Thursday, July 31

Sleeping With the Fishes - Maryjanice Davidson

Fred's a mermaid. She's also a marine biologist, and doesn't sit on a rock combing her long ocean-blue hair (to match her eyes). She's long known her dad wasn't her biological father, and she's never felt anything but acceptance from him and from her hippy home birth mother (a decision which meant little Fred's first finning wasn't witnessed outside the family). She's never known any other merfolk before, though, and the need to keep her identity a secret (from all but platonic best friend Jonas) means she's never really had a boyfriend, either.
That all changes when, within the space of a few days, she meets hunky new marine biologist/romance fiction writer Thomas, who springs her in the tank. Already attracted to her, Thomas has long had a mermaid fantasy and is delighted to meet a real one. He gets more than he expected - High Prince Artur of the Undersea Folk also pops in for a visit, and Fred gets to know a little more of her kin than she expected. Her father, a one-night stand on the beach, tried to overthrow the King and was banished. Now that side of the family need her help - there are toxins in the ocean and Fred's the only one who can work out why, before all the sea life in the area, including her kin, are irreparably harmed.
This is a good start for a new series by Davidson, well known for her Undead series among others. I particularly liked the utter lack of shoe love, as I find that really irritating in the genre in general and in that series in particular. The characters are well drawn, the tension between romantic interests is believable (at least within the universe they live in), Fred is genuinely fun, and her boss (Dr Barb) is a great invention - annoying, hidebound, well-meaning and flawed.
I borrowed this and the sequel for the library - look out for another Fred review soon. - Alex

Wednesday, July 30

Revenge of the Wedding Planner - Sharon Owens

Julie Sultana - scarred by her parents disastrous marriage - is Belfast's premier wedding planner: no detail is too small, no scheme too elaborate. Of course, her personal life is a little chaotic, and she leans heavily on her assistant, Mags. Former Goth Mags has four kids with her husband/high school love Bill, a former punk; despite her edgy youth, Mags has a much less bohemian outlook than Julie. When Julie's long-term boyfriend decides he wants to get serious, Julie takes off, leaving it to Mags to not only continue with the weddings they've got on the books but also break the news to Gary.
I can't tell what the plot was like because I was so distracted by the dreadful voice of narrator Mags - intrusive, all tell and no show, the tone grated on me from the off, and it was only because I thought it was by a different author that I continued as far as I did, which was to page 87 (of 295). It looks like a fun, chick-lit escapist novel from the cover but if I'd taken this with me to the beach I'd have thrown it in the ocean. Pass. - Alex

Tuesday, July 29

Would it Kill You to Say Please? - Alice Williams

Alice Williams is here to help us with etiquette for the 21st century - from how to introduce a new partner to your particular kink ("it can be difficult to 'organically' fall into defecating on someone's face" to dealing with asshat co-workers "next time they do whatever it is that shits you, try the 'not you, me' approach: 'When you do x I find it hard to deliver on my performance promise'; or 'It's so funny, because when you're an ass I wonder what I did wrong.'"
The book is divided, like many books of this category, into recreational etiquette (from parties, sex and drugs to technology like mobile phones), grown-up behaviour (share houses, career-type jobs, relationships), a 5-year life plan (including a multiple-choice "what kind of fame whore are you?"), and a concluding section on manners under pressure. And sprinkled through are both light touches of humour and enough local content to be attractive without hammering the reader with an I'm-an-Aussie sign.
I picked up the book while waiting in the library queue, and flicked through to the section on kinds of boss, where my eye fell on "A benevolent fascist Their most potent tool is their 'disappointment' in you. The thing is, this kind of boss will never have indicated that they had any faith in you in the first place." Nailed that one - thrilled to have a technique to use on my own 'disappointed dad' manager, I decided to take it home.
I came for the employer advice but stayed for the rest, particularly the relationship advice - "do you want to end up like one of those scraggy couples you see screeching at each other on trains? They may enjoy being nasty to one another... but do you ever think, 'Hey that chick/guy knows what they want and, cool, they're not afraid to be heard'?" And if you've been dumped and want to get your own back in the most satisfying way possible, flick to p. 121 for "the genius of the Reverse Dump," which is worth the price of admission. - Alex

Monday, July 28

Island of the Sequined Love Nun – Christopher Moore

Waking suspended from a breadfruit tree on a tropical island, evidently a snack on hold for a group of cannibals, Tucker Case reflects on the unlikely chain of events that brought him to this point. A former pilot for the billion-dollar makeup company Mary Jean Cosmetics, Tucker screwed his career when – inspired by equal parts of lust, alcohol, and a lifetime of fecklessness, he picked up a prostitute in a bar. Deciding to land the Mary Jean hot pink jet while drunk and while having mile high sex turns out not to have be such a good idea – they crashed, Tucker’s genitals were cruelly rent asunder by the flap actuator level, and Tucker was not only fired but lost his pilot license. With no other skills, it looked dire until he was headhunted by Sebastian Curtis, medical missionary, to fly to and from the remote island of Alualu.
I gave up on Island of the Sequined Love Nun while Tucker was still en route from Truk to Alualu. Maybe I just wasn’t in quite the right mood, but I found the attempts at humour unamusing, the protagonist unsympathetic, and the plot rambling and uninvolving. And I found the great slabs of Hamlet back story annoying rather than humorous (or ironic, or whatever Moore was aiming for):
Tuck had grown up in Elsinore, California, the only son of the Denmark
Silverware Corporation… his college career was cut short by an emergency phone call from his mother. “Come home. Your father’s dead.”
Tuck made the drive in two days, stopping only for gas and to call Zoophilia [Gold, the daughter of his father’s lawyer, “made shy by a cruel first name”], who informed him that his mother had remarried his father’s brother and his uncle had taken over Denmark Silverware. Tuck screeched into Elsinore in a blind rage and ran over Zoophilia’s father as he was leaving Tuck’s mother’s house.
And so on – a cop suspects that Tuck’s uncle engineered his father’s death, grief-stricken Zoophilia overdoses on Prozac and drown in a hot tub, her brother threatens to kill Tusk “or at least sue him into oblivion”…
Carl Hiaasen may think Island of the Sequined Love Nun is “delightfully warped and funny” but it left me cold. This is particularly disappointing given how much I enjoyed my first Moore novel, Bloodsucking Fiends; at least witht hat as an example I won't give up on Moore altogether. - Alex

Sunday, July 27

Hiding in the Shadows - Kay Hooper

Car accident patient Faith Parker has done the incredible - after six weeks in a profound coma she's woken up, astonishing her doctors. Unfortunately she's lost her memory - total amnesia of her whole life. She doesn't know why journalist Dinah Leighton, who she was on the way to visit, paid for her hospitalisation and aftercare, or why she's now missing. Dinah's partner Kane is sure that Faith holds the key to Dinah's disappearance, and he and Faith try to retrace her footsteps. Though Faith can't remember anything of her own life, she keeps having flashes of another life, one she realises is Dinah's, and as she begins assimilating Dinah's habits and mannerisms she also experiences flashes of being imprisoned, bound and tortured in a dark cell. Can she and Kane finds Dinah before it's too late?
I found the lengthy sections of description distracting and annoying -
"There was one bedroom; the queen-size brass bed had a floral, ruffled comforter set, with lots of pillows tossed against the shams. Curtains at the single window matched the comforter. There was a nightshade and a chair, both white wicker and a white laminated dresser with an oval wicker-framed mirror hanging above it. The color scheme was white and pink."
Then we move to the bathroom, then the kitchen, then the living room, with the same tedious detail and choppy sentence structure. And some of the other sentences are a little odd: "Eerie and ghostly, especially with the nearby machines audibly counting off the beats of her heart to insist, with a machine's irrefutable logic, that she was, in fact, a living creature" or "It was almost impossible to recognize that comatose patient in this woman, whose rioting emotions were the very definition of chaotic life."
The supernatural elements - Faith's connection with Dinah, Dinah's ESP, and the input of a friend of Kane's called Bishop - are not well introduced or explained, nor particularly well resolved at the end.
There were a number of promising elements present, but somehow I didn't feel any connection with the novel, which I finished more out of a nagging sense of duty than out of any interest in how it finished up. Hooper's a multi published author with a substantial following, based on the prominence of her titles, so maybe this isn't a good example of her work. But right now my life's too short to try out another of her works. - Alex

Saturday, July 26

His Brother's Keeper - Jonathan Weiner

Investigative reporter Weiner has combined the story of his mother's gradual decline from Lewy body dementia, a rare and only recently identified neurodegenerative disease, with the quest of mechanical engineer Jamie Heywood to save his beloved younger brother Stephen from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known in the US as Lou Gehrig's disease. As much a loving tribute to the remarkable Heywood family as to the brothers themselves, Weiner traces Stephen's disease from the first onset of symptoms through diagnosis, while also taking the reader through the steps Jamie (both driven and naïve) took as he created a foundation and systematically analysed pre-existing research in the area. He also looks at the stresses the research put on Jamie's other relationships, on the family as a whole, and how the drive to find a cure affected Stephen's fledgling relationship.
The text finishes with Weiner visiting Stephen in his new home, with an afterword that deals solely with Jamie and a dead end in the research, which left this reader at least with a feeling of anti-climax. Though I knew there was (at least as yet) no cure or even promising therapy (as I have a connection with neurological medicine), this isn't ever clarified in the book, which I think would leave many readers unsatisfied. Through wikipedia I know that Stephen died through an accidental ventilator disconnection, but that isn't alluded to, either.
Weiner does a fairly good job of describing the technology clearly enough for the layperson which maintaining accuracy, but I felt as though he wasn't sure which of the many stories he wanted to tell, leaving a number of short, interconnected narratives rather than one cohesive and absorbing, encompassing story.
It is a difficult and complex story to tell, but from time to time I found the little touches of detail (like Stephen's interaction with a clerk at a hardware store: "Stephen bought an edge trimmer and a roll of cherry veneer for the bookcase") too distracting and unnecessary, and this was the case throughout the book - details of verisimilitude about people's offices, or histories, or music, may serve to create an atmosphere and strengthen Weiner's research, but I found them obfuscating the story, and detracting from some genuinely breathtaking aspects. Chief among these was Jamie's overnight transformation from someone with dyslexia to having an eidetic memory and the sudden ability to assimilate and contrast reams of high level data in a field with which he was previously unfamiliar. I also learned that people with Lewy body dementia often see fairies or pixies, often en masse, which I found fascinating.
If you're interested in reading about people becoming greater than they realised they could be, cutting edges of medical research, the perils of clinical trials and the inflexibility of ethics committees (as well as the frightening lax supervision of trials once permission is granted), this is the book for you. But be warned, it's not straightforward, and sometimes the greater picture is obscured by concentrating on the details. - Alex

Friday, July 25

Heather Graham: The Séance

A group of friends drag out a Ouija board looking for a bit of Halloween fun. What they get is the spirit of a suspected serial killer shot dead by police fifteen years ago. Shortly thereafter, bodies start turning up with all the hallmarks of the earlier murders.
The spirit begins haunting the house where the séance was held, insisting on his innocence both now and all those years ago and asking for help in clearing his name.
The police aren’t particularly open to the words of a ghost and when the woman hearing them fits the serial killer’s preferred subject profile everyone begins to worry for her safety as well as her sanity, particularly when all signs point to the killer being a close family member.
With the help of her childhood friend, an ex-cop turned private detective, she answers the question of whether this is the original killer or a copy cat.
Though mainly a suspense/thriller this story also contained elements of the supernatural and a strong romantic subplot and I feel it blended all three aspects well.
I particularly liked seeing a heroine with a modicum of common sense. So often in this type of romantic suspense the reader is told the heroine is intelligent only to have her behave like an idiot, not so here. There’s a killer on the loose and she fits his victim profile so she changes her locks (she has only recently moved to the house and doesn’t know who might have keys) and keeps her doors locked, she gets a guard dog, she takes company where she can rather than travel alone, she has a number of people on call if she is feeling scared. In short, she behaves sensibly and responsibly.
On the romance front she doesn’t argue with the hero for the sake of it but neither does she put up with patronising or condescending behaviour.
There are enough hints throughout the story that you can guess who the killer is but it is only at the climax that any suspicions are confirmed. So while I wasn’t surprised by the identity of the murderer I was kept guessing for much of the way through the book.
If you’re looking for a supernatural thriller, then this isn’t for you. The supernatural elements were minor. Likewise, if you hope for a romance; there is one there but it’s not the story’s focus. But if you want a little of both then you could do worse than read this.-Lynn

Tuesday, July 22

Compulsion - Jonathan Kellerman

Psychologist Alex Delaware and his LAPD Detective friend Milo Sturgis are embroiled in another case, where seemingly random and disparate elements (luxury cars stolen from their owner's homes for a few short hours, then returned in good condition; a missing woman; an elderly school teacher stabbed in broad daylight; two women bloodily murdered in a small town beauty salon) combine to create the work of one sadistic murderer.
It's been a couple of weeks since I read Compulsion (real life having gotten in the way of reviewing for a bit), so my recollection of details is a little blurry. I enjoyed it, in a passed-the-time-and-I-knew-what-I-was-getting kind of a way, but nothing stood out as either great or terrible. This is Alex's 22nd outing, and the flow felt a little formulaic, but that's true of the genre as much as the author or this particular work. If you like Kellerman's other stuff you'll probably enjoy this too. If you haven't read his stuff, start with something earlier, which is a little fresher and more dynamic. - Alex

Monday, July 21

Jennifer St. Giles: His Dark Desires

A woman left destitute when her husband disappeared in the Civil War opens her ancestral home in New Orleans as a boarding house. Receiving a letter suggesting that her missing husband may not be dead as has been supposed for the last decade but alive, and warning her that she is in danger has her regarding all of her tenants with suspicion.
Rumours of a fortune in gold hidden in the house before the war have been reawakened and somebody is trying to drive her out of her home. All clues point to a wealthy, educated and seductive new tenant. The man certainly is hiding something and when warnings turn to ‘accidents,’ and eventually murder, she doesn’t know whether she should follow her heart and trust him or her head and resist his offers of help.
A moderately complicated plot and a dose of humour make this gothic romance an enjoyable read. The hero is suitable dark, his behaviour deliciously ambiguous and the heroine has good reason to stay where she is rather than remove to safer circumstances, all of which add up to a believable story.
An entertaining read that stays true to the expectations of the genre.-Lynn

Saturday, July 19

The Big Girls – Susanna Moore

Louise is the psychiatrist as Sloatsburg women’s prison. New to the role, newly divorced and sharing custody of her eight-year-old son with ex-husband Raphael, who lives on the West coast, New Yorker Louise is trying to fit in at the jail.
Helen is serving a life sentence for a terrible crime, but is it really a crime if she was doing the Lord’s will? After a long time in protective segregation, and a lot of work with Dr Louise, Helen’s about to be moved into the general population. She feels an affinity with a rising movie star, Angie, who she hopes will write back to her.
Despite her lawyer’s advice, ingénue Angie is sympathetic when an infamous prisoner writes to her. Hardly anyone knows who she is, but her lucky break will come at any time. In the meantime she’s in a happy relationship with Raphael, a hunky older guy.
As these three women’s narratives, along with Sloatsburg guard Ike Bradshaw, alternate, the interwoven tales slowly emerge. Very slowly. I was compelled to finish The Big Girls, but I don’t really know why. All the women are flawed, damaged and barely held together, and rather than feeling compassionate or involved I found to my surprise that I really didn’t care about any of them. Well, with the exception of mild irritation, but I don’t know that that counts as a connection. No surprises, no interesting plot twists (the connections seemed contrived rather than startling or provocative), and no real character development. When I finished reading The Big Girls I just though “so what.” World of eh. – Alex

Friday, July 18

Sleeping Over - Stacey Ballis

Five friends meet two years after one took off for the Peace Corps as a way of breaking up with a boyfriend. Jess is staying with a handsome, womanising doctor friend of her cousin, and is having trouble keeping her hands off him; sous chef Robin has the hots for her platonic friend Michael; arty Lilith's in an open relationship that doesn't seem to be working out so well for her; shy Anne's happy with her dream man; while sister Beth's detaching herself from a bad relationship.
After a dire experience with Ballis' debut novel Inappropriate Men (filled with turgid poetry, the least appealing plus-size heroine ever, and a gaping, meandering plot), I only picked this up when Lynn dared me. Though better than its predecessor, a bar of extreme lowness, this is a flawed novel too. There are too many poorly-differentiated characters and a multitude of viewpoints, confusing the plot. For some reason, though each of the women has her own first-person contributions, her conclusion is often told by another character, which was unsatisfying.

At random intervals male characters are presented as vital statistics - for example:
Sasha Brunowsky
37, philosopher
Pretentious as hell
Likes coffee and cigarettes
Hates all non-intellectuals

The technique adds little to the story, and doesn't really function as an adequate snapshot of the character, who is then only described in superficial detail. Would that were the case for other elements - in contrast, some sections have huge amounts of highly detailed description:

There is a big salad of romaine hearts, hearts of palm, artichoke bottoms and grape tomatoes in a spicy lime vinaigrette, a roasted leg of lamb with a herbed yoghurt sauce, wild rice with currants, pistachios and fresh mint and crisply roasted Brussels sprouts... sipping Robin's decadent home-made hot chocolate and eating shortbread cookies Anne brought over from Bittersweet Bakery, and chocolate-covered dried cherries and blueberries that Lilith picked up from Long Grove Confectionery. I take the opportunity to give them all the gifts I bought back from Kenya, beautifully woven wrap skirts called kangas, small soapstone carvings from Kissii, elephant-hair bracelets, and necklaces of handmade silver beads. In addition I have a traditional bean pot for Robin, a pair of garnet earrings for Beth, a signed copy of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart for Anne, and an antique wooden mask for Lilith."

Eh. And then there are the annoying phrases, like "'Did Kate put you up to this?' he quipped, patronisingly." I don't know that that counts as a quip, let alone whether quips can be said patronisingly. I'm prepared to be corrected, but that just reads to me as confused and unnecessary. One of the characters (I've mercifully forgotten which) fancies herself as a Reader of Literature, and is taken aback when a common or garden-variety commoner opens a copy of her favourite classic (the evidently literary Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown) in a cafe: "I don't mean to perpetuate a stereotype, but you just don't think of the average day laborer as possessing a literary mind." Well, she might not, but I've learned that what someone does is often unrelated to their level of education, intellect, literary taste or interests, and the statement comes off as snobbish and stereotyped. And she's not 'perpetuating' a stereotype, she's surprised he doesn't fit her stereotype. Two serves of Ballis are enough for me, at least in this life time. Unless you're stuck somewhere where the only other offering is her first novel, run far away from Sleeping Over. - Alex

Thursday, July 17

Patricia Briggs: Blood Bound

A vampire is terrorising the neighbourhood and a shapeshifter is asked by a vampire friend to help him pull the renegade into line. It was meant to be a simple job but unknown to them the renegade, a pawn in an intricate vampire political power play, is possessed by a demon.
When he attacks the shapeshifter her werewolf friends decide to kill him-permanently. They go missing while hunting him leaving it up to her to find and rescue them.
This is the second book in the Mercy Thompson series and it contains all the elements that I enjoyed in the first.
The story was fast paced, the vampire politics suitable esoteric, the continued development of the romantic subplot believable and the characters complex.
I particularly like the realistic portrayal of what life would be like living in a pack. The strict social hierarchy, the poor treatment of women and the delicate relationship between rival predators sharing the same territory. All of which is tied up with the plot in a way that makes for a three dimensional world.
Overall an easy and entertaining read.-Lynn

Click here to read Alex's review of Blood Bound

Wednesday, July 16

Cheating at Solitaire - Jane Haddam

In his 22nd outing, former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian ("the Armenian Hercule Poirot") and heiress/FSF writer and Bennis Hannaford are planning to marry after a long relationship. Unsurprisingly, Kavanagh Street is going overboard and, also unsurprisingly, all the fuss is drivng Gregor crazy. An elopement would be easier, but Bennis wants a wedding, and his friends would be hurt and disappointed. When a case offers him a chance to escape the frills and furbellows for a bit, Gregor heads to New England, where a high profile celebrity murder beckons.
Arrow Normand, an actress better known for her steady decline into drinks, drugs and inappropriate shenanigans off set than for her talents, was filming on Margaret's Harbour, an island populated by wary locals and hit by a brutal nor'easter. In the midst of the chaos Arrow's boyfriend du jour, Mark Anderman, was killed, and Arrow's been charged with the murder.
Cheating at Solitaire is a welcome addition to the Demarkian stable - Haddam not only maintains the character of Gregor, but also does a great job of contrasting his old world outlook with the tinselised stars of fifteen-minute fame and pseudo-celebrity, a significant change from his usual cases. The characters and interplay of the three main women - Arrow, her good friend Marcey Mandret, and Hiltonesque Kendra Rhode - makes Cheating at Solitaire fascinating and unique. This sin't my favourite Demarkian novel but it's up there. - Alex

A Bee in Your Bonnet - R Brasch

This "astonishing compendium from the master of origins, customs and beliefs" is undoubtably informative and full of interesting minutiae but I just wasn't in the right head space and trying to read collections like this straight through is rarely successful. - Alex

Monday, July 14

Dead Sleep - Greg Iles

Pulitzer- Capa-Award winning photojournalist Jordan Glass, who follows in the footsteps of her revered father, MIA in Vietnam, comes across the Hong Kong art exhibition by chance. In a small room of a Hong Kong gallery also displaying pure, antique water colours, Jordan discovers a series of increasingly realistic paintings depicting nude women in baths - at first possibly unconscious, the marble skin and non-reflective eyes look less like unconsciousness and more like death in each painting. Numb to the reactions of the other viewers, all men, Jordan is shocked to see the last painting - the dead women in the bath is her.
Or, more accurately, her twin sister Jane, missing for thirteen months. Jane left her maid caring for her two beloved children in their New Orleans home for her usual afternoon jog and never came home. The FBI consider her disappearance part of a chain of missing women, presumably taken by a serial killer - none of the bodies have been found and no clue about the abductors identity or motive has been found. Until now.
Though vastly dissimilar in temperament and lives, Jane and Jordan shared a bond, and though she was half way around the world when Jane vanished, Jordan felt her absence immediately. Never recovering from the disappearance of her father, Jordan is determined to be involved in the search for Jane, even if it will only result in discovering her body. But Jordan is unprepared for the twists in the case, the callous inhumanity of the killer, the attraction she feels to one of the agents, and the wholly unexpected connection to her father.
This was my first encounter with the prolific Mr Iles, and I was impressed. The plot is tangled but not unecessarily so, there's a believable amount of coincidence, the central character is strong and well defined, the secondary characters are less clear but individualised, the basic premise is satisfyingly resolved, and the writing is lucid.
I found two sections that particularly spoke to me, wholly out of context. The first was an Oscar Wilde quote: "Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming," which seemed particularly relevant in light of the hysteria over photographer Bill Henson's most recent exhibition.
The second related to my interest in death work and respect for the dead:
"We cover corpses for the same reason we go behind walls to carry out our bodily functions; some human states cry out for privacy, and being dead is one of them. Respect above all is called for, not for the body, but for the person who recently departed it."
Of course, being of like mind is not enough. Isles writes lucid, engaging prose and his characters have understandable motivations. The plot is sufficiently convoluted to interest without Byzantine twists, and his depiction of Jordan's grief-striken brother-in-law, both attracted to Jordan because of her similarity to Jane and simultaneously repelled, was brilliantly done. I'll definitely be trying another of his works. - Alex

Sunday, July 13

Dead Time - Stephen White

Boulder psychologist Alan Gregory has a lot on his plate - his marriage is shaky but viable, and he and Lauren are working on integrating Jonas, the son of his friend and colleague Adrienne, into the family. But when ex-wife Merideth asks for help, Alan can't say no. Unable to carry a child herself, she and her fiance have hired a surrogate who's now missing, and it's somehow tied up with a camping trip several years earlier, where a young woman vanished from the floor of the Grand Canyon. As Alan and police detective friend Sam Purdy find themselves investigating in LA, well off their usual beaten track, they discover something bigger than they initially suspected.
Which surprised me, because it's always more complex than they go in thinking. Dead Time wasn't bad, it just wasn't great, and White can do great when he wants. I found myself more invested int he personal dynamic between Alan and Jonas, and between Alan and Jonas' uncle Martin (which was real and complex and multi-layered) than I did with the mystery sections.
Maybe I'm just in a gripy mood, but I'm a little sick of complicated plots and intricate thrillers. Maybe I just need to take a break from the genre altogether for a bit, because I usually love White's work, and not just because I always feel a link to my sister who lives in Boulder when I read his writing. So - not his best, and if you want to check out White's often really very good writing, start at the beginning and be pleasantly surprised. - Alex

Saturday, July 12

Elizabeth Pewsey: Unaccustomed Spirits

When struck down by shingles a woman postpones her wedding for the third time and travels to the country to housesit for a distant relative while she recuperates. She immediately falls in love with the decrepit old house and is devastated to discover the owner intends to pull it down.
Before long she is joined by an old school friend and a handsome ghost hunter, (not to mention an eclectic slew of visitors concerned for her health) that have her rethinking what she wants out of life.
A trip to Hungary to help a heavily pregnant friend leave the country is thrown in for good measure and a pair of ghosts commenting on the proceedings also features throughout the book.
This was really not so much a story as a chronology of events. I’d almost go out on a limb and call it ‘literature-lite’ if the writer’s voice had been in any way pretentious-which it was not. In fact, she has a tendency to use one of my pet peeves-writing out a sound then telling us what it was. (Brriing, brriing. The phone rang. This is not an example from the book because I couldn’t be bothered flipping through to find one but you get the idea). To be fair, this is the fifth book in a series and having not read the previous four I may be missing something. With that in mind:
The one thing that really stood out to me in this book is how dated it felt. Not just the European political situation, which must be accepted as a reflection of when the work was written but, for a work published only ten years ago, the characters’ ideas and attitudes. I don’t consider myself to have lived a particularly progressive life but I think these characters' belief systems would have been considered dated even back in the late 1990’s.
As for the juggling and shifting relationships between the characters, it was obvious right from the beginning who would be ending up together even though most romance takes place firmly off page.
It was also obvious the author has never had shingles. I have, and let me tell you the pain is such that gallivanting around the countryside is not on the agenda. And exposing a pregnant friend (or anybody come that matter) to the virus is irresponsible at best. Though the entire side trip to Hungary to escape the secret police section did little for the book but up the word count.
I’m still not sure the point of including the ghosts. They do not impact on the story or characters in any way. Their main function seems to be to provide an omniscient commentary on the other characters. A totally unnecessary role but well in keeping with the mood of this story.
I found this to be an uneven story that stutters about trying to decide where it wants to go. The writing is competent but lacks direction and spark leaving me with nothing better to say than it is inoffensive and rather forgettable.-Lynn

Thursday, July 10

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Offred remembers her life before, when women had parity, could do what they wanted, own things, and dress the way they chose. But in the Republic of Gilead none of that exists any more - in a devastating and coordinated coup the President was shot dead and Congress was machine-gunned. Blaming Islamic fundamentalists, the army suspended the constitution and began eroding rights that the populace was too stunned to resist, beginning with freezing women's bank accounts (authority was then transferred to husbands and fathers). A mother, Offred has proven fertility and is retrained - her new role is as a surrogate for a senior member of the military: his wife, like so many others, can not bear a child herself. She cannot trust anyone - Gilead is highly regimented and anyone who defies the law is not only hung but their bodies are strung up in full view of the populace - but she knows that the rest of the world is out there, and perhaps her husband and daughter are still alive, somewhere.
I found some interesting parallels between this novel and some of Tepper's work, and am once again interested in what makes one book Acclaimed Literature and another 'merely' fantasy/science fiction. The Handmaid's Tale is written as a first person narrative, and details about how the Republic of Gilead came to exist are sparingly woven through the text, alongside post-Republic events and details about Offred's training and day-to-day life (including her name). I'd be particularly interested in knowing how men read A Handmaid's Tale, as much of the power of the writing for me comes from the systematic subjugation of women. The initial days of the Republic, and Offred's husband's response to curtailments of her rights, was significantly interesting to me.
The final chapter was a particularly powerful element - the journal entries (which, it transpires, were transcribed from audiotape) have been found some centuries later, and are being treated as an historical text, presented at a social sciences gathering. As a social sciences student this approach caused me to reflect on the techniques my colleagues, lecturers and I use - having engaged strongly with Offred, the contrast is (deliberately) jarring and provocative.
This is my third re-read of The Handmaid's Tale, the first in a decade. I was so impressed when reading it the first time that I promptly bought three other Atwood novels only to discover, to my distress, that this is not like her usual writing style and the others left me cold. I was intrigued by what I remembered and, more interestingly, what I'd forgotten - this included a whole slab of deviant behaviour on the part of Offred's 'master', her friend, the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the post-script in its entirety. I haven't seen the film and am thinking now about borrowing it just to see if and how this aspect (which is what's resonating most strongly still, almost a month after reading the novel again) was handled. A truly powerful work. - Alex

Wednesday, July 9

Great Apes - Will Self

In an alternate universe, chimpanzees developed as the dominant species and humans are relegated to test subjects, zoo exhibits, and are observed in the wild by primatologists. Artist Simon Dykes is on the way up - all in all his life's fairly steady, until he and girlfriend Sarah have an illicit and illegal drink and Simon wakes up in a world where everything's familiar except that he's the only human and all around him have been replaced by chimps. Dr Zack Busner, eminent psychologist and true alpha male, sees an opportunity to enhance his standing - he takes on the case of a famous artist who mistakenly, resolutely and inexplicably believes he's human.
The premise sounds fantastic - potential for insights into the human condition, perhaps a little education on the plight of chimps today, examination of how little separates us, and also an exploration of how different we really are.
This last was certainly true - though all the major (Western) events we're familiar with still happened, and London is essentially the same as the London we know (or know of), society's profoundly different - male chimps constantly jostle for a move up the hierarchy, some habits are decidedly simian (including the throng of protegees and subordinates who rush to groom Dr Busner), and human patterns of monogamy are cause for scientific papers.
But I could barely make my way through five pages of this substantial novel. The indulgent, show-offy style I had trouble with when I first encountered Self, is even more evident here - I enjoy coming across new words and expanding my vocabulary, but he not only has a large vocabulary, he is determined to hit the reader over the head with both it and his soaring intellect.
I'd had enough before I hit page ten. See for youself, with a couple of random samplings:
''No matter how much he saw them now, how many times he picked them up from school, how many times he made them oven chips and fish fingers, how many times he petted them, kissed them, told them he loved them, nothing could assuage this sense of wrenching separation, their disjunction from his life. He may not have snacked on the placenta, but somehow the umbilici still trailed from his mouth, ectoplasmic cords, strung across summertime London, snagging on rooftops, car aerials, advertising hoardings, and tied him to their little bellies.''


"The painting was about this: that Babylon contained this moment of explosion, this blatosphere, latent in all its solidity, its municipality.
"And if not Babylon, why not London? And if not the plains of heaven, why not the moors of cumulo-nimbus? The smudged cotton wool that kissed the curved undersides of aircraft as they powered across the sky. Why not, why not indeed? Simon distrusted epiphanies..."

If you like the style, and can see past it to the plot (or even enjoy the baroque, self-congratulatory tone), go at it. For myself, though, pass. - Alex

Tuesday, July 8

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson

More autobiographical, and less funny (though still comedic in parts) than the rest of his (already autobiographical) work, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is an homage to 1950's America in general, and Des Moines in particular - Bryson's childhood. With his trademark humour and a very attractive, easy to read voice, Bryson seamlessly combines his own maturation with losses of innocence and technological advances of a nation. Interwoven with reminiscences of his upbringing, schooling and pastimes are snapshots, statistics, photos and details about the country as a whole.
Much of it is favourable, even admirable, and even accounting for a certain rosy view it sounds like a great time and place to grow up. As long, that is as you were white - there are some truly distressing accounts of horrific racism and racially-motivated murders.
The book does become darker as the era progresses, as the era did itself. There's a strong emphasis on the prevalence of Communist fears: "It was an especially wonderful time to be a noisy moron.... Although he had no qualifications (he had flunked out of Ozark Bible College - a rare distinction, one would suppose), Hargis founded several educational establishments, including the Christian Crusade Anti-Communist Youth University, (I would love to hear the school song.)" Some of the rampant, mindless anti-Communist measures echoed for me the current hysteria about terrorism, with politicians advocating for the suppression of human rights if doing so stemmed the threat of Communist encroachment. Bryson tells of Dr Ernest Chain, a Nobel prize winner for his work developing penicillin, being refused entry to the US because he had - at the behest of the World Health Organization - helped set up a penicillin plant in then-Communist Czechoslovakia, and famed chemist Linus Pauling (who would himself be awarded the Nobel prize, twice) was prohibited from leaving the country "on the grounds that he had once or twice publicly expressed a liberal thought."
Although I've enjoyed other of Bryson's works more, I left The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid more informed and with a better picture of the US than I expected. I heard Bryson speaks a couple of years ago, when he was in Australia promoting the release of the book, and he was as engaging in person as he is on paper. - Alex

Monday, July 7

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil - Christopher Brookmyre

Two partially disfigured bodies are discovered lying in a shallow pit. The rather inept attempt at burning the bodies is compounded by the fact that the bodies not only still have ID in their pockets but there's also are receipts for both a chemical (an acid used to disfigure the bodies) and for petrol alongside one body. The police quickly decide there were two killers working together - "Two of them then," says Alex... "Makes sense, I suppose. Hard to imagine one person being capable of so much stupidity on his own. To be this incompetent would require a pooling of efforts."
Karen Gillespie, now a Superintendent, went to school with one of the dead men, and with the son of the other, and the roots of the crime extend back to those primary school days over twenty years ago.
Brookmyre's used an unusual technique in A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Pencil - he flits between chronologically following a group of 1970's Glaswegian Catholic children on the journey from first day at school to adolescence, and modern day Scotland and the investigation of these murders. The switching from one era to another is straightforward enough, and the technique certainly allows a greater level of understanding about how the characters have developed the way they did and why they interact the way they do. However it does make the plot difficult to follow, in no small part because some of the characters have since changed names. It's not until more than half way through, for example, that the 'then' identity of one of the suspects, Noodsy, is revealed. When I discovered who Noodsy was known as in his early days at school part of me wanted to go back and reread to that point. The rest of me, though, was already sick of trying to keep track of everyone.
A Tale Etched in Blood... has a lot of characters, and keeping them all (and their relationships with one another) straight would have been a little difficult even without the time switching. Other issues I had include rather shallow characterisation (difficult for it to be otherwise given the size of the cast) and somewhat random plotting. Brookmyre always included a hefty dose of dialect, and though a bit stronger this time around, I had no trouble understanding it, which is why I was amused by the glossary at the back (put there, I suspect, for an American audience - the interpretations are themselves quite funny).
It was an interesting read, and if at all autobiographical then Brookmyre's school days were distressing to say the least - the institutional cruelty and bias are breathtaking, and although substantially different in many respects from my experiences brought back memories of my own 1970's primary school experience. However I think this is far from Brookmyre's best work, and anyone new to the author would be better beginning with another of his works, perhaps All Fun and Games (which also has a school reunion theme) or The Sacred Art of Stealing, to start with. - Alex

Sunday, July 6

Komarr - Lois McMaster Bujold

Accompanying Auditor Professor Vorthys, Miles goes to Komarr to investigate a serious incident of sabotage. The Auditors stay with Professor Vorthys' niece, Ekaterin, her husband Etienne Vorsoisson, and their son Nikolai. Miles is instantly attracted to Madam Vorsoisson, who is clearly unhappy in her marriage. In the process of investigating the incident Tien is accidentally killed and Ekaterin decides to move back to Barrayar with her aunt and uncle.
For a review of the style of writing, see any of my other Vokosigan saga reviews, as I'll just be repeating myself - the writing is lyric, the plotting complex, the characterisation subtle and layered, the dialogue fresh and believable...
The most satisfying part of Komarr for me is the continuation of Miles' evolution - though he has had many relationships, and even been in love, Ekaterin presents a new level of romantic interest. Of course the situation is more complex - first married, then widowed, and with a child, but this is further complicated by the unhappiness of the marriage and the fact that Miles was present when Tien died and he feels somewhat responsible. The novel is told from both Miles' and Ekaterin's points of view, given the reader greater insight into Ekaterin - her frustration with Tien and the betrayal she feels when she learns painful truths about him, and her attraction to Miles.
There's also a sense of satisfaction in seeing Miles continue to develop in the role of Imperial Auditor, and the prejudices of other characters (who believe he got the role through nepotism ratter than ability) is beautifully conveyed. - Alex

Saturday, July 5

Carol Stephenson: Shadow Lines

This is the fourth book in the Madonna Key series.
When an epidemiologist with a gift for healing is sent to investigate an outbreak of a deadly flu she quickly realizes it has no natural cause. The virus responsible has been manufactured to specifically target women and unless she can track down the producers and have them put out of business millions will die.
Assisted by her international security expert ex-fiancé she tracks the producers of the virus across Europe. Finally she finds the secret lab where the virus is being made.
During a reconnaissance of the area her ex is infected with a deadly virus and the only way she can save him is by facing her fears and embracing her healing gift. She does, coming to terms with what she is and accepting that it isn’t the barrier to love she’d always believed it to be.
This is an example of a great premise let down by mediocre plotting. Much of the success of this plot relies on snatches of information the heroine is told by a mysterious stranger. He drops a hint, she chases it up then just as things are slowing down there he is again with another hint and on we go.
I didn’t find the romance subplot particularly satisfying. With the protagonists history there was so much scope for emotional development but it didn’t happen. What we get instead is sex - and sex, even hot sex, doesn’t equate with emotional connection.
One thing I found singularly irritating was the heroine’s reference to her healing skill as her woo-woo. Apart from the fact that it sounds like a childish euphemism for vagina, it just felt completely wrong for one of the supposedly special women of this series.
Overall this read like the-book-we-had-to-have. A number of subplots from the series are tidied up. I was particularly disappointed in the death of a substantial secondary character. Her ambiguous morality and the question of whose side she was really on added a great intrigue factor to the series. I am sorry to see her go. Shadow Lines is an average instalment in an otherwise good series.-Lynn

Friday, July 4

Memory - Lois McMaster Bujold

During a combat mission Miles has a seizure and, as he was holding a laser set to fire, amputates the legs of the courier he was sent to rescue. This is not the first seizure, a legacy of his hasty cryopreservation but, terrified of losing command, he hasn't mentioned it to ImpSec yet. After much debate with himself, Miles prepares two reports - one which tells everything and one which is a bit slanted. So terrified is he of being demoted that, though given an opportunity to come clean, he lies to ImpSec chief Simon Illyan, and is fired.
Shortly thereafter Simon becomes ill. Miles is unofficially approached but makes no progress seeing Simon himself. Frustrated, Miles approached Emperor Gregor, who gives Miles special powers to investigate the matter - Miles is now a temporary Imperial Auditor, who speaks with the Emperor's Voice and answers only to Him.
I have trouble maintaining the range of superlatives necessary for this series, and fear my comments are becoming redundant. I've only outlined the major plot, but there are several minor plots, some self-contained within Memory but many picking up threads from previous installations and some laying the groundwork for others further ahead in the series. There is romance, though not for Miles, intrigue, a really interesting puzzle, moral dilemmas, power struggles, and more water colour-subtle layering about the mores and rites of Barraya and her history with Komarr. Just perfect. - Alex

Thursday, July 3

Mirror Dance - Lois McMaster Bujold

Mark, masquerading as Miles, raids Jackson's Whole with the aid of the Derendarii Mercenaries to free the clones that will otherwise be used to prolong the lives of the obscenely rich. Of course, not being Miles, Mark doesn't quite carry it off and, in the course of rescuing his brother and his troops, Miles is killed. Preserved in cryochamber all would be well, except that the mercenary who hides the chamber is also killed, before he can reveal the location to anyone, and without any chance of cryopreservation himself. A fearful Mark meets his genetic parents, who unconditionally accept him, but is wracked with guilt about Miles and returns to Jackson's Whole to try to find him.
I really like the character of Mark and enjoyed reading a little more about him. While it's clear (given there are more books in the series which is, after all, called "the Miles Vorkosigan saga") Miles survives, Bujold keeps the suspense wire tight, and the complex interplay between characters is as involving and interesting as ever. The whole Mark, Cordelia and Aral dynamic is fascinating, particularly as it's overshadowed by their anxiety about Miles.
I know I haven't mentioned this before, and the details are always subtle and discreet, but Miles really gets around - a number of past lovers make an appearance in Mirror Dance and even while fighting for his life Miles manages to add another to his string. In some ways Miles is like a shorter, more flawed, less arrogant, more human James Bond! - Alex

Wednesday, July 2

Thyme Out - Katie Fforde

Market gardener Perdita Dylan is wholly unprepared for the sight she discovers when making a delivery to the kitchen of one of her customers, an up-scale hotel - her ex-husband, last seen as high powered London stockbroker, has been reincarnated as an executive chef. Neither Perdita nor Lucas are keen for anyone to know about their hasty, youthful marriage, and they manage to maintain a freindly enough professional relationship, though this becomes a little strained when the producers of a new food show decide Perdita's ramshackle cottage is the ideal location to shoot the pilot.
It will come as no surprise that Perdita falls for Lucas all over again, their squabbles a front for the growing physical attraction between them. There are some nice touches, including a substantial secondary plot involving Perdita's upbringing and the honorary aunt she is now closer to that she is to her parents, and a romance between one of Lucas' kitchen staff and Perdita's assistant gardener, and the changes in the main characters now and when they were married a decade earlier and relatively convincing.
I enjoyed reading Thyme Out but it is at heart a standard romance novel, fun for a little light entertainment but not substantive. There are a couple of forceful kisses, and though (to Fforde's credit) Perdita does think about the fact that the kiss "had[n't] turned her knees to jelly, made her wish the kiss could go on for ever, or anything remotely romantic" she does respond favourably and "she hadn't felt revolted, or raped, or violated, or indeed any of the proper, politically correct emotions felt by women when men forced themselves on them." I'm all for attraction and visceral responses and the rest of it, but it would have been nice if Fforde hadn't left the impression that women who are kissed (or otherwise touched) against their will may feel revolted, raped or violated not because it's the politically correct thing to do but because they actually have been touched without permission and against their will. I really, really hate the use of the phrase "politically correct" to undermine the legitimacy of something that's actually morally questionable, if not outright wrong. It wasn't enough to spoil the novel, but it did remove a little of the froth. - Alex

Tuesday, July 1

Holly Black: Tithe

A teenager returning to her family home after living with her nomadic mother discovers that the fairies of her childhood memories are not the inventions of an active imagination. They are real and she is one of them. She is a changeling and as if that is not hard enough to cope with, her otherworldly childhood friends are not the innocent beings she remembers.
These creatures are blood thirsty, singularly amoral and involved in an ages long power struggle, which she is reluctantly drawn into when her two worlds collide.
Romance, intrigue, magic, dark, depraved deeds and a little humour are all here in this modern fairy tale. The difficulties of not fitting in with peers are addressed with just the right amount of teenaged angst, as is the pain and confusion of first love and discovering that those you thought your friends didn’t really have your best interests at heart.
The world building, both mortal and fairy, is discrete and believable. The story itself was intricate without becoming overly complex. Overall a great fantasy read. I will definitely be looking for other works by this author-Lynn

To read Alex's review of Tithe click here.