The Masked City (Invisible Library, #2)

The Masked CityThe Masked City
by Genevieve Cogman
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781447256250
Series: Invisible Library Novel #2
Publication Date: December 3, 2015
Pages: 368
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Pan Books

Librarian-spy Irene is working undercover in an alternative London when her assistant Kai goes missing. She discovers he's been kidnapped by the fae faction and the repercussions could be fatal. Not just for Kai, but for whole worlds.

Kai's dragon heritage means he has powerful allies, but also powerful enemies in the form of the fae. With this act of aggression, the fae are determined to trigger a war between their people – and the forces of order and chaos themselves.

Irene's mission to save Kai and avert Armageddon will take her to a dark, alternate Venice where it's always Carnival. Here Irene will be forced to blackmail, fast talk, and fight. Or face death.


 

I finally remembered MT had checked out a few library books for me before we went north, and that they’d be due back soon.  I’d re-read The Invisible Library while we were away so I’d be freshly caught up for The Masked City.

The list of reasons I should love, love, love this series is long: the out-of-time library itself, the librarians tasked with collecting books for its collections, the magic of it all.  But I don’t love it, never mind love, love, love it.  I do like it, though, enough to keep reading them to see if anything grows between the series and I.

I can’t quite put my finger on what isn’t clicking with me – I’m just not connecting with the characters on a love level, I suppose, but the writing is good, the pacing is quick and there’s a lot of action.  The Masked City”s plot was a disappointment to me though; other than a quick auction at the beginning, books play no part in the story – it’s all about rescuing the MC’s intern and fae/dragon politics.  The former is a trope I actively dislike and the latter. fae politics, leaves me cold.

These hinderances were made up for with the setting: an alternate Venice, where the canals are clean and its always Carnivale.  Cogman created a vividly drawn world that I could see play out in my head as though it were a movie.  I was also captured by the author’s interpretation of the Horse and Rider, and Irene’s interactions with it at the end.

I have the third book in my library pile, and I hope it’s more book oriented than this one, but even if it isn’t, I know I can at least expect a fast paced, well written story set in a fabulous backdrop.

The Singing Sands (Inspector Grant, #6)

The Singing SandsThe Singing Sands
by Josephine Tey
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780749310639
Publication Date: January 1, 1992
Pages: 246
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Mandarin

En route to a holiday in Scotland, Inspector Alan Grant is drawn into a local police investigation when a fellow passenger is found dead on his train. Although it looks like a simple accident, Grant is unconvinced, and, at the expense of his vacation, he undertakes to determine what, exactly, happened to Charles Martin.

Unpublished at the time of author Josephine Tey’s death, The Singing Sands was recovered from her papers and released posthumously. It is today recognized as one of the author’s finest works.


My second Inspector Grant mystery, and the last one Tey wrote, discovered amongst her papers after her death and published posthumously.  My first Grant novel was Daughter of Time and given the uniqueness of that story, I had no idea what to expect of this one.

What I got was one of the most enjoyable mysteries I’ve read in awhile, even though there’s really no mystery to it in the sense of ‘whodunnit’.  Instead I’d call this a soul searching police procedural; ‘soul searching’ because, at a guesstimate, fully half the book is about Grant’s struggle to recover from exhaustion and anxiety in the highlands of Scotland.  What might have felt like a stagnant meandering book in the hands of others, just worked here, although I have to admit to not really understanding Wee Archie’s role in the plot beyond an un-needed reference point for vanity.

The police procedural part, oddly enough, is the part that lagged a bit for me.  This surprised me, but I suppose on reflection it makes sense; there’s only ever one suspect and I grew impatient with wanting the evidence to present itself.  It did, of course, eventually, and in an unexpected manner, providing a tidy ending that still worked and managed to be satisfying, even if it wasn’t perfect justice.

Knowing this was Tey’s final work made the ending a bit bittersweet, as Grant seems ready and raring to go on further adventures that were sadly not destined to happen, but at least there are still 4 others waiting out there for me to enjoy.

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the LawFuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law
by Mary Roach
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781324001935
Publication Date: September 1, 2021
Pages: 308
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: W.W. Norton

What’s to be done about a jaywalking moose? A bear caught breaking and entering? A murderous tree? Three hundred years ago, animals that broke the law would be assigned legal representation and put on trial. These days, as New York Times best-selling author Mary Roach discovers, the answers are best found not in jurisprudence but in science: the curious science of human-wildlife conflict, a discipline at the crossroads of human behavior and wildlife biology.

Roach tags along with animal-attack forensics investigators, human-elephant conflict specialists, bear managers, and "danger tree" faller blasters. Intrepid as ever, she travels from leopard-terrorized hamlets in the Indian Himalaya to St. Peter’s Square in the early hours before the pope arrives for Easter Mass, when vandal gulls swoop in to destroy the elaborate floral display. She taste-tests rat bait, learns how to install a vulture effigy, and gets mugged by a macaque.

Combining little-known forensic science and conservation genetics with a motley cast of laser scarecrows, langur impersonators, and trespassing squirrels, Roach reveals as much about humanity as about nature’s lawbreakers. When it comes to "problem" wildlife, she finds, humans are more often the problem—and the solution. Fascinating, witty, and humane, Fuzz offers hope for compassionate coexistence in our ever-expanding human habitat.


 

This has not been a great week for me overall, and this arrived Tuesday afternoon (book lover’s torture #12: when you hear the delivery man leave your new books at the doorstep and you can’t get up to retrieve them), and  by Wednesday I was in desperate need of a distraction.  Mary Roach had me laughing out loud on page 1, and I can’t tell you how much I needed those laughs.

In her introduction she states that she’s starting with the felonious crimes first: those incidents, usually bear/cougar/mountain lion, where people are mortally wounded, and ends the book with the crimes more akin to nuisances; crop theft, stealing food, etc.

It probably says something about me that I found the first half much easier to read than the second half – or maybe not.  The crimes may be ‘lesser’ but the punishments meted out by people most definitely are not.  Humanity’s ability to embrace wholesale slaughter is depressing.

The author manages to end the book on a hopeful note, and while the writing isn’t always even (sometimes the humour is a tad over-done), I learned a lot and sometimes I was entertained (usually by the way the author can laugh at herself).  Her writing isn’t for everyone, but for those that enjoy bit of entertaining and informative science journalism, her books usually deliver.

The Sanctuary Sparrow (Brother Cadfael, #7)

The Sanctuary SparrowThe Sanctuary Sparrow
by Ellis Peters
Rating: ★★★
Series: Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #7
Publication Date: January 1, 1996
Pages: 216
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Book of the Month Club, Inc.

In the gentle Shrewsbury spring of 1140, the midnight matins at the Benedictine abbey suddenly reverberate with an unholy sound- a hunt in full cry.

Persued by a drunken mob, the quarry is running for its life. When the frantic creature bursts into the nave to claim sanctuary, Brother Cadfael finds himself fighting off armed townsmen to save a terrified young man.

Accused of robbery and murder is Liliwin, a wandering minstrel who performed at the wedding of a local goldsmith's son. The cold light of morning, however, will show his supposed victim, the miserly craftsman, still lives, although a strongbox lies empty.

Brother Cadfael believes Liliwin is innocent, but finding the truth and the treasure before Liliwin's respite in sanctuary runs out may uncover a deadlier sin than thievery- a desperate love that nothing, not even the threat of hanging can stop.


 

Not the best one I’ve read so far.  My favourite part was Liliwin’s sanctuary, and the time he spent with the brothers.  I ended up skimming the whole scene between him and Rannlit because it was all too sweet and twee for me.  Peters seemed to spend a lot more time describing scenery and settings in exhaustive detail, and I’d catch myself half way through thinking alright already.  I was also certain as to who the killer was long before the half-way mark. Sometimes the biggest clue is the way the author draws the character, and such was the case in this book; in trying to write a nondescript character, Peters created the only plausible suspect.  There were details I did miss though that added to the complexity of the plot, and they were well crafted.  The ending was a little eye-rolling, but not so much as the ending of book 6, if I recall correctly.  Peters seemed to like daring escapes, for a bit, at least.

Not a bad book, but not the best of the 7 I’ve read either, by a long shot.

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: being an account of the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: being an account of the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836
by A.J. Wood, Charles Darwin, Clint Twist
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9781742114446
Publication Date: March 1, 2009
Pages: 32
Genre: Middle Grade, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: The Five Mile Press

The Beagle Adventures of Charles Darwin tells the story of his momentous voyage aboard the Beagle to his own children. This purports to be Darwin's own notebook, packed with his discoveries.

Featuring a route map, a cutaway of the Beagle, notes about life on board and navigation aids, an introduction to the Galapagos Islands and details of the species Darwin discovered, this is all you need to understand his theory of evolution.

Released to celebrate the anniversary of Charles Darwin 's birth in February 2009. Includes paper novelties and detailed artwork to bring Darwin's discoveries to life. Packaged in a beautifully designed hardback with leather closing ties, Darwin's Notebook is the perfect gift for the enquiring young mind.


 

I spotted this book yesterday in a little used book shop on our way home, and I couldn’t resist its magnetic cover or the quick glimpse I got of the inside before MT whisked it off to the counter for me.  I’m a sucker for books with little bits and pieces glued to the inside: envelopes with letters, or fold out flaps of additional information.  They bring me the same delight as a well-done pop-up book.

Being rather exhausted on our return home, this felt like the perfect fit for me last night, and it was.  It’s beautifully put together and the writing was clear, concise, and well balanced for a middle schooler with language aimed at their reading level without being at all childish.  While certainly not detailed, I thought it covered the high points of the Beagle trip for Darwin; certainly enough for a middle schooler’s introduction to Darwin.  I’d have liked it to have a few more bits and bobs in it, but that’s just my inner child talking.

For what it is and what it’s trying to be, I think it excels.  It’s a gorgeous and charming book.

Lord Peter Whimsey: The Complete Short Stories

Lord Peter Wimsey: The Complete Short StoriesLord Peter Wimsey: The Complete Short Stories
by Dorothy L. Sayers
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781473657632
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
Pages: 437
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Hodder Paperback

Presented in chronological order, these short stories see Lord Peter Wimsey bringing his trademark wit and unique detection skills to all manner of mysteries. From poisoned port to murder in fancy dress, Wimsey draws on his many skills - including his expertise in fine wine and appreciation of fine art - to solve cases far and wide, some even taking him to foreign countries and unexpected hiding places in pursuit of miscreants and murderers.

Containing 21 stories taken from Lord Peter Views the Body, Hangman's Holiday, In the Teeth of the Evidence and Striding Folly, now published together for the first time in one volume, this is the ultimate collection for fans of classic detective fiction and Dorothy L. Sayers.


 

My current distal discomfort being what it is, I thought a book of short stories would work for me, and I’ve been in the mood for some Whimsey.

Of this entire collection, I think the only one I’d read previously was The Necklace of Pearls.  A few I didn’t much care for – The Queen’s Square pops immediately to mind, but that could be simply chalked up to my current attention span and the story being a fair-play mystery with maps are at odds.  I liked the logic behind how Whimsey solved it, I just found the process tedious.

My favourites are far and away the easiest to identify:

The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Mileage’s Will:  I loved this story and I think it’s a great example of superior writing, in that it was short but still contained all the suspense and entertainment many long stories struggle to achieve, and it was a nice departure from a ‘murder’ mystery.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head: Another ‘no-murder’ mystery; less suspense but still oodles of fun with old books, maps, and a treasure hunt.  Peter learning what happens when you poke a dragon in the eye was the cherry on top of this delightfully fun tale.

The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach: Probably my least fave of the 4 I’m listing, but there was a whimsy about it I enjoyed, if the premise itself wasn’t totally disgusting.

Talboys:  This one was just funny.  Sweet too, but mostly just funny.  The ending is sublime.

All in all a solid set of short stories, with very few disappointments.

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and BehaviorThe Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior
by Stefano Mancuso
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: August 28, 2018
Pages: 225
Genre: Science

Do plants have intelligence? Do they have memory? Are they better problem solvers than people? The Revolutionary Genius of Plants—a fascinating, paradigm-shifting work that upends everything you thought you knew about plants—makes a compelling scientific case that these and other astonishing ideas are all true.

Plants make up eighty percent of the weight of all living things on earth, and yet it is easy to forget that these innocuous, beautiful organisms are responsible for not only the air that lets us survive, but for many of our modern comforts: our medicine, food supply, even our fossil fuels.

On the forefront of uncovering the essential truths about plants, world-renowned scientist Stefano Mancuso reveals the surprisingly sophisticated ability of plants to innovate, to remember, and to learn, offering us creative solutions to the most vexing technological and ecological problems that face us today. Despite not having brains or central nervous systems, plants perceive their surroundings with an even greater sensitivity than animals. They efficiently explore and react promptly to potentially damaging external events thanks to their cooperative, shared systems; without any central command centers, they are able to remember prior catastrophic events and to actively adapt to new ones.


I had high hopes for this one, and it started out really strong.  But it lost its momentum after the first few chapters.

This is a translation from the original Italian, so I can’t be sure there’s not some explanation there, but the writing felt oddly defensive, as if it should have been titled In Defence of the Revolutionary Genius of Plants.  It also fell in this weird middle ground of explaining what felt like super obvious basics in a very academic voice.

I admit there were some chapters I skimmed, but then things got interesting in chapters 4 and 5, although I got irritated by the failure of reasoning exhibited by the author – which is, to be fair, a very common one.  The chapter concerned the symbiotic and sometimes manipulative relationship between some plants and animals and in the writing he mused on the motivation of the plant to develop such strategies.  I hear/read this type of thing a lot and it drives me nuts; I always picture of room full of whatever – in this case acacias – sitting around pondering, with a whiteboard covered in figures in the background, plans for their future evolutionary development.  I’m not schooled in science, but I do know that’s putting the cart before the horse.

I was back to skimming towards the end as there was a lot of general lecturing on how applications from the plant world can be applied to solve the industrial world’s problems.  There’s a little tooting of his own horn too, but to be fair the Jellyfish Barge sounds incredibly cool.  The last chapter on plants in space I skipped completely as I lacked the interest and the attention span to tackle it (it was short and I’m not sorry).

A beautifully made book, with some really good information but overall it was just not written (or perhaps translated) in an engaging enough way to keep me glued to the page.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful

Alfred Hitchcock's Haunted HousefulAlfred Hitchcock's Haunted Houseful
by Alfred Hitchcock (editor)
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0394812247
Publication Date: January 1, 1961
Pages: 208
Genre: Children's Fiction
Publisher: Random House

Nine short stories featuring haunted houses, by such notable authors as Elizabeth Coatsworth, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mark Twain.


Yesterday was a bad day for my convalescence;  It was a 38 degree day outside, and inside my discomfort was such that I couldn’t settle, leaving me hot, cranky, frustrated and staring at my ceiling and my TBR shelves (they’re next to my bed).  My eyes landed on this book late afternoon;  we had it on our shelves growing up, and I’d bought a copy sometime back after finding out my mom had given away our original copy.  It felt like just the ticket for what ailed me.

It pretty much was.  Short stories for middle schoolers that were well written but untaxing.  The book’s description and foreward claim that each of the stories are about haunted houses and ghosts – they’re not.  One is Conan-Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-headed League and that has nothing spooky in it except a sentence or two near the end.  There were only two stories that had actual ghosts; the rest were mysteries that involved spooky houses.  Still it was an effective method of distraction and entertained me as well as anything written for pre-teens possibly could.

The Orchid Thief

The Orchid ThiefThe Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780449003718
Publication Date: January 4, 2000
Pages: 300
Publisher: Ballantine Books

A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.

In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.


 

The first thing you need to know is that this is a book about Florida and orchidists.  I am a (born and bred) Floridian raised in a family of orchidists.

I preface this review with these facts because there’s going to be a strongly sentimental bias to my feelings about this book.  I can’t possibly be objective about either subject, because — let’s call it “Old Florida” even though I’m young enough to have missed out on the truly old Florida — is what my soul is made of.  If it were a visible thing it would be full of scrub forest, swamp land and the Gulf of Mexico (and hush puppies and iced tea).  And no way could I be objective about orchids; I literally grew up in greenhouses.  My mother’s flower shop, which my father’s greenhouses and laboratory were attached to, was a road, a small-town library parking lot, and a dirt alley away from our home.  I’m pretty sure were there a way to tally up time spent at home vs. the shop, the shop would actually win.  And there are very few memories of my dad that pop into my head that don’t involve him watering his orchids, replanting his orchids, or bent over his sanitised glove box – a design of his own creation – or… the least pleasant from a sensory aspect: him cooking up his growing media, which often consisted of combinations of vegetable and fruit never, ever, designed to be together, like bananas and potatoes (omg, the smell).  I have lost hours of my life to greenhouses sprinkled throughout Southwest Florida (and Illinois), and orchid shows, before I was old enough to be left to my own devices.

So believe me when I say that, other than my pedantic nitpicking over calling Florida’s ecosystem a jungle, Susan Orlean nailed both the state and the crazy orchid loving people in it.  Including herself in the story creates a nice foil for the eccentric mix of people that make up the less civilised places of Florida (which is pretty much all the places).  My sister would be a better judge of how close she came to the personalities of the players; I recognised the names but given my relationship with orchids (YOU MAY CALL ME DEATH), I was only ever a spectator, and a pretty disinterested as only a teenager can be, but Orlean captures the atmosphere, the close-knit community and the cattiness of the orchid world perfectly.

According to the publisher and book flap, this is a book about John Larouche (whom I’d never heard of until I read this), but really, it’s about all orchidists and their often unfathomable passion for a plant that is, objectively, ugly. Until it flowers, and then it’s spectacular.  Specifically, this book is about the Ghost Orchid, a Florida native known only to live in a very few spots in the Fakahatchee Strand.  A plant that consists of nothing but roots and a flower, no leaves.  While Larouche is absent for much of the book, the Ghost Orchid is always present. This is a good thing because I doubt anybody could take an awful lot of a character like Larouche.

I could meander on in this review for quite some time, but I wouldn’t really be talking about the book, so I’ll just say: it was good; it was enjoyable and well written and enlightening.  If eccentric characters a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil appeal to you along with the swampy, humid, atmosphere of Florida, you might find something to like in this read.

On a slightly related side note, my father passed away on this date in 2004, so the read felt especially timely for me.  What made it even more poignant though, was what I found when doing a bit of googling about the Ghost Orchid; it seems Larouche was not entirely correct when he said nobody could breed the Ghost Orchid (breed, not clone, which is what Larouche was trying to do):  it turns out my daddy could, and did.  I found this except on an orchid site out of Delray Beach called HBI Orchids:

The Ghost Orchid, Polyrrhiza lindeni (old school name).  We at HBI have been working on growing ghost orchids from seed for over 28 years ever since we first bought 3 ghost orchids flasks from Larry Evans.  Larry did curating and flasking work for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. Selby once green housed the top premier specimens of this Florida species.  The ghost orchid parents used by Larry originated in the Fakahatchee Strand and were first bred by him many years before ghost orchids were designated as an endangered species.  Fakahatchee ghost orchids with their longer frog-legs/tendrils and ghostly all-white flower surpass the truncated short-tendril inferior class lindeni green-flower ghost orchid pretenders named Dendrophylax sallei from Cuba and Dominican Republic in any competition and will always be the more valuable type of this vanishing species to own. 

I clearly remember my dad doing Selby’s lab/flask work; at that time they couldn’t do it themselves without contamination (orchid seed has to be handled in a completely sterile environment, sprinkled across growing medium in sealed, sterile flasks; otherwise just about any microbe floating in the air will overtake and kill the seedlings before they can start), so they’d asked him to do it in his lab.  But I never knew they were ghost orchids or how special they are.  So tip of the hat to Orlean for leading me back to my father in more ways than I bargained on.

Reading Status Update: I’ve read 112/300 pages of The Orchid Thief

The Orchid ThiefThe Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
isbn: 9780449003718
Publication Date: January 4, 2000
Pages: 300
Publisher: Ballantine Books

A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.

In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.


 

I’m still laid up, obviously, but feeling much more human, and I was ready for something a little meatier in my reading, while also feeling like I needed a taste of home while wallowing in my bitterness over the fickleness of fate.  The Orchid Thief is fitting the bill perfectly.  Susan Orlean, with the exception of referring to Florida’s natural state as jungle (it’s not), has nailed the state in both its feral and more civilised forms.  The world of orchid collecting is also one I grew up on the fringes of, my father, and then my sister, both orchidists.  For my sister it was a fleeting interest, lasting only a decade or so, if memory serves, but for my father it was a lifelong passion and between them they created well over a thousand hybrids that were sent all over the world.  Fortunately he was, at heart, sane with a very unmoving moral compass, so none of the family had center-ring seats to the real insanity of the orchid collecting world Orleans is delving into.  But there are familiar names and references that I’m thoroughly enjoying so far.  Thankfully Larouche isn’t one of them – he’s an odd one.