Friday, October 31

1988 – Andrew McGahan

It’s Australia’s bicentennial year, Brisbane’s hosting the international expo, and Gordon’s life is going nowhere. He’s written a novel that went nowhere, is crap at sex and filled with inadequacy at his lack of prowess, works in a bottle shop, and rents a room in a house otherwise filled with students from China. When Wayne, a fledgling artist supported by his parents, mentions a short-term post in the Territory with the Weather Bureau it seems like a great idea – six months away from everything, to focus on writing and to sort himself out. But nothing goes as planned – the weather station post only needs one person to take three hourly round the clock readings, the accommodation’s crap, and the isolation gets to them both.
A prequel to McGahan’s acclaimed (and not yet read by me) first novel Praise, 1988 is both exhausting and inert – nothing happens, either in the plot or to Gordon. He and Wayne coexist, and grow to hate one another in a desultory fashion; they work their way through the weed, smokes and vast quantities of grog; neither achieves either of their creative goals; and the whole experiences is coloured by sexual inadequacy and related angst, apathy and inertia.
The most interesting thing is the very end, when Gordon meets a barmaid and I sensed a beginning – which makes sense now that I see on the back jacket that it’s a prequel, but at the time I read it (about fifteen minutes ago) seemed like it was where the story should have started. Because if this, and because I loved Underground, the first McGahan novel I read, and quite enjoyed Last Drinks, I’m going to give Praise a bash. Watch this space. - Alex

Thursday, October 30

Waiting: True Confessions of a Waitress – Debra Ginsberg

After twenty years as a waitress, Ginsberg reflects on the experience, the restaurants she’s worked at and colleagues she’s worked alongside, and the perceptions the public have, based on both her experience with diners and on the way waitresses are portrayed in films and on television.
Coming from a country where tipping isn’t mandatory (and, depending on where you’re eating, often not expected), the section on wages was a little distressing, but I have the same reaction almost every time I read about US conditions of minimum wage workers. I’m sure that, along with most diners who haven’t worked in the industry, there are many aspects that I’m unaware of, but for the most part I found myself contrasting the (what seems to be unnecessarily complex) US system of bus boys and hostesses and sommeliers with the (at least superficially) streamlined Australian experience, where one person does everything. Somehow I have a feeling that wasn’t what Ginsberg was aiming at.
There are no surprises here, and nothing I found particularly amusing or interesting. It wasn’t uninteresting, and I certainly finished it, but if I was using one word to describe Waiting it would be “inoffensive”. - Alex

Wednesday, October 29

The Boy Who Reversed Himself - William Sleator

Some weird things are happening around Laura - a note written backward, appeared in her (locked) locker, clearly written by someone who knows her very well. Really well - she hadn't told anyone she wanted to be a doctor. Then the assignment she left at home also appeared in her (locked) locker, reversed. Omar, the strange kid who moved in with Mr Campanelli next door, is hanging around, and Laura's worried Pete, the guy she likes, will think she's weird, too. But though Omar has odd gaps in his knowledge (who never heard of chocolate chip cookies?), he knows some interesting things too. And when Laura pushes him to reveal his secret, a whole new dimension opens up for her - one that changes her perceptions of both boys and that threatens not only her life but that of all humanity.
Sleator writes really good teen FSF, with a strong grounding in real science. His characterisation is stunning, but he gets top marks for the incorporation of multidimensional maths theory. Incorporation isn't right, really - this is at the core of the novel, and Sleator not only explains a stunningly difficult concept (fourth dimensionality, with not only left/right and up/down but ana/kata directions) but goes one step beyond and imagines what creatures of that reality would think of ours. And then he goes a step beyond that. All without losing readability, characterisation or credibility. Full marks. - Alex

Tuesday, October 28

Say When – Elizabeth Berg

Griffin knew that Ellen was seeing something, knew as he watched her prepare herself more elaborately for her auto mechanics course every week, but it still comes as an enormous shock when his wife tells him she wants a divorce. Okay, their marriage had problems, but what marriage doesn’t, and he was mostly happy. If it were just him affected maybe things would be different, but he’s not going to ignore the effect of this on their daughter, and so Griffin decides he won’t make things easy for Ellen – if she wants out of the marriage, she’ll have to be the one to move out of the family home, and he’s not going to cede custody.
As the months pass, Griffin refects on the relationship he has with Ellen, and with their daughter Zoe – on the history of their marriage and the parts they both played:
Griffin had his own relationship with [their parakeet] that was in no way inferior to the one Ellen had. It was just different. Did she ever think of that, that things experienced in ways different from hers were equally valuable?
That the way he chose to love her was, in fact, loving her, that the face of love depended on the person giving it? Couldn’t she see that the difficulty came not from her Griffin withholding but hr unwillingness to receive? But he would not confront her with this. Even a he tried to convince himself that it was true, he was aware of his own self-deception. He admitted, now, if only to himself, his catalogue of intentional slights, his moments of soft cruelty, his awareness of complicity in creating a relationship that could not work.
This is a story about people, love, self-awareness and growth. Berg articulates the divide between men and women, as well as the things that unite them, and despite the topic the novel is gentle and embracing. It’s also exceptionally well written and satisfying. - Alex

Monday, October 27

Shooter - Walter Dean Myers

In the aftermath of another high school shooting, investigators try to determine what caused it, and if this could have been predicted ahead of time. So far fairly well trodden ground, but Myers' versions stands out both because of his fine characterisation and the format of the novel, which is told solely through supportive documentation - interviews by a variety of investigators (local, federal and psychological) with the shooter's two closest friends, media coverage, the investigation findings, and the shooter's diary for the months leading up to the event. Not only does this layer the plot, giving the reader different perspectives of the same events, but the details of the event are concealed until quite late, increasing interest and suspense.
That Myers is able to so (apparently effortlessly) convey the personalities of both the interviewers and the teens (including the troubles killer) is a testament to his skill as a writer. I became engaged with the novel from the opening page, identifying with the kids, remembering my own emotions (particularly toward my partents) as though it were yesterday, and resenting the adults - from the pugnacious FBI agent to the blind parents (revealed solely through their children's perceptions) and wilfully negligent school officials. Then, when the interviewers' own opinion were revealed I was surprised by how quickly I flipped positions... I suspect I'm far less a critical thinker than I like to think.
Like many others writing about this topic, both in fiction and non-fiction, Myers covers the contributions of bullying and a divisive school environment, parental expectation and disapproval, peer pressure and incoherent frustration, and the media. That he is able to do so in a fresh and compelling way, keeping the level of engagement high even when outcome is a foregone conclusion, is a triumph. - Alex

Sunday, October 26

13 Bullets - David Wellington

In 1983 Special Agent Jameson Arkeley was the sole survivor of a blitz that ended in the death of the last vampire in the US. Twenty years later, during what starts out as a routine sobriety check stop, Pennsylvania State Trooper Laura Caxton discovers that vampires aren't quite as dead as she thought - teaming up with the phlegmatic and ruthless Arkeley, Caxton gets an education in the reality of vampire behaviour she would have been happier to miss, an education that leaves no aspect of her life unchanged.
13 Bullets is wholly unexpected, a vampire novel that really is diferent from the rest. While he obeys many of the conventions of the genre, in Wellington's world vampires are not seductive or charming, handsome or sexy. They're fast, frightening, cunning and evil. The pace of the novel is frenetic, the tension finely judged, and I kept telling myself I'd stop reading after just one chapter but finished the whole thing in only a few hours. Wellington also has a great voice, and has combined what could have been a somewhat standard story with literary writing, and some of his twists genuinely took me by surprise.
I saw his zombie trilogy at Heathrow last year but didn't realise it was the same author until I read the back blurb. And now I need to check out not only that but his other work, too. Watch this space - Alex

Saturday, October 25

Flesh and Bone – Jefferson Bass

Body Farm creator Dr Bill Brockton has been given an interesting crime scene to recreate – the body of man was found tied to a tree, in full drag, significantly decomposed and predatised from the knees down but barely touched from the chest up. More pressing, though, is the furore sparked when he embarrassed a religious student in class – the University has been picketed by ‘intelligent design’ proponents calling for his suspension. Had the debate been germane to the class subject matter the University would be unambiguously able to defend him, but it wasn’t and the legal team are conflicted.
When Brockton discovers his crime scene appallingly contaminated – the experimental body has been lewdly strapped to the body of someone he’s close to – none of this seems important. Still reeling from the loss, and the shock of discovery, Brockton can not believe it when he’s the main suspect. Abandoned by his university and the object of suspicion to almost all his friends, Brockton cannot even turn to his son Jeff, as his grandsons are afraid of him. In desperation Brockton does something he never expected to do – he hires the city’s least reputable lawyer to represent him. Although personally repelled by the clearly guilty clientele Burt DeVreiss has got off previously, Brockton sees no other choice.
As in Carved in Bone, this second in the series combines real forensic detail with a fast-paced, involving plot and strong characterisation. It’s clear that this authorial partnership combines the best of both men – the clinical detail rings true but isn’t overly detailed, and is usually well integrated into the plot, and maintains readability in a way expository writers would do well to emulate. While the focus is on plot over character development, the primary characters are well rounded, and Brockton is particularly nuanced.
There are deft touches of humour (when his assistant Miranda pulls out a pocket knife and Brockton asks “What is that, a six-inch blade?” Miranda relies with a snort “Do men really believe that’s what six inches looks like? Try three and a half”), and I like Brockton’s incredulous take, which I suspect is also Bass’s, on forensic dramas like CSI. He also has a similar disdain as me for semi-literate signage, exemplified in his commentary on the picket:
“BROCKTON MONKEY’S WITH GODS CREATION, read a few others, combining dubious theology with appalling apostrophe usage.”
One of the elements I particularly enjoyed was the incidental information I picked up. Although I’ve never had any interest in visiting Tennessee to date, the aquarium in Chattanooga sounds amazing, and I want to visit it, even though I’d never heard of it before this. Although I knew Inherit the Wind, the film about the Scopes trial, was a Hollywood dramatisation, I had no idea the trial itself was so contrived and choreographed.
There is a strong sense of genuine frustration and anger about the cult of ‘intelligent design,’ and Bill Bass has included some exceptionally strong facts supporting not only evolution in the abstract but evolution as an active, current force. Not just design flaws in the human body (aspects extending beyond the well-used ‘what’s the point of an appendix is we were created this way?’) but information about the changing dimensions (height as well as weight) of Western humans in the last quarter century, the increased prevalence of caesarian births (beyond the convenience factor) and the growing need for orthodonture (due to jaw size evolving more quickly than tooth number). These are topics I’m already interested in, but the writers integrate the facts so seamlessly into the plot that I suspect readers who don’t already have an interest won’t feel bashed over the head by the information.
Flesh and Bone is smart, literate and aware forensic crime fiction that knocks the socks of more well established writers at their best. - Alex

The Bill Brockton series:
Carved in Bone
Flesh and Bone
The Devil’s Bones
Bones of Betrayal
The Bone Yard
The Bone Thief

Friday, October 24

Range of Motion - Elizabeth Berg

Lainey simply can't believe that her husband could be taken from her by a freak accident. Yet there he is, in an impenetrable coma after being knocked out by a falling chunk of ice. Despite everyone's belief that she should accept he'll never recover, Lainey knows that if she can just make a connection, Jay will come back to her. Even after he's transferred to a nursing home, and despite the open scorn of many of the nursing staff, Lainey dresses Jay in familiar clothes, brings in his favourite foods, encourages her young daughters to visit, plays music, talks to him as though he never left his life, and performs the vital range of motion exercises that keep his limbs flexible for when he resumes his life. And through it all she rehearses how she'll tell the story of his recovery: "I turned an afternoon movie on his television. Black and white. Bette Davis. I started to tell his to pay attention, this was a good part, and he woke up. That's all. that's it. You just have to wait. You just have to believe."
But real life goes on despite her. Younger daughter Amy's started wetting the bed, older daughter Sarah's becoming combative and hostile, and Lainey's closest friend and neighbour, good hearted but plain Alice has issues of her own. And while they're something of a comfort, the visions Lainey has of the woman who used to live in their house are becoming clearer by the day, and when Evie starts talking to her Lainey feels alarmed as well as reassured.
The beauty of Berg's writing is its truth. When Lainey notes that her daughter "is turning into herself in these little ways. She is like stepping into a garden every day, when you know something is new, different from the day before" it so perfectly captures the infinitesimal but constant change of children that it rings. She observes the little moments and minute pleasures (accused of being "the kind of person who gets happy if the leftovers fit exactly into the Tupperware container," Lainey admits that she "get[s] a little charge when everything fits") as much as the devastation and ecstasy of the big things.
I was a little uncomfortable with Lainey's confidence in the face of Jay's diagnosis, and particularly wary of the novel giving false hope to the unfortunate families for whom an awakening will never come. I was also concerned about the other ending, of Lainey losing her hope and faith, of the extinguishing of her light. Though Range of Motion doesn't always go where I expected, and was a delight, I am still a little concerned about laypeople trusting more in hope than medical prognosis. On the other hand, I've seen enough doctors make enough unmet dire predictions to know that you never know, and that's part of what's at the heart of this very good novel. - Alex

Thursday, October 23

The Year of Pleasures - Elizabeth Berg

Betta Nolan knew on their second date that John was the man for her, and they had no need of anyone else until his far too early death. Now bereft and widowed, Betta honours John, and their relationship, by keeping her promise - she sells the Boston home they created, scatters (most of) his ashes, and drives until she finds a small town that feels like somewhere she can settle, and perhaps even live again. This is quite possibly the best depiction of grief and grieving I've read - not just the way it feels physically and intellectually, ("I saw that everything I'd ever imagined about what it would feel like when was pale. Was wrong. Was the shadow and not the mountain"), but the imposition of other people's ideas about your grief and how long you should mourn, reflections on your prior insensitivity ("How cruel we'd been... deciding how someone else should repair the rents in her own heart"), and the slow return of life.
Betta is an intriguing character, and Berg surrounds her with a village full of three dimensional people, from the bitter old woman she buys a house from to the new friends she makes and the old friendships she renews. The writing is spare but lyric, painting satisfying pictured without an unnecessary word. I came away from The Year of Pleasures replete, hopeful and happy with the resilience of the human spirit. - Alex

Wednesday, October 22

The Ten Best Days of My Life - Adena Halpern

Alexandra Dorenfield is taken aback to find herself in heaven - at twenty-nine she expected to have a little longer to get her act together. But she can't complain - not only has she been reunited with her beloved grandparents, she has the house of her dreams (complete with a walk-in wardrobe of this season's must have designer clothes, with shoes to match) and while she was in the queue to the pearly gates she met the perfect man. The only hiccup is that the Powers That Be aren't convinced Alex deserves to be on the seventh plane, which is reserved for people who did an exemplary job during their lives - Alex died a little too early to be sure which path her life would've taken, and maybe she ought to be downgraded a plane or two. To help aid the decision, Alex must write about the ten best days of her life - the days she chooses, and her reasons for doing so, will influence where she spends the rest of eternity.
I have to say I was more than a little uncomfortable with the notion of heaven as a continuation of rampant materialism, where everything you desire comes to you - without any effort or deprivation, and Alex herself didn't endear herself to me. However, the story itself - once I moved past this - is funny, the days she chooses are certainly illuminating, and although the ending's a foregone conclusion, this was a light enough read, well-suited for an escapist, fluffy little holiday. - Alex

Tuesday, October 21

Questionable Remains - Beverly Connor

Forensic archaeologist/bone analyst Lindsay Chamberlain knew the family of Denny Ferguson would be unhappy her testimony swung the case against him, though being verbally attacked by his co-council was a little unexpected. She didn't realise that testifying in the murder trial could imperil her own life. But when Lindsay starts having brushes with death while on an unrelated investigation, it soon becomes evident that someone has it in for Lindsay, and the Ferguson family are the only ones with a reason. Aren't they?
Questionable Remains is in many ways a better novel than its predecessor, A Rumor of Bones - the pace is brisker, the plot more convoluted (yet more believable), and the dialogue less stilted. Interspersed with the main narrative is an italicised account flashback of events some two hundred years ago, when the Spanish conquistadors and the Native Americans where sometimes able to live peacefully together.
Lindsay is still a little Too Dumb To Live - despite knowing someone's been in her hotel room (her things have been disturbed and a lamp was, unaccountably, moved from one part of the room to another), and having previously been drugged and dragged off, she still blithely meanders trustingly about. Which, unsurprisingly, lands her trapped and fighting for her life, with only her pluck and ingenuity, and the spirits of those long dead, to save her.
We have a few questions answered, including the status of Derrick (he's a "special friend... my very best friend"), and the door is opened to another book when we learn that Lindsay has an estranged brother. I think, though, that I'll pass on it. - Alex

Monday, October 20

Cara Lockwood: Wuthering High

A spoiled teenager is sent off to a boarding school for delinquents. Gothic, boring and strict the isolated campus and its shady student body is exactly what she expects from a reform school. But she soon learns all is not as it seems. Life on campus bares an uncanny resemblance to the plot lines of the tragic novels the students are studying. Vampires, insane pyromaniacs and obsessive lovers all appear to be par for the course. And she is not the first one to notice it.
The ghost of a past student, who disappeared in the woods during an unsuccessful escape attempt, keeps leaving clues that seem to suggest that the teachers are the spirits of long dead writers and that the school is purgatory for both them and the students. The theory becomes easier to believe as term progresses and she finds her life mirroring Wuthering Heights, as if all the typical high school dramas weren’t enough.
But she manages to weather the storm, save the world and win the heart of her crush all before heading home for Christmas.
I was disappointed in this book. The blurb lead me to believe I could expect humour, mystery, romance and even a splash of horror. Sadly it didn’t deliver on any count. All elements are present but none are developed to any degree. Tension is never allowed to build. Questions raised are answered with ease almost immediately. The story lacked atmosphere and attempts to build it fall far short. The main character comes across as an angsty, egocentric brat and the secondary characters are thin to the point of transparency.
Though the book is only two years old references to pop culture have already dated.
Another prime example of a great idea sacrificed on the altar of woeful execution.-Lynn

Sunday, October 19

Framed - Kate Morgenroth

For as long as he can remember, Jude's life has consisted of new schools, frequent moves, the need to be able to read his father's moods, and drugs. When his father starts cutting the drugs he's dealing, Jude knows it'll only be a matter of time. He wasn't supposed to be home when they came to kill his father, but Jude caught the only break he'd ever had - the guy in charge decided to believe Jude when he said he wouldn't tell, and they left him alive.
The cops don't believe his story, but Jude sticks to it - even when one of them discovers his birth certificate. Jude's mother didn't leave them when he was born - his father, who used to be a cop himself, kidnapped Jude as an infant, and his mother's now the District Attorney. In an instant Jude's life changes - he goes from desperate poverty and violence to privilege and plenty. The only problem is bowing to pressure from the coolest group in school - he takes their leader back to the old neighbourhood to score. When Nick dies of an overdose, and the city begins baying for blood, Jude decides to sacrifice himself for his mother. It ends up being a bigger sacrifice than Jude counted on.
This is a powerful, vibrant and chilling novel of integrity, betrayal and lost redemption. Morgenroth not only portrays a strong sense of place, her characters jump off the page. The text is detailed but quick paced, the dialogue real, and the relationships complex. Although I suspect someone's motivations significantly earlier than Jude did, I had no idea how deeply betrayed Jude was, and would be. Complete in itself, I finished the novel (in near record time) feeling satisfied and replete, and eager for more of Ms Morgenroth's work - highly recommended. - Alex

Saturday, October 18

God Save the Queen! - Dorothy Cannell

Flora went to live with her grandfather when she was three, after her mother died. Though she thought he must be the king when she first saw him, Hutchins was instead the devoted butler at Gossinger Hall - the only things to which he was more devoted were silver (cleaned with polish made to his own recipe) and the Queen. Flora has been instilled with an awareness of appropriate behaviour for her station, but was given free reign to scamper around Gossinger Hall, at least until Sir Henry Gossinger suddenly married later in life. Now twenty-two, Flora flushes with attraction whenever she sees Gossinger nephew Vivian but has an otherwise staid life, until her grandfather's body is found in the old water closet. Though she doesn't know it, Sir Henry had only recently told his nephew, wife and aunt (who managed to move in by dint of not repacking her cases after the wedding five years ago) that he was going to change his will and leave Gossinger Hall to Hutchins. Was he murdered? And what secrets are being hidden?
This is a welcome return to Cannell, whose novels I revelled in over a decade ago. Her characters are vivid and lively, her plots interesting and original, and the setting is archetypally British. Somehow Cannell has managed to create a timelessness, so that God Save the Queen! could be set anytime in the last fifty years or more, which I found refreshing. The only quibble I had was the references to 'serviette' that occurred at several points in the novel - in the circles God Save the Queen! is set, 'napkin' would be the only possible term used.
I'm looking forward to continuing to renew my acquaintance with the divine Ms Cannell. - Alex

Friday, October 17

Holly Black: Valiant

When a teenaged runaway takes up with a group of squatters in NYC subway system she soon finds herself in a world full of fairies, none of whom bare any resemblance to the story book creatures she’s familiar with.
She soon finds herself in service to a troll, delivering fairy dust to exiles from the Seelie Court. But somebody is killing off his customers and it is up to her to prove his innocence and ultimately save his life while getting her own back on track.
This is a dark tale of the multiple facets of betrayal, drug addiction and the difficulties of redemption. Fantasy elements give the story a surreal feel while at the same time throwing the reality of life on the streets into stark relief. Complex characters and the complicated relationships between them added to excellent world building make this a brilliant read.
While the moral of the story is clear (don’t judge a book by its cover) it is simply presented rather than forced on the reader making the message all the more powerful.
Though set in the same universe as the earlier work Tithe, this book stands alone. I look forward to reading more of this author’s writing. Highly recommended-Lynn

Thursday, October 16

Fat Politics - J Eric Oliver

Subtitled The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic, Oliver methodically and convincingly argues that the biggest issue with obesity is the panic rather than any health problems directly associated with being fat. As he states int he introduction, this is not the book he intended to write - a political scientist doing post-doctoral work, Oliver decided to investigate political aspects of the obesity 'epidemic' and discovered very little research had been done. The deeper he dug the more convinced he became that the science underpinning predictions and projections about weight and illness was (often profoundly) flawed, and almost always conducted by investigators with undeclared interests - ties to pharmaceutical and weight-loss companies, health care providers who will get reimbursement if being fat is officially deemed an illness, and scaremongers eager to increase the federally funded pie available if this is seen as a crisis.
Oliver also examines the American Protestant loathing of obesity that he believes lies at the heart of some of the researchers' convictions - a topic more thoroughly covered in Marilyn Wann's Fat! So? where she relates stories of women whose physicians were so focused on weight they ignored real medical issues.
Like many other anti-diet/size-acceptance campaigners, Oliver argues that the real culprit is poor diet, incessant snacking, and too little exercise, and that health care prevention programs would be better aimed at improving nutrition and encouraging exercise as ends in themselves rather than as means to reduce weight. That this sensible advice, offered by many before him, receives so little prominence is in itself an argument that the hysteria over obesity is run by something other than genuine concern.
Whether or now weight is a personal issue for you, all of us in the Western world are affected by the money pumped into funding for anti-obesity drugs, weight-loss programs supported by federal money (in Australia gym membership and weight-loss programs may be eligible for health insurance co-payment, 30% of which comes from the Federal government), and an atmosphere that encourages vituperation and prejudice based on size. The funding comes from taxes we all pay, and if it would be better used diverted elsewhere, this affects the thin as much as the fat it's aimed at. - Alex

Wednesday, October 15

The Last Colony - John Scalzi

John Perry, last seen in Old Man's War, is living happily on a colonised planet with his wife Jane and their adopted child, when they are approached to help settle a new world. Weary of the in-fighting between colonised planets, Roanoke will be founded by members from each of ten already colonised worlds - the Colonial Union needs administrators who are unaffiliated with any of the members planets, capable of handling disputes with diplomacy, and with military experience, and John and Jane fit the bill.
Things begin to go wrong almost from the beginning - the planet they arrive at is nowhere near where Roanoke is supposed to be, and it becomes clear early on that the planet already has intelligent beings (who disappointingly vanish from the novel as soon as the bigger plot lines take over). John and Jane discover that the colonisation of Roanoke was always intended to be more than an interplanetary cooperative effort - it's a gesture of defiance by the Colonial Union against the Conclave, an alien federation designed to wipe out unaffiliated colonisation that leaves them unable to use modern technology, all but defenceless against hostile forces, and deeply embroiled in political machinations foreshadowed in The Ghost Brigades.
More complicated and less action-laden than the previous novels, this final in Scalzi's trilogy is engaging and accessible, though a little heavy on deus ex machina. The central trio and supporting cast are rounded, the scale is vast, and the plot continually twists unexpectedly. This is unabashedly part of a larger whole, and without reading the first two books I suspect The Last Colony would be distressingly complex. I would have liked to see a little less of the global scale and a little more about the way the colonists and the native life interacted, but that aside this was very good. - Alex

Tuesday, October 14

Narelle M. Harris: The Opposite of Life

A librarian and self-defined geek girl starts rebuilding her life after escaping from a bad relationship. But the people around her are dying like flies and the murders look to be the work of vampires. When her new boyfriend is added to the list of victims she decides to do whatever it takes to unmask the killers and put an end to the deaths.
What it takes is teaming up with an awkward and shy ‘new’ vampire, a friendship that has her debating whether or not the price of immortality is worth the cost and deciding if she is willing to pay that price.
This story had a lot going for it. The idea of unrelieved ennui of immortality, the mental limitations of the undead and poor fashion sense were all new twists on the old vampire theme. And the moral dilemma of whether or not to become a vampire was presented and addressed well.
But it also let itself down on two main points. One, the complicated and dysfunctional family relationships. These were at first a vital and well integrated part of the story, showing us why the heroine was who she was and setting up plot elements. But the emphasis on her troubled childhood and her ongoing family issues got old very quickly. I’ve never had a lot of sympathy for people whose main complaint in life is that Mummy and Daddy didn’t love me enough and, for all the loss of her siblings, that’s what her major life issue is. It reached the point where I wanted to slap her and say throw your parents out of your life and get some therapy, you’re an adult now.
And two, the setting. This story is set in Melbourne and the fact is rammed down our throats. It is one thing to add in details for a bit of local colour but there’s a fine line between grounding the story in space/time and a geography lesson and this book crosses that line one too many times for me. For example rather than just say the character was heading to the unfashionable end of Chapel St the author goes on about the history of the Astor theatre and the decommissioned church that is now a gym across the road. As far as I know her facts are correct but since neither of these places play a role in the story it seemed superfluous to mention them in such detail. Either readers will know where she means and so have no need of this level of detail or they won’t know the area in which case all the detail in the world isn’t going to help them place it. Sometimes less is more. This should have been one of those times.
This isn’t a bad story. The twist is hidden almost until it is revealed and it contains some new and unusual variations on the vampire legend. Unfortunately the positives never really outbalanced the negatives for me. Sorry if you liked this one Alex but I’ll not be bothering with Narelle Harris again.-Lynn

For Alex's review, click here

Monday, October 13

Durable Goods – Elizabeth Berg

Katie Nash is twelve, the plain younger sister of Diane and army brat daughter of a disciplinarian military father. When their mother died, all the softness went out of Katie’s life, but at least her dad saves most of his anger for her sister. Younger than her classmates, Katie’s best friend and neighbour Cherylanne is almost fifteen – they can’t hang out at school, but once they’re home Cherylanne gives Katie guidance in the ways of the world. All in all, Katie’s reasonably happy with her life. Which is when they get moved to another base. Diane, in love with local boy Dickie, decides to run away to Mexico, and Katie goes with them.
Though some of her usual elements are present Durable Goods is something of a departure for Berg – the novel is shorter and less complex than most of her other work, and though it’s shelved in the adult section, it reads as a young adult book.
Though there are a number of serious elements (Berg touches on mourning, physical abuse and losses of innocence) these are not her main focus - the overall tone is light. Katie is an endearing and honest character, and her relationships with Cherylanne, Diane and her father are developed and realistic. Though the precise year isn’t mentioned, the setting is late fifties or early sixties, and Berg captures the era beautifully. As you’d expect with such a young protagonist, there’s no mention of anything wider than her immediate life, but the time is portrayed through incidental aspects (like Elizabeth Taylor being a role model in the magazines). Berg not only gives a convincing sense of place but of what it’s like to be a young girl poised between the innocence of childhood and the cusp of adulthood. - Alex

Sunday, October 12

Juggernaut - Desmond Bagley

American engineer turned industrial trouble-shooter Neil Mannix doesn’t expect that coordinating the move of a giant transformer across Nyala, an oil-rich African nation, will be easy – at 550 tonnes, longer than a football pitch, and with an average speed of five miles an hour, the transformer needs a full support crew, and rig drivers aren’t the most stable group of men. That’s why they pay him, after all. What Mannix didn’t anticipate was Nyala’s General Semangala, the head of the Air Force, launching a coup and precipitating a civil war.
This is not my favourite of Bagley’s novels, and I haven’t read it in well over a decade. I was pleasantly surprised – though the characterisation is less defined than in many of his other works, which is probably why I enjoyed it less than some others, the plot is speedy and many of his characteristic elements are present. The biggest difference is that, though Mannix has to be ingenious and inventive, he’s less of an Every Man than the usual Bagley hero. I realised, reading Juggernaut, that one of the things I relish in the writing is the triumph over adversity of an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances. This is obvious in some of the Bagley books I most enjoy - High Citadel, The Vivero Letter, The Freedom Trap, The Tightrope Men, my all-time favourite, The Snow Tiger, and particularly in Running Blind. In the case of Juggernaut, Mannix is barely out of his element – yes, the situation is complex and extraordinary and difficult, but he’s not flawed and he barely cracks a sweat. Even a relatively pedestrian book by Bagley is better than most writer’s better offerings, but this is far from his best and isn’t a good starting place for anyone new to the writer and interested in trying his work. - Alex

Saturday, October 11

A Rumor of Bones - Beverly Connor

When forensic anthropologist Lindsay Chamberlain signed on for a dig, she expected a little angst - the site of ancient American Indian remains was scheduled for flooding, she was conflicted about her feelings for two men on the dig, and supervising students always throws up more problems than you anticipate. What she didn't see coming was not only in the discovery of bones that, though over fifty years old, were much more recent than those the group were intending to uncover, but also becoming embroiled in the hunt for a paedophile serial killer.
I found it really difficult to judge A Rumor of Bones (a title that doesn't even make much sense - there are no rumours about bones anywhere in the novel) on its own merits because I so recently read the very well written and involving Carved in Bone that I kept comparing this (unfavourably) to it. The biggest issue I had was the relationships - I never got a clear picture of how Lindsay felt about either Frank or Derrick, or what her relationship with either of them was. Both men have another woman interested in them, and Lindsay's clearly stringing them both along but when one of the women calls her on it she not only expresses complete surprise to her but also seems taken aback herself - "At first she was angry, but by the time she got to the lab, she was wondering if there wasn't some truth in Michelle's accusation. Come on, she said to herself, Frank and Derrick are adults,. They can choose for themselves."
This didn't exactly warm me to her, but I could overlook it if she were otherwise interesting. She is, however, Too Dumb To Live - after a series of attempted sabotage, a serial killer on the loose, and a stalker fixated on Lindsay, she goes meandering along a deserted forest edge at dawn, alone. When she detected "the smell of something out of place, vaguely familiar," and is then chloroformed and abducted I was far from shocked. Although I did wonder where she came across chloroform previously, in order to recognise it, and where the abductor got his hands on it. Picky, perhaps, but the book was written only twelve years ago, and not when chloroform was in wide use.
Then there was the stilted dialogue. I know people don't always use contractions, but in casual conversation this is most often to emphasise an aspect of the usually contracted compound, so that phrases like "Let us ID this box of mammal bones," "Come on, Lindsay, it is almost lunch time!" and "Have you seen it? It is a very neat place," jolted me out of the novel (as much as I was immersed in it, at any rate).
This may sound petty, though I flagged it early in the book, before I was thoroughly over it - I also didn't like Lindsay's dress sense: she "wore the one suit she had packed, an off-white linen pant suit with an emerald green silk blouse." Well, it could have been the other way around, I suppose, but ick. Especially as she was wearing it when going to inform a woman that the bones of her missing five year old daughter had been found, one leg so savagely disarticulated from the pelvis that - even without flesh - it was clear she'd been brutally molested.
Anything else? Well, each chapter opens with a quote that references bones. There wasn't any great connection with the contents of the chapter, or the progress of the novel as a whole, even where this could have been the case - it feels as though someone just searched for bone quotes and slotted them in at random.
The characterisation's clumsy, and the following exchange jumped out at me as a combination of an (unnecessary) data dump and unwarranted supposition:
"What does your father do?"
"He teaches Shakespeare at a community college in Kentucky. My mother trains and breeds Arabian horses."
"Not thoroughbreds?"

"No. They are quite expensive."
"Sounds like you have a nice family."
Well, sounds like you have an educated (though bizarrely narrowly specialised, especially for a community college lecturer) father and a horse breeding mother. There isn't anything there about what kind of people they are...
Okay, enough. I did finish A Rumor of Bones, so it wasn't all bad - the story gripped me in spite of the many (many) issues I had with the style and the protagonist, and even though not only the identity of the mystery body and the killer of it (with a flag so obvious is was practically neon) were so little a surprise that I ended up feeling flat over all, I'm thinking about giving the second Lindsay Chamberlain mystery a go. - Alex

Friday, October 10

Jude Morgan: Indiscretion

An impoverished gentlewoman takes the only course open to her and becomes a companion to a society matron. She soon finds herself the unwilling confidant to several members of the household and the subject of unwanted amorous advances.
When her father dies she is reunited with her estranged Aunt at his funeral and is relieved to accept her invitation to live with her and leave the fast life behind.
But she is no sooner settled in to her new life when she finds herself surrounded by her former confidants as well as the subject of new ones. Soon she is being unjustly implicated in everybody’s indiscretions.
Eventually she is vindicated, in the process winning the heart of the one man whose opinion mattered to her.
This shouldn’t have been a fascinating, witty and all round delightful story-but it was.
There is nothing new here, in fact, many of the situations are trite and clichéd. I could see exactly where this story was going almost from the start. There were no unexpected twists or surprise turns. The characters could have all walked out of Regency central casting. And the plot has been written to death.
Yet for all that this story shone. It was stylish. It was fun.
I think its main strength lay in the dialogue. Morgan has a gift for witty and believable dialogue that brings the characters to life and makes a tired story compelling.
If you’ve grown weary of historical romances this might just reinvigorate your interest.-Lynn

Thursday, October 9

Carpe Demon - Julie Kenner

Kate Connor put demon hunting aside when she settled down with childhood sweetheart (and co-Hunter) Eric and began a family. Fifteen years later she has two children - fourteen year old Allie, and toddler Timmy, the son of her second husband. Stuart, an aspirational politician, knows nothing of her true past, which is how Kate wants it. So when she fist senses a demon in Wal-Mart, Kate dismisses her suspicion. Until another demon attacks her in her kitchen. Now Kate has to uncover why demons have taken root in her formerly quiet town, what they want, and who's behind it, all without alerting her husband and while continuing to run a busy household.
The first in a series, Carpe Demon is fresh and engaging. Kenner's voice is amusing and light, and her heroine is no helpless victim. The back story is well integrated into the general plot rather than being presented in a data chunk and the story is - at least within the confines of the genre - realistic and believable. That someone close to Kate is the mastermind is evident relatively early on, and though I guessed who quite a lot earlier than Kate did, the clues were subtle and the red herrings likely.
There's a nice thread of sarcasm and irony, not typical in paranormal novels (particularly from the allegedly irony-free States), and unlike many fantasy worlds, Kate's domestic responsibilities don't magically vanish just because she's got some demon hunting to do. I liked her relationship with her second husband, and that she acknowledged the ongoing loss of her first. I also liked Kate's friend Laura, and her negotiated relationship with Allie. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for the sequel. - Alex

Click here for Lynn's review of Carpe Demon.

Wednesday, October 8

Spirit Willing, Flesh Weak - Julie Cohen

Psychic Rosie Fox is hoping to hit the big time during her tour of England, but she never expected to get a genuine premonition during a reading. Certain that a train will crash, Rosie flees her audience and runs to the nearest tube station, where she frantically tries to stop the train leaving. Taken into custody, Rosie's distressed and guilt-ridden when she learns six people died when the train crashed, but her manger's delighted - Rosie was caught on camera trying to stop people on the platform, and this is the best evidence of psychic ability she could have. Unfortunately a large part of the extra attention comes in the form of disgraced Times journalist Harry Blake, who now works for a small paranormal TV show.
Spirit Willing... is a fun and engaging novel that doesn't try to be more than it is - a light and fluffy, somewhat original rmoance. If I'd written this review a little closer to having read the book I'm sure I'd have been able to give more detail but for now suffice it to say that if another novel by Julie Cohen crosses my path I'll pick it up - Alex

Tuesday, October 7

Exchange - Paul Magrs

Simon’s life completely changed when his beloved parents were killed. Now living with his maternal parents, the shy sixteen-year-old has retreated deeper into the books he’s always loved, aided and abetted by Winnie, his book-loving grandmother, much to the irritation of his grandfather, whose fear and hatred of books grows throughout the tale. Every Saturday Simon and Winnie take a bus from their small British village and explore, looking for new charity and second-hand bookshops. When they discover The Great Big Book Exchange they know it’s amazing, like nothing they’ve seen before, but they don’t know how much it and the people they meet there – owner Terrance, with false arms and a tragic past, and his teen Goth assistant Kelly – will change their lives.
The book is a tribute to bibliophilia, with loving descriptions of books unread: “Their pages were onion-skin but perfect, as if they’ve never been read before. Others were reassuringly far and their spines were uncracked… bottle green detectives; scarlet translations of European classics; sickly yellow horrors and science fiction with covers that glittered midnight blue.”
A voracious reader myself (no surprise!), many elements of Exchange resonated with me, particularly Simon’s realisation that “I’ll never have enough time to read all the books I want to. Even if I read every hour, every day of my life… I’d still never read everything,” and the awareness that reading can be a way of escaping living in the world and distracting yourself from real life issues. And like me, Simon hates going anywhere without “the security of at least two novels… two, in case he finished the first. He needed to make sure he had enough to read…”
Magrs has an interesting voice, which I appreciated more here than in his later book,
Never the Bride - I didn't realise it was the same author until I came to write the review and noted the unusual surname. In Exchange he writes in third person from Simon's perspective, allowing the reader to see the deterioration of his grandparent's marriage, fraught with long-repressed issues, while allowing Simon his innocence. The past has a strong presence, and Magrs' writing is deft and sure. It didn't change my life, but I enjoyed the journey, and think this could be a good book for shy and reclusive bibliophilic teens, particularly those who need a little encouragement to leave the safety of books, at least a little. - Alex

Monday, October 6

Carved in Bone – Jefferson Bass

Grieving the death of his beloved wife, and partly (but illogically) blaming himself for her death, Tennessee Anthropologist Bill Brockton’s life has consisted of little else but teaching, testifying as an expert witness, and his work on the forensic investigation site he created - The Anthropology Research Center. Or, as it’s been better known since Patricia Cornwell wrote about it, the Body Farm.
When the sheriff of nearby Cooke County approaches Brockton, he is ill prepared for the discovery of an exquisitely preserved adipocere body, concealed in a cave deep in the woods. With the assistance of his attractive young denier Miranda, Brockton makes a startling discovery about the body – a discovery that throws him deeper into the investigation that usual and acquaints him intimately with Cooke County, an inbred backwoods community where events from the far past continue to influence behaviour today.
The secondary plot, about an incompetent pathologist and the hearing to free a man wrongly charged with another murder, allowed other aspects of Brockton’s character to emerge, was well integrated and leaves enough loose ends to be part of the next in the series without feeling contrived and not so significant that the ending felt aborted.
This first partnering of forensic anthropologist (and real-life founder of the Body Farm), Bill Bass with journalist Jon Jefferson has created a great first novel that delivers something new in a genre that is well trodden and close to saturated. Brockton is a great protagonist – far from perfect, somewhat hapless, engaging and intelligent, the authors have imbued him with a singular voice. The writing is lyric and literary, balanced by a strong and twisting plot that, while convoluted, is penetrable. Though I guessed both the answer to one of the central key questions and the murderer well before they were explicated in the text, I was enjoying the ride so much it didn’t matter. Watch out for a review of the sequel, which is already sitting by my bed. - Alex

The Bill Brockton series:
Carved in Bone
Flesh and Bone
The Devil’s Bones
Bones of Betrayal
The Bone Yard
The Bone Thief

Sunday, October 5

I Know You're Out There - Michael Beaumier

In I Know You’re Out There personals editor Beaumier illuminates the world of personals, those ads from people looking for everything from a one-night stand with a submissive man wanting humiliation to a life-long relationship. Each chapter opens with a sample ad, altered only to protect the hapless, which epitomises the theme of the chapter – from “losers” to “someone for everyone”. Along the way, as well as learning almost everything a potential ad placer or respondent may want to know (including, most vital of all, following the advice of the editor, who’s seen it all before and knows that “likes long walks along the beach” simply won’t cut it), more and more of Beaumier’s own life leaks through. And, although he tries to remain dispassionate, more of the lonely hearts’ lives begin leaking into his – almost against his will he gives advice to one particularly shy and self-effacing man, and tracks down a vivacious senior citizen who suddenly stops placing frequent ads. Estelle has some words of wisdom that resonate: “Love, real love, is when you realise that you’re in a race to see which of you is going to die first. And the worst thing in the world is when you lose.”
Although I’m sure that, when I bought I Know You’re Out There, I knew it was non-fiction, but that was some time ago. In my ongoing (and relatively unsuccessful) attempt to work my way through my own unread books, instead of buying and/or borrowing books, I grabbed a handful from a box, sight unseen. I began reading assuming it was fiction, probably of the romantic comedy variety. It isn’t, but I Know You’re Out There is warm, intermittently amusing, and interesting. Beaumier’s voice is detached but warm, and the snippets he initially drops about his own life are intriguing, making the latter chapters – where he goes into increasing detail about his unhappy long-term relationship – satisfying. There are light touches of humour, and a lot of compassion. This is by no means a weighty or significant book, but it’s not a bad way to pass the time.
As the internet takes over from more traditional media it will be interesting to see how much longer print personals survive. In the interim it’s on some level comforting to know that, at least in one case, the person responsible for safeguarding the dreams of the lonely cares about his charges and has an investment in their lives. - Alex

Saturday, October 4

Shakespeare - Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, best known for his travel writing, has turned his attention to the life and times of the world’s best known playwright and poet. This slender volume, appropriately reflecting the little actually known about Shakespeare, explores the world of Shakespearian scholarship and Elizabethan England as much as the life of its’ subject, imparting a flavour of mystery and detection that I don’t usually associate with English Literature (the subject).
Throughout the book Bryson convincingly counters the charges that support arguments Shakespeare did not author the many works attributed to him. For example:
Far from having ‘small Latin and less Greek’, as Ben Jonson so famously charged, Shakespeare had a great deal of Latin, for the life of a grammar school boy was spent almost entirely in reading, writing and reciting in Latin, often in the most mind-numbingly repetitious manner… Through such exercises Shakespeare would have learned every possible rhetorical device and ploy – metaphor and anaphora, epistrophe and hyperbole, synecdoche, epanalepsis and others equally arcane and taxing… a more thorough grounding in Latin rhetoric and literature than ‘most present-day holders of a university degree in classics’.
And now I know the very many forms of rhetoric of which I am woefully ignorant.
Bryson also explains where the allegations came from, and the extraordinary devotion of both accusers and defenders of Shakespeare – an entire seething community I was primarily unaware of and am now fascinated by. This, I think, is the true gift of Bryson – he invests the worlds he explores with interest and flavour in all his writing (and in person, having heard him speak in Melbourne and, being something of a Bryson fan girl, having read every one of his books) - from travels far-flung and domestic to the history of language and the history of the world. He so genuinely conveys his own absorption in it that the reader cannot help but be transported along with him, in a torrent of writing that is never dry and often wry, or laugh aloud funny.
Aspects of the book resonated unexpectedly with other aspects of my life – I read Shakespeare not long after attending a seminar of pandemic influenza, and found the discussion of plague and exotic illnesses (like ‘English sweat’, which came out of nowhere and was so severe many patients died the same day they manifested symptoms, then vanished in the 1550s) eerily relevant. But even without that element this is a great book, well worth reading if you have only the most cursory interest in the life and times of Shakespeare but have any interest whatsoever in literature, history, writing, conspiracies, detection, or people. - Alex

Friday, October 3

No Time for Goodbye – Linwood Barclay

When Cynthia Bigge was fifteen her parents and older brother disappeared from the family home overnight, silently and without a trace. Twenty-five years on, she’s still haunted by the loss and convinced that they may still be alive. Hypervigilant about her own daughter’s safety, Cynthia watches for signs of her family all around. When she participates in a sensationalist TV program, hoping that it will help someone remember a vital detail, or even stir her family to contact her, odd things start to happen – a hat just like her father’s appears on the kitchen table, notes arrive in the house, and Cynthia sees the same brown car in the street. Her husband is supportive but grows increasingly concerned. Are these events real, or is Cynthia losing her mind. What did happen that night? And why was Cynthia spared?
All these questions would be considerably more suspenseful if it were not for the periodic insertion of two-page, italicised discussions between two unnamed characters who clearly know what happened and are involved in the current drama. The novel gains nothing from this device, which deviates from the rest of the novel’s first person narration from Cynthia’s husband Terry’s perspective. What it loses, however, is significant – a substantial amount of suspense and quite probably (I can’t rule out guessing the motive anyway) the reason for the initial disappearance.
The novel’s not without its redeeming features – I particularly likes the sections with alleged psychic Ceylon, and the conflict for Terry is delicately portrayed. It’s just that so much of the point of the book, the suspense of not only what happened but whether Cynthia’s (consciously or not) behind the contemporary events, and possibly even the original disappearance, is so heavily eroded by the third-person sections that No Time for Goodbye loses almost all its oomph.
The ending is a little convoluted but satisfying, complete with growth and a tear-jerking conclusion, but next time Barclay would do better if he refrained from undermining his own good writing. - Alex

Thursday, October 2

The Hunt Club - John Lescroat

Private investigator Wyatt Hunt, a former caseworker for San Francisco's Child Protective Service, is more used to surveillance and insurance fraud cases, but his latest job quickly outstrips those - not only does it involve the murder of a federal judge and his young girlfriend, but Hunt's new love interest, Trial TV journalist Andrea Parisi, vanishes shortly after they sleep together for the first time - she was covering the case, and Hunt doesn't know if she's in danger, purposely missing to increase her profile, or a suspect.
This précis really doesn't justice to this first in what promises to be a new series, but the risk of spoilers is high. The novel opens with "that was then": vignettes from Hunt's first career, including interactions with Juhle, which give a flavour of the character and the organisation in which he worked; not only is Hunt complex and well-developed, but his loosely organised Hunt Club, including homicide detective Devin Juhle, are nicely detailed, and the plot is complex and predominantly original. Common to all Lescroat's novels (which I must go back and re-read), The Hunt Club has action, suspense, finely tuned tension, detailed plotting, strong characters, and (for the fans) minor cross-overs from his better know Abe Glitsky/ Diz Hardy Diz novels. The varied plots, both major and minor, satisfyingly intersect, without stretching credulity or telegraphing their connections in advance, and there's a strong sense of the city as a character in the novel, which I think is well done.
A particularly interesting element is the possible involvement of the California Ccorrections Peace Officers Association, and the effect of the union on shaping legislation (an aspect I had given no thought to at all before, but which I now find troubling and intreguing) - the research Lescroat has done into potential corruption was fascinating, well presented, and smoothly integrated into the novel. In fact, the novel as a whole appears (given that the US legal system is far from my area of specialty) to be both well researched and subtly incorporated. That said, I do have a couple of areas of dissatisfaction with The Hunt Club. Most notably, I found the ending flabby, and think that the novel as a whole would have benefitted from a little judicious editing and a little less detail in some spots. And why is it that an affair between two men needs to be qualified as 'homosexual'? Surely that's obvious from the fact that they're both men... These elements aside, I very much enjoyed my first foray into Lescroat's work int he better part of a decade, prompted purely by seeing this by chance when in Rome, and look forward to checking out both his newer writing and the novels I once devoured. - Alex

Wednesday, October 1

Earthly Possessions - Anne Tyler

Stuck in a life she doesn't want, Charlotte Emory decides to leave her husband and her town. At the bank, while withdrawing the money she needs to start her life anew, Charlotte is caught up in a bank robbery that goes wrong, and is taken hostage by the robber. As he flees with her to Florida in a stolen car, unwilling to release her until he can be sure he'll be safe, Charlotte and Jake get to know each other, and Charlotte reflects on how she came to this point.
I was surprised by the dated feel of this novel until I realised it was rereleased in the late '90s but first published in 1977. Although Tyler's novels (at least the ones I've read so far, having managed to skip the headliners Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist) tend to be substantially more about people than plot, I finished Earthly Possessions with a greater sense of "so what" than I usually have with Literature, and that's saying something. I didn't warm to any of the characters, except perhaps Jake's pregnant teenage girlfriend, and I just didn't care about any of it. In fact, I only finished Earthly Possessions because when I picked it up my sister told me I could keep it, and so I read it on a very long plane ride with not many other options available. John Updike might think it's "wickedly good" but I disagree. - Alex