Saturday, August 30

Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg

Voracious reader Angel Robinson is directed to the perfect job by her would-be author boyfriend, Malcolm - reader/assistant to famed literary agent Lucy Fiamma. Angel can't imagine anything better than being paid to read, even if most of what she expects to cover will be dross, and the possibility of discovering another world-class writer is exhilarating. But the reality of working for Lucy is the opposite of what she expects - her office mates are unpleasant, the hours are torturous, her employer is an unreasonable shrew, and she thinks she's being stalked by a persistent, prolific, and wholly talentless aspiring author. Perhaps worst of all, she has no free time, a situation her increasingly distant boyfriend can't seem to understand. And then Angel starts getting chapters of a novel set in a literary agency. The characters are polar opposites of those as the Lucy Fiamma agency, but so precisely opposite it's spooky. And the anonymous writer seems to know details about Angel's life no outsider possibly could. The writer's someone Angel knows - but is it Malcolm, weird office mate Anna, stalkerish submitter Peter, attractive new author Damiano, or someone Angel never suspects at all?
I'm not the first to compare Blind Submission to the highly successful Devil Wears Prada, another boss-from-hell, ingenue-heroine novel. However, unlike that relatively well-written novel, I found Blind Submission irritating and ponderous. The twist at the end was broadcast chapters ahead, the anonymously-authored novel is poorly written and superficial, and Lucy is highly unlikeable and is bereft of a single redeeming feature. These last two make Angel's keenness to acquire Blind Submission, and her loyalty to Lucy, impossible to understand.
I also found some inconsistencies jarring - like the fatherless Angel comparing seeing her icy, controlled employer breaking down under the influence of tranquilisers and alcohol to "the same feeling you get when you witness your parents fighting... it was just wrong - and uncomfortable in the extreme." Not an example you'd think someone who never had more than one parent would give. (I, for example, had parents who fought a lot, so while I might use parental arguing as a simile for other kinds of distressing, upsetting or anxiety-inducing event, it would never occur to me to give that as an example of something that felt 'just wrong' or 'uncomfortable').
It wasn't all bad - the sample submissions from the slush pile are great, and highly representative (from what I understand, having no first-hand knowledge or experience of the industry) of actual submissions by misguided writers. However the only reason I finished it was because I was on a plane and was concerned that my reading material would finish before the twelve-hour flight. Note to Australian Women's Weekly - this is not a great read and I want my money back. - Alex

Identity Theft (and Other Stories) - Robert J Sawyer

Sawyer revisits some of his usual, but by no means travel-worn themes in this collection of short stories 1989 to the present, and his writing is as compelling and lucid as in his novels, albeit abbreviated. The titular story is a detective story that touches on identity and the rights of the individual; in other stories he looks at the conflict between rationality and faith; race and change; an initial exploration of the themes later visited as a novel; a (somewhat disappointing, I thought) riff on the Wells SF classic The Time Machine; the perils of assuming all creatures think in the same way; the negative aspects of scientific and technological advances; and others. Unfortunately I read this some time and had the more pressing task of reviewing library books before they were due back, leaving me with only sketchy but pleasant memories.

Thursday, August 28

One Night at the Call Centre - Chetan Bhagat

For Shyam Mehra (Sam Marcy), team boss of the Western Appliances Strategic Group night shift, working at a call centre is a safe job to tide him over while he decides what he really wants to do with his life. Connections isn't one of those new-age, well-appointed call centres that treat its staff as valuable, and their boss, Subhash Bakshi, is a management-jargon-obsessed idiot. Plus everyone has to go by Anglicised names acceptable to American ears. But he's comfortable there and enjoys spending time with the colleagues who are now his friends - Esha Singh (Eliza Singer), Radhika Jha (Regina Jones), Varun 'Vroom' Malhotra (Victor Mell) and Military Uncle (the only older member of the team). Everyone has their problems - Esha wants to be a model but isn't tall enough; Radhika hates being subservient to her mother-in-law and suspects her marriage was a mistake; Vroom wants to be an instrument of change for India but needs his job to pay for his addiction to pizza; Military Uncle is estranged from his son, daughter-in-law and grandson; and Shyam is still in love with his ex-girlfriend and colleague Priyanka.
Priyanka's announcement that she's engaged to Ganesh Gupta, a Microsoft exec in the US (an arranged engagement brokered by their parents), triggers Shyam to reassess his life and initiates a cascade of changes that affects all the WASG team, and the rest of the call centre.
A synopsis doesn't really do justice to this unique and highly involving novel. Superficially a romance, and in adaptation for the soon-to-be-released Bollywood film Hello, One Night is also a call for action, a condemnation of the path Indian politicians have taken, a plea that the place of India be reevaluated, and an inspiration that its youth demand change. The author also attempts to have the reader evaluate her life, by requesting she answer three questions before beginning the novel, and asking her to reflect on these at the end.
This makes it sound as though One Night is sombre and heavy, but the text is readable, engaging and well paced. The characters are developed and unique, with very real problems that are resolved in a realistic, believable way - that is, as long as you are comfortable with the deus ex machina moments where God appears to inspire change. There are also some interesting insights sprikled through out the text - like the observation that "only women think there is a reason to thank people when someone listens to them."
A love of India, and a strong sense of the country, permeate the text, alongside an evaluation of America that I suspect would take most Americans by surprise - an evaluation I imagine is shared by Indian call centre workers who handle Australian enquiries. All in all a thought provoking, absorbing, welcome book that makes me interested in reading the other works of fledgling novelist Bhagat. - Alex

Under Cover - Maryjanice Davidson

Under Cover, one of Davidson's first published works, consists of three interlinked novellas. In "Sweet Strangers" security specialist Renee Jardin is on the run, with inadvertently-stolen property in her possession. Desperate to evade capture, and with nowhere to run but a glass-walled elevator, she locks lips with the perfect stranger she finds in there. Turns out that, though he's also hunting for Renee, he really is perfect.
In "Lovely Lies" former security boss Peter Random, fired by his biotech employer for failing to catch a rogue security officer who stole a valuable invention, agrees to protect Lori Jamieson. An heiress with a consuming fear of her dead mother's ruthless husband and his brutally stupid son, Lori wants to donate her entire fortune to worthy sources, and gains love for herself.
In "Delightful Deception" scientist Thea Foster, better known as IQ (intelligent quotient or ice queen, take your pick) is hoping for better luck with her new boss. The old one wouldn't let her release a life-saving medical breakthrough, forcing her to plant it on a security officer. New employer Jimmy Scrye is her opposite in every way - maddeningly informal, spontaneous, casual, and younger. So why is Thea so attracted to him?
Though stand-alone, the connections between the novellas are rewarding when read back to back. Each story is light, amusing, a little romantic (though a bit heavy on the sex scenes for me - I prefer my porn to be porn), and well written. There was a nice sprinkling of meta commentary (like Davidson's observation that many romance novel heroines are Too Stupid to Live, an unfortunate fact about the genre), though a couple of things jarred me - most notably the issue Thea has with Jimmy - "Good Lord, I'm robbing the cradle. He's four years younger than I am." Oh my God! Call the police! Oh, wait - they're both in their thirties.
I was also flummoxed by the description of a plush gray carpet that "looked like it had been swept, then vacuumed twice" - is it more telling about Davidson, her character, or me that I wouldn't be able to distinguish a swept, double-vacuumed carpet from any other kind of clean carpet if you paid me?
If you want a light, well-written break from the stress of every day, this is for you. But don't expect anything too substantial. - Alex

Wednesday, August 27

Busy Women Seeks Wife - Annie Sanders

Calm and collected Londoner Alex Hill has it all - a stimulating job as a sportswear exec, the perfect apartment, and the fast track up the career ladder. Things on the domestic front, however, are a little less organised - the shower's leaking into her downstairs neighbour's flat, the washing machine is broken, and when she gets back from her latest business trip Alex finds her housekeeper in bed with a stranger. Her best friend, Saff, has taken the opposite route - a full time wife and mother, Saff's house is redolent with the smells of furniture polish, freshly cut home grown flowers and freshly baked goods.
When her flamboyant former It Girl mother falls and fractures her arm, Alex doesn't have the time (or, to be frank, desire) to nurse her - particularly not when she has a new line to put together. To help her out Saff posts an ad " busy woman seeks wife" - to cook, clean, take care of the domestic chores (like getting the washer and shower fixed), and look after her mother.
Feckless Ella applies for, and gets, the role, but she's really not the domestic type and besides, a radio career beckons. To the rescue, once again, is her far more domestic and reliable brother. An aspiring actor, he's charmed by Alex's mother, capably takes care of the housework, and gets to know Alex through the notes she leaves and the stories of her semi-estranged mother. The only problem is that Alex still thinks Ella's doing it all. Well, that and the fact that her career seems to be falling apart.
I thoroughly enjoyed this escapist read, the perfect holiday book. Well, not quite perfect - the career sabotage was a little obvious from the outset, but otherwise a fun frolic. The estrangement between mother and daughter was believable, and goes a long way toward explaining Alex's persona; the secondary plot (about Saff's so-called perfect life) was as engaging as the main story; and the romance was relatively natural. - Alex

Tuesday, August 26

The 2005 Best American Science and Nature Writing - Jonathan Weiner (ed)

The difficulty in reviewing anthologies, particularly when they're as wide ranging as this series, is capturing the flavour of each contribution. This was complicated by my finishing this a couple of weeks ago, after reading it over the space of a couple of weeks, and would have been better jotting notes contemporaneously.
Noteworthy contributions include the ever-rewarding Malcolm Gladwell (who is represented twice) on the failures of psychological sacred cows, in this case a damaging preoccupation with post-traumatic stress (nicely complemented by Jerome Groopman's critique of "critical incident stress debriefing" in the grief industry) and the cult of the personality test (complemented by Frederick Crews, an author new to me, who is as disenchanted with his topic, the shaky scientific evidence for Rorschach blots and their regular revival as a valid predictor of mental status).
Indeed many of the contributions centre around complementary themes - Natalie Angier discusses the conflict between faith and science, and criticises the scarcity of American scientists who are prepared to publically denounce faith-based concepts like attacks on evolution; and sceptic John Horgan contrasts his own belief-free attitude with that of his religious friends.
For me William Speed Weed wins the prize for most valuable essay about the number of bogus pseudo-scientific claims made to the average American in the average day, with an emphasis on how subtly and insidiously they're present and blindly accepted in almost every aspect of every day life, but every essay is an interesting, enlightening and worthwhile enterprise. - Alex

Sunday, August 24

Love and Other Near Death Experiences - Mil Millington

Rob Garland has a problem. Ever since he narrowly survived being killed in a pub inferno, spared by nothing more than chance, the Mancusian late night jazz radio broadcaster has found himself paralysed by every minute decision. He now knows the affect the smallest, most insignificant-seeming decisions can have on your life and the lives around you, a fast the rest of the world seems blissfully and unaccountably ignorant of. One night, unable to bear it any longer, he spends his airtime discussing just this fact, an act that propels him into real danger and that makes him reevaluate his place in the world.
This is my first Millington novel, and I enjoyed some of the deft touches. The plot is original, the characters are interesting (even if the existental angst was a little over-blown, which was somewhat the point of the book), and there were some beautiful moments, including nicotine-addict Elizabeth's near-poetic elegy to a packet of cigarettes drowned in a Bulgarian toilet. There are lovely light moments and exquisite turns of phrase, including my new favourite - "Christ's dancing arse," a combination of words I'd never previously seen (or thought about) together, but am now waiting to unleash at the first appropriate opportunity.And another favourite line? "'Some Nutters Found in America.' Well done, Rob - you've certainly stumbled upon a carefully guarded secret there."
I also liked his atheistic take on the outlook of a group of American fundamentalists who believe in following up on the individuals who miss out on God's plan for death by taking them out themselves - "I mean, the problem is: God doesn't exist. Which kind of ties his hands, follow-up-wise." In fact, the evaluation of religious extremism (of the Christian variety), the nature of chance, and the way we respond to what happens in our lives, and the glue that binds this well-written, interesting and original novel together. - Alex

Friday, August 22

Fidelity - Thomas Perry

PI Phil Kramer has a lifetime of experience - he would never have survived otherwise. So what made him relax his guard enough to be shot, in his own car, on a quiet street one evening? His wife Emily can't leave the question unanswered. Utilising the resources of the small private investigation company they set up, she begins to investigate the case herself, only to find more questions than answers.
Jerry Hobart, the man hired to kill Phil, has questions of his own. His contract extends to a hit on Phil's widow, but she's not acting the way he expects, and the usual easy kill isn't going a smoothly as he thought. When Jerry turns his attention to the man behind the hits he becomes focused on the idea of an even bigger score - an idea that could end in disaster for Jerry himself.
Perry's plot is told from both main protagonists points of view, a strategy that could ratchet up the suspense. For some reason, perhaps because there are too many characters and too many details, the result is instead little laboured and drags. Perry's writing is sparse and a delight to read, but the book as a whole just doesn't sparkle and I was disappointed. I know I've said it before, but try the Jane White series and be delighted by what Perry's capable of delivering. - Alex

Thursday, August 21

Loretta Chase: Your Scandalous Ways

Heartbroken and scorned a young divorcee steals a packet of incriminating letters from her ex-husband but can find nobody who will believe that they are not vindictive forgeries. Shunned by society she runs away to the continent where she becomes a ruinously expensive whore.
Five years later government agents believe her ex-husband may be in league with Napoleon but the only proof is in those letters and she refuses to hand them over.
A retiring spy is sent to Venice to ‘acquire’ the packet of letters from the notorious courtesan. A veteran thief and unparalleled lover he anticipates a quick job. But he doesn’t count on falling in love with the very independent and unrepentant harlot.
It soon becomes apparent that he is not the only one searching for the letters and they must risk both their lives and their love for King and Country.
This was a delightful historical romance. In a genre populated by prim misses and feisty innocents it was refreshing to find a heroine who is both a fallen woman and happy about it. The heroine is a courtesan and she behaves like one-sizing up men by the depths of their wallets and making sure the hero has no illusions as to who she is and what she does.
Both the lead characters were very well rounded, their histories convincing and the romance between the two of them utterly believable.
There is a bit of incidental humour that the author has the good sense not to labour. The hit and run style had me chuckling and reading parts out loud.
A very good read for those open to romance in unexpected places and an excellent read for lovers of historical romance. Highly recommended-Lynn

Wednesday, August 20

Down Under - Bill Bryson

Bryson is justifiably well known for his interesting, humorous and comprehensive take on the world. In Down Under he turns his attention to Australia, a country he says he fell in love with on his first visit. Though he's been out several times since then, he'd only seen a small fraction of the country before he embarked on a research journey, where he covered the length, breadth, and some of the in-between bits of the world's driest continent.
Bryson's genuine affection shines through, an element guaranteed to endear him to Aussies, who generally pity those not fortunate enough to be one of us (unlike Americans, we tend to believe the rest of the world is ignorant of the greatnbess of Oz, rather than envious of our good fortune).
As is his wont, Bryson combines his own keen observation with meticulous research and detail, and his enthusiasm and skill allow this to come across as a love of sharing fascinating information rather than unpleasant info dumps of "I researched it so I'll tell you." On page 6 he tries to describe the size of the red centre by describing what may have been a terrorist nuclear test, only discovered some four years later - not everyone could make that sound complimentary rather than indictable! He goes on to list all the ways Australia is unique, from "it is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country," to a brief overview (revisited in detail on several occasions) of the many ways wildlife here can kill the unwary, to a more accurate summation of Indigenous culture than most manage in far more room.
But what sets Bryson apart from other commentators and travel writers is his wry observation - like his description of (now former) Prime Minister John Howard as "by far the dullest man in Australia. Imagine a very commited funeral home director - someone who's buringin ambition from the age of eleven was to be a funeral home director, whose proudest achievement was to be elected president of the Queanbeyan and District Funeral Home Directors' Asssociation - then halve his personality and halve it again, and you have pretty well got John Howard." All of which is to illustrate the lack of excitement that is the nation's capital.
Australia is at present captured by the Olympics - at the time of writing we're fifth in the medal tally. Bryson writes about this, pointing out that in 1996 (the book was published before the Sydney Olympics), we came fifth, which translates as "3.78 medals per million of population, a rate more than two and a half times better than the next highest performer, Germany, and almost five times the rate of the United States." A nice reminder when the popular press is full of horror stories about our obesity rate and lacklustre performance.
There are jewels of humour liberally studded through Down Under, from Bryson's variation on the classic Waltzing Matilda, to retellings of local jokes, and his amusing asides (about the florid style of famed local historian Manning Clark, Bryson remarks "personally - and this is just a stab in the dark - I think [he] was taking way too much codeine.")
It's certainly not all chocolates and roses - the overt racism present in a lot of white Australians is mentioned, and the stunning disregard for our first citizens and for the integrity of the country is embarassing - the list of deliberately introduced animals to a fragile ecosystem is distressing to reflect on, and white Australia has a lot to be ashamed of. But I came away from Down Under proud to be an Australian (in a non-jingoistic way), amused, and considerably better informed. - Alex

Tuesday, August 19

Good Girls Gone Bad - Jillian Medoff

Janey Fabre's an actuary - numbers, statistics and probablility are her life. Well, they would be if she had a life, but men seem to see straight through her, rather than seeing her, and at thirty-something she's unhappily single. Still haunted by the absence of her mother, a rare success story from a pulp mill town, and scarred by the humiliation of discovering her only real boyfriend - a preppy of beauty - was only banging her on the side and was really enagaged to an equally preppy deb, it's not surprising Janey considers suicide strategies as a way to unwind.
When she joins a therapy group, populated by some truly weird women, Janey has no idea she's about to meet friends that will be with her for the rest of her life, or that she's about to discover how to move on from her past and embrace her future.
Billed as "fiercely intelligent" and "laugh-out-loud funny," I found Gone Bad neither, perhaps because I found Janey annoyingly spineless. Every half potential man she meets is instantly transformed as Janey foresees their life together, from first date through first baby and on to retirement, a fantasy that interferes with her real life. She compulsively lies, even to the reader, a trait which helps delay revelations that would certainly colour the plot, but which I found jarring. And she's just... wet. There was also a high level of had-I-but-known, an element that must be used sparringly if it's to be used at all.
This isn't to say that it was alll bad. I liked the use of actuarial information as both a way for Janey to distance herself from unpleasantness in the messy real world, and as an insight into her character. The reflections of being a motherless daughter had an additional poignancy for me because my mother's mother died when she (my mother, obviously) was five, which has coloured our relationship. And for all that I continued reading Good Girls Gone Bad more to get it finished than out of enjoyment, I was nonetheless a little moist-eyed at the end, which was annoying. Medoff's first book was apparently a publishing fairytale of critical acclaim. Despite these redeeming feathures, I think I'll pass. - Alex

Monday, August 18

Three Men on the Bummel - Jerome K Jerome

This sequel to Three Men in a Boat tells of a rambling bicycle trip George, still unmarried, Harris and "I" - sans dog - take through the Black Forest. In typical (judging by the one Jerome I've previously read) style, a variety of misadventures ensue, none of them the fault of any of the travelling party. Like the trip, the novel rambles around, with plenty of digressions in which the narrator tells his impressions of any manner of things - the nature of the German people, how to get one's way when one's wife isn't keen on whatever it is a chap wants to do, the contrary nature of bicycles, why some trips just don't come off, and many others.
The joy of Jerome's writing is his characterisation, and the sly way he manages to convey truths the narrator is unable to perceive himself. It's unfortunate, for the purposes of this review, that most of the best passages are simply too long to include int heir entirety and too well constructed to partially dismember. Highlights for me include a recitation of the narrator's Uncle Podger, who was forever late for work in the mornings because people (quite clearly) hid his belongings before he could leave the house - "whenever he lost a thing it was everybody else's fault in the house but his own... you would have thought he was living surrounded by conjurers, who spirited things away from him merely to irritate him."
Along the journey the reader has marvellous glimpses into the life and outlook of a typical upper middle class at the turn of the last century. In light of subsequent events, the discussion of Germany and her people is particularly interesting, and I was frequently reminded of how tiome poor we are compared to our ancestors a century ago, despite our labour saving devices and higher incomes. Jerome's predecessor is justly better know, but Three Men on the Bummel is a worthy successor on it's own merits. - Alex

Sunday, August 17

Undead and Uneasy - Maryjanice Davidson

Undead, shoe-addicted vampire Betsy Taylor's back for her sixth outing, and this time she's about to get married, even if her Consort believes they're already perfectly adequately married by dint of vampiric prophesy. Almost all brides have horrendous calamities leading up to the wedding, but for Betsy it's more than just perception - her father and step-monster are killed in an accident, her best friend has a particularly virulent cancer, her groom has vanished, and all around her is falling apart. Surely it has to be more than coincidence?
This isn't anything particularly revolutionary, but if you enjoy a little escapist fluff, particularly the kind where you know what you're going to get and don't want unpleasant surprises (an authorly change of voice, or deterioration in quality), this may be the paranormal book for you. Highly recommended for procrastinators - Alex

Saturday, August 16

Double Helix - Nancy Werlin

Eli's always known his father had a problem with famed geneticist Quincy Wallace, though he's never known why. He and his father are more distant now than ever, and they never talk about his mother. In fact, his girlfriend of over a year doesn't know about his mother, and has never met his father. For Eli, who knows she'll leave as soon as she finds out he's at risk of the Huntington's that's left his one beautiful and brilliant mother in a nursing home, Viv is something pure and perfect in his life. That is until he gets a part-time research position in Dr Wallace's lab over the summer. It's an amazing opportunity for an unqualified teenager, even if it only involves caring for the rabbits at the heart of a cluster of experiments. But when Eli stumbles on to something darker in the lab, he's forced to question everything in his life.
This compelling YA novel raises some interesting questions about medical ethics and genetic experimentation, and about teenage relationships - with other teens and with adults, particularly their parents. Werlin's gift is combining this sombre subject matter with a stimulating plot. Eli is a complete and flawed character, fully realised, as are the secondary characters. Double Helix doesn't break any new ground, and I was reminded a little of other novels on the topic, but it was refreshing, absorbing, and well worth the time - Alex

Wednesday, August 13

Barbara Michaels: Houses of Stone

A young English Professor finds a battered manuscript in a second hand bookshop which could prove to be the making of her academic career. She recruits the assistance of an historian friend and together they try to trace the provenance of the piece.
Word leaks out about the discovery and soon two academic rivals are dogging her every step attempting to gain possession of the manuscript and anything related to it.
As the professor slowly transcribes the manuscript in a search for clues as to who the author may have been she begins to question whether she is reading a Gothic horror story as she originally thought or if the manuscript might, in fact, be a memoir.
As her research continues the professor becomes the victim of a series of accidents. As events in her life start to mirror those of the manuscript she begins to wonder if the near misses are a result of the unknown author’s attempts to save her in order to get her story told.
I was a little hesitant going into this due to my disappointment in the author’s previous work (Barbara Michaels is Elizabeth Peters). Perhaps it was due to my lowered expectations but I found myself pleasantly surprised by this mystery/romance/modern gothic tale.
The mystery aspect was very well written and while the story wasn’t tied up in a neat package the protagonists discovered enough of what they were seeking to make the end satisfying.
The characters were not the typical romance heroines-one being considerably older and both being described as larger ladies-but both have believable love interests introduced as part of the plot.
The author makes a definite salute to the gothic novels of old in both the structure of the main story and in the extracts of the manuscript being researched.
And there is the odd touch of humour as well (the historian made her fortune writing sex manuals under a pseudonym).
And maybe just a bit too much hard line feminist philosophy for a novel that was otherwise kept quite superficial. Though having said that I did enjoy the quotes at the beginning of each chapter.
A fluid read with an easy to follow plot, this goes someway to redeeming the author in my eyes. I would be interested in reading another of her works to see if my first experience with her was an aberration or if this is.-Lynn

Tuesday, August 12

Sacre Cordon Bleu - MIchael Booth

Subtitled What the French know about cooking, this is an account of foodie Booth's year in Paris, where he combines his experiences at the renown cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, with details about his family life - his wife and two young children came to France with him - and his journey from picky child to a man who barely blanches at eating pigs' trotters.
Booth has some strong opinions that he's not afraid to voice, chief among them that recipes don't work, that chocolate and strawberries are a combination devised by Satan, and that celebrity chefs are irritating. The first insight doesn't stop him from sprinkling (very detailed and quite complicated) recipes throughout the text that I cannot review because I skipped over them all. Why? I'm ideologically opposed to veal and to force feeding, so I skipped over the foie gras terrine, Duvet de Veau (veal in an eiderdown) and veal shank contributions, feel confident I'll never be using half a calves' foot, however finely sliced (what do you do with the other half?), and could not be bothered with the detail in some of the other recipes ("1 aubergine, cut into slices about the thickness of a paperback copy of The Old Man and the Sea"? Please!).
It was an interesting enough insight into the world of haute cuisine, but don't think the praise for his previous book (Just As Well I'm Leaving, which I haven't read) applies to this one - not astute and erudite, certainly not funnier than Bryson, and not highly recommended by me. Check out the great Steingarten instead - Alex

Monday, August 11

Good Murder - Robert Gott

William Powers, leader of the Power Players acting company, is resolved to bring Titus Andronicus to the people. Sure, it's 1942, and he's in Queensland, a state not known for it's cultural appreciation, but he's confident that if anyone can do it he can. In fact, 'confident' describes Powers very well, so when he becomes the main suspect in the murder of a local girl, Powers knows that he is better placed than the local police to get to the bottom of the case. Unfortunately, every move he makes serves only to mire him deeper, causing destruction and injury at every turn.
Powers is an interesting lead character - Gott does a masterful job depicting in first person his misplaced sense of clarity and resolve, undimmed as he lurches from one false assumption to another, never pausing to reflect of whether he may be mistaken (or should just back down altogether). His turn of phrase is attractive, but writing this a week or so after finishing the novel, nothing particularly stands out for me. I have the sequel at home (have I mentioned that I love libraries?) and hope to have better recall when reviewing that. In the interim - interesting, if somewhat wearying, man character, unique plot, not bad all in all. - Alex

Sunday, August 10

Winterfair Gifts – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles’ wedding to the beautiful Ekaterin approaches, and it seems as though all of Vorbarr Sultana want it to be a success. Initially small, the celebration has – as all weddings do – grown just a little bigger than expected. Ice sculptures will fill the grounds, cousin Ivan has been threatened with dire consequences if he tries to play any pranks, and every detail has been anticipated and planned.
Except that Ekaterin seems sick with nerves, and Miles fears she’s having second thoughts about marrying a runt like him. While not all his old loves could make it – Quinn, for some reason, has sent two gifts, one of which may have a distressing subtexts – genetically-engineered warrior Taura has arrived and, thanks to Lady Vorpatril’s sense of style, looks magnificent. Concerned that the mutation-phobic populace will cause her distress, Miles directs Roic, his Armsman, to watch out for her. Roic becomes increasingly attracted to Taura, despite the ingrained fears of genetic manipulation that permeates his culture, but keeps managing to put his foot in it with her.
I’ve delayed reading Winterfair Gifts because it’s the last, at least so far, in the Vorkosigan series and I love every word. Sadly this is a novella, but Bujold has incorporated every essential element into this tale of Miles’ next stage of life – the Count and Countess, a love story, a treacherous plot, substantial growth for at least one character, humour (including a brief reprise of butter bugs), a sense of place and time, really smart characterisation, an absorbing plot, and a satisfactory resolution that leaves room for a sequel but doesn’t demand it. Though I do – more please! – Alex

Thursday, August 7

The Rules of Survival - Nancy Werlin

His first fifteen years with an unstable and mercurial mother have scarred Matt – he knows he can’t really trust anyone. Not his absent nurse father, who knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; not his aunt, who lived a floor below them and pretended not to hear; not the authorities. It wasn’t until Matt brought Murdoch McIlvane into their lives that things began getting better, and for a while there they got worse, first.
Afraid that Nikki will come back one day, and aware that Emmy isn’t old enough to remember the unsafe days, Matt writes a letter to his younger sister, to make sure she knows to be wary. Forced to maturity early, Matt’s first memory is keeping one-year-old Callie quiet during one of Nikki’s rages, to keep her safe. When Emmy came along, the siblings shared responsibility for keeping her safe, too. He tells her about the day he and Callie first saw Murdoch and sensed salvation, describes the first time Nikki threatened him with a butcher knife when he was tiny, and reminds her of the way their mother’s charm can snap into insanity. Most of all, he reinforces that she needs to be afraid – Nikki owned Emmy and one day, Matt knows, she’ll come back for her.
This powerful first-person narrative captures the all-pervasive fear of growing up in an unpredictable and unsafe home, and the airless desperation of having nowhere to turn, knowing all the while that things are only going to get worse.
The reader knows from the outset that the ending is happy, or at least happy enough, but Werlin does a magnificent job of maintaining a clear sense of threat and suspense throughout the novel despite this. Matt is drawn with clarity and compassion, and the novel is wholly his, but all the other characters are equally well conveyed. The plot, which could have easily become overblown or melodramatic, maintains a chilling reality that conveys how child abuse need not entail rape, starvation or grievous bodily harm to be devastating and significant. The Rules of Survival is very readable is style but the content is profound and the voice stays long after the novel is complete. Not for younger readers, this strong and important book is recommended reading for older teens and above. – Alex

Wednesday, August 6

All Together Dead - Charlaine Harris

Mind-reading waitress/vampire's assistant Sookie Stackhouse is back, this time accompanying the Queen of Louisiana to a vampire summit, where the Queen will be tried for the murder of her husband, hours after they were married. The summit was postponed and postponed, and is now taking place after Hurricane Katrina, which strikes Sookie as a little suspicious. And it's not like nothing else is going on - for a start, she's still avoiding ex-lover Vampire Bill, and her ne'er-do-well, just-turned-change-changer brother's getting married, to a highly unsuitable were.
All Together Dead is a pleasant enough diversion, offering nothing particularly new and exciting. But if you like the voice, can overlook the bizarre attraction unconsciously exerted by Sookie on almost every supernatural male within sniffing distance, and you need a little escapism, this could be your book. - Alex

Tuesday, August 5

Deadline - Chris Crutcher

Diminutive Ben Wolf's got plans for his senior year - he's getting ready to leave the tiny Indiana town he's spent his whole life in and wants to use this year to get ready. That means reading widely, trying new things, and getting up enough courage to approach the object of his lust and admiration, volleyball star Dallas Suzuki. Ben didn't plan on his doctor detecting a rapidly progressing, pretty much untreatable (unnamed) blood disorder that's now given him a twelve month life expectancy.
Ben has always had a feeling he wasn't going to live long. He decides not to have treatment, which would make his bald, sick, and not extend his life by much; not to tell his family (poorly controlled bi-polar mother, laid-back dad, and spiritual twin brother Cody, who looks just like him only life-sized); and he decides to live like he's got no tomorrow - approach Dallas, try out for the football team, challenge his teachers, and reassess what he believes.
I love Crutcher's writing, and Deadline didn't disappoint. However, perhaps because I so enjoy his writing, I almost found myself ticking off the staple elements - athletic and grounded hero who tries to change the lives of those around him, sports star who doesn't get that it's about team work and not the individual, faded star who can't let go of his glory days, well balanced male role model, pedagogue who won't be moved from his right-wing view point, damaged female rising above the pain of childhood abuse, adult who's more than they seem, character from a previous book reappearing as a pivotal element.
It's to Crutcher's credit that, though I spotted at least some of the twists well before they were spelled out, Deadline is still a great book. Ben's a compassionate and vibrant character, and his journey is genuinely compelling. I particularly like how his initial acceptance, and the apparent wisdom of his decision, changes once he becomes symptomatic. The interpersonal relationships are deftly and realistically handled, the bond between the brothers is beautifully portrayed, and the evolution of the character (and history) of the town drunk was moving and surprising.
There are also some great reading suggestions. I already have (but have not yet read) Loewen's Lies My Teacher Taught Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong but now am also interested in Brown and Abel's Outgunned, Friday Night Lights (both the book and the series), and the autobiography of Malcolm X.
The football detail's sometimes a little thick for those of us not interested in gridiron (or even, dare I confess, Aussie Rules), but the writing's clear, compelling, and challenging, and the ideas just sparkle. Deadline isn't my favourite of Crutcher's works but it's up there, and he remains one of my favourite writers of all time. - Alex

Monday, August 4

Eve Silver: Dark Prince

When a crippled woman is sold into service to repay her father’s debts she finds herself bonded to handsome smuggler. But she suspects that he is something far worse-a wrecker.
Cut off from family and friends, she finds herself developing strong feelings for her master even though he admits to dark deeds and she knows he can’t be trusted.
Her feelings for him grow as she learns the truth about whom he is and why he has a vendetta against her father. Over time she discovers that much of what she has been brought up to believe is lies. And the truth, when she learns it, tears her world apart.
Fortunately she has her handsome smuggler there to help her rebuild a new life.
This should have been a great book. The story held lots of intrigue with enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The hero was dark and unrepentant, though appropriately redeemed. The heroine was unique in that she was not a great beauty but a plain girl with a crippled leg. And the secondary characters were ambiguous enough to keep up the tension. But for all that I feel it failed to live up to its promise.
This is in part due to the author’s aggravation of one of my pet peeves. Yes folks, this book is full of emotion. There is emotion everywhere. Emotion in there eyes, emotion in their hearts, probably emotion in the soles of their feet. They feel emotion all the time in response to every thought or action. And we are rarely, if ever, told what that emotion is. In these situations I like to amuse myself by deciding what the emotion might be. He looks at her with eyes brimming over with emotion (loathing). In response she feels such a strong emotion (jealousy). When will authors learn you don’t add emotion to a story by saying it’s there. Particularly not if you simply use the word emotion. Argh.
But what really ruined a great story for me was the heroine’s excessive angst. A good third, or perhaps half, of the pages in this book are dedicated to the heroine pretty much thinking: How can I have such strong feelings for such a monster as him? There I summarised the bulk of the book in a sentence but the author made the reader suffer through pages and pages of angsty rubbish before getting on with the story. She’s morally torn we get it, now move on with the story.
If you like historical romance with a gothic slant, an angsty heroine and lots of emotion then give this one a try. There is a good story in there though I’m not sure the effort to uncover it is worth the pain. Perhaps you should just reread Jamaica Inn instead.-Lynn

Sunday, August 3

Swimming Without a Net - Maryjanice Davidson

Mermaid Fred's back. It's a year on, and nothing much has changed. She's still working at the aquarium (where her best friend and her boss are still distressingly hot for one another), still torn between the handsome marine biologist with a mermaid fetish and the princely merman (neither of whom she's seen in almost that whole year), and still trying to fit between two cultures.
All that changes when the King of the Undersea Folk demands she attend a pelagic - all the undersea folk are attending, to determine whether of not they'll disclose their existence the land dwellers, and he wants her perspective as one of the Folk who's lived amongst them all her life. With no choice but to attend, somehow all Fred's other issues come along for the ride, too - marine scientist Thomas, in a custom-built Underwater Recreation Vehicle (URV); best friend Jonas; Dr Barb, her boss, somehow turns up too; and of course High Prince Artur, son of the King, is playing an integral role.
This is a bit of light-hearted rompiness, perfect for a break from more taxing fare. Thomas is draw a little too perfectly ("He's a marine biologist, he's an M.D., he writes books, he's rich, and he designs underwater love nests. Is there anything he can't do?"), and I found the 'torn between two lovers' thing a bit irritating, but the novel ends with that being resolved, which alleviated that somewhat. I'll probably give the third one a bash when I see it, but I won't hunt it down. - Alex

Saturday, August 2

Silence - Thomas Perry

When cop-turned-PI Jack Till helped Wendy Harper disappear, he hoped it would be the ast time he heard of her. Afraid to go to the police, and in fear for her life, she'd only escaped a fatal beating by chance. Six years on a torn, blood-soaked fragment of clothing and a smeared baseball bat have been found in the garden of chef Eric Fuller, her former partner, evidence the DA's office is using to file murder charges. Only Jack, and the person who planted the evidence, know Wendy's really alive. Only Jack can clear Eric, in a move that will bring Wendy back out into the open, a target for a killer who still wants her dead.
Though not a patch on Perry's Jane White series, Silence is a fair piece of suspense. The action is described from two points of view, Jack and the two hired killers trying to find Wendy by following him. The reader learns a little about how to change your identity, and how a created identity can be deconstructed, which I always find interesting.
However, though the plot twists unpredictably, I found the whole thing a little flat - many of the details (Jack's daughter, Sylvie-the-assassin's slowly unwound background) seemed included to add character dimension without being integral to anything, the gradually growing distance between the killers didn't interest or surprise me, and I didn't feel invested in the outcome. From another author I'd probably be happy enough, but I've come to expect a higher standard from Perry. - Alex

Friday, August 1

Restoring Grace - Katie Fforde

Ellie Summers was doing fine - supporting her artist boyfriend by painting people's houses from photos while he creates installations that are too far beyond the limited confines of most people's ideas about what art 'should' be. But when she became pregnant, and he wanted no part of it, Ellie realised she hadn't been in love with him for quite some time. Determined to keep the baby, well aware her parents will be distantly supportive but not offer her a place to stay, and without means, Ellie discovers a perfect house to paint while dropping off a previously commissioned work.
Grace Soudley's trying to get her life back together after a friendly but devastating divorce - she wanted kids and her husband, now up to marriage three, didn't want any more than the teen daughter he already has. Her ex let her keep the house (left to her by her aunt/godmother) but took all his furniture. The settlement paid for a new roof, but now she's skint, and her irate older sister (who, along with their high achieving brother, was only left the furniture and contents the house originally contained) wants her to sell up and split the proceeds.
Grace spontaneously invites Ellie to come and stay with her, and before either of them know it, both women have the families they've always wanted, security, and love.
This is standard Fforde fare, and none the less enjoyable for that. The main characters (Ellie, Grace, and step-daughter Demi) were fun and engaging, the antiheroes (Ellie's ex, Grace's sister and her husband's first wife) were gratifyingly irritating, and the dual romances were different enough to easily keep separate. I found the end-tying a little too neat, Ellie's final line ("it seems to me Grace is definitely restored") was unnecessary, and the constant spelling of "affair" with a terminal "e" was teeth grinding every time, but all in all Restoring Grace was well worth the effort. - Alex