Read Recently — July 2017 — Mysteries

Painted Ladies: a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker

If I were Robert B. Parker, and I knew I was about to die, and I wanted to end my classic, long-running detective series, I would have chosen to end it with Painted Ladies, which would nicely bookend the series with The Godwulf Manuscript, with which it began. But I am not Robert B. Parker, and Parker did not know he was going to die, so he went on and wrote Sixkill, and then died with his last manuscript incomplete.

In this volume, Spenser is hired by one Dr. Ashton Prince, a University Professor of Art History and “a forensic art consultant in matters of forgery and theft.” A rare painting, Lady with a Finch, by 17th-century Dutch artist Frans Hermenszoon has been stolen from the Hammond museum and is being held for ransom. Prince is to deliver the ransom, and he would like Spenser along for protection. Sadly, Spenser fails in his duty: as Prince returns to the car with a package that is supposed to be the painting, said package explodes, killing Prince instantly.

Feeling he hasn’t earned his fee, Spenser returns the money and sets out to find both Prince’s killers and the missing painting (assuming that it wasn’t in the package with the bomb). One possible source of answers is Prince himself–that is, his life and expertise. It doesn’t seem like his wife is mourning him, and it turns out that Prince had an eye for the ladies, particularely the students in his class. Particularely, he was known to be close to one Melissa “Missy” Minor, whose mother (Winnifred) is the insurance “claims-resolution specialist” for the company that insured the painting.

It isn’t long after this that two men break into Spenser’s office while he’s out and wait to ambush him once he gets back. Warned by Pearl, his dog, Spenser is ready for them. Neither has any ID, but both have Auschwitz tatoos on their arm–the same tattoo on both of them, and both are far too young to have been in Auschwitz. Coincidentally, Ashton Prince was jewish, born Ascher Prinz. And he kept a copy of Lady with a Finch in his home office. Something deeper than ordinary art theft and murder is going on. Something tied to the history of Lady with a Finch, and maybe to the Holocaust. And to Winnifred and Missy Minor.

This is a fairly typical late-period Spenser in a lot of ways, tightlly-written and gripping in both the mystery itself and the action sequences. Hawk is out of the country, but a lot of the other regulars still show up (including Epstein, the local FBI agent in charge as Winnifred Minor used to be with the Bureau). You don’t need to have read any other Spenser novels to make sense of this one, but you’d be missing out on a lot if you haven’t. Recommended.

Bad Boy: an Inspector Banks novel by Peter Robinson

It has been a long time since I read an Inspector Banks novel, but Robinson has had the series on hiatus so I don’t think I missed much. This one begins with Banks on vacation in the USA, which is a pity because an old friend of the family comes by the office to talk to him. Specifically one Juliet Doyle, an old neighbour, whose daughter Erin has come home to stay for a little while. Juliet was dusting her room when she found a gun on top of the wardrobe. It definitely didn’t belong to Juliet and her husband, and it hadn’t been there before, so Erin must have brought it home with her. She definitely didn’t need it for her job as a waitress in Leeds.

Guns are much more controlled in Britain than they are in the US, so even though the gun is safely in the hands of Juliet’s husband a special unit has to be called in to enter the house and collect it, and in the process the husband dies due to a cardiac incident when he is accidentally tasered. It turns out that Erin took the gun from her boyfriend’s house the day after she saw him on the dance floor snogging her best friend and housemate. Said friend being one Tracy Banks, daughter of our protagonist.

Tracy accidentally learns that something is up, and goes to warn the boyfriend, one Jaffar “Jaff” McReady. Jaff turns on the news, sees the announcement about what happened at Juliet’s house, figures out what happened and what Erin took, and immediately takes to his heels. Tracy goes with him, seeing as she kind of fancies him and all, him being a fascinating “bad boy” and she being ready to misbehave a bit. In fact, she leads him to a safe hiding place for a little while: her father’s house, a reclusive cottage in the countryside outside of Eastvale. Unfortunately for their plans, they each forget something important: Jaff forgets that he’s carrying a sizable load of drugs belonging to “The Farmer” (so nicknamed because he’s definitely playing up his gentleman landowner imitation), the Eastvale region’s kingpin of crime (or did Jaff forget?), and Tracy forgets that her father isn’t likely to have gone out of town without arranging for someone to come water his plants. Jaff’s slip of memory results in the Farmer sending two of his more competent and vicious hitmen onto Jaff’s trail, while Tracy’s slipup results in Banks’ friend, partner and ex-lover Annie Cabot being shot by Jaff (and Jaff discovering that she hid from him that her father is a high-ranking cop). Banks comes home to his friend in the hospital and his daughter on the run with a dangerous criminal.

It can be a very nice experience to revisit a series you enjoyed but haven’t read in a while and there’s a lot of the usual to enjoy here. However, there are some issues, and readers should be warned that the Farmer’s hitmen go, as the story goes on, from intimidating young girls to sexually torturing a woman to make her husband talk (fortunately, we don’t have to watch the torture scene occur, but we do visit the aftermath). Similarely, it’s hard to say exactly when the relationship between Tracy and Jaff slips from occasionally unwilling on Tracy’s part into outright rape, but it certainly does get there before the end. Again, fortunately, there aren’t brutally detailed sex scenes, but those who are likely to be triggered should be warned.

And also, well, this is kind of hard to express, but for all that the trope is justified by the character interactions and histories, the fact is that the narrative presents us with a dark-skinned criminal threatening, both physically and sexually, a young white woman. Like I said, it’s justified in the story, but then, when the cops shoot a black man these days they always have a justification, don’t they? Some people might find this troubling, is all I’m saying.

Mildly recommended, though I suspect that starting at the beginning of the series might be best.

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead: a Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie

Poirot is retired these days, but he’s unable to resist the call to action delivered by an old friend, one Superintendant Spence. Spence had investigated the murder of an old small-town charwoman, one Mrs. McGinty. Circumstances led to the arrest and conviction of her boarder, who had lost his job and would have found even the small amount of cash that Mrs. McG had tucked away useful . . . but Spence isn’t convinced that the man is actually guilty and he wants Poirot to find out for sure, one way or the other.

Arriving in the small town and investigating, Poirot finds he has no shortage of suspects once he starts looking for them. But even with the help of Ariadne Oliver, who is in town working with a local playwright on an adaptation of one of her novels, he doesn’t seem to be making any progress. Could he be mistaken? But then, someone tries to kill him . . .

All things considered, the mystery in this one is kind of clever, relying as it does on history accidentally rediscovered. Christie doesn’t cheat, though I think she does lose track of one rather important prop (or I did) which makes an important scene kind of confusing. And, of course, it is always fun to get to hang out with Mrs. Oliver, Christie’s alter-ego and her way of gently mocking herself.

Recommended.

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Read Recently — July 2017 — Fantasy

Drowned Ammet: the Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dalemark Quartet continues to be weird. It is one thing to have the author’s name above the title, especially when the author is as big a seller as Jones is, but it is another thing to have the series name above the title of the book itself, and if the series doesn’t do volume numbers it’s even weirder (I mean, if it was “The Dalemark Quartet II: Drowned Ammet” that would at least give some useful information, but since the series can, so far as I can tell (so far), be read in any order and indeed, have no real connection to each other other than being set in the same geographic area and general time, well . . . the title of the book is kinda important information, is what I think I’m saying).

This one is set in Holand, in South Dalemark. Like it’s real-world, two-‘L’ counterpart, Holand is mostly land reclaimed from the sea, complete with dykes and windmills (no mention of wooden shoes, though). Our first protagonist is Mitt, who was born to poor farmers and given the name “Alhammitt”, one of the most common men’s names in Holand (indeed, it was also his father’s name). Mitt’s parents rented a small but profitable farm right up until the point where the Earl increased the rent past the point they could afford and they were forced to move to the city, where Mitt’s father couldn’t get enough work and they were forced to live in poverty in a tenement. Mitt’s father joined a rebel group called the Free Holanders, who mostly talked about overthrowing the Earl (a greatly hated man named Hadd) but never actually got around to doing anything about it (really, the best kind of rebel group for a poor ex-farmer to join, if you think about it) until Mitt’s father goaded one sub-group of younger rebels into helping him burn down one of the Earl’s warehouses–but someone (or several someones–Mitt and his mother are told that it was the older Free Holanders) betrayed the mission and Mitt’s father died.

Mitt and his mother eventually come up with a cunning plan (insert your favourite Blackadder .gif here): through circumstances too complicated to go into here, Mitt gains access to gunpowder. He will make a bomb, sneak into an annual parade which the Earl must take part in, and blow him up. Then he will let himself be captured, and say that it was the Free Holanders, thus being revenged on both the Earl and the Rebels (Mitt is too young to be legally hanged; but he and his mother don’t think of any of the other things that could be done to him).

Our other protagonists are Hildrida and Ynen, two of Earl Hadd’s grandchildren. They’re your basic poor little rich kids: they don’t struggle to get by the way Mitt and his mother do, but they aren’t having a fun time of it either, Hadd being as much of a tyrant to his family as he is to the people of Holand, and their father, being a third son, not having much pull himself. Very much against her will, Hildy is betrothed to the lord of the Holy Isles and all her years of tantrums and protests don’t get her out of it. But when Mitt tries to blow up Hadd, Hildy and Ynen’s father kicks the bomb away, almost saving Hadd’s life — because a sharpshooter on a boat in the harbour shoots the Earl dead anyway. Mitt’s plan is completely screwed, but he’s still a fugitive and he hides on a boat in the nobles’ marina . . . Hildy and Ynen’s boat, on which they plan to head out to sea for a while, pretending to run away.

The three kids don’t get along well at first, but soon discover that they have more in common than they thought. Especially once they pick up Al, adrift in a small boat. Al is a grown man, a genuinely tough specimen, and he has a grudge of sorts against Mitt. But he can find a use for the Earl’s grandchildren . . .

I haven’t really done justice to Hildy and Ynen’s story arc, but it’s less vivid than Mitt’s and they don’t really start to sparkle as characters until they meet Mitt. And even then, he drives the story. And it’s hard to tell how this one relates to Cart and Cwidder except that there’s a brief mention towards the end of events that might be the end of that book. My guess is that everything comes together at the end of book four, but at this point it’s hard to tell.

Anyway, Jones does her usual job of world-building and character creation. As with Cart and Cwidder there’s a bit of work getting to the meat of this one, but it’s worth the effort, I think, if you’re willing to commit to the entire series.

Recommended.

The Uncrowned King: the Sun Sword book two by Michelle West

The first book took place almost entirely in the South; for this book we return to the North, to the Empire of Essalieyan (last seen in the Sacred Hunt duology).

When the Southern Rebels killed the Clan Leonne and took control of Annagar they also killed hostages from Essalieyan, hoping that the northerners would, in their turn, kill their hostages from Annagar and rid them of the final Leonne, a bastard son who has been raised in the north and was mostly discounted; if he should return south with an army he could raise the land against them and, by drawing the Sun Sword, he could strike down their demon allies. Now, that young man, Valedan, intends to enter the massive event known as the King’s Challenge, a sort of decathalon of warrior’s challenges that will demonstrate his worthiness. Of course, he cannot win; the competition is too fierce, but if he places well it can only help his reputation. Of course, the trial runs through the streets and waters of the city and this will expose him to possible assassins . . . and demons.

Meanwhile, Jewel is caught up in a series of different assassinations, as members of the House Terafin council try to get a jump on the battle for succession that they all see coming when their aging House ruler dies. As a council member, Jewel is at risk if she should choose to back the wrong person . . . .

At the time this was written, I don’t believe West was aware that she was facing a six-book series, to say nothing of the spillover into the next series, House War. So it’s hard to say for sure that we are facing “second book of the trilogy” syndrome . . . but by this point you have to commit to the series or there’s no point in reading. And I do recommend that you read; West does high fantasy like nobody else, and here she’s just warming up for the battles to come.

Highly recommended, but only if you’ve read the first book and intend to try the rest.

The Belgariad Volume One: Pawn of Prophecy; Queen of Sorcery; Magician’s Gambit by David Eddings

I first read the Belgariad when it first came out, back in the 80s. I was in my late teens, long past the golden age of fantasy/SF (12) so I wasn’t as enthralled by it as I was by, say, the works of Andre Norton, and I was very aware of some of its flaws, but others blipped right past me and I have always thought of the books with a certain vague fondness.

And then, recently, on LJ and eventually on DW I ran across the community “das_sporking” (“das_sporking2” on DW). A sporking is sort of an in-depth criticism about a work that someone finds annoying, stupid, or just bad. The Urban Dictionary says it derives from “Sporking your eyes out” (rather than read something so bad) and it derives from fanfic criticism (and is mostly still applied to it). One sporking was of the Belgariad and I started reading along. And I found myself wondering: was it really that bad? Had I really missed or mis-remembered that much? So I found this omnibus edition of the first three books of the series at a local bookstore and grabbed it.

It is, in fact, that bad.

I was originally going to spend some time justifying that opinion, but as dozens of words turned into hundreds if not thousands, I changed my mind. It is that bad, and if you want more detail the sporking is still out there and you can read it. There’s stuff they missed, but they did a pretty thorough job. It was bad enough to have re-read it once; I’m not going back in. I can believe that younger me missed that that one character was a rapist. I can believe I missed the bad world-building. I can’t believe I missed the sexism, though I did notice the weird focus on child-bearing.

Just, in conclusion, this is bad and it should feel bad. On the other hand, it does move along well (strangely so, given how the narrative meanders) and might make good reading if you can ignore the troubling stuff (and I don’t blame you for choosing to if you are a fan of Eddings’ work. It’s okay to like problematic things as long as you know they’re problematic)). Not recommended.

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.

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.