Friday, August 31

Gay TV and Straight America - Ron Becker

In the late 1980's there were almost no gay characters on US sitcoms or dramas; by the end of the twentieth century a number of non-cable progrmas had gay and lesbian recurring and main characters, and almost every sitcom or drama had at least one gay-themed episode How and why did this change take place, and what implications does it have for the GLBTQ and straight communities?
This ambitious book attempts to place the growing portrayal of gay and lesbian characters in the social context of the nineties. The author discusses popular culture representation before and after this decade, discusses how characters are portrayed, examines 'homosexual panic' and how the definition of this term has been subverted to support straight men killing gay boys and men, the impact of 9/11 and more.
Though the topic and content are interesting, the text is less accessible that I had hoped, and is written in a very academic style. This may in part be due to the breadth of material covered, but was disappointing nonetheless. - Alex

Thursday, August 30

Give a Boy a Gun - Todd Strasser

Told almost solely through fragments from suicide notes, chat transcript , email extracts and quotes from parents, neighbours, classmates and friends, and with facts about gun death in America scattered throughout the text, Give a Boy a Gun tells the unfolding (and fictional) story of two teenage boys who planned and committed a Columbine-style school shooting.
As expected, there's a strong emphasis on the contribution easy availability of guns has had on the body count and escalating frequency of these attacks, and an equally strong emphasis on the role that social inequity and high school culture has on the perpetrators - ostracised outsiders who were relentlessly picked on by football stars, and the two-tier rules that applied to them and to the lesser mortals.
The writing is sympathetically inclined toward the boys, with some members of staff and some of the popular kids perpetuating, even in the aftermath, the attitudes that helped bring the boys to that point.
The style is effective, and (despite what I've just written above) provides a more even-handed reading than a more conventional approach would have. At the same time, though, I found myself less than fully engaged with the plot, and the style did distance me from the boys - even though they were represented through the suicide notes and extracts of emails and online chat. I've seen Bowling for Columbine nine times, and still get choked up, but I didn't feel emotional connected to Give a Boy a Gun until I got to the list of gun-related deaths at the end. I suspect that some of that is due to my nationality - there have been a handful of any kind of mass shootings in the last twenty years, and none like this; and my high school experience was certainly so different from the one portrayed that I don't have common ground. But I also think that this book, a significant departure from Strasser's usual fare, with the exception of his ground-breaking novel (also based on real life events) The Wave, doesn't offer anything new, which may in part be due to the time of publication (2000, two years before Moore's comprehensive documentary). - Alex

Wednesday, August 29

Glass Houses - Jane Haddam

Glass Houses picks up where Hardscrabble Road left off - the return of long-time partner Bennis is an extra complication, as Gregor tries to solve a series of killings. The victimology is consistent (middle-aged white women), and the methodology is, too (strangled, usually with a length of plastic tie, then dumped in an alley) but unlike other serial killers, this one seems to lack any sexual component, and there's no escalation. Gregor isn't helped by the detective team investigating the murders - at logger heads, the two men can't stand to even be in the same room as one another.
As always in Haddam novels, there's significant secondary action, with continuing story arcs about the inhabitants of Cavanaugh Street. More interesting is the introduction of British journalist Miss Phillipa Lyndgate, who is adamant that she already knows about America, particularly its ills. Though most striking in Miss Lydham, the depiction of bias and inflexibility of thought is portrayed subtly and through a number of characters. I know I complained last time about the relentless hammering home of bipartisan angst, but in this case the effect is thought provoking and occasionally amusing. And it even made me consider my own anti-American biases, which can't be ban. All in all my faith in Haddam has been restored, and I look forward to her next venture. - Alex

Tuesday, August 28

Hardscrabble Road - Jane Haddam

The twentieth in this series about retired FBI agent Gregory Demarkian (known as the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot) sees him investigating the case of a right-wing radio broadcaster found with unprescribed drugs in his car. According to Drew Harrigan's people (the great man himself is in isolation at a rehab centre), a homeless alcoholic named Sherman Markey procurred the drugs for him. Markey can't be found, and those few who knew him say that it's not possible for him to have functioned that highly.
Add a cloistered monastery full of Carmelite nuns, a university intent on political correctness, and a host of characters with hidden agendas, and you should have an interesting and complex mystery. However, although I usually enjoy Haddam's novels whole-heartedly, Hardscrabble Road didn't deliver as I'd hoped. Though the reviews on the jacket praise the politics, I found the repeated diatribes on left vs right, conservative vs liberal, Republican vs Democrat rants annoying, lengthy, and not useful in progressing the plot.
Gregor apparently knew who did it early on, but for some reason kept this information to himself, which I also found irritating. I've got the next book in the series from the library, so I'll soon discover if it's the series as a whole or just this installment that's the problem (at least for me). - Alex

Monday, August 27

The Book of Death - Sarah McKenzie, Liz Poole and Amanda McKenzie

The subtitle, Kicking the Bucket in Style, isn't really representative of the contents of this interesting, Australian-centric exploration of death and the death industry. The authors have written a novel for the layperson who has questions about death - they discuss what death is (changing definitions as medical technology's advanced), common anxieties about it and what to do, what physical changes occur after death (a day-by-day detailing of the first two months, from pre-rigor mortis to decomposition and mummification), an overview of death workers (from health care through to mediums), recommendations for planning one's own death (more funeral and legal planning than methods, although there is a brief section on euthanasia), and a little on the possibiliy of an afterlife.
The tone throughout is calm and a little upbeat - there are quizzes, quotes and final words sprinkled throughout, and a reassuring tone for those who haven't quite come to terms with the finality of life.
This project has clearly been well researched, and is undoubtably a valuable jumping off point for the uninformed, and it was refreshing to read something so closely tied to the Australian experience, however, who already have a grip on the essentials, The Book of Death is a little simplistic; as thanatology is an aspect of one of my fields of endeavour, I did find myself a little frustrated with the fundamental nature of the text, but suspect this is substantially, if not solely, as a result of my previous reading and experience. - Alex-

Sunday, August 26

Richard Harland: The Black Crusade

From the back of the book-
Publisher’s Warning: Reading The Black Crusade may cause feelings of nausea, blindness, loss of status and social embarrassment. Do not read this book on public transport, in crowded places or in the company of senior citizens. Do not read this book aloud. Don’t read Chapter 6, Chapter 18 or Chapter 22 under any circumstances.
Why do Horace Cull’s little loaves of bread have bones in them?
What is homicidal sexual mania and does Volusia really suffer from it?
Why do the Black Crusaders worship the evolutionary theory of the Holy Darwin?
Whose blood is in the beetles at Falkenheim Castle?
Why does Ingel Brankel’s new bride call him a flaccid flopper?
How do the Black Crusaders recover a key from Brother Dragorian’s bowels?
Why does Basil Smorta need to extend his manhood beyond all human possibility?
What’s the connection between the Marquis of Morbol Villica and the Vicar of Morbing Vyle?

With such a warning and so many questions to be answered how could I not read this book? And I am delighted to be able to report that all the questions raised are answered quite satisfactorily.
The story was much as you would expect from this blurb. Very funny if you have a sense of humour warped in the same manner as the author’s. The book is riddled with editorial comments in footnotes from the preface to the epilogue that contribute a great deal to the reader’s experience.
A great read but only if limited to a few pages at a time. I think any more and the humour would stop being funny and start to be annoying. It took me three weeks to read this book for that very reason. But it was worth the effort just to meet the cavalry officer-Lynn

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

Saturday, August 25

Gone - Jonathan Kellerman

When would-be actress Michaela Brand's 'kidnapping' with boyfriend (and aspirant actor) Dylan Meserve turned out to be a publicity stunt, her public defender asked Alex Delaware to assess her mental state. A week after the case was plead out (leaving Alex out of pocket), her body was found in an area of wasteland.
The resulting investigation, led by Delaware's detective friend Milo Sturgess, runs the usual gamut of intriguing side-streets, dead ends and (to abandon the roadway metaphor) red herrings, before landing on a monstrous individual with some truly twisted psychopathology.
Intertwined with the mystery is the continuing story of Alex's tumultuous love life; whether or not Alex and guitar-maker Robin get back together, and the fate of aging pug Spike, is something you'll need to read the book to discover.
It's been quite a while since I read a Delaware novel, and I found Gone a little irritating. I readily acknowledge that this may be the result of insufficient sleep or some other extrinsic factor, but I suspect it's a combination of Kellerman's less interesting style over time. I've always preferred Kellerman's wife Faye's writing anyway, but I suspect that in this case it also suffers from comparison with the recently read Stephen White novel Warning Signs - it's also a series with a clinical psychologist, one whom I relate to much better. I've borrowed the next Kellerman novel, Rage, but think I'll return it unread for now and try again a little later. - Alex

Friday, August 24

You've Got Murder - Donna Andrews

When Turing Hopper first notices that her friend, programmer Zack, hasn't been at work for a few days she's mildly concerned, a worry that becomes more pronounced when Zack doesn't even remotely log in for five days. A little digging reveals a bigger worry - his existence at Universal Library is slowly being erased. Turing enlists the help of her only other friends, secretary Maude and Xeroxist Tim, to work out what's going on at UL. She needs them, because she can't go out and investigate herself - Turing's one of the first (and potentially only sentient) AIPs: an Artificial Intelligence Personality.
The novel alternates third person description with first person narrative from Turing, which not only covers the plot but also contains her musings on the Turing test (she's named for the creator, Alan Turing), and whether she really is sentient or just believes herself to be.
You've Got Murder is the first in what is, so far, a four book series. The intriguing and original protagonist would only be able to take this first installment so far, but Andrews has not only created a great character in Turing but also a vibrant supporting cast and a thrilling storyline. Although I promised myself I'd get straight out of bed this morning, I kept having to read just one more chapter, until I'd finished the book. I won't be reading the next soon, if only because I already have a significant backlog of library books (and the more of these I read the fewer inroads I'm making into my own unread library), but maybe in a month or so I'll look into the sequel, Click Here for Murder. - Alex

Thursday, August 23

The Ghost Brigades - John Scalzi

When an alien scientist is captured by Special Forces soldiers, he reveals a plot to attack all the human outposts - conducted by three alien races, two of whom were previously at war with each other and one of whom is usually relatively non-aggressive. More shocking is the discovery that the ringleader is human.
In an attempt to discover why Charles Boutin turned traitor to his race, and how he plans to commit genocide, the Colonial Defence Forces decide to create a Special Forces soldier with a difference - instead of allowing him to develop his own consciousness they will use a copy of Boutin's, in the hope that this recreation will let them discover this vital information.
Jared Dirac doesn't know why he reached awareness two days later than his squad mates, but although he's a little different he soon fits in, and proves himself to be a dependable and innovative addition to the team. That is until the team take a break on a way station, when Boutin's memories begin to be triggered.
This sequel to Scalzi's fabulous Old Man's War is set in the same universe but utilises different characters and focuses on a different part of the Colonial Defences soldiers. In addition to the genuinely interesting plot and the nuanced character development of Jared, The Ghost Brigades fills out and gives the reader insight into the politics underlying the universe Scalzi's created. For readers of the previous installment there's a little follow up on the story of Jane Sagan and John Perry.
I particularly liked the opening chapter, which gave me an interesting awareness of my own prejudices; the writing is in general good, and I eagerly look forward to reading the (more closely tied to the original) sequel , The Last Colony. - Alex

Wednesday, August 22

Sue Grafton:Q is for Quarry

Two semi-retired police detectives reopen an eighteen year old murder case when their prime suspect is released from prison where he was doing time for a different murder. They enlist private detective Kinsey Millhone to help identify the unknown victim.
Following up on evidence provided by newly available forensic techniques the victim is finally identified as a teenaged runaway that supposedly reported herself alive and well in the early stages of the original investigation. A careful re-examination of the original case notes and following up on all of the evidence available leads to the discovery of the motive for the murder and eventually to the murderer, who is unrelated to the original suspect.
Throughout the course of the story we are given a few glimpses into Kinsey’s family background and the ongoing issues the discovery of her extended family raises for her.
I have found the Grafton’s alphabet series to be an easy, light and entertaining read, though her style is such that reading a few of the books in series will make the outcome transparent. Having not read her for a while this was not a problem this time around.
There was no startling twist to this tale, no great leaps of faith, though there was, as usual, more than a spoonful of luck on our heroine’s side allowing her to make crucial connections that ultimately led to the identity of the killer.
The development of the heroine’s character throughout this series has been slow but steady. While not completely open to new ideas that challenge her worldview neither is she completely closed to them. I like that she is flawed, knows it and in spite of her best attempts is not always able to overcome it. I also like that her work life is not portrayed as glamorous and exciting. The mundane nature of the majority of her work and the tedium of paperwork is highlighted giving her a realistic touch.
A good reliable read if not a very exciting one-Lynn

Tuesday, August 21

Warning Signs - Stephen White

When clinical psychologist is woken by the phone first thing in the morning, he knows it's not good news, but he suspects a client rather than the awful news that his lawyer wife's boss has been found at home, bludgeoned to death, his sedated invalid wife sleeping through the whole thing.
At the same time as supporting his own wife, and trying to unravel who killed Royal, Alex has an even bigger problem. The week of the Columbine anniversary, a new client appears, apparently wrestling with a dilemma - her son and his friend may be setting up to become the next Klebold and Harris. But she's not ready to directly acknowledge this and Alex, earning that his wife is a potential target, is unable to act in his usual, professionally distanced manner. As he slides deeper and deeper into ethically grey territory, Alex is fighting fires on an number of fronts.
Warning Signs alternates first person chapters from Alex's PoV with third person accounts from a couple of other characters and this, combined with the layered storylines, keeps the pace up. I worked out who did it about 250 pages in, which I usually find annoying, but White's writing and characterisation is so good that, rather than reducing my enjoyment, I felt pleased with myself for having deduced the killer and motive. I realised, when I started reading Warning Signs that I read the last White novel out of order, but that didn't matter, either. See my previous review, on August 9th, for more raving about this series, which seems to continue from strength to strength. - Alex (who has restricted internet access at the moment and therefore can't give as much time as usual to review-writing)

Monday, August 20

Televised Morality - Gregory Stevenson

Subtitled The Case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this scholarly but readibly treatise explores the role of moral reasoning and consequence in the Buffyverse, clearly articulating how underinformed criticism of the series, at least on this front, is flawed.
Stevenson has read the series like a text, and amply supports his individual claims about the program (that violence is actually less graphic than most other programs, that sex is not graphic, that there are serious consequences, that there is a strong moral ethos in each arc, and that critics look solely at individual events rather than the context in which they occur).
I am a big fan of the series, and found myself nodding in agreement quite often. As Stevenson beautifully puts it: "[the narrative] is a kind of Trojan Horse that sneaks in a message while the viewer is distracted by the pretty horse. In the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the monsters and demons are narrative vehicles for a moral message."
Being very familiar with the series, I don't know how easy the references would be to follow for those new to or unfamiliar with it. On the other hand, I suspect that those critical to it (of which there are legion) will not be interested in reading this kind of analysis, even if they would be the ones to most greatly benefit. If you have been wondering why so many people became so enarmoured of a program which blended the supernatural with a perky blonde, this may give you an idea why it's also provoked the biggest volume of academic attention and literature of any popular culture artifact. - Alex

Sunday, August 19

Sugar - Karin Kallmaker

Aspiring cake maker Sugar Sorenson has put everything on the line, so when the oven in her illegally-let garage apartment starts a fire, she fears she's lost everything she owns. As the flames are still being quenched she meets three women - Gantry from Victims' Services, fire officer Charlie, and TV producer Emily, who was going to do a story of Sugar's cakes. All three are interested in Sugar, and she has a little trouble choosing between them, before realising each of them has something to offer - lust, friendship and love.
Along the way Sugar comes out to her religious grandmother, reaches a new understanding with her three older sisters, gains self-confidence, spectacularly launches her career, makes peace with her ex-lover, and finds new love.
And that's what I had a problem with. The character of Sugar (name excepted - something I'll return to shortly) is engaging and interesting, and the first half of the story was, too. But everything seems to slip too neatly into place, and the novel ends with every loose end not only tied up but arranged in a metaphorical bow.
I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept that, out of the blue, three potential suitors come knocking, though their all being interested in Sugar is a little Sookie Stackhousesque. And I can buy a woman named Sugar, and even a cake decorating Sugar (just). But I have trouble with a woman named Sugar (her given name, not a nickname) who has sisters named Patty, Rose and Quinn. I can't articulate precisely what I mean, but it's something in the ballpark of: parents usually name their children within a similar naming framework. A random polling of friends and a couple of passing co-workers gives me - Daniel, Joseph, Gregory and Natasha; Amanda and Michael; Sally and Felicity; Aaron, Thomas, Phoebe and Imogen; Grace and Charlie; Elizabeth, Lucy, Thomas, Michael and Gabrielle; Jacqui, Simon, Marcus and Benjamin. I suspect I'm giving this a leetle too much thought! That said, I half-suspect Kallmaker called her heroine "Sugar" just so the novel blurb could end "... [the three women want] Sugar in the morning, Sugar in the evening and Sugar at dinner time." Eh.
I'll probably check out another Kallmaker romance, but only if my local library has it and if I happen to stumble across it. - Alex

Saturday, August 18

High Citadel - Desmond Bagley

Pilot Tim O'Hara's life is heading rapidly downhill - reduced to working for a strapped-out South American cargo courier, he finds solace in his hip flask. When the owner rousts him in the middle of the night, caring little for the fact that O'Hara's already exceeded his allowable monthly hours, O'Hara is resigned and apathetic - the only surprise is that co-pilot Grivas, usually more than slack, volunteered for the 'rescue' mission. Samair, a more prestigious passenger carrier, has had a hiccup, and Andes Airlift is taking their passengers on to Santilla.
O'Hara thought the only problem would be passenger-related - these people weren't expecting an unpressurised plane, or a trip through - rather than over - the mountains. And O'Hara wasn't expecting to make a forced landing on a too-short airstrip, at gun point. Grivas had another plan in mind, and before he knows it, O'Hara and the passengers are in a fight for the life. Stranded, at altitude, in inhospitable weather, the only down the mountain is over a broken bridge, with trigger-happy soldiers on the other side.
I realised reading this Bagely novel that I've already managed to get the chronological order wrong, not that it matters. I love High Citadel - the plot is cohesive and involving, the situation is believable but unusual, and the characters are complex and layered. This is generally true for all the Bagley novels, and other staples are present - the traitor from within, the untrustworthy and weak man, the alcoholic (usually the same one), the flawed hero who finds redemtion, the love interest. What sets Bagley apart is his ability to make each plot interesting and unique. In this case that's helped by the unexpected use of medieval weaponry but that, too, is par for the course - you always learn something unexpected. Stay tuned for the next rave about the works of this brilliant writer. - Alex

Friday, August 17

The Mermaids Singing - Val McDermid

Someone's been torturing and killing men in the northern town of Bradfield, England. The police are reluctant to label it the work of one man, but Inspector Carol Jordan and psychologist profiler Tony Hill are convinced the deaths are the work of one disturbed individual. When the fourth victim turns out to be a police officer, the individual investigations are finally brought together into a task force, and Tony's asked to help the police track down the killer before he strikes again.
Tony has his own problems - half the reason he's so good at what he does is because of his own torment. A troubled childhood, a feeling of disconnection, and significant impotence means he has trouble relating to other people, for all that he's brilliant at uncovering the workings of twisted minds.
Carol's path isn't easy either - attractive and smart, rising through the ranks has been neither easy nor well received, and finding a man who thinks she's worth the effort hasn't been fruitful, either. She's attracted to Tony, but he shies away at the slightest hint of flirtation. He says he's single, but when Carol hears a seductive woman's voice leaving an intimate message on his answering machine she's convinced he's been lying to her.
This is the first book in the well known Wire in the Blood series, which has been turned into a great BBC series staring the gorgeous Robson Green. McDermid's writing is tight, her plotting fast paced but still allowing for reflection, and her key characters are deep and complex. I've read The Mermaid's Singing before, and seen the episode, so I knew who the twist, but that in no way diminished my enjoyment of rereading the novel.

Thursday, August 16

Lydia Joyce:Music of the Night

A woman born to the lowest possible place in society pulls herself up and away from her roots and secures a position as a lady’s companion. In this role she is taken to Venice where an earl, obsessed with revenge against the man that raped his bastard daughter and tried to kill him, mistakes her for his enemy’s lover. He stages her disgrace as part of his vengeance. After her downfall she seeks him out and demands he make restitution. Discovering his error he offers her the run of his house in return for carnal favours, unable to admit that he feels more than simple lust for her. She agrees resigning herself to the life of a courtesan.
As his plans for revenge unfolds she sees that he will never forgive himself should he be successful and so derails his well set up scheme at the last moment. It is only then that the truth is revealed. The man he believed responsible for rape and murder attempts was in fact innocent. True he is a reprobate and knave of the first order but innocent of the crimes of which he is accused. In fact, in an unexpected twist, the butler (or at least, the estate manager) did it.
Naturally, the courtesan and her earl live together happily ever after.
Another great gothic offering from this author. Dark characters with dark secrets performing dark acts, how could I not enjoy it? The title puzzled me a bit. Though set in Venice music had little or nothing to do with the story at all. But that is neither here nor there.
The motivation behind the actions of both the main and secondary characters is quite believable. The pace is good with the story unfolding steadily only picking up in the final pages where the true culprit is unveiled. I would like to have seen more hints throughout the story as to who the real villain was. It is only in the final chapter that hints are dropped culminating in an exposition and as a reader I felt a little cheated by the way it was handled. However it might have been the author’s intention to spring the surprise twist on the reader at the same time as the main character makes the discovery. I can understand that technique even if it doesn’t particularly appeal to me. Overall I liked this offering better than the previous one (The Veil of the Night). It didn’t have that circuitous feeling that the early work suffered from. For the main part I enjoy this author’s voice and the way it’s developing. I would certainly read more of her work should it cross my path.-Lynn

Wednesday, August 15

The Mistress of Alderly - Robert Barnard

Caroline Fawley has retired from her life as an actress (predominantly in English drawing room comedies) and moved to the manor house of Alderly. Twice married, and twice divorced, who's happy with her arrangement with married lover Marius Fleetwood, owner of a change of up-market supermarkets. Marius' wife and he have, he says, an understanding - she's not interested in sex, and is happy for him to have his relatively discreet relationship. For Caroline it's the truest love she's known.
Caroline's eldest daughter Olivia is an up and coming opera star - Marius and Caroline attend her opening night performance as Leonora in Forza. As is his habit, Marius leaves after the first act, but uncharacteristically fails to reappear at the end of the performance, After waiting and worrying, Caroline reports him missing and heads home. His body is found the following morning.
Barnard writes beautifully crafted British murder mysteries, and The Mistress of Alderly is one of his best in recent years. Detective Charlie Peace has evolved since my last review (Bodies) and now has a able assistant. The characters are interesting and well drawn, and the who-dunnit aspect is equalled by the rest of the story. This was thoroughly enjoyable. - Alex

Tuesday, August 14

The Spoilers - Desmond Bagley

When the police find a girl's body in a fleabag motel in London they're not surprised - she's yet another junkie who overdosed. There's no foul plan involved, but her identity's a little surprising - the only daughter of movie mogul Robert Hellier. When he discovers that she was being supplied by local doctor and drug specialist Nicholas Warren he storms into Warren's rooms intent on taking him down. Warren quickly brings him down to earth, explaining the role Hellier played in his daughter's addiction and demise.
Spurred on by a comment Warren made, Hellier has his research team investigate him, and the London drug situation, and confirms that Warren's a renowned expert on the topic. He then offers Warren a proposition - unlimited funds, if he can manage to stop the flow of heroin into the UK. Although the task seems enormous, with the right team Warren thinks he may have a chance.
Bagley's second book builds on his first - the plot is significant, important, and the pace is just as fast. The main characters are revealed as much by what they say and do as by their descriptions, and once again exotic locales are described. Like all great writing (Lynn and I think, as we may have said before, that Kerry Greenwood is an example par excellence of this) the background has been meticulously researched without the author needing to hammer the reader over the head with it. I've never been to Iran, and have no doubt it's changed significantly in the forty-odd years since The Spoilers was written, but I feel as though I've got a good picture of it. I'm not usually an action/adventure novel reader, but Bagley's magnificent.

Monday, August 13

The Golden Keel - Desmond Bagley

When English boat builder Peter "Hal" Halloran strikes up a conversation in a South African with a drunk ex-pat, he thinks little of the man's rambling confidence that he and a group of partisans fighting in Italy during the war came across a convoy of gold and jewels. The story's interesting, but Hal has a life of his own that he's putting together.
A decade later, still reeling from the drunk-driving accident that killed his wife, shipyard owner Hal comes across Walker again, and this time he has a plan. The gold has been safely stashed in a cave, and Walker reckons there's about 4 tonnes in ingots. Hal's plan is to melt the gold down and smuggle it out of Italy disguised as the keel of a boat, but they have a time limit - they can only sell it legally until the middle of April, and selling it illegally will massively reduced the amount of money they can get for it.
The Golden Keel was Bagley's first book, but it shows all the hallmarks of his best writing. The pace is brisk, the plot involving, the narrative tight, and the characterisation deft and layered. Published in 1965, it's necessarily dated (the key events occurred during the second World War) but loses nothing despite this. I first discovered Bagley when I was in high school, and I devoured his writing. I've returned to it several times since, and have a few favourites, but like almost all his works. I've decided that, over the next few weeks, I'll work my way through the entire collection in chronological order.- Alex

Sunday, August 12

Loretta Chase: Lord Perfect

A precocious young lord is lured by his drawing teacher’s daughter on a wild quest for legendary treasure. The only hope of avoiding a scandal is for the children to be found before society discovers they are missing. So the drawing teacher, a young widow from a notorious family and the boy’s uncle, a widower of impeccable manners and breeding take up their trail.
Well aware of their differences in status the two try not to fall in love but the situation is hopeless. The longer they spend in each other’s company, the greater they come to respect, like and lust after each other. Several times the widow tries to leave, going to some lengths in trying to make the man hate her but with some scheming on the part of the children and their families, they get their happy ever after.
This was a thoroughly delightful story peopled with convincing three-dimensional characters. I particularly liked the authenticity of the main characters. I could understand their motivation. And I could believe their reluctance to have any sort of relationship with each other in spite of the attraction between them. I liked the way this story was laced with a subtle humour that felt completely natural and the fact that at no point did the plot feel in the least contrived.
The narrow focus of the story could have become dull but in the hands of this extremely competent writer it unfolded at a steady pace that maintained my interest from start to finish.
I am very excited to have finally discovered this author and her charming style. If you like historical romance read this, you’ll be glad you did.-Lynn

Saturday, August 11

The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies - John Scalzi

SF author Scalzi has written a substantive but mercifully brief overview of the genre, appropriately tracing it from the written history of SF from Plato's The Republic through to film released when the book was published in 2005. The writing is deft, shows respect for the subject matter, and is humourous as well as opinionated (not that there are many people who would contradict his opinion on the total wrongness that was Howard the Duck!) Though the text primarily focuses on film, there is a brief discussion about SF on TV and, as I said at the top of the review, a little on SF writing. If you're interested in the topic but don't know much about it, want to read a little more about an aspect of the genre, or want to see where what you like fits in to the bigger picture, this book is for you. - Alex

Friday, August 10

Blinded – Stephen White

When Gibbs Storey calls psychologist Alan Gregory, he can’t remember all the details but he does remember her immediately, despite the fact that it’s been several years since he and colleague/partner Diane Estevez co-treated Gibbs and her husband, and despite the fact that the couple left therapy after only three sessions. Her beauty, breathy voice, vulnerability and coy sexuality might have had something to do with it
Gibbs is concerned that her husband Sterling may have murdered a mutual friend several years earlier, and she’s conflicted about what to do. She is, however, very clear about what Alan can tell other people. Gibbs gives Alan written permission to share some of the information she gives him with other people, including Diane, and Alan’s good friend and Boulder cop Sam Purdy.
Sam has other things on his mind, though. His wife and child have left, leaving him alone as thanksgiving approaches. And, to add insult to injury, he has a heart attack, which forces him to take time off work. And things aren’t rosy for Alan on the home front either – his prosecutor wife’s MS is flaring again, and somehow confidential client information is spilling out of his office.
This is the umpty-somethingth instalment in the still-captivating Alan Gregory series. I have long had a soft spot for Boulder, based solely on the loving way White describes it. Despite the somewhat formulaic premise – clinical psychologist solves any number of crimes, with the assistance of best friend and cop – I find myself looking forward to each new book with as much anticipation as ever, and have never been disappointed (which is more than I can say for the more popular Jonathan Kellerman – don’t get me wrong, I like his books too, just not as much). If the genre interests you, and you want to read about interesting people, realistic but tricky mysteries, and are fascinated by the oddness of people, give Alan Gregory a go. You won’t be disappointed. - Alex

Thursday, August 9

A Patchwork Planet - Anne Tyler

Black sheep Barnaby has never marched in line with his illustrious family - the Gaitlins belong to the Foundation, behave in an upright manner, and live sensible, adult lives. But Barnaby's life shifted somehow when he (alone of his friends) was caught stealing in his teens. Instead of following the life prescribed for him by his socially aspirant mother, demonstrated for him by his text book, model brother, Barnaby finds himself almost thirty, divorced, working as an unskilled labourer, renting a basement and driving to Philly once a month to see his uninspiring, uninteresting young daughter.
When Barnaby's car breaks down he's forced to catch the train instead of driving and, through a fascination with a stranger's errand, his attention is caught and captured by a strange woman. Captivated by her, Barnaby arranges to catch the train again the following week, whereupon he strikes up a conversation with the woman. Her name is Sophia, she visits her mother in Philadelphia every week, and Barnaby finds himself inexplicably drawn to her despite her age (almost a decade older), her reserve and her plumpness. And Sophia seems to like him, too. She engages the services of the company he works for on behalf of her aged aunt, and Sophia and Barnaby drift into a relationship. But when the aunt's life savings go missing, Barnaby become the target of suspicion and his life changes once more.
A Patchwork Planet is a beautifully detailed exploration of family dynamics, expectation and psychology. Her characters are quirky, vibrant and unique; she deals simultaneously with the ordinary and the esoteric, the mundane and what makes us all unique. Tyler's plots manage to be deal with both the minutiae of ordinary lives and explore the great themes that engage us all. Great writing, interesting people, and involving plots equal wonderful and rewarding books. - Alex

Tuesday, August 7

Fault Lines - Natasha Cooper

When social worker Kara Huggate fails to show up to in court, the chief witness in a children's home abuse case, barrister Trish Maguire knows something must be wrong. She had no idea that Kara was dead, the victim of a brutal rape and strangling. There have been other, similar rape/murders, and the preliminary police investigation indicated that Kara was just the unlucky victim of either the original killer, or a more vicious copycat.
But then Trish receives a letter from Kara, mailed the day of her death. In it she mentions a secret boyfriend, and asks Trish to take on the unfair dismissal case of a colleague, Blair Collons. Collons is a creepy little man who makes Trish's skin crawl even as she feels sorry for him. Collons is convinced that there's a huge conspiracy, involving developers and the police, and that they're behind Kara's death.
Even allowing for Collons' overactive imagination, it does seem as though something's not right. So, as Area Major Investigation pool Chief Investigator Bill Femur looks into the case, battling the entrenched attitudes of Kingsford police culture, Trish begins her own investigation. And what she discovers stuns her.
Cooper is best known for her Willow King novels - a series that follows the cases of a dowdy public servant in the Department of Old Age Pensions who, out of hours, has a dual identity as the glamorous author of a number of best selling romance novels. Fault Lines is the first of what will undoubtedly be a series of Trish Maguire novels, and this heroine (though different from Willow) is no less engaging.
The mystery is well plotted, the characters well developed, and Cooper relies only a little on the miraculous discoveries and timely fortuitousnesses that so often litter this genre.
I once again cannot work out why the title was chosen - the cover shows a loop of phone cord, but phones don't feature in any prominent or significant way, and the murder wasn't caused by some unavoidable stress etc. I also didn't like one of Cooper's metaphor (wherein a 'tadpole of suspicion' evolves into a frog hopping around Maguire's brain), but that's a minor quibble.
I doubt I'll be running out to read the next installment, but if I come across it in the library I'll probably have a go. - Alex

Monday, August 6

Mary Roach: Spook - Science Tackles The Afterlife

Roach presents an examination of parapsychological research, investigating some of the theories about what becomes of the personality after death and some of the methods (both modern and historical) used to find supportive evidence for such theories.
The author makes it very clear right from the start that she is approaching this subject from an objective, scientific perspective rather than on a more esoteric level.
She includes a number of anecdotes (first and second hand), interviews a wide variety of people ranging from quantum physicists to EVP recording enthusiasts and tells of her experience at a school for mediums.
I had hoped, given the title, for more of an evaluation of scientific approaches used to investigate the afterlife than was presented here. However my disappointment was minor, the book was both entertaining and informative. The results of Roach’s study were interesting. The writing was easily accessible with minimal use of jargon. Footnotes provided interesting and often very amusing asides.
This is a great reminder that academic works need not be the dry, serious presentations they usually are. They can be both amusing and educational in the hands of a competent reporter-Lynn.

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

Sunday, August 5

Bodies - Jed Mercurio

Bodies opens with the unnamed protagonist approaching the busy London hospital on August 1st. It marks the beginning of his practicing medical career, and he is idealistic, full of optimism and excitement - the months ahead, he imagines, will be hard but rewarding, a steep but supported learning curve that will result in him becoming one of the good guys.
But between the stress of an unrelenting stream of sick and needy patients, unhelpful nurses, cynical superiors, a girlfriend who has no idea what he's dealing with every day, and the sheer weight of sixty-hour days (two and a half days on call), result in him losing his original perspective in only a matter of weeks. Perhaps most significant, he fails to diagnose a pulmonary embolism in a breathless woman who dies. His guilt is compounded by his superior covering up the event by 'buffing' the notes. Every time he closes his eyes he sees her, and the sequence of events constantly loops through his mind.
His only refuge from the death and illness and grime is a furtive, physical relationship with an engaged student nurse. He breaks off his relationship with his girlfriend, moves into hospital accommodation, and sinks ever further into the cynical and conspiratorial atmosphere that surrounds him.
I have never been so glad that I'm not a doctor (especially working in the NHS) as I was while reading this oppressive, grimy and compelling novel. Powerful and disturbing, Bodies is strongly reminiscent of Samuel Shem's The House of God, updated for a more modern age, but with grander themes and a great deal less humour. It examines some really important and frightening issues endemic in modern medicine. As Mercurio points out, it's easier and more comfortable for us all to think that medical mistakes are the result of incompetent or lazy doctors, a few bad apples, than that they're a product of a factory-oriented system that makes ludicrous demands on a vulnerable population and protects those least in need of protection.
Whistle-blowing is a persistent theme throughout the novel, with the focus being on the consequences to the blower rather than the blown (so to speak). As the protagonist notes, medicine's most renown whistle-blower (UK anaesthetist Stephen Bolsin, not named in the text) was unable to find work anywhere but Geelong in Australia.
Equal integral is the dehumanising process that long hours, inadequate support and unreasonable demands place on a group of people who are, at least predominantly, primarily motivated by the idea of helping people. Bodies is a graphic depiction of how easily deeply-held ideologies can be swayed, 'normalised' by the beliefs and behaviours of peers and superiors.
Bodies was turned into a BBC mini-series, and was penned by the writer of the UK series Cardiac Arrest, a hospital-based drama about as far from Grey's Anatomy as you can get! - Alex

Saturday, August 4

Don't Look Down - Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

Lucy Armstrong was reluctant to leave New York, and her thriving career as an advertising director (specialising in animals), but when her five year old niece Pepper started crying on the phone, Lucy knew there was a problem. Taking along her indispensable AD, Gloom, she heads down south to wrap up the final few days of filming, and find out what's going on with Pepper and Lucy's baby sister Daisy.
She was right about there being a problem - there's something weird going on on the set of "Don't Look Down". For a start, the script veers from its rom-com beginnings into an action film, complete with a helicopter swooping over a bridge and gator-filled swamps. Half the crew have deserted the set, the half just don't give a damn, everyone's sleeping with everyone else 9not so unusual), and the lead is an insecure comic who wants to revamp his image as an action hero.
Green Beret J.T. Wilder's not thrilled about acting as stunt double and military consultant, and when he discovers he was hired as part of a covert CIA-posing-as-FBI operation led by a wet-behind-the-ears newbie he's less impressed by the minute. But there's something about Armstrong, the tall and gorgeous director, that makes him dig in his heels.
This palatable novel is a little change of pace for Crusie - co written by ex-Green Beret Bob Mayer, it reads a little like Suzanne Brockman without the complicated back story. There were some brilliant scenes, engaging characters, amusing recurrent pop culture references (Wonder Woman and High Noon) and a solid story line. More substantial than some of the fairy floss I've been reading recently, it wasn't a whole meal and it was a fun dessert. Remind me to avoid metaphors in future. - Alex

Thursday, August 2

Now You See Her – Cecelia Tishy

After a lifetime of devotion, former socialite Reggie Cutter’s husband threw her over for a newer model. Now she must accustom herself to life on a budget while stepping into the shoes of her dead aunt Jo – as a landlord, and as a psychic who helps the police.
When Reggie’s asked by her realtor to check out a nineteenth century townhouse in a reclaimed suburb, she thinks it will be an easy task. But despite the overwhelming feelings of fascinated distress caused by the renovations (flocked Black power wallpaper, dismembered armour, and a chandelier of swords), Reggie doesn’t pick up anything psychically wrong.
And when the police officer who used to enlist her aunt asks her to help investigate the decade-old case of a man possibly wrongly convicted of the murder of the son of a senator-elect, that seems fairly straight forward too. But Reggie never expected the entanglement of both cases, the legacy of a tragedy from the 1880’s, and her intermittent psychic power would combine to shatteringly expose an unthinkable crime.
I don’t know where to start. How about with the fact that Now You See Her, a title that seems to have absolutely no relevance to the plot, reads as though it is the second or third in a series? There are multiple references to a previous case with Detective Frank Devaney, including an injury; her tenant; her shared custody of her aunt’s dog with a biker she barely knows; and her etiquette column. The back-story about her husband is alluded to but not discussed in the way one would expect for an introductory novel, her children are referenced even less often, though we do meet grown daughter Molly, and we're never told how Reggie came to live in her aunt’s house, how she and ex parted, how she discovered she had psychic abilities - none of that is discussed at all. It was so striking I checked three times (including a trip to Amazon) that there wasn’t a previous novel.
Then there’s the writing style – long sections with short, choppy sentences like this:
“A cry of pain sucked in and stifled. Muffled? Gagged? A gargling sound too. It’s over in a flash. A sound bite.
“I don’t move. It feels like forever. The steps recede, but with a new sound – a scraping. Dragging a heavy bag? A body? Every muscle in my body clenches”

“’Coffee on?’ he repeats
“’Pope Catholic?’
“’How fresh?’
“’Since last Tuesday.’”
Then there are the ridiculously implausible logic leaps. Like the determination, from an urban child mooing and bellowing, and saying that someone lived somewhere “like a farm” that the person Reggie was seeking lived on Angus Street (like the cattle breed).
There are constant summations, hardly necessary when the plot is as insubstantial as this. For example: “… my right thumb begins to hurt, burning as if scalded and raw… The one time my thumb hurt this way was when Devaney showed me [reprise of important plot point], the first and only time. It’s the pain triggered by [repeat reprise of important plot point].” Pages 291 - 294 reveal the conspiracy’s dénouement, which I must admit was a little clever and interesting. But Tishy has to beat the reader over the head with what could very easily have been a subtle realisation on Reggie’s part. Instead we have her connect every dot, then show us where each dot is, then describe each line connecting each dot, then recap the entire dot-connecting process. It was excruciating.
There is a sequel to Now You See Her. You’ll be stunned to learn that I have no interest whatsoever in reading it. Amazon reviewers may have given All In One Piece an average of four stars but even if I were inclined to give Tishy a second go, the ‘stunning’ cliff-hanger at the end of chapter three (which was, along of course with chapters one and two, included in Now You See Her) made it clear to me that this isn’t a series that will improve as it progresses.
According to the author blurb, Tishy’s a professor of American literature. As an aspiring academic I don’t general subscribe to the idiom, but I’ll make an exception here – those who do write; those who can’t teach literature. - Alex

Wednesday, August 1

The Last Days – Scott Westerfeld

New York has a reputation for being strange and bizarre, so when guitarist Moz is heading home through a sweltering summer’s day after spending the afternoon jamming with best friend Zahler, it doesn’t seem that weird that to turn a corner and find a woman throwing all her possessions out an apartment window. A crowd’s gathered, and as some people try to scavenge intact items, others are chanting at her to jump. Moz is transfixed until he sees the next item – a mid-seventies Fender Stratocaster. Though he calls for her to stop, the woman releases the invaluable instrument, and Moz moves below it in a vain effort to rescue it from certain destruction. He’s distracted from his task by a young woman, who throws him a blanket from the pile of debris, and together they manage to safely catch the electric guitar.
The girl is Pearl, and she’s a would-be musician, too. Though she keeps it a secret from Moz and Zahler, she’s a piano student at Julliard, and weird things are going on there. But more important is the fledgling band they’re assembling. With Pearl’s friend Minerva, a brilliant singer but totally odd chick, who’s been locked in her bedroom by her family, and drumming street-performer Alana Ray, they have a unique sound that works.
Yet, despite their focus on a musical career, the band can’t help get involved in what’s happening to the city. Rubbish mounts up, rats are everywhere, Moz is drawn to the subway, and people are acting increasingly strangely.
The Last Days follows from Westerfeld’s brilliant vampire novel Peeps. It’s a sequel with a difference, as it picks up with a different cast of characters from the original, and with a wholly different writing style – Peeps was first person, alternating between narrative and information on different types of parasites. In this universe Peep is shorthand for parasite-positive – people who have a virus that causes them to behave in unusual and antisocial ways. I thought Peeps had the best explanation for classic vampire behaviour (like aversion to crucifixes) that I’d come across.
The Last Days, by contrast, is told in alternating chapters from the points of views of each of the five main characters. Through their differing perspectives we are able to build a picture of what’s happening before they do.
Having read Peeps certainly made some aspects of The Last Days a little clearer, but I was half way through the book before I realised that it was, in fact, a sequel – so reading it’s clearly not a prerequisite. That said, everything I’ve read of his thus far is fantastic, so don’t miss the first in the sequence. Or anything else of his! - Alex

Glass Houses - Rachel Caine

Sixteen-year-old Claire Danvers is away at college for the first time. It was always going to be hard - a prodigy, she's never really fitted in - but her parent's insistence that she not go too far from home means that instead of going to MIT, CalTech or an Ivy League school that may have had the insight and facilities to support her, Claire's wound up at Texas Prairie University, a nowhere college in the strange, hick town of Morganville, and she's the target of Monica, a particularly bitchy girl and her side-kicks.
Desperate to get away from the dorms, and genuinely frightened for her life, Claire answers an ad for a share house, and discovers a whole new world. Morganville's home to a whole lot of vampires, and the human are divided into the Protected and the unprotected. And Claire's not protected; Monica could well be the least of her problems.
Glass Houses is the first in a new series by Caine, whose Weather Warden series has been reviewed previously (including the two reviews below this). It's therefore not surprising that much of the book is focused on world building; though not at the expense of plot (which is pacy), and characterisation, a little logic is sacrificed. The main narrative thrust is that Claire had to go to a second- (or even third) rate college because her parents didn't want her to be too far from home. But Morganville's 100 miles from home, which isn't exactly next door, and it's no Texas university. The novel emphasises that Claire's father has always been goal-oriented, sometimes over Claire's best interests, so it doesn't make sense that she's been pushed to excel (albeit aided by a stunning intellect) but that he's then prepared to have her held back when it really counts. Sure, she can transfer two years in, but even so there's more to the undergraduate college experience than academics. And if her dad doesn't want her to go to a party school there were any number of way better choices. I grant you that, as logical loop holes go, this isn't huge, but it continued to irritate me every time there was any reference to Claire's parent's overprotectiveness.
The main characters - Claire and her new roomies, Goth Eve, enigmatic Michael and hunky Shane - are well drawn, believable, and involving, and the plot's original and interesting. The first novel ends on a gripping hook, but I'm being more selective about what I buy, so unless it falls in my lap or my local library buys it, I won't be reading the sequel, The Dead Girl's Dance any time soon. - Alex