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review 2017-08-17 18:03
Plague / C.C. Humphreys
Plague - C.C. Humphreys

London, 1665. A serial killer stalks his prey, scalpel in his hand and God's vengeance in his heart. Five years after his restoration to the throne, Charles II leads his citizens by example, enjoying every excess. Londoners have slipped the shackles of puritanism and now flock to the cockpits, brothels and, especially, the theatres, where for the first time women are allowed to perform alongside the men. But not everyone is swept up in the excitement. Some see this liberated age as the new Babylon, and murder victims pile up in the streets, making no distinction in class between a royalist member of parliament and a Cheapside whore. But they have a few things in common: the victims are found with gemstones in their mouths. And they have not just been murdered; they've been . . . sacrificed.  Now the plague is returning to the city with full force, attacking indiscriminately . . . and murder has found a new friend.

 

Chris Humphreys is an inspired historical fiction author. I met him last weekend at a literary conference and he is smart, funny, and charming as the devil. He definitely benefits from his acting background, particularly his ease with performing Shakespeare (we got an excerpt from one of the Henry plays during his key-note address). During one of his panel discussions, he mentioned that as an author, one must choose how the dialog will be written—choose your form of “bygone-ese” as he called it. Humphrey’s ease with the English of Shakespeare and his playwright’s ear for what will sound good gives his fiction a feeling of reality, using just enough older vocabulary and never becoming too 21st century.

There is, of course, theatre involved in the novel—a subject that the author is knowledgeable and comfortable with. But the variety of characters, from highwayman to serial killer to royalty, gives the story a breadth that I appreciated. As a reader, you are not limited to merely the theatre of 1665, you experience many parts of London. In fact London itself could be counted as a character.

I will be working my way, gradually, through all of Chris Humphreys works and will definitely look forward to more. Highly recommended.

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review 2017-07-31 19:39
The Lost Ones / Sheena Kamal
The Lost Ones - Sheena Kamal

It's late. The phone rings.

The man on the other end says his daughter is missing.

Your daughter.

The baby you gave away over fifteen years ago.

What do you do?


Nora Watts isn't sure that she wants to get involved. Troubled, messed up, and with more than enough problems of her own, Nora doesn't want to revisit the past. But then she sees the photograph. A girl, a teenager, with her eyes. How can she turn her back on her?

But going in search of her daughter brings Nora into contact with a past that she would rather forget, a past that she has worked hard to put behind her, but which is always there, waiting for her . . .

 

I’m not sure how this book even got on my TBR list—but it came in at the public library for me last week, so I must have seen something along the way that prompted me to put a hold on it. I’ve obviously had it on hold for some time and now that it’s published, voila!

A woman with a past. Alcoholism. Sexual assault. A baby given up for adoption. Homelessness. Indigenous heritage, making her invisible to the justice system unless it is making life more difficult for her.

And yet she has talents and has carved out a very small place in the world for herself. One phone call shatters all of that progress and plunges Nora Watts back into the world with a vengeance.


I would definitely read another book about Nora. I hope Ms. Kamal finds another story that Nora could tell.

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review 2017-05-10 17:56
A Beautiful Truth / Colin McAdam
A Beautiful Truth - Colin McAdam

Told simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, set in a Vermont home and a Florida primate research facility, A Beautiful Truth at times brutal, at others deeply moving is about the simple truths that transcend species, the meaning of family, the lure of belonging, and the capacity for survival.

A powerful and haunting meditation on human nature told from the dual perspectives of a Vermont family that has adopted a chimp as a surrogate son, and a group of chimpanzees in a Florida research institute.

Looee, a chimp raised by a well-meaning and compassionate human couple who cannot conceive a baby of their own, is forever set apart.  He’s not human, but with his peculiar upbringing he is no longer like other chimps.  One tragic night Looee’s two natures collide and their unique family is forever changed.

At the Girdish Institute in Florida, a group of chimpanzees has been studied for decades.  The work at Girdish has proven that chimps have memories and solve problems, that they can learn language and need friends, and that they build complex cultures. They are political, altruistic, get angry, and forgive. When Looee is moved to the Institute, he is forced to try to find a place in their world.

 

I have always maintained that the best way to understand office politics is to spend some time studying chimpanzees or other apes. You will see all of the same drives and personalities, but you will see them without the veneer of civilization. Wherever you get 3 people or 3 chimps in one place, you will have politics.

This book reminded me of human hubris—the belief that we are somehow separate and different from the rest of the animal kingdom, that we are superior to other apes.

In a strange way, this book made me think of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild or White Fang. All the ways in which wild animals can or can’t be tamed and how tame animals (including humans) can become wild. It is a cautionary tale about keeping wild animals in private homes, but it is about trust—trusting those animals, trusting our friends, trusting our spouses. It is about the dangers of assigning human motivations to other species and the peril of deliberately ignoring the drives that we obviously share. Also the risk of assuming that our friends and acquaintances think about things the same way that we do. Who is worthy of our trust and why do we trust them?

ABT is also an interesting meditation on the study of our nearest kin, the chimpanzee. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, while trying to understand the evolution of speech among humans, people started to raise chimpanzee babies in their homes, hoping to encourage speech in the apes. Chimps like Gua (the experiment was terminated when her human “sibling” began to get much more chimpanzee-like than she got human-like) and Vicki (who eventually produced 4 very simple words with extreme effort). Then came Washoe, who was exposed to American Sign Language, with limited success (as were Nim Chimpsky and Koko the Gorilla), the reasoning being that apes might be unable to speak, but might still be able to grasp language. ASL should be easier for them as it uses hand gestures rather than vocal apparatus. They do seem to be able to acquire vocabulary, but show much less grasp of grammar or the significance of word order. Unsurprisingly, they possess the first stirrings towards spoken language, but humans are the only ape species to have developed it significantly. I would be more surprised if no other primates showed any aptitude for vocal communication.

Some aspects of the Girdish Institute in the book are likely based on the Yerkes Institute in real life. The Yerkes Institute developed a keyboard of lexigrams (as alluded to in ABT) which became known as Yerkish. There has been a certain amount of success using this method, including one super-star bonobo, Kanzi (born at Yerkes, but moved to the Language Research Centre at Georgia State). He communicates via keyboard and has picked up a bit of ASL as well.

All of the apes mentioned above learned to understand some human-spoken language and to respond appropriately to it (when they were in the mood). Part of the problem with these experiments is that they do not interest the apes as much as they do the humans. Interestingly, dogs seem to naturally understand human hand gestures, like pointing, more easily than chimps do. Dogs look where the hand is pointing, while apes look at the hand. Our thousands of years co-evolving with canines is showing through.

I’m impressed by how many details of human-chimp history are represented in this fictional account. I recognized many of them from non-fiction books that I’ve read over the years. If you are interested in more details on chimpanzees (and bonobos), I would recommend Frans de Waal’s excellent book Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. I also highly recommend de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

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review 2017-04-25 18:09
AB Negative
AB Negative - Kevin P Thornton,Robert Bose,Shona Jayne Barnard,R. Overwater,Al Onia,S.G. Wong,Brent Nichols,Axel Howerton,Axel Howerton,Susan Calder,Therese Greenwood,Randy McCharles,Sharon Wildwind,Dwayne E. Clayden,Janice Macdonald

A solid little collection of short stories in the mystery and noir genres.  I have the pleasure of being familiar with several of the authors because of a writers & readers conference that I attend here in Calgary each August. 

 

With short stories, I often find myself wishing that they were longer and more detailed—several of these stories would, in my opinion, have been better suited to novel-length works, or at least novellas.  As with most short story collections, some appealed to me more than others.

 

It was refreshing to read stories set in my home province and, in some cases, in my own city.  I also give kudos for the very clever title of the volume (AB is the abbreviation for Alberta, dovetailing nicely with the blood group).

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review 2017-03-06 20:13
The Conjoined / Jen Sookfong Lee
The Conjoined: A Novel - Jen Sookfong Lee

How well do we know our parents? Social worker Jessica Campbell thought, like the rest of us, that she knew her mother pretty well. Then, as she and her father clean out the family home after her mother’s death, they find a body in the bottom of a chest freezer. They call the police, who find a second body in another freezer. Leaving Jessica to wonder what is going on?

This is very readable and things are revealed by various players in the story it progresses. But it is more about the interactions between people, the hidden secrets in everyone’s lives, and the need to live your own life in your own way than it is about the who-dunnit.

If you require a clean ending with all the bits tied up in a neat knot, this may not be a good book for you. If you can enjoy the humanness of the characters in and of themselves, you will find it a better fit.

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