Saturday, March 31

Breathing Lessons – Anne Tyler

As is evident from this blog, I generally read populist fiction rather than Literature, and despite the commercial success of Tyler (The Accidental Tourist was made into, as they say, ‘a major motion picture’ – as opposed to a minor one, I suppose – and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was required reading for some school syllabi) I had not previously read any of her work. I bought Breathing Lessons because my brother’s ex-girlfriend loaned it to me when they were dating, and I very much enjoyed it, though for some reason didn’t follow this up by reading anything else by her. Perhaps because I so enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that I went out and bought half her oeveur, then couldn’t get into anything else she’d written. Now, on with the review!
The novel describes the events of a single day in the life of Maggie (mother of Daisy and Jesse, former mother-in-law of Fiona, estranged grandmother of Leroy) and her husband Ira. They spend the morning driving from Baltimore to the small town of Deer Lick to attend the funeral of Max, Maggie’s best friend Serena’s husband, and take a couple of unforeseen detours on the way home. Told in the third person, the bulk of the novel is told from Maggie’s perspective, but there is a telling section where we see what life has been like for Ira, a man who has always put the needs of those he loves ahead of his own desires.
In the process of what we come to realise is an only slightly unusual day for Maggie, Tyler manages to give a brilliant portrayal of a woman who sees the world (at least her part of it) as just slightly out of focus. If only, reasons Maggie, she could adjust it just a little, tweak one little aspect of it, then everything would turn out the way it’s supposed to. And so she tweaks – a small exaggeration here, a tiny explanation here (and it’s not lying, because Jesse really would want to build a crib, if he thought of it; that tyre could be a little loose and therefore dangerous…). But Maggie is wholly incapable of seeing that she’s meddling, not tweaking, other people’s lives, and is unable to learn from past experience.
Breathing Lessons demonstrates that Tyler is a skilled and gifted writer – she refrains from telling, and is magnificently able to portray these whole, real and frustrating characters in a way that is cuttingly insightful while remaining sympathetic. I think I need to read another. - Alex

Friday, March 30

No Easy Answers – Donald R Gallo (ed)

Subtitled Short stories about teenagers making tough choices, this ten-year-old collection includes some of the best YA writers then around (though not the brilliant Chris Crutcher, sadly), and some truly great writing.
It is unfortunate that I read this straight after finishing off The Digested Read (which in itself probably shouldn’t have been consumed in two big meals) – every story read like a satire. Had I a choice I would have read something non-fiction and long, to break the mindset induced by Crase, but I was travelling and had nothing else on me (a sad consequence of my trying to break the habit of panicking that I’ll run out of something to read and thus bringing with me or buying several extra books that I end up not needing. Except this time. As is always the way). – Alex

Thursday, March 29

Beth Gutcheon: More Than You Know

A family lets a house for the summer in an idyllic seaside town not knowing it is supposed to be haunted. Soon the daughter starts to hear strange noises and see horrible visions in the house. Her family doesn’t believe her stories but the town ‘bad boy’ does having had similar experiences in the house. The two form a friendship based on attempts to research what happened in the house to cause the haunting. Gradually this friendship develops into something more.
Their blossoming relationship is hampered by her mother’s attempts to keep them apart but they manage to continue meeting secretly, bonded as they are not only by their burgeoning feelings for each other but also by the shared haunting. But as is the way for such star-crossed lovers, tragedy strikes and they do not get a happy ever after.
Woven throughout this story is a second story of the family who once lived in this place, their intense feelings and the tragic unsolved murder that lead to one of them haunting the house.
The story of young love is moving and the haunting is depicted with a subtle eeriness that results in a greater scare than could be delivered by more overt horror. I found the gradual unfolding of the historical story to be a very satisfying way of discovering not only what happened in the past but also who did it and why.
It is a testament to the quality of the writing that given the slow pace, rich description, gradual character development and low grade suspense the story doesn’t drag at all.
I found it to be an enjoyable, if somewhat placid, read.-Lynn

Wednesday, March 28

The Digested Read – John Crase

Every week Guardian writer Crase composes a 500-word-or-less summary of the book that has garnered the most media attention, written in the style of the original, followed by the digested read… digested: a one line summary of the tome in question. This collection gathers together just over a hundred of the best digestions.
Crase covers the gamut of best-sellerdom and pop culture – there are autobiographies (including Bill Bryson’s Down Under), gathered under the various headings of ‘Selective Memories’, ‘Self obsessions’, and ‘Sex, sex, sex’ (such offerings as A Round-Heeled Woman, Catherine M
Etc), books on sport (with some autobiographical entries); thrillers, chick and lad lit, help and self help, short stories, prize winners, serious literature and, in a category all its own, The Da Vince Code (“the one we missed”).
I can’t do the writing justice, but here’s a sample so you can judge for yourself:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière shuddered. The first page of a Dan Brown potboiler was no place for any character. “Count yourself lucky,” growled Silas the monk, as he chastised himself with his chalice. “I’ve got to hang around for another 400 pages of this badly written garbage.”
The phone rang in Robert Langdon’s hotel room. After his previous adventure with the Pope, nothing should have surprised him. But he was surprised. “I am surprised to be summoned to the Louvre in the middle of the night,” he said to himself.
Inspector Bezu Fache was as angry as his name suggested. “I don’t like it when the renowned curator of the Louvre is found dead in the gallery at the dead of night in suspicious circumstances,” he muttered. “So Monsieur Langdon. What do you make of Paris?”
“It is a very beautiful city, seeped in art and religion,” relied Langdon
earnestly. “And if I’m not very much mistaken, the pose Monsieur Saunière has adopted in death is highly symbolic.”

I have read only a quarter or so of the books summarised herein, and now feel no need at all to read the remainder.
But I do want to subscribe to the Guardian. – Alex

Tuesday, March 27

Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? – Martin Gardner

Lynn and I share a taste for ‘freak’ books, so titled because of both their content and the contribution to the field by the work of the aptly named Timothy Freake. It is difficult to define a freak book – like pornography, I know them when I see them. Lynn’s definition is a little clearer – freak books discuss worlds far different from those in which we live: alternative history, conspiracy theory, fringe science, occult… the key is that the arguments are often really plausible until the twist: “you had me until the lizard people.”
Aiming to be an anti-freak book this collection of essays , subtitled Debunking Pseudoscience, from Gardner’s regular column for the “Skeptical Inquirer” spans a range of topics (grouped under evolution vs creationism, astronomy, physics, social science, ufology, religion and others) and a number of years (though there is no mention of when each was originally published); many have addendum, with updates since publication of the original essay, and responses to mail generated at the time.
Gardner is a prominent figure in the science world – the late Stephen Jay Gould described his as: the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surrounds us.
Which is why I was so singularly disappointed by much of the writing here. Many of the topics addressed explore important issues – the worrying resurgence of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ in particular, but also false physics (“Zero Point Energy and Harold Puthoff”), willingness of ‘reputable’ journals to publish bunk (“Alan Sokal’s Hilarious Hoax”), and the disturbing issues that arise from having prominent politicians believe ridiculous things (“Claiborne Pell: Senator From Outer Space”). But these are combined with essays that aren’t relevant to the book’s stated theme: SF writers predicting the Internet (“The Internet: A World Brain?”), the odder notions of Issac Newton (“Issac Newton: Alchemist and Fundamentalist”), and the myth that a man who spurred on a cross-laden, labouring Jesus on now roams the planet awaiting Christ’s return (“The Wandering Jew”).
The essays often lack a strong central theme – on many occasions I was left wondering what the point of the paper was. In the case of the Newton essay Gardner does say that he wonders what brilliance the world missed out on because of Newton’s preoccupation with alchemy, but fails to consider that at the time (prior to the awareness of the periodic table, proving that an element, like gold, cannot in any way be created from another element, like lead) alchemy was considered a legitimate science. Gardner seems to put Newton’s notoriously antisocial and reclusive personality down to repressed homosexuality and/or his fundamentalist beliefs, though it is equally possible he had autism (and was highly functioning) and may not have made his discoveries otherwise. But there was no clear argument that Newton’s physics was impaired, that his beliefs or behaviour made him less credible, and there isn’t anything ‘debunked’.
I have a lot of sympathy for Gardner’s position – I agree that the world seems to be increasingly mired in spurious science, from the scare tactics of current affairs television through the creation of health care policy based on flawed statics to the frightening increase in mumbo-jumbo touted as scientific fact.
It is unfortunate that Gardner’s writing demonstrates so many freakish aspects itself. The book is disconcertingly self-referential, with a multitude of “see my chapter on X in publication Y” and “I discussed this in [another book]”. On a number of occasions he denounces the use of jargon, but all fields have technical terms, and often the papers who decries as jargonistic are from publications within the discipline. And there are entirely too many unnecessary exclamation marks for my taste – “You’ll never guess what native state harbours the most Baha’is. It is not California but South Carolina!” or “For an hour or two every night we go harmlessly insane!” etc. Which brings me to another (and final) criticism – there is no attempt to examine any of these topics with an open mind. I’m not defending any of the practices or beliefs that Gardner attacks, but a more neutral coverage would have generated a better read. Does South Carolina need to be ‘harboring’ Bajha’is? - Alex

Monday, March 26

Stephen R. Lawhead: Taliesin

The first instalment in the five book Pendragon Cycle, Taliesin tells the story of an Atlantean princess and the famous seer and druid prince, Taliesin.
For the first part of the book chapters alternate between life for the princess in Atlantis and life for Taliesin and his tribe in the closing years of the Roman occupation of Britain.
To summarise, the princess escapes the devastation of Atlantis and finds herself in Britain where she meets Taliesin. The two fall in love, marry and have a son. The book ends with the death of Taliesin.
While this is the essence of the story it goes no way towards explaining the complex world building and character development that takes place within the pages. The descriptions of the fabled Atlantis and its society and customs are thoroughly drawn and completely convincing. The Atlantean princess is a wonderfully developed character with a past that gives coherence to her actions. The Britain described sounds accurate and the actions of its inhabitants believable within the context of the times in which this story is set.
A kind of prequel to the bulk of Arthurian folklore, of which I am so fond, this story takes the basic ‘facts’ of the legends and weaves from them a very enjoyable, and quite believable, story.
With the stage so beautifully set I look forward to reading the next book in the Pendragon Cycle.-Lynn

Sunday, March 25

Apeman, Spaceman – Leon E Stover and Harry Harrison (ed)

I’ve been sorting through my book boxes, cavalierly (or bravely) selecting a good third, so far, for dispersal among the populace at large – donations, deposits at the local Laundromat, occasional leavings on public transport. In the process I’ve come across a number of books that I certainly didn’t buy, and have no recollection of reading. In some cases I think I gathered up a miscellany of parental books when the family home was sold some years ago, of which this is one.
Compiled in 1968, Apeman, Spaceman is a unique collection of then-contemporary SF that centres on an anthropological theme, sub-grouped into Man (under headings of ‘fossils’, ‘the hairless ape’, ‘dominant species’ and ‘unfinished evolution’) and His Works (‘prehistory’, ‘archaeology’, ‘local customs’ and ‘applied anthropology’).
The concept for the collection arose from Leon E Stover’s practice of incorporating SF in to his undergraduate anthropology classes as a way of illustrating its value, and to assist students in seeing that it doesn’t just involve examining cultures ‘out there’.
The writing is, necessarily, dated, almost 40 years later – not just in terms of science and changes in technology (Julian Chain’s “The Captives”, set some 200 years in the future, has the top-secret project at the heart of his story primarily guarded by physical keys), but also stylistically. In general the punch lines and twists are telegraphed well in advance, and the plots are on occasion ponderous. In the same way that early TV programs are less complex than modern versions, for the most part the authors spend far too long on plot details and aspects that I, at least, found uninteresting.
I was, however, delighted to finally come across Horace M Miner’s classic short story “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”, a brilliant satire of (then) modern American contemporary culture as seen through the eyes of an alien observer.
I would love to see a contemporary version of this collection, but did find this collection hard going. - Alex

Saturday, March 24

Rx – Tracey Lynn

Thyme Gilcrest is one of The Twenty – the students with the school’s best GPAs. Without her academic track, Thyme is nothing, but she’s just scraping by. She finds it hard to concentrate, keeping up her grade point takes a lot of study, and she doesn’t feel secure. She’s seen the ads and read the internet literature. If only her parents would accept that she has ADHD and let her take Ritalin she’d be able to concentrate on school and not feel so precarious. After all, everyone takes prescription meds.
Thyme’s best friends are Lida – a stoner – and Suze – who hasn’t met a guy she didn’t like. Neither of them understands what Thyme’s life is like. Even going to the movies reinforces that it’s inevitable Thyme will fail – fellow Twenty Will can explain plot points in The Life Aquatic that Thyme completely missed, which is why she never does well in English lit.
Even though he gets great grades while being a slacker, Will’s life isn’t perfect, though – he has anger management issues, and his parents have decided he has a social adjustment disorder. It’s so unfair! Will has a bottle of Ritalin he doesn’t want, and Thyme needs it to succeed. If she can distract him, he’ll never notice that it’s gone…
The Ritalin given Thyme the edge she needs, and she aces an exam. At a party that weekend one of the guys asks how she did so well – mellow from the beer she shows Dave her ‘study aids’; on Monday Genevieve, one of the Twenty, asks her what was going on with Dave, then asks is she has any “’sleep aids’… or like ‘anxiety aids’?” Thyme’s mom has Xanax, and Genevieve’s brother has ADHD.
Which is how Thyme manages to be an honors student, be on student council, and become Ashbury High’s latest drug dealer – strictly prescription meds. As Thyme self-medicates, goes through Ritalin withdrawal, and juggles the intricacies of how best to score from Peter to trade with Paul, she diagnoses most of her fellow students. Will’s “bipolar or developmental anger or something. Paxil or Zoloft, not Ritalin;” Dorianne’s a bipolar depressant; Hal, Dave and Renny have ADHD; Genevieve has social anxiety disorder; while Michael has social anxiety disorder and ADHD.
I liked Lynn’s style. Each chapter has a song title and opens with a couple of lines of lyrics (eg Foo Fighters: Ritalin is easy/Ritalin is good). She combines first person narration from Thyme with snatches of overhead (near the senior lockers, at Genevieve’s, at Lida’s party) conversations about drugs and drug use. Misplaced parental concerns (about which friends are undesirable, avoiding illicit drugs, an information session Thyme attends educating parents about the dangers of prescription drug abuse) are beautifully contrasted with Thyme’s parent’s casual attitude to prescription drugs.
Rx had the potential to be a preachy ‘after school special’ novel, but Lynn manages to maintain a realistic and believable world. Thyme is convincingly portrayed; her denial is subtle and her realisation about what she’s doing (and the consequences of her dealing) is convincing. I also found myself thinking quite a lot about The Third Child – maybe it was something about the lack of parental connection. I think I’d like to read more of her work, but not until I’ve worked through my book backlog. – Alex

Friday, March 23

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

Nine-year-old Bruno lives with his mother, prestigious soldier father, older sister Gretel (“a Useless Case”) and Maria the maid, in a quiet street in Berlin. He spends much of his time playing with his best friends, Karl, Daniel and Martin, and exploring the endless hidden nooks and crannies of their five storey house – his favourite game is explorer. As the story opens Bruno discovers Maria packing up his belongings – the family is moving, because of Father’s work. Bruno knows that it has something to do with the Fury, an important but unpleasant man (“the rudest guest Bruno had ever witnessed”) who sometimes comes to the house for dinner.
The new house is very far away, in Out-With, and wholly unsatisfactory. It’s very small, for a start, there are soldiers everywhere, and there’s nothing to explore, until Bruno discovers the people behind the fence. They’re all male – fathers and grandfathers and boys – and they get to wear striped pyjamas all day. Bruno decides to explore, and he walks for ages along the perimeter until he finds another little boy, named Shmuel. Shmuel is thin, and always hungry, and sometimes he isn’t as interested in some things (like Bruno’s life, and exploring) as Bruno thinks he should be, but they become friends, and most days Bruno brings Shmuel food (except when he’s very hungry from the walking and eats it on the way).
Boyne has created a powerful and chilling novel of the holocaust, as seen through the ideas of a naive and privileged child. Bruno’s voice is exceptional clear, and Boyne brilliantly manages to convey the horrific reality of the Third Reich without colouring his perceptions and innocence. The ending comes as a shock, and I was left thinking about the novel for days. - Alex

Thursday, March 22

Lost Truth – Dawn Cook

I think I enjoyed the conclusion even more than the rest of the series. In Lost Truth Alissa’s dreams of a young girl named Silla – a student Master wearing robes of purple with a red sash – the sign that Keribdis is her teacher, and a sign that the lost Masters live. Alissa, her suitors Strell and Lodesh, the formerly feral Connen-Neute (whose consciousness Alissa brought with her when she returned from the past), and Alissa’s beloved kestrel Talon, embark on an arduous journey across the sea to find the missing Masters. Teacher Talo-Toecan choses to stay behind, knowing Keribdis will interpret his arrival as confirmation that she was right all along.
On arriving on the island it is clear that Keribdis, an imposing, assured and strong-willed woman, dominates the group. From the beginning she stakes a claim on teaching the transeunt, but Alissa’s allegiance to Talo-Toecan is strong and, ever contrary, defies Keribdis over and over again, until Keribdis does something so shocking the entire group turns against her.
It is a testament to Cook’s skill as a writer that she is able to so clearly not only convey Alissa’s single-mindedness (which comes through as determination rather than wilfulness) but, more masterfully, Keribdis’s growing sociopathy. This is a stunning and powerful conclusion to an already impressive series. – Alex

Wednesday, March 21

Forgotten Truth – Dawn Cook

In the third Truth novel Useless is teaching Alissa how to locate a septhama point (a spot where emotional resonance creates distress – in lay terms, a ghost) when she somehow jumps back four centuries, to a time when the Hold is full of Keepers, students and Masters, long before Lodesh becomes Warden of Ese’ Nawoer, before the horror that destroys that city, and almost half a millennia away from her love.
Talo-Toecan is away from the Hold, as is Keribdis, and Alissa is taken under the wing of Master Redal-Stan. She becomes friends with a youthful Lodesh, not yet Warden and blissfully unaware of the tragedy he will cause, and delights in the living Ese’ Nawoer. But, despite protestations of love from Lodesh, Alissa is desperate to return to her own time, and to Strell. As I did last time, I began the final chapter of the Truth quartet as soon as I put Forgotten Truth down. – Alex

Tuesday, March 20

Hidden Truth – Dawn Cook

I finally found the second book in the series about Alissa Meron, the young girl who, with piper Strell from the plains, was drawn to the Hold. FSF is a difficult genre to in which to begin reviewing mid-series, especially when the world the series takes place in is as involved as this one. I shall do my best at setting up the back story before summarising this instalment.
In Cook’s Truth universe the planet is populated by three distinct groups of humans – the people of the plains, the people of the foothills and the people of the coast. There is an intense hatred of the people of the plains by the people of the foothills, and vice-versa: they are physically dissimilar in colouring and culture. The costal dwellers do not make an appearance in this novel or the first, but (reviewing this book after I devoured the entire series) they are a less homogenous and somewhat more tolerant population. All humans have traces – a network, visible by practitioners, of the individual’s mental makeup and ability. Most are insignificant, but some humans are, with guidance, able to perform magic, in the form of wards – for healing, warmth, and defence, among a myriad of others. These gifted few can become Keepers, and are taught by Masters – strange, long-lived, golden-eyed people whose fingers have an extra segment and who wield great power. The Masters evolved differently than the humans – they are raku, sentient flying reptiles who are able to change forms to humanoids. The first transformation is the most difficult – there is a risk that the joy of flight will overwhelm intellect, and the raku will become feral, a possibility that terrifies all raku.
In the first novel, Forgotten Truth, Strell Hirdune and Alissa meet and, despite their inherent hatred of one another’s origins, work together to make their way to the Hold, the massive, castle-like home of the Keepers and Masters. They discover that the Hold is deserted except for a student Keeper named Bailic who, a cross between plains and foothills, has never fit in anywhere. Destroyed by lack of acceptance, Bailic is determined to wreak vengeance on the peoples of the plains and the foothills by waking the ghosts of the deserted city of Ese’ Nawoer. To do so he needs the secrets held safe in the book of First Truth, which only Alissa can open, though Bailic believes Strell is the One. Bailic has killed the Keepers (including Alissa’s father) and has imprisoned the only remaining Master, Talo-Toecan (also known as Useless), in the Hold’s equivalent of a dungeon; led by Talo-Toecan’s wife, Keibdis, the rest of the Masters left two decades earlier during a leadership struggle. Alissa managed to free Useless and he has promised to leave Bailic alone until the book that contains the secrets to Masterhood, is opened.
Alissa is drawn to the book of First TruthHidden Truth tells the story of how she manages to open it, defeat Bailic, save the lost souls of the gated town of Ese’ Nawoer, allow Lodesh - the Warden of Ese’ Nawoer – to redeem himself, acknowledge her love for Strell (and his for her), and discover her identity as a transeunt – a human-born Master with the ability to take raku form.I am unable to do justice to this novel, in part because the series is so intricate and tightly bound. Suffice it to say that I went straight from Hidden Truth to Forgotten Truth, with very little time for sleep. – Alex

Monday, March 19

Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is best known for his travel books, which are a fascinating blend of subjective experience and objective facts, wry humour and self-deprecation, where his maturation in the US is contrasted with spending the rest of his life living in the UK, the US, and back to the UK. However he has also written two books about language – Troublesome Words and Mother Tongue.
In Mother Tongue Bryson explores the origins of language in general (looking at the differences between dialects, pidgin, Creole and evolving languages) before turning specifically to English – how it arose, how impact of multiple influxes of dominant foreign languages on grammar, syntax and vocabulary, and the ever-present concerns of simplification and differentiation, before concluding with the fun of English wordplay.
Bryson discusses the coining of new words that modern English would be significantly poorer without – not just Shakespeare’s generous contributions (including critical, fragrant and homicide), but also those of less well known writers, including Ben Jonson (damp, clumsy), Sir Thomas More (acceptance, explain, exaggerate), Sir Thomas Elyot (modesty), Samuel Coleridge (intensify), Jeremy Bentham (international) and Thomas Carlysle (environment). He also discusses coinages that didn’t catch on, finishing with "
Dickens tried to give the world vocular. The world didn’t want it." [Vocular - "a short or weak utterance". Thank you, Google!]
Speaking of Shakespeare, Bryson exposed me to the fact that, were it not for his father’s move shortly before his birth, "the Bard of Avon would instead be known as the rather less ringing Bard of Snitterfield."
The work that linguists have performed, particularly in mapping out regional differences, is impressive. I was particularly taken with the fact that the Dixie dialect (in south Utah):
revers[es] ‘ar’ and ‘or’ sounds, so that a person from St. George doesn’t park his car in a carport but rather porks his core in a corepart… when someone leaves a door open, Dixie speakers don’t say ‘Were you born in a barn?’ They say ‘Where you barn in a born?’
English has taken a lot of words from other languages, often without significant change, but Bryson also discusses the adoption of English words by other languages, often altered to fit the language pattern more closely – hence the Ukrainian herkot (hair cut) Polish ajskrym (ice-cream), Lithuanian muving pikceris (moving pictures), Italian schiacchenze (shake hands) and Japanese shyanpu setto (shampoo and set) or sarada (salad).

European languages… show a curious tendency to take English participles and give them entirely new meaning, so the French don’t go running or jogging, they go footing.
And in German "a book that doesn’t quite become a best seller is ein steadyseller."
Bryson spends some time looking at the divergence of British and American English (the latter retaining a number of terms that fell into disuse in the UK, and which were then held up by English language purists as examples of American barbarism), and the centuries-old concern that the language is in danger of unrecognisable change unless someone (usually the distressed authors) take steps to protect it.
I heard Bryson speak recently - one of the audience members asked him why he always includes a reference to Belgium in his writing (usually as a measure of size, like "smaller than Belgium"). He, like me, wasn't aware that he did that, and I didn't notice any Belgium-relatedness in Mother Tongue. However, as it just wouldn’t be an American-related Bryson book without it, Mother Tongue includes two contributions from the American roadside advertising campaign by Burma-Shave shaving cream (1926 – 1965, and for which Bryson is nostalgic): A peach/looks good/with lots of fuzz/but man’s no peach/ and never was/Burma Shave! And my personal favourite, which was too risqué for public viewing: If wifie shuns/your fond embrace/don’t shoot/the iceman/feel your face/Burma Shave. - Alex

Sunday, March 18

Blood Bound – Patricia Briggs

The sequel to Moon Called continues the story of were-coyote mechanic Mercy Thompson. Woken at three in the morning by vampire Stephan, to whom she owes a favour, Mercy agrees to accompany him to a hotel – he wants to check out something unusual which has damaged Daniel, one of his converts; Stephan thinks that the entity responsible has managed to implant false memories in his protégé; if it does the same to him but ignores her then Mercy can serve as an impartial witness. Transforming into her alter ego, Mercy is secured in a harness that is too small to allow her to change back into human form but which means she’s not connected to Stephan by the throat, as would be the case if she wore her usual collar and leash. They drive to a hotel and Mercy senses that something is wrong from the moment they get out of the car.
Entering the deserted hotel Stephan goes directly to one of the rooms, where they encounter Cory, a demon-ridden vampire who immobilises Stephan with a glance, kills a chambermaid in front of them, and leaves them both for dead. As well as helping the vampires defeat Cory, Mercy must help prevent mass destruction of the local werewolf pack, and try to keep her business afloat.
So far Briggs has managed to maintain the quality of this series – both character- and plot-driven, her universe (though it contains familiar elements) is original and interesting, and the dynamics between members of the fey and the human population are well conveyed. I’m wary that demand for new novels will mean a deterioration in Briggs’s work, but so far I’m impressed. – Alex

Click here to read Lynn's review of Blood Bound

Saturday, March 17

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

This book has been on my Amazon recommended list for ages; I was pleased to discover it at my local FSF bookshop recently and, despite my vow to the contrary, almost immediately felt the need to read it. Why are new acquisitions so much more desirable than those which have sat on my shelf for months or even years?
Scalzi’s debut novel (which won him the John W. Campbell award for best new writer) is set in a future where mankind is colonising the universe. The bad news is that we’re not alone – there are dozens of other species equally keen on colonisation, from whom we are protected by the Colonial Defense Forces.

For two hundred years the Colonial Union has only allowed citizens of countries where the population outstrips resources (India, Kazakhstan, Norway) to be colonists. If you are American, your only way into the stars is to register for the CDF (minimum period of enlistment is two years, up to ten if the CDF want you to) and if, ten years later, you still want to join the CDF, carry through to joining. It’s a one-way trip – you can reenlist at the end of your tour, or be a colonist, but you can never return to Earth. In fact, seventy-two hours after enlistment you are legally dead on Earth. And the CDF wants experience, so enlistees are all seventy-five. Nobody on Earth’s seen a member of the CDF – the recruiters are all employees – but everyone knows that you get a new, young and perfect body.
Old Man’s War, the first in a trilogy, tells the story of average-Joe John Perry. He and his wife registered, but she died a couple of years later. With nothing left or him on Earth but increasing debility, he enlists. We follow John from the day he enlists, as he meets fellow enlistees, goes through the procedure of getting a new and improved physique, the ordeal of basic training, and the reality of battle field
I was strongly reminded of the more adventurous novels of Robert A. Heinlein (clearly purposefully, as he is credited in the post-novel acknowledgements), and the brilliant David Feintuch (whose Seafort septology I reread every year).
I knew going in that Perry would survive despite the odds, rise quickly among the ranks, and have unique insight. That much is a given. It’s the deftness and depth that sets Scalzi’s debut apart from other, similar efforts. Like Heinlein and Feintuch, Scalzi explores a military SF future peopled with true aliens (who think differently than humans, rather than just look different), smart and dynamic characters, and enough science to be credible.
Scalzi’s universe is rich, complex and original, his premise novel, reasonable and masterfully executed. I knew I was caught when I realised it was four in the morning and I still wanted to read just one more chapter. Book two is out in paperback, and the third is due out this year – it may already have been released, but if it has, and I check, I may find myself breaking my other vow and buying it. Yeah, not may, will. It’s just a question of how long until I crack. – Alex

Friday, March 16

The Wisdom of Crowds – James Suronwiecki

I have come late to this insightful and somewhat radical text, which has quotes of praise front and back from no less a notable than Malcolm Gladwell.
Suronwiecki challenges the conventional notion that an educated, intelligent minority are better equipped to make significant decisions than the masses are. Each chapter opens with an example of an incident that demonstrates a different aspect of this thesis, which is compelling and challenging. I will wholly be unable to do it justice, and can only say that if you have any interest in culture, sociology or the way our world works, you must read it. – Alex

Thursday, March 15

The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin

Rediscovered before I instituted my no-rereading policy, Raskin’s 1978 YA novel combines mystery, adventure and character drama.
Barney Northrup has manipulated a group of strangers into buying apartments in Sunset Towers, an apartment building that overlooks Westing Manor, home of the reclusive paper products millionaire Sam Westing. An eclectic bunch, the new owners include: the Wexlers, podiatrist Jake, his pretentious, upwardly mobile wife Grace Windsor, and their two daughters (the obedient and bland engaged Angela and wilful, ignored Turtle); Angela’s fiancée, medical intern D. Denton Deere; the Theodorakis’s, Greek restaurateur, his wife, and their two sons (disabled Chris and protector Theo); inconsistently crutches-dependant Sydelle Pulaski, “secretary to the president” (of Schultz’s sausages); semi-retired dress-maker Flora Baumbach; the Hoos, Chinese restaurateur James Shin, his non-English-speaking second wife Sun Lin, and his son Doug from a first marriage; aloof soup kitchen volunteer Berthe Erica Crow; and Judge J.J. Ford.
Spurred on by the boys, Turtle breaks in to Westing Manor on a dare, and discovers the body of Sam Westing in his bedroom. The next day the Wexlers, Dr. Deere, the Hoos, the Theodorakis boys, Crow, Judge Ford, Mrs Baumbach, and Ms Pulaski, along with intellectually-challenged delivery man Otis Amber and Sunset Towers doorman Alexander (Sandy) McSouthers, are called by lawyer Ed Plum to hear Westing’s will.
In eight pairs, sixteen people must solve the mystery of who killed Sam Westing, and inherit a fortune. Each person has some connection to Westing, each person has a secret, and each pair has four to six clues – a word each of fragments of paper (eg HIS N ON TO THEE FOR; SKIES AM SHINING BROTHER or SEA MOUNTAIN AM O). Only the reader has access to all the clues – can they work out the mystery before the participants?
This is an enjoyable and diverting novel for young readers. Though somewhat dated (internet access would have significantly changed the information available to participants), the novel has in general aged well. That the author is able, in a relatively short novel, to introduce, maintain and keep separate such a large cast is indicative of Raskin’s ability. – Alex

Wednesday, March 14

Amanda Quick: Ravished

When an amateur fossil hunter finds the caves in which she digs being used as storage by thieves she sends for the landowner for help. Little does she realise that the man she has summoned has a black past and an even blacker reputation. Nevertheless he agrees to help catch the thieves. During this operation the two inadvertently spend a night together. Hopelessly compromised he insists they must marry in order to protect what little is left of his reputation. She eventually agrees on purely practical grounds. They catch the thieves and in the process prove him innocent of the accusations made against him in the past removing all hint of notoriety from his name. Naturally the two fall in love and live happily ever after.
Ravished is historical romance in the traditional category style, though the plot complexity and length push it into the single title market. The characters are believable for their time and their behaviour, while occasionally requiring the suspension of disbelief, consistent. The story line was fresh enough to keep even my jaded old eyes interested. Light and fun, full of sex and intrigue, I enjoyed the journey back to my romance reading roots. Amanda Quick shows that if the writing is good enough the clichés and predictability that have given traditional romance such a poor reputation need not get in the way of a great story. A thoroughly enjoyable read for lovers of historical romance. I’ll definitely be reading more of her work-Lynn.

Tuesday, March 13

The Third Child - Marge Piercy

I haven’t read anything else by Piercy, and can only imagine I bought this novel because of the blurb.
Melissa Dickson is the third, and unsatisfactory, child of a would-be political dynasty. Former Philadelphian prosecutor Dick is a Senator, mother Rosemary has turned her back on her less prestigious family and devoted her life and intellect to his career (ably assisted by a stream of aides, most recently the worshipful Alison), and her siblings are all at least satisfactory – Richard IV (Rich) is getting married to the blonde and bland Laura (daughter of a prominent backer) and is looking at state rep candidature; perfect, golden Merilee is following in her father’s footsteps at law school, and younger brother Billy is a little wild but attractive.
For as long as Melissa can remember she’s been less than, in need of improvement, unacceptable. The only family members she can relate to are her younger brother, who’s growing away from her, and her father’s sister Karen – and Karen’s been locked up in a sanatorium for the last five years.
Merilee had to attend a college in state, because Rosemary didn’t want her too far from home, but Lissa’s heart is set on Wesleyan, in part because it’s close to her best friend Emily’s family, and Merilee convinced Rosemary that a little freedom would do her good.
The novel follows Lissa from her final year at school, amid the drama of Rich and Laura’s wedding, through her first year at college. Although Lissa initially enjoys classes, in particular English with professor Gregory Romfield, she soon meets Blake, the mixed-race son of apparently unknown parentage who was adopted by a liberal Jewish couple and raised with their children. Like her, Blake feels estranged from his family. He says that he was never treated like the Ackerman’s other kids, and that not knowing his heritage eats away at him.
Their connection is immediate, visceral, and soon Lissa is consumed by it. Blake fills the empty neediness in a way she dreamed her family could; he makes her feel attractive, womanly rather than chubby, as though she is fine the way she is, and he tells her that her desire to hurt (just in a small way) her family, for not seeing that she matters, is not only understandable but acceptable. She shows him her weekly emails from Rosemary, which consist primarily of directives on how to behave and who to associate with, and he hacks into Rosemary’s emails to Rich and Merilee – to Lissa they looks very much more like letters to peers, and fuel Lissa’s indignation. She helps find information on her father that a friend of Blake’s can use in articles critical of him.
It is a tribute to Piercy’s ability that Lissa is believably unable to see the inevitable, oncoming disaster – the way she avoids seeing Blake’s inconsistencies and real agenda, particularly in light of her naiveté and truly misunderstood upbringing, are credible even when the truth of his parentage and the unavoidable fact that he has lied come out.
Despite that I found finishing The Third Child somewhat arduous. Lissa’s parents, and the sycophantic Alison were shallow to the point of parody, and wholly divorced from the reality of Melissa’s life (when Rich and Laura’s son is born Rosemary tells Lissa to come to the hospital for a photo op. When Lissa says that it’s the middle of exams, Rosemary tells her that the professors will understand).
The plot is a little laboured, there were a couple of secondary plots that didn’t really go anywhere, and although Billy’s attitudinal change was necessary to advance the plot (by increasing Lissa’s reliance on Blake when yet another ally abandons her) it is unexplained. - Alex

Monday, March 12

Bite - 5 novellas

I hereby vow: 1. I will alternate new, unread books with older, unread books; 2. I will not buy any more books (except where absolutely, defensibly necessary) this year; 3. I will be considerably more selective about the books I buy.
Bite is a collection of "dark seduction" novellas by five authors from the supernatural genre (heavy on the vampire). I was familiar with the writing of three of the five, and the other two read as though they, too, fit into existing worlds. I bought the book because I like the worlds of two of the authors, whose stories I left to last (like dessert); I'll review them in the order I read them, rather than as they appear in the book.
Angela Knight: "Galahad"
I have to admit that I didn't notice the "dark seduction" tag until I came to write the review, and it certainly explains the vast number of sex scenes. This novella is set in Knight's Mageverse, an alternate universe where magic is possible, Merlin was an alien who (it's not entirely clear in the novella) used the Grail to turn the knights of Camelot into vampires and the Ladies into powerful witches - they are symbiotic: the vampires need to feed from the witches, and the witches must be regularly fed upon or they will die.

Former school teacher Caroline has (I assume in a previous outling) been turned into a Mage witch. In "Galahad" she learns about the feeding, and has lots of (allegedly) hot sex. Oh, and there's a dragon. the longest 76 pages of writing I've ploughed my way through in quite some time.

Vickie Taylor: "Blood Lust"
Sponsored by Garth LaGrange, side lined scientist Daniel Hart has finally made the breakthrough that vindicates him and his quest - a formula for artificial blood, which will revolutionise medicine and save thousands of lives. So why is Garth kicking him into next week?
Because Garth's a vampire and plans to use the synthetic blood to help take over the world. And he's done something to Daniel's sweet, innocent and recent fiancée, Sue Ellen - she's dressed in black leather and happy for Garth to suck - no, bite - on her neck.
When Daniel realises that Garth's a vampire he forces fellow vamp Déadre to turn him, too, in order to exact his revenge. Cue lots of hot, hot sex. Oh, and revenge, and a shock (allegedly) twist.

Laurell K. Hamilton: "The Girl Who Was Infatuated With Death"
I’ve only read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampire hunter series – though it contains fantasy elements I usually like I found the writing irritating, unconvincing and larded with gratuitous sex scenes; this short story has not changed my mind. I’m sure that if I followed the Anita Blake novels I would enjoy this offering, but no.
Charlaine Harris: "One Word Answer"
Unlike Lynn, who was irritated by the inexplicable allure of Sookie Stackhouse in her last outing, I usually enjoy Charlaine Harris’s tales of the telepathic waitress who can only find peace with vampires. But in this short story I found the ‘punch line’ telegraphed pages ahead, and wondered what the point of the story was, unless it was to turn me more rapidly to Lynn’s position. Although I’m egocentric, I somehow doubt that that was Harris’s motivation, so it must have been the money.
MaryJanice Davidson: "Biting in Plain Sight"
Betsy is the unwilling Queen of the Vampires, but this contribution by Davidson – the jewel in the otherwise tarnished crown that is this collection – focuses on another member of her people. Sophie Tourneau is the vet for farming community Embarrass, Minnesota. Despite her appearance, which has been unchanged since the 1960’s, she is respected – everyone knows that she’s not quite human, but she’s popular, reliable, and friendly, and nobody talks about it. Lonely since the death of her beloved companion Ed, Sophie keeps a low profile.
Over a period of months a string of young girls in Minneapolis have been inexplicably committing suicide, and Sophie’s concerned that it’s the work of a rogue vampire. She decides to investigate the problem herself, and plans to set off at once, but local farmer Liam won’t leave her alone, until she learns that Liam loves her – and knows that she’s a vampire.
The rest of the novella covers the duo determining that yes, this is the work of a vampire, meeting the new Queen and her Consort (who are not at all what Sophie expected), and the tracking down and killing of the villain. But most of all it revolves around the relationship that develops between Sophie and Liam.The story is fresh, touching, coherent with Davidson’s universe, and utterly charming. Thank god – this story redeems my decision to purchase this otherwise valueless tome and I am delighted that I left reading it to last. – Alex

Sunday, March 11

This Perfect Day – Ira Levin

For a long time I thought my favourite dystopic-future novel (and indeed one of my all-time favourite books) was Aldous Huxley’s classic, Brave New World, but when I re-read BNW a year or so ago I couldn’t find the island scenes I remembered. I had somehow conflated the prestigious and favourite-book-worthy Brave New World with the less acclaimed (though I believe superior) novel by the author of The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin. While reading GemX I was strongly reminded of both novels, and was inspired to re-read, after an absence of perhaps a decade, Levin’s master work.
LiRM (his full nameber is LiRM35M4419) is a happy and productive member of the Family. His parents, after permission from UniComp, married and produced him and younger sister, Peace KD. The only thing unusual about LiRM, apart from his one green eye, is his grandfather – like all grandparents, Papa Jan looks unusual (he’s taller and darker than usual, and his hair had reddish patches), but he also thinks differently. For a start, he’s given all the family nicknames (Li is ‘Chip’ for ‘chip off the old block, because Li reminds Papa Jan of his grandfather), and he says strange things, like how in his day there were more than four names for boys or asking Chip what it would be like if he could choose what he’d do, rather than having his career determined by Uni. Most unusual is the way he says things that sound right seem odd: as though “somehow it wasn’t silly and ridiculous to have forty or fifty names different names for boys alone.”
In Levin’s future humanity is homogenised and individuals are interchangeable – all boys are named for one of the four Fathers of the Family: Karl (Marx), Jesus (Christ), Bob (Wood) and Li (Wei), and there are therefore four names for girls (Anna, Peace, Mary and Yin). While there are minor variations, members look like one another – tan skin, dark hair, slanted brown eyes, androgenous bodies; they all wear identity bracelets that allow Uni to grant or refuse permission: to enter buildings, request supplies, board transport; they all live to around age sixty two (and with progress this life expectancy is even slowly increasing); and they all have monthly treatments to protect them from infection, prevent unauthorised reproduction, inhibit facial hair etc. Members who are troubled must contact their adviser, who will help them determine whether they need an extra treatment from time to time.
The novel follows Chip from his earliest encounter with dissident thinking, at the age of six (where he hears about the Incurables from a playmate), through his first experiments in thinking differently (always easiest a few days before his next treatment), to his encounter with a subversive group that ultimately and irrevocably changes Chip’s life.
This Perfect Day unquestionably owes homage to Brave New World, as do all dystopian FSF novels of this type. Like BNW, TPD describes a vision where a master plan, faceless puppet masters, and computers form not just society, but the way individuals think. In both novels an individual from this homogenised ‘improved’ world contrasts his (no powerful female protagonists here) life with that of the uncivilised, wild world, and both novels are reflections of their time – no writer today, in the era of laptops and BlackBerrys, would posit a future with one giant computer, but that was certainly a standard for pre-1980 SF.
The hero of BNW is perhaps more realistic – when reading it at school I had to admit that I would most likely, like Bernard, rejoin the status quo and drink my share of soma. TPD actually gives us more hope, that even with everything agin us, humanity can struggle with what we today believe are important attributes – freedoms of choice and expression, individuality, pluralism, diversity.
Reading through what I’ve written I am struck by how often I’ve referenced BNW, and I wonder how TPD would read to someone unfamiliar with its forebear. And I realise how little I’ve written about what makes me prefer the later creation. I must acknowledge that part of it is probably due to the fact that I discovered TPD on my own, rather than having it assigned (and tediously analysed) for school. But I also found the story more involving, the main character more interesting and nuanced, the world more complex, the safeguards more likely, the ‘wilderness’ more believable, and the climax both less predictable and more invigorating. I really am surprised that This Perfect Day isn’t required reading for it, too, is a classic. – Alex

Saturday, March 10

Shadow Woman – Thomas Perry

I really need to read the unread books I’ve got sitting on my shelf, but as I sort through my boxed books I keep finding gems I want to read right now!
Shadow Woman is the third in a (so far) five book series about Jane Whitefield, a Seneca woman who helps people in trouble find new lives with new identities. Previous novels have had the stories of the clients at the foreground, while Jane is revealed incrementally – how she came to do this, her back-story, and the gentle unfurling romance with a good man.
When Carey first asked Jane to marry him, she told him the truth about what she did, and said that if he asked again in twelve months she’d say yes. With one last fugitive - a Las Vegas casino worker whose bosses think he knows more than he does - safely set up in an anonymous apartment in a random town, Jane’s ready to commit to a life of unremarkable domesticity.
The men behind the Pleasure Island casino are still after Pete Hatcher, and the contract killer couple they’ve hired can’t be called off until the job’s done. Although Jane warned him that buying a gun wouldn’t make him safer, Pete just has to have one. Or two. And buying a car from a private seller is low risk, so he should be okay. That’s what he tells himself, until he escapes being shot by the narrowest of margins. On the run again, and this time without a plan, Pete calls Jane for help, and in doing so brings danger to her door.
I thoroughly enjoyed this instalment in the life and times of Jane Whitefield. Perry writes in a way that combines fast paced plot with character development and good writing. Jane’s indigenous heritage plays a significant role in her life, including why she came to do this, and nuggets of information about Seneca history and tradition are incidentally woven into the novel in a way that reminded me of Faye Kellerman’s inclusion of Judaism in the Pete Decker series – integral to the protagonist/s, somewhat germane to the plot, not wielded like a baseball bat.
So many authors seem to churn out series sequels long past the expiration date of the story arc and/or at a faster pace than the author’s talent can encompass (I’m talking to you, Patricia Cornwell!). Thomas Perry goes from strength to strength, and writes with integrity. Jane is a strong, sympathetic, courageous, nuanced and human character, and I really hope to see more of her, in her own time. - Alex

Friday, March 9

Ironman - Chris Crutcher

While I was reading Stotan! a few days ago I kept being reminded of another Crutcher novel when the stotan principle was raised. I couldn’t remember which of his books it appeared in, and it irritated me so much I checked out not only Amazon but also the author’s web page, to no avail. I finally decided it must have been in Athletic Shorts, a Crutcher anthology that I haven’t read for some time – many characters from past and future novels appear in the collection. Then I read Ironman.
Bo Brewster’s seventeen, and angry. He’s in training as a triathlete, and locked in mortal combat with his English teacher and former football coach, Mr Redman, who hasn’t forgiven Bo for walking off the field mid-game. Mr Redman’s idea of motivation is denigration and bullying, and that sets Bo off. Unfortunately, while he can quit the team, he still has to see Mr Redman in class, and the man’s teaching style is the same on the field and off.
Bo reacts one time too many and gets a choice – home schooling (with the execrable Mrs Conroy) or the Anger Management group, which meets before school, contains future felons, and is run by shop teacher Mr Nakatani. Between Mr Nak, the Nak Pack (A-M group participants), and the guidance of swim coach/teacher Mr Serbousek (Stotan!’s Lion), Bo starts to work through his demons, take control of his life, and even start a relationship with the enigmatic and self-sufficient Shelly.
The format of Ironman is different than Crutcher’s usual style – it alternates first person letters from Bo (to Larry King) with omniscient chapters, focusing predominantly on the interactions between Mr Redman, Mr Serbousek and school principal Dr Stevens (also from Stotan!). In addition to the unfolding of Bo’s complex tale, we learn about what brought other members of the Pack to group, including Mr Nak.
This book really resonated with me. The advice Mr Nak gives his class is powerful and useful. The characters are, as always, complicated, consistent, coherent and predictably unpredictable – the machinations of Bo’s father before his triathlon are shocking but make sense in the context of his word view, as do his justifications for the behaviour. I related very strongly to Bo, in no small part because my relationship with my father is in many ways similarly fraught, and the references to Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good, a non-fiction book about childhood abuse, has spurred me to finally open my copy, so look for a review soon. - Alex

Thursday, March 8

GemX – Nicky Singer

I am ever in search from source of procrastination – at the moment I’m avoiding both things for school/work and making my way through by literally hundreds of unread books (true procrastinator that I am, having written that I had to check precisely how many books I have currently waiting to be read – 382, not counting a dozen or so on my shelf because I want to reread them, the as-yet-unrediscovered books from the boxes I’m slowly ploughing through, and the book of quotations I’m currently only 12/13ths into). Which probably explains why I read GemX so soon after purchasing it.
Sixteen-year-old Maxo Evangele Strang, only GenOff (genetic offspring) of genetic scientist Dr Ivo Strang and artistic director Glora Orb, is a GemX from SkyFloor 15 of the Heights, Enhanced Sector – he is a member of the most genetically perfect generation to exist: beautiful, healthy, intelligent and elite. So why has he developed a… a crack beside his flawless left eye?
Sixteen-year-old Gala Lorrell, daughter of Finn (missing for four years, since he answered the call to donate skin cells to the Polis) and Perle Lorrell (dying of cancer, even though cancer has allegedly been eradicated in the Polis), is a Dreggie from Dreg Estate 4 – trying to hold her family together while her baby brother Daz focuses primarily on creating art, and fourteen-year-old Stretch is determined to track down what happened to his father, if only he can find Dr Ivo Strang.
Singer has created a believable future, where the current gap between haves and have-nots is even greater. The wealthy live compartmentalised, frivolous and pampered lives, tended to by the purpose-bred Clodrones, trained from birth to obey; the poor live in giant industrial estates with unpredictable water and power supplies, trying to scrape together a living any way they can. GemX weaves together the stories of Maxo and his privileged but untenable society, Gala and her disintegrating world, and the growing self-awareness of Clodrone 1640.
There are shades of Huxley’s Brave New World Elementary class Consciousness indoctrination (“I’m glad I’m not an Alpha”) in the programming of the Clodrones, and faint echoes of his class structure, too, though this is a very different future. I thought the depiction of the Enhanced mindset, particularly Maxo’s unrecognised biases and his inability to see beyond the boundaries of his society, even to the point of overriding self-preservation, was particularly accomplished, but I wasn’t always convinced by the novel, particularly the behaviour of Maxo, which at times seemed unlikely and uncharacteristic. Despite that, it is certainly an interesting, albeit somewhat unoriginal take on a dystopic and possible future. – Alex

Wednesday, March 7

Chicks in Chainmail - Esther Friesner (ed.)

I remember really enjoying this first anthology when I first read it in 1995. Part of what I liked was the strength of the women and the diversity of stories, which is why I both continued to buy the subsequent collections and why I recommended in to Lynn in the first place. I was eager to re-read the anthology when Lynn returned it to me recently.
There are some gems here, and I remembered another thing I liked about this kind of short story collection - the discovery of writers I like whose work I wouldn't have otherwise discovered. The contributors range from SF notables like Harry Turtledove, Roger Zelazny and Elizabeth Moon, through fantasy stars like Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Jody Lynn Nye (not to mention the editor, the redoubtable Esther Friesner), to writers whose work I was unfamiliar with until now - like Janni Lee Simner.
What surprised me most about this re-read is how many more stories I skipped over than I recall. This could be becaue I am more time poor , more discriminating, or less adventurous than I once was - you decide. I did still thoroughly enjoy the stories I remember all this time later, particularly Margaret Ball's "Career Day", which Lynn has referenced in her review (above). In fact, so popular was this story that there are sequelae in the following volumes. All in all a novel premise with vary degrees of execution, but undoubtably something for everyone - well, the everyone's who like FSF, anyway. - Alex

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

Tuesday, March 6

James Ellroy: The Black Dahlia

A woman’s body is found drained of blood and cut in half. One of the investigating police officers become obsessed with finding out who she really was and uncovering the events that led up to her brutal death. The investigation leads him deep into her twisted life. The tangle of lies tied to those that surround her life and death becomes denser and following the convoluted trail of clues unravels the foundations of his life. Eventually he discovers all that he sought to know but at the cost of destroying his marriage and career, and knowing that the killer will never be brought to justice.
This is a good old-fashioned thriller with the murder itself simply the starting point for a tale of sexual obsession, ambition and deceit. Solving the case itself is less important to the story than the road the main character travels to get there. A number of seemingly disparate leads and dead ends weave together pointing to a number of false suspects before the real murderer is eventually revealed. Their identity comes as a complete surprise but is still believable.
What I did have trouble believing was the main character’s behaviour once he knows. It didn’t feel consistent with his character to me.
This book was written over twenty years ago and it shows in a slow beginning full of back story but the pace picks up after the discovery of the body and settles into a somewhat intense rhythm that together with the subject matter can become a bit heavy at times.
The focus of the story wasn’t what I had expected. And it was a much darker story than those I would usually be drawn to. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the hard boiled crime style thriller but it hasn’t left me with a desire to seek out any of Ellroy’s other works.-Lynn

Monday, March 5

The Olive Sisters - Amanda Hampson

Set in Australia, The Olive Sisters intertwines two stories - the contemporary journey of Adrienne, a Sydney marketer at odds with her college-aged daughter and trying to recover from a bankruptcy which has cost her her beloved home; and the stories of her parents, Australian Jack and Italian migrant Isabelle, and her younger sister Rosanna.
Told in the first person, we learn that Adrienne, a true city woman, has flown to the country town where her first-generation immigrant father built a farm, the town where her distant mother grew up. Adrienne never felt loved by her mother, and was abandoned by her father. It's too late now, to make peace, as both her parents are dead. And despite herself, Adrienne seems to be doing no better with her own daughter, Lauren. But perhaps spending time where her grandfather, and then her father, lived will heal something long ago broken. Adrienne is astonished to discover that her mother had a younger sister, Rosanna - she recalls how often her mother seemed to be looking for someone, would sometimes freeze when catching sight of an always female profile. Why was her existence a secret?
Some of the riddles of Adrienne's past are revealed through the alternating chapters, which discuss (in the third person) Isabelle and Rosa Martino, the 'olive sisters' (so named because their father, Franco, planted some of the first olive trees in New South Wales, long before today's multicultural society), the story of Jack, and of how he came to meet them and to marry Isabelle.
I was frequently reminded of Wally Lamb's I Know This Much is True while reading The Olive Sisters - I think more because of the narrative style (multigenerational, interwoven stories) and some similar themes (sibling responsibility, Italian immigration and assimilation, hidden family secrets - as opposed to unhidden family secrets, I suppose! Duh!) than writing style or plot.
The Olive Sisters is certainly less intricate and significantly shorter that IKTMIT, and I'm not sure that I learned anything significant from the experience of reading it. I found The Olive Sisters to be a gentle, alright story, well-crafted and not terrible, but not a great or profound work either. - Alex

Sunday, March 4

Freedom for Priscilla – Joyce Nicholson

Also published as A Mortarboard for Priscilla, this is another find from the read boxes, in this case from my childhood. I lost the original, which was a gift, and tracked down a replacement online about five years ago, making this reading of it at least my third.
The book opens in Melbourne, Australia, in 1894 – ten year old Priscilla, the fourth child in a family of eight, is waiting with her older sisters and brother for the arrival of her aunt’s beau, who has a newfangled horseless engine. Risking punishment from their straight laced merchant father, Prissy encourages her siblings to go with her to see the automobile first hand. This meeting with grazier’s son Mr Bassington will change her life.
Aunt Kate is the girls’ tutor (thirteen year old Nick goes to nearby Scotch college), but Prissy is already outstripping her, and eager to attend the Presbyterian Ladies’ College around the corner. Her father has very fixed ideas about what is and is not appropriate for girls, and has forbidden the notion, much to Prissy’s dismay. With the subtle assistance of soon-to-be Uncle Charles, Mr Harding is persuaded that a higher education of young women, at least in the colonies, is acceptable, perhaps even desirable.
But when Prissy decides that she wants to study medicine her father cannot be swayed. Aware that women medical students are considered outrageous by society as a whole, met with scorn and ridicule by fellow students and lecturers, and only able to work at one of Melbourne’s hospitals, Mr Harding threatens to remove Priscilla from her school if she even mentions the topic again.
Nicholson paints a compelling portrait of Australian life at the turn of the last century. She has cast a tenacious, determined, and charismatic character against a backdrop of great societal change. When I read this as a teen I was inspired by Prissy’s strength of will and determination, and certainly saw similarities between her conflict with her father and my conflict with mine (though over significantly less worthy issues, it must be said).
The characters, even Mr Harding, are clear and their motivations understandable; the plot is compelling; and the insight into a time so close to, yet remove from, our own is fascinating.
I think that we take so much for granted the equality women in modern Western society have that we forget how those advances came about, the courageous women who came before us. This novel would be interesting anyway, but this aspect makes it, to me, unmissable. – Alex

Saturday, March 3

My Year Off - Robert McCrum

In 1994, while still in his early forties and only recently married, Faber & Faber editor Robert McCrum had a serious stroke which left him with left-sided paralysis, impaired speech, and emotional lability. This book tells the story of what his first year post-stroke was like, using a combination of present day reflection and extracts from the diaries he and wife Sarah kept. The result is a vivid, honest and powerful insight into a world that few of us know about, at least until it happens to us or a family member.
I found McCrum's heavy use of literary reference understandable (given his career) but nonetheless irritating, though both my irritation and his references diminished as the book progressed. This should be recommended reading for health care professionals in general, and those who work in stroke medicine in particular. - Alex

Friday, March 2

The Thrill of It All - Christie Ridgeway

I had such high hopes, after so unexpectedly enjoying Ridgeway's other novel, that the direness of The Thrill of It All came as an even greater shock. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Shopping network star Felicity Charm is on top of the world - she's GetTV's best-selling host, hunky producer Drew's increasingly interested, and she's just won a Joanie award at the Electronic Retail Association's annual awards night. She's even created a fictional version of her own, embarrassing and felonious family - an Aunt and Uncle with a far more impressive pedigree than the feckless Charms possess. But on this night of triumph she's sucked back into the morass she tried to leave behind - her cousin Ben's missing, and there are toughs looking for him.
Felicity heads back to Half Palm, the town she tried to leave behind, in her brand new Thunderbird - a prize that came with the Joanie. En route her car spins out of control, crashing with the only other vehicle within miles - Michael Magee's pickup. Injured in the crash, Felicity stops breathing - clinically dead, she has a near-death experience, seeing the parents who died when she was only a small child - and is resuscitated by Michael. Giddy with the brush with death, Michael and "Lissie" have earth-moving sex before heading their separate ways, which turn out not to be so separate after all.
And we're only 53 pages into a 372 page novel. In the following pages we encounter Felicity's widowed sister; her dead husband Simon's mountaineering partners, the wheelchair-bound Pete and (surprise!) Magee; and the Mafioso with whom Ben has became embroiled.
In places this reads like a poor man's Welcome to Temptation (by Jennifer Cruisie), and it's so category I struggled to keep reading. The heroine behaves irrationally and doesn't communicate. The hero is alpha-male, tortured and in denial. The sex is (allegedly) hot and frequent, but the communication is sparse and inadequate. The conflict is minor and phony. The secondary romance is obvious and predictable. The endearments are nauseating - I actually threw the book across the room after reading one too many 'dollface's - and the occasional Australianisms (Simon was an Aussie) are obviously penned by a non-Australian because they're just not right. I'm glad I read this after the other Ridgeway novel, because this way I may read something else by her. Perhaps. - Alex

Thursday, March 1

Stotan! – Chris Crutcher

In a sudden spurt of activity, I’ve begun going through my boxes of read books, in order to winnow through them, discard the dross, and catalogue those fortune tomes that I decide to keep. I’ve thus far made my way through about six hundred volumes, and kept about half. I have discovered that I really spend too much time and money on crap. On a happier note, I have also discovered, or rather re-discovered, a number of old friends, of which Stotan! is one.
Best friends Walker (our narrator), Nortie, Lion and Jeff comprise Frost High School's swim team; when they see a sign up sheet for Stotan week they decide to participate, even though it's the week of vacation before Christmas, and even though they don't know what it is. It's being run by their coach, Max, and that's all they need to know.
Herb Elliot was an Australian runner in the late 1950's and early 1960's; his trainer, Percy Cerruti, coined the term "stotan" - it's a hybrid of stoic and spartan, and the week the boys have signed up for will push them considerably past what they think are their limits, as well as bond them more firmly than they could have believed.
As with all of his novels, in Stotan! Crutcher explores some familiar themes – team work within the a solitary sport (in this case swimming); sport as a vehicle for empowerment; the value of a parental role model in the presence of an absent or inadequate father figure; morality as a choice, often as a difficult choice; the obligation of the strong to protect the weak; and the angst and confusion of adolescence.
Lest I make this novel sound turgid, preachy or dull let me hasten to add that it is a brilliant and compelling read. This is one of Crutcher’s early works, and as such is less distilled, complex and crystalline than some of his later novels. Despite this his writing is consistent – as in all Crutcher’s work, the characters are layered and believable, the plot is gripping and unpredictable, and the novel ends with threads unresolved, like real life.
Stotan! was published in the mid 1980’s, and as a result one aspect, toward the end, is slightly dated due to medical and pharmacological advances unseen twenty years ago. Crutcher is to be congratulated, though, for managing to write something that is otherwise wholly contemporary, as engaging and relevant now as it was then. – Alex