Wednesday, January 31

Rats Saw God - Rob Thomas

Walking through the days in San Diego, his life slowly turning into one fat doobie after another, college receding ever further from his grasp, former Houston star sophomore Steve York (son of emotionless, driven astronaut Alan York) has lost the plot. In danger of failing of not graduating, Steve's thrown a life line by his school counselor Jeff DeMouy - write a hundred page essay on how this transformation happened.
As Steve recalls his past life as a proponent of Dadaism, conflict with his emotionally distant father, connection with his geographically distant sister and mother, and the evolution of his first relationship with girlfriend Dub, he manages to reconnect with his present.
Steve is a complex and fascinating character, and those around his are drawn with sympathy and detail. This is my second reading of Rats Saw God, unearthed during the Great Lynn Book Hunt of last year, and I enjoyed it just as much as my first time around. - Alex

Tuesday, January 30

Diana Gabaldon: Cross Stitch

A wartime nurse on a second honeymoon in Scotland is transported from 1945 to 1743. As an English woman in Jacobite Scotland she needs to weave her way safely through the shifting allegiances of those around her as well as cope with the everyday violence and superstition of the time. She is forced into marriage with a young warrior where she proceeds to experience passion hitherto unknown. Eventually she must choose between the life she left behind and the life she has forged for herself in the ‘past’.
I had heard quite a few positive reviews of this book and being a bit of a fan of the time travel story line I had high hopes for Cross Stitch. Perhaps, after all I had heard, my expectations for this book were too high to ever have been met but I found the story to be a bit of a disappointment.
The writing itself is very good, if the pace a little slow (although for an epic novel that’s acceptable). Diana Gabaldon is obviously skilled in her craft. She gets across a lot of historical fact without resorting to info dumps and brings the period to life without forcing details into the story. She portrays the passion between the main characters extremely well. But somehow the story itself simply didn’t work for me.
I couldn’t relate to the main character. She just didn’t provoke any kind of sympathy from me. In fact in the first part of the book I came quite close to disliking her. And later on, while I didn’t find myself wishing her ill, neither did I particularly care what happened to her.
The time travel aspect was barely relevant to the story. (I think this might be where my greatest disappointment lies). Apart from a couple of half-hearted attempts to return ‘home’ and the occasional mention about how things were different in this time (which felt like an after thought to me) it played no role in the story. If, for example, the main character had been shipwrecked rather than a time traveller the story would have been essentially the same. There is such scope for exploration of societal differences and the problems of knowing the future in time travel I was disappointed not too see it exploited to its fullest potential.
To me great passages of the book were simply an excuse for the main characters to have sex. I have plenty of time for sex scenes, and these ones were particularly well written, but after a while I found myself rolling my eyes and skimming ahead as they came thick and fast on top of each other. (Pun not intended, honest).
If you like reading big, languid, epic historical romance then Cross Stitch is the book for you. If you are hoping for a time travel story, like I was, then look elsewhere.-Lynn

Monday, January 29

The Hiding Place - Corrie ten Boom

I first read this book when I was at school, and found it powerful and moving - I read it at least once a year for three years. When I came across it recently in a second-hand book shop I had to buy it, and time has not diminished this amazing and inspiring story.
Written by Corrie ten Boom (with John and Elizabeth Sherrill), it tells of how her life as the youngest daughter of a devoutly Christian watchmaking family in Haarlem, Holland, led to the role she and her family played as leaders of the Dutch underground during World War 2. Older brother Willem, a minister, ran a nursing home that housed Jews, while Corrie (then in her mid-forties), older sister Betsie, and their father, sheltered Jews in a hidden room in Corrie's bedroom. The whole family was arrested and imprisoned in Holland, where her father died, before being transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where Betsie died.

Miss ten Boom's writing is lucid, lyric and uplifting. During her incarceration she was inspired not only by her faith but by the example of her parents (her mother died before the invasion of Holland) and her truly saintly (but not prissy) beloved sister.
It is surprising to me that ten Boom is not as well known as Anne Frank, whose diary is less interesting and moving than this brilliant book. I know, she was young, it was tragic... but this is better. - Alex

Sunday, January 28

Nicholas Sparks: True Believer

Big city sceptic travels to a small town to investigate mysterious lights in the graveyard and falls in love with the local librarian.
This book was billed as part love story and part ghost story and that’s what I expected. But it would seem that my definition of ghost story and that of whoever wrote the blurb differs substantially. True Believer is a love story plain and simple, ghosts do not feature in the plot. It’s sad that the publishers didn’t feel that the romance alone would have been enough to sell this story, because as a romance it’s not too bad.
While the story has all the trademarks of a traditional category romance (an intense focus on the developing relationship of the main characters, a big misunderstanding and the obligatory black moment) it adds a few style elements that would have the category romance purists throwing up their hands in horror. For one the omniscient viewpoint is used, and while I don’t think it added much to the story it was refreshing to see it in a romance. For another there are a few scenes devoted to the secondary characters and plot where neither of the main characters feature, again the scenes didn’t really push things along much but it was nice to see how other characters were feeling about things.
The one thing that didn’t work for me was the amount of back-story exposition. Some of the back-story was necessary for a complete understanding of the current situation but it was presented in big fat info dumps. These slowed the pace and in places had me needing to stop and go back to find out what was happening before we danced off on a memory tangent. The same information could have been presented in a more interesting and engaging way. It was all tell and no show.
I found this to be an okay read but I’m not going out looking for Sparks’ other works. While far from the worst I’ve ever read both romance and ghost stories have been done better. If a trusted friend was to recommend another of his works I would probably read it but it wouldn’t be a priority.-Lynn
PS This is tagged as paranormal/supernatural and romance because that's how it's marketed, and not (as is evident from the review) because that's what we think! - Alex

Saturday, January 27

The Opposite of Chocolate - Julie Bertagna

I found this, along with a small swag of other interesting books that I probably wouldn't otherwise have picked up, at a remaindered book store.
For Sapphire Dean and her best friend Emma, living in the town of Hungry, the popular girls are chocolate - smooth, sleek and delicious. This is the summer when Sapphire begins to become chocolate herself - her boyfriend Jay is desirable and sexy, and her emotions are echoing the excitement of the fires being lit by the town arsonist. Until, like the actions of the arsonist, Sapphire finds herself with a consequence she can't manage on her own - she's pregnant.
This YA novel beautifully conveys the feelings of confusion, pressure, denial, abandonment, shame and conflict of unplanned teen pregnancy, as Sapphire is smothered with conflicting, unwanted and coercive advice. - Alex

Friday, January 26

Holly Lisle: Midnight Rain

An abused wife put her husband in a coma when he tried to kill her and a few years later he is supposedly dead. But she’s receiving threatening phone calls from somebody who sounds exactly like him, somebody with knowledge that only he could have. She is sure she is being watched, that her husband is coming for her and she turns to a sympathetic neighbour for help. He thinks she’s crazy until he starts being threatened as well. But are the threats coming from her ex-husband or is she really crazy? The situation culminates in a bloody climax.
Part romance, part psychological thriller, Midnight Rain gives us an insight into the siege mindset of the abused and the difficulty in learning to trust again.
In spite of its dark content I found Midnight Rain to be a relatively light and easy read. There is tension, sure, but not of the intense, edge-of-your-seat, can’t-put-it-down variety. Although admittedly I don’t find throwing around a couple of buckets of blood to be that scary anymore, it’s been done so often in the horror genre that I feel it’s lost its impact. Others may feel differently.
I saw where the author was going with this story quite early on (and to be fair I think as a reader I was supposed to) and for me it was more of a wondering how Lisle intends to pull this off that kept me going rather than a need to see how the story resolved. Vivid detail and great character portraits are this book’s strong points that carry it over some of the thinner twists in the plot. A good read but not great.-Lynn

Wednesday, January 24

The Best American Science Writing 2005 - Alan Lightman (ed)

Every year I look forward to reading this collection of the best American Science writing has to offer, and every year I am exultant. As always, Atul Gawande gets my vote for best contribution - he's an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, who writes lucidly and articulately about medical issues that matter. His usual style is to begin with a specific case or incident, widen it out into a broader discussion of one aspect of the case, then bring it back to the specific. This year his contribution recounts his journey with a World Health Organisation team trying to contain what may be the last outbreaks of polio on the planet.
In addition to the brilliant Dr Gawande this collection features notable articles by neurologist Oliver Sacks (on the creation of unstable elements and the hope for stable super-heavy, 'magic' elements), epidemiologist Philip Alcabes (on how preoccupation with the threat of bioterrorism is leaving America vulnerable to more lethal, likely, and under-funded health threats), senior NY Times writer William J Broad (on the potential ramifications of a switch in earth's polarity, a topic I'm particularly interested in after reading Robert J Sawyer's brilliant Parallax trilogy), Beth Israel's chief of experimental medicine, Dr Jerome Groopman (on the surprising results of research into the mind-body connection), science writer Natalie Angier (on pioneering chemistry professor Dr Jacqueline K Barton (who blends cutting edge DNA research, a zeal for making science accessible, and a strong commitment to family time), and science writer Ben Harder (on the medical use of maggot therapy), among many others.
My understanding of most of the sciences falls firmly into the popular end of the scale: as always I found some articles inaccessible or uninteresting. Also as always, these were by far the minority. This is the fifth year I've purchased this collection, and I cannot recommend the series highly enough to anyone interested in broadening their outlook and learning a little more about aspects of the world of which they were previously unaware. - Alex

Strawgirl - Abigail Padgett

This is another re-read, rescued from the read books pile during Lynn's recent trip over. And once again I am reminded on how many series books there are - or at least, that I read.
Bo Bradley is a child abuse investigator - compassionate, hard-working and intolerant of stupidity (especially as embodied by her supervisor Madge, who cares only about the rules and damn the consequences), Bo is also bipolar, and is taking a break from lithium.
This is the second of the Bo Bradley novels. Written in the early nineties, it deals with a then-headline topic: satanic child abuse. Three year old Samantha was so violently raped that she sustained internal injuries and died - her abdomen was decorated with a yellow face that an alert person linked to recent publicity of satanic markings, there's a conference in town for health professionals to recognise satanic abuse, an expert's conducting media interviews on Samantha's case, and Samantha's father Paul (who belongs to a weird cult) has vanished, along with Samantha's older sister Hannah, while mother Bonnie's been admitted to a psych unit.
As well as an interesting and engaging story, peopled with a variety of well-developed characters, Padgett does a fantastic job of weaving in the reality of living with a mental illness. Bo is not incapacitated by her disease, but her world view is unquestionably and inextricably coloured by it. It's refreshing to have a depiction of someone with a mental illness who is not only functioning, competent, proficient and professional, but also better than her colleagues. And Bo's frustration of having her judgement constantly criticised or doubted because of her diagnosis is palpable.
So much did I enjoy rereading Strawgirl that I'm going to hunt out the other Padgett novels I have, and see if there's anything new out there. - Alex

Tuesday, January 23

Murder in the Dark - Kerry Greenwood

This is the sixteenth installment in Greenwood's superlative Phryne Fisher series, set in late 1920's Melbourne. Phryne is a heroine par excellence - witty, intelligent, naughty, principled and more real than many people I've met.
Her creator says "Phryne is a hero, just like James Bond or the Saint, but with fewer product endorsements and a better class of lovers. I decided to try a female hero and made her as free as a male hero, to see what she would do. Mind you, at that time I only thought there would be two books."
Greenwood meticulously researches everything she writes, but always manages to assimilate her erudition into the text, rather than bopping the reader over the head with a giant 'I researched this fact' sign. She conveys a marvellous sense of time and place without shouting "Melbourne! Melbourne! We're in Melbourne, Australia!" or "Did I mention that it's 1928? Did I?" in the way that lesser writers are wont to do. In Phryne she has captured an independent woman with modern mores, but who is wholly of her time and class, rather than inserting a contemporary heroine into the past.
I realise that I have so far written little about the brilliance of this series, and instead compared Greenwood to lesser writers, but that is because I am unable to do her justice with my own lackluster prose. Lynn and I save Greenwood novels for rare treats, and never read her during November, because it's just too crushing to even think about participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) when one's grasp so clearly falls short of Greenwoods' reach.
Okay, so on to Murder in the Dark! It's Christmas, and Phryne's been invited to the Last, Best Party of 1928, an extravagant four-day celebration held by the Templar twins, cool Isabella and golden Gerald. Phryne's decision to attend it sharpened by a series of threatening notes warning her off, one of which is accompanied by a live (and deadly) coral snake.
Leaving behind her faithful maid Dot, her married lover Lin Chung, and her adopted daughters Ruth and Jane, Phryne departs for Werribee Manor House and a host of unusual characters with secrets and unknown motives.
As always, Phryne connects with people from a diverse range of background and experience, making friends and enjoying renewed acquaintances. In the process of solving the mysteries of why someone so desperately wanted to keep her away, who is blackmailing Gerald, and why one of the manor rooms is haunted, Phryne partakes in an erotic karez, introduces an innocent to the joys of physical love, frees an imprisoned child, and restores a sorrowful Sapphic to happiness.
The first in this series, Cocaine Blues was magnificent - so much so that I then gorged myself and read the next nine books back to back before sorrowfully realising that I was now limited to each one as it was released. Phryne and her creator go from strength to strength, and I impatiently await the next installment. - Alex

When pursued though a wood by a satyr, make sure that you are captured near the softest available moss - Phryne Fisher

For Lynn's review of Murder in the Dark click here

Monday, January 22

Golden Fleece - Robert J Sawyer

The Argo Starcology is almost two years into an eight year journey from Earth to make preliminary studies of the far way planet Colchis - a subjective trip of twenty-one years during which time Earth will have ages one hundred and four years. Earth is managed by tenth generation computers - JASON runs the Argo systems, and keeps tabs on the health and well-being of the 10,034 Argonauts with frequent EEG and vital signs monitoring.
JASON is our narrator. And in the first chapter of the book he murders astrophysicist Diana Chandler, the former wife of our protagonist, Aaron Rossman. The primary plot revolves around why JASON did it, and if Aaron will work out that Diana's death was not suicide; the secondary plot is about an extraterrestrial message received on Earth prior to Argo's launch. In its' down time, JASON tries to decode the fourth of the four received messages; the TenthGen's had decided not to release this information before launch, so none of the Argonauts know that there's evidence of life beyond the Milky Way.
JASON is clearly sentient and autonomous, and just as clearly takes safe-guarding the Argonauts - though the first person narration allows us to see that JASON doesn't always understand why people act the way they do. So why was Diana killed? And what will JASON do if Aaron, who's seeking the answer to some unusual anomalies around Diana's death, uncovers the secret that Diana discovered?

I was going through my boxes of read books last week with Lynn, hunting out the Chicks in Chain Mail series for her, when I came across this one and decided a re-read was in order. Some of the best SF around comes from Canada, and Sawyer writes some fantastic stuff - I love everything of his I've read, and eagerly anticipate each new release. Golden Fleece was his first published novel, a mystery-SF novel in the best tradition of Asimov, and is (unlike every other book reviewed here thus far, except Tenth Circle) a stand alone. Series book are ubiquitous.
Sawyer, as always, creates a believable future universe, peopled with believable, individualised characters. I know I've said this in almost every review - that's because I don't always pay a lot of attention to who each person is, so in less well written work I confuse people, which makes me think of watching films with my mother ("Who's he? But I thought he was wearing a black hat? He changed it? Oh! So that's why..."). reminding myself of my mother is not my favouritest thing in the world, but there you go. Anyway, in well written work, where the characters have three dimensions and are fully fleshed, I have no trouble keeping track of everyone.
Sawyer manages to engender rapport for what seems like an unsympathetic narrator, successfully resolve the many questions raised in the text, and introduce a wholly unhuman alien culture. Golden Fleece is less intricate than some of Sawyer's later work, and he has less scope for creating non-human psychology* than in later works, but that is to be expected. My only quibble was why the narrator is JASON (as opposed to Jason): if it's an acronym I missed it, and I found it jolting every time I came across it. However, so dearly do I love Sawyer's work that this was only a minor irritation. This was a thoroughly enjoyable trip with an old friend. - Alex

* This is one aspect of Sawyer's work I particularly enjoy - his non-humans don't think like people do. See the Neanderthal and Quintaglio trilogies in particular.

Sunday, January 21

If Angels Burn - Lynn Viehl

Brilliant Chicago plastic surgeon Alexandra Keller has been harassed by wealthy Mr Cyprien to come down to New Orleans to perform unspecified surgery on him - and he's raised his offer to $4 million. After several refusals, Alex is kidnapped, but not before a run in with her brother-turned-Catholic-priest John, and after a couple of expositions - multiracial, orphaned, raised by Catholic foster parents who died, abandoned by said brother who chose his God over her...
Wealthy, servanted Michael Cyprien was tortured, his face destroyed, but he heals unbelievably quickly. After performing (well researched, if tediously detailed) reconstructive surgery while in a kind of induced trance state, Alex becomes part-Darkyn: when she dies she will rise again.
The plot then becomes increasingly complex - Catholic conspiracies; inter-vampiric power plays; torture of Father John by his own, unsanctioned, Order; yet more detailed surgery on other vampire (sorry, Darkyn) victims of the Church; Alex's struggles to identify what she's convinced is an infection rather than a curse from God...
At first I couldn't work out why I found this novel so irritating. It's clearly the first in a series, but the cover notes that it is "A novel of the Darkyn", so I knew that going in. And I can handle complexity, so I don't think it was too hard for me to follow. I just didn't care.
There's some sex (though I strongly disagree with the cover review by Holly Lisle that it's "erotic, darker than sin, and better than chocolate") but it's - at least initially - non-consensual, and very purple:
His hand joined hers, used it to reposition the full, plum-shaped head until it was stroking at the top of her mons, the ridge of his cock scraping back and forth over her clit...
He was already there, the head half buried in her vagina, and then he pressed in, past the spasming elliptical opening, into the brimming, aching slot of flesh, filling her to the point of actual pain...
Alex didn't climax. She detonated...
Riding it was impossible. Surviving it seemed improbable.
And so forth.
There's a lot of sadism and torture, and a lot of angst. There are a number of loose ends, clearly left for the next book/s to tie up, but I won't be finding out what happens next. None of the characters seemed halfway real to me, the relationship between Alex and John is unnecessarily fraught, and the relationship between Alex and Michael is incoherent and inexplicable. To whit:
Alex held him as he shuddered over and over...
She stared up at the canopy, exhausted, throbbing, and very close to turning on the tears.
No tears. No regrets. She loved him; he loved her. They'd all but said the words. They'd gotten their rocks off together. Now they could play master vampire and helpless little love slave for the rest of eternity.
No way in hell she was staying under his roof another god-damned second.
Uh-huh. Don't know what happens in the rest of the series. So far beyond caring that if you try to tell me I will stick my fingers in my ears and chant that I can't hear you. - Alex

Saturday, January 20

They Have a Word for It - Howard Rheingold

A more readable foray into the world of words than Ecco's text (see below), They have a Word for It" is 'a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words and phrases'. Divided into eleven chapters, Rheingold explores the traditions of different cultures to discuss topics like "Eye of the Beholder: Conceptions of Beauty" (aware - the Japanese word for appreciation of beauty enhanced by an awareness of the brevity of its' life, like a flower; ostranenie - the Russian concept of art which renders the familiar unfamiliar) and "Serious Business: Words about Work and Money" (fucha - a Polish concept for using company time and resources for one's own ends; ponte - an Italian word that means an extra day off taken to incorporate a public holiday that falls on Tuesday or Thursday into the weekend).
I have already adopted the German word fisseleg (flustered to the point of incompetence) and can see more words from the world in my future! - Alex

Thursday, January 18

Princess at Sea - Dawn Cook

Last month I posted a review of The Decoy Princess, where I expressed a suspicion that I was reading the beginning of a series. Imagine my complete lack of surprise when, just two weeks later, I discovered book 2 on the shelves of my local FSF bookshop.
Princess at Sea opens with Tess on board the Sandpiper, the royal ship. She, along with the rouguish card sharp Duncan, and rival player Captain Jeck of the Misdev army, is escorting Queen Contessa and her new husband Prince Alex on their honeymoon. The palace hopes Tess will be able to smooth some of Contessa's rough edges before she spends any time with her husband's family in the neighbouring kingdom of Misdev.
When Contessa tosses Alex's heirloom sword overboard in a fit of pique, it looks as though the alliance will be short-lived. And war looks likely when Alex throws Contessa into the sea after it - she can't swim. All that seems less important when Sandpiper is boarded by pirates, who kidnap Tess, Contessa, Alex and Jeck. The pirates seem much less concerned with ransom than with tormenting their prisoners, and it falls to Tess to save the day.
In the rest of the novel we learn whether Tess can save her sister and brother-in-law, choose love or duty, survive an ordeal never before survived, save the kingdom, prevent a war, rescue a ransom, detect a traitor, maintain her position as a player, prevent her rival winning a round of the game, avoid overdosing on magical poison, switch allegiances, deceive the enemy, and control the wind.
Cook creates a realistic, three dimensional alternative universe, with fully fleshed characters. In particular she manages to resolve both love triangles (Tess/Duncan/Jeck and Contessa/Alex/Thadd) in a satisfyingly anguished way - in novels this is often neat and tidy, but here it is as distressing and full of conflict as real life. I can see another installment on the horizon, and I sense I'll be buying that too! - Alex

Connie Willis: The Doomsday Book

The Doomsday Book simultaneously tells the stories of a student and her tutor separated by seven hundred years yet living a parallel experience.
In the near future a young historian with a passion for the middle ages is given the opportunity to travel back through time to the fourteenth century. She has researched the period extensively, finds it fascinating and against her tutor's advice decides to undertake the field study.
Things go wrong and although she is in the right place, she is in the wrong time. Instead of the relative safety of 1320 she finds herself in plague riddled 1348.
The mistake in her temporal destination isn't discovered by her support team who are caught up in a deadly influenza epidemic that has the entire city quarantined. Both the student in the fourteenth century and the tutor in the modern world have the truth brought home to them that behind the dispassionate statistics and probability forecasts are real people with hopes, dreams, fears and petty grievances that are no different in essence to their own.
It took me a long time to pick up this book. At nearly seven hundred pages the thought of the time commitment of reading it put me off. I wish it hadn't. Once I started it I quite enjoyed The Doomsday Book.
Willis makes the near future technology believable without getting bogged down in, potentially boring, detail about how it works (something many futuristic writers tend to do to the detriment of the story). She draws a great picture of the practicalities of life in the middle ages and overlays it with characters who have completely recognizable personality traits without giving them modern sensibilities.
At the same time she maintains the suspense and drama of the more modern period using bureaucracy at its most incompetent and time pressure to great effect.
The ending did feel a little contrived and I would have been just as satisfied with a different outcome but that's a small point and was more than made up for by the quality of the rest of the book.
This is a stand alone book, though Willis has others set in the same universe, and while I would not go out hunting for them should one cross my path I would not hesitate to read it. - Lynn

Tuesday, January 16

Fancy Pants - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Fancy Pants is a re-release of one of SEP's earliest novels - though I was cautioned against it, I decided that I'd give it a whirl, as I have enjoyed her more recent works (one of which was reviewed last week or so).
Francesca Day is the spoiled only daughter of Chloe Serritella, an English beauty; her father, American career gambler "Black" Jack Day, died in a car accident on a rainy night. Raised to believe that all she needs to do is bat her eyelashes and the world will meet her every whim, Francesca's childhood is a confection of yachts, pretty frocks, and performing on demand for her mother's wealthy patrons. As she grows older Francesca flirts with men but never delivers, scarred by her rape at the hands of film star Evan Varian. She is, in short, Scarlet O'Hara on a bad day.
Dallas ("Dallie") Beaudine is a professional golfer, haunted by the memories of his abusive father and damaged by the drowning death of his young son. He has great promise, but chokes in every major tournament, taunted by a spectral Jack Nicklaus. Dallie travels America, competing in golf competitions, trying to drink away his demons, accompanied by his caddie and mentor Skeet Cooper.
When Chloe dies, Francesca discovers that their lifestyle was built on credit - she now has nothing but a wardrobe of expensive fripperies, and a group of 'friends' who are now free to express their enmity. Clutching at one last chance at the lifestyle she has been raised to expect as her birthright, Francesca heads to America to feature in a ground-breaking period motion picture by an obscure auteur.
Or, as it turns out, to feature in a soft-porn vampire flick directed by a man with delusions of greatness. Distraught, Francesca storms out of the set and finds herself wandering a dirt road, clad in an overblown corseted costume and heels, all her worldly possessions in an expensive suitcase she drags behind her.
At which point we're only a fifth of the way into Fancy Pants, Dallie's nickname for Francesca.
The rest of the book details how they get together, only to split up Left pregnant (which she keeps a secret from Dallie, who would follow her to the ends of the earth if he knew), Francesca decides to keep the baby, and finally grows up - only to be rewarded for her maturity and tenacity by becoming America's biggest and most loved talk show host.
Will Dallie manage to overcome his self-sabotage and win a major tournament? Will Teddy's parents reunite? Will the secondary romance between Holly Grace (Dallie's ex-wife. and Francesca's best friend) and left-wing revolutionary Gerry Jaffe end happily?
You know they will. This is far less deft that SEP's later works - at points I was torn between wincing at the stereotypes and laughing at the overblown prose. There are too many unnecessary characters, the European settings were unconvincing, and Francesca is way too bratty for sympathy. But I was sucked in to the plot despite myself, and even shed a tear when Teddy and Dallie finally bonded - on the 4th of July, in the security offices of the Statue of Liberty, after Francesca's citizenship ceremony. - Alex

Marker - Robin Cook

It's been several years since I read one of Cook's novels, predominantly because I was a little tired of the same themes which recurred through his work - large, heartless company considers the lives of (usually disenfranchised) individuals expendable in comparison with profit generation, only to be brought down by a diligent (often rogue) scientist or doctor who uncovers the deaths and tracks down the truth in the face of obstacles and personal danger. The organisation involved is usually a managed health provider, but is occasionally a chemical or other industrial manufacturer; the hero is often opposed by his (or her) own employer.
Marker was remaindered at one of my local booksellers, and though I try to avoid trade paperback-sized novels, I couldn't resist either the price or the guilty pleasure that Cook instills in me.
True to form, in Marker Cook has Dr Laurie Montgomery, a New York medical examiner, intrigued by a series of unexpected deaths. She posts two patients where the decedent was young, in excellent health, and died within twenty-four hours of minor elective surgery at University Hospital. Asking around the office she finds more cases that fit the profile. The patients seem to have nothing else in common - different wards, different theatre and ward staff, different medications. They also have no obvious cause of death on autopsy. But why would someone be killing them?
While working out what's going on, and trying to avoid conflict with her boss (who finds the conspiracy theory patently absurd and alarmist), Laurie also has to cope with a serious health problem within her dysfunctional family, and her recent breakup from partner, Dr Jack Stapleton (a fellow pathologist).
Jack's wife and two daughters died in a place accident some years earlier, and he's not prepared to face that kind of loss again. But Laurie's getting older, and she really wants to start a family. After months of frustration on both sides, Jack has moved out.
Jack's former career as an ophthalmologist was ruined by HMO giant AmeriCare - now the health care provider for the medical examiner's office, and for University Hospital. He doesn't trust AmeriCare, and his suspicions are heightened because some time earlier (I'm guessing in a previous novel) he uncovered a scheme to kill patients with chronic illnesses, because they would have cost the insurer a bundle before their deaths.
Yet that is clearly not the case here - all the patients were fit and well. As Laurie delves deeper she discovers more cases at another hospital - a cluster of six that spontaneously ended.
Interwoven with the story of Laurie and Jack's investigation is the story of float nurse Jasmine (Jazz) Rakoczi - ex-army and current killer for hire. We know that the deaths are deliberate (and, if we have any intelligence at all, know very early on why). Will Laurie and Jack find out before it's too late? Will they find a way to reunite? Will they stop Jazz, and unmask the corporate bean counters behind her actions? Will Laurie, who (of course) meets the criteria of the victims, survive an emergency hospital admission?
Yes, yes, yes and yes.
It is to Cook's credit that, predictable though this all is, the plot still carried me along. The writing is not particularly fresh, and there is a great deal too much exposition, but at least I didn't throw the book across the room in disgust. On the other hand, I think I can wait another few years before I read another variation on this well-worn theme. - Alex

Monday, January 15

Midwinter of the Spirit - Phil Rickman

This is the second book about Merrily Watkins, parish priest of the English village of Ledwardine, single mother of teenaged Jane, and widow whose husband was killed in a car accident - with his mistress.
The word 'exorcism' has become a little too sensationalist for the Anglican church, but the need to rid properties of spirits, malignant and otherwise, still exists. The current exorcist for Hereford is nearing retirement, and none to reliable, so the Bishop has sent Merrily to train as a 'Deliverance Minister.'
Her first task in the new role (which is taken on in addition to her priestly duties) is in a hospital - Denzil Joy is dying, and the freaked out nursing staff are convinced he's evil.
As the plot unfolds Merrily has to cope with the bizarre misogyny of outgoing exorcist Canon T.H.B. Dobbs, Jane's strong opinions on the church and subsequent entanglement in New Age alternatives, the tragic death of Moon (a disturbed young woman convinced that she could connect with her ancient ancestors), the continuing presence of the enigmatic former pop star Lol, the desecration of more than one church, the renovation (and mysteriously missing panel) of the tomb of 13th century bishop St Thomas Cantilupe, the mystery of who is doing what to Dobbs after his hospitalisation for a stroke, the potential hijacking of a High Church rite by the forces of darkness, and her dawning awareness of the corruption of her own superior.
This latest installment in Rickman's series is densely and richly peopled; the bewildering array of events, plot lines and characters come together to create a striking and intact whole. He is able to concoct truly unique and vivid creations. If nothing else, I can almost feel the 'scritch scritch' of Denzil Joy's horny fingernail on my own palm (and I read this over a week ago - bit late on the posting). - Alex

Sunday, January 14

The Man with a Load of Mischief - Martha Grimes

This is the first Richard Jury mystery, a series with which I was previously unfamiliar; I have no idea why I bought it two years ago (according to the receipt tucked inside). I plucked it from my unread bookshelves in a determined effort to start reading things I've had for ages, instead of heading straight for the juicy new novels which are always more alluring.
This is a very British novel, with Lords (well, one), publicans of bizarrely named inns (one of which is the title), servants and devilled kidneys. At first I was unsure whether or not it was a period novel, but realised that it's a re-release from 1981.
Detective Chief Inspector Richard Jury is sent from New Scotland Yard to the town of Long Piddleton to investigate two bizarre murders: the first victim was found garroted in a beer keg in the cellar of the Man with a Load of Mischief; the second had been strapped to an overhead beam above the sign for the Jack and Hammer. In the meantime young Ruby Judd has gone missing, along with her diary and trademark bracelet. Nobody but Jury finds this at all alarming, even though she was behaving oddly before she vanished.
I found that I was less intrigued by the mystery of the murderer, and the motivation for the murders, than I was by the development of the characters. Jury himself is interesting and innovative - I particularly liked the brief scenes between him and two of the village children, James and 'James', and how he interacted with his hypocondriacal sergeant, Wiggins; and the by-play between Melrose Plant (the former Lord Ardry), his socially aspirant aunt Agatha, and his butler Ruthven (pronounced Rivv'n, aunt Agatha!).
The tale is also peppered with interesting secondary characters - Denzil Smith, the vicar obsessed with tavern etymology; Oliver Darrington, the author whose detective novels alternate bettween superb and abysmal; Simon Matchington, the former actor, now publican, acquitted years ago of the murder of his wife; Marshall Trueblood, the flamboyant shopkeeper; and the strange relationship between step-sisters Vivian and Isabel Rivington.
This is not to say that the mystery wasn't interesting or involving. I don't ever spend time trying to work out who the killer is (and so am always disappointed when I can work it out), and I didn't foresee this one either, or at least not before Jury did. I did think that the scene where the murderer unmasks themselves was a trifle annoying (why would Jury have stayed where he found the diary, instead of moving to somewhere more populated) but that is a minor quibble.
There are at least seventeen more Inspector Jury novels, and I'll read The Old Fox Deciev'd before deciding whether to go on and get the set, if only to see what happens next. - Alex

Saturday, January 13

Blonds Have More Felons - Alesia Holliday

Tired of her life as a corporate attorney in wintry Ohio, December Vaughn ups sticks to Florida and tries to set up independent practice, assisted by her high school friend and former pageant contestant Max. But she didn't plan on half her clientele being disgruntled retiree friends of Aunt Celia, her belongings going AWOL with a temperamental removalist, a class action suit against a multinational drug company, a cute PI, the Old Boy (and Girl) network operating among the Florida Bar Association, or thugs trying to kill her. as the blurb says, it's enough to give a girl split ends!
I really hate that cutesy someone's-shooting-at-me-and-darn-I-chipped-my-nail-polish thing that is so prevalent in chick lit. That and a freakish obsession with designer shoes - Sex in the City has a lot to answer for.
Fortunately, though December meets the mandatory beauty requirements, she is three dimensional, is capable of rational thought, and the plot (though far-fetched) is believable. Unlike the rave commentary accompanying the book, I won't go so far as to label Blonds Have More Felons brilliant, laugh out loud funny or (God help us all) a romp, but it was a well executed and entertaining example of the genre. - Alex

Friday, January 12

Getting Rid of Matthew - Jane Fallon

For the last four years, Helen has been having an affair with her sexy older boss, Matthew - stolen evenings away from work and hidden from his wife and daughters. In that time Helen's plans for a career in PR have been put on hold, and most of her friends have drifted away into marriage and children, with only single Rachel left to confide in. Coming up to her thirty-ninth birthday and evaluating her life, Helen's starting to think that she doesn't really want Matthew at all. Which is when he arrives at the door of her one room flat with the news that he's told all and left Sarah for her. How will Helen get rid of her unwanted lover?
I was immediately attracted to the premise (unlike Lynn, who thinks it's ridiculous and unbelievable), and thoroughly enjoyed the execution. Helen's flawed - her plans are often ill-considered or not thought through, she at times lacks empathy (particularly for the long suffering Rachel), she is judgemental (the list she and Rachel have composed of "women we hate" is bitter, superficial, and amusing) and, of course, she's been having an affair with a married man for four years. At times, Helen is also the most attractive and sympathetic member of the cast, with the exception of Mrs Matthew, Sophie.
Fallon has managed to portray a shades-of-grey picture of adultery that I thoroughly enjoyed. There were certainly coincidences that slightly stretched credibility, and the resolution is a little too neat, but it was none the less satisfying for that. I've even persuaded Lynn to give it a whirl, so perhaps there'll be a review about this from her one day! - Alex

Thursday, January 11

Spin - Robert Charles Wilson

Although I have enjoyed every Canadian FSF author I've come across thus far, this was my first encounter with the work of Robert Charles Wilson. Recommended for me by Amazon, I forgot all about him until I stumbled across Spin in my localish FSF store. I must confess that I initially confused the author with F. Paul Wilson, who wrote the first FSF novel I ever read, Healer, when I was still a book larvae. When I read the blurb I was intrigued by the premise:
Star gazing one evening, three pre-teen friends (twins Jason and Diane, and the year younger Tyler) see the stars vanish: the world has been separated from the rest of the universe by an unknown race for an unknown purpose.
As the novel switches perspective back and forth between the (novel's) present, recent past, and the last thirty years, from the initial reaction to increasing knowledge, and as their roles in unmasking and managing the phenomenon develop, we are treated to a unique and absorbing vision. The plot unfurls at a steady and pacy rate, the characters develop in consistent but interesting ways, and the non-linear approach serves to tantalise rather than annoy.
My first impulse (after adding it to the pile of books for Lynn) was to seek out other Wilson novels. But after I read this reader response to reading Wilson novels back to back
I've decided to wait a while. And yay! a new blog to occupy my time! - Alex

Wednesday, January 10

Predator – Patricia Cornwell

Predator picks up after Trace, which I didn’t read (or possibly re-read). It is telling that, even though I finished Predator only a week ago, I had to read the blurb to remind myself of the plot before writing this review.
Said putative plot centres on deaths performed by Hog (the Hand of God), a follower of a woman who has made herself his divinity. In reality, once again the plot does not engage, but revolves around, Kay Scarpetta and her posse – the victim at the heart of the case has hennaed handprints over her body, just like lesbian niece Lucy’s latest pick up, the enigmatic Stevie. Ex-cop Marino might be making more of an effort with his health, and seeing a (self-publicising, vain) shrink, but he’s still irrational about and obsessed by Scarpetta. She, in turn, dismisses his concerns about post-doctorate Fellow Joe Amos, who seems to have an uncanny ability to base training scenarios on actual Scarpetta cases – and this is despite the fact that she doesn’t like or trust Amos, and has worked with Marino for however many years thirteen previous books translate into.
And how does Joe know things nobody could know? Because he stole and then undetectably returned some Lucy gadget that gave him access to all the academy’s secret files, allowed him to tap into phone lines, and essentially be privy to everything Scarpetta’s inner cadre know. He can’t be all bad, though – like me: “It is hard for Joe to believe how many cases Scarpetta has worked in what is a comparatively brief career.” Word.
If you want to know about the blight of citrus canker in Florida, the methods used to slow its spread, and the disgruntlement of citrus-tree-owning residents to these methods, read on. Otherwise do as I wish I’d done, and bid Dr Scarpetta adieu, preferably about eight books back. - Alex

Tuesday, January 9

The Kept Woman - Susan Donovan

After Mitch, her feckless ex-husband abandoned her during her third pregnancy to come to terms with being gay (and dabble in drugs on the way), hair stylist Sam Monroe is struggling to make ends meet. The only bright spot is her monthly Drinks and Desperation night with her colleagues and select clients.
Jack Tolliver, rakish womaniser, is making a play for the big leagues and needs to make over his image. When adviser Kara DeMarinis suggests that hiring Sam to play his fiancee would make him look solid and dependable, it doesn't take much to convince Jack to try the plan.
That the acting gives way to real emotion is hardly shocking, but the barriers (including Jack's jilted ex, news reader Christy Schoen attempts to reveal the plan; his mother, the icy and patrician Marguerite Dickinson Tolliver aka MDT; and the return of Mitch) are fresh and interesting. The sub plots (which includes an evolving relationship between Christy and sleazy lobbyist Brandon Miliewsky) aren't bad, though I was heartily sick of the thread about youngest son Dakota's willful struggle against toilet training by the time the kid finally gave up diapers to be a big boy. The epilogue was wholly unnecessary, but seems to be a genre requirement lately, and certainly didn't take away anything from plot.
All in all it was an enjoyable read, but not extraordinary. - Alex

Monday, January 8

Blowfly - Patricia Cornwell

Hot on the heels of The Last Precinct I dove straight into Blowfly - which continues the now soapie-like existence of Dr Kay Scarpetta and her protective, genius, chopper-flying, computer-wielding, relationship-challenged lesbian FBI/ATF agent niece Lucy. Her career in Richmond in tatters, Kay decides to set up shop as an independent forensic pathologist, in Florida. Coincidentally the state where Wolfman serial killer Jean-Baptiste Chandonne's brother, the equally depraved Jay Talley, has settled.
At the same time Kay's niece is hard at work killing a mobster lawyer in Europe (making it look like a suicide and complicating the forensics with pre-grown blowflies), devoted but messed up cop Pete Marino's life is falling apart even as he tries to bring Kay's lost love back into her life, and the creepy presence of Le Loup-Garou continues to insert itself into Kay's life.
I kept being reminded of Lynn's last paranormal review - every man on the planet is obsessed with the generally unlikable Dr Scarpetta (Marino, Chandonne, Talley, 'dead' lover Benton) and it's starting to irritate me. I clearly haven't had enough, because I bought another Cornwell installment a couple of days after finishing this one, but as I review it now I feel a little manipulated, and faintly tainted by all the sordidness of Kay's entangled life. Still, it's nice to have the uncomplicatedness of my own life thrown in such vivid contrast. - Alex

Sunday, January 7

The Last Precinct - Patricia Cornwell

Book eleven of the Dr Kay Scarpetta, forensic pathologist, series finds Kay recovering from the nightmarish attack on her by the hideous and monstrous serial killer Jean-Baptist Chandonne, aka Le Loup-Garou (the werewolf). Having only narrowly escaped the machinations of Dianne Bray, a woman obsessed with Kay and determined to see her destroyed, only to be killed by Chandonne herself, Kay now has to defend herself against allegations that her blinding Chandonne was really self defence and not an unprovoked attack. What happened to the chipping hammer Chandonne brought with him? Can she trust special prosecutor Jaime Berger? And are her friends really on her side, or working against her?
I took a long break from the adventures of Dr Scarpetta, and have leaped rather convincingly back in the fray, reading this and the sequel back to back. In fact, although I thought I hadn't already read The Last Precinct (as evidenced by the fact that it was sitting on my unread shelves in all its hard-backed glory), the fact that I knew Kay's lost love was really still alive and well and hiding in Paris strongly indicates that I read and forgot it.
I remember why I read all Cornwell's books when they first came out - interesting cases, vivid forensic detail, intriguing puzzles, defined characters, intricate plots - and why I took a break - torturous personal lives, unrealistically brilliant thinking, unflawed central characters, torturous personal lives (so annoying it gets mentioned twice).
Cornwell still writes a gripping and generally fast paced novel, but I had to suspend my disbelief. I'm going to glut for a while, then take another break - though maybe not for as long next time. - Alex

Saturday, January 6

A Crown of Lights - Phil Rickman

The third in the Merrily Watkins series, this is the book that has changed me from an interested reader to a fan.
In A Crown of Lights (the title refers to the Neopagans' planned celebration of Imbolc, or Candlemas, where a woman wears a crown of candles during the ceremony), Merrily tries to negotiate a conflict between Neopagans and charismatic Christians which erupts in Old Hindwell, a village near Radnor Forest.

Recently hand fasted couple Betty and the more naive, American Robin, have bought a decommissioned church and are planning on hosting Imbolc there with a group of friends. But they're the unwitting pawns in a plan for revenge and retribution far bigger that they could imagine.
A Crown of Light also continues the story of Merrily, her adolescent (and convincingly portrayed) daughter Jane, and the conflict that is the modern Anglican church. The characters are developed and convincing, their behaviour coherent but not predictable. Excellent all around! - Alex

Friday, January 5

Bodies - Robert Barnard

I love the mysteries of Robert Barnard, a prolific writer of interesting, quirky, uniquely English murder mysteries that are (particularly back list) are particularly difficult to casually stumble upon. I keep an eye out when in second-hand book shops, and was delighted to find Bodies recently in a second-hand crime bookshop in the city and read it the following day.
Perry Trethowan worked for the Met’s Vice Squad before transferring to homicide, so he was familiar with Phil Fennilow, editor of seedy, borderline-pornographic publication out of Soho. Phil’s day started like any other, until he discovered the bodies of his photographer, Bob Cordle, his assistant, and two partially clad models. Perry suspects all four were shot to conceal the murder of one of the victims - but which one, and why?
The woman is quickly identified, but tracking down just who the man is, and why they were shot, takes a little more investigation. In the process of determining his identity, unravelling the many potential reasons for the murder, and solving the mystery (in an unpredictable but believable way), Trthowan revisits the world of soft and hard-core pornography, and becomes embroiled in the unique and regimented culture of body building (circa mid-80's) and the adjacent, illicit, world of pornography.
The book was published in 1986, and is therefore a little dated, but no less absorbing for that. Perry is a recurring Barnard character (though I would hesitate to identify the works as a series) whom it was a pleasure to meet again, and the revelation of who and why unfurled genuinely surprisingly.
Barnard's novels are slender, streamlined works with a particularly English air. He includes enough dialect for flavour without (a particular hate of Lynn's) obscuring the text, and the voice of his narrator (making his fourth appearance in Barnard's novels) is clear, slightly cynical and detached, and beautifully observed. The novel is necessarily dated, and to some degree described a universe which no longer exists. I found this added to the atmosphere of the novel, and heightened my enjoyment. - Alex

Thursday, January 4

Laptop Lunch User's Guide - Amy Hemmert & Tammy Pelstring

I'm counting this as a book rather than an instruction manual because it is relatively hefty, did not come free with the amazing Laptop Lunchbox, and is full of information that's not directly related to the product. Said information is useful, but not exactly ground breaking if you know anything about nutrition. On the other hand, if you don't know where to start, are concerned about the healthiness and variety of your child's diet (or your own), want some inspiration and ideas, and need a basic launching pad, this book is for you. - Alex

Monday, January 1

Leigh Redhead: Peepshow

When her best friend is accused of murdering an underworld figure and kidnapped pending execution, a stripper turned private detective goes undercover in the seedier side of the sex industry to find the real killer and save her friend. Along the way she is set up by the city’s most corrupt police officer, gets mixed up with a team of bizarre strippers and finds herself falling in lust with inappropriate men.
This book is set in Melbourne, Australia and we are choked with the fact. While a few local references are great to give a feeling for the city where the story takes place this one gives so many that at times it felt almost like a geography lesson. Sometimes less is more, this should have been one of those times. On the plus side the details given were correct as far as I know.
There was also just a touch too much of the strippers are just like all other women. They have boyfriends, children, advanced education etc. The shocking flop that was the movie Striptease comes to mind. I know that there are stereotypes out there that paint sex workers as uneducated, drug addicted, immoral and so on but I don’t think people who hold those kind of ideas of the sex industry would be attracted to this book. So all the passages that are there to show those assumptions aren’t true come across as preaching to the choir. We know.
Having said that I did find Peepshow to be a light, breezy and entertaining read with a twist I didn’t see coming until it was upon me. As a debut novel it was a good effort and I smell a series coming on.
Redhead is not at the level of ‘I’ll be watching out for her new releases’ just yet but I would expect her to improve with further experience, so who knows maybe one day.-Lynn

To read Alex's review of this book, click here