Monday, June 30

Am I Blue? - Marion Dane Bauer (ed)

Subtitled Coming Out From the Silence, this 1994 collection of young adult short stories covers an array of gay and lesbian (not so much bisexual) awakenings, set over a range of eras, substantially American, and strongly coloured by the spectre of AIDS.
I first read Am I Blue? not long after it's publication, and was interested to see it on the library shelves last week. I had already read other works by some of the contributing authors, including William Sleater, ME Kerr, Lois Lowry, Jane Yolen and Leslea Newman, and I've since read several of Gregory Maguire's novels. In the intervening decade and a half I've developed as a reader, and now can't remember if I uncritically enjoyed all the stories. On this reading I found the quality a little uneven, skipping over a few altogether but really enjoying a few.
Most notable was the title story by Bruce Coville, where a young man questioning his orientation is offered three wishes by his fairy godfather (the spirit of Melvin, who was killed by gay bashers) and decides to fulfill the only great gay fantasy appropriate for a sixteen year old - everyone who is anything but 100% straight is shaded blue, the hue dependent on the extent of their orientation.
Lois Lowry's "Holding," about the son of a gay man finally coming out about his dad to his best friend, made me cry. The characters were exquisitely drawn, the pain of Willie's father, grieving the unexpected death of his partner, was sharp, and the rapport between Willie and his best friend was textured and compassionate.
Other stories explored parental conflict and acceptance (and sometimes rejection), questioning orientation and confirmed orientation, experimentation, education, or drew parallels between homophobia and anti-Semitism.
Times have changed since the publication of this anthology, partially in acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, though there's still a long way to go. More significant a change is the impact of HIV/AIDS, at least in the West - no longer the rampant killer it was then, many HIV +ve people are able to keep the disease in remission with a complex medication regime and have a more normal life. This is not to say it isn't still a terrible disease, that it doesn't still kill, or that it doesn't matter, but for many people HIV/AIDS is now a chronic disease.
This is still a great collection of stories for teens, not only those questioning their sexual orientation, or confirmed in their non-heterosexuality, but also those interested in expanding their reading and conceptual horizons. - Alex

Sunday, June 29

Black Maria - Diana Wynne Jones

Chris and Mig have been plagued by their father's Aunt Maria ever since his car plunged over a cliff when he was on his way to visit her in the village of Cranbury Head. Selectively deaf, manipulative, and of very fixed notions (including horror at females wearing trousers), it was bad enough when she rang, every day after school - if nobody answered the phone then Aunt Maria would ring around all their friends and their mother's work, sure something had happened to them. Mig became adept at deflecting questions about Chris, who - a boy - was allowed to be out as long as he was doing something worthwhile. Aunt Maria was content thinking him a maths genius who studied with a phoneless friend. But then Chris, Mig and their mother went to stay with Aunt Maria, and things became truly odd. There seem to be no other children in the village, except the orphans, and though they all look different they seem somehow the same. A ghost comes to Chris' room every night and searches for something. The men all seem like zombies, except for Mr Phelps across the road, and the women are all boring and pander to Aunt Maria. But it's not until Aunt Maria turns Chris into a wolf, and somehow bespells their mother into not noticing he's gone that Mig decides she has to take action.
Jones always writes interesting novels, her work informed by a panoply of influences from Norse legends to great British literature, and Black Maria (published in the US as Aunt Maria) is no exception. In some ways reminiscent of Nicholas Fisk's Grinny, Aunt Maria uses words to ensorcel the unsuspecting, and there are some archetypes loosely scattered through the novel, which is not set in Jones' usual eight-world universe. This is not my favourite of her books but even a mediocre Diana Wynne Jones is better than many writer's better works, and it was an enjoyable enough escape. - Alex

Saturday, June 28

Calculating God - Robert J Sawyer

Tom Jericho is brought to the attention of the world when a spider-like alien who walked up to the main enterance of the Royal Ontario Museum and said "take me to a paleontologist." Tom, who is battling incurable cancer, already has a full plate but can't pass on this amazing opportunity to learn more about the universe. He discovers that Hollus is one of half a dozen ambassadors from a joint research mission between the Forhilnor (Hollus' race) and the Wreeds.
Although the purpose of their research is unclear, it has to do with the history of mass extinctions on Earth - extinctions matched in scale and timing on both other home worlds; this research, they believe, will confirm something both races already accept as self-evident - the existence of God and the intelligent design of the universe.
Sawyer's writing is brisk and involving, and he always manages to incorporate ideas that make me consider my own stance on deeper issues. In Calculating God he has created some interesting ideas, including a race of beings who have never developed mathematics (with a fairly plausible explanation) but who have an innate ability to ascertain the right moral stance (although this does, of course, prompt the question 'right for whom?'). He addresses the black and white stance of evolutionists and acknowledges that this is, to some extent, due to unwillingness to be seen to yield any ground to creationists.
Religion is one of the central themes, and throughout the novel we see Tom's journey from sceptic (verging on atheist) to believer, though the God he discovers is far from the benevolent, seeing-every-sparrow (and therefore cancer curing) God he wants to find.
I'm always excited to be exposed to new ideas, and one of the most interesting for me was the linguistic concepts articulated by evolutionary and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (I've read some of his earlier popular work, like The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, and another of which is waiting patiently to be read) - Sawyer cites him as discussing consistency of metaphorical speech: arguments as battles (win, lose, attack, retreat, beat), ideas as food (something to chew on/over, delicious notion, bitter taste), and virtue as elevation (upstanding, sinking/stooping to low acts, high road, up to his standards, beneath me), which I had never before considered and now wonder about.
Much as I enjoy reading Sawyer's work, and certainly appreciate the added dimensions he incorporates, he does tend to have a somewhat black and white vision himself, at least in some areas. The only perspectives he depicts in the evolution vs creationism/intelligent design arena are intelligent but unyielding scientists and ignorant, Bible-bashing fundamentalists. I don't deny both personas exist, but there's also a vast middle ground that isn't acknowledged. And I'm not wholly convinced by his theology, but I'm interested. - Alex

Friday, June 27

Brothers in Arms - Lois McMaster Bujold

His ship badly damaged by the Cetagandans, Miles (as Admiral Naismith) needs repairs, although for some reason funds are in short supply. While trying to work out why ImpSec are dragging their feet, he discovers a clone brother, engineered and trained as part of an assassination plot by the Komarrans. In accordance with Beatn tradition he declared the clone his borther, and tells him that, according to Barrayan tradition, he is entitled to the middle names of his grandfathers. Mark Pierre Vorkosigan, brough up his whole life to hate Miles, is conflicted but helps Miles fool the Cetagandans, who seem to suspect that Miles Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith are the same person.
As with the rest of the Vorkosigan saga, it is the personal relationships and character development that sets this book apart from more run-of-the-mill space opera. I am particularly captured by Miles' relationship with a brother he never knew he had (and didn't have to claim) - we get to see both men's perspectives, in a situation that is truly unique, and once again appreciate the added complexity Miles' mixed parentage gives him.
This aspect adds depth to an already sophisticated novel - there are half a dozen plots, ranging from the series arc to romantic entanglements (and Miles' chivalry), the mystery of why the Barrayan fee isn't coming through, a beautifully drawn hostage situation in a London bottleshop, the always enjoyable interplay between Miles and his laid back cousin Ivan, near-invisible framework created for books later in the series, shading on the already detailed picture of Barrayan administration and red tape, and insight into the Cetagandan and Komarran mindsets.
As always the standout star is Miles, a complex and charismatic creation who manages to be noble but humanly flawed, shining from a background of intricate, texture and absorbing brilliance. Perhaps this is all too subtle: I love this series! - Alex

Thursday, June 26

Kerry Greenwood: Murder in the Dark

Invited to a four day extravaganza billed as the Last Best party of 1928, Phryne Fisher is undecided about attending - until she starts to receive anonymous threats warning her off. Then the intrepid lady detective has no choice but to go.
Once there she finds herself amongst an eclectic bunch of characters, which naturally include an assortment of charming gentlemen. She is soon caught up in kidnappings and following a trail of cryptic clues that she must decipher if she is to prevent her host’s assassination.
This story delivers all the intrigue, danger, debauchery and glamour that I have come to expect from this series, however, the mystery element was missing for me this time around.
Perhaps I have become too familiar with the author’s style (always a risk when one gluts upon a back catalogue) but I identified the villain almost as soon as his character was introduced (though I did not pick the murderer himself), and the person behind at least one of the kidnappings was immediately obvious.
But that is a small complaint of little consequence when character is so well developed and the writing of such high standard. This may not be the most outstanding book of the series so far but it was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.-Lynn

For Alex's review of Murder in the Dark click here

Wednesday, June 25

Mindscan - Robert J Sawyer

Jake Sullivan's adult life has been overshadowed by two interlinked facts - it was a petty argument with his father at the age of seventeen that caused his father to sustain a massive cerebral bleed, leaving him a vegetable; and the discovery that Jake inherited the same blood vessel malformation, a time bomb waiting to explode. Guilt and fear have held Jake in limbo, avoiding relationships and freely living his life. When he hears about a new procedure that will allow his consciousness to be transferred to an artificial body, free of human frailty, he seizes the opportunity to rid himself of the shadow that's loomed over him so long. But there's a catch - the transference is a copy, and the original Jake has to spend the rest of his natural life in a (very luxurious and meticulously appointed) compound on the moon. As the lunar Jake curses fate for not letting him be the blessed one, the uploaded Jake discovers not everyone is as accepting of the uploading process as he was, and his very personhood is challenged.
Once again Sawyer explores a number of fascinating themes, including the nature of personhood, and when this begins (and ends), a philosophical question I have a particular academic interest in). Some aspects of the way this was addressed had me quite agitated because I would have used different counter-arguments, and I had to remind myself it was a novel!
There were also a couple of very interesting concepts that formed part of the background of the novel, and contributed to the plot, that were not specifically explored, including a steadily increasing conservatism in the US (including the overturning of Roe vs Wade) and a corresponding leftward progression in Canada.
Once again themes of relationship (parent-child and interpersonal) came up, both in Jake's avoidance of a relationship with a woman he was interested in but abstained from pursuing, ostensibly to avoid hurting the woman when he died, and the relationship he develops with another upload of an older generation. The way the uploaded individuals are perceived by their families is interesting, and there are a number of questions raised about the practical aspects of immortality, including inheritance, copyright and (to me the most important) the potential for cultural stagnation.
Despite the weight of these themes, Sawyer's writing makes the whole enjoyable and entertaining, and the more somber aspects are subtly threaded through the text, allowing the reader to absorb them at a gradual rate and even ignore them, rather than being bashed about the head with Great Ideas and Serious Themes. This is not my favourite of Sawyer's works, but it still stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of writing in the genre. - Alex

Tuesday, June 24

Killer Instinct - Zoë Sharp

Ex-army chick Charlie Fox teaches self-defence to all comers, but especially the women at a local refuge. She's drawn into a police investigation when, after a night out, a woman she tussled with at the New Adelphi Club, a recently opened night club, is found dead, the latest victim of a serial killer. Charlie winds up working as a bouncer at the Adelphi, much to the irritation of the all-male staff, and her suspicions that there's a connection between the deaths and the club don't help matters.
This was a fair enough escapist read - not particularly memorable but inoffensive. The characters were somewhat well developed, the plot was relatively intricate, the killer was moderately unpredictable, but nothing really stood out. In fact, reviewing this a wee while (a week, give or take) after reading it, I had to read the blurb to remember who the protagonist was. Perhaps this is partly because I've been glutting on strong, dense, gripping novels recently, but Killer Instinct failed to make much of an impression at all. If you're after a light distraction or something that will fit in a pocket or bag and help you while away the time waiting in a queue, this is the ticket. - Alex

Monday, June 23

Elizabeth Hoyt: The Serpent Prince

When a country bred lady finds a naked, unconscious man in a ditch and takes him home to nurse back to health, she falls in love for the first time.
A Viscount, he has been searching out conspirators who together killed his older brother, and challenging them to duels on trumped up excuses. These men are in turn trying to kill him before he succeeds in killing them; he has no time or inclination to take a wife. But he cannot forget the innocent miss who saved his life and, in spite of his better judgement, the two marry.
When she discovers his mission to avenge his murdered brother, she cannot condone his methods and leaves him. Torn between losing his love and avenging his family the Viscount eventually agrees to a compromise that allows him to maintain his pride and his lady love.
The Serpent Prince was an enjoyable historical romance with a number of unconventional elements (mainly in the form of erotic scenes - masturbation not being a common feature of the genre).
While the main story was entertaining, it was in the subplots that fascinating elements of intrigue were to be found and I would’ve liked to have seen them developed much further than they were but I appreciate that was outside the scope of this book which is first and foremost a romance.
Overall this was an undemanding read with greater potential than was realised, worth a look if you’re a fan of historical romance but not a great introduction to the genre-Lynn.

Sunday, June 22

Factoring Humanity - Robert J Sawyer

Psychology professor Heather Davis has been part of the team trying to decode the signal that's been coming in from Alpha Centauri, one encrypted message every thirty-one hours, since 2007. in the decade since the first message arrived Heather's life's changed a lot - her daughters grew up, her older daughter committed suicide, and the subsequent strain resulted in separation for Heather and husband Kyle, an AI expert also at the University of Toronto. Becky hasn't seen her parents for a while but tonight has asked to meet them at the family home, where she'll bring her boyfriend. Confident Becky and Zach will be announcing their engagement, Heather is shocked when she instead accuses Kyle of sexually abusing her as a child. Though Heather wants to believe Kyle, she has to be sure, and in utilising her nervous energy Heather has a breakthrough with the alien data, a breakthrough that not only changes the way people interact with one another but also allows her to know the truth about Kyle, Becky, and why Mary killed herself.
As always Sawyer elevates fantasy/science fiction beyond an involving yarn by incorporating greater issues and layers of meaning. In addition to the first contact plot, which is in itself tackled creatively, he has woven in:
- well developed and normal people, whose lives extend beyond the boundaries of the book
- the selective and fickle nature of memory
- an exploration of repressed memories and the criticisms of the repressed memory movement
- the dangers and benefits of therapy and licensing of therapists
- sexual misconduct in academia, the damage of false accusations to careers, and the need for protection
- the search for extraterrestrial life and imaginings of how this might differ from, and be similar to, us
- artificial intelligence, the quest for a designed intelligence that can pass the Turing test, and the nature of humanity
- the nature of consciousness
- loyalty conflicts between ones' spouse and ones' child, parent-child relationships in adulthood, and marital relations
- suicide and suicidality
- linguistics and Chomskian theories of language development
- the nature of reality and how we perceive it, and
- maths, physics and the fourth dimension.
It is an indication of how comprehensively intertwined these themes are that, as I read the book I didn't notice the panoply of levels and strands. Like some of the best writing around, it is only on reflection, when moving past the first layer of plot, that these are evident. Some of these themes are explored in other Sawyer novels, and there are certainly some strongly recurring concepts (most evident when glutting on his collected works, as I am at present), but each new approach at exploration brings a fresh perspective.
One of my favourite examples I use to illustrate the way our memories are faulty, though we believe them unimpeachable, and the complex history of sibling and family relationships, comes from Factoring Humanity - when going through long-lost photos Heather finds pictures of Mary's fifth birthday and is wounded anew by the memory of her sister blowing the party of for a business meeting, only to discover, when turning the album pages, that Doreen came after all, and what Heather had been resentfully remembering was her sister's initial inability to come, something she would never discuss with her sister because it was petty. I've used this example of how we remember things differently from one another for several years, without remembering (!) this was the source.
And for those who think linguistics is dull, ponder this - how do we all agree that "big red ball" is correct and "red big ball" isn't? Chomsky thinks grammatical rules like this are hardwired, and Sawyer comes up with a theory for how this could be so.
All in all, much to think about, and all of it carried along by a fast-paced and involving plot, with strong and fallible characters. Sawyer really ought to be far more widely known than he is. - Alex

Saturday, June 21

"The Borders of Infinity" - Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles has been imprisoned in an off-world Prisoner of War camp - set upon by an organised band of fellow inmates, he is stripped of his clothes and the few possessions he was issued with (a sleep mat, cup, plate, and cutlery) within minutes of entering the huge bubble. While some of the inmates, like the gang that hit Miles, are loosely organised, for the most part it's each prisoner for himself; the women have banded together, patrolling the perimeter of the area they staked out. Food, in the form of ration bars, is randomly dumped twice a day, and those unable to raid the pile go hungry. Naked, starving and trapped, Miles strikes up a friendship with a delusional man who thinks he's a prophet.
For most of this novella the reader is in the dark about why Miles is in the camp and what's going on. This technique would be annoying in the hands of a lesser writer, but Bujold masterfully manages to enhance the novel by revealing Miles' plan chronologically, increasing the dramatic effect and increasing appreciation of Miles' intellect and plotting capacity.
The events of "The Borders of Infinity" take place during the invasion of Marilac by the Cetagandans, a race the Barrayans have tangled with in the past. To foster resistance, Barrayar has become covertly involved, though more detail would undo the delicious balance trickle of information Bujold threads through the story. A side story, this doesn't seem significant in the overall story arc of Miles Vorkosigan's life, but is enjoyable in it's own right. However, writing this review as I've just finished a book close to the end of the series, I discovered that Miles was haunted for years afterward by a failure that resulted in the death of a soldier during the escape from the Dagoola IV prison camp - yet another example of Bujold's clever and intricate weaving together of sub-themes written non-chronologically. I love this series! - Alex

Friday, June 20

Women Talking Money - Leslie Falkiner-Rose

Falkiner-Rose interviewed over a hundred Australian women about their ideas about how they manage money and what their thoughts and feelings about financial management were. The women range in age from 24 to 85 and covered a spectrum of living arrangements (single, married, divorced) and levels of education.
I read books like this for two reasons - to pick up ideas about improving my own relationship with and management of money, and to reflect on how I am now and how I've changed. One of Falkiner-Rose's participants divides women into categories - spenders, credit card junkies, strapped for cash, savers and day-to-day survivors. I've been all of those and am moving toward a category 'Angela' didn't mention - savvy. That said, while reading the introduction I was distressed to realise that my failing to file a tax return for the last ahem-years (even though the ATO owes me money) is precisely the kind of behaviour Falkiner-Rose discusses when describing friends of hers who act stupidly with finances.
There were some insights that were interesting and applicable for me, including the section on how we develop our attitudes to and about money, and a distressing assessment of how women are treated by the financial planning industry (twice as hard to make an appointment, three times less likely to receive a follow up phone call, more likely to be told things rather than listened to). One hopes things may have changed in the five years since Women Talking Money was published but it's not been long. More encouragingly, Falkiner-Rose quotes financial planner Susan Jackson, who says learning about money management is a process that should be tackled like learning to ski - starting on the beginners slope
And I got to feel smug about a couple of things, including how I've improved my credit card management (pay off everything twice a month), debt in general (currently don't owe anything to anyone), and having specific financial goals.
There were some valuable tips about resources, including women-only courses run by financial institutions and the Council of Adult Education (CAE), the Rule of 72 (to calculate how long it will take to double your money when you reinvest your returns divide 72 by the interest rate you're receiving - at 8.1% my ING term deposit will take 9 years to double) and a website that helps compare accounts and rates (, and other financial websites like the FIDO section of the ASIC website ( which has do-it-yourself tools for calculating your financial position; the site also has a booklet called "Don't Kiss Your Money Goodbye" that sounds interesting. Although she recommends several books I'm going to start with two, a 1936 classic apparently still relevant today (The Richest Man in Babylon by George S Clason) and The Courage to be Rich by Suze Orman. I'm also going to check out (where I can apparently download a personality profiling test that will help me understand how I deal with money). Watch this spot! - Alex

Thursday, June 19

Grey Area - Will Self

Will Self was billed at the hottest young novelist in England at the time this was published; a novelist, reviewer and columnist, Self is considered one of British literature's brightest lights. And, unsurprisingly, I haven't read anything of his, though my literature-reading sister is fond of his work, and he is someone I feel I ought (will a moral imperative) to read. So when I meandered past the library's S section and saw a few Self novels I decided to check them out.
I was surprised by the interesting nature of the premises of the novels I picked up, and have two set aside to read next week. I decided to start with Grey Area, though, as the blurb says it's the place for new readers to begin. It also says "Self startles and cajoles... with unexpected and fiendish wit."
The first short story, "Between the Conceits", is a first-person narration to an unidentified audience where the narrator explains how he and seven others are the only real people in London, responsible for tweaking the strings of the rest of the populace who believe themselves to be autonomous, and subtly communicating to one another through these actions - "the Recorder's people... have consistently increased the number of 'Good mornings' they've bidden to my people over the past ten years." It was an interesting concept, and the ending is attractively oblique, but I didn't engage with the narrator or the narrative and finished wondering what the point of it all was.
The second story, "The Indian Mutiny," is also a first-person narrative, this time by a man who, as a teen, so consistently and systematically undermined a teacher that he committed suicide. And again - eh.
And so it went, until I began skimming through the stories seeking something different that the literary greyness I encountered and I finally stopped midway through the the eponymous story, "Grey Area".
Perhaps I was just in the mood for something more accessible, or less work, but this collection felt like flat diet Coke when I wanted something solid and substantive. I'm going to give the novels a shot, but not for a bit. - Alex

Wednesday, June 18

Rereadings - Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman was reading a copy of CS Lewis's The Horse and His Boy (the fifth in the Chronicles of Narnia) to her eight year old son one evening. Though not as much a favourite as the more well known The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she had loved the book as a girl but had not reread it as an adult. On rereading it she was surprised and disturbed to discover blatant misogyny and racism that she had been blithely unaware of (as was her son) when reading it as a child.
The change in perception made her think about the experience of rereading a well-loved favourite for the first time in decades. Editor of the literary quarterly The American Writer, Fadiman decided to turn this concept into a regular feature - every issue "a distinguished writer chose a book (or a story or a poem or even, in one case, an album cover) that had made an indelible impression on him or her before the age of twenty-five and reread it at thirty or fifty or seventy. The object of the writer’s affections might be famous or obscure; a venerated classic or a piece of beloved trash; a fairy tale read as a child, a novel read in the throes of first love, a reference work that guided the early stages of a career."
Unlike most reviews of the sort, these weren't critical or deconstructive - instead they tended to be about the relationships we have with some books. Fadiman has selected seventeen of her favourites from these columns, chosen for their diversity and breadth of literature covered. And they do cross a wide range of genres - I haven't read any of the authors and only three of the books (plus a poem and the featured album) - Helen Dore Boylston's Sue Barton books, Pride and Prejudice, "The Snow Queen," by Hans Christian Andersen, the Walt Whitman poem "Song of Myself," and the classic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
For me this was very much a pick and pan book - I skimmed over the opening paragraphs of all the chapters but only continued with a handful, primarily on those I'd read myself. The standout essay was by Diana Kappel Smith, who revisited A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and Northcentral North America, by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny; this book, picked up almost randomly one summer, shaped Smith's career and the essay is a homage to what impact the right book at the right time can make.
I saw Rereadings at Borders a few weeks ago and added it to my list because I love Fadiman's work. I read it last week while waiting an inordinately long time in Borders for a delayed friend, and am glad I read it but no less glad I didn't buy it. - Alex

Monday, June 16

One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night - Christopher Brookmyre

I'm not even going to try to describe the plot this time! Suffice it to to say that Brookmyre manages to combine an inept band of mercenaries, a daring operation, a unique (and not in a good way) holiday resort, a collapsing marriage, a recently retired policeman, and elaborate series of twists with a high school reunion to stunning effect. (If you do want a comprehensive plot review, check out this one from blogcritics).
As with the previous Brookmyre novels I've had the joy to encounter, One Fine Day... sparkles with wit, fantastic characterisation, a brilliantly unique premise, intelligent plot twists and (which I only noticed this time around) truly gifted use of dialect - enough to give the reader a strong sense of place without being intrusive.
Of course, it's the high school reunion that tips this over the edge for me - they exert a strange spell of fascination over me that I can't resist, and Brookmyre delivers on this promise comprehensively. He manages to take stock characters - the overlooked nobody turned success, the violent bully fighting his own demons, the strong man turned sensitive new age artist (in this evening's performance the roles of violent bully and strong man will be played by Davie Murdoch), the loud mouth turned successful comedian, the Hollywood star regaining perspective by returning to his roots, the retired inspector falling over mayhem in his own back yard, and the unarmed civilians fighting off an invading force using only equipment to hand and their own plucky ingenuity - and make them fresh, compelling and original, while making the most outlandish scenarios seem wholly convincing.
Don't even read another novel until you've begged, borrowed or stolen a Brookmyre. It's the perfect thing for getting the taste of eh! out of your mind's eye. Bet Brookmyre wouldn't mix his metaphors like that! - Alex

The Book, The Film, The T-Shirt - Matt Beaumont

An ad director keen to create something spectacular and original, a tyre manufacturer keep to add his own imprint, a pregnant wife who talks with her unborn child (who talks back), a PA worth her weight in gold, two MIA creative geniuses who hold an ad company's future int heir hands, a respected US soap starlet with a hidden past, an actor transitioning from day time drama to Hollywood stardom, two entourages of ever-increasing size, and a production steadily moving out of control...
Told sequentially from the points of view of all these players (and another half dozen or so), The Book, The Film... combines several plots (is Joe really that small, and who told the press? Where are Paul and Shaun? What's Veronica's last name? Will Carrie catch Greg out? How stupid is Tish, really?) with the steady conversion of an original ad into dross through the simple process of too many cooks.
I liked the premise of the book, and really liked the original ad script. But the delivery was too bitty, the number of small world coincidences strained credulity, few of the characters were pleasant or easy to relate to (one of the risks of such a large cast and small snippets), and it just wasn't that interesting or sparkling - quite possibly because I've read too much of the great Brookmyre recently. - Alex

Sunday, June 15

Me, Myself & Prague - Rachael Weiss

At thirty nine Rachael Weiss had something of a midlife jolt - failing to live up to her promise as gifted (based on a test when she was six), single, "shredded" by corporate life, only moderately successful as a writer, and a hopeless failure in comparison to her podiatrist sister and lawyer brother, Rachael decided to take a year away from her familiar Australian home and move to her father's homeland. What follows is an account of her plan (a year away from it all to write the Great Australian Novel, discover who she really is, and possibly find exotic love) and her life (the worst customer service on the planet, the frustration of not knowing a word of Czech, and discovering who she really is).
I was swayed by this paragraph from the back page blurb: "They make it seem so easy, those women who write of uprooting themselves from everything they know, crossing the world and forming effortless friendships with strangers - despite not understanding a word they say - while reinventing themselves in beautiful European cities. So it's not surprising Rachael is completely unprepared for the realities that confront her."
Not uniquely, I have on occasion fantasised about upping sticks and taking off - an activity wholly antithetical to my life thus far, and I have respect for those souls sufficiently courageous to do it (while still reserving dislike of the oft-paired trait of excessive self obsession and wanky 'deep' introspection). Weiss manages to almost entirely avoid the wanky aspect, and her account is honest and engaging.
That said, I'm not quite sure what all the hype's about. It was pleasant, made me keenly aware that expecting a warm reception in Prague is a waste of time, and increased my knowledge about many aspects of post-war history and it's effects on the group psychology of a population. Was it the best thing I've read? Not even this week. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't great. I'm glad I read it, and might recommend that wanderlusty friends read it, but it's not something I'll need to revisit. I didn't even - as has been my habit since we started this blog - note anything while reading it that I wanted to include in the review. If Me, Myself & Prague were a colour it would be faintest baby pink - not beige, but not anything to write home about. - Alex

Saturday, June 14

Thin Air - Rachel Caine

Naked, almost frozen and lost in a snowy wilderness, Joanne Bladwin - Warden of Weather and Fire, former djinn returned human, lover of a djinn, mourning mother of an impossible daughter, bane of the Warden's Council, and saviour - has lost her memory. Stalked by a demon, the world being torn asunder, and the Wardens still struggling to function without the slave power of the now-free djinn, Jo has to remember what's going on and who to trust before everything falls apart.
This is the sixth in the Weather Warden series (new to the series? Start here) and things are getting increasingly tangled, especially if, like Joanne (and me) you can't really remember what went on before. I've been putting off reading this for a bit, out of concern that it would be a little too Jenna Solitaire for me. Although Caine manages to avoid the shallow characterisation and lingerie-style plot (so wispy it barely exists), I did find my credibility strained, even granting the usual allowances for the genre. As if becoming a djinn, then returning to human form, adding powers left, right and centre, and having every male being on the planet fall for her was not enough, now she can also fight demons and negotiate djinn peace.
Not bad, well crafted, but just a little too much for me, this will be my last excursion into this particular universe. - Alex

Friday, June 13

Casualties - Lynne Reid Banks

Sue McCluskey's marriage is tense - her husband is unhappy about his semi-employed status and seems put out that she's the primary income earner, is always ready to interpret any remark about their sons as criticism toward them and him, and money's tight. So the prospect of a week's holiday away from London, with her old friend Marjoljin (considerately spelled throughout the book the way it's pronounced - Mariolain), her husband and two children in Holland seems like a fantastic way to get a breath and a new perspective. There's only the little matter of them having only seen each other once since the Venetian holiday where they first met, twenty years ago...
Best known for her acclaimed novel The L-Shaped Room, in 1986's Casualties Banks has created a book of deeper resonance, complexity and power. As the story of Sue's marriage to Cal is gently teased out, the darker story of Mariolain and husband Neils's marriage emerges, alongside the shadow cast on them by the War - unimaginably close to the Dutch, for a British observer.
This book reverberates on a number of levels - the pall cast on the present by events of the past, the depressing impact of past generations onto their descendants, the impact of gender identity on sympathy, the potential love has to overcome intellect, the power intellect has over compassion, the price academia has on humanity, and the triumph of survival.
I appreciate that none of this is very helpful when it comes to explaining what the novel is about. In part that's because I doubt I could capture the essence of the book in my own words, but it's also because the way the book unfolds so strongly contributes to the impact of reading that knowing details ahead of time would undermine the effect of the sequence Banks plotted. One's sympathies are swayed thither and yon, and the counterpoint of the British war experience highlights the very different War endured by those on the continent in general, and that of occupied Holland in particular. Cal predicts that the shadow of Vietnam will hang over Britain's head as long, and it is in many ways a shame that this is not the case, even for those countries, like Australia, that did, unlike Britain, participate.
I was inspired to borrow Casualties because I so enjoyed my first adult Lynne Reids Banks experience (I loved her children's book The Fairy Rebel when I was young). I'm interested in the second world war, and that undoubtedly contributed to my experience in reading this book, particularly as it graphically illustrates aspects of both the Dutch and Indonesian experiences, which I was previously woefully ignorant of. However that interest is by no means a prerequisite - Casualties is a human-centred story, layered and compelling. - Alex

Thursday, June 12

Not the End of the World - Christopher Brookmyre

Only nine months til the end of the millennium and the end of the world is being prematurely hailed across the globe - nowhere more so than apotheosis of American cities, Santa Monica, California. Sergeant Larry Freeman, stuck on babysitting detail at the American Feature Film Market's annual convention, is perturbed to notice a counter-meeting across the street. It's televangelist Luther St James and his Festival of Light, calling hellfire down on one of AFFM's showcases, porn-star-turned-actress Maddy Witherson, daughter of a republican senator. Luther St John predicts a tidal wave sent by God to wipe out the defilers, and he's not taking any chances on being wrong.
Like the other Brookmyre's I've read thus far (and I'm working hard at staving off a glut), Not the End of the World more than delivers. Separate strands come together in a deeply satisfying way, the plot twists are unexpected, the characters sharp and deftly drawn, and there are smart comedic asides that catch the reader unaware; after pointing out a Nietzsche reference in an unexpected place, Freeman says he read it on a corn flakes box: "If I'd had Cheerio's instead of corn flakes I never would have known - Cheerio's are still running their Gems of Kierkegaard series." And the throwaway line that online news groups (which, almost ten years later, we can apply to a disturbingly large number of online forums, blogs and random sites) are "syntax meets chaos theory" is gold.
Thia isn't a book for sensitive, fundamentalist Christians, who may have trouble finding the humour in a Christian band singing "'Exit Only', an instruction to homosexual males as to the exclusive function of the anus." Brookmyre reads strongly angry at the hypocrisy of Christianity, and in many ways Not the End of the World is a call to pay attention to the negative affects of fundamentalism, in all its forms. Chapter eighteen in particularly vitriolic about where the philosophy 'love the sinner, hate the sin' falls under its' own weight, and completes with a summation of how little Christ's sacrifice has positively affected the world. Of course, you know this going in - the book's prefaced with a Bill Hicks quote: "Christianity's such a weird religion. The image you're brought up with is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love." Can't argue with that. - Alex

Wednesday, June 11

You: The Owner's Manual - Michael F Roizen & Mehmet C Oz

This prequel to You: On a Diet, is a comprehensive overview of how the human body works, with an emphasis on age and disease prevention. Structured around the metaphor of the body as a house, You: An Owner's Manual is divided into systems (heart and circulation, brain and nervous system etc). The authors combine breadth and depth of what is quite often complex information in a readable style, without dumbing it down. Illustrated throughout with cartoons demonstrating the system, exercises, or manifestations of disease, the text is also sprinkled with wry humour.
What I like so much about this series, and about Dr Oz (who I've seen on Oprah) is the engaging and forgiving nature of his approach. Many in the health field have a heav-handed, take no prisoners approach that comes down hard on those of us who move around a little (or a lot) less than we ought to, and/or eat evil foods, Drs Oz and Roizen are gentle. They allow for humanity, slips and falliability - the emphasis is on doing the best from here, rather than lamenting the terrible damage done thus far.
My anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology and diet and health knowledge is higher than average, but I was still surprised by some of the questions in the introductory quiz, and I was a little disappointed I only scored 82% - but I'll remember the ones I got wrong for some time. There's also a brain gym quiz, which reinforced for me that unscrambling letters to make words is the most difficult IQ task for me and therefore (according to the book) the exercise most beneficial for my intellectual health and longevity - like stretching, doing the stuff you're good at is less valuable than the stuff you're not.
They've summarised the key information into crib sheets, for strength trainig, the yogic Sun Saluatation, physical activity, sleep, a diet activity plan, and an overview of diet basics. Holistic practitioners who base their advice on large-scale studies (preferable randomised and double-blinded, the gold standard in imperical testing), there are also factoids about supplements and complementary practices, and why they don't recommend some of them.
It's this aspect that sets this series apart from other, lesser, diet and exercise advice manuals - the rationale for every element of their program is explained, including why more is often less, and why this isn't the final word, because there's more information being generated all the time.
This book is a brilliant foundation for anyone who has an interest in their long-term health and wellbeing. The plan is sensible, usable, practical and inexpensive (except perhaps for some of the supplements), and it's strongly grounded in real science. The sample diet plan, like every similar one I've come across, is a little unworkable for people living alone - too many ingredients that don't yield one serve (what do you do with the rest of the low-fat sour cream/½ container of water chestnuts), but that quibble aside this is pretty much pefect. - Alex

Tuesday, June 10

Remember Me? - Sophie Kinsella

Lexi, a mid-twenties wage slave stood up by her loser boyfriend again, is coming to the end of pretty much her worst day ever. The following day's her estranged father's funeral, her feet hurt, her friends are drunk and karaokeing, and it's raining. Rushing for a taxi Lexu slips and has only enough time to think about how much the impact's going to hurt when she blacks out.
When Lexi wakes, with the mother of all hangovers, she's horrified to discover that she's lost three years - and that somehow, in that time, she's managed to become perfectly groomed, slender and taut, the head of her department, and married to an amazing guy with a spectacular flat. She just has no idea how it happened. Or why her best friends aren't speaking to her.
Remember Me? is a triumph of the genre - smart, funny and engaging, it takes a couple of staples - amnesia, life transformation, happily ever after - and twists them into something wholly new. Unlike another, recently reviewed book that had an ignorant heroine, the author learning about the unfolding plot as the protagonist does works spectacularly. The well developed characters (including Lexi's meticulously ordered husband Eric, perhaps one of the most inadvertently amusing characters I've come across in a long while), far-fetched but believable underlying premise, and the strong plots, combine to create an absorbing and enjoyable whole.
Better known for her Shopaholic series and the previously reviewed The Undomestic Goddess, I think this is her best work to date. Great fun! - Alex

Monday, June 9

Witch Way to Murder – Shirley Damsgaard

Small town librarian Ophelia is happy with an unobtrusive life, though she does keep herself to herself – after the events of four years ago she’s careful not to allow herself to get too close. In fact, aside from her ‘herbalist’ grandmother, Ophelia’s closest human relationship is probably with ditzy Darci, who also works at the library. That is, until a travelling chemical salesman named Rick Davis starts asking questions about a recent spate of thefts of chemicals that are the precursors to meth and, against her wishes, Ophelia becomes drawn into a murder enquiry – a mystery that will force her to confront the magickal heritage passed down her maternal line for generations.
I found Witch Way to Murder profoundly annoying, and the only reason I didn’t put it down at page three was because I was at the hairdresser’s and the only alternative way hair design magazines. Where to start with why? How about the hyperbolic writing style – the novel opens with the lines:

Rising panic clenched my stomach. Clammy sweat made me itch beneath my arms. The high heels of my boots beat a staccato rhythm on the empty sidewalk as I rushed to the door.
It’s in this prelude that we first learn that someone died four years before the main action, a man who Ophelia should somehow have saved, though who Brian was, how and why he died, don’t emerge until the final third of the book. All we learn initially is that “on that dreary November night four years ago, the first stone in the wall around my heart clicked into place.”
There are the odd unsubtle lumps of exposition, designed to impart knowledge to outsider Rick, all tell and no show. Rick elicits information, too, asking questions of everyone in a significantly unsubtle way, particularly considering he’s an undercover reporter. Sorry if this revelation has ruined the novel for you.
Another thing that irritated me both times it occurred was technology based - Witch Way is copyrighted 2005, yet Rick is surprised the library has a computer, let alone one with internet access, and Darci (who’s in her twenties) says “You must teach me how to use one of these. This is fascinating.” What’s she doing? Using the mouse to swirl a cursor around the screen. My mother’s in her late sixties and uses email, my father banks online… I have a suspicion this first ‘Ophelia and Abby’ novel was published quite some time after it was first written. Even if it were not for this tip off, this is clearly intended as a series - the last line in Witch Way? “My hackles stood up and my skin tingled. She couldn’t possibly mean… Oh no, here we go again.” Yeah, off you go alone, Ophelia – I’m staying right here. - Alex

Sunday, June 8

Jane Heller - An Ex to Grind

Financial planner Melanie Banks fell for pro footballer Dan Swain as soon as they met - she was a student making ends meet as a waitress, he'd just signed for a major league team. It was a fairy tale romance and they wed within a year. But then Dan wrecked his knee, his contract was no-play-no-pay, and somehow - despite Melanie coaxing and pushing him to do anything - he became happy doing nothing more strenuous than going out drinking with the guys while Melanie funded his lifestyle. So it came as no surprise that she filed for divorce. It's just that Melanie didn't expect to be on the hook for alimony. And while she's living in a dump for the recently divorced, skimping to put something more appetising than Spam on the table, Dan's living it up with chartered flights to Vegas and designer suits. In desperation she turns to a match maker - if Dan cohabits for ninety days the alimony end, and Melanie's going to find the perfect someone if it kills her. She just didn't expect that Dan in love might just be the man she fell in love with, too.
A fun enough contribution to the genre, my only issue is the fundamental premise of the novel - not exactly a small problem. Maybe it's just that I haven't been in the situation, or maybe it's because I'm a feminist of the "equal means equal" school, where equal rights mean equal responsibilities. I agree with Melanie that a man who's perfectly capable of going out and working shouldn't be taking money from a former spouse - with the exception of a shared custody pug there're no dependents - but I'd feel the same way about an ex-wife who could work not doing so. However, given that it is what it is, I don't think I'd be incandescent with rage about it. If I have to pay the money, and there aren't any kids having their support frittered away, then what he spends it on is his business.
And this issue coloured my enjoyment of the whole, otherwise quite fun, book. If you can relate, think you'd barely be able to ungrit your teeth to say hello to your ex, and want an interesting twist on a romance novel, go for it. But if, like me, you think the idea's a little silly, maybe give it a miss. - Alex

Saturday, June 7

All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye - Christopher Brookmyre

Jane Fleming's life seems to have passed her by - once a hip, happening punk, her unexpected pregnancy saw her staidly married to Tom, a Catholic surveyor with a steady job and fixed ways. Now the mother of two fully grown children, Jane's plans to reshape her life - a course at night and then finally the university degree she deferred so long ago - are derailed by another baby, this time her daughter's. When a series of unlikely events throw Jane headlong into espionage and danger, Jane's motivated by the one thing that will have her stop at nothing - the safety of her family.
Very different from the previously reviewed The Sacred Art of Stealing, All Fun and Games is just as intricate and smart. Each section neatly dovetails into the next, each separate strand is seamlessly woven in, and every character is fully fleshed and unique. The influences are eclectic and diverse (from proto gaming's "you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike" to classical music) , there are satisfying scenes (like Jane's conversation with the owner of a 4WD she 'towed' after it was illegally parked outside Safeway) and amusing asides ("there was a helicopter tailplane visible behind the nearside of the house. Jane reckoned it safe to assume that the remainder of a helicopter was indeed attached, tailplanes on their own never having caught on as a garden ornament"), and a plethora of information about the ingenuity of Scots - without them we'd be living in the stone age.
The only caveat preventing me from whole heartedly recommending this book is my concern that you'll glut on Brookmyre's collected works, which will leave you heart broken that there's nothing left. Okay, that's more of a warning to myself! - Alex

Friday, June 6

Since I Don't Have You - Louise Candlish

Best friends Rachel, Mariel and Jenny have daughters only a few months apart. Not long after the youngest was born, one of them proposed a vow - if anything happened to any of them, the other two would look out for her girl as though she was their own. Although Rachel, Mariel and Jenny were okay, tragedy strikes not long after, and Rachel runs from London to the childhood home of her mother - the Greek island of Santorini. Although she can't face seeing the girls who are almost daughters to her, or her best friends, Rachel remembers her promise and, over the next decade, watches out for Cat and Daisy.
Very different from Candlish's previously reviewed novel The Double Live of Anna Day, Since I Don't Have You is darker and edgier in tone. Rachel is a complex character and the novel, told wholly from her perspective, is reflective and introspective. Though the topic at the heart of the book is tragic, and the character is wholly devastated, the tone is for the most part dispassionate, which is an interesting contrast. I did feel like shaking Rachel, who allows the (admittedly devastating) event to shape her entire life, on occasion but this was an integral part of the character and plot structure.
An error fan fic writers often make is incorporating lyrics into their novels - designed to add depth and mood, this technique falls flat if the reader doesn't know the song. The title of the book comes from a 1950's do-wop hit by a group called The Skyliners, and it's referenced occasionally in the text. I hadn't heard of it, and kept getting lines hearing "If I can't have you/I don't want nobody, baby/if I can't have you/oh oh ooo", which was very distracting.
That, and Rachel's self absorption aside, this is a worthwhile read that's a step above most light fiction. - Alex

Thursday, June 5

Flesh Tones - MJ Rose

Genny Haviland is on trial for murder - the prosecution say she killed her lover, legendary artist Slade Gabriel, to save her father's gallery. Genny admits she helped him die, but says it was his idea - tempestuous til the end, Gabriel couldn't stand the idea of fading away, consumed by Alzheimer's. As the trial unfolds Genny is taken back to her adolecence, that summer her art dealer parents were away and the sixteen year old girl was introduced to womanhood by the man who would consume her adult life.
Part mystery, part literary exercise, and unexpectedly locally topical for a book set '90s America, Flesh Tones had some promise but was a little flat for my tastes. None of the characters was strongly drawn or dynamic, the plot unfolded predictably, the dramatic final scene was massively anticlimactic, and the central conflict wasn't. Perhaps I need a little more colour, but I found this more beige toned than flesh. - Alex

Wednesday, June 4

Keeper of the Winds - Jenna Solitaire

When Jenna Solitaire, nineteen year old college student and author of this allegedly autobiographical novel, returns home after burying her beloved grandfather, her last surviving relative, she knows her life has changed forever. She's not, however, prepared for quite how different her life will become. While going through the belongings of her maternal grandmother, who died when Jenna was a child, she discovers a strange triangular wooden board, etched with cryptic runes and stored in a leather carrying case. It is the Board of the Wind, one of several Boards handed down from Solitaire woman to Solitaire woman since time immemorial, and Jenna is the last of the line. She has a sacred duty that she knew nothing about and, hunted by one branch of the Knights Templar and protected by another, she doesn't know who she can trust - not even herself.
Reading as a blend of The DaVinci Code, and a Charmed/Buffy/Weather Warden hybrid, Keeper of the Winds is the first in what could be a thirteen part series (three sets of three Boards, each set of which can apparently be combined into a single mega Board plus, presumably an über Board), Daughter of Destiny. I'm pretty sure my destiny is to skip on the rest of the series.
Where to start? There are some significant plot holes, like - if only women can be Keepers of the Boards, and Jenna's grandmother died years earlier, why did it take the death of her grandfather to set her Keeperdom in motion? Okay, that's the first time she went poking around int he attic, but the mysterious men only started tracking Jenna once he'd died. If the Boards were so safe all those years without a Keeper, do they even need a Keeper to begin with?
The novel's structured as a first person narration, in near real time - there's no reflection from Jenna, the insight of looking back at events from the end of a journey. Instead the approach is more like diary installments, with the disadvantage of leaving the audience knowing as little as the protagonist. The series creator clearly has an ambitious Big Picture, and we get glimpses of it through what Jenna's told and her nightmares (?memories of past lives) - magic that predates Christianity, created by a woman in peril, mastery of the elements, Vatican opposition. Unfortunately this is about all the information we have, at least by the end of the first book, making the going very murky.
Although the series is supposed to be penned by the protagonist, chapters open with snatches of real time dialogue between shady men who may be with or agin her, to whit:
"My Lord, there is a small problem."
"I am aware - the heir has woken the first Board."
"What are your wishes, my Lord?"
"For now, just watch her. Mark all who visit her and find out everything you can about them. We will not be the only ones interested in young Jenna Solitaire."
Forget 'who are these men and what are their intentions?' - how did transcripts of their conversations get into the text of Jenna's autobiographical, mysteriously published accounts of her eventful life?
Of course, my lack of engagement with the novel didn't help with my appreciation of it. As I think I've made clear, I found the whole thing murky and somewhat preposterous (and I enjoyed Charmed, loved Buffy, and passed on The DaVinci Code) . The characters are sketchily developed the plot inarticulate, and I found Jenna herself quite annoying. One thing in particular grated on me - on at least two occasions Jenna rings her best friend, Tom, and is annoyed that he knows it's her because he 'cheats' by using caller ID. She doesn't seem to object to the existence of caller ID itself, and I don't really know what it is she wants him to do - pretend he doesn't know it's her calling? Maybe she should shield her number.
And when I get this narky with a fictional character it's time to call it a day. - Alex

Tuesday, June 3

M.J.Rose: The Reincarnationist - A Novel of Suspense

After a life threatening incident a man starts experiencing the, increasingly vivid, memories of two other men in vastly different times. When modern medicine is unable to explain what is happening to him, his search for an explanation leads him to the Phoenix Foundation, an institute dedicated to documenting accounts of past life experience in children.
The lead researcher there tells him his memories are those of past lives and convinces him to work for the Foundation. Over the course of his time there he is exposed to hundreds of cases of children with past life memories but still can not bring himself to believe that is what he is experiencing.
When taken on an archaeological dig in Rome the frequency and intensity of his memories gain momentum, particularly after he witnesses a murder and the theft of ‘memory stones’ (ancient relics believed to be able to allow a person to remember all their lives). Suddenly modern events start to parallel those of his memories and the body count starts to rise.
He leaves Rome and goes to New York hoping to leave all the trouble behind him, only to find himself entangled in more past life experiences (those of his own past life and that of a woman who was his sister in an earlier life) and in the middle of a kidnapping negotiation (a friend’s child is snatched and the kidnapper wants the memory stones in exchange for her life). Fortuitously his new acquaintance’s past life memories reveal to him the whereabouts of a second set of memory stones.
In an elaborate ploy he steals the second set of stones and saves the child, managing to right the wrongs of his past life sister at the same time.
As a fan of reincarnation stories I was quite pleased to find that this, though a stand alone novel, was part of a series. That, of course, was before I read it. Its' problems are myriad and I put it down a number of times with no intention of picking it up again but the book held a compelling fascination. Like a train wreck, I didn’t want to know but I just had to look. As a result I actually finished it and so didn’t miss the worst ending to a novel ever.
Perhaps the editor was hassling the author for the book so they wrapped it up quickly, maybe they lost interest in it and ended it just to be done, or most likely, the book itself couldn’t take it anymore and so ended itself to spare the reader further pain. To say it was a disappointing end is unnecessarily flattery.
But to address the rest of the story:
I was unable to connect with any of the characters. And we do get to meet them all. We learn the background of every character that appears in the book, no matter how small their cameo. As for the main character it is hard to decide what I hated about him most but I think it was his savant like ability to refuse to believe in his past life memories in spite of the truckload of proof he is being buried under. This wouldn’t have been so bad had the author played up him questioning his own sanity, as it was his brief worries about his state of mind only throw into sharp relief his mulish stubbornness.
The unnecessarily complex plot’s extraordinary reliance on coincidence is remarkable (for example the past life sister subplot). In real life coincidences happen, in a novel they come across as contrived.
The switch between past and present subplots was jerky. And the past life story is infinitely more interesting than the present day one. Though that might be a function of the limited glances we have of it.
We are, purposely it seems, distanced from the story. The majority of the action is told rather than shown making it difficult to be engaged by the story even if you really wanted to be (which at the beginning I did). And the pacing was flat. Even the time honoured suspense inducing method of giving the characters a deadline couldn’t increase the tension in this self proclaimed Novel of Suspense.
I could go on but I might never stop. I really think this author over reached themselves. They had a great premise but not the skill to carry it off. Which is a crying shame, because I love reincarnation themed stories. If you do too have a look at Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay. Well written, well researched and with the two stories relatively neatly woven together it is everything this book tries to be but is not. Avoid this book like the proverbial plague.-Lynn

Monday, June 2

Dexter in the Dark - Jeff Lindsay

Blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan is used to his life the way it is - incapable of experiencing emotion, he goes to great efforts to pass for human, and he has a strict moral code. Okay, he didn't mean to get engaged to single mother of two Rita, but it seems to be working out, especially if he has a few drinks first. But when Dexter's called out to a murder site and discovers the ritualistically-slaughtered, headless bodies of two young college students, something unexpected happens - his Dark Passenger flees. Dexter faces the horrifying possibility of... being normal.
The third in a series, the writing of Dexter in the Dark is a marked departure from its predecessors. Instead of being solely narrated by Dexter, section of Dexter in the Dark are from the point of view of IT, a supernatural evil that predates the dawn of life on earth, and others are told by the Watcher, a cult member observing Dexter.
What really sets this installment apart, though, is the somewhat disappointing effect that explaining Dexter's Dark Passenger has. No longer the result (or perhaps not solely the result) of his childhood trauma, the Passenger is now an entity from outside Dexter. While this raises some potentially intriguing questions (like who is Dexter on his own?), this really isn't that kind of novel. There was excellent potential for a better novel here - the changes in Deborah's relationship with her boyfriend, mutilated in Dearly Devoted Dexter, the relentlessness of Sergeant Doakes, whose hatred of Dexter is undiminished by his own maiming, and the evolving relationship Dexter has with Rita's damaged children are all elements that could have been more deeply and interestingly explored, instead of the unnecessary complicating aspects of real evil entities. We usually write our reviews independent of other sources, but I was so disappointed and surprised with Dexter in the Dark that I googled it before writing this, and am relieved to find it's not just me who disliked this new direction. Unlike some Amazon reviewers, I didn't have a problem with the coincidence of Rita's children being similarly traumatised, and I think this adds a nice dimension to Dexter's character, within the confines of the series' universe. But if this supernatural, non rational element continues in the fourth Dexter book I'm going to have to reluctantly give up. - Alex

Sunday, June 1

How to Win Competitions – Sherry Sjolander

In 2001 Sjolander read an article about competition entering that said “if you aren’t winning you’re not trying hard enough” – she began devoting more effort to participating in the countless competitions that, combined, are worth billions of dollars every year in cash and prizes, and was soon rewarded with a steady stream of wins; in How to Win Competitions she explains how you, too, can become a successful comper, either alone or in a comping club.
Sjolander systematically takes the novice through the process, from an overview and advice on getting started, to a guide through the terms and conditions (including why it’s vital to read and understand them), to a step by step explanation of the various kind of competitions available – magazines, in store and product purchase promotions, how to improve your ‘words or less’ responses, and the use of the internet. She includes sections for children, and a comprehensive discussion about cheating (don’t do it, but this is how those who successfully cheat do it). The final chapter is the diary of a month in the life of a novice Sjolander guides through the process, from her first day to her being successfully hooked on the competitive thrill, including a $1000 win, movie tickets and a free mascara.
This is a comprehensive and (so far as I can tell) accurate guide to the (previously unknown to me) world of serious comping. Tailored tot he Australian market, Sjolander discusses tax consequences, the differences between state regulations, and potential pitfalls. To be a successful comper clearly requires organization, discipline and dedication, as well as thriving on the competitive nature of the hobby. She includes links to internet groups, and advice on joining (or even creating) local organizations of like-minded folk, and suggests an organisational system to keep track of what you’ve entered, when the prizes are drawn, and when the second draw prizes will be announced. She also has advice on what to do if you win but nothing arrives, from how long to wait to what to do if the organisers are unhelpful.
The first thing you need to know is that, though you can earn in excess of $20,000 a year in tax-free rewards, this takes dedication. In addition to the financial outlay – which varies depending on how and what you enter, but includes stationary and postage, SMS texts, buying dozens of magazines a month and copious volumes of products for their barcodes – the Sjolander method consumes vast quantities of time. There are tasks for the morning and afternoon of every weekday, and the anonymous diarist says there are always more competitions to enter.
If you’re at home, have broadband already, have some down time, an eBay account to sell your unwanted prizes through, and want to make some extra money, this could be the answer for you. However, for me (work full time, study part time, don’t drive, and am already a little overwhelmed by chaos) participating in the world of quasi-professional comping would be more stressful than successful. - Alex