Friday, April 27

Anonymous Lawyer: A Novel – Jeremy Blachman

Anonymous Lawyer is a hiring partner at a large, prestigious law firm. Despite his partnership, spacious home, sound marriage, and children (Anonymous Daughter and Anonymous Son), he’s not happy. Anonymous Wife spends too much money, Anonymous Daughter is getting fat (which means lazy, which means stupid), and he’s locked in mortal combat with The Jerk, his main contender for the chairman position.
Encouraged by his law student niece, Anonymous Lawyer starts expressing his dissatisfaction on a blog where, cloaked in anonymity, he can at last be honest about himself and his life. Through the blog entries (spanning seven weeks) and emails – at first just between Anonymous Lawyer and Anonymous Niece, but after he adds an anonymous email address, between him and his growing readership – we get an increasingly detailed picture of the not unusual life of a senior manager in modern America. The blog, originally designed to get things off his chest, becomes both a vital release and a potential source of Anonymous Lawyer’s downfall – if anyone at the firm discovers who he is, his career could end.

I found this aspect particularly poignant as one of my favourite bloggers (Barbados Butterfly, a Melbourne-based surgical registrar) was suspended and forced to shut down her blog when her employing hospital discovered her identity.
The novel is based on the mock blog lawyer Blachman started a few years ago as a joke and an outlet. For someone who is not part of the corporate rat race, Anonymous Lawyer is a fascinating and disturbing insight into the lives of what may be a large proportion of white-collar employees.

"There are lots of things I can’t control. As you get older, you can’t control your body. My shoulder hurts from throwing a pair of scissors at my secretary last week…. My foot hurts from kicking a homeless man who was lingering around my car in the parking lot. I think he was homeless. He may have been a paralegal. I’m not sure. It’s not important."
- Alex

Thursday, April 26

Heat Stroke – Rachel Caine

I know, I only read the first Weather Warden book a short time ago, and vowed to hold off buying more. But I am weak and, like all dieters, my restraint was broken by a binge of book buying (fifteen novels in a day and a half).
Caine kindly prefaces her sequel with a one-page summation of the first book, which opens “My name is Joanne Baldwin and I used to control the weather,” and ends “At least I still have a really fast car.” Heat Stroke picks up right after Ill Wind left off – thanks to the love of free Djinn David, Jo’s been brought back from the dead and has entered (in a way long unprecedented) Djinnhood. The powers she had as a Weather Warden are nothing compared to her new abilities, including the knack of being undetectable at will, which allows Jo and David to attend her memorial service.
But bringing someone back from the dead, even if not to their previous life, does not come without a price, and Jo has to prove herself to the mysterious and powerful Jonathan, who lives sequestered away in a textured world created solely by his will and skill. He and David have a strange, almost sexual connection, and a significant past that affects Jo’s future. Jonathan demands Jo prove herself, and he orders Patrick (a lecherous Santa look-alike, with the taste of a baroque whore) take over her training. Patrick is uniquely able to tutor Jo – he is the only other human to become Djinn, at great cost to the Djinn who created him. As part of her training, Jo is bound to her old friend Lewis – as long as the bottle he’s bound her to is intact, Jo is at the mercy of the holder of her bottle. She agrees to being bound, knowing Lewis will never abuse her trust or take advantage of her bound state.
But a troubled adolescent captures Jo’s bottle, and she discovers what it feels like to be at the whim of another being. Although she can use avoidance and nit-picking detail to stave off the inevitable, like all captured Djinn she cannot disobey a direct order given by the holder of her bottle. As David told her, it’s like rape. Djinn don’t even get to choose how they appear – when Kevin orders her to materialise, she does so dressed in a skimpy hooker outfit, from pouty red lips, across an expand bosom, down to the come-fuck-me heels.
All too soon Jo is embroiled not only in a fight between the Wardens and a secret group known as the Ma’at (who work to free Djinn from their enslavement as involuntary tools to boost the Warden’s powers), but in a struggle to save the world itself from a rent only the Djinn can, and only Jo or David can stop, all while working within the confines of orders given by a traumatised and increasingly vengeful boy.
I found this second instalment as exhilarating and enchanting as the first. Jo Baldwin is a developed character with her own voice, a love of fast cars, and I even like her obsession with clothes and shoes, which usually irritates me in chick lit heroines. I went straight from Heat Stroke to book three, Chill Factor. - Alex

But Inside I’m Screaming – Elizabeth Flock

On-air talent Isabel Murphy is starting to go places. She’s reported on Grammy Awards, hurricanes, the crash of TWA flight 800, President Clinton’s Inauguration, Middle East peace summits, and vigils for death row inmates on the eve of their execution. Her big, break through moment is when she’s the only reporter for her network available to cover the Princess Diana car crash in Paris. Unable to concentrate of the world around her, distracted by the voices in her head, Isabel falls apart on live television, a script in front of her in case the TelePrompTer fails.
The novel alternates between Isabel’s stay at Three Winds psychiatric hospital, where she meets an assortment of equally damaged people, and flashbacks to her life before her admission. Though I found the portrayal of Isabel's background, and the source of her underlying insecurity, a little obvious, I found this an otherwise interesting read. - Alex

Wednesday, April 25

Jonathan Stroud: The Amulet of Samarkand

A young wizard, apprenticed to an ineffectual master, teaches himself advanced magic. When a powerful wizard humiliates him, he summons a djinni to steal a valuable amulet as revenge. The theft results in the murder of his master and leads him to uncover plans for a magical parliamentary coup and an anti-magic rebellion. Branded a renegade and a thief he has nobody to turn to and must defeat the conspirators without help. This he does and is rewarded by being assigned a new, competent and powerful master.
For the most part I enjoyed The Amulet of Samarkand. Although a children’s book there was enough in it to keep me entertained. A lot of the humour was obviously adult oriented (which is to say it was very subtle rather than risqué) and the story line complex enough not to drag.
I found the extensive use of footnotes, where the djinni explains how the magical world works and what the relationship between different characters is, annoying but their frequency lessened as the story moved forward so the irritation was eased by the time I finished the book.
This is the first part of a trilogy and I will read the other two. Jonathan Stroud has taken on the dominant ethos of children’s fantasy and successfully injected some originality and humour into the genre.-Lynn

Monday, April 23

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell

Iris Lockhart’s life is far from straight-forward – she has a business to run, a tightrope act to negotiate with her married lover, a complicated relationship with her step-brother, and she has to find time to visit her grandmother before dementia completely takes her away. So when she started getting calls about a Euphemia Lennox, who she’s never heard of, she knows someone has a wrong number.
Cauldstone psychiatric hospital is closing, its inmates patients are being released into the community, and after over sixty years Iris’s grandmother Kitty’s younger sister Esme is coming home. Only there’s nobody Iris can ask about Esme – Iris’s father died when she was tiny, her mother has never heard her mother-in-law speak of a sister (Kitty used to talk about being an only child), and Kitty herself floats in and out of lucidity.
The men in her life urge Iris to wash her hands of the woman, but there’s a bond, responsibility, and the hostel the hospital have organised is appalling. Surely there can be no harm having Esme stay in what once was, after all, her own home? Just for a weekend.
In a rare burst of restraint, I saw this book while I was overseas last year and didn’t buy it. Instead, a model of economy and discipline, I write the details in my notepad. Here we are, some six months later, and Borders had it on their infamous table. After all that waiting I just had to start it within a week of bringing it home.
The writing looks simple but demonstrates a deft and gifted hand. The characters, from Esme and Kitty’s parents to the men in Iris’s life, are sympathetic even when their behaviour is morally unsound, and nobody holds any moral high ground. The book is written in a non-linear way that allows the reader to piece together for themselves past and unfolding events. Information comes from Iris and Esme’s views of current
events; Esme’s flashbacks to her childhood in India, her family’s return to England when Esme was sixteen, and the difficult transition to a very different life; and Kitty’s guilt-tinged stream of consciousness, where her tight grasp on long-held secrets is being eroded by Alzheimer’s.
This technique is remarkably effective, and the lack of explicit detail and linking makes the impact of the unfolding, tragic story all the more potent. That the story’s foundation – a woman locked away for her entire adult life primarily because she was outspoken and unconventional – is true makes it profoundly chilling, particularly to this female audience. I found the ending shocking and both inevitable and preventable, which I realise is nonsensical. At first I was resentful about it, because I had hoped for something that would compensate Esme. But the plot as a whole has stayed with me all day, resonating in surprising ways and with the most unexpected clarity. In particular I felt parallels with the protagonists in my two most recently read works, Geography Club’s Russel and Bad Kitty’s Jas. In another era either could have been another Esme. - Alex

Saturday, April 21

Bad Kitty - Michele Jaffe

Seventeen-year-old Jasmine (Jas to her friends) is tall, flat chested, attracts bizarre happenings, and - much to the distress of her protective, widowed father - has an almost visceral interest in forensics. Her new stepmother, Sherri! (the exclamation mark is mandatory) is only twenty-five, but too fabulous to hate. In fact, that’s her superpower. Jas believes that everyone has a superpower – everyone except her, that is.
Jas is in Las Vegas for the family trip section of her vacation – just her, Sherri!, her dad, her aunt and uncle, and her execrable cousin Alyson – though they must share DNA, Alyson is perfect (“superpower: to turn people into gnats with just a look, or at least make them feel she has”). And, unlike Jas, who’s had to leave her best friends Polly, Roxy and Roxy’s twin Tom at home, Alyson’s brought her Evil Hench Twin Veronique along.
That Jaffe steered so far clear of the wearisome teen-against-her-step-mom was promising from the start, and she avoids predictability throughout. The style is chatty first person, with asides and contemporaneous conversations in the footnotes between Jas, Roxy, Polly, Tom and even Alyson and Veronique. There’s a mystery to be solved, as well as a relationship to kindle, a hunk to unmask as a villain, a crush to quash, and the need for a whole bunch of superpowers. It’s also charming, amusing, likable and engaging. The humour is generally situational and unforced, and the teenage characters are well depicted and believable (if atypical). I’m looking forward to the sequel. - Alex

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

The Cold Moon – Jeffrey Deaver

I loved A Maiden’s Grave, the first of Deaver’s novels I read, and since then he’s been one of my buy-on-sight authors. Due to my (theoretically adhered to) book budget I waited until the latest Rhyme novel was released in regular paperback, then sat on it for a bit.
A little background - Lincoln Rhyme is a quadriplegic New York criminologist who’s involved with Amelia Sachs, model-turned-cop. Money being no object (for reasons I no longer recall but which I’m sure were made clear in the first few books), he has a fully equipped lab in his home, and has a full-time carer.
The Cold Moon opens with the killer and his assistant – the Watchmaker kills apparently random people through torturous methods, then leaves a signature clock by the bodies. The first two crime scenes are found in rapid succession, though the second victim – left hanging to the edge of a pier with wrists slit – has vanished into the water, and the hunt is on.
In the meantime Amelia is caught up in her own case – her trustworthy, honest, beloved, dead police officer father was involved in a corruption scandal many years ago. Though not convicted (due to misplaced evidence), there seems to be no doubt he was dirty; another cop refers to him as ‘the one who got away’.
As the Watchmaker case become increasingly baroque (there are no fewer than four significant misdirections orchestrated by the killer), and intertwines itself with her case, Amelia has to decide whether or not to stay with the force.
I enjoyed the first few Rhyme novels but by The Twelfth Card (book six) it was all starting to wear a little thin, and I’m now officially over it. The first Cold Moon twist was interesting, the second, irritating, and by the end it was just a Matryoshka-like tiresome exercise to display the author/Deaver’s cleverness. In fact, that’s not strictly accurate – the writing style annoyed me by page ten, when I came to the following sentence:

Now, early on a cold Tuesday morning, these were Rhyme’s thoughts as he listened to a National Public Radio Announcer, in her unshakable FM voice, report about a parade planned for the day after tomorrow, followed by some ceremonies and meetings of government officials, all of which should logically have been held in the nation’s capital.

Breathe with me now.There is way too much “I researched this and now you’re going to read it” detail, to whit:
There was very little evidence, just the fingernail, probably a man’s, the blood, which Mel tested and found to be human and type AB positive, which meant that both A and B antigens – proteins – were present in the victim’s plasma, and neither anti-A or anti-B were. In addition, a separate protein, Rh, was present. The combination of AB antigens and Rh positive made the victim’s the third-rarest blood type, accounting for about 3.5 per cent of the population. Further tests confirmed the victim was male.

I also found grating the frequent use of “the rumpled detective offered”, “looked at the Californian agent”, ‘the rapist answered”, and “the rookie” used almost exclusively instead of Ron Pulaski’s name – they’re all main characters, they all have names. Though, to be fair, I was finding the whole experience a trial by this point, so it may not all have been down to the descriptive style. I did like the introduction of kinesic analyst Kathryn Dancer (a.k.a. the “Californian special agent”) and discussion about her techniques for ascertaining truthfulness when talking to people. Her aside, I’m officially over Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, and possibly the rest of his future work altogether. Which is why I was so pissed off to find that his next novel centred of Kathryn Dancer. Decisions, decisions... – Alex

Friday, April 20

Geography Club – Brent Hartinger

This is yet another Amazon-recommended book that I found locally. I do hate when a computer-generated program is able to accurately match my tastes with books. I feel so… predictable. I hate being predictable – it’s why I stopped reading true crime: I fit the profile of the average reader. And I was getting a little tired of the sordid, voyeurism of it. And it was almost twenty years ago, so I can probably move on now.
Russel Middlebrook’s sixteen. He occupies the middle ground between popular and outcast, and every day he feels like an intruder trying to escape detection by the enemy. If his classmates, particularly the guys in third period PE (and especially gorgeous, untouchable football star Kevin Land) find out he’s gay then life as he knows it will end. He hasn’t even told his best friends, co-Nerdy intellectuals Gunnar (desperately seeing a girlfriend) and Min (stereotypically Chinese and smart, but owns more than two shirts and wears makeup, so she has escaped the wasteland of rank outsiderdom).
Russel’s only outlet is the internet, where he can talk safely with other gay guys. Then one day, when scrolling through his favourite site, he finds a new addition – chat rooms listed geographically, and his hometown is on the list. Clutching his courage, Russel enters, and finds another member, the creatively named GayTeen. GayTeen is also male, sixteen, and goes to Goodkind High – Russel’s not the only gay guy at his school! Neither young man is prepared to disclose his identity online, but they agree to meet on the school grounds. Russel suspects that GayTeen is the school outsider, Brian Bund – picked on mercilessly, it makes sense that he’s the other gay guy. But Russel is stunned, and delighted, to discover that GayTeen is the previously unattainable Kevin.
Russel has to tell someone, but who? After much debate, and with a great deal of trepidation, he tells Min that Kevin’s gay and, when she asks, tells her he met Kevin in a gay chat room. Min starts laughing, much to Russel’s ire, which is when Min tells him that she’s been seeing soccer star Therese Buckman for two years. The four of them meet up in an out of the way pizza joint, and for the first time in their lives feel comfortable expressing who they are. But getting together regularly will excite suspicion, until one of them comes up with the idea of creating the Geography Club – a group so boring nobody else will want to join. Picking the most apathetic faulty member as adviser, they are free to catch up and debrief.
Though ultimately positive, Geography Club is a depressing insight into how little life has changed for gay teens since I was at school. It is also a story of difficult moral choices, of doing what is right even at the price of significant personal consequence. Though I didn’t make the connection while reading Geography Club, as I write this I’m struck by parallels with Chris Crutcher’s work. Geography Club is less intricate and rich, but it is provocative, insightful, depressing, uplifting and a worthy addition to the arena. - Alex

Thursday, April 19

Word Watching – Julian Burnside

I found this slender hardback on a remainder table not too long, and have been dipping into the learned J. Burnside Esquire’s “field notes from an amateur philologist” for a few days – it’s the kind of work that lends itself to intermittent perusal rather than rapid progression. Arranged alphabetically (from “All’s well that ends –al”, about nouns that become adjectives, verbs that become nouns, and words that look like one or other but are neither, to “Vestigial remains”, where the origins of words can be found in their modern descendent/s), this book looks at the beauty and evolution of English, with particular attention to the Australian variety. Not surprisingly, given Burnside’s long affiliation with and work for human rights organizations, this includes some damning indictments about the Federal governments’ use of word selection to sway public opinion.
I enjoy reading books about language, but as a result I was already familiar with a few of Burnside’s linguistic revelations. However, all in all it was useful and interesting book that has a place on my reference shelves. - Alex

Wednesday, April 18

The No. 2 Global Detective – Toby Clements

Tom Hurst is delighted to be offered a position as junior tutor (Transgression and Pathology) at the world’s premier college for fictional detection – some of the greatest, best-selling detectives claim Cuff College as their alma mater. His first task is to work out the mystery of the Body in the Library – universally abhorred Claire Morgan, head of Tom’s own department, has been found dead.
The only clue, an African spear (jutting out of her torso), sends Tom to Botswana, where he discovers the next clue (a prive tag for a duvet from IKEA) and enlists the assistance of Cuff College graduate Mma Delicious Ontoaste, fresh from solving her own mystery of the vanishing business man. Tracking down the duvet takes them to Sweden, and Inspector Burt Colander, who is hot on the heels of a missing copy of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf for the stations’ Ingmar Bergman Film Club night. But there are no mysa måne duvets in Sweden. In fact the last one available at any IKEA anywhere is in Edinburgh, which is where the group adds Inspector Scott Rhombus to the party. Rhombus is at the heart of, and suspected of being embroiled in, a corruption scandal. He craftily outwits those who have plotted against him, garnering five bloodstained notebooks in the process. Tom Hurst, Mma Delicious Ontoaste, Insp. Burt Colander and Insp. Scott Rhombus determine that the lists of names all refer to places in Virginia, North America – home to famed pathologist Faye Carpaccia, who’s trying to determine who’s behind a string of particularly vicious murders. The victims are attacked in their own homes, hung upside down and exsanguinated, plucked bald, then their internal organs are removed, bagged, and returned to the empty abdominal cavity. Those poor chickens had their whole lives ahead of them.
I don’t know why I do this to myself – I like the idea of parodies, but the execution… not so much. I had read two of the genre (from Alexander McCall Smith and Patricia Cornwell), and seen the odd Ian Rankin Rebus episode on TV. Based on these the parodies are accurate, and the Cornwell section captured some of the things that I found so grating that I vowed to abandon the series, but the overarching plot was weak, and the small but persistent use of footnotes commenting on the symbolism of weather was irritating and went nowhere. - Alex

Tuesday, April 17

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

As you can by the labels, in general I tend to stay away from Literature in favour of plot and accessibility. However, as I am not immune to pressure, I am aware of the pantheon of books that I feel as though I ought (with a moral imperative) to read. Middlesex was borrowed from my mother several months ago and has been reproachfully looking at me ever since, until I finally picked it up en route to somewhere where I didn’t want to be seen with the latest instalment of Sweet Valley High (or its more adult equivalent).
I’m glad I took so long to get to this award-winning novel. Middlesex tells the story of three generations of Stephanides’s, to narrator Cal who, born a girl, came to manhood in the 1970’s. The action seamlessly segues from Greece in the first decades of the 1900’s, through Detroit in the mid-90’s, to Berlin at the turn of the twenty-first century.
The novel, which somehow manages to convincingly blend first-person narrative with a first-person omniscience, weaves its way non-chronologically through the childhoods and emigration to America of Cal’s grandparents, the equally turbulent adolescence and marriage of his parents, and his own girlhood with older brother Chapter Eleven.
Though imposing, at over 500 pages, reading Middlesex was delightful. The plot is beautifully paced, without sacrificing character development; the prose is perfectly balanced between description, dialogue and narration, between telling and showing (a distinction of which I have very recently become more than usually aware); the narrator’s tone is by turns ironic, detached, sympathetic, and irreverent. Any further commentary from me will simply serve to detract from this perfectly wrought work. – Alex

Monday, April 16

The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics - Nuri Vittachi

CF Wong is a feng shui master writing “Some Gleanings of Oriental Wisdom”, an inspirational guide to life based on the teaching of past sages, while trying to eke out a profitable living in modern day Shanghai. All he wants is a quiet life where he can make as much money as possible (his advice is tailored to his audience), and to enjoy the best things in life. This is not an easy goal when a construction crew demolishing his office interrupts his morning. Still, he reasons sanguinely, such is life in this bustling city.
This is, however, but the beginning of a series of events determined to bring Wong to the brink of penury. His strange British-Australian assistant Joyce has inexplicably given up eating meat and is working in her spare time for a vegetarian catering company. Which is how Joyce gets caught up when an ultra-vegan group hijacks the inaugural dinner of the exclusive This is Living dining club that Wong has been looking forward to for weeks. The This is Living chef prepares live food in front of diners, cooking to request, and the descriptions of the This is Living menu are so disturbing for the squeamish that the punishments meted out by the Children of Vega seem almost justifiable. But is this all that leader Vega has in mind?
This is the fourth book about the beautifully wrought Wong and the incorporation of feng shui into his chaotic life. As with previous works (the third book of which I discover I have somehow missed and naturally must now track down), Vittachi manages to convey a brilliant sense of place and persona. The jacket says he “mixes the caustic humour of Carl Hiaasen with the charm of Alexander McCall Smith to create a vivid, heady and delightful dance through Asian philosophy, whodunit and today’s China.” Haven’t read Hiaasen, and am justifiably wary of comparisons with more than one other author, but I could not have said this better myself. This is great writing - funny, complex, and startling different to any other author I’ve read. – Alex

Friday, April 13

A Lion in the Garden - Hilary Seton

Araminta Humble, better known as Minty, is preoccupied by the mysterious door she’s discovered in the lane – it looks ordinary enough but it draws her. And, try as she might, she just cannot capture it on paper. She has recently discovered that she has a gift – she can draw. This is a tremendous relief, for all of her family are gifted and she was starting to think she was the only untalented one. Father Jan writes poetry, mother Coriander is a herbalist, Aunt Tilly is a cook beyond reckoning, and Grandfather is an inventor. Until recently the family were caretakers at the Old House near Little Trumpington, but now they own the house and money is much more tight. They decide to create a sign for the front gate, advertising their talents and illustrated by Minty, and to take in a lodger.
Through the sign the Humble’s make the acquaintance of Little Liza and her mother Big Liza the wise, Daniel the Slow (the only member of a family of tightrope walkers who can’t), and lodgers Hubert the poacher and Grimsby, the retired circus lion.
This book, a sequel to Beyond the Blue Hills (which I now have to track down through, was a beloved volume on my childhood library. It is magically descriptive, evocative of an English countryside in summer, and a true product of its era – it was written in 1974. There is vivid description, magical happenings, a villain (circus master Jasper Pickett), self-sacrifice, and the scent of honeysuckle. I haven’t read A Lion in the Garden for over twenty years, but it was like coming home, the feeling that only well-loved books can evoke. – Alex

Thursday, April 12

Ill Wind – Rachel Caine

I really need to be more careful when I decide to delete a draft version, because on this occasion I managed to delete a completed review sans backup.
The elements don’t like people – if it were up to them we’d be gone. But we’re protected by the powerful elite of the Warden’s Association – people with power over the earth, fire, water and/or air. Joanne Baldwin is a Weather Warden – she has control over wind and water, and is waiting for her Djinn. Selected Warden’s are allocated one of the Association’s rare captive Djinn to help augment their own gifts and training.
But before Jo can think, she’s neck deep in trouble. She’s acquired a demon mark, there are Wardens and malevolent weather after her, and the only one who can help her is Lewis, unique among the Warden’s World Council for having control over all four elements. Unfortunately Lewis has gone into hiding, and he stole three precious Djinn before he vanished.
The reasons Jo’s being pursued is delicately disclosed in discrete chunks throughout the book, and the world is similarly exposed – I really appreciated this approach rather than the more common mounds of exposition common in this genre. The writing is fresh, the underlying paranormal present refreshingly original, and I really didn’t see the two key twists until they were upon me.
This is the first in what (going by the shelf at my local FSF store) is at least a five book series. I can hold out for a while, so it’s not must-read-now! material, but I’m definitely interested in checking out at least book two – Heat Stroke. – Alex

Click here to read Lynn's review of Ill Wind

Wednesday, April 11

Magic's Child - Justine Larbalestier

This is the final of the Magic trilogy, which once again employs a triptych of perspectives from Reason, Tom and Jay-Tee. The problem with the review, and the reason why it's taken me so long to post it (the post date is when I began drafting, but it's actually being posted May 9th) is that the plot depends greatly on incidents which occured in the second book. Revealing them now would spoil the previous books for any one of our (mythical) readers who haven't read Magic or Madness or Magic Lessons.
I can say that I was struck by the beauty of the mathematical imagery - throughout the series Reason has been fascinated by numbers and patterns, and in this installment, in particular, she sees all the magic users' magic in a mathematical form that was bewitchingly and powerfully described.
The series ends relatively neatly, and it was a fitting end to a unique and interesting series. - Alex

Tuesday, April 10

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy – Clive Woodall

An avian Watership Down, One for Sorrow tells of Birddom, a land where birds once lived in harmony with one another, governed by the Council of Owls; they spoke a common language with mammals, and life was balanced. But with the increasing ravages of Man and the increase in road kill, scavenger species magpies have outgrown their environmental niche. Led by the evil and tyrannical Slyekin, bands of magpies have taken on the task of wiping out entire populations of smaller birds. Traska, a vicious and ruthless individual, is leader of a group hell-bent on taking out the last robin in Birddom, our hero, Kirrick.
The tale opens shortly after the murder of Kirrick’s partner Celine, by two of Slyekin’s offsiders, Skulk and Skeet. Heartsore with grief, and no longer driven solely by a need to survive, Kirrick begins to ponder the “malignant intelligence” responsible for the always-predatory magpies’ change in behaviour, and wonder if he can stop it. But “what difference could one small, single bird make?”
My memory for books is quite good – I can usually remember where and when(ish) I bought each one or, of a gift, from whom. But, as I work my way through the less new books on my To Read shelves I sometimes wonder what on earth possessed me to buy X in the first place – clearly something attracted me to it when I first saw it, but looking at it now I cannot for the life of me imagine what that was.
One for Sorrow, on the other hand, had been calling to me for a while. An elegant soft-cover volume, the cover art shows a white bird’s wing against a sky dark with black birds in flight, and the lavish praise of those in the know.

They should have known better. This story is (according to Alan Yentob, BBC Director of Drama and Entertainment) an “epic tale in the tradition of Watership Down and Lord of the Rings” and (says the Times Educational Supplement) it's “a resonant commentary – a savage as well as a sentimental tale” (they also called it an epic).
I was indeed reminded of Watership Down very often while I read One for Sorrow. This was partly because they are both stories told from the perspective of creatures we rarely think about as protagonists, partly because both have animals whose lives are changed due to the actions of Man encroaching on the natural world, partly because the main character/s embark on a life-altering journey.

But mostly I was reminded of Watership Down because Richard Adams created a brilliant, cohesive, rich, textured, internally-coherent world (if you haven’t already, read Watership Down today!). And Woodall? Didn’t.
For all that he tries to add depth with back-story, the characters lack depth and I didn’t give a damn about any of them. I found it particularly irritating that they expressed human emotions and exhibited human behaviour. I can buy avian grief, but not the floods of tears that the heroes (Kirrick and his new partner Portia) frequently create – to the point of saturating their feathery little breasts. At one point one bird affectionately kiss-pecks another on the face. Oh please.
In Watership Down the rabbits fear, then condemn, the warren that mimics human behaviour; they greet each other by scenting, like real rabbits do; and they have names that sentient rabbits might actually use – based on plants, character traits, or birth order (Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver). In One for Sorrow birds say “By the way, my name’s Mickey”; the villains have villenous names and the heroes human or humanish names (Tomar, Isidris, Caitlin).
The dialogue is stilted, unrealistic, and larded with descriptives – on page 45 alone (I opened at random), birds ask venomously, cajole in a conciliatory tone, reply, query, laugh cruelly, and repeat impatiently.

The plot meanders irritatingly, with the odd side trip for no good reason. For example, Kirrick, in his quest for help from across the spectrum of Birddom (other avian lands include - sigh - Wingland), becomes seriously ill for a couple of days and is semi-conscious in a wood. This delay doesn’t have any dramatic impact on the story, nor does his illness affect his personality or capacity for continuing his quest. It’s as though the author needed a few hundred more words and plopped the incident in at random.
Most of all, One for Sorrow is easily the most ‘telling’ book I’ve read in a very long time - I’m not a particularly critical, aware reader, but the lack of showing kept hitting me in the face, and contributed to my lack of engagement with the book.
As discussed, I could certainly see how parallels (though, in my case, unfavourable ones) could be drawn between One for Sorrow and Watership Down. I really didn’t see any similarity with Lord of the Rings, though Lynn suggests that it alludes to the long journey Kirrick makes. Eh. Still, I should be grateful to Clive Woodall, for furnishing two new rules of books buying:
2) Be cautious if a review refers to the book as an epic. Run if that’s the theme of the blurb.
3) Any book that is billed as the latest X (Stephen King/John Grisham/Harry Potter/Jodi Picoult/fill in your interests here) should be approached with suspicion. 3)a. Fear books that allegedly combine wildly disparate (and popular) predecessors. What would a Watership Down/LOTR hybrid look like, anyway? More to the point, what was I thinking? Please send your answers on the back of a plain, business-sized envelope… - Alex

Monday, April 9

Making Sense - Julian Baggini

Subtitled Philosophy Behind the Headlines, this book by British philosopher (and relatively prolific author) Baggini attempts to explain both how and why a philosophical outlook is useful when it comes to real-life issues, and illustrates varying outlooks and theories with high profile media stories from the UK and US. Topics addressed include private vs public morality (Clinton/Lewinski), trustworthiness of science and how this has been eroded (GMO foods/BSE), the concept of value and how this is determined (the Millennium Dome vs the Tate Modern), how cults and mainstream religions differ (the Waco siege), among others.
The thread that runs throughout the text is that reasoned argument and logical thought rarely enter the debate and, despite the fact that they could provide precisely this degree of clarity, philosophers themselves are rarely consulted (perhaps, Baggini argues, because people expect philosophers to come up with a definitive answer, rather than a "well on the one hand X, but on the other, Y" discussion they often end up with).
I found the text well written, particularly for an educated lay audience interested in the issues Baggini raises. However I did find that he quite often built his position on the back of a statement of philosophical opinion without acknowledging that a differing position would invalidate the following argument. For example, in the chapter about abortion Baggini discusses the concept of humans - a biological status which applies to all genetically-human individuals regardless of other factors - and persons or personhood.
The concept of personhood is contentious, not least because even like-minded philosophers agree on the required elements, but the theory basically boils down to personhood being a state of cognition (including elements like consciousness, self-awareness and awareness of the passage of time), independent of physiology. So under this theory an infant/vegetative human is not a person, but an alien/ape who develops the aspects of personhood is a person. In this theory the life of a person (regardless of genetics) trumps than of a non-person.
After briefly discussing the theory of personhood, Baggini segues to the argument that, as a non-person, a fetal life is not of moral consequence, and abortion is therefore not morally problematic. I happen to agree with the concept of personhood, but I think he fails to acknowledge that, for readers who disagree with his premise (those, for example, who believe that humanity is the result of divine intervention), the following argument will not be valid. I'm not saying that I think the argument is invalid, or that Baggini ought to tailor his argument to encompass different opinions than his own, just that there is a lack in his failure to acknowledge that this position is not universal.
This aspect aside, I found Making Sense readable, accessible and a valuable addition to the field. - Alex

Magic Lessons - Justine Larbalestier

The second book in the Magic trilogy continues Reason's story. Despite her flight from her grandmother, and from the discovery that she can choose between going mad (if she doesn't use magic) or dying young (if she does), she cannot escape her fate. Her friendships with Jay-Tee and Tom grow stronger, and through Tom's chapters we see his growing attraction to Reason. As Jay-Tee, Tom and her grandmother try to help her, Reason's grandfather is trying to steal her magic to extend his life. Safe in Sydney, Esmeralda's magic door is acting strangely - is this because of Jason Blake (Esmerelda's ex-husband and Reason's grandfather)? As it turns out, no - there's another, stronger, more ancient magic, unique to the Cansinos. Only Reason knows this and, though she's begun to trust her grandmother, she doesn't trust her enough to discuss this with her.
Reason isn't sure what to make of this information, but she doesn't trust Esmeralda, so she's not telling anyone. Then she loses her chance to share it. She is sucked through the door into New York. Reason's not as lost as she was the first time; after escaping the scary, stinking old man-like creature standing in front of the door, she finds Jay-Tee's brother Danny, and stays with him. She can't go back to Sydney; the old man, the Cansino, is guarding the door. She could always buy a plane ticket home (or, rather, Danny could buy her one; money is nothing to him, and she has none), but there are a few things keeping her in New York. One, she wants to find out more about the man guarding the door, and maybe do something to get rid of him if Esmeralda figures out what he is. Two, there's Danny...

Transported between two physical worlds, and hung on the horns of the metaphysical, Reason must find her own path. In this instalment, Reason makes some life-altering choices as she makes the transition from innocent child to young adult, and becomes more determined than ever to alter the direction of her life. Those who enjoyed the first instalment will race through this second one and wait anxiously for the proposed end of the trilogy, in which one hopes for final clearer resolution for Reason and her friends. – Alex

Saturday, April 7

13 Little Blue Envelopes – Maureen Johnson

The only interesting about 17 year old Ginny Blackstone is her eccentric aunt – several months ago her phone stopped working: she’d moved to Europe for several months without telling any of her family, which was very Aunt Peg. Dying of brain cancer at the age of thirty-five wasn’t, though. When she was Ginny’s age Peg had abandoned a full scholarship at Mount Holyoke, left New Jersey, and embarked on the unencumbered life of an artist.
Still unable to accept her beloved aunt’s unexpected death, Ginny receives the first of thirteen letters from Peg – a quest. There are only four rules: take only what she can fit in a backpack, no guidebooks, no extra cash (Peg will provide what’s needed), and no phone calls or emails to anyone at home. Oh, and follow Peg’s directions, the first of which is to fly to Heathrow.
This delightful, engrossing novel tells how shy, retiring Ginny follows in her aunt’s steps through Europe. The voice of Peg guides Ginny from London to Edinburgh, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, then south to Corfu before returning to London. Along the way Ginny loses her timidity, and gains something of an appreciation for spontaneity, as well as gaining self-confidence, unexpected experiences and a boy friend on the way. Not everything goes to plan, but that’s the nature of travelling, and of life.
Ever since seeing the Brady Bunch episode where Carol’s eccentric aunt took a shine to Jan, I always wanted an eccentric aunt of my own. I’m also somewhat timid, and haven’t travelled widely (particularly in comparison with my absurdly globe-hopping family). I related strongly to Ginny, wistfully to Aunt Peg, and so enjoyed the experience of reading 13 Little Blue Envelopes that I’ll be looking out for more of Johnson’s work. – Alex

Friday, April 6

Science Fiction Quotations – Gary Westfahl (ed)

Subtitled From the Inner Mind to Outer Limits, this comprehensive collection has gathered quotes from 1851 (the first use of the term ‘science fiction’) to the early 2000’s, grouped under themes like ‘individualism and identity’, ‘justice’, ‘civilisation and barbarism’, ‘dreams and sleep’, ‘love and romance’, ‘morality’, ‘truth’ and ‘surrealism, in addition to the more obvious ‘alien worlds’, ‘astronauts and space travelers’, ‘the laws of science fiction’, ‘robots, androids and cyborgs’ and ‘time travel’.
This is clearly not the kind of book that can be read from cover to cover in a single sitting and, like all books, will not speak to everyone, but there is something for everyone in it. My copy is studded with tags for the quotes that I felt particularly spoke to me, illustrated a concept beautifully, or that could be happily incorporated into a paper. Some of my favourite examples:
This is how humans are: We question all of our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question – Orson Scott Card Speaker for the Dead
No man is an island, but I have met many isthmuses and a few peninsulas – Susanna Jacobsen “Notes from Magdalen More"
The anthropologist cannot always leave his own shadow out of the picture he draws – Ursula Le Guin “The Word for World is Forest"
The meeting between ignorance and knowledge, between brutality and culture – it begins with how we treat our dead – Frank Herbert Dune
The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common, they don’t alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit the views, which can be very uncomfortable of you happen to be one of the facts – Chris Boucher “The Face of Evil”, episode of Dr Who
Nothing is deader than yesterday’s science fiction – Arthur C Clarke “The Sands of Mars”
Finally, there is a section of phrases which let you know you’re reading SF, many of which made me want to read the story or novel from whence they came:

He could not argue with an angry bed – Philip K Dick Galactic Pot Healer
Unfortunately, no one bothered to turn off the tiger – Charles L Grant “A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn’s Eye”
Only twenty minutes ago he had decided he would go mad, and now here he was already chasing a Chesterfield sofa across the fields of prehistoric earth – Douglas Adams Life the Universe and Everything
She would never forgive herself for not being there when her son was born – Sheila Finch Infinity’s Web
Phoebe had enough to worry about without consoling an overemotional fish – Paul Di Filipo “Flying the Flannel”

Clearly if you're not into FSF, this collection won't be particularly interesting (unless you want to challenge your assumptions about the genre). But if you are, there are quotes here to inspire, enlighten, entertain, and - if you're me - rue the fact that you will never be able to so perfectly capture an emotion or experience. Plus there's a certain joy in recognising quotes or texts, and the dangerous lure of unread and promising books. – Alex

Thursday, April 5

Magic or Madness - Justine Larbalestier

The first in a trilogy (reviews of the rest of the series will follow shortly), Magic or Madness tells the story of Australian teen Reason Cansino. Reason, named to celebrate logic and rationality, has spent her life roaming the small towns and bush of Australia with her mother Sarafina, never staying anywhere long in case her grandmother finds them. All her life Reason has been told that her grandmother is evil. But Sarafina, always eccentric, slides further into madness, and is institutionalised. Esmerelda is her only living relative, and - fearful - Reason has to live with her, with only her ammonite fossil for protection.
Mere is strange, and her house is frightening - the more Reason looks, the more afraid she becomes. Why has she put black feathers under Reason's pillow? Does she practice magic, even though Sarafina always made a point of telling Reason that there was no such thing? And why is there a dead cat buried in the basement? It is this last discovery that sends Reason fleeing - through a magic door that connects Esemerelda's house in Sydney to a street in New York city, where she meets Jay-Tee, who has magic of her own.
The story intersperses chapters from Reason's point of view with chapters from both Jay-Tee and Tom, another fifteen-year-old, who lives next to Mere and whose magic manifests in clothes design. I particularly like the way Reason perceives magic as maths - she has a particular affinity for the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the product of the two previous numbers.
Magic or Madness is an interesting addition to the world of young adult fantasy, and 'm interested to see how this story will play out over the rest of the trilogy. - Alex

Wednesday, April 4

Julie and Julia – Julie Powell

I was attracted to this book both because it was on the three-for-two table at Borders and because of its subtitle: my year of cooking dangerously.
One evening in 2002, living in a small New York apartment with her husband, working for a government agency post-9/11, her career in limbo and her hormones in flux because of PCOS, Julie Powell found herself wandering home with the ingredients for leek and potato soup. Or, as Julia Child describes it, in her masterwork Mastering the Art of French Cooking, potage parmentier.
The book tracks the resulting Julie/Julia project – cooking her way through all 524 MtAoFC recipes in a year. Powell started and maintained an evidently popular blog throughout the process, and the book incorporates her reflections then and now, blog extracts, glimpses of her non-project life, and (conjectural) fragments of the lives of Julia and Paul Child.
The fragments, based on archival information, made me interested in a woman with whom I had no more than fleeting knowledge – she sounds like a fascinating person. No less so, though, than Powell – how many people would not only embark on but complete such a novel task, much less manage to turn the experience into a widely-read blog, media appearances, and a book?
The recipes are dated (references to the obscene amount of butter used are threaded through the text), confronting (the lobster executions were particularly unnerving just to read about), and classic. I felt no desire to make any of them, but I share Powell’s triumph at having polished off the set. What makes the book, though, is Powell’s personality – she’s adventurous, honest, tenacious and funny. Well worth the price of admission. – Alex

Tuesday, April 3

The Ultimate Nap Book - Sark

Sark has a unique style in all her books – they are joyful, brightly coloured, hand written rather than set with a font, simply illustrated, and packed with affirming advice and support. This beautifully presented book, smaller than usual (for portability in case of a sudden need for nap advice) book is subtitled Change Your Life Without Getting Out of Bed. Sark writes about the comfort of napping, tips on better napping, suggestions about dealing with nap-related problems, and permission to nap, interspersed with quotes, helpful facts about the benefits of taking a nap, information about changes in sleep patterns in contemporary Western society, and the consequences of sleep deprivation.
Despite all that I’m currently too busy to nap, but I’ve decided to work on it. - Alex

Monday, April 2

The Pinhoe Egg - Diana Wynne Jones

Despite my determination to no longer buy trade paperback-sized books, with some authors the wait is just too long. I was going to keep The Pinhoe Egg for a special treat, and frankly I did think I deserved it after making my way through the heavy going of my last two non-fiction outings. However, I read it so soon (only a couple of weeks after purchase) primarily because a friend saw it and loves the writing of the brilliant Ms Jones (although she has, unaccountably, read only a fraction of this magnificent writer’s work).
Jones is deservedly one of England’s best-loved FSF writers. Her work incorporates elements from a variety of traditions (Eight Days of Luke drew on Nordic mythology, while The Year of the Griffin and The Dark Lord of Denholm were more straight FSF), she weaves the apparently-mundane (like nursery rhymes in Deep Secret) into occult oral magic, and crafts worlds that are intricate, believable and enthralling. Jones writes for both young readers and young adults, with a combination of stand alone titles (like The Ogre Downstairs and Black Maria), short series (The Dalemark Quartet), and the self-contained Chrestomanci series, of which this is the latest instalment.
There are nine Worlds, parallel universes with planets like our own, where divergent mores have led to very different cultures. Our earth is decidedly mundane, but in an adjacent World magic flourishes. Its practice is monitored by powerful mages, the strongest of which is the Chrestomanci, a nine-lived enchanter. Nine-lived enchanters are very rare, existing only when their counterparts are not born on any of the other eight Worlds. Cat Chant is one – his back-stories are told in Charmed Life and Stealer of Souls - and he is being taught at Chrestomanci Castle, where the current Chrestomanci, his wife and two children also live. The Pinhoe Egg tells the story of the families who live in the villages around Chrestomanci Castle.
The Pinhoes of Ulverscote and the Farleighs of Helm St Mary have been practicing witchcraft for hundreds of years; it is their sacred duty. And for hundreds of years they have kept this practice a secret from the Chrestomanci. But the Pinhoe Gammer (female head of the family) has started to behave strangely and the family can’t control her, while the Farleigh’s Gaffer (male head) is becoming increasingly hostile. To monitor what’s happening in the Castle they sent Marianne’s brother Joe to work in the stables; Joe can easily be spared, because everyone knows what a disappointment he is, unable to work the simplest of magics (though only Marianne knows how hard he works at that). Marianne seems to be the only family member to be concerned about what’s happening, but even though she’s tapped to be the next Gammer she’s easily ignored.
Marianne meets Cat after Gammer is moved out of the family home. The family have decided to sell it, but only to another Pinhoe, and Cat’s tutor is married to the beautiful Irene, a Pinhoe from London. Cat, dazzled by Irene, accompanies them on their house hunt and meets Marianne in the garden. She gives him the Pinhoe Egg, which has been sitting in the attic for years, wrapped in ignore spells.
How Cat hatches the egg, the escalating feud is resolved, the deception about what happened to Gaffer emerges, and the truth behind the odd practices of the Pinhoes and the Farleighs is disclosed is unfurled in the rest of the book. Jones’s touch is deft, her characters live on the page, and her world is captivating. - Alex

Sunday, April 1

The Singing Neanderthals – Steven Mithen

This book sat on my shelves for a while as I waited to be in the right intellectual head space to tackle it. Finally I picked it up not because I was focussed and had time to adequately devote to it but because I was going somewhere where I wanted people to be if not impressed then at least not disapproving of my taste in reading material. For I am shallow and care what smart people think of me.
I loved the concept of this book, which explores The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, and combines two of my favourite (strictly amateur) interests – paleoanthropology and linguistics (in the form of the origins of communication). Mithen’s work, which strongly reads like a PhD thesis, explores the previously under-examined idea that music was and is an important part of what makes us human; that, rather than being an unimportant and accidental by-product of our evolution it is a key part of our development, ability to communicate, and an integral aspect to making our minds work.
Chapters explore the cases of individuals who have music without language (acquired conditions like aphasia and congenital communication problems like autism) and language without music (a condition of which I was previously unaware – amusia); how music is processed in the brain; how cadence or ‘prosody’, (“the dynamics, speed and timbre” that give speech melody and influence meaning) affects oral communication, and how this is reflected in music; how infant-directed speech (IDS) is similar to and different from pet-directed speech (PDS) and adult-directed speech (ADS); how primates communicate; how bipedalism allowed for rhythmic movements and how music is physically expressed; how evolving changes in our predecessors jaws, throats and mouths resulted in the ability to create verbal music; how (in separate chapters) music is intertwined with sex, parenting and group bonding; and more.
Parts of this book were fascinating, and without it I would never have been aware of the differences as well as similarities between IDS and PDS (both of which I was previously briefly acquainted with), or the fact that cat-directed and dog-directed speech is undifferentiated. That sounds sarcastic – I really was fascinated. And the case studies in the chapters discussing individuals who have either music or language were of particular interest to me.

I also found fascinating the discussions of research looking at how people associate the sounds of particular words with specific attributes - sound synaesthesia: for example, one researcher found that, if told that 'mil' and 'mal' were words for tables, 98% of people thought 'mal' meant a larger table. This synaesthetic link between words and objects extends to fish/bird pairings and round/spiky shapes.
Mithen’s research field is admirable – he has incorporated aspects of dozens of specialty fields, and the book includes recent as well as classic findings from other researchers, combined to give a unique perspective on a deserving topic. But the book is far more technical than I anticipated, and toward the end I had to make myself pick it up each time (or leave home with nothing else to read), and I’m sure that having a better (read ‘any’) knowledge of musicology would have helped me through some sections. I’m glad I read it, and I recommended it to those with a technical or academic interest in the topics raised, but it’s a little heavy going if (like me) you’re something of an intellectual lightweight. – Alex