Monday, March 31

Involuntary Witness – Gianrico Carofiglio

Guido Guerrieri has come through the worst experience of his life – the end of his marriage – and is still recovering. He’s sleep-walking though his life, starting to have panic attacks, and can’t concentrate on his clients – not a good thing when you’re a defence counsel.
When Abajaje Deheba, wife of a Senegalese teacher working as a knock-off handbag seller, comes to him, Guerrieri is shaky but holding it together. Abdou Thiam has been charged with the assault and murder of a nine-year-old boy, and is awaiting trial. They can’t afford much, and mounting a real defence will be expensive, but Guerrieri has a strong feeling that Thiam is innocent.
This sparkling novel blends a legal thriller with the gentle story of a man rediscovering himself and his place in the world. At the same time Carofiglio give the reader a strong sense of place – the character and beauty of Italy but also the deep-seated anti-European biases and corrupt infrastructure. There are strong American elements that gave me a little jolt every time (like lyrics from Bruce Springsteen and Dave Gray, references to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Catcher in the Rye) and made me wonder if they’d been changed from the original to convey a familiar and similar flavour of the Italian originals, or if the US has really reached that far into the psyche of another, non-English speaking, nation.
But this was the only thing that at all brought me out of the novel. While reading Involuntary Witness I didn’t feel gripped, in the more traditional way characteristic of thrillers, but instead calmed and intrigued. I found myself reading just a few more pages, just a few more, until the whole thing was gone. It’s evocating, involving, sometimes tranquil, and hopeful, and I look forward to reading the next outing of Avvocato. - Alex

Sunday, March 30

Catherine Barry – Skin Deep

Finn O’Farrell’s never been happy with herself – flat-chested, tubby, uninteresting hair, it’s no wonder her boyfriend left her. Well, she arranged a spectacular fight that allowed her to kick him, but only to avoid being dumped. Lurching between chocolate and alcohol, besieged by flashbacks of her miserable and somewhat neglected childhood, Finn has a revelation in a lingerie shop and finally realises what she needs to turn her life around. So, after taking out a £3,500 loan from the Credit Union she works at in Dublin, Finn checks into hospital over Christmas and has breast augmentation and readies herself to change her world.
I was pleased that the post-op scenes were realistically crafted, with unexpected pain and unsightly bruising etc. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing I was pleased with. I so want to read a chick lit novel that doesn’t obsessively focus on size dissatisfaction (though at least there’s no shoe obsession). Finn’s tormented by pretty much everything, including the unfolding childhood misery we’re hammered over the head with in slabs of italicised flashbacks that stylistically mirror the heavily tell-don’t-show style of the novel in general. If I didn’t know from the blurb that this is Barry’s third published novel I’d think it was her first, so laden with angst is it.
Finn herself is unsympathetic – so self-obsessed, short-sighted and filled with self-loathing that it’s hard to see how she has friends, let alone the obligatory crossed-wire romantic lead. And the frequent referencing to the millennium, which undoubtedly made Skin Deep topical when it was published, serve now to only reinforce how dated it is. The family reconciliation is tacked on at the end, and I found the whole thing profoundly irritating. But I finished which, in light of my recent increase in unfinished books, is something. – Alex

Saturday, March 29

The Dark Lord of Derkholm - Diana Wynne Jones

For the past forty years Mr Chesney has dominated everything - the annual tours he brings through from the mundane world have been bigger, more numerous and more demanding and now everything revolves around preparing, enacting or recovering from them. Querida, the most powerful wizard, has had enough. In desperation she consults the oracles and, following their predictions, appoints Wizard Derk the next Dark Lord. Derk's powerful enough, but he never saw eye to eye with the University, and she's seen with her own eyes the hybrids he's created - flying pigs and horses, for a start, and griffins to follow.
Most of the unsurpassable Jones's novels take place in a universe where there are nine worlds, each with varying amounds of magic and each with its own culture and traditions. She always manages to create an engaging, absorbing and unique universe - from the unusual elements in a mundane chemistry set in The Ogre Downstairs to the Norse inspired The Eight Days of Luke, she combined a multitude of influences with her own deft creativity to produce a compelling and highly enjoyable read. I can't do it justice, but I thoroughly enjoyed every word. - Alex

Friday, March 28

Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, Love tells the story of writer Elizabeth Gilbert's year off, recovering from the aftermath of a divorce that began with sadness and ended in bitter acrimony. In some ways freed to explore what she really wanted to do with her life, Gilbert decided to learn Italian, like she'd always wanted to, and the best way to do that was to live in Italy. Two years earlier she' d gone to Indonesia for an article, and been asked by the healer she met there to return. She also wanted to spend time at an Ashram run by her Guru. After much reflection, Gilbert decided to spend four months in each place, spending a year of "I" (Italy, India, Indonesia) while rediscovering herself.
Already an established writer, Gilbert kept a journal of her time away, and the book combined present tense writing that reads like extracts from the journal, with reflection and factual details, like how the Italian language uniquely came to be. The book is set up like an Indian prayer thread - 108 chapters, comprising 3 sections (one for each country), 36 chapters per section, plus a 109th 'bead', the introduction. The title describes the dominant gain Gilbert achieved in each country - in Italy she rediscovered the joy of eating, and regained the weight she lost while in a deep depression in New York; in India she meditated, prayed, and came to peace with herself; and in Indonesia she opened her wounded heart to love once more.
I kept flipping between involved and irritated while reading Eat, Pray, Love - I like her voice, and I like the idea that I, too, could up sticks and take off for an unplanned voyage of discovery, even though I know that's never going to happen. I have respect for people who do do it, though - be impetuous and less concerned about other people than themselves (which makes me cound like I think I'm some self-sacrificing saint).
But there's a strong streak of self-indulgence and... Americanism, for lack of a better word (which really isn't fair, but I'm having trouble articulating the self-centred, quasi-profound spiritual journey bits more accurately) that was like nails on a blackboard only more so, because that sound doesn't really bother me. For example, Gilbert describes 'conversations' she has with herself in a notebook, where a calm and accepting voice speaks to her, that I'm sure were profound but which read like wankery to me. Throughout most of the book Gilbert focuses on herself rather than on aspects of the places where she is - there's not a word about the poverty that abounds in all the countries she stayed, appreciation for other people except as to their relationship to her needs and wants. And at the end she is at peace with the universe.
I've found the same with friends who've taken off on a voyage of discovery and come home being One with the Universe, which seems to mean not having to pay their way, overstaying their welcome in the guest room, and being generally dismissive of the lifestyles of their less wanderlust friends. Not that I have any issues of my own that this brought up for me!
All in all I'm glad I read Eat, Pray, Love and I get the hype - it's a perfect Oprah book: it has pathos and spirituality and self-discovery and a happy ending. Just keep in mind that it's a year of "I" in every sense, and keep a rubbish bin to hand in case you become nauseated. - Alex

Thursday, March 27

Hunger - Terry Durack

Foodie Terry Durack's collected a handful of columns (written for publications as diverse as the Sydney Morning Herald to Vogue Entertaining), grouped thematically, that cover: why we stubbornly hold on to the same daily breakfast regardless of how adventurous are our lunch and dinner palates; the joys of surrendering to the best bits of foreign delicacies (like fish eyes in the orient); the deliciousness of left overs; the changes illness make to the recovering palate, and others.
This is definitely a dipping book, best read an essay at a time, but I did succumb and devour it a section at a time. I fear I lost something of the delicacy of the prose, but enjoyed my literary repast none the less. Just watch out - you may find yourself speaking in gustatory metaphors for a while. - Alex

Wednesday, March 26

Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult

It only took Peter Houghton nineteen minutes to shoot up his school, killing eight students and two teachers and permanently scarring the whole the quiet New Hampshire town of Grafton County. But it took seventeen years to lead up to the solitary teenager believing this was his only option.
Nineteen Minutes effectively alternates the unfolding present of the day of the shooting and its aftermath with chronological flashbacks from the day Peter’s midwife mother, pregnant with her second child, met pregnant lawyer Alex Cormier, to the morning of March 6 2007. Picoult gives us the perspectives of both mothers, their children (Peter and Josie), Peter’s mathematician father Lewis, lawyer Jordan McAfee (who previously appeared in the Picoult novels The Pact and Salem Falls) and detective Patrick Ducharme (another return, from Perfect Match).
In the process Picoult creates the rich and deep tapestry for which her writing’s renown, layering our understanding of the characters and of their actions. High school shootings justifiably receive a great deal of media attention – they’re shocking and spectacular. In general the popular opinion is that these boys (mass shooters are rarely female) are odd, aberrant and dangerous, and the acts are deviant and random. In Nineteen Minutes Picoult, without taking the side of Peter, shows how a number of factors over a long period of time contributed to the massacre, and indicates that it could have been averted. – Alex

Tuesday, March 25

The Death of Dalziel - Reginald Hill

It’s a post July 7 world, and Yorkshire’s as affected by the new levels of security and surveillance as anywhere else in Britain. So when there’s a report – even if it is made by the less than cluey PC Hector – that an armed man’s been seen at a flagged address, Dalziel is sent around to keep an eye on things until the Combined Anti-Terrorism unit arrives. Knowing Dalziel’s… disregard for correct procedure if it gets in the way of him having lunch, Inspector Ireland also called Peter, who was having a day off. Sure enough the Fat Man’s not bothered waiting for CAT, and as he and Peter approach the house it explodes, wounding Pascoe and leaving Dalziel hanging in death’s doorway.
Much of the pleasure of well-written series is returning to well-loved characters, and the knowledge that you can relax - the writing’s going to be good and the plot involving.

This is the twenty-second Pascoe and Dalziel novel, and Hill has lost none of the verve with which he started the series. The books have become bigger over time, but with extra action rather than padding, and the plots have moved with the times, combining contemporary issues with traditional Yorkshire values – like Dalziel’s respect for Hector’s unique gifts. I wouldn’t start with The Death of Dalziel, but if you’re interested in strong, larger than life but realistic characters, intricate plotting and deft writing you can’t go past Hill, one of the few authors I still buy rather than borrow. – Alex

Monday, March 24

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell

What shifts a trend from being on the fringes to mainstream? Why do equally virulent flu strains sometimes become epidemic? How can a community reverse a growing wave of crime by focusing on cosmetic details rather than traditional methods? What makes a restaurant or club The place to be this week but not next week? In The Tipping Point Gladwell manages to simplify a slew of complex, comprehensively researched concepts into a digestible and engrossing study of the tipping point – that moment where a concept, trend or behaviour spills past a threshold and spreads.
By using examples as diverse as children’s programming, an increase in footwear sales, changes in cigarette smoking patterns, and the New York subway system, Gladwell illustrates key concepts in a growth field – how, as the subtitle says, little things can make a big difference.
Gladwell opens with the example of Hush Puppies – a shoe that languished in sales for decades, and whose parent company was thinking of discontinuing. Sold only in small stores, and with sales around 30,000 pairs annually, in mid-1994 something happened – Hush Puppies became fashionable. They were used in photo shoots, and within a year sales increased to 430,000. How did this happen? The first kids to wear them did so precisely because they weren’t trendy; the look was seen by trend watchers, who adopted them; well-connected individuals, who develop and maintain lasting relationships with a multitude more people than average, spread the trend; and before Hush Puppies knew it they were mainstreamed.
I really can’t do justice to this extraordinary work here – the writing is eloquent but pared, and the ideas are magnificently described so that each concept builds so seamlessly upon the one before that you can come away thinking that it’s all self-evident, even if you’d never thought of any of it before. Suffice it to say that I’ve read The Tipping Point three times and my copy’s studded with flags: key ideas and sources I want to follow up when the mythical day arrives that I have spare time. And one of my favourite books, Westerfeld’s So Yesterday, is clearly informed by the concepts discussed by Gladwell. If you’re interested in sociology, popular culture, advertising or marketing, you must read this book. - Alex

Sunday, March 23

Beneath the Bleeding – Val McDermid

Dr Tony Hill, quirky and brilliant psychologist/profiler, is recovering in hospital after a more than usually dangerous encounter with a psychopath, when Bradfield's star football is brought in, mysteriously ill. Thanks to a particularly astute doctor, Robbie Bishop's diagnosed with ricin poisoning - unfortunately, this doesn't help as ricin has no antidote. But his death is just the beginning - the stadium is blown up, raising fears of a terrorist cell, and DCI Carole Jordan's murder team are unceremoniously pushed aside by members of the Counter Terrorism unit - surly, aggressive, and seemingly not bounded by the same laws as the rest of Britain. Tony has to try to work out what's going on from his bedside, while fending of his estranged mother and, once again, trying to work out what exactly his relationship with Carole is.
McDermid's writing is brisk and involving. This is the fourth book in the fantastic Wire in the Blood series and it's just as compelling as both the rest of the series and the fantastic TV show with the all-around brilliant Robson Green. McDermid manages to convey the difficulties of balancing safety against threat with prevention of creating worse monsters within, and manages to expose the assumption of readers as much as of the police. Her characters are well rounded and sympathetic, and Tony is one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary literature. The series is without doubt best read in order, so dash out and start with The Mermaids Singing. Now! - Alex

Saturday, March 22

The Opposite of Life – Narelle M Harris

Melbourne geek girl Lissa Wilson’s managed to find a comfortable routine in her adult life that was missing from her childhood – her beloved part-time job as a librarian manages to meet her rent, utilities and uni fees, with enough left over to keep her from starving, and between her protective older sister Kate and a few friends her social life is active enough. Recently dumped, Lissa’s taken out to a club by her friend Evie to cheer up. Finding the eviscerated bodies of two party girls in the toilets doesn’t improve Lissa’s mood, and then it seems everywhere she turns more bodies turn up. It might be coincidence, but Lissa feels a responsibility to work out what’s going on, and winds up discovering a side to Melbourne she had no idea existed.
This is an absorbing novel that manages to avoid most of the vampire genre’s most irritating clichĂ©s while maintaining a surprising level of realism. The multi-layered plot deals as much with Lissa’s complex family issues as with the intertwined supernatural elements, keeping it grounded, and the main characters are well-drawn. As someone who has family issues (though not at all on Lissian scale) - and who doesn’t? - the conflicted feelings and incoherent but reflexive responses family invoke rang a clear bell, and this was cleverly woven through the novel.
Lissa is relatable, her reactions understandable, and her first-person narration feels fresh and honest. Her sister Kate is sympathetic, and it’s a tribute to Harris’s writing that her pain is barely evident until the concluding scenes because we see her through Lissa’s eyes. The unexpected hero is refreshingly complex and much of him remains hidden even at the end, which I quite enjoyed. We’ve mentioned several times that some authors setting novels in Melbourne have trouble striking a balance between setting it anywhere and hitting the reader over the head with a ”we’re in Melbourne” sign. The Opposite of Life is clearly written by someone with a knowledge of the city, particularly the inner city. There were mentions of specific streets and suburbs, and the obligatory tram network, but for the most part they felt integral to the plot and not tacked on for local flavour – less deft than the magnificent Greenwood, but not by much.
I saw the final twist coming before Lissa did, but not much earlier, and this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm at all. The conclusion is satisfying, and neither tied everything up in an overly-neat bow nor left loose ends for an obvious sequel. The Opposite of Life is Harris’s first published novel – I look forward to reading her next. - Alex


For Lynn's review, click here

Friday, March 21

The Android’s Dream – John Scalzi

Harris Creek is the Earth’s Xenosapient Facilitator – when the State Department needs bad news broken to a non-human member of the Common Confederation, Harry does it. Some think it’s a waste of his skills, and it’s certainly not what he was trained for, so when a job that requires a unique approach comes up, it’s not surprising State assigns it to Harry. Following a massive intergalactic incident (winding up with a human and a well-connected alien diplomat dead), only one thing will prevent war and the enslavement of humanity, and Harry’s our best hope. All he has to do is find a sheep.
It’s not possible to do justice to The Android’s Dream without writing something half as long as the novel itself – it’s complexly plotted but highly readable, fantastic and improbable but believable, and very funny. I have three examples of the writing, to give a flavour of the way Scalzi thinks. Integral to the plot is an consciously-invented religion, the Church of the Evolved Lamb, a somewhat selective and small but loyal group comprised equally of Ironists and Empathists. It does, after all, take "a certain sort of person to join a church based on the desperate manoeuvres of a second-rate science fiction writer." Most of the members are predominantly secular; Archie, who would have said he was an Evolved Lamb because of the irony of joining a religion not even its creator believed in, begins to become convinced that the writings of the church unwittingly contain truth, which if freaking him out. As the Bishop says, "Isn't that just like religion for you... One day it's a nice way to spend your weekends and the next you're in the middle of a righteous theological clusterfuck."

Scalzi’s fast becoming my second-favourite FSF writer, topped only by the unsurpassable Robert J Sawyer. I leave you with this gem, about the dangers of truthfulness when programming an intelligent personal shopper program that "all-too-accurately modeled the shoppers' desires and outputted purchase ideas based on what the shoppers really wanted as opposed to what they wanted known they wanted. This resulted in one overcompensatingly masculine test user receiving suggestions for an anal plug and a tribute art book for homoerotic artist Tom of Finland ... After history's first recorded instance of a focus group riot, the personal shopper program was extensively rewritten." - Alex

Thursday, March 20

The Once and Future Con – Peter Guttridge

When Nick Madrid, yoga-practicing journalist and reluctant investigator, accompanies his friend Bridget Frost to a university reunion he comes across his first love. Faye inexplicably married the rather wet Rex, now Lord Wynn, and they claim to have found the skeleton of King Arthur. Somehow, inevitably, Nick and Bridget end up in the West Country, trying to uncover the truth while avoiding being killed and - at least in Nick's case - jousting.
This is the fourth Nick Madrid mystery and, like its predecessors, it combines a brisk and involving plot with strong one-liners and even stronger characters. I particularly liked the portrayal of Heritage theme parks, taking over the whole of Britain and to hell with the facts of history.
In the previous three books Nick is drawn with some deep seated issues (mostly centring around women, relationships and sex); in The Once and Future Con we discover where they come from, which is quite satisfying (if a shade over done) for loyal readers. A fun and funny excursion - Alex

Wednesday, March 19

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine - Elizabeth David

Renowned cookery writer Elizabeth David, who transformed the face of British cooking, wrote a regular column for Vogue, and some of these articles are gathered in An Omelette... My mother, a huge David fan, has long praised her work, so when I came across this while hunting for a couple of other epicurean writings, I leapt upon it.
Perhaps it's a mood I'm in at the moment, but I had to struggle to finish each essay, putting the book down to embark on (almost any other) tasks. After half a dozen such attempts, and the vast bulk of the book still ahead of me, I finally gave it up as a bad job. My mother tells me this is far from the best of the collection, and really only interesting to rock-solid David fans, a position I can wholly endorse. - Alex

Tuesday, March 18

Too Darn Hot – Sandra Scoppetone

When the Nips hit Pearl Harbor and the boys shipped out, dames got opportunities they nevah woulda had otherwise. That’s how Faye Quick, a PI swelterin in one of New York’s hottest summers, wound up a PI. With a coupla soved murders under her belt, she’s got experience. So when a jane comes to her with a sob story about her fella goin missin, Faye doesn’t sweat it, even after the bodies start pilin up.
Scppetone’s done her research on the era, and don’t we know it – every ‘you’ is a ‘ya’, no word keeps its final g, and so heavily larded with forties lingo is Too Darned Hot, the sequel to This Dame for Hire (which I haven’t read) that I couldn’t concentrate on the plot or character development. I put it down at the end of chapter thirteen and just couldn’t pick it back up.
Scoppetone’s known for her lesbian fiction – both the Laura Laurano PI series and her novels for teens, both of which I really enjoy. She’s also written some more hardboiled novels under pseudoneums, and I wish she’d had this published under one of those, too. - Alex

Monday, March 17

Slightly Single - Wendy Markham

Tracey's heart-broken - her gorgeous actor boyfriend, Will, has left New York to spend the summer working on his craft - summer stock, and the opportunity to star in at least one play. As Will demonstrates an on-going lack of regard (Tracey can't call him, he rarely calls her), Tracey reluctantly reevaluates their three year relationship, especially in light of the unconditional support of Buckley, a copy writer she meets by chance and instantly has an affiliation with. For Tracey, whose New York dream hasn't turned out completely the way she expected (a tiny one-bedroom apartment and a dead-end job), Will's leaving is the final straw. She's going to use the summer to make herself over - lose weight, read the classics, and save some money. When Will comes back he's going to want her as much as she wants him.
Published in 2002, the novel is curiously dated - there are no mobile (or cell) phones, videos instead of DVDs, and at one point Tracey muses about how New York "is a prime terrorist target," but the setting isn't specifically set in the past. Tracey's warm and likable, though her poor self-esteem's a little relentless. Her enduring love for Will is inexplicable, but who among us hasn't seen the same thing in a friend's relationship or even - if we're unlucky - our own?
The writing flows easily enough, and the plot (if a little worn) unfolds at a reasonable pace, though there are no surprises - except for the non-ending, which contains no traditional resolution of the plot, but does include a somewhat meta reflection on not flipping to the back of a book to see how it ends.
Slightly Single is an innocuous enough addition to the genre, and would make appropriate holiday reading, but - like so many Red Dress Inc novels - isn't anything spectacular. On the other hand, unlike several recently attempted works of late, I was able to finish it to the (somewhat unsatisfying) end. - Alex

Sunday, March 16

Fell Down - ME Kerr

The final part of the Fell trilogy involves Fell in a decades-old mystery linked to a graduate of the Gardner School, involving the disappearance of a ventriloquist dummy (or "figure", as they're officially known as). Fell Down moves from the present to events in the early sixties, when Leonard Tralastski started as a student at the Gardener School and became a Seven.
I thoroughly enjoyed Fell Down, which combined all the lyrical writing and strong elements of Fell and Fell Back (reviewed below). Like many people I find ventriloquism a little creepy, and Kerr uses that frisson of discomfort beautifully - who is it, exactly, writing the journal entries interspersed with Fell's perspective?
I was a little distressed to discover that, also like the other two Fell books, Fell Down finishes on a cliff hanger - the mystery isn't wholly revealed, and there's a new potential love interest for Fell, the sister of Delia Tremble, introduced on the very last page! ME Kerr's still writing but, as this last part of the series was published in 1991 the likelihood of us returning to Fell and finding out what happened seems remote. While I often like novels to be a little untidy in conclusion, rather than unrealistically wrapped up, this was a little messier than I prefer. Yet somehow, a tribute to Kerr's style, this unfinished element almost adds to the enjoyment of the novel. - Alex

Saturday, March 15

Fell Back - ME Kerr

Thanks to the lessons of his father, a detective who died the previous year, Fell knew as soon as the body of Lasher's body was found at the foot of The Tower that the friendless student hadn't taken his own life. His own identity now revealed, Fell has nothing to hide and feels obliged to uncover how Lasher died. His journey takes him into another web of intrigue and deception, and Fell learns more about the culture and legacy of the elite group of which he's part - Gardner School's privileged Sevens's club.
A worthy successor to Fell (reviewed below), Fell Back is hard to describe without giving away crucial plot points. Like its predecessor, Fell Back combined a textured, evolving protagonist, a quick-paced plot, and reflection of greater societal mores, without being unduly heavy or dull. - Alex

Friday, March 14

Fell - ME Kerr

John Fell's life was turned upside down the summer he fell in love with Helen Keating (aka Keats) - her rich father may not have approved of his only daughter dating a junior, whose father was a detective but is now dead, and who has to work to help put food on the table, but that wasn't going to stand in the way of young love. Except that it did. Keats stood him up for her senior prom and, stunned, Fell bumped into Woodrow Pingree. Also wealthy, he had a plan that would change Fell's life - a free ride to a private school out of state that would set Fell up for life. There was just one hitch - he had to tell everyone, including Keats and the new girl in his life, Delia Tremble, that he was in Switzerland.
This is the first in an old trilogy (Fell was first published in 1989 and it's sequels at two yearly intervals thereafter) that has managed to stay fresh and involving. Fell combines a fast-paced plot with exploration of ideas around family bonds, integrity and privilege, including a really interesting concept for the school Fell attends. At the same time the reader gets to know a genuinely nice and well-rounded character who's mature beyond his years. The novel ends on a cliff-hanger, paving the way for the sequel. - Alex

Thursday, March 13

Book Lust - Nancy Pearl

Librarian and book lover Pearl has divided her favourite and most highly recommended books into some 175 categories, ranging from run of the mill themes (biographical novels, Cold War novels, Westerns) to unique groupings ("Christmas books for the whole family to read", "Dinosaur hunting", and "A... my name is Alice" - books written by women named Alice). Arranged alphabetically, the book also periodically lists authors "Too good to miss", with a suggestion of places to start and a little information about what makes them so good - the writing style, setting, what sets them apart from the rest of the herd, and Perl's favourites.
And that was my biggest gripe - for many writers or individual novels there was barely any information to let me decide if this was something I wanted to read myself. Opening at random, for example, I find the section "Gay and lesbian fiction: out of the closet" where Pearl gives a brief overview of the genre, including the delineation between American gay and lesbian fiction before and after 1970 (or the effect of the Stonewall riots on gay and lesbian fiction). Then she writes: "Merle Miller's What Happened and Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story are both set prior to Stonewall. White followed up A Boy's Own Story with The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony." Nothing at all to tell the unfamiliar reader why these novels are notable, or even what they deal with - presumably the experience/s of being closeted, realising the protagonists' sexual orientation, and coming out, but how are we to know?
Despite this flaw, the understandable American bias, and the disagreements I have about some of her picks, Book Lust is well worth the reading. I consider myself to be quite well read, in terms of breadth and sheer volume, though I've managed to miss many of the classics and a whole chuck of literature, but the vast majority of authors Pearl recommends were strangers to me. This hopefully says as much about the increasing volume of publications as it does about my reading habits. I barely went three pages without finding something I wanted to follow up or try out - though I won't be buying any of her suggestions, armed with too little information about the books, I came away from her lists with several pages of suggested reading, and a library copy of her follow up, the creatively named Book Lust 2. And a resolution to make sure that I'm clear in these reviews about why I did and did not like the works discussed. - Alex

Wednesday, March 12

Jodi Picoult: Vanishing Acts

The adored daughter of a widower, Delia Hopkins, has everything she could ever want: a job she enjoys, a daughter she loves and a handsome fiancĂ©. But she has started having flashbacks to a life she can’t recall. Confused by these memories, she is determined to discover where they are coming from and what they mean.
Her investigation leads her to rediscover the mother she thought dead for the past 28 years, and puts her beloved father in custody for kidnapping. The ensuing court case, and the father’s motives for his actions, gives definition to the memories as the story unfolds.
Picoult usually writes a great literary page turner but I didn’t find this story up to the expected throat-gripping standard. She explores the nature and power of memory without going down the predictable route of recovered memory syndrome which, given this story, would have been easy to do. She shows wonderful insight into relationships and with a cast of well rounded characters. And she, once again, provides a plot which tackles the ambiguities of morality. The result is a good story, don’t get me wrong. But it isn’t a great story, and that is what I’ve come to expect from her.
I saw the two main plot twists from the first, so there was a decided lack of tension and a palpable sense of disappointment when I was proved correct. I had hoped that maybe I was wrong and there would be an unexpected turn at the eleventh hour, but that was not to be. I also found the ending a little predictable as well.
Not a bad book by a long shot, but not one of her best-Lynn

Tuesday, March 11

Bareback - Kit Whitfield

Lola May Galley's a bareback, one of the 0.6% of the human population born head first. As the result of a birth defect, she does not shift into a wolf during the full moon and that cuts her off from the majority of people. Unlike her lycanthrope sister, Lola was sent to a state creche every full moon, any scars forever mar her skin instead of being erased every month, and instead of having a regular education and getting to choose her future, Lola's been conscripted - like all her kind - into DORLA (the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity). Until injury, death or post-traumatic shock take her, Lola will spend the nights of the full moon patrolling the city for rogue lunes and the rest of her time as the DORLA equivalent of a lawyer.
Whitfield incorporates much of the standby werewolf lore (like the punishing effect of silver), while creating something wholly new in a genre dominated by very similar books by making the lycanthropes the dominant group. This could easily have failed in the hands of a less accomplished writer, but she does a brilliant job of creating a believable world, and beautifully portrays the tension between barebacks and the lyco majority.
And this aspect is key - as I was reading Bareback I was frustrated by Lola's understandable emotional constraints, and by a society that is manifestly unjust and unfair. Witfield portrays the fundamental chasms that lie between the world views of the majority and the marginalised minoritywithout telling or belabouring the point, gives hope that, at least on an individual basis, things can change, and weaves a number of interrelated subplots into a fascinating whole.
I don't think there's a room for a sequel with the same protagonist, though I'm open to persuasion, but hope Witfield does something else with this well imagined world. - Alex
To read Lynn's review of this book, click here

Monday, March 10

The World According to Clarkson - Jeremy Clarkson

This is the first collection of Jeremy Clarkson's weekly column in the Sunday Times, and spans the beginning of 2001 to the end of 2003, as well as a plethora of topics from the demise of Concorde through the bane of overseas travel, the perils of the EU, and an ongoing minor diatribe about His Tonyness (former PM Tony Blair).
I had only known Clarkson from Top Gear, the car program that I sadly only discovered early this year but have now ardently leapt upon the bandwagon of. I really could have constructed a better sentence, but onwards! I so enjoy Top Gear that I've embarked on a minor avaricious devourment and have therefore bought or borrowed pretty much every Top Gear DVD. I am now going to work my way through the works of the presenters, Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond (all of whom write weekly columns for various English newspapers).
Jeremy Clarkson has an amusing, semi-involved voice, and the essays are predominantly quintessentially English. I don't think I could read the whole thing from cover to cover in an uninterrupted sitting, but this was a lot of fun to dip into, and I'm looking forward to doing the same with the next collection. - Alex

Sunday, March 9

Blood is the New Black - Valerie Stivers

Despite her interest in fashion, Kate McGraw is going to be a doctor. This is because she's interested in the human body and helping people, and only a tiny bit influenced by her fashion-designer mother abandoning her and her father to advance her career. But when Kate's strong-willed aunt Victoria introduces her to the editor of Tasty, America's hottest magazine, and somehow wangles her an internship, Kate feels powerless to say no - at least for the summer.
Things are strange at Tasty, even for the fashion industry - the powers that be start late, are spookily thin and pale and white of tooth, and all drink disgusting-looking beetroot juice concoctions all day. But the world is glamorous, even when dead models start showing up.
This is, of course, another version of the paranormal vampiric genre, this time set in a Devil Wears Prada-esque milieu.
This is a fair enough read, though it doesn't offer anything new. I'd be interested to see what Stiver's writes next, but not enough to buy it or even go out of my way to look for it. - Alex

Saturday, March 8

A is for Apple - Alan Saunders

This collection of short essays rotates around food questions - does a meal have to include uniquesly Australian ingredients to qualify as "Australian cuisine"? Why do different regions consider different animal parts (and, in another essay) different animals, acceptable and unacceptable to eat? Does it count as Cajun if it's really just burnt? (No). Do some cultures really enjoy eating live monkey brains? (Um, nobody seems to have actually seen it, just heard stories). And why don't vampires like garlic?
The collection is interesting enough, quite well written, and covers quite a lot of territory. I enjoyed what I read, but somehow it didn't capture me, which is why I'm not rating it higher than 'not bad.' I don't know why I didn't get as involved in this as, say, Jeffrey Steingarten's It Must've Been Something I Ate, but for some reason I just didn't devour it with as much gusto (sorry!). - Alex

Friday, March 7

The Tightrope Men - Desmond Bagley

When Giles Dennison wakes up in a hotel room in Oslo, he can't remember how he got there, doesn't recognise the watch on his wrist, or the silk pyjamas he's wearing. But that mild puzzlement is nothing compared to the overwhelming shock he gets when he can't recognise his face in the mirror. For some reason, though, everyone around the hotel recognises him - even if they think he's someone named Meyrick - and he decides to go along with it for now. Which is how Harold Feltham Meyrick, nee Giles Dennison, becomes embroiled in an escapade to retrieve papers from behind the Iron Curtain, a task that, if he fails, will tilt the balance of power between East and West.
This is one of Bagley's best, an action-packed adventure that has lost none of its momentum despite the end of the Cold War. Dennison is an engrossing and fascinating character, and his bewilderment at the unfurling events mirrors that of the reader. Bagley's rare foray into espionage adds a frisson on excitement, as few are who they appear to be and nothing is as it seems, and the secondary characters are cleanly drawn. I know I always say this, but read everything Bagley wrote! Now! Get up, leave the computer, and head to a library or second-hand book store! - Alex

Thursday, March 6

The Waitress - Melissa Nathan

Katie Simmons knows she wants to do something with her life, she's just not sure yet what that is. Well, that's not quite true - she's always sure she knows what she wants to be, but that certainty never lasts long. Today it's an educational psychologist, but she's been just as determined to be a teacher and a film director.
In the meantime Katie's a waitress. But when her boss decides to sell up, and the new owner's the guy Katie left in a restaurant in the middle of a disastrous date (not her fault - she was having a massive panic attack), things become even worse.
This is an amusing enough novel, perfect for a long plane ride or a weekend at the beach. Katie's a little ditzy but, in light of her lack of a shoe fetish, this is forgivable. The characters are well drawn, the plot only slightly far-fetched, the happy ending well executed, and the secondary plots sufficiently involving. I won't be hunting down more by Nathan but if something stumbles across my path I'll pick it up. - Alex

Wednesday, March 5

Kit Whitfield: Bareback

In a world where lycanthropy is the norm those born without the ability to transform at the full moon are referred to by the derogatory term bareback and are automatically drafted into DORLA-a government department with roots in the Inquisition, which keeps society running smoothly on nights of the full moon.
This is the story of one such woman, a public defender, assigned to defend the man who mutilated a friend of hers while he was in wolf form. When that friend is murdered, her hunt for the killer turns her world upside down.
This story is so tightly interwoven that it is difficult to say more without spoilers, so I’ll leave my summary there.
A good tightly written crime novel with twists and turns I didn’t see coming. Details of the world and how it works are woven throughout the story seamlessly so at no point did the world building stand out for what it was. Much of the story had a dour tone that could have put me off, but instead felt like the right voice for the narrator.
This story offers truly unique perspective that I found at once challenging and fascinating-Lynn

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

Tuesday, March 4

Foreigner - Robert J Sawyer

Sal-Afsan, blinded as punishment for daring to contradict the teachings of the church, is gravely wounded when he trips in the street and a chariot wheels over his head. He survives and, perhaps as a result of the sustained healing required to mend the cranial damage, his eyes grow back - an unheard of miracle! But, though his pupils constrict to light, and the orbs track movement, Afsan still cannot see. His friend, Emperor Dy-Dybo, still feels guilt for having ordered the blinding, and hopes to make amends by trying the new talking cure. Its proponent, Mokleb, has a theory that there are two minds, the high and the low. The high is in charge of all the things we're aware of, while the low contains our unknowable selves, visible only in what it lets slip, and in our dreams. Through talking, she believes, it is possible to uncover truths about ourselves that can resolve conflicts we're unaware of.
Quintaglio society has already sustained several significant shocks in the last few kilodays - from Afsan's own revelation that the Land is a moon orbiting a planet, the Face of God, and will break into rubble within 300 kilodays, to his son Toroca's discovery of evolution. It is essential that they discover a way to leave their home if their race is to survive, and an inventory of all the Land has been underway for some time now. But perhaps the most frightening discovery is to come - another land, with sentient creatures in some ways like the Quintaglio but in otherwise curiously dissimilar. They are yellow instead of green, slightly smaller, use weapons to hunt and, most shockingly, have no territoriality. So abhorent is their existaence to most Quintagliot hat the sight of them triggers dagamant, a mindless killing rage, in all Quintaglio. All, that is, but the territorialityless Toroca.
In this final part of the spectacular trilogy (beginning with Far-Seer and continuing with Fossil Hunter) , the themes of scientific advancement (Mokleb as Freud) and societal change continue. I can't think of anything to add about the greatness fo Sawyer's prose, except to say that this is truly some of the best writing in any genre that you can come across. Just perfect. - Alex

Monday, March 3

Fossil Hunter - Robert J Sawyer

Toroca is a geologist, leader of the Geological Survey of the Land, which currently involves the exploration of fossils in a cliff face on the edge of Fra-toolar province. He is also the son of blind sage Sal-Afsan and scientist (and far-seer inventor) Wab-Novato, which makes him almost unique in a society where none but members of the royal family know who their parents are. He is also unique, though he takes pains to hide it, in another respect - unlike all other Quintaglios, he has no territoriality: he can approach another Quintaglio without any risk of going into dagamant, the killing frenzy triggered by proximity to another person.
Of more immediate concern, however, is Toroca's observations of strange, flightless wing-fingers that live on the ice of the south pole, lead him to a breathtaking theory - creatures can change form over time. But the amount of time must be staggeringly longer than received belief that the world was created five thousand kilodays ago, when God laid Her eight eggs of creation.
Consistant with the opening book of Sawyer's magnificent Quintaglio Ascention trilogy, Toroca stands in for Darwin, and meets similar resistance to his heretical theory (though, as in so many other things, Quintaglios are a little more advanced than humans, and manage to come around quite quickly). Fossil Hunter builds on the foundations laid in Far-Seer, both in terms of plot and in the rich lushness of detail. There are substantial secondary plots, and the groundwork is set for the final chapter. This is a truly satisfying read. - Alex

Sunday, March 2

Far-Seer - Robert J Sawyer

Afsan is the seventh apprentice to palace astronomer Tak-Saleed - so far he's last half a kiloday without being fired, a record for apprenti of the notoriously exacting Master, but Afsan's far from complacent. Afsan has struck up a close friendship with Dy-Dybo, son and heir of Her Lumiance Empress Len-Lends, and has been chosen to accompany him as they set out to fulfil two of the rituals of adulthood - the Hunt, and the Pilgrimage. The first is dangerous - Quintaglio have been killed despite being guided by professional hunters. The second is lengthy - a journey of many, many dekadays by boat to meditate on the Face of God.
By a fluke, Afsan manages a spectacular kill on his inaugural hunt, and is duly tattooed above his left ear hole. But it is on the pilgrimage that he manages to make a discovery that will revolutionise the Quintaglio world view - through the use of a new invention, the far-seer, Afsan determines that the Land is not a land mass floating on an endless river, but a moon circling a larger planet (the Face of God). The world is round, and even at great cost to himself, Afsan will not recant this great heresy.
This is the first in the magnificent Quintaglio trilogy that, even on this fourth reading, loses none of its beauty or power. Afsan is Galileo in this first of a series that manages to create and explore a wholly alien world while demonstrating how scientific discoveries can fundamentally change cultures. Even without the cover art, it's obvious that the Quintaglios are not only not human but are not humanoid, with very different cultures and mores.
What sets Sawyer apart from the majority of world builders, not only in FSF but in fiction writing generally, is how deftly and subtley he portrays this. In contrast to the disappointing novels of the last couple of days, Sawyer's writing is engrosing from its opening line, all show, so well crafted that there are no seams. His characters live on the page, his world is amazingly internally coherent, and his world his wholly unique. While I wait for his next novel to appear I am perfectly content to re-read his greatest hits. - Alex

Saturday, March 1

Family Trust - Amanda Brown

Becca Reinhart's on the fast track to a Wall Street career - she has no time for, or interest in, the more traditional feminine pursuits on men and marriage. Nor does Edward Kirkland, a playboy who has nothing but good times on the agenda. But when they're left sharing custody of a little girl, everything changes.
At least, I assume it does. Written by the author of Legally Blonde (liked the film, didn't read the book), the prose was so bad I consider it a triumph I made it as far as half way down page seven - all tell, over-written and under-edited, I didn't make it as far as the plot. Perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood, and certainly two unfinished novels in a row is a record, but really:
"Becca Reinhart laughed. Her eyes were bright, shining with humor as she listened to her telephone call. Her loose black hair brushed her shoulders as she shook her head in protest. She laughed, but her answer was firm. No way."

Couldn't have said it better myself - Family Trust? No way. - Alex