Tuesday, July 31

Lydia Joyce: The Veil of Night

A confirmed spinster travels to the ruinous manor of a reclusive duke in hope of brokering a deal with him not to call in her reprobate brother’s debts and so destroy her family name. Sinister and scarred, living in perpetual darkness, he makes an indecent proposition, agreeing to hold off on his demands for payment if she will spend a week with him.
She is already a secretly fallen woman and after quickly calculating the potential damage to her reputation against the ruin of her family she agrees to his suggestion. He quickly discovers that she is not the uptight virgin she portrays to the world and much amazing sex ensues.
He becomes obsessed with discovering why she denies her true sensual nature and what circumstances led to her ‘fall’. She, in turn, wonders why he can’t abide the light of day and wants to discover all she can about her temporary lover’s secret.
Eventually she trusts him with her secret history but he can not tell her the truth about his mysterious hereditary condition for fear she will shun him. It is only after she leaves him at the end of the week that he realises his inability to share his secret shame has cost him his one chance at happiness and acceptance. A wild, life-threatening ride through a gloomy afternoon has him tracking her down and establishing their happy ever after.
Good gothic novels are not easily come by these days. This debut novel fills that void nicely. While the author checks all traditional gothic boxes the story still has a relatively fresh feel. Having said that, at times it did feel a little as if I was reading in a kind of loop (dark broody introspective, sparking/challenging dialogue, sex, sex, sex, dark broody introspective) but I suppose there’s only so much you can do with a hero who must live in the dark.
I would have liked to see a little more character development. The basics of strong characters were definitely present but I felt the author didn’t make use of their potential. While not two-dimensional the characters didn’t strike me as convincingly three-dimensional either.
For all that the plot worked, the setting description was sparse but evocative and the book was an easy, pleasant read. I will be interested to see how this particular writer’s style develops-Lynn

Saturday, July 28

The Cats – Joan Phipson

The morning Jim’s mother opened the mail at breakfast and discovered that the family had won the lottery, he thought they had it made. It was all a little hazy in retrospect, so he couldn’t remember if they were walking home from school, or had just been larking about in town. Whatever it was, Jim had excitedly told everyone he met, and on that long, hot walk he and his younger brother Wally had been making plans. Wally was always a little unusual – he’d take himself off in the bush for days at a time, and he wasn’t as chatty and outgoing as Jim – but even he was thrilled by the news of the big win.
They didn’t hear the car pull up, but when the older, admirable Socker and his side-kick Kevin pulled up and offered them a lift the rest of the way, Jim didn’t think twice before jumping in the car. Wally was a little more hesitant, and that’s when Kevin showed them the rifle.
Socker’s plan was simple – drive into the bush, park the boys at a run down shack he’d found, leave them guarded by Kevin, head off for a secluded phone, and call their father for the ransom. The car was well stocked with food, he’d checked out the lay of the land, he had Kevin for back-up, and a rifle – what could go wrong?
This captivating book for young teens is absorbing, well written, tightly plotted and well characterised. There is very little telling – the boys’ personalities are beautifully depicted through their actions, dialogue, and a little through Jim’s thoughts. Over the course of the novel, which unfolds over a few days, he loses his star-struck admiration for Socker (the ghosts of which occasionally resurfaced despite the fact that he was holding Jim hostage) and develops a new appreciation for the younger brother he previously paid scant attention to. Wally has a deep respect for, and affinity with, the cats that form the biggest threat to the group, a group whose power structure shifts fluidly throughout the course of the novel.
The Cats was inspired by an article about feral cats in rural Australia, a significant issue in this country - they kill native fauna, breed at an astonishing rate, and are well over twice the size of domestic cats, and this is a issue that has only grown in the quarter century since the novel was written. Phipson takes this jumping off point and runs – her cats are huge, intelligent, can communicate with each other, and think ahead. Or at least they seem to – the novel is laced with the fear, paranoia and irrational a small group experiences when isolated and assailed by frightening and unfamiliar things in a hostile environment.
The Cats is very obviously a product of its time, the late 1970’s; the boys (Jim especially) are more naïve than is generally the case now, the postman came by at breakfast time, there is an alarming use of the word ‘cove’, and there are no mobile phones or similar technology. As the vast majority of the action takes place in the bush this last really isn’t a significant issue. I was a little more concerned with the one plot hole I found: Socker has decided to kidnap the brothers, stocked provisions, scoped out a place to stash the boys, worked out a route to a working phone that involves crossing a river, and recruited the malleable Kevin, all in the space of a day. While this is possible, a key plot point is that conditions have changed sufficiently so that Socker has to adjust his plans.
This is a tiny flaw in an otherwise solid, engaging and beautifully constructed book that is involving, interesting, and redolent of rural Australia. - Alex

Caddy Ever After - Hilary McKay

I have tried three times to capture the plots of the final installment of the Casson Family series, and find myself wholly unable to adequately capture the spirit of the novel in the usual way. This is, of course, not helped by the fact that I haven't reviewed the first two novels in the series, which introduce the chaotic and unique family members.
Each novel is named for one of the four children, who are themselves named after paint colours - second daughter Saffy (Saffron), only boy Indigo, youngest child Rose, who all live with their artist mother Eve in a ramshackle house, and oldest child Caddy (Cadmium), who went away to college.
Caddy Ever After is told in chapter format by each of them in turn, focusing on their particular concerns - Rose is misunderstood at school, and focused on her art projects; Indigo is worried about family friend Sarah, who can't go to the school's Valentine's Day dance because the tickets are only sold in pairs; Saffy, who feels she's failed her best friend, Sarah, in a time of need; and Caddy, who's getting married even though her family don't support the idea. Except for Daddy, and he really doesn't understand.
McKay writes child characters that are complex and real - Rose, in particular, thinks like young children think. Her novels are real, with the kinds of distressing events that affects families - parental abandonment, infidelity, disability, cruelness and bullying - but uplifting and triumphant. This is children's literature at its finest. - Alex

Thursday, July 26

Firestorm – Rachel Caine

In the last book Jo discovered that the Djinn have been subjected to the whim of the Wardens because of an ancient agreement, created as the temporary solution to an earth-threatening problem. When the problem had resolved the Wardens came up with reason after excuse to justify holding on to the imprisoned Djinn, until the humans forgot there ever was a deal.
The Djinn, on the other hand, never did. With the death of the former Djinn leader the deal is broken, and they’re ready for revenge. No unbottled Djinn is subject to any human request or demand, and for some of them the humiliations of hundred of years of enforced servitude will be paid for by the Wardens of today.
As half the population of Wardens vanish or are killed, Jo has to head back to New York and warn the Council. But with many Wardens corrupt, some infected by demon marks, and environmental conditions worsening all the time, Warden Headquarters need Jo more than she anticipated. For some of the Wardens the idea that the Djinn are free, autonomous and angry is unimaginable, and many of them haven’t forgotten that Jo’s been accused of some pretty nasty things along the way.
She has to face literal and metaphorical fires on a number of fronts while coming to terms with the end of her relationship with Djinn lover David, and intercede for humanity of behalf of Nature. She’s been sleeping, but she’s starting to wake – the devastation wrought thus far isn’t even a conscious act, and she’s not happy. Unless Jo manages to defend us to her, all of humanity will be wiped out, perhaps the planet as a whole.
This was probably too much Jo too quickly. I still enjoyed the character, and the fast-paced plot doesn’t let up. It’s a much more consistent and cohesive series than more of the genre, but when I got to the novel’s cliffhanger ending I decided enough, at least for now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still enjoying the series, and it’s a great ride – and I appreciate Jo having an obsession with cars rather than the more common and tedious designer shoe fetish that seems to be de rigueur for more chick-lit era heroines – but I need a little rest. - Alex

Wednesday, July 25

Windfall – Rachel Caine

In this fourth instalment in the Weather Warden series our heroine, Jo, has been banished from the Wardens and is eking out a living as Florida station WXTV-38’s Weather Girl, zany side-kick to Marvellous Marvin McLarty, who “knows dick about the weather” but somehow still seems to have an amazing prediction record, even when what he forecasts isn’t remotely what Jo’s insight indicates to her.
Further investigation reveals that someone’s been tinkering with the weather to assist Marvin, and the Council suspect Jo. She’s in danger of being ‘neutered’ – having her powers forcibly removed, which may or may not leave her gaga for the rest of her life. And that’s not even the worst part – Jo also has to put up with her princess sister Sarah, newly divorced and pre-nup penniless, living with her. All Sarah has is the clothes on her back, a sense of entitlement, and no concept of restraint or budget.
Sarah does manage to pick up a lovely, charming and apparently wealthy man friend, charismatic Brit Eamon. Jo’s a little concerned that Sarah’s jumping from one rescuing prince to another, but her humiliations at work are becoming more pressing (dressing up in a padded sun costume? Getting drenched by buckets of icy water?), and her beloved Djinn boyfriend David is turning into an Ifrit – the Djinn version of a vampire, all hunger and darkness and diminished cognition.
And there’s something big brewing on the world stage, too – the Djinn are starting to turn on their human ‘owners’, decimating the Warden population, while the weather is becoming increasingly hard to manage. Earthquakes, tornadoes, super forest fires and tidal waves are only the beginning, and they’re getting worse. Even though the Warden’s have kicked her out, they can’t manage without Jo’s gifts, but not everybody’s happy about it. Can Jo keep David, protect her sister, and save the world?
Well, not to ruin the novel for you, but yeah.
Along the way Jo loses a fetus and gains a daughter, and we meet a great new character, Cherise, a friend from work. Caine does manage a cracking pace, her characters are involving, and there are a couple of great lines: Marvin is described as “holding onto his fleeing, screaming youth with both fists;” and at one point Lewis (greatest Warden of them all) says “If we were any more screwed, we’d be having a cigarette and enjoying the afterglow.”
But I think I’m overdosing on the genre, if not the author. I’ve got the next book sitting next to my bed (looove my library) so I’ll give that a whirl and see how we go. - Alex

Blind Lake – Robert Charles Wilson

A group of three very different journalists are sent by a scientific journal to write about the research being done at the sites of the O/BECs, two self-programming computers. With their aid scientists have been able to observe a couple of alien planets. Nobody understands the technology that allows the vision, or are able to replicate it – somehow the O/BECs just do it. The facility at Crossbank monitors a biologically viable but unpopulated planet orbiting HR8832, a distant star, while the installation at Blind Lake has focused on an individual on UMa47/E, a planet circling a star in a different galaxy.
The individual being studied, Subject, is a tall, red creature who lives a very routinised life, but its every movement is analysed and described nonetheless. One of the team observing Subject is a divorced mother, Marguerite Hauser (or, according to the back blurb, "Nerissa Iverson") – despite her learned scientific objectivity she finds it difficult to refrain, at least in her head, from attributing motivation to Subject’s actions. Marguerite shares custody of her eleven-year-old daughter Tess with her ex-husband, Ray Scutter, a man who has not taken Marguerite’s defection from him well. Tess is not a normal child – she loses time pondering things, and has been haunted by Mirror Girl, who she sees in any reflective surface. Ray is convinced that this is somehow due to Marguerite, and as his world becomes more frightening this belief becomes more overwhelming.
And his world does become a more frightening place as, without warning, the compound at Blind Lake is locked down (or, as Ray terms it, quarantined) – while communication is intact within the camp, there’s no communication with the outside world. As a series of people try to leave they discover the perimeter is surrounded by miniature killing drones; unmanned vans bring food, but no information. As the isolation stretches into weeks, the population becomes more divided and afraid. And at the same time Subject, who has followed a predictable and barely-varying routine for months, leaves his city for an unprecedented and prolonged trek through the desert.
This is an interesting and absorbing novel that explores a number of themes I found relevant and interesting. The speculative fiction aspect is less the focus than a framework within which to explore ideas about what constitutes normal development and behaviour; dysfunctional family dynamics; the impact of stress on relaxing social norms; the dichotomy of relating to and remaining distant from research subjects in the social sciences; the role of narrative, and of narration in our framing of the world; how the events of our childhoods echo throughout our lives, among many others. Although I found the mysteries of the novel (why has Blind Lake been locked down? Did something happen at Crossbank? Is Ray right that they’re being quarantined, and if so why? Why has Subject’s behaviour so radically changed? Why is Tess so unusual, and does she possess unusual insight, or a mental problem?) interesting, they definitely played a secondary role for me.
I held off reading Blind Lake because of the criticism I read online (and which I referenced when reviewing another Wilson novel, Spin), that they were too similar. Having read the second novel, and just now reread the criticism, I can see where the reader was coming from, but disagree that this is the same novel writ twice. there are certainly similarities, but the style, essential plot points, and the narrative were quite different. That said, I take on board the advice which I think is generally good in every genre: proceed cautiously when reading the same author more than once in close proximity. Disappointment quite often follows suit. - Alex

Tuesday, July 24

The Books of Rachel - Joel Gross

“Jewish folklore tells of an angel who comes to whisper every last detail of the Torah to the baby in its mother’s womb, only to reappear in the split second before birth and awareness, to erase all the knowledge so easily won.”
The morning of her wedding, as has been the tradition in her family for many generations, Rachel Kane’s father hung the heirloom Cuheno diamond around her neck. And, just like the unborn babe, Rachel was flooded with the knowledge of the Rachels who had gone before her in the five hundred years since Judah Cuheno first cut it in the Spanish city of Zaragoza for his beloved sister Rachel, in 1484.
This book, which I first read in the early 1980’s, and was delighted to find in my local library (libraries are brilliant!) tells the stories of a series of amazing women over half a millennia. The women are generally privileged but strong, courageous and brave. Gross manages to effortlessly weave into the narratives a great deal of history, particularly the centuries of persecution to which Jews have been subjected, from the Inquisition of the fifteenth century to the Holocaust of the twentieth. This could be a berating, exhausting or cheerless task, but the result is a triumphant, empowering and overwhelmingly uplifting series of vignettes of hope. - Alex

Saturday, July 21

Rainbows End – Vernor Vinge

Robert Gu, once a world-famous poet, has been mired in the shadowy world of Alzheimer’s for two decades, until new technology reverses his mental and physical decline – Robert looks like he’s twenty. But he returns to a world very different from the one he left – everyone’s connected to the Internet through smart contact lenses, which provide modifiable overlays to everything you see, and wearable computers that are sensitive to minute intentional movements.
When Robert ‘left’, his son was a young man; now Bob’s high up in the military, his daughter-in-law works in intelligence, he has a thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Miri, whose patience helps him re-enter this brave new world, and his long-suffering wife is dead. Struck by his own genius, Robert was never a pleasant man to be with, and his adaptation was never going to be easy. But with the world facing a global catastrophe due to an intricate conspiracy, Robert and Miri may be the most unexpected heroes.

By the way, the title refers to a retirement home, and Robert ponders (midway through the book) on the name, which had been really irritating me - he's not sure if it's faulty grammar, or an acknowledgement of the fading that aging causes.
Virge is a four-time winner of the Hugo Awards. This is the first novel of his I’ve read; I was captured by the premise of a man returning from a long and involuntary absence to an entirely new way of relating to the world around him, a common theme in fiction, from Rip van Winkle to Buck Rodgers. It’s unfortunate that I found this rendition so unengaging. The novel is a cross between cyber-punk and hard SF. I found clarity of plot and depth of characterisation sacrificed for Byzantine intricacy and techno-complexity, and rarely had a firm grip on what was going on. Yet, despite this I did persist, feverishly reading with no clear idea of the universe I was reading about. The narcissism of Robert, both past and present, and the entanglement of family relationship, were well presented, but not explored in as much depth as I’d have liked. I might pick up another of Vinge’s novels, but he won’t be making it to my must-read pile any time soon. - Alex

Thursday, July 19

I Capture the Castle - Dodi Smith

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain lives in a run-down castle with her older sister (the beautiful Rose), younger brother (the mostly absent at school Thomas), family factotum and would-be swain Stephen, eccentric erstwhile writer father James and equally eccentric step-mother (glamorous former model Topaz). Cassandra has just learned to speed write, and begins a journal, partly for practice and partly to hone her writing skills. What she cannot know is that her family’s peaceable, albeit increasingly poverty stricken, lives will be inexorably changed by the arrival in town of the new owner of Belmotte, American Simon Cotton and his brother Neil.
Smith is the author of A Hundred and One Dalmatians, and it’s less well known sequel The Starlight Barking, both of which I devoured as a child. But for some reason I never tackled I Capture the Castle, even though it opens with the wonderfully evocative line” I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in the it; the rest of me is on the draining board.” Published in the late 1940’s, and set in the mid ‘thirties, ICtC is a beautiful and involving novel that perfectly captures its time and the sensibilities of the era. It is delightfully British, its heroine captivating and its portrayals of the characters warm and sympathetic. It probably didn’t hurt that it opens in winter, with a long section about the joys of hot water baths when all around you is cold, which I read in the bath. This is a classic novel for young adults, and deservedly so – I thoroughly enjoyed it, even at this late arrival to it. – Alex

Tuesday, July 17

A Few Demons More – Kim Harrison

Rachel Morgan has had an adventurous few months, and her life is only getting more tangled. Not surprising when you realise that she’s a formerly white witch (now a little demon-smudged) who lives with a living vampire (Ivy, with whom she has a precarious relationship that hovers somewhere dangerous) and a family of pixies, dates another living vampire (Kisten, who also has close ties with Ivy), is the member of a Were pack of two, and is responsible for the incarceration of the head of a vampire clan. Add to that the fact that her ex-boyfriend sold her out, her dear friend Jenks is rapidly aging (pixies have a short lifespan), and she has not one but two demon marks, and Rachel wasn’t ever going to have a quiet life. But when she finds demons ransacking her home, a still-sanctified church, without fear or restraint, Rachel’s already chaotic life takes a dramatic turn for the worse. The demons are looking for the Focus, a supernatural statue that allows Weres to turn humans, a move which would dramatically shift the balance of power from the more numerous but (mostly) controlled vampires to the in-fighting Were population.
This is the fifth in the Dead Witch Walking series, and Harrison has managed to tie together a number of formerly looseish ends, while adding new twists. But as each instalment places Rachel in deeper strife, her heroine grows a little less believable. It may be that I’ve overdosed a little on supernatural novels of late, or that I’m too distracted by real life to focus sufficiently closely on intricate plotting, but I really didn’t care that much by the end of the novel. A Few Demons More were a few too many for me. – Alex

Monday, July 16

Michael Cox: The Meaning of Night - A Confession

When a chance discovery leads a man to suspect that he is not the son of a widowed writer, as he has been brought up to believe, but the heir to one of Britain’s oldest, most noble families and greatest fortunes, he will stop at nothing to prove his case. His frustration increases as at every turn his path is blocked and evidence of his true identity destroyed by a rival from his schooldays.
A tale of love, loss, revenge and murder, this story takes us traipsing through Victorian London from opium dens, brothels and haunts of the criminal underclass to one of the most beautiful houses in the country.
The author uses an unusual approach to this story claiming that he merely ‘edited’ a collection of letters, papers and diaries that he ‘discovered’ into a comprehensive tale that may or may not be a work of fiction. Certainly he gets the voice of the Victorian writer spot on. I could quite easily believe that the author of this work was a contemporary of the time. There is a lot of historic detail in not only the places and events mentioned but also in the language used that adds to the feeling of authenticity.
The writer, in the guise of the ‘editor’, did tend to add in a number of footnotes some explaining terms, some offering translations, most asserting the veracity of a place, name or event. In the beginning I found these distracting since they added nothing to the story itself seeming to be little more than a venue for the author to showcase his knowledge. (And as an historian of the era the author has a lot of knowledge about it.) However, I quickly learned to ignore the presence of the footnotes and the story read much more smoothly for that.
The book opens with an unprovoked murder before returning the reader to an earlier time and filling in the events that led to that pass. I found myself feeling sympathetic toward the main character and curious as to how events would unfold even though I knew where his path would eventually lead him. That is all the evidence of good writing anyone needs right there.
True to the style of the time, the many meandering paths of various characters come together as the story draws to its dramatic conclusion but there is very little reliance on coincidence or fate to bring this about. It is more an awareness of how one event can have future consequences for all those touched by it no matter how peripheral they might seem.
I did enjoy this book, though I didn’t find it the compelling read the reviews I had seen led me to expect. At just on six hundred pages it is a bit of an epic and it is only in the last third that the pace really picks up and things start to happen.
Anyone who had to be forced to read Dickens at school is probably not going to like this book. (Not that Cox comes up to the level of Dickens’ genius but it is Dickens voice that is probably the best known of the Victorian style today) But for anyone not put off by the length and who enjoys an authentic Victorian feel (or is simply willing to judge a book by its cover - I loved the cover art on this) The Meaning of Night is not to be missed. Just skip the footnotes.-Lynn

Sunday, July 15

Rollback – Robert J Sawyer

In the early years of the 21st century Earth received its first message from space, from Sigma Draconis, and Canadian astronomer Sarah Halifax was the first person to uncode the string of bits and bytes. Thirty-eight years later our reply arrives, this time deliberately encrypted.
Sarah may just hold the key once more. But Sarah, like her husband Don, is eighty-seven – however keen she is, her strength and ability are fading, and she could well die before figuring it out. An academic and a retired audio engineer, the Halifax’s are comfortable but far from wealthy; when North America’s richest man, industrialist Cody McGavin offers to pay for Sarah to be ‘rolled back’ – a new and hideously expensive series of treatments that literally rollback the years, restarting the clock anywhere from the early twenties up – so she can work on the message, Sarah only hesitates long enough to make sure Don is also treated. After a couple of decades of slowing down, preparing for age and death, the couple who’ve just celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary are looking at the pleasing prospect of sharing another sixty years, or more.
But although Don’s treatment is successful, Sarah continues to age normally – the result, it turns out, of experimental oncology in her thirties. Now Don, as in love with his wife as ever, must face the prospect of the rest of his life without her, outliving his friends, his children, and defunct in a world that has continues to change since he retired.
And the Dracon message is still waiting.
I have been looking forward to reading this ever since Amazon alerted me to its release earlier this year, and was delighted to find it in my local library – as is evident from this blog, I love Sawyer’s writing, and Rollback is no exception. Sawyer is not content to simply create a vivid and interesting universe, but also writes to allow insight into the human condition, and creates intricate and significant philosophical questions. In Rollback these deal with both the personal and with wider aspects of how our decisions affect us all. Don has conflict between his loyalty to his beloved wife and the awaking needs of not only his youthened body but also the rest of his post-Sarah life, guilt over benefiting from the rollback when it failed for Sarah, dawning awareness that the story arc he expected for his life has been wholly disrupted without warning, and must deal with the impact of receiving rare and massively expensive treatment only as an adjunct (rather than having some claim on it as a result of his own labour or worth). For Sarah, who must see her husband grow daily stronger as her own abilities decline, her preoccupation is more concerned with her far-away pen pal, and when she does manage to read the message she must make hard decisions about the best way to follow the Dracon request the message contains.
Sawyer writes all his characters with great humanity – in the past this has included the Parallax Neanderthals and the Quintaglio saurians. In Rollback, one of the most moving actions is performed by a robot, whose sacrifice had me quite choked (though I was also sleep deprived, and shed a tear while reading a passage on space shuttle tragedies. Sawyer’s characters are moral actors without sacrificing their reality, their rootedness in the world, or their individuality. This lends a depth to writing that already has original plotting, intriguing scenarios and engaging writing. His characters live. – Alex

Saturday, July 14

The Scent of Shadows – Vicki Pettersson

The black sheep daughter of a Las Vegas casino fortune, twenty-four year old Joanna Archer is merely tolerated by her wealthy father. Never his favourite (unlike the beautiful, dutiful and younger Olivia), Joanna was brutally raped and left for dead when she was sixteen. After nursing her back to health, Jo and Olivia’s mother abandoned them, something Xavier Archer blamed Jo for.
When Xavier learns that Jo is not his genetic daughter he summons the sisters and tells them that Jo is cut off – he’ll give her stipend, to protect the family name and for appearances’ sake, but everything is now Olivia’s.
Jo doesn’t really care – she’s far more interested in her quest to clear scum off the streets of Vegas. But her skill at the combat art Krav Maga, initially learned in the aftermath of her attack and now honed daily, may be used to greater effect.
For, in a stunning sequence of events, Jo learns that she is truly her mother’s daughter – she is one of the Zodiac, a force for light who must battle against her dark opposite. And more than that Jo may be the potential saviour for a side that has been beset by bad luck and disaster – the result of a pairing of dark and light, and with the potential to go either way, Jo may be the mythic Kairos.
Tagged “The First Sign of the Zodiac”, this is an interesting debut in what is, presumably, a twelve-part series. For a start, I can’t remember the last time I encountered a universe where smell was a key sense. Though there is some slowing of the plot for universe building, this wasn’t too distracting, and there were some really nice touches – particularly the relationship between the sisters, and the doomed resumption of Jo’s relationship with high-school-sweetheart-turned-cop Ben.
I did find the resolution of the betrayal-from-within sub-plot a little predicable from some way back and, given that I wasn’t looking to uncover the traitor, this was disappointing. There were strong Buffyverse elements that I appreciated but which made the book less fresh than it might otherwise have been, and I found the journey through the desert of dead lights a little unclear. I’ll probably look at book two, A Taste of Night, if it crosses my path, but I don’t think I’ll be going out of my way to track it down. - Alex

Friday, July 13

Definitely Dead – Charlaine Harris

In this sixth outing, mind-reading Louisiana cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse must travel to New Orleans. Summoned by the vampire Queen of that city, Sookie has to claim her inheritance after the Queen’s unofficial consort, Sookie’s cousin Hadley is killed. But someone doesn’t want Sookie looking into things too deeply - she’s attacked by freshly-turned Were’s and then by a just-risen vamp, and that’s not even including her always tumultuous love life. To complicate matters further, the vampiric Queendom is in some turmoil – a marriage of convenience has been arranged between the Queen of Louisiana and the King of Arkansas, and things are tense.
Lynn recently wrote a review about the series where she complained about the peculiar and inexplicable allure of Sookie – all men, or at least all supernatural ones, are drawn to her, and this so irritated Lynn that it distracted from the plot. Clearly she’s not alone, because in Definitely Dead Harris explains all. The first mention I found somewhat plausible, though obviously somewhat exaggerated – when the vampire Bill, Sookie’s first lover, made it clear he found her attractive her resulting confidence and demeanour made her more attractive to others. It’s certainly been my experience that one’s belief and bearing have a huge impact on one’s perceived attractiveness, so I can buy that, though Sookie has seemed in the past to have an almost supernatural drawing power. Which brings us to reason two, where it is revealed that Sookie does, indeed, have a supernatural reason for her pulling power (and possibly, though this is not stated, this also explains her gift). I must say, though, that the reason given was a little out of left field and seemed obviously written in response to complaints like Lynn’s – were this a plotted reason we would surely have seen evidence of it earlier.
Still and all I am a generally far less conscious reader than Lynn, and I had been fairly comfortable (at least until she pointed out) just to accept that every non-human creature lusts after her. I enjoyed this instalment, and will read the next, though I think I’ll borrow the next book from the library rather than shelling out for my own copy. – Alex

Thursday, July 12

Hybrids – Robert J Sawyer

The conclusion to the Parallax Trilogy sees Ponter and Mary working out how (and if) they can make a relationship between them work – Mary has trouble with the Neanderthal relationship set up, and Ponter can’t pretend his other partnership doesn’t exist. But more pressing is the discovery that our earth’s poles are about to switch, reversing the magnetic force to the south, something which happens on average every 40,000 years, and which has already occurred in the Neanderthal reality. At the same time, a covert plot threatens the population of one whole world.
Although the concluding instalment of this fabulous series narratively focuses on these aspects, the thematic focus is on the nature, cause and influence of religion, and the nature of humanity, particularly gendered thinking. That sounds rather dry and heavy but, as I wrote previously, Sawyer manages to combine really significant questions with gripping and readable plot.
I wrote in the previous review that Sawyer has been accused of being anti-male, and it’s certainly true that there are men in this series who are depicted as being harsh, brutal, single-minded and rapine. However, the women don’t all behave in an exemplary way, and at least one man is redeemed by his selflessness. Though it could be argued that this is the result of his being emasculated… Which brings us to the heart of Sawyer’s writing – there are no easy answers, but any number of fascinating questions, and a great journey. - Alex

Tuesday, July 10

Humans – Robert J Sawyer

In this second part of the Parallax Trilogy the primary focus is on the Neanderthal Earth: Ponter is back home, while Mary has been headhunted to work in a well-funded US scientific think tank. Both teams are looking at ways to bridge our separate universes, perhaps permanently. For Mary, still trying to recover from being raped on a campus where she formerly felt safe, working in the US is a refuge from being confronted with that fact every day. But she flies back to Canada when Ponter re-emerges.
The middle book in this thought-provoking trilogy manages to tie up a couple of loose ends from the first book (primarily regarding the rape), while raising interesting questions about justice, parity, and made me think about how difficult it is to think outside familiar paradigms. I believe some readers have criticised Sawyer, in essence accusing him of being politically correct, a catch-all of anti-male, anti-Western culture, pro-less ‘advanced’ societies. It’s certainly true that the Neanderthal world is more in balance than ours, and it seems in many ways more Eden-like. But Sawyer also raises important questions about what injustices are done when we try to make reparations for historic harms.
One of the things I most enjoy about reading in general, and with science fiction in particular, is being confronted with assumptions I have been wholly unaware I had. For example (in no way related to this series), it was not until I discovered, many years ago, that a friend was a Holocaust denier that I had ever questioned the reality of that horror. I do not, I hasten to add, have any doubt that there was a Holocaust, or that it was responsible for the deaths of some twelve million people. But I had not been cognizant of the fact that it was possible to question it, until my friend made me aware that there are people who disbelieve.
Similarly, being exposed to unique and really different thought processes, in this case Sawyer’s conjecturing about what a society which evolved free of what we (or I, at least) consider to be ‘normal’ constraints would be like made me appreciate how hard it is to recognise and move past those unrecognised frameworks that shape our thinking.
In the Neanderthal culture, where a more well developed sense of small meant not only no development of fossil fuel-based energy (because of the smell involved), women’s hormones cause them to menstruate together, leading to a separation of the sexes from menarche, which in turn has lead to a very different social structure and concept of intimate relationships. The brilliance of Sawyer’s writing is his ability to seamlessly weave this into a gripping narrative and fully fleshed characters. - Alex

Sunday, July 8

Hominids – Robert J Sawyer

Louise Benoît is a physicist working on neutrino research in the bowels of a nickel mine in Canada – its depth from the surfacing and the shielding offered by heavy rock, allow observations that would not be possible elsewhere. The computer monitoring the heavy water tank where the experiment is being conducted pings every time a neutrino enters it. When the computer begins lighting up and pinging non-stop it’s obvious that something’s gone wrong, but she could never have expected to find an unconscious man in the tank – the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory is secure, monitored, and two kilometres below the surface of the earth.
While her assistant calls for help, Louise dives into the tank, and rescues the heavy-set man. Her surprise at his presence is outweighed by the shock of his appearance – hospital radiology studies confirm that he is a Neanderthal. Rather than having been brought back from the past, some 40,000 years ago, Ponter Boddit is a physicist from an alternative earth, one where it is we who died and out and an alternate hominid species survived.
Neanderthal society is significantly different from ours – a smaller population, no reliance of fossil fuels, and different approaches to any number of things, from the colour for danger to what constitutes a ‘normal’ relationship. One of the most significant things that set the Neanderthals apart is that there is not (and never has been) religious faith. Without the concept of God, sin, and eternal life, the Neanderthal society has embraced the installation of companions, miniature computers implanted in the wrist that monitor all individuals. Other people can only access one’s memory cube by the authority of the Neanderthal equivalent of a court order.
The novel switches between what’s happening on our earth, with Ponter learning about a wholly alien way of life, and what’s happening on his earth in his absence. Unfortunately, due to the depth of the cave, there is no memory cube recording of what happened to Ponter, and his partner is charged with his murder, a truly unique event in a world where all is recorded.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first instalment in the second trilogy (the first, the unrelated Quintaglio trilogy, involves sentient saurians and will be reviewed at some point) by one of my favourite authors, a rare see-and-buy. Sawyer has a beautiful ability to explore truly alien mindsets, mix reality-rooted science with imagination, and create vivid characters who are coherent and multi-layered. - Alex

Saturday, July 7

Anna Campbell: Claiming the Courtesan

Dire circumstances force a young innocent into life as a courtesan. At the height of her notoriety she disappears leaving her rich and powerful lover for a quiet life far away from glamorous London as a ‘widow’. Her lover is furious at her desertion just as he was about to fly in the face of society and propose to her. He hunts her down and kidnaps her with a view to renewing their relationship, forcing her to admit her love for him and accept his proposal. Naturally she resists the return to her old life but inevitably succumbs to his will. In spite of the many reasons she espouses that their marriage could never work, true love cannot be denied and we leave them on the brink of happy ever after.
I can’t say that I particularly liked this book but the writing was compelling. I must be up front and admit that the hero, the ultimate in alpha males, is everything I despise in a man. He is quite possibly the most authentic historical character I have ever read in a romance novel. His sense of entitlement is almost palpable and the actions of his character (which include kidnapping and rape) completely convincing within the story’s context. It is a testament to the author’s skill that I had such a strong reaction to the character and kept reading in spite of that.
It is his redemption about which the story pivots and while he does change I feel that it happens too swiftly and too completely to be convincing. The trigger for his change of heart doesn’t seem strong enough to carry such a momentous turnaround and make it a permanent feature. Perhaps if we were to see some of his history earlier in the story I would be more sympathetic towards him and inclined to believe the change when it happens.
The heroine is almost a secondary character despite large chunks of the story being in her point of view. In a few places I couldn’t see the motivation for her action, in fact I thought she acted against the character she had been shown to have. Though she is consistent and her actions reasonably believable for the main part.
This story is well, and evocatively, told. The writing is compelling and the hero probably an accurate historical character. (I won’t even begin to discuss whether or not the average reader of historical romance wants the hero to behave in a manner authentic to his time and rank). If you are a sensitive sort who doesn’t like to read scenes of emotional and physical abuse give this story a wide berth for the rest Regency noir is an interesting new take on an old favourite.-Lynn

Friday, July 6

Red Leaves – Thomas H Cook

Eric Moore is reasonably content with his life – he loves his wife, Meredith, enjoys working as the owner/manager of a photography business, and small town life. His sixteen-year old son, Keith, is a little withdrawn and solitary, but surely that’s just the nature of male adolescence; his brother does not much of anything, but he’s always been like that; and his father has always been surly and hard to please, though more so since he moved into a care home. But all in all, Eric’s happy.
One evening Keith comes home late from babysitting eight-year old Amy. He goes straight to his room, like always. And the next morning it begins, with a phone call from Amy’s father – they can’t find Amy, and want to speak to Keith. Eric and Meredith are plunged into a nightmare they could never have foreseen, as they deal with police, media, growing community hostility, lawyers and, at least for Eric, a growing suspicion that maybe his son did something to the child.
Each part of Red Leaves opens with a couple of pages of second-person reflective narrative (“When you remember those times, they return to you in a series of photographs,” the novel opens), followed by a first-person account of events as they unfold. The technique is very effective, and the premise is promising. In addition to the current crisis with Keith, Eric begins to face demons from his past - his beloved younger sister, Jenny, died in childhood; his father lost a fortune in a series of increasingly risky and bad investments; is mother died in a fiery car crash that may have been an accident or suicide; and Eric has learned through example that trouble is best avoided as long as possible. But what do you when you can’t ignore the truth?
This slender novel is compelling reading, and the mystery is subtly woven throughout the more dominant investigation of Eric’s persona and his changing perspective on the events of his childhood. Although I won’t rush out to find other of Cook’s work, if I stumble across one I’ll certainly give it a try. – Alex

Thursday, July 5

PS I Love You - Cecelia Ahern

Gerry, the love of Holly's life, her friend, husband and lover, has died of cancer. Bereft, indignant at the unjustice, and most of all mired in a morass of darkness, she is grief stricken. Everywhere she turns she remembers her life with Gerry and mourns that it is no more. She is filled with regret for the time they lost and the opportunities she wasted - the arguments, time spent with other people, that they hadn't started a family. Her parents, siblings and friends try to be supportive, but nobody really understands what it's like. This isn't something that can be fixed by a brisk walk in the fresh air, or yet another cup of tea. And though they might all be ready to move on with their lives, her life is effectively over.
And then her mother tells her that there's a parcel for her, with the enigmatic note "the list" on the front. She, Gerry and their friends had a joke, before he grew ill, about leaving a list of things to do for those left behind. But Gerry was almost never alone in his final months - when would he have had the opportunity? It couldn't be from him...
Knowing Holly as well as he did, Gerry wrote Holly a series of notes, one for each month starting eight weeks after his death. In each note he sets Holly a task to help her move forward with her life after his death, and opening the notes each month gives Holly a purpose and something to look forward to.
For Holly, who has days where she can't get out of bed, let alone worry about her job or something to eat, her loss is as big in her life as her love for Gerry, a situation that her loved ones are at a loss to help with. As a society we tend to shy away from grief, even more so that death, and the nakedness of other people's grief is overwhelming and disquieting.
This is a particularly compassionate and well written portrait of grief. It is also surprisingly uplifting and rewarding, and Ahern manages to veer away from the rather predictable ending I expected. The description of Holly's experience is deft and sympathetic, and the frustration of her loved one's inability to help is palpable. I found Holly's journey, particularly the shift in relationships with her siblings, to be interestingly and beautifully depicted.
The novel addresses, in the later sections, that Holly is not alone in having suffered a devastating loss, and we get to hear from Gerry's friends. As their friends begin, inevitably, to move on with the events in their own lives, Holly is only prompted into action through Gerry's notes. I think I fell a little in love with him myself - his love for Holly, his thoughtfulness and planning are palpable, and serve to illuminate Holly's despair even more clearly.
I've made it sound as though PS I Love You, is depressing
. Although parts of it are unquestionably dark, the novel overall is uplifting and joyous, without sacrificing realism and without resorting to expediency or predictability. I really enjoyed the process of reading this novel – Alex

Tuesday, July 3

Neil Gaiman: Stardust

Set in the beginning of the Victorian era, Stardust is part love story, part fairy tale. A young man falls in love with the local beauty, a woman far beyond his reach. By chance they see a falling star and, emboldened by the romance of the night, he asks her for a kiss. She tells him that if he brings her the fallen star they had just seen she will give him his heart’s desire. So begins a quest that takes him deep into the realm of the fairies before bringing him home again with a very different heart’s desire.
Told in a style reminiscent of the Brother’s Grimm this is a lovely adult version of a child’s fairytale. Though a satisfying story full of magic and murder, desire and deception, the hero’s quest is told in summary, almost superficially, and the technique works well. It is taken for granted that all things miraculous and wonderful will be unquestioningly accepted as part of the fabric of the world and are never explained. It is a testament to this author’s ability that the world comes across as vibrant and real with minimal attention paid to the usual details of world building. Rather than coming across as a failing it helps the reader to skip lightly through the story instead of getting bogged down in heavy details.
The morals of the story, while obvious, are delivered with a light hand. A delightful read.-Lynn

Monday, July 2

And Eternity - Piers Anthony

Jolie, the ghost wife of Parry, now Incarnation of Evil, lives in a drop of blood on the wrist of Gaea, the Incarnation of Nature. Jolie is tasked with observing mortals for their suitability as future Incarnations, on behalf of Gaea. Gaea sends Jolie to shepherd Orline, a mortal with close ties to several Incarnations, who has commited suicide after the death of her teminally ill baby, Gaw Two. Orline is determined to save the soul of her child who, through no fault of his own, will continue to suffer in the afterlife. Orline and Jolie embark on a quest to find Gaw's soul and ameliorate his suffering. They meet Nox, the ancient and powerful Incarnation of the Night - she has Gaw, and tells the travellers that they must obtain an item from each of the seven major Incarnations in order to restore Gaw to innocence (and therefore to Heaven).
Part way through their journey the women inhabit the body of Vita, a fifteen year old prostitute who’s starting to get hooked on Spelled H, a powerfully addictive and destructive drug that wreaks havoc on the soul. With the help and guidance of Jolie and Orline, Vita flees her pimp and winds up in the court of Roque, a truly good and principled judge. After hearing that the body of Vita is inhabited by two other women, one of whom has the ability to see by aura is a person is suitable for a particular post, or telling the truth, or being deceptive, Roque agrees to act as Vita’s guardian.
Sexually abused by her father, and having never met a decent man, Vita falls in love with Roque and, after a time and much protest from the judge (who secretly yearns for underage girls), they consummate the relationship.
But Orline’s quest is not yet over. She garners the sought objects, or promises of them, from each of the Incarnations, until she finally approaches the most powerful of them all, the Incarnation of Good. And it is then that she discovers what the secret plotting of Satan, the importance of Luna Kaftan, and the unprecedented interference by Nox in human affairs are all about. With humanity trembling on the verge of a precipice, the Incarnations are poised to take unique action in a rare moment of unanimity.
This is a truly satisfying ending to the series – the characters are coherent and well drawn, the ending is a welcome surprise that is clearly posted and obvious on retrospect, and the ends are convincingly tied up without stretching disbelief. – Alex

Sunday, July 1

For Love of Evil - Piers Anthony

The son of a magician, Parry is following in his adopted father’s footsteps when he woos a timid village girl, Jolie. With nurturing and some good food, she blossoms into a true beauty, and they fall in love. But though they practice white magic, sorcery is considered evil in the time of the Crusades - soldiers set their cottage on fire, and are even prepared for Parry and the Sorcerer to change forms, shooting the Sorcerer with a crossbow. Parry just manages to escape, and he and Jolie flee for their lives. Time after time they seem safe, only to find the soldiers reoriented on their path, until Parry realises that their pursuers are being informed by a magic wielder who is tracking him every time he casts a spell. His discovery comes slightly too late – Jolie is mortally wounded. When Death comes to collect her, Parry learns about the Incarnations and pleads with Death, who agrees that though she is destined for Heaven, Jolie’s soul can stay with Parry, in a blood drop on his wrist.
Desolate and heart sick, Parry joins a party of monks, as Brother Grief. Over time Jolie develops the ability to manifest as a spirit, and gives him insights he would never have had access to otherwise, allowing him to rise in rank until he becomes one of the head inquisitors in the Inquisition. He uncovers corruption and abuses of power, and lives a righteous life, until he is forced to spend a night in a peasant’s cottage. With her permission, Jolie’s spirit takes over the body of the cottager’s daughter and, for the first time in a score of years, Parry indulges in the sins of the flesh.
The discipline of his life is now breached and, the path now open, Parry is approached by a demoness who, after token resistance, Parry sleeps with. Lilah has been sent by Lucifer, but she is honest with Parry, and helps him in his ongoing quest to root out evil. But by association Parry’s own balance tilts toward evil. When Parry dies, in 1250, he appears before Lucifer. Angered by Lilah’s defection to Parry, Lucifer attempts to smite him but, because the spirit of Jolie, who cannot be sent to Hell, the act bounces on to Lucifer. Spurred on by Lilah, Parry assumes the position of the Incarnation of Evil, now known as Satan.
Distressed by both the disorganisation of Hell, and his discovery that the sorting process seems irrational and ineffective, Parry tries to seek clarification and assistance from the other Incarnations. Death, War and Fate refuse to see Him at all, and Nature makes him submit to a series of humiliations before laughing at him; Parry vows that they will all pay. He then tries to speak with God, in order to work out a more equitable and rational system, but God is self-absorbed and doesn’t even notice Parry’s presence.
Despite God’s oblivion, Parry is undaunted. No administration runs itself, and Parry meets with Gabriel, Heaven’s chief administrator. They come to an agreement – if Parry cannot corrupt an individual of Gabriel’s choosing, or their child, or their grandchild, Parry must abate His efforts forever. Parry agrees, then learns that Gabriel has chosen a woman in the late twentieth century, some seven hundred years hence. The woman’s name is Niobe Kaftan.
I found this the most satisfying of the series thus far – we get a deeper insight into the other Incarnations, from a wholly different perspective, Parry’s character arc is believable and engrossing, his desire to do good convincingly undermined by his human desires, and the inequities of Hell convincingly displayed. Anthony raises some interesting questions, including the purpose of the Incarnation of Evil: “Is it to generate evil in the mortal world, or merely to locate existing evil? Am I here to encourage greater evil, or discourage it by the threat of infernal punishment? Am I supposed to defeat God, or be defeated?” As Satan noted, these are very different things. Anthony also comes up with a creative reason for why Milan and most of Poland were spared from the Black Plague. I greatly look forward to revisiting the finale, And Eternity. – Alex