Monday, December 31

Dr. R &L. Brasch: How did it begin? Customs, superstitions and their romantic origins

As the title suggests this book looks at the forgotten meanings and origins of customs, traditions, superstitions and phrases. Where the meanings or origins of a topic addressed are known they are explained, where they are uncertain the most common speculative origins are presented.
Occasionally the speculated origins of a custom or superstition are so convoluted as to be entirely unlikely, which isn’t to say they are impossible just unbelievable.
I’ve read a number of books that address this topic over the years and this one does not stand out from the crowd. Its tone leans toward academic, as would be expected given the authors’ credentials, and the resultant read is dry. Other authors have presented the same ideas with humour or a sense of fascination that is lacking here.
Not the best example of its type but probably not the worst. I’m in no rush to look up the authors other works-Lynn

Saturday, December 29

Windfall – Desmond Bagley

Ex-CIA agent Ben Hardin was burned by the fallout from Watergate and is now working for his former colleague, Gunnarsson as an investigator in New York. His latest assignment’s pretty standard – to track down any relatives of a South African immigrant called Adriaan Hendriks, who arrived in the US in the 1930’s, on behalf of a UK law firm. It’s a little sketchy, and Hardin’s been told to stay away from the agency’s other branches, but although the job requires a bit of research it’s not too hard. Within a few weeks Hardin’s managed to track down the only son, a hippy named Henry Hendrix, and has brought him to Gunnarsson. Instead of the bonus he was promised, and the shipping of his beloved car from San Francisco, Hardin’s summarily fired.
After thinking about it a bit he thinks something suspect might be going on. Using his severance pay, Hardin flies to London, to do a little investigating at that end.
Security consultant Max Stafford, last seen in Flyaway, is thinking of expanding. When Africa, specifically Kenya, is suggested he gives the proposal some thought but concludes that it’s too risky. However, when Alix Hendricks calls, weeks after the birth of her first child, to tell him her husband Dirk has not only taken off for Kenya but also received a sizeable inheritance from his long-lost grandfather, and then tells him a US investigator wants to talk with her about it, Stafford feels obligated to get involved.
After meeting with Hardin, Stafford believes he’s genuine and that something’s going on. He, his manservant Curtis (Sargent to Stafford’s Colonel when they served in the army) and Hardin fly to the Dark Continent to investigate further.
The rest of the book is filled with intrigue, exotic creatures, internecine squabbles, kidnapping, attempted murder, hot air balloon rides, alleged scientific research stations masking sinister plots, political unrest and a brief history lesson on the legacy of artificial boundaries on the African people.
“Windfall” is not my favourite Bagley novel – this time around I’ve given it some analysis and I think it’s a combination of more telling (versus showing) than usual and a slightly intricate but dry plot - but Bagley at his worst is more enjoyable than more writers on an average day Like the last Stafford novel, there’s no romance, but otherwise this certainly holds is own. I just wouldn’t start with this if embarking on the joy of one of the Western world’s most enthralling adventure writers. - Alex

Thursday, December 27

King Matt the First – Janusz Korczak

His mother died a couple of years ago, and Matt is devastated to learn that his father is also going to die, in just a few days. Though Matt is still a boy, he’s the only son of a dying king and is therefore going to be Head of State, much to the consternation of the ministers. They think they can handle and run the kingdom themselves, but Matt wants to do things himself, make sure the children are represented, and have a friend.
This classic of children’s literature (which I had never heard of and stumbled across by complete accident) portrays the adventures of a child in over his head – Matt’s age provokes an invasion by three other kings, and Matt decides to see what the fighting’s about by running away from the palace and serving in the army; he builds candy factories and zoos, at the expense of defence; he makes friends with cannibals in Africa but upsets the neighbouring kings; and his decision to let children run everything while adults go back to school results in horrendous upheaval.
The novel was first published in the author’s homeland, Poland, in the 1930’s, and the paediatrician and teacher was a great defender of children – at the cost of his own life he escorted his own children’s army, the residents of an orphanage in Warsaw, to a Treblinka-bound train in 1942, saying “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children in a time like this.”
The book is a perplexing combination of fantasy and grim reality – no child reading this would think war is glamorous, and Matt is isolated, betrayed, and exhausted even when he rules. The pressures of leadership, and the difficulty of seeing consequences are well portrayed, but I was unsure what age this was aimed at, or even what its point was, and the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending left me more annoyed than anything. - Alex.

Wednesday, December 26

Fairest of Them All – Josette Browning

Daniel Canty has worked hard to rise himself from the lowly station of second son of a tenant farmer to doctor, barrister and landed squire by the tender age of thirty. When elderly solicitor Larchmore approaches him on behalf of Sebastian Nash, ninth earl of Hawkenge, with a wager – to civilise a young English girl raised by wild dogs in Africa – he is more intrigued than tempted, though twenty thousand pounds is nothing to be sneezed at.
When the girl, a tiny, deer-like, skittish mute thing, dark hair shorn almost off, restrained in chains, is dragged into his library, Daniel is filled with pity for the savage creature and fury at the men who’ve so mishandled her. Though born out of wedlock, and in Africa, Talitha was raised by a proper English lady, her mother, until the age of six. Daniel is sure that she must distantly remember the language, her name, and some elements of behaviour, hidden though this information might be beneath the following six or so years of deprivation and bestial companionship. He accepts the challenge, with certain conditions – he must have until November 1st, 1874, to make her presentable, rather than “her sixteenth birthday”, for a lady’s age is apt to change. And Talitha will not be bound or restrained, but must not run away or she can never come back to his estate.
Talitha can tell from the first that he is the pack leader, for all that he is neither the oldest, nor the tallest, but unquestionably the most beautiful, and he leads with sure and clear command. He banishes the cruel ones with angry disdain, and his command to her – “Talitha, come” – brings back memories from before the pack. As is her right, he will be her mate.
I was braced to be irritated by this historical romance, given to me by Lynn following a clear out, but despite myself was captured by the strong characters, startlingly original plot, sensitive handling and wheels within wheels. I grant you, Canty managing to earn two professional qualifications, with no visible means of support, in less than a dozen years, does strain at credulity, but if we can accept that and move on the rest of the novel is quite digestible.
The number of palatable subplots, including the story of Canty’s mistress, the unhappily married lady Jane, the numerous men who want to discredit and incarcerate Talitha, and how she came to be abandoned in the first place, are artfully woven throughout the main text. We get both Daniel and Talitha’s perspectives, and Browning manages to cleverly convey a lot of information to the reader through the innocent lass who doesn’t understand the subtleties of some of what she sees and hears. The obstacles are plausible, and the resolution, though a little neat, was satisfying. Damn you, Lynn – now I’ll have to track down and try another novel by this author! – Alex

Tuesday, December 25

Night of Error – Desmond Bagley

Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan never understood the rivalry his younger brother Mark always felt – all he knew was that Mark was consumed by the need to outshine him in any endeavour, which is why he followed Mike into study of the oceanography though Mark never had the passion for it. In fact, as far as Mike could make out, all Mark really felt passionately about what his own glorification.
Mark died on a deserted island near Tahiti, and Mike was mostly relieved that he was gone. That is until a rough Australian named Kane came to him one day – Kane had been with Mark when he died of peritonitis after his appendix burst, far from medical help. On the same day as the Kane visit, Mark also received a parcel – Mark’s effects: some lumps of sea rock known as manganese nodules, common and not very valuable, a diary and some notebooks filled with Mark’s idiosyncratic shorthand, and a variety of text books, clothes and other miscellany.
That night Mike’s flat was broken into, and Mark’s things were stolen – everything but a nodule that had fallen under his bed, and the diary, which had been laid to one side. The burglars were armed, and in the struggle Mike was knifed, his father’s sergeant from his army days, Geordie, was shot, and one of the burglars, punched by Mike on the rooftop, fell to his death.
Interested in discovering what they were after, Mike analysed the remaining nodule and discovered it had a significantly higher percentage of cobalt and other valuable minerals than usual – he and Geordie, accompanied by financier Jonathan Campbell and his daughter Clare set sail to try to find the source of the mineral-rich nodules.
This being a Bagley novel, the writing is considerably less dry and more convincing than my summary – there are pitched battles, a love story or two, a dollop of scientific education, some nautical know-how and an underwater volcanic eruption stirred among this story of a man trying to come to grips with the legacy of his ne’er-do-well brother and rival. All the tiny amount of knowledge I have about oceanography comes from this book, one of my favourites of Bagley’s collection, and the surprise twist at the end is no less powerful on the third (or possibly fourth or more) reading. – Alex

Sunday, December 23

The Anatomy of Hope - Jerome Groopman

Haematologist Dr Groopman has seen a lot of patients over the thirty years of his practice. In this book he uses clinical cases to illustrate how hope can help, and how lack of hope can interfere in the recovery of a patient. He traces a path from some of the first patients he was involved with as a student, through to more recent cases in his own practice, to his own experiences with chronic pain, to map the place of hope in health care. At the same time Groopman creates a picture of how health care in general, and medicine's image of its role, has changed over the last three decades.
This is not a New Age, 'have faith and beat cancer through the power of positive thinking' approach. Instead Groopman explores how belief, particularly in the form of hope or lack of hope, has a significant effect of the clinical picture. In the first case he recounts, Groopman talks about a patient who delayed seeking treatment for breast cancer, then was reluctant to have intervention, and opened up to him through their common heritage (she was Orthodox, he Observant) that the cancer was punishment from God because she strayed. She had no hope because you cannot (and should not) avert His will.
In the second case Groopman discusses his discomfort as a very junior doctor working as a locum in a country oncologist's practice - the experienced physician believed in deliberately withholding distressing truths because they would just cause depression for the patient and her family, even if this policy resulted in false hope, falsely high expectations and, in the end, lack of faith in the doctors.
He illustrates how the lack of hope can interfere with a patient's decision-making through the case of a former soldier who was adamant he was going to die, to the point where he wouldn't even consider intervention, had no hope of recovery because he'd seen a comrade die in ICU many years earlier and thought the same lay ahead of him. That man, too, had been told he could fight it, but succumbed, so that the words intended to sway him toward choosing life-saving intervention were heard as just so much hot air.
Groopman is able, as great writers can, to use one story to convey a multitude of messages. Tied in with the central topic of hope in medicine are reflection on the changing face of medical practice; his own journey as a clinician; what he's learned from patients, their families, and from skilled nurses; and the difference of opinions skilled doctors can have. He discusses his experiences as a patient and how both that and his counter-intuitive cure have coloured his view, and he talks about the case of a colleague diagnosed with the very cancer he spent his career fighting - and how intimately knowing the heavily-stacked odds doesn't necessarily equate to doing what everyone else thinks is reasonable.
I went to the library looking for Groopman's more recent work (which I found at uni), but am very glad I met this book. It is unsentimental but warm, detached but involved, articulate and informative and very interesting, and a text book example of how a writer can include the I in their narrative without losing academic rigour - something I'm aiming to achieve myself. - Alex

Saturday, December 22

Nightlife - Thomas Perry

Tanya Starling could tell when her wealthy boyfriend Dennis came home that he was about to begin to become cheap, say no, deny her things. When she was a little girl she had to do without, but now she was a woman and the time of going without was past. She thought about trying to turn him around, but she realised that it couldn't be done.
So Tanya reminded herself of the things about Dennis she didn't like - his laugh, the way he always tipped precisely 15%, the way he looked at other women when he didn't know she could see him. As he came upstairs, sting they needed to talk, Tanya stroked his ego, told him to run a bath, and waited until he was comfortable.
Then she shot him in the head, and stopped being Tanya Starling.
Perry's latest novel begins arrestingly, and the pace doesn't slow. As the plot unrolls we learn more about Tanya and her past - along the way her patience with those who stand in her way becomes shorter, and so does the length of time she holds on to each new persona, dropping mannerisms, names and physical characteristics to suit her changing circumstances.
The novel switches between focusing on Tanya (once Charlene Buckner), as she flees from state to state, killing ever less discriminatingly as she becomes more confined, to the one cop who suspects Dennis was killed by a woman, Portland Detective Catherine Hobbes.
On occasion Perry spends a lot of time describing a character only to kill him off a few pages later, which some readers might find annoying, but which I found contributed to the suspense - I couldn't tell who was disposable as easily as is often the case, which was refreshing. I also enjoyed having two female protagonists when a male fugitive and pursuing law enforcement character are more typical, and I thought the inability of most of the male characters to accept that a woman (especially an attractive young woman) could be a serial killer was interesting.
I wasn't wholly convinced by the premise - Charlene's unquestionably a sociopath, but I was surprised there weren't signs earlier in her life, and her escalation seemed really rapid. I also thought her obsession with Catherine was a little unlikely. The novel wasn't particularly tightly written, so characters vanish and then - sometimes - reemerge a long while later, and the ending was abrupt. All in all not one of Perry's greatest works, certainly not as good as the Jane Whitefield novels, and I'm glad I waited until it was in regular paperback format. But it was still engrossing and I'll definitely read the next one, if the library stock it. - Alex

Friday, December 21

Our Little Secret - Allayne Webster

Edwina Saltmarsh's life is uneventful - she lives in a small country town where nothing ever happens, has parents who care more about what the church thinks that her, always has to look after her younger brothers, and isn't as pretty as her friend Becky. She hasn't even been kissed by a boy, and she's fourteen already.
When Becky's older sister is raped on the way home from school, the town's scandalised. Anne-Marie won't say who did it - in face, she won't speak at all - but it had to be a stranger. And besides, as Ed's mum says, she was asking for it - she wore short skirts, after all. Never mind that she hadn't even kissed a boy.
Ed's more concerned about her own issues. And when cute, older Tom starts spending a little time with her, Ed's flattered. He has a car, he knows what he's doing, and he seems to like her. Her parents trust him around her, maybe because at twenty-five they don't even think of him that way. But when he starts running a finger up and down Ed's leg when her dad's watching TV, Ed gets a funny excited feeling and she knows he really does like her.
If Anne-Marie was asking to be raped then Ed must have been, too. She stopped saying no, after all, even if it was because she was crying too hard to talk, and she wore nice clothes so Tom would look at her. It's her fault he did what he did. Isn't it?
This is an important topic, told in a way that unsophisticated, sheltered girls like Ed (which is, after all, many young teens, all the more so if they think they are knowledgeable and worldly) can relate to. I had a number of quibbles with the plot - in particular, I found the timeframe hard to judge. And I didn't like anything about the Anne-Marie sub-plot, from the condemnation of her given the lack of any actual basis (she was hardly the town bike), through to how she ended up and the lack of support given to her by anyone, including (or perhaps particularly) her family, including her sister, Ed's best friend. I found the whole situation too obviously a counter-point to and an object lesson for Edwina, and the conclusion a bit too pat.
But I'm coming at this from a very different perspective from the target audience, and I think the seduction and set up by the predator, and the later identification of these stages ("that's called grooming") and explanation of his deliberate behaviour ("he was testing how far you'd let him go, where you'd let him touch you...") was useful. I also think the target audience will identify with Ed, her romantic dreams, and her willingness to let them, peer pressure and benign parental neglect influence not only what happened by Ed's willingness to bear the brunt of the responsibility herself - at least for a while. - Alex

Thursday, December 20

Midnighters: Blue Noon - Scott Westerfeld

Following their greatest battle, where the darklings' plan for Rex was unveiled and very nearly succeeded, the Midnighters should be jubilant. Instead they're more fractured than ever before - Rex may be permanently caught between his darkling and Midnighter selves, Dess can't forgive Melissa for invading her mind against her will, and Melissa's shame over her past deeds hangs over her. Even Jess doesn't get to enjoy alone time with Jonathan - he never seems to touch her except during the secret hour, and younger sister Beth is getting entirely too nosy for her own good.
The group need some time to repair their unity, but when the blue time arrives in the middle of the day all bets are off. Melissa can sense the jubilation of the darklings who, unlike the Midnighters, knew this was coming. Mapping the disturbance and overlaying it on her previous figures, Dess suspects that the blue hour is causing a tear through normal time, which could be catastrophic. This theory is supported by the behaviour of the darklings' human assistants, who are suddenly moving to the other side of the country. This could be the Midnighter's biggest challenge yet, and Jess is at the centre of it all.
The resolution to the Midnighters trilogy is taut and involving. All the main characters have a hidden flaw that is revealed and must be overcome, not always without sacrifice.
I know these reviews have been a little sketchy, but the problem with reviewing a trilogy is giving enough detail to give a flavour of the work without ruining the firs books because of revelations in reviews of later parts of the series. In a series without end each novel tends to be whole within itself, though part of an overall arc, but trilogies build more tightly upon each forerunner, so that pivotal plot points and suspenseful moments in the first book become integral to the second. I'd hate to give away something vital, (she says, on the off-chance that someone's reading this, and even making reading choices as a result), so I'll keep it all unpromisingly vague instead. If you like FSF then, despite the paucity of usefulness of this review, this is not only an author but a series worth reading. - Alex

Wednesday, December 19

Midnighters: Touching Darkness - Scott Westerfeld

Jessica's discovered what her Midnight gift is, and is getting to know her fellow Midnighters better: Rex, the seer; Dess, a polymath; her boyfriend Jonathon, who can fly in the midnight hour; and Melissa, for whom that hour is blessed relief from the rest of the town's thoughts. The stakes are rising, as the darklings plans against them begin to take form, and it appears as though they're being aided by people, though how that's possible when only Midnighters can move in the folded hour, and darklings only exist then, the teens are unsure.
When Dess begins to more closely plot the edges of the blue zone - the area affected by the midnight hour - she notices some interesting anomalies, and tracks down a woman in an apparently deserted house. Madeline is the only survivor of what used to be a cluster of midnighters, all wiped out forty-nine years ago in a lightening purge. Is she everything she seems? What is she hiding? And why are the darklings after Rex?
Maths is tightly wound up in the Midnighters universe - the ancient darklings fear new things (like non-elemental metals) and the number thirteen, but twelve is safe for them; dates and multiplications of both numbers hold significance, and the emphasis on polymath Dess and on maths (explicitly dissociated from numerology) increases in this chapter of the trilogy. Weapons uniquely named with a thirteen-lettered word (the words lose power after use) are more deadly, with additional names adding power, resulting in such delightful creations as Categorically Unjustifiable Appropriation and Brogdignagian Perambulation.
In addition, this book begins to explore bigger issues, like what happens when you have the ability to not just read minds but to influence them? When you have powers others don't, how do you regulate yourselves? And - little sisters: how much of a pain are they?
This is a worthy successor to the first in the series, and I was glad I held off reading it until I tracked down the final, as I had to move straight onto that. - Alex

Tuesday, December 18

Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations - John Diamond

In 1996 journalist, broadcaster and columnist John Diamond first wrote of his concern about cancer – he had a throat lump that he was afraid might be cancerous. In his regular column for The Times he wrote about the scare, and his relief (tinged with the loss of drama) that it was only an unusual cyst.
Only it wasn’t an unusual cyst – Diamond had throat cancer, almost certainly secondary to smoking, and by the time he died in 2001 he’d had multiple surgeries, a permanent tracheostomy and significant resection of his tongue, had suffered through radio- and chemotherapy, and was being fed through a tube.
He also maintained columns in a number of publications, and was six chapters into a book debunking alternative or complementary therapies – many of which kind readers had written to him about. He opens by stating that he’s not interested in defending allopathic medicine – it’s not perfect, he knows the statistics about iatrogenic (hospital-caused) complications and waste and short-comings – but in examining the less-commonly critiqued arena of reflexology, homeopathy and the like. At the outset Diamond reports that he doesn’t deny that some remedies might help alleviate symptoms, make people feel better, or allow them to feel as though they have some control over their diseases – if that’s all it was, he says, there’d be no reason for him to write the book. Diamond’s issue is with those practitioners who report they can cure diseases (up to and including cancer) and that allopathic medicines make people sicker than the diseases they’re supposed to treat. Many practitioners say that this is an irresponsible position, that no reputable practitioner would make this claim, but nonetheless there they are, purporting to be reputable and claiming they can cure cancer.
Rather than focusing on specific claims about therapies, though he does look at some of these, Diamond concentrates on the meta-claims, like the argument that "the orthodoxy is hidebound and scared of change." While there’s sometimes resistance to new and counterintuitive ideas (like Warren and Marshall’s 1982 discovery that helicobacter pylori, a bacteria, is responsible for most stomach ulcers, not stress and lifestyle issues), any volume of a peer-reviewed medical journal will be full of articles contradicting, arguing against, or trashing researcher’s findings. And while it did take 12 years for the orthodoxy to swing around to the H. pylori thesis, that’s a short period of time – says Diamond – in terms of medical research, and it was accomplished without any apparent consensus from vast pharmaceutical conglomerates.
Compare this with naturopathic medicine: "I’ve never come across a herbalist who has revealed that a remedy used by his professional forebears has been discovered, after all, not to work, or a homeopath complaining that his craft is still stuck in the rut ploughed by homeopathy’s founder two hundred years ago." A point I’d never previously considered.
Sadly, Diamond died before he was able to finish – the book ends with the evocative sentence "Let me tell you why." The rest of the volume comprises a selection of his columns, from the very amusing "The Bland Leading the Bland" in 1988, through writings on first dates, Geneva (perhaps the only humorous writing about that apparently dour city), bottled water, reflections on Judaism, and fatherly obsession. In 1996 he first writes about this ‘cyst’ and his resulting experience of the private health care system in the UK, and over time his health understandably becomes more and more the focus of his writing. Throughout, Diamond is engaging, informative, admirably free of self-pity, and articulate, and the frustration he feels is palpable. Anyone interested in a critical but not overly technical critique of complementary medicine, and/or in the lived experience of being a patient and of dying, should go no further. I had never heard of John Diamond before I discovered this book while looking for something else, and my life would have been the poorer without that serendipidous discovery. – Alex
Alex 2007

Monday, December 17

Midnighters: The Secret Hour - Scott Westerfeld

Jessica and her family have just moved from Chicago to the small town of Bixby, Oklahoma for her mother's work. Her first day of school was honed her intro speech to a fine art, though she never says aloud that the water tastes odd. Well, not until she meets Dess in her Beginner's Trig class. Dess is some kind of trig whiz, a little odd but nice, at least until she starts being weird about dreams - she says the water doesn't just taste funny but also causes odd dreams. Jess's been too tired to dream, and says so.
That night she has an amazing, vivid dream - she discovers a world lit by an eerie blue glow, and the the air is full of perfect little blue diamonds. When she explores, Jess discovers that the diamonds are actually rain, and that the whole world is frozen, immobile until she interacts with it.
When Jess wakes the memory of the dream stays with her - until she gets out of bed and steps on wet clothing.
Jess learns that she's a Midnighter, one of the few born in the second of midnight. In Bixby - and possibly other places, they don't know - Jess, Dess and her friends
Rex and Melissa, have the ability to go anywhere in town, and see things nobody else can see. Including the terrifying, shape-shifting slithers and the entirely more frightening and intelligent darklings. The slithers usually leave Dess and her friends alone but are intent on harming Jess.
The Secret Hour, first in a trilogy, sets up a plausible universe with interesting and imperfect characters. There are a number of questions that are left dangling for the next installment, wihtout being irritating. - Alex

Sunday, December 16

Kill Me - Stephen White

When Kill Me opens, White’s nameless protagonist is racing down the road in his beloved Porsche 911 – though he notices a series of men with walkie talkies positioned strategically along the motorway, he assumes they’re police, involved in the hunt for the Colorado sniper. That is until he’s almost squashed underneath falling barrels from the back of a semitrailer that’s ‘coincidentally’ boxed him in traffic. That’s when he knows that the Death Angels are picking up the pace.
A wealthy, self-made man, he is in robust good health in 2004, when he and some friends went heli-skiing in the Canadian Rockies. Shaken by the news that a friend who’d chosen to go diving instead of skiing sustained oxygen deprivation and is now brain-damaged, he is then involved in a life-threatening fall when he skis onto a cornice of snow-covered ice, not granite. With the example of Antonio in front of him, he tells his friends that he wants to be killed if anything, anything like that ever happens to him.
Although most of his friends laugh it off, one later approaches him to say that, if he’s serious, that can be arranged, but he needs to seriously think about it.
He discovers a secretive, selective, expensive service, run by an undetermined person and employing an undetermined number of people. For a substantial fee, and with significant detail about the parameters required, your life can be ended, painlessly, quickly and ‘accidentally’ – avoiding a lingering death from cancer, or the kind of twilight life of Antonio. There’s just one thing – it all has to be set up in advance of any events, and once a predetermined threshold (like diagnosis of a fatal illness) is crossed there’s no way to stop it.
The novel is told primarily from the protagonist’s perspective, bookended by White’s usual narrator, psychologist Alan Gregory. The main character’s story unrolls in a combination of flashback and ‘real time’ narration, which heightens the narrative suspense. It’s obvious from the set-up that he changes his mind, and the battle is between unwilling prey and the hunters he set on his own trail. What’s interesting is how the situation arose, why he changes the plan, and how he goes about it. I liked his thoughts about his sessions with Alan Gregory, one of my favourite series characters, the narrative style and the unique plot concept. However there were several significant flaws for me in the concept of the exclusive service, questions our protagonist – no hero, but a nice portrayal of a single-minded, self-oriented industrialist - doesn’t think of until it’s too late but that concerned me from the beginning. And I know it would have destroyed the whole novel, but there was no acknowledgment that what a healthy person considers unacceptable compromise is different from what the same person at a future time with different experiences considers unacceptable. In other words, there’s no allowance for changes of preference over time and as a consequence of experience – a key concept in ethics, but inclusion of which would have made for a very different text!
As a one-off I quite enjoyed White’s departure from his usual style, but I look forward to reading a more conventional Alan Gregory novel next time around. - Alex

Saturday, December 15

Heavenly Pleasures – Kerry Greenwood

Corinna's back in her second adventure - this time there are no vampires or bondage outfits (which I know I didn't allude to in the review below, but I couldn't include everything). However there is: the return of delicious Daniel, a scrumptious chocolate orgasm muffin, tampering at the Heavenly Pleasures gourmet chocolate shop, trips to restaurants outside the CBD (I have to check out a couple of places in Brunswick Street), a missing kitten and a missing girl, a mysterious new resident, bomb threats, bride kidnap and a very naughty boy pretending to be possessed.
For all praise see the below directly below this one. It's only because I can't dig out the third in the series from my boxes of unpacked books that I haven't splurged entirely and must wait until it shows up (or I can borrow it from the library) before I read both it and the newest installment, Trick or Treat. My Christmas present to myself. - Alex

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

Friday, December 14

Earthly Delights – Kerry Greenwood

Corinna Chapman, accountant turned baker, is very happy with her second life - sure,she has to get up at 4AM five days a week, but the work day's done while all the office slaces are still tethered to their desks, she's her own boss, she gets to make delicious things all day (except the loathesome health bread that a sub-section of her usually discerning clientele insist upon) and she never has to wear kitten heels again.
One morning, arising as usual in the dead of night, Corinna shrugs into her usual baking outfit of a tracksuit, resurrects herself with coffee, and heads downstairs to her fabulous bakery in the heart of the city. When she opens the door to Calico Alley she finds the body of a young girl, pulseless and blue. Resuscitating the girl (with the aid of an ambulance crew and their Narcan) marks the beginning of a cascade of experiences that lead Corinna to see a very different side of Melbourne, and which brings love in to her life.
This is the first of four (thus far) Corinna novels - a heroine very different from the sleek Phryne of Greenwood's 1920's novels, she is a little less unattainable and a little more human. Not that I don't love Phryne, I do, but Corinna is more the mass of contradictions that every woman I know holds. She is also Reubenesque, usually self-accepting but not always, able to easily hold her own with her jerk of an ex, intelligent, self-sufficient and open.
The secondary characters are so wholly captured that they are in no way less than Corinna except for their page time (a concept I may have just coined - the literature version of screen time), the food is the descriptive equivalent of food porn, the plot is smart and complicated without being convoluted or frustrating, and the whole is pure reading pleasure. - Alex

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

Thursday, December 13

The Guy Not Taken – Jennifer Weiner

Josie, the oldest of three children, comes home from college to find her father gone, her younger brother morose, her tempestuous sister acting out and her mother ploughing never-ending laps in the pool. Over three stories we follow the path of Josie, Nicki, Jon and their mother from that first summer to Josie’s wedding day.
Marlie’s happy enough with her life – her husband’s a reliable presence, and her baby’s beautiful, when he’s not crying. But she can’t shift those last eighteen pregnancy pounds and, tired and feeling frumpy, she’s feeling over her life and wishes what would have happened if she'd stayed with her ex-boyfriend. On a whim, while looking at a registry list for a friend, she puts in his name.
This collection of short stories by the author of Good in Bed and In Her Shoes spans her writing career from the age of eighteen. And it shows - the first three stories show clear signs of working through her own issues and, with a couple of rare exceptions, most of the stories didn't seem to have any narrative points. I'm under the weather at the moment - o poor me, dying of a cold - so that has probably coloured my lack of enchantment, but doesn't account for all of it. Thank god for libraries - once upon a time I bought all her stuff without question. - Alex

Wednesday, December 12

Darwinia – Robert Charles Wilson

Two years old at the birth of the new century, Guilford Law is fourteen when the world changes forever. Overnight a swathe of Europe was replaced by an unpopulated vista that has the same shape but wholly different flora and unfamiliar, treacherous fauna. Seen by many in the New World as a Miracle, dually asserting God’s dominion over all and His condemnation of the old, the new land is dubbed Darwinia, a mocking snub to those who accepted the clearly flawed theory of evolution.
In 1920, now a young man, married and the father of a young daughter, Guilford heads from his native Boston to the new London painstakingly being resurrected. Much to the distress of his wife, he’s about to embark on a potentially dangerous but nonetheless important expedition to discover more about this uncharted land. Leaving Caroline and four-year-old Alice in the care of her aunt and uncle, Guilford joins a group of men, headed by Preston Finch. Through a series of disastrous turns, Guilford’s devotion to Caroline never wavers, and he writes a journal to her regularly.
This ambitious novel adds gods, visions and foreseeings, dual universes, strange and terrible creatures, and the affect of This World survivors on our world’s war victims. If that all sounds convoluted, complicated and muddy then I’ve convincingly portrayed the novel, or at least as much of it as I could manage. I persisted long after I’d had enough but just couldn’t manage to complete Darwinia. Perhaps it was because I’ve been ill (with a genuinely high fever), but I suspect it’s not just me. The Toronto Star found one of Wilson’s novels to be a “seamless blend of mature philosphizing and crisp story telling” but they weren't reviewing this novel. I did enjoy two previous offerings from Wilson, and haven’t given up on his work, but I’ll be taking a break before tackling him again. – Alex

Tuesday, December 11

Keri Arthur: Full Moon Rising

When a werewolf/vampire crossbreed’s twin brother goes missing her search for him uncovers a major supernatural conspiracy. Somebody is cloning paranormal creatures and tinkering with their genome, producing a variety of unholy crossbreeds. Her rescue of her brother from their laboratory and their subsequent investigation into who is behind the scheme lead her on a dangerous path that travels disturbingly close to home.
As if that wasn’t enough one of her lover’s is insisting that she has his baby, something she is determined isn’t going to happen, her boss is pushing her to give up her desk job and become a field agent, something else she’s not interested in and a disturbingly hot vampire has entered her life, a complication she doesn’t need right now. Throw in a full moon making her hormones run wild and she’s having a very bad week.
I enjoyed the plot of this book. It was interesting and I didn’t see many of the twists coming until they were there. It clipped along at a good fast pace and built a world I could believe in.
The problem I had was the amount of words given over to sex. Don’t get me wrong, I like some good hot lovin’ and the sex was well written but there was just so damned much of it. At a guess I’d say between a third and half of the book was pure sex. And while it wasn’t wholly gratuitous - sex is an integral part of werewolf behaviour and was also used in places to move the story along - I lost interest in the detail of the act long before the story was over. If this had been marketed as erotica then the amount of detailed sex scenes would be fine but as an urban fantasy I would have preferred more of the fantastic plot and less of the sex.
One thing that did stand out to me and became more annoying as the story progressed was the use of the phrase “every fiber of my being”. Whether it be rage, lust, pain or some other emotion the heroine feels it with every fiber of her being, again and again and again.
But as I said, I liked the plot. While this story ends at a suitably satisfactory point, the story itself is not over with only half the mystery solved and I will be following up with the next book in this series. Only next time I’ll be aware that I am reading something that boarders close to erotica. Approaching the book from that perspective should make all the difference to my enjoyment of it.-Lynn

Monday, December 10

Nightlife – Rob Thurman

Cal Leandros and his older half-brother Niko have spent the last four years on the run – ever since Cal, the bastard spawn of a woman who’d sell herself to anything and the creature that sired him. Cal’s always known he was half monster – his mother never made any secret of his despised origins, and when he was fourteen Niko, then twenty, came back to the trailer to rescue him. But the car broke down, and Cal was snatched – for Niko he was gone two long days, days Niko kept hopeful, relentless watch. Cal can’t remember anything that happened but, based on the length of his hair and nails it was more like two years, and based on his feral primacy, not at all pleasant.
Now the young men live in New York, ever wary of the creatures they call Grendels, and always ready to run. Unlike the wilfully blind humans around them, the brothers Leandros are all too aware of the nightmares that surround them – a boggle on the mud of Central park, a troll under the Brooklyn Bridge, and Pan sells cars on commission - and the biggest nightmare of them all has its heart set on Cal.
Although Nightlife didn’t, as one of the front blurbs promised, take my breath away, it was a fair enough foray into the genre. The brothers’ relationship was nicely portrayed, the supernatural creatures weren’t too far fetched, the prologue (where Cal plunges a knife into Niko and leaves him to die) casts an extra dimension of tension over the plot. There were some nice lighter and humorous moments, I particularly liked the identity of Cal’s father and his race (and their alternate spelling), and I really liked the way, though there are a few loose ends strewn throughout the novel, it didn’t seem to open itself to a sequel, which does seem to be almost mandatory in this genre of late. - Alex

Sunday, December 9

Something Borrowed – Emily Giffin

Rachel White, the only child of proper parents and a life-long good girl, has played second-fiddle to her best friend and then-neighbour, the beautiful, vivacious and generally magnificent Darcy Rhone, since elementary school. How could she not? Even Rachel’s mother prefers Darcy to her. Frustrated by her job as a junior lawyer in a prestigious firm, unhappily single but too busy to date, Darcy is startled to discover she’s thirty. And somehow, after the ‘surprise’ party Darcy throws, good girl Rachel finds herself in bed with her law school friend and Darcy’s fiancé, Dex.
It would be bad enough if it were a drunken one-off, but although she tries to tell herself she was drunk, Rachel knows she wasn’t that impaired. When Dex tells her that he wasn’t drunk either, that he’s attracted to her, that he still wants her, Rachel can’t help herself. Even though he’s Darcy’s, Rachel knew him first, was interested in and attracted to him first. Darcy always gets everything she wants, and she doesn’t appreciate Dex like she does – is it so wrong for Rachel to have just a little piece of the good life for herself? But as their September wedding approaches, maid of honour Rachel has to make some hard decisions about what’s right and wrong, and what kind of person she is.
This is a step above the usual chick lit froth – the characters are a little complicated, the portrayals of Darcy (who is shallow, scheming and manipulative) and Rachel (who is unable to see this) are particularly well executed, and the dilemma is powerful. Rachel does have a touch of Sookie Stackhouse about her – many men are attracted, for no obvious reason, and she has no idea they do – and the ending was a little too pat for my tastes, allowing the heroine to fully redeem herself while still holding on to her happiness, but it was an enjoyable enough journey that these are relatively minor quibbles. - Alex

Saturday, December 8

48 Shades of Brown – Nicholas Earls

When his parents decided to move to Geneva just before Dan’s final year of high school, he was given three options – spend a year in Switzerland, board at school, or stay in Sydney with his mother Margot’s much younger black sheep sister, Jacqueline. He opted for the last but, the only child of a very protective mother, he’s far more apprehensive than he thought he’d be.
Jacq, a PhD student at Sydney Uni, lives in a share house with eighteen-year-old Naomi, a “flaxen haired love goddess” who has sex with her unappreciative boyfriend in the room next to his. Dan has only attended single-sex schools, and count on one hand the number of times he’s had a conversation with a girl his age. In an attempt to impress Naomi, he studies a bird book and discovers there are forty eight way of describing the colour of brown birds.
Earls beautifully portrays the journey of a shy young boy toward manhood – Dan becomes more mature, more conscious of those around him, and more discerning, without losing any of his endearing self-awareness or sensitivity. The self-conscious double-guessing dance of adolescence is well captured, and there are some fantastic humorous scenes – I laughed aloud several times during the picnic scene, when Dan is attacked by geese. This was my first venture into Earls’s writing but it won’t be my last. - Alex

Friday, December 7

Sick To Death – Hedley Thomas

On Christmas Eve, 2002, Indian-born, US-trained surgeon Jayant Patel received an offer to work at Bundaberg Hospital in north Queensland. A surgeon who had been prohibited from operating in one US state and had restrictions on the kinds of surgery he was permitted to perform in another state, Patel was relieved to once again have employment. And the gross errors of practice and the inability to see his short-comings, the qualities that contributed to the death and disability of patients that led to his issues in America followed Patel to Australia.
Australian journalist Thomas places the reign of Jayant Patel at Bundaberg in the context of issues in the Australian public health system in general, and of Queensland in particular. An insufficient number of doctors in general, particularly in remote and rural areas, and especially of experienced, skilled doctors, meant that the authorities relied upon to adequately vet applicants was wilfully lax. This short staffing meant that Patel, who was accepted to practice provided it was under supervision, was rapidly promoted to Head of Surgery and was therefore under no scrutiny by superiors. The focus of government of reducing waiting lists over every other criteria of a successful health care system meant that a surgeon who was prepared to tear through these lists regardless of ability or outcome was lauded by his administration. And the inherent and entrenched medical-nursing hierarchy meant that the concerns of his only witnesses, the theatre and ICU nursing staff, were systematically ignored. Patel’s willingness to perform intricate, complicated and skilled surgery despite lack of practice or ability, combined with his inability to accept that the hospital’s facilities were inadequate to care for truly sick patients, vastly escalated the number of people maimed and killed as a result of his surgery.
Thomas, who was contacted by whistle-blowing nurse Toni Hoffman, Unit Manager of ICU at Bundaberg, has meticulously researched the case and the wider contributing factors. He details how Ms Hoffman exhausted all other avenues to curb Patel’s practice and the subsequent harassment and intimidation brought to bear on her.
Some time ago I reviewed "Dancing with Doctor Death" and reported that I was surprised and a little disappointed that it had been so highly recommended by a friend. Imagine my delight at discovering this account, which actually is the recommended version and significantly better executed. If you’re interested in general issues in health care, doctor/nurse interactions, power dynamics, the affect of government policy on individual cases, lack of health care resources, the impact of inherent power imbalance between groups, the inadequacies of mandated reporting systems, the consequences of reducing oversight, or the costs of whistle-blowing, read this book. - Alex

Thursday, December 6

Heather Graham: Ghost Walk

When a ghost tour operator sees the spirit of her friend and college on the night she is murdered nobody believes her except for a civilian parapsychologist working for the local police department. The murder he is helping to investigate is almost a carbon copy of her friend’s death and he believes that there must be a connection between the two killings. But the victims have nothing in common except that their spirits are appearing to the same woman-warning her that she is a target.
Together the pair uncovers the connection between the two seemingly unrelated victims, exposing large scale political conspiracy and bringing the killers to justice, all while falling in love along the way.
This was an interesting variation of the standard mystery format. It was quite well executed with enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing at who was actually involved and why. References to the murderer and their motivation are peppered throughout the book so that when their identity is revealed it is believable though not a complete surprise.
The romance between the two lead characters isn’t as convincing as the suspense elements. I need more than sex between characters to be convinced they have a future together. As a significant, though secondary, plot it was unsatisfying.
One thing that I did like was the way the author managed to get across a sense of things being just slightly ‘off’. It made for great atmosphere.
An engaging though not compelling read. I wouldn’t bypass Graham’s other works but neither am I seeking them out.-Lynn

Wednesday, December 5

Flyaway – Desmond Bagley

In 1936, in the midst of the Golden Age of Aviation, pilot Peter Billson competed in the London to Cape Town Air Race. After refuelling in Algiers he took off and was never seen again. After a wait of several months, while search parties failed to find him or any sign of the plane, his widow applied for the £100,000 insurance policy the race organisers trumpeted each participant was covered for.
Forty-two years later his son, spurred on by an article strongly implying Billson and his widow bilked the insurance company out of the settlement, has vanished. His employer, Franklin Engineering, wants to know where to and why, and sets Max Stafford, head of his own security consultancy company, to find out. Stafford is more interested in why a man working at a £2,000 per year job was earning £8,000 but obliges nonetheless. Frankly, with his marriage heading firmly south, Stafford’s not averse to taking a break from London.
Once again Bagley delivers, this time with a trip to Algiers and a glimpse of the stark beauty of the desert. Light on the romance, the standby elements of intrigue, exotic locale, flawed character who reforms, overt but contextually-appropriate violence and exposure to other cultures are all present, combined in a reliably enjoyable and refreshingly original plot.
There’s really nothing else I can say, except that I’m pacing myself as I have fewer Bagley’s left to re-read. A small break may be in order, to stretch out the remainder as long as possible. - Alex

Tuesday, December 4

How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide – John Sutherland

Sutherland addresses pretty much every aspect of the novel, from its evolution through the future incarnations (will e-books ever replace paper and ink?) to the impossibility of hearing of more than a fraction of what’s available, let alone reading it all. He talks about publishing, reviewing, awards, hardback vs paperback, the impact of the Internet, margins and marginalia, films from books, dust jackets and blurbs.
According to the blurb of this book, “We assume reading is like riding a bicycle – you can do it or you can’t. But reading well is almost as difficult as writing well. This book is a guide to how to do it.”
Not so much. The title is certainly catchy, and the blurb lead me to buy the book (despite my book budget), but there’s little hear about how to actually read a novel. There is, however, quite a lot about how much awareness of place affects your reading of a novel – Sutherland discusses at length a review of the well received novel Saturday by Ian McEwan. Lauded in the UK, and broadly tipped to take out a major award, the book was reviewed by John Banville, an American novelist, just prior to its US release. Banville, in the first review of Saturday published in the US, savaged the novel; although his review was attacked, it’s highly likely that the resultant brouhaha cost McEwan the award that, not entirely coincidentally, Banville received.
Sutherland is highly critical of Banville’s errors in the review – chiefly that he believed McEwan’s protagonist won a squash match (described, moment by moment, over 17 pages) he lost, which evidently colours the rest of the text, and places the action in North London when it takes place in West London, a location as “tight, precise and integral to the novel” as its time frame. “If you know central London the novel has a distinct Fitzrovian feel to it… [it] is a quintessentially Fitzrovia-Bloomsbury novel.” Does not knowing this affect the reading of the novel? Sutherland says it absolutely makes a difference – although errors the author made (like the hours a gentleman’s club are open, and whether or not a given gym has a squash court) are evidently “truly piddling.”
There is a section on hearing the characters’ voices – “Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is set… in New England. She herself spent a couple of years there… What accent should the reader’s ear impose on the [text]? Smith’s Cambridge, England voice or her Cambridge Mass. voice? … Snooty cis-Atlantic, homely trans-Atlantic or bland mid-Atlantic? The passage means something different in each case.”
And these two aspects – emphasis on location and emphasis on voice - capture my issue with the book. It’s taken me over a week to write the review, because I’ve had trouble articulating how I feel about it. Far from helping me improve my ability to read a novel, my technique in approaching literature, or even my selection of what to read, I finished this tome feeling undereducated, Colonial, and unable to appreciate the delicate nuances of fiction. I quite clearly shouldn’t even attempt reading On Beauty, as I don’t even know what a “cis-Atlantic” ("this [the speaker's] side of the Atlantic") accent sounds like, and I don’t hear accent when I read anyway, unless it’s to notice annoyingly-rendered dialect. Maybe I should stick to novels set in the inner and eastern suburbs of Melbourne, instead. Or give up on reading and just watch television. - Alex

Monday, December 3

Doctors Cry, Too – Frank H Boem

Subtitled Essays from the Heart of a Physician, this collection of previously published columns contains a series of loosely linked anecdotes from Dr Boem’s experiences as a clinician, specialising in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. The anecdotes are grouped under headings of “The Emotional and Spiritual Side”, “Special Moments”, “The End of Life”, and “A Personal View”, and each section has an overall reflection about the theme and the contents.
I think I was expecting something like surgeon and writer Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, where each essay ties a clinical case into a larger debate or issue, or perhaps the previously reviewed The Mummy at the Dinner Table, where cases are discussed in themselves and as a microcosm or complete departure from their practice as a whole. Or even, given the title, a variation of a Chicken Soup for the Medical Practitioner’s Soul, where a generous dollop of uplifting humanity and spirituality was added to the mix.
What I got was something quite different. I found the essays I read simplistic, lacking narrative technique, and wholly uninteresting. As I have a strong professional, academic and personal interest in the area, this is quite an accomplishment of Dr Boem’s part.
The stories often didn’t seem to go anywhere in particular, and I certainly didn’t find them profoundly reflecting and larger issues or universalisable truths, or even generating insight into one man’s practice. As in The Mummy at the Dinner Table, some of the stories were incomplete because Boem rotated onto another service, or the patients were lost to follow up. That work made the point that this can be one of the frustrating aspects of clinical practice, an interesting and rarely discussed perspective. Boem makes no such point, and generated so little interest in me that I didn’t care either way.
After reading about a quarter of the book I flipped through the rest at random, on the off chance that I was missing a seam of narrative gold. I wasn’t. Dross, dross all the way. This is the kind of book “eh” was created for. - Alex

Sunday, December 2

A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair – Nicholas Fisk

Some decades after a nuclear accident it becomes apparent that humanity is in trouble – fewer and fewer children are being born, not nearly enough to replace the death rate. As a result, young people are pampered, nurtured and cherished. Reared in group homes, to maximise their well-being, they are the hope of the twenty second century. Smarter than average, more self-directed, a fast learner, Brin is the best and brightest, and he knows it. When he’s taken to the Council of the Western Seniors Elect he’s neither surprised nor overawed – it makes sense that they would want his input.
Everyone’s heard rumours about the Reborn – people generated from the genetic material of the dead – but they’re just rumours. At least, that’s what Brin thinks, until he learns that the Seniors want him to observe and interact with a group of Reborns – siblings Brian and Mavis, and their housekeeper Mrs Mossop. Because they have to be made from pre-accident material, and because the shock of trauma of bringing them straight to the present time, the Reborn believe it’s November 1940, and as they have no substantive memory, each evening they return to their boxes and each day they return to the kitchen that’s the only part of the house that was able to be faithfully recreated in all period-appropriate detail.
The more time Brin spends with the Reborn the more sympathetic he is to them, and the more he comes to realise that they’re not as static as the Seniors believe. Brian is particular is becoming impatient and wants to go outside, and is less and less willing to be distracted by the stories of Brin’s fighter-pilot uncle. Then Brin’s uncle appears, and everything in the 1940’s house changes.
Brin’s arc from cocky, valued and pampered youth to a more worldly-wise and rebellious youth is beautifully done, and his voice is distinctive throughout. Fisk is very good at creating atmosphere and suspense, generating an adolescent’s view of the world, and imbuing the mundane with sinister overtones; in perhaps his best known work, Grinny, the wolf amonst the sheep is an old lady that only the children can see through. In A Rag, A Bone… the domesticity is more foreign and the danger more occult.
I first read this novel about twenty-five years ago, and had a very clear memory of the shocking twist near the end, though the actually ending and many other details were more vague. Given the length of time and the literally thousands of books I’ve read since then, that already says something about the quality of the writing. – Alex

Saturday, December 1

Blitzed – Robert Swindells

Eleven-year-old George’s life is dead boring – there’s nothing fun to do in Witchfield, except creeping, where you and your mates sneak through people’s backyard, fast as you can, and for some reason boring adults get upset. If you don’t want your tomatoes trampled, don’t plant them where they were squashed last time a trio of boys crept at speed through your yard, right? And buy them at Sainsbury’s anyway, like a normal person.
The only thing that George really finds interesting is World War Two – the Home Front and doodlebugs and air raids and U-boats, George knows it all. When his class start studying the War George gets a chance to shine – finally, something he knows about, something interesting. They even have an excursion to Eden Camp, an old prison camp that’s been turned into a war museum. George went a couple of weeks earlier, but he’s thrilled to go again. His favourite of the 29 themed huts is number five, which replicated a bombed out home. Last time he didn’t get a chance to check it out up close, but this time he scrambles on to the wreckage like he’s rescuing the person crushed under the rabble wuth only a hand sticking out. Even as he hears his teacher yell, George feels a kind of lurch, and everything changes. It’s dark, and cold, and the hand is real.
“I know what’s happened to me, that’s the worst part. You read ‘em, and if you haven’t you’ve seen them on TV. I’m talking about time-slip stories, where some kid goes through a certain door… [and] lands somewhere in the past … He’s never shown the way he’d really be: paralysed with shock, not because there’s a dinosaur or a bunch of cut-throats, but because his mum and dad aren’t born yet.”
George has somehow landed in London in 1940, and he’s terrified and cold. Come the morning he’s also hungry, with no money that he can use and no resources. Until he happens on a bombed out hotel and watches in amazement as, one after the other, four children crawl out from under a table like clown out of a Mini. Like him they’ve found their way there, to the protection of Ma who, at fourteen, earns some money and somehow manages to keep them all fed, clothed, and as safe as it’s possible to be in the middle of a war.
I know Swindells better as the author of novels for adolescents - like Brother in the Land – but this book for tweens has all the hallmarks of his other fiction. The protagonist is likeable, believable and layered and, thrust into a nightmarish world, emerges the stronger for it. George certainly very quickly realises that reading about an experience is wholly different from living it, and this point is made both explicitly by George (who reflects during an air raid how, far from being exciting, the experience is initially frightening and then excruciatingly dull), and implicitly but subtly throughout the text.
I think Blitzed would be particularly well suited to reluctant male readers, but I found it engaging and I’m far from that demographic! There’s a happier finale than usual, no doubt because of the targeted age group, and the neat coincidence at the end was telegraphed but nonetheless satisfying. - Alex

Friday, November 30

A Question of Death – Kerry Greenwood

This sumptuous collection is a baker’s dozen of Phryne Fisher short stories, spanning the breadth of her existence thus far. In each the characters of Phryne and, to a lesser extent, her entourage are reproduced in exquisite miniature.
With her usual egalitarian panache, Phryne manages to restore an inheritance from a lust-blinded pater, reunite long-lost lovers, protect innocent young women from the unwanted and forceful advances of ruthless men, prevent a terrified manager from commiting murder, and defend the innocent from unwarranted suspicion. All this while looking delightful, dancing gaily (though not always with partners as adept as one might wish), and finding the odd enticing young lad with whom to sport.
Interleaved with the stories, which are beautifully illustrated, are recipes for cocktails and dishes that have appeared in the stories, and the occasional piece of advice from the admirable protagonist – like “Six ways to discourage the overly enthusiastic suitor.” This is a book that would be best enjoyed dipped in to from time to time, each morsel savoured, each aspect relished. Or you can do as I did, and greedily gulp the whole thing down in the space of an afternoon, all the while promising to put the book down. After just one more. - Alex

Thursday, November 29

The Long Walk – Kerry Greenwood

Twelve-year-old Isabel Wyatt’s the oldest, and with her dad away building the Great Ocean Road, and her mother cleaning rich people’s houses in between the other work, it falls to Isa to take care of the younger children, help around the house, go to the welfare lady for food vouchers, take in laundry, and sew for Madame in Collins Street. Johnno has two paper routes, but he’s only ten and not too reliable around the house; five-year-old Rosie keeps the chooks, and Billy the baby’s too little to help at all. But they’re managing. Somehow. But although summer’s coming, and that means no more scratchy newspaper for blankets, the Great Depression’s starting to hit harder than ever.
When Isa’s mum makes her promise that, whatever happens, she’ll keep the children together, she has no way of knowing that only days later she’ll fall from a ladder cleaning a rich woman’s picture rails. Hospital’s bad enough – Isa has to beg a nightgown off snooty Mrs Auburn because mum’s is only a rag, and the fare to the hospital would almost break the bank, let alone the hospital fees. But when her mother’s diagnosed with the dreaded tuberculosis, often fatal and treated with months of rest far away in the country, and a telegram fails to find her father, the authorities try to separate Isa from her brothers and sister.
In desperation, Isa makes up an aunt on her father’s side, who lives in Apollo Bay. Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, they have train tickets to Colac. Armed with a pram, a thermos and a tarpaulin, Isa sets off, siblings in tow, on the long, arduous trek to track down her father.
I’ve avoided Greenwood for a little while, after the wrenching disappointment of Waleroad, but all is wholly forgiven! As always, the historical detail is not only meticulously researched but seamlessly woven into the plot, so that I came away knowing more about the period (and hoping Phryne will live forever in the glorious twenties) without being dumped on. Isa is plucky and resourceful, with a very strong sense of responsibility, though wholly human.
For me this story was as much about humanity in general – exemplified by the people who alternately help and hinder the journey – as it was about Isa herself. The ending was a little too neat, though well supported, and acceptable giving the genre and target audience. I found it satisfying, too! A lovely sense of time and place, Greenwood mercifully delivers again. - Alex

Wednesday, November 28

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby

Toward the end of 2003, Hornby was commissioned to write a monthly column for Believer magazine about his reading, and this volume comprises two years worth of contributions. An otherwise extremely liberal and catholic publication, the Believer has one overarching editorial principle, which Hornby characterises as “thou shalt not slag anyone off.” Fine in theory, but more difficult when Hornby read books he didn’t like; they’re reviewed incognito, like “Unnameable comedy thriller – Anonymous” but Hornby found the experience useful, as he began reading fewer books he didn’t like.
Each column begins with a list of books bought during the month and books read, and the writing is as much about him as it is about the literature. On occasion there’s an extract from his favourite book of the month. The process of reflection has made Hornby more aware of connections between books, spates of similar themes, and the limitations of his reading palate (though not nearly as limited as mine – though not writing about non-fiction I read for school, I’m nonetheless a little self-conscious about the vast preponderance of fiction and the relatively small range of genres I’ve covered).
This is an evil book that must be avoided if you have anything else you need to be doing – since beginning this blog a year ago I have started the (previously deplored) practice of turning over a teeny corner of pages I want to use during the review: quotes that illustrate the writing, salient plot points I want to include, amusing lines and set ups, hideous inconsistencies…
Never have I bent so many corners of a book I loved – an average of one every sixteen or so pages. Most of these are for books I now want to read, but some are because they encapsulate the kind of writing I would like these reviews to be. Hornby’s writing is funny, reflective, deft, literate and modest. And addictive – I spent most of this morning telling myself I’d only read this column, then move on, only to promise myself just one more, until the entire book was read.
He has a similar attitude to me about literary pretension, and about literature (though he reads swathes more of it, and as a result I now want to read Chekov and Dickens, among others), and I so identified with some of his observations that I felt as though I was reading what I’d produce if only I were better (and older, married, a parent, masculine, British and an author).
For example, when he read Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books, he discovered the following: “the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for me.”
Hornby’s response? “That’s me! And you, probably! That’s us! ’Thousands of unread books!’ ‘Truly cultured!’” Where he surpasses my response is that this then prompts him to not only reflect of what causes him to buy books that he known he’ll almost certainly never read but to then articulate this beautiful idea:
“But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”
I’ll be keeping The Complete Polysyllabic Spree in my reference section so that, after I read any of his recommendations, I can see if I think what he thought. Watch for Hornby quotes in the coming months. And buy this book. – Alex

NB For another take on book lists (in this case 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Boxall), read this New York Times review, by William Grimes

Tuesday, November 27

Ruby Holler – Sharon Creech

Twins Florida and Dallas Carter have been at the Boxton Creek Home longer than any of the other kids – for their whole lives, just about, unless you count all those lovely, lovely people who took them home. And brought them right back.
Because Florida and Dallas should know all the rules of the Home, having been there longer than any of the other kids, you’d think they’d be able to stay out of the punishment cellar, which is full of spiders and dust. But there are so many rules, and sometimes feet want to run and voices need to shout. All they really want to do is get on the night train that comes through Boxton. Just leave.
When Florida and Dallas get summoned to Mr Trepid’s office, they just know this is going to be another horrible experience. These two old people are going to make them dig wells or something. But Sairie and Tiller Morey aren’t like the other foster parents, and Ruby Holler isn’t like anywhere else they’ve ever been – it’s green, and fragrant, and there’s always enough food. Florida and Dallas are as prone to making stupid mistakes as they ever were, and even though the Morey’s don’t seem to be punishing people, you never can be sure.
This instant children’s classic beautifully captures the personalities of all the main characters, the contrast between Before and After, the petty frustrations of the Home’s ‘care givers’, and the transformative effect of love and trust. It would have been easy for Creech to make this unrealistic and saccharine, and to a degree the plot’s predictable enough. But Sairie and Tiller are delightful, Tiller’s far from perfect, and they harmonise beautifully with the children’s characters. This was a heart-warming and up-lifting novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. - Alex

Monday, November 26

The Gate to Women's Country - Sheri S Tepper

Three centuries the world as we know it perished in an act known as the convulsion; it rendered swathes of the country uninhabitable. As a result, society has evolved into parallel cultures – women and children live in walled towns, where they raise livestock and grow plants, develop skills and arts, practice medicine and science, and maintain the knowledge that was almost lost. Men guard the towns, protecting them from attack from the garrisons of other townships and from raids by those who live outside Women’s Country. Several times a year the women host a carnival, and the men enter the town to catch up with family and carouse. The Council, who run the town, keep track of who’s fathered which children, and at age five boys are handed over to their warrior fathers to be raised as men. For the next ten years they only see their female kin during carnivals, and at age fifteen they have to decide – repudiate their mothers and stay a warrior, or return to the town as a servitor. The servitors are usually deployed to other towns, away from their warrior former brothers, and are seen as something less than men.
The book opens when Stavia has to make her way to the garrison, to learn whether her fifteen-year-old son Dawid will come home or stay a warrior; he choses to stay, and though he has another ten years to make his final decision (the warriors are not allowed to engage in battle until they are twenty-five, at which time they may no longer return to live in Women’s Country), she knows it is less likely now.
Like all the women, though proud of her son, she grieves for the lost sons, brothers and lovers, and the loss of Dawid brings back the long ago day she escorted her mother and sister when her baby brother Jerby turned five.
The novel switches between Stavia as an adult, and her progress from the day they gave back Jerby through her adolescence and maturation to womanhood. And threaded throughout is the millennia-old pre-convulsion play the women perform every year, Iphigenia at Ilium, about Helen of Troy. A tragedy treated as a comedy, the play illustrates not only the contrast between pre- and post-convulsion mores but also the hidden workings of this new society.
On my first reading of The Gate to Women’s Country, almost twenty years ago, I thought the play extracts were a waste of time, but on subsequent rereading (this is perhaps the fifth) I see the play adds texture and depth to the novel as a whole.
Tepper writes feminist fantasy, which sounds as though it would be earnest and unappealing. In fact the writing, unquestionably feminist and women-centric, is engaging, thought-provoking and interesting. The underlying ideology informs the plot rather than detracting from it, and there’s no gender divide – some female characters are stupid, thoughtless, materialistic, lazy, and some male characters are selfless, insightful, tender and valuable.
This novel views the future with cautious hope, and shines a light on the misogyny and imbalance in our current culture. Tepper is a gifted and deft writer and if you’re interested this is an excellent introduction to her work. – Alex

Sunday, November 25

The Risen Empire – Scott Westerfeld

Desperate to save his beloved younger sister from a fatal disease, the Emperor discovered a form of immortality. Sixteen hundred years later, the Emperor reigns over the Eighty Worlds, offering his military and the social elite the promise of Rising after death to life forever. It’s known that the Risen are not precisely the same as the living – they’re grey, dispassionate, and generally uninterested in human affairs, but they endure. Central to the culture of the Eighty Worlds is the Reason, the Child Empress, forever eight, forever held dear.
Territory in the universe is precious, and the Eighty Worlds are at war. Their greatest enemy, the Rix, is a true threat. The Eighty Worlds has held its own until the day the Rix take the Child Empress hostage. And though Captain Laurent Zai effects a rescue, he is too late – not only to save the Reason, but also too late to protect a secret that has the power to shatter the Eighty Worlds and bring down the Emperor. As Laurent tries to balance his honour with his desire to live, he discovers treachery at a level he never believed possible. His rejection of the suicide expected of one who fails is enhanced by his relationship with far-distant Pink senator Nara Oxham, who believes the dead should stay dead, that Risen stifle humanity’s progress. Nara’s newly appointed to the Emperor’s War Council, and is facing a conflict of her own. And in the polar snow a Rix soldier breaths life into a woman used by as it needed by her society then abandoned her in her time of need.
There are a number of really interesting elements here – intelligent houses, sentient machines, notions of honour and service, nanotech, the effect of living leaders extending their lives by using chemical hibernation for months on end, the central idea of the Risen, how immortality affects society, and the societal effect of a Great Lie. I find many novels around life on military space craft fascinating, and I liked the sadly under explored position of Nara as a minority party member, advocating a natural life span in the face of a culture based on a millennia and a half of Risen ideology.
But the battle scenes are confusing and tediously lengthy, the societal problem of immortality is more interestingly and convincingly explored by Elizabeth Moon (see her Serrano series), and I just didn’t care.
This volume combines two novels, The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, and maybe that was part of the problem. It felt like I was reading it forever – days stretched on and on, as it became The Book That Had No End and I had to read other books in between to get a break. There was the occasional light touch – I particularly liked the note on imperial measurements, as determined by the Emperor, which (after an explanation of lengths of time and distance and gravity) concludes, “the Emperor has decreed that the speed of light shall remain as nature has provided.”
But lightness was the exception – for the most part I found this ponderous, the heaviest of hard SF. I found this particularly disappointing, as I’m a fan of Westerfeld’s fantasy, from Peeps and Last Days to So Yesterday and the long-awaited (for me - for ages I could only find the first part but now I use The Library) the Midnighters trilogy. Critically well received, The Risen Empire is a fallen soufflé for me. - Alex

Friday, November 23

Exit Strategy – Kelley Armstrong

Nadia Stafford was never going to be anything but a cop. She grew up with a father and uncles on the force, and her first ride in a sirens-blazing squad car was when she was three. But after she shot a child-killer – he was reaching in his pocket, but he wasn’t armed, and everyone knew that was a pretext – the Mounties made it clear Nadia had to find another job.
Much as she loves running a lodge (with a largely cop clientele) that offers extreme adventures, the economic downturn meant that a couple of years ago it looked like Nadia would be yet another failed small business owner. That was before she was covertly approached about a job as a contract killer. The odd work on the side, only ever killing Mafioso, and only ever over the border, has kept her business in the black, and she’s very, very careful.
Her contact, Jack, is also very careful. So when he approaches her, lodge full of police, she knows it’s important. There’s a serial killer on the loose, who seems to be killing randomly and with varying techniques, and in the US a rumour’s started that he’s a hit man. Concerned that this will bring the law down on them, too, a group of concerned professionals are looking to get the Helter Skelter Killer before the FBI does, and Jack wants Nadia to join them.
This is a departure for Armstrong, better known for her interlinked supernatural novels. The story is told primarily from Nadia’s first-person perspective, but the first few chapters, and others throughout the text, are third person from the killer’s point of view, and at least one is that of an FBI agent. Nadia’s motivation is consistent, sympathetic, and established early in the novel, and the character is not uninteresting. There is intrigue in the form of other assassins, including the enigmatic Jack, fellow law-enforcement/hit man Quinn, and the potentially untrustworthy Evelyn, now retired and definitely with her own agenda. There’s sexual tension on two fronts, plenty of action, and vivid description. But I didn’t really care about any of it, and despite my best efforts kept comparing it to the superior Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitehead series. If this was Armstrong’s first outing I’d probably give Nadia’s next excursion (for this is most definitely the first in a series) a burl, but she’s an established writer and I think this is as good as it’ll get. - Alex

Thursday, November 22

Three Men and a Boat - Jerome K Jerome

J. (our narrator) and his friends George and Harris, to say nothing of the dog, journey up the Thames for a glorious holiday in mid-summer. Well provisioned,and with some experience of boating, they are nonetheless unprepared for a veritable cavalcade of misadventures - tow ropes that coil wilfully, confounded steam launches, and unopenable tins of pineapple.
This is my first reading of Three Men and a Boat; I was initially attracted, many years ago, by the author's name, but took it no further. Last year I read Connie Willis's lovely To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was inspired by the classic, and which inspired me to read a book I've since discovered is one of my mother's favourites.
Though first published over a century and a quarter ago, this classic novel of the late 1880's has weathered well, chiefly thanks to the timeless voice of J., whose dry observation on human nature illustrate how little people have changed, for all the change in our way of life. As I was reading it I (as is my wont of late) flagged passages that I might use to illustrate the style and voice of the writing. But Jerome's writing is all of a piece, so that rather than identifying a particular line or phrase, the enjoyment comes from a whole scene and from the characters. Although I do have one gem to offer: "That's Harris all over - so ready to take the burden of everything himself, and put it on other people's shoulders."
I did have two small issues - the first is that the novel is to short; the second was the annotation in my edition, by a Jeremy Lewis, who picked picayune things to comment on (like "We played at penny nap half the afternoon" - says Lewis "penny nap is a card game", something I was able to pick up from the context, but thanks anyway). Still, one can avoid end notes, and next time I visit the river, circa 1889, I will do just that. - Alex

Wednesday, November 21

Others See Us - William Sleator

Every year sixteen-year-old Jared’s mother’s family spend the summer together at his grandmother’s house by the beach. Last year, he began to notice the charms of his gorgeous cousin Annelise, and the closer summer’s neared, the more he’s thought about her, and written about her in his secret journal. As though to add insult to injury, this year his parents decided to take him to Europe and a whole month was wasted, but July’s finally arrived, and missing Grandma’s Fourth of July cookout isn’t an option.
Each family has a cottage, and Jared has a routine for the first day – first he hides his journal under a loose floorboard (carefully nailed down at the end of summer, so it won’t be fixed by the caretakers), then he goes for a long bike ride. Eager as he is to see Annelise, who last year confessed she, too, kept a journal, Jared sticks to his routine. When the brakes on his bike fail, Jared ends up in the swamp, which has been contaminated by industrial run-off from the now-closed mill, and is late to lunch.
Initially still stunned by the noxious dip, and excited about seeing Annelise again, it takes Jared some time to realise that he can read his family’s minds. Annelise is thrilled to see him, five-year-old Amy is single-minded in her determination to elude supervision and go into the water, eighteen-year-old Lindie’s jealous that she’s fat and ugly when Annelise is so radiant and popular (and she’s stressed about a secret), and Jared’s mother and her sisters don’t like each other at all.
And then Jared begins to discover that all is not as it seems – his say-whatever-she-thinks grandmother’s hiding something, Lindie has hidden depths, and Annelise is far from the lovely creature they all believe her to be. When Jared discovers his grandmother has also fallen into the swamp he knows she can read minds too, and then she enlists him in a plot that Jared’s far too naïve to see the end point of.
Sleater writes great fantasy – his adolescent protagonists are spirited, imperfect and believable, his plots are novel and fresh, and the resolutions always give pause for thought (particularly in his classic, The House of Stairs). Though I prefer his full-length novels, his short stories are also engaging and twist with most satisfying unexpectedness, and I’ve never finished a novel of his disappointed. This was my second reading of Others See Us, the first about ten years ago, and it was just as crisp, convincing and involving when I knew what was coming. - Alex

Tuesday, November 20

The Freedom Trap - Desmond Bagley

South African Joseph Rearden is a petty thief, in London for one big job – stealing a delivery of diamonds. The heist goes off without a hitch, and Reardon’s meticulously planned his escape route and alibi, but the police are tipped off, and it can only have been by the man behind it, Mackintosh, who now has the diamonds and is safely away. In the midst of a media furore about lenient jail terms, with Reardon unprepared to squeal on Mackintosh, and because of the value of the diamonds, Reardon’s sentenced to twenty years.
A high-risk prisoner, Rearden’s in the same jail as Russian spy Slade, serving forty-two years for espionage. I’m reluctant to continue the plot summation because there’s a significant twist about halfway in that’s much more fun for not seeing it coming. Which means avoiding the blurb, at least on my copy, which gives it away in the second sentence. Suffice it to say, The Freedom Trap retains all the hallmarks of a Bagley book – great plotting, unique and fully realised characters, internal consistency, light sprinklings of meticulously-researched fact, a secondary romance with a strong and independent woman, and a truly satisfying but believable conclusion.
NB: I’ve listed this as a sequel because of Slade, who we first met in Running Blind, but he’s the only character to cross over, and this is very much Rearden’s story. - Alex

Monday, November 19

Lust – Geoff Ryman

Michael Blasco’s life is tranquil, predictable and okay. He’s quite excited about the research he’s begun, looking at the effects of imprinting on day-old chicks (as long as the animal rights people don’t find out), his relationship with would-be artist Philip is fifteen year old and seems much as it ever was, and his forays into anonymous sex fizzle but not in any new way.
Michael’s mildly disappointed when cherubic Tony the trainer at his gym announces his engagement – Michael always mildly fancied him, and the news spurs him on to yet another uneventful bathhouse trip. So when Michael sees Tony on the same platform at Waterloo station he’s surprised and a little piqued – in no mood for witnessing happiness and joy, all Michael really wants is to see Tony’s penis. He’s astonished when the Cherub pull down his tracksuit pants and boxers, rolls onto his back, and asks Michael if he “wants a piece.”
At first frankly flabbergasted, Michael discovers that he has the ability to bring to life a replica of any person he fancies, and they fancy him. Michael experiments with his newfound gift; from current fantasies to the objects of lust of his adolescence (Johnny Weismuller, Alexander the Great, Picasso) and even his younger self, it seems the only limitation is Michael’s imagination. And as he does so, Michael works through the end of his unhealthy, unequal relationship with Philip, and the traumatic event of his youth that forever tainted his sexuality.
When I was away a couple of months ago I discovered Ryman at a bookshop at Heathrow, and was surprised I hadn’t come across him before. I decided to hold off for the time being, as I was (and am), on a strict book budget, though it’s become a little flabby in the last few days. But I digress. I was, therefore, very pleased to discover that I actually had come across Ryman previously, though not read him, when I found Lust in an unopened box of unread books – who knows what other treasures dwell in the rest of the boxes!
It’s been a week since I finished Lust, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. The premise was interesting and the central characters (Michael, Philip and Philip’s new love, Henry) were developed. Of particular note was the unfolding of the underlying psychological aspects - where Michael’s problems stem from, and the unexpected identity of Henry. Yet despite this I didn’t really feel connected to the story, nor did I feel any great sense of resolution or satisfaction at the end. I’ll certainly try another Ryman novel (I’m considering Was, the blurb of which is similarly intriguing), but library not purchase. - Alex

Sunday, November 18

Bahama Crisis – Desmond Bagley

White Bahamian Tom Mangan has an idyllic life – a truly happy marriage, two radiant daughters, and a successful hotel group in a growing tourist market. When Billy Cunningham, a friend from Harvard Business School and one of the Texan Cunninghams, comes to visit, it looks as though Tom’s career dreams are truly reaching fruition. But then a routine trip to visit her parents in Miami turns everything upside down when Tom’s wife Julie and older daughter Sue fail to arrive. Tom knows the boat was sound, and he has total confidence in skipper Pete Albury but, though the sea was clam and there have been no reports of accidents, he knows something terrible’s happened. Then Sue’s body’s found in shallow water, half way to the States.
Motivated by the needs of his younger daughter, Karen, Tom throws himself back into work, but the loss of Lucayan Girl and half his family is only the beginning – the Bahaman tourism industry is beset with crisis after crisis, from a devastating outbreak of the newly-discovered Legionella to hotel fires, street riots and rumours of political unrest. When Billy’s cousin Debbie brings him photos developed from film Sue took on the day of the accident he discovers a picture of the unknown crewman Pete hired for the trip. And when he’s identified, still alive when all others perished, Tom knows it was more than just an accident.
Bahama Crisis is tautly plotted and beautifully written. It’s so difficult for me to convey, especially as I’ve tried before, the satisfying and absorbing quality of Bagley’s writing, and his ability to reuse common elements from book to book without repetition or dullness. But, like an inspired chef with flour, eggs and butter, he combines flawed but strong male protagonists and spirited heroines with varied locales, action and romance into something new every time. Bagley manages to describe enough detail for clarity without bogging the reader down with unnecessary detail, and uses sparingly deft touches to convey what must be thoroughly researched information. Almost all the books are written in the first person, and yet each hero has a clear and distinct voice as well as persona. I’m rationing myself as I make my way through the complete works, but after each disappointing foray into another writer I find myself drawn to that which is proven and brilliant. In other words, Bagley. - Alex

Saturday, November 17

Sims - F Paul Wilson

It’s the near future, and industry has been revolutionised by the creation of the perfect worker – able to communicate in words, intelligent enough to follow relatively complex orders, dexterous enough to operate fiddly machinery designed for people, but designed to be non-aggressive, unable to independently reproduce, and legally classified as property, SimGen’s chimp-human hybrids known as Sims (simians) are ideal. Despite some initial resistance, Sims are now used throughout the Western world, in a variety of roles, and they’ve propelled SimGen into the stratosphere because they’re never sold, only leased.
When labour lawyer Patrick Sullivan, fresh from a reluctant but obligatory round of golf, is approached by a Sim requesting Sullivan help form a union, he is inspired more by a desire to irritate the head of the club’s membership committee, who he’s sure voted against his application. As pressure mounts, and inspired to look good to Animal Welfare officer Romy Cadman (who is in turn being directed by the shadowy Zero, a man with an agenda of his own), Sullivan digs his heels in, and in the process begins the destruction of Sim Gen. But there are wheels within wheels, and little is as it appears.
This review is being written some time after the reading, though posted in the section when it was read (because I’m more interested in tracking when I read what than I am in when I got around to reviewing – in this case, well over a month later). And as I reflected on the book while I wrote the review (this part being written last though sited above the rest of the review, because the section at the end will be robbed of its impact if I put this last) I was struck harder by the influence of Sims than I was when I finished it.
This is an absorbing and thought-provoking novel that raises questions about what it means to be human, where the licensing of the genome is taking us, and the power of corporations and corporate money. Wilson is able to present these issues in an entertaining way, neatly combining plot with philosophy and activism. The characters are particularly well developed, and almost all of them experience a believable growth arc through the course of the book. The plot is intricate without being so Machiavellian that it’s hard to follow, and there are neat twists that don’t turn things on their head so much as deepen the subtlety and depth of the novel.
I was frequently reminded of Michael Crichton’s Next while reading Sims – both works explore similar aspects of the gene tech revolution: what happens when corporations patent naturally-occurring genes, how did it happen that they could own them, who owns chimeral creations, where do and where should we draw the line between human and non-human, and what makes us human? Crichton’s technique was to draw together a number of subplots into one cohesive picture of the near future. In contrast Wilson focuses on one battle to illustrate his central thesis. What raises Wilson’s work above the best-seller’s contribution is that it’s heart is about ethics and right; while Crichton admittedly incorporated this as an element, his focus was more on the wrongs done to individuals in order to benefit corporations, on the impact on humanity of this emerging technology. Wilson asks what good humanity is if it makes the world worse for our fellow creatures. It’s unfortunate that the work of the admittedly-admirable Crichton, which covers more ground less thoroughly, will have so much greater a readership than this undoubtedly better written, plotted and characterised novel. - Alex