Friday, February 29

A False Sense of Well Being - Jeanne Braselton

Therapist Jessie Maddox, thirty eight, married to a faithful and responsible banker sixteen years her senior, has everything she could ask for. But, discontented, she finds herself dreaming and day-dreaming, about her husband's death - from car accident, accidental poisoning, or smothering him while he sleeps beside her. She just knows the role of mourning widow would suit her, if only her husband would do the right thing, and die already.
This first novel has rave reviews on the cover - a brilliant first novel, by all accounts. Except mine. I picked it up because of the promised "colourful cast of eccentrics" Jessie meets while going through a midlife crisis. but didn't make it there.
It wasnt terrible, but Jessie just didn't speak to me - she's a therapist, for heaven's sake! Of all people she should know - if you don't like your life, fix it. There's no reason for her not to leave the worthy Turner - she's educated, has a career, has no children, he isn't violent - but instead she meanders along wasting the time she has. Maybe I'm just in a disgruntled mood, but I wasn't interested in wasting my time along with her. - Alex

Thursday, February 28

Why We Buy - Paco Underhill

Subtitled "The Science of Shopping", this accessible and absorbing work, written by the field's founder, is a fascinating insight into what makes us chose to buy what we buy. Underhill, an environmental psychologist, started out working for local governments looking at ways of imrpoving parks and other outdoor public spaces. In Why We Buy he discusses how he came to pioneer the study of shopping habits and behaviours, as well as some interesting insights into not only the way we act but also how companies encourage us to spend. Those of us trying to cut down on unnecessary purchases can pick up some handy hints on how to prevent our resistance to impulse buying being undermined - for a start, don't pick up a basket!
Underhill has an engaging voice and clearly loves his subject; he is able to convey that in his writing with ease and grace. Themes seamlessly emerge and are integrated into the work as a whole, and my first impulse when I finished was to check if others of his work were available. If you have an interest in shopping psychology, retail marketing and advertising, or why you go out to get a litre of milk and come back with two trolley loads of shopping, this is the book for you. - Alex

Wednesday, February 27

Last Drinks - Andrew McGahan

George Verney fled from Brisbane in the aftermath of the Inquiry, an investigation into corruption that tore the state apart. Content to work as a journalist for the local paper, George has lived in the small town of Highwood for a decade. When his old friend is found dead int he local power sub-station, under decidedly suspicious circumstances, George is drawn back to the city he once loved, and the life that once loved him back.
Like many Australians, though not of Queensland I have a connection to it (in this case my father and his family) and have visited. As McGahan points out, Queensland is different - a difference accepted but unexplored. McGahan discusses how, why it was able to keep the same premier for over thirty years, why the political set up is different from that in the rest of the country, how the people in power managed to inculcate a distrust of education and infrastructure that other people take as necessities, and how corruption not only flourished but became an accepted part of doing business.
I can't do justice to this magnificent book, an homage to alcohol abuse, a clear eyed vision of Brisbane past, and a triumph of writing. His voice is crystalline, his prose lucid and lucent, his protagonist flawed and blind and genuine. I recently reviewed another of his books, Underground, which was funnier. I devoured it, and was less conscious of the beautiful prose - in Last Drinks I was better able to pace myself, and therefore caught a lot of the just perfect writing. I don't tend to retain specific phrases long, but the sentence "Conditioned air embraced me like winter" stays with me.
I'm tempted to quote long sections about the Queensland way, both for their factual illumination and for the beautiful prose. Instead I'm going to restrict myself to one paragraph (from pages - 341 - 342):
"... we were falling behind the southern states in everything - industry, infrastructure, education. People were starting to wonder why. So the parliament said tot he voters, it doesn't matter if you're poor. You're tougher than those southern states, you don't need good roads or good schools, you're tougher than that, you're different. Ignore anyone from the south who laughs at us, ignore anyone who suggests things could be better. In fact, be suspicious of anyone who says things could be better. They don't understand the Queensland way...
"You're rough and ready, they said. You don't need sophistication. You'll get by because you're simple, decent., hard-working folk. Be satisfied with less, be satisfied with backwardness. No, be proud of it. Because you're unique here in Queensland...
"The worship of ignorance. It's an excuse, that's all it is. It's the excuse of rednecks and backwaters and corrupt governments the world over. The saddest thing is the that people believe it. They get used to it. They accept whatever leftovers they're given. And meanwhile the bastards at the top keep scooping the heart out of the place."

Well, I tried for one paragraph but just couldn't stop. This is a novel that is deeply disquieting and deeply satisfying. I postponed reading it because I so enjoyed Underground I was concerned this would, if less good, detract from my enjoyment of the first read book. Instead, Last Drinks has enhanced my appreciation of this writer and his overwhelmingly perfect creations. - Alex

Tuesday, February 26

How Does Asprin Find a Headache? - David Feldman

Best dipped in and out of over a period of days, this eclectic collection of nagging questions (why do the pockets of new jeans sometimes have sand in them? What happens to the holes punched out of writing paper? What takes women so long in bathrooms? Why doesn't ham change colour when it's cooked?) is of interest to those of us who like to collect odd facts for no particular reason. I have a slightly sticky brain, and enjoy knowing random things I'll probably never need to know - if, like me, that thing appeals to you, this is another valuable addition to the family miscellany. It's as well compiled as any other of its kind, and I learned some new facts. - Alex
PS For those of you whose interest was piqued by the questions raised above, the answers are: the sand's the residue of stones used to stone wash some jeans; the holes are recycled as toilet paper, paper towel etc; there are more steps involved in women voiding than men, from needing a stall to partially disrobing, and this fact isn't recognised when building the facilities, leading to a longer wait; ham's already processed (cured and/or smoked) when you buy it, setting the colour.

Monday, February 25

The Penguin Who Knew Too Much - Donna Andrews

When Caerphilly's small but exotic zoo is forced into bankruptcy, the inhabitants are farmed out to local households. Meg's father being the animal lover he is, somehow the penguins end up in the farmhouse she shares with fiancé Michael - along with an increasing parade of other former zoo residents, brought to her home at her father's suggestion. As the llamas are joined by camels, deer and three hyenas, famed naturalist Montgomery Blake also appears. He's far more irritating in person than on National Geographic specials, but surprisingly it's not his body Meg's father finds while digging a penguin pool in the basement. Meg's only hope is to identify his killer, and him.
This is the most recent Meg Langslow mystery, and you'll be relieved to learn that any more reviews are at least a year away! I have glutted on the series, and hope that in itself is tribute to how much I've enjoyed it. The writing is warm and funny, the characters involving and true, the plots genuine and outrageous, and the whole thing has been a welcome change of pace from the fairly full on reading I've had to do for uni. However, the pace of required reading has now eased up, and I'm ready to tackle some more heavy writing. If you, too, are in need of light distraction, don't go past this series. - Alex

Sunday, February 24

Running From the Law - Lisa Scottoline

Rita Marrone loves her father, poker, and the law. She also loves her live-in boyfriend, Paul, and through him has managed to become embroiled in a scandal, representing his father, the Honourable Fiske Hamilton, a judge accused of sexual harrassment. When Patricia Sullivan, the alleged harrassee, is found dead, Rita winds up defending Fiske - a triumph for her firm but a disaster for her relationship.
This is the third in Scottoline's hugely successful series about strong female lawyers in New York - the novels switch protagonists, and at this stage are not linked together. The novel moves briskly but is never far ahead of the reader, and the twists are unexpected but believable. Written in 1995, this installment is a little dated (laptops are a status symbol in themselves, and mobile phones aren't in wide use) but this is a minor quibble that doesn't get in the way of an enjoyable read. - Alex

Saturday, February 23

No Nest for the Wicket - Donna Andrews

Caerphilly's been hit by the eXtreme croquet rage, and the grounds near Meg and Michael's rambling farm house are perfect - steep hills, tweisty trees, and freely roaming sheep. It barely surprises Meg when, falling down a small and crumbling cliff edge, she almost lands on a body. The identity of the body, however, does come as a surprise, and in the process of identifying her and discovering why she was murdered, Meg uncovers a Caerphilly secret that lies at the core of the town's identity.
Of course, intertwined with this is more happenings from Meg's convoluted and lovable family, her father's latest obsession (ducks), which leads to the discovery of another body, the return of the Sprockets, the ongoing menace of Spike (the world's nasties small dog), and insights into the realities of small town life. Plus, of course, the sheer ludicrous hilarity of eXtreme croquet (not quite as rugged as Lynn's favourite extreme sport, extreme ironing, but a little more fun). I think I need to read this series spaced further apart, so I can savour each one and thereby write reviews that do it justice, but I know that's just not going to happen - Alex

Friday, February 22

Owls Well That Ends Well - Donna Andrews

Meg and Michael have finally found a house they can afford, close to the university where he works, and with space for her iron mongery work. The only hitch is that it belonged to Edwina Sprocket, the hoardiest of hoarders, and a condition of the sale was that they'd sell all the junk, giving a percentage of the profits to her family. The Sprockets are numerous (collectively: a surfeit of Sprockets), and convinced Meg and Michael will rip them off, so they're keeping a close eye on the proceedings.
Enter the biggest rummage sale in Caerphilly history - and Meg's family have decided this is a brilliant opportunity to offload their old junk, so there are any number of Langslowian relations underfoot, with an additional seventeen families setting up stalls. And when Meg's dad, retired physician and polymath, discovers owls in the barn, he becomes president of the newly-formed organisation SPOOR (Stop Poisoning Our Owls and Raptors).
Once again Andrews delights with her extended cast of believably eccentric characters, warm good humour, sardonic asides and involving plot. I can't think of anything I haven't said before about this series, except that it's really very good! Alex

Thursday, February 21

The Chocolate Lovers' Diet - Carole Matthews

Lucy's happily engaged, Autumn has a new boyfriend, Chantal's hoping to save her marriage, and Nadia's husband's stopped gambling. So all's well with the Chocolate Lovers' Club? Well, no - Aidan's in Australia and when Lucy activates the web cam a woman answers - a woman in lingerie with a man in a rumpled bed behind her. Autumn's new boyfriend is perfect, but not for her parents, and her drug-abusing brother's turning to her for help. Chantal's made a distressing discovery, and her husband's had enough of her philandering ways (plus he wants a baby). And Nadia's husband hasn't completely quit gambling.
The solution? Chocolate.
I'm quite the chocolate lover myself, but I almost acquired diabetes reading this - the constant, indiscriminate, mindless chocolate consumption (primarily by the narrating Lucy) made me queasy. I really, really hate chick lit heroines who do stupid things for no good reason (except to advance the plot), and there are no shortage of stupid things here. I did finish it, so that's something, but I think I'll take a break from chick lit in general, Carole Matthews in particular, and chocolate, for now. - Alex

Wednesday, February 20

We'll Always Have Parrots - Donna Andrews

Meg Langslow and her now-fiancé Michael are comfortably ensconced in a hotel - if you don't count the fans on the balcony outside their room, that is. Drama professor Michael has a popular role on the schock series Porfiria, Queen of the Jungle and they're attending a con. When Meg finds a parrot in their room and her call to the desk about removal is rebuffed she's not pleased, but then she discovers there really are parrots everywhere. The bigger problem, though, is the aging and temperamental leading lady, Miss Wynncliffe-Jones. When she's found dead, Meg's detecting skills are required once more.
Andrews clearly has a fondness for cons (conventions of like-minded, usually FSF, folk) - the loving attention to detail and amusing bits sprinkled through the book speak of familiarity and affection. And the book in general is light-hearted and amusing. Meg's family make their by now expected appearance, and it's a tribute to her writing that this feels less like a plot device than a welcome addition to the narrative. Part of the charm of this series is the return appearances of favourite characters, and We'll Always Have Parrots doesn't disappoint. I also like the gaps between books, which often include significant off-screen action, rather than continuing each new book from where the last one left off. That's a detail I've been meaning to mention in the series but kept forgetting. - Alex

Tuesday, February 19

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

Framed as a series of interviews with veteran robopsychologist Susan Calvin, I, Robot collects Asimov’s robot short stories in one volume. From “Robbie,” the tale of a little girl and her devoted, mute servant nursemaid, to supercomputers protecting us from ourselves, every story weaves in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and explores a different aspect of human/cybernetic relationships.
Initially concentrated on the unique aspects of humanity interacting with another intelligent creature, and looking at how this reflects human nature, the later stories focus more closely on the interplay between the Laws and how increasingly sophisticated robots interpret them.
The First Law states that a robot may not hurt a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm – but what constitutes ‘harm’? What happens when this Law conflicts with the Second (that robots must obey all human orders except where doing so would conflict with the First Law) or Third Laws (a robot must protect it own existence unless doing so would conflict with either the First or Second Law)? To what lengths would a robot go to in order to prevent harm? Is there a way of neutralising any of the Laws?
I have read I, Robot before, many times, the most recent of which was several years ago. It is a testament to Asimov’s skill that his writing remains not only accessible but also contemporary and relevant. Indeed, the original stories themselves wholly stand the test of time, and are dated only by the linking narrative which provides dates that must have seemed far off once but are now contemporaneous (Calvin, for example, was born in 1982 and is 75 years old when the book begins, and the Laws cited at the beginning come from the 56th edition of the Handbook of Robotics, published in 2058).
While Asimov’s ideas are, of course, central to his success, what sets him apart from the majority of his similarly innovative colleagues during Science Fiction’s Golden Age is his writing – clear characters, subordinate to the plot; lucid and believable dialogue; exposition that is unforced and lacks redundancy; an attitude that the readership are intellectually curious and engaged with the work; and a sprinkling of humour, not only from the author (an inveterate punster) but within his characters. And he deals with substantial topics – the question of what constitutes harm is obviously addressed, but Asimov also explores varieties of prejudice, the moral good, and portrayed a strong female character earlier than most. If you’re new to the genre, or the author, I, Robot is a great place to start. - Alex

Monday, February 18

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian

Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity and even their lives to learn the true story behind the legend of Dracula. This is supposedly an account of how a woman inherits both their cumulative research and their scholastic obsession with the man who once was Vlad the Impaler. This book asks the question do vampires exist and answers it with a resounding yes.
Through a series of letters, books, documents, maps, folk songs and half forgotten traditions, that stretch back over 500yrs this woman risks everything to trace Dracula’s final resting place, only to be disappointed. Her search continues until she finally comes face to face the undead one himself and witnesses his dispatch.
Or did she? The author provides just enough of a hint to suggest that the story is not quite over yet.
At over six hundred pages this is a long book and the writing style made it seem even longer. Much of this story is told rather than shown. I believe that this was a conscious choice on the part of the author to give the text a documentary or academic flavour. And in this, if indeed it was the author’s intention, she has been successful. Having acknowledged that, I feel it a shame that a story predominantly about chasing, and being chased, across Europe by vampires lacked intensity. It really needed, for want of a better phrase, a higher scare factor.
Once I was consoled to the drier style I did enjoy the story. One factor that really stood out in its favour- it was made very clear that the main protagonist was building on the work of those that came before her. We were only hearing her story because she was there at the culmination of centuries of effort. Unlike similar books (such as the Da Vinci Code, Decipher or the travesty that was The Last Templar) where the millennium old mystery is solved in a matter of days without help or prior understanding of factors involved, this story did not ask the reader to accept savant like abilities on the part of the protagonists or rely overly on coincidence or the generosity of Fate.
Overall an interesting variation on the theme but not exactly riveting-Lynn

Sunday, February 17

The Chocolate Lovers' Club - Carole Matthews

Lucy Lombard's life is in flux - she works as an office temp, and her boyfriend Marcus hasn't asked her to move in yet. But a constant in her life is chocolate. Any chocolate in a pinch, but for the worst crises and the best celebrations it has to be the amazing creations of Chocolate Heaven. A boutique chocolaterie, Chocolate Heaven is also where Lucy met her three best friends, fellow devotees - Autumn, whose hippy life seems to be on track, but nobody knows about her addict brother; Nadia, who chose her Western husband over her Asian family, before she knew he would gamble away their future; and wealthy Chantal, who'd give up all her money if only her husband would sleep with her.
In the best chick lit tradition, The Chocolate Lover's Club weaves their stories together and creates happy(ish) endings for them all. Also in the tradition, the heroine does stupid things for no good reason - for example, when she sees the guy she's got a date with walking down the street, even though they both have mobiles and she's driving a van full of expensive dresses to a fashion show, and even though, until she saw him, she hadn't been going to contact him, Lucy tries to get his attention, unexpectedly pulls to the side of the road, gets rear-ended, leaves the van unattended to run after said date, only to return to the van and discover the rear-enders have left without leaving insurance details but have removed all the clothes from the van, leaving her jobless. The whole incident didn't really move the plot forward, and didn't make any sense at all. There's also a bit more telling than I'd like, and some painful would-be punishness ("'You should have seen the butt on the photographer I just had to blow off.'... [Chantal] prefers to blow her photographers rather than blow them off.") Also, Chantal is American. While there may be thousands of Americans named Chantal, every (three) Chantal I've known was not just English but quintessentially, public-school-and-a-pony English. It's like having an American named Tarquin.
On the plus side, the 0nly shoe obsession belongs to Marcus, the other characters don't make ridiculous, van-abandoning decisions, and the chocolate descriptions were intriguing (though I did eat chocolate I wouldn't have otherwise, so bear that in mind). There's a sequel, and I may just try that, too. - Alex

Saturday, February 16

Tall, Dark and Dead – Tate Hallaway

When she found her coven slaughtered by the Vatican's witch hunters, the remaining member called upon Lilith, the original Goddess, for vengeance. Forgeting to set any of the usual safeties, Garnet now has Lilith permanently with her. She's moved, changed identities - working as a Goth in a New Age store, the last place any self-respecting Wicca would be seen in - and is lying low. But when the most gorgeous guy to cross her path turns out to be a vamp, and her vamp ex turns up again, Garnet has a whole new bunch of problems.
This is an entertaining addition to the genre, with a couple of new twists. There's a coherent backstory - in fact, it reads as though it's the second in a series, but unlike other novels we've come across like this, all the previous action is unobtrusively woven into the plot. The characters are engaging, particularly the mundanes, and though a sequel is highly likely, the plot was well resolved. - Alex

Friday, February 15

A Theory of Relativity – Jacquelyn Michard

Gordon McKenna’s life has been on hold since his beloved older sister Georgia was diagnosed with cancer. They know she’s going to die, and she’s the heart of his family. At least he and his parents have the comfort of her one-year-old daughter, Keefer, though they fear that Georgia’s husband, pro-circuit golfer Ray, will take Keefer home to Florida. So when Ray and Georgia die in a car accident it’s almost a relief – their will gives custody to Gordon and his parents.
But when it emerges that they were in the process of changing the will, considering giving custody to Ray’s prim and proper parents instead, the comfort of Keefer is transformed into a pitched custody battle.
Though told primarily (and with bias) from the McKenna side, enough of Ray's family comes through that it's clear they, too, have Keefer Katherine's best interests at heart, even if their picture of what that involves is markedly different. Gordon, the chief protagonist, has the steepest character arc, and was the most involving.
This was an engrossing novel that explores what ‘family’ really means - the capacity of love and the meaning of family, the realities of adoption, and the conflict of merging very different families through marriage. The coda of the novel could be criticised as being too neat, but I found it satisfying. - Alex

Thursday, February 14

Tomb of the Golden Bird – Elizabeth Peters

Egyptologist Amelia Peabody, her husband Emerson (the Father of Curses) and their family – both blood and extended – have returned to Egypt for the 1922 season. Once again Emerson’s hopes of excavating in the prized Valley of the Kings have been dashed, as Lord Carvarvon has maintained his concession. Most distressing of all, he, like most Egyptologists, had concluded the Valley had revealed all there was until Emerson pushed him to surrender the concession. For Emerson, who is less subtle than he believes, is convinced the tomb of the near-forgotten boy king Tutankhamon is waiting to be discovered. And within days of excavation archeologist Howard Carter, under the aegis of Lord Carnarvon, has indeed discovered what looks very much like (and modern day readers know) an unscavenged, near-intact tomb.
Yet, astonishingly, Amelia has greater things to concern her – chiefly the reappearance of her brother-in-law, Sethos, in danger of his life, and a mysterious document in impenetrable code, the possession of which is putting her loved ones at great risk.
This is the eighteenth Peabody mystery, and Peters (an Egyptologist herself) has maintained a compelling consistency throughout the series. The characters are engaging, the plots involving, the story arcs that extend throughout are satisfying, and she has managed, like Kerry Greenwood, to create characters who are relatable to a modern audience while retaining consistency with their own time.
Like so many well loved series, a significant part of the enjoyment of the book was reconnecting with characters I like and respect. The relationships between characters are complicated, each book is coloured by and intricately involved with events of those that went before, and reading the series out of order would rob the reader of much of the satisfaction that is otherwise available. If you like strong women, exotic locales, manly men, intelligent writing, real family values, and glimpses into other worlds, start with The Crocodile on the Sandbank and thank your lucky stars you have a substantial backlog before having to wait for the next one to be written. – Alex

Wednesday, February 13

Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon – Donna Andrews

Meg Langslow’s working part-time at her brother’s new business, Mutant Wizards. His board game, Lawyers from Hell, created when he was supposed to be studying for the Bar, has taken off, and the electronic version’s the biggest thing to hit gaming in forever. But it’s not all smooth sailing – fans and spies are trying to uncover the secrets of the latest edition of Lawyers from Hell, the therapists who share Mutant Wizards’ offices aren’t happy, and one of the most annoying employees has just been found dead on an automated mail cart. Even more pressing, Meg and boyfriend Michael can’t find anywhere to live.
This fourth in the Meg Langstow series is as enjoyable as the first and third, and I’m glad I’ve decided to stick with it. The characters are fun, Meg’s strong, determined and funny, and the extended cast are dynamic. The mystery’s original, but it’s the little touches, like pirate variations on the game, that set this apart from other, lesser amateur detective mystery series. I’, a bit behind in my reviewing or I’d come up with more specific example – insert your own superlatives and give the series a try. – Alex

Tuesday, February 12

Amanda Quick: Surrender

After years of fighting off suitors more interested in her fortune than her, a young heiress is pleased to consider herself firmly on the shelf. But just as society is starting to allow her the limited freedom of a confirmed spinster a new suitor arrives to try to win her hand-and her fortune. But this one is different; he tempts her with adventure and freely admits he is willing to accept her as his mistress if she is unwilling to be his bride.
Forced to marry when they are compromised beyond saving, the two learn that while lust and love are separate things the one can lead to the other if they are willing to let it.
This historical romance lured me in with its unconventional heroine. And I don’t just mean her rejection of the mores of her time (that, after all, is par for the course with this genre). This heroine is neither young nor exceptionally pretty by the standards of her day and what a refreshing thing that was.
At a time when my life has been incredibly busy, Surrender provided a quiet interlude. Undemanding and light, it was easy to read while the main part of my concentration was elsewhere, and I closed the book with a feeling of satisfaction when the story was over. Just what I needed.-Lynn

Monday, February 11

Farenheit 451 – Ray Brandbury

In a world where fictional books are forbidden because they cause discord and unhappiness, where possession of them is a crime, Guy Montag’s uniform is decorated with the numbers 451, a symbol of his office, for that is the temperature (Farenheit) at which paper burns. Guy is a fireman – his job is to burn those books that remain. Until the day one flutters toward him, half open, and he uccumbs to reading the contents.
I don’t know what I ought to be more embarrassed by – that I hadn’t read this literary classic until now, or that I don’t get what the big deal is. To me, Farenheit 451 is a fairly unexceptional piece of mid-fifties science fiction, replete with all the hallmarks – the novel is slender in size and scope, an all-male main cast with paper cutouts for female characters, an original central idea that isn’t well-supported (the novel doesn’t explicitly say that it’s only fiction, and poetry, and religious works, that are banned, but there must be some writing around because Guy’s literate), and a missing back story – how we went from being a literate globe to one where the written word is banned everywhere.
These are flaws common to much of the writing in the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. But compared to another popular classic, Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, for instance, Farenheit 451 falls short. Like that book, Planet of the Apes is slender, the transformation of the world is unexplained (though there are hints), the female characters are less present and fully realised than the males, and the basic concept isn’t wholly supported. But the writing is compelling, the characters relatable, and the twist – if you haven’t already been exposed to the film – is unexpected.
Guy’s transition from fireman to protector of books isn’t well explained, and though we see the transformative moment, it transpires that he has a sizeable collection of books at home. He also has no concept of human nature or the ingrained nature of societal mores, so he exposes himself to his wife and her friends in a way that made no sense at all to me.
I’m sure that, at the time it was written, the radical idea, the warning of the potential for television to bring everyone down to the lowest median, and the well-imagined technology (most of which currently exists) was compelling. But my overwhelming thought when reading this was that it could have been so much better – with fully fleshed characters, a decent backstory and explicit motivation, this may truly have been worthy. Without that I don’t understand how it’s retained its allure when so much better imagined writing in the genre is unacclaimed, and when the genre itself is so derided. I’m glad I read it, so I no longer feel a nagging sense that I Should read it, but I can’t see a need to return. - Alex

Sunday, February 10

Fly Me to the Moon – Alyson Noël

Flight attendant Hailey Lane’s birthday goes from spectacular – a cancelled trip means she can get home unexpectedly early, home to her captain boyfriend of four years who, armed with a small turquoise box, is sure to propose – to devastating, when she discovers Michael getting a blowjob. From a flight attendant from a rival (budget!) airline. Who’s a guy. Now Hailey has to work out what she really wants from life, and if she’s still content to coast along waiting for her life to begin, or if she’s going to take charge.
This is a frothy, failry predictable but enjoyable holiday read. The exotic locations, particularly Mykonos, are designed for beachside reading, the obligatory supportive gay friend, cute straight savior, and misunderstanding that get in the way of a premature happily ever after are present, and though the ending’s predictable, the trip’s a blast. – Alex

Saturday, February 9

An Ice-Cold Grave – Charlaine Harris

Hired to find a missing teenaged boy in Doraville, North Carolina, Harper Connelly discovers the burial site of her first serial killer – as well as Jeff McGraw, and five other local boys who vanished over a five year period (all written off, by the outgoing sheriff, as runaways), Harper detects the remains of two other abductees. What they experienced before their merciful deaths makes her weak and sick, and all she wants to do is leave. But between the state investigators, and being assaulted herself, Harper and her step-her Tolliver are compelled to stay. Trapped by a rapidly-approaching ice-storm, and certain that the killer is local, Harper’s in greater danger than ever before. And even when the killer’s in custody, Harper’s not reassured that the town is safe.
This is by far the most graphic of Harris’s novel to date – both the violence (which is far from gratuitous), and the sex scenes (with which I was a little uncomfortable) are more detailed than her usual style, but not at the expense of the rest of the novel.
The plot is dynamic and fast-paced, the relationship between Harper and Tolliver is nauanced and involving, the secondary characters are compelling, and though I guessed the identity of the psychopath fairly early on I didn’t feel cheated. Harper does have a touch of the Sookie about her – every eligible man around is drawn to her – but it’s less inexplicable and I can live with it. I’m certainly interested in reading the next instalment. – Alex

Friday, February 8

A Slipping-Down Life – Anne Tyler

Teenager Evie Decker’s life was uneventful until the night she heard Drumsticks Casey being interviewed on a late night radio show. Something about his laconic, irreverent voice attracted her, and she started going to his gigs until, overwhelmed, she carved his name (backwards) into her forehead.
Which is pretty much where I stopped, about half way through the novel. Apparently a “major motion picture” (have you ever noticed they’re never made into minor films, or straight to DVD), with Guy Pearce no less, I found A Slipping-Down Life meandering and unsatisfying. Okay, literary writing does tend to be more about the characters than the plot, but even so I was uninvolved. When I checked the copyright page I discovered this was first published in 1969 – Anne Tyler’s unquestionably grown as a writer since then, and unless you’re determined to read her entire collection I’d recommend skipping over this and moving onto something a little more accomplished. – Alex

Thursday, February 7

Son of the Mob – Gordon Korman

Vince Luca’s just like any other teen – he’s trying to find his own identity as he navigates his final year of high school. But it’s not that easy when you’re father’s the head of one of the state’s most powerful mob syndicates. His older brother Tommy was only too happy to join the family business, but Vince doesn’t want the “vending machine business” to touch his life at all. Though his father doesn’t really understand, he respects Vince’s decision. That is, until the new girl Vince meets turns out to be the daughter of an FBI agent monitoring the Luca’s home. And when Vince starts to represent a couple of losers who’ve got behind on their vig, he finds himself deeper into the business than he ever imagined.
Vince is a fantastic character many teens will identify with – who hasn’t struggled to forge their own identity, independent of their family’s expectations and limitations? At the heart of this book that is superficially about adolescent rebellion lies a truth about (functional) families – respect, love, trust, faith, even when there’s conflict.
Korman’s books are uniformly great, particularly for reluctant readers, and his male protagonists are appealing to boys who can’t find anything to engage with. The writing style is brisk, the characters well developed and original, and he manages to make the most fantastic scenarios seem plausible. I’ve read everything he’s published, and he just goes from strength to strength. – Alex

Wednesday, February 6

Shopaholic & Baby – Sophie Kinsella

Former financial expert Becky Brandon (nee Bloomwood) has everything she ever wanted – a great job as personal shopper in London’s newest up-market clothes chain, a loving husband who can afford to support her shopping habit (especially after the latest deal, currently in progress), a newly-discovered half-sister, and a honeymoon pregnancy. So why is her life falling apart?
In this fifth instalment in the Shopaholic series, Kinsella has managed to perfectly capture the mindless, acquisitive, must-have-the-latest-thing mentality of a sub-set of London fashionistas, combined with the one-up-manship of celebrity pregnancy. It’s to her credit that her heroine, who fits the archetypal chick lit model, isn’t frustrating and grating, at least to me. Somehow, despite the shoe fetish, compulsive spending, self-directed focus, tendency to florid dramatisation, and penchant for digging herself into huge holes that a straight-forward explanation at the beginning would have avoided, Becky is endearing. She has a naïve sweetness that shines through the shopping addiction and orientation on trivialities. The novel also has a couple of substantial secondary plots (what’s Luke’s big secret – something to do with work, an affair with his university girlfriend [who sends him texts in Latin] or both?), satisfying pay-offs, and a great cast of supporting characters, from Becky’s vaguely odd-ball family and husband Luke’s icy mother to Becky’s friends and extended circle, and the celebrity obstetrician, Dr Venetia Carter.
The series would unquestionably be too much in one go but, read spaced out and as light relief from incredibly densely written sociology chapters (school’s back!), Shopaholic & Baby was a welcome, refreshing and rewarding change of pace. – Alex

Tuesday, February 5

Rewind – William Sleator

Middle school student Peter’s parents were expecting their first natural child, an event prompting them to reveal for the first time that he was adopted. An artistic, sensitive boy, his pragmatic parents never understood why he’d rather create art than play football, and their response to his carefully crafted marionettes and play had such a disappointing response that, blinded by frustration, anger and grief, he ran out on to the street one wet and rainy night. He was killed instantly.
Waking up in a pool of bright white light, Peter is told he had twenty-four hours to pick a time and rewind his life up until his death – if he changes the past, maybe he can avoid dying again. But can Peter pick the right moment, and can he work out in time what needs to be different?
This is an interesting novel about what ifs, family friction (the usual disappointments of adolescence rather than the frequently represented outright abuses), the role of communication, and the advantages of reframing situations – seeing them differently in order to experience them differently.
That all sounds quite dull, but the brilliance of Sleator is his unique view. Peter is engaging, entertaining, and startlingly oblivious to the needs and sensibilities of other people. His efforts to prevent his death become increasingly more insightful about cause and effect, specifically the impact that changing his behaviour and (consequently) his thinking about the needs and world views of others, has on their emotions and reactions to him.

I've enjoyed other of Sleator's works more, primarily those aimed at older readers (like The Green Futures of Tycho, The Boy Who Reversed Himself, The House of Stairs and Others See Us) , but I think that this is great for its target audience and an enjoyable read on its own merits. It may even have an effect on young adolescents who - and I was certainly no exception - tend to forget that the world exists apart from them! - Alex

Monday, February 4

Revenge of the Wrought Iron Flamingos – Donna Andrews

Blacksmith Meg Langstow’s allowed herself to participate in Yorktown’s annual civil war reenactment, running a booth with her wares. Usually a fun and light-hearted occasion, the involvement of boyfriend Michael’s overbearing mother has forced an unnaturally rigid constraint on the event – Time Police patrol the ground, handing out fines for anyone possessing or interacting with anachronisms (even when the items, like Meg’s iron nails, aren’t anachronistic at all). While Michael enjoys himself enormously as a Frech soldier, Meg has to hide her stunningly anachronistic, hot pink flamingos (commissioned specially and at a high mark up to compensate for the psychic pain involved in their creation) from Mrs Waterston and the Time Police, derail annoying would-be journalist cousin Wesley, and discover if Roger Benson, the man her brother’s entrusted his carefully-honed computer game concept to, is indeed a crook. When Roger’s found murdered, in Meg’s tent, apparently stabbed with one of her flamingos, and the deputy running the case proves beyond doubt to be an idiot apt to pop suspects in prison for no reason, Meg knows whe has to intervene. Her family, unsurprisingly, are keen to take it in turns to be increasingly likely suspects.
In Flamingos I found the quirkiness and joy that I found in Murder with Peacocks but found missing in its sequel. Series with amateur detectives can stretch the limits of probablility but so far Andrews has managed to make her settings and secondary cast different and extensive enough that she's avoided this pitfall. Not every detail of the central character's romance needs to be discussed, which is pleasant, and Meg's family are still delightful. Most importantly, I like Meg herself, and I think that's the key to my enjoyment of the series overall - she's smart, funny, insightful, confident, capable and talented. I'm giving up on Andrew's other series but embracing this one wholeheartedly. - Alex

Sunday, February 3

Kerry Greenwood: Death by Water

Another of the peerless Phryne Fisher mysteries. In this one Phryne goes undercover on a luxury cruise in order to catch a jewel thief. Together with her intrepid companion, Dot, she weaves her way through the tangle of suspects with grace, style and a champagne cocktail, never resting until the job is done.
Greenwood delivers a delicious blend of mystery, humour and attitude in this story of Phryne’s adventure on the high seas. Well written, as always, the plot meanders along at a deceptively easy going pace before throwing the reader through a sudden unexpected turn. Greenwood has the ability to dangle a cliché in front of the reader with a wink so that I find myself smiling at the joke rather than annoyed at overused concepts. I’ve said it before and I’ll undoubtedly say it again, read this series, just do it.-Lynn

Saturday, February 2

Murder With Puffins – Donna Andrews

Some months after the awful events of her mother’s wedding, Meg Langstow and her boyfriend Michael are ready for a short break from her rather excentric extended family. A weekend in her aunt’s well-appointed holiday home on a picturesque, isolated island sound like just the thing, but Meg and Michael didn’t count on a hurricane marooning them on Monhegan, let alone the flock of avid bird watchers keen to see the annual puffin migration. They didn’t anticipate on Meg’s parents having the same idea, or her aunt. And they couldn’t possibly have foreseen the island’s most hated man, semi-talented painter Victor Resnick, being killed. Almost everyone, including Meg’s parents, have a motive, and it once again falls to Meg to save her parents from themselves, even if it takes unmasking a killer to do so.
Although I didn’t enjoy Puffins quite as much as I did the prequel, Murder with Peacocks, this is still a fast-paced, entertaining and enjoyable read. Meg’s complicated, extended family come to the fore once more, quirky and endearing as only eccentrics unrelated to you can be.
Inspired by my enjoyment of the first Meg Langstow mystery I reserved what my library has of the series, and will therefore continue on to the next one before deciding if this, like the *Turing series, would have been better as a stand-alone. – Alex

Friday, February 1

Click Here for Murder – Donna Andrews

Turing Hopper, possibly the world’s first sentient Artificial Intelligence Personality, has another murder to solve – that of systems engineer Ray Santiago, found dead in an alley. Ray was hard-working and quiet – his only real interest was in an online role playing game, which surely couldn’t have anything to do with his murder. His laptop’s missing, and if Ray was at all careless with his data, Turing’s consciousness could be in danger.
This second AIP mystery was less satisfying for me that the
first – perhaps because the uniqueness of Turing was no longer as fresh. It just all seemed a little to contrived, and the mystery served as a smoke screen for the real plot twist, which was left dangling at the end of the book, a clear hook for the third instalment. I have a particular dislike of this technique, most often seen in SF series, and it did not endear the series to me.
Perhaps I also found Click Here less rewarding because the philosophical and practical issues of silicon sentience were much less present – though there’s some reflection by Turing on the potential growing sentience of a fellow AIP, and a significant component of the underlying plot deals (to some degree) with this aspect of the issue, there’s no substantive recognition this time around. I appreciate that the point of the book is a mystery rather than an ethical exploration of what constitutes personhood, but I found that aspect clearly present last time and was disappointed by its absence. All in all not terrible but far from exceptional. - Alex