Review of “Wild Country” by Anne Bishop

Anne Bishop has two related series that are set in a fantasy world called Namid, mostly divided into humans and the terra indigene, commonly known as the Others. The first series was “The Courtyards of the Others,” and this is the second installment of the next series, called “The World of the Others.”

These Others include shapeshifters (such as werewolves), vampires, “elementals,” and “harvesters,” inter alia. There is also a third sort of in-between category of beings who are mostly human but have extra-sensory perceptiveness. The two subsets of this group are the cassandra sangue or blood prophets – females who can see visions of the future after self-mutilation or reading cards; and Intuits, humans with enhanced instincts that enable them to sense danger.

The four books from The Courtyard of the Others series set in Lakeside

In the first series, a political movement- Humans First and Last (HFL), tried to challenge the hegemony of the Others and “take back the land” (which of course was never theirs in the first place). This upset the harmony of the world and led to a great culling of humans by unhappy Elders, who are the primal, dangerous, and most powerful form of the terra indigene. The Elders, also known as “Namid’s teeth and claws,” wiped out entire populations of some human towns and brutally thinned out populations of others. Now they are “staying nearby, waiting for humans to make another mistake.”

You may wonder, why do they let any humans live? The answer in part is, the Others need prey. In addition, they have come to rely upon some of the technological inventions of humans. And finally, some have found friendship with humans who are not evil.

The first series took place in Lakeside, where humans and Others mixed in a unique situation facilitated by the endearing characters of the werewolf Simon Wolfgard and the cassandra sangue Meg Corbyn. Fans were upset when the author announced that Etched in Bone was the last book that would take place in the city of Lakeside, but not the last taking place in this particular world the author created. But happily, we need not have been worried.

In this book, Bishop places the story in the Midwest town of Bennett, an important crossroads for remaining humans. The town is led by the vampire Tolya Sanguinati with the help of Jesse Walker, a human Intuit from the nearby settlement of Prairie Gold. Although all Intuits have a heightened sensitivity to the world, each Intuit’s sensitivity is unique; for Jesse, her speciality is ascertaining whether people are safe or dangerous.

Tolya agrees with Jesse that Bennett needs more people, and they begin to recruit settlers from specific professions the town needs but is lacking. One of the first to arrive is Jana Paniccia, a new police woman, who is sent to work for the Sheriff, Virgil Wolfgard. Virgil lost almost his whole wolf pack in the HFL attack, and has little trust in, or regard for, humans. Predictably, their relationship evolves in a way reminiscent of Simon and Meg in Lakeside.

There are also a number of “bad guys” who come to this burgeoning “frontier town,” with the intent of doing harm. Like the bad guys in previous books, they seem not to have gotten the message that it is difficult to win any battle against the terra indigene. Yes, they can make some inroads using guns, but there is only so much they can do against the supernatural strength and powers of “Namid’s teeth and claws.” But in this case there is a difference: at least some of these bad guys have an advantage – they are Intuits – expert at manipulation of others.

As we get to know all the new residents of Bennett, it is easy to see many similarities to the stories from the previous series set in Lakeside, from details about setting up the town, to character “types,” to the inevitable arrival of destructive human villains. There are even a number of references to the Lakeside characters. And the denouement is similar: frontier town or not, there will be a “showdown,” with both humans and Others in danger. Working together, they might have a chance to vanquish the malefactors, but not all of them will survive.

Evaluation: While this is not a standalone, and the plot arc is virtually identical to previous books by Bishop set in this world, fans will be unlikely to complain about a formula they already love. Some of the characters are as endearing as those in Lakeside – a good basis for more stories centered on Bennett.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by ACE, a Berkley book, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2019

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Kid Lit Review of “Disappearing Acts: A Search-and-Find-Book of Endangered Animals” by Isabella Bunnell

Each double-page spread of this gorgeous book is densely-packed with colorful watercolors showing different ecosystems. These include rainforests, mountains, reefs, deserts, the world underground, caves, freshwater habitats, oceans, grasslands, and skies. Within each picture, readers are encouraged to locate the endangered species common to that ecosystem. A guide to what species to search for is given on the left side. For example, the panel on the rainforest page asks readers to find the golden lion tamarin, hyacinth macaw, jaguar, cross river gorilla, and sumatran orangutan. Thumbnail sketches of each species at the back of the book describe the animals and explain just how many are left and why they are endangered.

Thus we learn, for example, there are only around 250 riverine rabbits in the Karoo Desert in South Africa, and an astonishingly low number – 64 – of white-headed langurs, which are found in Vietnam. Some of the species detailed have “Unknown” written beside the heading “Numbers Left.” Sadder still, the most common reasons given for their endangerment are habitat loss and poaching.

The dazzling pictures created by the author/illustrator were made using a Pantone color matching system to enhance their aesthetic appeal. In addition, the book has a linen spine and embossed lettering on the cover, with sturdy pages within that will hold up for repeated perusals.

Evaluation: The beauty of the packaging may convey the meta-message about the splendor of the natural environment, and how much is at stake if we don’t do a better job preserving it. There are also a lot of interesting facts for kids in this book, which definitely will appeal to eager learners. Only one small critique: I would have liked to see links to sites suggesting actions feasible for kids to help mitigate the devastation of the environment and protection of these species.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in London by Cicada Books Limited, 2016

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Review of “The Way of All Flesh” by Ambrose Parry

This historical crime novel is set in the Victorian Era, specifically in 1847 Edinburgh, Scotland. Will Raven, 19, is newly apprenticed to the eminent physician James Simpson (an actual figure from real life), who specialized in gynecology, or as it was known then, midwifery.

When the story begins, Will has just discovered the death of a prostitute, Evie Lawson, a woman he first encountered as her customer but then befriended. Will had come to visit her and found her corpse in a gruesome state of contortion. Will fled from the scene lest he be implicated, but became obsessed with finding out what happened to Evie. He knew the police would have no interest in investigating the fate of “just another deid hoor” as one officer dismissed the case.

Before her death, Evie had made a desperate plea to Will for money. He didn’t know what it was for, but having few resources of his own, he borrowed from a less-than-savory money lender to help her. The night before he was to begin his apprenticeship, goons working for the money lender caught up with him on the street and cut his face to show they were serious about getting repaid.

Dr. Simpson takes Will along with him on the many emergency calls he receives, and has Will administer ether to patients whose families allow it. Some don’t; there was a great deal of prejudice at the time against anesthesia, mostly from religious quarters. As Will recapitulated their objections for his friend Henry, a surgical intern:

“Pain in labour is natural, a manifestation of the life force, an ordinance from the Almighty and therefore painless childbirth is unnatural and improper. Under the influence of anaesthesia, some women have been heard to use obscene and disgusting language – words that they should never have had the opportunity to hear – which of course means that it is wrong ever to employ it.”

At any rate, ether had its dangers, and Dr. Simpson was ever on the lookout for a safer method to produce a reversible insensibility during surgery.

Sir James Young Simpson, Scottish obstetrician and the first physician to demonstrate the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.

Sarah Fisher was a housemaid at the Simpson’s and also assisted with Dr. Simpson’s clinic. At first she found Will arrogant – albeit admittedly good-looking – but hoped he would eventually learn that she could be a valuable asset to him. Indeed, he does; Sarah is very bright and capable.

Nevertheless, Sarah is constantly told it is only appropriate for a man to do certain things.

Speaking of her male peers, Sarah mused:

“Given the same chance, she was confident she would excel over any of them, so it stung when all they saw was a housemaid.”

She thought Will, too, exhibited “the male trait of believing the world revolved around them, usually because it did.”

The women in the Simpson household have accepted the hegemony of men, telling Sarah that “a woman’s God-given role is to be a wife and mother.” Thus, Sarah noted, women were “encouraged to fuss over fripperies as they concerned themselves with how they might adorn themselves the better to please men.” At the same time, they were excoriated for employing these same fripperies to “tempt” men to engage in “sinful” behavior.

Before long, the bodies other women – mostly from the lower class, were discovered in the same contorted throes of death as Evie had suffered. Sarah and Will began to work together to solve the mystery of what was happening.

The authors conclude with a Historical Note, in which they state that many of the characters and incidents depicted are based on real events and real people, and they provide examples.

Discussion: Much of the plot turns on two medical controversies swirling at the time; as indicated above, one involved the use of anesthesia during surgery – especially during childbirth – and the other involved the supervision of women’s bodies by men. Alas, over 170 years later, in August 2019, I came across this in an article:

“Women’s bodies are one of the biggest political battlegrounds of our time. What should in many ways be personal – a woman’s body – is instead political. The assault ranges from the recent clampdown on family planning in the United States (and its global gag rule prohibiting funding for international family-planning organisations that discuss or offer abortion), to new repressive restrictions on clothing, including ‘burqa bans’, or new laws in a growing number of European countries that aim to abolish women’s ability to monetise their bodies. Everyone, it seems, has a view on what women should or shouldn’t be doing with their own bodies.”

 

Moreover, the article continues:

“Still, today, almost one in two pregnancies globally are not intended, and more than 200 million women worldwide who would like to control their fertility have no access to birth-control technology. . . . In the US, the assault on family planning includes headline-grabbing changes to abortion law in certain states, renewed offensives on Planned Parenthood, an organisation that provides birth control and sexual health services for millions of the poorest women in the US . . . .”

It should be noted that Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym for the married couple Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. Brookmyre has written over twenty novels for which he has won a number of awards, and Dr. Haetzman is a consultant anesthetist. The information provided on the authors explained that Dr. Haetzman uncovered the material for this novel while doing research for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.

The Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, Scotland est. in 1729 plays a role in the story. Photograph by Francis Caird Inglis, ca. 1920. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Evaluation: Although there were two authors writing this novel (see Discussion, above), the writing was seamless. The Edinburgh setting appealed to me, as well as the evolution of the main characters. There were a number of twists, and the ending caught me completely by surprise.

It turns out that this book is to be the first in a series, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company SunnyMarch already pre-empting the television rights. I’m delighted to hear it; I look forward to returning to these characters as well as to Victorian Edinburgh and the history of medicine.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.K. by Canongate, 2018

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Review of “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law” by Preet Bharara

Preet Bharara served as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) from 2009 to 2017. In that position, as the New York Times noted, Bharara “made a name for himself as one of the nation’s most aggressive and outspoken prosecutors of public corruption and Wall Street crime.” During his tenure, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the SDNY prosecuted nearly 100 Wall Street executives for insider trading and other offenses. He reached historic settlements and fines with the four largest banks in the United States, and closed multibillion-dollar hedge funds for activities including insider trading.

Nevertheless, in March, 2017, he and 45 other United States attorneys around the country were abruptly told to resign by President Trump. This book is not about President Trump, however, nor about the decision by Trump to fire Bharara. Rather, this very entertaining book provides an overview of the criminal justice system by offering fascinating anecdotes about famous cases that went through Bharara’s office.

For those who love “true crime” podcasts or even “Law and Order,” this book will not disappoint.

The book is divided into four sections: Inquiry, Accusation, Judgment, and Punishment. Bharara has two main underlying themes. One is that all of the actors involved, on both sides of the law, are human beings, and have human needs, and make human mistakes. Another, but not unrelated to the first, is that rapport works better than coercion and brutality – especially in the information gathering stages, and that when the prosecution shows respect to the identity and needs of a perpetrator, it is infinitely more fruitful. [Or as my parents used to admonish me (uselessly, it’s sad to say), “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”]

The chapter on methods of interrogation is especially good at illustrating that point. Bharara contends that whether interrogations are done in peacetime or war, or on criminals or terrorists, some methods work consistently better than others. For example, Bharara provides evidence that the notorious torture of alleged terrorists by the CIA produced very little useful information. On the other hand, he maintains, kindness, empathy, and building relationships, rather than brute force, have proven effective in getting people to talk. What most perpetrators want, Bharara argues, is to be respected for who they are and to get to tell their own story, rather than having lawyers or media place them in unflattering boxes. Treat them like human beings, Bharara says, and they will start providing names, connections, and background. The least likely to talk or flip? Surprisingly, Bharara writes, it’s not Islamic terrorists as many people would guess, but police. Their code of silence, preventing the police from incriminating other officers for their wrongdoings, is a harder barrier to crack than even the Mafia’s Law of Omertà – the code of honor that places importance on non-cooperation with outsiders, especially those in law enforcement.

Some of the stories are shocking, and all are thought-provoking. Perhaps the saddest anecdotes come out of Bharara’s coverage of Rikers Island, in the section on punishment.

Rikers Island in New York is one of the world’s largest correctional institutions. Approximately 85% of those detained there have not been convicted of a crime, but rather are awaiting trial, either held without bail or remanded in custody. The others in the prison population have been convicted and are serving short sentences. But regardless of why they are in Rikers, prisoners must deal with shocking brutality. Reports indicate Rikers is notorious for violence within the walls — a place where inmates attack inmates, inmates attack correction officers, and correction officers attack inmates. An exposé in Mother Jones found:

“When it comes to ignominies, New York City’s island jail complex has it all: inmate violence, staff brutality, rape, abuse of adolescents and the mentally ill, and one of the nation’s highest rates of solitary confinement. Rikers, which hosts 10 separate jails, has been the target of dozens of lawsuits and numerous exposés. Yet the East River island remains a dismal and dangerous place for the 12,000 or more men, women, and children held there on any given day—mostly pretrial defendants who can’t make bail and nonviolent offenders with sentences too short to ship them upstate.”

Coming up with fair methods of punishment, Bharara writes, remains a troublesome problem with no clear solutions.

Evaluation: This book is rich with informative and thought-provoking observations about doing justice, and how much “being human” sometimes helps and sometimes interferes. Bharara has a good sense of humor, skill as a raconteur, and a great deal to offer through his experiences as U.S. Attorney. I did not expect this book to be so engaging, but was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed it and learned from it.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Knopf Publishing Group, 2019

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to this book on audio. The author narrates the book in his distinctive clipped speaking style. But he comes across as warm, intelligent, thoughtful, and caring, and dedicated to treating everyone – no matter the crime – with consideration and respect.

Published unabridged on 9 CDs (approximately 10 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2019

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Kid Lit Review of “Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist” by Susan Wood

Juan Garcia Esquivel, born in Mexico, became known for his quirky compositions and “lounge music.” As the author defines this in a note at the end of the book:

“Lounge music is a contemporary term for a type of easy-to-listen-to music that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The music seemed to transport listeners to another place – a tropical island, a jungle, or outer space. It had roots in jazz and often folded in exotic sounds – rhythms, melodies, instruments, even animal calls – from faraway places. The music was relaxing – you could lounge around listening to it.”

She writes that Esquivel also was a pioneer of stereo sound, now used almost universally.

She observes that although Esquivel died in 2002, his work still inspires contemporary artists in many fields.

Juan was fascinated by music from early childhood. He taught himself to play the piano and by age fourteen, had a job performing for a local radio staton. At 17, he was offered the job of orchestra leader for the station’s popular comedy show. The author writes:

“Juan tested and mixed and blended and arranged all sorts of sounds to match the imaginary situation [being acted out by the comedy team]. He was an artist, using dips and dabs of color to create a vivid landscape. But instead of paint, Juan used sound. Weird and wild sounds! Strange and exciting sounds!”

Soon he was winning awards, and got recruited by a record company in the United States. Juan drove all the way to New York City. He loved all the new instruments he discovered there: boobams, theremins, a buzzimba, the ondioline, and a gong. “So many odd, new sounds to play with – Juan was in heaven!”

He experimented with using stereophonic sound and with having vocalists sing sounds instead of words. People loved the results. He made many records, toured, made music for television and film, and performed in Las Vegas for fourteen years.

The author writes, “Now Juan wasn’t called Juan anymore. … Now Juan was the space-age sound artist known simply as ESQUIVEL! with an exclamation point!” She adds in her note that one Chicago newspaper columnist, after hearing his show, wrote, “Esquivel is so good, he deserves two exclamation points.”

Illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh is known for creating art inspired by ancient Mexican Mixtec codices from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. To that end he draws his figures in profile and uses the traditional shape of the number three for ears.

From The Zouche-Nuttall Mixtec Codex – Enthroned Mixtec ruler (detail), © Trustees of the British Museum

Tonatiuh updates his work by adding collage textures and photographic elements into his images electronically. The result is unique and appealing, and unlike any other picture book illustrator I can name. It adds so much to a story, as well as acquainting readers with an ancient tradition of art. In this book, Tonatiuh also plays with font and color to demonstrate the wild innovations of Esquivel.

At the end of the book, in addition to the notes by the author and by the illustrator, there is a page providing additional resources, including links to Youtube where you can hear Esquivel’s music for yourself. I took the author’s advice and listened to “Mini Skirt” and other songs, and couldn’t help bobbing with the music. Admittedly, it sounded very 50s-60s, but that just made it more fun!

Evaluation: This book demonstrates the rewards of thinking outside the box – in this case, successfully creating music from non-traditional sounds. Just as audiences in the late 18th Century thrilled to the unexpected touches of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony, listeners in the 1950s and 1960s adored experiencing the inventiveness of Esquivel. Can kids pick up the similarities and differences? It would make for a great lesson and discussion session.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Charlesbridge, 2016

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