Wednesday, October 31

Blessings - Anna Quindlen

When Skip Cuddy, freshly released from ten months in jail as the unwitting wheelman in a botched convenience store robbery, finds a box in the driveway of his new employers' grand home in Mount Mason, his first thought is to remove it. Mrs Blessing's very fixed in her ways, and doesn't like anything out of place, as her Korean housekeeper has made very clear to him. But when he lifts the box he discovers it holds a baby, perhaps days old, and he decides to keep her. That decision not only changes his life, giving him something bigger than himself to think about and care for, but thaws out a woman whose life has been a self-centred stream of willful blindness and dissatisfaction, and opens the door for Skip to find love.
It's billed as being "in the best selling tradition of Anne Tyler" and there are certainly some parallels, not least of which is the somewhat aimless lyricism of the novel. The characters were mildly interesting, though I wasn't engrossed, and the plot is exciting but somehow this didn't translate into actually being interesting. I didnt hate it, I didn't love it, I just... eh. - Alex

Tuesday, October 30

Mistress of Justice - Jeffrey Deaver

Paralegal Taylor Lockwood really wants to play jazz piano, but works as a paralegal to appease her lawyer father and plays piano at night to please herself. When attorney Mitchell Reece seconds her to help him find a vital document, stolen from his office safe in the few hours he wasn't at work, it seems like an interesting diversion. But the deeper in she gets the more complicated everything becomes - the firm is in the midst of a leadership challenge, secrets and rivalries are rife, and then someone's killed.
I borrowed this thinking that, because I hadn't read it before, it must be new. Wrong - it's a re-release of one of Deaver's pre-Rhyme novels, originally published in 1992 and therefore a little dated (mostly the references to mobile phones and internet access) but still involving. I really wish I'd written this review when it was all a little fresher in my head, because I can't remember all the specifics now. Not bad, not brilliant, an entertaining diversion from the maelstrom of my professional life last week. - Alex

Monday, October 29

Trouble - Jesse Kellerman

Jonah Stem's a medical student - physically and mentally exhausted from long hours at the bedside, he stumbles out into the New York night to buy new shoes after a patient's bowels exploded over his current pair while assisting in theatre. When Jonah hears a woman scream from a nearby alley he goes to investigate, and finds a beautiful brunette, blood pouring from one shoulder, crawling away from a black man armed with a knife. Terrified but protective, Jonah tackles the man and, more fluke than intent, kills him.
Apart from some ribbing at work (the papers dubbed him "Superdoc"), Jonah's life gets back to normal. His roommate, the wealthy, eccentric and flighty Lance is now fixated on a career as a film maker and raves on about technique, the patients keep coming, and when he has a little time off Jonah visits his ex-girlfriend, the one time love of his life, now irreparably damaged beyond his ability to help.
Then he bumps into the brunette from the alley. Eve Gones (pronounced "Jones") is gorgeous, sexy and grateful for his help. He bumps into her a second time, and they hook up. She's fascinating, adventurous, wild, secretive, and then things start to get weird.
Kellerman has crafted a fascinating portrayal of manipulation and pathology, and he creates a claustrophobic nightmare that tightens inexorably around his hero. Jonah is complex, well meaning, intelligent and naive, and his efforts to protect those he cares about while fending off a growing threat are believable but ineffective. This was not what I expected, but was possibly all the more involving for that. Kellerman is an author to watch, with a style (as I believe I've said before) quite different from his more well known, for now, parents. - Alex

Sunday, October 28

The Broken Wheel - Kerry Greenwood

When Sarah bursts out of dense shrubbery, petrified, she is taken in by three Travellers, who are making their way through the territories staked out by various tribes along the freeway. Much has changed in the years since the Three Days, when satellites in orbit raked Earth with lasers, and life is perilous for those who stray far from home.
Sarah knows that Gwyn, Alpin and Simon are promiscuous degenerates who use machines and do not follow the Wheel but she has to risk herself for the greater purpose. Yet, as she travels with them and sees them navigate through the territories of women-stealing cannibals, desperate children armed with an automatic tank, and warriors, her preconceptions are challenged.
This is the first of the Three Day trilogy, the third of which, Feral, was reviewed about a month ago. I managed to read them in reverse order, and it is a tribute to Greenwood's style and world building that I didn't realise until I read each one that it was the prequel to what I'd read. That's phrased awkwardly, I know - in essence: I am stupid and Greenwood is great!
Sarah's struggle to examine her beliefs in the light of new information is portrayed beautifully, and the characters generally are layered. I particularly liked the way different groups have responded to the disaster (now a decade or so old) is interesting and strongly reminiscent of (though different from) Tepper's brilliant post-apocalyptic The Gate to Women's Country. This novel stand well as both FSF and YA. - Alex

Saturday, October 27

Stuffed - Gordon Graham

Buff young Garvey Quinn's an actor with a role on one of Australia's favourite medical dramas. He's happy with his career, and thinks those actors who talk about 'method' and 'inhabiting their character' are full of it. His style is to front up, read the lines, and go home. But his girlfriend, fellow actor Madeline, believes acting is an art. When renown director Stirling Seagrave approaches Garvey to star in a feature film about former Olympian Bryan Mars - a champion swimmer who, almost overnight, ballooned in size and lost the plot - Madeline strongly encourages him to accept, despite Garvey's concerns about the contractual obligation to pork up for the role. After all, all the greats have suffered for their art - does he think he's better than De Niro? And then, art imitating life, she gets the role as Bryan's girlfriend and fellow swimmer Vicki Michaels.
Garvey and Madeline train for hours, and as their bodies become tighter, leaner and more defined, their sex lives wane through sheer exhaustion. Then Garvey has to start gaining weight and, despite his initial concerns, he finds the act of eating to excess satisfying, the increasing softness of his edges comforting. He gains weight faster than the shooting script dictates, and revels in high fat foods and the newly-discovered joy of cooking.
Madeline's still toned, she spends more time than ever at the pool, and Garvey's body disgusts her. Although she appreciates the artistic aspect she thinks they should take a break until he gets back to normal. And Garvey doesn't really care.
This is billed as "a poignant comedy about... what it's like to be fat. Really fat." I think it had the potential to say something interesting about how our society sees size above all, how easily the lauded can be brought down, and the multitude of size discrimination issues including the depth of irrational revulsion fat can trigger in some people. These themes were briefly touched on but not explored in any depth. Instead Graham went into great detail about gluttony, in a way that made me both uncomfortable and a little angry, and not in a way that made me think that was the author's intent. It was interesting that the fat involved was men, as most size acceptance literature, diet information etc is targeted at women, but this was not enough to redeem the book for me. - Alex

Friday, October 26

Amanda Quick: Seduction

After the death of his wild and promiscuous first wife, all the Earl of Ravenwood wants from his second wife is an heir and no trouble, so he marries a country bred spinster who agrees to provide him with just that. But she has her own reason for agreeing to the marriage - she wants access to society so that she can hunt down the man who ruined her sister, and take her revenge.
Instead of a quiet life the pair are drawn into blackmail plots, pistols at dawn and arguments about women’s rights, falling in love along the way.
I’ve enjoyed Amanda Quick’s historical romances and this one did not disappoint. It contains subtle humour and mild intrigues (though the villain was obvious early on) as well as a believably developed relationship. I did find the sex scenes a trifle annoying. Our hero never seems to shut up and has a fondness for calling her "sweetheart" once they get naked. Fortunately they are not so frequent as to ruin an otherwise good read. The author obviously researched herbs for this one but is discrete with that knowledge, resisting the urge to share all she had learned, for which I thank her. An easy, entertaining read.-Lynn

Thursday, October 25

Cave Rats - Kerry Greenwood

The children of the sewers that run beneath Melbourne are feral. Known as the Cave Rats, they turn on, and feed on, anyone and anything they catch in their domain. Tehan grew up as a Cave Rat - expelled at age 12, as is their custom, he would never have willingly returned to the rat and Cave Rat-ridden underground if he had remembered. But the plague above ground was a greater threat.
When Tehan became cornered, injured, and desperately short of water, he summoned help the only way he knew - with his mind. And he was rescued by Healer Gwyn, the Travellers and the Children of the Broken Wheel. Once an ascetic and cruel sect, the Prophet Sarah has brought a New Revelation that embraces love. As one of Melbourne's few empaths, Tehan is recruited to find the child of the Voice. And he has to find her quickly, because between the plague and the old guard of the Wheel, the New Revelation is running out of time.
This is the prequel to Feral, which was reviewed a month or so ago (I didn't realise they were a series until I began Cave Rats), and it fills out some of the details of Greenwood's post-apocalyptic universe. Something called the Three Days happened that destroyed contemporary society, and in its place a variety of microcosms have developed, building on pre-existing communities and ethos's. If that's a word. Anyway, the result is interesting and accomplished, and the changing culture of the Children of the Broken Wheel is portrayed in deft, subtle strokes, all show and no tell. The only disappointment is that I'm reading Greenwood's novels faster than she's writing them. - Alex

Wednesday, October 24

Landslide - Desmond Bagley

When freelance geologist Bob Boyd heads to Fort Farrell, a logging town in the heart of British Columbia, he's stunned to discover the main square is named Trinavant Park. Though chronologically in his early thirties, Bob was born less than a decade earlier - the sole survivor of a serious car accident, all his personal memory vanished. But he knows that he was travelling with a married couple and their college-aged son, the Trinavants.
In Fort Farrell for a surveying job, Boyd investigates the Trinavant aspect a little more closely and discovers that, though John Trinavant was much a loved and respected businessman, in death he was eclipsed by his partner, Bull Matterson. Intrigued, Boyd digs deeper, discovering treachery, greed and foul play. As this is a Bagley novel, he also discovers true love.
In fact, all the Bagley trademarks are present - an exotic locale (not mandatory), an unassuming man placed in a demanding situation displays strength of will and purpose, a quest or mission, clear foes with their own agenda, and specialist skills that are subtly and deftly woven into the narrative. Despite these common elements, each novel is distinct and original. I know I've said this before about Bagley, but this is one of my favourites. The Canadian setting is refreshing, the characters are dynamic, the plot compelling, and the writing's superlative. There are echoes here of another favourite, Snow Tiger, but Landslide is wholly its own entity. Just perfect. - Alex

Monday, October 22

Dancing with Dr Death - Virginia Kennedy with Dot Walker

In early 2005 the Australian media was filled with stories about an Indian-trained surgeon who had been linked with an increasing number of surgical infections, other complications, and deaths. Alongside the developing story of Dr Jayant Patel (who, it transpired, had already been restricted from performing some surgeries in Oregon and forced to surrender his medical license in New York) emerged the story of a whistle-blowing nurse whose job was threatened when she went to her local MP after numerous attempts at local resolution of the problem. The media dubbed Dr Patel "Dr Death", and the case sparked national debate about immigration (skilled and unskilled) and the state of rural health care, as well as a Commission of Inquiry.
Although I had some familiarity with the case, I hadn't followed it closely enough to be conversant with the names of all the players. Dancing with Dr Death was recommended by a nursing friend, and I suspected that without the recommendation I wouldn't have read it. In fact it was only when I saw it in the library while looking for another, related book that I was prompted to check it out. I assumed it was written by the whistle blower, and when I realised this was written by another nurse I assumed I had the wrong book, but Toni Hoffman hasn't written one. Kennedy, writing under a pseudonym to protect her career as a "qualified registered nurse", was assisted by Walker, "an author and educational consultant."
As expected, the book, which is subtitled "The Inside Story of Doctor Jayant Patel and the Bundaberg Base Hospital: A personal account by a nurse who worked at his side", discusses particular details of some of the incidents, including cases where Dr Patel has subsequently been found guilty of malpractice and murder. However the focus of the book is on the hospital itself - for the author Patel, with whom she had a friendly if guarded relationship, was a symptom of a far bigger problem, one which has not been appropriately addressed.
Originally from Tasmania - apparently a Mecca of Australian nursing - Kennedy was unhappy with the hospital layout, lack of equipment, poor staffing, actively unsupportive management and out-dated practices from the beginning. Kennedy's story is filled with example of "unprofessional attitude and lack of support or understanding from hospital administration." Some of her grievances are about genuinely unsafe practices, dangerously poor staffing levels, systemic complacency, and a management ethos that valued money about staff and patient well-being. Having heard from a nursing friend in Queensland about the apathy and general unhelpfulness of the organisation, I was interested to see that Kennedy also found the Queensland Nurses' Union to be of little or no assistance.
It is unfortunate that the impact of this is diminished by the sheer number of Kennedy's complaints - the first, which extends for the better part of two and a half pages, is an overly detailed account of her trip to get her uniforms; she is as outraged by the colour of them (burgundy and white, which she "was immediately repulsed by") as by anything else in the text.
There is an irritating lack of perspective ("What other career... would leave people so physically drained and mentally exhausted?"), the odd bizarre observation (following on from a discussion about complication rates of gallbladder surgery, she adds "even the more major surgery did not escape post-operative complications" - wouldn't you expect a higher rate of complication in more serious complications?), and had-I-but-known hyperbole: "I pictured in my mind the handshake and pats on the back between Peter Beattie and Dr PJ [sic] , and I wonder if the Premier wishes in hindsight he could have foreseen what the future held for the BBH" and "Yet unknown to me at this time, and probably more impacting, he obviously had other serious concerns. These without a doubt would have played heavily on his mind, governing his ability to know right from wrong. Little did I know what was about to unfold." This use of "impacting" occurs five or six times throughout the book.
Kennedy (a pseudonym) appears to have liked and respected Patel, and believes that his major problem was that he "over-rated his ability." Although the selling point of the book is the Patel connection, and from the lack of tight editing I strongly suspect it was commissioned and rushed out to catch the wave of public opinion, the author's main thrust is a diatribe against a system that she thoroughly hated. There's a lot in here that's worthwhile and important. It's just unfortunate that the message is obstructed by the overblown writing and diluted by irrelevancy. - Alex

James Herbert: The Secret of Crickley Hall

A grieving family seeking solace takes up residence in an aged manor house in picturesque county side. Almost immediately they are subjected to a series of unexplained noises and temperature variations, doors won’t stay locked, the family pet runs away, and the mother and one of the daughters start to see things that can not possibly be there. They soon discover that the house was the scene of a tragedy involving the drowning of eleven evacuated orphans and their guardian during the Second World War. But the flood was not responsible for these deaths and as the true story unfolds the family must play their part in setting the record straight and putting the ghosts to rest.
I’ve always enjoyed Herbert’s writing and this story delivers the creepy read with an interesting twist that I’ve come to expect from him. But somehow it didn’t give me the same chill I’ve got from previous works. The family was a little obtuse when it came to recognising the haunting and maybe that detracted from the scare factor. I really can’t pin point why the story atmosphere lacked but good as it was it didn’t leave me sleeping with the lights on.
If you like a good ghost story read James Herbert but if you’re new to his work don’t start with this one, it’s strictly for the fans.-Lynn

Sunday, October 21

Postsecret - Frank Warren

In 2004 Frank Warren distributed 5,000 postcards, at subway stations, art galleries and in books. He asked people to write down and mail their secrets, some of which were then reproduced on his blog ( He was unprepared for the overwhelming response - a flood of confidences, and a lot of art. This book, the first of six or seven so far, is a compilation of some of those cards. Though not organised thematically, there are some secrets that seem to mirror one another.
The concept and the execution are fascinating, and though each is unique to the creator, there's a certain comfort in seeing the same themes, and even the same secrets, emerging with each batch. I visit the website every week (the secrets are updated on Sundays), and am always surprised.
I would have been better to treat the book like a box of chocolates, to be dipped into and relished, rather than bolted down, but I found myself reading "just one more" until the end. The postcard that has made me think the most wasn't there - it was an artistically accomplished rendering of the second plane hitting the Twin Towers. At the bottom: "everyone who knew me thinks I died." - Alex

Saturday, October 20

The Spellman Files - Lisa Lutz

Middle daughter Izzy Spellman's a second generation PI. After a lifetime of intrigue and surveillance, eluding tails and hiding her personal life is second nature, but keeping her new boyfriend a secret from both determined parents may not be that easy.
Izzy's ready to leave the family firm, but her parents persuade her to commit to one last case. When she agrees they give her a fifteen year old cold case that Izzy digs her teeth into - despite threats of litigation from the family.
The novel combines reflection with a current issue that Izzy's trying to avoid discussing - it involves her little sister and the police, but the details emerge slowly and reluctantly. The style's interesting, some of the writing's witty, and the general scenrios are original, but for some reason I didn't warm to the characters (except younger sister Rae). Still, I'd be interested to see what Lutz comes up with next. - Alex

Friday, October 19

Moira J. Moore: Resenting the Hero

In a world where bonded pairs must avert natural disasters a conscientious woman is bonded to a notoriously flighty man. The pair are the only survivors of an engineered disaster but before they can discover who planned it and stop them from doing it again the man is kidnapped. It is then up to the woman to find and save him so that they can, quite literally, save the world. Naturally she manages to do this and the pair learn to respect and accept each other and work together for the good of all.
This book fell a little flat for me. Not because of any deficit in the writing but because it was not at all what I had expected it to be. When I picked this book up I anticipated humour. Everything about it from the cover art (a resentful looking woman polishing the boot of a valiantly posed horseman) to the cover copy ("She wanted someone reliable. Instead she got him…") to the tone of the back blurb indicated that this was a comedy. But the story inside was pure fantasy without even a nod to funny. As a result I was disappointed before I got through the first chapter even though there was nothing ‘wrong’ with the story itself.
As a fantasy it worked reasonably well. I would like to have known more about why and how the pairs bonded. In fact, more world building all around would have been helpful. I did like the fluid sexuality of the characters and it was nice that the author didn’t go for the obvious and have the hero and heroine fall in love.
These characters have at least one more book (it is promoted at the end of this one) and possibly a series but I won’t be following it because whenever I think of this book I associate it with disappointment (through no fault of the author).
I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but if we can’t get an accurate idea about it from its cover art, copy and blurb then where can we?-Lynn

Thursday, October 18

The Unfortunate Experiment - Sandra Coney

In 1984 the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology published a paper that would initiate an investigation into one of the greatest medical scandals of the late twentieth century. Titled "The Invasive Potential of Carcinoma in Situ of the Cervix", it discussed the results of an experiment that had been run at the National Women’s Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand, since 1955. The experiment looked at the natural history of cervical carcinoma in situ (CIS) – in other words, what happens if no treatment is initiated in a condition suspected (when the experiment began) to lead to cervical cancer. The paper divided participants into two groups, one that had negative results after biopsy or treatment, and one smaller group that continued to test positive. This second group had a significant rate of cervical cancer; some of these women were followed for twenty-five years without treatment, and in only 5% did the disease spontaneously resolve. For the other 95%, outcomes ranged from positive but localised results to metastatic disease and death. The authors said these results were in contrast with other, earlier papers about the experiment.
After much research, Sandra Coney, one-time editor of a NZ feminist magazine, and Phyllida Bunkle, a women’s studies lecturer, wrote an article about the experiment, exposing the unauthorised research performed by one prominent gynaecologist in support of his belief that CIS was not associated with cervical cancer. Professor Herbert Green, a physician of considerable influence and power throughout New Zealand, persisted in his belief despite increasingly convincing proof of a progressive connection between the two conditions, never sought permission from his patients, or even told them what he was doing.
The article lead to an inquiry, and this is the story of that inquiry.
Dubbed “the unfortunate experiment”, this case is well known in ethics literature and is a cautionary tale about the dangers of unexamined ideology, the need for reflexivity and intellectual rigour in conducting research, and a cornerstone of the argument that participants in research must be informed and have choice.
The text vividly describes the institutional complacency that allowed Green to continue for almost thirty years, unquestionably causing hundreds of women deformity, pain, suffering, and shorter lives, all of which could have been prevented. It also points out the power one person can wield, especially in a small and interconnected population – those who tried to combat Green suffered professionally, and whistle-blowing wasn’t contemplated, let alone tolerated.
The book was written almost twenty years ago, and covers a time when patients in general were not expected or encouraged to be involved in their own healthy care, and women in particular were expected to be biddable and pleasant. The authors were depicted in much of New Zealand’s media as ball-busting feminists hell-bent on destroying a respected doctor for no good reason; many of Green’s patients liked him and had no idea what he’d done. Indeed, I found this aspect particularly interesting.
However, the writing is less straightforward than I would like, with a heavy smattering of extraneous detail that I found distracting rather than illuminating. I appreciate, especially in light of the excruciating rigours of the inquiry, why Covey was so meticulous, but this does distract from the general thrust of the story. Nonetheless, this is a troubling and important book, and there’s no guarantee that similar tragedies aren’t in the wings. We need only look at the Bristol baby scandal or Australia’s own Jayant Patel to see that medical institutions haven’t changed with any haste. – Alex

Wednesday, October 17

Grave Surprise - Charlaine Harris

When Harper Connelly was fifteen she was struck by lightning. Resuscitated by her step-brother Tolliver, ever since she's been able to find the bodies of the dead and know how they died. She now travels the country with Tolliver , hired by families to find their loved ones.
The assignment seemed straight-forward enough - session guest in a college course on paranormal practitioners, Harper was to identify the causes of death for randomly selected inhabitants of a long abandoned cemetery near the campus. A box of records had recently been unearthed, and there was no way she could have had access prior to the test.
Course lecturer Dr Nunley was initially skeptical, then convinced Harper had somehow cheated, as time after time she correctly identified the causes of death. Until the last grave - in addition to the known inhabitant, murdered by his brother, Tolliver felt the presence of a young and relatively recently dead girl, also murdered. The body of a girl Harper had been paid to find in another state, the year before. Now Harper and Tolliver not only need to find out who killed Tabitha Morgenstern but also clear their names. Because the police and the media really don't like coincidences.
This is the second Harper Connelly novel, successor to Grave Sight. I've become a little weary of her Sookie Stackhouse series, and read the first in this new series with some trepidation. The series are worlds apart - Harper is human, lives in a world populated only by humans, and denies any precognition or other paranormal ability. The writing is interesting, the puzzle intriguing, and the character of Harper attractive. There's a nicely subtle twist in the sibling dynamic that was gently foreshadowed here and in the first novel that demonstrates Harris's growth as a writer; that alone is reason enough to read the third Harper novel. - Alex

Tuesday, October 16

Bloodsucking Fiends - Christopher Moore

When San Franciscan Jody, a "self-conscious, one-step dancer with the rhythmic sense of an inbred Aryan" wakes up half-buried under a dumpster, one hand severely burned, she's understandably surprised. Almost as shocking is the discovery that she's been buried with a substantial amount of money. Less surprising is the fact that her boyfriend is more concerned about himself that her - although she hates to be alone, and has managed no fewer than ten live-in boyfriends by the age of twenty-six, she leaves. But she's already started to suspect that she's not entirely human any more, and will need someone who can move about during the day to help facilitate her life. Because Jody's somehow been turned into a vampire.
She picks C. Thomas Flood, a would-be writer in the Kerouac tradition from small town Indiana, who's working as a night manager at Safeway, and his life changes in ways he never expected. For Jody it's pretty much all about survival, but for Tommy it's everything he ever hoped to find in the big city. Well, except for the scary guys downstairs, the dead body in the freezer, the damn turtles, the murders, and the creepy guy who follows Jody around, leaving bodies wherever he goes. But other than that, perfect.
I first saw Moore's work in a UK bookshop a couple of weeks ago, and was surprised I hadn't come across him before. Bloodsucking Fiends is cult favourite Moore's third unique, stand alone novel that seem to blend fantasy and the paranormal with humanity and absurdism. There's also a fair helping of humour.
When Tommy has his card read the fortune teller tells him he's fucked. She offers to throw in a free palm reading, and remarks "Goodness, you masturbate a lot, don't you?" I enjoyed his descriptions of the olfactory blends in China town, of food and car fumes, like Kung Pao Saab Turbo, but my favourite exchange takes place between Tommy and the Emperor, a delusional homeless man who believes he's the Emperor of San Francisco, and is so treated by the locals:
"I've seen him," the Emperor whispered. "It's a vampire."
Tommy recoiled as if he'd been spit on. "A vampire florist?"
"Well, once you accept the vampire part, the florist part's a fairly easy leap, don't you think?"
I'm delighted to discover that my local library has three more Moore's, but as I think I could easily overdo it, a small break will be warranted first. - Alex

To see Lynn's reviews of Bloodsucking Fiends click here

Monday, October 15

Undead and Unreturnable - Maryjanice Davidson

A serial killer is targeting attractive, slender blonde women in Minnesota. Normally this wouldn't worry attractive, blonde Minnesotan Betsy Taylor - as unexpected Queen of the Vampires she's pretty much safe - except that his last victim has started haunting her, and it's seriously interfering with her wedding plans. Not to mention the fact that she's busy enough already - between fending off her would-be suitor, former vampire slayer Jon, keeping secrets from fiance Sinclair (primarily that she can hear his thoughts when they're being intimate), keeping tabs George, on the zombified vampire in her cellar, and worrying about the fate of new half-brother Jon (her step-mother's last child was sired by the devil), Betsy has her hands full.
This is the fourth novel about Betsy, accidental Queen of the Vampires, and it's as frothy and shoe-obsessed as its predecessors. I found the first couple of novels a refreshing take on the chick lit/paranormal hybrid that's become a publishing phenom, but this time around there wasn't any character growth or pizazz. Perhaps it's overload on the genre, but this felt uninspired and insubstantial, and didn't really offer anything new. I've got another similar novel waiting in the library stack and then I think I need a long break, to see if it really in the genre that's lost it's innovation, or if it's me. - Alex

Sunday, October 14

Recipes for Crime - Kerry Greenwood & Jenny Pausacker

Food and crime novels often go hand in hand - fictional detectives are often associated with food, or their ascetic disinterest in food, and poisoning is a technique favoured by murderers. In Recipes for Crime the redoubtable Greenwood and YA author Pausacker have created a unique blend of literature review, cook book, and short story anthology, inspired by, and written in the style of, the greats of the genre. So we have a a general overview of the association of food with fictional murder, and the Doyle-esque "The Baroness's Companion", where Holmes solves a case regarding breakfast, over breakfast, accompanied by recipes for bacon and eggs, kedgeree, coddled eggs, potted meat, devilled kidneys, and plum jam.
The tone is light and affectionate, with deft touches of humour - in the recipe for fiddly and time consuming comfits, essentially sugared almonds, they write "When we consider that in the Middle Ages it was common to make comfits out of caraway seeds , we go all wobbly and have to sit down."
Aware that "plenty of people, ourselves included... derive a large part of the general knowledge from reading detective stories", and need therefore be accurate, and following their advice that the information so relayed should be gently incorporated into the text and not presented in chunks, I came away somewhat more erudite and thoroughly enjoyed the process. I never knew prolific pulp fiction author Carter Brown, whose novels were a guilty pleasure through my teen years, was an Aussie! - Alex

Saturday, October 13

Housewife Down - Alison Penton Harper

One day, after fifteen years of faithful but passionless wifely duty, Helen Robbins has enough. Instead of marinating the beef in a great red she drinks the wine and passes out in the bedroom, coming to when her husband, Robert, pulls in the drive. He's expecting Helen's usual, superlative culinary production, pulled out for yet another colleague, and he doesn't hesitate to voice his displeasure.
During dinner Robert complains about the vast number of incompetent drivers who threaten to damage his car on every outing, and Helen - uncharacteristically - goads him. Unable to back down in front of the guests, and put on the spot by the boss's wife, who's brother's a driving instructor, he agrees to sit a driving test. And when Andy, the instructor, slaps the dash, Robert slams on the breaks hard. Causing the air bags to inflate. And, in a bizarre freak accident, killing Robert instantly.
Over the following months Helen makes a number of startling discoveries, about herself and about Robert. She reunites with her sister after a thirteen year absence (Robert never liked her), sees opportunities where there was once repression, takes an unexpected trip to India, and learns that it's not to late to live her life.
More than chick lit, though definitely written for a female audience, Housewife Down is well crafted and deft, with some beautiful description ("perfectly pert cushion of lamb which flushed pink under the embarrassment of its own deliciousness") and sly touches of humour lightly scattered through. I even managed to move past the irritating misuse of "baited breath" (though, as you can see from the mention, not wholly moved on!).
In several places I suspected where the plot was going, and in each case was happily proved wrong, which is always a pleasant surprise, especially as the characters maintained their integrity throughout the novel. A library book, I saw a sequel on the shelves (Housewife Up), but I'm concerned it may detract from the original, and will therefore leave it a while before sampling. All in all a most satisfying novel. - Alex

Friday, October 12

The Chemistry of Death - Simon Beckett

Dr David Hunter retreated to the country to escape from the tragic deaths of his wife and young daughter, joining the practice of established GP Henry Maitland, himself injured in the car accident that took his beloved wife. Now confined to a wheelchair, Henry is unable to attend to patients at home, and is of an age to begin considering retiring.
A year on, and David feels as though he's becoming part of the Manham community. But the discovery of the badly decomposed body of another newcomer, author Sally Palmer, begins to attract serious police and media attention. David knew her, though he shied away when she began to express an interest in him. When another woman goes missing and the police pick David up - because of his background as a forensic anthropologist - he discovers that he was never part of the town at all. And then a third woman disappears...
This is a riveting blend of psychological exploration - David as much as the killer - and mystery, with enough forensic detail to be interesting without the supersaturation that's become de rigeur in these novels of late. There is quite a bit of 'had I but known', which Beckett somehow manages to keep from being irritating, and the discovery of the perpetrator's genuinely unexpected. There's an epilogue that I found less surprising, but which rounded the novel out nicely. All in all a quite satisfying work. - Alex

Thursday, October 11

The Diary of Charlotte McKenzie - Kerry Greenwood

Charlotte starts her diary on her birthday, writing in the beautiful blue leather notebook her uncle Donald sent from France. Uncle Donald is still fighting in the War, but Charlotte's father is home from the front, frighteningly changed.
As Charlotte writes about a life that seems all too ordinary to her - caring for her younger siblings, helping her nurse mother with the daily chores, unhappy about having to leave school and frustrated that she can't be a doctor because she's a girl - Charlotte given us an enlightening look at a very different world. As the school year ends, Charlotte tries to understand why her father is the way he is, through reading the text books of her friend Florence's GP father. Impressed by her intelligence and tenacity, Dr Barnes enlists Charlotte as his assistant. And, as the Great War finally ends, Charlotte becomes all to familiar with the new enemy the world has to fight - the Spanish Lady, a flu epidemic that would kill more Australians than the War did.
Once again Greenwood has managed to capture a real sense of time and place, this time through the first person perspective of a girl who doesn't understand everything she sees, but who grows up in a hurry. Just perfect, and a wonderful antidote to my last book. - Alex

Wednesday, October 10

Rightfully Mine - Doris Mortman

The elegant, widowed Madame Gabrielle Didier is attractive, elegant and knowledgeable. She assists, rather than merely works for, one of New York's most well established auction houses, specialising in French antiques. But Gabrielle is not what she seems, and a spiteful woman could bring her world tumbling around her ears. She had no idea that the world of antiques would be so treacherous, or so rewarding.
For Gabrielle is, in reality, Gaby Cocroft, suburban housewife until her husband of sixteen years left her for another woman - leaving her unemployable (no wife of his would ever work) and all but penniless. Frustrated and disillusioned after endless rejections when her resume is truthful, Gaby decided to make herself over. Orphaned as a child, she took inspiration from the French aunt who raised her thereafter, and thus was born Gabrielle.
I loved this thick and juicy pre-chick lit novel (published in 1989) when I first read it, a disturbing 18 years ago, and I quite looked forward to rereading it. Clearly my taste has changed somewhat in that time, which I suppose is reassuring. The underlying story - a faithful woman abandoned, a family feud passed on from one generation to the next, treasure stolen by Nazi commanders, and the quest for love - was fine and even, in places, gripping if predictable. But the florid and overblown style was exhausting - of particular note "A gray melancholia clouded Gaby's eyes"; "his fingers tangled in the web of her femininity"; "the delicacy of the older woman's maquillage"; "her femininity, her sexuality, the very core of her womanhood had lain dormant for years"; and "Why him? Why now? Why not?"
Every woman in beautiful, her beauty documented over and over again. And the author clearly researched the world of antiques and New York society of the time, because the text is littered with names and detailed descriptions, all of which are useless to an ignoramus like myself. At almost 790 pages, this took me several days to plod through (taking refreshing Greenwoodian breaks between times).
I finished Rightfully Mine feeling as though I had eaten an entire, heavily iced and cream filled chocolate cake, and now need a plate of steamed broccoli. Ugh. I'm classifying it as chick lit/romance because that's the closest category. - Alex

Tuesday, October 9

Raymond Khoury: The Last Templar

An exhibition of Vatican treasures is stormed by four horsemen dressed as Knights Templar; amongst the stolen artefacts is an ancient decoder. An archaeologist witness recognises one of the thieves and teams up with an FBI agent in order to retrieve the treasure. Over the following days all but one of the thieves turn up dead, raising the question did the fourth thief kill them all or is he next on a hit list?
A massive manhunt ensues as archaeologists, FBI agents, Vatican officials, the surviving thief and killer trek across three continents in search of the truth of a centuries-old mystery brought to life again by the theft.
Interlaced between chapters of the modern story is the tale of the small band of knights originally entrusted with the protection of the decoder and a set of secret documents for which they are prepared to die.
I wanted to like this story but I just couldn’t.
Obviously hitching a ride on the coat tails of The Da Vinci Code, it didn’t even live up to the dubious literary merit of that populist work. Even the incredibly short chapters (with a few notable exceptions almost every scene gets a chapter of its own) couldn’t entice me to keep turning the pages. If I hadn’t been on holiday and stuck without any other reading material I would have tossed this one aside very early on. As it was I plugged on until the bitter end reading with the same fascination one has for a train wreck. Every time I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.
So what did I hate the most? It’s hard to overlook the two dimensional cut outs that were passing for characters, or to forget the incompetent and unbelievable romance subplot, but I think the ultimate turn off was the info dumps. Oh yes, he did his research on everything from horse branding to the colour of the Turkish coast guard boats and we were going to hear about it. Sure, sometimes some of the information was relevant but just dropping it in without relating it to the plot had my eyes glazing over. And I’m sorry but putting an info dump in quotation marks and finishing it off with "he said" doesn’t acceptably blend it into the story line. Not that this author often even went to that much trouble.
Good writing can carry even the thinnest plot. Poor writing can destroy a fantastic premise. I think you know where I place this one. Not recommended. Not recommended at all.-Lynn

Monday, October 8

The Dollmaker's Daughter - Abigail Padgett

Just before her phone rings in the middle of the night, social worker Bo Bradley wakes from a weird dream - about a cold, windowless room "filled with grief and anger and a terrible sense of waiting" that her artistic mind, already thinking about recreating it as a painting, was titled "In the Station of the Dead." Unlike her usual weird dreams, typically restrained and confined by her bipolar medication, Bo senses that this is a message. Being bipolar gives her insights, allows her to make connections others don't, but that perception can also be a subtle and enticing step toward mania.
The call is from Detective Dar Reinert, asking her to come down to the Goblin Market, a goth club on the beach - a fifteen-year-old known as Fianna has been found catatonic, clutching an old porcelain doll. And thus begins a complex journey for Bo, as she tries to help the obviously traumatised foster child avoid being admitted to a psych unit, while determining exactly what happened to her. There are a number of mysteries to solve - like why Janny (as Fianna as known outside the goth community) has been in the system for over a decade but has a new and nearly empty case file; what connection Bo's by-the-book supervisor Madge has to the case and why she's being uncharacteristically secretive; and how renowned doll maker Jasper Malcolm's hand-crafted, lifelike, poseable, collectible dolls, used in making realistic but legal pedophilic pornography, fit in.
Padgett once again beautifully conveys the frustration of a woman who risks being labelled every time she expresses an opinion or concern that those around her - not diagnosed with a mental illness - disagree with. It's bad enough when Madge does it, but when Bo's concerned boyfriend Andy LaMarche similarly uses code (like 'difficult' - "A word used to describe uncooperative children...") it makes her reassess their relationship.
The characters in Padgett's writing are subtly nuanced and vibrant - in addition to Janny, and Eva Broussard (Bo's unconventional and grounded psychiatrist), I particularly liked Andy's niece, Teless, sent from Louisiana to San Diego to get away from an unsuitable boyfriend. But all of them are layered and contrary, and it is to Padgett's credit that she is able to convey their complexity with an eloquent, lyric economy of description, always showing and never telling.
Like TV show NCIS (whose creator included a goth character who is not only a positive and contributing member of society but brilliant at her job, well rounded and interesting), she writes about goth culture as coherent and functional rather than peopled by macabre stock characters. The marginalised - the mentally ill, children, the poor - are centralised but not simplified or idealised; she weaves together Cajun, Native American and Celtic traditions so they have fluidity while maintaining their individuality, and she continues the journey's these characters began in Child of Silence while bringing in a new and involving main plot.
It's a real shame that Padgett has only written five Bo Bradley novels, and two about anthropologist Blue McCarron, though perhaps her writing would be less brilliant if she were more prolific. But I doubt it. - Alex

Sunday, October 7

Danger: Do Not Enter - Kerry Greenwood

Is the decrepit house at 46 Rosella St haunted? After Mr Mosel died a few weeks earlier mysterious lights have been seen in the house after dark, and the students at Penelope Thanatopoulos's school have been forbidden to enter the house on pain of expulsion.
Ben Thorpe would risk his life to determine the truth, so a little thing like that won't deter him from discovering of the house really is haunted. And Penelope senses that school mate Argent's freedom from her tyrannical stepmother is somehow tied up in the house as well.
There isn't anything I can say that will add to my mini-raves about the first two novels - the woman has a gift. In the very short time I've known them I have really developed great affection not only for Penelope and Ben but their families, and I hope Greenwood writes a longer novel about them. - Alex

Saturday, October 6

The Wandering Icon - Kerry Greenwood

In the second installment of this YA series Penelope and Benny are on the hunt for a icon, a painting of Saint Dionysus that has been stolen from Penelope's church. Yaiyai, her grandmother, is suspected by the congregation of having taken it and it's down to Penelope to clear her grandmother's good name.
Despite my intentions of eking out the small amount of unread Greenwood works I have, I was unable to hold back and had to go straight from The Three-Pronged Dagger to this, and I was not disappointed. In the Wandering Icon the reader unobtrusively learns about a variety of religious beliefs, is exposed to Greek culture, and has the joy of more of Ms Greenwood's gift. The mystery is surprisingly intricate, the motivation/s for the theft believable, and the characters plausible. - Alex

Friday, October 5

The Three-Pronged Dagger - Kerry Greenwood

Fourteen-year-old Penelope Thanatopoulos doesn't like schoolmate Benjamin Thorpe (the only thing worse than "Ben and Pen" is "Benny and Penny") but working together at the zoo has allowed her to see his positive attributes. Especially in comparison to bully Kevin Friend.
When Kevin is found in the seal pool, a mysterious three-pronged knife wound in his chest, the police home in on Ben. A martial arts student, he owns a three-pronged knife, that has traces of blood found on it. And when Kevin wakes in ICU he says that Ben did it. Penelope knows Ben's innocent - but can she prove it?
This YA mystery displays all the Greenwood hall-marks - the writing's adept and engaging, the characters are distinctive and three-dimensional, and the plot combines a number of well-integrated secondary plots alongside the primary mystery. - Alex

Thursday, October 4

My Three Husbands - Swan Adamson

Twenty-five year old Venus Gilroy is about to be married. For the third time.
She met Tremaynne - gorgeous, sexy, free-spirited environmental activist Tremaynne - at Bankruptcy Court and it was love at first sight. Unlike husbands number one (forger and embezzler) and two (meeting at a strip club, however nice the flowers it turns out he didn't sent backstage, was never likely to work out well), this time it's going to work. Venus can feel it.
Her dads, biological father John (an architect) and his partner Whitman are celebrating twenty years together by being DPed - legally entering a Domestic Partnership - three days earlier, and have offered to pay for Venus and Tremaynne's honeymoon at the dad-designed luxury Pine Mountain Lodge. There's just one hitch - they're honeymooning there, too.
Okay, and the fact that Tremaynne doesn't really fit in, that mom Carolee never really got over her husband leaving her for another man, Tremaynne's secret phone calls and the disappearance of Whitman's phone, the threat of eco-terrorism at the resort, Tremaynne's new herpes... these are just hiccups.
My Three Husbands combines almost all the things I least like in this genre. The heroine is unevolved, immature and witless. She launches from one allegedly daffy adventure to the next, never learning from the past, taking no responsibility for herself, and is willfully blind to the needs of others. We're supposed to put this, and her multiple marriages, down to the trauma of an unstable childhood, but it doesn't work. I didn't like her and I didn't care what happened to her. There are technicolour characters who add nothing to the plot (Carolee is the most significant of these, but Venus's admirer - whose interest is inexplicable - is another), and a largely irrelevant secondary plot that valiantly tries to inject the base note of a thriller but fails. There really is no hero, so at least we're spared the his-disdain-masks-his-deep-and-abiding-love plot line. And the title has nothing to do with the novel. Run, run away from anything else Ms Adamson pens. - Alex

Wednesday, October 3

The Secret of Lost Things - Sheridan Hay

When her mother dies, all Rosemary knows and expects of life is turned upside down. In no time she finds herself half a world away from the Tasmanian milliner's shop she grew up in, living in tiny hotel room in New York and working with a variety of odd people in the fabled Arcade, a treasure trove of rare and used books run by the strict and abrupt Mr Pike.
Rosemary is decorously pursued by albino store manager Walter Geist, but is half in love with Oscar, despite his unmistakable rejection of a personal relationship, and despite being warned off by motherly pre-op transsexual Pearl, the Arcade's cashier. When Walter, who is steadily losing his eye-sight, asks Rosemary to read him a letter, she becomes embroiled in a search for a lost novel by Herman Melville - the unpublished The Isle of the Cross.
There was just too much, and too little, for me in this novel. Every single character was quirky or odd or had a unique story that had to be told. At the same time I found the overall story arc uninviting and uninteresting. And this surprised me - after all, I love books, bookshops and writing. But for some reason, perhaps the Literary aspects of the writing, I wasn't drawn in. On the other hand, one more Melville reference (after last month's Confidence Woman) and I'll start seeing it as a Sign, though for what I have no idea. - Alex

Tuesday, October 2

The Vivero Letter - Desmond Bagley

After overhearing his girlfriend describe him as an anonymous little grey man who would do until the real thing came along, accountant Jeremy Wheale is already predisposed to assess his life. Arriving at the family farm, owned by Wheale's for over four hundred years, Jemmy finds the body of a stranger in the drive and that of his beloved older brother in the kitchen.
Bob was shot by a small-time American gangster, working for a Mafia boss, over a gold filigree tray that has been in the family for centuries. Now the object of keen interest, and the cause of his brother's murder, the tray takes Jemmy to South America on a hunt for a lost Mayan city and a treasure trove of gold.
This is one of my favourite Bagley novels, a phrase I tend to use about each one! As usual the story is built around a familiar framework - a pleasant, ordinary, fundamentally decent but sometimes flawed man is thrust into an unfamiliar and challenging environment and triumphs, finding love along the way. The novels are necessarily dated (The Vivero Letter was published 40 years ago, so mentions of COBOL and ALGOL are as typical of the time as the next reference to John Lennon in the recording studio) but none the less engrossing for that.
Bagley was able to combine great characters with thrilling plots and throw in information in a Greenwood-esque way, so that though it's obvious he did his research, the reader isn't barraged or hit over the head with it.
When rereading these novels I realise how much information I've retained from his work. When I watched "Mythbusters" I already knew that water stops bullets, because Jemmy is safe diving in a cenote, and I could pronounce some of the towns my brother visited in South America because I knew Uaxuanoc was pronounced Wash-wanoc. But mostly I'm reminded of how much I enjoy the sheer pleasure of his prose. - Alex

Monday, October 1

Sunstroke - Jesse Kellerman

When an earthquake hits California, Gloria Mendez isn't at work like usual. Her boss Carl has gone to Mexico and he insisted she take some time off, too. But she has to make sure everything's okay, which is when she finds a message from Carl. It's hard to understand, between the poor cell signal and tape damage, but it sounds like he's been in an accident in Mexico.
Her attempts to get the Californian or Mexican authorities to help are fruitless - they can't understand her desperation and keep acting as though she's a secretary. They don't understand that Gloria and Carl had an unspoken understanding, tantamount to - but crucially not - a relationship.
Gloria finds her way to the tiny, half-deserted town of Aqua Vivas, increasingly desperate to find Carl. And in the process of finding out what happened to Carl, and why, Gloria begins to learn about herself.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from Kellerman's debut novel. As previously noted, I enjoy his mother's mysteries somewhat more than those of his father, and perhaps I was expecting something of a blend of the two which, in retrospect, was insulting. Kellerman junior has a style all his own.
The novel combines Gloria's search with reflections on her life to date - her Mexican mother's traumatic death, the barrio decline of her brother, her unhappy marriage, her increasingly restrictive life. And as the story of Carl intricately unfolds, Kellerman manages to avoid predictability in favour of depth.
Though this is not a plot-driven thriller - the pace is character-led, the description evocative, the themes complex - but the mystery at the heart of the novel kept me reading. And threaded throughout the text is a subtle stream of sly humour that was masterfully done. A most impressive debut, I've already reserved his next novel. - Alex