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Search tags: 2018-book-riot-read-harder-challenge
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review 2018-06-05 20:00
The Hunchback Assignments / Arthur Slade
The Hunchback Assignments - Arthur Slade

The mysterious Mr. Socrates rescues Modo, a child in a traveling freak show. Modo is a hunchback with an amazing ability to transform his appearance, and Mr. Socrates raises him in isolation as an agent for the Permanent Association, a spy agency behind Brittania's efforts to rule the empire. At 14, Modo is left on the streets of London to fend for himself. When he encounters Octavia Milkweed, another Association agent, the two uncover a plot by the Clockword Guild behind the murders of important men. Furthermore, a mad scientist is turning orphan children into automatons to further the goals of the Guild. Modo and Octavia journey deep into the tunnels under London and discover a terrifying plot against the British government. It's up to them to save their country.

 

Although others have classified this book as young adult, I would consider it to be for a younger audience than that. I would recommend it for tweens and young teens. I’m rating it three stars, but that’s for the reading experience from my current vantage point as an adult. I think that if I’d read it at the right age, I would definitely have rated it at four stars.

The story is an interesting mix of steampunk elements and allusions to classic literature. The main character, Modo (the hunchback of the title) harks back to Quasimodo of Victor Hugo and Modo’s partner in crime, Octavia Milkweed, reminds me obliquely of La Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Like Quasimodo & Esmeralda, Modo becomes enamoured with Octavia. Unlike Quasimodo, Modo has a paranormal ability to change his appearance for limited amounts of time. Because of his crush on Octavia, he spends quite a bit of time & effort to avoid being seen by her in his natural state—this is obviously a state of affairs that will progress in future volumes.

The story’s villain, Dr. Hyde, has some roots in Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, without the virtuous Jekyl state. He performs many horrible experiments on both adults and children, but nothing vivid enough to leave younger readers with nightmares, unless they are ultra-sensitive. The bolts that he inserts in his experimental subjects reminded me strongly of the popular-culture version of Frankenstein’s monster.

Unlike so many of these alternate history Victorian stories, this one seems to be aimed more at boys than at girls, although I think any girl of the right age would definitely identify with Octavia. But with Modo as the narrator of the tale, the appeal to boys is greater. Since I think that reading for young men is a neglected demographic, I am glad to know about this fun, engaging series.

The author, Arthur Slade, will be attending the When Words Collide conference this August (2018) and I am glad that I read one of his books before hearing him speak there.

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review 2018-05-22 18:48
Forensics / Val McDermid
Forensics: An Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

The dead talk—to the right listener. They can tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died, and, of course, who killed them. Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help serve justice using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene, or the faintest of human traces. Forensics draws on interviews with some of these top-level professionals, ground-breaking research, and McDermid’s own original interviews and firsthand experience on scene with top forensic scientists.

Along the way, McDermid discovers how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine one’s time of death; how a DNA trace a millionth the size of a grain of salt can be used to convict a killer; and how a team of young Argentine scientists led by a maverick American anthropologist were able to uncover the victims of a genocide. It’s a journey that will take McDermid to war zones, fire scenes, and autopsy suites, and bring her into contact with both extraordinary bravery and wickedness, as she traces the history of forensics from its earliest beginnings to the cutting-edge science of the modern day.

 

I cancelled my cable TV years ago because I was making myself paranoid, watching way too many true crime stories. Plus, I had an unhealthy addiction to the show “Criminal Minds.” I’m pleased to report that I’m a much calmer person now that I’m not being inundated with this sort of entertainment. However, that former obsession with crime shows means that most of what McDermid writes in this non-fiction volume was not new to me, hence only a three star rating. If you are new to the world of forensic investigation, I think this would an excellent introduction.

McDermid has obviously had to research this field to make her mystery novels ring true. And what better way to make that research pay off again but to write a non-fiction book about the subject! It was good to get a British POV on these matters. Here in Canada, we tend to be bombarded with American material, both in books and television, so many of the case studies were new to me.

The author goes into just enough detail to make things comprehensible, without overloading the reader. The explanations are clear and easy to understand. I think it would make a good reference for jurors who are responsible for making decisions based on these methods.

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review 2018-05-07 19:42
The Poisonwood Bible / Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it -- from garden seeds to Scripture -- is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

 

 

“Oh, mercy. If it catches you in the wrong frame of mind, the King James Bible can make you want to drink poison in no uncertain terms.”

A well written book with an engaging exploration of hubris. The hubris of colonial powers who think they are superior to their colonies. The hubris of men who think they are superior to women. And the hubris of religious men who think their religion is superior to all others.

In many ways, Nathan Price's attempt to grow an American garden in the Congo is representative of all those endeavours. First, he uses methods which work in Georgia and refuses all advice from local people. When his work gets washed away by the rains, he relents and uses local techniques. Then, his crops appear to flourish and grow luxurious foliage, but no fruits or seeds manifest. Eventually he realizes there are no pollinators for his pumpkins and beans, which will never amount to anything edible.

After the failure of his garden, Nathan gives up any attempt to feed and care for his wife and daughters. Instead, they must fend for themselves and face physical violence if they don't care for his needs. He remains obsessed with converting the Congolese to Christianity, while ignoring his own unChristian behaviour. Simultaneously, his Congolese neighbours display great charity, placing eggs under the Prices' chickens and depositing food in the kitchen under the cover of night. Instead of ministering to the natives, they minister to the Price family.

Nathan also refuses to study the local language to be able to express himself clearly. As a result, he is constantly saying, "Jesus is poisonwood" when he thinks he is proclaiming the greatness of Christ. He inhabits his own reality, which bears no resemblance to that of any one around him. His lack of empathy for others undercuts his message constantly. When confronted by missionaries who practice compassionate Christianity, Nathan becomes even more truculent and resistant, rather than recognizing the value of care and kindness.

The Price women are every bit as colonized as the Congo, as they are unwillingly exported from Georgia. All their dreams and desires are over-ridden by their patriarch's obsessions and goals. I found myself cheering for them as they (and the Congo) chose independence, with varying degrees of success.

Colonial powers and the patriarchy may deny the reality of their colonies and of women, but that reality nonetheless exists. As Rachel Price says, "The way I see Africa, you don't have to like it but you sure have to admit it's out there."

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review 2018-03-26 17:16
Midwinter Sacrifice / Mons Kallentoft
Midwinter Sacrifice - Mons Kallentoft

The snow covered all the tracks, as the killer knew it would. But it couldn't hide the victim, the man who now hung naked from a lonely tree on a frozen plain.

Malin Fors is first on the scene. A thirty-one-year-old single mother, Malin is the most talented and ambitious detective on the Linkoping police force, but also the most unpredictable. She must lead the investigation while keeping her fractured life on the rails.

No one knows the identity of the dead man. Or perhaps no one ever wanted to know. When all the voices of the investigation have fallen silent, Malin can rely only on herself and her own instincts. And as she follows in the frigid wake of the killer, Malin begins to discover just how far the people in this small town are willing to go to keep their secrets buried.

 

Probably actually a 3.5 star book for me. It’s getting much harder to fool me, now that I’ve read a fair number of Nordic mysteries and I really treasure the books that do manage to pull the wool over my eyes. Midwinter Sacrifice managed to keep me guessing until the last chapters, when it just kind of stuttered to the end.

I liked Malin Fors, the female detective main character. I could appreciate her ambition and determination to solve a case. There was a little too much emphasis on her “feminine intuition” for me, since I think both men & women use their intuition and that police officers especially rely on it, no matter which gender they are.

I also like Malin’s daughter, Tove. Unlike so many detectives in mystery fiction, Malin lives with her daughter and tries to be a decent mother. Malin’s struggles to decide what is reasonable as a parent makes her very real to me.

Although I probably won’t hurry on to the next book, I can certainly imagine that I will get to it eventually to see what the Swedish detective investigates next.

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review 2018-03-26 16:59
Dear Fahrenheit 451 / Annie Spence
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks - Annie Spence

A Gen-X librarian's snarky, laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving collection of love letters and break-up notes to the books in her life.

Librarians spend their lives weeding--not weeds but books! Books that have reached the end of their shelf life, both literally and figuratively. They remove the books that patrons no longer check out. And they put back the books they treasure. Annie Spence, who has a decade of experience as a Midwestern librarian, does this not only at her Michigan library but also at home, for her neighbors, at cocktail parties—everywhere. In Dear Fahrenheit 451, she addresses those books directly. We read her love letters to The Goldfinch and Matilda, as well as her snarky break-ups with Fifty Shades of Grey and Dear John. Her notes to The Virgin Suicides and The Time Traveler’s Wife feel like classics, sure to strike a powerful chord with readers. Through the lens of the books in her life, Annie comments on everything from women’s psychology to gay culture to health to poverty to childhood aspirations.

 

I read this book to fill a Book Riot Reader Harder challenge (a book of essays). I can’t help but feel that I *should* have liked this book much more than I did. I suspect it’s not the author, it’s me. I’m a bit too old to appreciate the author's sense of humour fully, being on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Gen-X. Still, her essays are letters written to books found while weeding the library and that should be right up my alley.

I did like the book. Three stars is not a bad rating in my opinion. I think the author would be fun to have a drink with and discuss all the weird things that one finds in the library stacks. I’m always amazed, as a library cataloguer, what our librarians choose to add to the collection and what I find while I’m looking for something else.

I was heartened that I had read or at least heard of many of the books mentioned (and some still lurk in my TBR pile).

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