Read Recently — July 2016 — Nonfiction

Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet and how we live by Marlene Zuk

You might have heard of the “Paleodiet”, which comes accompanied by claims that if we eat the way our earliest ancestors did we will be happier and healthier. It was accompanied by a variety of other “evolution-based” claims about exercise , medicine, etc. Based on the title of the book, you can probably guess what Zuk (a professor of ecology, evolution and behaviour at the University of Minnesota, according to her author blurb) thinks of these claims. Unlike some of those who argue in favour, Zuk brings science and research to the table, as well as the willingness to admit, where necessary, that she just doesn’t know the answer.

Zuk writes well and communicates her points clearly, using humour sparingly but effectively (and dryly). And it is nice to read a book about evolution (which is a big part of the story) that doesn’t have to spend time replying to creationists.

Recommended.

Wyatt Earp: a vigilante life by Andrew C. Isenberg

I first encountered wyatt Earp and the Matter of Tombstone in an episode of the original Star Trek series (“The Specter of the Gun”) in which the Enterprise is ordered to make contact with a reclusive species of advanced aliens, who test and punish our heroes by zapping some members of the bridge crew into a shared hallucination of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 CE, where they were to play Clantons to a set of hallucinatory Earps (plus Doc Holliday, who was fairly friendly to Dr. McCoy, one medical man to the other). This did tend to prejudice me against the Earps, perhaps unfairly.

Then again, perhaps not. Wyatt lived until 1929, long enough to spend the last years of his life in Hollywood, telling his story and making sure he looked good. The facts have emerged over time, though: the Earps were lawmen in Tombstone, they were not always so and were not so everywhere. Wyatt lived a life on both sides of the law, sometimes later arresting people for the same sort of acts he himself had recently done to earn a living. Earp was a fascinating man, always loyal to his family and loyal to his friends as long as it was convenient (Doc Holliday quarreled with him in 1882 and died about 5 years later, having seen Wyatt only one more time after the quarrel), and probably as good a man as he could afford to be, but not the paragon he set himself up to be. The result is a fascinating read, well-documented, and recommended.

Read Recently — July 2016 — Mystery

The Readaholics and the Poirot Puzzle: a bookclub mystery by Laura DiSilverio

Sequel to The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco (here), this book finds Amy-Faye working on the grand opening of her brother Derek’s brewpub when things immediately start going wrong. Amy-Faye’s reusing her college bartending skills because Gordon, her brother’s silent partner (a venture capitalist) managed to cause the regular bartender to quit with just days to go before the grand opening (they’re opening on a limited basis to shake down the staff and finalize the menu); one of the waitstaff is Gordon’s son, Kolby, a whiney jerk and the other, Bernie, is a divorcee with kids and an unreliable babysitter who is working and putting herself through school; though she’s more sympathetic than Kolby she still has reliability issues.

Everything that can go wrong on the grand opening night does. The women’s washroom floods, a group of women organised to expose serial cheaters show up to confront Gordon, a fire alarm drives everyone out into the rain (most people don’t come back after that) and Gordon takes a header off the roof and lands in the dumpster, dead. It’s decidedly no accident; he was hit over the head first. There’s no shortage of suspects; Gordon was a man who seemed to make enemies easily, but leading the crew is Derek, who had an actual fist-fight with Gordon when the venture capitalist tried to back out of the partnership before opening night, leaving Derek potentially on the hook for everything.

Unable to risk her beloved brother going to jail for a crime she is sure he didn’t commit, Amy-Faye gathers her crew and gets to work (around, of course, her actual work, which we do spend some time watching her do), though her relationship with cute cop Lindell Hart takes a few hits. The clue that allows Amy-Faye to finally solve the mystery and clear her brother’s name is brilliant and flows logically out of the rest of the story.

Good writing, great characters, and a decent mystery. Recommended.

Read Recently — July 2016 — Fantasy

The Wildings: book one of the Hundred Names of Darkness by Nilanjana Roy

Ever since Watership Down, I’ve looked for other books that tell that same kind of tale; I’ve found some that succeed in doing so and a lot of others that approach it but fall short. The central question is, do these animals feel like the animals they are supposed to be, or are they just humans in animal suits? It’s a nice bonus if the story has a slight tinge of magic, like Fiver’s visions, but that’s not absolutely necessary.

Roy presents us with a colony of feral cats in Delhi, India. Proud, wild hunters, for the most part, their peaceful existance is shattered by the arrival of a powerful new Sender, a cat able to project her thoughts into the mind of any other cat (and many other creatures as well) at great distance and with greater presence (as though she was actually there). She is disrupting things and upsetting the local wildlife and so must be brought under control: educated or eliminated.

The situation becomes complicated when it turns out that the Sender (perhaps the most powerful ever) is a tiny kitten, and a housecat to boot, named Mara. She can be trained to use her powers properly, but will she be interested enough to learn? A powerful sender also usually only emerges when there is a threat to the local cat population coming. Has this anything to do with the mysterious Shuttered House?

There’s a decent adventure here, with a large cast of characters of a variety of species. Mara’s powers are clearly drawn for us, making her solution to the danger almost ingenious. While Roy seems to have put some thought and research into how the cat society works, though, she doesn’t seem to have done the same for cat hunting, which is unfortunate as there is a “teach the kitten how to hunt” scene that falls flat as a consequence.

All that being said, this is a medium-weight contender for the Watership title. Mildly recommended.

We Will All Go Down Together: stories of the Five-Family Coven by Gemma Files

Files writes dark-fantasy/horror and has produced a number of absolutely brilliant stories down through the years. This volume brings together a group of those stories, related to each other by dealing with the sub-titular group: the Glouwers, Rusks, Devizes, Druirs and Rokes. And normally I would spend some time telling you about the various stories herein and how they add up to a total much greater than their individual parts — a story of betrayal and revenge from far, far beyond the grave, with witches and fairies and angels that did not exactly fall — but anything I say would be spoilerous and if you’re going to read this you should get to discover it the way I did.

Be warned: this is dark, dark stuff with occasional bursts of light; not for everyone. If you’re interested in horror, though, this is highly recommended.

Hunter’s Death by Michelle West

Hunter’s Death is the sequel to Hunter’s Oath (here), and part two of the Sacred Hunt Duology.

As Gilliam and Stephen make their way to Essalieyan, led by the seer Evayne and hunted by demons along the way, in that state’s capital city of Averalaan Jewel “Jay” Markess lives in poverty in one of the worst sections of the city. Like many in that area of the city Jay has assembled a “Den” (gang) that serves as her family now that her blood family is gone. Jay’s Den is small and not particularly violent, so they rely on a series of tunnels beneath the streets that few people know about to avoid the more violent Dens and the officers of the law. Unfortunatly, the tunnels have lately become dangerous, several members of the Den having recently vanished in them recently. Everyone hopes they are all okay, but Jay is sure that they are not.

She can be certain because Jay is a nascent Seer. She needs safety for the survivors of her Den, though, so she goes to see the man who taught her about the tunnels and, when it seems he has been replaced by a superpowered evil version of himself, is forced to flee. The Den barely escape from him and Jewel has nowhere to go (he knows all their hideouts) so she goes to deliver his final message, to the leader of House Terafin, one of the greatest of the great noble houses of the Empire. There is no real reason why the Terafin should even see Jay, never mind help the Den, but aside from the message from a dead man Jay can offer her seership (once she figures out it’s something valuable) and her knowledge of the tunnels, but the value of those is limited: everywhere she goes the tunnels are just gone. Someone seems to be just erasing them from below the city.

It soon becomes apparent that demons, who are not supposed to be active in the world, are up to something beneath the city. Something which Jewel and the Huntbrothers* are uniquely suited to deal with . . . if they can reach it in time.

I’m having a hard time summarizing this book; it’s where the Essalieyan cycle really launches and so it’s not only thick but big. It originally, as I noted with the first book, wasn’t one of my favourite West books; that started with the next series, The Sun Sword (which we will get around to, eventually), but this re-read really helped me appreciate it more. Highly recommended, but you have to read Hunter’s Oath first.

*Jewel and the Huntbrothers is the name of my Jem and the Holograms cover band

Read Recently — July 2016 — Briggs

Dead Heat: an alpha and omega novel by Patricia Briggs

Possible trigger warning for child endangerment.

Charles and Anna head to Arizona, trying to kill two birds with one trip: Charles wants to see an old friend who has never met Anna, and he wants to buy Anna the perfect birthday present. In this case, both can actually be killed at once because the old friend, Joseph Sani and his father Hosteen breed horses and Anna should have the perfect horse (they do a lot of riding in Montana). Charles hasn’t seen Joseph in a long time because, unlike Hosteen, Joseph isn’t a werewolf and that means he’s aging while Charles (and his own father) isn’t. It’s hard for Charles to see his old friend slowly fade, but Joseph won’t consent to changing and it’s against the rules to change him against his will (also a really, really bad idea). Charles’ refusal to change the old man is causing tension between him and Hosteen as well.

But, before things can really get going on the horse-buying end of things, Joseph’s son Kage (Hosteen’s grandson, not a werewolf) comes in and, collecting his cellphone, finds four increasingly frantic messages from his wife, Chelsea, who is suffering from headache pain and the worry that she his trying to kill their children. Kage, Hosteen, Charles and Anna head immediately to Kage’s house, and find the children safely locked in a bedroom while Chelsea has been hurting herself to keep from hurting them. She’s so badly hurt, in fact, that the only way to save her (and also find out what’s going on) is to Change her to a werewolf (there is a spell on her, compelling her to kill the children and then herself; if the children are safe she should also kill herself. It’s a complicated spell, and fae).

It turns out some bad things have been happening at the daycare that Kage and Chelsea’s kids go to; a teacher committed suicide, and a family was killed in a head-on crash (one of the parents swerved into oncoming traffic, though it was raining so it could have been an accident). When Charles and Anna go investigate the daycare itself, they find a child has been replaced by a fetch, which admits to putting the spell on Chelsea before turning into its true form, an inanimate mannequin.

The Fae have turned one of their darker members loose, a creature that hunts human children, a fae serial killer. Charles and Anna, along with Hosteen and his pack (and an FBI agent we met in Fair Game and the local CANTRIP agents) must find and stop him before he kills again.

Throughout these books and the Mercy Thompson novels there has been an ongoing plot of the supernatural creatures (werewolves, fae, vampires, witches) dealing with the day-world. The Fae came out of the broom closet first, and then the werewolves. For most of that time, both cultures cooperated closely with humans, because there’s so many of us. But then a human jury set a human serial killer free because his victims (people he captured, tortured, raped and killed) were fae and werewolves (for years before the werewolves even came out of the broom closet); compounding the error was the fact that the second-last victim (the last victim was Anna, which is why he was caught) was the half-fae daughter of one of the Grey Lords, who was in the position to do something about it. So now the thing that’s got me guessing is whether we’re heading towards a “the fae are mostly monsters and the werewolves stand with the humans against them” storyline (because, let’s face it: the fae are a large percentage monstrous, both in the background to the series and in folklore (though, to be fair to the Fair Folk, all the folklore we have is centuries old; we have no idea how they might have changed in the time since, if they were real)) or if we’re heading into “humans were the real monsters all along” (because, let’s face it: humans turned loose a killer because he was preying on a race/two races they dislike/fear; but the background to this story makes clear that the fae lock up/depower their serial killers who prey on humans, a race they fear/dislike, so the fae come off as better people than the humans do). Time will tell, I guess.

Recommended.

Silver Borne: a Mercy Thompson novel by Patricial Briggs

It is important to note that this is a re-read and also that it occurs some time before the above novel. At this point the werewolves are only just out of the broom closet, the fey are still around.

Things aren’t going well for Mercy at the start of the book. She and Adam go on a date and end up in a fight. Mercy behaves atypically for her, only to realise later that someone in the Pack is using her new magic link to the Pack to control her (werewolves in a pack are mystically linked together. When Adam and Mercy finally committed, she became part of the pack and received those links (sort of like being added to the email lists and such). However, no one thought to teach her the standard defenses that would prevent someone from doing exactly what they did to her), and some members of the Pack don’t like her because she’s not a werwolf.

Then Samuel tries to commit suicide (Samuel was Mercy’s oldest love and for the first few books of the series was the third leg of the romantic triangle Mercy/Adam/Samuel. The resolution of that triangle was one of the better done approaches to that problem I’ve encountered) and in order to keep him alive his wolf-side has taken over, leaving Sam in wolf form most of the time. Mercy has to keep him from Adam to keep Adam from having to kill him; most werewolves whose wolf takes over go mad and kill as many people as they can before dying. Samuel, as both the Marrok’s son and one of the oldest werewolves in North America Samuel is the exception to a lot of rules). This means she takes him to work with her, which leads to a different problem as her assistant Gabriel’s family is there to clean the office . . . that is, Gabriel’s mother and his younger siblings. A bunch of kids and a normal woman. And Mercy is walking around with a dangerous and unstable werewolf.

Fortunately, the kids mistake Sam for a dog and Sam is willing to play along, so everything goes well until a TV bounty hunter busts in and points a gun at Sam, proclaiming that he’s defending a kid from a vicious werewolf. Of course, Mercy takes him down and they call the police; it seems that he thinks Sam is Adam and that the local cops have a warrant out on Adam and called in the hotshot to take him down. Of course, there are no warrants on Adam; though the bounty hunter has a warrant it’s an obvious fake. Things are even more complicated by the fact that (only the werewolves realise) a hidden fae is waiting across the street during the face off; she takes off rather than be caught by one of the werewolves, leaving behind a gun which can fire pistol bullets from a longer distance: silver bullets, like those in the bounty hunter’s pistol. Someone was supposed to get shot and the Bounty Hunter blamed. But who was the target and why?

As the story goes on it becomes clearer that one of the fae is up to something. But who and what? Add to that the problems with Adam’s pack and Samuel’s trouble, and Mercy is caught in the middle of everything. A good addition to a good series, and highly recommended.

Read Recently — June 2016 — I am running out of humourous headlines pertaining to witches

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle Hangnail is in some trouble. A magic castle, it is without a master or mistress and if the situation goes on it will be decertified and sold off. Fortunately, a new Mistress is about to arrive: a wicked witch. Quite short. Quite young. A school-girl named Molly, actually.

Molly may be lying about a few things. She is a little wicked (she’s the evil twin of her family (well, not evil as such, but her sister is definitely the good twin, sooo)) and she is a witch, though she can’t do much magic. And her presence here could save the castle’s inhabitants: Majordomo, who isn’t a hunchback but makes up for it by walking bent-over, Lord Edward von Hallenbrock, an animated suit of armour with bad knees, Cook, a minotaur who hates the letter Q, Pins, not so much a voodoo doll as a small burlap figure who likes to knit, and Serenissima, a steam genie (child of a jinn and a shopkeeper who had some mermaid ancestry) who lives in a teakettle and cleans the castle by walking around it. And it isn’t as if there’s anyone else, someone wickeder and more powerful, likely to show up. All Molly has to do is a few simple Tasks . . .

This reminded me a little of Martinez’s Too Many Curses, only kid-friendlier. And that is the thing: it’s for Young Readers. And in hardcover. But it’s a fun story, well-written, and marvelously illustrated by Vernon herself. Highly recommended.

Read Recently — June 2016 — Non-fiction

Krakatoa: the day the world exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester

After Tambora gave us the Year Without A Summer, the next big thing was Krakatoa. Somewhat more famous because more people saw it happen, Krakatoa’s violent eruption was eventually made into a movie (Krakatoa, East of Java which, as Winchester points out, puts the Volcano on the wrong side of Java) but as of late has mostly been forgotten in the west.

Winchester gives us a thorough grounding in the history of the area, including the fact that Alfred Wallace came to his understanding of Evolution here. The science of plate tectonics, vital to any understanding of volcanism, is also presented. And of course, since no volcano only erupts once, the history of Krakatoa itself is looked at, though some of it has to be inferred, as some eruptions were not observed directly.

When we finally get to the main event, it is well worth the wait. Winchester presents the destruction calmly; there is certainly no need for histrionics as the volcano itself provides more than enough excitement and the people who wrote about it at the time provided enough exclamation points.

I’m not selling this very well, but it’s a good book, well-written and well-edited, and recommended.

Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the remarkable story of the Hudson’s Bay Company by James Raffan

You grow up in Canada, you learn about the Hudson’s Bay Company. At the very least, you learn where the store is and what kind of products they sell. But originally, the Company was formed to exploit the economic resources of the Canadian Northwest, for the economic benefit of rich investors in Britain. That it succeeded well enough to become a Canadian institution is mostly due to the drive of Sir George, a clerk and trader originally from Scotland, turned business magnate and, eventually, Canadian success story.

This isn’t really a biography, since it focuses not only on Simpson but also on the company at large. And what enjoyment you will draw from the story depends to a large extent on how much you care about Canadian economic history. The prose is good and the editing acceptable; I myself am always astounded at how ignorant I am of my own country’s history and delighted to find out new things about it: I had no concept of George Simpson at all and found him very interesting to meet. Mildly recommended, unless you are a history buff in which case, highly recommended.

Read Recently — June 2016 — Mysteries

Arsenic and Old Books: a cat in the stacks mystery by Miranda James

When last I wrote about the “Cat in the Stacks” mysteries (here) I said that the series was basically over because the whole cast except for the cat was going off to France (for reasons I have forgotten). Well, I guess they’re back.

At the start of the book, Charlie and Diesel are in Charlie’s office, waiting on the arrival of the Mayor of Athena (the Mississippi town they live in), who has some family documents that she wishes to donate to the College Library Archives (Charlie’s department). In fact, what she has are several volumes of an ancestor’s diary; a many-times great-grandmother who lived through the civil war and the occupation of the city by the Union Army. The volumes were found just recently and she wants them stored properly and made available to others (especially students). Her son is planning to run for her husband’s state senate seat when the husband retires and she feels that people knowing what an amaxing woman her great-great etc grandmother was will make them appreciate the family more, and vote for her son (or something. Charlie isn’t exactly sure what she means).

Charlie needs a few days to prepare the books and make sure they are in good enough shape for people to handle, so he’s a bit disconcerted to get two demands for access to them immediately: one from a student (or a woman claiming to be a student) who claims to be studying the mayor’s family, and one from a professor who’s so unpopular a Straw Feminist that she is on the verge of losing her job, never mind ever getting tenure. She wants exclusive access! Charlie turns them both down, but the professor, Marie Steverton, says that she has an in with the Mayor and will get that access! No one thinks that she can actually do it, but it turns out she can. However, before Charlie can make the diaries available (procedures have to be followed to make sure the old documents can be safely loaned out) they are stolen from his office and Marie Steverton is killed. Run over by a car. It might be an accident. It might not . . .

Charlie’s investigation leads him into local politics, but the story as a whole is fairly gentle. It’s a good mystery, and a nice time hanging out with friends.

Recommended.

What Angels Fear: a Sebastian St. Cyr mystery by C. S. Harris

A re-read. First mentioned, briefly, here. The start of an interesting series set in the Regency period of British history. Still recommended.

Garrett Takes The Case: Old Tin Sorrows, Dread Brass Shadows, and Red Iron Nights by Glen Cook

The second Garrett omnibus includes the second three novels of the series.

Old Tin Sorrows starts with Garrett’s old sergeant dropping by the house to collect on an old favour: down in the Cantard, when Garrett was badly injured, Sergeant Peters carried him to safety. Now that Peters is retired and working for retired General Stantnor, who had been their Colonel back in the day, he needs Garrett to come out to the estate and find out who is stealing from the old man — if in fact anyone is; the Colonel may be mistaken on that. But one thing Peters is sure of: someone is trying to kill the old man. Possibly by poison. The killer is the one Peters really wants caught, though if Garrett finds a thief as well, fine.

What Garrett finds on the General’s secluded estate outside of Town is a nice collection of suspects, the General’s sexy daughter, and another woman, a blonde, who only Garrett seems to be able to spot. It soon becomes apparent that there is a killer on the scene, though neither Garrett nor any of the experts he brings in can identify what poison is being administered to the General, nor how; but the cast of live suspects is quickly exchanged for a pile of dead suspects, not all of whom stay lying down. In the end it’s a dark, grim story, lightened only by the arrival of Maya to cheer Garrett up (I was mistaken last time, by the way, when I said that this would be the last appearance of Maya in the series. She reappears several times after this, though only in the background and never, so far, with a speaking role).

Dread Brass Shadows begins with Garrett finally deciding to get some exercise, jogging around the block. Tinnie Tate has been on the outs with him for a while, but it looks like she’s ready to make up–but before she can get through the crowd she’s knifed from behind by a stranger. Garrett and Saucerhead catch the guy, but before they can interrogate him he’s killed by a sniper–one of a group of snipers who nearly kill our heroes as well.

Fortunately, Tinnie seems likely to recover. Whoever sent the attacker out is not only going to have to face the wrath of Garrett and his friends, but also of the Tate family.

A couple of days later, as Garrett is getting ready to do his running again, a frightened, naked red-head stumbles through his door and collapses on the floor, unconscious. She later vanishes from the house without a trace.

Then a third red-head shows up. A former chambermaid from the house of an out-of-town baron, she wants to frustrate the plans of a witch known as “The Serpent”; no one knows what the Serpent looks like (at least, no one who doesn’t work for her) but she was working on a “book of dreams or book of shadows” (which Garrett eventually learns is a thing from dwarfish lore: a book of brass pages, each of which describes a being and allows the holder of the book to take on the form of that being, with all its abilities. This leads to the dwarfs adding a side to the many seeking the book). It is apparent that Tinnie was stabbed because she was taken for this girl.

Things get really complicated when Chodo Contague, Tunfaire’s kingpin of crime, also gets involved in the hunt for the book. Chodo has been paralysed for years, exerting his will through his right- and left-hand men, Sadler and Crask. Now it is apparent that he sees the book as a way to get out of his wheelchair, and Sadler and Crask see their hopes of taking over his empire on his death fading. This leads them to turn against Chodo, and Chodo decides Garrett must be with them . . . which means that Garrett has to join them, if only in self-defense.

Adding to all the confusion is a new ongoing character, Winger. A tall, statuesque blonde from the country, Winger sees herself as a fellow tough-guy and has the skills, if not the brains, to back it up.

Less dark than the previous one, though not without its moments, this one is a bit like the Maltese Falcon, albeit they actually do, in fact, find the bird.

Red Iron Nights has Garrett stopping in to the Joy House, Morley’s restaurant, to visit with his friends when a lovely young woman dressed entirely in black (in our world and time, we’d call her a Goth) comes in, pursued by a badly-scarred man and a couple of thugs, along with an old man in a coach. Having pursued the girl into the worst possible bar, they also chose the worst possible girl to pursue: she’s Chodo’s daughter, Belinda.

Though the events of the last book should have taken Chodo out of the game, in fact he’s still nominally kingpin. Now totally paralysed, he’s a near-literal puppet for Sadler and Crask. Belinda will eventually want Garrett to help her rescue her father. Just mentioning that a bit out of order.

Garrett is eventually approached by Captain Westman Block, commander of the Watch, who wants his help catching a serial killer. There are probably a few of those around Tunfaire, but this one is ritually killing young rich women. Young, rich black-haired women.

Turns out, no surprise, to be the guy in the coach who was after Belinda. Garrett and Morley catch him. Tons of evidence. No question about it. But two weeks later, another girl dies. Same ritual. Same evidence. The Watch is spooked. Garrett’s spooked. The Dead Man is somewhat concerned. This is more than just a killer. This is some kind of communicable curse. Can Garrett stop this before the curse gets to Belinda? Can he help Belinda take down Sadler and Crask? Will the Dead Man get religion?

For a story about a serial killer who can’t be stopped this is not as dark as it could be, though it helps to have Old Tin Sorrows starting the collection off. Block and the reformed Watch become recurring characters as the series goes forward.

The whole series continues to be highly recommended.