Wednesday, February 27, 2013

39. The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo (5/5)

Feb. 5, 2013, William Morrow, 336 pgs
Ages: 18+
(US) - (Canada) - (Kindle)

"Told with the verve and ghoulish fun of a Tim Burton film, The Lady and Her Monsters is a highly entertaining blend of literary history, lore, and early scientific exploration that traces the origins of the greatest horror story of all time–Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Exploring the frightful milieu in which Frankenstein was written, Roseanne Montillo, an exciting new literary talent, recounts how Shelley's Victor Frankenstein mirrored actual scientists of the period. Montillo paints a rich portrait of Shelley and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their contemporaries and their friend Lord Byron. Intellectually curious, they were artists, poets, and philosophers, united in captivation with the occultists and daring scientists risking their reputations and their immortal souls to advance our understanding of human anatomy and medicine.
These remarkable investigations could not be undertaken without the cutthroat grave robbers who prowled cemeteries for a supply of fresh corpses. The newly dead were used for both private and very public autopsies and dissections, as well as the most daring trials of all: attempts at human reanimation through the application of electricity.
Juxtaposing monstrous mechanization and rising industrialism with the sublime beauty and decadence of the legendary Romantics who defined the age, Montillo takes us into a world where poets become legends in salons and boudoirs; where fame-hungry "doctors" conduct shocking performances for rabid, wide-eyed audiences; and where maniacal body snatchers secretly toil in castle dungeons."

A fascinating read being even more than I had expected.  It is a biography of Mary Shelley but also contains detailed looks at the lives of many other people from a broad spectrum who were either related to Mary, influenced her or were a part of this period of interest in galvanic science and subsequently those who provided the corpses for the doctors to study and experiment on.  Captivating, riveting and shocking reading at many times.  I learnt of Mary's parents William Godwin, credited with the first detective novel, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft an outspoken feminist in the 1700s.  The gloomy lives of debauchery of both Percy Shelley and especially Lord Byron and Mary's sister Claire.  Then we also enter into the eerie early scientific world of galvanism, using electricity to animate corpses, in the hopes that it could somehow prove to help the ill, the paralysed.  Mary grew up in this world with bother her parents hosting parties for this type of intellectual society and her future husband, Percy being quite taken with the process.  Of course this topic lead easily into the underworld of resurrectionists, or simply put grave robbers, and eventually those who couldn't wait for a corpse so made their own such as the infamous Burke and Hare.  A treasure trove of information that kept me spellbound; it's no wonder Mary, as young as she was, had the interest and resources to write this Gothic tale of scientific horror (which at the time seemed shocking coming from a young female).  I re-read "Frankenstein" just prior to reading this work of non-fiction and am glad I did, but now that I know where Mary was coming from when she wrote it, including the deaths of her children, I know I will have a new appreciation for the work the next time I read it.

Monday, February 25, 2013

38. Oddkins: A Fable for All Ages by Dean Koontz.

Oddkins: A Fable for All Ages by Dean Koontz. Illustrated by Phil Parks (5/5)

1998 original
Sept. 4 2012, Mel Parker Books, 180 pgs
(Kindle) Only

"Toymaker Isaac Bodkins created the Oddkins, a group of living toys, for very special children who face difficulties in life and need true friends. There’s Amos, the brave stuffed bear; Skippy, the rabbit who dreams of being a superstar; Butterscotch, the gentle, floppy-eared pup; Burl the elephant; the wise and scholarly Gibbons; and Patch the cat. The Oddkins are given to children to inspire, support, and love them, especially during times of adversity. Only now, the toys themselves are the ones who need help. Before he dies, Mr. Bodkins delivers a dire warning to Amos the bear: Watch out for an evil toymaker and his dangerous creations! Locked up in the dark sub-basement, another group of toys is climbing out of boxes and crates and coming to life themselves. These bad toys—like Rex and Lizzie, the puppets with no strings; Gear, the vicious robot; and Stinger, the horrid buzzing bumblebee with his knife-sharp stinger—were made to hurt children, not help them. Leering, laughing, and deadly, they are let loose into the world by a terrifying force. Frightening as it may be, the Oddkins must go on a journey to find Colleen Shannon, Mr. Bodkins’s chosen successor as a life-giving toymaker and the only person who can save them. The stormy night is perilous and the Oddkins face a danger that threatens not only their magic . . . but the magic in us all.
With Oddkins, his first book for young readers, Koontz introduces a magical and dazzling world of toys and terror, good versus evil. Oddkins is a fable for our time, a deeply moving story for all ages"

Absolutely delightful and decidedly Christian tale about good vs evil and life after death.  Knowing Koontz is Catholic I wasn't surprised at the open Christianity of this story but I was surprised to find such a story coming from a mainstream publisher (Warner, originally).  A brilliant, beautiful story that I would read more than once.  Not sure on the age group here though.  For under tens: if the child is confident that "He can do all things" then they should be fine knowing that the evil will be conquered by those following God. However, if they have any fear that evil can win over God then the book will be too scary for them.  This is Koontz after all!  The illustrations are charming and I found that they actually took the scary factor down a notch, making the characters not quite so scary looking as I would have imagined them in my head.  Really a fantastic story, just loved it!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

37. The Starry Window by Patricia Bow

The Starry Window by Patricia Bow (4/5)
Passage to Mythrin, Book 3

2012, Patricia Bow, 224 pgs.

"The Starry Window continues the adventures of Amelia Hammer, accidentally part-dragon, her dorky but kind-hearted cousin Simon, and Simon's geeky friend Ike. 
Something is poisoning the system of hidden gates and passages linking Earth and Mythrin. And on Mythrin, dragons are being enslaved. When two strangers appear in Dunstone, without names or memories or even clothes, Amelia knows in her bones that the blue-haired boy is her dragon friend, Ty. But who is the tall man with lilac eyes? 
Amelia, Simon and Ike trace the poison to a gate under Dunstone's new mall, where escalators are turning carnivorous, and to the horrific School for Wayward Youth that once stood there. The gate is a copy of a starry window on Mythrin that shows Simon's image, but it's gone bad; and he hears someone calling for help from beyond. 
The strange brew comes to a boil, causing mayhem in quiet little Dunstone and sending the cousins on a series of dangerous journeys. Into the wild landscape of Ty's mind, to restore his memory. To Mythrin, and a dragon death-battle. And finally, answering that call for help, into the shadow lands beyond the starry window."

Splendid conclusion to this unique middle grade fantasy!  At least I'm assuming it is the conclusion.  There is a finite ending to the plot but the characters obviously have lives ahead of them and the book concludes leaving us with this feeling that they will continue to have adventures.  The teen characters are real and I enjoyed the whole eccentric cast.  One thing I particularly enjoyed is that each book in this series is its own individual story; while there are major arcs that hold the books together each book is quite self-contained.  The fantasy element here is unique and not your typical magic, paranormal or quest book.  Bow has managed to bring together the two worlds (Earth and Mythrin) in an unconventional way and present a dragon story quite different from all the rest.

Since the long time period between publishing book 2 and 3 I was very pleased to see the book opened with a synopsis of the "story so far" in each of the previous two books.  This was sufficient enough for me to jump back into the parallel worlds. A quick read, I enjoyed highly and turned the pages with glee. (US)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

36. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain

The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain (5/5)
The Art of the Novella series

1899; 2007, Melville House, 128 pgs.

"Written on hotel stationery while Twain was in Europe on the run from American creditors, soon after the death of his daughter, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg is often cited as a work of bitter cynicism—a statement on America, to some, on the Dreyfus Case, to others—created by a weary author at the end of his career.

Others appreciate the work because it is, simply, Mark Twain at his best. The story of a mysterious stranger who orchestrates a fraud embarrassing the hypocritical citizens of “incorruptible” Hadleyburg. The novella is an exceptionally crafted work intertwining a devious and suspenseful plot with some of the wittiest dialogue Twain ever wrote. And like the most masterful literature, it subverts any notion of easy conclusion: is Hadleyburg ruined, or liberated? Is the mysterious stranger Satan, or a hero? Is this a book of revenge, or redemption? One thing is clear: this brilliant novella is a complex and compassionate consideration of the human character by a master at the height of his form."

Loved this comic yet profound story of a town that held itself to a virtue that it had not allowed itself to be tested against.  When they are tested they're found sadly lacking.  Wonderful humour and satire on the state of the 'holier-than-thou' mindset of some people and yet in the end Twain shows how one can be at one's best when not consciously thinking of putting the other man first for one's own gain.  Yet this is a circular farce as the characters can never be satisfied and find the guilt of being "found out" too strong to bear that they ruin the reputations of each other even when they think they have the best intentions in mind.  Twain's moral is that one cannot overcome temptation if one has never been tempted.  An entertaining and humorous satire. (US) - (Canada) - (Kindle)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

32. The Wisdom of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

The Wisdom of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton (US) - (Canada) - (Kindle) = FREE
Father Brown Mysteries, #2

Pages: 196
Ages: 18+
Finished: Feb. 9, 2013
First Published: 1914
Publisher: A Public Domain Book
Interests: Catholic, mystery, crime
Rating:  3.5/5

First sentence: "The consulting-rooms of Dr. Orion Hood, the eminent criminologist and specialist in certain moral disorders, lay along the sea-front at Scarborough, in a series of very large and well-lighted french windows, which showed the North Sea like one endless outer wall of Blue-green marble."

Publisher's Summary: "This is the second book of short stories about G. K. Chesterton’s fictional detective. Father Brown is a short, nondescript Catholic Priest with shapeless clothes and a large umbrella who has an uncanny insight into human evil. His methods, unlike those of his near contemporary Sherlock Holmes, although based on observation of details often unnoticed by others, tended to be intuitive rather than deductive. Although clearly devout, he always emphasizes rationality: despite his religiousness and his belief in God and miracles, he manages to see the perfectly ordinary, natural explanation of the problem. He is a devout, educated and "civilized" clergyman, who is totally familiar with contemporary and secular thought and behaviour. His character was thought to be based on Father John O’Connor, a parish priest in Bradford, Yorkshire."

Acquired:  Purchased the free kindle edition.

Reason for Reading: Next in the series.

This second collection of Fr. Brown lacks the appeal of the first collection.  I enjoyed some stories, but found many to be disappointing in that they were short of being actual mysteries in the sense that I had expected them to be.  Sometimes crimes were not really even committed and Fr. Brown was presented with more of a puzzle or conundrum to solve.  When there is a crime the story will finish with Brown's solution and the police or any legal justice is hardly called to hand, something I'm finding difficult to get used to with these stories from both volumes so far.  These stories are incredibly less religious in nature than the first volume though they all do carry a religious moral ethic as that is the nature of Fr. Brown's sleuthing methods.  I was disappointed that Flambeau was rarely seen in this collection as I had come to consider him Brown's sidekick in the first volume but at least the narration has settled it's tone from the first and is written purely in the third person throughout these stories.  An acceptable and entertaining read but nowhere near as good as "The Innocence of Father Brown". Chesterton, in real life, had still not converted to Catholicism at the point when these stories were published and I am interested to see if there will be any noticeable difference in the next volume which was published four years after his conversion.

1. The Absence of Mr. Glass - What a fantastic story to start this collection!  Not a mystery though by any means, more of a puzzle, a conundrum.  Fr. Brown goes to a detective to enlist his services to help determine whether a young man is suitable to marry  a young woman known to him.  Her mother is dead-set against the marriage as the suitor has a bit of mystery surrounding him, yet everyone else concerned is happy for the young lovers.  As the party descends upon young Mr. Todhunter's rooms, they have need to break down the door upon which they find him bound and gagged in the corner.  The detective then takes the disarray of the room into account and tells the nefarious doings of the young man and the mystery of one Mr. Glass.  When he is finished Fr. Brown laughs and from the clues tells all the truth of what has happened and whether Mr. Todhunter is a suitable suitor or not.  Very clever and a delight to read!  5/5

2. The Paradise of Thieves - I don't have a lot to say on this one.  I've been busy and couldn't get my mind onto it; whether it was me or the story I can't say for sure.  However, it wasn't terribly entertaining and I never had a great sense of what was going on or cared for that matter.  It involved a kidnapping.  3/5

3. The Duel of Dr. Hirsch - Another story that didn't quite satisfy, very political.  Early on reference is made to another case which I ignored but repeated mention of this case made me google it to see if it was a true crime and indeed it was happening about 20 years prior to the publishing of this book.  Perhaps if one were up on these current events at the time the story would have been more enjoyable?  However, it wasn't pertinent to the case presented here in its outcome and I was rather disappointed to have figured out the twist before the end.  This story does at least bring Flambeau back into the picture.  Hoping the next story will be better.  2.5/5

4. The Man in the Passage - Finally, a proper mystery!  Fr. Brown is in fine form in this story.  He arrives backstage at the Apollo Theatre where the star actress has called him to attend to her.  There he finds her in the company of four others: two suitors, her leading man and her male servant.  Miss Rome is obviously anxious to speak to Fr. and uses her charms to clear the room.  As she sees one man out of the building she is heard walking down the passage to watch his progress down the street then a scream and kerfuffle is heard and the two suitors are heard exclaiming about seeing a man in the passage.  Poor Miss Rome is found dead, the leading man is obviously arrested as the killer but it is upon the witness stand that Fr. Brown unravels the simple events of that evening proclaiming whom both the man in the passage and the killer each were.  I liked that the killer received their just rewards in this case, even if it was in a round about way. (4/5)

5. The Mistake of the Machine - Well this is a funny tale involving, in a round about way, a wealthy man who holds obscurely themed parties each year.  Starting off with a police detective telling Fr. Brown of a murder the previous evening of a warden after a prisoner escaped and his subsequent arrest of the culprit, a shabbily dressed man running across a nearby field.  His guilt is all but proven to the detective by the use of his highly prized "psychometric" machine which measures the variations in one's pulse and thus can tell if a person is under stress and agitated during questioning.  Fr. Brown is quite witty with his observations about the machine vs its operator and quite blows apart the detective's story. Though the detective has indeed caught a criminal it is not the one he thinks he has and Fr. Brown solves both the identity of the apprehended man and the true perpetrator of the prison escape and murder of the warden.  A clever tale with an ending that surprised me.  (4/5)

6. The Head of Caesar - Not quite a proper mystery in the ordinary sense but a crime and a puzzle that Fr. Brown wittily solves again.  I really enjoyed this story and it is unique in it's telling.  Flambeau is present at the beginning and end but doesn't play a major role.  Most of the story takes place in a pub as a woman confesses her entire story to Fr. while the rest plays out at the scene of the crime where Brown wraps up the final pieces.  A story of its time but good.  (5/5)

7.  The Purple Wig - Another fine puzzle mystery though no actual crime is committed again.  This time it's more of a moral conundrum and this case takes on the British aristocracy and class system of the early 1900s.  A journalist happens upon a table outside a pub finding three men, a doctor, a priest and an otherwise respectable gentleman other than his purplish wig.  Here they converse and the topic turns to the old tales and curse of the Dukes of Exmoor.  I won't say more but a twist in the middle turns into a double twist at the end for a fun story.  Though again, not really a mystery.  (4/5)

8. The Perishing of the Pendragons - The last few stories have been following a similar format and this one is no different.  Brown and Flambeau are on a small holiday for Brown's health; he is suffering depression.  They are taking a river cruise to the Pendragon estates and regaled with the family's legend which includes the mysterious burning tower.  Brown just happens to have a hose in hand when the tower really starts to burn and the Father unravels the legend of yore and the current use of the legend.  Again not exactly what I consider a mystery (ie no crime to solve) but Fr. does stop a crime from being committed and solve another puzzle.  Not as entertaining as others but ok.  Finally some good Brown/Flambeau interaction which is sorely lacking in this collection.  (3/5)

9. The God of the Gongs - I'm the last person to judge a story based on modern society's views on certain elements such as race and sexism and always view a story from within the time period it was written.  However, I could find no redeeming value in this story.  To begin with it was a less than entertaining mystery and blatantly racist against the "negro" race.  The n-word was used frequently and flippantly.  I admit my disgust with the racism and rampant blatant derogatory references made me hurry and get this one over with; I really could not find that it was even trying to be positive within the constraints of the time it was written.  In my opinion, this is a racist story even for the time period in which it was written.  (0/5)

10.  The Salad of Colonel Cray - Finally a genuine mystery and a fun one at that!  A burglary takes place and only condiments seem to have been stolen.  But when someone is poisoned it is Fr. Brown who happens to have the simple remedy to the rare poison just in the nick of time.  (4/5)

11. The Strange Crime of John Boulnois - Rumours of a woman having an affair with a man abound and when he is stabbed and publicly found with his dying breath accuses the scorned husband John Boulnois the crime appears to be fait au complete.  However, the priest on hand, Fr. Brown, takes one look around and knows all is not as it appears.  Clever tale; the motives are old-fashionably unbelievable but nonetheless a good story.  (4/5)

12. The Fairy Tale of Father Brown - For the final tale in this book it is nice to have Flambeau return.  But once again this is not really a crime or a mystery as one expects.  As in a previous story we are presented with a mysterious death from the past.  Flambeau recounts the details as they were given him by one of the investigating detectives at the time.  A prince had been found dead with a bullet in his head and yet there had been no shot fired and only a bullet mark found upon his cravat.  After hearing the details of the strange tale, Fr. Brown is able to tell his version of what most likely happened; who the guilty party was and who it wasn't are quite interesting to say the least.  A good story to end the volume.  (4/5)

Monday, February 11, 2013

27. Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. (US) - (Canada) - (Kindle)
Flat Stanley, #1

Pages: 112 pg
Ages: 6+
Finished: Feb 5, 2013
First Published: 1964 (with these illustrations, 2009)
Publisher: Harper Collins
Interests: children, fantasy, humour
Rating:  4/5

First sentence: "Breakfast was ready"

Publisher's Summary: "When Stanley Lambchop wakes up one morning, his brother, Arthur, is yelling.

A bulletin board fell on Stanley during the night, and now he is only half an inch thick!

Amazing things begin happening to him. Stanley gets rolled up, mailed, and flown like a kite. He even gets to help catch two dangerous art thieves. He may be flat, but he's a hero!"

Acquired:  Purchased a digital ebook.

Reason for Reading:  My son read this as his reader while I was away on vacation and I promised I would read it too.  I have read it before a few other times in the past.

Stanley's original adventure never ceases to amuse me and any child I have read it to for the first time has always found a lot of fun within these pages.  Yes, we can tell that the story is taking place in some that took place much earlier than our "here and now" and while contemporary when written it now adds a sense of vintage charm to the story.  When things were simpler, when people were politer and when they sorted out their grievances right quick even if it did involve a push and a shove.  The old-fashionedness didn't bother my son at all and I found it rather quaint. Stanley has fun adventures being flat; his brother Arthur is jealous at first but in the end Stanley just wants to be his regular self.  A fun story that started "The Flat Stanley Project".  The illustrations in this book are nice but they are not the originals which I will always prefer.  Fun book for early chapterbook readers with several more in this series plus a couple of spin-off series.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

26. Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley (US) - (Canada) - (Kindle)

Pages: 362
Ages: 18+
Finished: Feb 3, 2013
First Published: Jan 29, 2013
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Interests: cosy mystery, British village, Canadian author
Rating:  4/5

First sentence: "Blood dripped from the neck of the severed head and fell in a drizzle of red raindrops, clotting into a ruby pool upon the black and white tiles."

Publisher's Summary: "In the fifth book of the New York Times bestselling series, featuring Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley pens his most chilling mystery yet, and introduces a new character into the mix whose actions will have lasting consequences on Bishop's Lacey, the de Luce family, and especially Flavia herself.

When the tomb of St. Tancred is opened at the village church in Bishop's Lacey, its shocking contents lead to another case for Flavia de Luce. Greed, pride, and murder result in old secrets coming to light—along with a forgotten flower that hasn't been seen for half a thousand years."

Acquired:  I received a review copy from Random House Canada.

Reason for Reading:  Next in the series.

One of my favourite times of the year is settling down with the new Flavia de Luce mystery and as usual this one didn't disappoint.  For the small British village that has more than it's fair share of murders, author Bradley keeps coming up with entertaining and unique scenarios that suspends belief at the reality of just how deadly the little hamlet of Bishop's Lacey has become.  Flavia is one of my favourite current detectives, charming, clever smart and just a tad morbid.  I really like how through the five books Flavia and her two sisters have grown and matured and that time is passing (though slower than in real time) and events are occurring in their lives making the characters' ongoing stories a part of the series as well.  As usual the murder was fun, with several possibilities and kept me guessing till close to the end.  Before I read this book I had heard that there was a 'cliffhanger' ending and that some readers were not too pleased.  All previous books have finite complete endings, so this 'cliffhanger', if you will, is indeed different but it hardly surprised me and was an inevitable plot story line that would have been disappointing had it not ever come to fruition.  I'm hardly displeased that the author chose to throw us that last line to let fans of the series know what direction the next book will take.  I know I'm very excited to see what happens with the de Luce family in the next book.  My favourite cozy series I'm reading at the moment!

Friday, February 1, 2013

22. Hating Heidi Foster by Jeffrey Blount

Hating Heidi Foster by Jeffrey Blount (US) - (Canada) - (Kindle)

Pages: 105
Ages: 12+
Finished: Jan. 25, 2013
First Published: October 25, 2012
Publisher: Alluvion Press
Interests: YA, realistic fiction, friendship, death, grief
Rating:  5/5

First sentence: "I have never been very good with faces."

Publisher's Summary: "Mae McBride and Heidi Foster were the very best of friends. Tied at the hip from early elementary school, their relationship was the stuff of storybooks, legendary even, in the minds of their high school classmates.


That is, until Mae's father died while saving Heidi's life. When Mae finds out, she blames Heidi. She blames her father for putting Heidi ahead of her. She blames her friends for taking Heidi’s side. She begins to unravel amid that blame and her uncontrollable and atypical anger.

At the same time Heidi is beset by guilt, falls into depression and stops eating properly; wasting away physically and emotionally while waiting for Mae to let her back into the friendship she misses so dearly. 

Mae, consumed by her hatred of Heidi, the confusion regarding her father’s motives, the perceived desertion of her friends and her mother’s grief, loses more and more of herself.

What could possibly bring these two old friends back to each other? A miracle?

Hating Heidi Foster, is a young adult novel about the place of honor true friendships hold in our lives. It is about suffering and loss and the ethics of grief. It is about a deep and painful conflict, the bright light of selflessness and sacrifice and the love that rights the ship and carries us safely to port."

Acquired:  Received a review copy from the book's publicist.

Reason for Reading:  Teen books about death don't usually appeal to me but this one did for a couple of reasons.  From the synopses I gathered the focus was going to be on the aftermath of the parental death (and not the agonizing leading up to that point of many teen death books) and secondly this sounded unique to me that the other focus was on friendship and how a tragic event affected a tight, close knit friendship.  I also knew I could pass this on to my 14yo niece when I was finished as this is sooooo her type of book :-)

I am right pleased with having read this book.  Far from the typical teen book dealing with death that I have read in the past this book focuses on how the death of a loved one affects us and how we can come to terms with it.  It is a short book and a quick read but packs a powerful punch.  The book starts off with the death of Mae's father while rescuing her BFF Heidi from a burning building but by Chapter 3 it is three months later.  Told in the first person from Mae's point of view we also always get the sense that she is speaking from somewhere in her future and she is telling us this story from her past.  While telling her story as if it is happening Mae also tells it with the wisdom of hindsight explaining her emotions in much more detail than she would have understood them at the time.  By the end of the book we realize that Mae is much older now.  A gripping story of a girl consumed by anger who slowly through the love of the very one she lost learns how to love again.  Highly recommended!