Review | The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, Abigail Tucker

29430840I’m a happily self-confessed crazy cat lady, so when I see the adorable kitten on the cover of this book and when I learn that it’s about how cats are ruling the world, it was like bookish catnip to me.

Abigail Tucker, a cat lady herself, knows her audience, and so wastes no time trying to convince us of how cute and adorable our little felines are. Rather, she delves into a scientific socio-cultural history of the species to argue her main point that the proper reaction to a house cat isn’t “awww,” but rather awe. Cats are amazing creatures not because they’re adorable and can be amused for hours by a ball of yarn, but rather because they are evolutionary masterminds, weaving their way into our hearts and homes sometimes despite all human efforts to the contrary.

Tucker begins the book with a sobering look at the endangerment and sometimes extinction of some wildcats. Due to human encroachment into their territory, lions, tigers and other wildcats are losing access to food, and far from the kings and queens of the jungle they used to be, they are now often seen in zoos and controlled sanctuaries. The house cat is therefore the evolutionary answer to human civilization — while jungle cats can’t survive in the wilds of an urban landscape, their smaller and more domesticated versions are better equipped to live in apartments and other human dwellings.

The book is chockfull of many such interesting tidbits of cat information that many cat lovers will geek out over. Most interesting to me is that the facial features of the contemporary house cat are very similar to those of lions and tigers, and that this is unusual for domesticated animals. Tucker hypothesizes that this is because, unlike dogs whom humans have bred for specific purposes, cats don’t really serve humans any purpose except to exist, and so their evolution has been mostly left alone. At one point, Tucker says, “We like to chuckle at feline savagery in miniature–but only now that we’ve won. Maybe a lion purring in our lap or cavorting in our living room evokes our global mastery, our total control of nature.” (p. 24) I admit I rebelled against that thought; I hate to think of my cooing over my cat as a form of gloating of my dominance over him. But then I remember how I laugh when he playfully nibbles at my hand, knowing he won’t actually break skin, and I wonder if Tucker may have been on to something after all.

Tucker also observes that cats’ faces are a “mesmerizing” combination of deadly killer and adorable baby, and that this effect is especially potent to women of reproductive age. I don’t know how much that is or can be backed up by science, but she supports it with some observational research on cat shows, where the language used to describe cats (“little girl” or “little boy”) sounds very maternal.

She also writes a lot about the effect of cats on a neighbourhood (sometimes the endangerment or extinction of rodent or avian species), advocacy around cats (“TNR” or trap-neuter-return as the preferred method to deal with stray cats), and on a lighter note, celebrity cats. I particularly like a chapter where she talks about how cats train their humans. According to Tucker, “These cues are unique and don’t translate across homes – an owner can heed his cat’s specific directives, but not necessarily the cat next door’s.” This training is so complete that MRI’s show “blood-flow patterns of our brains change with the tenor of the feline voice.” (p. 132) Isn’t that fascinating?

In short, whatever you feel about cats, this book is unlikely to change your mind. It’s a total geek-fest of cat history and evolution, and will likely reinforce whatever you already feel about cats in general. Are they supreme killers destroying bird and rat lives in the neighbourhood or are they highly intelligent predators who deserve their spot at the top of the food chain? Is their training of humans utterly diabolical or fantastically clever? Is it worth the time and effort to trap-neuter-return when the stats show this method having little effect on the cat population? (A note that other, deadlier measures are also shown by stats to be ineffective, and I was glad to hear that.)

I really loved this book and, as you can see from my Goodreads status updates, I geeked out over practically every chapter. Read it, enjoy, and gaze at your cat in awe for the clever little hunter and ruler they are.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult

28587957Ruth Jefferson is an African-American nurse who is pulled from the care of a newborn patient upon the request of his white supremacist parents. When the child dies while Ruth is alone in the ward, she is charged with causing his death, either through negligence or wilful murder. The story is told through three perspectives: Ruth’s, the baby’s father Turk, and Ruth’s lawyer Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender and a liberal who is forced by this trial to confront her own privilege and unconscious racism.

Jodi Picoult is never one to shy away from relevant social issues, and Small Great Things is no exception. To be honest, I don’t know quite how I feel about a white author telling a story of a Black woman’s experience of racism. To be fair, Picoult acknowledges the potentially problematic nature of this in her Author’s Note, and admits she struggled with it personally. Her solution was that she wasn’t writing it “to tell people of colour what their own lives were like” but rather “to my own community,” white people who recognize racism in a neo-Nazi skinhead but can’t recognize their own racism. I also don’t know how I feel about a story of racism becoming a story about confronting one’s own white privilege, but I admit that’s my own bias going in, and I may have felt differently if the author were a person of colour.

To Picoult’s credit, Kennedy realizes the importance of letting Ruth speak for herself on the stand, despite the risk it poses for their case. Kennedy also learns that some of the beliefs she’s long held as “liberal” are actually problematic, for example, the idea that she “doesn’t see colour.” That being said, there’s a moment near the end that made me cringe, where Kennedy gives her closing remarks to the jury and Ruth thinks

What Kennedy has said to all those strangers, it’s been the narrative of my life, the outline inside of which I have lived. But I could have screamed it from the rooftops, and it wouldn’t have done any good. For the jurors to hear it, really hear it, it had to be said by one of their own. [p. 432]

Yikes. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with Kennedy giving the closing remarks, because obviously, she’s the lawyer. Also to be fair, there is probably some truth in Ruth’s assertion above. But to have a Black character think this, particularly after they’ve had their own moment to speak and particularly within the context of celebration at potentially winning the case, felt wrong. It feels like buying into the whole White Saviour trope, and it hurt to read.

That being said, the story was engaging and an entertaining read. I like Kennedy’s character arc, and I especially like the dynamic between Ruth and her son Edison. I also like how Picoult includes Turk’s perspective, because on one hand, he’s a totally reprehensible character but on the other hand, he’s also an object of sympathy, because he’s lost his son. It’s disturbing to think that the things in Turk’s life that Picoult writes about are true (e.g. children’s parties where the piñata is shaped like a person of colour and where rather than pin the tail on the donkey, they pin a star on a Jew), but there likely are such horrible people in the world, and I’m sure there’s much worse than what Picoult included.

Picoult’s endings usually feature a surprise twist or two, and while I usually enjoy her books, I often don’t like the endings because these twists feel contrived to me. True to form, there is a surprise twist in this book as well, which I felt was unnecessary, but I actually liked the ending overall. The twist in this case felt like a minor hiccup that didn’t really change the outcome, and while the ending still felt a bit convenient, it also seemed fitting for the story and I’m glad that it happened.

I do have some mixed feelings about this book, but overall, it’s an entertaining read that prompts reflection about some difficult subjects. As Picoult points out, it’s easy to see racism when it’s someone else perpetuating it, especially if they have a swastika tattooed on their head, but it’s also important to see our own complicity in it, and to see the ways in which despite our liberal beliefs, we can also be racist.


Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Review | Closed Casket, Sophie Hannah

Poirot is back! I’m a huge Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot fan, so I admit to being initially a bit wary of Sophie Hannah’s take on such a beloved character. To Hannah’s credit, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Christie’s style nor to present a Poirot rigidly identical to Christie’s original, but rather pays homage to author and character while weaving her own yarn of a story. The mysteries themselves are akin to what Christie may have written — a series of mysterious deaths in a hotel (Monogram Murders) and a matriarch changing her will and thereby causing a murder in the family (Closed Casket) — but the dialogue and characters and plot twists feel more Hannah than Christie.

This is especially evident in Closed Casket, which I think is much better than Monogram MurdersClosed Casket just feels a lot more confident, Hannah coming into her own as a Poirot writer and simply letting the mystery take shape rather than worrying about proving how much she knows Christie’s Poirot.

It’s due to that confidence, I think, that she finally gives Edward Catchpool, her narrator, his due as a character in his own right rather than merely a bumbling foil for Poirot’s brilliance. Catchpool is, of course, still not as smart as Poirot, but we can at least understand now why Poirot saw such potential in him. Whereas Catchpool annoyed me in Monogram Murders with his sheer stupidity (seriously, how he even got a job in Scotland Yard baffled me), he appears more like a real detective in Closed Casket. He still doesn’t have quite as many little grey cells as Poirot (because no one really does), but he’s at least become a valuable partner, slightly more capable perhaps than Hastings and a bit more like Martin Freeman’s John Watson than Nigel Bruce’s take.

I also geeked out quite a bit more over the Closed Casket mystery, possibly because it felt more Christie-like, and also possibly just because I love family dramas that culminate in locked room (locked house?) murders. There is a tiny pool of suspects, all of whom have known each other for years, most of whom have a viable motive to kill. It begins with Lady Athelinda Playford, a wealthy author of children’s mysteries (and possibly Hannah’s take on Ariadne Oliver?), inviting Poirot and Catchpool to her home and then announcing to her family at dinner that she has changed her will to leave everything to her secretary rather than her children. The catch? Her secretary is fatally ill and expected to live only a few weeks more. Why would a woman leave her fortune to someone whom she will very likely outlive? And who better to figure it out than a Belgian detective with an overload of little grey cells and a penchant for relying on psychology to solve a case?

I absolutely loved the mystery in this book. Like the characters, I couldn’t figure out Athelinda’s motive for changing her will in that way, and when a murder is committed, I couldn’t figure out who could have done it or why it was done in the first place. As Catchpool and Poirot uncover clues and learn about the other characters’ stories, Hannah keeps the psychological twists and turns coming and, as with any of Christie’s best mysteries, I found it best to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Best of all, the big reveal did not disappoint. The culprit’s motivation was unexpected and chilling, and as messed up as the motive of any of Christie’s murderers.

Hannah’s Poirot isn’t (to me) as loveable as Christie’s original, but this book will certainly stay in my collection of beloved mysteries. More than anything, it made me want to read more of Sophie Hannah’s work. If she does this well with a classic character, how much better will her mysteries be when she’s completely unfettered by tradition and can completely let loose with her mystery-writing muscles? Part of me also wants to re-read Monogram Murders to see if I will appreciate it more now, and perhaps despite the annoying level of Catchpool’s stupidity, there’s the same gem of mystery genius I enjoyed so much in Closed Casket.

It’s tough to fill shoes as big as those of Agatha Christie, who is the best-selling novelist of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I hesitate to call Sophie Hannah as the successor to Christie, but then that hesitation for me would apply even to such mystery writing greats as Val McDermid and P.D. James, simply because their styles are all so different from Christie’s. Rather, I say that Sophie Hannah is a brilliant mystery author in her own right. I enjoyed Closed Casket and can’t wait to start reading Sophie Hannah’s non-Poirot mysteries.


As an aside, isn’t the UK cover (top image, right) gorgeous? Both covers have their charm, and possibly a mood will strike when I prefer the US cover, but the UK cover just really caught my eye.


Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour: Review and Giveaway | Jungle Land, Eric Walters (Seven Prequels)


When thirteen year old DJ is invited by his grandfather on a trip to Central America, he may have expected adventure, but he certainly didn’t expect to be chased by gun-toting kidnappers and wild animals. Eric Walters’ Jungle Land, part of the Seven Prequels series, is a high octane thrill-fest of an adventure whose plot twists and cliffhangers reminded me somewhat of the Hardy Boys mysteries.

Just like the Secrets series (which I’ve read and enjoyed), Jungle Land and the other books in the Seven Prequels are standalone stories that share a common thread but can be read in any order.

Jungle Land is the prequel to DJ’s further adventures Between Heaven and Earth (Seven) and Sleeper (Seven Sequels). Want to learn more? Check out for more information on the series!

Q&A with Eric Walters


What do you love most about DJ’s character?

D.J. is strong, determined, and thoughtfully conflicted between how he feels and how he has to present to look like he’s in charge.  This is very much a result of taking on so much responsibility so early after the death of a parent.  The joke with this series is that we have all written our selves into our characters.  I lost my mother when I was four and can strongly identify with who this character is and what motivates him.

2. What made you decide to set this prequel adventure in the jungles of Central America?
I often set my books in places I’m either visiting or want to visit.  I spent a lot of time in Costa Rica – staying at a hostel for young surfers – trekking through the jungle, hanging around jungle waterfalls and rivers, talking to people.  It gives the writing some details that are essential to get it right.
3. What was it like to write for one of the characters in a larger series with multiple authors? Was there a lot of collaboration involved?
This was remarkably easy.  I was fortunate enough to have chosen the writers so I chose great writers who are also great people.
4. How have your students responded to your books? What do you find works really well in getting them excited about reading?
I wrote my first 20 novels while I was teaching and my students were my constant audience.  Now I have schools that act as test audiences to help me refine my stories.  It’s so important when you’re writing for children and young people that they are your audience.
5. Who are your top 3 favourite writers and why?
Jerry Spinelli, William Bell, John Steinbeck.  They all are dynamic writers who combine dialogue, description and action is a perfect blend.

Boxed Set Giveaway (Canada only)


The kind publishers at Orca Books have offered my readers a chance to win the entire Seven Prequels boxed set, including a copy of Eric Walters’ Jungle Land!

As you see in my blog post about Secrets, a blog contest is how I was introduced to these Orca Books series in the first place, and I’m really excited to share this opportunity with all of you!

Three Ways to Enter

  1. Enter on Rafflecopter
  2. RT my #SevenPrequels contest tweet at @jacqua83
  3. Like my #SevenPrequels contest post on Instagram at @jacqua83


Thank you to Orca Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for the invitation to join the blog tour!

Review | Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia de Luce 8), Alan Bradley

28814726Flavia de Luce is back, and Bradley has finally recovered some of the magic that made me fall in love with the series in the first place! I’ve never been a fan of Bradley’s decision to take Flavia to Toronto and involve her with the spy organization Nide, so I’m thrilled to see her back in England discovering a body in her hometown.

Flavia goes to a reclusive woodcutter’s house to deliver a message from the vicar’s wife, only to find him dead, tied spread eagled and upside down to his door. The clues: a lottery ticket and a collection of Crispian Crumpet children’s books. The witness: a tortoiseshell cat. Flavia’s investigation takes her around the village and into London as she digs into the decades-old death of an author and meets a colourful cast of characters, including a neighbourhood witch, a teenage aspiring singer, and the real-life Crispian Crumpet. The mystery is full of twists and turns, and while I figured out one of the big mid-book reveals pretty much off the bat, I certainly never saw the ultimate big reveal coming, nor the bad guy’s motivation.


Brinded Cat gives us a more mature Flavia, still geeking out about chemistry and blood patterns, but slightly more subdued in her reproach. Rather than playing mischievous scientific pranks on her sisters and angling for her father’s undivided attention, this Flavia worries about her father’s health (he’s in the hospital and she’s unable to visit) and wonders about the seemingly irreparable rift between her and her sisters. Flavia’s relationship with Dogger and Undine really come to the fore in this book, with Flavia struggling to come to terms with the changes in her family while she was away and also with the fact that she’s no longer the youngest child in the household. In one scene, she scolds Undine for some mischief, only to learn that Dogger had helped her do it. Flavia felt betrayed by Dogger, not because he did anything wrong, but rather because Undine appears to have taken on Flavia’s role in Dogger’s life. It’s a really well-written moment, as is the part where Flavia looks at Undine with affection tinged with annoyance, a sort of maturation into the older sister mode.

The end of the book is just heartbreaking. Seriously, Alan Bradley, what was that for? I personally wish it had been moved earlier in the story, or at least that we had a bit more time to process it, rather than ending the book so abruptly, cliffhanger style.

Still, overall, a wonderful, captivating book, and I’m so glad to see Flavia back to form.


Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Swan Riders, Erin Bow

26409580The Swan Riders picks up right where The Scorpion Rules leaves off. Greta Stuart has become an AI to save two kingdoms from destruction and war and is now on a journey with Talis, the AI who rules the world, back to his headquarters. Their journey is perilous, partly because the transition from human to AI puts Greta as the risk of death, and also partly because Greta’s sacrifice has stirred her nation into open rebellion. The Swan Riders in the title refer to members of Talis’ army, introduced in Scorpion Rules as the ones who take the Children of Peace to their deaths, and brought to the fore here as enhanced humans who have offered Talis their fealty and the use of their bodies.

Scorpion Rules was intense, horrific, tragic. We saw the world through the eyes of Greta as a human princess with human friends who were all raised as hostages for peace. We felt her dignified resignation at her fate and her abject fear when things actually do come to a head. Swan Riders has a completely different tone and perspective, yet no less gripping and thought-provoking. We gain Greta’s new perspective as an AI who can tap into the world’s satellites yet still struggles with the dichotomy between her analytical programming and her human emotions. It’s fascinating to see things through her AI eyes, yet also heartbreaking to realize how much of her humanity has been suppressed in the transition. It’s especially disquieting to realize that because we’re in her head, we don’t even really miss the markers of her humanity until one of the other characters points it out. In one scene, Elian observes that the old Greta wouldn’t have stood back and watched someone get hurt. Greta points out, logically, that she was outnumbered, and Elian responds that old Greta wouldn’t have been deterred. It’s a disturbing realization, made all the more so because as a reader, I was so enmeshed in Greta’s new perspective that I didn’t even notice the lack of humanity in her behaviour.

While Greta remains the main perspective, much of the story’s heart really lies with Michael Talis and the swan riders Rachel (whose body Michael inhabits) and Francis Xavier (Rachel’s partner). Michael is the most powerful AI in the world, yet circumstances prompt him to examine his humanity, or whatever is left of it. It’s a nice ambiguous semi-reversal, somewhat like the flip version of Greta’s transition to AI, and it makes the series villain probably one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. Rachel’s fate is very much tied to Michael’s, and seeing Francis Xavier’s reactions to his beloved’s body being moved by an AI’s mind makes the price of the Swan Riders’ fealty very tangible.

The horror of having one’s mind violated was touched upon in Scorpion Rules, with the mention of dreamlock as a torture tactic, but it’s explored even deeper in Swan Riders. In this case, Michael entering Greta’s mind is an act of kindness, of helping her deal with human memories encroaching upon her AI thought processes. (Due to their perfect memory, AI’s don’t remember experiences, but rather relive them, with all the intensity that implies, and so can be traumatic.) But however kindly meant, it’s still a violation, and Greta fears what it does to the vestiges of her humanity. At one point, she says, “He took it, and I didn’t say he could.” This, as well as other incidents in the book, make uncomfortable parallels between mind control and rape, and again raise so many thoughts and emotions about what’s being done by a character whom we’re beginning to sympathize with.

Erin Bow’s books defy brief summaries and simple star ratings. There is just so much going on, and so much more happening between the lines, that while it’s accurate to say I loved and enjoyed her books, it’s even more accurate to say that they left me reeling at the end. Much like the ending of Scorpion Rules, with Greta’s irreversible decision to become an AI, felt both tragic and necessary, the ending of Swan Riders is similarly complex. On one glance, it’s a good ending and a good final note to the series. On the other hand, it can lead to so many more complex issues that can give rise to an even more thought-provoking third book.

Both Scorpion Rules and Swan Riders are amazing, among the most complex and mature YA books that I’ve read. I can’t predict how you’ll feel about the story, but I can predict that you’ll feel something, likely a lot of things, and that you will be left full of thoughts and questions. This series is a brilliant example of building a world and seeing where it takes you. Kudos, Ms. Bow.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness, David Casarett

28449133A few pages into this book and I already knew that Ladarat Patalung would become one of my favourite series detective characters, and that I’ll be keeping an eye out for further titles in the Ethical Chiang Mai Detective Agency series.

Nurse ethicist Ladarat Patalung, who works at a hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is pulled into three different cases. In the main mystery, a woman’s husband dies in Ladarat’s hospital and someone recognizes her as having taken a different husband to another hospital and that other husband also dying. Detective Wiriya Mookjai needs Ladarat’s help to investigate the potential of a serial killer.

The other two cases have more to do with Ladarat’s job as a nurse and an ethicist rather than with murder. In one, an American tourist is on the brink of death after an accident with an elephant, and Dr. Suphit Jainukul, the director of the ICU, needs Ladarat’s help in breaking the bad news to his family. In the other, a man mysteriously appears each day in the hospital waiting room, yet runs away whenever someone tries to talk to him. Who is the man, what does he want, and, more importantly for Dr. Jainukul, how can Ladarat get him to leave the hospital in time for an upcoming major inspection?

I love the character of Ladarat, a middle aged woman who genuinely cares about doing the right thing and who is positively geeking out over discovering her talent for detective work. She’s a modest, unassuming woman who concurs with her late husband’s assessment of her “coat hanger” figure, and notes that her “oversized glasses and hair pinned tightly in a bun admittedly did not contribute to a figure of surpassing beauty.” [p. 5] She works long hours, owns a cat named Maewfawbaahn (does anyone know if this means anything?), and, having no talent or time to cook, often orders her meals from a corner stall. In other words, she is an ordinary woman, not super brilliant so much as super empathetic, and it’s her genuine interest in people and ability to place herself in their shoes that helps her solve her cases.

I also love the developing attraction between her and Wiriya, who is described as “solid and comforting, with close-cropped graying hair, a slow smile and gentle manners that would not have been out of place in a Buddhist monk.” I love the quiet nature of their chemistry, and the fact that much of their attraction to each other is built on respect for the other’s abilities. Wiriya often comments on the acuity of Ladarat’s observations, and Ladarat clearly admires Wiriya’s skills as a detective. Even their physical attraction to each other isn’t built on Ladarat suddenly wearing better fitting clothes or applying makeup, but rather on features that perhaps other people wouldn’t pay attention to.

The mysteries as well are intriguing character studies and explorations into human nature. The motivations of the various characters whom Ladarat encounters are all so richly textured. They feel real, for lack of a better word, and I think it’s Ladarat’s perspective that makes it so. The story of the man in the waiting room is particularly intriguing, and we find this out mainly thanks to Ladarat’s willingness to, literally, see things from his perspective. The story of the murderer in the main story could have been fleshed out a bit more, in my opinion, particularly the involvement of a particular figure in their crimes, but I think that’s just because Casarett does such a good job in fleshing out other characters that, like Ladarat, I end up wanting to understand even more.

Casarett also provides a lot of detail about Thai culture, particularly customs and cuisine. It’s an intriguing glimpse into a culture I’m not too familiar with, and kudos to the author for explaining customs like the wai greeting ritual without presenting it as exotic. Casarett travels to Chiang Mai often, and his love for Thai cuisine is very much apparent in this book. He describes Ladarat’s meals with the same level of loving detail as Carolyn Keene described Hannah Gruen’s feasts in the Nancy Drew books, and I often became hungry for Thai food while reading this.

Empathy is under-emphasized as a super-skill in detective fiction, and in that, Ladarat Patalung stands out. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her and seeing her tease out the various threads in people’s stories. Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness is a strong start to a new mystery series, and I can’t wait to read more.


Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.