Thursday, May 31

Mary Janice Davidson: Really Unusual Bad Boys

This collection of three paranormal/fantasy romance novellas tells the stories of three shape shifting brothers and the women that fall into their enchanted kingdom and win their hearts.
The first entry, Bridefight, sees a police detective’s suicide attempt end in her magical transportation to an enchanted kingdom where she is found by a shape shifting puma, who happens to be crown prince of the realm. In this place her scars and other physical flaws are seen as things of beauty. She is worshipped appropriately by all and sundry, tricked into marriage with the prince and after some token protesting and mind-blowing sex settles into her new life.
This story didn’t particularly appeal to me. Without even beginning to address the issue of suicide as a springboard for an erotic fantasy romance, it didn’t seem consistent with the attitude of the heroine as depicted in the opening sequence and throughout the rest of the story. I saw exactly where the plot was going from the moment the heroine arrived at the hero’s castle and I was irritated beyond words that the heroine seemed unable to put two and two together. In fact, I found just about everything about the heroine irritating. Instead of sympathy for her I found myself thinking her incredibly stupid and her righteous indignation at being married without her consent unconvincing.
I did like that her scars and imperfections were seen as signs of valour and beauty but I don’t think enough was made of this. Then again, I suspect this is meant to be pure escapism. I doubt this story was ever intended to have any real depth.
I didn’t read the other two novellas in this collection. A glance at the first page of the second offering was enough for me to see that it was going to be more of the same and so unlikely to bring me more joy than that offered by the first story.
The author’s voice is certainly unique. I can see how it is that others, tired of the usual dark paranormal fare, might find her more chick lit tone appealing. But this simply wasn’t for me.-Lynn

Wednesday, May 30

Bellwether – Connie Willis

Sandra Foster is a sociologist who studies fads; her current research focuses on what triggered the mania for hair bobbing in the 1920’s “despite social pressure, threatening pressure, and four thousand years of long hair.” As if finding the beginning of fads wasn’t hard enough, Sandra is beset by the kinds of disruptions familiar to anyone who works in a large institution – constant management reorganisation and restructuring (resulting in increasingly baroque application forms, ludicrous acronyms, and endless team meetings), and the world’s most incompetent interdepartmental assistant, Flip, for whom any task is an imposition.
When Flip delivers a perishable package to her office, even though it’s clearly marked to Bio, Sandra decides to take it across campus herself – after hours collating articles and prints ads from the 'twenties she needs a break. In Bio she meets Bennett O’Reilly, a chaos theorist who, unable to sustain funding for his original work on river systems is now looking at learning in monkey populations – or will, if his funding application’s accepted. Sandra is fascinated by Ben who, judging by his clothing, seems immune to fads. Perhaps his immunity will help her work out something about how fads spread through groups.
Through a series of complications, including a litany of Flip-related disasters, yet more corporate restructuring and ‘reform’, institutional obsession with winning the lucrative Liebnitz award (that the selection criteria is unknown does in no way prevent management trying to tailor their research toward it), and a misplaced funding application, Ben and Sandra end up creating a joint project, allowing Sandra to observe Ben more closely.
I was immediately drawn into this novel, which opens each chapter with a brief recount of a different fad, from the hula-hoop to virtual pets; this aspect pleasantly reminded me of Westerfeld’s Peeps, where each chapter alternates with discussion about a different parasite, while the academic interest in trends mirrors So Yesterday.
Sandra, who narrates Bellwether, is warm, complex and vibrant, and I found her research intriguing. There are enough secondary plots to keep the story rolling, and the secondary characters are well drawn. As in life, and chaos theory, there is interconnectivity in the story that is not immediately apparent but ultimately rewarding. Even the revelation about how the Liebnitz award is granted, which is obvious mid way through the novel, is satisfying rather than irritating, which is truly difficult to pull off. Willis has once again created a thoroughly enjoyable, unique microcosm that, though shorter and thematically very different from her time travel novels (The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog), demonstrates similar mastery of layered plot, involving characters and deft writing. – Alex

Tuesday, May 29

Dance for the Dead – Thomas Perry

Tim is six, but has already lived through more tragedy than most people ten times his age – coming home with his nanny, Mona, from an after-school shopping expedition he finds the bloody bodies of his parents. All trace that Tim ever lived in the house is gone, and the killers are coming back for him.
Unbeknown to Tim, the couple he knew as his parents kidnapped him when he was two and raised him as their own. His real parents were killed in a car accident, and Tim is the sole heir to an estate worth millions. His only chance for safety, and his inheritance, is for him to appear in court during the hearing to have him declared dead – and someone who stands to gain all that money, and lose even more, will stop at nothing to prevent Tim appearing.
In most novels this would be the primary plot, but in Perry’s masterful hands this is all back story – Dance for the Dead opens with the judge presiding over the case listening to Tim’s taped account of not only the discovery of the bodies but how Mona and her lawyer boyfriend Dennis, with the help of a mysterious woman named Jane, brought him safely to court, though not without cost – Mona and Dennis were killed in the attempt, and Tim is still nowhere near out of danger.
This is the second in the brilliant Jane Whitefield series about a Senecca woman who helps people in trouble find new, safe lives. In Dance for the Dead, among the stories of both Tim and Mary, a woman Jane meets in prison, a little more of the tantalising story of Jane and her history and culture emerges. We are given insights into the shadowy worlds of people rescuers, con artists, high finance in an age of post-Reagan deregulation, and the use of dreams as a problem solving process.
This series stands out from others in the genre not only because of the deft writing, quicksilver plotting and beautiful characterisation but the oblique and interesting education about another cultural way of being. As I wrote in my previous Perry review (of Shadow Woman, the third Jane Whitefield novel), I have the same feeling when I read Faye Kellerman’s novels, where detail about the daily lives of Orthodox Judaism is similarly inserted. I come away from these novels feeling reassured that, despite the evil in the world, there are good people making a real difference – Jane herself, Judge Kramer, and Mona and Dennis, who knew going in that they were at risk, and did it anyway. As Jane says:
“An innocent little boy is going to die. You’re either somebody who will help him, or somebody who won’t. For the rest of your life you’ll be somebody who did help him, or somebody who didn’t.”
This is truly great. - Alex

Monday, May 28

The Pardon – James Grippando

Rebelling against his conservative politician father, Jack Swyteck became a defence lawyer. The night before his execution, Jack is shown definitive proof that émigré Raul Fernandez is not guilty of the murder he was convicted of. Desperate to save Raul, Jack goes to his father – governor of Florida, Harry Swyteck has the power to pardon Raul. But Jack has no evidence, and Harry’s in the middle of a campaign about being tough on crime, so Raul’s execution goes ahead.
Two years later, and Jack has successfully defended Eddy Goss when he was able to exclude the videotaped confession by arguing that police pleas the murdered girl be given a decent, Christian burial, were illegal duress. As Jack leaves the courthouse he is drenched with blood – Florida sees him as being equally culpable.
In the days that follow, both Jack and Harry are caught up in a web of revenge for the death of innocent Raul, as each step binds them tighter and tighter – as his relationship with girlfriend Cindy crumbles, Jack is framed for Goss’s murder. When the evidence Jack was shown two years earlier is revealed to Harry, his actions opens him up to charges of a cover-up, becomes the victim of blackmail, and he is also implicated in the killing. But who is behind it, and why are they avenging Raul’s death?
Although the plot as tight and had the required twists, I didn’t feel fully engaged with either protagonist – each time they were given a choice between honesty and trouble, or lies and evasion, they chose the later, miring themselves deeper. Jack in particular makes a series of stupid decisions that affect his relationship, the consequences of which were predictable and telegraphed. I also found some of the writing a little too purple, pulling me out of the story - Goss, for example, is described as standing "rigidly, his furor-filled eyes locked in an intense stare-down."

The novel's title, by the way, refers not just to the unsuccessful plea for Raul's pardoning, but also to the last lines of the book, when father and son have finally reconciled after almost a lifetime of estrangement: "He'd finally earned the governor's pardon. And the governor had earned his." A happily ever after ending in all respects. I did enjoy the book enough to finish it despite this lack of engagement, but I don’t think I want to read the sequel. - Alex

Sunday, May 27

A Fate Worse Than Dragons – John Moore

Tradition has it that if a knight slays a dragon, the beautiful princess of the kingdom is his. Although nobody knows it, Sir Terry and the Princess Gloria are in love, and have hatched a plan that will force the crown to cede its most treasured jewel to a middle-class knight with no prospects. Well, less ‘they’ve hatched’ and more Gloria’s plan, which sadly goes awry when Terry discovers that – prior to his killing it in a fluke, spear-through-the-roof-of-its-cavernous-maw way - the dead dragon had wandered over a recently redrawn property line in disputed territory. Instead of the brilliant, scintillating Gloria, Terry must wed (the obligation goes both ways) the crazy Princess Jane, who talks to animals. Dead animals. Like pot roasts.
Fortunately, through some quick thinking and the dimness of his valet, Huggins, Terry is able to slip out of the obligation. But with no dragon left to kill, and Gloria engaged (thanks to her parents) to Roland Westfield(whose family bakery came up with the unpopular innovation of sliced bread), the lovers have to come up with a new, foolproof scheme.
This is an above-average genre fantasy – the four main characters are distinct and well rounded, the writing is witty, and I particularly liked the on-going threads about the heinousness of sliced bread and the bizarre attraction of people-eating creatures to virgins. As Gloria points out, not being eaten can just mean the creature wasn’t hungry. If I come across any other Moore books I’ll certainly check them out, but I don’t think I’ll feel the need to specifically go looking. – Alex

Saturday, May 26

The Breakdown Lane – Jacqueline Mitchard

Julieanne Gillis has a brilliant life – married to her college sweetheart, two great adolescents and a surprise toddler, a fantastic relationship with her in-laws, still able to star in ballet class at the age of forty-something, and a thoroughly enjoyable job as an advice columnist. Sure, not everything’s perfect – son Gabe has learning difficulties and hates school, daughter Caro is a little more self-centred than Julieanne would really like, and over the last few years Leo has becoming a little less attentive than he used to be, and is increasingly interested in alternative living. He named their baby Aurora Borealis, for heavens’ sake, and has started making jibes about things like the cost of ballet class. But he’s a lawyer, they’re very comfortable, and life is really pretty much perfect.
And then Julieanne’s perfect life starts to fall apart.
Leo leaves to find himself, Julieanne’s health disintegrates, and when she’s given a devastating diagnosis it falls to fifteen-year-old Gabe to support the family as Caro runs wild.
This novel is very effectively told from both Julieanne’s perspective and through Gabe’s diary entries. Mitchard manages to beautifully convey the frustration and anger that both people with chronic illness and their carers experience, the utter selfishness of ‘following your bliss’ at the expense of your responsibilities, and the conflict between loyalty and betrayal that children feel when their parents fail to meet their expectations. The foreshadowing means that some of the impact of events unfurling is lost, but is true to the voice of the main narrator and actually contributes to the sense of frustration that permeates much of the book. Each chapter opens with one of Julieanne’s columns, which both depicts the changing nature of her advice and provides a sharp contrast with her own unravelling life. Though I thought the ending was a little contrived and fairytalesque, I really enjoyed reading The Breakdown Lane. – Alex

Friday, May 25

David Devereux: Memoirs of an Exorcist

This book is an account of how the author ended up working as a secular exorcist. It includes a brief history of his interest in the occult, an introduction to the mechanics of the mundane side of the business, his views on magic and religion, and a sample of the highlights of his career thus far.
It is clearly stated at the beginning that this is not a ‘how-to’ guide and that details of the actual exorcism process are not included to prevent the unprepared from ‘having a go’. Though understandable, it is a shame those details were left out, I feel they could have added an interesting dimension to the book.
The author claims that one of the qualities required in an exorcist is a near arrogant belief in themselves and their ability. This attitude is certainly apparent in the writing style, which at times comes across as bordering on patronising, but is tempered somewhat by a wicked sense of humour.
It would have been very easy to slip into the realm of the horror story when relating the details of particular exorcisms he has performed but the few sample cases that the author includes are presented in a professionally detached tone, using plain language and eschewing sensationalism.
I would have preferred if the cases had been presented in a more documentary tone, like those in medical texts where a case is presented then analysed, but that is simply my stylistic preference.
I’m not a big fan of biography or memoirs but this one was different enough to catch my eye. While it didn’t provide the more detailed insight into an unusual profession that I had hoped for it was, nonetheless, an interesting enough read and the recommendations in the further reading list might be worth a look.-Lynn

Thursday, May 24

The Summer Psychic – Jessica Adams

After the surprisingly hard going of the last book I wanted something fluffy and light, and jumped on Summer Psychic, which centres on Jo Delaney, a reporter for a small local paper in Coffs Harbour on the Queensland coast. Still reeling from the car crash death of her boyfriend Andrew, Jo is unprepared for the declaration from interviewee Luke Gabriel that they will be married within a year. Luke is a professed psychic from Cambridge, and although Jo doesn’t really believe, he knows a frightening amount about her, including things she’s never told anyone about Andrew.
During their interview Luke makes a number of significant predictions for the year – as the year is 2006, the reader has benefit of hindsight and can make sense of such cryptic prediction as “Trouble in Tasmania. They don’t think they’ll get out alive, but they will. But one will die first… The miners. They strike gold but for the wrong reasons. The town doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry” and “Why are they killing the stingrays in September? There’s blood in the water… Crikey, why are they killing the stingrays?”
During the course of the novel Jo has trouble on the work front (the paper’s not generating a lot of revenue, and editor Paul tries to spice it up to increase sales), falls for a musician she’s long worshipped, becomes embroiled in a mystery about a coven of frightening witches who seem to be practicing bad magic and bespelling those around her, and begins to finally work through her grief. Oh, and she marries Luke, though more for friendship than for love.
I found The Summer Psychic a pleasant but not memorable read, and was reminded once again that an interesting premise is not evidence of an interesting novel. - Alex

Wednesday, May 23

Mankind – Mick Foley

Last week, gazing at the uncreased spines of my unread books, arranged in height order and then alphabetically, with a shelf each for hardbacks, large format non-fiction, large format fiction and so on, I decided to make a bigger dint in the hardbacks – many of which have been waiting an unduly long time. Few have waited longer than this first volume of autobiography by wrestler Mick Foley, which I bought on its release in 1999.
Foley is a wrestler of renown on the pro-wrestling circuit – here he tells how he became interested in pro-wrestling, his journey from college student through the various different wrestling leagues to Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, and the creation along the way of his three wrestling personas: Dude Love, Cactus Jack, and (most famous of al) Mankind. Threaded through his professional career, Foley includes his many failed attempts at finding love (usually of the purely physical kind), his marriage to a beautiful former model, his love of their two children, and the contrast between his public and private personas.
Many non-devotees see pro-wrestling as being fake. Foley acknowledges the engineered aspects of the industry – including designated outcomes, scripted feuds, and elaborate storylines. But he stresses that there is real risk, and that wrestlers sustain real (sometimes life threatening) injuries. Foley has loft most of an ear (in a match in Japan), has broken a number of bones, lost teeth, herniated discs and sustained second-degree burns to his arm and shoulder. And wrestlers have died in the ring – Foley writes with particular sadness as he pays tribute to Owen Hart, who died as the result of a prop malfunction and fall during the writing if this book.
Foley states that he hopes his book will be read not only by pro-wrestling fans but by those unfamiliar with the sport; unlike many celebrity “autobiographies” Mankind: Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks is not ghost written - Foley wrote it in seven weeks. And it shows – though his voice is genuine, often amusing, and frequently informative, it is irritatingly non-linear and assumes a great deal of knowledge about the world of pro-wrestling. Though I watched a little WWF on TV when I was younger, that was sporadic and a long time ago. Tighter editing and a clearer narrative flow would have significantly increased my reading enjoyment, as would captions of the photos liberally spread throughout this massive (500-odd page) tome. There are photo titles at the back of the book, but by the time I got there I really wasn’t interested any more. It took my several days to read Mankind, and then only because I forsook all other books until it was finished. I’m glad I (finally) read the book, and have renewed appreciation for the sport and the man, but have no interest in reading the follow-ups. - Alex

Sunday, May 20

Metallic Love - Tanith Lee

Twenty-three years after the publication of The Silver Metal Lover, Lee released a sequel. When I first saw it I hoped it would continue the story of Jane and Silver, though I strongly suspected a sequel would lessen the impact of the original.
It’s twelve years later. Unlike Jane, Loren is street smart and canny. Abandoned as an infant by her unknown mother, Loren grew up in a cult, working the streets proselytising and surviving on crusts of bed. Her life was grim until she discovered, hidden below the floorboards, a copy of Jane’s Story. Like so many others, Loren fell in love with Silver. Inspired by Jane, Loren runs away from the only home she’s known, and joins up with a gang of kids who clean houses to survive. She thrives, and winds up being the leader of a group of Dust Babes. One day, while supervising a cleaning detail, Jane sees a newscast – a company (META - Metals Extraordinary Trial Authority) is releasing a group of humanoid robots. Like the EM models, the robots are metallic (gold, silver, copper and – a new line – asteroid-black), and released in clusters (male/female pairs, rather than the original trios).
The newscast shows a beautiful young man dressed, Renaissance-style, in a white shirt with lacy cuffs, a dark red vest, dark jeans and red boots. His deep red hair tumbles over his shoulders, and his skin is silver.
This time around the robots have capacities undreamed of previously – they can change shape, and communicate with any other robotic device. They also have a freer will than their predecessors, and as Loren becomes more deeply involved with Versil – who looks like Silver, and has his memories, but is not Silver – she falls deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that will change not just Loren’s life but her entire picture of who and what she is.
The book opens with Loren telling us “You’re not going to like me. I apologise for that. It was Jane; she was the one you liked.” It’s true that I didn’t like Loren as much as Jane, or Versil nearly as much as Silver, but more than that I didn’t find the sequel nearly as compelling as the original. Jane’s character was nuanced, and we learned things about her and the other characters that Jane wasn’t aware of – like the manipulativeness of her mother. More than that, The Silver Metal Lover was deeper, more complex in character development and world-building, and had the elements of a great and enduring love story. In Metallic Love the relationship is less developed, less present, and the focus of the story is what happens when people create creatures that are autonomous, self-aware, and smarter than us, then try to use them as tools and entertainment, and about the effect of that on the creators. As a piece of FSF it’s not bad, and perhaps the problem is that I approached it as though it would be like The Silver Metal Lover. But if Lee wanted to explore those themes she could have, even in a universe similar to that of the original, without writing it so closely to its predecessor. I’m glad I read it, but, unlike TSML, I don’t think I’ll be reading it again. - Alex

Saturday, May 19

The Silver Metal Lover - Tanith Lee

Jane is sixteen, the pampered only child of Demea, a tall, beautiful, slender, powerful, wealthy single woman of strong character and clear ideas. As Jane says “she has many opinions, which is very restful, as that way I don’t have to have many of my own.” Jane tries to stay clear of analogies, because her mother called one of her favourite analogies ‘uninspired’. Jane is the product of artificial insemination, and was delivered according to the Principta method, which takes three or four hours. Her hair is tinted according to coloressence charting (to create the hue most suited to her) and her weight managed by capsules designed to maintain her as a Venus Media, the slightly voluptuous figure her frame is apparently suited for (according to the Phy-Excellence chart Demea had done when Jane was seven).
Jane has always fallen easily in love, usually with actors, though Clovis says that’s because she wants a father. Clovis is her attractive best friend; he’s mirror-biased, so they’ve never fallen in love, but he has slept with one of the actors Jane thought she was in love with. Jane has six friends – “a balanced number, according to statistics” - half of who have fathers as well as mothers. Apart from Clovis, Jane doesn’t really like her other friends –Davideed, with whom she has little in common (he spends most of the novel studying silting at the equator); the somewhat colourless Chloe; manipulative, deceitful, malicious twins Medea and Jason; and the emotive, dramatic Egyptia. Demea thinks it’s good for Jane to spend time with Egyptia, “who she thinks is insane. This will be stimulating for me, and teach me responsibility toward others.”
Egyptia knows she is talented and destined for greatness, but has not yet found the field in which she will excel. On the way to meet and support Egyptia in her latest venture, acting, Jane catches a flyer into the city. Instead of the usual robot box driving the flyer, this one is driven by a box with an animated head. It tells Jane that Electronic Metals Ltd are introducing new ranges of more humanoid robots. This includes nine Sophisticated Formats (trios of Silver Ionised Locomotive Verisimilitude, Gold Optimum Locomotive Dermatized and Copper-Optimum Pre-Programmed Electronic Robots - SILVER, GOLDER and COPPER respectively), who will be on display throughout the city that day, one at the theatre where Egyptia is auditioning.
When Jane sees Silver she falls irrevocably in love. This novel is their story.
I first read The Silver Metal Lover when I was fourteen or fifteen. I, too, fell in love – with unexpectedly strong-willed Jane, with perfect Silver, and their romantic running away from home, and for years I wanted their apartment, with a rainbow carpet made from sample scraps and a floating whale in the bathroom. Who am I kidding? Part of me still wants that. I read the book several times during my high school years, but have been afraid to read it again in case it was diminished with time and perspective. After reading "Tiger I" last week I decided to risk it, and time has not wearied this beautifully written, bittersweet story of innocence, true love, tragedy and betrayal. Like the very different work of the amazing Kerry Greenwood, anything I write will detract from the brilliance of this perfect book. Read it. - Alex

Thursday, May 17

Not Meeting Mr Right - Anita Heiss

Alice Aigner is the head of history at a Sydney girls' school; a twenty-eight year-old Wiradjri woman, she's very happily single. At least until her friend Dannie (married, a child, and still interesting) convinces her to attend their ten year high school reunion, where Alice discovers that every other attendee is married and obsessed with babyhood. Disturbed by the apparent evidence that marriage and children make formerly-interesting women boring, insipid and suburban, Alice decides that she will be married by her thirteenth birthday, in sixteen months. She'll prove that a woman can be married, a mother, and still have a career and a mind of her own.
Between making wedding plans (the cake will be chocolate) Alice recruits her friends - Dannie, Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer Liza, and policy adviser Peta - to help her create a game plan and strategies for meeting the man of her dreams.
Alice isn't interested in just any man - he has to be single, straight, interested in commitment, good to his mother and children, love his work, vice-free (alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling), think Alice is gorgeous, unprejudiced, filled with faith for something (not necessarily religion), punctual (but happy for Alice to run on "Koori time"), debt-free (except for a mortgage), "loyal, faithful, honest, chivalrous, witty, competent, responsible and a good listener", free of baggage and a compatible star sign.
With her shopping list in hand, Alice embarks on a string of dates with men sourced through her family, friends, colleagues and newer methods (singles ads, internet dating and Sydney's Singles uprising (to which Alice charmingly wears a lilac slip dress and no underwear). On the way she has a fling with what looks like the Real Thing, but isn't. After months of hard man hunting, Alice decides that she really is happier single. And once she stops looking, she finds real love, which was under her nose all the time.
I really wanted to like this novel by first time author Heiss - partly because I think there should be more Indigenous representation in mainstream media and partly because I liked the premise. I've attended a few reunions of my own...
It's unfortunate, then, that I found Alice as generally unlikeable as I find a lot of chick lit heroines - inflexible, unrealistic in her expectations, and selfish. She meets several nice potential candidates that she abandons for relatively inconsequential reasons, for she has significantly higher standards for her future partner than she has for herself.
There were a few bright moments - I particularly liked fellow teacher Mickey (when they meet in Darlinghurst "He always made me acknowledge 'the gay community whose land we gathered on'"), Alice doesn't have the chick lit staple obsession with designer shoes (thank god), and her litany of horror exes (dispersed throughout the novel) have the ring of real life.
Heiss does a nice job of depicting the experience of a young urban Indigenous woman in modern Australia. Alice's dad is Austrian, and Heiss is able to convey the information that Aboriginality is about culture, identity and tradition rather than (just) appearance. That Alice doesn't look stereotypically 'Indigenous' allows Heiss to expose some of the very real racism that is still strongly present in Australia, and Aboriginal issues are woven throughout the book (the one Torres Strait Islander depicted doesn't come out of it as well).
But I wasn't convinced by Alice's abrupt turnaround from resolutely single to marriage obsessed, or that a woman so logical and intelligent in other arenas of her life could be so linear and inflexible in her requirements. I found the level of detail about personal grooming (down to plucking stray pubic hairs) unnecessary, and I really didn't like the word "fucken" used in lieu of "fuckin'/fucking". Plus (and I acknowledge this is picky) the word 'malt' being used instead of 'moult' (regarding a shedding Siberian husky) is careless editing.
I'm interested in what Heiss writes next - I suspect that Not Meeting Mr Right was heavily autobiographical, and something a little less close to home, that retains the better elements of her writing, will be more accomplished and less predictable. - Alex

Danielle Wood: Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls

A collection of short stories told in a dark fairy-tale style, covering themes from love, through loss to destiny, this book provides a huge dose of heartache and very little levity.
While I did not expect a book with a title such as this to be entirely frivolous, the back cover blurb did lead me to expect some measure of humour. My expectation was to be disappointed. These stories run the gamut from poignant to just plain depressing and the tiny glimmer of hope staked out in the last pages of the final story was not enough to balance the book.
Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind when reading the stories. Perhaps I missed the humour supposedly contained within its pages. Perhaps I’m just a literary Luddite who wouldn’t know genius if it had its tongue down my throat. But not one story from this collection moved me to feel anything other than sorry for the protagonist. Nothing in it left me thinking and since I wasn’t being entertained or taught I had hoped to at least be provoked into thought. I kept reading to the end anticipating that the next story would be the one that made the effort worthwhile. If it had been a novel rather than a collection of shorter works I doubt I would have finished it at all.
Though well written I don’t think this book lived up to its promise. It was simply not for me.-Lynn

Tuesday, May 15

The Woman with a Worm in Her Head - Pamela Nagami

Dr Nagami has been an infectious diseases specialist since the early 1970’s. This collection describes some of her most memorable cases – either because of the unique diagnostic and therapeutic challenges they presented, or because of how they affected her life. The chapter of AIDS is particularly interesting in this regard: Nagami was already working in the field when the first US cases began appearing in the literature, and she recounts both her intellectual, specialist interest in the evolving picture of the disease, its diagnosis, early impact, and current management, as well as the personal impact AIDS had on one of her closest friends, fellow doctor Henry.
This blend of the personal and the professional (Nagami often intersperses what she was doing with her children into the narrative of an individual patient’s disease and treatment progression) is a unique and – for me – irritating addition to the more standard genre style of, for example, the divine Atul Gawande. This is not to say that other medical writers do not include personal details, but in general these tend to be related to their development as a clinician. I was significantly less interested in the minutiae of Nagami’s day-to-day life than the cases, but my engagement with, and Nagami’s ability to individualise, the cases is a tribute to her empathy and her ability. Not all of the cases are medical triumphs, but the humanity of the patients, and Nagami’s engagement with them as such, was evident throughout. She is also able to describe complicate pathology and intervention in a way that is accessible to the lay reader, without boring the more informed one.
This was an interesting read so soon after Where the Germs Are – Nagami reports that she is the only member of her family to be free of obsessive-compulsive symptomology, and she describes the affect of her work, and her concern of bring the microbes at the heart of her work, home with her. In addition to the cases reports, Nagami’s take home message is clear – don’t obsess over every surface and bug, but take appropriate precautions: vaccinate yourself and your children, and know when to seek help. The chapter on the life-threatening effects of varicella (chicken pbox) on adults should have every non-immune reader running for a vaccination, and made me inordinately appreciative of those miserable two weeks of itchy hell I experienced at age six. - Alex

Monday, May 14

If I Were an Evil Overlord – Martin H Greenberg + Russel Davis (ed)

Inspired by the many lists of things that evil overlords would do well to remember, this collection of short stories gathers luminaries from FSF, and runs the gamut from light and amusing (Dean Wesley Smith’s “Life & Death of Fortune Cookie Tyrant”) to the creative (Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Art Therapy”). The would-be evil overlords are predominantly terrestrial, but Hoffman’s has been remanded to overlord rehab (for overlords who have lost their edge) and Donald J Bingle (“Loser Takes All”) writes about the would-be overlord of a virtual war game.
Like most anthologies, I didn’t enjoy all the entries, but most of them appealed, and I really liked the premise. - Alex

For Lynn's review of If I Were an Evil Overlord, click here

Issac Asmiov's Mother's Day - Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams (ed)

With no little trepidation – we have not been too successful with fiction anthologies of late - I embarked on this collection in honour of Mother’s Day. The first story is “Even the Queen”, by the brilliant Connie Willis (author of The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog); she has masterfully portrayed the complex mother-daughter relationship in this insightful tale of a multi-generational crisis meeting that depicts mother, mothers-in-law, daughters and sisters with clarity, humour and truth.
I felt a renewed optimism for the short story collection, and continued on to the interesting “Lovestory” by James Patrick Kelly, my first acquaintance with his work. More standard fantasy fare, this story deals with the impact on the whole family when the mother of a three-parent family (on a planet where a father, a mother and a Mam are needed to reproduce, birth and raise a child until s/he is a tween and ready to leave home).
A little less engaged but still encouraged, I moved on to the touching and distressing “Jenny” by Melanie Tem (didn’t know her work, either), which explores the affect on a whole family of the death a child, told from the point of view of the dead daughter’s older sister. It wasn’t uplifting but it was powerful and engrossing.
Megan Lindholm’s “A Touch of Lavender” is also told from the first-person point of view of a child, this time the son of a single woman whose love of itinerant-but-up-and-coming musicians (who leave her every time they’re about to make it) means their welfare is put in front of her son’s. Until the day a Skoag (an alien, music-reproducing race) follows Billy home.
For some reason, though I love The Silver Metal Lover, I haven’t really been absorbed by Tanith Lee’s work. “Tiger I”, the tale of a woman who allegedly gives birth to great cats, was all right, but it didn’t grip me the way some of the other stories did.
Mike Resnick (some of whose work I know) and Susan Schwartz (know none) teamed up for “Bibi”, the story of a former-money obsessed, HIV-positive aid worker in Somali who, with Ugandan-born-England-educated Elizabeth, discover that Africa is the motherland because the Mother cares for us all still. I found it a little difficult to get into, but thought provoking and interesting. Almost done!
Kristine Kathryn Rusch submitted “Reflections on Life and Death”, which examines exactly what we’re prepared to do when hard decisions have to be made – in this case, whether or not Sarah should place her aged mother (who abandoned her to the care of Sarah’s grandmother) in a government-run facility, or care for her at home, where one salary doesn’t stretch far enough to cover the needs of three growing children.
Susan Casper (all these writers I don’t know!) wrote the penultimate contribution of what was shaping up to be a better than average collection, wrote “Nine-tenth of the Law”, which is the scary story of what could happen to you if your mother died during surgery and supplanted your husband’s consciousness in his body – Mrs Birnbaum doesn’t quite know when it’s time to leave the building.
The final story, “Mrs Lincoln’s China” by M Shayne Bell, is about a woman rescuing sample dining services of presidential china when rioting (or generalised social upheaval, it isn’t really clear) in Washington results in storming the White House. Eh. It didn’t really speak to me, but that’s the nature of anthologies, and the rest were better than average, with some real standouts. My faith in fiction collections has been restored. - Alex

Saturday, May 12

Chill Factor – Rachel Caine

Once again the novel opens with a summation of the plot so far, including: “ I had a really bad week, died, got reborn as a Djinn, had an even worse week, saved the world, sort of… oh, and I died again, sort of. And this time I woke up human.”
Jo’s in mourning for her lost Djinn abilities. But she has no time to grieve – Kevin, a seventeen year old boy abused all his life by his sadistic mother, has seized one of the universes most powerful Djinn and is wreaking havoc on the US. Jo winds up in Vegas, where she has to balance the demands of the Wardens, the Ma’at, and the increasing threat of Kevin.
I think I gave away too much plot in the last Caine review, so will be more brief this time. The series once again delivers – the writing is tight and engrossing, the characterisation consistent but not predictable, and the plots are fresh. After my recent binge I’m going to hold off buying books four and five, at least for a while, but their purchase is inevitable. - Alex

Friday, May 11

Is He or Isn’t He? - John Hall

It’s been a terrible summer - Anthony De Marco broke up with his philandering boyfriend in Provincetown, and Paige Crane’s soap star mother once again ignored her in favour of the beautiful people. They embark on their senior year at one of New York’s most prestigious private schools with a pact to find boyfriends by Senior Prom. Anthony, known for his fabulous parties, throws an end-of-vacation soiree and though Felix Fennimore, Peppington Prep’s gossip columnist and Anthony’s arch rival, crashes the party, he brings with him the divine Max Coulter. Paige and Anthony both fall immediately in love, and need to know – is he or isn’t he?
Anthony’s usually reliable gaydar isn’t telling him whether Max is gay or metrosexual, and neither of them want to just come out and ask him (even though Paolo, Anthony’s college-age brother, doesn’t get why not). Instead they try a variety of strategies – from asking Max to star in Anthony’s UCLA-audition film, a coming of age drama about a young gay man, to engineering an all-girls-plus-Max-and-a-hot-tub weekend away at Paige’s parent’s holiday house in the Hamptons – to get Max to reveal himself, then pool information. Gay or straight, one of them will end up with him.
IHOIH is engaging but predictable. The book is a little twee (Peppington Prep?), the characters are likeable enough, and the egotism of moneyed, attractive adolescence nicely permeates the novel and is central to the plot development. The dramas Paige and Anthony have with their families are resolved relatively painlessly; the secondary characters are original but lightweight; the revelation of Max’s sexual orientation is anticlimactic; and I saw the eventual romantic hook-ups well in advance. That said the novel is a refreshing change of pace, in that it depicts a young gay man who is untroubled by his sexual orientation and accepted by his family and peers, closeted at school while he waits to join the more mature and open minded world of college.
It’s not clear from the text if Anthony’s sexually active, and the point is made that Paige is informed but abstinent. As an informed feminist, I’m aware of the inequality of portraying a female character as abstinent and therefore responsible, while not similarly defining the male character, an aspect I mention because it niggled at me while reading the book. Lord knows I’ve read a plethora of more egregiously depicted gender wrongs, but for some reason I was really aware of it this time.
I don’t think I’ll be picking up further writings by Hall, but I enjoyed most of IHOIH. - Alex

Kerry Greenwood: Queen of the Flowers

Another instalment in the Phryne Fisher mystery series. This story sees Phryne elected as queen of a local flower festival, traumatic enough on its own, but throw in a runaway daughter in search of her natural father, the return of an old lover, the disappearance of one of her parade attendants and a couple of elephants and Phryne is in for a very busy time indeed.
As if that wasn’t enough, the missing attendant turns up near drowned and it is up to Phryne to save her life, keep her hidden from those who would have her killed and find her attempted murderers.
She manages to do all this and more with poise, wit, impeccable grooming and time left over to visit the festival bazaar.
Kerry Greenwood reliably provides a good read and this book does not disappoint. For Phryne fans this story develops some of the secondary characters but it does not assume an acquaintance with the series and unobtrusively explains the relationships between the characters for those coming newly to Phryne’s world.
Some elements of the story could have so easily have followed the path of least resistance and been obvious but instead they take an unexpected turn that prevents them from wallowing in predictability.
I did see one of the twists coming but the writing is of such quality that rather than be irritated with this I actually felt clever that I’d been able to work it out in advance. Now that shows Greenwood’s skill.
I could wax lyrical about how enjoyable this story was (great character development, beautiful description that truly invokes the period, interesting story line, fantastic balance of historical fact to fictional events, well paced) but I’m sure I’ve said it all before and if I haven’t then undoubtedly Alex has.
A very enjoyable read that was over much too soon, Queen of the Flowers is for lovers of ‘modern’ history and crime fiction alike. Highly reccommended.-Lynn

Wednesday, May 9

Don’t Sweat the Aubergine – Nicholas Clee

According to Clee, most people make fewer than three recipes from each cookbook they buy, and this is because the recipes are intimidating to the amateur chef. In Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What works in the kitchen and why, he sets out to demystify these inexplicable requirements.
Like most cookbooks, which is what this basically is, DStA is divided into sections on ingredients, equipment etc, then into courses. The recipes are annotated where an explanation is given, but the notes are annoyingly at the end of each recipe, including variations, rather than at the foot of each page, meaning frequent flipping over several pages to find out why mushrooms need to be rinsed, or why you should use drumsticks when making chicken stew.
The title comes from the particular issues that surround cooking aubergines/eggplants, including whether or not to salt the cut surfaces. In this, as in all areas where there is chefish conflict, Clee discusses why salting is justified, what it does and does not do, who he referred to when deciding what to do, and then how to cook aubergine/eggplant in a variety of ways.

The emphasis is on traditional British fare, heavy on the meat, though there is a small section on stir frying and the like. His tone is light and confident, and clearly aimed at the very inexperienced cook, though much of his explanation was helpful for the more experienced but inquisitive cook. If you’ve ever wondered if heating the stock really makes a difference when making soup, when to add garlic when making sausage sauce, or why discarding vegetables from a stew isn’t really wasteful, this is the book for you. - Alex

Tuesday, May 8

The Mummy at the Dining Room Table – Jeffrey A Kottler and Jon Carlson

Thirty eminent therapists, in addition to the editors, have submitted their most memorable cases from decades of clinical practice. In some cases the patients were memorable because of how they affected the therapists practice. In others it’s because the cases or clients were startlingly unique. The enticing title of this collection comes from one of co-editor Carlson’s most memorable cases, of a family so devastated by the death of their matriarch that they (her husband and a dentist friend) mummified her and continued to live their lives with her as normal. The family itself wasn’t in therapy – it came to light in the course of couples counselling that Carlson was doing with the woman’s niece.
Some of the stories don’t have a satisfactory conclusion, usually because the patient or family terminated therapy or moved before the problem was resolved. This aspect could have been frustrating, but is framed as, and gives insight into, one of the realities of clinical work – you don’t always get a happy ending. Or any ending. As one of the editors notes, "that’s the frustrating thing about doing therapy – people sometimes leave before we are ready to let them go."

I particularly liked Scott Miller’s case of a nineteen-year-old man who, in the course of his preparation for an overseas missionary position, reacted to the pressure with reactive psychosis, and thought he was the Terminator. Instead of trying to convince him that this was not reality, Miller accepted the patient’s reality, and worked within that framework to effect change.
The editors have worked hard to preserve each therapist’s voice in the presentation of the cases, which serves to deepen the experience of reading. This book is fascinating for anyone who is interested in the odd ways people behave, the sequelae of abuse and dysfunctionality, the candid experiences of therapists (who in many cases admit that they didn’t know what they were doing but had nowhere else to go, therapeutically), different modalities of therapy, and anyone who wants reassurance that they’re comparatively normal. - Alex

Monday, May 7

Where the Germs Are – Nicholas Bakalar

This comprehensive text starts with the premise that we are too preoccupied with germ eradication – we buy antiseptic soaps and ‘hospital strength’ cleaning products, and demand antibiotics for infections that are viral or that our immune systems will eradicate on their own. As a result we spend unnecessary money, damage the environment, and (worst of all) are creating microbes resistant to all the drugs we have.
The chapters are broken down into vectors of potential infection (food, water, pets, public places), kinds of bugs (STD’s, colds and flu’s), and reducing risk (hand washing/toilet training, laundry aids, “fresh air and sunshine”, antiseptic products). Each area is then discussed – what the microbes are, what they do, how they’re transmitted, how transmission can be prevented. Most of the advice boils down to: always wash your hands well; always follow food preparation and storage guidelines; use hot soapy water to clean, then wash out the sponge and allow to dry; vaccinations have revolutionised the containments of formerly devastating disease but pools of contagion are deepening thanks to decreased uptake of vaccinations; and antibiotics need to be more cautiously prescribed.
Though - as the author acknowledges - the advice is repetitive, the book is fresh and interesting, and a valuable read for people who are concerned about germs. For those few who are phobic, and for the many who are swayed by advertising and current events programming, to be fearful of the evil bugs that lurk in supermarket trolleys, the knowledge that you only need hot, soapy water and a little vinegar will hopefully ease both mind and wallet. I say again - there is no need for 'hospital strength' laundry powder, surface wipes or toilet cleaner! - Alex

Sunday, May 6

Georgette Heyer: Devil's Cub

When the Marquis of Vidal is forced to leave the country (due to the imminent death of a man he shot in a drunken duel) the notorious gamester and rake plans to take his latest fancy with him. His future conquest’s sister discovers the plan, and knowing that his intentions are not in the least honourable, she decides to meet him in her younger sister’s place. In doing so she believes that she can save her sister’s reputation and destroy his inappropriate interest in the girl.
In a fit of temper at finding himself duped, and believing the sisters were in it together, the Marquis abducts the substitute with a view to revenge. He soon learns that the two sisters are completely dissimilar. Instead of the light skirt he had expected, the older sister is a true and proper lady and he has compromised her beyond redemption.
He offers marriage and she declines. Having got to know him and developed feelings for him she does not wish to enter into a union of duty rather than love.
Throughout their flight his feelings for her grow but it is only when she manages to escape on the eve of their wedding that he realises how much he has come to love her. He tracks her down, declares himself, allays her many concerns about their union and they live happily ever after.
I enjoyed The Devil’s Cub. Though slow to start, as is the nature of books of its era (it was originally published back in the 1930s), it eventually delivers a fine historical romance. The primary characters are well established and though some of the secondary characters felt two-dimensional they provide an amusing backdrop to the main story. Given that the focus of a romance is supposed to be on the primary relationship I can overlook this minor flaw common to most works written in the traditional style.
Reading this I was made aware that my schoolgirl French is rather rusty but I was able to pick up the meaning of phrases used without too much trouble.
Overall I found this book to be a nice distraction for a rainy afternoon-Lynn

Saturday, May 5

Blue – Abigail Padgett

Blue McCarron is a thoroughly unconventional heroine – a lesbian social psychologist who doesn’t really like people, she retreated to an abandoned hotel in the middle of the California desert when the love of her life, the mysterious Mischa, vanished without warning from her life two years ago.
While swimming with her constant companion Brontë, a Doberman, Blue is interrupted by a middle-aged man who wants to hire her. His widowed older sister, Muffin Crandall, is in jail, having confessed to killing a stranger in her garage five years earlier, then hiding the body in a freezer. The body was discovered by accident when a power failure caused it to defrost.
Blue is intrigued by the case, and could use the money. But she’s not prepared for what follows – archetypes, threats, a small string of murders, and the unexpected resurfacing of Mischa just as she’s feeling her way into a new relationship with Roxie Bouchie, whose secret identity is “The Only Black Woman in North America Who knows All the Words to Every Song Recorded by Garth Brooks.”
Blue is a truly original and captivating heroine, and Padgett’s style continues to deliver. The book is more than a straightforward mystery, although those elements are spot on – the murder is explicable, logical and justifiable, and the motivation is exquisite and satisfying. But Padgett colours the writing with Blue’s experiences – her dissertation was about how primate evolutionary behaviour affects modern man’s default behaviour, and is coloured by her feminist education. So throughout the novel Blue compares the narratives and actions of the people she meets with archetypes, the collective unconscious, and evolutionary and feminist theory. Though this sounds as though it would be tiresomely academic and didactic, in Padgett’s hands the result is a harmonious, humorous, readable and erudite analysis that blends in with the mystery plot seamlessly.
I did think that there was a little too much coincidence for the book to be wholly believable, but that minor flaw only through the rest of this masterpiece into stronger contrast. Irritatingly I discovered that Blue has been waiting on my shelves for me for at last eight years, but perhaps I was meant to read it now, not when I bought it. Now I just have to track down the second in the series, Blue Plate Special, and check what else awaits me. Ah, the more I read the more there is to read! – Alex

Friday, May 4

Sue Grafton: P is for Peril

Another instalment of the alphabet series featuring the intrepid private investigator Kinsey Millhone.
This time a doctor has been missing for nine weeks. His first wife is sure he is still alive, his second wife is equally sure he is dead. Kinsey is hired to find him one way or another.
Her investigations draw her into a web of adultery, teenage angst, medical insurance fraud and murder. All at a time when she is trying to find affordable office space in an owner’s market and is being romantically pursued by an attractive man with a not so attractive past.
I like the alphabet series even if the heroine often has to rely on dumb luck to get the break she needs to crack a case.
Being set twenty years ago it offers an eye opening reminder of what life was like before the personal computer and mobile phones became household items, when things like DNA testing and eftpos weren’t as readily available as they are now.
The tone of the book is conversational meaning that it doesn’t require too much effort on the part of the reader. And I didn't pick ‘who done it’ until very near the end of the book this time. Having said that I think it best to read this series at large intervals if it is not to become predictable.
I was a little disappointed in the ending. Although we see her solve the case and there is a heavy implication as to who was responsible and why, the story didn’t feel finished to me. I actually checked to make sure that no pages had been removed from my copy. There was no ‘wrap up’ at the end, which I think is a new technique for Grafton.
Overall, P is for Peril was just what I anticipated it to be. I find the quality of the alphabet series is consistent and reliable, so if you like one there is every chance you will like the rest. Next time I am looking for a light, easy and entertaining read that doesn’t ask too much of a commitment from me I will go for another instalment.-Lynn

Thursday, May 3

Checkmate – Malorie Blackman

Callie Rose is fifteen and conflicted. A halfer, she’s the product of the union between her singer/songwriter Cross mother, Sephy, and her dead nought father. Though too light to be accepted by the dominant culture and too dark to pass as one of the subjugated, Callie Roses’ childhood was protected by her mother and paternal grandmother. But now she’s starting to grow up, to question her history, her family and her culture. And she’s been exposed to the harsh realities of the racially conflicted society she is part of.
This is the final part in the Noughts and Crosses trilogy – parts one and two told the Romeo and Juliet story of Callie Roses’ parents, privileged Cross Persephone (Sephy), daughter of wealthy politician Kamal Hadley and his alcoholic wife Jasmine, and nought Callum McGregor, whose father Ryan was killed as a terrorist and whose mother Meggie worked as a servant for the Hadley’s. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say that Callum died before Callie Rose was born, and Sephy has never explained any of the detail of their relationship, or the convoluted relationships she has with either family, to Callie Rose, leaving her vulnerable to the machinations of Callum’s fanatical brother Jude.
Checkmate opens with a prologue from Jude’s perspective, then intersperses Callie Rose’s story (which is comprised of significant events from her childhood onward) with a linear narrative from the points of view of Meggie, Jasmine, Sephy and Jude. We discover how the mistakes of the past echo down to the life-changing act of terrorism that Callie Rose feels is her only choice, and we are witness to the redemptive, sacrificial power of love.
This is a powerful series that manages to illuminate the fundamental inequalities of contemporary Western culture by creating a society that mirrors ours in all but degree of segregation (think South Africa in the 1980’s) and colours of the oppressed and the oppressors. The lesson does not overshadow the plot or characterisation, and the ending is resolved in all the ways that are satisfactory without being pat or facile. I have looked forward to the conclusion of the series since I first read Noughts and Crosses, and Checkmate delivered. – Alex

Tuesday, May 1

Perfect Freedom – Gordon Merrick

Stuart Cosling has already lived an unconventional life – his dalliance with a French widow, never formalised, has resulted in a son, Robbie, and a relationship so solid that he and Hélène have no need for a meaningless ritual. As the world recovers from both the Great War and the Depression, Stuart wants something more meaningful than fripperies and the idleness his wealth is able to afford him. Although his inheritance has been diminished, he still has enough money to buy a large plot of land in the undiscovered beauty of St. Tropez. Stuart dreams of creating a beautiful home for his family, surrounded by real people and real things – the land, vines, pigeons and the glorious sea. Being in St. Tropez fills the young man with a spirit and passion heretofore unfelt, and leads him into an affair with the enchanting Odette. To save her from the inevitable, he gives Odette little gifts, keeping her charms for himself.
When Stuart’s investment proves less viable than he at first envisioned – pigeons die, the vines wither, the shack leaks and the wind gales – he must turn to Odette for money. Though he asks her where she’ll be able to get it from, when she demurs he lets it go and gladly accepts the money. He also ends their affair. Odette attempts to blackmail him, but Stuart confesses all to Helene, and though their relationship is forever changed by his betrayal, she forgives him. Stuart, though resistant to the increasing commerciality of their once-isolated coastal town, sells of most of his large property and builds a magnificent home, with a smaller dwelling for the now teenage Robbie. The Coslings go on to become wealthy, fabulous icons in the growing vibrancy that St. Tropez becomes. But from the beginning the shadow of the Third Reich looms over the Coslings’ idyllic life.
You would think from this précis that Perfect Freedom is a somewhat typical, sweeping saga of life and love in times of turbulence. No. Perfect Freedom is a purported classic (published in 1982) of gay literature. Though the first half of the book centres on the unreservedly heterosexual Stuart, threaded throughout are seeds of Robbie – his artistic nature, his imposition on the love that Helene and Stuart feels for one another, his brush with death and resulting maternal devotion, his near-Raphelite beauty, his mother’s distaste for the corporeal, his distress at his father’s rampant nakedness on the beach, his first fumbling sex play with a neighbourhood boy and girl, his outrage at witnessing his parents coupling.The rest of the book focuses on Robbie’s sexual awakening and maturity. Though attracted to men, he has a horror of homosexuality, without really knowing what it means. On a month-long sailing trip he is initiated into the act of physical love with ship’s boy Rico. But wait – the blurb can summarise this so much better than I. They are:
"Rico – the Italian deckhand who took Robbie’s innocence for his own macho gratification

"Theo – the Greek Adonis who gave himself wholly to Robbie and shared him with his [twin] brothers
"Yanni – the lean, darkly brooding biker, who never did it with men, until he met Robbie
"Carl – the golden German playboy who couldn’t resist Robbie’s desires – or Robbie’s mother
"Jeff – the suave American tourist who befriended Robbie’s parents in order to have their son
"Toni – the French actor who adored women as much as they adored him but who found a special love with Robbie"
For some reason the blurb leaves out Edward, the son of a multiply married Admiral, and Maurice, Robbie’s teacher and long-time companion (and also the only man Robbie actively seduces).
All in all a veritable League of Nations of amorous men, all of who had huge, throbbing erections and with whom Robbie had instantaneous and/or simultaneous orgasms (eg "The pressure of their erections against each other gave Robbie an immediate orgasm. He snatched for the towel to contain the ejaculation and lay gasping in Carl’s arms").
This book doesn’t work as a saga – the switch in focus from the central relationship (which one would think was Stuart and his ego, but should be Stuart and his wife) to Robbie’s emerging sexuality is too abrupt; the ending is inconclusive, unsatisfactory, and doesn’t tie in with the prologue; and the sex scenes are too frequent, without advancing the plot or developing the characters.
I enjoy gay sex scenes. As a woman, my taste is directed more to those with plot, substance, character growth, background and seduction; I appreciate that a gay male author, writing for a gay male audience, won’t prioritise those elements like a female writer would. But Merrick is billed as a writer of gay romance novels, not erotica; though Perfect Freedom doesn’t work as erotica in any case. The sex scenes are cursory, unrealistic (even given Robbie’s youthful appetite), mechanically described and pretty devoid of eroticism. The pattern is as follows: Robbie is attracted to a boy/man. He begins to become erect, but doesn’t make the first move because of his terror of being labelled homosexual. The boy/man approaches Robbie, fairly directly in the first episodes, more circumspectly later. Their mutual interest becomes known, and Robbie either has a spontaneous orgasm or climaxes simultaneously with his partner: "Their mouths broke apart with simultaneous cries, and they shouted together while their bodies leaped and thrashed about with their orgasms."
The constant battle Robbie has with identifying himself as aberrant pédé, and the universal condemnation of homosexuality, was annoying. Most of Robbie’s companions identify themselves as being primarily straight but dally with men on the side. They shy away from Robbie’s singular attraction to men, telling him that this will change, that it is because of his initial experiences, that it is an immaturity he will grow out of. The only person who really accepts his orientation is Helene, and that’s because she doesn’t like the idea of him with another woman.
Helene's attraction to her son is a significant, disturbing and unnecessary plot element that is typical of the book as a whole, and the sex scene where she, Robbie and Carl are together was symbolic of the sex scenes altogether – it wasn’t referred to again, it didn’t advance the plot, and it didn’t make a significant impact on the characters which, given the enormity of a ménage a trois between a bisexual man and his mother/son lovers, is noteworthy.
I’m glad I read Perfect Freedom, if only because it was written by one of the leading lights of gay fiction. Perhaps, in the heady days when it was published – pre-HIV/AIDS and in the full flight of gay liberation – Perfect Freedom was an exemplar of the life young gay men could dream of. But it’s not erotica, it’s not a romance, and it’s not a sweeping saga. – Alex