Monday, August 25, 2014

Summer Fun

A Field Guide to Little Known and Seldom Seen Birds of North America. Ben and Cathryn Sill (a parody)

NPR comes through again.
This was recommended to me awhile ago, and I snapped it up on a NetGalley, now learning there is volume two (Another Field.....) which you won't want to miss either. This is actually the 25th anniversary edition of an earlier publication but still perfect. It is a charming little book, that is presented in guide format any birder would be familiar with. It looks just like the real thing with superb illustrations. The species however are another story! I am sure birders have been searching for these birds all their lives!! It is silly, witty, clever, light hearted and vastly entertaining. I love the calls (semi-adled chaff chaff), advice (if you live within this tern's range, it is advised to purchase reinforced feeders) and nonsense (the seed eating tern is the only tern that has been able to qualify for "authentic vegan" certificate).
I would be hard pressed to say which bird I liked best! (Middle and least yellowlegs?! Long range target duck?!) As a student I provided driving skills while the avid birders concentrated on their life list, and discovered then their amazing senses of humor. I need to buy dozens of copies of this book. Christmas is coming and this is a perfect, delightful gift.

If you have a sense of humor, if you need a gift for a birder or naturalist in your life, if you need a hostess gift or stocking stuffer, buy multiple copies of this book. If you like puns, buy this book. Send book editions to friends who need a little uplift now and then.

We are not too proud to admit that mistakes made in the first edition were the editor's fault.
Let it be known that we have been hard at work to stay ahead of the birding frontier.
...when their data did not agree with our opinions we deleted them.

4.5 stars
ARC from NetGalley

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Only the names have been changed?

Gregory Harris has started a new Sherlock Holmes series, beginning with The Arnifour Affair, current story the Bellingham Bloodbath and the next, The Connicle Curse. He has an obvious sense of the melodramatic, and the entire book (series) reeks of overstatement: Dreadful, dark, dank, fog shrouded London, profound derring do, oh my!! Oh! the pain, rocketing around London, and more dramatic phrases. The story was interesting, an afternoon at the beach read. I did finish the novel although I rolled my eyes too many times.  It is without the historical accuracy, compelling characters, tight plot or evocative writing found in the original canon, and some subsequent Holmes stories (see The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr, Larry Millett's Minnesota Sherlock,  as well as A Study in Sherlock, the short stories edited by Laurie R King and Leslie S Klinger and to be published Nov In the Company of Sherlock Holmes).

Harris spent 20 years in film and television before turning to fiction, I suspect I didn't watch much of his programming, altho it could have been mainstream. I like my heroes less caricatures and arrogant, and not quite so much of a romp. Perhaps I am envisaging Benedict Cumberbatch. Still, there are more fascinating (to me) series including (Mrs Sherlock Holmes) Mary Russell by Laurie R King and (if Sherlock were female/child)  Flavia de Luce by Alan Bradley.

If you are a fan of  Sherlock Holmes, if you like Victorian mysteries, and if you like your Sherlock gay, this is for you. (I am not sure what this new twist to the genre has to do with the story, and consider this g-rated/cosy rather than suspense or graphic).
"Yer usin' too many words."
"Tell that to your Mr Wilde."
"That man tries to thwart me at every turn!"

2.5 stars
ARC Ebook supplied by Netgalley

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hello August!

Good reads all summer long!
Summer is a time for indulgence - a time to get away from it all.
You don't have to travel, skip the trip and get lost in a good book! It's called a staycation, and there's still time!  Enjoy the forbidden pleasures of reading  by the pool, in the shade, in a hammock, on the beach and don't forget to read to your child, a grandchild, or any child!

Sarah Jio. Goodnight June.
I have recommended several of her books before: I simply loved her first novel  The Violets of March (which also won a library journal best book of 2011 award, and especially Blackberry Winter and The Last Camellia (still my favourite). Her books take place in a variety of places, from NYC to PNW to England to the Pacific and are often historical love stories/mysteries. I think they are perfect summer reads, for escapes in time, place with fascinating characters and interesting historical events.
Once again she has written a lovely tale, this time about one of our favourite childhood stories Goodnight Moon, (Margaret Wise Brown 1947) because no one knows what inspired her to write this story.
This is a delightful heartwarming  story that will make you wish you had a bookstore. It is an important story about installing a love of reading in children (and grandchildren). There are a number of mysteries and secrets that are uncovered mostly through letters between Aunt Ruby and Margaret Wise Brown. Don't miss this tender story, foremost of family and the importance of being there, forgiveness and second chances.

"When you are looking for something, it is right where you find it."
"We didn't have much, but we always had books."

4 stars (only because, while charming, it was predictable. And disbelief with Bill Gates.)
Popular with book clubs
This is a Penguin publication, always a good literary read.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Scottish Summers

Scotia, darling Scotia

I have missed Scotland, after a planned trip was cancelled. I wouldn't have read Diana Gabaldon's new book if I hadn't been going over soon (even though the Scots are in America now, fighting in the revolution). I am in Vermont where I am often reminded of the Scottish hills/Bonnie braes and Highlands albeit without the heather. A delightful summer tea at the Perennial Gardens had Scottish breakfast tea on the menu (and described as a brisk broken leaf tea with spine stiffening qualities; really, how could I resist?) Pipes are often heard as there is a long heritage here. The hieland coos grazing in local pastures. Recent guy dreich weather (stormy, rainy, cloudy, chilly) has felt like northern Scotland. And then a wee trip to my library brought home an old friend, the latest in a Scottish mystery series by AD Scott. Beneath the Abbey Wall and then an ARC copy of The Low Road, are the fourth and fifth installment of this saga set in the 1950s in the Great Glen. It is easily recognisable to me (not that different from my 1980s, but rapid change in the last 20 years makes this a reminisce).
I find these to be detailed mysteries dependent on character, personality development and sense of place. There is a wonderful use of language (vocabulary, colloquialisms, and proverbs) which I miss (thrawn, dwam, dreich, corrie, neb, teuchtar) characteristic of local authors (and Scott is from the Highlands, although she now lives in Vietnam and Australia). Her books explore the transformation of rural Scotland, the restrictions of small town life, with a common thread of loyalty. You will be immersed in another culture and another time.
There are many characters in this town and these stories. I am delighted to be reacquainted with them as  we follow their growth, changes, challenges and trials. Murder never brings out the best, but life in the Highlands has always been full of strife, never forgotten. In Abbey Wall, Mrs Archibald Smart was murdered (née Joyce Mackenzie) and it is her story that is the mystery that once again involves the Tinkers (especially a favourite character of mine,  Jenny McPhee). Joyce was the incomparable office manager of the Highland Gazette (and yet we know hardly anything about her, from the previous novels). McAllister is the newspaper editor who is trying to make changes to the local paper while also favouring a new reporter Joanne Ross (we met her earlier, moving on from an abusive marriage; acceptable now, impossible then). Neil Stewart provides a stark contrast as a young Canadian over to do research, but also in search of his birth mother. I haven't quite recovered from the urban depiction of desolate Glasgow slums in The Low Road, but adored McAllister's mum, a 'guidwife'. And I should have known from the title that the deaths in The Low Road would be haunting. This is an excellent depiction of the contrast between the highlands and city life, both of which have changed tremendously since these novels. Or not, if you read current crime novels. But this is an authentic voice with remarkable insight. I am very much looking forward to the continuation of this series.

If you like Ian Rankin, PD James, or Peter Robinson mysteries, you will like these.
4 stars with the continuing story line (and the next installment is being written). And don't forget to read Clifford Hanley's Scottish fiction.

Book Quotes for Beneath the Abbey Wall:
The opening line:
"Ten past nine on a mid-September night. Everything in the town was tight shut. Including the sky. It must have known it was the Sabbath."

"But this Sunday, winter gave advance notice with a gray drench-damp cold shroud, covering the town and mountains spiced up with a steady nor'easterly straight off the North Sea that sent even the seagulls inland. It seemed a fitting day to end in death."
"She had never met a man who was not Scottish."
"GlenFarclas 110 proof, a whisky he called the Lazarus cure."
"In order to borrow two books of fiction, two books of nonfiction had to be checked out."

The Low Road was read as a Net Galley ARC.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Medieval Strife

I know not how the world is went. (John Gower)

I love it when scholars turn their hand to historical novels. Their fiction can breath new life into characters we know remarkably little about. Or indeed some we think we know quite a bit about.  For example, Hilary Mantel (Pulitzer prizes: Wolf Hall, Bringing up the Bodies) Deborah Harkness (Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, Book of Life), Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series).
And now
Bruce Holsinger with A Burnable Book. He is an award medieval literary scholar (University of Virginia) whose debut fiction immerses you immediately into medieval London (1385). This is the world of Chaucer, whom we all recognize for his historical significance if you haven't actually read his Canterbury tales (and really, don't miss them, in almost any translation!). He has been vividly brought to life within these pages, and yet this book is about another poet John Gower and their complex interwoven lives and political intrigues of Richard IIs England. There is a missing manuscript which prophesizes the death of the kings of England.
This is a riveting tale of poets, princes and politics with London as a central character. It is actually three cities, the walled city of London, and Outside: Southwark and Westminster. Several voices from these locations reveal the intricate layers of the story. The time is after the Black Death and the portrayal of medieval life from the slums and stews to clergy and castles is fascinating.  It was also a pivotal year for the aristocratic classes. Holsinger's use of unusual documents to create characters based on actual historical figures makes for a very compelling read.  This is a clever, entertaining literary mystery full of period detail which intrigues you while forcibly repelling you. I have zero desire to live in Chaucer's England. But I had to investigate more on who Gower was, and what he wrote.

"Agnes ....suspects the import of what she holds. A woman has just died for it, a man has just killed.
For what? ....
A cloth, a book, a snatch of verse.
Which was worth dying for?"
"If you build your own life around the secret lives of others, if you erect your house on the corrupt foundations of theirs, you soon come to regard all useful knowledge as your due. Information becomes your entitlement. You pay handsomely for it, you use it selectively and well. If you are not exactly trusted in certain circles, you are respected, and your name carries a certain weight. You are rarely surprised, and never deceived. Yet there may come a time when your knowledge will betray you."
"London often treats the passing of winter into spring with cold indifference. That year was no different. February had been an unforgiving month, March worse, and as the city scraped along towards April the air seemed to grow only more bitter, the sky more grey, the rain more penetrating as it lifted every hint of warmth from surfaces of timber and stone."
"However innocent on its face, no request from Chaucer was ever straightforward."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Definitely a summer read!

The Collector of Lost Things (2013) by Jeremy Page
My next new British author - I must immediately find his first two books, Salt and Sea Change. Page is also a great photographer and screenwriter. He grew up on the north Norfolk coast where half of his world was the sea. The first book has biographical elements and this book he says he always had an interest in the Arctic. The meticulous research creates a wonderfully vivid prose, while his poetic language transports you to the place and time: the desolate, freezing, dangerous beauty of the Victorian Arctic. A young researcher/ naturalist Eliot Saxby joins an 1845 arctic expedition to find the mythical possibly extinct (1844) Great Auk. But he's on a trading (hunting) ship The Amethyst with a dubious motley crew. It used to be a slave ship, which also provides a sense of foreboding. There are excellent seafaring details and life on board: oil lamps. Sheep's head clocks, canvas sinks, lime washed shiplapped wood of his  tight quarters, mizzensail, masts (14 sails) and salt. You are in the middle of the icy, grey weather, the frigid relentless cold, and the devastating isolation in which you are easily lost. In a sea of madmen, how could it get worse? It does. Don't read this in winter.

The Collector of Lost Things is a dark gothic tale  filled with haunting mystery, obsession and doom. The use of the claustrophobic ship in an isolated harsh environment with an uneven, barbaric crew feels like a descent into madness at times. There is a building tension between the moral sensibilities and commercial motivation, with  questionable sanity, violence and cruelty.  But here is also the possibility of love, wonder of nature, and hope that creates a thrilling tale.

The Collector is an engaging historical novel which was inspired by true stories by European explorers / traders, who exploited the marine environment. It is a rather brutal telling of profit  especially for the last known specimens which were sold to museums and collectors. That this happens to be particularly relevant to our own times with the destruction of the environment, and specifically the Arctic and Antarctic, is depressing.  The  graphic description of slaughter and animal cruelty was an horrific reality then, worse, it is still happening.  The detailed butchery of seals, walrus, seagulls, anything in its wake can make for difficult but still essential reading. This is a complex but ultimately rewarding tale.

"It felt as though the ship was a tree among a forest of trees, further hidden by a thicket of thorns and climbers,  rigging growing over her and the ships moored alongside, purposefully disguised....I couldn't see the ship and perhaps I never saw it for what it was."
"These things move towards us from the horizons, whether we set sail for them or not."
..."I worried that I might not be able to cope with his enthusiasms, in such confined quarters."
"It was an unknown environment with its own rules."
"The worlds of ocean and ice were meeting in a frontier of rage, as if the earth had torn in two along this line."
"We have filled the hull of this ship with dead things. It is the weight of their souls that has caused us all to suffer."
"Perhaps one day, man will save the Arctic in all it's multitude of extraordinary life, but perhaps by then man will be too late, as he always seems to be."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Summer Reads

The Way of All Fish by Martha Grimes

Martha Grimes is a superb mystery writer, official Grand Master, known for a number of series (the proper British Richard Jury/Melrose Plant, the teenage amnesiac Andi Oliver who battles animal abuse, and the literary mysteries of 12 year old sleuth  Emma Graham).  I highly recommend her poetry and short stories/novellas.
In 2003 after Grimes was "let go" from her long time publisher Knopf, she published a wickedly funny satire on the publishing industry, Foul Matter. Now in a sequel The Way of All Fish, we meet again Candy and Karl, the two literary hit men with conscience. This time they can't take out the target (a literary agent) because they want to protect the writer Cindy Sella. She would become the prime suspect as the agent has a nuisance suit against her. Instead, they develop a zany rather convoluted plot, with a motley crew to harass him, and succeed admirably! There are many laugh out loud moments during the literary ride from NYC, to the Florida Everglades to Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh to a Pennsylvanian monastery. There are many clever literary allusions to classical mystery writers which you will enjoy. I am still laughing a few months later over some of the Monty Pythonesque moments and their amateur literary critiques/ opinions, and thought this would be a good beach read. It is more romp than mystery but very entertaining. I would like to see Candy and Karl again in another mystery.
I just saw it on display at Barnes and Noble and know the library has her mysteries.  Altho not necessary, I would recommend reading Foul Matter first (to be familiar with many of the characters who reappear).
"Oddly, given all the cordite misting the air like cheap champagne, the customers (of the Clownfish Cafe)  didn't get shot; it was the owner's aquarium...that exploded."
(40 fish flopped around, 1/3 clownfish and were rescued by customers to water pitchers and wine glasses in the opening sequence!)
"They holstered their weapons as efficiently as they'd drawn them, like the cops they were not......the book business is like rolling around Afghanistan on skateboards" ....
"Books had added a new dimension to their lives. Books were to die for. would they have ever guessed that the publishing world was so shot through with acrimony that they'd just as soon kill you as publish you?"
“Lawyers to the right of her, lawyers to the left, lawyers in front, lawyers behind,” one person remarks. “Is there a vision of hell, even in Dante, that could possibly compete with that?”

If you liked Tina Fey's Bossy Pants (humour) or Richard Condon's hit man Prizzi, you will like this. I would also suggest the Thomas Perry mystery series featuring another hit man, beginning with The Butcher's Boy (1982). These are not for the feint of heart, but are tremendous reads.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Time Abroad is Never Wasted

The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch.
Given the title and the name of the author I thought "Oh! Another Victorian mystery, but set in Oxford!" As in the gentlemen detective Charles Lennox in 7 erudite mysteries, with the 8th to be published this year The Laws of Murder. This book, however, is contemporary literary fiction, with more than a twist of memoir I suspect. It is also a well written, readable, interesting thought provoking novel. The privileged WASP protagonist is in his mid twenties, somewhat immature, naive and untempered, feeling adrift with the political campaign loss. He decides to take a hiatus/sabbatical (i.e graduate studies in literature) at Oxford. It is an older coming of age story, concerning a contemporary generation and gender I am somewhat removed from. I thought Will was a cad with unusual remarkable American charm, but still a bounder. That you like him and sympathize with his interior life is due primarily to excellent writing, clever plotting and intriguing host of characters which are integral to the story. Certainly an interesting perspective of the younger generation, with literary twists.

The atmosphere is spot on, with wonderful descriptions of British academia and Oxford. The title is a relevant, haunting Mathew Arnold quote from his Essays in Criticism (1865): "Oxford whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age . . . Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!"

Thoughts of this book lingered over several discussions concerning the themes of this book. Who are the speech writers of campaigns, how young is idealism, what differences in American and British universities, cultural differences in generation and privilege (the phrase American pet irks), noting marriage is no longer the next step on graduating (either high school or college), men's behaviour vs women's, teenage to adult angst - while I am also hunting for the greater good and personal responsibility.  I understand a sense of greater freedom, perhaps more potential, but those aren't irrevocably lost by aging.

"When you're finally grown-up, one of the things you find is that there are no grown-ups."

You will like this if you are a reader (great literary references), an English major (including former degrees!), an expat, anyone who loves the magic of Oxford (as the town plays a central character) or an academic (without having to experience office politics). I am ready to go back to his Victorian era any time too!

Marry in Haste....

The dog days of August have arrived, with humid, lazy hours. Perhaps summer reads should be books that delight you. Heaven knows we have plenty of books to read for work, research, education and even for peer pressure (while I read Harry potter to join the discussion, not even a paragraph of 50 shades would get me). Recently, I have been admonished to read more romance by various authors, including Susanna Kearsley, Eloisa James and Christina Skye.  
Mary Jo Putney (as recommended by Cathy Maxwell) The Lost Lords series:  Loving a Lost Lord (2009, Adam Lawford, Duke of Ashton), Never Less than a Lady (2010, Major Alexander Randall), Nowhere near Respectable (2011, Damian Mackenzie), No Longer a Gentleman (2012, Grey Sommers), Sometimes a Rogue (2013, Rob Carmichael, Mariah, twin to Sarah, Duchess of Ashton). Not Quite A Wife (to be published August 26, 2014, Lord James Kirkland)
Putney is an award winning, best selling author (30+) primarily known for her traditional regency romances, but she has also written YA fantasy romance and romantic fantasy as MJ Putney. She has degrees in English literature and Industrial Design and ran her own freelance graphic design company until the success of her books meant she could write full time. Her heroes are not typical of many regency novels, having more psychological depth and unusual subject matter (alcoholism, death, domestic abuse). Her plots are well researched and her descriptive writing style suits the period.
The Lost Lords concerns a group of boys taken in by Lady Agnes Westerfield (a Duke's daughter) when she formed a school for wayward children of the aristocracy, giving her life purpose as well as saving theirs. Her unconventional ways (never told to the parents) were to learn what the child hated and promising he'd never have to do that, and what the child most wanted and giving him that. In exchange they would learn the game of society and study hard. Needless to say they all did well.   The new novel in the series Not Quite a Wife,  takes place in 1812, and concerns one of the enigmatic young nobles who has featured in some of the previous stories, James, Lord Kirkland. He is a shipping magnate and also spymaster, who fell in love with the young sister of one of his close schoolmates (Daniel Herbert). Their whirlwind affair/marriage ended when she witnesses him killing a man. She, however, is thrown out by her family, and moves in with her brother who defies them by becoming a doctor. The two have set up a practice in Bristol. You need to suspend belief for a bit as to how black and white Laurel views things (and young), and how he just lets her go. A chance encounter brings them back together, older, wiser and perhaps ready to cope with life (which seems full of adventure and derring do). There are lovely descriptive passages of how important music is to both of them (Laurel is a gifted pianist).
 Every series often has a favourite character that attracts me to continuing the story. I have always liked Lady Agnes and enjoy all encounters with her. She is magnificently eccentric and remains steadfast friends with her early charges. That they have some of her characteristics is a credit to them. Her pithy comments and observations are often the highlight for me. I am also looking forward to visiting with another old friend Nora  Bonesteel  from the Sharyn McCrumb series as I have another book to review.
If you like Anne Perry's or Cathy Maxwell's historical regency novels, you will like the Lost Lords series. These novels are often compared to other period romances including Stephanie Laurens (The Bastion Club) and Mary Balogh (Survivors Club). These are not of the Georgette Heyer style as they have a strong component of passion and sensuality.  Next (7th) installment Not  a Saint (2015) which will be the story of Laurel's brother Daniel Herbert, who was sent to Westerfield Academy because he was too much of a paragon, unlike the others!
Read as NetGalley ARC ebook
3.5 stars (too predictable)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Summer reads

Midnight Crossing by Charlaine Harris
This is the first of a trilogy, in a new urban fantasy, cosy mystery series. I was a fan of the Harper Connolly series which had elements of supernatural but realistic stories, more so than Sookie and so this book appealed to me (although vampires are still involved). There are characters that have appeared in her other books, in fact two major ones, Bobo and Manfred, who were youngsters with unrequited love. They have moved on in a sense, but moved here?

Midnight, Texas is an unusual western town at best, peculiar to say the least, but completely interesting. I enjoyed the descriptive style which unveils secrets and character development layer by layer.... Each character has secrets, and even knowing the back stories of some,  there are twists and turns and revelations.

There is a charming witch (with an hysterical cat, Mr Snuggles) who's interested in the owner of the pawn shop who's depressed after his girlfriend left him, but her corpse becomes the mystery but only part of the plot. The band of quirky misfits also include  an ominous minister, a possible assassin, the online psychic and a dangerous religious gang.
You will have to figure out who the serial killer is.
However, you will also still be curious about the continued stories and the expected character development and can't wait to discover what else that cat can do.

Available in all my libraries.