Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

harkBookCalvin and Hobbes meets A Short History of Nearly Everything in this hilariously quirky anthology from webcomic artist Kate Beaton.  Beaton’s comics draw their themes heavily from history and literature, with subjects ranging from Sherlock Holmes (and the Case of the Two Watsons) to the French Revolution (traitor baby!) to St. Francis of Assisi (the birds are his brothers).  While that may not sound like a recipe for comedic brilliance, Beaton has a keen eye for history’s absurdities and a playful sense of humor that has spawned many an internet meme.  Her art style–charmingly boneless and wide-eyed people abound–is instantly recognizable and easy to love.

Fortunately for those of us who may not be as well-informed on Canadian History, Ancient Rome or the Bronte Sisters as Beaton herself, she provides brief notes along with most strips that offer background knowledge and further information (and the occasional wisecrack).  Between these and the comics themselves, it’s easy to come for the humor and learn a little something by accident.  As a bonus, parents who fall under the spell of Hark! A Vagrant can look forward to Beaton’s first picture book, The Princess and the Pony, due to arrive at the end of June.  And, of course, fans can always find more Hark! A Vagrant at http://www.harkavagrant.com/.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

girl on the trainBook – Rachel rides the train into London every day and fantasizes about the idyllic couple that she can see through the train window on her daily commute.  She has even named them and imagines what their daily lives are like.  She is obsessed with them, because the couple lives in a house near where she and her ex-husband Tom used to live together and she is still in love with him and wishes that her married life would have been as perfect as the couple she views from the train. Things spiral out of control when Anna, the wife of the golden couple vanishes.  Rachel had witnessed Ann kissing another man the day before her disappearance.   Rachel is questioned by the police after they receive a tip from Tom’s new wife that Rachel was in the area on the day that Anna vanished and that she was drunk and out of control. Rachel battles her alcoholism and desperately launches her own investigation trying to retrieve memories clouded by her inebriation.   As she slowly pulls herself together the reality of what really happened to Anna is a shocker!

A top notch thriller of psychological suspense, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has received starred reviews from BookList, Publisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus.  This book should appeal to fans of Gone Girl and it is also going to be made into a movie.

Naming Nature by Carol K. Yoon

naming natureBook – Why do we group some species of animals together, to say these are more like each other than they are like something else? And how do we know we’re right? Carol K. Yoon, a biologist turned science writer, argues that the “right” way to classify things depends on what we’re organizing them for, and in this case, the scientifically “right” way may actually be entirely wrong for the rest of us. Naming Nature is structured around the idea of the umwelt, the natural human sense of the living world around us. Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, worked almost entirely out of his own well-developed umwelt.

Unfortunately, the umwelt does not match up at all with the distinctions important to science – the evolutionary history of species. So the history of modern taxonomy has been a history of ever-more precise definitions of evolutionary relationships which are also ever-more distant from the way humans actually see the world. (For instance: scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fish, as a category.) Yoon concludes that, given that humans seem to be more and more disconnected from the natural world, we should leave scientific taxonomy to science and re-take folk taxonomy for the rest of us. For most people fish exist, and unless you’re a scientist that’s all that matters.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

particularBook – Imagine if you could taste someone’s emotions when you bite into a piece of cake, fresh from the oven.  Maybe you’d taste your mother’s happiness at the success of a new recipe, or the local baker’s despair of his broken marriage.  Would it be a gift?  Or a curse?

Aimee Bender’s explores this whimsical idea in her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.  On her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein is shocked to discover she has a taste for feelings after biting into a slice of cake baked by her mother. In that first bite, her world is shattered when Rose tastes her mother’s sadness and anguish.   Her new-found “gift” sends her reeling from the impact of knowing too much about people’s hidden secrets.  There is no escape from the emotions that assault her.  In this magical coming of age novel, Bender weaves a sorrowful, yet hopeful tale of a young girl caught up in the sentiments of others, trying to find herself among them.

I thought this was a wonderful read, a simple yet fantastical story that is actually quite relatable.  While the element of magic may not be found in our own lives, every family has its hidden secrets, the things we try to bury within ourselves.  This novel allows us to consider what might happen if those secrets were revealed, as well as realize the burden they hold over us.


Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

elizabeth is missingBook – Maud is concerned that her friend Elizabeth is missing.  Maud is also aware that she frequently forgets things and becomes confused; that’s why she writes things down of importance on pieces of paper that she leaves around her house or stuffed in her pockets or purse.  She is distraught because no one takes her seriously regarding her friend’s disappearance. Maud’s search brings up other old memories, the disappearance of her sister Sukey during post World War II.  Though authorities determined that Sukey simply ran away to start a new life away from her husband, due to lack of evidence to suggest foul play,  Maud has always been haunted that her older sister would have shared this secret with her and bid her farewell. Could the two mysteries be connected?

This is a bittersweet glimpse inside Maud’s dementia.  She doesn’t always know who her daughter is, she keeps buying tins of peach slices when she has a pantry full, and forgets to drink the cups of tea she’s made.  We feel her panic when she gets lost or can’t remember why she is at a certain place and why she is interacting with “strangers”.   She realizes that she may only have a short time until her memory fails her completely to resolve the disappearances of her friend and sister.

This is the author’s first book and it received starred reviews from Library Journal and BookList.  This novel would make an excellent book club selection.


Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book – It’s 2026, and one hundred scientists have launched in the Ares to become the first Martian colony. They have plenty of challenges to overcome – the extreme cold and unbreathable air, the time lag in communicating with home, the need to extract water from the local environment, the radiation they’ll be exposed to through Mars’s thin atmosphere. And, of course, each other. Red Marsthe first book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, follows the colonists through the first thirty-five years of colonization, from the launch and early terraforming through the growing influence of Earth politics and corporations on their new world.

I found the details of the mission interesting, but I was really fascinated by the wonderful characters and all their different points of view. Maya, Frank, and John are in a complicated love triangle; Nadia finds Maya ridiculous but loves her work; Arkady’s on a mission to reform the political structure of the world; Sax is on a mission to reform the biology of Mars. Each section is from a different character’s point of view, so things that seemed reasonable from one angle seem crazy from another, and vice-versa. It’s a fascinating book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.

House of Cards, Season 1 (2013)

House-of-Cards-Poster1TV Series – Francis J. Underwood, or Frank, has done all he can to ensure that Garrett Walker will be the 45th President of the United States. In return for doing his part, Frank only asks for what he deserves: to be made Secretary of State. Things take a startling turn when those in power whom Frank believed he could persuade, manipulate and control decide to give his position to someone else.

Frank is not content treated so poorly, nor is he willing to remain House Majority Whip forever. Instead, with his wife, Claire, he begins to plot a fitting revenge. A scheme worthy of Shakespearean play and, in many ways, quite similar.

To achieve their own joint (and personal) goals, they will use the President, the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, the Chief of Police, Senators, Representatives, Governors, Ambassadors, billionaires, photographers and reporters as pawns. All the while both of them know they can’t really rely on or confide in those around them.

And if they can’t trust anyone, can they even trust each other?

The acting throughout is consistently excellent. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright do a brilliant job of playing the lead characters. Superbly written and darkly entertaining, House of Cards Season 1 (as well as Season 2 and Season 3) is well worth a watch. Or, in my case, a very frequent re-watch.

Storm Glass by Maria V. Snyder

storm-glassBook – When you are the only student at the Academy with one ability, life can be kind of hard. When you also are the one who poisoned the hero of Sitia, regardless of the circumstances, life is even harder. This is what Opal Cowen deals with day after day. Now she has been summoned to help the Stormdancer clan and her unique abilities are exactly what they need. But is she ready to go out and deal with intrigue beyond her personal boundaries?

Maria Snyder has opened a phenomenal new chapter in Sitia and Ixia’s history with Storm Glass. She has continued where she left off in her Study Series and brought a new flavor to a familiar world. Opal is an endearing character who has a very hard time believing in her magical ability. I enjoyed watching her take her life experiences as a glassblower and applying it to the Stormdancer clans’ issues and come out ahead. With this continuation of the Study Series, Maria V. Snyder gives us new magic and new people and delights us once again with her storytelling and world building.

Penny Dreadful (2014)

Penny DreadfulTV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.

Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.

Soulless by Gail Carriger

soullessBook – Miss Alexia Tarabotti is not your average twenty-six-year-old spinster in Victorian London.  Along with her Italian name, her headstrong temperament, her distressing complexion and her even more distressing nose, Alexia inherited something noteworthy from her father: her missing soul.  Alexia is a preternatural, a soulless human whose touch can exorcise ghosts and transform vampires and werewolves back to their human forms.  Her preternatural status is a closely guarded secret from humans, even from her own family, but it brings her to the attention of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, headed by the exasperating alpha werewolf, Lord Conall Maccon.  And when Alexia accidentally kills a vampire at a party and is launched into a web of supernatural intrigue extending far beyond her usual sphere, she finds herself entangled with Lord Maccon in all sorts of new and exciting–though still exasperating–ways.

As an infrequent reader of romances of any kind but a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I was pleasantly surprised by how entirely I found myself rooting for the romantic subplot in this scrumptious confection of a fast-paced steampunk adventure.  Soulless is a purely fluffy read, but delightfully so, the kind of light-hearted, feel-good, take-you-away-from-your-troubles indulgence of a book that we all need every once in a while.  It would make an outstanding book to take away on vacation–and with four other books in this series, a manga adaptation and two separate spin-off series in progress, it might just leave you eager to get home and read more of Alexia’s world.