Wednesday, April 30

Triptych - Karin Slaughter

When Michael Ormewood's called out to a particularly gory murder scene in Atlanta's seediest neighbourhoods, even the veteran detective is taken aback. When it becomes clear that this has the hallmarks of the work of a serial killer the Georgia Bureau's called in, and Michael's saddled with Special Agent Will Trent, a member of the Criminal Apprehension Team and a righteous pain that Michael instantly takes a dislike to. When the next victim literally appears in Michael's back yard it becomes clear that his history's coming back to haunt him, in ways Michael never expected.
A departure from Slaughter's Grant County series, Triptych is layered and complex. I can't go into too much detail without giving away much of the plot, which is a little frustrating. I had trouble engaging with it for the first few chapters, but am pleased I perservered because the reframing of aspects of events and characters is particularly well done, and the novel as a whole was very rewarding. This is definitely an above-average addition to the genre and well worth reading. - Alex

Tuesday, April 29

On the Edge: My Story - Richard Hammond

In 2006 Top Gear co-star Richard Hammond was involved in a near-fatal accident while filming a segment of a jet-powered car for the famous BBC series. Although he avoided serious physical injury, in large part due to the meticulous protective measures taken by the production team and the car's owner, Hammond sustained significant brain injury. On the Edge tells the story of the lead up to, and the aftermath, of an accident that make headlines across the UK.
It's bizarre that I enjoy Top Gearwhen I don't drive, let alone have a car, and have little interest in things automotive. I only discovered the program last year, by accident, but since then have become so absorbed that (despite my budgeting) I've bought several DVDs of the series and already read a collection of columns by the show's star. I hadn't heard anything about the accident until a few weeks after I started watching, when I checked the program out on Wikipedia, and learned about the accident that way. The first show back after the accident aired on Australian TV early this year, and they showed footage of the lead up to the accident and the accident itself, which was spectacular.
The book is extremely well written - Hammond opens with an account of frustration several months after the accident, recounts a childhood filled with a love of all things enginey and wheeled, and his early life up to getting the position on Top Gear, then the preparation for the big drive. Occasionally foreshadowed by the events to come, this is witty, amusing and well articulated.
After the accident his wife, Mindy, tells her side of it, and their accounts switch chronologically, giving a detailed picture of the experience. I've had some experience with acquired brain injury, both professionally and in my private life, and have certainly read about it widely, including another by a brain injury survivor and his wife. Like My Year Off , On the Edge powerfully captures a lot of the frustration and worry involved. What I particularly liked about this account was the articulation of how a brain injured person can seem to be functioning normally, the effects of over-stimulation, the consequences of using humour and sarcasm on someone who's thinking concretely, and the sheer teeth grinding frustration of dealing with a person in PTA (post traumatic amnesia), who will keep repeating the same questions for hours without remembering that you. Only. Just. Answered. That.
Hammond does a masterful job of describing his fear and anxiety, and his wife's descriptions of her strength and anxiety, the bravery of her young daughters (particularly five year old Izzy), and the response of both everyone at Top Gear and the British public, brought tears to my eyes on several occasions.
This is a brilliant book for anyone interested in the topic of acquired brain injury, neurological recovery, hospitalisation, cars and other things with engines, autobiographies, or just a great and absorbing read. Top marks - Alex

Monday, April 28

The Vagabond Papers - John Stanley James

Better known as Julian Thomas, and best known as The Vagabond, James came to Australia from London in 1875 and began writing his impressions of Melbourne and of Sydney, which were published in the local papers. Strongly impassioned about the plight of the poor and less fortunate, and not possessing significant means himself, much of his writing focused on housing, conditions in jail, and the efforts of seeking medical attention.
I heard of James for the first time on a recent moonlight tour of the Melbourne Cemetry, and was pleased to find a 1969 copy of his writings at my local library, with an introduction and condensed biography of the writer by a Melbourne academic. However, despite my intentions and my interest in both Melbourne history and the conditions of the underclass, I had trouble connecting with the writing - in no small part because of the tenor and tone of the writing, which is typical of the nineteenth century. Perhaps I would have done better had I parcelled it out, but after the first few essays I skimmed over the rest, finding it more and more of a chore, and only finishing with great difficulty (and an increasingly quick skim down each page). Clearly historical research is not for me! - Alex

Sunday, April 27

Two Truths and a Lie - Katrina Kittle

Actor Dair has always made life a little more interesting. Okay, some people would call what she does lying, but embellishment makes everything a little more sparkly, and it's become something of a way of life for her. It's part of what makes her a good actor, particularly at improv. She doesn't lie to Peyton, her husband, though. Well, not about big things. Except her drinking, and except the biggest lie of all, the one that brought them together, and that haunts her whenever Peyton speaks with her parents, and whenever her birthday draws near.
Dair was working on a good embellishment for why she was running late to pick Peyton up from the airport when she saw a woman in a familiar purple dress running blindly across the highway. Obviously terrified, and a man, Dair realises, she instinctively locks the door. The man leaps over the guard railing, hovers, then falls to his death - a far more dramatic excuse than any Dair could have come up with on her own.
When she discovers the dead man is Craig, a close actor friend and boyfriend of their neighbour, Marielle, she has to find out what happened. And the deeper she gets the more the lies she's told those around her, the lies she tells herself, and the secrets of those she loves, need to be confronted.
This was an absorbing and fascinating novel that successfully combined a strong murder mystery with self-exploration and self-knowledge, addiction and temptation, past lives and reincarnation, animal totems and imagery, communication between people and between people and animals, trust and faith, hope and love, despair and redemption, and the nature of truth, into a satisfying, convincing and cohesive whole.
I was drawn to the title of Two Truths and a Lie, which I found randomly at the library - it refers to a game Dair plays with children in an acting class: tell three facts, two of which are true and one which is a lie. I so enjoyed it that it's only the stack of books I already have to work through, not to mention school work, that's stopping me from checking out Kittle's other work. - Alex

Saturday, April 26

More Book Lust - Nancy Pearl

Less a sequel than a companion piece to Book Lust, More Book Lust explores other favourite books, arranged topically. As witht he first of librarien Pearl's books, I found a number of interesting-sounding titles to add to my wanted listed, and a few authors who sounded promising. And, also like the original, I was frustrated by the lack of information about many of the titles - were they just chosen because there weren't enough other titles for this category, or is this book particulalry special? If so, why?
If you're interested in expanding your reading, or in exploring a particular genre, regional area, or theme, this is for you. And as I start seeking out and reading some of Pearl's recommendations I'll feed back my thoughts. - Alex

Friday, April 25

Save Karyn – Karyn Bosnak

Unfulfilled and stagnant, producer Karyn Bosnak left Chicago for the bright lights of New York, to work on a new, Judge-Judyesque program. Starting from scratch in a new city, and keeping in mind the maxim that, though you might spend a little more, quality’s worth it, she rented a great apartment, furnished it piece by piece, bought some amazing clothes and accessories, and essentials. She was earning a good salary and on track for a promotion. And in just over a year she racked up over $25,000 in credit card debt with no way to pay it back.
Save Karyn, subtitled One Shopaholic’s Journey to Debt and Back, tells how it happened, her efforts to pay the debt back, and how she came up with a revolutionary way to get help – she started a website asking strangers to donate whatever they could spare to pay down what she owed. In exchange she posted snippets from her life, including savings she’d made each day, reflections on her previous profligate lifestyle, and selected emails from a rapidly-growing online audience (about evenly split between favourable and attacking readers).
As word of mouth spread, Karyn’s site got more hits, her donations increased, and she became the focus of increasing media attention. I remember hearing about this website (which is still up – at the time, though I never visited, and that in part is what prompted me to read the book. The other part is that, after almost twenty years of my own profligate spending (and managing to rack up $10,000 in credit card debt in a year, twice), I’ve decided to start saving – watch out for a slew of finance books in the next few weeks.
Bosnak has an engaging voice – in response to the oft-answered question “why not consolidate your debt and read a finance book?” she responded that she has consolidated, and the books all made her depressed about how far behind she was (a sentiment to which I can wholly relate!). Karyn moved to New York in 2000, and September 11, and her reaction to it, therefore feature, but are not the focus of the book. The final few pages are reflection on what Bosnak learned, about debt and about the kindness of strangers. Reading Saving Karyn made me feel more comfortable about my own financial situation, impressed by her ingenuity, and warmer to the world in general. This was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. – Alex

Thursday, April 24

Candace Havens: Charmed and Dangerous

A powerful witch acts as a kind of magical body guard to the British Prime Minister. But her success at her job (and her unparalleled skills with potions, charms and mind reading) has drawn her to the attention of the dark forces and now she has a price on her head. That would be bad enough on its own but the bounty hunters trying to kill her aren’t too fussy about who else gets hurt along the way and with the company she keeps that could result in an international incident. Throw in two wealthy, handsome love interests and the odd needy ghost and this witch has her hands full.
Written in the style of a diary this book was a delightfully light and easy read.
The world building is very well done, perhaps a little too well done. The assumption that the reader knows and understands this world and what has gone on in the character’s recent past had me thinking that maybe this was not the first book of the series. It is. The world and the creatures in it are explained but in so subtle and off handed a way that the reader is barely aware of it. It works very well but as I said at times it reads as if you’ve been dumped into a story mid series. But that might have been what the author was going for.
If you’re looking for something that doesn’t require much concentration and is easy to pick up and put down, this could be one for you. Great summer beach reading-Lynn

Wednesday, April 23

The Vor Game - Lois McMaster Bujold

Following graduation Miles is posted to remote and icy Kyril Island as the new Weather Officer, an unattractive posting designed to explore his ability to cope with military discipline. He quickly discovers laxness, alcoholism and depression are rife among the soldiers, and that the commander is a delusional megalomaniac - in standing up to him and for the grunts, Miles is charged with mutiny, a treasonable action for a Vor. Arrested by the head of Imperial Security, Simor Illyan himself, Miles learns that there are bigger issues threatening Barrayar - Gregor, Emperor of Barrayar and childhood playmate of Miles, has vanished in the middle of a diplomatic mission.
Directed toward another mission, Miles manages to get embroiled with a bewitching woman, a mysterious plot, is reunited with his Dendarii mercenaries and rescues Gregor from his captors as well as his own demons, while legitimising the Dendarii force in the process.
Like the other Vorkosigan reviews (below), my blurb will be longer than the comments, predominantly because I can't say anything new and ravy - the writing's tight, the action rapid and compelling, the characters involving and sympathetic (or textured and repellant), and I kept telling myself I was going to do all the other things I absolutely had to do, as soon as I finished one more chapter. - Alex

Tuesday, April 22

"The Mountains of Mourning" - Lois McMaster Bujold

Acting as the Voice of his father, Lord Vorkosigan, Miles (accompanied by an armsman or two) rides to the isolated village of Silvy Vale to investigate a woman's report that her husband killed their infant daughter, born with a hare lip and palate.
This short story/novella further explores issues of disability, cultural change and contribution in Barrayan society, elements that are significant in understanding the larger culture of the planet. At the same time "The Mountains of Mourning" continues the development of Miles - this is his first opportunity to resolve significant issues in his own right, to act as the Voice of the Lord his father (a role that will one day be Miles'), and events in the village act as a strong contrast to the protections Miles' parents were able to offer him, as well as a counter-point (and insight into) the actions of his grandfather, who tried to kill him before he was born.
Given that the series was written out of order, I don't know how Bujold manages this so effectively, and her voice is as clear, detailed and compelling in short formnat as in a full length novel. - Alex

Monday, April 21

The Warrior’s Apprentice - Lois McMaster Bujold

Seventeen-year-old Miles Vorkosigan has always wanted to carry on in the tradition of his warrior forefathers, despite the legacy of a gas attack before he was born that left his physically disabled. Quick witted and preternaturally smart, Miles makes it through all the intelligence testing but comprehensively fails the physical. However a trip to visit his Betan grandmother turns Miles’ life in a wholly unexpected path – rescuing a pilot about to lose his ship, and a Barrayan deserter living off the grid, Miles somehow ends up in command of an ever-growing regiment of soldiers.
In lesser hands this first exploit would be ludicrous, but Bujold pulls it off without a tremor of incredulity being raised – Miles is charming, quick and quick-witted, and possesses an uncanny ability to turn the most disadvantageous situation in his favour. Like another of my favourite series (David Feintuch's seven-part Seafort Saga), part of the appeal is the attitude he holds to life, responsibility, the demands of command, and the sequela of unavoidable and unpalatable decisions. - Alex

Sunday, April 20

Play Little Victims - Kenneth Cook

In 2000 God realises He meant to end the world at the first millennium but forgot. In a bit of a rush He freezes the planet, covering it first in a thick layer of ice and then in a blanket of fog because "He was a little worried about the theological implication of His actions and didn't want to get involved in interminable arguments with His company of saints." However, in His haste, He overlooked a 2-mile square patch in the middle of the United States where, as a consequence of the laws of evolution being lifted along with everything else, a pair of field mice developed sentience.
Published in 1978, Play Little Victims (the title comes from a Thomas Gray poem: "Alas, regardless of their doom/The little victims play!/No sense have they of ills to come/Nor care beyond today") is a reflection of the time it was written. The novel explores themes of overpopulation, the limits religion overlays on expediency and common sense, and the logical conclusions of some theories. The emphasis is particularly heavy on sanctity of life issues, and in Cook's exploration this includes the results of a culture that forbids interference with conception, is less concerned for life once it's created, and that struggles with a growing population and dwindling resources.
If written today these issues would undoubtedly be coloured by environmental concerns, terrorism, animal welfare, medical costs and/or genetic engineering. I'd also hope that, unlike the original, a re-write would include female participation in the society in a role other than help-meet, cook, cleaner and incubator - only one of the female mice even has a name, and Evemus is shown solely in a secondary and subservient role to the patriarch, Adamus.
Well crafted, this is much more a novel of ideas and ideology that character development and plot. The lone voice of sanity is ignored by the majority of leaders, the reader comes away with food for thought, and the final line resonates. In my case, for over twenty years - a friend loaned me the book in high school and I tracked it down again (through the brilliant Antiquarian Book Exchange Book Sleuth community) after being revisited by the plot. In my memory the ending was less subtle, but I remembered the concluding page: "Logimus screamed. And screamed." - Alex

Saturday, April 19

Barrayar – Lois McMaster Bujold

The dying Emperor of Barrayar names Aral Vorkosigan Prime Minister and guardian of five-year-old Gregor, heir to the throne on his majority. Aral wants no part of it, but there’s no-one more suitable, and the Emperor has spoken. Besides, it keeps him on Barrayar, and Cordelia is expecting. But the role raises thorny issues almost from the first, and when a terrorist bio gas attack is made, Cordelia’s pregnancy is threatened. A tetratoxin, the baby’s bones will forever be gelid, and an abortion is the only answer. However, by using a combination of Betan technology and Barrayan medical experimentation, the only child of Lord and Lady Vorkosigan survives, albeit dwarfish and with extremely fragile bones.
Barrayar explores Barrayan culture more deeply, with behind the scenes machinations, treachery and danger at every turn, particularly for the infant Miles. Bujold continues the strong characterisation (particularly striking with such a large cast), fast-paced plotting and innovative solutions. In her afterwaord she says much of her thinking comes from the question “What would be the worst thing I could do to him now?” – and the answers unquestionably pay off. - Alex

Friday, April 18

Cordelia's Honor - Lois McMaster Bujold

Commander Cordelia Naismith is an astrocartographer, heading up a Betan scientific exploration. When her party is set upon by vicious Barrayan soldiers she is more angry than afraid – particularly when one of her men is permanently brain damaged when hit with disruptor fire. Heading the invasion force is Aral Vorkosigan, a captain better known as the Butcher of Komarr. His reputation of ruthless sadism is belied by his behaviour as they march back to the encampment over a period of days, sharing rations, watches and confidences.
Bujold has created a rich and intricate universe, and Shards of Honour contrasts two very different cultures – the libertarian, relatively peaceful, advanced Betans and the monarchist, warrior-led, class-conscious Barrayar, steeped in traditions and only just emerging from millennia of isolation. Cordelia discovers that Beta Colony can be just as difficult to navigate within if you want what the society doesn’t want you to want, and Aral – scarred by past experiences both professional and personal – finds a safe haven in this strange off-world woman.
This is chronologically the first in the Miles Vorkosigan saga, which (fair warning) I’m about to glut on. I say “chronologically” because the books have been written out of order. That said, there is another book (Falling Free) set in the same universe about a hundred years earlier, and I would have started with that if it wasn’t in off-site storage at Lynn’s place. - Alex

Thursday, April 17

The Sleeping Beauty Proposal – Sarah Strohmeyer

Genie Michaels thinks her life’s pretty good – she enjoys her work as an admission officer for a small liberal arts college, and she’s four years into a relationship with a man who still makes her go a little weak at the knees. Hugh Spencer’s British, in the Hugh Grant mould; when he’s not working as an Associate Professor of Thoreau College’s English department, he’s a writer. After a little creative input from Genie, his Nicholas-Sparks’ like novel Hopeful, Kansas, began to tear up the best-seller’s list. Genie has never pushed Hugh into any kind of commitment, though she doesn’t understand what Hugh’s waiting for – they live together, they’re compatible, they have great sex, and now he’s successful. And then Hugh proposes! Only, it’s not in person, it’s during an interview with Barbara Walters, and it’s not actually to Genie.
When Genie calls Hugh he tells her that there were long-standing issues in their relationship, she may have felt committed to her but he never said he was committed to her, her need for commitment made him feel fettered and confined, and he never enjoyed the sex. With some encouragement from her best friend, Genie decides to let everyone assume that Hugh did ask her – why should she be the one to have to explain? Genie, says Patty, has been like “that idiot, Sleeping Beauty, lying around like a zoned-out zombie” waiting for a man to rescue her. Now that Prince Charming’s galloped past the castle it’s time for Genie to wake up. And so, without actually confirming anything, Genie lets her colleagues, friends and family assume what they want… but it’s a strategy that will only work for so long, and with Hugh due back from London at any time, the truth will out.
The Sleeping Beauty Proposal is a light, fairly fluffy read, saved from tedium by some nice characterisation and a neat avoidance of the usual irritations. Like Genie realising early on that it’s a fairly stupid idea, with a high likelihood of blowing up in her face: “Hours will be spent rehashing how weird it is for an ‘otherwise normal woman’ to fake an engagement, how I might need medication or maybe a stay up the street [at a psych unit]… suffering from a classic case of ‘Fatal Attraction Psychosis’.” – Alex

Wednesday, April 16

Deep Freeze – Lisa Jackson

Movie star Jenna Hughes was a phenomenon – between her figure (naturally big breasts, tiny waist, high and tight bum), her features (long dark hair fraing a heart-shaped face, large green eyes and a kissable mouth), and her acting ability (from her first role, in a Jodie Foster-like role as a young hooker, to the unfinished White Out), Jenna had massive box office appeal. Even now, a year after leaving Hollywood for the seclusion of small town Oregon, Jenna websites abound. But Jenna wanted something other than fame for her daughters and, though they’re pissed about the move, she thinks this is just what they need. It’s also what she needs, some time and space to reflect – on her failed marriage, on life in the public eye, and on the death of her sister on the set of the doomed film White Out. But Jenna hasn’t factored in the devotion of one fan, a fan who’ll stop at nothing to make her his.
The basic plot (vulnerable beautiful woman, scary cold world, power failures, isolation, creepy incidents, possible stalkers lurking behind every man) is far from original, but could have been a standout. The stalker has his unique motivations – which rotate around death, cold weather, immersion in icy water, mannequins in Jenna’s roles, abduction of substitutes as he perfects his technique, and there are no shortage of possible identities – is he the sheriff, the over-involved neighbour, the creepy son of the wardrobe mistress, the electrician/handyman…
Yet for some reason I really didn’t relate to any of the characters or become involved with the story. Maybe Jenna was just too perfect, though she’s portrayed as flawed in some respects. Maybe the tension just wasn’t finely drawn enough, though it was well done. Maybe it was the complicated back stories (Jenna’s marriage, her guilt over her sister in a story that emerges slowly through the novel, the killer’s past). More likely it’s the writing, though I can’t pinpoint what the problem was. Whatever the reason, though I finished Deep Freeze I didn’t particularly enjoy it, and I was pissed when I realised that it’s set up for a sequel. On which I’ll definitively pass. - Alex

Tuesday, April 15

I Like it Like That – Claire Calman

Sensible Georgia, oldest of three, has always been the sensible one. For the rest of her family – Matt, whose two young children are mature in comparison, her absent-minded architect father, her sprouts and wafty clothed stepmother Quinn, and most of all her irresponsible aby sister, Ellen – chaos rules supreme. But George keeps chaos at bay by controlling everything within her power – her work (a counsellor in independent practice), her home (a small flat above her office), her wardrobe (black and white, everything goes with everything), and her personal life (Stephen, eminently suitable). When, in mid-session, a new tenant gouges a section out of her office door while moving in, Georgia is irate. Leo offers to repair the door, and with that one intrusion Georgia’s life begins to spin into the chaos she’s always tried to avoid.
I enjoyed I Like it Like That more as I progressed through this chick-lit-with-more novel that combines present day first person narrative with third person omniscient flashbacks to Georgia’s childhood and the death of her mother when Ellen was still very young. At first I found the flashbacks irriating and unnecessary – the information could have been incorporated in to the present day account. However, as the plot progressed, they became more illuminating and unquestionably added depth to the plot and an extra dimension to the characters, particularly Georgia.
The oldest daughter of a somewhat chaotic family, I related strongly to Georgia, and I found this enhanced my engagement with the book, but I think I would have enjoyed it anyway. There were sly touches of humour, like the Abrams Family Ten Commandments Regarding the Matter of Mess (“10 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house nor his empty worktops, nor his unencumbered chairs… for these things are a sign that he worships the false God of Order”) and the sisters reminiscences of an ex-boyfriend who, ondiscovering they were half Jewish, wanted to discuss what he called Judo-ism (“the ancient art of self-defence using only a bagel and a small accountant from Hendon”). The writing’s strong, the plot certain and the characters involving. All in all a well above average addition to a well-resourced genre. - Alex

Monday, April 14

The Birthdays – Heidi Pitlor

The Miller family are gathering for Joe’s 75th birthday – eldest son Daniel, paralysed from a car accident the year before, is having trouble accepting this momentous change, and is adjusting to the changes in his relationship with his wife now she’s pregnant (they chose the donor profile together); middle child Jake’s wife is also pregnant, with twins, and he’s feeling more irrelevant by the day, despite his wealth and success; and flightly youngest child Hilary is also pregnant, though the father’s unknown. Unbeknownest to any of them, their mother, Ellen, is falling for her best friend’s widowed husband, and Joe’s not on her mind as much as her should be.
This all sounds like a really interesting set up, with potential for any number of sub-plots and intricacies. But for some reason I did not engage with The Birthdays at all. Perhaps its because I'd only just finished a book that I struggled to engage with (see below), and wasn't up for another effort. Perhaps it’s because by the time I quit, at page 118, the kids still hadn’t met up, and nothing much had happened. I thought about putting it down many, many times before I did and when I finally closed the covers, never to open them again, it was with a profound relief. I’m sure The Birthdays has many strong points; damned if I know what or where they are. – Alex

Sunday, April 13

You: On a Diet – Michael F Roizen & Mehmet C Oz

I am an intermittent Oprah watcher – as I check the TV Week listings every Monday (yes, books are not my only weakness), I check out Oprah’s topics; months go by where I have no interest and then I find myself watching a couple of shows a week. Several years ago, through watching Oprah, I learned about the RealAge test, which was created by Drs Roizen and Oz. I think the test and the site are a great combination of solid information and good humour, managing to bypass extremes for a realistic middle road approach too often missing when it comes to lifestyle (ie diet and exercise) suggestions.
Although You on a Diet (follow up to You: The Owner’s Manual) is subtitled The Insider’s Guide to Easy and Permanent Weight Loss, and bannered with “Lose up to 2 inches from your waist in 2 weeks”, the contents are a refreshing blend of scientifically-based recommendation, holisticism, hints and moderation. While the central theme is certainly weight loss, the underlying ethos is about sustainability and the long-term picture for lasting better health.
To that end the guide includes not just standard sensible diet advice (like small plates for smaller portions, a high water intake, and moderate alcohol), recipes and a meal plan, but also information about specific foods to include, reduce or avoid. We should all, for example, opt for foods high in anti-oxidants, and incorporate nuts in general and walnuts in particular; reduce intake of red meat, fats in general and saturated fats in particular, but not eschew fats altogether; and avoid trans-fats, white and wholemeal breads and pastas – always chose wholegrain.

There’s a section on ensuring better sleep and why that’s important, an exercise regime, suitable for pretty much everyone, that incorporates cardiovascular work (walking) with stretching to promote flexibility, and meditation.
The information is well supported with evidence, and complicated information (like how satiety works and why it sometimes doesn’t) is not only clearly explained but also illustrated with cartoons. Rather than specific numbers, the authors focus on healthy weight ranges for height, and prioritise waist circumference over weight altogether. There’s also a strong acknowledgment that slips happen, and that the focus should be on ‘taking the next safe You-turn to get back on track’ rather than giving up entirely.
Scattered throughout are common myths, and why they’re being debunked, and each chapter ends with a prĂ©cis. There are a couple of quizzes to help the reader determine which areas are the most challenging for them, links to online sources, and a generally reassuring overall tone. The program is sensible, sustainable and aimed at improving quality of life in the long term, a striking contrast to the more usual immediate-future-focused approach I encounter.
I have a strong health science background and have read my fair share of diet and nutrition books. You: On a Diet is one of the best I’ve read. I particularly like the moderate and reasonable approach, the fad-free content, and the well-supported advice. It’s a little indigestible if read in one sitting, but spaced out over a few days the whole is pretty impressive. I’ve already started to make a couple of changes, and printed out the website’s stretching routine. I’m also going to check out the first in the series. - Alex

Saturday, April 12

Don’t Leave Home Without One! – Dennis Bills

Subtitled A Home Leaver’s Survival Guide, this comprehensive guide covers all the bases for young people living away from home for the first time. In a logical, methodical but readable style Bills discusses everything from share house rosters to sexual health, budgeting to bongs and grog. Though aimed squarely at Australians, with sections on MediCare, Youth Allowances and voting, most of the information would be generalisable to a larder audience.
I’m clearly not the target audience (and read it only because I came across it while checking out budgeting books) and didn’t learn anything stunningly new. My first post-home experiences were relatively untraumatic, so reading this at the time wouldn’t have staved off any dramas, but I know many people for whom this was not the case.
I was a little disappointed that there was no mention of the role of unions in the section about worker’s entitlements, but otherwise this is a meticulous, well written (if not wholly engaging) and very useful book. - Alex

Friday, April 11

Fork it Over - Alan Richman

This collection on GQ articles, subtitled "The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater" is divided like a meal, from courses "Amuse-Bouche" to "Cheese", a "Wine" section and "Gratuity" with a couple of "Palate Cleansers" thrown in. For the most part I found the categorising arbitrary (the exceptions being cheese and wine), the tone unduly dismissive of almost everything, and though I completed the book (intermittently, over the course of almost a week), I do in no way agree with Emeril Lagasse's front cover blurb that Richman is even remotely funny. The article of veganism was aggressive and rude (and I'm not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan), and I doubt I'd like the man if I met him in person. If you want to read a collection of amusing, interesting, appetising essays about food, I strongly recommend you read Jeffrey Steingarten instead. - Alex

Thursday, April 10

Mirror, Mirror - Gregory Maguire

Beautiful, motherless Biance de Nevada lives high in the hills above Tuscany at Montefiore, her father's farm. Between the cook, Primavera Veccia, and the local priest, Fra Ludovico, Bianca's life is perfect. Until the Borgias come and despoil Bianca's idyllic, innocent retreat. Lucrezia Borgia has plans for Bianca's beloved papa, and they don't include a young girl - especially one more beautiful than she.
I usually love alternative takes on classic fairy tales, and enjoyed Maguire's other adaptations (he's most well known for Wicked, the Oz re-working that's now a musical, but I also enjoyed Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Lost), though I'm not sure why he's so much better known than the fantasy writers of this tradition who went before him, like Jane Yolen.
Anyway, I started. I put it down. I picked it up and tried again. And Mirror, Mirror just didn't work for me at all. But it's a library book, so at least I didn't buy it. - Alex

Wednesday, April 9

A Shoulder to Lean On – Jade Forrester

After seven years with would-be actor Tyler (who confusingly switches between Mr Chisel Jaw, Sensitive New Age Man, Little Boy Lost and Great Lover), architect Cass Everett’s decided to leave. Again. She’s got a great apartment in St Kilda, a new job at respected architecture firm Ormond, Fanning and Blainey and, thanks to a chance meeting with another tenant, a new group of breakfast companions, the Breakfast Network (a group of high-powered women from a variety of industries who informally meet at the caff nearby). But what really makes this time different is the shoulder, a ghostly presence in flat thirteen that gives Cass the strength and comfort to keep resolutely away from Tyler, enjoy her own company, and stand up for herself at work. Is it possible to fall in love with a ghost? Of a shoulder?
I sought out Forrester’s work because the great Greenwood mentions her several times in the Corinna Chapman series, and if Greenwood thinks she’s good she pretty much has to be! A Shoulder to Lean On was the only Forrester I was able to find at my local library and when I saw the cover I realised I’d read it when it was first released, well over a decade ago. I didn’t remember the plot, though, and that was a welcome surprise.
The main character is lively and strong, the men in the book are somewhat complex, and the plot was unquestionably original. It’s set in Melbourne and the presence of the city is authentic but subtle. A Shoulder to Lean On has worn relatively well, with only the occasional reference to “portable phones” jarring. Well that and an uncomfortable reference to a finger touching “the sharp point of her clitoris” – not dated, to be sure, but uinquestionably ouchy.
I’m going to meanderingly try to track down more of Forrester’s work, in part because I enjoyed A Shoulder to Lean On, in part because of the ongoing Greenwoodian references (I half suspect Forrester of being a nom de plume of Greenwood), and partly because I dimly recall a gay lover theme from the Chapman references and I’m a sucker for a little homoerotic romance. Watch this spot. – Alex

Tuesday, April 8

Bloomability - Sharon Creech

Dinnie (Domenica Santolina Doone for long) has never been settled in one place - her former city mother, as well as her troublesome older brother Crick and restless older sister Stella, have followed her father from state to state on the hunt for opportunities, certain that the best is yet to come, just one move away. Estranged from her family, Dinnie's mother encouraged her to streamline her life. At twelve Dinnie's down to one box of possessions.
When her aunt and uncle 'kidnap' her - in truth take her abroad with her father's permission, after Crick nears jail and Stella has a baby at sixteen - everything changes. Her uncle's the new Head Master at a school for foreign students in Switzerland, and for the first time in her life Dinnie gets undivided attention, support, and exposure to a group of people who embrace the different and original.
I really enjoyed getting to know Dinnie, who over the course of year experiences real growth and learns to discover who she is. - Alex

Monday, April 7

Hell Hath No Curry - Tamar Myers

Mennonite hotel owner Magdalena Yoder's not unaccustomed to coming across dead bodies in her small Pennsylvanian town, and she's managed to solve a few murders in her time, so she's not as surprised as you might expect when Sargent Ackerman tapped at her front door and announced that the town's most eligible (and philandering) bachelor has been found dead. Of course, the fact that it had happened while he was... doing the two-sheet tango with the town's Chief of Police was a little surprising. But working out which of the many women Cornelius Weaver dallied with actually spiked his curry with a stimulant that brought about his heart attack is anyone's guess.
This is the fifteenth PennDutch mystery and even though it's been several years since I read one (and I must have skipped a couple as well) I found the tone of the book a little irritating - Magdalena, after a life time of thinking she's plain (and I've always pictured her as a lean, handsome woman) discovers, after a chance meeting with an old school friend, that she's really beautiful, and this keeps being harped on in a way I found, as I've said, profoundly irritating.
That said, there are a few humorous moments, a couple of groan-worthy puns, and a fast-paced plot. I'm interested in the Mennonite and Amish faiths, and like a good cosy mystery from time to time. There is, of course, the Murder She Wrote factor of so many murders in such a small town, but if you can get past that this series is quite good - though the earlier installments were better (or maybe I was just younger and less discriminating). - Alex

Sunday, April 6

Elizabeth Peters: Devil May Care

When a woman goes to house sit for an elderly aunt she finds herself the victim of an apparent haunting. Is she really being visited by ghosts in the night or are persons unknown merely trying to convince her that she is? With the help of a neighbour she sets out to investigate and uncovers century old secrets, finding love on the way.
This book is a prime example of a good premise lost to poor execution. The only thing that kept me reading were the social curiosities of an era so very close to, but so very different from, our own. Written in the 1970’s it is full of signs of its time, such as a woman risking her reputation by staying in a house alone with an unrelated single male, a gay man being ostracised by an entire community with the exception of the local eccentric, and an overly laboured issue around sleeping arrangements - the couple are engaged but do they want one room or two?
The story itself failed for me on a number of points.
To begin, the first chapter is in the point of view of a character that doesn’t appear again until the end of the book and even then is a minor player.
The style is heavy on the telling rather than showing and what is shown is often secondary or even tertiary detail. Just when a scene is getting interesting rather than follow through, the author wraps it up quickly with a telling summary. This happens so often that at one point I thought I might be reading an abridged version. I wasn’t.
A lot of word space is given to the care and feeding of numerous animals that play no significant role in the story, to the detriment of more interesting and relevant plot points.
The heroine was unsympathetic. She’s judgemental beyond reason, even given the time and unexplainably engaged to a man the author goes to lengths to tell us has no redeeming features. It was difficult to relate to her at all, let alone like her.
Finally the romance between the two lead characters was completely unconvincing. At the end of the novel I am supposed to believe that they intend to marry. I have a hard time believing these two even like each other.
While I’ve read worse, the unintentionally entertaining historical curiosity of this novel wasn’t enough to save it. I will be actively avoiding this author’s other works.-Lynn

Saturday, April 5

Blink – Ted Dekker

Seth Borders is a bona fide genius, with a measured IQ 30 points higher than Einstein’s. He’s perplexed by the visions that start coming to him, of events that take place ten seconds later, until he realises they’re related to a young Arabic woman in danger. Miriam, a princess from the House of Saud, has fled to the US escaping a strategic marriage that will bring about a revolution in Saudi Arabia. As Seth and Miriam flee across the US, pursued by the State department and two separate groups of Saudis, Seth’s visions become more complex and longer, and his concepts of religion, belief and faith are profoundly questioned.
This is an interesting and unique novel that combines theology and fantasy, and action and adventure with multiculturalism. While I was reading Blink I was swept away by the premise, the switches between Seth’s world as a frustrated student in a rigid institution and Miriam’s as an intelligent woman curtailed in almost every respect by an ethos that means she has no voice and no control. The comparisons between Christianity and Islam were interesting, and their voyages no less so.
However, the longer I reflect, and I only finished Blink today, the more dissatisfaction I feel. Seth is somewhat of a Mary-Sue, pretty much perfect to a fault, and Miriam is - at least from a Western perspective - not far behind. I also had some concerns while I was reading the novel about the strong pro-Christian emphasis evident throughout the novel.

After initially writing this review I googled Mr Dekker and discovered that his writing is classed as Christian literature and that he had a Saul-and-Damascus moment, so this agenda is unsurprising if you're forewarned. I, however, was not, and as the novel is presented as coming from a more impartial observer. This also explains the reliance on deus ex machina, which I’m not a huge fan of when reading fantasy, and the slightly unresolved yet simultaneously wrapped up ending.
My experience with contemporary Christian literature (as opposed to the works of CS Lewis, for example), has primarily involved the Left Behind series, where a great idea was sorely let down by distressingly bad writing. That said, I managed to perservere through to book eight (of thirteen, I think) before quitting. Ted Dekker's writing is unquestionably better than that but there are, as I said, some problematic areas. As I was reading Blink I decided to try others of Dekker’s novels. I still think that, but with some reservations. – Alex

Friday, April 4

Only 104 Weeks to Your Home Deposit - Peter Cerexhe

Possibly good for those who've given little thought to getting a home deposit together, I didn't find Only 104 Weeks to Your Home Deposit particularly fresh or informative. Unlike the other finance books I'm consulting, it deals almost solely with developing a home deposit, which I grant you is evident from the title. Cerexhe therefore concentrates on the two years of saving for this, rather than any other areas of financial investment, with the (no doubt valid) idea that you can do almost anything for that period of time in order to scrape together as much as possible - try for a raise, work overtime, pick up extra work, and (my favourite, clearly aimed at people who have a very different life than I) find people who'll sponsor your saving efforts. As Cerexhe points out, if
parents or relatives are prepared to subsidise your savings you can make between $200 and $20,000 for every $10,000 you save (depending on whether they're subsidising you at a rate of $1 for every $50 you save through to $2 for every $1). Not so much a valid strategy for me. Or anyone I know. And I already work full time, with maximum penalties, and am studying part time, so there's not much spare time for another job. Of course, I'm also looking at my long-term future and not just the time where I'm gathering a deposit. This might be useful for young people who are just starting out, but for a woman in her thirties with a life and an established career it's all too narrow and regimented for me. - Alex

Thursday, April 3

The Year of the Griffin – Diana Wynne Jones

It’s eight years on from the last offworld Dark Lord tour, and things are starting to get back to normal. Querida has stepped down as High Chancellor, leading Derk in her place, and Wizard Corkoran is now running the Wizard University, where Elda is starting her first year.
But decades of misdirected energy and research have not only financially drained the world, they’ve also twisted teaching and learning magic. Focusing on practical and useful magics has resulted in a faculty devoid of imagination or inquiry, and it’s left to Elda – and her diverse cohort of curious neophyte friends – to rediscover the wonder of magic, saving the world in the process.
This is a delightful sequel to The Dark Lord of Derkholm, set in Jones’ usual universe of nine alternate versions of earth. As always the characters are finely drawn and engaging, the plot is twisty but intelligible, and the writing is threaded with humour and wit. A compelling and thoroughly enjoyable adventure. – Alex

Wednesday, April 2

Extras – Scott Westerfeld

Back story: Extras is the fourth book in the Uglies trilogy, which covers the adventures of Tally, initially an ordinary teen in a future where people came within a hairs' breadth of destruction. Over the course of the three books Tally's perceptions of her world, and the assumptions she realises she's made, cause her to take action and change the way her world functions. Now read on...

It’s been three years since rebel Tally Youngblood unleashed the mind-rain and stopped the world being bubble-headed. For Aya Fuse, who lives in a city where your status is everything, being fifteen and ranked in the 451 thousands (out of a population of a million) means nothing is that different. Sure there are now any number of cliques, from the cult of Radical Honesty (followers have surge to prevent them lying), to surge monkeys and tech heads. But Aya wants to be a kicker like her brother Hiro, reporting the latest news and raising her own rank in the process. Hiro’s huge, with a rank in the top thousand, and she knows she can’t compete. At least, not until she catches a group of low profile girls surfing on a mag-lev train. That’d be a rank-building kick, but in following it Aya uncovers something truly brain-shifting.
Extras is set in Japan, and Westerfeld manages to give the reader a flavour of not only the future (with realistic slang) but one where the worldwide change in society is shaped by the history and traditions of a very different culture that the Western one Tally experienced. He blends today’s reality-TV focus with technological advances, plastic surgery (surge), obsession with fame, the concept of ‘face’ and of service to the community to create a wholly original society.
This is the fourth in the Uglies trilogy, and as in the Tally novels (and indeed in all his books) Westerfeld’s managed to create a cohesive and compelling world that, though singularly different in many respects to our own, holds a mirror to us. His protagonists, particularly Aya, are convincing and the plot rattles along at lightening pace.
I was most distressed to discover that I’d left my copy on the tram last week, only half way through – God bless the library, which got me another copy within two days so I could pick straight back where I left off. – Alex

NB For a more articulate, insightful and comprehensive review of the series, click here for the New York Times review by James Hynes

Tuesday, April 1

The Everyday Witch – Sandra Forrester

The youngest of her friends, Beatrice Bailey is only now coming up to her twelfth birthday, where all witches are classified by the Witches’ Executive Committee. There’s no surprise really – her family’s Reform, and most Classical witches come from Traditional families. It’s almost a given that, like her friends and her parents, Beatrice will be an Everyday witch. But when the thirteen members arrive Beatrice is surprised – her ancestors, the Bailiwicks (shortened to Bailey when they decided to mix with mortals and become Reform) were Classical witches, and the eldest daughter of every generation is challenged to break a centuries old spell cast by Dally Rumpe, an evil sorcerer. If she succeeds then Beatrice will free part of her family, and perhaps be found to be a Classical witch after all. Even if she’s not really that interested.
This is an entertaining, if light weight, fantasy for younger readers. Beatrice’s interest in more mundane pursuits is a nice counterpoint to the magic, and the pace is steady but not overwhelming. Though accompanied by three friends, boys Ollie and Cyrus, and best friend Teddy (an ardent would-be Classical witch), this is very much Beatrice’s journey, and she makes an engaging heroine. There’s a little wit and humour, and the writing is well targeted at the intended audience, a few steps down from the Harry Potter age group. – Alex