Wednesday, August 7

A very late goodbye.

Wow, it's been over a year and yet it seems like just yesterday I discovered goodreads. That is where I've been. A place where my book addiction is not only acceptable but encouraged. If you've been living under a rock, like I was, go check it out. You'll never go back.

Monday, June 4

Ransom Riggs: Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children

From the blurb-
...a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that Miss Peregrine's children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow-impossible though it seems-they may still be alive.
This book is illustrated with a collection of vintage photographs that were the inspiration for the children's various talents. While the said talents would be remarkable I didn't feel it was explained why that would make them dangerous and feel the author could have made more of the for-their-own-protection angle and increased the believability of the work. The story also throws up a number of logistical questions that I don't feel were adequately addressed, though it was good that the author at least acknowledged the difficulty of the situation (and I can't be less criptic without spoilers) and attempted to address it.
But perhaps I am being too picky. This is, after all, aimed at the young adult market and is the author's debut novel.
The story itself is well written and engaging. The hero is a little bland but the author captures the selfishness/thoughtlessness of his age well. The world building is a bit perfunctory but good enough as far as it goes.
After reading a lot of glowing reviews for this work in the mainstream press my expectations were quite high so maybe it was inevitable that I would come away a bit disappointed. And I am a little let down even though I did enjoy the story.-Lynn

Thursday, May 31

Phil Rickman: The Fabric of Sin

From the back of the book-
Garway church was built by medieval Knights Templar, whose stone coffin lids can be seen in its altar steps and window sills. After seven centuries, the Welsh Border village is still shadowed by their mysteries.
A few fields away, the Master House, abandoned and falling into ruin, has been sold to the Duchy of Cornwall. But renovation plans stall when a specialist builder refuses to work there, insisting it's a place that doesn't want to be restored.
Directed by the Bishop of Hereford to investigate, Merrily Watkins is unconvinced, wary of being used and suspicious of the people she's supposed to be helping. But violent death changes everything, and Merrily uncovers hidden layers of sin and retribution in a secretive landscape where local inns have astrological names and a feud between two local families has its roots in medieval history.
Warned off when her inquiries stumble into forbidden areas, Merrily has no option but to conceal a major crime as she goes back to Garway to find fibres of fear stitched into history and insidiously twisted in the corridors-and the cloisters-of power.
I read this quite some time ago and the specific details have become a little fuzzy in the intervening months. I do recall being quite satisfied with the twist ending, which is no surprise really since Rickman is one of my favourite authors and rarely does his work fail to keep my interest. He manages to intertwine the supernatural and the mundane in such a way as to effortlessly convince the reader that this is simply how the world is.
I also like that the presence of evil isn't always attributed to the metaphysical. There is quite enough evil in the hearts of man to be getting on with and Rickman uses this to great effect while still making the spiritual/paranormal an integral element of his stories.
As I said, it's been a while, and I think it's time I picked up the next in this series.-Lynn

Tuesday, May 29

Karina Machado: Spirit Sisters

From the back of the book-
Spirit Sisters illuminates the very personal ghost stories of ordinary Australian women. Journalist Karina Machado has listened to many of these stories and within these pages captures the sorrow, fear, comfort and hope that go along with them. Here she passes on their secrets and shares those incrediable moments when someone leans in to whisper their tale and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Whether you believe in the afterlife or not, reading this book will lead you to question your reality and wonder...maybe?
I sought out this book after reading its follow up Where Spirits Dwell  and just as expected Spirit Sisters offers more of the same. Reading them out of order didn't seem to make any difference both being simple collections of retold experiences.
The strengths and weaknesses of the book remain unchanged. The stories themselves are again related in a mundane language that requires quite a bit of imagination if the reader is to get a sense of the emotions claimed in the blurb but is no less interesting for that. Perhaps sometimes you really do need to be their if you are to truly understand.
Not bad but don't expect scary-Lynn.

Friday, May 18

Amanda Stevens: The Restorer

From the back of the book-
Never acknowledge the dead.
Never stray far from the hallowed ground.
Never associate with those who are haunted.
Never tempt fate.
My name is Amelia Gray. I'm a cemetery restorer who sees ghosts. In order to protect myself from the parasitic nature of the dead, I've always held fast to these rules passed down from my father. But now John Devlin, a haunted police detective, has entered my world and everything is changing.
It started with the discovery of a young woman's brutalised body in an old graveyard I've been hired to restore. The clues to the killer-and to his other victims-lie in the headstone symbolism that only I can interpret.
John needs my help, but his ghosts shadow his every move, feeding off his warmth, sustaining their presence with his energy. To warn him would be to invite them into my life. I've vowed to keep my distance, but the pull of his magnetism grows ever stronger even as the symbols lead me closer to the killer and to the gossamer veil that separates this world from the next.
This story offered an interesting spin on the traditional murder mystery and I found myself pulled in from the very start.
The main characters have a depth that I didn't expect to find in pulp fiction and their budding romance is entirely realistic.
The mystery itself is intriging without becoming overly complicated and kept me guessing until the end without introducing unbelievable twists. Which isn't to say that things don't become quite dramatic as the story reaches its climax because they do.
Overall an enjoyable light read that can stand alone, though I am pleased to discover that it is the first in an anticipated quartet. Naturally I will be continuing with this series.-Lynn

Monday, May 7

Karen Machado: Where Spirits Dwell

From the back of the book-
There are houses that are as seductive as lovers. There are houses that draw us close and never let us go, there are houses that haunt us. And then there are houses that are truly haunted, houses where spirits dwell. Are you ready to step inside?
Where Spirits Dwell unearths the creaking, spine-chilling moments when ghosts appear in suburbia. Alongside infamous Australian haunted houses, like Sydney's historic The Abbey, Karina Machado takes us away from stereotypical rundown mansions and into everyday homes-from far north Queensland to Sydney's north shore, from Tasmania's desolate coast to Melbourne's outer suburbs.
There are stories in this book that will chill you, shock you and break your heart. Meet the beautiful girl with honey-blonde hair, the stern old lady in a high-necked gown and the malignant poltergiest who lurks in a red-brick bungalow. Spirits dwell everywhere: inside restaurants, hospitals, shoping centres and even our hearts. If you dare, lose yourself in these true-life encounters of ghosts that terrorise, comfort, torment and console.
This collection of ghost stories is told in the words of those who experienced the events. While this gives the reports a ring of authenticity, it does mean they lack narrative flair. Undoubtedly the experiences were terrifying for those on the scene but the retelling, for the main part, doesn't convey a strong sense of atmophere to the reader.
The author does have a tendency to self reference an earlier work that I was not familiar with, something that would normally put me off but in this case has made me curious.
I quite like the fact that the stories were local and the settings mundane. In that respect the author has validated my own experience of growing up in a haunted house and hilighted the fact that not only grand old buildings are home to the unexplained.
An interesting collection of stories but not 'spooky'in the traditional sense.-Lynn

Friday, May 4

Carol Goodman: The Ghost Orchid

From the back of the book-
For more than one hundred years, creative souls have traveled to upstate New York to work under the captivating spell of the Bosco estate. Cradled in silence, inspired by the rough beauty of overgrown gardens and crumbling statuary, these chosen few fashion masterworks-and further Bosco's reputation as a premier artists' colony. This season, five talented artists-in-residence find themselves drawn to the history of Bosco, from the extensive network of fountains that were once its centerpiece but have long since run dry to the story of its enigmatic founder, Aurora Latham, and the series of tragic events that occurred more than a century ago.
Ellis Brooks, a first-time novelist, has come to Bosco to write a book based on Aurora and the infamous summer of 1893, when wealthy, powerful Milo Latham brought the notorious medium Corinth Blackwell to the estate to help his wife contact three of the couple's children, lost the winter before in a diphtheria epidemic. But when a seance turned deadly, Corinth and her alleged accomplice, Tom Quinn, disappeared, taking with them the Lathams' only surviving child.
The more time she spends at Bosco the more Ellis become convinced that there is an even darker, more sinister twist to the story. And she's not alone: biographer Bethesda Graham uncovers stunning revelations about Milo and Corinth; landscape architect David Fox discovers a series of hidden tunnels underneath the gardens; poet Zalman Bronsky hears the long-dry fountains' waters beckoning him; and novelist Nat Loomis feels something lingering just out of reach.
After a bizarre series of accidents befalls them, the group cannot deny the connections between the long ago and now, the living and the dead... as Ellis realized that the tangled truth may ensnare them all in its cool embrace.
I write this review some considerable time after having read the book in question, yet still the story haunts me. A well developed central plot with unexpected twists is peopled by fascinating characters in a beautifully described setting.
This writer has the knack of leading the reader up the garden path (in this instance quite literally) in such a way as to make us follow willingly and be delighted when the expected doesn't eventuate.
Great mystery, with a touch of romance and a sprinkling of chills, this is a good modern gothic.-Lynn

Thursday, May 3

Sarah Waters: Affinity

An upperclass woman recovering from a suicide attempt becomes a volunteer visitor at Millbank women's prison. It is 1874, spiritualism is at its height, and one of the inmates is a genteel medium convicted of fraud. This woman stands out amongst the murderers and thieves who surround her.
The visitor develops a special bond with the medium and after a sceptical start becomes convinced that her abilities are real. Eventually she falls in love with the woman and helps her plan her escape. She is to arrange the mundane aspects of their getaway, while the woman insists that the spirits will help her with the actual prison break.
But will, the desperate plan work?
I have mixed feelings about this work. I have quite enjoyed stories by Waters in the past but I don't feel that this one lived up to its potential.
The pace was very slow and at times I felt I was reading a tract on the conditions and workings of ninteenth century prisons.
Having said that, the story had a feeling of truth to it, the characters were quite believable, if somewhat unsympathetic. The ending is good in that it brings everything to light but somehow it still felt loose to me.
I think there was a lot that might have been done here that wasn't, a shame because the author's voice is strong and capable.-Lynn

Tuesday, February 21

Scott Mariani: The Mozart Conspiracy

From the back of the book-
Ben Hope is running for his life...
Enlisted by Leigh Llewellyn-the beautiful opera star and Ben's first love-to investigate her brother's mysterious death, former SAS operative Ben finds himself caught up in a centuries-old puzzle.
Officially, Oliver died in a tragic accident whilst investigating Mozart's death, but the facts don't add up. His research reveals that Mozart, a notable Freemason, may have been killed by a shadowy splinter group of the cult. The only clues lie in an ancient letter, believed to have been written by the composer himself.
When Leigh and Ben receive video evidence of a ritual sacrifice being performed, they realise that the sect still exists-and will stop at nothing to keep its secrets.
From the dreaming spires of Oxford to Venice's labrinthine canals, the majestic architecture of Vienna and Slovenia's snowy mountains, Ben and Leigh must forget the past and race across Europe to uncover the truth behind THE MOZART CONSPIRACY.

This is the literary equivilent of an action flick. The body count is high, character development low, plot thin and pace fast.
The title and blurb are a little misleading. Mozart's death and any possiblilty of a conspiracy surrounding it play no part in this novel (except as an off page trigger for the action covered by the story). There is no historical component to this story worth speaking of and very little conspiracy either for that matter. And just ofr the record, I'm not happy with the freemasons being labelled a cult. But I begin to digress.
The ending felt contrived. It read as if the author wanted to add just one more surprise twist. In doing so he pushed that bit too far and left this reader disappointed and wishing he'd left the last six chapters out.
This is a straight-forward action adventure story, unapologetically pulp fiction, where the bad guys are pointlessly ruthless and the good guys difficult to distinguish. Not that there's anything wrong with that. One of the few books that would probably make a better film. Go in with expectations low and enjoy the ride.-Lynn

Tuesday, February 7

Kaye Fallick: Get a New Life

From the back of the book-
Forget the quick-fix approach of extreme makeovers shown on reality TV. Real change is about finding out what's right for YOU-planning, researching options, discovering your own intrinsic qualities and matching them to the people, the places and the activities which sing to your soul.
What's stopping you from changing the way you live?
If you crave a more balanced life, are suffering from MTL syndrome (there's got to be More To Life than this), or have had change dumped upon you through bereavement, retrenchment, retirement or illness, taking control is the first step towards successfully managing this change.
Packed with checklists to help you determine your change-readiness, practical advice about managing your finances and inspiring profiles of those who have done it, this is the essential road map for the life you really want to live.
I must disclose straight up that I didn't read this book in its entirety but dipped in and out of the sections that I found most interesting or relevant. So while I did get through most of it, I did not read it all and my comments should be considered accordingly.
The book is divided into four parts. The first section discussed the nature of change and highlights some of the things that need to be taken into consideration before committing to any course of action. Quite frankly I found this part a bit dull and skimmed it for the most part.
The other three sections each focus on a different aspect of life and the possible choices a person might be faced with therein. They present a more practical guide for instigating change offering various checklists, goal planning advice and noting some of the resources available at the time of publishing (in the form of web sites, books and organizations that might be worth following up).
I am indebted to this book for introducing me to the concept of portfolio or modular work, an idea that has very strong appeal to me and one that I will investigate further.
The real value though, I feel, is to be found in trying to answer the oft repeated question "What's stopping you?". Are you being held back by excuses or do you have genuine reasons for not following your dream? Either way this book offers methods to help you adapt to, or overcome, obstacles.
Certainly a book worth a look if you are wanting to change but don't know quite where or how to start.-Lynn

Monday, December 5

Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus

From the back of the book-
In 1886, a mysterious travelling circus becomes an international sensation. Open only at night, constructed entirely in black and white, Le Cirque des Reves delights all who wander its circular paths and warm themselves at its bonfire.
Although there are acrobats, fortune-tellers and contortionists, the Circus of Dreams is no conventional spectacle. Some tents contain clouds, some ice. The circus seems almost to cast a spell over its aficionados, who call themselves the reveurs-the dreamers. At the heart of the story is the tangled relationship between two young magicians, Celia, the enchanter's daughter, and Marco, the sorcerer's apprentice. At the behest of their shadowy masters, they find themselves locked in a deadly contest, forced to test the very limits of the imagination, and of their love...
This historical fantasy presents an unusual love story. For the bulk of the novel the protagonists are unaware of each others identity, knowing only that they are in competition with each other to prove their superiority. Their main means of communication is through challenging each other to greater and greater feats of magic within the arena of the circus.
The idea of practitioners of different disciplines within the same field challenging each other for superiority isn't new. Neither is the enemies to friends to lovers concept. This book stands out because both of these aspects have been done so well. The characters are all larger than life but somehow fit easily in the story. Secondary characters are as well developed as primary ones. The plot manages to unfold gently without losing pace.
There is an unmistakable literary inclination here with layers of meaning and subtlties to be seen if the reader is so inclined (the symbolism of a black and white world being the most obvious) but the story can be enjoyed without contemplating those deeper levels.
Quite unlike anything I've read in a long while. Delightful-Lynn

Thursday, November 17

Carol Goodman: The Drowning Tree

From the back of the book-
Juno McKay intended to avoid her fifteenth-year college reunion, but she can't resist the chance to see her longime friend Christine Webb. Though Juno cringes at the inevitable talk of her troubled personal life-and the husband who ended up in a mental hopsital only two years after their wedding-she endures the gossip for her friend's sake.
While lecturing at the Penrose College library, Christine shocks the rapt crowd by reavling little-known details about the lives of two sisters-memebers of the influential family whose name the college bears. Christine's revelations throw shadows of betrayal, lust, and insanity over the family's distinguished facade.
After her speech, Christine seems distant, uneasy, and sad. The next day, she disappears. Juno is alarmed and begins to peel away the layer of secrets and madness that surround the Penrose dynasty. She fears that Christine discovered somethig damning about them, perhaps even something worth killing for. And Juno is derermined to find it-for her friend and for herself.
This tangled combination of historical and modern mystery tales has a strong literary flavour. The pace is slow, the characters complex and the story deceptively straight forward.
My last foray into this author's work didn't leave me partiuclarly impressed but I'm pleased to say this effort was much more enjoyable. There were enough red herrings thrown in to cloud the antagonist's identity without it coming as a complete surprise at the end of the story or worse, being telegraphed loudly throughout the book. A complicated romantic subplot fits in well.
I would class this as a mild modern gothic worth a look for those with an interest in the genre and comfortable with a less sensational approach.-Lynn

Monday, November 14

Kate Mosse: Labyrinth

From the back of the book-
July 1209: In Carcassonne a seventeen-year-old girl is given a mysterious book by her father which he claims contains the secret of the true Grail. Although Alais cannot understand the strange words and symbols hidden within, she knows that her destiny lies in keeping the secret of the labyrinth safe...
July 2005: Alice Tanner discovers two skeletons in a forgotten cave in the French Pyrenees. Puzzled by the labyrinth symbol carve into the rock, she realises she's distubed something that was meant to remain hidden. Somehow a link to a horrific past-her past-has been revealed.
I read all 697 pages of this monster tome and the best thing I can say about this book is that it is crammed with historical detail. Occasional hints of intrigue tease the reader into believing that the story is about to take off but it never does. The modern heroine lives right on the border of too-stupid-to-live and her historical counterpart is firmly in too-good-to-be-true territory.
There is great vagueness as to how the characters from the different time periods are related to each other. It is as if the author couldn't decide whether she wanted the modern characters to all be reincarnations of the historical characters (each modern character has a historical equivilant, to the point of having very similar names) or if she just wanted the modern heroine to be a decendent of her historical namesake.
As for the labyrinth of the title: the reader never really learns the significance of it, why it must be kept hidden or the consequences of its discovery.
Not since Katherine Neville's The Eight have I read a book so pointless through to the end. A major dissappointment.-Lyn

Tuesday, November 1

Richard Ellis:Imagining Atlantis

From the back of the book-
The idea of Atlantis, the lost continent, has tantalized the human imagination since the fourth centuery B.C. when the brilliant civilization and its mysterious destruction were first mentioned by Plato. Is it only a myth, or did a real Atlantis exist? Over the centuries this question has inspired countless theories, from the scientifically challenging to the undeniably crackpot.

Richard Ellis takes us on a fascinating journey through the rich and exotic history of the search for Atlantis, during which we meet characters as diverse as Francis Bacon, Jules Verne, Edgar Cayce, Jaques Cousteau, Charles Berlitz, and even Indiana Jones. Both scholarly and diverting, Imagining Altantis has been hailed as the most important book ever written about the Atlantis legend and its perennial appeal.
This book certainly does give a comprehensive overview of the many faces of Atlantis. Using archeology, seismology, volcanology and mythology, it examines theories and possibilities as to where Atlantis was and how it met its fate. A large portion of the discussion is dedicated to the ancient Minoan culture and the debate over exactly where the Pillars of Hercules were in Plato's time (apparently it isn't accepted that the current Pillars of Hercules are the ones being referred to in the original Atlantis legend). There is also a brief look at modern films about Atlantis included.
This is a good and accessible scholarly work, that while fascinating in places, I found a little dry overall to maintain my full interest.-Lynn

Thursday, October 27


From the back of the book-
Once upon a time, there were three mums-Mum A, Mum B and Mum C.
Bored with their suburban existence, they decided to add some spice to their lives. For three months, they would dare each other to do things.
Mum B would find herself wearing firecracker red lipstick for a whole week (yes, even to swimming lessons); Mum C would tell her atheist husband she'd found religion; and Mum A would have a secret tryst with Santa in a shopping centre.
They also dared each other to tell the truth... The truth about motherhood. The truth about their lives. The truth about who they'd become compared to who they wanted to be.'

This book basically says what all parents, if they're being honest, know-motherhood is hard. It is exhausting, unrelenting, mind-numbing, dull, repetative work. Sure we love our children and wouldn't swap them for the world etc, etc but that doesn't mean we don't pine for the women we were Before Children or mourn the Woman We Could Have Been.
I could relate to a lot of what these women were saying about their mothering experience and sitting surrounded in the mummy-zombie suburbs even be a little jealous that they found each other.
The dares and their responses to them were fun. The truths were open, honest and at times confronting. Both are presented in an engaging, easy to read way. However the book left me with mixed feelings.
For all I knew where these women were coming from part of me (a judgemental, contemptuous part) couldn't help but want to give them a good shake and tell them to wake up to themselves. In the grand scheme of things they have it good. Their problems are most definitely first-world, middle-class ones and not even difficult first world ones. They weren't faced with the death or disability of their partners or children, poverty or abuse.
In all fairness they never claim that their lives are particularly difficult in any way other than motherhood and the book is about loss of identity and regaining self not social justice. I find it interesting that it provoked such a response in me and it has made me examine my world view.
A deceptively light read that will have many nodding in agreement and some wondering why.-Lynn

Tuesday, October 25

Cooking the Books - Kerry Greenwood

Corinna Chapman, baker par excellence and proprietor of Earthly Delights, is doing nothing during her holidays. Her trainee Jason has taken off to learn how to surf, her partner Daniel is busy tracking down corporate fiscal shenanigans, and her waif-like assistants Kylie and Goss are auditioning as extras on a new soap. Without care or responsibility, Corinna should be enjoying the down time, but she's bored.
Which is what allows her to succumb to the emotional blackmail of a former school mate, assisting her on the set of "Kiss the Bride" - coincidentally the same soap Kylie and Goss have got parts on.

There are so many delightful things about this series, from the oddments I flag for follow up (Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, the not safe for work song 'The Sexual Life of the Camel') and the meticulously seamless plot to the way traditionally-build Greenwood describes life as a fat woman
"But I haven't got long - I have a dinner date."
"You?" she asked with that touch of incredulity which flicks a fat woman on the raw. I resolved that I would try to do the Christian thing and forgive my enemoes, but that did not require me to turn the other cheek...
She had aged badly, looked haggard and lined. One advantage of being fat is that one does not wrinkly like the slim and gorgeous.
There's bullying, intrigue, a lion, high drama, a tiny bit of Doctor Who, a literary scavenger hunt, the tyranny of the thin-is-healthy obsessed, and bullying of all sorts. There's also the deep satisfaction of just desserts and righteous comeuppances, and the city of Melbourne as integral to the soul of the novel as a character:
The weather was temperate, which is a signal that it is about to change. In Melbourne, a city whose climate can only be called 'unstable'. If by unstable you mean that it is blowing a hot gale before lunch and raining like the Flood after lunch. This makes Melburnians flexible and agile. You have to be, to dodge he hailstones. Some of them are as big as tennis balls, I swear.
Not a breath of a lie! Greenwood's best book, and this is one of that predominant number, are so beautifully constructed, intricate and masterfully crafted that it is impossible to do them justice. It is a mystery greater than any Corinna or her 'twenties counterpart Phrynne have ever solved that she is not more greatly lauded and renown. - Alex the Fan Girl

The Corinna Chapman series:
Earthly Delights; Heavenly Pleasures; Devil's Food; Trick or Treat; Forbidden Fruit; Cooking the Books

Friday, October 21

Echo Burning – Lee Child

Thanks to an unfortunate run-in with an off-duty cop, Reacher finds himself hitching out of a small Texan town in the height of summer’s midday heat. Expecting to wait hours, he’s surprised to be picked up in minutes, by the kind of driver least likely to stop for a tall, heavily-built man in his prime – a delicate young woman. He’s even less prepared for Carmen’s request – to kill the abusive husband who, jailed for tax evasion, is about to be released early. Reacher is, and has been, many things, but not a killer for hire. He does agree, however, to go to the ranch where Carmen, her beloved daughter Ellie, and her in-laws live.
The fifth in this series about a former MP who goes where the road takes him, righting wrongs along the way, has the same elements as almost all the rest of the Reacher novels I’ve read so far - innocent victims, unrelentingly bad opponents, tensely perilous situations cunningly outwitted, good triumphing over villainy, and our hero riding off into the sunset. As with the rest of the series there’s no need to have read any of Child’s work before – all the back story you need is seamlessly woven into the first few pages, and except where needed for verisimilitude plays second fiddle to the plot. It is Child’s genius that transforms what would, in lesser hands, be formulaic pap into a compelling read that kept me up until late in the night. His characters are fully fleshed, dialogue compelling, sentence structure economical but somehow detailed, and a plot that satisfyingly doubled back on itself. Reacher is always a step ahead – of the other characters, and of at least this reader.
Echo Burning also has one of the nicest dedications I’ve come across in quite a while.
I thoroughly enjoyed Echo Burning and look forward to my next encounter with the laconic, idealised Reacher. – Alex

The Jack Reacher novels
Killing Floor; Die Trying; Tripwire; The Visitor; Echo Burning; Without Fail; Persuader;The Enemy; One Shot; The Hard Way; Bad Luck and Trouble; Nothing to Lose; Gone Tomorrow; 61 Hours; Worth Dying For

Before I Go to Sleep - SJ Watson

Christine wakes one morning in an unfamiliar bed next to a stranger with grey hair and a wedding ring. Though they're usually younger and single, the experience isn't a new one, but Christine has no recollection of the night before. she tiptoes to the bathroom, and that's when things start to become strange - her hands are wrong, old, and she's got a band on her left ring finger. Startled, she looks in the mirror and sees the face of a stranger - an old woman.
According to the man, Ben, eighteen years earlier Chris was in an accident that caused a rare form of amnesia - she can retain information for a day, but as soon as you gos to sleep for more than a nap it all goes. Sometimes she can remember parts of her twenties, and sometimes she thinks she's a girl, but she never remembers anything leading up to the accident or following it.
That premise is what lead me to pick up Before I Go to Sleep, and the idea of an exploration of identity reconstruction is fascinating. However, Watson's added a tense element - Chris discovers a journal, kept for weeks, where her previous selves details fragments they remember of their old life and secret therapy sessions with Dr Nash, a psychologist Ben refused to let see her. She learns about things Ben has kept from her, apparently to reduce distress, including the existence and death of their son. And on the cover of the journal, underlined, is the warning "Don't trust Ben!"
As the journal progresses Chris learns more about herself and her life, and becomes increasingly distrustful - about Ben, her therapist, and the reliability of the journal entries she wrote but can't remember. She also discovers that the act of writing things down has, as Dr Nash hoped, has allowed the waking her to retain some of that information. It also let her build up a more coherent picture of her post-accident life, including a lengthy stay is a psychiatric unit.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of Before I Go to Sleep is the beautifully executed unreliable narrator - like the very different but equally compelling We Need to Talk About Kevin, the single voice illuminates and clouds, creating a nivel that is both literary and genuinely gripping. As Anita Shreve says on the jacket, Before I Go to Sleep is "Brilliant in its pacing, profound in its central question, suspenseful on very page." I absolutely couldn't say it better myself. - Alex

Saturday, October 15

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender

In the week of her ninth birthday Rose Edlestein’s restive, restless mother bakes a cake. She’s made them before, and the ingredients are the same, but the usually distinctive flavours of chocolate and lemon are drowned out by absence, hunger, emptiness.
It’s not just her mother’s food – Rose can now taste the emotions of everyone who cooks her food or contributes to the ingredients – the nastiness of the farmer who grew that parsley, the cows whose milk is in this cheddar, the wholly factory-processed chocolate chips. In a world where despair, sadness, anger and desperation are rife, it is the latter that literally saves Rose’s life in adolescence, when the comforting nothingness of foods untouched by human hand offer her the only respite from an onslaught of gustatory emotion. And in the process Rose becomes familiar with the unique qualities of every large scale farm and processing plant in the US, as well as many around the world.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a unique novel that looks like another story of family dysfunction - loving but distant father, needy and unchallenged mother, brilliant but strange and removed older brother, introspective and responsible narrator. The theme of children compromising themselves for their parents is not new, but it is very well handled here, and the first person voice neatly walks the line between girl and retrospective woman. The familial functional dysfunction aspect is well done, and the use of tasting emotion through food is really interesting route, that not only allows Rose to discover and describe the emotions of those around her but also explore the nature of isolation.
I was for some reason strongly reminded of the very different Perfume, which I was sure I reviewed but can't find anywhere. I'm not sure why the evocation was so strong - perhaps because of the detailed and nuanced descriptions illuminating aspects of a sense to which most of us are comparatively oblivious.
What is very different about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, though, is the surprising SF element that appears midway through an otherwise more literary narrative. Always somewhat different, Joe seems to vanish without notice – at first for short periods and then for progressively longer periods of time, never talking about what he did or where he went, and looking less well on each return. At first this seems like relatively unremarkable adolescent behaviour, but quite late in the book we discover a clearly paranormal occurrence (not at all in the sense of magic or vampires-and-werewolves, more like Gould’s Jumper). The concept is woven into elements already present in the text, particularly right near the end, but I didn’t find this added illumination so much as surprise, for up until that point I’d thought I was reading something at the more literary end of book group fodder. Rose’s ability is certainly fantastical, but did not break my willing suspension of disbelief. This talent (or, possibly, propensity) of Joe’s. However, is most definitely fantasy/science fiction territory, and I’m not sure the genre mix is entirely comfortable.
This is not in any way to suggest that SF is inherently unliterary, nor that I’m opposed to crossing genres. Some of the best writing I enjoy falls firmly into the former category (this includes the redoubtable Sawyer and the magnificent Bujold among others), and some lauded literary writers have created what are unquestionably works of FSF (from Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to 1984, Brave New World and Farenheit 451). While I can think of none off the top of my head, I know I’ve enjoyed unusual genre combinations in the past. I’ve given this no little thought and am quite frustrated that I can't think of any, so suggestions are expressly invited!
I did get a strong Book Group feel from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; I was not wholly involved with it but curious to see how it (and Rose) would unfold. I’m not sorry I read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I picked up as a 3-for-2 offer recently, but had no strong desire to read more of Bender’s work. Writing this review, though, has unexpectedly piqued my curiosity though, so watch this space. – Alex

Thursday, October 13

The Nurse's Christmas Wish - Sarah Morgan

Mac (or, on p. 11 of my copy, Matt) Sullivan adores Cornwall, enjoys working with his brother Josh, and is dedicated to his work as an Accident and Emergency consultant - particularly since the death of his wife two years earlier. He has no interest in relationships but his brother has other plans.
Enter Louisa Young - not just a nurse, Josh has hired her to act as Mac's housekeeper, something Louisa only discovers after breaking in to the house. With nowhere else to stay the pair are trapped, at least for a while. Will it be long enough for them to find love?
Yes, of course it will be. This is my second experience of Morgan's medical romances (I reviewed the first a couple of weeks ago), and I have to confess I was disappointed. In comparison with the similarly Yule-themed the Midwife's Christmas Miracle the writing is less nuanced, the characters less subtle, the plot more shallow and the medical scenes are marked by clumsy exposition.
Louisa is a paragon of efficiency and good humour - she cleans, she cooks, she bubbles like an adult Pollyanna, trailing happiness behind her. She takes in strays, charms the hardest hearted, and invites patients into her (or rather, Jake's home) for a Christmas feast he doesn't want, complete with tree and boughs of greenery.
And not only is Louisa untouched, Jake is able to detect this once he takes her virginity in a glorious cascade of simultaneous orgasm. It must be because of the greater sensitivity of the unclad penis and the emotional integrity of our hero.
This is my least favourite romance novel trope, hands down. I can handle a virgin heroine if there's context - the era, her age, a protected upbringing, a strong religious conviction, the reckless sexual behaviour she witnessed as a child, uncomfortable with her own attractiveness or sexuality, whatever. Here there's none of that - she's attractive, straight, able to orgasm with penetration and precious little foreplay, and though she had a deprived childhood there's no mention of abuse of any kind.
I liked the other Morgan novel as much as I disliked this, and so I'll give both the author and the genre another run, though perhaps not for a wee while. In the interim I have no shortage of other novels to be making my way through. - Alex

Sunday, October 9

The 17 Day Diet - Dr Mike Moreno

The 17 Day Diet is a four stage program aimed at rapid weight loss through a combination of low carb, high lean protein, probiotics and (like every diet) calorie restriction - like many diets this last part is not explicit in the directions but a consequence of the program.
The first three stages (Accelerate, Activate and Achieve) run for 17 days each, while the fourth stage (Arrive) is ongoing maintenance. The underlying premise is that altering intake (in terms of both caloric value and composition) causes 'body confusion,' preventing a slowing in metabolism that might otherwise occur. Why seventeen days? No idea - it must be magic.
Stage 1 is the most restrictive. Though a sample 17 day menu's provided, the formula is the same for every day: a glass of hot water with the juice of half a lemon and three cups of green tea (to speed metabolism), three servings of lean animal protein in the form of poultry, fish and eggs
(though tofu can be substituted), one large salad with olive or linseed oil and vinegar, one large serving of steamed vegetables, two servings of fruit and two servings of probiotic (Yakult, yoghurt, kefir, tempeh). With the exception of Yakult (a small bottle) and salad dressing (one tablespoon of oil, two of balsamic vinegar) there's no restriction on serving sizes; the variety of allowable foods, though extensive, is limited to "low sugar" produce, and eggs are only allowed daily, in the form of two whole eggs, one whole and two whites, or four egg whites. The program also allows unlimited amounts of salsa and other low-calorie condiments.
So day 1 is:
2 scrambled egg whites
1/2 grapefruit of other fresh fruit
1 cup of green tea

Large green salad topped with tuna and dressing
1 cup of green tea
Plenty of grilled chicken with liberal amounts of any vegetable on the list, raw or steamed
1 cup of green tea

175g sugar-free natural yoghurt or other probiotic serving mixed with 1 - 2 tablespoons sugar-free jam
1 serving of fruit from the list
Moreno's clearly not particularly interested in food as cuisine - the suggested snacks devolve by day 6 to "2nd serving of fruit, 2nd serving of probiotic." There are twenty-two recipes included, ranging from the 17 ingredient (coincidence?) "Dr Mike's Power Cookie" to the blending of kefir, fruit and yoghurt into a "Yoghurt Fruitshake" and I see online that US participants in some places have the option of meal delivery. I found it particularly annoying that the recipes, which are included as an appendix, aren't in any particular order - time of day, occurrence in the program, or alphabetical, making it harder than it needs to be to see what exactly the "Taco Salad" comprises.
The 'Activate' stage starts on day 18 and introduces alternate day additions - a wider range of proteins (shellfish and lean cuts of red meat), limited quantities of low GI (though he doesn't say that) grains, pulses and starchy vegetables.
A sample menu at random:
25g porridge oats, cooked (I assume in water but Moreno doesn't specify)
4 egg whites, scrambled
1 peach, sliced
1 cup of green tea

Prawn salad: cooked prawns, 30g of chopped onion, generous bed of lettuce leaves, 1 tomato (large) and 1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 baked sweet potato, medium
1 cup of green tea

Pork chops, grilled
Steamed veggies
1 cup of green tea

150g blueberries with 175g sugar-free fruit-flavoured yoghurt
175g sugar free fruit-flavoured yoghurt or 240ml kefir
Stage 3 ('Achieve') kicks in at day 35 and adds an optional glass of wine per day; a slightly expanded protein range (fat-free turkey bacon, some game); a slice of multi- or wholegrain bread, cereal and pasta; and wider ranges of fruit, vegetables, dairy, snacks and fats (including nuts and avocado).
A sample day:
225g sugar free fruit-flavoured yoghurt
45g Muesli or organic granola
1 piece of fresh fruit (i.e., 1 peach, 1/4 cantaloupe, 1/2 grapefruit or 1 orange)
1 cup of green tea
Tomato stuffed with crab salad: mix lump crab meat with 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons chopped celery and serve on a generous bed of lettuce
Medium jacket potato with 1 tablespoon of fat-free sour cream or 100g brown or Basmati rice
1 medium eating apple
1 cup of green tea
Roast beef, silverside
Courgette, sauteed with 1 tablespoon olive oil and Italian spices
1 cup of green tea
2nd probiotic, dairy or dairy substitute serving
1 frozen fruit bar
"Courgette"? Yes, though bought in Australia this is the British version of The 17 Day Diet, so all the weights are given in both metric and Imperial, and "lorries" are used to explain biochemical processes. There are also references to tilapia, which are cultivated in the UK and US but categorised as noxious invaders in Australia.
The final stage ('Arrive') is a modified program aimed at long-term adherence - for five days a week follow any of the menus from stages one to three, with a more liberal (but not wholly abandoned) approach from Friday night
over the weekend. Still, Moreno cautions, avoid binging and maintain moderation, just loosen things a little. He also recommends exercise throughout the program, once again magically - 17 minutes of gentle daily exercise during the first phase, doubling that up for the second stage, and maybe increasing the intensity for the duration.
There are several things I really like about The 17 Day Diet, at least in theory. There's acknowledgment that menstruation derails programs, and a corresponding modification for that week (including brazil nuts for selenium and a little dark chocolate if craved); there are cultural adaptations for a number of culinary tastes, with corresponding differences in emphasis on flavours and produce; and I believe this is the first program I've seen that specifically addresses the problem of shift work, particularly when carbohydrate intake is prohibited after a set time (in this case 2PM).
For the most part Moreno gives an explanation for his restrictions and requirements, citing studies about rapid weight loss, diet-linked conditions (like heart disease), and the impetus for the program appears to be strongly tied to his clinical practice as a physician.
This is also the first diet book I've seen that mentions any of the benefits of being fat, from improved bone density to better heart disease and diabetes statistics for women with fatter thighs. The whole book, however, is strongly weighted to women readers - in the section discussing health benefits of his program Moreno references slipping in to a little black dress, which leaves out any non-girly women and all but the cross-dressing men, and his description of research into improved sex with weight loss focuses only on extremely obese women who have a poor body image.
There were several thing I didn't like about The 17 Day Diet. I'm not a huge fan of programs that eliminate whole categories of food, but at least the 17 Day Diet reintroduces them after a comparatively short time.
I am extremely dubious about the power of hot water and lemon juice to detox, increase metabolic rate, aid digestion or in fact do much more than create ritual and ensure adequate vitamin C intake, but this element is common in many diets.
There's also the warning to consume fruit or carbohydrates after two o'clock, when they'll magically turn from energy to fat, although carb-rich vegetables are included in dinner. There are other unexplained magical elements, like 17 day cycles and 17 minutes of exercise, but I think the bullshit factor's lower than most programs. I'm starting it today, so check our other blog for how it works out in practice. - Alex

Sunday, October 2

The Midwife's Christmas Miracle - Sarah Morgan

Miranda Harding only meant to go for a walk in the beautiful Lake District; with much to think about, it seemed an appropriate place to ponder in peace. She'd never liked Christmas, and recent events had nothing to change that. Unfortunately, while deep in thought she failed to notice the change in weather and, unfamiliar with the area, was unequipped for the sudden knee-high snow that not only bit to the bone but obliterated any sign of the way she'd come.
Jake Blackwell was pleased his closest friends had patched up their marriage, but seeing them so happy only brought home his own single state, and his longing for Christy, despite all the practice he'd had putting her out of his mind. Walks in sunshine were fine, but he preferred the tempestuous, unpredictable winter weather, and a gentle hike was just the thing to distract him. Until he was distracted by a wan, shivering girl almost hidden in the snow.
A recent review on Smart Bitches lead me to check what Morgan romances my library held, and though I'm not usually a fan of medical romances - all that longing gazes over full bedpans thing strikes me as highly unlikely, and in my experience doctors are far more prone to hooking up with other doctors now women comprise over half of graduates - I'm open to persuasion. The SBTB review was for a non-medical category romance that sounded intriguing enough that I forwent my usual aversion, and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.
Jake is an obstetric consultant, Miranda is a new midwife on his unit - and she's pregnant, which he doesn't realise until after he's rescued, chastised, recovered and soundly kissed her. In fact, it's not until he sees her at work the following day that the penny drops - and it's to Morgan's credit that this seems plausible.
What I particularly liked was the intelligence of both characters - both in general and clinically. Jake is, of course, a brilliant clinician, but Miranda holds her own, and if Morgan wasn't a clinician herself then she's done research that's incorporated in to the novel without any head-hitting signage.
She also avoids the too-common romance trope of equating conflict with passion - practitioner conflict is restricted to other clinicians, and though there are obstacles to their HEA (chief of which, unsurprisingly, is Miranda's pregnancy) they don't read as contrived or ludicrous.
I so enjoyed the Midwife's Christmas Miracle that I've borrowed another of Morgan's medical romances. - Alex

Friday, September 30

Joseph Cummins: Turn Around and Run Like Hell

From the back of the book-
Ranging from the siege of ancient Babylon and Caesar's campaigns in Gaul to the American Civil War and World War II, Turn Around and Run Like Hell captures key moments in history when the ingenuity, vison and daring of brilliant leaders turned the tide of battle.
Read about Hannibal's spectacular envelopment of the Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC; the Mongols' awe-inspiring rout of Christian forces at Liegnitz in 1241; Pizaro's daring kidnapping of Inca ruler Atahuallpa in 1532; and the brilliant campaign of subterfuge that helped ensure the success of the 1944 D-Day landings.

Subtitled Amazing stories of unconventional military strategies that worked this book delivers exactly what the cover claims.
I've never had a particular interest in military history but this title of this work raised my curiosity. Presented in a straightforward manner it is engaging and easy to read, bringing to life the fascinating personalities behind some of military history's most unorthodox moves.
Interesting and educational it might be worth a look for students of history.-Lynn

Thursday, September 29

Jennifer Crusie: Maybe This Time

From the back of the book-
Andie Miller is ready to move on with her life. She wants to marry her fiance and leave behind everything in her past, especially her ex-husband, North Archer. But when Andie tries to gain closure with him, he asks one final favor of her. A distant cousin has died and left North the guardian of two orphans who have driven away three nannies already, and things are getting worse. He needs someone to take care of the situation, and he knows Andie can handle anything...
When Andie meets the two children, she realizes the situation is much worse than she feared. Carter and Alice aren't your average delinquents, and the creepy old house where they live is being run by the worst housekeeper since Mrs. Danvers. Complicating matters is Andie's fiance's suspicion that this is all a plan by North to get Andie back. He may be right because Andie's dreams have been haunted by North since she arrived at the old house. And that's not the only haunting...
Then her ex-brother-in-law arrives with a duplicitous journalist and a self-doubting parapsychologist, closely followed by an annoyed medium, Andie's tatot card-reading mother, her avenging ex-mother-in-law, and her jealous fiance. Just when Andie's sure things couln't get more complicated, North arrives to make her wonder if maybe this time things could just turn out differently.
This unusual mash up of The Turn of the Screw and Dharma and Greg could have been ridiculous but it works quite well. I think the success is due to the very well developed and believable characters (with perhaps the exception of Alice who felt like a bit of a caricature to me).
The setting was acceptably creepy but I can't understand why the author felt the need to have the haunted mansion imported from England and rebuilt on American soil. It seems completely unnecessary, especially since the ghosts are connected to objects rather than the house itself. This is something I've come across a couple of times (with different authors) and I suppose I'll never understand. If the English mansion is essential then why not set the story in England rather than drag England to the U S.
I really enjoyed this book with the exception of one scene. It was pure Henry James. It didn't add to this story in any way other than possibly as a tribute to the original and for some reason its presence here particularly annoyed me.
In spite of the few quibbles I've mentioned I did find this a fun and easy read. Another hit from Ms Crusie.-Lynn

Tuesday, September 27

Fly Away Home – Jennifer Weiner

Sylvie Serfer has subsumed her life in service to her husband’s political career without any sense of sacrifice – the incessant calorie counting, tightly pinching shapewear, coloured and painstakingly straightened hair, never ending briefings and engagements, the secondary importance of her daughters to Richard have all been her willing contributions to their success. They’re a team, working toward a common goal since their college days thirty years earlier. That all changes in an instant, when Sylvie’s best friend Cecil breaks the news that, according to reports on every network, Richard has apparently had an affair with a staffer.
The news not only affects Richard and Sylvie’s lives but the lives of their very different daughters. Diana is a prototypical eldest child, high achieving and determined to have everything – marriage to a man who’ll never let her down, a well-raised child exposed only to healthy food and wholesome viewing, and a professional identity in medicine. From the outside she has everything, but her carefully constructed life was already cracking, and the one thing she really craves is no more likely than ever before – her parents’ unconditional love and attention. Lizzie could not be more different – from early adolescence she’s sought from drugs solace, absence and the filling of a soul-deep emptiness. Clean after her latest detox, Lizzie is managing to keep all her balls in the air and is caring for Diana’s son Milo, but therapy hasn’t managed to repair her past. The revelation of Richard’s affair acts as the catalyst for change, changed perceptions, and the revelations of secrets and truths for the whole family.
Fly Away Home is an engrossing novel that engaged me on several levels – a fan of TheGoodWife, I was interested in an exploration of what these scandals may be like on the inside, but it was Weiner’s characters that kept me turning pages. Richard is the closest to a cipher, for most of the novel acting more significantly as a catalyst than as a character. Diana’s losses of control and the tensions that cause is really well conveyed; LLizzie’s attempts at refashioning her life are admirable and feel real; and Sylvie is a complex character who, despite being betrayed, is no saint – her uxorial devotion to Richard has caused a profound emotional neglect of her daughters that created the strongest resonance for me. My only disappointment with Fly Away Home was that, except for Sylvie’s response to the affair and its related aftermath, there’s preciously little anger. This was most significantly the case with Lizzie, who I hoped would be able to give voice to feelings of betrayal and abandonment at events (and, more crucially, her parents’ responses to them) that clearly contributed to her life path, but Diana has been aware from a young age how much their childhoods were shaped around the father's career, their mothe's priorotising this over their best interets, and the expectation that follows them into adulthood, and isn't angry either.
I’ve enjoyed Weiner’s work since Good in Bed, though I've found her recent work somewhat mixed, and Fly Away Home (apparently written earlier and recently recrafted and updated for publication) delivers a similar combination of satisfyingly rounded and layered characters, intelligent and believable dialogue, and a compelling plot. - Alex

Monday, September 19

Boys Don’t Cry – Malorie Blackman

Dante’s life is on track – provided he gets four good A levels he’s off to uni, a full year earlier than his mates, and ready for a life of freedom from his overbearing father and irritating younger brother, a future where he can earn money and have the holidays and treats his dad can’t afford. And though he pretends modesty to his family and friends, Dante knows the odds of him getting at least four A’s is good – he’s just waiting impatiently for the postie to confirm it.
The doorbell brings him a different kind of life-changing news, though. When Dante opens the door it’s to Melanie, a girl who used to go to his school, and to whom he drunkenly (and embarrassingly rapidly) lost his virginity to about a year and a half ago. Mel’s not alone, either – she’s lugging a bag, pushing a pram, and has a baby. Dante has no interest in babies , who squall and mewl and puke, and he’s at a loss to why Mel would suddenly reappear at all, let alone with someone’s kid.
Only it turns out to be his kid, who Mel’s been caring for at her aunt’s after her parents kicked her out. She needs Dante to look after it for a few minutes while she buys some things at the shops, and though reluctant in the extreme Dante agrees. But Mel never comes back, and she rings to say she’s not going to – she’s had enough and now it’s Dante’s turn.
Written in first person, with occasional diary extracts by Dante’s younger brother Adam, Boys Don’t Cry is a strong, compelling and beautifully crafted novel by the author of the Noughts and Crosses series, among others. It portrays with sensitivity and veracity a side of teen pregnancy not often acknowledged, and Dante’s transition from self-oriented, slightly immature teen to responsible adult is beautifully depicted.
There’s a significant secondary plot about Adam, whose sexual orientation is ignored and side-lined by Dante and their father until acknowledging it becomes unavoidable, and though a valid narrative arc in its own right also serves to reflect significant issues in the family dynamics – avoidance of discussing important issues, pretending unpalatable truths don’t exist, and an unspoken agreement to silence.
Blackman manages to fit in a number of significant teen issues in addition to these main aspects, including peer pressure, violence, the disinhibiting effects of alcohol, the complex nature of love, and depression.
Despite this sombre collection of themes Boys Don’t Cry is rewarding, uplifting and thoroughly enjoyable. I particularly liked the way the changes in Dante are reflected in his voice, most notably in his references to Emma, and the way he can see no other way of being, even as he changes. His resistance against his new reality and his efforts to maintain the life he expected to have are both poignant and amusing.
I’d forgotten quite how much I enjoy Blackman’s writing, and have also been reminded that there’s a fourth in the Noughts and Crosses ‘trilogy’ that needs to be read! – Alex

Saturday, September 17

The Straight Road to Kylie – Nico Medina

Jonathan Parish’s life is pretty awesome – out and proud, surrounded by his three best girl friends, and senior year lies gloriously ahead; the only hiccup is the lack of any prospect of a boyfriend. The only other out teen at Winter Park High is not at all suitable, thank you very much. But everything goes horribly wrong when the meticulously planned celebration of bestie Joanna’s birthday is derailed by a combination of too much alcohol, adolescent hormones and the distress of second bestie Alexandra’s continued virginity. Somehow – how? How? – Jonathan finds himself in a bedroom, having sex, with a girl.
The act itself was less hideous than the aftermath – a chink having opened in his heretofore unquestioned homosexuality, Winter Park’s reigning teen queen Laura Schulberg extends an offer he can’t refuse: pretend to be her boyfriend for the rest of the year and get an all-expenses-paid trip to London, to see the fabulous Kylie Minogue who, almost certainly, will never tour the US (and is, coincidentally, playing in the Pret where I’m writing this review). What choice does he have?
The Straight Road to Kylie wasn’t unenjoyable, but I had several issues with it, almost certainly due to my vast age at least as much as to the writing itself. Chief among these is the fact that there is a lot of alcohol (and light recreational drug) use, with no real consequences apart from a few survivable hangovers. This makes me sound like a terrible prude – it’s not that I think there should be death, dismemberment, car accidents, permanent paralysis, teen pregnancies and brushes with STD’s, but the novel is almost a tribute to teen alcohol use in a country where the legal drinking age is higher than the global average. I certainly get that the pivotal plot moment comes about as a result of Jonathan being drunk but that doesn’t even cause him a second’s thought.
Which brings me to my second issue – all of the characters, but Jonathan in particular, as spookily composed, mature and rational. While it’s refreshing to have jocks who aren’t all homophobic meatheads, the only character who seems to get at all flustered is Alex, who makes the common mistake of confusing sex with love. Interestingly, despite all the alcohol there’s somehow almost no sex apart from the opening scene of Alex and Jonathan’s mutual deflowering.
Unsurprisingly, given these factors, there’s almost no adult presence in The Straight Road to Kylie – with the exception of Jonathan’s boss at Target (hardly fully fleshed) adults are peripheral and sketchy at best. I’m not saying my teachers and parents were fully people to me at that age but they were definitely in my life. Maybe that’s just the Gen X/Gen Y gap...
I did enjoy The Straight Road to Kylie, despite these issues – I liked the premise, and although Jonathan’s life is close to idyllic it was nice to read about a gay teen who’s not only comfortable with his sexuality but accepted by his parents and peers. I do doubt that groovy Jonathan has a MySpace account, but I’m old and on FaceBook so maybe there’s been a pre Google+ retro return to MySpace. Hardly the biggest of quibbles, anyway.
I didn’t hate The Straight Road to Kylie, and I finished it to its predictably rounded happy ever after, but I have no need to pass it on or re-read it and will instead be leaving it when I finish my lunch. – Alex

Friday, September 16

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You – Ally Carter

Cammie Morgan is a Gallagher girl – she not only attends, but is daughter of the principal at Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women. Truly exclusive, Gallgher’s is a private school like no other, for it educates the next generation of America’s spies and high hopes are held for the child of two of the most successful covert operatives of recent times, even if Cammie’s father died on a mission.
Appropriately, given her name, Cammie’s specialty is camouflage. She’s able to blend in to the background at will, which comes in useful when she and a cadre of her friends are set their first task – to follow highly paranoid former agent-turned teacher Professor Smith and determine what he drinks with his donut during the Roseville town fair. What Cammie doesn’t expect is to meet a town boy – and Josh doesn’t stand a chance against a group of girls trained in espionage and surveillance.
ITYILYBTIHTKY is the first in a series that is billed as a successor to boarding-school-with-a-twist success, Harry Potter. It’s not even close, reminding me far more of an American version of Muchamore’s CHERUB series but with less grit, guts and believability. I didn’t find the universe at all compelling or absorbing, the characters rarely moved beyond two dimensionality, and the ending was a dull thud. I’m clearly something of a minority, as I saw three further instalments on the Waterstone’s 3-for-2 table (with similarly cloying titles), but I also suspect I’m far from the target audience. This is not a series that will appeal to the Twilight crowd, but perhaps to their tweenage younger sisters – it’s surprising, given how young the book read, that the protagonists aren’t also in the twelve to fourteen age range. If you’re not a girl, that age, and interested in action lite redeemed only by having a female protagonist, move on. – Alex

Wednesday, September 14

Daring Detectives – Alfred Hitchcock (ed)

I unearthed this 1975 collection of deservedly well-known short mysteries in the aftermath of my recent book tragedy. The volume is over thirty years old now, and the stories’ original publication dates are far older – I’ve included them in the title/author information.

The day the children vanished: Hugh Pentecost (1958)
The nine students of a small town school vanish on their way home, along with Jerry Mahoney and the modified yellow station wagon/school bus he was driving. Last seen turning on to the two mile dugout track winding around the (guardrail protected) lake, the bright yellow vehicle never re-emerged. The town of Clayton didn’t take long to decide that the formerly trusted Jerry must have done something to their children, despite the distress of his young fiancée, and the stress seemed to push his retired-magician father off kilter.
Though the rationale is important, the centre of “The day the children vanished” is the disappearing act, which I couldn’t work out but which seemed familiar once revealed, either because I read this long ago or because another author’s employed the same sleight of hand. More interesting though is how well Pentecost portrays the understandable but disturbing swing in mood of the town as a whole and the power of fear. This alone makes me interested in checking the author, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, out further.

Through a dead man’s eye: Cornell Woolrich (1939)
Layoffs and downsizing are far from new, and nor is filial concern; when he overhears his detective father telling his mother that he’s looking at being demoted to beat cop because of austerity measures Frankie decides to help his dad out by bringing him the most prestigious crime and solution – murder. Fortunately, Frankie has a clue to one where the murder hasn’t even been discovered yet – thanks to the local boys’ hobby of swapping items for another of greater value Frankie is in possession of a glass eye. And why, he reasons, would someone get rid of a perfectly good glass eye unless they were dead?
Very much a product of its time, Frankie is plucky, determined, and significantly unchaperoned. Like boys across time he has scant regard for his own safety and is far more focused on helping his father, who he knows is “the best dick in town!” I very much enjoyed the reading experience, and though I don’t think a longer work by Woolrich would be to my taste this appetiser was very pleasing.

The disappearance of Mr Davenheim: Agatha Christie (1953)
Inspector Japp offers Poirot a wager – to find the missing senior partner of financiers Davenheim and Salmon, dead or alive, by the end of the week, without visiting the scene or investigating independently. The facts of the case are undisputed – Mr Davenheim returned by train from Victoria to his country manor at Chingside, wandered around the grounds for some time before tea, then told his wife he was going on to town to post some letters. He was, he said, expecting a Mr Lowen, who was to be shown in to the drawing room if he arrived before Mr Davenheim’s return.
Mr Lowen duly appeared; pleading a train, he left when, after an hour, Mr Davenheim failed to meet him. A subsequent search of the study he’d been waiting in revealed an empty and broken-into safe – a safe that was used to store the jewels Mr Davenheim had been in the habit of buying for his wife whenever he returned from business trips.
A somewhat convoluted mystery, “The disappearance of Mr Davenheim” includes the elements one expects from Christie – class, wealth, clever trickery, and the employment of the little grey cells to reveal all.

The grave grass quivers: MacKinlay Kantor (1931)
A young, unnamed doctor is interviewing for a position to replace the soon-to-retire Doc Martindale of Cottonwood. A sleepy town, he notes, to which Doc Martindale responds that there have only been four murders during the entire history of the town, and only two since 1861. That was the father and brother of young Martindale vanished, along with some $7,000 in gold. Their wagon and team were found, along with some blood, but their bodies were presumed dumped in the nearby river – though Doc always believed they’d been buried nearby.
“The grave grass quivers” is set sixty years later, and is less a mystery than an atmospheric, perfectly crafted vignette. There is, true, a murder (well, two), and the triumphant unveiling of the murderer decades after the crime, plus a unique indicator of the crime (that I somehow wasn’t surprised by, increasing the likelihood that I’ve read this collection before, albeit long ago). But the narrative unfolds gently and almost inevitably, rather than twisting like a contemporary mystery, and Kantor evokes splendid senses of both the time the story is set in and a brief but convincing feel of frontier life a hundred and fifty years ago. I might be interested in following up with Kantor, who is better known, according to Hitchcock’s introduction for “serious novels” – he certainly writes like an author comfortable with producing literature.

Adventure of the Grice-Patterson curse: August Derleth (1956)
Renown detective Solar Pons and his less bright assistant Dr Parker has been asked by Edith Grice-Patterson, grand-daughter of long-dead Colonel Grice-Patterson to come to the family home on Uffa to investigate the latest in a series of curses that have plagued the family – the mysterious strangling death, in a locked room, of her fiancé is but the most recent, following similar, motiveless, murders of her father and uncle. The family is also, somehow, able to keep dogs alive.
If both the protagonists and the set up are reminiscent of a more famous detective that is no coincidence – Derleth (with whose work I have previously been unfamiliar) has apparently created homage to Holmes, of which this is but a taste. The writing style is similarly evocative, and though the killer is different to that in the Doyle classic “The scarlet hat band” it is clearly inspired by that work. Certainly if you like Holmes you will like this – I confess I find myself more compelled by the recent BBC series. - Alex

The adventure of the seven black cats: Ellery Queen (1933)
Sent out to procure an Irish setter, famed New York city detective and author Ellery Queen discovers a pet-shop mystery – why has a bed-bound pensioner who hates cats been secretively buying a green-eyed black tom each week for the last month and a half? The question is quirky enough to intrigue Queen, who sets out for the nearby apartment that Euphemia Tarkle shares with her more mobile (and impoverished) sister, Sarah-Ann.
Sarah-Ann goes out every afternoon, leaving the door on the latch – this is always when Miss Curleigh brings the new cats around; today, however, there is no answer to her knock, and the door is locked. Procuring the key from the wife of building supervisor Potter reveals an empty apartment – empty except for the sight of a fleeing figure out one window. But where is the paralysed Miss Tarkle?
The core of this mystery is the rationale for the cats, and the answer is both practical and haunting, particularly if you’re a felinephile. The writing is compelling and engaging, and the mystery quite involving.
I have long enjoyed Ellery Queen, with whom I first became familiar through the mid-seventies TV series. I realise, writing this, that it has been many years since I last read one of the beautifully crafted, eponymous detective stories and will rectify this on my return to Australia next week.

The footprint in the sky: John Dickson Carr (1940)
Mrs Topham next door is a shrew and a thief; arguing with her yesterday made sleep walking virtually inevitable. Dorothy Brandt rarely recalls anything that happens when she sleep walks – waking with the faint remembrance of snow is unusual – but is it possible it was she who killed the horrible woman?
The scene certainly gives every indication of that: the only footprints, clear and crisp in the shallow snow, are Dorothy’s tiny size 4 and lead without hesitation to and from the adjacent houses, with not another step marring the white perfection. The only anomalous note is a larger footprint, equally clear, in the snow atop a bordering hedge – one that could not possibly support the weight of the grown man such footwear would fit.
Carr’s well known but I haven’t read his other work. I very much enjoyed the unexpected dénouement and unique flavour of “The footprint in the sky” and may look up his other work in the future. - Alex

Tuesday, September 13

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – Tom Franklin

Former football star Silas “32” Jones was once the closest thing to a friend that Larry Ott had. They could not have been more different, in terms of race, poise, financial security, parental support or popularity, but they connected. For a time. After Cindy, everything changed.
The disappearance of popular Cindy Rutherford shook the small Mississippi town of Chabot – though she was never found, and there was no evidence, it was obvious that she was killed by her classmate – slightly strange and socially awkward, Larry’s story of dropping her off at her request is patently ridiculous.
Twenty years later the mystery continues to reverberate in Chabot, for nobody more than Larry Ott. His inherited automotive repair business used only by strangers passing through, Larry is more socially isolated than ever. The town has never forgotten; eight days after college girl Tina Rutherford was reported missing, Larry is shot in his home and left for dead.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
is an arresting portrait of contrast and intersection – white and black, poor and rich, innocence and guilt, trust and betrayal, courage and cowardice, action and inaction all overlap and intersect. The text steps effortlessly between the past and the unfolding present, slowly revealing secrets and answers, while prompting psychological questions.
This is, quite clearly, literature despite the mystery at
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter’s core – though the disappearances, decades apart, of two white girls in their late teens act as an initial impetus for the narrative, they are a pretext for the exploration of deeper, less obvious mysteries. These include questions about the central characters of ‘Scary Larry’ and 32, but also about the meanings of friendship, connection, moral bravery, subtle peer pressure, fear, love and the meaning of truth. I realise that this description gives away almost nothing of the plot, but it's so closely interwoven that anything more specific would ruin it.
There are a number of laudatory reviews at the front of my paperback copy, with comparisons to other Southern literary works (
To Kill a Mockingbird and Faulkner’s Sanctuary) – though I enjoyed the reading experience, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter didn’t quite have that level of emotional impact for me. The most pivotal revelations, which come late in the text, were gentle undulations in a text I found interesting and engaging but pastoral rather than vivid, no doubt in part because I'd guessed quite early on that Larry and 32 were brothers.
I felt that the book could stand on its own but, no doubt in response to public demand, there is an additional section at the end about the author, his back ground and the novel’s development, the process of turning autobiography in to fiction, and a readers’ group guide. I found this last particularly irritating, but this has more to do with me than the book itself.
I’m glad I read
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a 2010 release I bought in Sydney this June (instead of reading books from my back log), read on my way to Hong Kong, and am reviewing on a train from Nijmegen to Schiphol. I shall leave it here, hoping it finds a receptive readership; I think once is sufficient for me. – Alex