Sunday, September 30

Next - Michael Crichton

A court case over whether a line of cancer-fighting cytokines belong to the patient from whom they were extracted or the doctor who's made $3 billion from them; an orangutan in Borneo that seems to speak Dutch and French; a nasty divorce that turns nastier when the wife is forced against her will to have DNA testing to prove she's a fit mother and not at risk of genetic diseases including Huntington's; an African Gray parrot that's aware of its surroundings; a mouse virus that seems to cure drug dependency, but at a price; and a verbal chimpanzee being raised in a lab combine in this novel that explores the new age of transgenics.
Crichton has been writing about cutting edge technology since his first book (written as a medical student in 1968) Five Patients about new technologies in health care. Then, as now, his writing was gripping and provocative. I've read all his novels, but after his most recent, contentious, novel, State of Fear, which carried the message that global warning's a product of fevered imaginations and political angst rather than a genuine phenomenon, I approached this novel with caution. It wasn't so much the message itself that I objected to (the minority opinion deserves a voice) as that the facts on which it was based have been fairly heavily discredited.
Next was equally polemic, but somehow more digestible - a fact I readily admit may be due to it being more in line with my beliefs. I have a medical and a health ethics background and so was already fairly conversant with many of the issues covered in this novel of the very near future, but the technical aspects are accessibly written, so this shouldn't be an issue for the lay reader. Crichton manages to bring a compelling immediacy to the issues he addresses, and I came away from this novel concerned about genetic experimentation, transgenics in particular, the slowness of the law to reflect the realities of our rapidly changing world. Which was the intent of the novel. - Alex

Saturday, September 29

Long Lost - David Morrell

Successful architect Brad Denning seems to have it all - a loving wife, great young son, thriving career - but he lives with the permanent shadow of the loss of his younger brother, Petey, who went missing one summer afternoon after Brad told him to get lost.
After a nationally-syndicated television appearance about his buildings, Brad is inundated by men claiming to be Petey - they're fakes, until he meets the man who knows things only Petey could know.
Petey's reluctant to talk much about what happened, except in passing. It's obvious he was neglected and abused, and the effects linger - Petey's barely literate, transient, poorly groomed and has a badly chipped front tooth. Delighted to have his brother back, and still beset by guilt, Brad brings Petey home, and tries to improve his lot - dentistry, a better hair cut, new clothes and a job. They reminisce about the happier times, especially the last summer before Petey's abduction, when the boys went camping with their father.
Brad decides to take Jason, his nine-year-old son, and Petey on a weekend camping trip. It starts out well, but on the first afternoon something hits Brad from behind and he falls down a steep slope to the river and the jagged rocks that line it.
Dazed and confused, Brad comes to some time later. His backpack snagged on a branch and broke his fall, but badly wrenched his arm in the process, and he has a nasty gash that's bleeding profusely. He calls for his brother and son, to no avail, then painstakingly makes his way back to the campsite. Briefly panicked by the missing van, Brad reasons that Petey and Jason must have gone for help, but when he finds the tent missing too he begins to panic in earnest.
His panic turns to desperation when Brad gets home and discovers his wife, Kate, is also missing, along with their valuable belongings and some clothing. He realises that Petey has tried to take over his life, and when the authorities are unable to help, Brad dedicates his life to tracking his brother down and rescuing his family - for, despite the belief of the FBI, the only thing keeping Brad together is his unshakable belief that his family is still alive.
Long Lost is a compelling read. Though the reader is easily able to see Brad's denial, and how irritating his do-gooding would be to his brother, the character is believable. Though I found some of Brad's reasoning while he tracks down the abductor to be a little far-fetched (he reenacts the events from the time 'Petey' first approached him as though he were Petey, with spectacular effectiveness), this was a relatively minor quibble. For most of the novel there's confusion about the identity of the man - is he Petey, or career-criminal Lester Dant, who may have crossed paths with Petey - and the way this is resolved was effective though the result is not surprising. Morrell can still write a tense and gripping thriller, and Long Lost is no exception. - Alex

Friday, September 28

Locked Rooms - Laurie R King

The trip from Bombay to San Francisco brings Mary Russell three kinds of repetitious bad dreams - about objects flying through the air, a frightening faceless man, and a house which always changes but to which only she has the key to a secret room. Usually a sound sleeper and possessed of a healthy appetite, Mary's nights become restless and her husband is hard-pressed to get her to eat anything.
Despite his urging, Mary is also unable to see a connection between returning to her childhood home - last seen a decade earlier - and her growing agitation. He believes there's more to it than the trauma of Mary being the sole survivor of an automobile accident that killed her parents and beloved younger brother, and even if he's unaware of the cause of her guilt (that it was her teenage arguing with young Levi that caused her Papa to be distracted), she should listen to him - after all, Mary Russell is married to that most redoubtable of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes.
The novel not only manages to combine several mysteries into a satisfying whole, but also effortlessly and lightly paints a picture of San Francisco in the 1920's, the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, and survivor's guilt, among other things. As we have mentioned before, giving an unlaboured sense of not only place but time is no easy feat and, like the wonderful Kerry Greenswood, King evokes Chinatown, the coast, flapper nightclubs and the wealthy part of San Francisco in a way that combines exquisitely researched detail with a relaxed and subtle style.
This is the eighth in the Mary Russell series, and I enjoyed it at least as much as its forebears. It is unique in that about a third of the novel is written in the third person rather than Mary's characteristic first person. No huge fan of the original Homes novels, I had no small amount of trepidation opening The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but to my surprised delight found I had discovered a great new (then) series that has managed to maintain credibility throughout. Mary is much younger than Holmes, but without question his equal; their relationship strongly reminds me of the Peabody/Emerson relationship in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, while Mary herself also reminds me of the wonderful Phryne Fisher, and the books are equally 'sticky' - they seem to irresistibly stick to the palm, not allowing themselves to be put down until the story is completely read, no matter how late the hour or how pressing the following day's engagements. Don't go past this series! - Alex

Thursday, September 27

Peepshow - Leigh Redhead

Simone Kirsch always wanted to be a cop, but her three years as a stripper made that impossible. Instead she takes the second best option and begins training as a PI, a new career that comes in handy when her best friend (and fellow stripper) Chloe is accused of murder. Simone returns to the seamy underworld of illicit sex to uncover the truth. In the process she falls in lust, gets caught up with a rockabilly band, and set up by a corrupt cop.
I really should have written my review before reading Lynn's, because I find I have nothing substantial to add! Like her I found the battering over the head of the fact that we're in Melbourne extraordinarily painful and almost always unnecessary: "We drove down Hoddle Street past the housing commission flats then down CityLink and the Monash Freeway...", "I took him down Broadway towards Glenhuntley Road and turned left at the Elwood canal," "The gym was up Glenhuntley Road, across the Nepean Highway where Elwood turned into Elsternwick," and my favourite, "As I passed the [Queen] Vic markets on Peel Street...". If you don't know Melbourne, the street name means nothing, and if you do then you already know where the Queen Vic market is. And I could really have done without the detail, every single time, of which tram she was getting on and off.
I have to disagree with Lynn on one point - the references weren't always completely spot on. At one point Leigh (the character) talks about the stress of doing a hook turn (where you turn right from the left hand lane) and says she always worries about a tram going up her arse if she's not fast enough - the point of the hook turn is to avoid delaying trams within the city, which is why you have to turn from the lane they're not in. The only way to come to tram-related grief is to turn directly in front of one in motion (seen that more than once), or get hit by a tram that's jumped the tracks, and in that case we've all got bigger worries!
I have to admit that's a lot of moaning for a tiny plot error, but that's how easily I found myself brought out of the novel. The plot was interesting enough, but the writing was not quite accomplished enough. I wouldn't recommend it to any innocent punter who thinks the women stripping are doing it for any reason other than money - as a DJ says at one club, "You gotta hand over the cash if you wanna see some gash, yeah."
I was unconvinced by how readily and frequently the character's knickers dampen, and agree with Lynn that we all already know the sex industry contains women who have kids, degrees and lives, as well as women with drug issues, abusive childhoods and pimps.That said, I didn't hate it, and if the next Redhead novel crosses my path I'll probably give it a burl - but if there's no improvement, that's it. - Alex

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

Wednesday, September 26

The Girls - Lori Lansens

Twenty-nine year old Canadian Rose Darlen's writing her autobiography, which her Aunt Lovey always said should be called Double Duty or Two for One, because in her whole life Rose has never been alone. Her every moment she has been with her smaller sister Ruby. Joined at the head, Rose and Ruby are the world's oldest living craniopagus twins.
The sisters have distinctive voices - Rose's reflective, writerly reminiscences are intermittently interspersed with Ruby's more direct outlook, and between the two a coherent story - not just about their lives to this point, but also about what precipitated the writing - emerges. The reader develops a clear, complex and compelling vision of their lives together - lives that are on occasion lonely but never alone, that began with loss, and that have an unexpected symmetry.
I thoroughly enjoyed this remarkable and extraordinary story. - Alex

Tuesday, September 25

Cindy Dees: Haunted Echoes

Charged with discovering who is behind a series of major power failures, an Interpol agent teams up with a former art thief to retrieve a stolen statue believed by its owner to have magical properties that are being utilised by terrorists to tamper with the power grid. But whoever stole the statue will go to any lengths to keep it. As the bodies of anyone who knows anything about the statue and its theft start turning up, the pair find themselves being hunted across Europe as they follow a trail to the statue that seems to have been laid by a ghost. They manage to find the statue, thwart the terrorists and fall in love along the way.
This is the second book in the seven book Madonna Key series and the plot is actually a lot more plausible than this summary makes it sound. What wasn’t entirely convincing was the romance between the main characters. I simply couldn’t believe that the daredevil art thief and the cautious cop would make it long term. The sexual tension is high and well written. I can totally believe that these two will fall into a torrid affair but happy ever after, not so much.
As a part of a series we did get to revisit with characters from the former book which was nice. There were also a couple of interesting characters introduced here that I am hoping will feature in future instalments of the series. The mysterious man makes a cameo appearance again and I can’t help but be disappointed in his appropriation (if he is indeed the aged wizard I think he is). Unless he is in some way pivotal to the finale I don’t see why his presence is necessary in a series supposedly devoted to the sacred feminine.
Anyway, a decent enough read. Plenty of action, in every sense of the word, keeps things moving. While this story stands alone I think reading it in sequence enriches the story line. I will be continuing with this series.-Lynn

Sunday, September 23

A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon

It happens when newly-retired George is trying on a suit to wear to a friend's funeral - he notices a lesion on the top of his thigh and knows that it's cancer. His first thought is the ways that he could commit suicide, each of which he rejects as quickly as it comes to him - you need equipment to hang yourself, you could change your mind halfway through plummeting from a tall building... George comes to huddled on the street, still wearing the shop's trousers.
And this becomes a theme over the rest of the novel, as George's existential angst ebbs and flows but primarily worsens. His family have their own problems - wife Jean's affair with George's former colleague David is becoming more fulfilling, daughter Katie is engaged to the eminently unsuitable Ray but having second thoughts, and son Jamie's stress over bringing boyfriend Tony to the wedding is dwarfed by relationship issues he didn't realise existed.
I found writing this review very difficult, in part, I think, because there are many readings of it and my experience may not be that of the (mythical) reader's. For me, Haddon manages to tap into the fears and stresses of existential angst/depression in the same way he reflected the unique thought process of the autistic in his previous (and lauded) novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Earlier this year I had a teeny-tiny-nothing-like-this existential angst period earlier, and Haddon's writing perfectly captured the way that I felt then. That's all behind me now (never, I'm hoping,to return) but when I was recently mentioned the period in passing to an acquaintance (who often believes he knows more than he does about a wide variety of things), he told me that there's no such thing as a mid-life crises or existential angst. Reading about George's family's complete lack of understanding brought back the same feelings I had when listening to Zach denying my own experience.
As I often, for some reason, do when reading English books, I found myself wanting to shake pretty much all the characters. I just don't get the heavy emphasis on worrying about what other people think to the extent that it overshadows your concern for your family. And there was a general lack of consideration for one another that was deliberate but that I still found irritating. However, all of that means that I was definitely engaged with the novel, which is a very pleasant change from another book I won't mention but which is reviewed directly below! I look forward to Mr Haddon's next novel, too. - Alex

Ice Station - Matthew Reilly

On a US research base in Antarctica two scientists vanish while undertaking a routine dive. Their last heard words were about hearing whistling - like that of the whales commonly found around the continent. An exploratory team sent in to evacuate their bodies also vanishes, after reporting what looks like a spaceship, then desperately calling for help.
When Shane 'Scarecrow' Schofield leads his team of Marines into Wilkes Ice Station, he's not sure what to expect - nothing new for the experienced 32-year-old lieutenant. But he never expected his team to be decimated by a pod of killer whales, let alone discovering a team of French counterparts, members of the elite Premiere RĂ©giment Parachutiste d'Infanterie de Marine - the French equivalent of the SAS or SEALs - hell-bent on taking over the station, and its find, for themselves.
I had heard about Ice Station a couple of years ago - self-published by its then-unknown author, who designed the cover to resemble best seller action novels, he hawked it to major book sellers until it took off, making Reilly a hero to unknown writers and a legend in Australian publishing.
However something in me resisted reading it, until Ice Station was featured a couple of years ago as one of the 'Books Alive' novels - available for $5 with any other book purchase, as part of an annual Australian reading promotion. And still it sat on my shelves, until my trip.
And now I know why.

Filled with unnecessary italics, painful exposition and a choppy, would-be cliff-hanger style, I could only make it to page 119 (not even the end of a chapter!) of its almost 540 pages before having my fill. And we hadn't even got to the killer aliens, or whatever it is that drilled holes in the ice and killed the scientists. The exposition about France's unwillingness to participate in NATO and its eagerness to unite Europe as part of a group withdrawal from that organisation (out of concern at US dominance) was clumsy and partisan.
This ambitious novel has clearly tried to cover all the best-seller bases - an American cast of heroes, international intrigue, elite armed forces (with two female members, no less), a familiar but under-used enemy (the devious French), an unusual locale, and the requisite plucky child in danger. But I found the writing tired, overworked, unsubtle and obvious. To whit:
"From the second it exploded, Schofield knew that this detonation was different to the first one. It wasn't like the short, contained blast of a grenade. It had more resonance to it, more substance. It was the sound of something large exploding...
"It was the sound of one of the air-conditioning cylinders exploding!"
There's one scene where we're supposed to be concerned about the fate of a Marine swimming from a killer whale - Mother (not because she's maternal, but short for Mother Fucker, because that's just how tough she is) almost makes it, but at the last minute the whale's teeth close over her leg, just below the knee. But if you don't know the characters, and if the writing's gotten in the way of the story, then you really just don't give a shit. And the only emotion I have about this novel is disappointment that it cost me $5. - Alex

Saturday, September 22

Connie Willis: Passage

A psychologist who has been studying near-death experiences teams up with a neurologist who has developed a way to induce them using psychoactive drugs for a study that hopes to discover what the near-death experience actually is and how it can be used to help bring people back from the edge of death. A shortage of volunteers leads the psychologist to offer herself as a test subject.
She becomes obsessed with her induced near-death experiences, convinced that they have a deeper meaning than the neurologist believes and determined to prove it. While interviewing a recently conscious coma patient the purpose of the near-death experience suddenly becomes clear but before she can tell her research partners the psychologist is stabbed and dies.
Her friends and colleges get caught up in trying to decipher the meaning of her last words and recreate her last hours in hope of uncovering what connection she had made. Eventually everything falls into place and experiments begin to test her theory, with some measure of success.
I found the theories expounded in this story to be very interesting. There is some medical and technical language that might be a bit difficult for the uninitiated to understand but it is kept to a minimum and explained in context where possible. I don’t think knowledge of neuroscience is necessary to read, and comprehend, this book.
The story was a real page turner, though having said that I must admit that I thought there were far too many pages. I suspect this is either one of the author’s earlier works before her voice was fully developed or a later work after she was established enough to disregard an editor’s input. There is a bit of dead wood in this story that could have been trimmed to the betterment of the narrative. Though there was a sense of time passing, and quite quickly at times, in my mind many of the plot points were drawn out, lingering on just a little too long or repeating once too often. In a couple of places I just wanted to slap the characters and tell them to move on already. But the story was compelling enough that I kept reading in spite of that.
I found the emphasis on metaphor to be quite laboured. Not only the characters’ interest in what metaphors are and what might be a metaphor for what but also the blatant (and excessive) use of them in the story construct. Okay I might be reading more into the story than was there but I don’t think so, the comparisons were not subtle.
The ending didn’t feel natural to me. It was as though the author didn’t really know how to finish things off. I would be interested to know if there was originally a different ending.
I did enjoy this book. The concept is original and the writing flows. The story telling is good enough to balance out the flaws.-Lynn

To read Alex's review of Passages click here.

Friday, September 21

Death of a Friend - Rebecca Tope

The death of Nina Cattermole was a tragic accident - head butted by ( or possibly head butting) a horse during an anti-hunt protest, the cartilege of her nose was rammed into her brain causing a haemorrhage and killing her instantly. The death of her sister's boy-friend Charlie, on the other hand, was deliberate - he was trampled to death beneath the hooves of another horse, ridden at him with intent.
It falls to DC Den Cooper to determine who killed Charlie, and why. To do so he must dig into a small, insular and internally divided Quaker, the complicated history of Nina and her sisters, and the long-held secrets of an English village. He discovers betrayal, abandonment, incest, possible child abuse, and there's another death before the unlikely killer is unmasked.
I have no recollection of buying Death of a Friend, but I throughly enjoed it nonetheless. Though this apparently the second ina series, Tope was able to weave enough of Den's history through the novel that missing the first installment was not a problem. The characters were interesting, quirky and still believable, the motivation reasonable, and the killer a genuine surprise. - Alex

Thursday, September 20

The Dice Man - Luke Rhineheart

Note: My reading of this novel may have been influenced by recent exposure to Tepper's brilliant, incomparable The Fresco, so take that into account.
Psychiatrist Luke Rhineheart is jaded, unfulfilled and beginning to believe that therapy isn't really useful. After an evening of poker with his wife, his colleagues, and a wife of a colleague, he cleans up their New York apartment, wondering what will bring his life meaning. Luke comes across a playing card, slightly elevated, and realises that a missing die must lie under the card. He decides that, if the die is showing a one, he must go downstairs and rape Arlene, the wife of colleague and neighbour Jake Ecstein. It is and he (with only a little resistance from the victim) does. And thus is born the first Diceman and the beginnings of what becomes a contentious new theory: living the dicelife, where every decision is made by the roll of a die.
The Dice Man describes Luke's life for the next two years - random sex, drug taking, an escape of patients from a psychiatric hospital, the creation of diceliving centres, and a meeting to revoke Luke's licence. The style changes from one chapter to the next - first person, third person, extracts from (as-then unwritten texts), letters, fake journal and press articles, police reports, meeting minutes etc.
The choices (dictated by the dice but created by the thrower) are sometimes horrific, as indicated by the initial act of rape. Luke argues that there has to be the potential for real loss in order for the die to work, but he reports followers who've committed suicide, he leaves his family forever, and commits murder as a result of rolls of the dice.
The Dice Man is billed as a modern classic, and Rhineheart (the writer) was been named Writer of the Century by men's magazine Loaded, after one of the contributors lived as a diceman for two years. I must say that I'm not surprised to discover the source of this tribute (which is displayed on the cover of my copy) - the overwhelming tenor is laddish and male-centric.
First published in 1971, I found it indulgent, somewhat incoherent, and a product of its time. I can not imagine this book authored by, or the life described lived by, a woman, though the novel describes several women whose lives are apparently improved by living by the die. But then, the women are portrayed in two dimensions if they're lucky - even the most reticent and apparently 'uptight' women are eager to lay Luke, those he rapes secretly acquiesce. Well, one doesn't at first (she knees him very hard in the groin) but shortly thereafter is convinced by another conquest to participate in a threesome.
In short, the novel reminded me of all the things I least liked about The House of God, without that novel's redeeming features. I finished it, which took forever (at just over 540 pages it's at least a hundred pages too long), but have absolutely no interest in the sequel or parallel works. - Alex

Wednesday, September 19

Without Consent - Kathryn Fox

Sydney forensic scientist Anya Crichton is still recovering from the events of the year before, which included a case which seriously damaged her professional reputation, and an unpleasant divorce that resulted in shared custody of her young son. In addition to trying to establish an independent practice, Anya works part-time for the Sexual Assault unit. After two women present only weeks apart, with similar accounts of a power-reassurance rapist who tells them "if you can't be hurt, you can't be loved," Anya strongly suspects a serial rapist is on the loose. Then one of her victims is stabbed to death, and the stakes increase.
This novel, sequel to Malicious Intent (which I haven't read), combines Anya's hunt for the rapist with the story of Geoffrey Willard, recently released after a twenty year sentence for the rape and murder of a teenager when he was eighteen - is he attacking women again?
The character is touted as Australia's answer to Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell, whch I think is drawing a slightly long bow, if for no other reason than the forensic aspect was a little light in comparison, which us not necessarily a bad thing. The writing is good, but I didn't engage strongly with the character, and I saw the two big dramatic twists (one the identity of the killer, the other Anya being attacked herself) well ahead of the plot.
I did read the novel to the end, and quite enjoyed it in parts, but overall have certainly read more tightly plotted and involving novels in this vein. Although I like to support new writers in general, and Australian writers in particular, I don't think I'll be back any time soon. - Alex

Tuesday, September 18

Some Writers Deserve to Starve! - Elaura Niles

Subtitled 31 Brutal Truths About the Publishing Industry, this US-authored book aims to give would-be authors some well needed advice about the realities of modern day publishing. Niles has written 31 chapters, each summarised with a Truth (like #23 - Not All Critique Groups Are Critique Groups, or #14 - To Lie is Wrong, to Embellish Divine) that is then expanded upon, and often illustrated by her own experience in the world of writing.
The back of the book warns that this is "only for the bravest of writers", but I'm more inclined to say it's only for the most fledgling and unrealistic of writers. I don't doubt they're out there, but surely at least some would-be published writers already know that "Putting Words on a Page Does Not Obligate Anyone to Read Them" (Truth #2), "Overnight Success Doesn't Happen Overnight" (Truth #25), and "Writing Conferences Cost Bucks"(Truth #26) .
Maybe it's just that I, a writer of no fewer than two and a half NaNo masterpieces myself, am more pragmatic. I grant you, I've not exerted any great time or effort on publication, and so I'm missing the drive to write, write, live to write. Lynn is more involved in writing than I (more NaNo completions, a crit group member, winner of two short story competitions, organiser of another competition, member of a guild), but equally aware of Niles' Truths - and without having had the privilege of shelling out for the book.
For those writing with their eyes tightly closed, or spectacularly naive, this is probably a necessary shock of cold water. But for anyone (like me) looking for a book telling hopeful writers that it's time to pack it in and give up already, go to 101 Reasons to Stop Writing ("confronting the pandemic delusion of talent") instead: - Alex

Monday, September 17

The Fresco - Sheri S Tepper

Benita Alvarez-Shipton lives in Alburqueque with her abusive, alcoholic husband. All her life she encouraged her children to seek an education, so they could avoid the mistakes she's made - early pregnancy, dead-end marriage, and few prospects. With daughter Angelica safely out of state at college, and son Carlos (who seems to be all too like his father) out of state, Benita finally has the space to start thinking about herself. She's been working in a bookshop for the last few years, which she's enjoyed, but yet another slap on the wrist for her husband (this time after killing someone when driving while drunk and disqualified) has been the last straw. Bert might be sentenced to house arrest, but that makes Benita his jailer as well as his only visible means of support.
While walking outside thinking, Benita is approached by two aliens, who give her money and a mysterious box that changes colour when it's held. Chiddy and Vess ask Benita to take the box to the American authorities, where it will convince them that earth is being considered for membership in an intergalactic community.
When Benita returns home she's confronted by an enraged and drunken Bert, who steals her car and - defying the judge - leaves. The final straw laid, Benita heads to Washington to meet her state senator, a decision that transforms not only her life but that of everyone on the planet.
As always, Tepper manages to blend ecology, feminism and fantasy into an absorbing narrative that is creative, imaginative and thought-provoking; she has the admirable ability to make the reader see things in their own society that were previously unseen and unquestioned, and to convey a message without dogma or didactism.
Chiddy and Vess are Pistach, a peaceful race where social roles are determined at adolescence, after an exhaustive process that can take a couple of years of role-playing and assessment - there are a number of genders and orders of pronoun, and one's role is set for life. We learn about the Pistach from intermittent extracts from Chiddy's journal, written for Benita. Unlike lesser writers, Tepper has created a race that has its own issues, blindnesses, and which is based on an orthodoxy comparable to our notions of fundamentalism.
There was the potential for Benita to turn into a Mary-Sue-like character, and she's certainly the most likable and sensible portrayal in the novel, but she has her own flaws. One thing I particularly liked was the way Tepper not only justified her role (so often I can't see why the gods/aliens etc would pick the protagonist to play a central role), but also (unusual for an American writer) why first contact occurs in the US rather than another country.
I'm overseas at the moment, and decided to bring with me only books I was prepared to leave behind. However, I was so taken with The Fresco (which is a real thing, a symbol and an allegory in the novel) that I have to bring it home with me. This is a near-perfect novel. - Alex

Sunday, September 16

Jo Beverley: My Lady Notorious

Ruined beyond hope and desperate to help her widowed sister and baby escape a deadly pursuer, a woman disguises herself as a highwayman and captures the first coach to travel down the road. The occupant of the coach is a bored soldier recently recovered from war wounds who, recognising that his captor is a woman, decides to assist her in her plan. Together they manage to get the widow and her baby to safety and lay a false trail but in the process the woman is captured and beaten for information. She manages to escape, then with the help of her soldier, restore her name and family honour.
I enjoyed this historical romance. The novel premise gave both the hero and the heroine scope to behave in a manner otherwise unacceptable to the period. The story was fast paced with a dash of humour and great sensuality.
Though the book stands alone it is the first in a series, each of which follows the romantic exploits of various members of the same family. I will definitely look out for the rest of the series in the hope that they will live up to the standard of this first episode.-Lynn

Saturday, September 15

The Pocket Essential Dr Who - Mark Campbell

This updated guide to all things Gallifreyan covers each episode from the pilot ("An Unearthly Child") in 1963 to the final episode of the resurrected series ("Bad Wolf") in 2005, as well as spin-offs (not including Torchwood) and special occasion episodes (like "The Christmas Invasion"). Each episode guide has details on the guest stars, writer/s, purpose-composed music, a verdict with rating out of ten, and more.
Unfortunately there's precious little about the plot for each episode, which is what I was far more interested in. I was led astray by the back blurb, which begins:
"23 November 1963: Two schoolteachers follow heir strange pupil into a gloomy junkyard. She disappears into a weirdly humming Police Box. A stooped figure appears, frail and elderly, yet oddly menacing.
"26 March 2005: A shop worker in a London store goes down to the basement. Mannequins jerk to life around her, blocking off her escape. As if from nowhere, a tall and energetic figure in a battered leather jacket appears and offers her his hand... two beginnings, one ongoing story."
Based on the blurb I was expecting some discussion about the evolution of the series and the character, the franchise, significant plot points... But the average summary (headed 'gist' rarely exceeds a sentence, and usually ends in an ellipse. For example, the first episode of the all-new Dr Who, "Rose", reads in total "The Autons are planning another takeover of earth..." and the commentary focuses solely on technical issues, logistics and the changes made to the TARDIS.
This was yet another reminder to keep the Fourth Rule of Book Buying at the forefront of my mind (aka the Lesson of MacAlister) - however good the book sounds, crack it open and check out the writing before forking over precious money - and also a reminder that a bargain's not a bargain if it's something you don't need. - Alex

Friday, September 14

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

A man and his young son make their way south, through the desolation of a post-apocalyptic US. On the way they search for food and fresh water, and hide from cannibalistic marauders. The man tries to shield his son from the nightmarish reality around them as much as he can, but is honest and pragmatic.
This sparse, stark novel was recommended by my sister, who reads fewer, but more literary, novels than I. A Pulitzer-prize winner and an Oprah recommendation, the novel is packed with worthiness, and it certainly has some of the hallmarks of a Great Work of Modern Literature - the lack of contraction and quotation marks in the dialogue particularly stood out for me. It's probably my under-educated outlook, but I couldn't see the merit of that particular decision.
The theme - lone survivors journeying through the world after global devastation - has been covered many times before, and I have to say that I've found a number of the FSF varieties more rewarding than this. The plot is certainly secondary to the relationship between father and son; only a little of their past comes through, and we never learn the nature of the disaster.
Perhaps the praise lavished on the novel stems from the comparative rarity of texts where fathers show devotion, self-sacrifice and tenderness for their children, and I suspect some comes from the relative dearth of fantasy/science fiction novels achieving literary acclaim.
I didn't hate the book, and I've certainly read worse, but I found the writing hypnotic rather than gripping and didn't really care what happened to the characters. In fact, my overwhelming emotion at the end of the novel was a (very faint) annoyance that I never discovered what caused the problem, except that it involved burning and a lot of residual ash, or even how long ago it was, though we do know it's within the unnamed boy's lifetime. If, however, you like literary novels and have a more artistic perception than I, The Road may very well be your cup of tea. - Alex

Thursday, September 13

Buried - Mark Billingham

When the kidnappers of a teenage boy are found dead, the boy nowhere to be found, it's not clear if he's still abducted or on the run. And the police want to know why his parents, including his retired cop father, didn't report him missing for several days. And that's just the beginning of the mystery...
This is the sixth Billingam novel, but my first, and I can't tell if it's jetlag, the fact that this is my second kidnap novel in almost as many days, the style, or the fact that I'm unfamiliar with the backstory that made me find this tale incoherent, choppy and more than a little confusing. That's a shame, because I think his premises sound interesting, and I hope that he's not the thriller genre's version of Katie MacAlistair. So why did I pick book six? When you're at the airport, all your luggage on another continent, you can't be too picky about reading material. But before I tackle him again (starting this time at book one) I'll make sure I'm well rested. - Alex

Wednesday, September 12

Leaning Toward Infinity - Sue Wolf

The Australian-born daughter of the Australian-born daughter of an Italian migrant tells her amateur mathematician mother's story of her own mother's mathematical discoveries as though the story were her own. This is interspersed with the daughter's letters, predominantly reflecting on how motherhood has affected her, caused her to reflect on her own relationship with her mother. Other themes include betrayal, beauty, competition, loss, the nature of identity, mother-daughter relationships, the rigidity of academic sciences, love and the thwarting of love.
This "extremely original and inventive" novel is complex, interwoven and multi-layered. Did I mention complex? I really didn't feel smart enough as I was reading this, and I persisted despite not being captivated by the narrative, I think to prove to myself that I was indeed clever enough to read it! In retrospect, it was not a reassuring book to read during a twenty-four hour flight en route and just just prior to an academic conference, and I may not have given it the best possible reading. - Alex

Tuesday, September 11

Two Little Girls in Blue – Mary Higgins Clarke

Identical twins Kathy and Kelly Frawley have just celebrated their third birthday when they are kidnapped one evening. The ransom is $8 million, but parents Steve and Mary have sunk all their money into the new home.
All seems lost until Steve’s new employer puts up the money- the drop off goes well, but only one twin is returned, along with the body of a kidnapper (dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound) and a note saying that Kathy accidentally died.
But Margaret is adamant that Kathy’s not only alive but communicating with her sister through their unique twin bond.
The novel alternates between the Frawley’s perspective, the amateur kidnappers, and the shadowy figure orchestrating the kidnapping, a man known only as the Pied Piper. There are a number of potential suspects for the Pied Piper, and thy all have something to hide.
As always, Higgins Clarke delivers a fast-paced, tightly-plotted thriller with a heart-wrenching central theme; thought here’s really no question of the outcome, it’s an exhilarating ride. - Alex

Monday, September 10

Crossing Infinity - Karen Haber

Like all her friends, Jaz is hooked into the Surge through her earpods - the Surge tells her what's hot and what's not, minute to minute. She's pissed with her mother, who spends all her time at the Home with her demented grandmother, making her care for her half-brother, and Jaz is a little confused about the guy she's crushing on. That is until she finds the body of a guy half hidden in long grass - well, she thinks he's a guy but it's a little hard to be sure at first.
His name is Cory, a refugee from somewhere (she thinks maybe the Middle East) - he has nowhere to stay until Jaz takes him to the home of the most radical teacher at school, Mrs Sedlow, who agrees to take him in.
Corilanus is indeed a refugee - from a planet where his family and allies are under attack. Unlike humans, Cory's people can change gender, something not easily understood on a planet where we're (mostly) one thing or another.
This is a plot-driven, well-written and interesting novel for young adults that challenges our growing dependence on the Internet and associated technologies (says she who's addicted to facebook), and explores the notion of gender, strengths of each gender (which were curiously human-like for an alien) and the idea of binary sexuality rather than a continuum.
That said, I think more could have been made of Jaz's discomfort when Cory changes genders when they kiss, and I was puzzled by the idea (not fully discussed) that his people do end up with a primary gender. It seems as though Cory changes to female whenever s/he has a strong sensual experience - the scent of oranges, for example - but there was no indication of what would trigger a change from female to male. All in all, though an interesting novel. - Alex

Sunday, September 9

Confidence Woman - Judith VanGieson

The third mystery involving librarian/archivist Claire Reynier begins with a reflection on the concern of many older, single people - dying alone and only being found because of decomposition. That's what happened to Evelyn Martin, one of Claire's sorority sisters (a sobriquet she hates) from almost thirty years ago. More shocking for Claire, who's had little to do with Evelyn in that time except for a visit almost a year ago, is the discovery that Evelyn was behind a case of credit card fraud and identity theft perpetrated on Claire some months earlier, as a result of Claire letting Evelyn stay with her for a few days.
It emerges that Evelyn dd the same thing t a number of other old college friends, and she stole something meaningful - and sometimes valuable - from each of them, too. College life in general, and sorority life in particular, had not been kind to Evelyn; the fraud was considered and planned, and her motive seems to have been revenge as much as opportunistic profit. From Claire she took a valuable, signed first edition minor work by Moby Dick author Herman Melville.

When the evidence begins to point to her, with no little assistance, Claire has to investigate the death herself, and some of her oldest friends are the chief suspects.
This was my first Claire Reynier novel, and my introduction to Claire was seamless. The main character is defined and clear, and the story was absorbing, though the mystery wasn't particularly tangled, which I found a refreshing change of pace from other recently read (and overly intricately plotted) mysteries. I particularly like novels about revisiting school days, which may even be why I bought Confidence Woman in the first place - I don't remember. I'm taking a break from library books while I travel, and have finally returned to making some inroads in my unread collection. But if, when I return home, I discover the library has Claire Reynier novels, I'll put them on the list. - Alex

Saturday, September 8

Not Remotely Controlled - Lee Siegel

This is a collection of US critic and New Republic editor Seigel's columns (mostly) on the topic of TV - grouped into categories like Cops ("Why Cop Shows are Eternal"), Religion, Drama, War and Reality Television. His opinions are frequently acerbic, and the reader is in no doubt about where he feels things feel short.
I found the essay on Donald Trump very interesting, and agreed with Siegel on a number of topics. I would have like to read about something, anything that he liked, of only for the change of pace, and wouldn't recommend reading the entire collection in one or two uninterrupted sittings, as I did.
Siegel's tone is a little overly-learned and arch for my tastes, but I enjoyed his perspective. And if you're interested in popular culture analysis in general, and television in particular, you might find this interesting too. - Alex

Friday, September 7

The Truth Behind a Series of Unfortunate Events - Lois H Gresh

This is an interesting peek into the world of Lemony Snickett, as described in the the first ten books of the now completed series. Gresh writes in a similar style to Snickett, with a number of large words (usefully defined for the unfamiliar reader), a discussion about the probabilities of some creations (eg "is there such a thing as a Barbary Chewer Snake?", with a chapter about many things reptile) and about some of the more frightening scenarios described (eg could a fifty-year-old guardian marry his 14 year old ward against her consent?).
Enjoyable is you liked the series, and definitely aimed at Snickett's target market. - Alex

Thursday, September 6

Phil Rickman: Crybbe

A millionaire music tycoon comes to a small town seeking to renew his spirit by reawakening the town’s magical centre. But this town has a legacy of dark magic, an evil that only the continuation of a four hundred year old tradition can hold back. As his project goes ahead the guardians of this tradition are slowly picked off and the evil starts to reclaim the town and its citizens. It is up to a pair of relative new comers to put a stop to things before it’s too late and the town and its inhabitants lose their souls.
I enjoyed this book very much. The many narrative threads give the reader a number of different and interesting perspectives on the overall story. Questions about magic, if it exists, what it could be if it does and how it can be controlled or suppressed are woven throughout the story. Also raised are questions about money and fame, how much happiness can they bring, what can they buy and what are people willing to do to attain either or both. What I liked most though, as always, was the writer’s style. He has a way of taking the mundane giving it a small twist and turning it into something special, something eerie, something else. Though there were a few cases of overt violence the gore factor is relatively low. The story’s chill factor stemming from excellent atmospheric descriptive passages. This author understands that the subtle implication carries greater scare power than open statement ever can.-Lynn

Wednesday, September 5

Blow Me Down - Katie MacAllister

Divorced from the would-be-actor father of sixteen-year-old Tara, Amy Stewart's used to immersing herself in her role as a financial analyst, but it's come at the cost of anything approaching a social life. When she enters the virtual world of Buckling Swashes, a pirate massive multi-player online role playing game still in the beta testing stage, it's only to prove to Tara that she can do more than just work.
Unfortunately there seems to be a problem leaving the game - perhaps because she entered during a storm, just as lightening struck. Or perhaps it's just that, new to MMORPGs, she doesn't know the way out. Either way, she's resigned to reaching whatever milestones she needs to in order to attain officer status, thereby winning her bet with Tara and - hopefully - leaving the game. Besides, there's something interesting about playing... Earless Erika, a name Amy came up with on really short notice. She'd never be as bold with the game's baddy, dashing blond Captain Corbin, scourge of the seas. And when Amy discovers that Corbin, the game's creator, can't escape either, they have a real objective - to find and kill the character of the programmer intent on destroying Corbin - in the fantasy and in real life.
This being a romance novel, there's also plenty of sexual attraction and 'physical love' (apparently it's not correct to call the action in romance novels 'sex scenes') interspersed among the fighting and angsting.
I'm no fan of MacAlister - in the past I've found her premises really promising but the execution disappointing, and on occasion book-hurtlingly bad. Her incessant use of the phrase "the English accent" in Improper English, and the allegedly hilarious (and indefensibly lengthy) mascara blob 'spider' scene in the same novel has caused Lynn and I to use 'MacAlister' as shorthand for "great blurb, crap novel" lo! these many years.
I decided a few weeks ago to write a MacAlister review, and was intending to reread my copy of Improper English, which is languishing in a box somewhere at home, but I haven't been able to lay my hands on it. My branch of the library didn't have it, but they did have the then-unread (by me) Blow Me Down and I decided that, anti-MacAlister as I am, a cleanish slate would be fairer.
I must say that I was surprised, though this is in part because my expectations were so very, very low. In so many romance novels the significant stumbling block to happiness could be resolved by a single conversation neither character is willing (for no good reason) to have ("Oh, she's your ward, not your bit-on-the-side/illegitimate-daughter..."), but in this case the couple hurdles were external and reasonable. The plot was somewhat interesting, the characters were differentiated, and though the premise was a bit of a stretch it was more plausible than I initially predicted.
The instant and overwhelming physical attraction was a little too Sookie Stackhouse for me, I could have done without the detailed 'physical love' scenes (using custard as a lubricant doesn't seem hygienic to me, even if it is virtual custard), and the novel did say that the people speak aloud etc during the game, making me worry a bit about Tara wandering in in mid-"my girl parts want you Corbin. Badly!" Which brings me to - girl parts? Ugh! The teen dialogue is no less cringe-worthy, and read to me very much as written by an adult without any kids. Blow Me Down's only two years old, so it's not that it's dated yet. Just tragic.
Plus I have yet to meet the find a lover who writes a deathless marriage proposal, inspired by my (not insubstantial) "deliciously pink and nibbleworthy... delectable breasts..." and this before anything more than nuzzling. I'm clearly hanging out in the wrong reality.
All in all though, less bad than I anticipated, but I don't think I'll be rethinking the whole thing. And there'll undoubtably be another MacAlistair review in this blogs' future. - Alex

Tuesday, September 4

The Burnt House - Faye Kellerman

When a commuter plane crashes just after takeoff, Detective Peter Decker rushes to the scene to help. All aboard are killed, as are many in the apartment building hit; seven weeks on, the site's still being sifted for debris and remains. When Decker recieves a phone call from grieving parents, convinced their flight attendent daughter was murdered, not killed in the crash, he begins a preliminary investigation. But obstacles obstruct him at every turn - the widower's less that cooperative, the airline's openly obstructive, the possible victim was having an affair, and her stepfather rings Deck every single morning.
When the skeletal remains of a young woman are found in the wreckage it seems as though Roseanne Dresden's been found after all. But the mystery deepens when forsensic dentistry reveas that the crumbling, fragile skull isn't Roseanne's, and there are no ther missing women from the flight or apartment. What happened to Roseanne, and whose skull has been hidden in the apartment basement since 1974?
I've throughly enjoyed every Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus novel, and The Burnt House is no exception. Kellerman expertly weaves the details of the mystery around the evolving family life of Peter, who met Rina in the very first novel (which I highly recommend), The Ritual Bath. Now that Rina's sons are older, they occupy less family life, leaving the stage to Rina and Peter's now-fourteen year old daughter Hannah, and Peter's eldest daughter and her new husband. And, as always, aspects fo their observant Judaism are also sown throughout the text, adding an extra dimension and depth to the writing. This is one series you shouldn't go past. - Alex

Monday, September 3

Feral - Kerry Greenwood

Xan's a trader, sailing up and down the river to barter goods on behalf of her family. She slips between the dialects of each settlement, from her own Gan Eden, the Sisters of St Mary McKillop, the River Rats and all.
Sasha LaTrobe's one of the University elite - son of a Professor, he's allowed to roam the grounds rather than being tied to a virtual reality program like the students. He has a terrible secret, though, one that could get him killed.
Feral is the sequel to Cave Rats, which I sadly have not yet read. It's set in the same time, but with different characters, to while reading the other book might help flesh out a few details, I don't think it seriously compromised my enjoyment of the novel, my first of Greenwood's YA books. As alway, I really admire her writing - the characterisation is deft and deep, the plot is familiar (post-apocalyptic tyrany) but uniquely wrought, and there's a twist at the end that I really didn't see coming but the clues of which had been scattered through the text from the beginning. Thanks to my local library, I have a whole new Greenwood series of universes to explore! - Alex

Sunday, September 2

Creepers - David Morrell

Creepers are urban explorers - they covertly (and usually illegally) enter abandoned buildings and discover lost worlds hidden in plain view. Adopting the motto of the naturalist Sierra Club, they aim to "take only photos, leave only footprints."
Tenured history professor Robert Conklin has arranged an expedition - to the Paragon Hotel in Asbury Park, which was internally-boarded up by it's recluse millionaire owner Morgan Carlisle, an agoraphobic hemophiliac, in the early 1970's. Accompanying Professor Conklin are three former students and a reporter, Frank Balenger.
They break in through a large underground sewerage access system, encountering a number of blind and deformed rats (two tails, multiple legs) on the way. The hotel itself is derelict but amazing - Carlisle had maintained the Art Deco theme for the life of the hotel, creating a trip back in time. Of course, not everything goes to plan...
My previous experiences with Morrell have been his thriller novels (Fraternity of the Stone, Brotherhood of the Rose), beginning with the prototype for Rambo, the novel First Blood. Creepers is a very different novel, but similarly compelling. It opened with a foretaste of catastrophe, but kept me guessing about the form this would take - the deformed animals set me up for a James Herbert-esque tale, but Morrell was more cunning than that. The pace was brisk, there were a number of twists and turns (mostly genuinely surprising but plausible), and the world of the hotel was entrancing. All in all a very satisfying novel. - Alex

Saturday, September 1

Dry Ice - Stephen White

Murderer Michael McClelland has been locked away in a psychiatric institution since the grisly murders he committed in Privileged Information, but now he's escaped. Having vowed vengeance on psychologist Alan Gregory and his prosecutor wife Lauren, Alan's hypervigilant. Despite that, he doesn't notice a handbag apparently abandoned in the front yard of his shared practice - until a patient brings it to him. When close friend and cop Milo Sturgess comes to the door and asks to see it, Alan thinks little of it. but Milo's there in his official role and, with a witness missing and the fate of a cop killer trial at stake, he's not going to let friendship get in the way.
The staged purse is just the beginning, and Alan finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into a morass of apparent guilt engineered by a cunning and clever psychopath. As McClelland comes ever closer to home, Alan is unprepared for a a different, devastating loss and an unexpected addition to his family.
As I've mentioned before, White's writing is deft and is plotting fast-paced. I thoroughly enjoyed this latest addition to the stable, but thing a break before the next Alan Gregory novel wouldn't be a bad thing for me. - Alex