Wednesday, February 28

So Many Books, So Little Time – Sara Nelson

In 2002, in the wake of September 11, New Yorker “editor, reporter, reviewer, mother, daughter, wife and compulsive reader” decided to keep a diary of a years’ worth of reading. She set herself the achievable (for her) task of reading and discussing a book a week, and set out with a list of appropriate books – ones she’d always meant to read – while leaving space for the other books she knew would appear in her life. And in the very first week her plan derailed.
This is a fascinating book for bibliophiles – Nelson’s discussions about why she picked (and sometimes abandoned) books, and her ruminations about the nature of reading, are as interesting as the descriptions of the books themselves. On many occasions I found myself nodding in agreement: over the distressing potential of running out of reading material when away, picking the right book for the right occasion, the risk one takes recommending books to friends – or accepting recommendations of friends, the quirk of Public Books (“the ones we pretend we’re reading”), and the disturbing pretentiousness of being seen with the right book in the right situation – “I liked the idea that my friends would think me unusual and sophisticated; I have a lot invested in people thinking I don’t just run with the herd” struck a chord with me.
Based on what she wrote, not just about the books discussed but also others she mentioned in passing, I now have a list of twenty three books for my ‘one day’ shopping excursion – that ‘one day’ being when I don’t have a gazillion books awaiting me.
Nelson is clearly well read, but is not pretentious about her reading material – Jackie Collins is mentioned at least once – and though she references great works and name-drops the occasional author, the writing is clear, vivid and wholly accessable. - Alex

Tuesday, February 27

Evelyn Vaughn: Contact

When a serial killer misses his target a psychic police informant finds herself not only the next person on his hit list but also under suspicion for murder. In order to help bring the real killer to justice and protect herself she must convince sceptical officers that she is not only innocent but also able to identify the real killer using only her psychic gifts and those of her friends.
The book contains a secondary story line about the discovery of two hitherto unknown sisters and that her gift is the result of genetic engineering.
This is a Harlequin Bombshell Category Romance and although I tired of category romance quite some time ago, the Bombshell line is supposedly different in that it focuses primarily on the action rather than the romance. And while that was true of this book, it is also true that the romance elements of the plot suffered from the same problems that had me tire of category romance in the first place.
The hero was the stereotypical overbearing ass. The heroine, when it came to him at least, was one step up from a door mat in that she makes excuses for his overbearing ass ways and in a couple of instances even blames herself for his behaviour. When he does the unforgivable she forgives him, even though he doesn’t come close to apologising. Apparently just because he’s good in bed he can not be lived without. And that must be it because apart from hot sex they don’t seem to have a lot in common. I for one didn’t feel the love.
The secondary story line really didn’t impact on the course of the primary plot to any great degree, though it really could have. The author sets up an interesting scenario early in the book but leaves it hanging only to tie it all up in the final third of the story by having the sisters appear and explain everything. Sure the word count had to be kept down but rather than add anything of substance to the plot the way it was handled simply served to remind me that this is part of a series.
What gives me hope is that the action was quite well written and although I picked who the bad guy was before the big revelation I was kept guessing for over half the book.
I think that the story line was too complex to attempt within the confines of a category work so that the author was forced to take short cuts with character and plot development. I think the writing itself had promise. I think a single title book would really show us what Evelyn Vaughn can do. If she wrote one I would read it.
As for the Bombshell line, I liked it better than the other Harlequin lines I’ve read but I’m not subscribing to the category romance book club just yet.-Lynn

Monday, February 26

Spook - Mary Roach

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife is a followup to Roach's fascinating book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which looked at what happens to bodies after death (including embalming, plastination, funeral practices and other interesting aspects). In Spooks she explores the question of life after death, from a history of the search for a soul (the impact of wishful thinking on scientific studies of sperm with microscopes, weighing dying bodies of people and animals to determine the weight of the soul), to the mid-nineteenth century ectoplasm hoaxes and claims by mediums, through to modern investigations into possible hallucinatory effects of electromagnetic fields, possible explanations for hauntings, and rigorous (in the academic sense) examination of near-death experiences (NDE's).
Roach has a fantastic writing style - well informed but accessible, and unexpectedly funny (particularly in her footnotes); on several occasions I actually laughed aloud, often to the consternation of fellow public transport users. For example, in the chapter on NDE's Roach says in the text that survivors often report having been met by deceased friends or family. The footnote reads:
Or occasionally, ex-husbands. A celebrity website reports that Elizabeth Taylor saw Mike Todd during her near-death experience. "He pushed me back to my life," she is quoted as saying. Whether this was done for her benefit or his is not clear. (p. 247)

This is a brilliant, interesting and informative work - I aspire to write as well as Roach. - Alex

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

Sunday, February 25

I'm a Believer - Jessica Adams

Science teacher Mark Buckle is trying to come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend has just been killed in freak car accident. Her parents don't really like him (they lived together instead of getting married, and he dated Catherine's older sister first), he's somewhat estranged from the funeral arrangements, people send him the most inane cards and tell him that it was either God's will or launch into a series of 'if only's ("if only she'd come over for curry"), and the grief is harder than he thought it would be. Then Catherine starts to visit him.
This is an interesting novel, and I still don't know whether or not I liked it. The main characters grow throughout the book, there are some really nice moments, and it wasn't wholly predictable - I certainly wasn't expecting the twist about September 11. But it was also somewhat bland, and I don't really know what the point of it was. On the other hand, I'm still thinking about it, and that has to count for something! - Alex

Saturday, February 24

O is for Outlaw - Sue Grafton

Because when I'm on a roll with an author or genre...
O is for Outlaw opens with a call from Teddy Rich, a storage space gambler or scavenger - he supplements his income by buying, sight unseen, the contents of storage spaces that have been defaulted. The contents of one such blind auction include mementos belonging to Kinsey, which he offers her for the princely sum of $30 (it's still 1986 in the Millhone universe), though the space was rented by a John Russell. Kinsey meets Rich, agrees to buy back her property, and investigates further - Russell was one of the pseudonyms used by her first husband, now ex-cop Mickey Magruder.
It doesn't take much digging to find out that Mickey's in hospital, critically ill and unconscious after being shot, and Kinsey's in the frame. Can she work out who shot him, and why?
Of course she can, and at the same time solve a twenty-year old murder, discover that she left Mickey for all the wrong reasons, and uncover an ID racket.
I quite enjoyed this latest installment, which mercifully omitted the annoying had-I-but-known coda of N is for Noose. Seeing some of Kinsey's back story was refreshing, and she's faced with some interesting moral choices. That said, I think I can wait a while until I dive in to P is for Peril, next on the alphabet list. - Alex

Friday, February 23

John Twelve Hawks: The Traveller

There are some people, known as Travellers, who have the ability to leave their bodies and move in spirit to other dimensions. There are those, known as the Brethren or the Tabula who, for nefarious reasons of their own, hunt down and kill all Travellers. And there are those, known as Harlequins, who are sworn to protect the Travellers at all cost.
Two brothers, both Travellers, are separated. One is found by a Harlequin who takes him to a pathfinder, that is a kind of teacher who helps him develop his abilities. The other is captured by the Brethren, who have made contact with a civilisation in another dimension that want to come to ours, and want somebody to lead them between dimensions, so need a Traveller. And just in case the brother they have can’t do it they set out to kidnap the other brother.
Then follows the great search with the Brethren using all the modern surveillance techniques already placed in society and the Harlequin trying to keep the Traveller ‘off the grid’ and out of sight of the ‘great machine’. Naturally he is found and kidnapped. The Harlequin stages a rescue and the first book in this new trilogy ends with the brothers firmly established in opposite camps.
This is a difficult book to review since I’m really not sure whether I actually like it or not.
I’ve always had problems with mysterious groups who want to rule the world for no good reason. The Brethren are no exception. It is never satisfactorily explained why they’ve historically felt the need to kill all Travellers. Nor is it explained why Harlequins feel the need to protect Travellers up to an including the ultimate sacrifice. (But given that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction the Harlequins probably must defend Travellers simply because the Brethren must kill them) For that matter it is not adequately explained exactly how the Travellers skills are threatening enough to warrant their deaths or worthy of defending to the death for either.
The characters, particularly the secondary characters, are flat. The main characters, while a little more rounded, still come off as stereotypes and clichés.
Many of the plot devices were completely unoriginal. The author trots out the old break-into-the-impenetrable-fortress-through-the-air-conditioning-ducts scenario, for example. I just rolled my eyes. When will the evil empire learn to hire the services of a surveyor to make sure that the impenetrable fortress is in fact impenetrable? Haven’t they ever seen any B grade action movies?
And the line between Good and Evil is unmistakably Black and White, there are no areas of grey in this novel. And there’s no prize for guessing where the story is going in the next two books. That civilisation from another dimension is unlikely to turn out to be bringers of peace and light to us here on earth.
The bulk of the book is less story telling and world building than it is a warning about the insidious monitoring of every aspect of our lives and the total lack of any real privacy in this post 9-11 paranoid computer monitored society.
But, and this is where my difficulties lie, for all of its faults the book was still a page-turning read. And I’m not sure why. The writing wasn’t of riveting quality, I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters and the plot was thin to the point of transparency in places. The ending was not at all satisfying seeing as how it was simply setting up the next novel in the trilogy. And don’t even get me started on the cliches. Yet I read it all and don’t regret the experience. As I said at the start - difficult.
Will I read the rest of the trilogy? Probably not, but then again, maybe.-Lynn

Thursday, February 22

Junk Food Monkeys - Robert M Sapolsky

Dr Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist who has spent a portion of every year in Africa, observing primate behaviour, for the past two decades. He is also an engaging writer - or, to quote the great Oliver Sacks, "one of the best science writers of our time", and he should know.
In this collection of essays Sapolsky discusses primate and human behaviour (often tying both together), and the biological whys of what we do. From hard-wired biological contributions to sexual orientation ("How big's yours?") and the impact of puberty on the composition of primate groups ("The young and the reckless"), through how age affects social positioning ("The graying of the troop") and the loss of identity ("The dissolution of ego boundaries and the fit of my father's shirt"), to the innate desire to gossip and to witness accidents ("Primate peekaboo") to obsessive-compulsivity as a key component of religion ("Circling the blanket for God"), every chapter is challenging, thought provoking and accessible.
While reading the final chapter ("Circling the blanket") my memory was irritatingly itched by the half-remembered plot of an SF novel I read about ten years ago that I thought tied Sapolsky's discussion of OCD and religious scrupulousness together beautifully - and then he referenced Orson Scott Card's Xenocide himself, which was an amazing moment for me, because I am indeed that sad! In fact I want to write to Dr Sapolsky and tell him about another novel (The House of Stairs by William Sleator) that explores conditioning superstitious behaviour in a group of teens.
I've read a couple of Sapolsky's other collections (expect reviews of rereads of A Primate's Memoir, Monkeyluv, and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers in the coming months), and he never fails to deliver. - Alex

Wednesday, February 21

It Must've Been Something I Ate - Jeffrey Steingarten

This second collection of Jeffrey Steingarten’s food essays for American Vogue is as enchanting, satisfying, delicious and informative as the first (The Man Who Ate Everything). This is a fantastic book for dipping in to, for a lift when you’re blue or sick, or for inspiration. Steingarten loves food, from haute cuisine to meatloaf, and wholly throws himself in to his current obsession, whatever it is.
The chapters are clustered by theme, and most chapters deal with a single food (salt), a source of many options (pig), a fad or phobia (fear of cheese), or an apparent health issue (MSG), though some revolve around his search for the ultimate recipe (a loaf of bread, or the bizarre chicken-inside-a-duck-inside a turkey concoction that is turducken, or, in TMWAE, the perfect French fry). His writing is light, his love of good food obvious, and his style impeccable. I eagerly await collection three. – Alex

Tuesday, February 20

Nearlyweds – Beth Kendrick

Hmm - I'm clearly in a romance-type headspace right now.
I really liked the premise of this novel – three women discover, part way into their first year of marriage, that they’re not legally wed. Marriage hasn’t be the bed of roses any of them expected – Erin relocated her medical practice to be closer to her only-child husband David’s mother, a woman hell-bent on destroying their marriage and getting more evil by the day; Casey hoped marriage would bring her and Nick closer together, but even with a ring on her finger (and than only because she proposed. And bought the ring. And organised the wedding) he doesn’t seem to want her. While child-loving, mother-want-to-be, former nanny Stella, widely regarded as the gold-digging trophy wife of much older Mark (whose older daughter Taylor is her age and hates her) found out on her wedding night that Mark had a vasectomy. Which he’s not prepared to reverse. Now the three women, brought together by chance, have to decide – should they stay or should they go?
According to the cover review, this is a “laugh-out-loud page-turner”. Word to the wise - never trust someone who uses hyphens (or dashes!) more than me. Despite that, I really enjoyed Nearlyweds. The chapters alternate between the women’s viewpoints, though there’s an omniscient voice throughout. The premise is interesting, the prose is readable, the plot entertaining and the resolution rewarding. – Alex

Monday, February 19

Do Not Disturb – Christie Ridgeway

Picked out of a remainder bin at a nearby newsagent, I did not have high hopes for this tale of investigative reporter Angel Buchanan researching a feature article on Rockwellian artist Stephen Whitney – American icon, family man, recently deceased… and the father who abandoned Angel at the age of four.
Angel is out of her comfort zone from the beginning – the only person at the funeral in black (Stephen liked bright and pastel colours); she strikes up a preliminary conversation with a young girl for background information, only to discover she’s Stephen’s daughter, Katie, her half-sister; and then Angel almost falls of the crumbling edge of a cliff, only to be saved by Cooper Jones, sexy brother of Lainey, the widow Whitney, and her identical twin, Beth.
Angel doesn’t need to be saved, rescued or helped by anyone – her former stepfather, an abusive cop, taught her early that she could only count on herself. Can she change the pattern of a lifetime? Will she tell all about the man who left her but doted on his second family, destroying his image as a staunch upholder of traditional values?
This is a convincing, beautifully depicted romance. Ridgeway manages to squeeze in not only the central romance (between two very damaged characters), and a secondary love story, but also the tangled tale of Whitney himself. All the central characters are complete and wholly realised, and their kives are engaging. The ‘physical love’ scenes are relevant to the plot, believable, and hot without being either coy or explicit. I’m glad I picked a second Ridgeway novel out of that bin! - Alex

Sunday, February 18

Nights of Rain and Stars - Maeve Binchy

The same friend who loaned me the disappointing Star brought over Nights for me to read while recuperating from a dramatic but inconsequential injury (which is allowing me to plough through books as though I were Ray Gordon surrounded by naked women – who knew I could get in a Red Hot reference!). It was with understandable trepidation that I embarked on this more substantial novel.
Four young travellers meet by chance in a taverna high in the hills above the small Greek village of Aghia Anna. Planning on just passing through, they witness fire breakout on a tour boat in the ocean far below – a boat they had been on just the day before. Helpless, they watch in horror as an international tragedy unfolds and, out of respect for the village, decide to stay on until the funeral services.
Andreas, the taverna owner, insists they ring home, to allay the fears of their no doubt anxious families, a task that is difficult for them all. As the narrative progresses we learn what each of them is fleeing – German Elsa needs space to think a man who says he loves her but has kept their relationship a secret from colleagues and family for two long years; Mancusian David is escaping the pain of an industrialist father who wants a protégé rather than a son whose hopes, talents and interests are vastly different; American Thomas thinks he’s giving his young son space to adjust to a new stepfather, but is hiding from his own fear and rejection; and Irish nurse Fiona is running from friends and family who don’t understand that her much-loved boyfriend Shane is hurt, misunderstood and vulnerable – he only hits her if she distresses him, he’s really a good man.
As Aghia Anna, particularly Irish import Vonnie, take these young tourists into their hearts and help them to work out what really matters, the villagers begin to resolve old hurts and losses.
This is Binchy at her best – the characters are well drawn and distinct, the plot is plausible and captivating, the problems are intricate and real, and the resolution is satisfying without being unrealistically neat. I wasn’t wholly convinced by Elsa’s back story, but otherwise a highly enjoyable and readable interlude, and a welcome relief after the dismal effort that was Star. – Alex

Saturday, February 17

Eleven Hours - Paullina Simons

After The Girl in Times Square I swore I would’t read another Simons novel. That was until my hairdresser loaned me Eleven Hours, which I then felt obligated to read.
Didi Wood is uncomfortable, restless and heavily pregnant. Trawling through an air-conditioned mall in the heart of a Texan summer, Didi’s shopping is starting to wear her down, and she’s looking forward to meeting her husband Rich for lunch. Unaccountably discomforted by a man who offers to carry her bags, Didi hides out for a while. The man’s gone but, still spooked, Didi rings Rich and leaves a message uncharacteristically asking him to meet her earlier than arranged. Stepping out of the mall to put her shopping in the car before lunch, Didi is followed by the man, who forces her into his car, shopping and all. What does he want, and how can she get away?
In the meantime Rich, startled by Didi’s message, heads to the mall but can’t find her anywhere. Sure that something terrible has happened, he tries to convince authorities that his wife is in danger, and has not met a friend, lost track of time, or been otherwise innocuously delayed.
This is certainly better than The Girl in Times Square – there’s tension and pace, the shifting focus between Rich and Didi is nicely balanced, the frustration Rich feels is nicely depicted, and Didi’s efforts to free herself are realistic. I found the focus of FBI agent Scott Summerville (on capture of the abductor rather than rescue of the hostage) unconvincing, but that could be due to too much exposure to TV. In the hands of someone like Jodi Piccoult this could be a truly great book; in the hands of Simons it’s a nice, interesting, if somewhat shallow, read. – Alex

Friday, February 16

Whale Talk – Chris Crutcher

Multiracial adoptee TJ (Tao Jones) is the bane of his sports-obsessed high school principal’s existence – he has the ability to substantively contribute to Cutter High’s athletic achievements, maybe even taken them to the nationals, but he refuses to join a team. That is until he decides to help bullied special ed. loner Chris, vulnerable since his all-star big brother was tragically killed, by setting up a swim team. Only two things stand in his way – Cutter High doesn’t have a pool, and none of the other would-be team members can swim.
Crutcher’s main characters are articulate, self-aware, nuanced and passionate. His powerful writing tends to explore recurring themes – powerlessness, bullying, parental abuse, institutionalised abuse, resilience, the search for dignity, protection of the weak and defenceless by the strong, the need for strong male role models and mentors for young men, integrity, and sport (often as a metaphor for life). Despite this I find each novel unique, compelling, moving and inspiring, and Whale Talk is no different.
Crutcher doesn’t write fluffy, feel good work – his characters evolve and grow, but not without cost. His endings are bittersweet, and his villains are beautifully conveyed with moral greyness where black and white would be easier and more satisfying.
Crutcher is on my Amazon email notification list – I ordered Whale Talk as soon as it came out in paperback, and this is my second reading. It won’t be my last. - Alex

Thursday, February 15

The Athenian Murders - José Carlos Somoza

I was captured by the concept of this book – the text tells the tale of the death of Plato’s Academy student Tramacus, apparently torn apart by wolves on the slope of Mount Lycabettas in Athens, not long after the Peloponnesian War. Heracles Pontor, Decipherer of Enigmas, believes the death is not as it appears and, with the assistance of his old friend Crantor, and Academy head Diagoras, attempts to discover who really killed Tramacus, and why.
So far, so unremarkable. Except that there’s a second, sub-textual mystery being unravelled in the footnotes of the man translating The Athenian Murders out of Ancient Greek. Working from the only existing translation, the Translator is initially convinced that there’s an eidetic message, but becomes increasingly concerned about what he’s uncovering.
This is a truly unique and intellectually intriguing concept, and is well executed. I studied Roman and Ancient Greek culture, literature, philosophy and art for a year at school, and found that very helpful, but by no means a prerequisite. The characters, including the Translator, and the twin plots, were less satisfying than the concept and the execution, but I enjoyed the book nonetheless. This is the first of Somaza’s books to be translated into English, and I’m curious about the form and contents of his other work. Ecco’s text on translation has certainly raised my awareness of and interest in translation, though none of his literary erudition is referenced – and for that I am inordinately grateful. – Alex

Wednesday, February 14

Death by Chocolate - Toby Moore

Matt Devlin left his ex-wife and his career in Baltimore, and moved with his rebellious teen daughter Sylvia to New York. He's a member of the Christ is Fit congregation, and (with partner Kate Strong) a Health Enforcement Agent - he can stop and fergie people who might be over their permitted weight limit, search for stashes of imported brown or high-f*t C, and raid suspected eateasies. But when Cupid Frish, a woman he pulled over who was carrying thirty boxes of concealed ganache "for personal use", winds up dead, clad only in a bikini made of best quality Swiss brown, Matt gets embroiled in a city-wide conspiracy.
This novel is billed as satire, and it certainly qualifies - Moore has created a not-too-distant and believable future where religion is inexorably intertwined with thinness and Control, the local zoo has opened a 'humonster' exhibit so kids can learn that the f*t are people too, hypocrisy runs rife, and the effects of global warming are ignored in favour of distraction. The link between religion and weight control is particularly well written - Communion is now a salad, and apple juice (because of Eve's apple) is a beverage of choice for the faithful, and worship consists of prayercise, flexing for the Lord.
Although I found the premise intriguing, Death by Chocolate didn't grab me - I wasn't captured by the characters, uninterested by the murder, not distracted by the (admittedly creative) red herrings, and unsurprised by the resolution. I should have known when I saw the cover:
Rules for book buying #1: "Pure, uncut hilarity" is almost as much of a red flag as "A hilarious romp". - Alex

Tuesday, February 13

Labour of Love – Amanda Tattam & Cate Kennedy (ed.)

Subtitled Tales from the world of midwives, this moving and inspiring collection of midwives’ tales arose from a 2002 decision by a branch of the Australian Midwifery Council Inc. to counter the invisibility of midwifery work in Australia. 43 practitioners relay their experiences in a variety of midwifery and maternal and child health setting; arranged thematically, the stories cover deliveries in traditional Western labour wards, in war zones, in indigenous communities and Papua New Guinea, and at home, as well as deliveries with devastating outcomes. The stories also look at areas of midwifery and maternal and child health that may be less evident – care and intervention after birth. The book concludes with a series of reflections on practice change, experiences that don’t fit in the main categories, and innovative practice.
Like all anthologies, some stories shone more brightly than others, and the amateur nature of the authors was sometimes evident, primarily through a lack of clear narrative thread. Overall, though, the standard was very high, and the world of midwifery is comprehensively, candidly and engagingly portrayed. I certainly have a better picture of the potential for conflict with obstetricians, and an even higher regard for the work of midwives. - Alex

Monday, February 12

Out – Natsuo Kirino

Four women work nights together on the production line of a pre-packaged lunch company in Tokyo. Although they appear very different, they are all trapped in lives of obligation, poverty, and isolation.
The unofficial leader of the group, Masako radiates competence, is strong, smart, composed and too capable for a menial, dead-end job – but at home she lives with a son who hasn’t spoken to her for a year and a husband she no longer sleeps with.
Plump young Kuniko compensates for the emptiness of her life with possessions and food – if she just had the money she deserves she would be happy, but in the meantime she’s drowning in debt.
Middle-aged widow Yoshie works to support her petulant adolescent daughter and her unappreciative, incontinent, invalid mother-in-law – she can’t see a way out of a life filled with hard work and exhaustion.
Mother of two young sons, beautiful Yayoi has always let her looks stand in for backbone – and her womanising, baccarat-addicted husband abuses her, until the night she kills him, and turns to her friends for help.
This complex novel portrays a strong sense of place – one that is wholly foreign to my experience. The woman are believable and distinct, their bleak existences vivid and suffocating, and their weaknesses all too evident.

The three central male characters are bound together by their obsession with Masako - lonely Brazilian-Japanese migrant and co-worker Kazuo thinks he could find peace with her; polished Yakusa loan shark hard man Jumonji, is inspired by her; and casino owner and one-time murderer Satake aka Sato, wants to re-live his greatest, life-affirming moment by raping and killing her.
The writing employs a little too much telling: “Since she was completely self-centred, Kuniko thought it natural that Masako would be willing to lend [money] to her if she was willing to lend to anyone” but this is forgivable. It is strongly flavoured by its setting, but the heart of it is universal. I enjoyed reading Out, and found the characters and plot interesting and textured, but I wasn’t strongly engaged by any of the characters, and didn’t really care what happened to them. - Alex

Sunday, February 11

Kelley Armstrong: Stolen

An unethical parapsychologist and his psychotic millionaire backer are kidnapping supernatural beings in order to study them (the doctor) and then hunt and kill them (the millionaire). A kind of supernatural UN convenes in order to stop them but before any action can be taken the world’s only female werewolf is kidnapped. She escapes and brings back her fellows to put an end to the bad guys and their evil plans permanently.
This is Armstrong’s second book and I found it much more entertaining than her first (Bitten) which I think had a less sustainable story line. It took me a while to come around to this author’s voice but now that I have I find I quite enjoy her work. One aspect that I particularly like is the way her characters are unapologetic about who and what they are. Here werewolves hunt and kill (humans as well as other animals), her vampires drink blood straight from the source, and it is presented as a simple fact of life. There is very little of the angst that other authors make such characters feel and certainly no self hatred of the "I’m a terrible monster, how can I live with myself" kind. The relationship between the two main characters can become a bit tedious at times (can’t live with him, can’t live without him, okay we get it already) but unlike the first in this series it is not the focus of the book. There was plenty of action to keep me turning the pages.
In Stolen Armstrong introduces a number of supernatural characters and I have no doubt that she will follow up on their stories in future novels. If you like your crime/suspense stories with a touch of the otherworld you might like to give Stolen a go.-Lynn

Saturday, February 10

N is for Noose - Sue Grafton

As with the Cornwell novels, I had left Kinsey Millhone and the alphabet series alone for quite some time. How long? Well, my copy of N is for Noose is in hardback, and I think she’s up to S by now. As I perused my unread bookshelves I decided to dive back in to this series where time passes so slowly that it’s still 1986, and see what’s been respectfully submitted for my attention this time.
Nota Lake sheriff Tom Newquist died of an open-and-shut heart attack. He was a sedentary, sixty-five year old smoker, so it’s not that surprising. But his somewhat paranoid and jealous widow wants to know what he was up to during the six weeks leading up to his death – his behaviour was strange, and the notebook he meticulously kept is missing.
It all looks pretty straightforward to Kinsey, but she reckoned without small town loyalties and secrets best left hidden. She should have known better.
And that was the single most annoying thing about this novel – the heavy, heavy larding of had-I-but-known. The first chapter opens (two paragraphs, or approximately 325 words) and closes (one mercifully brief paragraph of only 37 words) with had-I-but-known, and doesn’t end there. The story itself wasn’t bad – nor particularly good. I didn’t really care about any of the characters, but I was in a desultory kind of mood when I read it, so that’s not wholly Grafton’s fault. To be fair I’ll probably give Kinsey one more whirl before deciding to leave the series behind. In the meantime I want to know – to whom are the reports respectfully submitted (a question which didn’t trouble me at all while reading A is for Alibi through to M is for Malice)? – Alex

Friday, February 9

A Novel Idea – Aimee Friedman

New York high school junior Norah Bloom is looking forward to college (hopefully Vassar), but hasn’t any extra-curriculars to add to her transcript, until she and best friend Audre start up a book club at their favourite hang out, the Book Nook. Can she bring together a disparate group of would-be members, round out her application, get over her disdain for too-perfect Plum Anderson and her mini-Plums, meet reclusive poet Philippa Askance, and find love with hunky Book Nook employee and college man Griffin?
A Novel Idea is a sweet and amusing teen romance with well-drawn, interesting characters and an original plot (within the confines of the genre, at least). At the beginning we are hit over the head with the location (references to Manhattan, Brooklyn, the F train, West 4th subway station, Manhattan bridge, Brooklyn again and MetroCard, on just one page alone), but this settles down later in the novel.
There are more central characters than usual for this kind of story – perfectly poised college counsellor Ms Bliss; chef-to-be and ultra-cool best friend Audre; go-getter gay best friend Scott; cute NYU freshman Griffin; socially advanced younger sister Stacey and her boyfriend Dylan; physics professor dad and research biologist mom; enigmatic poet Philippa Askance; and book club members Neil (the SF geek), James (Neil’s friend and aspiring poet), and Plum-esque Francesca – and it is to Friedman’s credit that they retain charm and individuality. Norah herself is particularly well crafted, and there were enough book references to satisfy the hungriest bibliophile.
I found much that recalled my own adolescence, and even chuckled a couple of times. I can’t remember what drew me to pick this up in the first place – it’s from Borders, so I suspect it was part of a book rampage, where I start out being discerning and budget-conscious, and devolve into book hunger – but I certainly enjoyed it for what it is. I may even try another of Friedman’s works. – Alex

Thursday, February 8

James Alan Gardner: Expendable

In the future the ugly and deformed are purposely trained to investigate hostile planets then sent into space on board ships as expendable crew members, destined to die so that their more acceptable comrades don’t have to face any such risk. This is the story of one such person sent on an apparent suicide mission. Along the way she is forced to face her concept of self and make a decision about who she really is and who she wants to be. In the end she not only survives but eventually triumphs over those who would consider her to be expendable.
This story is set
in a future that is both recognisably and believably a progression of current society. The science of interstellar travel is explained with just the right amount of detail to make it plausible without getting boringly technical. And the psychology of the premise is very interesting. The only problem I had was with the heroine’s ‘flaw’. She has a large, purple birthmark on her face. For me at least, that didn’t seem a strong enough deformity to warrant the classification of expendable but its only a minor thing.
It’s been a while since I’ve read any science fiction but from memory they tend to give almost equal time to world building and story telling. This story didn’t do that. Its focus is entirely on the main character, and the setting, while undeniably futuristic, is secondary. As a result there are a few questions that are not adequately answered or left entirely unanswered about the planet they are visiting and the people who inhabit it.
For a debut novel it was reasonably good. I would read this author again but I wouldn’t be deliberately seeking him out. The work hasn’t inspired me to leap back into science fiction as if it were the arms of a long lost lover but neither does it have me wanting to avoid the genre altogether.-Lynn

Wednesday, February 7

Dan Anderson & Maggie Berman: Sex Tips For Straight Women From A Gay Man

Well the title just about says it all for this one. A man who knows what men like, from the dual sources of both his own body and playing with the bodies of others, shares his insights with women. The aim seems to be to ‘improve’ a woman’s sexual prowess.
As the title suggests this book is all about learning how to please a man. If you’re at all interested in how to sexually please a woman a quick search of amazon will give you a few luridly titled suggestions.
What surprised me most about this book was the complete obviousness of most of the information provided. Maybe my sexual repertoire is greater than that of the average woman, but I wouldn’t think so. While I’m not Mother Teresa neither was I ever Madame X. In all honesty I don’t think this book has much to tell any woman who has had the tutelage of a lover. In my experience if you show any interest at all men can’t wait to tell you exactly what they like. In fact, quite often you don’t even need to show the interest to begin with.
By necessity this book can only talk in generalisations. The author can only tell you what he and his lovers like and extrapolate that to the rest of the male population. And while that’s valid in this context I think it could have been mentioned that not everyone is the same and some guys might run a mile if you try some of this stuff on them.
Having said that though, this book is well written. It uses straight forward language, explaining colloquialisms where it needs to, rather than getting bogged down in technical terms and sounding like a medical text or making up euphemisms that would have a romance writer blush. And the authors approach the subject matter-of-factly with just a hint of humour. If you need a user’s manual or are just hoping to pick up some new technique you could do worse than to start with this book.-Lynn

Tuesday, February 6

Star - Maeve Binchy

I’ve read a number of Binchy’s books, though none recently, and enjoyed them. Then a friend loaned me Star, a considerably more slender volume than Binchy’s usual offerings. Replete with the usual sprinkling of stock types, Star tells the story of the youngest child in a dysfunctional Irish family – her father is addicted to gambling, her brother’s a shifty ne’er-do-well, her mother holds the family together… and Star (so nicknamed because she brings light wherever she goes) is the adored darling who can do no wrong. Until she falls in love with the dashing young son of a widower who moves in next door.
So far this has the potential for an interesting story – there are certainly enough ingredients for one of Binchy’s standard novels, with multiple story lines and a relatively tidy conclusion, with characters experiencing growth, a happy ending for some. Star herself at one point looked like she was going to evolve in to a fully-fledged person.
But Star fizzles out – the characters never take on substantial reality, some of the decisions chosen are uncharacteristic and not explained, and the resolution is abrupt and unsatisfying. My overwhelming feeling on completing this novella was “what a waste” – of time, paper and ink and money (fortunately not mine). At least it wasn’t longer. – Alex

Monday, February 5

The Girl in Times Square - Paullina Simons

I have seen Simons's books, with their distinctive covers, around for a while now - they're hard to miss, unless you're Lynn, who doesn't seem to have heard of Simons - but steered clear. Until last week, when I was visiting a friend and saw a few Simons novels on her shelf; this is her favourite. Borrowed books are read early, so...
Lily Quinn is an artist and perpetual student. Partially supported by her family, she’s six years into a bachelor degree and drifting through her life until her beloved boyfriend Joshua leaves her. Superstitious (she believes that if something really good happens then something really, really bad will, too) she ignores her winning lottery ticket, and flees for Hawaii, where her parents live post-retirement, but she finds no peace with her self-pitying, self-absorbed mother and clinging-to-denial father. With relief she receives a call from New York detective Spencer Patrick O’Malley – Amy, her best friend and roommate, has gone missing and the police are worried.
Seizing at the chance to escape her parents, Lily flies home, and her life turns upside down as she discovers (through hundreds of overwrought pages) that nothing was what she thought it was, that her faith was misplaced and her trust abused, that we’re all capable of choosing not to see what’s in front of us, and that what she has most taken for granted can shift perilously beneath her feet.
That all sounds like the basis for a fascinating book, doesn’t it? And yet… no. The plot was certainly interesting, but I felt the characters lacked depth and were unsympathetic (especially Lily’s sisters), the surprising reason for Amy’s disappearance was obvious almost from the beginning, the blossoming of Lily’s artistic talent annoyed me, the book went on way too long, and the writing style was excruciatingly pretentious, especially in the opening chapters. In my pre Bookish days I probably would have quit by chapter two - the writing is stilted, pretentious, and we are told much while being shown little...
This was my friend’s favourite of Simons’ work. And if this is the best she has to offer I think I’ll pass on the rest of the oeuvre. – Alex

Sunday, February 4

Esther Friesner (ed.): Chicks in Chainmail

An anthology that turns the stereotypical image of the leather bikini clad fantasy heroine on its head. Their chainmail isn’t for ceremonial purposes or male wish-fulfilment. The women in these stories are fast, tough, skilled and smart.There’s a lot of humour here, from warrior women that melt their chainmail bras in protest to impracticality of such a garment to gladiators taking their children’s class for a field trip to their workplace on career day.Like any anthology I found some of the stories to be more enjoyable than others but there was really only one that didn’t entertain me at all (and that was due to my inability to connect with the story line rather than due to poor writing). Overall, a lot of fun, light reading here.There are at least three more books in the Chicks anthology series and I will definitely be reading them all.-Lynn
To read Alex's review of this book, click here

Saturday, February 3

The Future Just Happened - Michael Lewis

Based on a BBC series by the same name, The Future Just Happened is an exploration of I didn’t seem the BBC series on which this was based, but I was captured by the exploration of the way new technologies (primarily in the form of the internet) are changing Western culture.
Lewis ties his discussion to specific cases – from the US SEC vs fifteen-year-old Jonathan Lebed, accused of manipulating stock prices and the market through online trading and recommendations, Lewis looks at what happens when the market is no longer run from within, and questions widely-held beliefs about the stock market.
Starting with another fifteen-year-old, Marcus Arnold, who got more helpful votes on AskMe’s legal advice pages than real lawyers, he asks what happens when the façade of professionals “owning” arcane knowledge is shattered, then looks at the concept of ownership by exploring shareware and freeware, before discussing Marillion, a fading ‘80’s band who used their fan base and the Internet to fund a new recording career, the first group of its kind to dictate contract terms to a recording company rather than the other way around.
Lewis then examines shifts in advertising caused by the inaccuracy of black boxes for viewing figures, the impact of TiVo, and the development of real-time feedback response programs.
Finally he explores some of the wider influences of Internet technology – from the small Irish town of Ennis, which won a competition to become the Information Age Town (every resident got a computer and Internet access), although nobody in the town knew until after they won what the Internet was, to computer phenom Danny Hillis’s Clock of the Long Now (designed to measure time for a millennia).
The Future Just Happened is almost five years old, and somewhat dated already, which only goes to support his position about the speed of change, and the adaptability of young users. Part of this book were interesting, others fascinating, and all in all I found it worthwhile, though not groundbreaking. – Alex

Friday, February 2

Kerry Greenwood: The Castlemaine Murders

Another instalment in the Phryne Fisher mystery series. This book has Phryne find a mummified body being passed off as a mannequin in the ghost train at Luna Park. She sets forth to find the identity of the body and the reason for its murder and subsequent mummification. The convoluted trail uncovers the family secrets of her sister, her sister’s best friend and a suitor they have both rejected. The story includes a substantial secondary plot related to the Chinese on the gold fields that folds in well with the primary story when Phryne is kidnapped in Castlemaine.
Greenwood has produced another little gem with The Castlemaine Murders. Well written, well researched, well paced and, most importantly for me, a well executed plot. I could wax lyrical about how much I love Greenwood’s work and the Phryne series in particular but Alex has already done that at length so I need not go on. Just assume I second all she has said.
I will just mention that I particularly like the way she has managed to keep the regular characters consistent throughout the series yet have them grow and develop. And I admire her ability to produce interesting, compelling crime novels without resorting to vivid detail of the crimes/murders that so many authors feel the need to include today. Light and easy I could read these books back to back and never come away with that exhausted heavy feeling so often left after more vivid dark description.
I would highly recommend both this book and the series as a whole to anyone interested in reading crime fiction.-Lynn

Thursday, February 1

The Year of Yes – Maria Headley

When Maria Headley set out for New York from her small hometown in Idaho she had a clear picture of her new and glamorous life. But instead of witty cocktails with urbane and glamorous conversationalists, she found herself sharing a small apartment with two housemates, one misanthropic cat and an undisclosed number of cockroaches. One morning, tired of the results that arose from saying ‘no’ to everything, Maria decided to start saying ‘yes’ to all the men who asked her out. ‘Yes’ to dating, that is – not to sex. This is the story of what happened when she started saying ‘yes’.
I bought this because it sounded interesting, exciting, potentially inspiring, and a contrast to my own life. Headley’s style is equal parts arresting, self-involved and congratulatory, and dull. I spent quite a lot of the time I was reading it wondering why I wasn’t becoming involved in the story or engaged with the author, and the overtly literary, look-at-my-erudition (which I acknowledge I have a tendency toward myself) wasn’t the only reason. I was reminded strongly of A Round-heeled Woman, 66 year-old English teacher Jane Juska's memoir of the results of placing an ad in the New York Review of Books' personals column which read "Before I turn 67-next March I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like." It, too, was a potential glimpse into a different, fascinating, intriguing life, and failed to live up to my expectations.
Memo to self: however good the blurb is, read the first few pages before purchase. I’ve been stung before, and just don’t seem to learn. Still, there are worse things – at least I learned this lesson when it comes to Katie McAllistair*; other authors can only follow. - Alex

* McAllister writes fantastic premises and dismal books – I will review Imperfect English (or, as Lynn and I refer to it, “The English Accent”, as soon as it turns up in the boxes of readness.