Wednesday, December 31

Better – Atul Gawande

Subtitled A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, this second collection of essays by the brilliant author of Complications doesn’t disappoint. As he did last time, Gawande explores a range of topical and relevant medical themes, beginning with an individual situation or case, expanding out to encompass the wider aspects of the issue, then bringing it back to the starting point. Each section articulates an aspect of good practice and positive deviance – the qualities that distinguish an ordinary practitioner from an extraordinary one.
Gawande’s exemplary qualities are Diligence (“both central to performance and devilishly hard”), Doing Right (the issues and conflicts that arise as a consequence of being a flawed human being), and Ingenuity (“a willingness to recognize failure… and to change.It arises from deliberate, even obsessive, reflection on failure and a constant searching for new solutions.”). Each section contains a number of thematically-connected essays that between them cover topics as wide ranging as the problems of hand washing in hospitals, the participation of health care professionals in applying the death penalty, medical litigation, and what separates a good cystic fibrosis service from a great one.
Gawande writes in an accessible, lucid and vivid manner that appeals as much to lay readers as health professionals. Tags and annotations distort my copy, because I found something valuable on almost every page – he articulates complex matters clearly and concisely, illustrates the macrocosm of medicine with vivid personal stories of individuals, and left me inspired. He is also refreshingly honest about his own failings, as an intern (in the introduction) and practitioner (particularly in the opening essay, about the difficulty of translating the acknowledged importance of vigilant hand washing into action). A valuable companion piece to How Doctors Think in terms of medical philosophy, Better should be required reading for all undergraduate medical students, as well as anyone who wants to write in the health care field. - Alex

Tuesday, December 30

Northern Lights – Nora Roberts

Reeling from the death of his partner, a shooting for which he blames himself, Nate Burke’s left his job as Baltimore cop to be the first Chief of Police in the tiny town of Lunacy, Alaska, population 500 and change, including the sort of eccentric characters small towns are known for – the aging beauty who’ll sleep with any man passing through, and a pair of twins who’ll fight each other half to the death over any disagreement. Nate half expects to pull out before his probationary time is up, but from the beginning he sleeps through the night for the first time since Jack was shot, and he is instantly attracted to fiercely independent pilot Meg Galloway.
An Outsider from the Lower 48, Nate knows it’ll be some time until he’s accepted, especially as he makes changes the town aren’t all happy about – he refuses to kowtow to the town’s wealthy resident, banker Ed Woolcott; he locks up Drunk Jim, the town dipsomaniac, whenever he goes on a bender. As he expects, most of the crimes in town are relatively minor, but when a group of college students (local boy Stephen and some friends) find the body of a frozen man in a mountain cave while getting lost winter mountain climbing, Nate finds himself investigating a murder, and the crime, committed sixteen years earlier, continues to ripple through modern-day Lunacy.
Lynn and I have not had great success with Nora Roberts thus far, but a friend highly recommended Northern Lights. I was initially irritated by the writing style, primarily by the short paragraphs (no longer than three sentences, and often only one), but as the characters and the plot - both interesting, absorbing, layered and coherent - began to engage me this faded until I didn’t notice it at all. I particularly liked that Meg was able to fend for herself, a fact respected by Nate, but that this was tempered by restraint, so she didn’t brainlessly dart into danger (except when her dogs were threatened). The ‘physical love’ scenes were well executed, with enough detail without being unnecessarily explicit, and the attraction is plausible.
The mystery adds a framework for the series and mercifully obviates the need for artificial obstacles to the romance, and the Alaskan environment (where winter shades into summer in sync with Nate’s recovery), including the Inuit characters, create a subtle but distinct background. I won’t be rushing to read everything Roberts has written (a task which would occupy most of 2009 in any case) but I’m open to another novel. – Alex

Monday, December 29

Douglas Preston: Blasphemy

The world’s largest supercollider was designed by a Nobel laureate to recreate the very moment of the big bang but nobody knows for sure what will happen when the machine is turned on.
The scientists working with the machine hope it will unlock the mysteries of the universe, others warn it could all go horribly wrong and suck the earth into a miniature black hole, while a superstar televangelist has convinced his followers the machine is an attempt to disprove genesis and that its designer is the Antichrist.
When government officials notice that the machine has been drawing power but the scientists on site insist that it is not yet operational they send in a man undercover to discover what the scientists are trying to hide.
He finds out that the scientists believe a hacker has implanted a chatterbot program that can pass the Turin test into their software and they want to find it before they make a report to save themselves an excess of embarrassment. But they can’t locate the program and as time goes on they come to believe that they are not seeking an example of artificial intelligence at all but have made contact with God.
Word leaks out and fundamentalist Christians band together and head to the Arizona desert, where the machine is located deep underground, believing they are about to commence the battle of Armageddon. They succeed in destroying the machine and killing its creator.
But they fail to kill all of the scientists working on the project. Those scientists take the printouts of the machine and present them as the words of God founding a new religion based on pure science.
Only one man alive knows the truth behind those conversations with God and he is not entirely sure whether the words are in fact those of God or not.
If you’re looking for meaningful discourse on the science vs religion debate, look elsewhere this is not the book for you.
But if you’re happy to overlook a few plot holes and inconsistencies in pursuit of a fast paced, philosophy-lite, Da Vinci Code-esque thriller then go no further here it is! Though I think it better than that other work in spite of the abundance of clichés both overt and implied (fundamentalist Christians=bad, scientists=eccentrics + altruists + humanitarians, Catholic ‘rewarded’ for standing by his faith, Navajo only people truly in touch with the spiritual), the main character being two dimensional and the behaviour of the scientists not holding up to close examination.
The pace is maintained by a combination of very short chapters and having action taking place on four fronts making it quite a fast read. I found its most redeeming feature to be the occasional humorous touch (usually at the expense of fans of the Left Behind series). I would read more of this author. He’s good if you’re in the mood for a light conspiracy theory but only if you can suspend your disbelief for the duration.-Lynn

Sunday, December 28

24 Hours - Greg Isles

24 Hours opens with the kidnapping of a young boy, who is safely returned to his family after a ransom is paid, with the warning that they'll be back to kill the child if the police ever hear of it. The kidnapping itself is polished, performed by a team who clearly know what they're doing. A year later it happens all over again - Abby Jennings, also the child of a Mississipi physician, is kidnapped while her father's out of town at a conference. This time, though, things don't go quite as well as the kidnappers (cold leader Joe Hickey, his girlfriend Cheryl and his loyal, large and mildly retarded cousin Huey) expect.
Fast-paced, relatively plausible if a little predictable, 24 Hours is an absorbing read primarily because of the interactions between the characters - Will and his wife Karen, whose marriage is already a little rocky; Huey and Abby; Cheryl and Joe; Cheryl and Will; and Will and Joe. Isles has imbued all his characters with a level of multidimensionality that made me eager to see what would happen next, and why they behaved the way they did. - Alex

Saturday, December 27

The Wrong Sort of Wife? – Elise Chidley

Lizzie Buckley’s life looks perfect – she has two beautiful twins (one of each), a gorgeous husband, upper crust in-laws, and a beautiful house. But she’s exhausted from having barely slept in the three years since Alex and Ellie were born, women ignore her marriage in their rush to drape themselves over James, she knows she’s not close to good enough for her snobby titled mother-in-law, and the perfect house is on the grounds of her husband’s family home – perfectly and immaculately furnished and decorated before she was on the scene, Lizzie feels more like a tenant than the woman of the house.
In an outburst of frustration, exhaustion and angst, Lizzie spills everything in an email to her sister –her appreciation of her husband’s business trips, her seething resentment every time she has to get up during the nights while he fails to stir, and her utter lack of interest in sex. Perhaps she needs a break from marriage. Instead of sending the email to Janie, though, Lizzie realises (as soon as it’s gone) she sent it to James. Before she knows it, Lizzie and the kids are living in a squalid house in the country, while James works out the fastest way to get a divorce.
The Wrong Sort of Wife? is the best kind of chick lit – Lizzie is engaging and real, and Chidley has done a strong job of conveying the unacknowledged labour of motherhood, and the effect this has on women. In her intermittent therapy sessions with the apparently unhelpful Ivana, Lizzie begins to discover the deeper issues running through the fabric of her marriage, and how it could be that James has reacted the way he has.
There are certainly some irritating elements, particularly Lizzie’s transformation from dowdy and fat hausfrau into a lean, sun streaked marathon-running machine. The exercise is fine, it certainly does create endorphins, and this alone doesn’t magically transform Lizzie’s life, though I can’t help but see disempowering subtext (attention all women: you’ll never get or keep a man without being physically perfect – lose the weight, shave your legs, colour your hair!). However, this is something one comes to expect in the genre, and I can let it go.
Letting it go is made easier by the character creation – Lizzie’s friends, her new love interest, Ivana, and the children – Chidley has their voices just right, a realistic blend of toddlerish insight and destruction, with not quite enough cuteness to be twee. In many books the pragmatic aspects of young children are sidelined in the interests of the greater plot; in The Wrong Sort of Wife? they are integrally woven into the fabric of the text. The plot is fresh and more firmly grounded in reality than most, the obstacles between Lizzie and the husband she still loves are not too forced, and there are some nicely tied up secondary plots (that rely only slightly on coincidence). This is Chidley’s first novel, and I’m very interested to see what she writes next. - Alex

Friday, December 26

The Sledding Hill – Chris Crutcher

Eddie Profitt isn’t much regarded by his teachers or classmates, but his father and his best friend Billy (the smartest kid in school) see the intelligence lying behind the questions Eddie asks, questions that nobody else thinks of. When, in short succession, both his father and his best friend die, traumatised by finding both bodies, Eddie shuts down – he eats and sleep and attends class, but he stops talking. Billy, dead but present, tries to communicate with him, and with detached dispassion narrates as Eddie peacefully subverts the system, countering the attempts at censorship lead by local minister (and would be new father) Sanford Tarter.
All Crutcher’s excellent novels explore similar themes of power, abuse, hypocrisy, bigotry, honesty, honour and truth, somehow managing to avoid repetition or staleness. In The Sledding Hill he uses an imaginary novel, Warren Peece (which I'd like to read, if only it were real), written by controversial YA novelist Chris Crutcher, to explore grief, and to dissect censorship, and while it’s strongly slanted to opposing repression he portrays the characters who want to prevent impressionable youths from reading damaging works as having good intentions (though far from being pure).
Crutcher is strongly present through the novel – his background, website, other texts, opinions and strategies to counter censorship (including attendance at schools every year) is explicitly discussed, and he makes an appearance as a character.

To avoid The Sledding Hill itself being opposed by censorship groups, Crutcher has ensured that there's nothing (except for discussion of censorship and it’s opposition) that can lead to it being banned – no offensive language, underage sex, homosexuality, drug use or abuse. There are also some helpful extras, including an interview with the author about the book, contacts for those interested in learning more about censorship, and Crutcher’s response to an attack on another of his novels (where he articulates the position that while people focus on issues in the book, the truly offensive fact is that the abuses he writes about really exist).
An interesting and worthwhile read in itself, in addition to the strong message it sends, I think this book should be required reading for all teens, their parents, and those who promote censorship. - Alex

Thursday, December 25

Tangerine – Edward Bloor

Paul Fisher’s older brother Erik is a star – big in high school football, he dominates wherever they go. Paul, a soccer player, somewhat weedy and bespectacled (because of a mysterious eye issue) is a non-event. When the Fisher’s move to Tangerine, Florida, Paul expects everything to be the same – he’ll be alternately ignored and bullied, and Erik will shine. It’s worse than he expects – thanks to his protective mother’s meddling, Paul’s forbidden to join the soccer team because he’s ‘visually challenged.’ But when an unforseen problem with the school grounds arises, Paul has the option of moving from Lake Windsor Middle High, the well-funded school for wealthy residents, to Tangerine Middle School. Poorly funded, attended by a large non-white population, target of daily lightening strikes and underground fires, Tangerine has a strong, co-ed soccer team. As Paul’s perceptions start to adjust, he learns more about himself, the world and, shockingly, the deep secrets festering in the heart of his family.
This is a strong, compelling novel about secrets, repression and justice, wrapped in a compelling plot with a sympathetic protagonist who grows considerably in the course of the novel. This aspect of the review would be more reviewy if I’d written in shortly after reading Tangerine instead of waiting til the end of year catch up, but it’s now several months later, so all I can give is a general impression – very good. I know, not helpful, and it’s a great book that deserves a more articulate and useful response. - Alex

Wednesday, December 24

Sue Grafton: S is for Silence

In July 1953 a party girl drove off in her brand new Chevy and was never seen again. Thirty-five years later her daughter wants closure so hires a private detective to discover what she can about her mother’s fate.
The private investigator is reluctant to take on a case so old and expects to make no more headway than anyone else has over the years. Against her advice the client insists that the cold case be reopened. The investigator soon discovers most people believe the woman simply ran away from an abusive relationship, a view the PI shares until someone starts trying to scare her off. The unexpected reaction to her vague and unconventional questions leads her to believe she might be on to something. Encouraging confidences from the main players in the case by allowing their lifetime of petty grievances to come to the fore she soon puts together a theory about the fate of the woman.
Her theory proves correct and the car, with body inside, is found buried in the grounds of a ruined house.
Having found the body she hands the case over to the police but in tying up a few loose ends she inadvertently discovers who murdered the woman. Needless to say they are not happy to have their crime uncovered after getting away with it for so long. In a nail biting ending the PI is forced to fight for her life. A fight she wins.
At this exceptionally busy time of year it is nice to have a reliably good read that won’t require too much effort, or time, on the part of the reader. Grafton delivers just that. Familiar yet novel, any book in this long running series would fit the bill.
In this book she uses a slightly different approach. Scattered throughout the story are chapters told from the perspectives of the main players at the time, allowing the reader to build a picture of the days leading up to the disappearance. This gives the reader an opportunity to see the victim through the eyes of those around her and to see who had motives for murder and what those motives were. In doing this the author quite cleverly hides the identity of the true murderer until the very end, since at one point or another everybody appears to be a reasonable suspect.
There was nothing in the way of development for the main character or her usual cast of associates but I don’t feel that was detrimental to this story at all. And the solving of the mystery after so long, including the unmasking of the murderer, didn’t feel at all contrived. The situation that leads to the resolution, though coincidental, felt thoroughly believable.
Overall, interesting without becoming demanding. A good read-Lynn

Monday, December 22

Dream When You’re Feeling Blue – Elizabeth Berg

Kitty Heaney, oldest daughter of three girls and two boys, is a little disappointed when her beau, Julian, is shipped overseas to fight without proposing, particularly as her younger sister Louise is engaged in all but name to Michael. As the impact of the war hits America increasingly hard, Kitty begins to transform from a self-absorbed girl into a woman who thinks before she acts and is aware of her impact on those around her. She leaves her office job to work in a manufacturing plant, to the ruin of her nails and the shock of her mother. She discovers that if letter writing is hard it may be because the feelings you think you have don’t really exist, and that other people can have feelings (and do things) you never guessed at. And she discovers that you can make sacrifices for those you love at great cost to yourself, sacrifices nobody else is ever aware of.
Opening in the early months of America’s entry into the Second World War, Dream When You’re Feeling Blue mirrors the nation’s loss of innocence with Kitty’s journey. Fiction is often a more resonant way of learning about the past than non-fiction, and Berg has woven substantial facts about the era into the prose, incorporating them into the substance of the text, so that (for example) the reader comes away with an impression not just the reality of rationing, women transitioning into non-traditional parts of the workforce, or changing mores, but the affects of these on the day-to-day lives of people. One aspect that I’d never really considered was the unrelenting impact on young children – as Kitty says,
the children’s programs on the radio offered no relief [from images of war and reminders to contribute to the war effort]: the Captain Midnight oath exhorting young listeners "to save my country from the dire peril it faces or perish in the attempt." Superman, with his long distance hearing and X-ray vision and supersonic flying speed, was now tracking down spies, as were the Green Hornet and Tom Mix.
Berg’s characters are real and rounded and complex. The Irish Catholic love of and for family resonates through Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, and informs the somewhat unexpected conclusion some sixty years after the novel opens. Lynn and I don't usually look at other people's opinions about the books we read, but I was interested in how others felt about the ending. I went to, where the response was indeed mixed. One review, cyears, articulates the issue perfectly:
Yes, if this were a romance, the ending would suck. But it's not. It's a character study of how an Irish-American family coped during the war. Life isn't fair, and it doesn't always end with orange blossoms and tulle veils.
Berg's novels sometimes contain romantic elements, but they're in no way romances, and I found the ending satisfying, for all the (articulately worded) reasons cyears gives. This was one of my favourite of her works thus far encountered. - Alex

A Place Called Here – Cecelia Ahern

When Sandy Shortt was eight her neighbour and schoolmate Jenny-May Butler vanished without a trace from the smallest county in Ireland. Sandy was one of the last people to see the vivacious blonde, and it changed her life as profoundly as it did Jenny-May’s parents – in the past twenty years Sandy cannot rest if something is missing. Every sock, pen and roll of cellotape had to be feverishly sought, a compulsion that drove her parents to despair, thwarted her academic career, and has been the death knell of every tentative relationship – even the most sympathetic of lovers can only be patient for so long when an amorous encounter is aborted by the hunt for a pen cap, or lunches alone because something inconsequential needs to be found before Sandy can leave the house. Despite years of therapy, Sandy cannot shake the rightness of her quest to find every lost thing, and she works to find the hundreds of people who go missing in Ireland every year. That is until, while on the way to meet with a new client whose brother has been missing for a year, Sandy herself vanishes. Jack Ruttle, the client, knows Sandy is the only hope he has of finding Donal, but he can’t get anyone, not even her parents, any more interested in searching for her than in helping him find his baby brother. As for Sandy, she’s found her way to the place where lost things go – and now she’s searching for the way home, but it seems as though this is a one-way trip.
I borrowed A Place Called Here on the strength of my previous Ahern encounter, PS I Love You. This is a very different novel – a significantly more idiosyncratic cast, more complex plot and, at 387 trade paperback pages, substantially longer. However, in common with
Like Grace, the protagonist in Addition, the other novel I recently read about OCD, Sandy has her own take on her reality. Though she perceives her focus as dedication, there is no question that she has a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which distances her from her bewildered parents and interferes with every aspect of her life. The underlying reason for it, more profound than the disappearance of Jenny-May, is satisfyingly explained toward the end of the book.
Also satisfying was the idea of finding everything that’s ever gone missing – for Sandy this includes homework her teacher didn’t believe she’d done, a beloved childhood companion, a diary, and all those unpaired socks; I couldn’t help but think of the wallets, coin purses, books (Telling Moments, where are you?), documents (I cannot possible have lost the AGM minutes, yet they just aren’t here) and favourite clothes (that white Swiss cotton wrap around skirt with brown wooden buttons) that have vanished from my own life. All in all, a unique and highly readable novel that combines psychological exploration, mystery, fantasy and understated romance in an exquisitely paced plot people by interesting and believable characters. A Place Called Here owes something to Alice in Wonderland, but it is a creation of its very own, and I look forward to seeing what else Ahern has written, particularly recent work. - Alex

Sunday, December 21

Into the Storm – Suzanne Brockmann

As Navy SEAL team 18 prepare to go head-to-head with Troubleshooters Incorporated, a private industry organization headed by the SEAL’s ex-commander and manned by former operatives and cops, snow is falling in the remote woods chosen. Deliberately isolated, out of easy communication, designed to reflect real-life operations, the challenge is a way of honing both teams’ skills. On standby for real missions in the Middle East, the SEAls are pulled mid-way through the practice run; it’s not until they leave that anyone realises the ‘hostage,’ a particularly pretty and dippy Troubleshooters office worker, is really missing. With no survivalist skills, inadequately dressed, and unpredictable, things look bad for Tracey Shapiro. Then the searchers discover she’s been abducted by a serial killer, and the pressure’s really on.
A second arm to Brockmann’s highly successful SEAL series, the Troubleshooter novels operate on a more domestic front, but are no less absorbing. The extensive case combines buff bodies, distinctive personalities and humour with enduring character arcs and romance. Her heroines are as gutsy and resilient as the men, genuine respect and affection are a constant, and I always come away feeling satisfied. I realised though, when I checked through the reviews here, that I haven't read a Brockmann novel since Lynn and I first began writing the reviews, which makes me feel a little better about my planned frenzy.
Though Into the Storm could be read as a standalone, a significant part of my satisfaction is anchored in familiarity with the series and the characters – we’re given glimpses at the chief protagonists of previous novels, the beginnings of romantic entanglements for stories to come, and there’s always something going on behind the scenes. Unlike many romance writers, you often have to wait for the pay-off – in the original SEAL series, one romance was fed along as a secondary plot line for six or so books. I have a need to read series in order, which is the only thing stopping me from diving into the next book I have from the library, as I impatiently wait for my reservation on the intervening novel. Watch this space. - Alex

Saturday, December 20

Bonk – Mary Roach

Following explorations of death and scientific investigations into the afterlife, Roach turns her attention to sex, specifically the “curious coupling of sex and science” – what research has discovered, where researchers are heading, and an insight into the lives of sex researchers. Sparked by a random finding while procrastinating in a university library, Roach started thinking about the fact that sex (like other aspects of human physiology) has been investigated scientifically but “I’d just never given it much thought. I’d never thought about what it must be like, the hurdles and the hassles that the researchers face – raised eyebrows, suspicious wives, gossiping colleagues.”
This last is a persistent theme – getting approval to perform many of the experiments is difficult, with many researchers resorting to obfuscation, describing the work as non-specifically as possible. If the death researchers were seen as ghoulish, that’s nothing to the prurient voyeurism projected on to sex researchers.
I discovered a number of fascinating facts about sex practices around the world: particularly interesting – Roy Levin’s paper “Wet and Dry Sex,” comparing Western preferences for vaginal lubrication with the perception in parts of Haiti, Indonesia and Africa that extreme dryness indicates a disease-free state, resulting in women inserting “all manner of drying agents” – ouch!
Roach beautifully combines strongly grounded data and meticulous explorations of the literature with a highly readable style and embarrassingly amusing observations (often as footnotes) that lead me to splutter with laughter in public on several occasions. Her writing incorporates her reactions, as a layperson, to the research, the field, and the results of data, often reflecting the impressions of the reader.
After reading Bonk I’m no aware of research being done across the field – high tech and medical, from MRI imaging of what happens during ejaculation and orgasm, treatments for erectile dysfunction (and how Viagra reduced the condition’s social stigmatisation), surgical extension and reattachment of male genitalia, to the real functions and dimensions of the clitoris; lab work looking at what happens to lower-order mammals at the moment of male ejaculation; historical investigations into hysteria and the medical role of inducing female climax; biochemistry involving how hormones affect arousal in both primates and humans (the oral contraceptive pill mutes sex drive, but this is not a listed side-effect and most women aren’t told about it when it’s initially prescribed); and why lesbians have better sex than gay men and straight couples. - Alex

Friday, December 19

Bones – Jonathan Kellerman

LA therapist and police consultant Alex Delaware is with Milo or, as the LAPD have recently titled him, Special Case Investigator, Lieutenant Grade, when his friend is called to a marsh where the body of a young woman has been found, following an anonymous tip. Selena Bass, her right hand amputated and missing, was the piano teacher of gifted child Kelvin Vander, son of a wealthy and doting father, product of a second marriage. Investigating the deaths of Selena and three other women, whose variously decomposed bodies are also found in the marsh, Alex and Milo discover that Kelvin and his parents are also missing, and the case becomes interesting.
The twenty-something addition to a usually strong series, this is classic Kellerman – deepening mysteries, wheels within wheels, believable but twisty characters, and subtly nuanced attention to the underlying arcs of his main protagonists. Though not formulaic exactly, there weren’t any truly unique elements, but Kellerman’s writing reads effortlessly, his descriptive characterisation is deft, and the pace is believable and just shy of hectic, so the reader is drawn in and engaged.
I suspect familiarity with the author and his characters’ somewhat complex back stories add a strong dimension to the series, so if you’re just starting out with Kellerman you really are better off starting at the beginning. If you like the genre, particularly the novels of White and McDermid (creators, respectively, of psychologist investigators Alan Gregory and Tony Hill) then you’ll like Kellerman – I prefer them, and Kellerman's wife's novels, but he’s still pretty good. And unlike other writers I could mention, he’s managed to maintain a believable, involving and interesting character without jumping the shark. Plus there’s a nice section and coda on eyedness (sinister and dexter), and area that, like footedness, I’m interested in, and expanding ones’ miscellaneous knowledge base is always a pleasant incidental plus to reading for enjoyment. - Alex

Thursday, December 18

Holly Black: Ironside

When she makes a rash declaration to the new king of the Unseelie Court, a young pixie changeling is sent on an impossible quest.
Despondent she sets off with a human friend in tow. But word has gotten out about her plight and the queen of the Seelie Court wants to make her on offer she can’t refuse. In spite of her best efforts the pixie finds herself drawn into the dark games and power plays of the faerie courtiers. Forced into an alliance with humans with no love of her kind she eventually manages to free the child whose place she took and return her to her mother, remove a deadly curse from her friend, achieve her quest and as a by product bring unity and a shaky peace to the Seelie and Unseelie Courts.
The third book in this series, Ironside brings together characters and plot points from the previous two works and builds on them, weaving from the apparently disparate threads a coherent story.
The characters have an ambiguous morality which keeps the reader guessing who the ‘bad guys’ really are. The plot twists about being at times darkly seductive and at times horrific, provided truly unexpected turns.
Complex characters and richly detailed setting added to a deceptively simple plot all come together to make this a brilliant dark fantasy novel. Read Tithe, read Valiant, then read Ironside. If you like young adult fantasy you won’t be disappointed.-Lynn

Wednesday, December 17

Life’s Too Short to Frost a Cupcake – Rosie Wilde

Ever since the death of her mother, when Alice realised that bad things could happen, she’s played it safe. She works at Carmichael Music, where her boss Graham is friendly and approachable, and she lives in an adequate apartment with her adequate boyfriend, low-powered lawyer Stephen, who she met in an anxiety therapy group. Okay, her family life isn’t perfect – largely thanks to younger sister Teresa who, married with twins, never misses an opportunity to belittle the status of Alice’s life – but all in all Alice’s life is drifting along satisfactorily enough.
When Graham’s replaced by highflying Phoebe Carmichael, daughter of the company’s founder, with a reputation for right sizing, Alice is concerned. But instead of being fired, Alice is sent to the New York head office to persuade Wyatt Brown, a once successful but now reclusive (and alcoholic) recording artist, to record a new album. Only “New York” turns about to be Wyatt’s small town home in Ohio, she breaks up with Stephen before she even leaves London, gets off on totally the wrong foot with her target, and encounters a local bitch who makes Teresa look like an amateur. And that’s just the beginning.
I initially found Alice’s voice grating, for three reasons. The first is the emphasis on brand names, so that a random paragraph near the beginning has:
They are both in head-to-toe Boden… I follow the, squeezing past the red Bugaboo Cameleon… In the kitchen – redone last year in cream Smallbone units…
The second is chunks of geography scattered about:
I turn into Replington Road, walk up past Budgen’s and hasten past Starbuck’s, less I’m tempted to grab a hot chocolate. Then I go into the Tube station to wait for a District Line train to Kensington Hight Street.
The final element was Alice’s propensity for drifting into wish fulfilment daydreams, many of which centre around proposals and career success.
However, all of them decrease as the novel progresses, and as Alice becomes better able to discover who she is away from the familiar surroundings that reinforced the limitations of the person who had been she becomes significantly more interesting. I liked Alice’s evolution, the varied sub-plots, and Wilde’s characterisation, particularly of Theresa. The budding romance, as is so often the case in the genre, culminates in a profession of love from the hero, who heretofore has given only minimal evidence of his interest, but this was a relatively minor quibble.
The title was clearly chosen to attract interest – one of the subplots involves a cupcake competition that Alice participates in, and the frosting component takes considerable time (and description in the text), which doesn’t seem to be a problem for any of the characters. Alice, in particular, seems to have not much better to do. If I come across another Wilde book I’ll probably pick it up, and Life’s Too Short was fine, but I have no burning desire to track down her next (or previous) work. - Alex

Tuesday, December 16

Laura Anne Gilman: Curse the Dark

When sent to Italy to trace the whereabouts of a very old and dangerous artefact a retriever finds herself in a dire situation. The artefact turns out to have been one of a collection of unstable black magic pieces that have been stored for centuries by an order of ‘monks’.
The trail ultimately leads her back home to a city full of magical creatures on the brink of war with each other. Undoubtedly the artefact is feeding off the discord. She just needs to decommission it and collect her cheque before all hell breaks loose.
This she manages but in the final showdown she is forced to choose between helping her long time partner and new lover or an old friend. She is left devastated by the casualty count and the increased political unrest, which is edging its way slowly towards open war, left in its wake.
I enjoyed this book just as much as the last one.
This story was more of a vehicle to showcase the developing romance between the main characters but it did not neglect plot in favour of that. I particularly like that discovering their love has not changed the personalities of the protagonists. The heroine’s conflict over wanting to be with her new lover but craving her own space is realistic.
A great plot overlays the ongoing political intrigue. The story offers greater insight into a believable and coherent magical world, including the downside of being a magic user. And again the seeds of future works are sown discretely into the story.
I see that there are several more books in this series (just as I had predicted/hoped) and I am tempted to read them all back to back but glutting rare does any series a favour so I will hold off on the next instalment for now but look forward to reading it next year.-Lynn

Monday, December 15

The Last Hope of Girls – Susie Boyt

Martha Brazil (rhymes with frazzle) has a lot on her plate – her brother’s a manipulative (is there any other kind?) drug user, her mother takes in any and every stray in need of nurturing, and her writer father is supercilious, superior and remote. As a child Martha and Matt were shuttled between their parents’ very different homes – the ramshackle, crowded-with-strangers home of their mother and the immaculate, aloof apartment of their father. When Anthony Brazil recommends her to a friend, Martha is able to leave the share flat where her every move and motivation was analysed, to caretake an apartment building in the process of being renovated. With no tenants, her job includes accommodation and primarily consists of cleaning and letting in tradesmen. When Mr Quinn, the owner, leaves a copy of Anthony Brazil’s latest literary work, Martha finds herself compelled to read it, after a life time of avoiding his critically acclaimed work, and finds everything in her life shifting.
Apparently. I was clearly reading a different book than the one all the raving reviewers read. For a start, the great revelation/s that “offer[ed] Martha a view of her world, and of her wayward family, that she [could] only ignore at her peril” wholly passed me by. Perhaps, like Anthony Brazil’s own work, it was just too subtle and complex for me, though (unlike a journalist interviewing him) I didn’t feel “stupid, vulgar, garish and brash,” just dissatisfied.
Certainly it contained a great description of Literary writing – when I read “the basic premise that life was worthless…the universe it painted was so horrible, the days lived out so bleak and useless…” I immediately thought of Praise.
Spoiler warning:
The Last Hope of Girls isn’t unremittingly bleak, but it is certainly bleak-heavy: the apartment owner is mired in misery and cries himself to sleep lying on the floor of one of the abandoned apartments; Matt might be in rehab but there’s a long and winding road ahead; her father has remarried, to a woman as obsessed about her art (she’s a musician) as he is, to the extent that their newborn is only an obstacle to her artistic fulfilment; and Martha, though she has the promise of a new and healthy romantic relationship, doesn’t come out the other end filled with hope and happiness. Eh. - Alex

Sunday, December 14

Man vs Beast – Robert Muchamore

Cherub agents James and Lauren Adams are on a mission together – along with close friend Kyle Blueman and controller Zara Asker, James and Lauren will be posing as the children of a woman convicted animal rights activist Ryan Quinn was fallen for. Quinn headed up a peaceful but effective animal liberation organization, Zebra 84, which was responsible for shutting down a number of fur farms and labs. Their technique combined persistent harassment of the site itself with tactics designed to make life too difficult for their suppliers to remain involved. In 2001, while attempting to shut down their most ambitious target yet, a multinational animal experimentation organization, Zebra 84 combined with a number of other animal rights groups to form Zebra Alliance. Before they made any progress Quinn was charged with attempted arson and jailed for six years. While Quinn was inside his group was taken over by a more radical group – the Animal Freedom Militia. The Home Office fears a devastating attack from this security-conscious group, and infiltration by Cherub agents may be the only way to get any information.
As with the rest of this series, Man vs Beast contains elements that are inappropriate for younger readers, in this case including sexual themes (both underage and gay, though nothing graphic), multiple scenes of violence, one of torture, and fairly confronting (though factual) information about non-criminal animal abuse in both food production and experimentation.
This use of adult themes is consistent with the way the characters are portrayed – the antithesis of how children are usually depicted, Muchamore’s creations are flawed, imperfect and complex. Lauren blackmails her brother to help her do something against the rules, James is more ruled by hormones than fidelity to his girlfriend, and he is also homophobic and short-tempered (though this last is improving). They are all nonetheless likeable, and there are real life consequences for inappropriate behaviour, another aspect that grounds the series.
As with the five preceding novels, the fast-paced plot is involving and compelling. Man vs Beast continues at theme evident in the last couple of Cherub novels – at what point does a just cause or good idea go too far? For readers old enough to reflect on grey areas, this is a fantastic addition to a strong and recommended YA series. - Alex

Saturday, December 13

Iron Kissed - Patricia Briggs

When shape shifting mechanic Mercy Thompson’s mentor (and former boss) is arrested on murder charges, she can’t help but investigate the case; a case that’s complicated by the fact that Zee is fae, the case involves the murders of other fae in a community gated ‘for their own good,’ and most of all because Zee seems not to want Mercy’s help. It doesn’t help that the two men in her life and rapidly losing patience with Mercy’s inability to choose between them, and when she learns her indecision is going to tear the werewolf pack apart the pressure’s on to pick.
This is the third in a strong series – in each book we’ve learned a little more about Briggs’s universe, the fae, werewolf dynamics, and Mercy. As Lynn has pointed out, Briggs does werewolf culture better than anyone in the genre – human intellect doesn’t overrule nature, hierarchies exist in and out of changing, and they’re genuinely a related but separate species to us, and having Mercy be both an insider (raised by a pack) but also an outsider (shapeshifting coyote) allows her to explore, explain and have explained some of the intricacies. It also allows Briggs to introduce new aspects of intra- and inter-pack politics that Mercy can credibly not have known about before the reader does. Unlike other series (both paranormal and other genres), Briggs has managed – at least thus far – to navigate the fine line between new and the familiar, introducing elements that enhance rather than overwhelm what has gone before. What I mean by this is that, unlike Dexter, she hasn’t introduced an unexplained supernatural twist that completely changes the flavour of the work, and unlike the Sookie Stackhouse series, she hasn’t used so much sexual tension to add interest that she needs to introduce a hitherto unhinted at aspect to a character to justify a random excess of allure.
The dialogue is natural, the writing accessible but mature, the characters are layered, and the plot is intricate but clear. Briggs avoids ladling out information in indigestible chunks and writes in an unobtrusive manner that allows the reader to focus on the characters and plot.
The standout element of Iron Kissed is Briggs’s masterful depiction on the aftermath of rape. Nothing I could write would do justice to the complex, lucid, resonant passage toward the end of the novel. The subject matter is distressing, and brilliantly handled; Briggs uses it not only to resolve points of the plot, and create new nuances in the characters and their relationships, but adds a retrospective dimension to an essential element. If you read only one paranormal series, make it this one. - Alex

Friday, December 12

Murder on a Midsummer Night – Kerry Greenwood

1929 has begun with a heat wave, particularly ferocious even for Melbourne, and Phryne Fisher’s not enjoying her first real experience with an unrelenting Antipodean summer. However nothing can faze this most poised and composed specimen of womanhood – not even the search for an illegitimate child, one of several heirs to a tidy inheritance, and not the unrelated investigation into what the police consider to be the suicide of a young man on St Kilda beach. Augustine Manifold was an antiques dealer, skilled and reputable, by all accounts, and his distraught mother does not believe he would have left her. In her quest for the truth, the redoubtable Miss Fisher glides through it all without hesitation, through “terrifying séances, ghosts, Kif smokers, the threat of human sacrifices, dubious spirit guides and maps to buried pirate treasure,” to cite the back blurb.
As always when it comes to the magnificent Ms Greenwood, my amateurish fumblings cannot convey the perfection of her prose – though perfectly accessible if read on its own, the pleasure of Murder on a Midsummer Night was considerably enhanced by my familiarity with Phryne, her extended household, and her catholic array of friends and acquaintances. It is through the sensibilities of Greenwood’s more orthodox characters – from her companion Dot, and married couple Butler and Mrs Butler – that she is able to combined both a believable period setting and attitudes comfortable for a modern reader.
Also as always, Greenwood conveys a strong sense of place (“She lived in St Kilda, I think, from what she says about going down Acland Street for cakes”) without hitting you over the head, and she has without question mastered the art of being so familiar with her mountainous research that it is threaded almost invisibly through the text.
Her descriptions are complete and detailed, seamless and interesting. For example:
Gerald Atkinson was tall and skinny, with a haughty arch to his brows which might easily have been accentuated by skilled plucking and a rosebud mouth with just a trace of lip rouge. He was dressed in a very nice tweed suit which was just a bit too new and a cravat which was just a smidgen too bright, with a stick-pin in which the diamond was just a soupcon too large. If he was not a friend of Dorothy, Phryne considered, he was a relative. That was no bar to Miss Fisher’s regard. She had many friends whose interest in young men was just as fervent as her own.
The plot was detailed, absorbing, redolent of the era, and the only criticism I have is that it was all over far too quickly. Planning her twenty-ninth birthday as Murder on a Midsummer Night opens, the action all takes place in under two weeks (her birthday is mid-January and has not occurred by novel’s end). Greenwood has been clear that Phryne will not continue past the twenties, to which she is so admirably suited, into the dowdy thirties, so while there is hope of as many as another two dozen adventures, for me each novel is tinged with the sad awareness that it could be the last. In the meantime there’s always the option of rereading Phryne’s sixteen previous excursions, and the anticipation of the fifth (though I somewhat presumptuously, or hopefully, initially typed ‘fifteenth’) Corinna novel. I have no words, except: perfection. - Alex

Thursday, December 11

Laura Anne Gilman: Staying Dead

A retriever specialises in finding things of a magical nature that have gone missing and returning them, discretely, efficiently and with no questions asked. It is the perfect way for a highly talented thief to channel her energies and keep herself on the right side of the law. But when a simple job goes terribly wrong this girl needs all the help she can get from anyone willing to give it. Even if that means doing deals with demons, insane mages and secret government organizations of a very shady nature or admitting that her feelings for her long time business partner might be more than merely friendly.
Fast paced and action packed this story was a real page turner. The plot was intricate and a number of separate threads were introduced (I smell a series coming on) without becoming confusing or appearing irrelevant to the story at hand.
I particularly liked the world building. The overlay of magic on modern society worked really well. Magic, what it is and how it worked, was explained in easy to believe terms.
The romance, though secondary, was satisfying and I think all the more believable for not being fast tracked. One of the things that appeals to me least about urban fantasy is the tendency for authors to substitute sex for intimacy. It was refreshing to find a pair that weren’t at it before the end of chapter 3. I anticipate these two characters developing a relationship over the course of several books. At least I hope there will be several books because I so enjoyed this one.
Definitely looking out for more of Ms Gilman’s work-Lynn.

Wednesday, December 10

Good Girls – Laura Ruby

Good girl Audrey Porter has decided to break it off with her sometime hook up, school hunk Luke DeSalvio – she’s madly in love with him, but he ignores her at school and flirts with (and hooks up with) other girls, and she’s had enough. Besides, it’s senior year and in eight months they’ll be heading off to separate colleges anyway. When Audrey, dressed as a Goth for the night, gives him an intimate farewell… kiss in a secluded bedroom at a costume party she expects that to be the end of it, but on Monday people at school start acting weird.
Then she gets an image sent to her phone, a digital photo that’s spread like wildfire from phone to phone: “Luke’s head is cut off, but the pale skin of his chest hips glows in the dark, and his hands clutch fistfuls of the bedspread. Between his knees, a cascade of waist-length blonde hair striped with black.” And nothing’s the same.
Ruby has a great voice – she combines strong characterisation, a firm grasp of the world of adolescence, authentic dialogue, and a genuinely compelling plot with an economy and purity of language. The first time Audrey sees Luke after The Photo, he cuts her dead and “he speeds up, passes me, and keeps rolling, like a wave that jumps the beach and takes you out at the knees.”
She uses Good Girls to explore not only sexual double standards, the girl as defender of her own virtue and not assaulted by hormones as much as boys, and the pressures exerted on young women, but the transition from seeing your parents as parents to people, the way it changes the way they see you, the difference between sex as a concept and as reality, the way sex (especially when you’re younger) changes things you didn’t expect, the things that can get in the way of formalised worship providing spiritual succour, how rumour gets in the way of truth and how judgement gets in the way of friendship. And how friendships can be forged and strengthened by adversity, how women can band together, and how individuals can take control of their lives.
I have to include a quote I particularly liked. When Audrey’s mother tells her about waiting “as long as you can. Until you find someone you love,” and Audrey voices her assumption that her mother waited for her husband,
My mother looks extremely uncomfortable, like she’s just be stricken with intestinal cramps. ‘This is not about me. I’m just one person.’
Whoa. ‘You didn’t wait?
‘What I did or didn’t do is beside the point”…
Now that we’re talking, I realise I don’t want all the sordid details… I mean, yuk… For something that’s supposed to be all God-given and Song of Solomon and comfort-me-with-apples fabulous, it feels about as beautiful as drinking from a toilet bowl. At least that’s what it feels like afterwards, when someone’s taken a picture of you and decorated the world with it…
I love that last part, I love the sentiment of Audrey’s pastor that sex is about expressing, not creating, intimacy, and I want to read anything else that Ruby’s written. - Alex

Tuesday, December 9

Praise – Andrew McGahan

Gordon’s life is going nowhere fast – an insecure asthmatic with a small penis and a newly acquired tobacco habit, he quits his job in a drive-through bottle shop when the new manager fires the rest of the crew. Now unemployed, living in a run down house with a bunch of old men, he hooks up with ex-heroin addict Cynthia, a casualty of the mass firing. She has bad eczema, a tattoo she regrets, and loves penetrative sex. The woman Gordon has loved and lusted after since he was thirteen isn’t interested in him, but Cynthia will do in the meantime. She introduces him to drugs – acid and heroin – and how they combine with sex and alcohol; he introduces her to the temporary high of nitrous.
That, in essence, is the plot. This is quite clearly Literature – existential angst, alcohol and drugs, non-erotic sex (lots of it), ennui, desultory excursions that go nowhere and achieve nothing, relationships that are the same, and tormented but essentially boring characters. 1988, the prequel (written later and set earlier), really was a taste of things to come.
I kept reading it, which may say something about the superior qualities of the writing, but I felt like a friend of mine who, switching from Coke to Diet Coke, said she kept drinking it by the bucket load because her tastebuds insisted that there must be sugar there, somewhere. Between that sense and the memory of how much I enjoyed McGahan’s later work, I persisted to the end.
Lauded by critics (short listed, prize winning, “throb[bing] with intensity,” “one of the few Australian novels of the 90s that really matter,” “a bracing slap in the face to conventional platitudes and hypocrisy,”) it left me cold. Actually, no – it left me depressed, flat, and a little grey. Partly because of the subject matter and the depiction of the meaninglessness of (some people’s) life, but mostly because I’ll never get back the time I spent reading it. Perhaps my response was coloured by the fact that I started reading it on the way home from a funeral, but I don’t think so. This is the kind of Literature that ruins reading for neophytes; it almost put me off books, something I wouldn’t have thought was possible. - Alex

Monday, December 8

True to Form – Elizabeth Berg

Katie Nash’s story, begun in Durable Goods and Joy School, continues - it's 1961, and Katie now lives in the mid-West with her warm stepmother and cold military father. Keen for a summer job and a little independence, Katie's unhappy but resigned when she discovers her father's already picked out a job for her - working as a carer for an elderly woman. The highlight of her summer is winning a radio contest - she can take a return flight anywhere, and choses Fort Hood, the home of her former best friend, the older and more experienced Cherylanne. The summer changes many things for Katie, most of all her awareness of the fragility of friendship and the enduringness of love.
The style is gentle and nostalgic, like a written version of an episode of The Wonder Years. The Katie trilogy is largely uneventful, and her voice is calm and deliberate, so that it's not until I reflected on the series that I registered how many life changing events its characters have gone through, and with what degrees of grace they have survived. - Alex

Sunday, December 7

Every Boy’s Got One – Meg Cabot

Although Holly and Mark have been together for two years, their parents are worried about their differences (she’s Catholic, he’s Jewish, neither are practicing). To avoid drama, they’re running off to Rome to elope, accompanied only by their best friends, comic artist Jane and world issues journalist/author Cal. Cal and Jane haven’t met before, as Cal’s been overseas researching his newly released book on the Saudi oil crisis, but Holly and Mark think they’re pretty compatible – maybe another romance will bloom under the Italian summer skies.
Or maybe not. Even before they officially meet, Cal and Jane cross paths and swords – she thinks he’s sarcastic and work-obsessed, he thinks her bulk purchase of water for the seven-hour flight’s ridiculous. Jane’s more interested in pop culture than Culture, has never been out of the US before and is a romantic, waiting for the right man (who’s definitely not her skiing boyfriend); Cal’s serious and uninterested in trivialities, divorced and embittered, with a girl in every city.
Which, as we all know, means the blooming of romance by the end of the novel. The story is told by e-mail, journaling, texts (or ‘e-ing’ via BlackBerry) and papers (restaurant receipts, Italian official papers, menus), and allows a clear picture of the central characters to develop. Cabot also conveys a nice sense of place – the atmosphere of Rome, the overwhelming nature of the first time of being in a country where nothing’s in a language you understand, and event he way people think is different.
Though a little envious of the short flight (it takes a lot longer to get to Rome from Melbourne), there were many things about Every Boy’s Got One that I… objected to is a little strong, but certainly didn’t like, chief of which was the character of Jane – supposedly in her thirties, Jane’s travel diary (which is supposed to be her gift to the couple but fills with Jane’s own thoughts) reads like that of a teenager:

(Oh no. How can I give this diary to Holly and Mark if it’s full of musings about some random guy’s underwear???? NOW what am I going to give them? I can’t give them candlesticks or something. This is HOLLY.
It has to be SPECIAL. Okay, well, one mention of underwear. You guys don’t mind, do you? I mean, it’s just underwear.)

Did I mention that she's over thirty? I know that this was at least in part deliberate, to heighten the contrast between her America-centric travel naïveté and Cal’s global sophistication, but she sometimes reads as the most pronounced of American tourist cliché – on at least two occasions she unfavourably compares Italian tradition (like shutting down in the middle of the day) to the US, adding “that really, it isn’t any wonder that America is a superpower and Italy isn’t, given that we only take half-hour lunches, for the most part.” I found this aspect of Jane – her superficial, insular provinciality – getting in the way of caring about her as a character.
I also didn’t buy the great romance – attraction, perhaps, but by the end of the book Jane and Cal still seem to have little middle ground over which to bond. I can certainly see them hooking up, dating for a while, even co-habiting, but most romance novels are about Great Love and I can’t see Cal and Jane together in a year, which may be realistic but isn’t Romantic.
Finally, Jane’s journal entries are illustrated with Wondercat sketches, exemplars of the work that has a huge following, including a fan site run by a teenage boy. First, how many teenage boys are fans of a Garfield-esque comic strip? Second, at least Garfield has a personality, other characters, story lines and humour. Wondercat? Not so much – he seems to basically be an anthropomorphic blob with sunglasses but no speech.
All this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book, and that isn’t wholly fair – it was fine for what it was, but nothing more than a little light holiday escapism. Plus, the whole time I was reading it I had the chorus from Julie Brown’s song of the same name going around in my head (“Every boy’s got one/give it to me/give me your/give me your/heart”), which was no bad thing. - Alex

Saturday, December 6

Bridesmaids Revisited – Dorothy Cannell

Ellie Haskell is at something of a loose end – her lovely husband, chef Ben, has taken their three children to an old-fashioned holiday camp for a week, where they’ll live as though it’s still the 1940’s, and Ellie has only their eccentric helpmeet, Roxie Malloy, for company. When Ellie receives a letter from Rosemary Maywood it comes completely out of the blue – Ellie hasn’t though of Rosemary, or her friends Thora and Jane, in years. Companions of her maternal grandmother, Ellie’s mother always referred to them collectively as ‘the bridesmaids.’ According to Rosemary, Ellie’s maternal grandmother Sophia wants to speak with her. The only problem is that Sophia, like Ellie’s own mother, died while her daughter was still a child.
The heroine of several other cosy mysteries, Ellie is an engaging character with a ready wit and amusing outlook. Cannell paints deft word pictures – her use of deft dialogue to convey character is very good:
Gwen pressed her hand to her brow and I watched her grow skinnier and more wan with every breath she drew. “The whole thing has me stressed to the point where I can’t put my mind to getting a three-course lunch on the table.” She swayed on her high heels. “We’ll just have to make do with a madras lamb curry and saffron rice followed by a fresh fruit salad and perhaps some of the Florentine biscuits I get at Harrods.”
“Please don’t think I came expecting lunch.” I followed her past one hideous monstrosity of furniture after another down the hall.
“Oh, that is good of you, Ellie. Because I’m just not up to
laying another place. I felt exhausted spreading the Irish linen cloth on the dining-room table.”
Cannell is clearly a lover of gothic writing – Ellie not only stays in an old house with secret passageways but reads Secrets of the Crypt, a novel (almost certainly self-published, Ellie thinks) in which “every other line contain[s] a cliché dear to the gothic-lover’s heart,” a book referenced several times both in terms of content and form.
Until recently I hadn’t read a Cannell novel for ages, and though I found Ellie (and Cannell’s voice) accessible, the plot was people with a large cast of carrying ages that I found hard to keep straight. The rare chunk of exposition actually helped a little, but I wasn’t interested in unravelling the mystery, and stayed the course primarily because of Ellie. In fairness I think some of this was due to my preoccupation, but my confusion would have been diminished with the presence of a family tree, as known by Ellie when she started out (thereby preserving any secrets integral to the plot). I’ll visit Cannell’s universe again, but not until my life simplifies enough that I can devote more attention to intricacies of plotting. - Alex

Friday, December 5

Nora Roberts: Dance Upon The Air

An abused wife fakes her death and runs. She eventually reaches a small island where she feels safe to settle down. She opens up a small business, makes friends with the locals and starts to practice witchcraft (a long tradition of the island said to have been originally settled by witches). She even feels free to fall in love again.
But a chance sighting by an old friend leads her estranged husband to her door. Angry and determined to reclaim her he stabs her new lover, the local sheriff, and when she runs he chases her. Her new friends come to her rescue and with a combination of magic and the law he is forced from her life for good.
If you remove the magic elements (which were very much a side issue) this book is pretty much a written version of the movie Sleeping with the Enemy.
Given the International Bestseller claims of the cover and the recommendations of friends, I thought to find, at the very least, surprising new twists in the plot and possibly writing that sparked and danced across the page. The writing wasn’t bad but neither was it exceptionally good. And given the rave reviews I’ve seen of this author’s works I expected something outstanding. What I got was competent handling of a much told story carried along by interesting secondary characters. And it is the presence of those secondary characters that had me finish the book.
This is the first in a trilogy and in its secondary characters was the promise of more interesting stories to come. I hope that is the case since I have committed to reading the next two books.
Overall far from the worst I’ve ever read but also far from the best too.-Lynn

Wednesday, December 3

The Buffalo Soldiers - Chris Bohjalian

When the torrential flooding of a river in Vermont kills their twin daughters, Laura and Terry Shedon stay together, somehow. Terry, a state trooper, was away hunting and blames himself for not being able to keep his family safe; Laura becomes fragile and unable to function. Yet somehow they survive this unthinkable tragedy. Two years later Laura wants to become a foster parent, and the state places a ten year old boy with them. Older than their girls, male, and black, Alfred isn't what Laura was expecting. Alfred, who's been in foster care since his mother chose men and drugs over him, is quiet and contained, a stark contrast in every way to Terry's beloved blonde daughters, and he can't find a way to connect with him. Terry has other problems anyway - always faithful to Laura, he meets a barmaid while taking a break from his hunting companions, and a connection's made. Their brief encounter leaves Phoebe pregnant, Terry's only chance to have another child.
Each chapter opens with a quote from a historical source (contemporaneous letters, or interviews from the mid '30s) about the buffalo soldiers - either soldiers themselves or someone involved with them - and that relates to the chapter. The chapters are written in third person from the perspective of each of the major characters.
The Buffalo Soldiers explores the nature of marriage and tragedy, love and family, the bonds between parents and children, and race - among other things. The title refers to America's first black cavalry regiment, created in 1866; Alfred is given a book about the regiment by a retired lecturer who lives across from the Sheldons, and it is his relationship with Paul Hebert and his wife Ruth, as much as with Laura, that gives Alfred a safe place to live.
For me the most interesting elements in the novel were the careless racism exhibited by almost all the secondary characters in this very white town (from the children who exclude Alfred from their play to the teacher who says she "treats all [her] students as if they were white," and the elderly women who tells Laura that "you can hardly tell he's African-American, he could just be a boy with a very dark tan!") and the way perception influences interpretation. Terry, who is already predisposed to think of Alfred as trouble (perhaps because of his race, his background, his law enforcement profession, or the fact that Alfred isn't his daughters), sees many things Alfred does in this light, and each thing reinforces his starting position. So when, for example, Terry discovers that Alfred has a cache of non-perishable food, he interprets it as part of a plan by Alfred to run away, further distressing his fragile wife, and concludes that Alfred must have also stolen money.
This is a physically imposing tome but was readable and involving. I prefer Bohjalian's earlier work, and this reminded me to revisit Midwives, the first of his novels that I read, but The Buffalo Soldiers is a good read on its own merits. - Alex

Only Dad - Alan Titchmarsh

Tom and Pippa are idyllically happy - since their first meeting they knew they were right for each other, and after almost twenty years together things are still really good. Their daughter, Tally, is approaching womanhood with applomb, the restaurant Tom runs with friend (and chef) Peter is successful, and the only nagging worry is that part of Tom wants to be a writer. Well, that and the fact that neither Tom nor Pippa like Peter's wife Rachel - she's a self-involved, superficial, pretencious shrew who's pushing Tom into a second restaurant even though the last time Tom and Peter tried branching out it was a failure.
When Pippa unexpectedly dies, everything changes - a sole parent in charge of a daughter with a life he knows nothing about, Tom is already off-balance when he's told at a dinner party that Peter and Rachel are determined to open a second restaurant. This is the impetus for him to take charge of his ow life - Tome shocks Peter and Rachel by telling them they can buy him out - he's going to be a writer.
I wish I could tell you what happens next, but frankly it was a massive effort just to make it to the midway point. From the first page Titmarsh's voice annoyed me, though I can't articulate exactly what it is that so grated. Here's an example:
You might surmise from this that Rachel was breathtakingly selfish. You would not be wrong. When it came to selfishness, Rachel Jago was an honours graduate.
Not wholly objectionable, you might think. But page after page of it just wore me down. Perhaps, had the characterisation been stronger or the plot more interesting, or the dialogue less stilted, the writing wouldn't have been an issue. But Pippa's death, the pivotal event that changes Tom and Tally's life from "being the envy of their friends" to them being "plunged into a world that nobody would wish upon them" takes forever to arrive (so long that I thought the title must not have been an unsubtle bit of wordplay).
There's not a single elements of Only Dad that I liked, so I cut my losses at the midway mark. Apparently a UK best-seller, Titmarsh's work is clearly popular with some, and good luck to them. For me, not so much. - Alex

Tuesday, December 2

Divine Madness - Robert Muchamore

An Australian-based cult has been linked with the ec-terrorist group Help Earth (an organisation already linked to to over 200 deaths since it emerged in 2003). CHERUB has been selected to participate in a joint operation with the Australian Secret Intelligent Service (ASIS) to infiltrate the paranoid organisation. Highly dangerous, the mission involves allowing a team of one adult and three children to be recruited into The Survivors, with the aim of having the child agents selected for the cult's elite education program - a school in the remote outback. In addition to the problems of distance, the cult are expert in brain washing techniques, and there are internal power struggles in the lead up to the imminent death of the cult's elderly leader. James, along with his younger sister Lauren, and Aussie cherub Dana Smith are posing as the children of a recently widowed, and apparently wealthy woman (Abigail, an ASIS agent).
Divine Madness has all the elements that made the first three books in the CHERUB series so good - strong characterisation, a fast-paced plot, realistic action (along with actual injury), and attention to detail. The Australian aspect is interesting, primarily from a geographic perspective, and Muchamore has managed to avoid the usual clichés.
I ripped through Divine Madness and eagerly await the fifth in this compelling series. - Alex

Monday, December 1

The Pull of the Moon – Elizabeth Berg

Nan is fifty, the mother of a grown daughter who has a life of her own, and the wife of Martin. After a lifetime of being available for other people, Nan has run away from home – she drives wherever the road takes her, talking to strangers she meets along the way, stopping when and where she feels like, writing as she goes. Between letters to her husband and diary entries for herself, Nan reflects on her life, her sense of self, and works out what she wants from here.
I liked that some of Nan’s meetings are with characters from other Berg novels, offering us the slightest glimpses of aspects unseen in the novels where they star. I don’t know, having not yet read the entire Berg oeuvre, I all the characters have (or will have) their own books, but it added another layer and the presence of those I recognised was natural and unforced.
Berg’s gift is her ability to articulate the experience of being human, and particularly of being a woman – Nan is honest and unguarded, both in her behaviour and in her writing, and in the process is open to life. She decides to talk more to other women, and discovers truths she never suspected – like the universal experiences of motherhood:

when our children are small and we are so weary with the demands for love and attention and the kind of service that makes you feel you should be wearing a uniform with ‘Mommy’ embroidered over the left breast; over the heart… it wasn’t that I was really unhappy. It was the constancy of my load and the awesome importance of it; and it was my isolation…
I really can’t do justice to Berg’s work, at least not without quoting half the book. In no particular order, Nan reflects on the erosion by adulthood of life as a child, “like a wild, beating thing, exotic, capable of unfolding and enlarging itself; pulling itself higher and higher like a kite loved by the wind,” on the differences between men and women, in all aspects, and the nature of her marriage, and that menopause, the change that sparked Nan’s journey, can be the beginning of something new and not just an end.
This is explicit – in one of her meetings, Nan speaks with a man who reflects on his own mother: “
She launched herself into a new life where she felt she could say the hell with anything she didn’t like, and by god, she did say the hell with anything she didn’t like… She was really different, and at first this scared me, but then I realized I liked her better. She became a real person to me. She was interesting… And she was happy, I swear, until the day she died. We knew exactly who we were burying.
Above all, and a unifying theme, is the marginalizing of women –
the working hearts and minds of women are just so interesting, so full of color and life. And one of the most tragic things I’ve seen is the way that’s been overlooked, the way that if you try to discover what the women were doing at any given time in history, you are hard-pressed to find out. Why? I want to say to you that we are not silly, that what we think about, and what drives us to talk, talk, talk, this is vital.
As Nan points out, much of it we do ourselves – drop plans we crafted when a man says
’My God… you’re serious?’ And when he said that, I saw all that I had said in a different light, and I was so ashamed. I said, Well, no, not really.I don’t know why I did that. I hate that I did that.
Lynn is not the kind of woman whose opinions and plans are shaped by other people in this way (I can hear her now – “Yes, I am serious. Got a problem with it? I don’t care, it’s not your life – make your own plans”) but I am and, like Nan, I don’ even notice that’s what I’m doing. But, though not a universal story, I think this is a novel that will resonate with many women, and give some men an insight into the nature of being female. Go on now, read it - Alex