Foxglove Summer, the audio version. So good!

Foxglove Summer

Listened July  2016
Recommended for fans of police urban fantasy, audio
 ★     ★     ★     ★     ★

Lemonade and ice. BBQ and ribs. Mac and cheese. Salt and caramel. Some things are perfect complements of flavor. Holbrook-Smith’s voice acting and Aaronovitch’s words are the ultimate combination, the Ben & Jerry’s of the book world.

This is the first series where audio has really demonstrated it’s value for me, a fast reader. Prior to this, I’ve tried Evonovitch, a Harry Potter book and one or two others. An Alas, Babylon convinced me of the value of continuing to give the medium a try, so I finally dipped my toes into the Peter Grant series, and by Moon Over Soho, I was swimming in the deep end.

Something special happened with this book and the last: I’m actually getting a glimpse of the the multi-book arc. Before, I didn’t understand Peter’s fascination with Ettersburg, but with a little insight from Mr. Hugh, it is starting to become clear–as well as who the Faceless Man might be. I’ve got a good idea of what’s behind the door in the Folly’s basement, and it no longer seems like a plot device to get Peter on his own and prevent easy rescue from Nightingale.

It should be clear by now that Holdbrook-Smith is a stunning reader. When Nightingale made a brief appearance, it was delightful to hear his voice again. The wheezing, faltering tone of Hugh brought to life his infirm health. I did have a little trouble keeping the mothers and fathers sorted, but I had even more trouble reading, so there’s that. I enjoyed his interpretation of the chain-smoking inspector, and the boyish cheerfulness of his new police pal.

Pass the Ben & Jerry’s. I’ve got some listening to do.

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Rivers of London Body of Work by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London Body of Work

Read July 2016
Recommended for fans of Peter Grant and graphic novels

Despite an affinity for both the written word and the visual arts, I have yet to be engrossed in a graphic novel. Quite honestly, I have yet to be even a little bit moved. This is clearly a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

The artwork is nicely done, the color shading appealing. Panels are shaded sepia and autumn tones if they are memories, a nice trick as Aaronovitch’s books incorporate Nightingale’s past in Peter’s investigations. The narrative voice is set off in rectangular orange boxes, a clever device that helps separate Peter’s thoughts from the dialogue. I thought the mystery and investigation worked, if somewhat unremarkable. I did like the way the past/present contrast worked for the mystery. For fans of the series, there are bonus “day in the life” pages at the end for other major series characters. Overall, the story seems to rely on the reader’s prior series knowledge in numerous small ways, including an early joke about a lunch packed by Molly.

The series also deserves a shout-out for multi-ethnic normalcy, including a professional woman in a hajib. I just found myself not particularly interested, quite a contrast to my Peter Grant experience when reading or listening to the audio books.

Undoubtedly, your mileage will vary. In fairness to authors and illustrator, I’m passing on rating, but I’ll give myself three stars for trying.

 

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Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White

Read July  2016
Recommended for fans of mythology, Valente
 ★     ★     ★     ★

Take fairy tale mythology, the sideways structure of Native American folklore, a Wild West setting, weave it through with themes on race and gender and wrap it in Valente’s wordsmithing, and you’ll have Six-Gun Snow White.

A body can only deliver up the truth its bones know. Its blood, which is its history. My body is my truth, and I have laid it out as evidence on the table of my father’s reputation, for by know you may have guessed my next revelation.” –from The Creation of Snow White

This bears thinking on. Where does the anxiety, the joy, the tears come from? My body perhaps knows truths my head won’t realize.

It was not like any of the mirrors… it was like a door into nothing. The glass did not show the buttery light of the house behind me. It did not show the forest or the meadows. It did not even show me. The glass was so full up of dark, it looked like someone had tripped over the night and spilled it all into that mirror.” –from Snow White Bites Her Own Reflection

One of my absolute favorite things at my last house–the woodwork was a heavily varnished oak–is the way the setting sun would turn the living room into a buttery glow. Valente writes images that are incredibly resonant with my memory.

I said I loved her back. I put my hand on the door and I said I loved her back, and when I said it, I thought of kissing her and also of shooting her through the eye.” –from Snow White Fights a Lump of Pitch

I loved someone like this once. Or was it?

The dude hesitates. ‘She beat  you, I suppose?’ Snow White just laughs. The dude feels that laugh in his spine. It saws there on the hard, old bone.” –from Snow White Cheats at Cards

The dude should be frightened when he hears that laugh, that almost-humor full of irony and pain.

Until she walked out of the woods and into a town full of banshees with no love for anyone’s history. Your past’s a private matter, sweetheart. You just keep it locked up in a box where it can’t hurt anyone.” –from Snow What and the Birds From Heaven

There’s constant and loud metaphor here about what one can keep locked up/trapped/hidden in mirrors.

So if you want it, you can have a nice life here…it’s a kind of magic, but then most things are. But story is an eager fucking beaver and someday soon someone will come knocking for you and you’d better just say no thank you is all I’m saying.“–from Snow White Dances With Prairie Dog

And here I ask: do we want the story? Or not? Do we open the door or appreciate magic of ordinary life? Can we even choose?

Valente is one of those writers I never know entirely if I’m ready for, because she has that way of finding the boxes in my heart and my memory and opening them up. She did that again. I was quite startled to realize this isn’t a “retelling” as much as a reformulation, a genre-mash-up, a deconstruction and reconstruction of the tales we tell ourselves with modern considerations of gender and race. Thank you for that, Valente. I read everything not-real I could lay my hands on, so it was fun to realize that there’s a ‘Just So’ folklore style of telling that goes with the fairy-tale mashing. The last segment, however, ‘Snow White Holds Up the Sky,’ worked less well for me. I felt it didn’t adequately resolve Snow’s story in a congruent fashion and likely should have ended with ‘Snow White and the Story of Death.’ Fairy tales–or at least the Disney ones–demand happy endings, but many folktales are much more ambiguous.

 

I’m grateful to my flash read group compadres who came along on this reading adventure, bringing enthusiasm and knowledge: Athena, Alina, Carly, Naomi, Nataliya and Richard.

 

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The Infernals by John Connelly

The Infernals

Read June  2016
Recommended for the young adult at heart and the old adult in brain
 ★     ★     ★     ★

Think The Phantom Tollbooth crossed with Johannes Cabal. Literate, dark humor, a straightforward plot interrupted with sidebars, friendship and the kind of world where the very worse thing is the absence of anything. This time when the Hadron Collider is turned on, “the scientists had done a great deal of work to ensure that the whole portal to Hell business would never, ever happen again. Promise. Pinkie promise. Pinkie promise with sugar on top.” Mrs. Abernathy intends to use the power to drag a certain boy and his dog into Hell and redeem herself in the eyes of the Great Malevolence.

Without doubt, one of the most enjoyable aspects for me were the footnotes done in the narrator voice. I can easily imagine my uncle (and now myself) in that role, the kind of innocent-sounding advice that suggests one try a little experiement on their parents–because they are sure to enjoy it. “Go on! Try being a Greek chorus at home!” There’s the musing on collective animal nouns, such as a ‘smack’ of jellyfish, a parliament of owls, a scold of jays and a sleuth of bears–with exceptions of the Three Bears, obviously, “because they took ages to work out who had burgled their house.” Then there are asides on tragedy versus comedy, the function of chancellors, and scientists who came to bad ends.

Professor Hilbert smiled in that mad way scientists have of smiling just before the lightning strikes and the monster made up of bits of dead people comes to life and starts looking for someone to blame for plugging him into the mains and lighting him up like a Christmas tree.

The cast of characters broadens, bringing back some players from the last book and enlarging their roles. Of course, earnest Samuel and faithful Boswell return, this time along with Constable Peel, who harbors a guilty secret from when he was four, and Sergeant Rowan who almost caught Nurd on his Mr. Toad adventures. I found it a pleasure to have police officers who weren’t bumbling, and who were able to tactfully apply the law. The optimistic ice-cream man and the equally optimistic ball of ooze Crudford (with top hat) had me laughing, mostly because, wow, do I ever not think like that (“when you’re made of jelly, and only have a hat to your name, it can only get better, can’t it?”). Nurd and his sidekick Wormwood are on the run in Hell in the Aston Martin, cleverly disguised as a rock. Then there were the uproariously, unapologetic, hygenically challenged quartet of dwarves, Jolly, Mumbles, Dozy and Angry. “Dozy was the kind of bloke who could take a nap while he was already taking another nap.

The sergeant had found some unexpected common ground with Jolly, who had explained to him that the dwarfs’ criminal behavior was all society’s fault. Sergeant Rowan also believed this was true, mainly because society hadn’t found a way to lock them up and throw away the key.”

I’d bet this book is most likely to be enjoyed by very literate kids to adults. Not because of subject matter, but because other narrative digressions including the nature of an object àla Magritte, the crafting of beer and the nature of crime and punishment. However, if one ignores the footnotes, there’s a lot less to confuse–a clever way to appeal to more than one age group.  I won’t claim this is high literature, but it is entertaining, with laugh-out-loud moments and a heart in the right place. Besides, I learned more than a thing or two and remembered some others from a very long ago physics class–even if I could have happily lived the rest of my life without knowing “to lant.” (1)

 

(1) To flavor with aged urine. And you thought the expression “this beer tastes like piss” was hyperbole.

 

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Summerlong by Peter Beagle

Summerlong

Read June  2016
Recommended for people who want to feel melancholic
 ★     ★     ★     1/2

Peter S. Beagle has long been one of my favorite authors. It is not that I love everything he writes as much as I adore his word-smithing and his ability to evoke emotion. His strength, in other words, is not consistently in plotting. I love his short stories, and the novel Folk of the Air remains my first–and possibly favorite–experience with urban fantasy (1986–take that, Ms. Anita Blake!). When reading Summerlong, I heard echoes from Folk of the Air, and of the two, I wholeheartedly prefer Folk. It’s funny though, because in many ways it feels similar, with Summerlong representing the perspective of a much older author. It is possible I might appreciate it more as I grow even older.

The smile chilled Joanna, not because it was evil or mocking; to the contrary, it was almost heartbreaking in its remoteness, its unhuman attempt at a human signal. It was the moon’s midnight smile, shadows shaping a grimace across endless emptiness.

It should be clear that as always, the emotion of the book is true. Alas that the dialogue doesn’t always follow; Abe the professor and his long-time lover Joanna talk mostly like people at a Renaissance Faire, aping something that seems almost archaic in structure and naked emotion, but completely unsuitable for daily dialogue. Would that we have more true moments like those, however. (See what I mean?) Aside from the tendency to speak like half-baked Shakespeare, the characters feel real and multi-dimensional. I had the sense of each as a relatively complete personality, struggling with hope, deflecting with humor, living with longing. My only hesitation would be what seemed to be a sudden appearance of Joanna’s restless spirit.

“She also understood just as clearly that she had no business on Puget Sound even in the Yandells’ rowboat, let alone in a skin soap-bubble, and that her fancy of drifting silently over bright shadow, in and out of time and dream, leaving no trail, was one of the dangerous ones, the ones that took people with them when they left.

The setting is beautiful with a love for the northwest and the ocean. I loved it, from the rickety staircase by Abe’s house playing picnic table/bathroom for the raccoons to the local diner. Ah, if only Beagle could move it along. It’s one of the reasons he excels at shorter stories/novellas which seem to force him to be more concise. When the waitress Lioness (again with the melodrama) appears, it’s clear she has the spring of magic behind her, but it takes almost a third of the book to move it along to the inevitable. The conflict that eventually develops–or fails to really develop, as in the case of long-married almost-dissatisfaction–between Abe and Joanna feels too developed, where it no longer is about Lioness at all, but about two people, one with both an itch and a grudge. I’d rather the proportions were reversed in this case; a quick exposition and rise to the conflict, and a longer resolution.

“The Market had been Joanna’s private comfort ever since she had arrived in Seattle as a college student. Cocooned by crowds, insulated by noise, she moved easily in her own warm silence, deliciously alone, perfectly content to wander aimlessly between the iron-columned arcades above ground and the subterranean dress and antique stores, nibbling on a Chinese pork bun or a chunk of frybread as she studied the boat traffic…”

Despite the indolent pace, it feels remarkably tense at times with the anguish and indecision of the characters. Its one of the perfect blending of myths for Beagle’s evocative melancholy. It is one of the reasons I both love and fear him as an author, because it is likely I’ll run into feelings I’d rather left undisturbed. Overall, it is an apt and appropriate novel for a man in the autumn of his career, but I confess I much prefer spring.

 

Many thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for the advance reader copy.

 

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The Pygmy Dragon by Marc Secchia. Or, Back to class!

The Pygmy Dragon

Read July  2016
Recommended for the author. To re-work.
 ★    

“This week’s assignment will be to write two chapters of a young adult book about a Pygmy girl, dragons and special powers.”

At least, that’s how I imagine The Pygmy Dragon came to be written, because there’s no other explanation for the absolute jumble sale of ideas, plots, characterizations and themes. There’s exceptions, of course. Clearly the student who was graced with ‘Pip’s Prologue’ only turned in one of her chapters. A couple of over-achievers turned in three chapters instead of two. But I’m pretty certain I’ve caught on. How else can you explain:


(LOADS OF SPOILERS FOLLOW)

‘Pip’s Prologue:’ “You’re a big person. I am a Pygmy. I’m three feet, eleven and a half inches tall. That half-inch is very important to me, because if you and I are going to be friends, then I don’t want to hear any short person jokes from you.”

(Plot: can’t tell yet, but the language is ridiculously simplistic. Apparently, despite being proud of being a Pygmy, she wants to be a big person and is sensitive about her height).

Chapter 1: Village Attack: “Pip had one though in her mind: to rescue the children. Crimson drops of fire splattered over her as she ran. Pain bit her bare back and legs like a maddened viper. Oil, she realised, from the rank smell. Burning oil.”

(Plot: Eight year-old warrior girl tries to protect her village. Problem: These children will literally never get another thought).

Chapter 6: Lessons with Balthion: “Arosia laughed. ‘That’s Pygmy speech, Dad? Amazing! By the Islands, Pip, we’re going to be friends. I will tutor you in Island Standard. You will learn to read and write. I will come here as often as I can… as long as you help Dad with his research.”

(Plot: Pygmalion. Oh, and that sounds exactly like friendship!)

Chapter 9: Journey to Jeradia: “You don’t like zoos?” “No more than I’d want to be bound in one place with unbreakable chains, Pip,” he replied, his words seething with a Dragon’s anger… How did Zardon understand her so completely?”

(Plot: Dragon soulmates, ala Anne McCaffrey. Problem: yes, it is hard to understand why someone would understand not wanting to be caged. They must have a Special Connection).

Chapter 11: Off to School: “Shambithion. Master of Academics. Head of the Library,” he shot back, throwing his words at her as if he wished they were darts. “Fifteen, eh? How did you get here? Where are you from? Are you a midget? Hmm, shame there’s no minimum height requirement at this school. Who sent you?”

(Plot: Outcast goes to Special School. Problem: characterization. Quite a librarian there, who can’t recognize a representative of a unique race of people).

Chapter 14: Dragons and Apes : A journeyman accuses Pip of cheating as she quotes a text word for word. “Shambithion said, ‘You see, Journeyman Gelka, the oral cultures of the Island-World have extraordinary powers of memorisation.” …She ran away. But how did one break out of a school guarded by fire-breathing Dragons, who to a beast thought the Pygmy girl enjoyed causing trouble for their kind?”

(Plot: Still the Outcast but Gifted student who Struggles with Fitting In. Oh, and apparently the Librarian finally remembered to read Peoples of The World. Oh, and Pip can Talk to All the Dragons in Her Head, which was Totally Not A Critical Plot Point in The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey).

Chapter 16: The Power of Command: “Everyone, simmer down. Shimmerith? Be free.” This time, the words were unimportant. The sentiment was. As if she had released a taut rope from her mind, Pip suddenly felt relieved.”

(Plot: Hero discovers magic known Only In Legends.).

Chapter 20: Dragon Pirates: The first flying mission runs into problems. “They’re pirates,” Zardon called, helping them with a fireball. The Orange Dragon’s Rider howled as flame engulfed his leg.”

(Plot: Fighting! On dragons! Problem: aside from the cribbing from Anne McCaffrey’s fighting Thread and the hierarchy of dragon color, not a thing. Except for nothing leading up to it.)

Some random chapters in here have to do with Dragons choosing humans in a semi-mystical encounter, only sometimes Dragons choose Shapeshifters, and sometimes the Shapeshifters choose humans, and sometimes Shapeshifters choose Shapeshifters. It’s all totally Magical and not anything like Anne McCaffrey’s dragon-human bonding in the Pern series.

I can’t keep on–this is exhausting. Following chapters include Pip learning she is a Shapeshifter (surprise), flying to another island to check the lore, only to be attacked. Pip is taken captive by a hunky Silver Dragon, saves the day with her special Rage Power, falls to her death but is saved by a Land Dragon which hasn’t been seen in hundreds of years. The group leaves for home, because now they have no time to look for the lore. Attacked again on the way back, they head to the School to prepare for war. Interlude with Pip losing her temper and turning into a dragon at inopportune times. They are attacked by giant centipedes in the Keep. Then the Silver Dragon leads an attack force and Pip is such an amazing flier, she knocks him out. The Silver Dragon is in the dungeon and Pip is Magically Attracted to him. They are almost killed. Oh, and then Twu Luv. The End. Except it isn’t, because we don’t know what happened to Zargon, and if they will win the war. Continue reading

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Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

Malcolm X

Read June  2016
Recommended for people who want to think
 ★     ★     ★     ★    ★

“I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda,” I had written to these friends. “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, the matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

Undoubtedly one of the most filling books I’ve read all year.

It starts simply, with solid, familiar flavors, something like a brandy old-fashioned complete with fruit decorations, and a little bowl of candied pecans. Malcolm X begins by setting the scene of his parents, and his birth on May 19, 1925. It is one of the shortest sections, noting his father’s work as a traveling Baptist minister and his mother’s work making a home. His memories are informed by skin color, recalling his West Indian mother’s pale skin from her absent father and her favoritism towards her children who were darker. Preaching the words of Marcus Garvey, it wasn’t long before his father ran afoul of conservative, reactionary whites, chasing them from Nebraska to Wisconsin to Michigan. He was killed under very suspicious circumstances that allowed insurance agents to deny payment to a woman with eight hungry children. Taking welfare checks meant social worker after social worker dropping by the house as the kids would act up out of hunger, desperation, and being kids until the day Malcolm agreed to live with another family. He found his place for a while, but recalls the institutionalized racism that had him being elected eighth-grade class president at the same time he was told being a lawyer was beyond his reach, but perhaps carpentry was a possible career. A chance to visit his half-sister Ella in Boston set his life on the next path.

Zoot suits

If we were to continue with the food metaphor, this would be the stuffed egg appetizer, the crunch of radishes in dill, the chipped beef and sardine roll straight out of the 1950s: hints of flavor, spice; food that snaps in the mouth, not melts into ephemera. This was the section that surprised me the most: young Malcolm was a hustler. He found a cohort, Shorty, who became his homeboy and schooled him on the ways of the street. He got his first conk and first zoot suit. Much to Ella’s dismay, he left the ‘high-class’ sections of town for the pool-halls and dance-rooms where he learned to lindy-hop. After leaving a shoe-shine job, he had a short term working as a soda-jerk in a drugstore, where he met Laura, one of his favorite dancing partners. One night at a dance with her, he met Sophia, a white girl who was a bit older than he, and from the rich area of Beacon Hill. Only sixteen, Ella took steps to get him out of the influence of his circle by getting him a job on a railroad dining car. Eventually, he pulled his own strings and made his way to New York, and to Harlem. Cocky, a sharp dresser and with an eye to opportunity, he soon became ‘Detroit Red,’ to distinguish him from the other red-haired black men in his circle.

“Right now, in every big city ghetto, tens of thousands of yesterday’s and today’s school dropouts are keeping body and soul together some form of hustling in the same way I did.””

A conk

If the earlier chapters are courses, this is the section where we sneak out back to have a cigarette and a belt of moonshine. The Malcolm I expected was barely to be seen in these pages. He waited tables, picked up tips from the local power-brokers, became an avid movie-goer, and gambler. Because of his love of dance, he was in contact and friends with many of the musicians of his time. As a waiter, he had a side ‘referral’ business suggesting black prostitutes to white men and vice-versa. Eventually he was caught and moved into selling reefer. His scene attempting to get a 4-F draft classification was astounding. Graduating to burglaries with a friend, he soon went armed with a couple of guns. Eventually, he brought his brother Reginald into the life when Reginald left the Merchant Marines. It was nothing I had expected and lasted only four short years until he was caught pawning loot from a job done with old pals Shorty, Sophia and her cousin.

“Any person who claims to have deep feelings for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars–caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.”

Finally, to the main course! Solid, meaty, and not altogether unexpected. Like a roast that’s a bit scanty on the au jus, details from his time in prison were both flavorful and scarce. There’s his moniker, ‘Satan,’ his minor prison hustles, and being encouraged to go the library by one of the dominant inmates. His brothers Reginald and Philbert introduced him gradually to the Prophet Elijah Muhammad. As with everything, Malcolm committed wholeheartedly and was soon preaching to the Christians in the prison, as well as joining the debate team to hone his skills.

Malcolm X

This is a section that is so fascinating, and yet still somewhat disappointing. Malcolm did so much reading in the prison library, tutoring himself on a vast array of topics, learning about American history and oppression. At the same time, he was spreading the word of Fard through the Messenger Elijah Muhammad, who included a history of Islam that included one man breaking off to form the white race out of the seeds of the black and brown race as a form of revenge against Allah. There’s also some details about numerology and the Masons that was completely incomprehensible. I found it hard to reconcile his willingness to embrace what seemed to be a rather wild offshoot of Islam called  Nation of Islam with the man who studied Kant.

“”The devil white man cut these black people off from all knowledge of their own kind, and cut them off from any knowledge of their own language, religion, and pass culture, until the black man in America was the earth’s only race of people who had absolutely no knowledge of his true identity”

After seven years in prison, he moved back to his brother Wilfred’s home in Detroit and immersed himself in a ‘normal’ life of family, church and work at Ford Motor Plant. Before long he felt called to preach for Brother Elijah’s Temple One in Detroid. With his passion and energy, he was soon drawing followers to the temple, and before long, was traveling to other cities to spread the word. Clearly, this is the part that was most dear to Malcolm’s heart, as he detailed his progress spreading the word in Boston, Harlem and many other cities in between seeking personal tutoring from the Messenger in Chicago.  His life became that of a dedicated evangelist, until he encountered Sister Betty in one of the temples and married her. Even then he continued to travel, building the Nation of Islam. He spoke at colleges, on the radio, television programs and even overseas, spreading the word about the black man in America. Eventually, however, he felt there was a lot of jealousy of his success, particularly as Elijah’s health grew more precarious. He also learned of Elijah’s affairs with a succession of secretaries and verified the rumors for himself, an astounding crime given that Elijah has sentenced Nation members to years of ‘silence’ if they were found guilty of adultery. It’s clear that he felt his split with the Nation occurred because he had “more faith in Elijah than he had in himself” and because of jealousy at his success.

And, much like a small bittersweet cayenne chocolate truffle for dessert, there is a final, bittersweet end. As Malcolm makes his break and continues to dialogue more and more with world leaders, he ends up embracing a more traditional form of Islam that embraced the brotherhood of man. Unfortunately, word comes that the Nation would really prefer him dead, and his interviews make it clear it is weighing on his mind at the same time he is trying to provide for his family.

As all auto/biographies, I struggle with ratings. This is easily a dense, fulfilling read that I’d recommend to anyone in America. Political moments happening today have their genesis in that period, and Malcolm X provides a number of fascinating angles to the discussion. Still, autobiographies are the stories we tell about ourselves, so I can’t help wishing for even more context. I do think he showed unusual ability to connect early events in his life to perceptions and viewpoints later, yet he seemed to remain hamstrung by his views on women and on other races. Even more, I can’t help wishing he had lived longer so that we could have seen how his philosophies continued to evolve. It’s the kind of book that sends me down the rabbit holes of history, trying to understand more about this fascinating man and his thinking.

 

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The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The Egypt Game

Read June  2016
Recommended for young adult readers, fans of imagination
 ★     ★     ★     1/2   

Based on Wanda’s excellent review, as well as my own fondness for ancient Egypt, I picked up this young adult book to see what I was missing. I found it reasonably entertaining, although I couldn’t help wishing it was fleshed out a little further.

April has been sent to live with her grandmother and she is resenting it. All of that changes when she meets the upstairs girl, Melanie, her precocious four-year-old brother, Marshall, and his adorable stuffed octopus, Security. They start out telling stories with Melanie’s elaborate paper families but it soon progresses into playacting when they discover an apparently abandoned back yard. Other people are added to their imaginative play. Imagination time becomes compromised when a real-life murder occurs in a nearby neighborhood and their parents are reluctant to allow them outside.

“Well,” April and Melanie said to each other–only just with a look, not out loud, “wasn’t that like a boy. They got things into a mess and then expected a girl to get them out of it.”

I think this would have been a perfect book for me around age nine. Themes involve friends, differences, imagination and secrets. April’s loss of her home with her mother is one of the themes that weaves through the background, adding a humanizing touch to her and showing the way these issues can be processed in the background and not always need processing out loud. Characters, particularly the three that begin the game, seem reasonably well developed. I particularly love the understated way April and Melanie end up become best friends without needing to label it as such. I also liked the way April’s grandmother, Caroline, was portrayed, an understated background role that gave April a chance to develop in her new home. One of the strengths of the book was the feeling of authenticity in their dialogue. Bonus point for having a cast that represented a variety of ethnicities and family structures.

Plotting was fine. Some may say that a murder in a children’s book is inappropriate; I disagree. I think it was handled perfectly well, and the children displayed the same self-centeredness that many children in that age group do when coping with such issues. I did find the wrap-up to be somewhat strange, however. I was intrigued by the section with the oracle, as I wasn’t sure where the story was headed, fantastical or real-world, and I’m not sure the children knew either. However, a reasonably satisfying ending.

Many young adult books feel the need to pose children and adults in opposing relationships, it was refreshing to encounter adults who allowed kids to get about the business of being kids. The girls are wrapped up in the world of imagination, although they certainly have moments in school and at home where the real world intrudes. It reminds me of all the games I and my various playmates concocted; the hours spent prepping, the obsessions with getting something ‘right,’ according to some mysterious nine-year-old definition of what ‘right’ was.

“When somebody saves your life, it makes him sort of your property, and nobody was going to make fun … with April around.”

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Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch. Audio enjoyment.

Broken Homes

Listened June  2016
Recommended for fans of British humour, police procedural UF
 ★     ★     ★     ★     ★ 

I loves it so much that this may be the reason I join Audible. Or is there another way for me to owns my precious?

Holdbrook-Smith’s narration coupled with Aaronovitch’s story is an absolutely splendid combination. Peter Grant has a dry, wry bent, and Holdbrook-Smith is allowing the emotion to come through, even allowing himself to become exclamatory in a couple of parts.

Holdbrook-Smith also has an amazing ability to convey a range of types. He must truly be an actor’s actor. He does the genteel tones of Dr. Morehouse awkwardly reading a German title contrasted with Nightingale’s smooth description of the same title. His Nightingale is absolutely pat–I hear him and Peter as two different people by now. Zach’s indignant hippie vibe continues to amuse. His readings of female lines are just as apt, from the working-class busybody in the Gardens to the weary bemusement of the Nightwitch.

It’s worth noting a couple of things. One, re-listening added to my enjoyment and understanding. Pacing was different than a traditional story because it really is more police-procedural. As Peter and the Folly continue to investigate suspicious occurrences, some will matter to the overall arc and some won’t. Second, this is amazing and heart-wrenching with more suspense than the last book. This is where the series gets serious. Thankfully, there are still some humorous parts–such as a literal pissing contest. Apparently, as my notes from the first read attest, I’m still amused by many of the same lines.

My review of the story: Broken Homes

 

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The Gates by John Connolly

The Gates

Read June  2016
Recommended for fans of British humour
 ★     ★     ★     ★ 

I probably should not describe a book about the gates of Hell opening as ‘cute,’ but here we are:

It was cute.

I haven’t read any Connolly before, not even the famous Book of Lost Things, so I didn’t know what to expect–besides the fact that friend Mimi liked it. Turns out it was a quick little read that was clever and entertaining.

Samuel Johnson is avoiding Stephanie the Babysitter and her bossy tendencies when he and his faithful dog, Boswell (the constant companion), witnesses the new neighbors at 666 Crowley Road summon a demon. As Samuel watches through the basement window, the demon brings over a few more pals and then helpfully outlines its plans to pave the way for the Great Malevolence. At the Large Hadron Collider beneath a mountain, the scientists are puzzled when a particle seems to ‘fly off’ and code is suddenly re-written. That shouldn’t be possible, either in Battleship or in Boson land. Meanwhile, Nurd, Scourge of Five Deities (but mostly just Annoying to his brothers who include “Graham, the Demon of Stale Biscuits and Crackers and Erics’, the Demon of Bad Punctuation“), is facing a serious bout of exile-induced boredom in the Wasteland when he’s suddenly pulled to Earth.

Narration has a dry British humor to it, although played down a bit to the young adult level. There’s some interesting science background integrated into the story–it’s not every day a fiction book educates on beginning of the universe and the scientific method, although Connelly does note, “This is how we end up with nuclear weapons, and scientists claiming that they’d only set out to invent something that steamed radishes.” It may be that I’m in British humor mode lately, as I make my way through Aaronovitch’s Grant audio books, but I found myself snickering quite a bit, especially in the beginning. Connolly uses footnotes to a much better effect than Susanna Clarke, particularly when he explains being ‘sick’ to the presumed adolescents reading the book. As he explains the punctuation, he describes air quotes. When he takes it a step further by suggesting the reader use air quotes to describe a ‘dinner’ of boiled fish, I found myself laughing. But perhaps I’m easily amused. The asides allowed educational but tongue-in-cheek social commentary while the story could focus on plot and entertaining dialogue. Like the best child films, there’s quite a bit here to amuse those with a classical education, as when Samuel runs into trouble showing Mr. Hume a pin, speculating about angels dancing on the head.

Given all the cheeky asides and references, it is a relief that the plot is straightforward and moves briskly. Characters don’t get a ton of space to develop, but what is there is serviceable enough, avoiding caricature. I liked that Samuel’s separated parents provided an emotional foil to rival the physical threat of the demons.

I don’t know that I’d agree with those who saw similarities with Gaiman, whose focus is often on world-building, weirdness and the occasional creepy sexuality more than a linear plot, or those who saw a similarity with Good Omens by Pratchett, who never met a farce he didn’t want to turn into a 350 page book. It most reminded me most of A. Lee Martinez’ Gil’s All Fright Diner (review), somewhat strangely of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and for a very brief moment, Mr. Frog of Frog and Toad.

Breezy, quick, with charming little informative asides–did you know that Michelangelo wrote a poem complaining about painting the Sistine Chapel? When was the last time I said that about a fiction young-adult book?¹ For that matter, an adult urban fantasy?² Highly recommended if one is feeling whimsical and clever.

 

¹Never.

²Only if you count mythology.

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