Sunday, November 30

Addition – Toni Jordan

Numbers bound Grace’s life – they give her days structure and solidity. Grace counts everything, from the steps she takes to the number of letters in peoples’ names, and her hero is inventor Nikola Tezla who, like Grace, loved numbers. Unlike Grace, who likes tens (a preference she thinks is natural and obvious, as ten is the number of digits we have), Nikola loves threes – he would only stay in a hotel room if the room number was divisible by three, and when he dined he had to have eighteen napkins folded beside him. ”Why 18? Why not 6 or 9 or 27? I’d love to roll over in bed one morning, see his next to my pillow, and ask him.”
Everything in Grace’s life is defined, clear, in its place. She has routines for each season, each month, each week and each day of the week, from her wardrobe to how she washes. She rises at the same time every day, and every day has a routine. On Saturdays she goes shopping after breakfast. On one Saturday everything goes as usual – two packs of chicken thighs, a carton of eggs (with two removed, to make ten):
100 beans (that’s a pain), 10 carrots, 10 baby potatoes, 10 small onions, 100g of salad mix…and 9 bananas.
Count again.
How the fuck did I get 9 bananas in my trolley?
This is impossible. I look behind the eggs, behind the bag of beans. This is not possible.
Grace doesn’t want to leave her spot in the line – after all, she was there first – but she can’t possibly buy only nine bananas. When she spots a lone banana in the basket of the distracted shopper behind her, Grace diverts his attention and pops the banana in her own pile. And just like that, Grace’s ordered world begins to fray.
This is a fascinating novel about the power of obsessive-compulsive disease, but it’s more than that. Grace is intelligent, quirky, quick-witted, imaginative, and disabled. When Seamus, the original possessor of that tenth banana, lands in her life all that begins to change. Seamus is an ideal leading man – sensitive, kind, handsome, potent, intelligent – and after some initial bumps they get together, and Grace stops counting.
I was at first dismayed by the idea that Grace’s condition could so easily be cured by the presence of a man in her life, though distracted enough by the romance that I kept reading. But then things become more complicated, and Grace’s numbers are not so easily ousted. The risk of spoilers is too high to say any more about this aspect of Addition, except that is Grace’s struggles with the therapy designed to free her mark the most interesting twist in a well-written and absorbing novel. And, as Grace points out, side effects are only minor if they’re happening to someone else’s sense of self.
Intertwined into the main plot are Grace’s relationships with her female relatives (mother, sister and niece), the back story of why she’s on extended sick leave form her job as a teacher, and the disclosure of the pivotal event that began Grace counting. This last element could, in less skilful hands, have been simplistic but Jordan imbues it with full weight and depth.
Addition’s popularity is reflected by the slip the library inserted when I borrowed it - this is the first book I’ve borrowed that flags it as a popular item that they’d like me to read first and return promptly – to give you an idea of how rare this is, over 80% of my reviews are on library books.
As a disorganised person who would like more order in my life, and (though not at all to a Gracian degree) a counter, I was instantly captured by the routine of Grace’s life. I mentioned to a friend that Addition made me feel like this and she (a type A who I think is a little too tightly structured and wound herself) was amazed that I would want to be more (her emphasis) OCD, which I thought was a little uncalled for. For me the book certainly made me reflect on how slender the line is between eccentricity and insanity, how culturally mediated that line is, and how we view the quirks of those around us. As Grace points out, irrationality about numbers (and in general) is everywhere –
At Melbourne international airport there is no gate 13. The gates go up to 11 in odd numbers and to 14 in evens. They say I’m the fucking nutcase but everyone has it. The fear of 13 is deep inside people, in that part of them that’s more animal than human. Imagine the announcement: ‘Attention please. Flight number 911 to New York is now boarding at gate 13.’ How many people would get on that plane? Rational people. Educated people. The fear of the number thirteen is called triskaidekaphobia. Almost everyone has it. They work, they have friends, partners. No one tries to make them take drugs.

My life, by the way, is more notable for its chaotic disorganisation than order. – Alex

Saturday, November 29

Mrs Kimble - Jennifer Haigh

Ken Kimble passes through life being all things to all people - a minister, a hippy, a Jew, a philanthropist builder - for as long as it suits him. And then he leaves. In the meantime the age disparity between him and his partner widens with each marriage.
The novel examines the lives of the three wives of Ken Kimble - the fragile Birdie, left to fend for herself when he abandons her and their two young children with no means of support; damaged former journalist and secret cancer survivor Joan; and Dinah, the scarred formed babysitter turned waitress that Kimble turns into a society beauty.
I found it hard to warm to most of the characters, and it took ages to feel engaged with the novel and interested in what happened next. The standout in the first section is Charlie, the son of Birdie and Ken, who has gumption and character. I wanted to slap both Birdie and Joan, and I suppose that strenght of feeling is to Haigh's credit.The ending leaves more questions than it answers, predominantly about why Ken turned out the way he did. There are glimpses of hope, as some of the characters seem to be rebuilding their lives, but those who like everything wrapped up will be sorely disappointed.
I'm writing this about a month after I read the novel, and I'm still not sure whether I enjoyed reading it or now, but it certainly gave me food for thought. - Alex

Friday, November 28

Anything Goes – David Stove

Science studies as a discipline, or field of inter-related disciplines, arose shortly after the Second World War. Not a hard science in itself, science studies explores cultural aspects of the hard sciences, and was designed to: impart an understanding of the sciences to arts students, and to encourage science students to think about the cultural aspects of their work.
The social science perspective is that, though scientists think of themselves as wholly driven by rationality, in reality what causes the majority of scientists to shift paradigms is more complex.
Philosopher David Stove, who died in 1994, counters the dominant discourse in science studies by examining the writings of the most influential academics in the field – Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos. In Anything Goes (subtitled Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism) he first disassembles their arguments and points out the way their positions are made credible – utilising tricks to neutralise the meaning of words (by, for example, enclosing them in quotations), and failing to use consistent and logical arguments (in the philosophical sense). Stove then goes back to the source of the discipline, identifies and discusses the underlying premise on which all work in the field is based (David Hume’s scepticism about inductive arguments, one of the cornerstones of science).
At least I think that’s what he does, but I may have it all completely inverted. Rarely have I felt as stupid as I did trying to work my way through Anything Goes – I think the last time was when I slogged my way through Mouse or Rat. In this case it was particularly disappointing because, as it deals with some of my favourite topics (social science, popular science, irrationalism and philosophy), I was looking forward to reading it.
The introduction, by Keith Windshuttle, was readable, accessible and interesting. In it he lays out the broad structure of Stove’s book, as well as providing the useful background of the origins of science studies. Though I did not agree with everything he wrote, I was interested. However, shortly after beginning the section by Stove I became mired in a dense morass of prose. Opening at random, I give you this example:

In fact, of course, as is obvious, nothing could be more trivial. That the premises of an argument entail the conclusion is not enough to make them a reason to believe it. And if the premises of the arguments are to succeed in being a reason to believe the conclusion, not every validator R of the argument from P to Q is available to every arguer as an additional premise. Such an R, to be available to an arguer as an additional premise must at least be such that it can be part of a reason to believe Q.
And that’s not even from a tricky bit.
I have a background in philosophy and a smattering of social science – I am well aware of the wankiness of parts of academia, and Stove illustrates aspects of this well (at least up to the point I stopped reading). However, he is clearly writing for an audience with a strong philosophical background, and an audience who are already well aware of the divide – there is little in the way of introduction or explanation, and he launches straight into the arguments section (which, for those of you unfamiliar with the structure of philosophical arguments, looks a lot like algebra).
I believe that there are faults on both sides – from what Stove (and Windshuttle) write, some of the science studies academics cited make ludicrous claims that deny science any objective truth, that deny any kind of progress, and argue as though the scientific paradigms that replace their predecessors are any better or more valid than those they replace.
On the other hand, scientists are mistaken if they believe that objective truth is the only basis for accepting or rejecting new theories – from Copernicus revolutionising astronomy, through Semmelweis’ theory that microbes not miasmas caused childbed fever, to the rejection of Marshall and Robin's idea that gastric ulcers are caused by bacteria not stress, every field of science has examples where valid theories were denied by the majority despite their truth. While some scientists may indeed be open to new theories that overthrow everything that comes before them, relinquishing a position occupied for ones’ entire academic life, the foundations of ones’ prestige, is not easily done.
It is also true that culture affects the direction science takes, the mindset of the scientists themselves, and the kind of information that can be released – very few of us are truly capable of being objective, and instead view the world through the filter of our preconceptions and beliefs, and this influences the theories, experiments and proofs produced. These cultural blinders are not recognised at the time, but in hindsight their influence is obvious – all the work ‘proving’ non-white races were inferior to white, or that women had less intellectual capacity than men, for example. It is presumptuous and delusional to believe that any of us today are more independent of these ideas and ideologies than our forebears, but that is what the objective concept of science incorporates unspoken.
And somehow I have strayed far from the book. In summary – interesting, valuable, biased, dense, unfinished. - Alex

Thursday, November 27

The Night I Got Lucky – Laura Caldwell

Billy (her dad wanted boys) Rendall knows that she needs to get her life together – a promotion to vice president of the PR agency she works for, the return of physical attention in her lacklustre marriage, and for her widowed mother to get off her case. Billy has already tried everything, and out of desperation starts therapy, primarily to work on issues two and three; when her therapist Blinda gives her a lucky ceramic frog, however, Billy’s life changes more suddenly than therapy usually facilitates. The next day she’s promoted, her husband is always in the mood, and Billy’s mother has magically got a life of her own. Only, now she has everything she wants, Billy discovers that getting what you wish for might not feel the way you imagined – being a VP sucks, sex wasn’t the only problem in her marriage, and her mother’s jetting around Europe.
A twist on the three wishes fantasy, The Night I Got Lucky is pretty good for what it is – a well executed light fluff that compares favourably to The Ten Best Days of My Life, which used a similar concept as a launching point. I’m particularly impressed because this was published by Red Dress Ink, who I’ve found disappointing in the past. The plot is a little meaty, the character’s appealingly flawed (primarily in her conviction that she’s already tried everything), and the ending isn’t perfectly wrapped up. - Alex

Wednesday, November 26

Susan Krinard: Chasing Midnight

When an inexperienced young werewolf wanders into a Greenwich Village speakeasy looking for adventure she soon finds more than she bargains for. She is saved by a vampire and her friends who take the young innocent under their wings and chaperone her through a night of jazz and gin. Eventually she is found in this most undesirable company by her brother, who is put in the awkward position of being indebted to one of the werewolves’ age old enemies, a vampire.
Matters are further complicated when the vampire’s search for a missing friend, who just happens to be the daughter of a local crime lord, crosses paths with the werewolf’s search for the same woman. The two are thrown together by circumstance and the more the uptight and proper werewolf gets to know the loose-moraled vampire the more he likes her and vice versa.
But their respective races don’t approve of the relationship and they are individually pulled reluctantly into power struggles within their respective clans. Eventually gang war breaks out between the werewolves, vampires and human crime bosses as well as in the ranks of each group. And they are the only two people who can possibly put an end to it.
1920’s America, with prohibition and gang warfare, lends itself beautifully to rival races fighting for supremacy and stories of star crossed lovers. I’m surprised the period has been overlooked in the past and I’m delighted to find it featured here.
This complex plot of shifting allegiances and the clashing belief systems of the eighteenth century and modern times was fast paced and action packed.
My copy of the book was poorly edited or proof read and there are at least three instances where dialogue is attributed to a character not in the scene. I was a little confused by that but not sufficiently frustrated to stop reading. Only at one point was I pulled out of the story and unfortunately it was with quite a forceful yank. When the protagonists enter a blood covered but empty room the author refers to forensics. I’m not sure whether or not forensic science existed then in the form it does now but either way I’m pretty sure it would not have been referred to as simply “forensics”. Apart from this one slip the story was a lot of fun and I was sorry to get to the end of the book.
More time could have been spent establishing the whys and wherefores of vampirism but it was adequately covered-I was just enjoying it so much I would like to have seen more.
An enjoyable read and I look forward to reading more of this author’s work-Lynn

Tuesday, November 25

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove – Christopher Moore

When Bess Leander is found hanging from a peg (designed to store Shaker chairs) in the immaculate dining room of her feminine Country Cute (“bare pine floors and bent willow baskets, flowers and rag dolls and herb-flavored vinegars in blown-glass bottles; Shaker antiques, copper kettles, embroidery samplers, spinning wheels, lace doilies, and porcelain placards”) home, it sends shock waves through the small Californian community of Pine Grove. Aside from her husband and two daughters, nobody’s more affected than Valerie Riordan, the town’s only clinical psychologist. Valerie had prescribed Zoloft for Bess. In fact, over the past couple of years she’s prescribed anti-depressants for almost all her patients. Writing a script is far easier than therapy, but anti-depressants are associated with suicidality, and Val’s sure the Zoloft underlay Bess’s suicide. So Val decides to substitute placebos for the townsfolk.
Business has slowed at the town’s pub the Head of the Slug, over the last few years - so much so that proprietor Mavis Sand decides to hire a blues man. Catfish plays a mean slide guitar that draws people near. People, and an ancient sea beast roused by a low-level nuclear leak. And that’s when things get weird.
Doing The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove justice is not easy – a complicated intertwining of plots (involving the former cult heroine of a post-apocalyptic TV series, a permanently stoned constable, a widowed retiree and artist, a corrupt sheriff, a pair of religious housewives, an IT nerd working for the police, and a pharmacist with fantasies about sex with marine mammals – but not males, he’s no pervert) come together in a satisfying whole. In the process Moore addresses the nature of the blues, religion, constructs of mental illness, and addiction, among others. And throughout there’s incidental humour (Val reads Pusher: the American Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacological Practice) and sections of delight – I particularly like the sequence where housewives Marge and Katie (from the Coalition for a Moral Society) come to former warrior babe Molly’s trailer on a quest to get signatures for their petition to reintroduce prayer in schools, which is sadly too long to include here but is in chapter 12 if you’re interested.
This is the novel I was hoping for when I read the disappointing Island of the Sequined Love Nun – more like Bloodsucking Fiends in tone, it has (as I’d hoped) reinvigorated my interest in Moore. If you like twisted, irreverent, funny novels that skirt the boundaries of disbelief, this is for you. And, if you’re offended by anti-religious sentiment, bestiality and irony, best give it a miss. - Alex

Monday, November 24

Joy School – Elizabeth Berg

In the sequel to Durable Goods, Katie Nash and her distant father have moved to Missouri. Her sister has eloped, her best friend is more preoccupied with her own life (and budding romances) than with supporting Katie, she doesn’t fit in at her new school, and her only new friend is the socially inept daughter of an overbearing and overprotective mother. When Katie finds a small, iced over pond to skate on her life changes in ways she didn’t expect – falling through the ice results in her meeting mechanic Jimmy. Though ten years older than Katie, and married, she falls in love for the first time.
Despite her lack of support, Katie finds her own way and her own mentors, including Catholic priest Father Compton who, though Katie’s not Catholic, is happy for her to visit the church and act as her spiritual adviser. She begins, with the help of housekeeper Ginger, to reshape her relationship with her father, and reflects on the nature of her friendships – with the clueless Cynthia, subtly patronisingly Cherylanne, and alluring model Taylor Sinn.
Joy School is a beautiful portrait of the ecstatic joy, crushing misery and lit purity of first love, the difficulties of adolescence, and the complexity of relationships. - Alex

Sunday, November 23

The Protector – David Morrell

Former Delta force commando Cavanaugh now works with a highly trained team as a protector for the rich. Hired by Daniel (not Dan) Prescott, an unfit, overweight and paranoid scientist who has discovered a highly addictive drug, Cavanaugh teaches him the fundamentals of escape and evasion, including creating a new persona. Pursued by two, apparently separate, teams, Cavanaugh’s base is attacked and most of his crew is killed – and Prescott seems to have been colluding with them. Now Cavanaugh has to track own his own client, uncover the truth, and take him out.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read one of Morrell’s novels, though I’ve in the past thoroughly enjoyed his work (from First Blood, the basis for the Rambo movies, to my favourites, Fraternity of the Stone and Brotherhood of the Rose), and I wasn’t disappointed – in The Protector Morrell delivers a non-stop, action-packed, cleverly plotted tale of espionage and secrets within secrets, populated by fully developed characters. The details are clearly well researched but subtly inserted – the description of Prescott as an elicitor (the tradecraft of extracting information without people realising) is a great example of Morrell imparting information that illuminates what went before and supporting what comes next without clumsily dumping exposition on the reader. And he convincingly depicts reactions – the training scene in a swamp that takes place in the prologue is particularly good, at least as far as I (who’ve never been in anything like that situation) could tell, and I found my own pulse speeding up in sympathy.
There isn’t anything new and ground-breaking here, but The Protector is an above-average addition to the genre and well worth the trip. - Alex

Saturday, November 22

The Killing – Robert Muchamore

Small time crook Leon Tarasov, a Russian immigrant, has had a low profile since he and brother Nikola entered Britain in the fifties. Always a little shady, they benefited from a riot in their neighbourhood in 1981 that enabled them to buy a pub that soon became a notorious hangout for petty criminals. After a collapse following the death of his brother, Leon fell into heavy debt but somehow pulled himself back together – he not only paid all his outstanding debts but bought a second pub.
Two CHERUB agents are going to move into an apartment on the estate and try to get close to Leon’s children and his nephew and niece. Because of their similarity in appearance, James and older agent Dave have been selected for the mission.
James is overjoyed to be involved – always short-tempered, all his friends are shunning him because of an outburst of anger in the aftermath of being dumped by his girlfriend. James smacked and shoved Andy, a new, already traumatised eleven-year-old recruit and it’s not just his friends who are taking action – Andy’s being guarded by a couple of huge sixteen-year-olds, admin are punishing him and compelling anger management classes, and Lauren’s only allowed to speak to him because she’s his sister.
It’s this aspect that sets the CHERUB series above most rank and file YA series – not only is the protagonist flawed but he is seriously flawed (in a way that is understandable to readers), and is called on it, and the seeds for this were sown from the beginning of the series. As Lauren tells James, unless he learns to handle his temper he’ll have no friends and he’ll “end up battering [his] wife and children some day,” an accusation that shocks James but which is an accurate prediction.
Of course, this aspect is woven into the broader plot of The Killing rather than being its focus, and getting to the bottom of what happened, including the death thirteen months earlier of a young drug addict, is complex and satisfying. Muchamore continues to deliver strong plots, realistic action (in both training exercises and on the ground), and strongly developed characters. Though more satisfying if read in order, enough of the framework is included that a neophyte would also enjoy reading The Killing as a stand-alone novel. It’s a good thing the series is in such high demand that I have to reserve them in advance or I’d be hard pressed not to finish them all in one sitting. - Alex

Friday, November 21

Out of the Dark – Natasha Cooper

Solicitor Trish Maguire is taking a welcome break from her usual work with abused children – depleted, and coming to terms with a recent miscarriage that she hasn’t even had the opportunity to tell her partner about, the financial case promises less emotional turmoil. When she hears a car braking outside her apartment, though, Trish is plunged into a case involving a child despite her intentions.
The boy injured in the crash has no identification, but does have Trish’s name and address sew into his clothes. Intensely fearful, all he’ll say is that ‘she’ told him to go to Trish. The police are suspicious of Trish, particularly given the strong physical resemblance between Trish and the eight-year-old; recently reunited with her father after some twenty years of estrangement, Trish has her suspicions, too. And when the boy’s mother, who does have a connection with Paddy and was also in witness protection, is found battered to death, the mystery deepens.
Out of the Dark is a fast-paced and involving mystery thriller. The central characters, particularly Trish and David (the young boy), are layered and well drawn, and there are enough plot twists to keep the book interesting without becoming unnecessarily convoluted. The affect of childhood trauma is depicted subtly, and Trish is reflective about this without being annoyingly introspective. Cooper does a good job of conveying a sense of place – I thought there was enough geographic detail to centre Out of the Dark firmly in London without the reader being tiresomely beaten over the head, and the contrasts between different strata of British society were deft and effective. My only caveat, and this wholly my own doing, is that reading the series
out of order (see ) made some of the plot less suspenseful. – Alex

Thursday, November 20

Mike Carey: The Devil You Know-A Felix Castor Novel

In a world where ghosts are commonplace, a freelance exorcist can earn a very good living and Felix Castor did. Until he barely survived a close encounter with a demon and retired from the game. A little more than a year later and he finds himself in need of some fast cash and so takes on what appears to be a simple exorcism.
But nothing about the supernatural world is ever simple and the more he learns about the ghost he’s been called in to eradicate, the more he becomes entangled in a supernatural underworld of demons, were-beings and ghosts who all want him dead before he can complete the job.
But complete it he does, solving a brutal murder and losing the closest thing he’s had to a girlfriend in a long while, along the way.
I liked the premise of this story and thought the characterisation excellent. Even the minor characters were three dimensional.
I found the pacing a little off with short bursts of intense activity divided by long stretches of nothing much happening and the denouement, plonked in a large slab of exposition near the end, felt unsatisfactory for all it tidied up the bulk of the plot.
Overall I found this to be a competent first novel with an interesting premise and great characters that were enough to outweigh problems with execution, problems I hope the author will overcome with greater experience. I’m not entirely sold on Carey’s style but will certainly try another Felix Castor novel before I decide whether or not this series is for me.-Lynn

Wednesday, November 19

The Art of Mending – Elizabeth Berg

Quilt maker Laura always thought she’d be the first of her siblings to get married – her childhood games most often revolved around domestic chores like cake making in her Easy Bake oven. Instead it was black sheep youngest Caroline who married first, when she was just twenty; Laura met her husband, widowed Pete, when she was forty, and he and her two children are all the more cherished for the wait. Their somewhat withholding brother Steve is up to his fourth wife, and his only children all have engines.
Every year the Bartone’s gather at the family home in Minnesota for the state fair, an event Laura anticipates with both excitement and dread. Her memories of the fair are happy, and she enjoys seeing the same love of rides and cotton candy in her children, but seeing Caroline is always hard work. This year promises to be more difficult than ever when Caroline calls the night before Laura, Pete, Hannah and Anthony leave for Minnesota – she wants to meet with Laura and Pete separately some time during the visit, to talk. Though Laura doesn’t know exactly what it’s about, she sound intense, and Laura knows it won’t be good.
Like all Berg’s books, the writing is superb – immediately engaging, detailed but not overworked, with characters that are complex and real. Unlike the writing of, say, Picoult, who tends to use large events (like school shootings, parental abduction, sibling organ donation, or infanticide) to examine the intricacies and contradictions of the human condition, the scale of The Art of Mending, like all the other books of hers that I’ve read, is domestic and relatively mundane. Yet it is this very ordinariness that illuminates the pivotal matters of significance in individual lives.
Few of us will be personally touched by the big events, but many of us will be fascinated by the different ways our friends or spouses grew up compared to our own upbringing, as Laura is by her Italian American husband’s – how different it would be, she thinks, to have been surrounded by the kind of open love her beloved parents-in-law radiate, compared to the distant love of her beautiful but removed mother and tentative father. Even closer to home, and at the centre of The Art of Mending, is the different memories our own siblings have of a shared childhood.
All families, all people have secrets, even the family Laura and Pete have created. Pete, for example, has a strong aversion to all epithets – he won’t tell Laura why, but even the use of “damn” makes him angry and sad. When Laura discovers why Pete reacts so strongly to swearing, it alters her view of things she had taken for granted, and allows some room for her to accept that not everything is as she assumes. As Pete says, “nobody knows what goes on in other families, because families lie about themselves to other people. Not only to other people but to one another. And to themselves.”
Interspersed between every few chapters are word pictures of family photos, pictures that not only describe what’s visible in the photo but what lead to that moment and with memories interwoven, that give hints about the secrets yet to be revealed.
When Laura, a maker of quilts, tells architect Caroline that their careers are similar – that they both make things out of raw materials, differing only in their composition, wood and cloth, Caroline has a different outlook:
I think it’s very different, I think I focus on seeing the actual substructure. You take things as they are and chop them up to re-create a new whole. And then you say, ‘See? That’s what it is!’… I want to know the truth of what’s beneath. You want to transform things into something comfortable and beautiful, but not what they are.
One of the beautiful things about discovering a new (to you) author is gorging on their back catalogue. I’m trying to dole out the Berg oeuvre slowly, but so far every one’s a hit, and The Art of Mending is something of a favourite. - Alex

Tuesday, November 18

E. Lockhart: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

When her sex is the only thing that prevents a young woman from joining a secret society at her exclusive boarding school, she decides to show the world just how outdated such a notion is. She secretly follows her boyfriend and spies on the society’s meetings until an opportunity presents itself to infiltrate the organization.
Through a series of emails claiming to be from the society’s leader she orchestrates a number of complex pranks that the society carries out.
It is only when a scholarship boy is threatened with expulsion that she admits to her boyfriend that she was the mastermind behind the events. Her admission prevents the expulsion but ostracises her from her boyfriend and his elitist circle.
At first upset by their rejection she soon comes to accept her new reputation, pleased to have shaken off the burdensome image of the innocent child.
I really enjoyed this book. The writing was fresh. The school and all the characters within it were recognizable stereotypes yet well developed enough to stand out as individual.
The feelings of a young girl discovering, and rebelling against, the injustices of the world in general, and her world in particular, towards her sex was handled with delicacy and wit.
The boys’ reaction to the discovery of her role in the pranks felt real, as did her confusion about that reaction.
This story is a gentle and funny reminder that double standards still exist. No matter how egalitarian society would like to believe it is the old boy network is alive, well and doing its best to keep girls out. This is made very clear by the ending where the heroine is left older and wiser but arguably not particularly happier. I can’t help but wonder how different the ending would have been if the perpetrator of the pranks had been a boy instead of a girl. There’s every chance he would have ended up as the leader of the secret society rather than ostracised and in counselling for behavioural issues.
Superficially a fun read but with an underlying message for anyone who cares to see it. Highly recommended-Lynn.

Monday, November 17

The Girl Most Likely – Rebecca Sparrow

When she was seventeen, Rachel Hill was set up for success – prefect, good marks and a life plan. Five years later everything was still on track – an Honours degree under her belt and a glamorous job as a travel writer, the only thing missing was a ring on her left hand. Half a decade on and Rachel’s not quite where she expected – no longer features editor for a prestigious magazine, Rachel’s a part-time nanny for obnoxious six-year-old Alex, house-sitting for her parents in her childhood home, and has been roped into running for the Miss Brisbane pageant. And she still hasn’t managed to tell her parents she got married in Vegas.
The long-distance relationship that was full of promise, that made her resign her job, fell apart and Rachel can’t quite manage to tell anyone except her best friend Zoë. When tidying through her old bedroom, Rachel finds a list of “things to achieve before I turn 28” she wrote when she was seventeen. With a bit of fudging she’s met all of them, except one. Determined to get at least one thing right, Rachel vows to play “Jessica’s Theme” from The Man From Snowy River by the end of October. And in the process she manages to fix her life up.
I quite enjoyed Rachel’s journey, but there were a number of things that I found irritating about The Girl Most Likely, chief of which was the unnecessary stylistic decision to render everyone but Rachel’s speech in quote-free italics:
“Hey you, good work! You were fantastic.”
Did you see me wave, Rachel?
“I certainly did! You were the prettiest girl up there!”
Look what Matt gave me, she says…
“When did he?”
There he is!
And so on. It was distracting, annoyed me every single time, and contributed nothing to the novel. As I read it I thought it was a little like newbies on message boards who think the reason nobody else is writing in ALL CAPS is because they haven’t thought of it.
That aside, though, The Girl Most Likely is a fun and frothy addition to the genre. Sparrow injects genuinely amusing touches lightly through the novel. Her description of Alex’s cat, Snowy, “looking like he’s had a hard night out at the Sydney Mardi Gras” after Alex had at him with tinsel and fuchsia nail polish, was great. Rachel’s narration of proofing lesbian Zoë’s attempts at writing what she thinks is straight erotic fiction (“but “would actually be classed as porn. Very bad, dirty porn... the type of porn that would turn the stomach’s of the judges who read Zoë’s entries”) is another highlight.
The romance rings true, the hero flawed but genuine, and the obstacles are relatively believable – even the main barrier, Rachel failing to disclose her marital status, is handled well.
All in all this is a particularly good first novel, and I’m interested to see what else Ms Sparrow has produced since this was published in 2000. - Alex

Sunday, November 16

Gagged and Bound - Natasha Cooper

When barrister Trish Maguire is called on by her superior to handle a distraught author whose been confronted by a libel suit, she expects the matter to be easily dealt with. Bea Bowman’s usual subjects are nineteenth century figures, but she’s just published a biography of 70’s bomber Jeremy Marton, who served twenty years in jail. On his release he set up and ran homeless shelters, but when it was discovered that they were being used to disperse drugs, without his knowledge, Jeremy committed suicide. The discovery of his diaries, and a mysterious, heretofore unknown conspirator, Baiborn, open an old case wide open. Unfortunately for Bea, Baiborn is the private nickname for the newly minted Lord Tick of Southsea, and Lord Tick is enraged.
When Trish’s friend, DI Caro Lyalt, is contacted by an old friend, whistle-blowing cop Stephanie Taft, about an extremely sensitive matter – corruption at the very highest levels of the London Metropolitan Police, she’s a little suspicious. Although Steph’s had a number of successes, she’s seen as being out of control and unsubstantiated. The man she accuses is not only Caro’s rival, and front-runner, for a hush-hush liaison role Caro’s on the short list for, he’s also Steph’s ex. But when Steph lays out what lead to her suspicions, Caro becomes at least partly convinced, and when Steph’s shot and killed during a raid, her suspicions increase.
The two main plots, and a few secondary ones, combine in a convincing and richly detailed novel that is one of Cooper’s best, in a series that’s fast paced, well plotted and peopled with strongly characters. I’ve sadly read this out of order, making some of Trish’s personal life (the inclusion of her young half-brother in her household, and the solidification of her relationship with partner George) a little disjointed, but Cooper includes enough background that I was easily able to grasp the gist, and it’s with a sufficiently deft hand that I suspect readers who tackle the series chronologically wouldn’t be jarred by the reminder. Next, please! - Alex

Saturday, November 15

Flotsam – David Weisner

Flotsam tells the story of a scientifically inquisitive young boy at the beach. After examining a crab under a magnifying glass, he wanders down to the sea edge to see what else there is to look at, and is bowled over by a wave. Among the flotsam washed up is an old-fashioned, waterproof camera. When the boy takes the film to be developed he discovers an underwater world he’d never imagined, and a photo of another child, holding a photo of a child holding a photo… when he puts the picture under a microscope he can see pictures right back to the turn of the nineteenth century.
The story line is creative, but what sets Flotsam apart is the quality of the illustrations – wholly without words Weisner, in beautifully detailed and imaginative drawings, conveys a range of emotions (the sequence where the boy waits impatiently for the photos to be developed articulates a combination of boredom, anticipation and impatience more articulately than words could), scientific curiosity rewarded, and the scenarios he portrays are fantastic. From a school of fish, where one is mechanical clockwork, to giant walking islands of starfish, from storytime in a sqid family’s living room to tiny alien explorers, the level of detail and uniqueness means that Flotsam is fresh however often it’s encountered.
We don’t usually review picture books, but Weisner’s work is exceptional – I have every one of his hard-to-source-in-Australia books – and Flotsam was such a hit with my three-year-old niece that I felt compelled to include it here. - Alex

Friday, November 14

The Flight of the Iguana – David Quammen

This collection of essays, subtitled A Sidelong View of Science and Nature, is at the softer end of the genre, mixing a sizeable amount of the writer into the writing. Almost necessarily dated (the collection was first published two decades ago), most of Quammen’s essays are still relevant and interesting today.
Sometimes this is because of the timeless subject matter- “Thinking About Earthworms,” for example, looks at Darwin’s lifelong (and unknown to me) interest in worms, an interest that trumped his far more well known writing on evolution, segues into a reflection on the disadvantages of a population that thinks about the same things rather than one composed of people interested in a diversity of things. “Talk is Cheap” explores our concept of what makes something human, a question we’re no closer on – at least by consensus – than we were then, and also looks at our lack of regard for the chimpanzees researchers taught to sign, brought up alongside humans, and then abandoned. Two essays - the title essay and a companion piece - look at why evolution on islands is so different, an observation no less true now than when Darwin first noted it.
Other essays caught my attention because, though contemporary when published, they reminded me of things I’d long forgotten – the plague of Crown of Thorn starfish along the Great Barrier Reef, for example, or the 1985 rescue of a pod of whales trapped in ice by a ship full of Russian sailors
Other essays are chilling in their relevance to today - an essay on African bed bugs foreshadows the ‘intelligent design’ vanguard currently rampaging through the US, another on piranha clearly depicts that unforeseen effects of disrupting native habitats, and “Island Getaway” explains why saving wildlife can be an exercise in futility. “The Bearded Lizard” and “The Desert is a Mnemonic Device” discuss Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees, and when Quammen observes that the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service frame their desperate flight from tyranny so as to undermine the validity of their status, involving “a trick of perspective,” I was reminded of how far a distance we’ve travelled – sadly in the wrong direction.
Throughout it all Quammen maintains a wry tone – in “The Lonesome Ape” he discusses a book by anthropologist Jeffrey H Schwartz, where a key theory is presented “at much greater (somewhat tedious) length” than can be done justice in an essay. A little later Quammen observes that much of the book is “intently disputable. It is also fresh, imaginative, torturous in its logic, abundantly researched, turgidly expressed (The Red Ape can’t be recommended, alas, as bedtime reading)…” The Flight of the Iguana is also fresh and imaginative, lucid in its logic, substantially researched but inspiringly presented, and is not recommended for bedtime reading only because it’s difficult not to read ‘just one more’ essay before switching off the light. - Alex

Thursday, November 13

Odd One Out – Monica McInerny

It makes sense that Sylvie Devereaux would work for her mother and sisters. Talented they may be, but her flamboyant artist mother, bohemian Fidelma, fashion designer Vanessa and jewellery designer Cleo, are far too busy creating to get their own dry-cleaning or organise events. Just how the genius that everyone else has missed her is a mystery to all; after all, even her long-estranged father is a respected academic and poet, and her beloved brother Sebastian has won awards for his lighting. The youngest of the family, Sylvie is used to being ignored and taken for granted. Besides, she knows that deep down Fidelma and her sisters appreciate the unique qualities of organization and understanding she brings to her role.
That is until Vanessa’s second wedding, where embarrassing Aunt Mill loudly announces, just as the reception noise dies down, that Sylvie should come and live with her, two spinsters together. Not even thirty, Sylvie’s outraged and humiliated in front of Sydney’s elite. When Seb encourages her to housesit in Melbourne while he’s away, reassuring her that the family won’t be left on the lurch, Sylvie agrees, and in the breathing room provided she finds love and a clear picture of who she is in her own right, out of the shade of her famous family.
Considerably more slender than McInerny’s usual novels, and without her trademark combination of Irish and Australian influences, Odd One Out is nonetheless a great read. The central characters are clearly and sympathetically drawn, the secondary characters reveal pivotal aspects of themselves through dialogue rather than omniscient observation (all show, no tell), and the family history unfolds naturally, with a total absence of clumsy exposition. The relationship between Sylvie and Seb is warm and loving, and the descriptions of his thoughtfulness at a time when Sylvie’s needs were unmet by her distracted, self-absorbed mother and clannish, unpleasant sisters, are like balm.
There’s romance, but it plays a secondary role to Sylvie’s journey of self-discovery and emancipation. Even so, McInerney avoids the obvious – a potential stumbling block in the relationship is removed early and easily (“Much as I’d love to be your brother-in-law, Sebastian and I bat for different teams”), and provides fodder for jokes between the couple.
Most importantly, the reasons for Sylvie’s outlook are uncovered, with sensitivity and subtlety – how betrayals in past relationship make her wary now, how her parents’ divorce and the disappearance of Sebastian affected her, and her transformation is both realistic and unexpected. It was this last that I think I enjoyed most of all – it would have been easy for McInerney to wrap Sylvie up in a bow of romantic happiness, but she chose instead to launch Sylvie on a path of independence and self-reliant power that I found deeply satisfying.
Although my childhood was in many ways quite different from Sylvie’s, I found a lot in Odd One Out that I connected with. McInerney portrays particularly well the layered complexity of familial relationships that are the glue holding this perfect novel together. - Alex

Wednesday, November 12

Saved - Kate Morgenroth

Pilot Lieutenant Commander Ellie Somers works for the Coast Guard service, flying out of Alaska’s Air Station Siska – the toughest flying job in the service. The only woman at the station, Ellie has trouble fitting in – the wives don’t really like her, and her colleagues don’t appreciate just how good she is. Her only real competition, Sam Patano, never misses an opportunity to dump on her. But when Ellie’s flying none of that matters. She’s just saved her fourteenth person, a man who sailed right into a storm, and she used some great moves to get him and her team safely ashore. For Ellie, it’s all about the flying and the tricks.
Until the night Ellie and her crew are sent out after a suspicious boat. When it doesn’t slow, Ellie taps the cabin with her skids, over the protests of her crewmates. Suddenly her helicopter loses control, and the last thing she remembers in the water closing in. When Ellie wakes up it’s to devastating news, news that causes Ellie to pack up her life and take off with a stranger. It’s uncharacteristic behaviour, but Ellie’s still in shock.
I was disappointed when I began reading Saved – the writing was technical and bogged down by detail (I now know considerably more than I ever thought I would about the Coast Guard service, helicopter operations and rescues), and slabs of exposition were justified by a journalist character who existed almost solely to have things explained to him. I was particularly frustrated by the lack of detail about Ellie’s last rescue – the man who sailed right into a storm was an irritating cipher. I was p[articularly disappointed because I'd sought this out after so enjoying Morgenroth's YA novel, Framed.
But about half way through the novel I became gripped, as the ponderous information gave way to a number of mysteries. Why has Nicholas, the stranger Ellie meet in a clothing shop, brought her with him to Vegas? What’s the story behind his relationship with his shipping tycoon father? Why is Ellie acting so uncharacteristically? What will her former colleagues uncover about the event that so dramatically affected her life? Is Ellie really as abandoned and forgotten as she thought? Most of all, what’s the secret Nicolas is hiding, and what lengths has he gone to to engineer the current situation?
Though not hugely convoluted, Saved has a number of plot twists that depend on surprise, which is why I’m being so cryptic. All the questions and more are answered by the end of this very satisfying, in initially turgid novel. - Alex

Tuesday, November 11

The Tea House on Mulberry Street – Sharon Owens

Daniel and Penny Stanley have run the teahouse on Mulberry Street since they were first married, and though Penny scours glossy magazines for ideas on decorating, Muldoon’s Tea Rooms is unchanged from the days her parents ran it. Every morning Daniel makes the cakes and scones and light meals that keep Belfast citizens coming in, and the little shop connects a widely disparate group of people. There are the Crawley sisters, charity fund-raising spinsters who have a somewhat jaundiced view of the world and a high regard for the Queen; Brenda Brown, an unsuccessful artist convinced that she’d get the recognition her work deserves if only she had a better name and was from another town, who writes unsent letters of admiration in gold pen on red paper to her idol, actor Nicholas Cage; housewife Sadie Smith escapes from her loveless marriage to conservatory salesman Arnold, and his determination she ceaselessly diet, by diving into Daniel’s superlative cheesecake; and successful ex-pat and magazine editor Clare Fitzgerald hopes to find her lost love, Peter, in the tea rooms where she first fell in love with him. In the mentime retiree Henry Blackstaff’s beloved garden is being taken over by wife Aurora’s plans to extend her Brontë Bunch reading group by building a huge conservatory – perhaps his Uncle Bertie’s monkeypuzzle tree will have to be felled, and all his carefully tended plants moved, but surely he wouldn’t begrudge her this for the sake of a few old twigs! Besides, the BBC might be going to film a documentary.
Although complicated, intricate and intertwining, I warmed not at all to this Irish tale of frustration and dissatisfaction. Though it ends satisfactorily enough, with resolution for all and just punushment for the few genuinely unpleasant characters, the unceasing misery of so many people was exhausting. Not only that, but not a single one was prepared to change their lives themselves, despite their deep unhappiness, and change comes only when the decision is made for them. Sadie, for example, is clearly miserable in her marriage, but instead of addressing it she drowns her sorrows in cheesecake until she by chance sees Arnold with a glamorous woman unmistakably his mistress.
The motivation is often simplistic (Daniel, abandoned by his glamorous, feckless mother, was raised by a dour aunt who was only ever interested in saving money and watching every penny, so he is unwilling to spend on anything unnecessary or frivolous), and none of the characters rang true for me. I found The Tea House on Mulberry Street both too complicated and heavily peopled, and too superficial and miserable to enjoy, though I did read it to the end. - Alex

Monday, November 10

Rule No. 1 – Rupert Morgan

In a universe only slightly different from our own, the United States of Atlantis is still reeling from the Day The World Changed, when a sleeper virus caused the Stock Exchange computers to endlessly loop once the Exchange’s value hit 15,000 points. Perhaps the terrorists hadn’t expected quite as much damage – the overheating supercomputers caught fire, the knocked out computer system caused the sprinkler system to fail, and the stock exchange itself caught fire, killing hundreds. A worldwide manhunt soon discovered that the terrorists were hiding in the Middle Eastern country of Kalashnistan, and the Atlantian government declared war. “The Atlantians won. So they’d be crazy to stop now.”
Erratian beekeeper Saman Massoudi has troubles of his own. All he wants is to reinvigorate the honey market, and his Al-Nur Bee and Comb company, by increasing awareness of the delicious honey made by Jana bees. His cousin Aziz lives in Atlantis, and has mailed him some of the genetically modified bees they have there, though Saman’s not too impressed, particularly when the parcel of bees results in him being a suspect during an attempted assassination attempt on The General of Errat. As Saman tries to extricate himself from a mess caused by the wilful stupidity of those in power, who hear only what they want to hear, in Atlantis the media are heightening fear and anxiety.
A blistering satire about the War on Terror, Morgan captures many elements of contemporary life well, from the shortsightedness of non-sustainable farming to the impact of global policies on individuals, and the sacrifice of logic in favour of conspiracy and paranoia.
There are too many plot strands to discuss in detail, so I’ll give one example to showcase Morgan’s characterisation and style: the Atlantian leader, President Hedges, is chilling in his assurance that his presidency is a sign from God that he’s made, and will make, the right choices – “Without God he might have been too weak to do what sometimes had to be done, because it took a lot of love to put a man to death…” Sure, some people think he wasn’t really elected president, but if God had wanted that other guy to win then he would have won. The fact that President Hedges is president is proof that that was God’s plan, and anyone who doesn’t understand that is a confused individual who haven’t let God into their hearts. And while, during the election, “his critics had said he’d been responsible for more executions that anyone else in the country, ever” Hedges now knows that this was because God was preparing him all along for this War.
Other sub-plots involve a staffer for the President’s team working on the top 50 threats to the United States of Atlantis, an on-going terror warning about bees, a torture expert who cannot rest until his guilty prisoners (and they’re all guilty) confess, an emasculated Prime Minister whose wife only recognises his potency when he’s commanding and invading, and the Spiegelflug family: Liberty Lodge switchboard operator Marg, disaster-prepared bookkeeper Ned Snr, teenage Hermione and disaffected son Ned Jnr, filled with knowledge that pretty much everything really sucks.
Interspersed with plot are transcripts from Atlantian news broadcasts, warning the public about threats that lie in wait for them at every turn. It’s frightening how believable these are, full of inaccuracy, double-speak, inconsistency, flawed premises, hyperbole and unquestioning assurance.
Rule No. 1 (from President Hedges' maxim that “people fear death”) is difficult to categorise. I wasn’t as engrossed as I was with Underground, but I can’t tell if that’s because I’ve hyped the latter in my memory, that it resonated more because it was Australian, due to my reading it first, or because it was a little less strident. In the absence of the influence of Underground, though, Rule No. 1 is strong, complex, powerful and important. It’s a shame that the people who would most benefit from reading it are the least likely to read it. Or perhaps, with the recent change in US government, that will no longer matter. - Alex

Sunday, November 9

L A Banks: Minion

Best selling spoken word artist by day, vampire hunter by night, this young woman was born with a calling and together with her group of guardians she’s on a mission to keep the streets demon free for us all.
That’s not easy when a lot of the evil in the world is aided and abetted by men seeking a fast route to power and glory, especially when you’ve got a burning passion for one such man and under no circumstances can you tell him of the evil at the heart of what he seeks or that you’re the millennium slayer.
Any of this sounding familiar?
Minion read like bad Buffy fanfic with a black cast and a liberal splattering of ‘90s street slang.
It’s difficult to write dialect well, it’s even harder when applied to stilted dialogue-the result was clunky at best; difficult to understand at times, and somewhat dated.
I would expect that the first book in a series to spend time world building and developing characters and I would have forgiven the thin plot if this had been the case but it was not. The reader is dumped into a world without explanation, the heroine is a whiney arsed brat, her support cast cardboard cut-outs and the large slabs of exposition that substitute for plot fail dismally.
But the greatest sin of this book, and there were plenty to choose from (the heavy right wing Christian elements, the aforesaid large slabs of exposition, the complete lack of action through most of the story, the excess of introspection, a heroine few people could relate to), was simply that it was boring.
The horror scenes lacked horror-I’ve seen scarier things in the bottom of my veggie crisper. The erotic scenes (no sex please-the slayer must be pure) had all the sensuality of those scary things I found in the bottom of my veggie crisper. This book was dull, dull, dull. The only reason I finished it was because I thought it might just pick up once it settled into itself. I was disappointed. Very disappointed. Not recommended.-Lynn

Saturday, November 8

The Devil’s Bones – Jefferson Bass

Still recovering from the traumatic events in Flesh and Bone, Body Farm creator and forensic anthropologist Dr Bill Brockton has a fresh challenge. The charred body of a middle-aged woman has been found in a burned out car on an isolated farm; the prime suspect is her husband, but he was in Vegas when the flames from the car were seen by a passing motorist – could he have killed his wife, and if so how?
Just as he’s getting underway, Brockton’s contacted by his former lawyer, Burt DeVreiss – now it’s his turn for help. DeVreiss’s beloved aunt was recently cremated, but though the family specifically asked for her titanium knee replacements to be returned along with the ashes, all they received was a light bag of grainy powder and what look like small rocks and detritus. Can Brockton help reassure his family that Aunt Jean was taken care of appropriately?
As if this were not enough, Brockton’s nemesis, the man who framed him for murder in Flesh and Bone, has escaped and will stop at nothing to wreak harm and revenge on the venerated scientist.
Inspired by the real events in Noble, Georgia, The Devil’s Bones combines real anthropological detail with three mysteries - what happened to Aunt Jean? How did Stuart Latham burn his wife to death when he was in another state? And when will the psychotic killer strike at Brockton?
I found The Devil’s Bone more melodramatic and less tight that its predecessors, with pointless meanderings (like a whole page on the superior quality of Hardee hot biscuits – which I believe are scone-like – over those at Cracker Barrel, institutions I imagine are chain restaurants). The pathology detail, which focused primarily on the differences between burns to bone freshly dead and fleshed versus defleshed and dried, were more compelling than this summation makes it sound, and I found the detail about cremation processes very interesting.
It was, however, still streets ahead of many other novels in the genre, including the later works of Patricia Cornwell. I’ll be interested in reading the next instalment when it comes out, in hopes that the writing team of anthropologist Bill Bass and writer/journalist Jon Jefferson continues to deliver. - 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, November 7

Jo Beverley: A Lady's Secret

When a notorious rake hears a nun cursing in a French Inn he is immediately captivated. Bored and seeking amusement, he offers to help her reach England. She accepts and the rake gets more than he bargained for because although she is fresh from three years in a convent, this lady is no nun. She is, in fact, the bastard daughter of an English lord desperately seeking her father’s protection now that her mother is dead and a rejected lover is stalking her through Europe.
So begins an historical road trip story. The pair flees France in disguise having adventures involving murderous prostitutes, smugglers, kidnapping and romantic encounters before reaching their destination.
Once in England the woman finds her father and is acknowledged by him but his name doesn’t provide the protection she hoped for. Her jilted lover attempts to take her from a masquerade but her rakish hero saves her. We are led to believe that the two live happily ever after.
I must be honest and admit that I read this book some time ago and though I remember liking it at the time I am hard pressed now to remember what about it appealed to me in particular.
I was surprised by the ease with which the heroine was accepted by a rich and powerful father that didn’t know of her existence until she showed up on his doorstep but sometimes you have to suspend your disbelief for the sake of the story.
It was nice that the heroine wasn’t a retiring virgin nor a feisty woman-of-the-world. She was no innocent. She’d had a lover but things hadn’t worked out and she was in no hurry to take another but neither was she trying to hide her ‘shame’ which was realistic and refreshing.
A few familiar characters from an earlier work made an appearance near the end of this book and it’s always fun to catch up with old ‘friends’.
In the end this was like a lazy summer afternoon-enjoyable at the time but nothing made it stand out from all the others of its ilk and while remembered with a general fondness for its kind this particular one is, only a few weeks later, ultimately forgettable.-Lynn

Thursday, November 6

Until the Real Thing Comes Along – Elizabeth Berg

Patty Murphy imagines her life as a mother – listening to fascinating fact about ants, waiting at home with her blond toddler for the older children to come home from school, watching her dark-haired daughter colouring with crayons. She wants a child with an almost visceral need, but Patty’s still single, and childless. She really wants to be a mother, but so far the closest thing she’s had to enduring relationship was with Ethan, and it broke her heart when he told her he was gay. He’s still her closest friend and confidant, and deep down Patty knows that if he could just love her everything would be fine.
I’m a little conflicted about my connection to the protagonist of Until the Real Thing Comes Along. I haven’t ever really felt a strong desire to have children, and my maternal needs are satisfied by the offspring of friends and siblings; this naked need made me uncomfortable – what is it that Patty thinks a child (or brood) will provide that will somehow complete her? All her fantasies are of harmony and Rockwell-esque portraits of family – is she prepared for less than perfect children? And what is she avoiding by continuing to pine for an unavailable man?
Berg’s gift is the touches of universal individuality. Despite this fundamental difference between us, there were many aspects of Patty that deeply resonated for me, including her status in the family. While:

I hate being the eldest. I hate being the only one who stayed, the one responsible for my parents while my sisters and brother do whatever they want. I hate being the only one unmarried and childless… the one they all worry about in ways that are just a little too-self-satisfied...
doesn’t wholly apply to me, enough of it does for it to ring true. And, like Patty, I used to feel pressure to buy something if I entered a shop, even if there was nothing there I wanted or needed.
Almost a decade old, there are a couple of passing notes that date the novel, primarily the outrageous idea that one might have a CD player in a car, but also the difference in landscapes between AIDS in the late ‘90s and now. For the most part, though, Berg’s writing is lucid, lyric and timeless, and beautifully combines poetry with pragmatism:
I realise I’m hungry. I hate when ordinary needs intrude on a melancholy reverie, but there you are, that’s a body for you.

- Alex

Wednesday, November 5

P N Elrod: Cold Streets

It’s 1938 Chicago and the Lady Crymsyn nightclub has been named by local mob bosses as neutral territory, a situation its vampire owner wants to see continue. But rival gang members from New York have other ideas and when a mafia leader is shot outside his premises the vampire is pulled unwillingly into a gang turf war. At the same time a kidnapping case he was assisting his detective friend to solve turns ugly when the head kidnapper turns out to be a society swell with a lot of influential friends and a strong suspicion about the vampire’s true nature.
Delicate negotiations don’t seem to be able to head off violence from either source and the vampire with a thirst for justice as well as blood has his work cut out for him if he is to survive these trials and keep his friends safe at the same time.
Though one of a series this book stands alone, which is just as well since my library doesn’t have any of the other series works.
Written in the noir style, Elrod does a great job of bringing the 1930s to life. The hard-boiled detective standing alone against the injustices of the world worked well with a vampire hero. The plot was intricate without undue complexity and the characters truly three dimensional. Parts of this book were real page turners, which is why I find myself so very disappointed with the ending.
Neither situation is resolved by the end of the book. While I understand the author’s desire to end on a cliff hanger to set up the next book (I knew going in this was part of a series after all) I am disappointed that everything is left up in the air. Given that there were two main subplots it wouldn’t have hurt to tie up either one here so that the reader isn’t left without any payoff at all for the effort of reading the book. Fans of the series might be more forgiving but this methodology puts me off and now that I know she uses it I won’t be reading any more of Elrod’s work.-Lynn

Tuesday, November 4

Maximum Security – Robert Muchamore

In an international cooperative project, James Adams is inserted into an Arizona jail for underage offenders who’ve been sentenced as adults. His mission is to break out the jail, along with Curtis Oxford, the son of one of America’s most wanted, and secretive, criminals. The mission is high risk – the jail itself is predominantly run by the inmates, with factions and weapons rife, and none of the armed staff will know that James is an agent. Part of the plan’s design is to broadcast that a staff member died during the jail break, and none of the police will know that James isn’t a cop killer.
Once again, Muchamore has created a gripping, compelling and textured novel. The jail scenes are chilling, the sense of danger palpable, and the pace relentless. At the same time the character development progresses, layering not only our understanding of James but of his target, too.
Though not as graphic as its predecessor, Maximum Security would also be distressing for younger readers, predominantly because of the violent lawlessness and injury in the jail scenes and during the escape.

This review is brief only because it's the third Muchamore review I've written in a row, and it's getting hard to think of new and inteesting ways of saying I think this is a killer series. Fortunately there'll be a bit of a break because my CHERUB-series supplier doesn't have book four and so I'm on the library waiting list (eigheenth and waiting), so the next review should be invigorated! - Alex

Monday, November 3

Class A - Robert Muchamore

James Adams (CHERUB agents get to chose their own names) is settling in to life as a CHERUB agent. He’s never going to enjoy school, but the subjects are more interesting and he gets more individualised attention. More importantly, he’s about to head out on a four-agent mission, to infiltrate the Keith Moore Gang, a drug empire headed by a slippery man who has corrupt Met officers working on his payroll. Each agent has a designated target within the Moore family, and James finds himself getting close to Junior.
Class A deals with themes that may not be appropriate for younger readers – although my copy isn’t marked, current editions have a warning on the cover of each book in the series to this effect. Rather than portraying drug use and commerce in black and white terms, Muchamore has drawn a more realistic and grey-toned picture of illicit drug use, from under-age alcohol use to the insidiousness of category A (as cocaine, heroin, speed etc are known in the UK) drug use.
In Class A Muchamore also depicts his characters, including James, acting like actual people, often in ways that children are not generally portrayed – James has a problem with anger management, and has to endure the consequences of poor impulse control, including inflicting serious damage on a friend. When another friend tells James that he’s gay, James reacts honestly but not well, and this continues to be an issue for him for a while. I cannot think of another novel, let alone series, that has a juvenile male protagonist dealing with drugs, violence, alcohol and sex (albeit in the abstract for now) like this, let alone in as realistic and layered way.
The action is fast-paced, James is sympathetic – even when he’s homophobic – and relatable, and Muchamore has created a rich world in which to play. I went straight from Class A to the third in the series, and suspect that, if I had them, I’d be reading through to the end without interruption. - Alex

Sunday, November 2

The Recruit – Robert Muchamore

James Choke is almost twelve, and his life is starting to spiral out of control. After he responds to one of his classmates teasing him about his fat mother he’s suspended, not something Gwen Choke will take well. Although she often seems more interested in her shoplifting empire than him, she takes school seriously. When he finds his mother’s dead body, though, James has bigger worries than school – he’s placed in a home, separated from his half-sister Lauren, and his slide into criminality accelerates.
Until James is recruited by CHERUB, a super-secret organisation of child spies. Aged between ten and seventeen, CHERUB agents are smart, tough and well trained. If James makes it through basic training he’ll go out on missions, infiltrating organizations that adults can’t. In the process, he’ll be drilled in a variety of martial arts, critical thinking, endurance training, espionage tactics, and be expected to maintain a decent grade in regular subjects.
This is the first in a blockbuster series, and Muchamore hits the ground running. James is a strongly drawn, flawed character with believable motivation, and once you grant the underlying premise the novel is convincing. The other characters, particularly the other CHERUB agents, are equally well portrayed and the adults cover a spectrum of personalities. I enjoyed The Recruit so much I went straight to the second in the series, and only regret I’m writing the review so much later I can’t give any specifics about what made it so enjoyable. - Alex

PS If you're wondering what CHERUB is an acronym for, get in line - nobody knows, but Muchamore's very interested in hearing from anyone who has ideas!

Saturday, November 1

Kresley Cole: No Rest for the Wicked

A Valkyrie sent to assassinate a vampire finds that she can not kill him when he offers her no resistance. The encounter has her spooked; her intense hatred of vampires began millennia ago when a vampire killed both of her sisters and she has never failed to take a head since.
On the vampire’s part, he was turned against his will and has spent the centuries since in a self loathing decline, yet morally unable to kill himself. He sees the Valkyrie assassin as his salvation, until they meet and he experiences an immediate attraction to her. Suddenly he has something to live for, and her inability to kill him gives him hope that she might feel the same.
The unlikely pair team up in a legendary treasure hunt to win the ultimate prize of two trips back in time. He wants to prevent himself from turning into a vampire, she wants to save her sisters. But in changing the past they risk changing the present and losing each other.
Needless to say things conclude satisfactorily for all concerned.
This story’s strength lay mainly in the unique plot. A supernatural scavenger hunt run by a temperamental goddess is a novelty.
The characters were interesting, if a little superficial, and the conflict between them believable-as was its resolution.
The sex, which seems mandatory in this genre, was steamy even though the hero was relatively inexperienced. I was relieved to find that here sex did not equal love, nor did it prop up a thin plot.
I believe that this is part of a series, though obviously the books stand alone, or at least this one did. I would read another if it crossed my path but I have no urge to go out and hunt one down.
An easy enjoyable read when what you’re wanting is something light.-Lynn