Read Recently — February 2017 –The Non-fiction

The Deadly Sisterhood: a story of women, power and intrigue in the Italian Renaissance by Leonie Frieda

Caterina Sforza was awesome. To be honest, that was the main thing I took away from this book. Frieda opens the book (after, of course, several pages of family trees, maps, and an introduction that explains a bit of how we arrived at these events) with Sforza’s defeat of a group of rebels who killed her husband and briefly held her in the city of Forli, where she was duchess. She out-maneuvered them until reinforcements from her family arrived and the rebels had to flee.

Sforza is of course just one of the renaissance women chronicled here, and not all of them are as awesome as she was. Lucrezia Borgia certainly was, though if Frieda is to be believed she was much calumnied. The Borgias in general were, though Cesare was very nearly as bad as his reputation.

Of course, you can’t write about a society’s women only, and the men do get their share of the limelight, even if the main focus is the women and the men are most important when they impact those same women. Overall, though, this is an interesting book about an odd period of European history, seemingly well-researched and, to me at least, eye-opening. There is the occasional error of proof-reading, or possible proofreading anyway (a word maybe missing; maybe just esoteric sentence structure) but nothing major that would affect comprehension.

Highly recommended.

Gold Diggers: striking it rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray

The late 19th century was a period of get-rich-quick schemes, and many involved finding mineral wealth around the little-explored edges of North America. One group of men after another moved from location to location, digging or panninng or mining or making a more reliable fortune providing goods or services to the first group.

The Klondike gold rush, though set in Canada, attracted a lot of Americans, including the 21-year-old Jack London, who failed to find gold but did find the subject to write about that would make him famous and probably richer than the gold would have. He also caught scurvy.

The towns that the gold-diggers built, like those that scattered the American southwest in the earlier parts of the 19th century, were built more on dreams than solid municipal planning. As soon as the next big find occurred elsewhere, everyone cleared out and there were rarely any permanent buildings to leave behind. There was more danger in the Klondike of frostbite, scurvy or dysentry than claim-jumpers or other violence, in no small part thanks to legendary Mountie Sam Steele, who patrolled the area.

Again, this is an interesting read about a part of Canadian history that I rarely thought about in any detail. According to a sticker on the cover of the edition I bought, it was adapted for TV at some point. Well-researched, entertainingly-written, well-edited, and Highly Recommended.

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Read Recently — February 2017 — Mysteries

The Big Kitty: a Sunny and Shadow mystery by Claire Donally

When Sonata “Sunny” Coolidge came home to Kittery Harbor, Maine, to take care of her widowered father after his heart attack, the last thing she intended to do was be adopted by a cat. In fact, she had intended it to be a short stay, just until Dad was on his feet again, eating properly, and used to taking his pills. Her employer and sometime boyfriend, the editor of a New York newspaper used her absence and bad times for newspapers as an excuse to fire her, stranding her at home. Rather than be a strain on her retired father’s finances, Sunny got a new job — not at the local paper, a one-man family business, but rather running the web-page and front office of MAX — the Maine Adventure X-Perience, a local travel site. She’s not making a lot of money; the owner is notoriously tight, but she’s getting by.

Ada Spruance, the local crazy cat lady, stops by the office one evening she first asks about the possibility of turning her house into a B&B. This isn’t very likely due to the, shall we say, atmosphere of a house full of cats. She then asks Sunny for some more personal help: she thinks she has a winning lottery ticket around the house somewhere, and she’d like some help finding it. Six to eight million dollars would be a big help supporting herself and her cats. Despite herself, Sunny agrees to help and, with an eye to protecting Ada in the event of her skeevy son Gordon (or anyone even less respectable) grabbing the ticket and running, lets the local press know. It’s a slow news week, and the story goes viral.

Meanwhile, Shadow, a semi-stray grey cat, makes his move on Sunny and starts to worm his way into her life.

When Sunny shows up at Ada’s house that weekend, she finds Ada in her basement (the back basement doors are rusted open), dead. It appears that Ada fell down the steps from her pantry and broke her neck. However, a friend of the family assures Sunny that Ada never used those stairs. She was terrified of them, even had the door at the top painted over. It’s not conclusive, but it sure seems to Sunny that maybe Ada was murdered.

Suspects abound, from Ada’s tweaker son and the gangsters dealing the drugs, to several neighbourhood families who quarreled with Ada over the cats, to Sunny’s own boss, who wanted to buy the house and might have an urgent need for a winning lottery ticket. Even working with handsome local deputy Will Price isn’t enough to keep people from coming after Sunny with intent to put her out of the way, Can Shadow save his new home?

I’m not a real fan of the “small town girl moves to the big city, fails, and has to move back home only to find she loves the place” sort of narrative; but while Sunny doesn’t hate Kittery Harbor, she doesn’t love it either, so there’s that. And we get to spend a lot of time in Shadow’s head, but at least an effort is made to make it feel like a real cat’s way of thinking (not that I know how cats think, but one thing I am sure of is that they wouldn’t be exactly like a human) so that’s okay too. And the mystery holds together well. You might solve it before Sunny does, or you might be as surprised as I was. I did like all the characters, so overall this one is recommended.

Taken At The Flood: a Hercule Poirot Mystery by Agatha Christie

This one takes a bit of set-up; bear with me.

In 1945, as Poirot relaxes in a friend’s club, the club bore, one Major Porter, observes that a man, one Gordon Cloade, was recently killed in an air raid when his house was struck by a bomb. Cloade and all his staff died; the only survivors were his wife and brother-in-law. Cloade had only recently married; his wife was a widow (now twice). Cloade was extremely rich, but there is no cause for suspicion in his death.

That said, Porter had known the widow before–or rather, he’d known her first husband (Mr. Underhay) in Africa. She was the sort who didn’t like living in the bush and he was the opposite. He was also the kind of old-fashioned chivalrous sort who would offer to fake his death so that she would be free. “[M[aybe Mr. Enoch Arden will turn up somewhere a thousand miles or so away and start life anew.” And sure enough, Underhay died of a fever off in the bush where no one but his most trusted servants saw.

Poirot thinks nothing more of this until, in 1946, a Mrs. Cloade (sister-in-law to the late Gordon) comes to see him, driven, she says, by spirit guidance. It seems that the spirits have told her that Mr. Underhay is still alive, though of course they neglected to mention where, and she wants Poirot to track him down. Poirot refuses, of course, as he has better things to do with his life than wander around the world looking for a man who might, after all, be dead.

We the reader quickly learn that the Cloade family had been riding high on Uncle Gordon’s fortune, both the future expectation of it coming to them after his death (an expectation thwarted by his new marriage) and the present expectation of regular cheques that kept things comfy. Certainly they’d be happier of it turned out that the former Mrs. Underhay had never been legally married to Uncle Gordon in the first place.

Then a man named Enoch Arden shows up, claiming to have news of Mr. Underhay, and trying to blackmail money from the widowed Mrs. Cloade, formerly Underhay. And then someone kills him, apparently bashing in his head with a set of fireplace tongs. Poirot gets involved in a rather roundabout way. Can he solve the case before anyone else turns up dead?

I’m a little torn on this one. On the one hand, when the mystery is finally solved it’s frankly ingenious. On the other hand, I didn’t like any of the characters (with maybe one exception), and I thought that the last scene of the book, the denouement, if you will, was really almost offensively stupid. So there’s that to consider, and that takes me over to Not Recommended.

Read Recently — February 2017 — Fantasy

Silver On The Road: the Devil’s West, book one by Laura Anne Gilman

The Weird West generally follows the rules of classic urban fantasy: the magic stays behind the scenes, and doesn’t come too far out into the open. Unless, of course, it’s an alternate history of some kind, such as the one we find here.

Exactly when the story takes place is unclear, though the United States exists, albeit not as we are familiar with it. It stops east of the Mississippi, called the Mudwater in this world. West of the river is the Territory, also known as the Devil’s Territory (west and south of the Territory is the Spanish protectorate). The Territory is under the control of the Boss, who some people (particularly Church types) call the Devil. Everyone in the Territory must obey the Boss’s rules, or depart. The rules are not, generally, onerous, though they do involve leaving the natives alone. Which is what got Isobel (Izzy)’s parents into trouble sixteen years ago. They built on land belonging to one of the tribes and lost everything; though they kept their lives and their daughter, then two years old. They went to Flood, the Devil’s town, and they indentured Isobel to the Boss, took the money they were given, and left. Izzy grows up in the Boss’s saloon, working hard, but safe. Now, however, she is sixteen, a grown woman. Her indenture is over and she must find a new way of life: either leave the Territory or strike a new deal with the Boss.

Like all men, the Devil has two hands. His right hand, currently a woman named Marie, runs his saloon in Flood. His left hand travels the roads of the Territory, enforcing his will where and when needed. Traveling with Gabriel Kasun, a gambler who has made a deal of his own with the Boss and will serve as Izzy’s mentor, she will see places and things she has never seen before. Because there’s trouble in the Territory, and it’s Izzy’s job to deal with it.

I mentioned above that the date when the story takes place is unclear; if a year is ever mentioned I must have missed it. Most Weird Westerns take place after the US Civil War, in the period popularly known as the Wild West. One thing that can give the period away is the technological level as demonstrated by the weaponry in use. Izzy and Gabriel rely on their knives, with a blunderbuss for backup, and that means that revolvers aren’t a thing yet. So it’s probably the early 19th century (there are other hints that this is so).

Both Izzy and Gabriel are great characters, and the world they move through is like none other in the subgenre. And while the story is an adventure, it’s also the story of a young girl growing up. Izzy may one day become a power, but she isn’t there yet. I’m looking forward to future volumes.

Highly recommended.

Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs

A re-read. Original write-up is here.

I originally called it Highly recommended, and it’s still good but downgraded to a mildly recommended, because Briggs has done much better since then, and this doesn’t hold up as well.

Read Recently — January 2017 — And the Rest

Line War by Neal Asher

A re-read. The last of the Agent Cormac stories brings things to a satisfying, if unexpected, conclusion. Cormac finally accepts his new abilities and takes action to destroy the real villain of the piece. Mika and Dragon come to an understanding. Mr. Crane achieves, if not sanity, stability and seeming contentment. Jerusalem continues doing whatever Jerusalem wants to do. Earth Central learns a valuable lesson. Fun, if sometimes dark, space opera. Still highly recommended.

Atlantic: great sea battles, heroic discoveries, titanic storms, and a vast ocean of a million stories by Simon Winchester

How do you tell the story of an ocean? Winchester looks at the ocean that has meant so much to Europe and the Americas in a series of seven stories, each to reflect one of the stages of the life of man as proposed by Shakespeare in As You Like It, with a prologue involving the birth of the sea in the tearing apart of Pangaea and an epilogue discussing how perhaps the sea will end again in 170 million years or so. In between, each chapter tells one or more tales expanding on the original theme.

A good, thought-provoking read. Receommended.

Read Recently — January 2017 — Mysteries

Tailing A Tabby: a bookmobile cat mystery by Laurie Cass

Sequel to Lending A Paw. After a long day in the bookmobile, Minnie and Eddie are heading home when they are flagged down by an older woman, who reports that her husband is having a stroke (they don’t have a landline and her cell is broken). Figuring that it will take as long to drive the man to the hospital herself as it would for an ambulance to arrive at the remote location, Minnie drives him to the hospital herself.

It turns out that the man is a famous artist, and Minnie being a fan of his work is glad to have helped save him. She quickly becomes friendly with him and his wife, Barb. This means that she is the one that Barb calls during a middle-of-the-night emergency, when she needs help and doesn’t know who to turn to: Cade, the artist, was found by the police at a house away from the hospital, standing over the body of a murdered woman. Minnie manages to find him a lawyer, and Cade is quickly released when it seems that the victim was killed long before he got there. But there was an obvious attempt to frame Cade, and no reason to believe that the killer won’t strike again, make another try at Cade, or even go after Minnie herself . . .

This follows up nicely from the first book, expanding the cast of characters and the locations, while making sure we still get time with those we’ve gotten to like (or loathe) from before. Aunt Frances continues her efforts to matchmake for people who would rather not (it’s only a few weeks since the first book), and that is just as annoying as it was before, but there are signs that she is beginning to realise that humans have free will. Overall, I’d call it a fun little mystery but I do think that you have to read the first book to really get half of what’s going on. Which moves it down from Recommended to Mildly Recommended.

The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala: a book club mystery by Laura DiSilverio

This series has had me up and down: I didn’t really like the first one, but thought the second one was pretty good. I really wasn’t impressed with the mystery or the setting of the first one. but had a fondness for many of the characters, especially the viewpoint character, Amy-Faye Johnson, which keeps driving me on to the next book of the series, even if, as with this one, I don’t really like the individual book. At least this time we don’t have the pretense of a link to a famous work of detective fiction.

In this one, Amy-Faye has been hired to put together a “Celebration of Gothic Novels” by a local bookstore, an event that involves bringing several modern Gothic authors to town. This proves to be a bad idea when a man who has been basically stalking the event turns up murdered. Of course, all the Goth auths have secrets; could one of them be the killer? Or is the killer actually after one of them?

My main problem with this one was that the mystery had no real connection to the local characters who I’ve come to care about in the last two books but rather focused on a group of outsiders in whom I had no interest. It did not grab me. I was actually annoyed when the mystery showed up and took attention away from the things I cared about, like Amy-Faye and her cop boyfriend’s relationship moving forward.

This one is mildly not recommended.

Read Recently — January 2017 — Fantasy

The Hob’s Bargain by Patricia Briggs

Early Briggs, and second-world fantasy, and a re-read.

Aren is nearly 30, and in her world is a little old to be newly married. But, as her parents’ only suriving child, she must ensure that their land remains in the family and that requires a man. Fortunately, her parents found Daryn, a genuinely nice guy who really cares for Aren and would be a good husband if he weren’t killed by bandits, along with his brother and Aren’s parents, in the first five pages of the book.

To complicate things, Aren is a seer: visions of the near future come to her but they’re usually baffling images that she figures out the meaning of after. Such magic gifts run in her family: her grandmother was a healer and her brother was a finder. Most of those who have such gifts hide them for two reasons: one, the village recently (within the last couple of generations) converted to worship of the One God, who orders death for magic users, and two, the only allowed form of magic use is Blood Magic, and if a Blood Mage sees that you have a talent he can order you taken and turned into a Blood Mage (which is why Aren is now an only child. Her brother chose suicide rather than become a Blood Mage. Blood Mages are not nice people, they have short lives, and they get a lot less nice before they die). The Blood Mages did one good thing, though: ages ago they locked down the natural magic in the land, saving the humans from the attacks of wild magic creatures.

Until, as Aren hides in the cellar while the bandits raid her house, she has a vision of a Blood Mage stripping the defense from the land to power him in a final, massive act of death magic.

Now the village is in serious trouble. They have a few old, retired soldiers, plus Aren’s brother’s old friend Kith, who is a mixed bag (not so old, and a trained soldier with some magic added in by the Blood Mage who served their lord; but on the other hand he only has one arm, which is why he’s back home and not still serving in the army), but the bandits are all ex-mercenaries and trained killers, and the magic is coming back and with it creatures that will feed on their crops, their animals, and the villagers themselves.

On the nearby Hob’s Mountain, though, there dwells a Hob (not unexpectedly, he being in the title and all). No one knows what a Hob is (he has been asleep since the magic was locked down), but Aren has reason to believe that he will be helful, and such he proves to be. A trickster figure, the local last of his race, he offers the humans a bargain: his aid in exchange for a bride. Always an outsider among the humans, Aren volunteers.

But even the Hob might not be enough to fight off the enemy that is coming . . .

By this point in her career, Briggs has moved past the roughness that marked Masques/Wolfsbane and Dragon Bones/Dragon Blood. Aren is a hero in the mold of Mercy Thompson and Caefawn, the Hob, is a worthy match to her. The story goes in some frankly unexpected directions at times and though short, is engaging. I am torn between wanting a sequel and worrying that if one were written it just wouldn’t hold up.

Recommended.

Sparrow Falling by Gaie Sebold

Sequel to Shanghai Sparrow, this finds Eveline Sparrow trying to keep her school for girls of slightly-less-than-honest tendencies running, but she finds it hard to keep the money coming in without actually turning to crime. Trying to raise funds from a possible sponsor goes badly wrong, though, when the man turns out to have criminal plans of his own and a use for Eveline’s skills. With her fae friend Fox off dealing with problems of his own among the folk and her support among the other instructors at the school falling apart, can Eveline save her dream home?

This is a worthy sequel, and avoids one of the major problems I had with the first one by staying entirely within England rather than titling the book after a location that it barely goes to. It’s not exactly steampunk, though there are elements of steampunk in it; perhaps call it something like “etherpunk”? Anyway, for those who are concerned about steampunk not telling stories of the lower classes: this series does. My one complaint is that while Evvie’s money problems are solved by the end of the book, they aren’t solved by her own efforts, but rather by someone else. I would have preferred the former.

Recommended, but you have to have read Shanghai Sparrow first for it to make sense.

Read Recently presents: Unfinished in 2016!

Yes, it’s that time again! Time to discuss the books I just couldn’t be arsed to finish reading in the horrible, horrible year which was 2016.

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

This should be right up my alley: the weird west as interpreted by weird, lyrical writer Valente, with added fractured fairy tale! Yet somehow, (and I’ll be saying this a lot in this entry) it just failed to grab my attention. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it that I could see, but I kept putting it down and not picking it up again until finally, I gave up.

Magpies, Squirrels & Thieves: how the Victorians collected the world by Jacqueline Yallop

I’m not sure what I expected when I picked this up. Possibly something about how the Victorians got their hands on so many of the world’s treasures in their era, and why. What I got was a dissection of the almost hobby of collecting and presenting things to the public in those days. It may in fact be very interesting stuff . . . but not to me.

Second Street Station: a Mary Handley mystery by Lawrence H. Levy

A mystery series lives and dies on the quality of two things: the crimes it presents, and the personality of its detectives. The mystery here did not grip me, and our hero ditto. Given a historical setting (19th-century New York), the writer should also take into account that people are going to have their own opinions of historical figures and how you write them is also going to affect how the reader reacts. Finally, if you decide to give your hero a Chinese childhood friend and have the friend’s father teach her the ancient Chinese art of Jujitsu, well, be aware that the reader is going to laugh at you and throw the book away.

Half-Resurrection Blues: a Bone Street Rumba novel by Daniel Jose Older

Undead New York is a busy, dangerous place, and Carlos Delacruz has to negotiate it as an agent of the Council of the Dead. Carlos is an inbetweener, someone partially resurrected from death and I just kinda choked on that concept. I couldn’t get it and I still don’t know what partially resurrected means. Nor was I engaged by any of the characters, good or bad, nor by the situations. I don’t know if the problem is Older or me; that is, given how many people I respect seem to have enjoyed this book, I suspect the problem is that it just isn’t for me.

The Price of Valor: book three of the Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler

After the rave reviews I gave to the first two volumes of this series, I was really looking forward to this one. But in the process of cataloguing a book (yes, of course I catalogue my books. What kind of library nerd do you think I am?) I check how many pages it has, which can sometimes lead to me seeing scenes from the end of the story (fortunately, I do not mind spoilers all that much. In fact, sometimes I prefer them, as in this case) and found myself reading a scene that distressed me and seemed to set me up to be squicked; reading further I decided that I didn’t want to know any more. So I’m done with the Shadow Campaigns; I’m not sure how personal this particular distress/squick combo is so I’m not going to spoil it for you. The writing seems to be of the usual high quality, so if you enjoyed the first two and you aren’t me, you might like this one and going forward. I won’t be reading any more.

Aleister Crowley: the biography: spiritual revolutionary, romantic explorer, occult master — and spy by Tobias Churton

I never really shared the popular fixation on Crowley, a rather unpleasant man notorious for his excess in the first half of the 20th century CE, but I thought this might make an interesting read. However, reading the forward (not by Churton but rather by one Christopher McIntosh) and its literary fellation of Crowley quite put me off reading any more. The man just ain’t that interesting.

1913: the Year Before The Storm by Florian Illes

The fact that these last few years have been the centennial of the First World War has been a matter of some discussion in Canada, given that WWI was when Canada sprang to prominence on the international scene as an Imperial lackey without peer, sending thousands of our young men to die under the command of in-bred incompetents so that Britain could continue to rule the third world, instead of Germany we could remain free (I may have some issues). Anyway, I’ve come to realize that I’m not really well-educated on the prewar/war-period and am trying to make up for it. This book, which promises “a witty yet moving narrative that progresses month by month through the year” failed to provide the kind of information I was looking for. Or a witty yet moving narrative. I gave up in January.

A Discourse In Steel: a tale of Egil & Nix by Paul S. Kemp

Not the first Egil & Nix adventure, but that wasn’t why I gave up. The basic story promises that our two heroes (dubious term) are retired adventurers, described on the back cover as a dashing rogue and a warrior-priest (and, as warrior-priests are wont to do since D&D came along, he sticks to non-edged weapons), having set up as pimps and running their own brothel. This is as endearing as you might expect: the characters may be intended to come across as respectful of their charges, but they don’t (in particular, our “dashing rogue” is taken with one of the girls but bothered that she’s a whore). This particular volume has them falling afoul of the local thieves’ guild and having to go to war to protect themselves and their property.

It isn’t that there’s nothing good in this one; there is a fascinating look at a system of psychic magic, but it isn’t enough to make up for the characters, all of whom, good or evil, suck.

The House of Shattered Wings: a Dominion of the Fallen novel by Aliette de Bodard

I’m very fond of de Bodard’s writing, especially her earlier series of Aztec mysteries, and I was really looking forward to this book, which posits that Europe was conquered early on by fallen angels and the first world war was really fought between them, with magic et al. But, as with Discourse in Steel and as I might have expected with a book focused on the noble houses of Paris, houses founded by the beings that in our reality’s mythology went on to become Devils, the story is nothing but unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other and while things might have improved later in the book I just couldn’t bring myself to go on.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

It had to happen sooner or later. There had to be a Tim Powers book somewhere that I just couldn’t finish. I’m just still in shock.

Brendan Doyle is an academic whose specialty is the life of the little-known poet William Ashbless, an American who ended up in London, England, in 1810 or thereabouts, but who antecedents are virtually unknown. When Doyle is himself brought to London by the Darrow Interdisciplinary Research Enterprises (DIRE) he thinks that whatever else is going on he will use the opportunity to do some research into Ashbless, but doesn’t realize what a research tool he’s about to be handed: DIRE has discovered a way to travel in time to a particular location on a particular date, to attend a reading by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, since they’re selling the opportunity to take the trip to a bunch of rich dilettantes, having someone along who knows Coleridge and the era as an expert would be useful. Doyle can hardly refuse, but after the reading he is kidnapped and left in the past and at that point, one of the plotlines becomes quite clear (though I did read far enough ahead to see that things aren’t without the kind of twists that one would expect of Powers).

Anyway, it kinda stopped gripping me, but unlike most “Unfinisheds” I intend to hang on to it and try again in the future.