Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review: The Tea Master and the Detective

The Tea Master and the Detective The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novella is my first foray into the work of Aliette de Bodard, who I've followed a while on social media because of her love of pen and ink writing and drawing. This was a delightful entrée into her work.

The Tea Master and the Detective is the story of the traumatized brain of a mindship, The Sparrow's Child, and Long Chau, an Asian woman with a shadowy past, and their investigation into the death of a young Vietnamese woman. As the story evolves, it becomes evident that female duo and their investigation of a murder is a clever take on Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Long Chau is investigating the effects of deep spaces on corpses. The Sparrow's Child, recovering from a devastating deep space event that killed or severely injured her crew, spends her days as a tea master, brewing specialized blends of teas. Each of her blends is tailor-made for an individual. It is in her capacity as tea master that she meets Long Chau, who like Holmes, has... issues with substance use. Over the course of the novella, they each learn to truly see and trust one another, as they investigate the death of a young shipworker.

De Bodard's beautiful writing style was a delight to read. I know she has written quite a few works set in the Xuya Universe. I would love to see more of these two characters, who were intriguing.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

It's taken me a full day to gather my thoughts about The Left Hand of Darkness and that's considering that I was also trying to parse this book while listening to it all along. 

Did you ever read a book that was important and good for you to read but not love reading it? That, for me, is this book. Maybe part of it has been the place and time in which I'm reading it in my life. I've got a very ill kitty, there's political insanity in the US, I'm contemplating a big move to another state next year and worrying about family that's going to remain here in Miami. My head's all akilter and then Ursula LeGuin's perhaps best-known novel crowds my head asking me things like What is darkness? What is gender? What is sex? What is the value of custom in culture? And what would you do with a calendar in which the year is always 1? I guess I could go on questioning well into next 1 but I owe this book and my readers the review.

Genly Ai is a Terran envoy from the Ekumen, a sort of interplanetary confederation. As I noted in one of my little thought mileposts while I was reading, it is not lost on me that this book was published in the last year of Star Trek, the Original Series, which had a United Federation of Planets ("A dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars."- James T. Kirk) that sounded a bit more organized than Ekumen. (The religious implications of Ekumen versus ecumen, and spreading the gospel are a whole other topic I'm not getting into.) Admittedly, this is the fourth in the Hainish Cycle of books, though, so her Ekumen had probably been around for a while. In any case, Genly arrives on the planet Gethen, which means Winter in Gethenian, because wow is it always cold in Gethen. It appears to go from just cold (in Summer) to brutally cold (in Winter). Gethen is roughly represented by two cultures/countries- Karhide and Orgoreyn. Gethen is part of the Hainish universe, as is Terra (Earth). Genly is an envoy who seems, frankly, ill-prepared for his injection into Gethenian culture, which to say the least is very different from Terran culture. In this respect, the fact that LeGuin was an anthropologist comes shining through. Genly is an alien man in a strange land with strange people who are ambisexual and who observe a rigid set of unspoken societal rules called shifgrethor. In spite of the fact that Genly can "mindpeak," a sort of spoken telepathy, Gethenians, who should have possessed this capability because of shared heritage with Terrans, have lost this ability. Over the course of a couple of years, Genly tries to understand Karhide culture, having convinced Karhide's Prime Minister Estraven of his purpose in Karhide- that he's an alien with a ship up in the sky that has his fellow shipmates in stasis and oh, by the way, don't you want to join our beautiful Ekumen. Genly finally scores the interview with Karhide's King Agraven, only to find that as Estraven had forewarned him, Estraven, the one person who believed him, has been exiled as a traitor from Karhide. (This exile doesn't really have anything to do with Genly's cause, however). King Agraven says "no, thank you, but enjoy yourself in our country!" and Genly's two years of waiting appear to have been for naught. So off he goes to Orgoreyn and that is where the real action of the story begins. 

There are so many themes in this novel, that of light versus darkness, in personal and in cultural senses, that of changing gender and sex (literally both social and physical changes), and how unsettlingly foreign lack of a defined gender and sex can be to someone from a world with clearly defined sex and gender. There is also the role that customs represent and how easily social custom may mislead a person from a foreign culture. The latter being exactly what happens with Genly and his friendship with Estraven, which has been challenged by a number of Genly's misunderstandings or distrustfulness of aspects of Gethenian shifgrethor. (A word this is going to stick with me...) So yes, there is so much going on and at times I felt like I just did not understand where we were going, or why we were going through so much suffering to get there, basically. 

There were aspects of Gethenian culture that were intriguing, most famously, LeGuin's handling of sex and gender. The ambisexuality of kemmer and sommer states, and changing sex during kemmer according to the sex desired by the individual was fascinating but it was so sooo straight/hetero (and I'm cis/hetero, so how obvious is it that it is so obvious to me) and in a way the lack of homosexuality on Gethen was just odd to me. I realize the author may have figured that if she was going to spin everyone's (including Genly's) head with pronouns and the "now they're androgynous, now they're a guy, oh, look now they are pregnant and female," perhaps adding homosexuality to mix would have been too much. On top of that, the 2010's are definitely not the 1960's. But I felt oddly underwhelmed. Perhaps since we live in an era where transgender and non-binary gender along with intersex states are more openly talked about, we just demand more from books touching on these themes and The Left Hand of Darkness feels slightly dated in this one respect. There are still sexual taboos in Gethen, however, including kemmer vows between siblings, or taking hormones to leave you forever in a kemmer-state of explicit sex to match a desired internally perceived gender state, that play a role in this story. Of course, in a society which is mostly in Somer, the oddly and obviously male envoy Genly, who shows up saying he's an alien from another world, stands out, perhaps not in a good way to Gethenians.

Getting to know the character of Estraven, in all his complexity, was for me the best part of this book. The touching end of this story, when Genly visits Estraven's family and home and has come to better understand shifgrethor, left me wistful.

A fascinating read, but not an easy one. I'm really rather stunned that this has never been adapted for film.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

Review: Out in Blue Fields: A Year at Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm

Out in Blue Fields: A Year at Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm Out in Blue Fields: A Year at Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm by Janice Riley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first half of this lovely book comprises a year-long essay on conservation, blueberry farming, and life at Cape Cod's Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm. While I enjoyed the month by month accounting of the arduous work of farming, I was most struck by the cautionary tale provided by the estate-hold the Spear family has on Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm. Having sold their land to the city for long-term conservation purposes, while retaining life estate tenancy, the town, proper owners of the land, refused to aid the Spear's in protecting the land from unscrupulous development by neighbors who cut down a large stand of pine and oak trees, many of which were more than a hundred years old. When you see what love and labor have gone into the farm, the town's refusal to aid the Spear family is really disheartening.

The second half of this book focuses on family history, blueberry growing tips, various plants and insects found on the farm, and a host of yummy-looking recipes using blueberries.

All in all, this is a truly beautiful book. It releases Tuesday, March 27, 2018.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer

Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer by Sarah B. Pomeroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maria Sibylla Merian was a 17th Century German entomologist and artist who had profound effects on the idea of studying insects directly, or in situ, including through their metamorphoses. The daughter and stepdaughter of artists in Frankfurt, Merian took an interest in insects from an early age, studying them and breeding silkworms at as early an age as thirteen. She is considered by modern naturalist Sir David Attenborough to be one of the most important researchers in the field of entomology. Many insects and spiders have been named after her, in honor of her contribution to the field.

This book, which appears to target middle-grade students, offers many examples of Merian's exquisite drawings from nature and biographical information about her rather amazing life, which included traveling with her daughter to Dutch Suriname in the late 1700's in order to study New World insects and spiders. This looks to be a good platform for encouraging interest in budding entomologists, as it touches on the actual scientific exploration process that Merian, unlike many in her day, espoused. (Some of the other artists' contrasting images offered were perhaps less than convincing, however.)

This is a slim volume at 98 pages in the review galley but appears to be a worthwhile addition to any middle grade or high school library.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Craft Sequence Buddy Read Book 3: Full Fathom Five, Review, Discussion Part 1 and a Giveaway!

Full Fathom FiveFull Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The third book in The Craft Sequence takes us to the island of Kavekana and introduces us to Kai Pohala, a female priest who creates tailor-made gods, or more accurately idols, to order. When she takes a terrible risk to (unsuccessfully) save one of her firm's creations, she encounters serious harm, as she almost dies, and a mystery. Idols aren't alive in the conventional sense and shouldn't be able to speak. So why did Seven Alpha, the idol she failed to save, utter the phrase "Howl, bound world" in its final death throes? This story ties together the first two books of the Sequence by giving us characters we know, who have traveled to Kavekana for various reasons.

From my 2017 reading:

My favorite of The Craft Sequence thus far, I loved Full Fathom Five for its four (full five, if we count Elayne) strong female characters who, though they came from differing perspectives, worked collaboratively to effectively problem solve, in addition to talking with each other about their philosophies, lives and not guys. What a concept!

There are enough summaries of this book out there that review readers probably don't need another review detailing the basic premise of the novel. What I can give you is a description of why Kai Pohala and this novel were so striking to me. Kai is one of the least angst-y transgender characters that I have had the pleasure of reading. She is happy with herself and, instead of suffering about being transgender, is working on regular things, like heartache and questions over the breakup of a long-term relationship, and worrying about justice for her community and some of her company's creations. This made me so happy, I can't tell you.

The other central female characters, Izza, Cat, Teo, and of course, Elayne Kevarian, who is like a thread woven through each of these books, each embody strengths, and, in some cases, poignant vulnerabilities. Splendid character diversity here. I'm also fascinated by Mako's backstory and wonder if we will learn more of him.

The world building in The Craft Sequence has gained further depth in this story set in Kavekana. Of all the things I've read thus far in the Craft world, the Penitents are some of the most harrowing forms of magic Max Gladstone has created. The imagination on display, as we tour the various parts of the Craft world- from Alt Coulomb to Dresediel Lex to Kavekana- is truly amazing.

Looking forward to moving forward in the Craft World! Though, most of all, I look ahead to Ruin of Angels, which publishes in September, with more Kai and hopefully Izza!

From my 2018 reading:

This book remains my favorite in the series (I still haven't read Ruin of Angels. I'm saving it!). I love the female character diversity in this book. Each of these characters is drawn with such detail, and complexity of motivation. They are such strong women. I adore Kai and hopefully, this is the book that convinces readers that Elayne Kevarian is a relatively benevolent truthseeker.

The threefold balance between gods, deathless kings and idols is an interesting construct. The backstory that gets us to this point, told in the two subsequent books, is bound to be an interesting exploration for the reader.

Before we get to our discussion, I wish I could again ask Why are there no audiobooks for this full series? A recent Pew Research poll estimated that almost 1 in 5 books are now read as audiobooks. You can see a further discussion of the growing significance of audiobooks here.

And so, let's get to our discussion of Full Fathom Five!

a relevant image Golden Lasso)

Alex, Jenni and Marzie's Buddy Read Discussion of Full Fathom Five

Marzie: So Jenni, I hope you’re now probably feeling more at home in the Craft Sequence world. What were your first thoughts about this book?

Jenni: I feel like there’s an incredibly complex structure to this world, and that I’m not quite seeing the whole. It’s both intriguing and frustrating.

Alex:I totally get that. I really love this book. It’s the first time where I feel like books 1 and 2 intersect. 

Jenni: I’m not sure I follow. I see the intersection between books 2 and 3, and was glad to see it, but book one? That takes place so much later, doesn’t it?

Alex: Three Parts Dead takes place after Two Serpents Rise, but before Full Fathom Five. Seril and Kos are whole and together again when Full Fathom Five takes place.

Jenni: Ah, yes, of course, they are. I’m not sure how I got it into my head that Three Parts Dead takes place a VERY long time after Two Serpents Rise.

Alex: The chronology of the series is something I struggle with. I had to pause for a moment when Teo mentions that Two Serpents Group was "founded four years ago” 

Jenni: I admit, I wasn’t looking for such a direct connection between the stories, since there hadn’t been one between books 1 & 2, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to connect Teo and Cat with who they actually were. (I’m bad with names.)

Alex: I had a similar experience the first time I read them. It took me a while to figure out that Cat’s silvery suit was Justice. 

Jenni: It took me absurdly long to realize that Cat the fugitive was the same person, even, let alone that her silvery suit was Justice. Oh, well. She made a lot more sense after I got my brain wrapped around that.

Marzie: I talked to someone the other day who didn't connect the dots until their second reading, too!

Alex: It continues in later books. Characters keep popping up.

Marzie: I think the changing timelines between the three books makes it more challenging to the reader. With the fourth book in the series we take a big step back, to the Skittersill Uprising. You'll see more of Temoc and the King in Red. Then in the fifth book we step forward to just before the events of Full Fathom Five and reconnect with Tara Abernathy.

Jenni: I’m going to need a spreadsheet...

Alex: Hehehe. Yeah, that might help.

Marzie: Back to Full Fathom Five, someone needs to tell me when they have read a book, written by a man, with five strong female central and secondary characters like this. Even on the second readthrough, I marvel at it. They are all so diverse, each has her own complex motivations for good and they feel very real. I feel like I know them.

Alex: It really is something spectacular. Max has built such a rich internal landscape for all of these women. I particularly appreciate how he handles Kai and her trans status. It’s one of the things that made me put the book down the first time and stare in wonder into space for a few minutes. 

Marzie: I also loved it that we can have a transgender character who is angsting over something other than her gender situation. Kai is happy with herself, her body. Her doubts about herself are the same anyone could have- Why did I like that guy? Am I doing the right thing with work? So refreshing.

Alex:Yes! I loved that. Her transition comes up here and there, but it’s never the focus of the story. It’s visible, and can’t be ignored. Max beautifully walks the line between making the story about her transition, and making it so much of a non-issue that it’s narratively ignored. 

Jenni: I was so incredibly happy for Kai, that her transition could be so easy and complete, and at the same time, so unremarkable. She submerged herself in the pool, and remade her body so that it matched who she was inside. And that was that.

Alex: It’s pretty magical, pardon my pun, that she could just be herself inside and out like that.

Marzie: I loved that Elayne doesn't even bat an eyelash at Kai's explanation. 

Jenni: The way that her transition was handled so matter-of-factly, neither ignored nor dominating the plot, was perfect. I can’t think of a better way to treat the subject in fiction, I really can’t. I’ve read stories that handled people’s transitions, and they weren’t nearly as deft, despite wanting to normalize the subject matter. It still felt like a bit of a sore thumb.

Alex: I agree. I can’t think of another piece of fiction I’ve read that handled the subject so well. (Readers, if you have suggestions for other books that have well written trans characters, feel free to suggest them in the comments!)

Marzie: So you know I love Elayne. She is so complex and yet in this book, in the nightmare with Kai, she truly tries to help Kai. Yes, it’s in service of her actual client, but she does right by Kai, too. 

Alex: Elayne is a spider. She looks terrifying on the outside, but ultimately she’s working for the good of the universe. She just manages to make the system work for her, as much as she’s working for it.

Jenni: I think it’s more that she’s finally attained a position of power so great that she can finally heed her inclinations to serve the greater good. She’s gotten to the point where she has a great deal of latitude in how she represents her clients, and can afford to only take cases that allow her to pursue her personal agenda of righting wrongs.

Alex: I think that’s a great take on the situation, and I agree. 

Jenni: To go back to Marzie’s point about how Elayne tries to help Kai in the nightmare - I think that’s an example of Elayne’s extremely sharpsighted ability to judge people. She intuited that Kai was not her opponent, not involved in whatever shady shenanigans was going on, and she recognized that Kai could be a valuable ally in uncovering the rot Elayne was trying to clean up.

Marzie: She treated Kai quite kindly. Elayne has a lot of perspicacity. I'm not sure I really think of her as a spider, though. Although, I'm not afraid of spiders, so...

Check out Part 2 of our discussion, where we get into Hawai'i, Mordor, and recognizing gods over on Alex's blog, and don't forget to enter our giveaway of the Kindle Bundle of The Craft Sequence!

~ ~ ~

Hankering for your own copies of The Craft Sequence? Here's your chance. Please note that this giveaway is for the US Kindle store.


Friday, March 23, 2018

Review: Aru Shah and the End of Time

Aru Shah and the End of Time Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This sassy, happy, and interesting adventure follows Arundhati Shah, her soul sister Yasmini, and a sidekick named Boo (short for Subala) as they try to save the world and restart time. (I guess I should mention that Aru is responsible for stopping time, although she didn't really know that would happen as she was just showing off, and I'm pretty sure she won't do it again. But she'll probably do something similar, in all honesty. Aru is just... naughty. But she's nice, really she is.)

For those who are unfamiliar with Indian mythohistory, the Pandava Quartet draws on characters and stories from Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana, the two great Indian epics. Aru and Mini have Pandava heritage and are upending that whole idea that you have to be male to be a hero. If you've enjoyed Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, stepping into the colorful, bold world of Indian stories is a real treat. The wit and humor in this middle-grade book are enough to keep most adults enjoying it. I can imagine the audiobook of this story, which releases on March 27, is going to be a great treat.

I received a Digital Review Copy from Net Galley and a paper review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: The Zanna Function

The Zanna Function The Zanna Function by Daniel Wheatley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Zanna Function is an interesting melding of science and fantasy set in a magical school. Zanna Mayfield, who lives with her grandfather, Pops, is caught off guard by an invitation to attend St. Pommeroy's School for Gifted Children. Without wanting to spoil some of the fun for the reader, after a rough start, Zanna begins her study of mathematics, chemistry, physics and self functions. These areas of study represent the modern version of the four historic subjects at St. Pommeroy, inscribed in stone at the entrance: Mathema, Al-kimia, Physis, and Episteme. The subjects are studied according to the idea of functions- both functionality and mathematic functions describing that functionality. Over the course of the first year, students hone their interests and decide upon a field of study. (Sort of like deciding to read physics at university, except these are high school kids.)

From Od Magic to Harry Potter to Miss Peregrine, there are certainly plenty of magical schools in fantasy out there, especially for middle-grade readers. Wheatley has managed to create a unique world and the depth of my love for a book with many female characters studying and excelling in STEM field cannot be overestimated!

Although I often felt like the main characters of the story seemed younger than high school age children, the book still works well as a whole. I'm still not sure whether this was intended as a standalone (there is a good ending point here, that leaves room for sequels) or the start of a series. As a standalone, this is a book likely to entertain middle-grade students, especially girls who are looking for a sort of female version of Harry Potter who gets to be just as bright as Hermione.

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Review: Fell Beasts and Fair: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology

Fell Beasts and Fair: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology Fell Beasts and Fair: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology by C.J. Brightley
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

This is an anthology of stories centering on creatures of magic and folklore who are animals, or shifters. Although I found the selection to be rather uneven some are rich with humor, like W. R. Gingell's "Cloudy with a Chance of Dropbears." "Blanche, Bear-Wife" by Alena Sullivan reminded me of the rich Estonian lore of talking bears wooing young women. Beth Powers' "Inheritance of Nightmares" was dipped into some light horror. There are several stories with dragons to enjoy. Tam, her friend Marge and a fateful encounter with a herd of rowdy unicorns was a surprising story. April Steenburgh's "Like Sand in Your Teeth," gives us a poignant selkie tale of a young woman named Coira. (Selkie tales are always poignant, it seems!). My favorite of the collection is Francesca Forrest's "The Gallows Maiden" a story evocative of the complexities of raven-maid folklore.

All in all this is a pleasant collection of stories, at a great price on the Kindle edition.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review: Wildwood

Wildwood Wildwood by Elinor Florence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wildwood, Elinor Florence's second novel, tells the tale of Molly Bannister, a single mother in a serious bind after losing her job. Molly is unexpectedly the recipient of a bequest of her Great Aunt Mary Margaret's farm in a remote area of Alberta, near the town of Juniper. The only catch is that in order to have the land titled in her name, she must live on the property for a full calendar year. With her young daughter Briget tow, Molly pulls up stakes in Arizona and moves to Wildwood. The story of her year is intertwined with the journal of her Great Aunt, Mary Margaret Bannister Lee, recounting her first year of married life living with her husband George Albert Lee. Mary Margaret, born in County Cork, Ireland, had been visiting with friends when she met George at a dance in Juniper and they married. The hard life of homesteading in northern Alberta in the 1920's is recounted and heartens Molly's stay through a number of harrowing events. She and Bridget survive the harsh winter as they struggle with food security, survive being stranded in a snowstorm, and even a terrifying encounter with a grizzly and her cub.

Florence, who hails from Saskatchewan, has a clear love of the remote Canadian wilderness and that shines through. Her character depictions, while perhaps not as polished as those in Kristin Hannah's recently released The Great Alone, a book to which American reviewers are likely to compare Wildwood, they are engaging. The story itself, including a subplot with a romance, was a bit predictable, I still enjoyed the book because of the interplay between Mary Margaret's life and her namesake Molly's. I was initially taken aback by Florence's depiction of a somewhat illiterate Cree youth who lives near Wildwood, but in the end, the character is drawn as so smart in all the ways Molly isn't. An interesting read!

I received a Digital Review Copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Winter Tide

Winter Tide Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruthanna Emrys has achieved something commendable in this novel- she has both redeemed and fully claimed the Lovecraft legacy. I've never been a Lovecraft fan, in part because I'm not much for horror fiction, but also Lovecraft's work has overt racist themes and his anti-science writing is clearly going to leave a reader like me cold. Emrys has seized his world of Innsmouth and made it her own. She has redeemed it and has rather brilliantly intertwined the mass internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II with the internment of the Deep Ones' human-formed young. Who are the monsters in Emrys' world? They are the protagonists of this tale. As the central character Aprha Marsh's adoptive Japanese sister Neko says, "We're all monsters here." Emrys' has managed to subvert the worst aspects of Lovecraft's work while spinning his cosmic horror into a wonderful story. As I read this book to finalize my nominations for the Hugo Awards, I kept asking myself why I hadn't read it sooner! I'm looking forward to the forthcoming sequel, Deep Roots.

Winter Tide builds upon a previous novelette about Aphra, titled "The Litany of Earth" and it is easiest for the reader to enter the Innsmouth Legacy series with that story.

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters

The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters by Darryl Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Birds at My Table is not a facile book. It isn't filled with pretty pictures or simple ideas about feeding the birds. It asks hard questions about how, what, and when to feed birds, and even questions whether we should be feeding the birds at all. As Jones points out, feeding birds is probably the most common encounter that people have with wildlife. But how can we be sure that our feeding the birds actually benefits the birds? Are we feeding foods that are truly nutritious? Do our feeding stations spread diseases more rapidly? Does our feeding of birds foster overpopulation of some bird species? Does feeding disrupt migration, leading some birds to stay with an easy food supply only to have them perish due to extreme weather? Do our peanuts actually poison the birds we love with aflatoxins? This book answers some of the very real and very tough questions about our interactions with birds. As someone who used to cringe at watching my mother feed birds cake doughnuts (yes, not kidding, she fed them doughnuts) every day, this book is a timely discussion for anyone who is truly interested in benefitting the birds you want to enjoy.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them

Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them by Paige Embry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My fascination with bees dates back to my childhood. My mother's family were gardeners and my mother lavished special garden-love on pollinators. Thus, I was lucky to have seen a variety of bees that were not the common honeybee from an early age. My favorites were the leafcutter bees, neatly excising circles from rose leaves, flying away laden with their prizes. I could spend hours watching bees zoom around our garden, getting steadily more loaded with pollen. I remember declaring at age eleven that I wanted to have my own beehive (scoffed at by my father due to my bee sting allergy issues) but it wasn't until much later that I realized most of my favorite bees were actually solitary ones. I was lucky to have seen a variety of native bees that were not the common honeybee. But sadly in recent years they've been harder to find.

In the past decade we've also seen conflicting reasons given for the sudden disappearance or die-off of millions of honeybees that we need to pollinate our country's food crops. Actual causality (pesticides, viruses, parasites, cell phones, global warming) has been confusing, contradictory and has often been minimized. What has become clear is that honeybees cannot be the sole pollinator we rely on. Indeed, before the era of industrial farming, plants like apples, pears, blueberries and potatoes, relied on solitary bees and bumblebees as common pollinators. You've likely seen bumblebees but may wonder about solitary bees? Unlike eusocial honeybees (which produce honey and beeswax for their hives) and bumblebees which live in large hive colonies with well-organized jobs, solitary bees form solitary smaller communities. They are some of the bees you are used to seeing in your garden if you have pollen-producing plants. They are part of the class of native bees and a good guidebook on bees (I like the 2015 edition of The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America's Bees by Wilson and Carril) will help you start to learn to distinguish them. This book will help you sustain your native bee population and it's a wonderful resource for the bee lover.

Native bees, which include everything from mason or orchard bees to leafcutter bees (which have provided me with my most vivid childhood memories of gardening) to the bunchy and buzzy bumblebee, can provide vital relief for the stressed honeybee population. But only if we feed them, manage our gardens in a way that supports them, and provide them with the shelter they need. Am I telling you this book is all about how to have more bees in your garden? You bet! One of the best things about native bees is that unlike the honeybee population they are seldom if ever aggressive. They even include a class called stingless bees! These are bees that you want to promote in your garden but you definitely have to know how to do so. It's more than just planting bee balm, borage, and sunflowers!

This book describes how gardening and mechanized farming practices have changed over the past century, and where this has harmed or stressed the native bee population. This isn't just a story about large-scale farming being a bad thing. It can be as simple an issue as how you handle things in your own backyard. For instance, I have wild blueberry bushes growing at my home in New Hampshire. Every other year these bushes were getting pruned or even mowed to the ground, to foster the new growth required to produce new berries. However, it turns out that the older practice of burning back the bushes in small patches fostered better conditions for the wild bees that pollinate the blueberries. Pollen from genetically diverse blueberry plants is a requirement for production of fruit and we've been seeing less and less fruit in recent years in my yard. It turns out that many of the blueberry pollinators are tiny bees that have no internal temperature regulation. The blackened earth from burning back absorbs more radiant heat on cooler days and is helpful for the tiny blueberry bees. While bees like the scorched earth they won't travel far from, however. So burning a wide swath all at once removes what the bees need to survive in your blueberry patch- a nearby plant and some dark, warm earth. Our Native Bees is filled throughout with such details. It will help your fruit and vegetable production and help your bee population. I strongly recommend this book for anyone who gardens for vegetables, fruits or even flowers.

If you're looking for some added bee joy, be sure to check out the amazing work of artist Christine Farmer, who I've followed since 2011.

Leafcutter bee by Christine Farmer

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, but I bought this book the minute it released.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: The Price Guide to the Occult

The Price Guide to the Occult The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Have you ever read a book that was competently written but just didn't grab you? A book that, in spite of the author's previous success (which you haven't yet read), leaves you feeling sort of lukewarm? That to me was The Price Guide to the Occult.  I didn't hate it but I didn't love it, either. Coming on the heels of so many great books I've been fortunate to read this year, this one may have suffered a bit in comparison.

Here we have Nor, a teenager possessed of magic that I actually find interesting (the ability to hear and understand animals) but which pales in comparison to her fairly awful mother Fern's magic (also, think "pales" because her mother's is dark stuff). You will notice the red-tipped ferns on the books cover. There's a message there. Nor's magical lineage dates back to her ancestor, the giantess Rona Blackburn, who moved to Anathema Island, in the mid-1800s. The Blackburns seem to have been descended from a line of nomadic magic wielders who traveled as far north as Scandinavia and as far south as Africa, as far east as India and west as Spain. The Blackburns moved to the forward-thinking United States, (where they merely hanged or drowned witches instead of burning them?) and eventually Rona moved to Anathema Island, off the coast of Washington state. Rona had some rough times with the locals, got pregnant, and used her own and her baby's blood to cast a curse on the Islanders that kind of backfired. Blackburn women have been dealing with it ever since. Nor hasn't expected it to bother her much, though. She doesn't have a lot of power and has no romantic life to speak of. Mommy Dearest, however... well. therein lies our tale. Fern authors a book about casting spells, but the spells come at a terrible price. How will Nor stop her mother?

I received a paper Advance Review Copy of this book.

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Friday, March 9, 2018

Review: Everything Here Is Beautiful

Everything Here Is Beautiful Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started reading this book in late December and found it hard because it begins with two sisters, Miranda and Lucia, losing their mother. (My own mom died in late 2016 and there is always unresolved stuff, and those stories of family that you turn over in your memory and want more of...) I set the book aside for a time and ultimately listened to the audiobook in small doses.

Having been raised in the United States after their mother emigrated following the death of their father, Miranda and Lucia are, as their mother often chides them, quite American in their perspectives about life and happiness. Very close as children, their different dispositions and interests find them growing apart in myriad ways as they become adults. Miranda, ever straining to be emotionally contained and responsible, struggles to help her effervescent, changeable and unstable younger sister Lucia in the decade following their mother's death. Lucia's descent into an illness that often steals the sister that Miranda loves is but one of the stories in a powerful novel.

Alternating between the sisters' voices and that of Lucia's significant others, Yonah and Manny, along with flashbacks of stories their mother told them, Everything Here is Beautiful paints a poignant picture of sisterhood, love, life, marriage, parenthood, heartbreak, and mental illness. Giving us cultural overtones as disparate as Chinese, Israeli, Ecuadorian, and Swiss, Lee ultimately looks at the universality of love and loss, of hope and despair, of the frustrations of the mentally ill and those who love them. Lucia's descent into her psychotic breaks is rendered with searing insights into the fears and resentments of the mentally ill. Miranda's struggles, both with the inadequacy of the mental health system in the US and the complete lack of a system in Ecuador are painful to read, as well.

A powerful and quite memorable novel.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Review: The Wicked Deep

The Wicked Deep The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
My rating:  4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars but listing as 5 because of a bump for a polished debut.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading Zoe Gilbert's fabulous debut, Folk about the magic in a small insular community on an isolated island. Shea Ernshaw's Wicked Deep is similarly luminous in its story of a community steeped in history, magic, superstition, fear, and sadly, revenge.

Sparrow is a tiny town (population under 2500) on the Oregon coast. Every year they have a flood of tourists between the first of June and the summer solstice, a period the town calls Swan Season, commemorating the deaths of the three Swan sisters, Marguerite, Aurora, and Hazel in the 1820's. The sisters were murdered after a suspicious group of townsfolk decided that these beautiful girls who arrived in their town to set up a perfumery business were witches. They shamelessly lured the town's menfolk, young, married or single, into adulterous relationships, Marguerite boasted of hexing people because of the absurdity of their claims. Eventually, on the summer solstice in 1823, the three sisters were bound and dragged offshore, had rocks tied to their feet and were dumped into the ocean to drown. But the water has magic, as Ernshaw reminds us in a lovely quote from Loren Eisley. Each season the girls return to Sparrow, possessing the body of a local girl and luring some of the young men in Sparrow, whether tourists or locals, to their deaths by drowning, as retribution for their murders.

We see the events of Swan Season through the eyes of Penny Talbot, a local who lives offshore on the tiny Lumiere Island, where a lighthouse lights the passage for local fisherman. Penny lives with her depressed mother and her father went missing three years back. In June. Penny dreads Swan Season but in this year she dreads it even more because of a newcomer to Sparrow, Bo, who ill fatedly shows up just at the start of Swan Season. Both Penny and Bo have their own secrets tied to Sparrow's history. The twists and turns of this story are masterfully done.

This is an impressive debut novel. It was a mesmerizing read that I couldn't put down. Ernshaw deftly manages to meld magical realism with mystery and light horror in this novel. A wonderful YA fantasy debut! I'm looking forward to reading more from Shea Ernshaw.

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Review: Design-a-Garden Book and Kit: Plan Your Dream Garden with 150 Mix-and-Match Moveable Plant Stickers You Can Layer, Arrange – and Rearrange!

Design-a-Garden Book and Kit: Plan Your Dream Garden with 150 Mix-and-Match Moveable Plant Stickers You Can Layer, Arrange – and Rearrange! Design-a-Garden Book and Kit: Plan Your Dream Garden with 150 Mix-and-Match Moveable Plant Stickers You Can Layer, Arrange – and Rearrange! by Michelle Gervais
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

This is a useful book for the gardener who knows their plants and wants to gain a better sense of garden design. I am not sure that it's best suited for a total novice, since the illustrations don't quite capture the nature of some of the plants. On the other hand, photographing plants to illustrate the author's structure and design points might have been extremely difficult. This book offers the ability to visualize designs with reusable clings and a planning board. For many garden designers, this will be useful, especially since the author is giving us a sense of the scale of the mature plants. One of the hardest aspects of planning for new garden designers is getting that sense of scale. When you buy young plants, you may incorrectly estimate final height, spoiling a design as the plants grow in. This book can potentially save the gardener that frustration. The author emphasizes the importance of defining structure with all-season plants and filling in with seasonal blooming plants for added color. All in all, a useful book!

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Monday, March 5, 2018

Review: Tricks for Free

Tricks for Free Tricks for Free by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tricks for Free is the seventh entry in the InCryptid series and one of my favorites, in spite of the novel’s lack of Aeslin mice. (Aeslin Mice fans, take heart! Included with this novel is the account of Mindy and Mork’s perilous journey back to the Price compound, following Annie’s difficult decision to send them home at the conclusion of Magic for Nothing, in a story previously only available to McGuire’s Patreon supporters.)

Over the course of the first six books we’ve gotten to know the three Price siblings and Antimony, the youngest, has in many ways become my favorite. Magic for Nothing and Tricks for Free have the feel of a bildungsroman, offering us the account of how Antimony grew up, stopped resenting her siblings, learned to graciously accept help from friends and loved ones, and learned not to hate her magic. Annie is wildly brave, deciding at the conclusion of the previous book that the best way to keep her family safe is to run, cut off all family contact, and hide from the Covenant of St. George. Now if you’re looking for a great place to hide, you know it would be natural for Seanan McGuire to think of a theme park, Disneyland fan that she is. Rather than going for the Mouse, Antimony goes to work at the fictional Lowryland, to lay low, and rooms with a former Slasher Chicks roller derby friend, Fern, a sylph, and new-found friend Megan, a medical resident who just happens to be a Pliny’s gorgon, both of whom work for Lowryland. (In Megan’s case, its hospital.) Of course you know it’s all going to go haywire. This is Annie Price we’re talking about, and where Prices tread/roll, action always follows.

With murders, cabals, explosions, parade disasters, near drownings, Aunt Mary and Aunt Rose (yes, that Rose, Rose Marshall, the girl in the diner, the girl in the green silk dress, the phantom prom date...), a jink named Cylia, and (heart-swell) a fûri named Sam, Annie is going to sort out Lowryland’s problems like any child of the Price family would be expected to. With knives.

We learn quite a bit more about the Crossroads in this book, and get a bit of a hint about the fate of Thomas Price, Annie’s missing grandfather, who bargained with the Crossroads. (I am still hoping Alice will be able to find and rescue Thomas.) We also learn how Crossroads bargains are made if you’re lucky to have Mary Dunlavy as your advocate. The subtle differences between the rules observed Mary and Rose are explored in somewhat greater depth in this book.

All in all a very satisfying entry in the InCryptid series! Bring on the recitation of the mice! Hail!

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from DAW and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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