Read Recently — June 2017 — Mostly kinda like mysteries

Cat Nap: a Sunny and Shadow mystery by Claire Donally

Sequel to The Big Kitty. This one starts with Sunny needing to call on her vet, Jane Rigsdale, for some minor care for Shadow (after the last volume, Jane promised free care for Shadow anytime). Sunny likes Jane, but the two of them are competing for the affections of police detective Will Price, so when Jane asks her to provide back-up on a visit to her ex (Martin Rigsdale, also a veterinarian, and something of a jerk as well as being constantly on the make (which is why he’s her ex)) who has come back into her life to ask for money, now that she has the funding for a pet-care foundation set up (thanks to an inheritence from the first book — he doesn’ see why some of that money shouldn’t come his way. Jane wants to make clear to him that he ain’t gettin’ none. Sunny goes along, and so is on the scene when Martin turns out to be dead — murdered. And of course the angry ex-wife is suspect number one.

As if clearing Jane’s name isn’t stress enough for Sunny, Shadow is upset that Sunny’s Dad’s lady friend keeps bringing her new puppy around. He’s worried that he might be about to lose his new home . . . worried enough, perhaps, to take off first?

This builds nicely on the characters and relationships of the first book, while adding in enough new stuff to keep the interest going. The problem I had with the first one, the whole “spending time in Shadow’s head” thing continues, but it still isn’t badly done and there isn’t enough of it to be more than a little bit off-putting. All things considered, a decent book and as with most of the best mystery series you don’t have to have read the first book to understand this one. Recommended.

The Ghoul Vendetta: a SPI files novel by Lisa Shearin

I have missed a book. I grabbed what I thought was the long-awaited third SPI files novel, only to find that it was in fact the fourth. I shall have to remedy that.

Meanwhile, Supernatural Protection and Investigations’ seer Makenna Fraser is on a date with handsome goblin Rake Danescu (goblins in Shearins’ work are more like dark elves than orcs) on a yacht owned by one of New York’s vampire mafia when it is attacked by a kraken and a collection of what seems like creatures from the black lagoon and the owner kidnapped. Seemingly unrelatedly, a gang of ghouls robs a bank and steals several security deposit boxes. They also eat a security guard on camera, creating a PR nightmare for SPI.

Not surprisingly, the crimes turn out to be related: the deposit boxes belonged to several families of the vampire mafia. The leader of this gang of ghouls has a particular mad-on for Makenna’s partner Ian, who was introduced to the supernatural when he was a cop and said ghoul attacked and ate his partner in front of him. Since then the ghoul has popped up from time to time, enough for Mak and Ian to determine that he’s only pretending to be a ghoul. But what is he? Why does he hate Ian? What is his connection to the creatures that attacked the yacht?

This is a light, but not too light, fantasy with a mystery/action focus. I like the characters, I find the world-building interesting, and I should note that the fact that I missed a book didn’t affect my ability to understand what was going on here. This implies that you don’t need to have read the rest of the series to read future volumes of this one.

Recommended.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds: an Eden Moore story by Cherie Priest

Eden Moore did not have an easy childhood. Even if you discount seeing ghosts, growing up a mixed-race child in the American South can’t be easy. Add in being an orphan whose mother allegedly died in an asylum (it’s a bit more complicated than that) and a cousin who seems to think that she will grow up to be evil and is determined to kill her before she does and, well, you wind up with a young woman with some issues around the topic of family, to say the least. But the more Eden looks into her family history, the darker things get. Even if Eden herself isn’t evil, someone out there is. And they’re waiting for her . . .

This is early Priest, set in the south and written before she moved to Seattle the first time. It shows her usual talent, both in character and in setting, and the plot surprises with the kind of gothic twists that she used to such advantage elsewhere. Highly recommended.

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Read Recently — June 2017 — Non-Fiction

The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the year the Great War began by Jack Beatty

This book actually has two subtitles: the one on the title page, above, and the one on the cover: “How the Great War was not inevitable”, which I think catches the essence of the book better. Basically, through a number of chapters Beatty presents various things which might, had history gone in slightly different paths, have distracted the various players from the war. England was facing Irish problems, for example, while the US was busy meddling in the various Mexican revolutions. France lost a peaceably-inclined premiere when his wife went on trial for murdering a newspaper editor, and so on.

It’s an intriguing book, and I learned a lot about the world around the war, which is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

Recommended.

The Last Gunfight: the real story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral — and how it changed the American West by Jeff Guinn

The city of Tombstone, Arizona, USA, was a silver mining town, meaning that it had a limited lifespan–as soon as the silver ran out, so would the town. Of course, none of the people involved in creating the town believed that the silver would run out, so they built it up as much as they could. You might not expect that cattle rustling would be a booming business in silver territory, but people gotta eat and Tombstone’s not far from the Mexican border, and the Mexicans had cattle (and Americans at that time didn’t really think much of Mexicans as people . . . thank goodness times have changed, eh?), and there was money in taking those cattle away and selling them to Americans, which was a lot of what the Clanton family did (cowboy, in those days, was an insult, meaning “troublemaker”). There was also money in becoming a sheriff or marshal, which was what the Earps tried, and for the most part failed, to do (they also gambled).

Nobody on either side wanted the titular gunfight, which of course actually took place several blocks away from the corral, but it was one of those things that sort of became inevitable once the process started.

Again, an informative and entertaining book. Recommended.

Read Recently — June 2017 — Fantasy Females

Alanna the First Adventure: Song of the Lioness (Book 1) by Tamora Pierce

I’ve heard a lot of good things about this series from female friends since I got on the Internet, so coming across a 2014 re-issue in the YA section of Chapters was, I figured, my chance to see if it lived up to the hype. For the most part, given that I’m dealing with only the first book here, it does. Caveat: it was originally published in the early 80s, so things that have become cliches since then might live on here, afresh.

The setting is the Kingdom of Tortall, which is undergoing a medieval-ish period. Alanna of Trebond and her twin brother, Thom, are being sent away by their widowered father, Lord Alan, to be educated according to their percieved natures: Alanna will go to a convent to learn to be a lady, while Thom will go to the court of the King to be a squire and eventually a knight. Unfortunately for the kids, Alanna is best suited to be a knight (she can out-fight and out-ride her brother) and doesn’t want to be a lady, while Thom wants to be a
sorceror (both kids have powerful magickal gifts) and really isn’t cut out to be a warrior. Unfortunately for their father, both kids are smarter than he is and, with a bit of forgery and some suborning of the servants, Alanna becomes Alan, Thom’s twin brother, and they both head off to their destiny.

Of course, it isn’t as easy as all that. Alanna has a lot to learn in her chosen career, but she’s quick and hard-working and soon befriends a lot of the other squires, including the Prince, Jonathan. She does make one enemy, but there’s none of the terrible hazing that Piemur went through in Dragondrums, for example. She has it neither too easy nor too hard. There are things she does very well, and other things she doesn’t. But she is special, and definitely has a destiny, so if that sort of thing, even when it’s done well, bothers you, this might not be the book for you. If you’re okay with it, though, this is a very well-written example of its kind and I recommend it.

Lirael: daughter of the Clayr by Garth Nix

Sequel to Sabriel (here).

Lirael is, as the subtitle says, a child of the Clayr, a race of seers in the Old Kingdom, where magic is real. At least, her mother was Clayr; her father is unknown (it is not uncommon for Clayr women to seek husbands from non-Clayr, but usually they pick a visitor to the Clayr glacier and Lirael’s mother went away for seven months, returning with fetus in tow. Then she left again when Lirael was five, leaving the girl with no parents and, unfortunately, no sign of the sight that comes to all young Clayr sooner or later — but as each year passes, it is obvious that the sight is coming to Lirael far later than any other, if it is coming at all). Eventually, Lirael is assigned to help in the Clayr’s massive library, where she summons and befriends the magickal creature known as the Disreputable Dog, who helps her in finding and defeating the many dangerous
creatures that lurk in the depths of the library.

Meanwhile, Prince Sameth of the Old Kingdom, son of Sabriel and Touchstone, is sent to Ancelstierre for schooling. He and his friends are attacked by a necromancer on their way back from a football (soccer) game one day, leaving Sameth terrified of death and the Dead. Which is a pity, because it has always been understood that, just as his older sister will one day rule the Old Kingdom, Sam will be Abhorsen after his mother, and he is expected to study necromancy and the dead, and he just can’t stand to. Eventually he runs away, intending to find and help a school friend who is coming into the Old Kingdom to visit and who may be in trouble.

The King and Queen have asked the Clayr to see if they can See a particularely troubled area of the kingdom, and for the most part they have been unable to. They have also never seen a vision of Lirael. Until now, when they see her in this troubled area, with Sam’s friend. They prepare her as best they can and send her off. Of course, she crosses paths with Sam and the two of them become, if not friends, at least partners and head off into greater danger than they can imagine.

This should have middle-volume-of-the-trilogy syndrome, but actually it feels more like the first book of a new series, what with Sabriel and Touchstone being dropped into the background and a new generation stepping forward. Lirael is as good a heroine as Sabriel was, and though Sam is less than heroic he is, at least, well-drawn and interesting. The Clayr are a unique new culture, though I don’t think we’ll be returning to them after thsi volume. All things considered, a good story, well-written, and you don’t necessarily have to have read Sabriel to understand it.

Highly recommended.

Read Recently — May 2017 — Women Of Power

Fire Touched by Patricia Briggs

At the start of the book, Mercy Thompson is relaxing with her husband and their extended family of werewolves when the police call them to help defeat a troll that is attacking a local bridge. Since the fae went into hiding the occasional monster has been released upon North American humanity, but it’s usually something like a fae serial killer, not a green King Kong that eats cars. It’s difficult, but with some unexpected help Mercy and Adam manage to take the troll down.

The unexpected help is Mercy’s old friend and mentor Zee and his son, Tad. The help is unexpected because as a powerful fae Zee was called back to the fae reserves and, as unexpectedly powerful for a half-fae, Tad was also gone. Mercy didn’t expect to see them again until the conflict ended. However, they’ve been released by Beauclaire, the Grey Lord who caused this conflict a few books back (in the “Alpha and Omega” series, when Charles and Anna rescued his daughter from a serial killer who was set free by the Courts ultimately because his prey were all at least half fey) because he wants them to take someone to safety: a child, a boy named Aiden, who spent many, many years underhill, a refuge long denied to the fae themselves. Now that the gates to underhill have been re-opened, the fae would like to go back inside, but they are finding it dangerous and wonder why this human boy was able to live so long there and how he came to have control over fire.

Mercy extends him the protection of the Pack for 24 hours, with an option to renew. This re-opens tension within the Pack, with regard to Mercy’s place within it, plus problems with Bran, the leader of North America’s werewolves, since Mercy also lays claim to the Tri-Cities area, declaring it a nuetral territory under the control of their Pack. Also, while some of the Fae, some of them very powerful indeed, want to negotiate a peace, others are enjoying the current situation and intend to bring on only war. And now the Pack is in their
sights . . .

The last time I wrote I was concerned about where this storyline was going. This one threw me a curve; I did not see anyof this coming and, in a series already 8 books long (plus 4 more in a related series) that’s a nice feeling. Briggs continues the usual strong characterization. Highly recommended.

Kris Longknife: Bold by Mike Shepherd

The fourteenth (and nominally last) Kris Longknife book finds our hero called back to her home planet from the frontier world of Alwa, where she has been leading humanity’s defense against homicidal aliens for the last several books. It seems that the neighbouring empire of Greenfeld is in the midst of a civil war, and Kris has been asked to help mediate peace. Greenfeld is owned and operated by the Smythe-Peterwald family, who throughout the series have tried to kill Kris and her family and basically been her greatest enemies. On one side of the war is Harry Peterwald, Emperor, and his newly-married Empress; on the other side is Grand Duchess Vicky Peterwald, who at one point was an enemy to Kris, and then her friend for a short period, before Vicky betrayed Kris in a cruel but not-intended-to-be-lethal way. Since then, Vicky has been the star of her own trilogy of novels, which I rated “not recommended” but you might want to check them out. You don’t need to to understand this book, though.

Kris is more used to shooting at her enemies than talking to them, though she hasn’t proven bad at that as the series went on. She is quickly reconciled with Vicky, who is perfectly willing to apologize for her past behaviour, and who argues that the problem is not her father, but her step-mother, who has been trying to kill Vicky since she returned to Greenfeld from her earlier adventures. It soon becomes apparent that Vicky is right, and while Harry has his own, uniquely creepy vibe, he isn’t at heart an ogre but his new wife has, at best, anger issues, and may be trying to marry the empire out from under him.

While much of the story is the peace talks, you don’t need to worry that they will be boring with this particular group of personalities involved. And of course it wouldn’t be a Kris Longknife novel without a short fleet battle, with Kris facing unequal odds (though the odds are very much in Kris’ favour, though the enemy doesn’t know that).

Shepherd does his usual good job with the characters and dialogue, and the way the tech changes are handled throughout the series are worthy of Doc Smith (though, thankfully, not on his scale). This is great space opera and highly recommended, though of course you don’t want to start 14 books into the series (you could, but you’d miss all the fun of getting here). If you haven’t already, start with Kris Longknife: Mutineer (click on the Mike Shepherd tag to find all the books).

Read Recently — May 2017 — Non-Fiction

The Last Spike: the great railway 1881-1885 by Pierre Berton

Canadian history by a man who made his name off the stuff. This time, as the subtitle states, he’s focused on the making of the first cross-Canada railway in the late 19th century. One of the great Canadian myths, the railway bound what was then a new and tenuous nation together (except for Newfoundland; they’re a special case and still not wholly accepting of the rest of us); before then most freight and passengers bound for the west had to pass through the USA. Fortunes were made and lost on the railway building contracts, and towns were also made along its route.

Berton does his usual excellent job of making known past into tense story. Recommended for those who are interested in Canadian history.

Assholes*: *a theory by Aaron James

James takes a philosophical approach to Assholism, first defining what the term means; what makes someone an asshole rather than, say, just a boor or schmuck. One important point is that the person has to behave assholishly consistently. I may occasionaly act the asshole, but I think I don’t do so all the time. On the other hand, James has since this edition put out a short book about Donald Trump (Trump is already mentioned in this volume, of course).

Anyway, James writes clearly and entertainingly about a difficult subject that we all have to sometimes deal with. This book is highly recommended, especially for those in the service industries.

Read Recently — May 2017 — Mysteries

The Body In The Library: a Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie

It is quite a surprise to Colonel and Mrs. Bantry when, as they prepare to start another day at their country house in the village of St. Mary’s Meade, the corpse of a murdered young woman is found in their library. It certainly isn’t anyone they know, (in fact, the body is quickly identified as a dancer at one of the nearby hotels (that is, she dances with the customers, not for the customers–well, she doesn’t dance with anyone anymore, I guess)) but if the case isn’t solved quickly it will reflect badly on the Colonel, not to mention anyone else caught up in the affair. Fortunately, Mrs. Bantry is a good friend of Jane Marple, who is both smart enough and wise enough to see the truth, eventually.

So far, I’ve been pleased with the Marple mysteries, and this one continues the trend. The crime is deeper and darker than it at first seems, the characters are well-written and worth spending time with, and the revelation doesn’t involve any cheating on Christie’s part. And of course for all that it’s part of a series, you don’t have to have read any other Marple stories — or, indeed, any other Christie at all — to understand and enjoy this one. Recommended.

Due Or Die: a library lover’s mystery by Jenn McKinlay

I’m gonna be honest with you: I have a thing about mysteries featuring librarians. You might have noticed that. This one’s hero is one Lindsey Norris, Library Director for the Briar Creek, Connecticut, USA, public library. Lindsey’s relatively new to Briar Creek, but she’s made some good friends, including some of her co-workers and her landlady. She’s also dealing with the issue of her attraction to tour-boat captain Mike “Sully” Sullivan, though both of them are taking it slowly, Lindsey being recently divorced and Sully presumably having reasons of his own.

Lindsey attends the latest meeting of the Friends of the Library as they hold a presidential election, and the result is a surprise upset, with former president Bill Sint being unanimously voted out in favour of Lindsey’s friend Carrie. Bill takes it badly, blaming Lindsey for his loss. which triggers a mentally unstable woman who has a crush on him to go after Lindsey. Lindsey is scared but not hurt, which is more than can be said for Carrie’s husband, who is shot through a window one night while Carrie is at a FOL meeting.

Or was she? As the spouse, Carrie is the first suspect for the police. There’s no shortage of other suspects, Carrie’s husband having been an unlikeable SOB, but they all have unbreakable aliases, and Carrie doesn’t so much. It’s down to Lindsey and her friends to find out the truth.

Tension is added when a nor’easter buries the town under a ton of snow. A dog is dumped into the Library’s bookdrop, and Lindsey has to find a new home for him. Bill Sint’s charming nephew keeps asking Lindsey out to lunch and since Sully isn’t making his move she isn’t sure if she should go for it. And a variety of weird accidents keep happening around and to Lindsey and Carrie. Carrie’s husband might not be the last victim, if Lindsey doesn’t solve the case quickly.

This is the second “library lover’s mystery”, but as I don’t seem to have read the first one I can truly say that you don’t have to read them in order. Lindsey’s a likable young woman and the rest of her friends all have their charm. The villain, when revealed, is both surprising and logical (in retrospect). All things considered, this will never be one of the great mystery novels, but it’s a decent enough read. Mildly recommended.

Read Recently — May 2017 — Fantasy

The Dalemark Quartet: Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dalemark Quartet is weird. It’s a series of four books, each set in the same land (Dalemark) which is divided into North and South, the North being generally regarded as more free while the South is ruled by tyrannical small lords (not that they are short or anything; I just mean that we’re not talking about Kings or anything. Dalemark hasn’t had a king for a long time). However, each of the books is only vaguely related and the series doesn’t give any order to them. You could read any of the first three in any order, though the canonical order seems to start with this one.

Cart and Cwidder is the story of Moril and his family: mother Lenina, sister Brid, brother Dagner and father Clennan, who is a singer. They wander about South Dalemark, playing music, telling news, and passing on messages. To be honest, they aren’t very interesting and Clennan is even kind of unpleasant. It’s about chapter four when things pick up: six men come out of the woods near where the family is camped for the night and kill Clennan, and secrets start to come out. Clennan was much more than he seemed to be; he takes on unexpected depth. Moril remains the centre of the story, though it takes him a while more to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing, and what he, and the big Cwidder that he inherits, is capable of.

A cwidder, by the way, is a stringed instrument, sort of a cross between a lute and a guitar. I learned that, not from the story (which never describes the thing beyond that it has strings) but from the startlingly extensive “Guide to Dalemark” at the back of the book. That is, in fact, one of the major problems I had with the book: things that should be made plainer in the text are not. Not that the story is confusing in any way, but . . . .

Anyway, it’s by Jones and it’s not bad at all, so I’d call it recommended. However, be aware that volumes in the series might be hard to find.

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

A reread. Written up here. Still recommended.