Friday, November 30

A Question of Death – Kerry Greenwood

This sumptuous collection is a baker’s dozen of Phryne Fisher short stories, spanning the breadth of her existence thus far. In each the characters of Phryne and, to a lesser extent, her entourage are reproduced in exquisite miniature.
With her usual egalitarian panache, Phryne manages to restore an inheritance from a lust-blinded pater, reunite long-lost lovers, protect innocent young women from the unwanted and forceful advances of ruthless men, prevent a terrified manager from commiting murder, and defend the innocent from unwarranted suspicion. All this while looking delightful, dancing gaily (though not always with partners as adept as one might wish), and finding the odd enticing young lad with whom to sport.
Interleaved with the stories, which are beautifully illustrated, are recipes for cocktails and dishes that have appeared in the stories, and the occasional piece of advice from the admirable protagonist – like “Six ways to discourage the overly enthusiastic suitor.” This is a book that would be best enjoyed dipped in to from time to time, each morsel savoured, each aspect relished. Or you can do as I did, and greedily gulp the whole thing down in the space of an afternoon, all the while promising to put the book down. After just one more. - Alex

Thursday, November 29

The Long Walk – Kerry Greenwood

Twelve-year-old Isabel Wyatt’s the oldest, and with her dad away building the Great Ocean Road, and her mother cleaning rich people’s houses in between the other work, it falls to Isa to take care of the younger children, help around the house, go to the welfare lady for food vouchers, take in laundry, and sew for Madame in Collins Street. Johnno has two paper routes, but he’s only ten and not too reliable around the house; five-year-old Rosie keeps the chooks, and Billy the baby’s too little to help at all. But they’re managing. Somehow. But although summer’s coming, and that means no more scratchy newspaper for blankets, the Great Depression’s starting to hit harder than ever.
When Isa’s mum makes her promise that, whatever happens, she’ll keep the children together, she has no way of knowing that only days later she’ll fall from a ladder cleaning a rich woman’s picture rails. Hospital’s bad enough – Isa has to beg a nightgown off snooty Mrs Auburn because mum’s is only a rag, and the fare to the hospital would almost break the bank, let alone the hospital fees. But when her mother’s diagnosed with the dreaded tuberculosis, often fatal and treated with months of rest far away in the country, and a telegram fails to find her father, the authorities try to separate Isa from her brothers and sister.
In desperation, Isa makes up an aunt on her father’s side, who lives in Apollo Bay. Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, they have train tickets to Colac. Armed with a pram, a thermos and a tarpaulin, Isa sets off, siblings in tow, on the long, arduous trek to track down her father.
I’ve avoided Greenwood for a little while, after the wrenching disappointment of Waleroad, but all is wholly forgiven! As always, the historical detail is not only meticulously researched but seamlessly woven into the plot, so that I came away knowing more about the period (and hoping Phryne will live forever in the glorious twenties) without being dumped on. Isa is plucky and resourceful, with a very strong sense of responsibility, though wholly human.
For me this story was as much about humanity in general – exemplified by the people who alternately help and hinder the journey – as it was about Isa herself. The ending was a little too neat, though well supported, and acceptable giving the genre and target audience. I found it satisfying, too! A lovely sense of time and place, Greenwood mercifully delivers again. - Alex

Wednesday, November 28

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby

Toward the end of 2003, Hornby was commissioned to write a monthly column for Believer magazine about his reading, and this volume comprises two years worth of contributions. An otherwise extremely liberal and catholic publication, the Believer has one overarching editorial principle, which Hornby characterises as “thou shalt not slag anyone off.” Fine in theory, but more difficult when Hornby read books he didn’t like; they’re reviewed incognito, like “Unnameable comedy thriller – Anonymous” but Hornby found the experience useful, as he began reading fewer books he didn’t like.
Each column begins with a list of books bought during the month and books read, and the writing is as much about him as it is about the literature. On occasion there’s an extract from his favourite book of the month. The process of reflection has made Hornby more aware of connections between books, spates of similar themes, and the limitations of his reading palate (though not nearly as limited as mine – though not writing about non-fiction I read for school, I’m nonetheless a little self-conscious about the vast preponderance of fiction and the relatively small range of genres I’ve covered).
This is an evil book that must be avoided if you have anything else you need to be doing – since beginning this blog a year ago I have started the (previously deplored) practice of turning over a teeny corner of pages I want to use during the review: quotes that illustrate the writing, salient plot points I want to include, amusing lines and set ups, hideous inconsistencies…
Never have I bent so many corners of a book I loved – an average of one every sixteen or so pages. Most of these are for books I now want to read, but some are because they encapsulate the kind of writing I would like these reviews to be. Hornby’s writing is funny, reflective, deft, literate and modest. And addictive – I spent most of this morning telling myself I’d only read this column, then move on, only to promise myself just one more, until the entire book was read.
He has a similar attitude to me about literary pretension, and about literature (though he reads swathes more of it, and as a result I now want to read Chekov and Dickens, among others), and I so identified with some of his observations that I felt as though I was reading what I’d produce if only I were better (and older, married, a parent, masculine, British and an author).
For example, when he read Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books, he discovered the following: “the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for me.”
Hornby’s response? “That’s me! And you, probably! That’s us! ’Thousands of unread books!’ ‘Truly cultured!’” Where he surpasses my response is that this then prompts him to not only reflect of what causes him to buy books that he known he’ll almost certainly never read but to then articulate this beautiful idea:
“But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”
I’ll be keeping The Complete Polysyllabic Spree in my reference section so that, after I read any of his recommendations, I can see if I think what he thought. Watch for Hornby quotes in the coming months. And buy this book. – Alex

NB For another take on book lists (in this case 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Boxall), read this New York Times review, by William Grimes

Tuesday, November 27

Ruby Holler – Sharon Creech

Twins Florida and Dallas Carter have been at the Boxton Creek Home longer than any of the other kids – for their whole lives, just about, unless you count all those lovely, lovely people who took them home. And brought them right back.
Because Florida and Dallas should know all the rules of the Home, having been there longer than any of the other kids, you’d think they’d be able to stay out of the punishment cellar, which is full of spiders and dust. But there are so many rules, and sometimes feet want to run and voices need to shout. All they really want to do is get on the night train that comes through Boxton. Just leave.
When Florida and Dallas get summoned to Mr Trepid’s office, they just know this is going to be another horrible experience. These two old people are going to make them dig wells or something. But Sairie and Tiller Morey aren’t like the other foster parents, and Ruby Holler isn’t like anywhere else they’ve ever been – it’s green, and fragrant, and there’s always enough food. Florida and Dallas are as prone to making stupid mistakes as they ever were, and even though the Morey’s don’t seem to be punishing people, you never can be sure.
This instant children’s classic beautifully captures the personalities of all the main characters, the contrast between Before and After, the petty frustrations of the Home’s ‘care givers’, and the transformative effect of love and trust. It would have been easy for Creech to make this unrealistic and saccharine, and to a degree the plot’s predictable enough. But Sairie and Tiller are delightful, Tiller’s far from perfect, and they harmonise beautifully with the children’s characters. This was a heart-warming and up-lifting novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. - Alex

Monday, November 26

The Gate to Women's Country - Sheri S Tepper

Three centuries the world as we know it perished in an act known as the convulsion; it rendered swathes of the country uninhabitable. As a result, society has evolved into parallel cultures – women and children live in walled towns, where they raise livestock and grow plants, develop skills and arts, practice medicine and science, and maintain the knowledge that was almost lost. Men guard the towns, protecting them from attack from the garrisons of other townships and from raids by those who live outside Women’s Country. Several times a year the women host a carnival, and the men enter the town to catch up with family and carouse. The Council, who run the town, keep track of who’s fathered which children, and at age five boys are handed over to their warrior fathers to be raised as men. For the next ten years they only see their female kin during carnivals, and at age fifteen they have to decide – repudiate their mothers and stay a warrior, or return to the town as a servitor. The servitors are usually deployed to other towns, away from their warrior former brothers, and are seen as something less than men.
The book opens when Stavia has to make her way to the garrison, to learn whether her fifteen-year-old son Dawid will come home or stay a warrior; he choses to stay, and though he has another ten years to make his final decision (the warriors are not allowed to engage in battle until they are twenty-five, at which time they may no longer return to live in Women’s Country), she knows it is less likely now.
Like all the women, though proud of her son, she grieves for the lost sons, brothers and lovers, and the loss of Dawid brings back the long ago day she escorted her mother and sister when her baby brother Jerby turned five.
The novel switches between Stavia as an adult, and her progress from the day they gave back Jerby through her adolescence and maturation to womanhood. And threaded throughout is the millennia-old pre-convulsion play the women perform every year, Iphigenia at Ilium, about Helen of Troy. A tragedy treated as a comedy, the play illustrates not only the contrast between pre- and post-convulsion mores but also the hidden workings of this new society.
On my first reading of The Gate to Women’s Country, almost twenty years ago, I thought the play extracts were a waste of time, but on subsequent rereading (this is perhaps the fifth) I see the play adds texture and depth to the novel as a whole.
Tepper writes feminist fantasy, which sounds as though it would be earnest and unappealing. In fact the writing, unquestionably feminist and women-centric, is engaging, thought-provoking and interesting. The underlying ideology informs the plot rather than detracting from it, and there’s no gender divide – some female characters are stupid, thoughtless, materialistic, lazy, and some male characters are selfless, insightful, tender and valuable.
This novel views the future with cautious hope, and shines a light on the misogyny and imbalance in our current culture. Tepper is a gifted and deft writer and if you’re interested this is an excellent introduction to her work. – Alex

Sunday, November 25

The Risen Empire – Scott Westerfeld

Desperate to save his beloved younger sister from a fatal disease, the Emperor discovered a form of immortality. Sixteen hundred years later, the Emperor reigns over the Eighty Worlds, offering his military and the social elite the promise of Rising after death to life forever. It’s known that the Risen are not precisely the same as the living – they’re grey, dispassionate, and generally uninterested in human affairs, but they endure. Central to the culture of the Eighty Worlds is the Reason, the Child Empress, forever eight, forever held dear.
Territory in the universe is precious, and the Eighty Worlds are at war. Their greatest enemy, the Rix, is a true threat. The Eighty Worlds has held its own until the day the Rix take the Child Empress hostage. And though Captain Laurent Zai effects a rescue, he is too late – not only to save the Reason, but also too late to protect a secret that has the power to shatter the Eighty Worlds and bring down the Emperor. As Laurent tries to balance his honour with his desire to live, he discovers treachery at a level he never believed possible. His rejection of the suicide expected of one who fails is enhanced by his relationship with far-distant Pink senator Nara Oxham, who believes the dead should stay dead, that Risen stifle humanity’s progress. Nara’s newly appointed to the Emperor’s War Council, and is facing a conflict of her own. And in the polar snow a Rix soldier breaths life into a woman used by as it needed by her society then abandoned her in her time of need.
There are a number of really interesting elements here – intelligent houses, sentient machines, notions of honour and service, nanotech, the effect of living leaders extending their lives by using chemical hibernation for months on end, the central idea of the Risen, how immortality affects society, and the societal effect of a Great Lie. I find many novels around life on military space craft fascinating, and I liked the sadly under explored position of Nara as a minority party member, advocating a natural life span in the face of a culture based on a millennia and a half of Risen ideology.
But the battle scenes are confusing and tediously lengthy, the societal problem of immortality is more interestingly and convincingly explored by Elizabeth Moon (see her Serrano series), and I just didn’t care.
This volume combines two novels, The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, and maybe that was part of the problem. It felt like I was reading it forever – days stretched on and on, as it became The Book That Had No End and I had to read other books in between to get a break. There was the occasional light touch – I particularly liked the note on imperial measurements, as determined by the Emperor, which (after an explanation of lengths of time and distance and gravity) concludes, “the Emperor has decreed that the speed of light shall remain as nature has provided.”
But lightness was the exception – for the most part I found this ponderous, the heaviest of hard SF. I found this particularly disappointing, as I’m a fan of Westerfeld’s fantasy, from Peeps and Last Days to So Yesterday and the long-awaited (for me - for ages I could only find the first part but now I use The Library) the Midnighters trilogy. Critically well received, The Risen Empire is a fallen soufflé for me. - Alex

Friday, November 23

Exit Strategy – Kelley Armstrong

Nadia Stafford was never going to be anything but a cop. She grew up with a father and uncles on the force, and her first ride in a sirens-blazing squad car was when she was three. But after she shot a child-killer – he was reaching in his pocket, but he wasn’t armed, and everyone knew that was a pretext – the Mounties made it clear Nadia had to find another job.
Much as she loves running a lodge (with a largely cop clientele) that offers extreme adventures, the economic downturn meant that a couple of years ago it looked like Nadia would be yet another failed small business owner. That was before she was covertly approached about a job as a contract killer. The odd work on the side, only ever killing Mafioso, and only ever over the border, has kept her business in the black, and she’s very, very careful.
Her contact, Jack, is also very careful. So when he approaches her, lodge full of police, she knows it’s important. There’s a serial killer on the loose, who seems to be killing randomly and with varying techniques, and in the US a rumour’s started that he’s a hit man. Concerned that this will bring the law down on them, too, a group of concerned professionals are looking to get the Helter Skelter Killer before the FBI does, and Jack wants Nadia to join them.
This is a departure for Armstrong, better known for her interlinked supernatural novels. The story is told primarily from Nadia’s first-person perspective, but the first few chapters, and others throughout the text, are third person from the killer’s point of view, and at least one is that of an FBI agent. Nadia’s motivation is consistent, sympathetic, and established early in the novel, and the character is not uninteresting. There is intrigue in the form of other assassins, including the enigmatic Jack, fellow law-enforcement/hit man Quinn, and the potentially untrustworthy Evelyn, now retired and definitely with her own agenda. There’s sexual tension on two fronts, plenty of action, and vivid description. But I didn’t really care about any of it, and despite my best efforts kept comparing it to the superior Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitehead series. If this was Armstrong’s first outing I’d probably give Nadia’s next excursion (for this is most definitely the first in a series) a burl, but she’s an established writer and I think this is as good as it’ll get. - Alex

Thursday, November 22

Three Men and a Boat - Jerome K Jerome

J. (our narrator) and his friends George and Harris, to say nothing of the dog, journey up the Thames for a glorious holiday in mid-summer. Well provisioned,and with some experience of boating, they are nonetheless unprepared for a veritable cavalcade of misadventures - tow ropes that coil wilfully, confounded steam launches, and unopenable tins of pineapple.
This is my first reading of Three Men and a Boat; I was initially attracted, many years ago, by the author's name, but took it no further. Last year I read Connie Willis's lovely To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was inspired by the classic, and which inspired me to read a book I've since discovered is one of my mother's favourites.
Though first published over a century and a quarter ago, this classic novel of the late 1880's has weathered well, chiefly thanks to the timeless voice of J., whose dry observation on human nature illustrate how little people have changed, for all the change in our way of life. As I was reading it I (as is my wont of late) flagged passages that I might use to illustrate the style and voice of the writing. But Jerome's writing is all of a piece, so that rather than identifying a particular line or phrase, the enjoyment comes from a whole scene and from the characters. Although I do have one gem to offer: "That's Harris all over - so ready to take the burden of everything himself, and put it on other people's shoulders."
I did have two small issues - the first is that the novel is to short; the second was the annotation in my edition, by a Jeremy Lewis, who picked picayune things to comment on (like "We played at penny nap half the afternoon" - says Lewis "penny nap is a card game", something I was able to pick up from the context, but thanks anyway). Still, one can avoid end notes, and next time I visit the river, circa 1889, I will do just that. - Alex

Wednesday, November 21

Others See Us - William Sleator

Every year sixteen-year-old Jared’s mother’s family spend the summer together at his grandmother’s house by the beach. Last year, he began to notice the charms of his gorgeous cousin Annelise, and the closer summer’s neared, the more he’s thought about her, and written about her in his secret journal. As though to add insult to injury, this year his parents decided to take him to Europe and a whole month was wasted, but July’s finally arrived, and missing Grandma’s Fourth of July cookout isn’t an option.
Each family has a cottage, and Jared has a routine for the first day – first he hides his journal under a loose floorboard (carefully nailed down at the end of summer, so it won’t be fixed by the caretakers), then he goes for a long bike ride. Eager as he is to see Annelise, who last year confessed she, too, kept a journal, Jared sticks to his routine. When the brakes on his bike fail, Jared ends up in the swamp, which has been contaminated by industrial run-off from the now-closed mill, and is late to lunch.
Initially still stunned by the noxious dip, and excited about seeing Annelise again, it takes Jared some time to realise that he can read his family’s minds. Annelise is thrilled to see him, five-year-old Amy is single-minded in her determination to elude supervision and go into the water, eighteen-year-old Lindie’s jealous that she’s fat and ugly when Annelise is so radiant and popular (and she’s stressed about a secret), and Jared’s mother and her sisters don’t like each other at all.
And then Jared begins to discover that all is not as it seems – his say-whatever-she-thinks grandmother’s hiding something, Lindie has hidden depths, and Annelise is far from the lovely creature they all believe her to be. When Jared discovers his grandmother has also fallen into the swamp he knows she can read minds too, and then she enlists him in a plot that Jared’s far too naïve to see the end point of.
Sleater writes great fantasy – his adolescent protagonists are spirited, imperfect and believable, his plots are novel and fresh, and the resolutions always give pause for thought (particularly in his classic, The House of Stairs). Though I prefer his full-length novels, his short stories are also engaging and twist with most satisfying unexpectedness, and I’ve never finished a novel of his disappointed. This was my second reading of Others See Us, the first about ten years ago, and it was just as crisp, convincing and involving when I knew what was coming. - Alex

Tuesday, November 20

The Freedom Trap - Desmond Bagley

South African Joseph Rearden is a petty thief, in London for one big job – stealing a delivery of diamonds. The heist goes off without a hitch, and Reardon’s meticulously planned his escape route and alibi, but the police are tipped off, and it can only have been by the man behind it, Mackintosh, who now has the diamonds and is safely away. In the midst of a media furore about lenient jail terms, with Reardon unprepared to squeal on Mackintosh, and because of the value of the diamonds, Reardon’s sentenced to twenty years.
A high-risk prisoner, Rearden’s in the same jail as Russian spy Slade, serving forty-two years for espionage. I’m reluctant to continue the plot summation because there’s a significant twist about halfway in that’s much more fun for not seeing it coming. Which means avoiding the blurb, at least on my copy, which gives it away in the second sentence. Suffice it to say, The Freedom Trap retains all the hallmarks of a Bagley book – great plotting, unique and fully realised characters, internal consistency, light sprinklings of meticulously-researched fact, a secondary romance with a strong and independent woman, and a truly satisfying but believable conclusion.
NB: I’ve listed this as a sequel because of Slade, who we first met in Running Blind, but he’s the only character to cross over, and this is very much Rearden’s story. - Alex

Monday, November 19

Lust – Geoff Ryman

Michael Blasco’s life is tranquil, predictable and okay. He’s quite excited about the research he’s begun, looking at the effects of imprinting on day-old chicks (as long as the animal rights people don’t find out), his relationship with would-be artist Philip is fifteen year old and seems much as it ever was, and his forays into anonymous sex fizzle but not in any new way.
Michael’s mildly disappointed when cherubic Tony the trainer at his gym announces his engagement – Michael always mildly fancied him, and the news spurs him on to yet another uneventful bathhouse trip. So when Michael sees Tony on the same platform at Waterloo station he’s surprised and a little piqued – in no mood for witnessing happiness and joy, all Michael really wants is to see Tony’s penis. He’s astonished when the Cherub pull down his tracksuit pants and boxers, rolls onto his back, and asks Michael if he “wants a piece.”
At first frankly flabbergasted, Michael discovers that he has the ability to bring to life a replica of any person he fancies, and they fancy him. Michael experiments with his newfound gift; from current fantasies to the objects of lust of his adolescence (Johnny Weismuller, Alexander the Great, Picasso) and even his younger self, it seems the only limitation is Michael’s imagination. And as he does so, Michael works through the end of his unhealthy, unequal relationship with Philip, and the traumatic event of his youth that forever tainted his sexuality.
When I was away a couple of months ago I discovered Ryman at a bookshop at Heathrow, and was surprised I hadn’t come across him before. I decided to hold off for the time being, as I was (and am), on a strict book budget, though it’s become a little flabby in the last few days. But I digress. I was, therefore, very pleased to discover that I actually had come across Ryman previously, though not read him, when I found Lust in an unopened box of unread books – who knows what other treasures dwell in the rest of the boxes!
It’s been a week since I finished Lust, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. The premise was interesting and the central characters (Michael, Philip and Philip’s new love, Henry) were developed. Of particular note was the unfolding of the underlying psychological aspects - where Michael’s problems stem from, and the unexpected identity of Henry. Yet despite this I didn’t really feel connected to the story, nor did I feel any great sense of resolution or satisfaction at the end. I’ll certainly try another Ryman novel (I’m considering Was, the blurb of which is similarly intriguing), but library not purchase. - Alex

Sunday, November 18

Bahama Crisis – Desmond Bagley

White Bahamian Tom Mangan has an idyllic life – a truly happy marriage, two radiant daughters, and a successful hotel group in a growing tourist market. When Billy Cunningham, a friend from Harvard Business School and one of the Texan Cunninghams, comes to visit, it looks as though Tom’s career dreams are truly reaching fruition. But then a routine trip to visit her parents in Miami turns everything upside down when Tom’s wife Julie and older daughter Sue fail to arrive. Tom knows the boat was sound, and he has total confidence in skipper Pete Albury but, though the sea was clam and there have been no reports of accidents, he knows something terrible’s happened. Then Sue’s body’s found in shallow water, half way to the States.
Motivated by the needs of his younger daughter, Karen, Tom throws himself back into work, but the loss of Lucayan Girl and half his family is only the beginning – the Bahaman tourism industry is beset with crisis after crisis, from a devastating outbreak of the newly-discovered Legionella to hotel fires, street riots and rumours of political unrest. When Billy’s cousin Debbie brings him photos developed from film Sue took on the day of the accident he discovers a picture of the unknown crewman Pete hired for the trip. And when he’s identified, still alive when all others perished, Tom knows it was more than just an accident.
Bahama Crisis is tautly plotted and beautifully written. It’s so difficult for me to convey, especially as I’ve tried before, the satisfying and absorbing quality of Bagley’s writing, and his ability to reuse common elements from book to book without repetition or dullness. But, like an inspired chef with flour, eggs and butter, he combines flawed but strong male protagonists and spirited heroines with varied locales, action and romance into something new every time. Bagley manages to describe enough detail for clarity without bogging the reader down with unnecessary detail, and uses sparingly deft touches to convey what must be thoroughly researched information. Almost all the books are written in the first person, and yet each hero has a clear and distinct voice as well as persona. I’m rationing myself as I make my way through the complete works, but after each disappointing foray into another writer I find myself drawn to that which is proven and brilliant. In other words, Bagley. - Alex

Saturday, November 17

Sims - F Paul Wilson

It’s the near future, and industry has been revolutionised by the creation of the perfect worker – able to communicate in words, intelligent enough to follow relatively complex orders, dexterous enough to operate fiddly machinery designed for people, but designed to be non-aggressive, unable to independently reproduce, and legally classified as property, SimGen’s chimp-human hybrids known as Sims (simians) are ideal. Despite some initial resistance, Sims are now used throughout the Western world, in a variety of roles, and they’ve propelled SimGen into the stratosphere because they’re never sold, only leased.
When labour lawyer Patrick Sullivan, fresh from a reluctant but obligatory round of golf, is approached by a Sim requesting Sullivan help form a union, he is inspired more by a desire to irritate the head of the club’s membership committee, who he’s sure voted against his application. As pressure mounts, and inspired to look good to Animal Welfare officer Romy Cadman (who is in turn being directed by the shadowy Zero, a man with an agenda of his own), Sullivan digs his heels in, and in the process begins the destruction of Sim Gen. But there are wheels within wheels, and little is as it appears.
This review is being written some time after the reading, though posted in the section when it was read (because I’m more interested in tracking when I read what than I am in when I got around to reviewing – in this case, well over a month later). And as I reflected on the book while I wrote the review (this part being written last though sited above the rest of the review, because the section at the end will be robbed of its impact if I put this last) I was struck harder by the influence of Sims than I was when I finished it.
This is an absorbing and thought-provoking novel that raises questions about what it means to be human, where the licensing of the genome is taking us, and the power of corporations and corporate money. Wilson is able to present these issues in an entertaining way, neatly combining plot with philosophy and activism. The characters are particularly well developed, and almost all of them experience a believable growth arc through the course of the book. The plot is intricate without being so Machiavellian that it’s hard to follow, and there are neat twists that don’t turn things on their head so much as deepen the subtlety and depth of the novel.
I was frequently reminded of Michael Crichton’s Next while reading Sims – both works explore similar aspects of the gene tech revolution: what happens when corporations patent naturally-occurring genes, how did it happen that they could own them, who owns chimeral creations, where do and where should we draw the line between human and non-human, and what makes us human? Crichton’s technique was to draw together a number of subplots into one cohesive picture of the near future. In contrast Wilson focuses on one battle to illustrate his central thesis. What raises Wilson’s work above the best-seller’s contribution is that it’s heart is about ethics and right; while Crichton admittedly incorporated this as an element, his focus was more on the wrongs done to individuals in order to benefit corporations, on the impact on humanity of this emerging technology. Wilson asks what good humanity is if it makes the world worse for our fellow creatures. It’s unfortunate that the work of the admittedly-admirable Crichton, which covers more ground less thoroughly, will have so much greater a readership than this undoubtedly better written, plotted and characterised novel. - Alex

Friday, November 16

Panic - Jeff Abbott

Evan Casher's life is pretty close to perfect - his career as a documentary film maker's taking off and he's waking from a passionate night with the girl he told only last night that he loved. Carrie's gone when he wakes, but there's a note saying she'll be back. More urgent, though, is the call that woke him - it's his usually calm photographer mother (computer consultant dad's in Australia for work), insistent that he drive the two-and-a-half hour trip from Houston to Austin but unwilling to explain anything except that he has to leave. Now.
Evan takes a few moments to gather some things for the trip, leaves Carrie a note, and spends the next three hours hoping for a call from his girlfriend, returning his love, or his mother, explaining what the big mystery is. After a brief detour to buy some of his mother's favourite peach pastries, Evan arrives at his childhood home, only to discover the murdered body of his mother. Before he has time to process the shock, he's assaulted himself, and falls unconscious. Nothing in his life is what he thought it was.
Nothing's very interesting, either. Evan lurches reactively from one crisis to another, but fails to develop in any significant way. His girlfriend is really a plant, but is so two-dimensional I really didn't care. In fact, the hackneyed plot and lack of narrative evolution (one tense scene after another, with no real progress toward resolution) had me, for the second time in as many months, leave the book half way through a chapter. At least I made it halfway through the book this time. - Alex

Thursday, November 15

Vicious Circle – Mike Carey

Felix Castor has a unique gift - he can not only see ghosts, he can cause them to leave this plane thorough music. He earns his living piping away the troubled dead, but is still haunted (so to speak) by his one horrendous failure, which trapped a good friend in a psychiatric hospital, irrevocably entangled with and possessed by a demon.
When he's asked by a pair of bereft parents to find the ghost of their daughter (rather than the more usual pleas from parents hoping their child isn't actually dead), it seems like a relatively straightforward, albeit strange, case. But Castor quickly finds himself at odds with the police, in conflict with a shady fellow exorcist, and embroiled in a plot to liberate one of the worst demons extant (a word that I, til this very minute, always thought was 'exactant').
An interesting spin on the now-well-trodden field that is paranormal genre, this is a sequel to The Devil You Know, which I quite enjoyed. However, I found Vicious Circle a little too baroque and convoluted. Perhaps I was having a dim couple of days, perhaps I've just overindulged in the genre of late, and the fact that it is now over a week since I read it doesn't help, but rather than having a clear picture of the plot and the characters I have a melange of wheels within wheels, a tin whistle, ghostly girls, possessed young men, and pissed off coppers.
There were a few nice touches ("How do you spell 'Peace'?" "Like the kind you've got to give a chance to."), but also a little too much of the scene-setting journey detail I'm growing to seriously hate ("I drove south down Wood Lane, vaguely intending to cut down Hammersmith and Fulham and cross the river at Battersea...").
I'll probably give Carey another go, but only if the library, rather than Reader's Feast, have it in stock. - Alex

Wednesday, November 14

Never the Bride - Paul Magrs

On the surface Brenda seems straightforward enough – an older woman who likes everything just so, she came to the sleepy seaside town of Whitby to run a B&B. She struck up a friendship with neighbour Effie, who runs an antique store called “Who’d Want This?” (a title Brenda thinks is most off-putting), and they enjoy the occasional fish dinner at Cod Almighty, and pie-and-peas night at the Christmas Hotel, where every day is Christmas Day.
But all is not as it seems in Whitby, and nor is Brenda. A freakish misfit who’s lived longer than any human possibly could have, her father tried to kill her within minutes of her life beginning and she lost her one chance at love almost two centuries ago. On the run from MIAOW (the Ministry of Incursions and other Wonders), Brenda has long become accustomed to her lot, but her experiences have given her eye for the bizarre, and there are many odd happenings in Whitby – from the beauty parlour that creates truly astonishing transformations, at an enormous cost, through unusually polite B&B guests hiding secrets of their own, to missing elves from the Christmas Hotel. And right in the thick of it are Brenda and Effie.
The layout of this novel is unusual – each event has its own chapter, with small references to the event in subsequent sections, almost as though the book is a collection of related short stories. The writing is adept and the characters are individualised, but I didn’t find myself engrossed in the plot or captured by the protagonists. There’s a sequel out, and possibly more in the works, but I don’t feel a great need to pursue the series further. It was a benign read that I don’t regret, but have no need to repeat. - Alex

Tuesday, November 13

Whaleroad - Kerry Greenwood

This is the first of the Three Days novels, and is told predominantly from the third person perspective of Alain Beastfriend, a fourteen year-old telepath who, asked to try to help an untamed telepath who’s broadcasting distress.
Tyrrell could not have come from a more different world – in secret communication with the Dolphin, a collective community, she was orphaned and is now the maturing child of a littoral group living on rafts strapped together and headed by the Man. Together Tyrrell and Alain becomes vital in preventing a takeover of Thorngard.
Once upon a time Thorngard was the Queenscliff home of a group of Creative Anachronism players, who maintained their speech and dress in the first few years after the Fire. By the time they realised that the changes in the world were going to last these habits had become second nature, and part of the culture of the children.
It is most distressing to me to have to write that I didn’t enjoy this novel at all. The world building wasn’t as coherent and consistent as I’ve come to expect, the characters didn’t grip me at all, and the plot was thin and uninvolving.
Granted, I was a little tired when I was finishing up Whaleroad, but I was unimpressed from the first page. Had it been written by anyone else I don’t think I would even have finished. However, as is obvious from our other Greenwood reviews, Lynn and I love this author with something akin to blind adoration. I suppose I should be glad to discover that I’m not actually blind, but it’s still disappointing. – Alex

Monday, November 12

The Maria Korp Case - Carly Crawford

In February 2005 a conservative Melbourne mother of two (an adult daughter from her first marriage, and a young son from her second) was reported missing by her husband. Four days later her body was found in the boot of her car, parked outside the Shrine of Remembrance - from the length of time missing, the fact that it was high summer, and the smell of decomposition, the police who opened the boot thought she was dead. Until she took a breath.
Rushed to hospital, Maria Korp was treated in ICU until doctors determined that she was irrevocably brain damaged to the point that she would never achieve any meaningful function. She was then discharged to a ward, breathing through a tube in her throat and fed through a tube in her abdomen, until the state's Public Advocate determined that feeding be discontinued, and Maria died on August 5th. As hospital staff tended her body, the police investigated what happened, and a tawdry tale emerged. Maria's husband, Joe, allegedly elicited his girlfriend, Tania Herman, to strangle Maria and dump her body. Though Joe Korp denied that he was involved, the evidence was fairly compelling. However he never stood trial, committing suicide by hanging (very possibly by accident) on the evening of his wife's funeral.
The story obviously has a number of titillating elements, I was more interested in the ethical dilemmas raised by the case. I also have a connection with the case, and was interested in how the story was handled by Crawford, a Herald Sun reporter.
She's clearly done a lot of research - there are quotes and descriptions of events in laborious detail, even when this adds little to the text, and she certainly gets the personality of Joe Korp - unquestionably the central character - across convincingly. I shouldn't have expected much from a tabloid journalist, but I did. From the very first paragraph the writing was overblown and dramatic:
... although the calendar read summer, autumn's precocious chill had driven most people indoors...

(Which, incidentally, it hadn't.)
The medical detail at times reads as though Crawford was present ("A ghastly array of tubes protruded from her mouth and throat"), which she was not; although the decision making of the Public Advocate is discussed, and contextualised in terms of recent relevant ethical issues (like the then-recent death of Terri Schiavo), this comprised only a small portion of the book. I appreciate that this is not necessarily of general interest, but there were huge swathes of journals reproduced, as well as minute discussion of barely-tangential material included, so it's not as though the whole thing was cut down to bare bones. What was missing in depth and resonance was made up for by insinuation, strained metaphor -
The Korp's... home was a fitting symbol of Joe and Maria's empty relationship. It looked good on the outside, but on the inside it was devoid of genuine warmth

- and hyperbole: "an indulgent spa bath", "Gust speaks quicker than a sinner at confession", "the storm of betrayal that was about to come thundering down" and more in similar vein.
In fact the tone was the hardest thing - I skimmed through it as quickly as I could, because the writing - jarring, prurient and florid - was almost painful:

For months death danced with Maria in an ugly, languid waltz. It courted her like a smitten schoolboy for a whole semester. It teased her in the playground. blocked her airway as she lay in hospital... But death gnawed through her tenacity. Beguiling, determined and with fate on its side, it prepared its reluctant partner for the last act.
Ugh. Ugh. ugh, ugh. If you're interested in the case you'll learn more from the transcript of the ABC's excellent episode of The Law Report. - Alex

Saturday, November 10

After Hamelin

During the night before she turns eleven, a landmark birthday, Penelope inexplicably loses her hearing. Although a tragedy, this ends up being a blessing when Penelope and the blind Alloway, her harpist maker father's assistant, are the only children in Hamlin not bewitched away by the Pied Piper. It is tradition on their eleventh birthday that Hamelin's children have their fortunes told by the seer Cuthbert, and Penelope learns she is a Deep Dreamer, able to enter a shadowy world alongside our own. Her mission is to rescue her companions in childhood, including beloved older sister Sophy.
The novel is told in flashback format by Penelope at age 101, lamenting her treatment at the hands of the village young, and reflecting on the past. The technique is effective, and the idea interesting, but the final third of the book lagged for me, and the fantasy elements became a little disjointed. I did enjoy the pivotal role of skipping and skipping rhymes, and the useful section on not judging people (in this case dragons) before you've met them. It just didn't hum for me. - Alex

Running Blind – Desmond Bagley

Former espionage agent Alan Stewart left the service after an operation went bad and he learned the "double agent" he killed was a pawn. A Finnish national, Stewart routinely spends several months a year in Iceland, with his Icelandic girlfriend. When his former boss comes to him with a request to deliver a package during his usual trip it doesn't seem like a big deal. But things start out strange and just get stranger, until Stewart is forced to question whether he can trust anyone in his life.
This is the only Bagley novel to feature a spy - his heroes are usually ordinary men embroiled in extraordinary situations - and the only one to feature a sequel of sorts. It's also a great read - fast paced, with an involving hero, a spirited and strong love interest, a fascinating backdrop, and a complex plot. It doesn't matter than I've read this several times before, I was as gripped as the first time I read it, over twenty years ago. - Alex

Thursday, November 8

Daniel Half Human – David Chotjewitz

In 1993, Berliner Daniel Krauchner was mostly content. An only child of a happy, financially secure family, he excelled at soccer, and thrived at his Christianeum (a private school with difficult entry requirements) – his essay on the treachery of Jews scored the highest mark in his class.
His middle-class parents didn’t like his best friend, Armin, but Daniel didn’t care – Armin was bold and exciting, and though his family was poor, and though his father drank what little money they had, at least his life was interesting. Without Armin Daniel would never have ventured out into the night to paint swastikas on the walls, which was a huge adventure even though they were arrested, or confronted his parents about joining the HJ. For some reason, his parents were virulently opposed to the Hitler Youth.
When his parents reveal that, though his mother’s parents were secular, they were Jewish, meaning his mother is a Jewess and he is a Michling (mongrel of mixed race), Daniel is horrified. The world he had felt so securely a part of began crumbling around him, as Germany inexorably tightens its’ grip on those of ‘lesser’ standing.
Daniel Half Human alternates short sections of first person narrative by Daniel in 1945, revisiting the city after the war, with third person accounts focusing predominantly on Daniel but occasionally on Armin, to give a coherent and comprehensive view of the time. The obstinate confidence of Daniel’s lawyer father Rheinhard, who cannot believe that harm could befall him despite growing evidence to the contrary, is particularly well executed, and Armin’s conflict between loyalty to friend and to country is unappreciated by Daniel but well drawn for the reader. It would have been easy to write Armin as a stereotype but he has depth and, like Daniel, grows through the novel.
I found the suspense of the novel minimised by the knowledge from the beginning that Daniel survived and immigrated to the US, and found those sections contributed little. I suspect they were inserted primarily for the conclusion. I also felt the last section, which concentrated on the fleeing of Germany and the loss of Daniel’s uncle and cousin, rushed and unsatisfactory.
However, the novel is otherwise compelling and articulate. Daniel’s naïve admiration of the adventurousness of Armin’s life, in reality a poverty-stricken and abusive childhood, is convincing, and the technique of educating the reader through glimpses of pseudoscience classroom sessions was subtle but powerful, as were the sections dropped throughout the text (“Sophie had to have a passport photo taken… exposing the left ear, because Nazi research had shown that the shape of the left ear was evidence of racial origin”). Though I have read quite widely about the era, I also learned more detail about the insidious propaganda of the times, something I think it is always valuable to keep in mind – anyone who thinks it couldn’t happen again is as wilfully blind as Rheinhard. - Alex

Wednesday, November 7

Ravens Rising – Kerry Greenwood

Returning to the University from the Lightening Tower, the triumphant group are stunned to find Grattan Street deserted, the University walls unguarded and the gates locked. Overwhelmed with a sense of danger and apprehension, they seek refuge in a five-storey building opposite. When it becomes obvious that they were manipulated into the building by a coercive imposition of fear and danger, the group realise that something unexpected is afoot.
The something unexpected is a lonely and sentient computer looking for a human host. It splits the group into pairs and a trio (not realising that Thel and Flae are two), but it's intent of weakening them backfires. The bond that had already grown between Bran and Scathe strengthens and encompasses the others, and new psychic bonds grow between the others.
I read this some time before my review, have done quite a bit of reading in the interim, and am writing this on very little sleep, so I really won't be doing this final part of the Raven trilogy any favours, but it maintains the best elements of Greenwood's previous writing while still bringing something fresh. Compelling, inspiring, involving, romantic, warm. Greenwoodian. - Alex

Tuesday, November 6

Lightning Nest – Kerry Greenwood

Flushed with success at returning Blackbird (formerly the Realm of the Rat) to its citizenry, Bran and his followers have returned to the University. Despite his formerly promiscuous ways, Bran knows his relationship with Scathe is permanent; despite his devotion, Scathe cannot stay in the city, with the ever-increasing pressure of the minds of so many people. Mill the Hill feels less useful in a place where intellect is valued more highly that brawn, the Twins are bored with no hunting in sight, and Dismas is feeling restive, while meticulous Swart knew returning to the University without his sister Brangwyn would anger his professor father. So when Tenar, a substantial woman from a medieval village far away, pleads for assistance, the group are eager to help.
A tower in the country, armed with technology and science, is loosing bolts of thunder on a peaceful village, striking people unconscious. When they wake, some are missing, some are dead, and then more lightening comes.
The quest not only brings together two townships, and topples an unrighteous reign of tyrants, it brings together Swart and the rest of his family – the mother who left him when he was a child, and the twin brother she took with him. Long unhappy, tormented by his father, abandoned by his sister (who, understandably, chose to stay in Blackbird rather than be ‘rescued’ and returned to the University), the reunion brings Swart no peace. But the quest does bring him, and Mill, love.
In this second piece of the Raven trilogy I was less absorbed by the story than by the evolution of the characters – all the relationships, from Twins Thel and Flae, through Scathe and Bran, to Swart and his family, are beautifully complex and intricately wrought. This is not to say that the plot itself is uninteresting or in any way lacking, but it is driven by the people within it. Greenwood’s writing is deeply satisfying and somehow comforting, and though I tried to resist I had to turn immediately to the concluding instalment. - Alex

Monday, November 5

Bernard Knight: The Sanctuary Seeker

The first coroner for the county of Devon, an ex-crusader appointed by Richard the Lionheart, takes on his first case when an unidentified body turns up in a lonely moorland village. The coroner must find a way to identify the body and bring its murderer to justice.
Hindering his efforts are demarcation disputes between him and his brother-in-law the sheriff. And as if that wasn’t making life difficult enough, things become even trickier once the dead man is identified and his accused murderer claims the protection of the church.
But the coroner braves disputes personal, professional and domestic to see that justice is done.
As the first book in a series I understand that a bit of time needs to be spent establishing the history, credentials and personalities of the main characters, unfortunately on occasion such detail actually got in the way of an otherwise good story. Having said that, the characters were realistically portrayed historical figures with all the ideals, morality and petty grievances of their time, not just modern people dumped into a historical setting. I particularly liked the prickly relationship between the coroner and his wife; a woman I hope to see developed in later books.
This book offered an interesting twist on the crime genre. Even though the motive was clearly recognisable to a modern day reader and the investigative techniques not wholly unfamiliar, the historical detail (such as trial by ordeal) imparted a fresh feel to the comfortably familiar story.
I will be reading more Coroner John mysteries-Lynn

Sunday, November 4

The Rat and the Raven – Kerry Greenwood

Scathe is the Mouth of the Oracle – cursed, empathic, unable to touch another human without killing them, he survives on the offerings citizens of the Realm of the Rat bring in payment for a reading. Jocasta, the Oracle, blind and hidden, pricks leaves with Braille for Scathe to read.
Once the world was different, but the Three Days brought a rain of fire to the world. Before the Rat came, brigands threatened the town. He took control, and though his reign is far from benevolent, at least the people are safe from the terrors that lie outside the small city once known as Ballarat.
But there are rumours and prophesies of the Raven, an avenger who will come on rails of iron and overthrow the Rat. As the uneasy peace of the town fragments, Scathe learns about the abomination of his origin and why he is rightfully cursed. Doomed to be alone forever, he somehow becomes embroiled with the entourage of the Raven, and the life he thought he knew is rewoven into something miraculous.
This new trilogy about the Three Days (previously portrayed in The Broken Wheel, Feral and Cave Rats) is more tightly connected than the previous series. Bran the Raven, first met in Feral, has been sent from the now-toppled University [of Melbourne] to find the daughter of a Professor, stolen as a slave by the Rat. Her brother, the enigmatic Swart, accompanies Bran, along with massive Maori/Koori/Scot Mill the Hill, the thief Dismas, and warrior Twins Thel and Flae, so tightly interwoven that the tribe of Women whose camp they wandered into at the age of three gave them one name to share – Athelflaed.
As we have come to expect from Greenwood, The Rat and the Raven combined great story telling with elegant writing and the creation of some of the most interesting characters I’ve come across. Sexuality after the Three Days is more fluid, and different kinds of cultures have arisen in response to the needs of their communities. Throughout the Three Days universe, but particularly central to the Raven trilogy, is the FSF element of paranormal abilities emerging and strengthening in the aftermath of the disaster. Often written as a technique for evading otherwise impassable stumbling blocks, Greenwood’s characters are strengthened by, but not wholly reliant upon, their gifts. This is great writing. – Alex

Saturday, November 3

Michele Jaffe: Bad Kitty

Bad Kitty is well aimed at its target audience of young teen girls. I, however, am not in that demographic and found this story of teenaged investigators in Los Vegas required just a little too much suspension of disbelief. I didn't find the skills and obseesions of the heroines and her friends convincing. The main plot twist was evident early on, though the story did have some very amusing sequences and asides in footnotes that made it a moderately enjoyable read.The ample use of the bedazzler was a particular high light, and it was nice to see some of the more obvious clichés avoided. An inoffensive read but, unlike my daughters, I am not eagerly awaiting the next instalment in this new series-Lynn
To read Alex's review of this book, click here

Friday, November 2

The Black Crusade – Richard Harland

After writer Martin Smythe survived the horrors of Morbing Vyle[1] he’s hot on the trail of the evil vicar involved. Delving through the musty records of the Church of England he discovered a manuscript written by Hungarian bank clerk Basil Smorta. It is an account of how, through a freak combination of circumstances, wound up in club Zut-Alors on an October night in 1894, where he saw famed Australian Songbird Volusia and fell irrevocably in lust. And love. A consequence of which was his embroilment in the Black Crusade – a group of New Believers hell bent[2] on ushering in a new age of death, torment and destruction.
After Lynn’s amused review I was quite looking forward to reading The Black Crusade, but – even though I initially followed her advice and read it interspersed among other reading – it didn’t grab me at all. The style is interesting - a first person narrative annotated by a third party – and though we’ve seen it before (eg The Athenian Murders) this was the first comedic version. I did quite enjoy the proliferation of footnotes, ostensibly inserted by the publishers, but they were insufficient to compensate for the novel’s manifold flaws. The hero
[3] is turgid, the heroine both insane and uninteresting, the villains caricaturistic,[4] and the plot meandering and pointless. I finished the novel, and – reminded by having the book in front of me to write the review – I may even visit the website ( but even though my library has a Harland trilogy that I was previously considering borrowing, I think it’ll be a long while before I revisit Mr Harland’s writing. – Alex
[1] We never learn what happened at Morbing Vyle, which is irrelevant to the story of The Black Crusade. Similarly we hear no more from or about Martin Smythe after the preface.
[2] Yes, the pun there is intentional – we here at The Bookish believe that the occasional pun adds a layer of depth to what might otherwise be an uninteresting and possibly pallid review.
[3] As the footnotes repeatedly point out – a far better hero would have been the Imperial Cavalry officer
[4] A word I have just now created, which means “resembling but not actually being caricatures”
To read Lynn's review of this book, click here

Thursday, November 1

Wyatt's Hurricane - Desmond Bagley

White West Indian David Wyatt, on loan from the Meteorological Office is working with the US Navy on the Caribbean island of San Fernandez. An expert on hurricanes, Dave almost has a sixth sense about them, and even though it would be atypical, he feels sure that Mabel, approaching fast, will hit the island. The trouble is getting anyone to believe him – to a man, everyone he speaks to tells him that San Fernandez doesn’t get hurricanes, that the last one hit in 1905. Of greater concern in the rumour that exiled, thought dead, rebel leader Favel is coming down from the mountains with an army of locals set to overthrow despotic President Sururier.
When Wyatt manages to get the UK ambassador to get him in to see Surrurier it becomes obvious that he’s insane, wholly closed to reason. All Wyatt can do is encourage the residents of his local hotel, including his girlfriend, flight attendant Julie, to flee for the hills.
Once again Bagley manages to write with conviction and power – Wyatt’s desperation is palpable, his characters come alive, and the pace is frenetic but digestible. Other trademarks of his writing are also present – here’s a love story, with a heroine who has strength and resilience and doesn’t need to be rescued by anyone but herself; an exotic locale, convincingly portrayed; and a weak man who comes good. It’s usually Bagley’s hero who’s flawed, but in this case redemption comes to Big Jim Dawson, a Hemingway-esque writer who lacks the grit that larger than life man had. Bagley’s gift is that these elements are never predictable or reproduced, and the stories are fresh even on the fifth or even tenth reading. And Wyatt’s Hurricane isn’t even one of my favourites! – Alex