Saturday, December 30

The Decoy Princess - Dawn Cook

I've read the first in Cook's Truth series (frustrated by the fact that, though I have books three and four, I cannot find Hidden Truth anywhere - and no, the irony's not lost me); I enjoyed her style, and snatched this up when it appeared on the shelves of my regular FSF bookshop.
Tess is Constenopolie's princess, bred and raised to assume the crown when her beloved parents die. Her life has been overshadowed by the Red Moon Prophesy - "a child of the coast destined to rule and conceived in the month of the eaten moon will make an alliance of the heart to set the mighty as pawns and drive out the tainted blood rising in the south." Fearing the prophecy, since her birth Tess has been the target of assassination attempts by agents from southern kingdoms.
Knowing from childhood that she must marry for politics, Tess is eager to meet her fiance, the second son of the king of Misdev. But the arrival of Prince Garrett changes Tess' life forever, when she discovers that the real princess Contessa was hidden away in a nunnery sixteen years ago - Tess is the only one of three decoys, designed to protect the royal line. I thoroughly enjoyed Tess' journey - she has integrity (her sense of duty impels her to find the real princess [with her "tiny, thin, perfect little ankles"] and restore her to the crown), hidden depths and skills, and an unknown magical ability (which, in the tradition of the best fantasy novels, does not come without a price). Tess begins with power, discovers she is a pawn, and then discovers power she had no idea existed.
From the the supporting cast to the main players (Tess; her bodyguard Kavenlow; Prince Garrett; his bodyguard, Captain Jenks; Tess' travelling companion Duncan; Princess Contessa; and her sweetheart Thadd), the book is peopled with believable, individual, interesting, three dimensional characters.
My only complaint is that this is clearly the first in a series, which always leaves me feeling manipulated. I have no problem knowing I'm going in to a series, or if the book is a stand alone which gets spun off, but The Decoy Princess ends with a number of significant plot lines unresolved - and I'll be buying the sequel to find out what happens next! - Alex

Friday, December 29

Match Me if You Can - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

I stumbled across Breathing Room a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it so much I've now read all of Phillips's novels. Although she has written a few stand-alones, her main body of work is the Chicago NFL series, of which MMIYC is the latest installment. Like Suzanne Brockman's Navy SEAL series, the books revolve around a tight-knit group of manly men who find abiding love in the midst of a more-than-usually complex plot (which generally includes a sub-plot, a secondary romance, and the character who will star in the next release).
Annabelle Granger is the disorganised black sheep of an overachieving family, trying hard to keep her dead grandmother's matchmaking business afloat. Her hopes are pinned on snagging a whale of a client, football agent Heath champion, who represents such stars as quarterback Kevin Tucker (who featured in This Heart of Mine). The only problem is that Heath already has a matchmaker - the poised and perfect Portia Powers. Can Annabelle recover from her disastrous broken engagement, earn the respect of her demanding family, keep her business alive, and find love?
Of course she can. But, as with all romances, the point is not the destination so much as the ride; Phillips shows us some unexpected sights, and she knows how to drive. Ugh - I apologise for that disturbing extension on a hoary metaphor.
Moving on, before my post gets eaten. Again.
Readers familiar with Phillips's work will enjoy being reacquainted with characters from former novels (and their children), but those new to the series will have no trouble keeping up. The writing is brisk but descriptive, the characters are likable and real, and have solid motivation (rather than the often implausible reasons for not getting together until the final scene), and the sub-plots are engaging. I devoured this book, and look forward to the sequel, Natural Born Charmer, being released in paperback. - Alex

Thursday, December 28

Mouse or Rat? - Umberto Eco

Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation has been sitting on my unread hardback shelf for a couple of years, waiting for just the right moment. When I read the blurb I was fascinated - I have a (strictly amateur) interest in words, linguistics and semantics, and found the idea of an exploration of how translators' decision making affected the process a really interesting idea.
The book is based on a series of lectures by Eco, a semiotician and novelist (among other occupations), and are a collection of interlocking essays regarding different aspects of translation, including an examination of what it is precisely that we mean by 'translation'. Eco draws heavily on translations of hos own work.

Clearly it is more than just substitution of words, as he demonstrates using Babelfish, an online translating service that doesn't (and can't) take levels of meaning into account. Similarly the translator needs to take into account the cultures of the original text and the translation, substituting idioms and geography, and the fact that terms often have no analogue (for example the German concept of Schadenfreude has no English version, and "the joy one feels at anothers' misfortune" doesn't just slip itself into a sentence). In contrast, Italian has only one word (nipote) for grandchild, niece or nephew, but the concepts of grandchild, niece and nephew exist in Italian culture despite there being no linguistically-unique word for each. Which brings us to the difficulties of domesticising the text, not to mention issues with archaic or historical texts.
Eco gives examples from poetry (where he discusses the merits of retaining metre at the expense of text versus the truest sense of the poem but sacrificing the rhythm), his own works (and compares the job translators into different languages did), and literature. The title of the book comes from translations of Shakespeare's Hamlet - in English, when Hamlet hears Polonious rustling behind the arras he cries "A rat!" but in Italian it is "A mouse!", and for good reason.
The blurb claims that this book is accessible to everyone but, though what I understood was interesting, I did not find it particularly easy to follow. To get the most out of this book, the reader needs to be conversant with Eco's fiction (at the very least with The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before), and read at least two of the following: English, Italian, German and Latin. In addition there were many terms with which I was wholly unacquainted (on p. 146 alone there were alexandrines, hemistichs and hendecasyllables) but with which Eco clearly expects his reader to be familiar.
In previous discussions about literary imagery, Lynn has often expressed the belief that authors have not inserted the layers of meaning that English literature teachers find. This is clearly not the case with Eco, who discusses at length the directions he has given translators of his work, and their explanations of their decisions - word play, jokes, obscure literary allusions and "rich intertextual references". Rarely have I felt as ill-educated and thick-headed as I did when reading this book.
One thing I found particularly interesting (and accessible!) - Eco's discussion about cultural interpretation of colour, or chromatic responses. It has been suggested that the ancient Greeks did not distinguish between blue and yellow, while some believe that Latin-speakers did not separate blue and green, or possibly red and yellow (including the yellow-grey mud of the Tiber river).
I'm sure this text is invaluable for the erudite, multilingual, well-read linguist. I certainly got something out of it, but for the most part it was hard going and not particularly rewarding. It may go on my shelves, but purely as a prop, because I doubt I'll be referring to it, or rereading it, again. - Alex

Wednesday, December 27

Bait and Switch - Barbara Ehrenreich

A few days ago I reviewed Nickled and Dimed by Ehnreich, about her investigation into the lives of the working poor in the U.S. In Bait and Switch Ehnreich turns her attention to the plight of the growing population of unemployed white collar workers, and finds that being an executive in modern America is no guarantee of employment security.
Ehrenreich budgeted ten months for her experiment, just over half of which was intended as development of her executive persona (Barbara Alexander), resume creation (tailoring her actual skills and experience to more attractive entries), training and networking etc. She was prepared to take the first eligible (white collar, not morally repugnant) job, in any industry and in any US location, and estimated working there for three to four months.
Ehrenreich writes that, compared with her other research experiences, she expected this experience to be comparatively straight forward and even dull. She also thought that she'd have more freedom and have less need to be servile than she did when researching Nickled and Dimed.
What she found was an industry designed around 'helping' this population be 'more employable' - career coaching, job fairs, networking groups, self help gurus, pop psychology and personality tests
that are slavishly relied upon despite their lack of scientific rigor or reliability - and precious few jobs.
A fascinating insight into a world far removed from my own, and happily so. - Alex

Monday, December 25

A Fist Full of Charms - Kim Harrison

Set in a universe where a devastating virus spread via genetically modified tomatoes has wiped out half of humanity, revealing the presence of those who've long lived beside us, the fourth book in this supernatural series about white(ish) witch and former Inderland Running Service agent Rachel Morgan opens with an ambush of Rachel and lone Were colleague David by a pack. I do believe that's my longest opening sentence thus far!
Anyway, the attack draws Rachel into her most complex plot yet - she must locate and destroy a talisman capable of shifting the balance of power between the Were and the vampires, work out how to Were herself, survive any number of attacks by foe, discover a traitor close to home, define her relationship with fabulous vamp Kisten, clarify her relationship with roommate and vamp Ivy, and come to terms with the sad fact that pixies have an all-too-short lifespan.
I wish I'd reviewed this book straight after reading it, because I can't do it justice now. I do remember that I was absorbed by the plot, moved by the moving parts, and prepped for the sequel. Belated New Years resolution - write reviews contemporaneously! - Alex

Saturday, December 23

Charlaine Harris: Dead as a Doornail

Dead as a Doornail is the fifth book in the series centring around Sookie Stackhouse, cocktail waitress and telepath.
A serial killer is out stalking the two natured and the werepanther community has Sookie’s brother pegged as the prime suspect. At the next full moon they’ll tear him apart unless she can prove his innocence before then.
A task that would be easier if she wasn’t also on the killer’s hit list, trying to extricate her best friend from an abusive relationship and being dragged into the local werewolf pack’s leadership challenge.
There’s a lot to work with here but sadly I don’t think Dead as a Doornail lives up to its promise. To me the plot seemed to be secondary, with most of the book being taken up by Sookie trying to sort out her romantic priorities.
And what a tangle her love life is. It would seem that every supernatural being within a hundred-mile radius is madly in love with her including two vampires, a werewolf, a werepanther and two shape shifters. It’s even hinted that her fairy godmother might be interested. This would be all well and good if we were given some reason to believe that there was something about her that the supernatural find irresistible but as it is, we are not. By the time the shape shifting tiger started making a play for her I was having trouble suspending my disbelief and found the whole situation tiresome. What’s more we listen to all this angst and don’t even get the payoff of a single sex scene.
Maybe the point of this story was to develop character rather than focus on action, if so I think it’s failed and it’s a shame to see a plot with such great potential take a back seat.
I’ve enjoyed the earlier instalments in this series and I hope it’s not losing its way. I’d probably take a look at the next book before I crossed the series off my reading list but Dead as a Doornail is one for the die-hard series fans. - Lynn

Your Planet or Mine? - Susan Grant

Nine-year-old Jana Jasper is the imaginative, mute youngest child of a political family. One night she sees a unusual young boy stuck in a tree outside her bedroom who reminds her of Peter Pan. She rescues him from the tree; he rescues her pet pig, kisses her scraped knee, and somehow restores her ability to speak, before leaving.
Cavin of Far Star is accompanying his father on a research mission to Earth for the Coalition - humanity is seeded through the stars and the Coalition takes over and transplants less evolved populations if they need the planet themselves. He's been watching Jana, fascinated.
Twenty-odd years later Jana is the youngest senator in DC, convinced that Peter was an imaginary friend. She has bigger concerns now - protecting endangered fish and working out who's behind a smear campaign against her father. Her love life is exciting in the press (more so than in reality), and her beloved grandfather has asked her try to keep a low profile until the allegations of corruption have been disproved. Hunting through a supermarket for ice cream to tide her over, Jana is followed by a man who looks like a walking advertisement for the latest XBox game.
It's Cavin, come to warn her that the Coalition has earmarked Earth for takeover. He's never forgotten Jana, or her planet - to keep tabs on the Coalitions' plan for Earth he's risen rapidly in the Coalition ranks. His ship has crashed and is damaged, and there's a REEF (a Terminator-like assassin) after him. Earth's only hope for survival is if Jana can take him to someone in power, so that he can use the ship from Area 51 to broadcast a false image of a fleet of Earth battle craft.
It is to Grant's credit that I could - mostly - suspend my disbelief throughout this outlandish plot. The sub-plot, of the humanising of the REEF, was interesting, and didn't end the way I thought it would. I was distracted by a few inconsistencies - Cavin has a language translator embedded in his forearm, along with a small host of other gadgets: it has access to "every swearword in every major language... as well as most jokes, insults and colloquial phrases," allowing him to say "size matters" when they're flirting, tell Jana to "come for me" before "sliding his mouth to her very centre," causing her world to explode, and to tell a Viet Nam vet that he started out a "grunt" before becoming an officer. But he doesn't know what a hot dog is, needs the expression "fooling around" defined, confuses the term 'breaking' a large bill with "tearing," and Jana needs to explain the concept of a magician. And in the epilogue Cavin is a hero to Earth. But if the Coalition is monitoring Earth communications how is it that they don't know of the bluff? Plus, Jana has an irritating obsession with Phish Food and coral nail polish (which I think should be illegal), and the chick lit staple of shoes crops up as an important plot device.
All in all this was executed better than I expected, but I don't know that I'll be back for the next Grant book. - Alex

Thursday, December 21

Moon Called - Patricia Briggs

Let me open by saying that I've already written a review for this book, but my computer ate it - so, take two.
In the wake of the phenomenal success of Buffy, the fantasy/horror fiction world has seen an explosion of supernatural fiction, which has overlapped into the romance genre. I've read my fair share of these, from the brilliant to the once great series that have gone one book to far. For now I leave alone the morass of truly god awful dreck - a review for another time, perhaps.
In Moon Called, Briggs has created a viable and unique supernatural reality. In common with many similar works, this world contains a host of preternatural creatures who live alongside a predominantly unsuspecting human population. The fay are governed by the Gray Lords who, seeing that it would not be possible to hide forever, revealed the existence of the lesser fey - the non-threatening, benign or beautiful: sprites, selkies, pixies and the like.
Mercy is not one of these - she is a mechanic, and a werecoyote. After coming across a new, confused and unsupported werewolf she is drawn into an intrigue involving drugged youths being turned against their will (and the transition is highly risky), turf wars between the local pack and a nest of vampires, and has to turn to her estranged foster pack for help.
Mercy is flawed, believable and likable. The plot was unique and well executed, and the characters were internally consistent. In my first review I was more articulate - basically, I like :)
I haven't read any of Briggs's other novels, which I believe are set in a different universe than Mercy's, but I'm seriously considering it, and will absolutely buy the next Mercy novel that comes out (because I have a sense this just the first in a series). - Alex
To read Lynn's review of this book, click here

Tuesday, December 19

Vegan Lunch Box - Jennifer McCann

Jennifer's been vegetarian since she was fifteen, gradually adopting a vegan diet. When her son was heading off to school for the first time, she put a lot of thought into how to create interesting, varied vegan lunches for him, and thus was born the Vegan Lunchbox blog (see links) - a photo of each lunch, with a description of the meal and comments, including a rating out of five from "Shmoo" (her son James).
I've visited Jennifer's blog regularly for over a year, always thinking how much I'd like to be as created, varied and balanced with my meals as she is. So I was delighted when I read that a book version would be available.
Vegan Lunch Box contains sixty-five complete lunches, divided into chapters for quick and easy lunches, days when there's more time to prepare, meals that can be prepared in advance, adventurous dining, and special occasions (like Thanksgiving). There are also sections discussing nutritional balance, picky eaters, and recommended sources.
There are a few photos in the centre of the book, illustrating some of the most interesting meals. Each entry was given five stars by the original luncher, who has been exposed to a more varied diet than most people twice his age. The lunches encompass a vast range of ingredients, including a number of grains, cuisines from several countries, and innovative but attractive combinations of familiar favourites.
Those who think that a vegan diet is limited, boring, or necessitates deprivation will be pleasantly surprised by this wonderful introduction, while those who already enjoy a vegan or meatless lifestyle will be inspired. I've already begun to expand my repertoire of workplace lunches, and I haven't even put any of Jennifer's ideas into practice! - Alex

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist who went undercover in three US states (Florida, Maine and Minnesota) to see how easy it is to survive working in a minimum wage job in modern America. She took whatever jobs were offered, and worked variously as a cleaner for a maid service, an aged care worker, a Wal-mart 'associate', and a waitress, and lived in the cheapest accommodation she could find.
Despite her good health and lack of dependants, Ehrenreich found that getting by working full time is subsidence living, and that it is almost impossible to get ahead. Without the money for first and last month's rent, she was forced to live in more expensive, pay-by-the-week hotels. Some of her coworkers, unable to afford gas (or often even a car) had to work close to home, even if there were better paying jobs elsewhere.
Ehrenreich writes in a conversive, relatable style, and her subject matter is not only fascinating but vitally important. As she points out, the problem is that of the system - despite a shortage of 'unskilled' labour (Ehrenreich points out that the positions she worked in all required a number of specific skills), the employees have no voice and no power.
Particularly interesting to me was her insight into the employer-employee dynamic at the maid service where she worked, where the cleaners felt as though taking time for themselves (in the case of injury, for example) would hurt their boss. He has managed to instill a powerful need for his approval in his employees, despite objectively being (at least on the face of it) a not particularly good employer.
Ehrenreich also points out that leaving for a new job, even when the current one is sub-optimal, is often not an option because there's no time to job search or interview, and living hand to mouth doesn't leave any padding for even a short unwaged period - particularly when the employer (for some reason I didn't understand) withholds the first week's pay.
This powerful book should be required reading for anyone who thinks the poor are lazy and wasteful, and for those who think anyone in American can make it if they just try hard enough. - Alex

Monday, December 18

The Man in the Moss: Phil Rickman

The discovery of a two thousand-year-old body perfectly preserved in peat has excited the academic world. But to many he is more than the simple historic relic scholars see. He is central to the ancient spiritual traditions of the locals and his removal from the Moss precipitates a series of tragedies for the isolated community where he was found. They want him put back. While fundamentalist Christians and satanic cultists have both put their own interpretation on the discovery and seek to use it for their own ends eventually bringing disaster down on the town.
I am a fan of Phil Rickman, having discovered him through his Merrily Watkins series, and am slowly working my way through his back catalogue. The Man in the Moss is one of his earlier works and while I enjoyed the story I really don’t think it was one of his best.
I found the dialogue had an extensive use of dialect, which is one of my pet hates. I find it breaks up the flow and can become difficult to read.
He also felt the need to introduce a huge cast of characters, many of which were not central to the story. As a result every so often a name would pop up and I would be pulled out of the story trying to remember who that person was. When he had already drawn good strong primary and secondary characters I thought the additional details of insignificant characters, or indeed the inclusion of these characters at all, unnecessary.
I can certainly see the beginnings of what has since become Phil Rickman’s literary voice. Complexity of plot, good strong characterisation, great sense of atmosphere and supernatural elements grounded in reality enough to make them believable and hence scary are all here. But this early work does lack that certain something and I found it a mediocre read. If you are already a fan of Phil Rickman’s work I would recommend it for the sake of completeness. If you are interested in trying Rickman, start with one of his later works. - Lynn

Sunday, December 17

Is There Anything You Want? - Margaret Forster

I bought this as part of a three-for-two offer when I was away on holiday earlier this year, and a bit panicked about running out of things to read (a frequent concern). The plot revolves around seven women who are interconnected through a cancer clinic at the local hospital (where one is a doctor, one a Friend, two are patients) and through each other. According to reviewers cited on the cover, the author is uncannily able to "transform the ordinary day-to-day activities of unremarkable people into compelling fiction" and I will "plunge [into it] with satisfaction."
Fosters' narrative style reads like first person changed to third - she writes from the perspective of the central characters rather than omnisciently, and manages to clearly convey key information about the characters through their thought and speech, rather than telling us - a distinction I'm particularly mindful of at the moment.
The novel opens with Mrs Hibbert, Friend of the hospital, who derives a great deal of pleasure from her volunteer role chaperoning poor dear outpatients who need direction and assistance. Like the other women portrayed, Mrs H is well drawn. Over the course of the novel her story unfolds gradually, and I really liked the pace of this. I agree with the reviewers that Forster writes interesting, complicated characters.
The other women are also three dimensional and individualised, particularly when compared with the key men. Martin, patient and supportive husband of neurotic and cosseted Ida, gets his own perspective, but we only see Adam, the demanding (possibly abusive, possibly just anti-Mrs H) husband of meek Dot, and Luke (the dirty, sponging boyfriend of young Emma) through the eyes of Mrs H. Their behaviour is never contextualised or explained, and we have no opportunity to learn why Dot and Emma are interested in, or defend, them. More disappointingly we don't even get a full picture of the only man whose perspective we see, new vicar Cecil, fresh to a country post after a nervous breakdown in a London parish.
However, the biggest flaw for me was that there was no resolution. Chrissie, who seemed ill-suited for life as an oncologist, decided to change specialties after completely collapsing, but none of the characters otherwise change or grow through the course of the novel, and I was left wondering what the point of it was. - Alex

Saturday, December 16

Breach of Promise - Perri O'Shaughnessy

Nina Rilley is a single mother who needs a big case to keep her practice running. Lindy Markov is the wife of multimillionaire health club-and-products ex-boxer Mike, and the brains behind the man. Together over twenty years, Mike leaves Lindy for a younger woman. Though this looks like a perfect case, Nina discovers problem after problem, starting with the barely-important fact that the Markov's never married.
Despite a disturbing number of hiccups, Nina gets to court, aided by notable trial lawyer Winston Reynolds and jury expert Genevieve Suchat. However, with an unsympathetic judge, her nemesis as opposing counsel, and a jury member with his own agenda, the trial doesn't run as expected, and that's when the real mystery begins.
Threaded through are a relationship subplot (Nina's boyfriend thinks the promise of big money's changing her, and he's offered a job in another state), concerns about neglecting her son for work, and a nice dynamic with Nina's assistant Sandy.
Goodness, this has been sitting on my shelves for around eight years! Deciding to alternate new and old books is making inroads in my unread shelves like never before, as I have a tendency to grab at the newer books which are stacked up next to the over-full shelves. And back to the review.I'm pretty sure Breach of Promise is a series book, but the novel easily reads as a stand-alone so that didn't matter. I'm glad I pulled it down, because I enjoyed this story about a sole-practitioner lawyer tantalised by the potential of a big money divorce case.
I thought the jury room scenes were particularly well executed, with the foreman's manipulation subtly yet clearly depicted. I knew fairly early in whodunit, but I think the author's intent was focused more on Nina not knowing, and that was believably done.
One thing I found frustrating was Lindy's obsessional blindness about Mikey, in the face of his (well documented) policy to freeze her out of any claim, his infidelity, and his behaviour toward her. At the same time I can understand how difficult it is to turn off your feelings just because the other person's managed to move on from a relationship you didn't even know was troubled. I think that often, when a character frustrates me like this, it's a sign that they're well written and convincing.
I'm not going to head out and buy the rest of O'Shaughnessy's work, but I'll certainly try another if it crosses my path. - Alex

Friday, December 15

Pip - Freya Norton

Pip is a professional clown who alternates working as Merry Martha at kid's parties with hospital clowning as Dr Pippity; she's the oldest of three sisters (Fen and Cat have their own novels, which I haven't read or bought) and is the family's reliable adviser, too caught up in solving their problems to have a life of her own. Zac is a high powered accountant with a six year old son and a friendly ex, who compensates for his grey job with a flat filled with vibrant colour.
The story itself is predictable but workable - Pip and Zac meet several times, though Pip is assuming her different personas each time. Pip is enticed into a hot romance with dashing paediatrician Caleb, while Zac has a friends-who-fuck arrangement with the cool and elegant Juliana. Zac is distracted by troubles at work, while Pip struggles with her commitment issues, caused by her mother leaving the family for a cowboy when Pip was six.
Interestingly, Pip and Zac don't have mind-blowing sex with each other (compared with other experiences), but Zac (at least) likes the sleeping part of their sleeping together, and neither of them seems concerned. I'm not sure what the problem is because they seem to turn each other on: "Pip travelled her hand over the bulge surging sideways and twisting behind Zac's trousers." Apparently his "straining cock" makes his trousers into a "lopsided marquee", while she has to move because she's "starting to stick to [her] knickers as it is."
Which brings me to the many things I didn't like about this novel. The style irritated me no end. Norton has three instances where "[X] was one thing, [Y]was another. But [Z] was something else entirely." The characters say things, but they also: shrug, proclaim, mimic, praise, offer, glower, and interject, in the space of just a few pages, to say nothing of panting, ruing and parrying.
And I have never in all my years of reading come across such an obvious example of an author telling when she should be showing - the first five pages of chapter three are designed to give us a picture of Zac. Do we see Zac doing anything? No. Do we hear his internal thoughts, or a conversation with another character? No. Is his environment described in the setting of some kind of scene? No. Instead Norton explains that, while you can often tell about a person from their clothing or their home:
you'd be hard-pressed to guess what Zac does from his dwelling, his dress or his disposition. Each is at odds with the other and none are remotely representative of the stereotypes traditionally associated with Zac's vocation.
She then tells us about his brightly coloured flat (he is evidently the bane of his local paint shop, but we are told about this rather than having a scene showing it); his choice of furniture that he loves rather than what designers dictate; his love of commercial fiction ("He read [Bridget Jones's Diary] on the tube going to and from work. He was aware that people stared at him. He didn't care."); his monotone wardrobe; his shiny but unused kitchen; and his happiness about his life.
Even more than that, though, was the voice of the author actually in the novel, managing to break any flow the reader might develop. At one point she asks Pip why she lied to Zac:
Pot. Kettle. Black. Pip? She can't hear me. She's on a roll with her imaginary family.
On another occasion she writes: "Now I know Zac is our hero - gentlemanly, sensitive, amusing, handsome." And that goes on for another fifteen lines, concluding with:
No. they oughtn't to come together - in any sense - tonight. The timing would be awry. There's half a book to go, anyway.
Twenty pages later Norton informs us that she's going to distract Pip from her sisters during a trip home, then tells us what's happening elsewhere. And twenty pages further on Norton remonstrates with her heroine for a paragraph, asking her is she's really that fragile, but
She can't hear me. Would she even listen if she could? See, she's swinging on the tyre swing like an ape on acid.
A stronger writer, or perhaps a different genre, could pull off this style, perhaps. But Pip irritated me so much I turned over page corners to mark examples of annoyance, though I am a courtly lover of books (rather than carnal - see the marvellous essay "Never Do That to a Book" in Anne Fadiman's brilliant Ex Libris). Had I read this a month ago it may have been impetus enough for me to have begun this blog. As it is, I am relieved to have a repository for my spleen, in addition to the many complaining phone calls and excerpts I subjected Lynn to. I see no more Norton in my future. - Alex

Thursday, December 14

Vanish - Tess Gerritsen

As Vanish begins, Jane, a Boston detective, is a week overdue for the delivery of her first child with husband Gabriel, an FBI agent. The novel revolves around the mystery of a hostage situation; Jane is one of the hostages, and Gabriel is involved with the negotiations. So far so predictable.
However, Gerritsen has combined the present tense, third-person view with the first-person story of Mila, an illegal immigrant from Belarus brought to the US as a sex-slave. There are vanishing hospital staff nobody knows, a crusading journalist, a paranoid Gulf War vet with a conspiracy theory ideation, the threat that Jane's identity as a cop will be discovered by the hostages, and a massacre that may have been covered up.
Although I've read a couple of Gerritsen's earlier works, this is the first of the Jane Rizzoli series to cross my path. I bought Vanish because the blurb opens with a pathologist who discovers one of her corpses breathing, and I have an interest in death work and death studies. Oh, and Borders had it on their 2 for 3 table :)
The medical aspects of the novel are realistic and accurate, which is always a joy. The weaving of a first-person narrative through a third-person work is interesting and well-constructed. I think it helps that the third-person sections are all present tense, while Mila reflects on how she got to her current position.
The plot is well-paced, the characters are three dimensional, the ending requires the smallest of willing suspensions of disbelief, and the fact that I was unfamiliar with their past (book one - three in the series) did not affect my enjoyment. I'll be heading back to my usual (independent) bookshop to try the rest of the series. - Alex

Wednesday, December 13

The Tenth Circle - Jodi Picoult

Trixie Stone is the fourteen year old daughter of Daniel, an up-and-coming graphic artist, and his Dante-expert academic wife Laura. The Tenth Circle begins two weeks after Trixie's boyfriend has broken up with her. Devastated, Trixie tries to win him back, and triggers a catastrophic chain of events that - among many other things - force Laura and Daniel to confront their troubled marriage, and Daniel's hidden past.
Uniquely, the text is interwoven with pages from Daniel's breakthrough graphic novel. While I can see how other readers have found that distracting, I felt it contributed to a better understanding of Daniel - both his work, and to the anger he tries hard to repress. That said, I clearly didn't give it all the attention it deserves, because I completely missed the hidden message (see the last page).
Picoult is one of the few authors (comparatively speaking) that I buy on sight. I usually wait until they come out of trade size to buy them, but it was on sale and I couldn't resist. I find something rewarding in all of Picoult's novels - she manages to blend a fantastic plot with multiple viewpoints (each with their own, clear voice), fully-imagined characters, well-integrated flashbacks, and a minority culture (prisoners, the Amish, the Inuit) into a seamless whole.
The Tenth Circle isn't my favourite Picoult novel - I guessed the 'whodunit' aspect in advance (and I wasn't trying), and there isn't complete resolution, which I find unsatisfying. On the other hand I found the plot compelling and the characters and their complexity believable and realistic. I particularly liked the portrayal and evolution of Daniel and Trixie's relationship, and the character of Trixie, who embodies the contradiction, short-sightedness, impulsivity and wisdom of adolescence. - Alex

Tuesday, December 5

About us!

I was inspired to start this blog after reading a review on an aspiring writer's blog. Well, it was titled 'book review' but was really a plot summary. I sent Lynn the link, and we agreed that we could do better, though that remains to be seen!
We will primarily review books we read for recreation, so nothing school- or work-related, or books read for the purposes of vetting prior to offspring reading them (unless they're exceptionally good). We have quite different writing and reviewing styles, and different tastes in literature - I'm (possibly too) catholic in my tastes, and clearly have way more free time; Lynn reads less but more selectively, and has (to me) a bizarre love of Arthuriana. There's a bit of overlap though, so on occasion we review the same books; those posts are labelled with both of us, and will be posted twice, on the dates we've each reviewed the work. We are in no way associated with publishing, and as much as possible will avoid the reviews of others, so these are our untainted views! - Alex