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wandapedersen39

Wanda's Book Reviews

I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles.  (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).

Currently reading

Living with Shakespeare: Actors, Directors, and Writers on Shakespeare in Our Time
Susannah Carson
The Lie Tree
Frances Hardinge
Smilla's Sense of Snow
Peter Høeg, Tiina Nunnally
Progress: 252/469 pages
The Poisonwood Bible
Barbara Kingsolver

My Brief History / Stephen Hawking

My Brief History - Stephen Hawking

My Brief History recounts Stephen Hawking’s improbable journey, from his postwar London boyhood to his years of international acclaim and celebrity. Lavishly illustrated with rarely seen photographs, this concise, witty, and candid account introduces readers to a Hawking rarely glimpsed in previous books: the inquisitive schoolboy whose classmates nicknamed him Einstein; the jokester who once placed a bet with a colleague over the existence of a particular black hole; and the young husband and father struggling to gain a foothold in the world of physics and cosmology.

Writing with characteristic humility and humor, Hawking opens up about the challenges that confronted him following his diagnosis of ALS at age twenty-one. Tracing his development as a thinker, he explains how the prospect of an early death urged him onward through numerous intellectual breakthroughs, and talks about the genesis of his masterpiece A Brief History of Time—one of the iconic books of the twentieth century.

 

With the passing of the great cosmologist last week, it seemed fitting to read his autobiography as a way of appreciating the man a bit more. It’s a very compact account of Hawking’s life, hitting the high spots without going into great detail. One of the more charming aspects for me was the inclusion of a fair number of personal photographs, many supplied by Hawking himself and his sister.

Numerous tributes to Hawking last week referred to his sense of humour. Unfortunately, that didn’t really come through to me in this volume. I can also appreciate that he wanted to be known for more than his ALS, but I thought that a little more detail about the disease would have been appropriate. It seemed to me that his family, especially his children, got extremely little page-time. I didn’t require a tell-all or anything too detailed, but knowing how the children turned out and what they chose to do with their lives would have been interesting. I also wonder if they worry that they may have a predisposition to getting ALS themselves.

To be fair, each person gets to be the star of their own autobiography. Hawking concentrates on what he obviously deemed the most important part of his life—his research. Many of the details that I’m interested in, he probably decided were not his to tell.

Birding Without Borders / Noah Strycker

Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World - Noah Strycker

In 2015, Noah Strycker set himself a lofty goal: to become the first person to see half the world’s birds in one year. For 365 days, with a backpack, binoculars, and a series of one-way tickets, he traveled across forty-one countries and all seven continents, eventually spotting 6,042 species—by far the biggest birding year on record.

This is no travelogue or glorified checklist. Noah ventures deep into a world of blood-sucking leeches, chronic sleep deprivation, airline snafus, breakdowns, mudslides, floods, war zones, ecologic devastation, conservation triumphs, common and iconic species, and scores of passionate bird lovers around the globe. By pursuing the freest creatures on the planet, Noah gains a unique perspective on the world they share with us—and offers a hopeful message that even as many birds face an uncertain future, more people than ever are working to protect them.

 

I enjoyed this memoir much more than I anticipated. Late last year, I read this author’s Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica, which I enjoyed because I am a penguin fanatic. I have done a fair bit of travel in the pursuit of birds, so I picked up this volume with both hope and reservations.

I needn’t have worried. Strycker is a much better writer than many of the folks who pen birding memoirs and I enjoyed seeing places, people and birds that I know through his eyes. I think that was part of the enjoyment for me—getting to revisit some places, remember some birds and say, “Oh, I met that person!”

For those of you who aren’t obsessed with birds, a big year is a year devoted to seeing as many birds as possible in a certain area. There’s a certain competitiveness inherent in the practice which you can read about in The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (or try the movie of the same name, which I enjoyed). As I read TBY, I found myself snorting occasionally as I identified with many of the behaviours described. Strycker takes the Big Year concept a step further as he decides to take his Year global and try to see half of the bird species on Earth (5000 of an approximate 10,000). While having no desire to participate in such an activity myself, it was intriguing to see how Strycker proceeded with the endeavour.

What I appreciated the most about this account wasn’t the list of birds. Obviously birds figure prominently in the account, but it was the connections with people, the difficulties faced during travel, and the time spent putting things into perspective—those made the tale worthwhile in my opinion. There was self-reflection here, plus no over-the-top environmental preachiness.

I’m unsure how interesting non-birders would find such a book—if any of my non-birding friends choose to read it, perhaps you could let me know?

Gap into Vision / Stephen R. Donaldson

The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge - Stephen R. Donaldson

Beautiful, brilliant, and dangerous, Morn Hyland is an ex-police officer for the United Mining Companies--and the target of two ruthless, powerful men.  One is the charismatic ore-pirate Nick Succorso, who sees Morn as booty wrested from his vicious rival, Angus Thermopyle.  thermopyle once made the mistake of underestimating Morn and now he's about to pay the ultimate price.  Both men think they can possess her, but Morn is no one's trophy--and no one's pawn.

Meanwhile, withing the borders of Forbidden Space, wait the Amnioin, an alien race capable of horrific atrocities.  The Amnion want something unspeakable from humanity--and they will go to unthinkable lengths to get it.

 

Although this is the first series by Donaldson that I can stand to read, I still can’t say that I love it. I’m not sure that I even like it. There really isn’t one character that I can actually identify with—there are one or two that I’m interested in and want to know what happens to them, but I can’t say that I like them. Mind you, that’s not necessary for a novel but it does make it easier reading.

The aliens in this universe seem to take a cue from Octavia Butler’s Oankali in her Xenogenesis series. Donaldson’s Amnioin also seem to be rather echinoderm-like and are interested in acquiring humans for genetic purposes. Selling someone to the Amnioin is seen as the ultimate evil in human trafficking. But when there’s money to be made, you know that some human is going to try to make deals with them—and it’s rather like trying to make deals with the Fae. You need to watch your wording and make sure you know all of the ramifications before you sign on the dotted line.

If you’ve got any issues with rape scenes, you won’t have made it past the first book. That said, don’t expect that to stop in this book. Morn actually has to go to sick-bay at one point, to get repaired after particularly rough treatment by Nick Succorso. Donaldson doesn’t go into graphic detail, thankfully, but there are more than enough hints to be horrifying.

The cynicism evident in the book is a bit depressing too—everyone seems to be on the take somehow, even the police force that Morn used to belong to. She followed her parents into that occupation and had taken pride in their upstanding reputation—this is yet another thing that gets taken away from her, along with her personal agency.

Book 275 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

What a Fish Knows / Jonathan Balcombe

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins - Jonathan Balcombe

Do fishes think? Do they really have three-second memories? And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface of the water? In What a Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquarium glass to reveal the surprising capabilities of fishes. Although there are more than thirty thousand species of fish—more than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined—we rarely consider how individual fishes think, feel, and behave. Balcombe upends our assumptions about fishes, portraying them not as unfeeling, dead-eyed feeding machines but as sentient, aware, social, and even Machiavellian—in other words, much like us.


What a Fish Knows draws on the latest science to present a fresh look at these remarkable creatures in all their breathtaking diversity and beauty. Fishes conduct elaborate courtship rituals and develop lifelong bonds with shoalmates. They also plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, curry favor, deceive one another, and punish wrongdoers. We may imagine that fishes lead simple, fleeting lives—a mode of existence that boils down to a place on the food chain, rote spawning, and lots of aimless swimming. But, as Balcombe demonstrates, the truth is far richer and more complex, worthy of the grandest social novel.


Highlighting breakthrough discoveries from fish enthusiasts and scientists around the world and pondering his own encounters with fishes, Balcombe examines the fascinating means by which fishes gain knowledge of the places they inhabit, from shallow tide pools to the deepest reaches of the ocean.

 

Fish get short shrift when we are thinking about animal behaviour. Consider the poor maligned gold fish, which is reputed to have an attention span of mere seconds. Incorrect, as it turns out—gold fish can learn tasks and retain that learning for months.

I’m not a diver. I can’t swim and water will always be a scary place for me, but I can see where this book would be very interesting to anyone who spends time in the underwater world. Fish are much more interesting that I gave them credit for. I’m a birder, after all, and so I’m a little biased (although I certainly know that the term “bird brain” is actually more of a compliment than an insult).

It’s difficult for us to imagine what a fish’s life is like—they live in a completely different medium than we do, have extra senses that we can’t fathom, and have unexpressive faces. I think that last point is the one that leads us to underestimate fishes—we value expressiveness over evidence, I think, because it’s something we’re good at.

If you are interested in matters of animal intelligence (and human judginess) I would recommend Franz de Waal’s excellent book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?.

Gingerbread Pudding Cake still in the slow cooker
Gingerbread Pudding Cake still in the slow cooker
A yummy bowl of goodness!
A yummy bowl of goodness!

My sister was supposed to come visit last night.  She was dropping her husband off at the airport to go to a teachers' conference in California.  However, we were under a snowfall advisory yesterday and the roads were just treacherous.  On my short drive home from work, I saw all kinds of slipping, sliding, and fish-tailing.  When she called me from the airport, we agreed that she'd be better off heading straight home, rather than venturing into the city.

 

But I had already put the Gingerbread Pudding Cake into the slow cooker and I can't say that I regret it.  I will be making this again!  Yum.

 

My sister will be back to pick up her hubbie on Sunday.  His flight doesn't come in until after midnight, so we'll go out to dinner with a cousin and then visit until I have to go to bed.  I'm glad, because even though she only lives about a 1.5 hour drive away, I haven't seen her since October.

 

 

Victoria & Abdul / Shrabani Basu

Victoria And Abdul: The True Story Of The Queens' Closest Confidant - Shrabani Basu

The tall, handsome Abdul Karim was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. An assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail, he suddenly found himself a personal attendant to the Empress of India herself. Within a year, he was established as a powerful figure at court, becoming the queen's teacher, or Munshi, and instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs. Devastated by the death of John Brown, her Scottish gillie, the queen had at last found his replacement. But her intense and controversial relationship with the Munshi led to a near-revolt in the royal household. Victoria & Abdul examines how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the Empire, and his influence over the queen at a time when independence movements in the sub-continent were growing in force. Yet, at its heart, it is a tender love story between an ordinary Indian and his elderly queen, a relationship that survived the best attempts to destroy it.

 

I saw the film based on this book last year and really enjoyed it, but I had to wonder how much the screenwriters had fiddled with the facts to make a more engaging film. When I saw that this year’s PopSugar challenge included a category called “Book made into a movie that you’ve already seen,” I immediately knew which book I would be reading.

I was grateful for the author’s footnotes and references—she certainly did her research. I think we all feel we “know” about Queen Victoria, but I found I really only had a general impression of the woman. I had no idea until seeing the film that she had Indian people serving in her household or that she had become close friends with one of them.

In many ways, this is a story of a lonely woman who finds a friend and a new interest in life. I would agree with the author, that Her Maj was a romantic at heart and the exoticness of India (in comparison to Britain) was what drew her to Abdul Karim and his culture. I was impressed by her devotion to the study of Urdu and her proficiency in that language at the end of her life—she got a late start, but made excellent headway on a language that was far different than others she was used to.

As Abdul became one of her favourites, it was inevitable that he would become the target of people who were jealous. The Queen believed much of the rivalry to be a result of racism, and I would have to agree with her assessment. If Abdul had been a white man (like John Brown), there would still have been resentment, but not the volcanic rage that seemed to permeate the Royal Household regarding this Indian man. It must have been a very lonely life for Abdul, as well, with the other Indians begrudging him his relationship with the Queen, not to mention the hatred of the Caucasian members of staff.

Regarding the film versus the book, I think the film stayed pretty true to the facts. There were a few events that were left out (you can’t include everything) and a few things where the order of events may have been slightly changed, but it remained very true to the feel of the book. Overall, I would say that I enjoyed the film more.

An interesting window into the life of an intriguing woman.

TBR Thursday

Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World - Noah Strycker Now I Rise (The Conqueror's Trilogy) - Kiersten White Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks - Annie Spence The Shoe on the Roof - Will Ferguson The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge - Stephen R. Donaldson My Brief History - Stephen Hawking

Actually, this is just a fraction of my library book pile, but they are the ones that I'm going to concentrate on for the next week or so.

 

Three of them have holds on them, so they can't be renewed--Birding Without Borders, Dear Fahrenheit 451, and The Shoe on the Roof.  The subject matter of the three couldn't be more different, so it should be an interesting week.

 

Now I Rise is the second book in The Conqueror's Saga.  The first book, And I Darken, is the book for April in my real-life book club.  I read that one last year, so I'm going to forge ahead into the second book before our meet up on April 6.

 

It seems appropriate to read Stephen Hawking's autobiography, My Brief History, to celebrate the great man's life. 

 

And Gap Into Vision : Forbidden Knowledge is the next up in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.  I'm glad to have finally found a series by Stephen R. Donaldson that I actually kind of like.

Gingerbread Pudding Cake (Slow Cooker version)

 

Okay, so this will be my reward for doing housework this week!

 

I hope to make it tomorrow.

Tricks for Free / Seanan McGuire

Tricks for Free - Seanan McGuire

Antimony Price is on the run. With the Covenant on her tail and her family still in danger, she needs to get far, far away from anyone who might recognize her--including her own mice. For the first time in a long time, a Price is flying without a safety net. Where do you go when you need to disappear into a crowd without worrying about attracting attention? An amusement park, of course.

Some people would call Lowryland the amusement park. It's one of the largest in Florida, the keystone of the Lowry entertainment empire...but for Annie, it's a place to hide. She's just trying to keep her head down long enough to come up with a plan that will get her home without getting anyone killed. No small order when she's rooming with gorgons and sylphs, trying to placate frustrated ghosts, and rushing to get to work on time.

Then the accidents begin. The discovery of a dead man brings Annie to the attention of the secret cabal of magic users running Lowryland from behind the scenes. They want the fire that sleeps in her fingers. They want her on their side. They want to help her--although their help, like everything else, comes with a price.

 

I picked up this paperback in the store on the day it was released, but it took me a few days to get around to reading it. I went in knowing that the Aeslin mice really didn’t feature in it (Sam takes them to the airport and they head for home). Would the magic still be there without the mice?

I enjoyed the mouse-less adventure just as much as the previous books. It also helped that there was an adorable novella featuring Mindy & Mork (Annie’s mice) at the end of the book. I’m liking Annie better than I did in the previous novel and will look forward to her further adventures in the next one. The presence of “Aunt” Mary, the ghost, also ties in one of McGuire’s other storylines, combining the two nicely.

Obviously I read this because I love the series and I’m a big fan of Seanan McGuire. But it also filled a space in my PopSugar challenge (a book published in 2018).

The List for This Evening....

Victoria And Abdul: The True Story Of The Queens' Closest Confidant - Shrabani Basu What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins - Jonathan Balcombe

Give me a hero biscuit, I did housework last night!  It's the first time I've given a crap about such things since I got home from Taiwan, sick & exhausted!  But, my neatnik sister is coming to visit, so I must try to scrape up some motivation from somewhere.

 

Tonight I need to:

1. Clean out the fridge

2. Do the organics recycling

3. If I was really good, I'd empty the regular recycling too

4. Empty the dishwasher

5. Wash the stuff that didn't make it in the dishwasher

6. See if I have time to finish the two books above.

 

That sounds manageable to me right now, but after work all bets are off.  (We're training for a new computer system and getting ready to move to a new office miles away from the current one right now).

 

Books are currently my retreat from real life and boy do I appreciate them.

Dunbar / Edward St. Aubyn

Dunbar - Edward St. Aubyn

‘I really did have an empire, you know,’ said Dunbar. ‘Have I ever told you the story of how it was stolen from me?

Henry Dunbar, the once all-powerful head of a global corporation, is not having a good day. In his dotage he handed over care of the family firm to his two eldest daughters, Abby and Megan. But relations quickly soured, leaving him doubting the wisdom of past decisions...

Now imprisoned in a care home in the Lake District with only a demented alcoholic comedian as company, Dunbar starts planning his escape. As he flees into the hills, his family is hot on his heels. But who will find him first, his beloved youngest daughter, Florence, or the tigresses Abby and Megan, so keen to divest him of his estate?

 

This is the Hogath Shakespeare’s version of King Lear, a play that I have seen performed at least twice in the last couple of years. It’s a powerful story and I would imagine that it would be a daunting piece to take on in a retelling such as this one, but Edward St. Aubyn was certainly up to the task!

I picked it up Sunday morning, meaning to just get a start on it. After all, I already knew the inevitable ending—everybody dies, right? But St. Aubyn’s creation grabbed me and would not let go! He made it fresh with Henry Dunbar, the media mogul, whose hubris has brought him low. I read the entire thing before lunch!

I was impressed by both performances of Lear that I’ve seen, but they both played up Lear as suffering from dementia, as that’s one of the concerns of modern society. But St. Aubyn returned to Shakespeare’s original intention, I think, that Dunbar is brought low by his desire to have privilege without responsibility. Like Lear in the play, Dunbar regains his wits just long enough to realize all that he has lost, a truly tragic ending.

I really loved the drunken comedian, Peter Walker, in his role as the fool. That was an inspired bit of casting on the author’s part.

How have I not read any of St. Aubyn’s work before? That mistake must be corrected!

The Librarian of Auschwitz / Antonio Iturbe

The Librarian of Auschwitz - Antonio G. Iturbe, Lilit Zekulin Thwaites

Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.
Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.

 

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but I must admit that I was hoping for more. The story itself is fascinating and that’s what kept me reading. The writing was pedestrian, which was a disappointment. Still, I would recommend the book to those looking for an inspirational story concerning Auschwitz.

The narrative closely follows Dita Kraus, a 14 year old girl in the Auschwitz family camp and her experiences as the keeper and protector of eight forbidden books. I was interested that one of them was a history text by H.G. Wells, as I have been cataloguing a large collection of Wells’ writing during my work hours. I was also glad to see that they had several people that they designated as “living books” because they could tell certain stories (one woman could recount The Count of Monte Cristo). The concept of living books has recently been used at our city’s public library, so I was thrilled to see an example of the history of the practice.

If this time period and setting are interests of yours, I would recommend this book.

Exile / R.A. Salvatore

Exile - R.A. Salvatore

Hostile in ways that a surface-dweller could never know, the tunnel-mazes of the Underdark challenge all who tread there. Among these souls are Drizzt Do’Urden and his magical cat, Guenhwyvar. Exiled from his drow homeland, Drizzt must fight for a new home in the boundless labyrinth. Meanwhile, he must watch for signs of pursuit—for the dark elves are not a forgiving race.

 

The books in this series have the virtue of being quick & easy to read, perfect for a Friday evening after a long work week. This is book two of Drizzt’s back story—wherein he lives by himself in the tunnels of the Underdark until he can’t take the solitude anymore and seeks companionship with mixed results.

As one of my cousins pointed out to me, Salvatore writes great fight scenes and they are very much on display in this installment. In fact, the book is basically a series of fights, stitched together with a very little bit of plot. I will also give Salvatore credit for inventing some great Underdark creatures and cultures for Drizzt to fight with.

Book number 274 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

Next books due at the library

The Librarian of Auschwitz - Antonio G. Iturbe, Lilit Zekulin Thwaites Dunbar - Edward St. Aubyn Victoria And Abdul: The True Story Of The Queens' Closest Confidant - Shrabani Basu Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World - Noah Strycker

I'm over halfway through The Librarian of Auschwitz, so will finish it this weekend without fail.  The story is fascinating, though the writing is pedestrian.

 

Dunbar is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, the retelling of King Lear.  I'll at least make a start on it over the weekend.

 

Looking ahead, I'll hope to start Victoria & Abdul.  I saw the movie version last year and really enjoyed it. 

 

And, as temperatures here finally begin to warm up to the freezing point (we may get to +3 C today), I'm getting the itch to go birding.  Hence Birding Without Borders to get me fired up for the new birding year.

 

Have a fabulous weekend, friends!

The Inimitable Jeeves / P.G. Wodehouse

The Inimitable Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

A classic collection of stories featuring some of the funniest episodes in the life of Bertie Wooster, gentleman, and Jeeves, his gentleman's gentleman--in which Bertie's terrifying Aunt Agatha stalks the pages, seeking whom she may devour, while Bertie's friend Bingo Little falls in love with seven different girls in succession (including the bestselling romantic novelist Rosie M. Banks). And Bertie, with Jeeves's help, hopes to evade the clutches of the terrifying Honoria Glossop... At its heart is one of Wodehouse's most delicious stories, 'The Great Sermon Handicap.'

 

At last, I have met Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves. They are an amusing pair. Wodehouse’s writing is a pleasure to read, although I don’t think I’m up to plunging into the next book right away. For me, it will be most effective in smaller doses.

I have to wonder if this was where the Monty Python group got their first ideas for the Upper Class Twit of the Year sketches? The dim-witted Bertie and the lovelorn Bingo would be helpless without the well-informed Jeeves, who sorts out their various problems.

I loved Bertie’s penchant for purple socks and red cummerbunds, not to mention Eton spats! All of which Jeeves manages to dispense with to return Bertie to his bland, proper best. I also enjoyed Aunt Agatha’s determined meddling and Bertie’s reluctant involvement in the family battles.

My enjoyment of Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series inspired me to give Wodehouse a try—the two authors were contemporaries, and I suspected that the relationship between Lord Peter and his butler Bunter might be a nod to Wooster & Jeeves. Lord Peter may have started out a bit more like Bertie in the first book, but he quickly became a sleuth to be reckoned with; however the relationship between Lord and butler has definite similarities, confirming my hypothesis.

I’m delighted to have made their acquaintance and shall continue on with their adventures in the near future!

I went to the bookstore after work yesterday!

Tricks for Free - Seanan McGuire The Lost Plot - Genevieve Cogman Rivers of London Volume 4: Detective Stories - Ben Aaronovitch, Lee Sullivan
— feeling big smile

This is my haul--I kept it small, because, you know, budgets.  I could happily have snagged a couple of cookbooks too, but I made myself put them back.