Midnight Blue-Light Special

Midnight Blue-light SpecialMidnight Blue-light Special
by Seanan McGuire
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780756407926
Series: InCryptid #2
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Pages: 353
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: DAW Books

A re-read that not only held up well, but one that I enjoyed more the second time around.  My first readings of McGuire’s books always start off feeling tedious, but picking up so much that I end up really enjoying them (though Imaginary Numbers flipped this around).  This re-read didn’t feel tedious at all and except for the scene where Verity is captured, which felt way too long, I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.

As an aside, MT saw the title and commented that it sounded like the stupidest book he’d ever seen me read.  Being not-American, I had to explain to him about the Kmart blue-light special days of yore.  (He conceded that the title made a smidgen more sense.)

Roommates

RoommatesRoommates
by Emily Chase
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0590328433
Series: The Girls of Canby Hall #1
Publication Date: March 28, 1983
Pages: 220
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: Scholastic Books

I saw a mention of this title somewhere on the ‘net last year, and it was like a lightbulb going off in my memory.  This was the book that inspired by adolescent desire to go to boarding school (unfulfilled, which is probably just as well, as I doubt the reality would have equalled the fantasy).  I immediately tracked down a copy for nostalgia’s sake, and the forgot about it until it showed up in my mail several months later.

I really expected it not to hold up to time, but I have to say, I’m impressed and how well it did.  There were some incredibly frivolous moments, but there were some weightier ones as well, including racial stereotypes and running away.  Not up to today’s standards, but respectable for the early 80’s, I suppose.  Either way, I enjoyed it for the quick, easy read it was and still is.  I still want to go to boarding school.  And summer camp.

Extraordinary Insects

Format: Paperback
Extraordinary InsectsExtraordinary Insects
by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780008316372
Publication Date: April 2, 2020
Pages: 294
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Mudlark

A Sunday TimesNature Book of the Year 2019

A journey into the weird, wonderful and truly astonishing lives of the small but mighty creatures we can't live without.

Insects influence our ecosystem like a ripple effect on water. They arrived when life first moved to dry land, they preceded - and survived - the dinosaurs, they outnumber the grains of sand on all the world's beaches, and they will be here long after us.

Working quietly but tirelessly, they give us food, uphold our ecosystems, can heal our wounds and even digest plastic. They could also provide us with new solutions to the antibiotics crisis, assist in disaster zones and inspire airforce engineers with their flying techniques.

But their private lives are also full of fun, intrigue and wonder. Here, we will discover life and death, drama and dreams, all on a millimetric scale. Like it or not, Earth is the planet of insects, and this is their extraordinary story.


Either something was lost in translation, or this book is a much better fit for middle grade readers.  Given the excellent english of absolutely everybody I’ve ever met from Norway (and I worked for a Norwegian company for years), I’m going with this is a great Middle grade read.

Extraordinary Insects is a brief introduction to most of the broad families of Insects, written by an enthusiastic scientist who obviously loves her work.  It’s a fun book, engagingly written, but at a level that would appeal to strong readers in the, say, 10-13 year old range.  That’s not an insult to this book in the slightest, but those who are looking for a deeper overview of the insect world and their importance on Earth (life as we know it can’t exist without insects, but nothing but the rats and cockroaches would even notice our absence), might find this book a little frustrating for its lack of depth, and its very enthusiastic tone.  It’s a good book, but I kept thinking it would be a better fit for my niece (who just turned 11).

A great book for a budding young insect enthusiast or for anyone who has avoided ‘bugs’ but would like to dip a toe into learning more about them.

Wilding: The return of nature to a British Farm

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British FarmWilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
by Isabella Tree
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781509805105
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 362
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Picador

Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain - the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.

Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells' degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life - all by itself.


This is one of those books where the content overcomes the writing.  The writing isn’t bad by any means, but it definitely lacks the spark of personality.  Either Isabella Tree lacks anything resembling charisma, or she was holding herself back.  I choose to believe the latter, because I believe anyone willing to embrace the project she and her husband embarked on has to be inherently likeable and not a little bit charismatic.

In spite of what was often bland writing, the book is a brilliant record of the amazing achievements Tree and her husband managed on what was poorly producing farmland that was losing money.  By allowing it to revert back to its natural state, with as little human interference as possible, they accomplished so much on so many fronts.  The wildlife recovery, the flood mitigation, the general health of the land itself – all of it happening at speeds that make me optimistic that humanity hasn’t completely destroyed our planet just yet.  Lest I got too optimistic though, Tree’s documentation of the uphill battle they had to fight with government agencies who nominally existed to protect the environment put me right back into my proper, cynical, place.

Wilding is a thoroughly well researched, excellently laid out recounting of one couple’s determined efforts to restore their patch of British soil to what it was meant to be, and all the excellent rewards that came with it.  The writing may be less than enthralling but the content more than makes up for any missing sparkle or wit.  If you’re interested in the natural state of things, this is definitely worth the time and effort.

Birdland

BirdlandBirdland
by Leila Jeffreys
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780733631061
Publication Date: November 5, 2015
Pages: 188
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Hachette Books

Fine art photographer Leila Jeffreys captures the beauty and diversity of some of our most colourful and elegant feathered friends.

In BIRDLAND, Australian fine-art photographer Leila Jeffreys presents us with a bird-watching experience like no other, drawing birds out from their leafy shadows and airy territories and presenting them to us with the skill and intricate detail of a portrait painter. The result is a stunning encounter with some of the world's most beautiful birds.

On display are fine feathers of all types-eagles in burnished battle armor, fairy floss pink cockatoos, owls in spangled evening wear, and the finches and parrots who couldn't settle for just one or two colours, so chose the whole palette instead.

Captured in a moment of stillness, Jeffreys's feathered sitters reveal qualities and features that invite human projection. Meet the sociable gang-gang cockatoos Commander and Mrs. Skyring, always up for a soiree; the dignified and kingly black kite Fenrick; and the adorably gamine Pepper, a southern boobook owl with impossibly huge eyes and irresistibly cute skinny legs.

Sydney-based Jeffreys works with animal rescue and conservation groups to create her portraits. Her love and compassion for her subjects is evident throughout, and every bird has a story, which Jeffreys shares in a profile of nearly every species in the back of the book.

There are working birds, like Soren, the wedge-tailed eagle, who patrols areas to prevent cockatoos from damaging buildings and lorikeets from overindulging on sugar on hotel balconies; Blue, the orange-bellied parrot who is part of a breeding program to increase the population of this critically endangered species; and Sirocco, New Zealand's kakapo conversation superstar.

BIRDLAND invites us to rediscover birds, to gaze unhindered, and to marvel at their many-splendored glory.


A gorgeous book that I’d eyed about a year ago and dismissed as too decadent; coffee-table art books generally don’t make it into my book budget.  Luckily, I received it as a birthday gift last week, so I could wallow in the beautiful bird portraits guilt-free.

Then, at the end, I saw the List of Works, in which Jeffreys included general information about the species, and almost always, a small anecdote about her experience photographing the individual bird.  They were, apologies to Jeffreys and her obvious talent, the best part of the book, because while her photos are stunning, those little anecdotes brought them, and the bird, to life.  So much so that at some points, I found myself a little misty-eyed and a lot jealous.

A beautiful book for those that enjoy birds and photography.

The Windermere Witness (Lake District Mystery, #1)

The Windermere WitnessThe Windermere Witness
by Rebecca Trope
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780749012694
Series: Lake District Mystery #1
Publication Date: August 26, 2013
Pages: 414
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Allison & Busby

Following a personal tragedy, florist Persimmon 'Simmy' Brown has moved to the beautiful region of the Lake District to be nearer her charismatic parents. Things are going well, with her latest flower arrangements praised and Simmy content to lose herself in her work. But the peace she has found is shattered when, at the wedding of a millionaire's daughter, the bride's brother is found brutally murdered in the lake.

As the wedding florist, and one of the last people to talk to Mark Baxter alive, Simmy gradually becomes involved with the grief-ridden and angry relatives. All seem to have their fair share of secrets and scandals - an uncaring mother, a cheating father, and a husband twenty-five years older than his bride. When events take another sinister turn, Simmy becomes a prime witness and finds herself at the heart of a murder investigation. The chief suspects are the groom and his closely knit band of bachelor friends. They are all intimidating, volatile and secretive - but which one is a killer?


I picked this up at a used book shop during our aborted Christmas travels; having spent time in the Lake District, specifically, the towns of Windermere, Bowness, and Ableside that this story is set in, it appealed to me instantly.

Alas, it was no more than a drab average.  The characters didn’t know what they wanted to be: the MC tells an inspector at the beginning she’s moved to Windermere after her divorce, that she was childless and insisted that there were “compensations”.  By the end of the book she’s barely coping with the stillborn birth she had 2 years before.  Coping and repression are likely, of course, but they aren’t part of of the narrative, so the reader is left with no grasp of this MC.  The Inspector is either attractive and friendly or greasy-haired and antagonistic.  The MC’s mother is supposed to be a hippy, but acts more like a criminal attorney; I never once got the impression she liked her daughter.  The bride of the story is either flaky, naive and needs to be protected, or a headstrong woman who is the only one that can steer her much older husband’s life.  Flip-flop.

The elements of the plot were interesting, but the plot itself wasn’t anything special.  The motivation was pathetic and unbelievable, given the characters, and the murderer pretty obvious after about half-way.

The setting was what I’d hoped for, at least.  My memories of the Lake District are still vivid, and I loved the area, so ‘re-visiting’ it through the book kept me picking it back up.  This is the first in a series all set here, and while weak, not so bad that should I come across another one at a used book shop, I’d probably pick it up.

A Pretty Deceit (Verity Kent, #4)

A Pretty DeceitA Pretty Deceit
by Anna Lee Huber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781496728470
Series: Verity Kent #4
Publication Date: October 14, 2020
Pages: 362
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

In the aftermath of the Great War, the line between friend and foe may be hard to discern, even for indomitable former Secret Service agent Verity Kent, in award-winning author Anna Lee Huber’s thrilling mystery series.

Peacetime has brought little respite for Verity Kent. Intrigue still abounds, even within her own family. As a favor to her father, Verity agrees to visit his sister in Wiltshire. Her once prosperous aunt has fallen on difficult times and is considering selling their estate. But there are strange goings-on at the manor, including missing servants, possible heirloom forgeries, and suspicious rumors—all leading to the discovery of a dead body on the grounds.

While Verity and her husband, Sidney, investigate this new mystery, they are also on the trail of an old adversary—the shadowy and lethal Lord Ardmore. At every turn, the suspected traitor seems to be one step ahead of them. And even when their dear friend Max, the Earl of Ryde, stumbles upon a code hidden among his late father’s effects that may reveal the truth about Ardmore, Verity wonders if they are really the hunters—or the hunted . . .


Aside from my subjective issues with the path Huber chose for these characters, I like this series; you could say I enjoy them in spite of myself.  But while this book was a 4 star read on the strength of its plot, it might have been a 4.5/5 star read if not for the weakness of the editing.

The narrative is much longer than it needed to be because Huber, with admirable motivation, spends a lot of time ruminating on the devastation wrought on both the soldiers who fought in WWI, and those left behind to cope in fear and anxiety.  She does bring light to many aspects of the horror that is war, especially the first world war, but she spends too much time doing it, and this is a murder mystery, after all.  I’m confident a lot of it could have been cut without losing the more important message, and the overall story would have been a lot better for it.

Still, the plot is a strong one, with aspects of scavenger and treasure hunting spicing up what would otherwise be an ordinary nemesis plot running parallel to a murder mystery.  I’m still kid enough to enjoy rhyming clues and secret codes, as well as the touch of cloak and dagger when used judiciously, and it is here.

As I opened the post with, I still don’t like what Huber is doing with the characters; while there are no love triangles or quadrangles, she has two other men in love with Verity who are dedicated to uncovering the series’ plot; there seems to be no plan for this to change and it’s tiresome.  Luckily, the murder mysteries have so far made up for it.  Can’t see that lasting much longer though.

A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder

A Lady's Guide to Mischief and MurderA Lady's Guide to Mischief and Murder
by Dianne Freeman
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Countess of Harleigh Mystery #3
Publication Date: July 24, 2020
Pages: 278
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

London is known for its bustle and intrigues, but the sedate English countryside can host—or hide—any number of secrets. Frances, the widowed Countess of Harleigh, needs a venue for her sister Lily’s imminent wedding, away from prying eyes. Risings, George Hazleton’s family estate in Hampshire, is a perfect choice, and soon Frances, her beloved George, and other guests have gathered to enjoy the usual country pursuits—shooting, horse riding, and romantic interludes in secluded gardens.

But the bucolic setting harbors a menace, and it’s not simply the arrival of Frances’s socially ambitious mother. Above and below stairs, mysterious accidents befall guests and staff alike. Before long, Frances suspects these “accidents” are deliberate, and fears that the intended victim is Lily’s fiancé, Leo. Frances’s mother is unimpressed by Lily’s groom-to-be and would much prefer that Lily find an aristocratic husband, just as Frances did. But now that Frances has found happiness with George—a man who loves her for much more than her dowry—she heartily approves of Lily’s choice. If she can just keep the couple safe from villains and meddling mamas.

As Frances and George search for the culprit among the assembled family, friends, and servants, more victims fall prey to the mayhem. Mishaps become full-blooded murder, and it seems that no one is safe. And unless Frances can quickly flush out the culprit, the peal of wedding bells may give way to another funeral toll. . . .


Historical mysteries seem to be all the rage at the moment, and fortunately, publishers have yet to monetise and ruin the trend to such a degree that you can’t find a selection of well written series to enjoy.  While the quality of cozy mysteries has been abysmal the last several years, Historical Mysteries have filled in the gap nicely for me.

A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder is the 3rd in a series I discovered at my first (and so far only) Bouchercon convention.  It’s a good series, and this book is a strong 3rd book, moving the characters’ arcs along quickly, while presenting an interesting stand-alone plot, with clues easily missed and writing that skilfully misdirected the reader down several false avenues.  As the story moved along, some of the misdirection became obvious, but some of it didn’t, rendering a delightful mystery well done.

My only groan over the book was the introduction of Countess Harleigh’s mother who was caricatured for most of her page time, only to do the whole mama-lion thing and achieving what to me was an insincere redemption in the final pages.  Fortunately she’s not around much in this book and it wasn’t enough to really weight the book down.

The Grandest Bookshop in the World

The Grandest Bookshop in the WorldThe Grandest Bookshop in the World
by Amelia Mellor
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9781925972955
Publication Date: September 29, 2020
Pages: 302
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: Affirm Press

Pearl and Vally Cole live in a bookshop. And not just any bookshop. In 1893, Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne is the grandest bookshop in the world, brimming with every curiosity imaginable. Each day brings fresh delights for the siblings: voice-changing sweets, talking parrots, a new story written just for them by their eccentric father.

When Pearl and Vally learn that Pa has risked the Arcade – and himself – in a shocking deal with the mysterious Obscurosmith, the siblings hatch a plan. Soon they are swept into a dangerous game with impossibly high stakes: defeat seven challenges by the stroke of midnight and both the Arcade and their father will be restored. But if they fail Pearl and Vally won’t just lose Pa – they’ll forget that he and the Arcade ever existed.


A friend told me about this book 6+ months ago, as a gift idea for my 10 year old niece, mentioning it was a story I’d enjoy too.  I forgot about it until she reminded me back in October, so when, just a few weeks later, I saw it at one of my schools’ book fairs, I bought it for a Christmas present, thinking niece and I could read it together, since I’d be spending Christmas with her and her family.

Then, Christmas got cancelled and the book was packed up to ship up to her along with the rest of the presents.  I figured I’d get to it one of these days.

Turns out I would; a package arrived at our house 5 days after Christmas, from an online bookseller, containing this book – I never ordered it and there’s NO information in the package about who sent it.  Mysteries.  The Good Kind.

Anyway, I got to read the book and oh, what an enchanting story it is.  Firmly written for middle grade kids, but magical enough to capture this adult’s imagination.  Two children, who live above the Grandest Bookstore in the World** have 28 hours to solve 7 challenges or else their beloved dad and their bookstore will cease to exist.

There are shades of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Jumanji, and on a deeper level Faust, but nothing ever too heavy for a 10 year old to handle.  Everything is couched in adventure and the heavier theme behind the Faustian roots of the story are confronted honestly without dwelling on them.  It really is a most wonderfully done story.

** Coles Book Arcade was a real place in Melbourne in the late 1800’s and it really was the Grandest Bookshop in the World.  While all the parts the author uses in the book (the tea room, the lolly shop, the fernery, etc.) didn’t all exist at the same time, they did all exist.  For those interested, I highly recommend this article from The Guardian, written by the author of this book, which you can find here.

Death in Daylesford (Phryne Fisher Mystery, #21)

Death in DaylesfordDeath in Daylesford
by Kerry Greenwood
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781743310342
Series: Phryne Fisher #21
Publication Date: November 15, 2020
Pages: 321
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Surrounded by secrets, great and small, the formidable Miss Phryne Fisher returns to vanquish injustice.

When a mysterious invitation arrives for Miss Phryne Fisher from an unknown Captain Herbert Spencer, Phryne's curiosity is excited. Spencer runs a retreat in Victoria's spa country for shell-shocked soldiers of the First World War. It's a cause after Phryne's own heart but what could Spencer want from her?

Phryne and the faithful Dot view their spa sojourn as a short holiday but are quickly thrown in the midst of disturbing Highland gatherings, disappearing women, murder and the mystery of the Temperance Hotel.

Meanwhile, Cec, Bert and Tinker find a young woman floating face down in the harbour, dead. Tinker, with Jane and Ruth, Phryne's resilient adopted daughters, together decide to solve what appears to be a heinous crime.

Disappearances, murder, bombs, booby-traps and strange goings-on land Miss Phryne Fisher right in the middle of her most exciting adventure.


I’ve been a fan of this series from the beginning but this one was phoned in, either by the author herself or Allen and Unwin, or, possibly, both.  I still enjoyed the hell out of catching up with Phryne and friends, but in quality, this was disappointing.

Death in Daylesford is one of her longer entries, and the story meanders quite a bit across at least 3 different plot-lines taking place in two different places: Melbourne’s mystery being solved by Phryne’s three adopted kids and her assistant’s fiancé (a police detective), and one in Daylesford, a spa town about an hour away from Melbourne, spear-headed by Phryne and her assistant Dot.

The Melbourne plot could have been scrapped and I’d have never missed it.  While I like Jane and Ruth as characters, I found their plot/mystery to be too Nancy Drew for my tastes.  The death they investigated was tragic, and it’s solution sad, but it was superfluous to requirements.

Phryne’s mysteries were more interesting and more diabolical, but poor editing and the inclusion of the Nancy Drew parallel plot detracted significantly from what it might have been.  The poor editing is obvious – and surprising – in the form of missing words, and one scene where the dead body is removed from the scene twice.  Blaming the parallel plot is just speculation on my part, but so many things in Phryne’s mysteries were glossed over and she reached conclusions with no discernible process to the reader, that I have to believe Greenwood just didn’t have the page space to expand on plot points the way she might have.  Which is a shame, because the plots were interesting and deserved more than they got.

In spite of all this, I enjoyed the read, and I’m thrilled to see a new Phryne Fisher mystery out, after I’d started to believe the series was over.  I hope there will be more, and I hope the author and the publisher both get their groove back.