Thursday, January 31

Unique – Alison Allen-Gray

Dominic Gordon’s father’s never liked him – Dom’s grades aren’t good enough, he’s not interested in or any good at science, and Dom’s love of art means nothing to the wealthy CEO. Dom’s mother used to be a world famous opera singer, but she stopped singing and started drinking around the time Dom was born. The only bright spot in Dom’s life, apart from creating art, is spending time with his grandfather, and Pops is growing increasingly confused. Maybe that’s why Dom was able to find the photo album.
At first Dom thinks the photos of a young baby growing into a young man are of him – he doesn’t remember his parents ever being as happy as they look in the pictures, nor does he remember the events, but the boy looks just like him. And then the boy is older than him, going to college, and Dom realises that the pictures are of an older brother, an identical older brother, than nobody ever told him about. And everything Dom thought he knew about himself and his family falls apart.
At first I thought it was going to be a less trashy version of Virginia Andrews’s My Sweet Audrina, which is about a girl who believes she’s the younger sister of a beloved girl who was mysteriously murdered years earlier, and which is filled with the VA trademarks of weird sex, manipulative adults and claustrophobic exertion of control.
Instead Unique is a fascinating look at where advances in science may take us – Dom is the illegal clone of his parents’ first son, scientific genius Nick Gordon. The novel explores questions about how much of what and who we are is genetic and how much environmental, about the role of the media in informing us and in reinforcing our prejudices and faulty beliefs, about the ability of the law to keep up with and control scientific advances, and the ability of a populace to work themselves into hysteria. And it does so while still being informative, readable and retaining a sense of both place and person.
What I liked most was the beautiful articulation by one of Allen-Gray’s characters, a priest being interviewed about the moral status of a clone – the potential for evil, he says, is not in the child, a creature of god, but in the intention of those seeking to reproduce something gone rather than a unique being, worthy in their own right. I liked not only the ideology underlying the statement but also the author’s use of an archetype commonly seen as the embodiment of irrational superstition as the sole voice of sanity in the wilderness. This is a great blending of philosophy and young adult writing. – Alex

Wednesday, January 30

Trick or Treat – Kerry Greenwood

Could Earthly Delights be run out of business? A franchised bakery’s opened just up the lane from Corinna and though their bread’s not a patch on hers, the customers are flocking to Best Fresh where muffins are two for $2, even if they are dry and crumbly. And young people are going mad near Lonsdale Street, although the agent can’t be isolated on tox tests, and what’s the connection with Jewish gold, stolen by the Nazis in Greece during the war?
At least Corinna has her friends, including Wiccan Meroe, who needs soul cakes baked for Samhain, and her beloved Daniel. Although Daniel seems to be living with a confident, impossibly tall, blonde ringleted woman named Georgiana, who seems to have designs not only Corinna’s boyfriend but also her bakery. And if it’s not Daniel sending her well chosen presents and anonymous letters of devotion, who is?
Only Kerry Greenwood could combine all these disparate (or, in the end, not so disparate) events into a coherent and thoroughly enjoyable whole. I did guess the cause of the wave of insanity fairly early on, but this in no way diminished my enjoyment of the book. As is so often the case with series, half the pleasure is revisiting old friends and seeing them develop, and in Jason (Corinna’s fifteen-year-old ex-addict assistant) Greenwood has created a fantastic character. Watching his nuanced relationship with Goss and Kylie (the shop girls) develop is even more interesting than Corinna and Daniel’s. Pure delight, and such a shame that it’ll be a good year before the next indulgence. - Alex

To see Lynn's review of Trick or Treat click here

The Corinna Chapman series:
Earthly Delights; Heavenly Pleasures; Devil's Food; Trick or Treat; Forbidden Fruit; Cooking the Books

Tuesday, January 29

How Doctors Think – Kathryn Montgomery

For the second time in as many months I’ve managed to read two books with the same title and, in this case, remarkably similar themes. Montgomery comes from an English literature background but teaches within a medical faculty and uses this unique perspective to explore, like Jerome Groopman did in his work of the same name, clinical decision making and judgement.
There were several notable discussions – I was particularly interested in the section on experience becoming perceived as self evident and common sensical as the acquisition of knowledge becomes subsumed into the thinking of the individual and the learning of it is forgotten. Though I was aware of the phenomenon, seeing it in my own work, I wasn’t aware of the body of literature and exploration of the process and it’s effects, and I’ll follow it up as part of my own studies.
However, I found the writing to be in general overly academic and dry. Woven throughout the text is a narrative – the experiences of Montgomery when her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. In many cases this significantly colours how Montgomery views the practice of medicine and the teaching of undergraduates. I didn’t feel as though the inclusion of the author’s I in the text brought any useful information, though her focus on it is clearly significant and the effect of the diagnosis on the author was unmistakably profound. Unlike Groopman’s narratives, though, we get no insight into how the individual practitioner’s clinical judgement is enhanced or affected by the way they think or their experiences, an element that set Groopman above most writers in the area.
It’s perhaps unfair to compare the two writers – their styles, backgrounds and points of view are so disparate, although their topic is so similar. Yet, perhaps because of the proximity of my readings, and because of the superlative nature of the first exploration of this topic, comparison is inevitable. Montgomery’s take is less accessible, even taking into account it’s academic intended audience, and less clinically valuable. I may well try rereading it in a few months, when Groopman’s work is less clear in my mind, for I’m sure this text has merit, but I had trouble finding it this time around. - Alex

Monday, January 28

Devil’s Food – Kerry Greenwood

Baker Corinna Chapman’s a little disturbed when an order of monks (the Discarnate Brotherhood) devoted to the mortification of the flesh demand she make the worst bread even (no leavening, no salt, and it smells like sawdust). Food is, after all, one of life’s great pleasures. But her distress becomes a distant memory when Corinna’s confronted by her hippy mother, Starshine. Thoroughly wrapped up in each other, Corinna’s parents neglected her until she was rescued from the Nimbin commune by her grandparents, and seeing her brings back the bone deep cold and disapproval that marked her life until the age of five.
For once, Star’s come seeking help – Sunshine’s gone missing, and Star, only half a person on her own, can’t function without him. Well, Sun hasn’t so much gone missing as headed to the fleshpots of Melbourne to find more nubile company, but he has to be tracked down anyway. And that’s not the only mystery – at the new goth handout, Café Vlad Tepes, someone’s selling a bizarre concoction of contradictory herbs as a weight loss tea that comes within a hair’s breadth of killing Corinna’s diet-obsessed assistants, Goss and Kylie.
Greenwood goes from strength to strength – the characters, the wonderful resonance of Melbourne, the interweaving plot and the clarity of the writing make her books a better treat than one of Jason’s chocolate orgasm muffins. I know we’ve both raved about her before, at length no less, and I really have nothing new to add. Except to say that reading the Corinna books makes me feel assured, confident and attractive about being a fat woman, and delighted to be a Melburnian:
“It was one of the odd Melbourne days when early morning is bright and sunny, so that you need sunglasses for the glare. Late morning would bring clouds and by afternoon it would either be (1) raining or (2) freezing or (3) both. That’s why the sunnies and the mac are essential on any day in our great city, where there are four seasons in one day. If there were six seasons, there’d be six. It’s what makes Melburnians so quick on the uptake and resilient, able to adapt to change.”
- Alex

The Corinna Chapman series:
Earthly Delights; Heavenly Pleasures; Devil's Food; Trick or Treat; Forbidden Fruit; Cooking the Books

Sunday, January 27

Promised Land – Connie Willis + Cynthia Felice

Delanna Milleflores has only come back to Keramos to claim her inheritance – sent off to school at the age of five, she has no interest in the backward farmers of this uncivilised frontier planet. Her mother, recently deceased, had to stay on planet to maintain her claim on the Milleflores Lanzye but Delanna plans to sell it and get on with her life.
That is until she discovers that, thanks to an arrangement made by both sets of parents when an outbreak of monkey fever when she was a child threatened the Milleflores and Tanner Lanzyes, she’s betrothed to the dim-witted, ignorant and lazy Sonny Tanner. If she doesn’t return to the lanzye immediately she’ll lose it all, and the will can’t be appealed until the Circuit Court comes around, several months from now.
Promised Land is, at its heart, an FSF romance – unwilling marriage, a secondary love interest, forced cohabitation and isolation. What sets it apart is the thorough but subtle world building, characterisation, believability of the underlying premise, convincing obstacles to true love, and the thoroughly entertaining secondary storylines. These included a secondary romance, Delanna’s ongoing struggle to keep her semi-sentient pet out of the hands of a rule-bound vet, and discoveries about two native species.
Although the romance is resolved by the end of the novel, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that there are other books set on Keramos, because not further utilising that world would be a real waste. – Alex

Saturday, January 26

The Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett

Henry Faber, Nazi Germany’s most proficient and trusted spy, has vital information– the troops, tanks and planes massed in East Anglia ready to invade Calais, are fake, erected to distract the Fuhrer from the real invasion of Normandy. If he can just make his rendezvous with a U-boat near Aberdeen he, and his precious photos, will change the outcome of the war.
Several months ago I read something about the movie (I think that it was Donald Sutherland’s best performance); I’d seen it many years ago and was keen to watch it again. Unable to find the film (though I’ve since discovered copies at uni), I decided the book it was based on might be even better.
The plot moves briskly and incorporates a number of characters in addition to Die Nadel (Faber’s code name) – the Nazi officials waiting to hear news, the British intelligence officers trying to track this most elusive of threats, and Lucy, a beautiful woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a man crippled the night before his first mission as a bomber. Follett does a great job of ratcheting up the tension, and even generates a little confusion about who to hope will win. But the final section, where it all hinges on Lucy, is where the heart of the novel lies.
I was a little disappointed in The Eye of the Needle, through no fault of the book. For some reason I’d managed to conflate the book/film with another WW2 film where a spy wakes up with amnesia in a village after the war – or is it a plot to extract information? On a couple of occasions Die Nadel loses consciousness and I thought… but no. if anyone knows the film I thought this was I’d be delighted to hear from you. And if not, The Eye of the Needle is an enjoyable and fast-paced example of the genre that gives due recognition to the manifold influences of the outcome of the war, and how eaily it coupld have been very different. – Alex

Friday, January 25

A Sensible Life – Mary Wesley

Despised by her father and a burden to her mother, ten-year-old Flora Trevelyan has never known anything else until she comes across a group of middle-class British families holidaying in France for Easter. Starved for warmth and affection, Flora falls hopelessly in love with them all, particularly the boys – Felix, Cosmo and Hubert. Bundled off to boarding school when her self-absorbed, egotistical parents move to India, her memories of that oasis are the only respite from institutionalism, and girls who inexplicably love and miss their families.
Wesley carries us over the next four decades, as we watch Flora – who grows from an awkward child into a self-possessed and beautiful woman – resolve her relationships with the three young men. A less subtle writer would have forcefully emphasised the shabby and distressing treatment of Flora, by both her parents and by the other adults in her life; set in contemporary times Flora may well have become a victim or a sociopath. But Wesley draws the novel in pastel, allowing the impact of events to gently permeate the writing, and her heroine is buoyed by her experiences of a different kind of family - Flora gains strength and resolve that would otherwise have been determinedly squashed by her resentful parents and makes her own way in the world.
As she always does, Wesley manages to imbue the novel with a sensibility of the changing times (the opening scenes take place in 1926), weaving in concerns about socialism, the General Strike, pre-war perceptions of Hitler, and the mores of that particular class. Although Flora is the centre of the novel, the secondary characters are equally well drawn – over the rest of the novel we drop in on the indolent and self-obsessed Denys and Vita Trevelyan in India and see how the British families cross over with one another in the UK. The result is a gentle, satisfying novel that resonates after the book is put down. – Alex

Thursday, January 24

Murder with Peacocks – Donna Andrews

Meg Langstow’s in for a dire summer – somehow shanghaied into being not only her best friend’s chief bridesmaid but also her mother’s and her brother’s fiancée’s, the last few months have been a dizzying whirl of demands, and the wedding’s haven’t even started yet. When she returns home to the small Virginian town where she grew up, the only bright spot terminally single Meg can see is the son of the dressmaker. Michael’s tall, dark, handsome… and gay. He’s also the only voice of sanity in Yorktown.
When freak accidents start occurring, Michael’s the first person to accept Meg’s idea that it’s more than coincidence – someone’s trying to knock off members of the bridal parties, and it’s up to Meg (and Michael) to stop them before all of Meg’s careful planning’s ruined.
I so enjoyed Andrews’s first AI mystery (You’ve Got Murder) that I set out to see what else she’d written, and I was not disappointed. I also thoroughly enjoyed this first in an avian-themed murder series. The plot was believable enough, but what sets this apart is the characters - funny and beautifully drawn, it’s Meg’s wacky extended family that are dragging me to the next in the series.
Well, that and the romance, which was sweet and tender. The oddly coincidental interruptions every time Michael tries to tell Meg that he’s… were a little contrived but I was prepared to overlook that, and the payoff when he finally does have an uninterrupted conversation was worth it.
I was reminded of the film 27 Dresses, not only because of the wedding theme but also because of Meg’s ready self-sacrifice, dependability, organization and gumption. If Andrews can keep Meg as interesting throughout the series I’m in for a fun few weeks. – Alex

Wednesday, January 23

Crime Brulée, Truffled Feathers, Death à l’Orange, Chocolate Quake – Nancy Fairbanks

Former home maker Carolyn Blue, a little at a loose end after her children (twenty-year-old Chris and eighteen-year-old Gwen) leave for college. Though no longer interested in producing food, Carolyn has always been interested in eating in, especially if she can tie it in with historical facts (her major at college). With the enthusiastic support of her beloved chemistry professor husband Jason, Carolyn begins writing columns of food that are syndicated nationally. Though by no means a household name, being a writer gives Carolyn access that she may not otherwise have.
In the first novel Carolyn and Jason go to New Orleans to attend an academic conference – well, Jason attends and Carolyn explored the unique cuisine of Creole and Cajun culture. When Julienne, one of their friends from college, disappears in the middle of dinner, Carolyn seems to be the only one concerned and is determined to get to the bottom of it even if the police and Julienne’s husband (with whom she was fighting) are happy to leave it alone.
The second novel takes place in New York, where Jason is being interviewed for a position in private industry. The man who invited Jason, and who had expressed concern about something happening that he was uncomfortable discussing on the phone, is murdered in a diner on the day they arrive and Carolyn is determined to discover what happened. This book introduces chapters from both Carolyn and Jason’s perspectives.
The third instalment sees Jason, Carolyn and son Chris (on spring break) travelling through Normandy and the Loire valley, combining Carolyn’s two great loves – history and cuisine. The tour was arranged by Jason’s university, and three of the tourists are in vying for position as dean; the overbearing Professor Childeric, who takes a special liking to Carolyn, is beset by accidents and convinced that one of his rivals is trying to kill him. Certainly something’s going on, and Carolyn resolves to get to the bottom of it, though her proximity to the unfortunate (and highly annoying) history expert sees her at risk as well.
The final in the series (for me) is set in San Francisco, home of Jason’s feminist academic mother who’s been arrested for first-degree murder. With Jason occupied by his conference, it falls to Carolyn to uncover the real perpetrator and thus free her intimidating mother-in-law, but not without enjoying the epicurean delights of the bay.
Fairbanks’s heroine is likeable, the books have a scattering of recipes throughout, and the secondary characters are relatively three-dimensional. As is so often the case with amateur detective novels, there’s a strong reliance on coincidence (everyone knows everyone else, for example) and good luck, and Carolyn seems to have a Sookie Stackhouse-esque allure that draws men everywhere to be attracted to her despite her modest appearance, happy marriage and pleasant but not exceptional intellect.
There’s a disturbing preponderance of mentally ill characters in a variety of flavours, and I wasn’t thrilled by the fat woman in Chocolate Quake digging into three desserts, as though all fat people are also gluttonous. But I otherwise enjoyed taking a little break from worthy works, and now feel prepared to dive back into more challenging (though not necessarily more enjoyable) writing. – Alex

Monday, January 21

More Twisted – Jeffrey Deaver

This second collection of short stories includes mysteries set in London in the 1880’s and modern day Florence, as well as various locations in the US. His characters include an antiques dealer, a blocked mystery writer, at least one woman in peril and his most famous creations, Amelia Sachs and paraplegic genius Lincoln Rhyme. The mysteries themselves run from traditional whodunits to cryptic, last dying word puzzles and mysteries without murder.
Common to them all is at least one twist that I, even paying close attention, usually didn’t see coming. I particularly liked the twist in “Born Bad”, so much so that when it came I went back to the beginning to appreciate the first half of the story with more informed eyes.
Also common to almost every short story was an annoyingly long explanation of how the twist had played out, evidently for those readers who are presumed too thick to get it or who’d otherwise argue with the outcome. The result is that the unkinking of the twist occupies a sizeable amount of the story. “Copycat”, for example, runs for thirty-four pages, the last four of which explain every detail of a twist that would have had more punch it delivered in just a paragraph or two.
There was also annoying detail dogging other aspects of most of the stories – the explanation in “Locard’s Principle” that, for investigators, “It was much better to have expensive evidence, bought with traceable credit cards,” than a ubiquitous brand of rope sold everywhere and likely bought with cash. And the drawn out explanation of how one character set up another in “The Westphalian Ring”, though I found the use of “burglarised” instead of “burgled” in 1880’s London even more profoundly irritating.
All in all my decision (made after reading the last Lincoln Rhyme novel) to abandon Deaver’s new work has been affirmed, and I’m inordinately glad I didn’t buy More Twisted but instead borrowed it from my fabulous local library. - Alex

Sunday, January 20

Lorna Tedder: Dark Revelations

An antiquities thief decides it’s time to retire but she soon discovers nobody ever retires from her employers and they are singularly reluctant to let her go. Desperate to get away from the life she has led she decides to keep her latest acquisition, an ancient manuscript her employer intends to destroy, and run. During her getaway she inadvertently kidnaps her employer’s grandson, and discovers the shocking historical secret contained within the book she has stolen. She must return the child and hide the manuscript without losing her life.
This is the third book in the Madonna Key series. Action packed, fast paced and full of suspense this instalment rarely pauses for breath. It was great to see a middle-aged heroine still out there kicking butt and scoring with the gorgeous guys.
I really enjoyed this latest instalment in the series which develops the over arcing storyline even while it deepens the mystery. While the book could stand alone and still be a great read, keeping it in sequence gives it a greater depth than it would otherwise have.-Lynn

Saturday, January 19

Operation Sunshine – Jenny Colgan

Medical receptionist Evie is in desperate need of a good holiday – somewhere tropical, by water, with glamorous people and cocktail-bearing waiter. When her cosmetic surgeon bosses decide to bring her along to a conference in Cannes it seems as though all her hopes will finally come to fruition. Okay, there are a few down sides – it’s still work, her supercilious and bossy friend Lydia (receptionist for another cosmetic surgeon nearby) is also going, the hotel she’s staying in is appalling, and her dreadful brother John Jr and his quite nice but very plastic wife Kelly are also there – but Evie still plans to have the time of her life.
This is a frothy, holiday read and doesn’t aspire to be anything else. The plot was absorbing enough but lacked depth, and the characters were three-dimensional but only just. I have liked other Colgan works (particularly Searching for Andrew McCarthy, who was my preferred brat packer) better, but it was an enjoyable enough diversion for my first venture into froth thus far this year. - Alex

Friday, January 18

Clive Bloom: Gothic Horror-A Guide for Students and Readers

This book contains a collection of extracts from gothic writers from the style’s historical beginnings to its modern interpretation. Included is an extensive chronological bibliography of the most significant works in the genre. Introductions from original volumes and authors’ notes (which I admit I would not normally read) provide some insight into what the writers were trying to achieve with these works and how they were regarded when first published.
I found this collection both intriguing and frustrating. Intriguing because each of the chosen extracts demonstrates a significant point and frustrating because, designed as a text for students of English Literature, each point provides a great jumping off place for farther discussion which as a lone reader I could not indulge in.
A great round up of the style that left me wanting a deeper analysis of the whys and hows of its success. It also left me with the realisation that there are a few classics that I still haven’t got around to reading, something I must remedy sooner rather than later.-Lynn

Thursday, January 17

To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis

Oxford historian Ned Henry is exhausted from his hunt for the bishop’s bird stump, a hideous Victorian-era vase that once stood in front of the Coventry Cathedral pulpit. The indestructible chunk of garishly ornate metal vanished during the blitz bombing that destroyed the cathedral, and terrifying Lady Schrapnell (spear-heading the reconstruction) is relentless. After all, the stump united Lady Schrapnell’s great, great, great, great-grandparents.
Travelling between the mid-21st century and the 1940’s, drops close to but just missing the bombing, Ned is time-lagged. He really shouldn’t drop again, but his colleague, Verity Kindle, has made a mistake in her era, and brought something back with her – which is supposed to be impossible. Ned has to travel back to 1888 and correct the mistake, which could otherwise alter the future. Unfortunately, because of the time-lag, he can’t really remember where he’s supposed to go, let alone what the mistake Verity made was.
Set in the same universe as Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a tribute to Oxford and particularly to Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K Jerome. I enjoyed this book the first time I read it but, having read JKJ’s classic in the interim, found the reread considerably enhanced. The purposeful stylistic similarities – chapter headings, dogs, boating, a distressing incident with a swan, over-packing for a trip with a plethora of ludicrous objects (discovered while searching for something else), absent tins of pineapple – were a delight now that I can see them.
Other aspects common to rereading of a previously enjoyed book were also present, and it’s a tribute to Willis’s writing that knowing the identity of mysterious things added to my enjoyment of returning to her world. I remembered what the object Verity brought back was, which made Ned’s time-lagged confusion all the more amusing. I also remembered how the bishop’s bird stump figured into Tossie (the ancestor in question) meeting her husband, the enigmatic Mr C and this, too, increased my involvement while rereading the novel.
Willis has a light hand and a gift for characterisation. I don’t get jet-lagged, but Willis described the time-travel equivalent so well I perceived the world through Ned’s vaguely irritable disconnection. As in Doomsday Book, Willis also conveys a marvellous sense of that familiar experience, all too common in dreams particularly, of being in a tearing hurry on an urgent errand while being obstructed and thwarted on all sides – by stupid people, wilful inanimate objects, convention, and bossy individuals with different and implacable priorities.
Willis came to Jerome’s novel via Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel – I has clearly less attentive when I read it a hundred years ago, but reading Willis’s homage has made me decide to revisit that work, too. - Alex

Tuesday, January 15

Not That Sort of Girl - Mary Wesley

The only child of parents who've long since stopped caring about each other, Rose Freeling knew her mother watned her safely (and securely) married off young. That's why, after all, she was sent off with the irritating Nicholas and Emily Thornby to a tennis party - George and Richard Malone's eigible cousin Ned was staying over, and Rose's mother was keep for them to become acquainted. Rose's mother couldn't have known that she'd also meet Mylo, the boys' language tutor.
Decades later, Rose reflects on her life - the decisions she made, the promise she kept, and the affair that lasted as long as her marriage. Now widowed, Rose needs to decide what to do next, and whether it's time to let people know that she's not as neatly contained as everyone in her life believes.
Mary Wesley wrote beautiful novels about relationships, social expectation, and unconventional English women. Her descriptions are spare but eloquent, and her sense of place is impecable. But the stand out is her characters - in Not That Sort of Girl every character is multi-layered and three dimensional, and they retain integrity throughout. I was introduced to Mary Wesley by my mother, about ten years ago, when I glutted on the entire collection and am only just returning now to savour her writing. My mother, who hasn't read Wesley since then, vividly remembered specific details about the Thornby malicious siblings; even without the beautiful love story, the delightful private lives of the servants, the torturous Freeling parental relationship and the unexpected depth of secondary characters like George and Richard's mother, it's worth reading Not That Sort of Girl just to encounter the twisted Emily and Nicholas. Delicious! Alex

Monday, January 14

Phil Rickman: The Lamp of the Wicked

The fifth book in the series of Merrily Watkins, diocesan Deliverance Consultant, mysteries. This one sees her called in to conduct the funeral of a suspected serial killer. The local village, enjoying a revitalisation after years of decline, is not happy to be the home and final resting place of a multiple murderer with links to the most notorious serial killers in criminal history.
Throw in a police sergeant with his own agenda, a wealthy recluse with an angel fixation, a rocky relationship with her lover as he nervously makes his musical comeback and the usual dramas of a teenaged daughter and this book takes you on a great ride.
As always Rickman delivers a great multilayered story with unexpected twists and interesting tangents that keep you guessing until the end.
The characters and their relationships with each other keep growing in believable ways. I particularly like his treatment of the teenaged daughter; he has captured the awkward blend of adult and child and interpreted her relationship with her mother very well. The main character herself is also developing in confidence yet still maintains a believable vulnerability.
To sum up-deliciously eerie and completely believable.-Lynn

Saturday, January 12

Dedication - Nicola Kraus & Emma McLaughlin

Summary: 6th grade girl meets well-off boy with issues who repeatedly treats her like crap. Girl is incapable of learning from experience. After experience. After experience. Boy becomes a famous singer on the back of his friends' (uncredited) work and songs about the girl and her family. At 30, will girl finally get that boy is an ass, or will true love out?

In an effort to be more like Lynn, who doesn't waffle on about the plot like I do, I thought I'd try a one sentence summary and take it from there. Sigh - even my summaries waffle.
Dedication switches between 30 year-old Kate (presents-to-the-UN successful not-for-profit environmentalist heading home at Christmas time to confront the guy who repeatedly let her down, stood her up for prom, cheated their friends out of royalties, achieved world stardom, still writes songs about her, and broke her heart) and flashbacks to Katie the child and her relatonship with Jake Sharpe (from 6th grade, when she and her parents first move to Vermont, she randomly picks Jake as the guy she likes when the popular girls force her to pick someone, to college).
I found this book profoundly irritating - Kat(i)e fails to learn from experience even when hit over the head with a giant sign saying "Jake will let you down if you give him the slenderest of openings! No! Noooo!" I get that I don't get the whole prom thing (Australia's version, the high school social, is clearly no equivalent), but even the rest of it's pretty dire - school-related or social, if Kat(i)e relies on him Jake bails. But that doesn't diminish her love (or devotion).
I haven't read the authors' other work, including the very successful The Nanny Diaries, and I am sincerely greatful. I'm also thrilled beyond words that I decided not to buy this when I saw it on a Borders 3-for-2 table and instead borrowed it from the library. money I'd never have got back. - Alex

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

In 1980 Australian Roberts, less than two years into a nineteen-year sentence for a series of armed robberies to fund his heroin habit, broke out of Melbourne’s most secure jail and became Australia’s most wanted man.
Using a New Zealand passport, Roberts travelled through Europe, Asia and Africa, but he spent most of the following decade in India, primarily in Bombay. From his first day he felt a connection with the city and its people, and over time he became one of them – he became fluent in Hindi and Marathi, lived in five star hotels and had a hut in one of the slums, was a street soldier for a branch of the Bombay Mafia and set up a free medical clinic, found Western tourists to work as extras in Bollywood spectaculars and almost died in prison.
Roberts identifies as a writer and he kept notes throughout his journey, capturing with extraordinary vividness the characters he met, the friends he made, and the chaotic, mellifluous, aromatic, joyous, desperately poor cacophony of the city and its people. I was captured from the paragraph:

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

The language is considered, descriptive and poetic, and philosophical themes emerge frequently throughout, but at 935 pages I began to weary of it, and of Roberts. Maybe, if I'd taken a break, I would have felt differently, but toward the end finishing the book felt like one of the Herculean labours - clean the stables, slay assorted, unslayable, creatures, capture uncapturable other creatures, finish Shantaram...

I found the lack of a clear timeframe, both in sections and over the length of the book, irritating. And the ending doesn't indicate any kind of resolution or significant event (like Roberts being discovered or captured), it just... happens. Well, there is a sequel in the works. I think I'll wait for the movie. - Alex

Thursday, January 10

Patricia Briggs: Moon Called

When a shape shifting coyote offers a newly turned werewolf work in her garage she buys into a whole lot of unexpected trouble. She gets dragged into a werewolf turf war, finds herself on the wrong side of a powerful witch clan and relying on a sheep medallion to help her escape from a nest of vampires.
As a long time fan of the supernatural I’ve been enjoying the current popularity of the genre, I no longer have to hunt through shelves searching for a paranormal hit, the stories have gone mainstream. The downside is that a lot of the stuff out there is beginning to sound the same. So I was pleasantly surprised by this new take on the old werewolf theme.
This book addresses some of the problems that would be faced by people living as wolves. Fights for dominance between members of the same pack and with other packs and indeed, other predators, for territory, the difficulties for women in such groups that see females only in terms of their mates and the problems caused to loved ones by keeping the whole thing secret.
Sure there is a story in there and it is fast paced with an intricate yet easily followed plot but it was the world building that impressed me most. I will be looking for more of Briggs’ works.-Lynn

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

Wednesday, January 9

How Doctors Think – Jerome Groopman

Over the last fifteen years Anne Dodge had seen some thirty doctors for the digestive issue that had first manifested when she was twenty – it began as a griping, twisting pain after she ate, a pain that didn’t respond to antacids. As it progressed Anne became less and less interested in eating, and sometimes only felt relief if she induced vomiting. Her GP sent her to a psychiatrist, and Anne was diagnosed with anorexia. Over the next decade and a half she was as compliant as she could be with her prescribed treatment regime but continued to deteriorate – she took four kinds of antidepressants, participated in weekly talk therapy, ate 3,000 calories (as recommended, primarily of bread and pasta) every day, and still lost weight. Her bones became brittle, her immune system started to shut down, and her red cells and platelets dropped to dangerously low levels. The more she ate the worse she felt, and her doctors diagnosed her with the stress-related disorder irritable bowel syndrome, an indicator of her increasingly precarious mental health – Anne said she was doing everything she was supposed to but she was clearly lying.
When Anne saw gastroenterologist Myron Falchuk she was desperate, and she knew he’d be just like the rest – he’d palpate her abdomen then tell her to take tranquillisers and change her diet. But Falchuk took a different approach – he pushed the huge stack of Anne’s medical notes to one side and asked her to tell her the story of her disease, in her words, from the very first time she experienced a symptom. And when he examined her he focused on her hands, nails and mouth, rather than her abdominal organs. And then Falchuk told her that he didn’t think her symptoms were caused by irritable bowel disease or anorexia – he wanted to do another test to confirm her diagnosis, an endoscopy to look at her bowel. Anne was reluctant – she’d had so many tests – but Falchuk had listened to her, had never seemed rushed or impatient, and she agreed to the endoscopy, which revealed that Anne had the autoimmune disease coeliac disease, essentially an allergy of the gut to gluten, a component of wheat. Flachuk saved her life.
Groopman’s book examines what cognitive tools and thought processes great doctors use to arrive at accurate diagnoses. What was it, for example, separated Falchuk from the thirty other doctors, spanning a variety of specialties, that Anne had seen before him?
When we think of medical mistakes we focus mostly on technical errors – the wrong limb being amputated, a drug being given via the wrong route, or blood being given to the wrong patient. But increasingly research reveals that these errors account for only a small percentage of mistakes – most errors are caused by cognitive mistakes, mistakes in the way clinicians think, including letting how they feel about the patient or other practitioners affect their judgement.
The core of the book stems from Groopman’s own experiences, both as clinician (specialising in AIDS, disease of the blood, and cancer) and as a patient; it was when watching a group of interns round (present and examine patients, then discuss possible diagnoses and tests) that he began thinking about thinking – the students were primarily using algorithms and statistics, rather than evaluating each patient as an individual.
Groopman not only read extensively on the topic, he spoke with key practitioners, doctors respected by their peers, with a reputation for excellence. He asked them about the cases where their thinking processes allowed them, like Falchuk, to see what others had missed. What was it that they saw differently? What questions did they ask or processes did they use, that allowed them to avoid the pitfalls lurking in every medical decision?
As relevant, Groopman also asks about the cases they missed and the mistakes they’ve made, and how those errors have influenced their subsequent practice.
Illustrated by their experiences, and his own, Groopman explores cognitive mistakes individuals are at risk for, and how they may be avoided. For example, Anne Dodge had been misdiagnosed for a decade and a half in part because her case had been ‘framed’ – before each doctor saw her they already had a framework within which to site her, a diagnosis that coloured the interpretation of her new symptoms, all of which fit. All except one – Anne was losing weight despite eating 3,000 calories a day. People with eating disorders frequently lie about what they eat – within the framework of anorexia, Anne’s claim: she was losing weight, so clearly she was lying about what she was eating. Every doctor except Falchuk attributed her ongoing weight loss to her lying; Falchuk asked, “What might I be missing in this case? And what would be the worse thing that could be missed?”
Of course, he did more than that. He encouraged Anne to tell her story, he paid attention to her body language and how she spoke, and he was explicitly interested in her – he didn’t appear rushed or impatient. As a result, Anne trusted him, and agreed to the endoscopy despite being sick of having test after test.
In lesser hands this could have been a fairly dry text, but Groopman enlivens the writing – the patient narratives draw the reader in, and interweaving his own experiences, on both sides of the examination count, add another perspective. Though supremely relevant and interesting to clinicians, Groopman writes for a lay audience – technical terms are explained clearly, and he gives advice for patients who are concerned that their diagnosis may be masked or missed. This includes the following questions: what else could it be? Is there anything that doesn’t fit? And is it possible I have more than one problem?
Along the way, Groopman explores the changing face of medicine – not just the impact of managed care (exhaustively discussed in other literature) but the effect of algorithms on stifling creative thinking, the drawbacks of the medical aphorism ‘when you hear hoofbeats think horses, not zebras’ (the uncommon is less likely that the common), the limits to evidence-based practice, the pitfalls of applying a purely logical approach to the human body, the coded meaning of ‘compliance’, and the failings of tradition. I cannot recommend this highly enough to anyone working in health care; people who are current or potential health care consumers, and their relatives; and anyone interested in examining that most difficult of topics, what don’t I know about the way I think? The copy I read was borrowed, but I’m going to buy a copy for myself. It really is that good. - Alex

Tuesday, January 8

Allan Massie: Arthur the King

This book offers a retelling of the legend of King Arthur. Surely I don’t have to outline the basics of the Arthurian legends do I? Do I?
As to this version it is best summarised by the author’s Prefatory Note:
This version purports to be a translation of a narrative written by the medieval scholar and astrologer Michael Scott for his pupil, the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
I saw this and thought I was in for an interesting new twist on a favourite tale; certainly this is an approach I had not come across before. I was to be disappointed.
So disappointed in fact that I stopped reading half way through and I only made it as far as I did because of my love of the subject and a, misplaced, hope that things would improve once the story settled in to itself. When I suddenly remembered part way through a chapter that I needed to clean out my linen press and put the book down to do it I knew there was no point picking it up again.
The twist offered is indeed a new one but interesting is a matter of opinion. The story, to the point I read, was barely recognisable as an interpretation of the Arthurian legend.
While I am sure that there was just as much brotherly love of the Greek variety during the dark ages as there is now, it took such a prominent place I felt the author was pushing an agenda. This wouldn’t have been too bad on its own but the only hint of such manly attraction in the canon of legend is between Arthur and Lancelot, not between every man and boy present (okay I may be exaggerating there but only a little) and it got in the way of what little was happening.
Which brings me nicely to what I see as one of the greater failings of this work: the pace was beyond slow, it was glacial. It wasn’t helped by the extensive author intrusion which, to be fair, one would expect from a narrative. Again, on its own this wouldn’t be a problem but if the author chooses to tell a story in this style they should at least attempt to do so in an entertaining manner. If it was the author’s hope to capture the true feeling of a rambling storyteller then he has succeeded admirably but entertaining it wasn’t.
I find it hard to believe that anyone could take the elements of such a fascinating subject and render such a dull piece of work from them but Arthur the King is proof positive that it can be done-Lynn

Monday, January 7

Underground – Andrew McGahan

Eight years after the shocking events of September 11, Australia is rocked by the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Canberra, making the nation’s capital uninhabitable for hundred of thousands of years. The terrorists gave the city three days warning and, unless there were people who refused to evacuate and hid from the search teams, nobody was killed, but this first terrorist act of Australian soil was unquestionably a disaster. In the wake of the bomb Australia’s Prime Minister Bernard James, worthy successor to Liberal PM John Howard, introduced hardline laws restricting immigration, confining potential terrorists (ie all Muslims and other dissidents) in ghettos, mandatory identity cards, compulsory check points, and other concessions in the name of safety and freedom.
Two years later Leo James, failed entrepreneur and black-sheep twin of the PM, is standing in the only completed suite of his latest failure, a grandiose hotel complex in north Queensland, drunkenly celebrating the arrival of category five hurricane Yusuf – the insurance money is worth way more than the complex would otherwise get. When Leo finally realises the danger of the hurricane he starts to leave the hotel, but is kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men in a commandeered Australia Post van, though not before a piece of hurricane-thrown corrugated roofing decapitates one of the would-be kidnappers. Led by a burqa-clad woman, the gang are a branch of the Great Southern Jihad and she claims the GSJ set the Canberra bomb. She takes Leo on a drive to meet her bosses but, before they’ve gone any distance at all, the van is ambushed by Federal Police, who kill the men and strip the burqa off Aisha Fatima Islam, also known as Nancy Campbell, revealing a pale, almost albino woman. Uninterested in debriefing her, AFP officers are about to shoot her when they’re killed and Leo (and Aisha/Nancy) are taken captive again.
Only Leo discovers he’s not a captive – he’s been rescued by the Oz Underground, a group devoted to restoring Australia’s pre-bomb democracy, a group he’d always believed were apocryphal. Harry, the cell leader, tells Leo that the AFP would have killed him, too, and he proves it – the news announces that the body found on Leo’s construction site was his. Leo’s own twin wants him dead and, as PM, has the power to do it.
McGahan shines a spotlight on what’s wrong with Australia today, from the new ultra-nationalism to the loss of our sense of irreverence, and paints a grim picture of what could happen if we continue to blithely ignore the erosion of our rights and the rights of refugees and the dispossessed. His discussion about secularism failing to inoculate youth against radical religion is inspired and, like much of the book, really resonated with me.
I’m no fan of cricket but the whole description of an Australian-American match was fantastic, and little asides (like comparing the CIA observers to invading Romans – “Ah, but forgive me. It’s been illegal now for some years to compare America to the Roman Empire hasn’t it – by special act of Congress, indeed, ratified by the governments of every allied nation. A criminal offence. American cannot be anything like the Roman Empire, because the Roman Empire collapsed, and to suggest any sort of similar fate for the US is pure treason”) are inspired.
Underground is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – the pace is relentless, the plot is both terrifying and believable, it exemplifies what Australia is all about, it’s thoughtful and reflective, and it’s unexpectedly funny and pointed and just plain Australian; it really couldn’t have been written by an author of any other nation. I thoroughly enjoyed every word and was torn between racing through to see what happened next and lingering so the book wasn’t over any sooner than it had to be. This is genuinely great. Read it! - Alex

Sunday, January 6

Esther Friesner (ed): Did You Say Chicks?!

Another collection of fantasy tales from the Chicks in Chainmail series this is a fun assortment of short stories about girls with attitude and the weaponry to back it up.
We revisit old friends from the first anthology and meet some new ones, hunting zombies and making movies along the way.
Like the first in the series I enjoyed this collection. As with any anthology I enjoyed some stories more than others but I can’t say there was anything included here that I didn’t like. I was particularly amused by the epic poem that features in the dedication. Hunt it down, read it for yourself.-Lynn

Saturday, January 5

‘Was…’ – Geoff Ryman

We usually open fiction reviews with a summary of the plot, but that’s not easy with Was…, which weaves together the stories of four people into an interesting whole spanning a hundred and fourteen years. In 1989 Jonathan is an out-of-work actor who, captured by the magic of The Wizard of Oz as a small boy, is searching for the truth before he dies of AIDS. In 1875 five-year-old Dorothy Gael is sent to live in Zeandale, Kansas, with her bitter aunt Em and distant uncle Henry after her beloved family died of “the Dip” (diphtheria) in St Louis. In 1927 Baby Frances Gumm performs with her two older sisters during the silent movies screened in her family’s movie house; they’re ever on the move because her beloved daddy keeps getting into some kind of trouble in every town they go to, trouble that makes her momma angry. And in 1956 former C-average high school jock Bill Davidson, while waiting for the draft, confuses his fiancé and family by choosing to work in a Home for the Mentally Ill in California.
Each of the stories is compelling, and the way they intersect is organic and believable. Each of the central characters develops in a compelling and unpredictable way, and the secondary characters are fully fleshed and realised. Like The Chronoliths, Was… looks at interconnectivity (though with less science) and, also like The Chronoliths, I’m glad I read it but, despite the strength of the elements of the text, I didn’t really enjoy Was… - I think because there’s so much bleakness, so much rage and powerlessness, and so little hope. – Alex

Friday, January 4

Kelley Armstrong: Dime Store Magic

A witch finds herself in a battle for the custody of her adopted daughter when the girl’s sorcerer father discovers her existence. Under attack from a cabal of powerful sorcerers and their telekinetic half-demon employee, and expelled from her coven when the neighbours discover what she is, she turns to a sorcerer lawyer for help. Together they fight the cabal, initiate the teenaged witch and discover long missing spell books, falling in love along the way.
Vendettas, secrets, teenaged angst and troublesome neighbours - of course I enjoyed this book. It’s fast paced and full of unexpected twists. I was already superficially familiar with the main characters from the author’s earlier works but this book fleshed them out well creating believable people from the earlier sketches. We are given more detail into the ordering of this magical world and I anticipate seeing more of these characters in the future or at least their tangential friends.
Set in a world established in earlier works this is a stand alone story that can be read without being familiar with those works but I would suggest at least reading Stolen first, since that is where many of these characters make their debut. Though strictly speaking that’s not necessary.-Lynn

Thursday, January 3

The Chronoliths – Robert Charles Wilson

Software designer Scott Warden moved his wife, Janice, and their young daughter Kaitlin to Thailand for work, but his contacts dried up. He intended to write a book about expatriate beach culture but lost interest and now he drifts in Chumphon, barely supporting them, young and cocky. When ex-Marine Hitch Paley approached him late one hot night, asking if he wanted to check something out Scott, pissed from a fight with Janice and generally restless, agreed without hesitating. Paley had heard a low-thunder-like roar the night before and wanted to investigate. What they found, bypassing the military security, was the first Chronolith – a giant, four-sided, obelisk-shaped monument of a material like blue glass, impossibly implanted in the ground, commemorating in English and pidgin Mandarin, the surrender of Malaysia and southern Thailand to something or someone called “Kuin” on December 21st 2041 – 20 years in the future.
Scott and Paley were captured by Thai police and interrogated, and finally released. But while they were in jail Janice, who had taken their increasingly unwell daughter to hospital, where she was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing necrotising infection – Janice repeatedly tried to contact Scott, without success, before she and Kait were airlifted to the American embassy hospital. Kait permanently lost hearing in her ear but lived and Janice, who could not excuse Scott’s unavailability, left their marriage and moved back to the US.
Scott, too, returned to the States, where the puzzle of the Kuin monument occupied only a fraction of public consciousness. Studies revealed that it was made of no known matter and could not be damaged; nobody believed that the date was accurate, that it had somehow been projected into the past – that must surely be a false clue about its origins. Then the second monument appeared – taller this time, in the shape of a stylised conqueror, in the heart of Bangkok, where it tore gas mains and killed thousands.
As more monuments appear Kuin, who has not yet identified himself, let alone fought a single battle, becomes a symbol of ever-increasing power and his victory seems assured. After all, we can’t even work out how his monuments are created, let alone how they’re projected back in time some twenty years and three months. And if we can’t destroy his monuments, how have we any hope of defeating Kuin himself?
The Chronoliths explores ideas about interconnectivity, the logic of correlation and the meaning of coincidence, and the power of belief. Threaded through the story of the impact of the world as a whole (including some fascinating insights into cults, and the need of people to affiliate, conflict and belong) is woven the story of our narrator, Scott, and his increasing centrality in the crisis.
I’m writing this review almost a week after reading the book, and I’m still not sure if I enjoyed it. It certainly made me think, and I don’t think I’m doing the themes of the book or its scale justice. I think on reflection that I found it interesting, but not arresting, and I didn’t feel a compulsive need to finish just one more chapter but I’m glad I read it. - Alex

Tuesday, January 1

Behind the Best Sellers – Jenny Bond & Chris Sheedy

What is it that sets a great book, a popular book, a best seller, apart from the thousands of other books? While plot, writing, timing and characterisation all play a part, these novels have something else, but what?
They conclude that those who write with passion and struggle are more likely to produce writing apart from the average, and a high percentage of the authors discussed experienced significant deprivation and overcame substantial hurdles. Others, on the other hand, did not, and their work is no less compelling for that.
In an attempt to capture something of the spark that ignites best sellers, Bond and Sheedy have created vignettes of the life and times of the writers of some of Western literature’s most beloved, and highest selling, books – whittled down from an initial list of two hundred, there are 40 novels (ranging from Pride and Prejudice to War of the Worlds, Hollywood Wives to Winnie-the-Pooh) and ten non-fiction texts, selected on reputation as much as sales, and covering the gamut of tastes rather than purely snobbish literary works.

It’s fitting that this is my last review for 2007 – next year I intend to read fewer, but more meritorious, books, including some of those discussed in Behind the Best Sellers, How to Read a Novel, and The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. That’s the plan, anyway. And we know that someone visits the blog. Have you read something based on a review? Violently disagree with us? Feel free to comment (click on the hypertext ‘comments’ link), or suggest any books you think we’d enjoy. Happy New Year and stay tuned! - Alex