Tuesday, September 30

Last Dance, Last Chance - Ann Rule

Rule has concentrated on cosmetic surgeon Anthony Pignataro here, but has also collected a series of vignettes about other (primarily sadistic) sociopaths to round out what would otherwise been a novella-length book, sub-titled And Other True Stories.
"Last Dance, Last Chance" comprises 314 pages of the book's 463 page total and meticulously details the life of Pignataro, son of a somewhat cold medical father, from arrogant adolescent to convicted attempted uxoricide, via the death of a young and previously healthy woman who came to him for cosmetic surgery she didn't need and he was woefully unequipped to perform.
While the story itself is an interesting enough series of unfortunate events that seemed to inexorably lead to tragedy, and an illuminating insight into the mindset of a sociopath, the execution was laboured and painful.
It's been a long time since I read a true crime book - I stopped when I discovered I fit the profile of the typical true crime reader and didn't like being so predictable, but also because the writing was so consistently bad, and this foray into the genre has nothing to alleviate my perceptions. The author is heavily woven into the opening of the story, and assumes a familiarity with her work I don't have ("once again, just as I had been when I researched And Never Let Her Go, I was drawn back to a place I had lived long ago"). It's a minor enough flaw - I often write myself into my own work, too.*
What I found significantly more annoying was the belaboured writing, full of foreshadowing, declarations of the obvious, and hyperbole. For example: "She told me of an all-too-true scenario that seemed almost unbelievable." Or Rule's emphasis, following a quote that "'She said she was kind of afraid of him'" that "So Bertha had been afraid." Not so surprising, especially as there's no record of anyone denying Bertha had been fearful. Or her surprise at how things work out. Rule is clearly no psychic - "I never expected to return to Buffalo or Niagara Falls or the thin eastern belt of Ontario where the land barely separates Lake Ontario from Lake Eerie. But the twists and turns of our lives are nothing if not unpredictable." So true.
And yet, despite her surprise, again: "When I wrote about [Jack Gasser] the first time, I never expected to write about him again. But I did." Bad luck if you wanted to know why she wrote about him the first time, or why she returned to his "backward or 'inside out' story" (it reads as neither), because unless you're already familiar with Ms Rule's body of work you're out of luck knowing how this account varies from the first time she apparently documented his life and times.
"Last Dance, Last Chance" revolves primarily around Pignataro's wife, Debbie, and equal weight is given to her upbringing and experiences as is to his. But do we really need three paragraphs to set the scene of 1957, the year of her birth? I'm not American, and I wasn't alive then, but I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in knowing it was the era of the Beaver, Father Knows Best, the first research suggesting smoking may be harmful, and Capitalist fears of an invading Communist threat (the Cuban and Russian paranoia is downplayed and McCarthy doesn't rate a mention in this soft-edged idyllic meander down memory road).
There were a couple of inaccuracies that niggled at me, chief of which was Rule attributing the wrong condition to a minor player in the main story (Sarah Smith, who died as a result of Pignatoro's inept preparation and support, had a brother who developed kidney failure the same year she died - Rule attributes this to Wagner's disease, instead of Wegener's, the more likely cause - picky, perhaps, but significantly different), and the fact that she didn't insert a [sic] into the quote from Pignatoro that "a son and daughter needs their father" irritated me. Or the effortless gliding from a fact to a judgement (as in the way "Elledge's father was committed to a mental institution [in 1953, that era of highly accurate psychiatry]" is then characterised as "After his father went insane...").
But mostly it was the overwrought writing - brace yourself for a number of examples:
"Craven had an Irish mug, but then so did Finney, who liked to say he was 'a potato-faced Irish man" - a fascinating contribution to the work. How about "Although he looks as Italian as his name... [lawyer Frank Sedita] explains that he is half-Italian, half-Scots - which he is. His dog s a West Highland terrier, and his son is named Mac." I think my favourite part is the confirmation that he is, as he says, of both Scottish and Italian heritage. I now feel much more able to engage with the writing.
How about the fact that "the D.A.'s personnel always referred to Dr. Anthony Pignatoro as Mr. Tony Pignatoro, ignoring his pretentious 'Anthony' [and recognising the revocation of his licence]." I had no idea it was pretentious to use your full name, and am glad I go by the abbreviation here, lest you all think me up myself.
For those of you with an interest in redundancy, there's this bit of scene setting from a non-Pignatoro true crime account: "In the 1940's, detectives still wore fedoras, suits, white shirts, and ties. The group of men who gathered around the body [in 1948] resembled an outtake from a film noir movie..." - spare me. But wait, there's more - it may interest those of you born yesterday to learn that "...DNA was as unlikely in 1948 as a spaceship landing in downtown Seattle."
Apparently real pathologists, both then and now, are less precise than imaginary ones:
'Time of death?' Don Sprinkle asked, knowing it wouldn't be as specific as fictional pathologist's opinions.
"Probably between 2 and 3 A.M., give or take an hour either way," Dr. Wilson said.
I must be reading the wrong books, because that sounds like what I read and what I see on TV crime shows. I'm amazed that this was the case sixty years ago, too. Either that or Rule thinks her 1948 cop could compare his contemporary with pathologists more than half a century in the future.
Okay, pickiness like this is a sign I'm well over it. I'm sure you are, too. Once again, a book completed solely because I was travelling, and a good example of the Seventh Rule of Book Buying (or Reading) - sometimes there's a reason why it's sitting on the shelf/in the box almost a decade after you bought it. - Alex

*Although that's fairly standard in the social sciences, and is there to demonstrate bias and declare perspective

Monday, September 29

The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke

Bo and Prosper, a pair of orphaned brothers, fleeing to Venice, the Italian city their late mother loved. Their uncaring aunt only wants the younger, cuter Bo, and plans to put Prosper into a children's home. Adopted to a small gang of children who shelter in an abandoned cinema, the group are led by the mysterious Thief Lord - Scipio is a self-styled Robin Hood who steals valuables from wealthy homes and pawns them to support the children. When Aunt Esther hires Victor, a lonely Venetian detective, the gang as a whole are threatened, and Scipio faces being unmasked.
This is an energetic and highly absorbing story for younger readers. It has convincing characters who span a range of greys and, unlike many children's books, this includes the children as well as adults. Funke convincingly portrays the anxieties of Prosper, who wants to protect his younger brother and maintain his innocence; the conflicting emotions of Victor, who is unwilling drawn into the drama; and the tension of Scipio, fighting the dominating and domineering influence of his overbearing and powerful father. The pace is brisk, the plot original, and the ending both satisfactory and not predictable from the outset. There are supernatural elements, but these play a secondary role to the main action. Quite possibly the best tween novel I've read so far this year (which is, admittedly, not a wide field). - Alex

Sunday, September 28

Happy Kitty Bunny Pony - Charles S Anerson Design Co, with text by Michael J Nelson

Essentially a collection of cutesy animal depictions, this "saccharine mouthful of super cute" (the subtitle) is witty and amusing thanks to ex-Mystery Theater 3000 host Nelson's text. Grouped thematically (happy kitties, bunnies, ponies, barnyard buddies [pigs and lambs feature prominently], chicks and ducklings, woodland creatures etc), the illustrations range from swap card pictures to (quite horrifying) wallpaper patterns.
And enlivening the collection are gems of commentary like (under a photo of cat looking up at a Christmas tree): "Buying a present for a cat is hard, because cats have only the dimmest awareness of their surroundings. Get them a bell or, if that's too extravagant, a small clump of earth. Because, it will hardly matter." On the facing page, illustrated by a posed, colourised kitten sitting between among superimposed flowering twigs: "Is this little fella aware of the incredible irony - a sweet little pussy wandering among pussy willows? No. Irony is beyond him. Again, dimmest awareness of their surroundings." Or, on a spread featuring Easter bunnies:

This familiar symbol originate in Germany where children would build a nest for the "Oschter Haws," in hopes he would lay a batch of colored eggs. That German children were so confused about biology does not speak well of the German education system. To all you German children out there, rabbits are mammals, which means they give birth to live young. No eggs involved. Perhaps you were confusing him with the Easter Duckbilled Platypus.
I read my (advertising/marketing exec) sister's copy while babysitting and that was enough for me, but every few pages I cracked up (generally on the inside but occasionally aloud). Without the illustrations I'm really not able to do Happy Kitty Bunny Pony justice, and there are many pages without commentary - rendering them less interesting for those of us lacking the appropriate aesthetic sense to appreciate the works for their own merits. If you have a slightly twisted sense of humour and/or an interest in pop culture, or in the work of the design team Pop Ink, this is the book for you.- Alex

Saturday, September 27

Fat Chance - Lyndsay Russell

Sharon Plunkett looks the way she sounds - flat, dispirited, and a fat (UK) size 18 - 20. Her job at an advertising agency, surrounded all day by gorgeous, thin young things, only reinforces her unacceptability, as does Debbee, her perfect best friend. Although Sharon's tried every fad, diet, cream and potion known to man, the weight stubbornly clings to her. In desperation, Sharon responds to an ad for Dr Marvel's miracle clinic, " a magical way to change your life" - after an interview Sharon is given one tablet. Swallowed with any beverage it will, she's promised, change her life, as long as she eats nothing for two hours.
Sharon has trouble with her scepticism but is clutching at straws. After taking the pill (with a milkshake), she decides to boost her spirits with some clothes shopping, but nothing fits and, distraught, she collapses. When she exits the shop she notices a significant increase in the number of fat people (especially women) on the street, and advertising that seems to promote size. Sharon's world is now designed for her.
In quick succession she becomes more confident, is noticed at work and promoted to front of office, reverses the power equilibrium between her and Debbee, is spied by a fashion designer and made the centrepiece of his next show, dates a series of hot and famous guys, attracts paparazzi attention, and becomes an international supermodel. Until it all comes tumbling down and Sharon (now Shaz) begins losing weight...
Fat Chance had great potential - I kept hoping that Sharon would realise that she always had the potential to be beautiful, that the guy she liked also liked her all along, that confidence and presentation make a huge difference, that her 'friend' was really an undermining bitch. But no, none of that.
Some of the writing I just plain didn't understand:
"the last thing Sharon saw were two fighting swans, and a soaking gaggle of Academy organisers desperately trying to pull them apart before guests and press realised the anthropological error of mixing the black and white birds together" [emphasis added].

Perhaps part of my dislike of the book is that I didn't warm to the author. In her opening acknowledgements she inserts imaginary responses to accolades for her book, and its message that fat women can be pretty, too, at an awards ceremony: "Wild applause and laughter. I pause - smile sweetly, and look earnestly into camera." Bucket, please.
Fat Chance isn’t helped at all by the heroine - two dimensional, unintelligent, shallow and immature, she seems to have no redeeming features. Her new-found confidence and fame could allow her to campaign for acceptance of women regardless of size, renegotiate her relationship with Debbee, or try acting on her two year crush, Simon. She does none of this.
Additionally, I think it's hard to write fat without the experience. I'm certainly not saying it's not possible to write a whole range of characters one has no experience with personally (otherwise, of course, women could never write men, etc). But to do it well, one has to put in a certain amount of preparation, in the form of research and/or imagination, that doesn't seem reflected in Fat Chance.
From her photo, Russell isn't fat - in an interview where she's asked about this, Russell 'reveals' that she's a UK size 14 and it's not a stretch to imagine being bigger. Uh huh.
She certainly manages to hit a number of stereotypes, including the big one, that people who are fat are lazy and/or stupid. As the book opens, Sharon's ostensibly on a diet. She weighs herself often, and allegedly watches what she eats, but apparently has no concept of either exercise of calorie counting:
'After a day of being good, not even the same weight,' she wailed. Again she counted the calories in her mind... What did she have? The latte... but that was liquid and didn't count. She only had two sugars with it, and the spray of cream on top was so light and fluffy, it surely couldn't be many calories... In the evening, she remembered she'd also polished off a carton of Stilton soup before it went off. But she'd missed pudding with great resolve, and just hit the bottle of wine. Liquid again, just like the soup. No, she just couldn't understand it.
And that brings me to another (on my initial draft of this review I wrote “the biggest”, then realised I’d written that for every area of criticism) issue - the writing. A lot of the time it just isn't realistic at all, it's overblown, under edited and hyperbolic:

She looked so pathetically sad, she put her hand out to the reflection to touch her own reflection in comfort. The ache in her eyes was always there. The look of a kitten that had been abandoned by its mother... Dispassionately, she studied herself [and once again decided her long, naturally platinum hair was her best feature]. As for her eyes... no matter that they were large and almond shaped, they were just too damn tragic. Green. Unusually luminescent in hue, they had a strange tendency to match and reflect whatever shade of green she wore.
She feels better once she's publicly acclaimed, as you do. But the hyperbole doesn't slow down:

Watching her milky breasts plop firmly into her bra, she ran her palms over her mountainous regions of flesh, and found tender miles of delicately dipping hills and vales. Such a variety of shape and contour, texture and colour.
With every new boyfriend she imagines the wedding (though, tellingly, never the marriage itself). It always starts with a riding-into-the-sunset kind of vision that s amended appropriately when the hero du jour's revealed to have feet of clay - he's a helpless drug addict, sleeps around, is using her fame, dumps her when she becomes less popular...
Sharon never seems to have any emotional connection to them. And though one guy she admired from afar before The Change is still around, now he's not good enough for her - though he never gave an indication the reverse was true for him.
Fat Chance is in some ways billed as a parody of the current preoccupation with thinness and size zero. For the most part this is portrayed through taking the opposite case and extending it to the extreme - "there are times I crave a fresh salad or a crisp apple instead of a cake."
There is also controversy in this alternative world - "many experts believed size 24 was dangerously big, but it didn't stop young, impressionable models gorging themselves to attain this dress size," though no indication what it is that this danger may entail. There is, consequently, a ban in some cities on models size 24 and above - a ban violated during a US show when:
"horned satyrs dragged a Titian-sized model standing in a gold cornucopia down the catwalk. There was a hum of anger too - she had to be at least a size 26 - way too big to walk the distance in time to the music."
I liked some of the parody, but a lot of the time it was just taken too far, and the universe had no internal consistency. I’d be interested to know what happened to the models, actresses etc who are famous now – did they suddenly plump up? But what I'm specifically referring to is the men.
In the world we inhabit, there's also pressure on men (though to a lesser degree) to slim down and/or beef up. One might therefore assume that the shift in cultural standards (a shift that's not based on anything except Sharon's magical pill) would similarly apply to men. But no - the men in Russell's imagined world still have to abide by current standards of attractiveness, and all the men Shaz encounters have Brad Pitt-like physiques:

She lifted her hands to his neck, and then ran them down his broad, muscular back to encircle his slim waist. His chest was unbelievable smooth and hard, like a flint stone, leading down to the taut stomach and a finely tuned six pack she'd seen in countless movies, now hers to stroke.
Even for the women, where fat is idealised and aspirational, the aim is still smoothness and lack of jiggle:
... comparing herself to those around her, she knew she was firm for her size, and her breasts were perfectly rounded, even though they were size 36F... the curve of her long, graceful back carve[d] down like an S to massive, rounded buttocks high and taught [sic] as a Venus de Milo.
So not so much a different kind of appreciation as our current cultural ideal, super sized.
And that, I think, is the core of my dislike of this book. Though promoted as fat friendly, size accepting, a triumph for women everywhere, it’s really not.
The cause for Sharon's size is, simplistically, solely due to the childhood trauma of losing her mother as a young age. Similar in appearance to her mother, and consequently disliked by her new stepmother, on an unconscious level the young Sharon decided to gain weight and look different.
As soon as she realises this, Sharon begins to lose weight, and status. As this wouldn't fit into the narrative framwework, though, the reason for Shaz's weight loss is because, while collapsing in the clothing store just after taking Dr Miracle's pill, she couldn't help devouring a cupcake for comfort, and thereby broken the only (Garden of Eden-like) rule of this new universe. Why would she break the rule when she only had to fast for two hours? Perhaps all fat people really are weak-willed gluttons, unable to override short-term wants in order to achieve long-term goals.
When Sharon, having made the psychological breakthrough that magically coincides with the pill wearing off, loses weight despite her best efforts to gain, she truly ends up with it all - a relationship with Simon, a friendship with Debbee (now Debbie), and a position as model/spokeswoman for a fashion range called Minus Miss, for the slim woman. Which just goes to show - fat women can try all they like, true happiness only comes to the thin. Fat Chance is as size-accepting as Weight Watchers. - Alex

Friday, September 26

By The Time You Read This - Lola Jaye

Twelve year old Lois Bates is miserable - her dad died of a mysterious (to her) illness when she was five and her mum's now remarrying a man she met at the bingo. She just knows if her dad was still around everything would be much better than it is. So she's excited, and a little nervous, when her father's' sister gives her a manual written just for her by her father. There are rules: the manual is private between the two of them, and she can only read a birthday entry on her birthday, but she can read the miscellaneous advice and Kevin facts any time she needs to. For the next eighteen years, until the ancient age of thirty, Lois will have her father to guide her through every stage, from starting high school and changing friendships to her first job and buying a car.
The author was inspired by news stories about dying parents leaving their children mementos, usually in the form of DVDs etc; she wondered what it would be like for someone living in the early 1980's, when that technology wasn't available, and the idea is certainly intriguing.
However, I found Lois' voice annoying (though this improved over the course of the novel), and her self-focus grating (which didn't change). Over the eighteen years we see Lois grow up: her mother has another child, who Lois deliberately stays distant from, at least until a near tragedy forces her to face her feelings about the moppet); she avoids her mother and new husband as much as possible, never revisiting her adolescent perceptions; she worships her dead father over the living people in her life; and she leaves relationships before the men in her life can leave her.
I should have related to this character, particularly as my grandmother died when my mother was the same age as Lois (and was never really mentioned again, like Lois's father). I get a little choked up whenever I think of my mother and her twin sister looking around the house for evidence that they hadn't made their mother up, but was wholly unmoved by Lois and her journey through life. Plus, I found the fact that her dad always had the right advice really annoying. Seriously - every time? That's pretty comprehensive for a guy who has only a few months to live. And yet there's barely a thing, especially in the beginning entries (where one would imagine it was the most important) on thinking about her mother's feelings, or it being okay for her to remarry. Later on there are a few mentions of it, but by that stage Lois's dislike of her new "dad" is deeply entrenched.
I certainly finished By The Time You Read This, but only because I bought it and am in Rome, with limited English-language reading material available (and my Italian is very much at the "Spot has a baby sister. Say hello, Spot" level).
So, rule five of buying books - don't buy on impulse or in panic at the airport. It's great that you can buy 3 books for the price of 2 (or buy one, get one half price) but if you don't like the book then it's a waste of time and money.
And rule six - don't let your choice of books in said situation be influenced by the opinion of your friend, particularly if she doesn't have the same taste as you and (though specifically asked which she thinks she'd like to read when you're finished with it) declines to take it when you've finished.
And most of all, remember rule two. - Alex

Thursday, September 25

Shoe Addicts Anonymous - Beth Harbison

Lorna's so deep in debt her power's been cut off, but the Bruno Magli sling backs she just bought are worth it. Helene sublimates the pain of an unhappy marriage to a prominent politician by buying Jimmy Choos. Sandra, obese and agoraphobic, can't compete with the sister her parents prefer over her - pretty, blonde and favoured - but her work as a phone sex operator keeps her in Pliner boots. Nanny Joss doesn't really care about shoes, but she needs a reason to escape her employer's house every week or she'll never get a proper day off. For all of them, Shoe Addicts Anonymous is a place to escape, swap gorgeous shoes, meet with like minds, and maybe even change their lives.
This frothy bit of escapism was fun even for someone as non-shoe obsessed as me. I don't get the idea of letting your bills mount into the red when you've already got dozens of perfectly good shoes in the cupboard, but I've run up my share of book- and DVD-related credit debt, so I can relate. The characters are all engaging, adequately differentiated, and have understandable motivations. While there are some shades of The Nanny Diaries in the Joss sections, Shoe Addicts Anonymous otherwise avoids territory well trodden by other best-sellers.
I found the ending a little too neat, with neatly ribboned happy ever afters for everyone, but other than that this was a perfect piece of holiday reading. - Alex

Wednesday, September 24

PC and Kristin Cast: Marked

A teenager is marked as a fledgling vampire and sent off to a school where she will learn what it is to be an adult vampire-if she survives the change. There she discovers that, along with her amazing new powers and blood lust, she has been chosen by the Goddess Nyx to secretly monitor the behaviour of those around her.
Confused and reluctant to embrace her altered identity she eventually finds acceptance amongst her new vampire friends and learns to embrace her destiny.
She infiltrates an elite clique that is abusing their powers, exposes the leaders for the weaklings they truly are and sets the followers back on the right path, demonstrating her courage and solidifying her status in the process.
Set in a world where vampires are an acknowledged part of society, explaining their existence as an activation of ‘junk’ DNA during adolescence via a process not yet understood and often fatal, this book offered an interesting twist on dark fantasy.
Full of teenaged angst about not understanding what is happening physically, the lack of compassion shown by fundamentalist family members, the loss of old friends, sexual awakening and the difficulty of not fitting in, this story reflected the issues faced by the main character and her reactions to them well. But it was prevented from becoming too oppressive by a number of lighter moments, such as when the main character accidentally imprints her ex-boyfriend.
This book does fall into the young adult fantasy cliché of the main character not only discovering that they are a member of a ‘special’ group but somehow being marked as extra special even amongst the members of said group. But once you accept that it is a remarkably good read for the type.
This is the first in a series I will be reading more of.-Lynn

Tuesday, September 23

Birthright - Nora Roberts

Promising young archaeologist Callie Dunbrook is on what could be the dig of her career - a pre-Neanderthal site discovered during preparation for housing estate in Maryland. The dig is only slightly marred by the presence of her gorgeous ex-husband, anthropologist and site guardian Jacob Greystone. Well, that and the murder of the estate developer. And the revelation that Callie may not be the only child of dearly loved Bostonian parents but the kidnapped baby daughter of a devastated local family. The lawyer she hires also has a connection with the Cullen family, and unresolved issues of her own.
As a romance reader and an occasional lurker at Smart Bitches, I've heard a lot about the apparently incomparable Nora Roberts so, when I spied a book of hers on the recently returned trolley of my local library I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I like mysteries and archaeology, and those elements were quite good. There was certainly a fair sprinkling of both romance and lust, though the romantic hurdles were a little sketchy, and there was a lot of bickering between them.
I quite like Callie, but she often acted in an impulsive and unconsidered way (like chasing a potential murderer into a wood, in the middle of the night, alone and armed only with insect spray). I prefer consistently intelligent heroines, although I suppose we're all entitled to having blonde moments.
I liked the idea of revisiting the family of an abducted child some decades on, though I found Callie's (possible) biological mother's obsession over it, to the point of interrupting the relationship with the son who remained, a little distressing. The resolution of that mystery (if she is the missing child, are Callie's parents baby snatchers?) gave rise to its own implausible heroine-in-peril moments.
I found Lana (Callie's lawyer) a more mature and interesting character, and think the entire abduction plot - though adding a layer of complexity - detracted from what could have been a more interesting whole. I'll try another Roberts, but won't be rushing out to buy her entire oeuvre. - Alex

Monday, September 22

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hossein

Twelve year old Amir has known Hassan all his life - the son of his father's lifelong servant, Hassan is Hazara, a second-class citizen. Both motherless (Amir's mother died in labour, Hassan's abandoned him almost as soon), the boys have grown up together. Hassan is loyal, unwavering, and a willing scapegoat for all Amir's lapses and misdemeanours. Although Amir feels guilt, this never outweighs expediency, particularly if the alternative is Amir's strict and disapproving father thinking worse of him than he already does. Amir's weakness causes him to betray Hassan in the worst way he can imagine, and the guilt prevents him from being able to be with Hassan at all.
Times are changing in Afghanistan, and after the Russian invasion Amir and his father flee for America, leaving Hassan and his father behind. Twenty five years later, married but childless, his father dead, Amir is contacted by an uncle who tells him about Hassan, and Hassan's orphaned son, still trapped in Afghanistan. Amir returns to his childhood home, discovers the havoc and terror wrought by the Taliban, and rediscovers his integrity.
This best selling literary novel has an elegant sparseness, primarily by virtue of the detached voice of the narrator, even as he describes scenes of personal despair. Surprisingly, though this technique robs the novel of some of the more extreme emotional power it could have (no weepiness here), the result is sophisticated and evocative.
The themes are broad and deep - father/son relationships, friendship, betrayal, power, sadism, redemption, triumph and despair - and well realised. The secret at the heart of the narration is satisfying, and adds another layer without impeding the course of the text. Unlike many lesser works, the twist is part of the story, rather than its conclusion.
I didn't love The Kite Runner but I enjoyed the journey and feel enriched for having experienced it. I certainly feel as though I've had some insight (albeit cursory and partial) into the lived experience of such significant relocation as Amir and his father made, the power childhood has over one, and the resonance of events throughout the rest of one's life. - Alex

Sunday, September 21

Unspeak - Stephen Poole

British author and journalist Poole's thesis is that, "in the tradition of Orwell", the use of weasel words – words and phrases that appear to be neutral but are skewed to a particular ideology or do extra work that is obvious on the surface - is expanding at an exponential rate, shaping opinion and influencing perceptions of fact.
Although Orwell most notably coined the concept of double speak (holding two, contradictory concepts in mind simultaneously), Poole refers here to the general idea of making words perform extra duty.
Some of these are readily visible with the most cursory of examinations ('pro-life' opponents must clearly be anti-life, 'pro-choice' opponents similarly against life, 'Friends of the Earth' countered by earth's enemies), and the ideologies carried by the words are relatively unambiguous, while others require a little more thought. This is by no means a new proposition. In philosophy these terms are referred to as 'loaded' - they carry a load of implied ideology or a complicated, packed set of assumptions; and Australian writer Don Watson has written widely about the use of linguistic semantics to extricate politicians from unattractive scenarios. What sets Poole's work apart is the clarity of his writing and the broad scope that he addresses. Though set almost wholly in the politician realm, and unsurprisingly focused most heavily on the use of what he terms 'unspeak' by the Bush administration since September 11, the book begins by exploring imbedded terms in a variety of other settings, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The first chapter uses British
ASBO legislation as an illustration and a springboard. Anti-social behaviour orders were introduced in 1998, and have essentially been used to criminalise behaviour that is not actually illegal. An ASBO recipient can be forbidden from performing certain behaviours for a period of two years, and jailed for up to five years if the order’s breached. While acknowledging that there may be some cases where an ASBO is appropriate, Poole gives several real examples, of which I will summarise four, where ASBOs were applied: an 87-year-old was ordered not to be sarcastic; two teenage brothers were banned from using the word ‘grass’; a young woman was forbidden to appear in her bedroom window wearing underwear; and another young woman, who had previously thrice attempted suicide by drowning, was forbidden to go “to any railway track, river, watercourse or canal in the whole of England and Wales. She was also forbidden to ‘loiter’ on bridges or go to a multi-storey car park on her own.”
The central problem, says Poole, is that the wording of the Act is so loosely worded, and the behaviours ASBOs can be used for so potentially far from actual criminal acts (being sarcastic? Lock me up now), that the range of an ASBO is unfeasibly wide. Whose sensibilities are we protecting? Whose freedoms do we infringe? Who decides what is and is not ‘anti-social’? After all, he points out, many things we now consider normal social functioning, like a Judeo-Christian framework, were once anti-social and heretical.
This is also an opening for Poole’s dissection of the political use of the term ‘community’, which Poole points out is used as though the group being so defined is a homogenous entity. This may be appropriate in some settings, like a community of football fans, homogenous in their team support, but can do extra duty when applied to a non-homogenous group, like gays or Muslims (or, indeed, Americans). We all, after all, belong to many communities, but “people who belong to ‘the gay community’ or ‘the Muslim community’ are allowed to belong to only one, which defines their whole identity.
This is a little like the word ‘tolerance’, which means ‘put up with’ rather than ‘accept’ – I might have to accept that there are people different than me living here but I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to make them feel welcome, just refrain from actively doing anything to them.
Poole also explores shifting word use, like changing ‘refugee’ to ‘asylum seeker.’ In Australia there’s a notion of ‘queue jumping’, exemplified by the appalling
Tampa/children overboard affair, where a government was re-elected on the back of xenophobic fear. Poole later talks about the notion of a ‘failed asylum seeker’ who, presumably, has not only been turned down by the Government but may have some moral failures and/or have contributed to their situation themselves.
Similarly, ‘global warming’ has been transitioned over the last decade (following, reports Poole, substantial campaigning from energy interest groups) to the more neutral and less alarmist ‘climate change’ – if the general population is less frightened they’re less likely to campaign strongly for improvements. This is akin to the switch from ‘creationism’ to ‘intelligent design’ – the underlying idea is identical (people came about as a deliberate plan by an omniscient being) but reframing it as a more neutral phrase (eliminating a Creator, not specifying who the intelligence belongs to, adding the more scientific, tech term ‘design’) make it sound more like a viable theory.
There’s also been a change in the way information is framed, so that when competing interests conflict with science (as in both global warming and creationism), demands are made that ‘both sides of the controversy’ be represented. Poole cites a response to a 2005 statement by George W Bush that “Both sides [of a debate, like evolution vs creationism] ought to be properly taught [to children]... to expose [them] to different schools of thought.” “But,” said US news anchor Ted Koppel, “not all schools of thought deserve the same level of attention.”
Poole uses statements from public figures to illustrate his underlying thesis, perhaps nowhere better than in his analysis of the death of
Jean Charles de Menezes. Three weeks after the
July 7 London tube and bus bombings, and one day after the events of July 21, Mr de Menedez, a Brazilian electrician was shot and killed by police because the jacket (unseasonably warm according to police, denim according to his cousin) could have been concealing a belt of explosives.
Poole doesn’t substantially address the many distressing issues leading up to this event, but concentrates instead on what was said afterward. He dissects the official police statement: “We are now satisfied that he was not connected with the incidents of Thursday, 21 July 2005. For someone to lose their life in such a circumstance is a tragedy and one the Metropolitan Police Service regrets.” As a result of this scrutiny, we see that ‘now satisfied’ does extra duty (we weren’t initially satisfied and, says Poole, that’s his fault); ‘lose his life’ removes agency from the police (they didn’t kill him, he “somehow mislaid his health with no outside help”), and ‘regret’ carries a neutrality and lukewarm distance incommensurate with the significance of what was a screw up. Then PM Blair went one step further, “referring to ‘the death that has happened,’ as though, perhaps, it had been the result of natural causes.”
Poole explores the aftermath of this widely criticised post-7/7 shoot-to-kill policy, and discusses the attempted re-framing of it as undeserved because, if de Menezes “had been a terrorist, police would have been criticised for not shooting him,” as though the criticism and not the killing were the real tragedy. And, with then-London mayor Ken Livingston’s statement that “this tragedy has added another victim to the toll of deaths for which the terrorists bear responsibility,” British authorities even re-framed the distal, if not proximal, culprits.
I am less than half way through my notes, and this review is already too lengthy. In summary: Poole also examines:
- how ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘cauldron’ metaphors remove the impetus to act that ‘genocide’ would impel (“What do you do with a cauldron? You certainly don’t jump in, since you would just be cooked along with its contents. You put the lid on it, perhaps, and hope it simmers down”);
- how terming relatively recent and/or deliberately fomented interethnic hatred (like that in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and the Middle East) as “ancient tribal hatreds” allows the rest of the world to throw up their hands in helplessness (he also comments on the interesting use of biblical language and metaphor that carry their own sub-texts);
- the medicalisation of was language, from (presumably metastatic) cancers that need irradicating to ‘surgical strikes’; and
- the implications of ‘collateral damage’ and the Vietnam War concept that “if it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s [Viet Cong];” and
- the shift from “acts of terrorism” to “terrorists”;
The War on Terror, unsurprisingly, is the key focus of Unspeak, culminating in a truly sickening chapter on how the US government illegally weaselled its way around the Geneva convention on torture and treatment of prisoners of war. The failures of torture are discussed, from Napoleon (who said it just yielded what false information the prisoner though would make his captors stop) to modern military experts, and this position is supported by the fact that there has not been any terrorist activity actually halted or reported as a result of torture (per an FBI report in 2003).
This is shortly followed by a discussion of the post-9/11 term ‘enemy combatant’. According to Judge Joyce H Green, among other hypotheticals, this could apply to an elderly Swiss resident who thinks she’s writing cheques to an Afghan children’s charity. If it’s really, unbeknownst to her, an al-Qaeda front then, though neither “an ‘enemy’ nor a ‘combatant’, [she] could nevertheless by deemed by fiat as an ‘enemy combatant’, and therefore a candidate for torture.”
There is a particularly powerful section evaluating a 2005 column by Christopher Hitchens about why the outrage over Guantanamo Bay was unwarranted; some of this has since been
retracted by Hitchens, in an article that makes interesting reading on its own, and which has been heavily discussed on Poole’s website.
In the second edition postscript Poole recounts how the hanging suicides of three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, held indefinitely without charge and legally (according to the US government) able to be tortured, was framed by Rear Admiral Harry Harris (Joint Task Force Guanatanamo commander) as an assault: “I believe this was not an act of desperation, rather an act of asymmetric warfare against us.” That’s right – the prisoners weren’t despairing and traumatised, they hung themselves to somehow injure the military.
One wonders, reading some of Poole’s quotes (all of which are extensively supported) how often some of these people think before they open their mouths. While Poole is able to let some of them pass, indictments on themselves in themselves, on other occasions he’s moved to comment, with amusing if chilling sarcasm: when former President Bush noted that he “made some difficult decisions that made diplomacy hard in the Arab world,” adding ruefully that “One was, of course, attacking Iraq,” Poole notes “That must indeed have been disappointing.” - Alex

Saturday, September 20

One Good Turn - Kate Atkinson

Paul Bradley's having a little trouble navigating his way around Edinburgh - he hadn't factored in the festival and ensuing crowds. When a minor bingle turns nasty, he finds himself at the wrong end of a baseball bat.
Mild-mannered Martin Canning writes soft-boiled mysteries, starring a genteel 1940's heroine, under an assumed name. Haunted by mysterious events in Russia several years earlier, he's never done anything bold in his life, until he hurls his laptop at the maniac attacking a stranger in the street, a stranger he now feels a duty to accompany to Casualty, even at the cost of losing a copy of his latest novel.

Fleeing a well-witnessed scene of road rage, PI and former cop Jackson Brodie, in Edinburgh for his actress girlfriend's fringe performance, stumbles over the body of a girl floating in the ocean. Despite his best efforts, he can't drag her on land before the tide whisks her away, leaving the police dubious about whether she ever existed.

Detective Inspector Louise Monroe is attracted to the Englishman who, despite the lack of any evidence, insists he found a dead body. And wherever she turns thereafter, there he is. And that's not the only coincidence - a missing property manager and his company (who built the crumbling house she and her young petty thief son live in), a cleaning company, and a mysterious man with a dog and a baseball bat, keep turning up too.

The theme of Russian matryoshka dolls (that fit inside one another) echoes through the novel, both in the Russian elements and the intersecting plots, though sometimes with a too heavy hand, and the interweaving of initially disparate lives was quite effective. I did find some elements grating, including the recounting of characters pasts and internal landscapes - while this add a layer of depth to the novel it slowed the action down considerably, and was not always necessary. For example:

She was distracted by the sight of a smear of chocolate on her white blouse. She supposed it was from the chocolate digestives she had breakfasted on. She imagined the little factory of cells that was her body taking in the chocolate and fat and flour (and probably carcinogenic additives) and sending them off on conveyor belts to different processing rooms. This industry, dedicated to the greater good that was Gloria, was run on co-operative, profit-sharing lines. In this model Gloria factory, the cells were a cheerful, happy workforce who sang along to Workers' Playtime from a tannoy radio. They were unionized and benefited from subsidized housing and healthcare and never became entangled in machinery and mangled to death like her brother Jonathan.
A vivid internal landscape, to be sure, but (especially as we already know about brother Jonathan and his fate) not exactly plot moving.
The mysterious something that happened to Martin in Russia some years earlier, involving a beautiful woman, is doled out through the novel and culminates in something less than a climax. This is not unlike the surprise "twist" at the end, that lands with a gentle thud rather than a frisson of surprise.

One of the elements of One Good Turn I particularly disliked was the periodic tendency of Atkinson not to articulate her characters' thoughts, while having other characters respond as though they had spoken. I have only a poor example, but it at least gives a sense of what I mean:

There was a woman being some kind of statue of Marie-Antoinette. Was that really a suitable job for a woman? For anyone, come to that? How would he feel if Marlee grew up and announced she wanted to do that for a living?
"Oh, I don't know," Louise Munroe said, "doing absolutely nothing all day, I could do with some of that."
It does make it a little difficult to tell what characters in company are having unexpressed thoughts, and it happens relatively regularly through the book.
All this makes it sound as though I didn't enjoy Atkinson's work, and that's not the case. One Good Thing gave me a sense of how good, and how intricate, her writing is when she's writing at her full potential. It's just that this isn't it. But when I get home I'll see if the library have got anything else by her, and have another punt. - Alex

Friday, September 19

The Truth About History - Reader's Digest

This collection of updated information refuting commonly accepted beliefs about history ranges across a variety of events and periods, from the real composition and nature of dodos (related to pigeons, they were not as large as portrayed, had stringy meat, and became extinct not from being hunted but because of depredation by introduced species like rats) to how creating giant stone sculptures destroyed Easter island, (the stones were maneuvered into place using wooden rollers - as competition to create more and better sculptures escalated, all the available trees were utilised, allowing top soil to escape and rendering the land unable to support life). Along the way the reader learns about Cleopatra (not that beautiful), the probable cause of the decline of the Roman empire (mosquitoes not lead), and why the Titanic sunk.
Each account ranges in length from a small paragraph (grouped under a broad heading, like "Diagnoses: a doctor's treatment of history" which contains entries on the probable real reason van Gogh severed his ear (Meniere's disease) to the cause of George Washington's death (acute epiglottitis).
I discovered new information about a huge range of events, from the real cause of the Salem witch trials (not ergot poisoning, as I'd believed, but due to geopolitical tensions in the town) to how the standard depiction of human evolution misportrays our ancestors (erect walking emerged considerably earlier). Though generally not extensive, each section appears well researched and would serve as a great jumping off point for further research if the reader's interest was triggered. The take home message is that history is not written in stone, a message one's never too old to be reminded of. - Alex

Thursday, September 18

Candy Girl - Diablo Cody

In this autobiography, subtitled A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, Cody (better known as the writer of the film Juno) honestly described the year when, on a whim and (somewhat) out of character, she stripped in a variety of Minnesotan clubs. A pale and pasty cubicle dweller working as a copy writer after relocating to Minnesota to live with a guy she met online (or, as she calls it, the World Wide Waste of Time), she saw a sigh for a club's amateur strip night and decided to participate. One of only two actual amateurs, she didn't even place, but something about the experience resonated and over the next year and a half or so Cody worked her way from club to club, culminating in pay-per-digit one-on-one shows for men ranging from closet homosexuals to shoe fetishists (but water sports and other "fluid ounce" variations were strictly forbidden. Unusually, for a memoir of this type (and, indeed, memoirs in general), Cody doesn't reveal anything about her life growing up until the final chapter, and that itself is more a recap than anything else. Contrary to popular conception, she wasn't sexually abused (I was a little uncomfortable with her quip that this was because she wasn't attractive enough) or otherwise mistreated.
Cody's voice is detached, witty and amusing enough to hide the fact that she doesn't reveal anything too unsurprising in her memoir. It's surely not news that stripping's harder work than it appears, that the house take a hefty cut, that there are required minimums, that the drink prices are inflated or that partaking of said drinks is mandatory. In the end, it's that detachment that robs the book of warmth and human interest that would otherwise have strengthened the story. There's very little about the other women, and almost all of that is superficial. That's a shame, because I sense they may have had a more interesting story than Cody did. All in all an interesting enough diversion, but I'm glad I read it in the shop and didn't both buying it. - Alex

Tuesday, September 16

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

NHS physician Goldacre writes a column for The Guardian about bad science, and maintains a website on the same topic. Bad Science the book, which could have been a collection of columns, is an impressive overview of the manifold ways in which the scientifically illiterate public are manipulated and mislead by skewed findings, poor evidence, flawed research, faulty data, media spin and government hype to believe any number of erroneous things.
In most cases Goldacre uses a well-known example to illustrate a greater overall problem, though some individual issues are targeted for themselves as well. For example, dissecting homeopathy not only explains why evidenced-based medicine is the way to go (and what stringent research involves) but also opens the way for a comprehensive and fascinating discussion about the placebo effect.
While he reserves his greatest ire for ridiculous ideas embraced by government (the most notable of these, to a non-Brit, being the
Brain Gym program introduced to a wide range of British schools), there's no shortage of other legitimate other targets.
Quite possibly my favourite chapter deals with Gillian McKeith, the self-styled nutritional guru and bowel obsessive who berates fat people on her popular TV show (and book of the same name) You Are What You Eat (as UK comic Dara O’Briain says, in that case she must mostly eat shrew). Goldacre examines her more dubious claims, like the ‘fact’ that eating plant foods high in chlorophyll will “oxygenate your blood” or that ‘skid mark stools’ are a “sign of dampness in your body” (believe me, you want your bowel to be damp – a dry bowel will perforate and haemorrhage in no time at all). He also dissects her apparently scholastic work (that references such peer-reviewed journals as Health Store News), and her credentials (which is how I discovered that the non-affiliated
Australasian College of Heath Sciences is in Portland, Oregon). Most powerfully, he articulates the indisputable but often ignored fact that the biggest contributors to life expectancy and morbidity (and how well you are as well as how long you live) are not whether or not you eat walnuts for selenium and goji berries for their antioxidant properties but your socioeconomic status, income and education level – “you are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. They chose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you chose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that’s why you’re healthy. You’re going to see eighty. You deserve it. Not like them.” Which reminds me strongly of Alain de Botton’s observation that the downside of living in a (perceived) meritocracy, where anyone can succeed as long as they just try hard enough, is that those who don’t succeed are therefore seen as lazy, stupid and/or deserving of their fate (see here for an interesting interview with him on the subject).
His chapters on communal reinforcement (where what peers think becomes reality to the extent that it can override what we see and know – think of the Emperor’s New Clothes) and the power of placebo are worth the price of admission in themselves. On top of that, though, are an admirable clarity of expression, transparent and logically constructed arguments, and a distressing revelation of how much of our perceived understanding of medical and scientific advances are dumbed down, distorted and misshaped by the media. As Goldacre points out, journalists see no need to dumb down other areas where there are technical and significant details that the uneducated layperson doesn’t understand (sport and finance, for example), that specialist rather than general journalists are expected to do the writing. But for science stories these rules change. I don’t know that I agree with his explanation of why this is – Goldacre, on several occasions, argues that arts students, intimidated at university by science they couldn’t and/or wouldn’t understand, now have the opportunity to turn the tables, and that they think it must be the same gobbledegook for everyone as it is for them. I do think that this idea that everyone has the right to an opinion and that all opinions are equally valid, and that if one ‘side’ of an argument is printed the other side have a right to reply, is oft times ridiculous. For example, there have been dozens of studies looking at a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. None of the valid studies (some of which, like the 7-year Danish study, have included thousands of children over an extended period of time) have shown any link at all. We know that vaccines protect children from devastating diseases, but parents still decide against vaccination based on a variety of reasons including the ‘other side’ of the MMR ‘debate’ – anecdotal information and fear. Goldacre says that, if he had a slogan for the book it would be “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” I think this will be my new slogan for a whole range of things, from the cause/s of autism to indigenous affairs, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, drug and alcohol addiction, weight loss and maintenance, health care, global finance... and science. – Alex

Monday, September 15

Trust Me: I'm a Junior Doctor – Max Pemberton

This somewhat fictionalised diary account of Pemberton’s first year of medical practice conveys a strong and clear picture of the unexpected aspects of being an intern, from struggling with crippling sleep deprivation and useless consultants to inserting IVs (a skill not taught to medical students) and certifying dead bodies. The impact of death is something Pemberton returns to, a topic that’s too often inadequately covered during medical school:
Because we never actually think about medicine not working and people dying, it comes as a bit of a shock when we’re faced with it... The subject of death isn’t just avoided at medical school, but on the wards too. Dying people are seen as a bit of an embarrassment to doctors –
they’re reminders that we’ve failed in our jobs, despite the fact that dying is an inevitable consequence of being alive. Because of this, doctors tend to avoid dying people like the plague... It’s a bit unfortunate that a profession that continually comes up against death hasn’t yet come to terms with it.

True, but rarely openly acknowledged.
There’s also an articulate rant about the hypocrisy of middle-class recreational drug users, incidental humour (like his reflection, after a failed attempt at a night out with colleagues, that “the only thing worse than missing an avant-garde all-female dance interpretation of -Coriolanus is, surely, not missing it”), and quite a lot of acclaim for the underappreciated role of nurses.
This last is certainly balanced by criticism and concern about nursing roles. He discusses at comparative length his concern about allowing nurses in hospitals to prescribe drugs without having gone to medical school – if the UK situation is anything like that in Australia, the drugs he refers to are standard doses of over-the-counter medications like aperients and paracetamol (acetaminophen, without codeine), and can’t be given more than once without medical review. He also talks about his decision not to sedate an elderly, demented woman despite the nurses’ strong requests that he shut her up so they could have a quiet night. For Pemberton this was a difficult decision because he felt pressure to prioritise helping out the nursing staff (both because they’d been helpful and supportive in the past, and for fear that this would change if he didn’t accommodate their wishes) over the perceived best interests of his patient. Unfortunately, what neither the author nor, apparently, the nursing staff articulated was the effect of hours of demented screaming on the other, often quite ill, patients.
There’s also a heavy sprinkling of reflection on how bureaucratic rules (like a four-hour Casualty wait policy), outsourcing services, and cost-cutting adversely affect staff and patients, including a brief but reasoned discussion about MRSA (and how it’s not the fault – or at least, not just the fault - of poor hand washing technique in NHS hospitals). Pemberton’s argument for how and why private insurance undermines the NHS (using a transportation analogy) is strong and compelling, though I am a little biased - I'm also an advocate for universal health care, which is why I don’t have private insurance and as a result pay the Medicare levy surplice. Back to the book – on outsourcing parking, Pemberton recalls that “I witnessed the unbelievable sight of a man who had just seen his wife die in A&E being threatened with having his car towed away because he didn’t have a [parking] ticket.”
But the strongest impression I came away from Trust Me with was exhaustion – from the hours (as Pemberton points out, changing the law on how many hours they can work has – as in the US – only means junior doctors don’t get paid for all the time they put in) to the lack of support and sheer weight of responsibility. His entry about his biggest medical mistake particularly stands out in this regard – Pemberton, distracted by being responsible for a patient following an unfamiliar but potentially serious procedure, missed a serious but not uncommon unrelated medical issue. The patient was fine, the registrar was unhappy about having been woken in the middle of the night, and Pemberton was distraught, but all was fine. Of course, what lingered was both the knowledge of how differently it could have ended, and the fact that it was all around the hospital by the next day. I was tempted to reach through the book and tell him that there’ll be bigger mistakes coming down the track.Less funny and painful than the classic tale of a medical graduates’ first year of practice (the immortal House of God”), Trust Me is also more honest, more political, more reflective and more true (and thirty years newer). - Alex

Sunday, September 14

Gravity – Tess Gerritsen

Although her marriage, to a man she still loves, is ending, something in Emma Watson’s life is going right – she’s finally going to participate in a NASA mission. Both she and Jack McCallum are physicians who’ve dedicated most of their lives to the pursuit of space travel, at least until a medical condition grounded Jack, and Emma’s excited that her team are finally scheduled to launch. When something goes dreadfully wrong on the international space station Emma’s selected to fly up early and, despite Jack’s misgivings, she agrees. By the time she arrives half the crew are dead or dying, from a mysterious contagion that has never been seen on earth before, and that potentially threatens the whole planet.
We meet a plethora of characters – from a deep-sea submersible diver in the opening scene through a marine biologist desperate to reveal the truth to two whole space station crews and the ground staff. The characters have a semblance of three dimensions, but on closer examination this is a trompe l’oeil crafted to disguise cardboard representations of characters. For example, no explanation is given for why Emma and Jack are at the divorce-paper-signing stage when both of them want to stay married. A better example might be Jared Profitt, a NASA White House Security council science adviser (I don’t know why “council” isn’t capitalised): we get a paragraph on how he doesn’t feel the heat of a Washington summer but is highly sensitive to cold, and the rest of the page covers his love of routine, from where he eats lunch to what he eats. “In many ways he was like those ancient ascetics, a man who ate only to fuel his body and dressed in suits only because it was required of him. A man for whom wealth meant nothing.” Why? We don’t know, but we did learn that his wife died – from pneumococcal pneumonia. Although, just one page later, we learn that he was unable to make it to an airport in time, as “necrotizing streptococcus has its own agenda, its own timetable for killing.”
Well, no. Streptococcus, necrotizing or not), is a microbe and thus has no agenda or timetable. This overwriting (do we really need both of these?) is typical of the prose, and mildly annoying. In another place, for example, a microbiologist is explaining to Jack (who is a physician, a researcher and a former NASA trainee astronaut) that microscopic means “not visible to the naked eye.” Thanks for that. The tautological descriptions, though, are not as annoying, however, as the sloppiness – was it pneumonia or a strep infection? Because they’re different bugs, and although she might have got one as a result of being immunocompromised by the other, either one killed her or they both did, and in either case you can’t list one in one place and another on the following page. If it doesn’t matter then don’t go in to detail and if it does matter get the detail right.
According to Tami Hoag (on the back blurb) Gravity is “deep, dark and very disturbing.” I, on the other hand, found it somewhat formulaic, diverting enough, but really predictable. All the check list elements are present – strong female protagonist in peril; a couple drifting apart but still in love; a plucky independent company struggling against the might of large corporations; the scientist who can’t face success and self-destructs; the Brit whose icy demeanour hides a passionate side; an isolated, mysterious scientist with a tragic past; a brave individual prepared to sacrifice herself for the greater good; scientists committed to the pursuit of knowledge and international cooperation; covert government agencies with hidden agendas and nondisclosure policies; technical scientific language to demonstrate the author’s commitment to research; unnecessary medical detail (ditto); a mysterious killer microorganism, loosed by science tampering with the unknown; an unstoppable highly contagious plague that culminates in an agonising and bloody death...
There were certainly a couple of interesting things (I’d never previously thought about the fact that, with no gravity to alert you, in microgravity if you drift off you stay asleep), but all in all this was disappointing and uninspired. – Alex

Extreme Ironing – Phil Shaw

This is for Lynn, devotee of the sport. For those of you unaware of EI, it began in Leicester just over a decade ago. Ironists combine “the thrills of outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt... in dangerous or unusual locations,” and Extreme Ironing describes how it came about, how it took off, and where EI is going from here.
The book is divided into four sections, starting with an introduction, which includes how EI began, how to get started, and technical questions about iron and fabric selection and the importance of a good board.
Part two describes variations of the sport, along with ratings of popularity and difficulty level - my favourites are the water-styles, from under water and rapids ironing to under ice, but other options include forest, urban, under ground, rocky and free styles. The third section is essentially a photo gallery of prominent ironists in this fledgling sport, categorised by nationality (I’m glad to see Australia relatively well represented), before concluding with coverage of the world championships (up to 2003). Illustrated with photos of ironists in a variety of locations, it’s everything the interested newcomer could want. – Alex

Saturday, September 13

Queen Mum – Kate Long

Juno and her half-French husband Manny fit into their Chester neighbourhood perfectly – Juno is able to effortlessly whip up a gourmet meal for twenty at no notice, has two accomplished teenage daughters, volunteers at an elderly care centre, and always knows what’s right, from etiquette to paint colours, while Manny specialises in art appreciation and surrealist film.
Her transplanted neighbour and friend Ally is surprised when Juno tells her that she’s applied to enter the reality TV series Queen Mum – it will not only mean another woman living in her house for a fortnight but Juno will have to live with another family. For all that Juno says it’ll be an ‘interesting cultural exchange,’ the show generally contrasts extremes, and Juno may not be comfortable with the results.
As Ally, recovering from the death of one of her sons and comparing her ramshackle life and unsteady marriage with the perfect life of Juno, the house swap and its aftermath allow her to reassess where she is, where she’s been, and where she’s going. And, in the process, allows Ally to appreciate what she has.
Long has done a magnificent job of portraying not only Ally and her recovering family but of Juno, and the way Ally’s – and the reader’s – perceptions of Juno shift during the novel is masterful. The first person narration is interspersed with transcripts from the program that allow us to see how the experience of swapping lives affects not only Juno but, more interestingly, Manny, and illuminates the patched-over holes in Juno’s perfect family façade. The casual snobbery of Juno is particularly well written.
The sections where Juno’s younger daughter, Sophie, rebels against her controlling mother strongly resonated with me, even though my adolescence is long behind me. When Ally tells a distraught Juno that, when she was a teen, talking to her mother “was as if I couldn’t help myself, like being possessed. I can remember the sensation exactly, opening my mouth and horrible words coming out that weren’t mine… I was foul.”
Long also weaves through Ally’s struggle with herself, and with her husband and son, regarding her over-protectiveness, guilt and grief over the death of her younger son, and the echoes tragic loss has on the surviving family. In fact, there are many elements and sub-plots – female relationships (mother-daughter, between sisters, and female friendships), the natures of marriage, whether one ought to prioritise substance or appearance, and what things in life really matter.
I enjoy watching the American version of Wife Swap from time to time, for the very reason that I thought I’d enjoy Queen Mum – both women, and both families, wind up with a better appreciation of what they have, and the simultaneous knowledge that some things taken for granted can be reviewed and rotated a little. That element was less present in Queen Mum than I expected, but this was compensated for by the unexpected rich and layered plot. Quite good – Alex

Friday, September 12

Heather Graham: Kiss of Darkness

Teenagers looking for thrills get more than they bargained for when an exclusive party turns out to be a vampire feast and they are on the menu. Many escape but some die-and they don’t stay dead.
A psychologist (who runs a boarding house on the side, oh and designs original clothes) reluctantly teams up with her new tenant, a university lecturer in ancient cults, to hunt down the master vampire behind the parties.
But nobody is who they seem to be and old wounds must be opened before they can be healed, the master defeated and long lost lovers reunited.
I have read a couple of Heather Graham’s works and found them to be reasonably entertaining but this is like nothing of hers I have read before. This story is, quite simply, confused. It doesn’t know whether it is a paranormal romance, a suspense, a mystery or an urban fantasy so it tries to be all four and fails dismally.
It starts out reasonably enough, even though the heroine does seem to have a few too many strings to her bow, but about a third of the way through the story changes direction. It goes from being a romantic suspense with paranormal elements set firmly in the world as we know it to being a bizarre fantasy where suddenly the heroine and her friends are all vampire hunters of one sort or another before it slides into truly weird where the heroine is, in fact, a very old vampire and the hero an equally old warrior sworn to kill her and all her type and the antagonist an ancient foe of both.
No effort is made to explain the un-foreshadowed changes in direction, in fact, the plot was so disjointed I felt as if I had put the book down half way through then picked up a different story and read its second half by mistake. This feeling was compounded by the very sketchy character development which left me with the distinct impression of being dumped in the middle of a series. *
It was difficult to overlook fundamental inconsistencies like the heroine stating that she runs her psychology practice out of her home but then seeing clients in her office down town. I could have managed that if the rest of the book made any sense. But it didn’t. Sadly even the setting seemed confused. Two Scottish ancients end up in Rumania, for some reason the party there could not have taken place in New Orleans where the bulk of the novel is set, before finally heading back to their ancestral home for the final showdown. It left me wondering what the point in all the travel was.
Heather Graham does what she does (mildly spooky romantic suspense) well. I don’t know why she went off the rails so badly with this book.
I like this author but Kiss of Darkness left me thinking WTF?-Lynn

*I have since discovered that many of the secondary characters have been protagonists in novels written by Graham’s paranormal writing alter ego Shannon Drake. Why it was decided not to publish this under that pseudonym I don’t know. I now feel not only disappointed in the quality of this work but disgruntled that nothing on the cover of this book, or inside it, alerts the reader to the fact that it is series related.
It will be a while before I read anything by Drake or Graham again, if I ever do-Lynn.

Thursday, September 11

The Mammoth Book of Gay Erotica – Lawrence Schimel (ed)

Published in 1998, Gay Erotica gathers short stories from the previous fifteen years, with the intention of incorporating a broad cross section of the genre – restricted only to contemporary and living male authors, across a variety of nationalities (stories come from the UK, Canada and Australia, as well as the US), the editor aimed for “a celebration of gay men and gay sex, in all its complexity – from the delights of the flesh to anxiety about disease, from ephemeral anonymous encounters to long-term relationships. But each is unquestionably and unapologetically the story of desires between men.”
A large number of women enjoy reading gay porn or erotica (“a distinction based on marketing rather than content or quality, per se”), and I am one. I know from talking with gay male friends that, though there’s overlap, different audiences look for different things. I won’t go in to what it is I look for, except to say that I didn’t find it in this collection.
There have been significant changes in the gay community over the past decade, a fact that is true even though the phrase “gay community” makes it sound as though there’s a homogenous clump of gay men, which is of course not the case. With more, cheaper and better antiretroviral drugs, HIV/AIDS is more often a chronic disease than the imminent death sentence it once was, and the spectre of death less frequently haunts gay men. Ten years ago the effect of HIV drugs was beginning to be felt, but for many men too many friends and lovers had already died, and it’s wholly understandable that this is present in the collection, that those relationships be honoured, and the impact of the disease be acknowledged. Indeed, the earliest story was first published in 1982, before most of the world, including the medical community, had even heard about the disease.
However, death and dying aren’t erotic, or at least not to an appreciably large audience. When I’m reading erotica I’m more interested in being titillated than I am in literature, a distinction not shared by many of the authors. I’m also not thrilled about the heavy drinking and sustained drug use that is frequently present in the collection; I know it accurately reflects reality, but I’m not reading the collection to enhance my understanding of the lived experience of gay life at the turn of the century.
All of that’s fine – no collection will be all things to all readers, and the disinterested can skip over the bits that don’t appeal to them. But I was actively distressed by the inclusion by no fewer than three authors of strong and frequent references to the protagonists’ mothers. Take, for example, “John,” by G Winston James, where the narrative of a man leaving his therapist’s office and seeking anonymous sex in a gay porn theatre is interrupted frequently by flashbacks of his abusive mother, a past lover, and other unidentified characters. It might be interesting in a psychological portrait but I found it the antithesis of erotic. - Alex

Monday, September 8

Touch the Dark – Karen Chance

Cassie Palmer’s not your usual twenty-something – she’s clairvoyant, can talk to ghosts, and was raised by vampires. Well, until she discovered, when she was fourteen, that the vamp who raised her had arranged for her parents to be killed. Since then she’s been on her own. That is until the day she came back to the office after lunch to discover a copy of her own obituary on her computer. Now Cassie’s on the run, for the second time, and it’s not just vampires after her.
Lynn gave me this book, and I was very much hoping she’d reviewed, as I can’t remember what she’d thought of it. Sadly this must have been before we began the blog (I'm woefully behind in my reading) and so I'm on my own.
Sorry if you loved it Lynn – I hated Touch the Dark and finished it only because of the dearth of English-language books in Opatija and Rijeka (there may be an English-language bookshop, I don’t want to make any assumptions, but I couldn’t find it). I did read it in a more disjointed fashion than usual, spread over a few days instead of oer the course of a few hours, but as this is the way most people read it shouldn’t have presented a problem.
I didn’t care about the character, her talents or her mission; I found the plot garbled, contradictory, unnecessarily complicated, and consisting primarily of loosely connected fight scenes and chunks of exposition that make me unsure whether this was part of a series (“previously, on Touch”) or scene setting, but clumsy either way. Clearly, in Chance’s universe, vampire politics are complex, hierarchical and intertwined; some authors can integrate this into the text as part of the background. Chance can’t. All the in-fighting, betrayal, flipping between he present and the past (in some cases several centuries back), Black and White Circles, were-rats, sybils, faries and satyrs were too much.
There were a couple of amusing notes, like the Pythia (a kind of Queen of the Psychic Seers) telling Cassie that the vampires believe a new Pythia can not be a virgin because, tired of enforced virginity, a Pythia in ancient Greece had a ‘vision’ that sexual experience made for stronger seers. Now I think of it, that was really the only amusing note.According to the cover rave, Kelley Armstrong hopes there’s a sequel. There probably will be, but I'm not reading it. - Alex

America Unchained - Dave Gorman

Dave Gorman is well known, at least among oddballs like me, for his two previous books based on carrying through with apparently ridiculous ideas to surprising success. In Are Your Dave Gorrman? he tried to meet all the other people named Dave Gorman, but no Davids etc; in Googlewhack Adventure, he created a Googlewhack (put two dictionary-approved words into Google - if you only get one hit you've created a Googlewhack) and tried to create a ten person Googlewhack chain by visiting the creator of the first site , getting them to create a googlewhack and so on. In America Unchained Gorman, scarred by a six week book tour through America at its most commercial, bland and undifferentiated (chain hotels and everything the same wherever he went), wonders if it would be possible to travel across the US avoiding chain hotels, petrol and food. For Gorman to think is to do: he sets off to try just that, accompanied by a one-woman film crew.
As with his other works, Unchained is amusing, illuminating, surprising and inspiring. It also made me realise just how structured my life is and how few risks I take - possibly not the best discovery when I'm in Opatija* rather than, say, Melbourne. Fortunately, being prosaic and unspontaneous, this is unlikely to translate into me ditching my plans and backpacking into the wilds of Croatia.
I think my favourite part of the book is the section on Salt Lake City and Gorman's discovery of the Church of LDS. One tends to assume that other people also have one's own general knowledge, so discovering he didn't already know about a religion I've long been fascinated by made interesting reading. Suspecting that the creation of the group and its underlying precepts might be a litte... unorthodox, Gorman contacts a vicar friend, who's generally tolerant and accepting of differing faiths. his response to Gorman's enquiry about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka Mormons) is worth the price of the book, even if you don't buy it as part of a special Borders offer at the airport. - Alex

*The fact that I'm writing this from Opatija may make it sound as though I'm more daring that I claim, but its for a conference, everything's very civilized, and the riskiest, most spontaneous thing I've done here is either catch the scary bus to Rijeka (not that scary) or deecide at the last minute where to have dinner. And I'm here with friends so I'm not even adventuring on my own

Sunday, September 7

Sheepfarmer's Daughter - Elizabeth Moon

Paksenarrion Dorthansdottir told her father she didn't want to marry but he promised a dowry to a the family of a neighbouring farmer nonetheless. Determined to do more with her life, the seventeen-year-old instead packs a bag and heads 30 miles over the hill to a militia recruiting camp. Her cousin, a soldier, had told her to be selective about which outfit she joined, and the Dike's party has a reputation of fairness and good treatment. Through her journey from green recruit to respected team leader, Paks learns about integrity, herself, and the art of war.
I've thoroughly enjoyed several of Moon's stand-alone titles and her short series, so I had high hopes for the first in the Deed of Paksenarrion series. It was by no means bad, and in parts involving, but I failed to engage with the novel in any deep or interesting way. The characters were relatively superficial (Paks, for example, gives no thought in the book, which spans at least two years, to her family back home, except for her determination to repay the dowry price to her father). Characters are introduced then killed, without significantly affecting her, and without moving the plot forward (unless this strategy is part of a sub-text on the unacknowledged loses soldiers experience every day); the sole exception to this is the first death, of a dear friend, but it's dealt with and we move on. Even the deaths of two companions who, together with Paks, endure extreme conditions during an urgent quest, have no resonance. I found the fight scenes unexpected, chaotic (in the sense of being poorly described rather than accurately reflecting the chaos of battle) and random - I'd be meandering along and suddenly we're in the middle of a skirmish and then... it's over and we're back to meandering.
Moon has included a variety of supernatural creatures (elves, gnomes and trolls= and magic healers, but this isn't integrated into the plot or explored in even a cursory way, making their introduction as random as the fight scenes. Perhaps later installments draw on these elements more heavily, but at 506 pages I think there was room for some context in the introductory book.
Worst of all is the fact that there was no real world building and, in retrospect, that may be from where all my dissatisfaction stems. I never got a sense of how the world came to be, how the disparate parts fitted together, why there was so much fighting and lawlessness, what all the fighting was about, the geography (making all the sections where characters go from A to B even more pointless)... all the things that more accomplished writers and/or polished novels in the genre manages to seamlessly weave into the text. Less accomplished authors even lumpenly chunk this kind of information about the place in big, unwieldy info dumps, but at least the reader has a context in which to place the action of the novel.
I didn't realise until writing this review how gaping a hole this left, but now I've identified it I have to say that this novel was less than the fine-for-what-it-is rating I initially gave, and is downgraded to an eh. - Alex

Saturday, September 6

Moab is My Washpot - Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry's fiction is like the man himself, at least as he appears to the casual-but-interested observer - wry, amusing, quintessentially English, somewhat self-conscious, unquestionably self-deprecating and disturbingly intelligent. This, the autobiography of his first two decades, is no different, though it's also illuminating, a little distressing, and surprisingly honest.
In Moab (a title I'd love to be able to explain without recoursing to Wikipedia, but my - expensive enough - education clearly left gaps of erudition filled by Fry's upbringing), he details his childhood, the lack of trauma of being sent off to boarding school as a young child, his long-held and deeply-rooted fears and anxieties, the shock of secondary school, his growing realisation that he was gay, and how (though not so much why) he went off the rails entirely and disappeared with a stolen credit card.
Sprinkled through the autobiography are (mostly) relevant and (always) interesting essays on a variety of topics, including a dispelling of the strongly held belief that gay sex is both unnatural and all about buggery, an explanation of why it's not distressing to go off to boarding school when it's the norm for everyone your know, and why our imperfections (like his broken nose) are important. He also describes the cockiness of intelligent youth (and my vocabulary is now enriched with the words pleonasm, as well as being replenished with the known-but-lost sesquepedilianism and prolix), the inculcation of U and non-U behaviour (including the appropriate pronunciation of such words as Monday and interesting, and the eschewment of serviette and mirror).
It's thanks to Moab that I now know Alexander Graham Bell once said "I do not think I am exaggerating the possibilities of this invention when I tell your that it is my firm belief that one day there will be a telephone in every major town in America."
Most of all, Fry beautifully and exquisitely captures the torment and tortures of childhood, from those that reverberate throughout our adulthoods to those that are wholly forgotten until we're reminded of them years later. Like Fry I wrote letters to myself to be opened by my older self, complete with stern admonishments that were embarrassing in retrospect, and pilfered petty cash from my parents (though never whole credit cards from hosts when I was a house guest). I could never write as well as Fry, but if I could this is what I'd want to write. - Alex

Friday, September 5

To Cut a Long Story Short - Jeffrey Archer

Archer is best known for his earliest work (Kane and Abel was a deserved best seller) and for his imprisonment on perjury charges. This is his third collection of short stories, which combine fiction and based on true events' (presumably criminal and other cases from his career as a lawyer. In all the stories Archer utilises the form best known by the late Roald Dahl - with a twist in the tale.
Well, that's the theory at any rate. However, in Long Story I found nary an unexpected twist to be found. Without exception the stories were plodding, leaden, unengaging and - worst of all - predictable. From the first taste (the well worn tale of a man who sees Death at a bazaar and tries to escape by running to another town) to the excruciatingly telegraphed "The Grass is Always Greener" (where each person, from the homeless man who sleeps outside a bank to the president of the bank, thinks the person above them has a more carefree life than they), there wasn't a surprise to be found. I did quite like "The Endgame", where a wealthy widower decides to pretend his fortune's been lost in order to test the loyalties of those closest to him, but even then the end came as no shock.
If you want to see what all the fuss was about, read Kane and Abel or one of his earlier collections. Better yet, turn to Dahl's collections or (for delicious wit) go further back and sample the divine Saki. - Alex