A Rogue Librarian's Reading List

{October 29, 2014}   Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen

royal bloodPlot: Georgie is sent to a gothic, Transylvanian castle to represent to the royal family at a Romanian marriage. But soon the wedding party is trapped by snow and an important Bulgarian general falls dead at dinner. It falls to Georgie and her companions to discover if the murder is revolutionary or vampiric and to catch the killer before others suffer the same fate.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

In this volume, Bowen given us all the mystery, misunderstandings and romance that made all her previous novels so fun with an added touch of Gothic horror. Georgie arrives in Romania, her head filled with stories of vampires. Thus when she sees men climbing castle walls, mysterious men in her room and disappearing portraits colour her reaction to the murders. And of course there are murders, 2 as is typical, that may be political, passionate or mystical… although no one takes Georgie seriously when she brings up vampires.

The ways in which the recurring cast – Georgie’s mother, her best friend Belinda, Prince Siegfried and the delicious Darcy O’Mara – find themselves thrown together are starting to strain belief. But they are all endlessly entertaining, so I’m still glad to see them all (though I could do without Belinda’s endless recommendations to do away with Georgie’s virginity). Georgie’s relationship with Darcy continues to develop, slowly and Rhys continues to hint at Darcy’s secret profession. The relationship with Siegfried also develops, to Georgie’s great horror. Rhys introduces a new character in Georgie’s bumbling, incompetent cockney maid; she’s useless at her job but proves brave and loyal and looks likely to return.

The mystery was a bit less twisty than some of the others but it was another entertaining book in a series I am growing to love.

Royal Blood is book four in the Royal Spyness series. Book five is Naughty in Nice.

2014 (#59)

{October 29, 2014}   Longbourn by Jo Baker

longbournPlot: While the Bennet’s try to marry off their 5 daughters, their servants live their own life-changing dramas. Mrs. Hill fears for her future and that of the other servants should the estate be entailed away. Meanwhile Sarah is unsatisfied with her routine life as a housemaid; she seeks travel, romance and freedom. The arrival Mr Bingley – the famed single man in possession of a great fortune – brings a charming young man into her life as well. But there is also James Smith, Longbourn’s mysterious new footman with a dark past he will not discuss.

I have loved Pride and Prejudice since I first read it in my late teens and through the various television (Collin Firth <3), YouTube and comic adaptations that I’ve enjoyed over the years. There have also been many sequels and prequels of varying quality that P&P fans either devoured, to continue the experience, or avoided, for fear of ruining it. Baker takes a new-to-me perspective on the beloved novel: she writes the story of the servants of Longbourn, mentioned in passing but crucial to the functioning of the household. I love the skill with which she intertwines the servants’ tales with those of the Bennet family. To paraphrase Baker, when a meal is eaten in Pride and Prejudice, it is prepared in Longbourn. It takes a real understanding of the source material and the history to pull off what Baker has.

Baker writes her novel in a third person omniscient point of view reminiscent of Austen’s own style. She weaves through the minds of the different servants, linger in particular with Sarah, Mrs. Hill and the footman, James. It covers their endless, backbreaking and often thankless work as well as their dreams and what romance their position allows them. The first part of the novel follows the P&P timeline very closely and focuses on Sarah’s relationship with Mr. Bingley’s flirty black footman (I was given the impression that he was Bingley’s illegitimate half-brother) and their own distant footman, James. Part two, takes us decades into the past to explain James’ difficult life and the fascinating way it ties into the lives in the Bennet household.

On the whole this was a well written, engaging novel that both adds further depths to Austen’s characters (Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Wickham in particular) and weaves an entirely new drama for the servants of the house. Highly recommended for all Pride and Prejudice fans.

2014 (#58)

{October 29, 2014}   Royal Flush by Rhys Bowen

royal flushPlot: When an attempt too find employment goes embarrassingly wrong, Georgie is sent home to Scotland. She finds her ancestral home overrun with Americans and drunken cousins. But her sister in-law’s distress pales against the apparent attempts on the lives of the royal family and a scandalous mystery involving the previous crown prince.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

With every new book, I love this series a little more. The mysteries are engaging, the characters, interesting and the history, immersive. In a word (or two) it is just plain fun.

Georgie, after an embarrassing incident, is pressured by the police to return to Scotland where the royal family are getting into very dangerous accidents. There she must spend more time with the crown prince’s mistress, the never charming Mrs. Simpson. The local loch – and to Fig’s horror, Rannoch castle – has also been overrun with thrill-seeking young people, including Belinda’s newest fling, a race car driver, and a record-breaking female pilot who are testing a new speedboat. I took great pleasure in the little ways that Georgie found to make the castle less hospitable to the unwanted guests. The funniest, however, was her Scottish cousins’ contribution to her plot. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of them both in future books, though it seems unlikely.

But despite all the fun, the threat to the royals is real. Even Georgie herself and a young princess Elizabeth (who as a grown woman is now on my money) are put at risk. When people start dying, only Georgie can get to the bottom of this surprising mystery.

This volume tackles one of the big conspiracy theory in British royal family: Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence who has at different times been posited as Jack the Ripper, killed by syphilis or poison, or kidnapped and hidden away to take him out of the line of succession. His mystery is central to the mystery of the novel and there is an interesting historical note at the end to separate fiction from theory.

This is the third book in the Royal Spyness series. There are currently eight volumes available and the next one is Royal Blood.

2014 (#57)

{October 29, 2014}   A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen

A_ROYAL_PAIN_hires-726337Plot: Georgie, second cousin the the King of England, continues to struggle to live in London with no income and no servants. She must thus be very resourceful when the queen asks her to host a troublesome Bavarian princess. As if that wasn’t hard enough: young party-goers and communists are turning up dead around them.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

The Queen has a new plot to separate the crown prince from his mistress: put a beautiful young princess in his path. Thus Georgie finds herself saddled with a young princess who seems determined to get her into trouble: theft, careless flirtation, a passion for gangster movies and an uncanny habit for being at the scene of murders (which to be fair to Hanni, Georgie shares). And in order to care for her and her chaperone, Georgie must engage her non-royal grandfather’s help to create the illusion of a household staff. And entertaining the young princess takes her to places she would not usually frequent: including swinging parties full of bright young things and communist bookstores. All of which would be good fun if people didn’t keep dropping dead.

This communist thread is central to the mystery though I feel it could have used some fleshing out. Aside to some references to Bolsheviks and a single meeting, we get little idea as to why communism is a threat to England – the home grown sort seems harmless enough the way it is portrayed in the novel. But though I would have appreciated the historical information, it didn’t hurt the intrigue and excitement. The resolution of the mystery remained satisfying and surprising to me and gave Darcy another opportunity to be dashing and heroic.

A Royal Pain is the second book in the Royal Spyness series. Book three is Royal Flush.

2014 (#56)

all-my-puny-sorrowsPlot: Elfrieda is a world-reknowed pianist, beautiful, wealthy and happily married. And she wants to die. Her younger sister Yolandi is divorced, broke and struggling both in her writing career and in her love life. But above all else she wants her sister to live. This struggle takes them back through their Mennonite childhood and all the troubles since.

This was our most recent book club book. It is one that I would have never picked up on my own but one that I enjoyed once I got into it. It was quiet and slow paced but layer by layer revealed the complicated dynamics of a troubled family. Brilliant, rebellious Elf who cannot bear to live. Their quiet, pious father who has his own troubles. And Yoli, who feels inadequate next to a sister she idolizes.

I was introduced to Towes as an author who is unexpectedly funny in the midst of tragic narratives (I have yet to read her other books but they come highly recommended by readers I trust). This novel didn’t quite fit this description. The characters were quirky, in particular Yoli’s best friend and her mother. But their occasional odd behaviour wasn’t as much laugh out loud funny as intriguing. It is a fascinating character study, a glimpse at a Mennonite community and a touching examination at suicide and loss (and their affect on family) but it is not a book that I would recommend for black humour.

If I have one major complaint, it is that the second half of the book should not be read while waiting by your mother-in-law’s sick bed. It doesn’t make you feel hopeful.

All My Puny Sorrows has recently been shortlisted for the Giller prize. I wish Miriam Towes luck!

2014 (#54)

doubt factoryPlot: Everything that Alix believes about her life and her father is a lie. Or at least that’s what the young, brilliant vandal who is stalking her wants her to believe. But Alix doesn’t simply accept either of their claims. She begins an investigation that takes her to the very heart of her father’s industry.

This review is based on a review copy received through Netgalley.

I love Bacigalupi. Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities are favorites of mine so I picked up this book with no idea what it was about, sure I would love it no matter what. It is a very different sort of story than his post-apocalyptic novels. This is a smart thriller that carefully examines the PR firms protecting pharmaceutical companies – among others – by casting doubt. A lot of the novel is careful research (the librarian in me loves Alix and her research so very much) and investigation but there are also a few brilliantly executed pranks and some high risk, high intensity confrontations.

This is a novel that makes you think and doubt. It is a novel that doesn’t give you all the answers or neat conclusions. This is not for everyone but it is very well executed and never talks down to teen readers.

The romance is deeply problematic with hints of obsession and Stockholm syndrome among other things. Alix and Moses are two characters whose intelligence and determination compliment each other but this is no destined, romantic love if that’s what you’re looking for. But then this novel is about trust, not love. Alix is working through her trust for the people in her life and for the very foundation that her privileged life rests upon. Besides, both Alix and Moses are fascinating for reasons that have nothing to do with their relationship.

It is also worth noting that Bacigalupi gives us a very diverse cast: different races and sexualities as well as women in a variety of roles. I look forward to a day when this is no longer worth noting but at the moment I find it refreshing to find so much diversity without it being the central issue of the novel, or an issue at all. And while I have reservations about the romance, I love how Moses’ diverse crew works together, argue and support each other.

Final verdict: not my favorite Bacigalupi but a solid, well plotted and researched novel that really makes you question what you believe.

2014 (#53)

{October 8, 2014}   Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

spyness_200Plot: Georgie is a penniless cousin to King George V with no interesting prospects. As if that wasn’t hard enough to bear, a man is found dead in her bathtub and her brother is the main suspect. It’s up to Georgie to clear her brother’s name.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

I really enjoyed this book on several levels. It is on the one hand a fun and interesting historical novel about the 1930s in England. While they are not central to the plot, the Prince of Wales’ flirtation with a married American woman is a recurring concern and there are many references to the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. And Queen Mary is quite the character in and of herself. To those who know about the period, it’s a different angle on an interesting period in British history. This isn’t a history book but Bowen gives us a nice feel for the period with some interesting historical tidbits.

The mystery is also very interesting: we have a corpse in her own home, a seemingly open-and-shut case, an abundance of suspects and someone trying to kill Georgie. It is a real pleasure to follow her investigation and Bowen leads the reader on a few wrong turns. The resolution is very satisfying.

But above all else, Georgie is a fun character. She takes her financial difficulties in stride. She is looking for her independence and is willing to leave her comfort zone to find it (including working as a maid). She is intelligent and cultured but still stands outside the hedonistic culture of her class. And for those who like a bit of romance in their stories, she has  is a roguish and handsome Irishman to turn her head.

Kellgren’s narration really added to the fun for me. She has the right voice for Georgie: smart, sophisticated and witty. And she does an amazing job on the voices of a varied cast including the Queen, Georgie’s grandfather and various bright young things. Each one sounds different and consistent. Kellgren is the reason I picked up the audiobook and it’s part of the reason I plan to continue the series.

2014 (#52)

{October 8, 2014}   Comics and manga of September

HabibiAd Astra, Volume 1 & 2 (French) by Michachi Kagano

  • Ad Astra tells the story of Hannibal’s campaign against Rome in amazing historical detail and breath taking detailed art. But the real hero of the story is Scipion the Africain, who will eventually defeat him. If you enjoy historical manga like Vinland Saga, this will be right up your alley.

Angel & Faith, Volume 5: What You Want, Not What You Need by Christos Gage and Rebekah Isaacs

  • Angel and his allies succeed in reviving Giles but he doesn’t return exactly as he was. But before they can deal with this new development they must face down Whistler and his plot to destroy the world. The Buffy-verse comics have been every bit as good as the TV series and so far, Angel & Faith has been my favorite series. Read it.

Apple and Honey by Hideyoshico

  • A lovely boys love manga containing two stories. In the first cheerful and popular Komano starts circling quiet, lonesome Natsuki and it blossoms into a romance. In the second, thinking the world will end Takagi seeks out the boy he had a crush on in High School. I really liked the art and the touching relationships.

Read the rest of this entry »

{September 8, 2014}   Animal Farm by George Orwell

animalfarmPlot: Tired of the tyranny of man, the animals of Manor Farm revolt. They take over management of the farm based on seven commandments, the most important of which is “All animals are equal”. But as time goes on the commandments seem to change and the pigs seem to take on the qualities of their former human oppressors.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Tamsin Greig with a full cast.

This is a dramatized version of Orwell’s famous novel, modified for the purpose by the author himself. I have never read the full version (though I hope to correct that in the near future) so I cannot comment on how it has been changed. I can, however, say that this short audiobook (1h27) is engrossing and the narrators are effective. I found myself completely caught up in the story and thus deeply troubled by the pigs, led by Napoleon.

Orwell doesn’t hide the fact that this is a criticism of Stalin’s socialist regime. But though it isn’t a subtle criticism, it is very effective. He shows the ways in which ideals are twisted to the benefit of those in power, how loyalty and illiteracy is abused, how a cult of personality is formed and used to manipulate the populace.

Animal Farm is a classic for a reason and this audio version is very accessible.

2014 (#51)

{September 8, 2014}   Lock In by John Scalzi

lockinPlot: 25 years ago, a virus spread throughout the world. Though its symptoms were flu-like, it caused 1% of patients to become locked into their bodies, conscious but unable to move in any way. Those suffering of Lock In became known as Hadens. Agent Chris Shane is a Haden and is assigned to a murder case involving an integrator, a person who can share their body with Hadens. This case will put Chris in the midst of political and economic upheaval surrounding new Hadens-related legislation.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton. Please note that there is a second version of the audiobook narrated by Amber Benson.

I was already a few chapters in when I finally realized why this novel came in two different audio versions with two different narrators: Scalzi never once specifies whether Chris, who narrates the novel, is a man or a woman. I imagine that in a paper version, the reader’s own biases and imagination will fill in the gender. I’m curious to find out how most readers read Chris; I suspect “male” is the overwhelming answer, but I might be pleasantly surprised. Meanwhile bear with me as I attempt to write a review without using pronouns.

This is a fascinating book on many fronts. It is, on the one hand, an intriguing police procedural with many twists and turns that kept me guessing about both the criminal and the means used to commit the crimes until the end. Agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann follow leads across the country, into a Navajo reservation, into the boardrooms of major corporations and into the very depths of the human brain. And they are put in mortal danger more than once as they get closer to the improbable truth.

It is also a fascinating sci-fi novel that explores disability and the mind. The Hadens function in society thanks to robots known as Threeps (after C3PO) and integrators with which they can interface while their bodies remain immobile. They are also able to interact and form communities in a virtual world known as The Agora, a world all but inaccessible to non-Hadens. Some Hadens spend most of their lives in Threeps, others like Casssandra Cain, never leave The Agora. I thought Scalzi’s comparison to the Deaf community was especially apt. He explores their relationships with non-Hadens, with their own bodies and with the world. But it is the integrators like Chris’ partner Vann who are most interesting. These are people who volunteer to share a body and mind with strangers. The implications and difficulties of such integration are at the very center of the novel’s mystery.

The audiobook also includes a short story which recounts, by means of testimonials, the beginnings and the effects of Hadens on the US population as well as the developments of Threeps. The narrative style reminded me a bit of World War Z though it isn’t exactly a tale of apocalyptic horror. It isn’t necessary to understand the story but it adds depth to the world and makes me wish for more stories in this universe.

Lock In is a brilliant sci-fi mystery. I couldn’t stop listening. Scalzi seems to get better with every book and finishing this novel only makes me eager for his next one.

2014 (#50)

et cetera

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