Saturday, June 30

Being a Green Mother – Piers Antony

From a young age, Orb Kaftan could see sprites and hear the ethereal music of the Song of the Morning. Encouraged by her loving father Pacian, and with nothing for her at home after her virtual sister (technically aunt but also cousin) Luna and her father left for America, Orb set out to discover the Llano, legendary Song of Songs. She started travelling with Gypsies, picking up stories about and fragments of the Llano, and then joined a travelling show where she met a stuttering juggler named Mym. They fell in love, but were parted when soldiers took him back to his palace to be the next ruler. Neither of them knew she was pregnant until later. Unable to care for her daughter, Orb asked a Gypsy friend to place her with an American couple who would be able to give Orlene a good home.
Guided by Thanatos, Orb joined a music group, The Livin’ Sludge and, accompanied by Jezebel, a demoness cursed to transform into an insatiable succubus during the night, and by Lou-Mae, a choir singer, they began touring in Jonah, the fish cursed by God to swim for eternity but never through water.
Along the way Orb met a beautiful man, her equal in singing ability, and possessor of parts of the Llano. Natasha (whose parents had wanted a girl) was truly the ideal man for her, and as she got to know Nat better, she fell a little more in love with him. But then her mother, an aspect of the Incarnation Fate, told Orb she was destined to become Nature. Warned by several of the Incarnations, for Orb was prophesied as a child that she may marry Evil, she challenged to prove he was not a servant of Satan – he was able to speak words forbidden to His creations (‘God’, ‘good’, ‘heaven’) and touch a cross, then left in anger and disappointment that she doubted him.
Filled with remorse, Orb begged Natasha to return, for she was falling ever deeper in love with him. But was he really good?
Being a Green Mother was originally supposed to be the final instalment of the Incarnations series, and it certainly ends with a bang, rounding out many story lines raised in previous books. But Anthony says, in his expansive and trademark author’s notes, that there were still stories to tell. The connections between the Incarnations’ mortal and immortal lives are strengthened, and it’s satisfying to see pieces they were previously unaware of join up. Though, were this real, conspiracy theorists would have a field day – forget the secret cabal of alien/human crossbreeds that run the International Monetary Fund, the UK royal family and the US presidency! - Alex

Thursday, June 28

Evelyn Vaughn: Lost Calling

An earthquake in Paris uncovers priceless artefacts that a museum curator becomes obsessed with when she starts to get psychometric impressions from them. She follows the trail her visions open up and finds herself the target of somebody who thinks the finds should have remained lost and is willing to kill to ensure they do.
This is the first book of seven in Harlequin’s Madonna Key series and I really enjoyed it.
The characters are very well drawn. Vaughn manages to make the hero’s virginity completely believable, not an easy task, particularly in the short format Harlequin requires. She also gives us a heroine who is an unrepentant bitch and yet still a sympathetic character. The story line had plenty of action, something this author writes very well and enough romance to spice up the plot without it taking over.
The story unfolds organically and while there were a few moments where I had to suspend my disbelief they were few and far between. It would have been easy given the length of the book to use clichés and stereotypes as shortcuts. Vaughn, for the most part, avoids doing so and the story is all the better for it.
A working knowledge of the author’s previous works enriches the story but is by no means necessary.
My only gripe with Lost Calling was the unnecessary introduction of a mythological figure into a very minor role in the story. So insignificant is the part they play that I feel that it would have given the story greater credibility if they had been left out. I will be disappointed if this is a set up for a later novel because I don’t think this series should need a prop like this to carry it.
As the first book in a series there are a few issues that are not resolved by the end of the story but even so enough of the plot points are tied up that this book could stand-alone. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. I hope it lives up to its beginning.-Lynn

Wednesday, June 27

Wielding a Red Sword – Piers Anthony

Orb is a singer in a travelling show, seeking the Llano, a mythical song with tremendous power. She has the most beautiful voice that Mym has ever heard. On the run from his royal family, a stuttering second son, Mym hides in the open pretending to be mute and working as a juggler. When accosted by thuggees during a shopping trip, Mym binds Orb’s eyes and deliberately induces a berserker rage, slaughtering the would-be killers, for though a second son, he has been raised with all the skills required of a leader. He and Orb fall in love, and she teaches him how he can overcome his disability by singing. They are blissfully happy until the show is intercepted by emissaries from Mym’s father – his older brother, the heir, has been killed and Mym must now assume the crown.
Enraged, Mym bites his tongue to trigger his berserker rage, but is stopped by the intercession of Orb, who realises that he must leave and fulfil his duties. With a sad heart, Mym acquiesces, and returns to the palace. The king begins to send Mym consorts, who Mym refuses– his love for Orb persists despite their separation. That is until his father begins killing the women, impaling their severed heads on spikes outside the palace.
Resigned, Mym agrees to meet a princess from a neighbouring kingdom, Rapture of Malachite, and they stay in an enchanted castle for a fortnight. In the castle their thoughts can be heard, and the enforced intimacy results in a deep and abiding love. Their engagement is announced, their wedding plans underway, until a more advantageous coupling arises, and the king nullifies the engagement. In love, in protest, and with no other option, Mym assumes the role of the Incarnation of War, substituting trusting servants to act as himself and Rapture.
The conflict between duty and desire is beautifully portrayed in this fourth depiction of an Incarnation, and it was refreshing to have a non-Western protagonist – this novel opens the way for other faiths having other Incarnations and afterlives in a very interesting and thought provoking way. Two common threads of the series continue in this chapter – Sning, the snake ring given to Thanatos by Luna in the first book, and worn by Chronos in the second book, appears here also, and the role of Luna is further clarified, though she plays only a minor role here. – Alex

Monday, June 25

Stephan Lawhead: Merlin

The second instalment in the five book Pendragon Cycle, Merlin, is a kind of autobiography of the famous wizard told in retrospect.
He tells of his childhood in the halls of Avalon, his kidnapping by the hill folk and eventual escape, his coronation, his marriage, the murder of his wife and unborn child and the madness that follows through to his political machinations that result in the hiding of the future king Arthur and eventually this book ends with him plunging the famous sword into its stone.
Demystifying the traditional picture of a powerful wizard, this book describes Merlin as a prodigy whose thirst for knowledge is fed by a wide variety of sources and whose abilities are consolidated by years of practice. Merlin’s supposed powers here are a result of his ability to apply his uniquely broad education and insight. Though Lawhead keeps some of the magical elements of the story these play a minor part and are the exception rather than the rule. There is a heavy focus on Merlin as a Christian. We also see him as a son, friend, husband, king and madman before his final appearance as the magical advisor we recognise from legend.
While this story didn’t have the same world building that was so well done in Taliesin, Lawhead nevertheless, manages to bring Dark Age Britain to life.
I was a little put off by the emphasis on the Christian nature of Merlin’s spirituality, mainly because in the bulk of my reading it is Arthur who adopts the Christian faith. Merlin has always been presented as an adherent of the Druidic Path and I feel it suits his "historic" character better than this alternate representation.
I quite liked the mundane explanations for some of the more fantastic elements of the Arthurian legend. Particularly well done was the way Merlin occasionally refers to the absurdity of the stories that have grown up around certain events.
The one thing that I found incredibly frustrating was having no concept of Merlin’s age or more specifically the time line of events. Merlin is said to be old and appears to have outlived many of his contemporaries. Still at the end of this book his Atlantean mother, grandfather, servant and aunt are still all alive and well (it is said that they have longer life expectancies due to their heritage). It made it very difficult to get a picture of how much time was passing and approximately how old the other characters were during the major events. Detail that was perhaps not strictly necessary for the story but that would have cast it in a clearer light.
Overall I liked this book. It presents a reasonably believable story with well-developed main characters. I shall certainly be continuing on with this series. - Lynn

Sunday, June 24

Fix – Leslie Margolis

Cameron Beekman’s life changed when her parents paid for a rhinoplasty the same summer her family moved a hundred and twenty-five miles, from La Jolla to Bel Air. With her hair lightened, her braces off, and free to create a new personality, she went from being the ostracised “Beakface” to one of the hottest and most popular girls in school.
But however happy she is now, part of Cameron is still scarred by the horrendous bullying she endured, and she wonders how her new friends would feel about her if they knew the truth.
Cameron’s younger sister Allie loves soccer. She doesn’t understand Cameron’s obsession with hair, and makeup, and boys, and she feel less close to her ex-model mother because of it. Her whole family have assumed she wants a nose job, just like Cameron, and have arranged for it without even asking her, even though Allie hasn’t ever realised her nose was a problem. But the surgery recuperation time will eat into soccer camp, and coach has told her she won’t make varsity if she doesn’t attend the entire program.
Though the take home message of this book is a given – plastic surgery can’t fix everything in your life etc – the journey is well executed, and the characters are surprisingly well rounded. Margolis captures the adolescent conflict between desire for parental approval and the need to find your own way, the power of bullying and its ramifications, the impact perceived physical imperfection has on the psyche, and how others may not even notice what you see as a huge flaw, and the distress the formerly beautiful can feel as they age.
As I said, the message is a little heavy handed, but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed reading Fix, and will keep an eye out for more of the author’s work. – Alex

Saturday, June 23

With a Tangled Skein – Piers Anthony

Niobe was beautiful, self-possessed, and too good for the men her father offered her in marriage. After two rejections, her father stood firm – she would marry Cedric, a stripling from an academically inclined family. Though Niobe protested, her father stood firm, and Niobe ended up living in a hut with a boy almost ten years her junior. Proximity, Cedric’s physique and comely face, his tender personality, and his gift – when he sang and touched her it was as though an orchestra accompanied him – changed her mind, and affection soon turned to abiding love. When Cedric went to university the parting was hard on them both but did not dim their love, and the arrival of a son compounded their joy. Cedric’s professors said he was truly gifted, and his potential was boundless.
Then hunters, working as agents of Satan, killed Cedric. Distraught with grief, Niobe set herself alight to summon Death and plead with him to take her life in Cedric’s stead. Perplexed, Death took Niobe to each of the Incarnations in turn, and they discovered that it was Niobe who was slated to die – Cedric had substituted himself, and Niobe was slated to thwart Satan.
Niobe arranged for Junior to be raised by her husband’s family, alongside his uncle Pacian, only twelve years his senior, and took over the position of Clotho, the youngest aspect of Fate.
I enjoyed this chapter of the Incarnation series more than the second – the interweaving of Niobe’s personal and Immortal lives was well done, the story is more complex, and the roles she plays as aspects of Fate were much better defined. Interestingly, in this book Chronos’ role is considerably more highlighted than in his own book – he is seen as the most powerful Incarnation, with great ability.
The common thread – that Luna Kaftan is destined to challenge Satan – is expanded upon, and her connection with the Incarnations is clarified. In addition to being affiliated with Thanatos she is intimately bound with Fate, and her story is inextricably intertwined with Niobe’s. – Alex

Friday, June 22

Bearing an Hourglass – Piers Anthony

Norton is very happy with his life – accountable to no one, he treks through Earth’s many wilderness areas, picking up after himself as he goes; he’s open with the many women he encounters; and he supports himself by telling tales for a price. One day he is approached by a man who asks to share him meal – though Norton has little enough himself, he agrees. It transpires that the man is really the ghost of a dragon-slayer named Gawain. Gawain has an interesting proposition – the heir to a fortune, his estate has agreed that he can use a proxy to sire his own heir via Gawain’s wife, Orlene (who was married to Gawain after his death).
Orlene has a gift – she can tell how right for each other people are – and Norton glows for her. After an initially rocky start, Orlene and Norton hit it off; Norton feels things for Orlene he never has before, and in time Orlene becomes pregnant. But shortly into the pregnancy, Gawain tells Norton that he couldn’t leave well enough alone – Gawain entreated the Incarnation Nature to ensure the baby would be male, and switch Norton’s DNA for his own. Nature did so, but without paying close attention – the child has a recessive malady that runs in Gawain’s family, and is destined to die early.
All Orlene’s attention becomes focused on the baby. Shortly before his first birthday, the baby is approached by Death. Angry, Norton confronts the Incarnation, who takes him to one side and explains that it is the baby’s time, that further life would mean only further suffering. His compassion calms and impresses Norton. Orlene seems surprisingly calm following the baby’s death, until Norton finds her lifeless body.
Devastated, Norton leaves Gawain’s estate and resumes his travels until Gawain, wracked with guilt, tracks him down and offers Norton a new deal – the opportunity to become Chronos, the Incarnation of Time – it means living life opposite to everyone else, as the office holder’s period of occupancy runs for the duration of their lived life. With nothing else in his life, Norton accepts.
I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as the previous one –Satan tries to convince a naïve Norton that he’s not as bad as he’s painted, sending him to a couple of alternate universes, where Norton battles bug-eyed monsters and rescue damsels in distress. I found the contribution made to the over-arching plot quite thin, and overall the novel was less satisfying that its predecessor, possibly in part because the nature of Chronos’ office means he has less interaction with the other Incarnations, or with other living beings in general. And although Time is a powerful entity, unlike Death, Time doesn’t seem to have much to do at all – I wondered what he’s be occupying himself with when he wasn’t being sent hither and yon by Satan, or rectifying the consequences of his own mistakes.
On the other hand, this does form an integral link in the series, and should be read for that reason, and reading it wasn’t an experience wholly devoid of pleasure. Which I realise is lukewarm praise. – Alex

Wednesday, June 20

Mercedes Lackey: One Good Knight

A sorcerer summons a dragon to his kingdom to divert the populace’s attention from his other evil schemes. To appease the dragon the people offer him a weekly virgin. When the crown princess is chosen as the sacrifice she is saved by an unlikely champion. The two of them then set off to kill the dragon but when they discover its lair they find it has set up home with its brother and the virgin sacrifices, who are all alive and well and ready to fight to the death to save the dragons.
It becomes apparent that all the sacrifices are from families that have in some way offended the queen or her sorcerer consort. Confirmation of this arrives in the form of an angry sacrifice who had at least six lovers testify to her state of impurity prior to her selection. It seems that the sacrifice of the princess was made to get the restless and increasingly suspicious populace back on side.
The princess and the champion band together with the virgins (including the harlot) and the dragons and return to the city to overthrow the evil sorcerer and set the kingdom to rights.
My copy of this book was poorly edited or proof read. I almost stopped reading in the first chapter when I came across a couple of unwarranted point of view changes. The one part way through a paragraph was confusing enough but when we moved from first to third person mid sentence I was beyond irritated but persevered and although the copy improved I’m not sure my persistence was worth the effort.
The story doesn’t really begin until about a third of the way through the book. I could have possibly overlooked this slow (dull, uneventful) start if the early chapters had been used for effective world building but, alas, they are not. In fact, one of the main problems I had with this as a work of fantasy was the sketchy world building. The story relies heavily on something called The Tradition and though I was eventually able to get a feel for what it probably was at no point is The Tradition defined, neither was it explained how it worked. For something that played such a pivotal role in the story I feel that was a major oversight.
Instead of convincing world building the author takes a number of standard fantasy short cuts. The characters are given outlandish names (in this case reminiscent of early Greek mythology), common objects are given recognisable but slightly odd names (eg, instead of wearing glasses they wear oculars) and a number of fantasy beasts are mentioned but play no part in the story.
Once the story got going there were some funny moments. Credit where it’s due, Lackey does write comedy well. She gets across the humour subtly and moves on before it gets annoying. And just when things seem to be turning a little clichéd she has the characters acknowledge that, defusing the situation. Though blaming the situation on The Tradition didn’t win her any points for world building.
This book is certainly Fantasy Lite. On its own I don’t find that a problem, high fantasy doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have a monopoly on the genre. What I did find to be a problem was the unevenness of the writing. Some passages were very good, the writing flowed beautifully, while in others it was stilted and stuttering using stereotypes instead of developing characters.
Overall a good premise not executed consistently well. I am not sufficiently moved by either the concept or the voice to seek out other works of this author but neither would I avoid a book that had her name on it.-Lynn.

Tuesday, June 19

On a Pale Horse – Piers Anthony

Broke, without prospects and dispirited, Zane enters Mess o’ Pottage, a spelled stone shop in Kilvarough, and changes his life. After the proprietor tries to sell him a Deathstone (know your future and change it – Zane’s turns black so fast he’s certain to meet Death within hours), and a Lovestone (Zane is fated to meet the perfect woman within hours), he agrees to buy a Wealthstone – it will locate any money in the general vicinity, reversing Zane’s poverty. In exchange, he has only to allow the proprietor to follow him, then intercept the perfect woman, who will also be perfect for the shopkeeper.
Zane does so, and the shopkeeper snatches a falling beauty from the sky when her flying carpet malfunctions. Realising he’s made a terrible mistake (she’s not only beautiful and personable but wealthy), Zane tries to comfort himself with riches, only to discover that the Wealthstone is poor quality – it tires out after finding anything more often than twenty minutes or so, or of greater value that a quarter. Despondent and hopeless, Zane decides to end it all – which is when the Incarnation of Death, complete with scythe, comes to get him. Startled, Zane shoots the figure, killing Death. He learns that Death is an office, acquired by killing the previous office holder – Zane is now an Immortal Incarnation, Thanatos. Death does not collect the souls of all who die, only those who are in near balance, as Zane’s was.
There are five Incarnations – Thanatos; Chrosnos, the Incarnation of Time; Chlotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three aspects of Fate; Gaea, the Incarnation of Nature; and Mars, the Incarnation of War – in addition to Satan and God. As Zane meets each of these, except God, who abides by the agreement between He and Satan to stay out of mortal affairs, he realises that humanity is on the verge of a significant shift in the balance between good and evil. Though the details are not known it becomes clear that it involves Luna Kaftan, the daughter of a magician who has arranged for his soul to be in balance at the time of his death. When Zane collects the magician he meets Luna, and over time falls in love with her.
This is the first in an ambitious and complex series that combines fantasy with Anthony’s interpretation of morality, and asks whether traditional ideas of right and wrong are still valid. Zane’s soul is in balance in part because he helps his terminally ill mother to die – technically a sin, but wholly understandable. As Death goes about his duties he collects the souls of infants whose souls are tainted because of the circumstances of their birth (conceived through incest or other rape) but who have committed no sin themselves. It also looks at the folly of man – in this universe Satan advertises openly, using cute cartoons of twin devils Dee and Dee, and serial signs reminiscent of the Burma-shave ads. Despite knowing that Heaven and Hell are real, and not mere constructs, much of humanity surrenders the future for transitory pleasures of the flesh. It is to Anthony’s credit that he manages to do this in a generally light handed manner, and in this series he manages to keep the puns to a bare minimum. – Alex

Monday, June 18

Maushart Susan: What Women Want Next

This book briefly examines what feminism has achieved for women thus far (acknowledging that there is still more to be done) and how those achievements have impacted on levels of happiness in the lives of women today.
After following along traditional philosophical lines in an attempt to define what happiness actually is and how much of this esoteric quality we can reasonably expect in our lives, the book settles in to its main premise: If women now have the self determination, equality under law and in the workplace that they fought so hard for, why are they still not happy?
The author suggests that the answer might not lie so much in the amount of work that still needs to be done if women are to achieve total equality with men but in the assumption that women ever really wanted what men had to begin with. This seeming blasphemy is the result of numerous studies into the effects of marriage, motherhood and career on the physical and mental health of women.
When picking up the option of having a career, women neglected to put down the responsibility of the home and family, leading to a generation of exhausted women trying to do and have it all. Ultimately this has lead to droves of women choosing to ‘throw it all away’ for a more ‘traditional’ lifestyle. A path that leaves many of them feeling guilty for ‘letting the sisterhood down’. After all, we are supposed to want a high powered career and marriage and motherhood, that is what our mothers fought so hard to give us.
What this book is saying is that now women have the option to choose a life path that parallels that of a man they need to make a conscious decision whether or not that’s what they want to do. Just because a woman can behave like a man when it comes to work, sex, and so on, doesn’t mean that she has to. If women are to take the next step forward they need to take responsibility for their lives, make informed choices about the path they choose to follow and acknowledge the consequences of those choices as being the result of self determination rather than symptoms of oppression.
Written in an easy to read style, much of what Maushart says in this book looks like plain common sense.
While I don’t agree with everything she suggests, she makes her point clearly and where appropriate supports herself with statistical evidence. Personal anecdotes used to exemplify her arguments are both amusing and prevent the book from turning into a boring academic work. Feminist texts do have a tendency to take themselves a little too seriously at times. This one keeps its subject accessible, addressing serious issues with a light hand yet giving them the gravity they deserve. If you need reminding about just how far feminism has brought us and how much freer we are for the work of those that have gone before then read this book.-Lynn

Sunday, June 17

Breaking Point – Suzanne Brockmann

Dedicated, professional and daring, Max Bhagat has risen from the ranks to become the head of the FBI’s most respected counter-terrorist unit in only 18 years. In that time he has never allowed anyone or anything to distract him – except Gina Vitagliano, a hostage on a hijacked plane several years ago. Twenty years his junior, he made contact with her when he was hostage negotiator during the crisis. Impressed by her strength and bravery, he was immediately attracted to her. But the age difference, and the fact that he stood by helplessly while she was raped, mean that they can never be together, however much Gina insists that that’s what she really wants, too.
When Max hears that Gina’s been killed by a car bomb in Germany, his grief and anger overwhelm him. With his most trusted agent, Jules, Max heads to Hamburg to escort Gina’s body home – only to discover that the body isn’t Gina’s. But in order to save her, and to face the strength of his unacknowledged love for her, Max must join forces with Grady Morrant, an ex-Special Forces smuggler, and put his own life in peril, without backup.
Breaking Point is a spin-off from Brockman’s best-selling Navy Seal series, which followed the work and love lives of the men of Seal Unit 6. Each book in the series wove a number of story lines, encompassing missions and the private lives of secondary characters; these minor plotlines then turned into the primary plot of subsequent sequels. The meeting of Max and Gina was a substantial minor plot in one of these novels. Brockman’s style is very satisfying, especially when a plot which has been threaded through several novels is finally concluded; although having that background and exposure contributed to my enjoyment of the novel, Breaking Point changes focus back and forth between the present day, the aftermath of the kidnapping, Max’s hospitalisation after a subsequent mission, and Gina’s work in a refugee camp in Africa, allowing the new reader to become familiar with the essential information.

There were a couple of incidents in the opening pages that I particularly liked - Max's childhood nightmare about Giant Forks from Space (he used to sleep on his side to avoid being spiked by the tines) and Jules' apologising to the body of an old man as he and Max search a German morgue for Gina's body.
This was not my favourite of Brockman’s works, but it’s still very good. The characters are complex and well drawn, the locations are described well enough to give a clear flavour of the area without being obvious about it, and the plot was involving. Alongside the central storyline of Max and Gina is wound the romance of Grady and Molly, Gina’s friend and colleague from Africa, as well as a minor plot about Jules’ ongoing recovery from an emotional abusive relationship (when will Jules find love?). If I can find it at the library (I am absolutely not buying any new books for a while - this is a stern admonishment to myself), look for a review of the next instalment, Into The Storm, in the coming months. – Alex

The Troubleshooters series:
The Unsung Hero; Defiant Hero; Over the Edge; Out of Control; Into the Night; Gone too Far; Flashpoint; Hot Target; Breaking Point; Into the Storm; Force of Nature; All Through the Night; Into the Fire; Dark of Night; Hot Pursuit;Breaking the Rules

Saturday, June 16

A Primate’s Memoir – Robert M Sapolsky

At the tender age of twenty, doctoral candidate Sapolsky, an ardent primatologist from a very early age, set out to Africa to study a community of baboons that he ended up following for four decades. Certain, from elementary school, that he was really a mountain gorilla, his research interests led to questions that could not be answered by gorillas, and he ended up in the savannah, with a baboon troop in the final year of the reign of Solomon.
Throughout the book Sapolsky weaves his field work biography, his evolution as a scientist and as an adult man, together with the story of the troop. A matriarchal society, female baboons are born to their position in the hierarchy, passed down from mother to daughters, while males fight it out amongst themselves. In addition to information about individual baboons, and baboon culture, hierarchy and physiology as a whole, the reader learns about African politics, warrior Masai and agricultural Kikuyu conflict, scams and bribery, and the potential for the beginnings of a human-life-threatening plague being covered up due to corruption and political sensibility. Not to mention the food – charred zebra thigh, bowls of cow’s blood (plus or minus milk), spaghetti in rancid goat’s milk sauce, and the twin horrors that are dried tamarind and canned Taiwanese mackerel in tomato sauce.
There are some disclosures of Sapolski’s findings (his principal area of interest is the relationship between hormones, stress, and disease) but this is really a homage (or an homage) to his troop, and the way his time with them, and with the people he worked with, shaped the man he is today.
Although the baboons are described adequately, and it is clear that they are individuals, with differing personalities, strategies and skills, they never really came alive for me. Sapolsky clearly cared deeply for them, and his eulogy for one, toward the end of the book, did have me in unexpected tears. But the detail of their genealogy was a little too Old Testament for me (and not just because many of the baboons were named for figures therein) – Sapolsky stops short of begetting, but the lineages take up a little room. I found the pacing a little uneven, choppy in places, and although some of his trademark wit and lightness shines through, I didn’t feel fully engaged in the writing. This may be because auto/biography is not my preferred genre, or perhaps because my non-bibliophilic life is a little turbulent at the moment. Whatever the reason, it was disappointing, as I have thoroughly loved Sapolsky’s other books, and turned to this eagerly awaited tome after a string of frankly disappointing books only intermittently leavened by the odd familiar and well-loved reread. Take home lesson (for me)? In cold weather times of angst, return to the familiar comforts of youth – cosy food, warm baths (bearing in mind the imminence of tighter water restrictions), and cherished, proven books. - Alex

Friday, June 15

Your Mortgage and How to Pay it Off in Five Years – Anita Bell

Anita Bell and her husband Jim paid off their first mortgage in three years, and this book explains how the prepared reader can do the same thing – living sparingly, making a real effort to put as much money each week/fortnight into the mortgage, and making sure that the loan, conditions and property are good value.
If you’re thinking about entering the property market, or you’re young and thinking about saving for when you’re ready to buy, this book certainly has some helpful hints, particularly the section on early saving and compound interest.
Although a lot of the advice is useful, it is heavily geared to a two-income (preferably no kids) couple, and much of the advice isn’t that helpful if that’s not your situation. The most eye-opening aspect for me, though, was what as insight it gave me into how much the Australian property market has changed in the eight years since this was published – the average house price she refers to is $150,000, which won’t buy you much of anything anywhere now. – Alex

Wednesday, June 13

A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park

Adopted teen Miranda Popescu has always fantasised that she is special, different. And she’s right – in an alternate universe, Roumania is the dominant European power, and Miranda is an heir, a real princess. To save her as a baby her aunt hid her in our universe, in a Rumanian orphanage, and organised for her adoption by an American couple. But Miranda’s enemies have discovered the truth. They’re are coming after her, and they have magic on their side.
I really tried to immerse myself in this apparently world class fantasy – the reviews say that it’s marvellous, well crafted, enchanting, appealing and lyrical. It may well be that real life, which is a little pressured right now, was pressing too hard for me to truly sink into the story. Or perhaps I am better suited to the “staple tropes” of run of the mill fantasy. But for whatever reason, 100 pages in (just over a fifth of the way through) I still didn’t care, and admitted defeat. I plan to give the book to Lynn, who has a mind more intricate and thread-connecting than mine; with any luck there’ll be a review from her up here soon which will give a more accurate and possibly glowing picture of what Locus predicts may be “one of the major fantasy works of the decade.” – Alex

Tuesday, June 12

Jumper – Steven Gould

When sixteen-year-old Davy’s alcoholic father goes to hit him with the buckle end of the belt, Davy flinches and finds himself in the safest place he knows – the school library. Unsure what’s happened, but determined that he’s not going back, Davy hitchhikes out of town with just the shirt on his back. Two days on the road, footsore and exhausted, Davy accepts a ride with a trucker; Davy wakes from the only sleep he’s had in days to hear the driver arranging a meeting with some friends. When the truck pulls into a clearing off the main road, and Davy hears the men unzip their flies, he jumps back to the library just in time.
At first Davy suspects that he’s lost time, but he comes to realise that he has the ability to teleport to anywhere he’s been before and has a strong memory of. He makes his way to New York where, after stealing almost a million dollars from the vault of a major bank, he begins to lead a life of restrained luxury – seeing the city and all it has to offer. During the intermission of one of Davy’s favourite plays, Sweeney Todd, he meets Millie. Three years older and a college student out of state, they click, but he can’t reveal the truth to her.
Davy’s mother left when he was twelve, an absence which has profoundly affected him. He makes contact with her, and she comes to New York to visit. After a year of reconstructive surgery (Davy’s father came close to killing her the night she fled), and several years of therapy, she’s rebuilt her life. She leaves for a trip to Europe (she’s a travel agent), with the understanding that they’ll see each other again on her return. But Mary’s plane is hijacked by a Hezbollah-affiliated terrorist cell, and Mary is killed.
Determined to avenge his mother’s death, Davy vows to capture the ring-leader, and embarks on an ambitious plan to snatch him from his next hijacking.
Jumper is a worthy addition to the teleporting genre. Necessarily a little dated in technology (it was published in 1992), it has otherwise stood the test of time. Davy is sympathetically and realistically portrayed, his blossoming romance with Millie unfolds beautifully, and I liked the National Security angle. All in all an entertaining and though provoking novel. - Alex

Addendum: 2/2/08 - I was quite excited when I saw there was a FSF movie called Jumper (what were the odds it wasn't based on this novel), but from what Margaret and David say and from the trailers, the film's creators have wholly ruined a great plot. Aargh!

Monday, June 11

How To Kill Your Husband – Kathy Lette

Cassie O’Carroll was forty-three when she lost her orgasm. Between work (as a primary school teacher, where she was embroiled in a steeplechase for the newly-vacant Deputy Head position), raising two adolescents, and trying to keep a clean house despite her veterinary husband Rory’s menagerie, she was relatively content, if somewhat unfulfilled.
Her two best friends from college, Jasmine (Jazz) Jardine, homemaker extraordinaire, mother to the lovely Josh, and wife of philanthropist and humanitarian surgeon Dr David Studlands, and Hannah Wolfe, wealthy gallery owner, wife to penniless artist Pascal, and childless-by-choice (chiefly Pascal’s choice) are her closest confidants, but there are some things you don’t want to tell even your best friends. Especially when their lives are pretty much perfect, and when they’re competitive and a little bitchy. Cassie hates having to side with one or the other, which means they usually end up ganging up on her.
Everything starts to fall apart at one of Jazz’s dinner parties. For her 20th wedding anniversary, in fact. Still recovering from the death of her mother by cancer, Jazz develops a headache; when going through her husband’s medicine chest for pain killers she discovers a half-empty bottle of Viagra. Odd, when they haven’t had sex in over a year. Her suspicions aroused, Jazz pretends to go away for a week, but stays with Cassie instead, and spies on her husband every night. And every night she sees him pick up a different woman.
As Jazz’s relationship falls apart so too does Cassie’s – long unhappy with the unequal distribution of housework in their marriage, she talks Rory into therapy, which all goes hideously wrong. Though not as wrong as Jazz’s marriage – the novel opens with Cassie visiting Jazz in jail, where she’s been charged with David’s murder.
I found reading How to Murder Your Husband heavier going than I anticipated. This was partly due to the somewhat ponderous writing style – a little too loaded with punish word play (especially so hot on the heels of the pun-infested Pet Peeve), but also for the unrelenting misery of it all. None of the women are really happy, and Hannah in particular isn’t that much of a friend. Cassie is weak and doesn’t stand up for herself, and Jazz’s revenge, though understandable, was just a little too much. Plus the only surprise to me with the big revelation about David’s death was that neither of Jazz’s best friends saw it coming.
If you’re feeling a little disenchanted with love, marriage and fidelity, or if you want to throw the petty unhappiness of your life into sharp contrast, this could be for you. But if you’re interested in something with substance, or a light break from the dramas of your onerous life, keep looking. - Alex

Sunday, June 10

Gil’s All Fright Diner – A Lee Martinez

Duke and Earl are on a road trip in a rusty grey truck that’s seen better days – limp spools of a Hank Williams cassette are all that remain of a working sound system, and they’re just about out of beer and gas when they stop at Gil’s Diner, in the middle of a nowhere little town. Gil’s proprietor, Loretta, has just finished serving Duke (Earl ate earlier) when, much to Loretta’s annoyance, the diner’s attacked by zombies.
Fortunately for Loretta, who’s running out of ammo, Duke and Earl are, respectively, a werewolf and a vampire, and more than equipped to defeat a couple (or nine) zombies. Rockwood’s always been a bit strange, but attack by zombie is new, and over the past wee while it’s been zombies every day – well, night. As Earl points out, all 181 of the risen dead storming the diner could be coincidence, but it could also mean she’s being targeted. In exchange for a few night’s board, a hundred bucks, and another slice of Loretta’s apple pie, Duke and Earl agree to stick around for a bit.
Martinez has crafted an above average humorous fantasy novel – the characters are engaging and defy stereotype (“Just ‘cuz I’m a vampire you think I’ve got me a neck fetish… I mean, I like to eat, and I like getting laid. Just because I am what I am, that doesn’t mean I like doing both at the same time… Probably get a cramp or sumthin’”), the plot is interesting, unpredictable and a lot of fun to read:
Wacky Willie had added the ‘Deluxe’ [to the name of his minigolf course] when finally ridding the thirteenth hole of a stubborn family of bats after a great and terrible struggle that would forever be known as “The Fearsome Bat War of Rockwood County” to Willie, but was usually referred to as “That Time Willie Had To Get Rabies Shots” by everyone else.
- Alex

Saturday, June 9

Harrison, Sands, Armstrong and Handeland: Dates from Hell

This collection of four paranormal romances covers the spectrum from vampires and demons to werewolves and other shape shifters.
These stories are action focused with heroines whose strength isn’t always physical. Their relationships with the heroes tend to be more lust- or erotica-centred than romantic, which made them more believable.
The stories were all self-contained but a working knowledge of the worlds in which they were set definitely adds an extra dimension, particularly in the case of the offerings by Kim Harrison and Kelley Armstrong which tell the back stories of minor characters from their series works.
I found all of the stories to be easy, entertaining reads. None stood out as being unworthy of its place in the collection but neither did any stand out as spectacular. If I weren’t already familiar with the work of these authors this collection wouldn’t inspire me to become so. Having said that, I did like this collection. For those of us who do like paranormal romance this is a enjoyable read, for anyone who isn’t already a fan of the genre this is probably not the place to start.-Lynn

Friday, June 8

Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl

Blue’s lepidopterist mother, Natasha Alicia Bridges van Meer (Blue was named for her favourite species - and the only kind her mother could catch - the Cassius Blue) died in a car accident when Blue was five; the only memento Blue has of her mother are her framed butterflies. For as long as she can remember, Blue and her father, noted Politican Science academic Gareth van Meer, have travelled across America. Never settling anywhere long, Gareth teaches on small campuses and picks up the next in a never-ending chain of short-term girlfriends Blue calls June Bugs – wan women who, despite Gareth’s clarity that he’s not interested in anything meaningful, all become pleading and needy.
So Blue is stunned when her father announces that they will reside in Stockton, North Carolina, for her entire senior year. Blue is a shoo-in for valedictorian – intelligent and erudite, Gareth has ensured that she is familiar with all the classics – and the continuity will be good for her socially.
A chance meeting with Hannah Schneider, an eccentric and mysterious teacher, brings Blue into contact with the Bluebloods, a collection of fellow students who enjoy a privileged but secret relationship with her. The Bluebloods are fascinated with Hannah – unbeknownst to her they spy on her monthly excursions to an unsavoury pub where, without fail, Hannah picks up a rough of one kind or another, takes him to a rent-by-the-hour motel, and kicks him out in the wee hours of the morning.
When Hannah persuades the Bluebloods to go camping one weekend, they are unenthusiastic but acquiesce. On the initial hike Hannah privately talks with each student individually – all but Blue. A little hurt, Blue recovers when, sitting by the camp fire, she notices Hannah stare meaningfully at her then jerk her head to one side. But before they can talk alone Hannah vanishes. And then Blue finds her, hanging by her neck from a piece of electrical cord. Traumatised, Blue runs and is found by nearby campers; the Bluebloods aren’t found until the following day.
Ostracised by those she thought were her friends, and unwilling to accept that Hannah would kill herself, Blue tries to work out what happened, and in the process uncovers a greater secret than she could ever have imagined.
This is an interesting book that I have had great difficulty reviewing. The book is divided into 36 chapters, each named after a work of literature, and culminates in a Final Exam; the style is unique – written in the first person it is literate and academic in nature – the text is littered with attributions and references, in a way that could be annoying but (for me at least) just missed, though I did find the heavy use of simile excessive and a little too clever at the cost of clarity in the text. Blue certainly takes to her heart her father's advice: "Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids." I certainly felt insufficiently well read, but that's not a particularly new experience for me, and I admit I didn't catch the plot similarities with Lolita, discovering this only when (after writing my review and feeling inadequate) I checked out what other readers had thought.

The death of Hannah, around which the plot is centred (and which is referenced in the first few pages) doesn’t occur until 336 pages into a dense 518 page novel, which allows the read to have a fairly comprehensive picture of Blue, her father, the Bluebloods and Hannah. But I wasn’t sure until the last couple of chapters, when everything starts to unravel, that I knew whether or not I liked reading Calamity Physics. I did, and I was particularly impressed with how meticulously woven the plot was - like Blue, I had no idea what was going on until she pieced it all together. This isn’t my favourite novel of the year, or even the month, and I don’t think I’ll feel the need to reread it anytime soon, but it’s well worth the experience, if only for Blue’s uniquely written voice and the really interesting twist. - Alex

Wednesday, June 6

Pet Peeve - Piers Anthony

Goody Goblin is an outcast. Son of one of the meanest goblin chiefs Xanth has ever known, Goody was fed powdered reverse wood as an infant and is now kind, respectful and polite - everything, in short, that a male goblin ought not be. Minding his own business, a stranger gives him the Finger – guaranteed to irritate the mildest of folk, the Finger must be given away else it stir the holder to greater and greater annoyance. But Goody is too nice to pass the problem on to anyone else, so he takes the Finger to Good Magician Humphrey. In exchange for solving Goody’s problem, Humphrey sends him on a quest – to find a home for the pet peeve, a parrot who relishes in insulting all and sundry, using the voice of the being it’s perched on.
Hannah Barbarian, who wants to find true love, joins Goody as his protector. In the course of their quest Hannah and Goody accidentally launch an invasion of self-constructing robots who threatened to wholly overrun Xanth and destroy all living things therein. Can they rescue Xanth, happily house the peeve, and each find their one true loves?
This is almost the 30th novel set in Xanth, a fantasy land shaped like Florida where all humans and human crossbreeds have a unique magical talent which manifests around puberty, every variety of fantasy creature exists, and puns run rampant. As Anthony acknowledges, there is something of a formula – the protagonist seeks the help of Humphrey, first demonstrating their worthiness by navigating through three unique challenges, then paying for Humphrey’s (often cryptic) advice by fulfilling a task, quest or service. On the way the querent will have many adventures, often save Xanth from a terrible fate, run across former main characters, and fall in love.
It’s been a couple of years since I read the last Xanth instalment (Currant Events); I don’t know if it is me or Anthony who’s getting too old, but I’ve definitely lost my taste for the multitude of puns, the thesaurus that is Demon Metria (who usually states three or four synonyms for the word she wants before the correct variant is supplied, but in this novel went through as many as eight before being resolved (“I won’t virulent you.” “Won’t what me?” “Gnaw, cut, lacerate, chomp, masticate-” “Bite?” “Whatever”), and the strong undercurrent of sexism. Humphrey has five and a half wives, women pretend not to know about the effect they have but really reveal their panties to freak men out, men are really helpless pawns, and there are many older man/younger women pairings (across the series as a whole), There are certainly strong female characters, and I’m not accusing Anthony of rampant, overt chauvinism, but there is a pervasive feeling of adolescent male humour mixed with discomfort about women that makes me uncomfortable.
I enjoyed many of the former novels in this series, and Anthony wrote one of my favourite series of all time, the seven part Incarnations of Immortality (Death, Time, Fate which has three aspects, Nature, War, Satan and God) which I read every other year or so. The Xanth chronicles are still immensely popular, and I understand why Anthony continues them, but for me this was absolutely enough. – Alex

Tuesday, June 5

Maggie Shayne: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

This is a collection of three supernatural romance novellas. I say supernatural rather than paranormal because the main characters are all humans whose lives are touched by magic rather than magical beings themselves.
The first, Everything She Does is Magic, tells the story of a powerful witch/healer who, unbeknownst to her, is fated to be the mother of an even more powerful witch but only if child is sired by a particular man. Her three aunts make it their mission to see that this child is born. There are two catches. Firstly, the heroine doesn’t particularly like the man in question. Secondly, he must remain a virgin until he sires her child. It takes them some very creative magic to keep him pure but they manage it and eventually the child is conceived.
This is a light-hearted piece with some very funny moments. The developing romance is believable and the obligatory happy ending fits the story well.
The second, Musketeer by Moonlight, tells the story of a private detective on the run from a mob boss who wants her dead. She hides out at her crazy aunt’s house where she finds a spell book. Desperate, with nothing to lose and little else to do on Halloween night, she decides to try a spell for protection. She gets things wrong and conjures up a libidinous musketeer. He helps her evade the bad guys and turn evidence enough to convict them for life over to the police. He then stays on as her lover and partner at the detective agency.
The interaction between the hero and heroine in this piece was its big redeeming feature. The development of their relationship is lovely. And what woman wouldn’t want a bit of old fashioned chivalry when it comes bundled up in a body to die for. The plot itself was not so convincing. It required just a bit more suspension of disbelief than I had to give it. The musketeer picks up on the language, customs and technology of our time far too easily to be believable. And it was difficult to believe the heroine learns enough about swordplay in one night to disarm a gun-toting thug. A nice romance but a poor story.
The third, The Con and the Crusader, tells the story of a con man that, escaping from both police custody and the mob, accidentally jumps into a wishing well and is transported back to 1890. Here an archaic law forces him to marry a local widow and work on her farm. When he immediately cons the locals into doing his work for him she is disgusted by, and ashamed of, him. Wanting to redeem himself in her eyes, for none too honourable reason, he goes straight. Through hard work and a good woman’s love he finds true redemption and decides to stay with her rather than return to his own time.
The basic story line is a trifle cliched but the author carries it off so well that I really didn’t mind the fact that there were no surprises. The con he uses on the locals is very obvious and the story almost lost me there but the author had the locals know they were being conned and not mind (it was a way they could help the proud widow that she had to accept).
Overall a nice collection but not outstanding. If I came across a full length novel by Maggie Shayne with an original sounding premise I would have a look at it. I liked her playful voice and ability to carry off some tired old themes well but as this collection shows, her stories can be a bit hit or miss.-Lynn

Monday, June 4

How to Live Smarter – James Parker

Parker's aim is to provide the kind of information that will immediately improve people’s lives, by discussing ways that we can not just work but live smarter. Divide thematically, chapters cover how to get people to do what you want them to do, how to successfully negotiate everything from a pay raise to a better rental deal, how to effectively increase your income (through better banking, jobs you can do to supplement your income, and gambling tips), excuses to get out of work/leave early/arrive late, time management strategies, public speaking tips, advice on picking good fruit and vegetables, directions for making great coffee and picking good wine, strategies to prevent hangovers, first aid kit suggestions, chess pointers, hints on when to suspect your partner is cheating and how to pick a liar, and a miscellaneous advice section.
I would have thought that a lot of the information was common knowledge (is there anyone who needed to be told that a wrinkled, bendable, shrivelled, soft, patchily yellow cucumber should be avoided?). On the other hand, I was surprised a Biggest Loser contestant didn’t know that package list ingredients in order of percentage (highest to lowest), and shocked that Maggie Beer didn’t know bananas become sweeter the longer they ripen (demonstrated by their brown speckles – she used to discard or freeze them as soon as they began the process), so maybe some of my common knowledge isn’t as common as I thought.
This is clearly self-published – there are a few typos, the web site addresses are all underlined, which interrupts the flow of reading, and some sentences are clumsily structured (eg “If they get a whiff of the fact that you are bluffing, your chances for them to concede to anything after that have just about plummeted.”) He also utilises one of my most hated hyperboles – that you can save “up to X or even more” – if you can save more then X isn’t “up to,” the second figure is.

The last chapter, a miscellany of advice, is fairly random and includes insights like “When it comes to relationships, the person who cares the least will always have control” and “The older you get the more you will come to realise this… that most people who work (wherever) aren’t particularly that great at their jobs. And nor do they care…” – the ‘and’ in “and nor” is unnecessary, I don’t know what’s with all the ellipses, and it’s hardly an earth shattering revelation that many people don’t care that they aren’t great employees.
These faults aside the book is generally worthwhile, in a hunt-and-peck fashion, and I don’t regret the purchase despite the fact that I once again broke my vow to refrain from buying new books. Shocking. Its purchase is justified (to me, at least) by the fact that I really will make my money back within a year – although I’m already frugal in some areas, this has made me look at areas of painless economy I hadn’t previously considered. I’m not looking for work at the moment, but I’ll certainly consult HTLS before my next interview and when I’m brushing up my CV, and I’ll be thoroughly reviewing the section on public speaking before my first conference presentation
later this year. – Alex

Sunday, June 3

M or F – Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts

Frannie has two good girl friends, Belina and Jenn, but her best friend is Marcus – a would-be film director, he’s out and proud to everyone except his eccentric grandmother Patricia. Frannie’s love life has a fairly disastrous track record, but that’s all set to change when Marcus discovers she’s been concealing a serious crush on Roaring Brook High’s resident champion of all things worthy (greening the planet, supporting the school sports teams, eschewing meat, boycotting China because of the annexing of Tibet), Jeffrey Osbourne. Chatting with him online is the perfect way to bypass Frannie’s in-person nerviness, but the only way she can do it is with Marcus at her side. Or rather, with her at Marcus’ side, as he types what she dictates, adding just a little polish.
It all goes beautifully at first – despite her black thumb Jeffrey asks her out after the tree planting work group Marcus volunteered her for. Frannie, being Frannie, assumes the invitation is for both her and Marcus, and the romantic lunch turns into Frannie chatting with Jeffrey’s (somewhat homophobic) friend Glenn while Marcus winds up chatting to Jeffrey. Trying to fix the damage, and purely by accident (at first), Marcus starts chatting to Jeffrey online, and discovers that he’s starting to fall for Jeffrey himself. If the person Jeffrey’s interested in is the online persona, then isn’t he really falling for Marcus, too?
M or F is written in alternating chapters from Marcus and Frannie’s point of view, a technique that is highly effective here. Many of Marcus’ chapters are described as their filmic equivalents, which had the potential to be annoying but was used deftly and sparingly enough that it instead added to the depiction of the character – I was reminded of the film Stranger Than Fiction (which I loved so much I saw it three times in the cinema and have just bought on DVD), where the graphic effects and author voice overs stopped just before they became irritating.
The characters are smart, developed, real and funny, and I could read genuine warmth and friendship in the text, which was a collaboration by real life straight-girl/gay-boy combo. I was concerned about the direction of the plot at one point, but the authors managed to avoid a banal and/or unrealistic ending and opted instead for an interesting and satisfying twist. Papademetriou has written a couple of other novels I’ll think about buying (after I move house and finish reading at least half my current unread backlog), and Tebbetts has written a (thus far) four-part Viking saga which, not so much. Plus I got to learn about two Bollywood films I had not previously heard of, which is always a good thing, though not necessarily for my wallet. – Alex

Saturday, June 2

Vanishing Act – Thomas Perry

It’s cold and rainy, and I’ve just finished reading something Literary, so despite all my vows to read the unread, I turned to something known, familiar and guaranteed, the first Jane Whitefield novel, Vanishing Act. Given I’ve already reviewed parts two and three, you mythical readers will already be familiar with the character and premise, but let’s pretend this is our first view of the Native American guide.
A frightened woman, clearly concerned about pursuit, has disembarked from a plane. Unbeknown to her, her pursuer is actually ahead of her, where she doesn’t think of looking. Although she’s tried to change her appearance, her short skirt and expensive, matching bag and shoes give her away. She darts into the bathroom, and emerges wearing a wig and different clothing, but the same accessories. Her pursuer precedes her to the baggage carousel and waits until she scents safety, at the exit, which is where he makes his move – flashing ID he tells her to come with him, and starts to pull her toward the car park. It isn’t until they reach the privacy of the structure, and she starts to fight back, that he realises she may not be as docile as he first thought. He doesn’t suspect she’s a ringer, though, until she snaps his own handcuffs around his wrists.
When Jane arrives home in Deganawida, New York, physically and mentally exhausted from guiding the fleeing woman from her abusive husband, she is less surprised than concerned and irritated to discover a stranger in her home. John Felker, former cop turned accountant, needs help. He’s been set up to look like he embezzled half a million dollars from his bank and he has no other way out. He heard about Jane from a friend, gambler Harry Kemple, who was fleeing the mob after witnessing a hit. Harry’s been safely in hiding for five years now, nobody has a hint where he might be, and that’s what John needs.
Jane agrees to help John with a new identity, but it seems like his hunters are ahead of her every step of the way, forcing Jane to play her trump cards early. Trading of favours from friends and family, Jane arranges a strong false identity for John; while it’s being prepared she takes him to a Senecca reservation, a safe place for them to catch their breath.
John is a good man, trustworthy, sensible and prepared to follow Jane’s directions without question. He’s also scared, seeking reassurance from Jane that she knows what she’s doing and can keep him safe, like she did Harry. During the time they’re together he tries to cross the gap between them by gently flirting with Jane, teasing out her story and giving the reader glimpses into her culture and background. On the second night on the reservation their relationship becomes physical. Leaving John, once his new identity and location are set up, is one of the hardest things Jane has had to do, but for him to be safe everything that connects him with the past has to be left behind.
When Jane arrives in her hometown, before even reaching her driveway, she picks up a handful of papers and discovers that Harry Kemple has been killed in Santa Barbara. After all this time the only way he could have been found is if someone made a mistake – she calls Lew Feng, the document forger, only to discover that he, too, has been killed. If they’ve found Harry and Lew then John can’t be far behind. Jane heads off to save the man she’s come to love.
I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve so recently read the second and third Jane Whitefield novels, or if it’s more to do with the evolution of the author or the requirements of setting up a series and introducing central characters, but Vanishing Act is less great than its successors. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is still brisk and evolving, the plot pacy and twisted, and the characters finely and comprehensively drawn. But I saw the biggest twist really early on, and was surprised the usually astute Jane couldn’t. Though, granted, I do have the benefit of having read the book before, it was a while ago and the specific plot hadn’t stayed with me as well as the enjoyment of the reading experience did. This is an above average novel for its genre, and an excellent jumping off point for what is an exceptional series. - Alex

Friday, June 1

Racists – Kunal Basu

It’s 1855 and the scientific world is consumed with the question of race – are other races inherently inferior to whites? It is obvious that blacks are morally, intellectually and culturally deficit, and their strength and endurance clearly reflects the fact that they are better suited for manual labour than other endeavours, but how and why is this so?
Noted English professor Samuel Bates, member of the Royal College of Physicians, is a master craniologist – he uses scientific instruments to measure cranial angles to demonstrate the superiority of white over black. He and continental rival Frenchman Jean-Louis Belavoix (of the Société Ethnologique de Paris) have devised a long experiment to determine the cause. On Arlinda, a remote and deserted island off the Ivory Coast a mute wet nurse will raise two infants (a black boy and a white girl) for twelve years. Twice a year both scientists, and Bates’ assistant, will visit the island, bringing supplies and measuring the children’s heads. At the end of the experiment they will have their answer, and one will win – not only scientific acclaim but also be triumphant over the other.
The experiment is clearly multiply flawed (Lynn’s first response when I told her about this book was “and their being different sexes won’t make a difference?”), but I thought the premise of this novel was appealing – not only a demonstration of outmoded ideologies and thinking but the potential for a really fascinating tale of the lived experiences of children growing up in isolation. This could have gone in an interestingly dystopic Lord of the Flies direction, or been an interracial and utopian Blue Lagoon, or even completely surprised me with an unexpected twist.
Instead the plot focused almost exclusively on the scientists, primarily Bates, who is driven by an inchoate but strong and consuming need to be triumphant over Belavoix, who seems to be less committed to the project as it continues. There is a small subplot concerning Nicholas Quartley, Bates’ assistant, who falls in love with Norah, the enigmatic carer, and we get occasional glimpses at the lives of the children, though only during the half-yearly visits.
The time the book is set was pivotal in scientific understanding of racial differences – it opens when ‘sciences’ like craniology were flourishing, when criminality and class were seen as inevitable and immutable, and closes in the aftermath of Darwin’s findings. Belavoix expects that the experiment will end when one child kills the other, though there is no discussion in the text about which child the scientists expect will survive, and why; I expect that had the boy killed the girl it would have been interpreted far differently than had the girl killed the boy. And this is one of the interesting depictions of the way bias and expectation prejudice the interpretation of data – when the girl does something it is seen as being kind, or humane, or at the very least premeditated; whenever the boy does something it is thuggish, or evidence of slow wit, or animalistic. But if you’re interested in learning more about how allegedly scientific and unbiased measurements have been used to reinforce racial stereotypes you will be much better served reading The Mismeasurement of Man by the late Stephen Jay Gould.
The style of writing is extremely literary and, as has so often been my experience with literary writing, this comes at the expense of plot and character development. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, wasn’t engaged with the plot, and didn’t even care enough to throw the book at a wall. In fact I only finished reading it because I had taken no other book out with me today, and have vowed (once again) to stick to my current reams of unread books before buying new ones.

And thanks to Racists for furnishing a brilliant example of book buying rule #4: however good the blurb sounds, read the first page or two and make sure that the novel has the same promise. – Alex