes her. Although faeries are set up as the bad guys, they lack any real grit as villains.

For my money, if you like Paranormalcy, you should definitely try Lisa Shearin’s SPI Files, starting with The Grendel Affair. I found it funnier, more suspenseful, and definitely better written.

Spook Street / Mick Herron

4 out of 5 stars
A shakeup at MI5 and a terrorist attack on British soil set in motion clandestine machinery known to few modern spies. David Cartwright isn't a modern spy, however; he's legend and a bonafide Cold War hero. He's also in his dotage and losing his mind to Alzheimer's. His stories of -stotes- hiding in the bushes, following his every move have been dismissed by friends and family for years. Cartwright may be losing track of reality but he's certain about one thing: Old spooks don't go quietly and neither do the secrets they keep.

Mick Herron has really hit his stride with the fourth book in the Slough House series! River Cartwright is an inspired creation, grandson of an admired British “spook” (that’s a spy to you & me) who has been sabotaged during a training exercise by a frenemy and ended up in Slough House, the place where failed spies go to be punished for their sins.

There’s been a bombing of a shopping centre, plus River is starting to worry about his grandfather’s mental state. He has the same concerns that everyone has about relatives with dementia, plus the added concern that his grandfather may indeed shoot someone who comes to the door, believing that they are out to get him. That spy-paranoia doesn’t just go away just because he is losing his grip on every-day life.

As per usual, Herron provides a complex plot, with plenty of twists & turns to keep the reader on their toes. There are interesting revelations from the past, political machinations of the most vicious & devious kinds, and Herron isn’t afraid to sacrifice a person or two along the way. The ending is also skillfull—I was given enough resolution to satisfy, while still left with enough loose threads that I am happily anticipating the next installment. Well played!

AB Negative : an anthology of Alberta crime

3 out of 5 stars
A solid little collection of short stories in the mystery and noir genres.  I have the pleasure of being familiar with several of the authors because of a writers & readers conference that I attend here in Calgary each August.

With short stories, I often find myself wishing that they were longer and more detailed—several of these stories would, in my opinion, have been better suited to novel-length works, or at least novellas.  As with most short story collections, some appealed to me more than others.

It was refreshing to read stories set in my home province and, in some cases, in my own city.  I also give kudos for the very clever title of the volume (AB is the abbreviation for Alberta, dovetailing nicely with the blood group).