Thursday, December 31

The Real Bravo Two Zero – Michael Asher

In January 1991 an SAS helicopter dropped an elite eight-man team into the Iraq desert. Laden with somewhere between eighty and a hundred kilos of pack each, unprepared for the frigid temperatures of the desert in winter, and with faulty communication equipment, the mission was an abject failure. Discovered by the enemy on the second day and split up in the ensuing confusion, three men died, four were taken captive, and one escaped into the relative safety of Syria. Two of the survivors, escapee ‘Chris Ryan’ and captive ‘Andy McNab,’ wrote memoirs of the mission and have since parlayed their fame into non-fiction and military adventure fiction writing careers. They lay blame, along with a third member of the Bravo Two Zero force, on a number of bodies, including intelligence and the SAS hierarchy. But blame is also laid, particularly by Ryan, on one of the dead platoon members, Sergeant Vince Phillips.
When former SAS member turned author Asher read the accounts, something didn’t quite ring true. The versions differed in significant detail, and some of the aspects, particularly about the local people, didn’t cohere with Asher’s experiences as a volunteer teacher in the Sudan or his consequent time living with a Bedouin tribe. So, with the blessing of Sergeant Phillips’s family, and with a BBC film-crew in tow, he set off to retrace the team’s journey, almost ten years later.
I knew very little about the initial mission and sequela, though I’d heard of both McNab and Ryan as writers of military fiction (the former particularly for a YA audience) and had some vague awareness of military backgrounds, the SAS and heroism. The rapid immersion into the events was a little overwhelming but generally compelling, and I felt Asher was even-handed though with sympathies inclined toward Phillips from the outset – justifiably, as it turns out. He explores the possibility that his findings, from interviews with key Iraqi figures to the geography, may be untrue, falsified or manipulated by the Iraqi government (his research was conducted pre-September 11), and he given strong reasons in support of believing these versions over the textual ones.
That the men displayed feats of heroism and amazing endurance is never questioned, but many of the significant details are strongly called into question. As Asher concludes,

Their true heroism is only marred… by the dubious nature of much of what they have subsequently written. So why was the basic story not enough?
The blame must lie not with McNab and Ryan, but with us, the reading public, who demand of our heroes not only endurance, but the esolution of all problems by force.
I was interested in how strongly shaped the mission was by lack of understanding of what they were headed for, and of the essential nature of the majority of people they would encounter – Bedouin rather than Iraqi. As a social scientist I was fascinated by the idea of conducting this kind of operation without any sociological briefing, or with even one member of the party being able to speak any of the languages of the region. The SAS members’ attitude was heavily influenced by the kind of propaganda common in war, of the enemy as inhumane and brutish, and this is mirrored in the authors’ accounts of events. Asher compares the captured men’s treatment with that meted out by the Gestapo and by the Korean army during those wars, ending this section with:
it has to be said, in all fairness, and without excusing them in any sense for their brutality, that in retrospect the SAS might have done far worse than to fall into Iraqi hands. If it had been the Provisional IRA into whose clutches they had fallen, it is most unlikely they would have survived.
The comparisons between McNab and Ryan’s texts reminded me at times of theological comparisons of the Gospels, particularly John Shelby Spong's marvellous but somewhat inaccessible work surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which was unexpected. This is not intended to any way minimise the courage of the soldiers nor the strength, courage and endurance they demonstrated, but I found The Real Brave Two Zero all in all an interesting and well-written investigative piece into an event that has been mythologised in British military lore, and am interested in reading the two original versions of events.- Alex

Wednesday, December 30

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House

A researcher and three volunteers form a house party at a known ‘haunted’ house in the hope of documenting paranormal occurrences there. It isn’t long before the house obliges and strange things start to manifest, particularly around the most vulnerable member of the group-a young woman of questionable mental and emotional stability.
As time goes by and the paranormal activity becomes dangerously focussed on the woman the other occupants of the house insist that she depart for her own safety. But she has embraced her connection to the house and refuses to leave. When her companions try to force her to go, the house itself steps in to ensure she stays with it forever.
Acclaimed as a classic of the genre I had high hopes for this novel, perhaps too high, for the work dismally failed to impress.
I found none of the characters to be sympathetic in the least. They behave in an entirely unbelievable manner right from the start and the dialogue often straddles the boarder between just plain silly and outright ridiculous.
There is a decided lack of atmosphere-eerie or otherwise. On the few occasions when things looked to be taking a turn for the spooky the author backs off leaving the reader wondering why the characters are so scared.
Supposedly groundbreaking at the time of its publication not only has it failed to age well but I found it compares poorly to earlier works of horror. For creepy atmosphere the reader would be better off with almost anything by Henry James. Or if psychological decay is where terror is to be found then Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s tale The Yellow Wallpaper is infinitely superior.
The best I can say for this story is that it was a great concept poorly executed.-Lynn

Tuesday, December 29

Blue Dragon – Kylie Chan

One Two Two, the King of Demon's son is closing in on a rapidly weakening Shen Xuan Tian Shang Di - the Black Turtle of the North. Though Emma's skills at energy work and combat are proceeding at a phenomenal rate, her status as Xuan Wu's true love and betrothed make her an equally tempting target. Knowing that his time is rapidly drawing to an end, Xuan Wu and Emma try to make the most of the time they have, both for themsleves and to allow his beloved daughter to reach the fullest of her abilities to defend herself.
The powerful plotting, deeply grounded characterisation and compelling interweaving of Chinese mythology and theology, particularly the Tao, into an already captivating tale, makes this series stand head and shoulders above average. I can't remember the last time I was so immersed in a novel, not only going straight from one in the series to the next but forsaking other diversions because I wanted to know what happens next.

Touched on in Red Phoenix, in Blue Dragon we get to see more of Emma’s family and explore her relationship with her parents and with her – very different - sisters. I appreciated the contrast between her family members, new and old, and their adaptation to Emma's changing fortunes.
I also really liked the way Emma’s nationality influences her attitude and the way it’s portrayed - though no real-life characters are as Australian as Emma’s sister Amanda’s opal - and I loved the idea that Uluru is the Mother of all sentient stones. As I got toward the final third of Blue Dragon I was concerned that there wasn't enough room to conclude the trilogy. Chan does leave the ending hanging, but somehow I closed the book feeling satisfied, and hoping that the forthcoming Earth to Hell mentioned on the last page will continue the story. Just perfect. - Alex

Monday, December 28

Red Phoenix – Kylie Chan

Now more than a nanny for Chinese businessman John Chen, Australian Emma Donahue is engaged to the Shen who rules the Northern Heavens and is second only to the Jade Emperor. The King of the Demon's son One Two Two has not relented in his determination to take John's head to his father and thereby succeed as his number one, and he is going to new extremes - he's bred demon hybrids able to bypass the family's senses, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
As Emma's own powers grow, she begins to suspect she may be more than just human, and worries that she poses a potential danger to her new family.
This is an excellent series that combines one of the most powerful romances I've come across with a unique and gripping plot, brilliantly interweaving modern Hong Kong, East/West intersections and Chinese mythology. The characters, particularly of Emma's new family, are well wrought, and in this installment we also meet her blood family, beginning with her somewhat snobbish and competitive sister.
I think my favourite individual section is John’s angry defense of serpents as not evil, which not only contrasts with Emma’s western perspective but lays groundwork for her acceptance of this mysterious part of herself.

I went straight from Red Phoenix to the third in the series, and so have a little trouble telling where one book ends and the other begins - although I knew this would be the case, I just couldn't wait to find out what happens next. - Alex

Sunday, December 27

Last Post – Robert Barnard

Eve McNabb had enjoyed getting to know her mother as an adult, a task made easier after May retired from her long-held position as head mistress to a village primary school. Her rapid death from breast cancer put paid to do that, and Eve took time from work to sort out the funeral and the house. Among the condolence cards was a curious letter, addressed to May from a woman Eve had never heard of, alluding to a lesbian relationship and mentioning Eve’s long dead father. It was enough to set Eve investigating, into her mother’s past and into the possible existence of a father Eve had never known and who may still be alive.
I’ve read Barnard’s mysteries for over twenty years, and his prowess has not flagged. They are slender but packed with plot and character, he has a real gift of capturing a personality, and his dialogue is natural and appears effortless. I was quickly invested in Eve’s search to uncover hidden truths, and really enjoyed the way Barnard caught up several threads into a narrative whole – in addition to the dual and related plots of May’s possible secret life and John’s reason for leaving England on short notice, there’s a murder and a romance that is warm and deftly portrayed despite its usually unsympathetic love interest, a married man. There is also one of the most resonant and shocking endings of a British cosy that I can remember for a long time. – Alex

Saturday, December 26

Michael Baigent: The Jesus Papers

From the back of the book:

  • What if everything we have been told about the origins of Christianity is a lie?
  • What if a small group had always known the truth and had kept it hidden…until now?
  • What if there is incontrovertible proof that Jesus Christ survived the crucifixion?
  • What were the most influential social and political events of Jesus’ day?
  • Who could have aided and abetted Jesus and why?
  • Where could Jesus have gone after the crucifixion?
  • What is the truth behind the creation of the New Testament?
  • Who is working to keep the truth buried and why?

This is another offering from the best-selling co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail-first published over twenty years ago and used as a source for Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (just thought I’d get that fact in nice and early-not that the introduction labours the point or anything).
I’ve always loved a conspiracy theory and a well presented, well argued and well supported religious conspiracy theory is not to be passed by. My memories of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, distant though they are, are for the main part positive so I went into this book with expectations of finding reasonable speculation with a possible, if unsubstantiated, logical base.
And it is there in the claim that (mysteriously disappeared) documentation exists strongly suggestive of Jesus’ survival, but in nowhere near the detail I had hoped to find it.
Much of this book is devoted to chronicling the known history of the period-interesting enough in itself but by no means necessary for even a casual scholar of the period. There is also some rehashing of old arguments about whether Jesus was really a victim of the Jews or the Romans (for the sake of this argument there is no question of his existence in appropriate place and time). Nothing revolutionary here. A nod is given to the creation of the New Testament by the church and mention made of much that was left out. Again, hardly a new, or controversial, idea.
The bulk of the book focuses on Egyptian mystery cults and the possibility that Jesus was an initiate. And while it is an interesting theory, evidence is thin on the ground and discussion is predominantly about the cults, not about Jesus’ possible association with them.
Certainly I didn’t see any incontrovertible proof that Jesus survived the crucifixion, any indication of who may have aided and abetted him or where he might have spent the rest of his life.
Part way through the book the author does go off on an unexpected tangent about his travels in Baia. I am yet to see how this relates to Jesus in any way.
Reading the above you could be forgiven for thinking I didn’t particularly like this book. The truth is, it’s not that bad. I just felt that it didn’t fulfil the promises it made by way of answering the questions it posed on the jacket. For a newcomer to Christian conspiracy theory it’s a good enough place to start. But, honestly, there’s little here that hasn’t been seen before. -Lynn

Friday, December 25

Desire – Amanda Quick

The death of her academic father means that Lady Clare can no longer delay marrying – her island home Desire, centre of a perfumed toiletries industry, must have a protector, and she has no interest in the dastardly Nicholas of Seabern, who took her captive for four days and nights in hopes that besmirching her reputation would leave her no option but accept his suit. Even were it not for that Clare would never willingly take him to her bed, for in addition to his manifold other faults, he smells wrong to her.
Lady Clare sends her father’s liege lord, Thurston of Landry, a letter outlining her requirements for a husband – he must be of modest size, able to read, and of even temperament. Raised in his father’s household, but not of it, from the age of eight, Thurston’s bastard oldest son, Gareth, meets one of those requirements and has a thirst for land, a hunger for a place he belongs. On first sighting the beautiful but headstrong mistress of Desire, Gareth discovers a new hunger and thirst, and an additional reason to best his competition for the hand of Lady Clare.
Lynn has written previously about her affection for Quick’s work, and my first experience with her work has me on board. This charming and vibrant historical romance novel combines a mystery, dastardly foes, a spirited heroine who knows her own mind but is able to change it, a strong but understanding hero, and intelligent writing.
I could have done with the refrain of St Hermione’s sacred parts – Lady Clare references her finger, her ear, her brow and almost her maidenhead – but other refrains, particularly the many wedding eve offerings of chicken’s blood-filled vials Lady Clare is offered, are more amusing. I suspect more of Quick’s work will appear on these pages over the next few months, particularly as I know Lynn – who was more amused than I by Saint Hermione – has several actual bought Quick novels, including Desire, awaiting her. - Alex

Thursday, December 24

Starfish Sisters – JC Burke

Courtney, known to the world at large as Ace, is the poster girl for surfing supplier Ocean Pearl. A shoo-in for the team, going to training camp for selection is just a formality – she’s more concerned about her relationship with pro-surfer Tim. All he seems interested in is her body, but who will like her if they’re not together?
Georgie loves surfing, but over the past few months her enthusiasm has waned. Once she aspired to be like her role model, Ace, but now the idea of going to an elite training camp fills her with dread – something about the pressure of competition has taken all the joy of it and left only anxiety.
Georgie’s best friend Kia has a way to deal with her stress, but she can’t tell anyone. Above all she needs to show her father that she’s worthy of his love, but he’s so preoccupied with his best friend’s daughter he doesn’t ever seem to notice his own – Kia’s never met twelve-year-old Micki but she already hates her.
Micki’s been looking forward to the Elite Surfing camp for months, not only because she’ll get to hone her skills but also because she’ll get to meet Reg’s daughter, Kia. She just knows they’ll get along great. She has no idea that Kia will tell their cabin about her mother; it’s a good thing Kia doesn’t know about her dad, too.
This Australian YA novel combines narratives from each of the protagonists to create a story about surfing, competition, friendship and growth. I can see its accessibility for its target audience, and applaud Burke’s portrayal of young women invested in competitive physical activity in a traditionally male arena.
Despite this I couldn’t really get into Starfish Sisters, and not just because I managed to leave a library copy of the book on the tram (and am still hoping a kind person will return it). Perhaps I’m just too old and past the self-oriented angstyness, which I’m sure was a major factor in my missing the allure of the Twilight phenomenon. I just couldn’t get that invested in any of the characters, particularly Kia, who seems to have no redeeming features – she drops her best friend for the famous Ace, goes out of her way to make Kia miserable, and even though she’s tormented and at the end is shown to have the biggest problem of all, by that time she was so unsympathetic I really didn’t care. There’s a sequel, which I borrowed at the same time as borrowing a second copy, but I think I’ll pass on it for now. - Alex

Wednesday, December 23

The Messenger – Markus Zusak

Ed Kennedy spends his life alternating between working as a cabbie and playing cards with his three mates, Marv, who’s blindly loyal to his dilapidated light blue Falcon, Ritchie, who still lives at home with his parents, and the lovely Audrey, who dates losers and is unaware that Ed’s in love with her. When the four friends are caught up in a bank robbery, featuring possibly the world’s most inept criminal, it’s the closest thing to excitement that Ed’s known for a while. The would-be robber’s quickly caught, and Ed testifies against him, despite vows that he’s a dead man for doing so.
From this unpromising beginning arises a mission, one that Ed is conscripted into and afraid not to pursue. Following directions on a series of playing cards, Ed begins to observe a group of strangers, interfering with their lives for the general good. His interference comes at a cost – Ed is threatened, beaten up and terrified, by he feels a sense of purpose long missing from his life. And behind it all is the question – who is orchestrating it all?I really enjoyed the premise, the writing style, the character and voice of Ed, and the comedy laced through The Messenger. As Ed becomes involved in the lives of strangers he becomes more conscious of his own life, and is forced to confront truths about himself, his family and his friends that would otherwise stayed hidden.
However, I was hugely disappointed with the identity of the mastermind behind the whole thing. As a reader I was more interested in the journey than the impetus, and would probably have been relatively uncritical of a plausible, even if far-fetched, answer. Instead Zusak combines fourth-wall breaking, Literary style and a dollop of deus ex machine to create the written equivalent of Dallas's season eight it-was-all-a-dream ending – Ed is a character, the tasks were created by the author, and in the final words of the novel, “I’m not the messenger at all. I’m the message.”
Ick, yuck, moving on. – Alex

Tuesday, December 22

Hunting Ground – Patricia Briggs

Bran, the North American Marrok, has decided it’s time to let humans know that werewolves live in their midst. He knows it’s not a popular decision, and has arranged a meeting of pack heads from Europe in Seattle to discuss the matter, though disclosure is not up for debate. His enforcer son Charles has been antagonistic about the idea - though he can’t articulate why, Charles senses strong danger. When Bran agrees to let Charles and his new wife Anna go in his stead, Charles feels an immediate release – his da will be safe if he stays away from Seattle.
The meetings will be overseen by one of the oldest and most powerful of the fae, a Gray Lord currently known as Dana Shea (a variant of the Gaelic daoine sidhe). She has vowed no harm will come to the participants, that attack will be met with swift retribution. But then Anna, the Seattle Alpha’s second, Tom, and Tom’s blind white witch wife are set upon by vampires and barely escape alive. It quickly becomes clear that at least one person has a hidden agenda, and while the Beast, Europe’s most sadistic and feared werewolf, is the likeliest suspect, there seem to be other forces also at work.
The second in the Mercy Thompson spin off series Alpha and Omega, Hunting Ground continues the story of Charles and Anna. He’s a centuries old born were, half Welsh half native American, at peace with his Brother Wolf but at odds with his father; until recently he’s been relatively content with his role as feared enforcer, comfortable staying apart from the pack, but his pair bonding with Anna has eased discomforts he didn’t know he had. Anna’s not yet twenty-five, a turned were of only three years, with an unhappy history before she was turned and a truly miserable past until Bran rescued her. She’s still coming to terms with the idea of trusting Charles, though her wolf is unquestionably connected to his, and as she learns more about him the more at ease she feels with this complex man she’s learning not only to trust but to love.
Though the plot is engaging and interesting in its own right, I was more captured by this unfolding, evolving relationship, and by the exploration of the characters of Charles and Anna. Briggs has created an engrossing world that stands out in an increasingly crowded genre. Although I enjoy Mercy’s adventures, I am more eager to read about what happens next to this Alpha and his calming but unquestionably not submissive Omega mate. – Alex

Monday, December 21

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late – Harry Kemelman

Lifelong friends Ben Schwartz and Abe Reich have fallen out, and as their disagreement becomes more entrenched both are less willing to budge. When the enmity threatens to disrupt the congregation, Jacob Wasserman turns to their rabbi, David Small, to intervene. Not everyone’s choice for rabbi, Small is young and more focused on Talmudic scholarship than assimilation and glad-handing. He decides to hold a Din Torah, akin to a rabbinic hearing, to resolve the problem, and turns to the general principles derived from centuries of analysis and debate of cases in the Talmud. Though he successfully resolves the matter, the board of directors is reluctant to renew Small’s appointment.
When the body of a murdered gentile woman is found on the temple grounds, suspicion is first cast on the rabbi – he was in his study around the time of the murder, and the victim’s handbag was found in his car. But Barnard’s Crossing police chief Hugh Lanigan quickly eliminates Small as a suspect. Against a background of in-fighting, fears of anti-Semitic ill-feeling, and debate over his usefulness to his congregation, the new rabbi tries to uncover the truth about the life and death of a young nanny.
The first in a highly successful series, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late is an engaging and very readable novel that combines Jewish culture and lore with a mystery. Unavoidably dated – it was originally published in 1964 – I was less surprised by the different emphasis on material possessions than by the level of ignorance about Judaism Small’s congregation has. In his introduction the late author explains that the novel arose out of his interest in the gap between the expectations of culturally Jewish second- and third-generation Americans and their new rabbi. This disconnect between experiences of Judaism as upbringing and ritual on the one hand, and adherence to and study of Jewish tenets on the other, was fascinating. I also enjoyed the contrast between life on the cusp of the twenty-first century’s second decade and small town America on the verge of the revolutionary sixties. There’s something about the sensibilities imbuing this novel that have a greater resonance on that level than a film, television series or retrospectively sited novel.
I seem lately to be coming across a seam of similar themes, and could not help but contrast this novel with the recently seen A Serious Man – also set in an early sixties American small town Jewish community. I found the comfort of religion in the novel, the tightness of the plot and the multi-dimensionality of the characters far more accessible and interesting than the dystopic film (however strongly acted and beautifully shot), and thoroughly enjoyed the use of discussions between Small and Lanigan as plot devices for contrasting Judaism with Christianity.
I did enjoy this kinder, gentler – despite the murder – novel and look forward to reading more. Sadly my library does not have the next two novels in Kemelman’s series, but I hope my parents do, and have vague memories of seeing the novels in the family library when I was younger. Watch this spot - Alex

Sunday, December 20

Wish You Were Here – Lani Diane Rich

Freya Daly’s life is completely under control. Well, okay, there’s this bizarre ocular issue that from time to time causes her to produce fluid that looks like tears and that none of the idiot doctors she’s been to can diagnose or treat, but otherwise everything’s going according to plan. Oh, and her father is reconsidering promoting her to take over his real estate business, which is how it is that she’s in this tiny little Idaho town. But Freya will prove to her father that she has what it takes to succeed, and no camp site-owning hot guy inexplicably unwilling to sell, even at the weirdly over-market price her father’s oddly prepared to pay, will stand in her way.
Chef Nate Brody is an honourable man – he stood by his girlfriend when she got pregnant, took sole custody of their daughter when his wife took off, and he’s not about to break the deathbed promise he made to his father. Breaking promises is the kind of thing his father did, and Nate is nothing like his father. All his decisions are made with an eye to the best interests of his ten-year-old daughter, Piper, and the last thing she needs is to get attached to a substitute mother figure, however hot she might be.
Reminiscent of Crusie or Phillips, Lani’s characters live on the page. She avoids the more common romance obstacles in favour of a strong mystery plot – before he can sell up, Nate has to find a mysterious object, hidden by his father. For Nate it’s a relatively light-hearted task, though not without a degree of urgency, as his restaurant is in need of attention in his absence. There are others, though, for whom the object has greater significance, and the reader becomes aware of threats to Freya and Piper that the main characters know nothing about.
Mix that with a plotline about Piper’s mother, the pain of mother-loss she and Freya share, a magical Irish wishing coin, frustrated parent/child relationships across the board, and a tension between duty and self interest, and this is an above average novel.
It was clear from early in that With You Were Here, a title whose relevance to the plot I didn’t quite get, continues a storyline from another of Rich’s novels, which I found at the end is Crazy in Love, the story of Freya’s younger sister. Although I think reading that first would have added a layer to my experience of Wish You Were Here, this book stood on its own. I did enjoy it enough that I’ll see what else my library has by Rich, though. And there are a couple of author blurbs at the end of the book – the period romance How to Seduce a Sinner by Hoyt and the possibly Brockmann-like Too Far Gone by Marliss Melton – that also sounded interesting. – Alex

Saturday, December 19

Yes Man - Danny Wallace

When we last left Danny Wallace he had inadvertently founded a cult, and in the process lost his long-term girlfriend, Hanne. Catching up on three years of adulthood, Danny began doing grown up things, like shopping at Ikea, and in the process discovered he quite liked staying at home. So much so that he almost never went out, creating excuses for almost every social invitation. But one evening, coming home from work on a bus, Danny fell into conversation with a teacher from Aldgate, and with three simple words this nameless stranger changed Danny's life - "say Yes more." With that, Danny overhauled his attitude and life - he vowed that, whatever the opportunity, if asked he would say "yes." After buying his mate Ian several rounds, Danny then had to add a caveat, that this only applied to people who didn't know about his new life philosophy.
Along the way he pisses off a Very Serious man at a party, acquires a nemesis who sends him off on expensive and pointless adventures, reconnects with old friends, responds to spam, and rekindles a promising Antipodean relationship.
Wallace has two gifts - first, he is inspired to enact change where most wouldn't even notice the opportunity, and fearlessly carries these plans through to the bitter end, and second he is able to discuss the process with honesty, integrity and humour. Engagingly written, The Yes Man has moments of genuine hilarity - I particularly liked the two major interactions with ex-girlfriend Hanne - and deft humorous touches throughout. The mystery of the nemesis combines with Wallace's journey, and the romance threaded through is a bonus. I do hope he comes up with another stupid boy project, because they're such fun to read about, and on the way inspire me to make (far smaller) changes in my own life. - Alex

Friday, December 18

Evelyn Vaughn: Seventh Key

When the wife and daughter of one of the wealthiest men alive are kidnapped, the ransom requested is not money. The abductors want the woman’s expert knowledge of ancient artefacts and are holding her daughter, along with several other children, hostage. If she complies with their demands to deliver the Black Madonna mosaic they will use its power to destroy the world, if she doesn’t her child will die.
With the help of her husband, and a small group of hereditary priestesses, she has just days to find the key to the mosaic’s power and use it to save, not only her child, but the world as we know it.
This is the final in the seven book Madonna Key series and to be perfectly honest, it was less than I had hoped for.
My disappointment isn’t with the writing which was fast paced. Nor was it with the plot, which while not entirely to my taste (I don’t like the presence of children, particularly young children in a romantic adventure setting), was action-packed and tied up the series nicely. It was with the characters and their relationships to each other.
Having read the entire series I was familiar with all the major players and their behaviour didn’t seem consistent with the personalities presented in earlier works. In addition there was obviously a negative history between at least two of the characters that was not explained and their interpersonal issues seemed to be overcome with relative ease.
If not for the fact that Alex had recently read a book by this author from another series, a book I read quite some time ago, and was able to refresh my memory about these women and their past conflict I would have been completely confused as to what was going on between them.
I’m all for recycling characters and cross referencing series, it’s always nice to find out what old friends are up to, but in this case it simply didn’t work and left me confused for much of the story.
I really liked the idea of this series. The quality of individual instalments was variable and I am a bit disappointed that the series didn’t finish with the same bang that it started with. Overall not a bad series but not one I’d be quick to recommend or reread.-Lynn

Thursday, December 17

The Dogs of Babel - Carolyn Parkhurst

Linguist Paul Iverson is devastated by his wife Lexy's death - her body was found beneath an apple tree in their garden, and though the death was found to be accidental, he can't let go of the inconsistencies. Lexy had never climbed the tree before, she seemed to have eaten a steak without using any utensils, and she'd rearranged one of their bookshelves. But Lexy's not around to explain what happened, and the only witness is their eight year old Rhodesian ridgeback, Lorelei.
Struck by inspiration, Paul takes a sabbatical from his university and concentrates on trying to teach Lorelei to speak. There are historical cases of talking animals, and Wendell Hollis, the 'Dog Butcher of Brooklyn' was convicted by the testimony of Dog J, one of the dogs he mutilated in his pursuit of canine speech.
I delayed reading The Dogs of Babel for such a long time, because I so enjoyed my Lost and Found, my first Parkhurst experience, that I was afraid of ruining the memory of I didn't enjoy this. I need not have delayed - though very different from Lost and Found, The Dogs of Babel is as absorbing and fascinating. I intended to read only a chapter or two, but found myself reading the novel in a single sitting this morning.
The plot combines a love story with a mystery, as we go between the present and the history of their relationship. Lexy is a nuanced, gifted, creative and enigmatic character, portrayed through the loving but clear sighted eyes of her loving husband. He reveals less of himself, primarily in contrast to her, but his voice is all the more powerful for that. And while the plot is gripping, it's the complexity and psychological makeup of the protagonists that drew me in and kept me spell-bound.
Parkhurst has a gift for creating psychological profiles effortlessly - as Paul catalogues the order of the rearranged bookshelf, noting which books belonged to whom, layers of additional insight paint the reader's picture of them both.* Paul deconstructs names to uncover the words contained within them:
Break open Lexy Ransome and you find omen and sexy and soar. Lost and rose. Yearn and near and anymore. See how it works? It doesn't bear thinking about. It couldn't be any clearer. Only one letter away from remorse, and one letter away from answer.
This is a powerful tale of loss, grief, forgiveness, truth, understanding, fear, compassion and above all love, with a touch of horror and an intermittent sprinkling of talking dog books. Masks, dreams and art recur, and I know that re-reading this book, after a little space, will give me even more to think about. - Alex

* And for the wanton bibliophile, create a reading list on their own. How have I managed without reading Mary Had a Little Lamb: Language Acquisition in Childhood; I'd Rather Be Parsing: The Linguistics of Bumper Stickers, Buttons and T-Shirt Slogans; or The Toad Not Taken: The Linguistic Value of Puns?

Wednesday, December 16

Eagle Day - Robert Muchamore

As the Germans invade Paris, British spy Charles Henderson, along with French orphan Marc Kilgour and English siblings Paul and Rosie Clarke, must make a difficult decision - flee to the relative safety of Spain and from there return to London, or infiltrate a Nazi boat yard in the hopes of uncovering and possibly sabotaging the invaders plans to defeat Britain.
I ended my review of The Escape, Muchamore's first part of this series, itself a prequel to the best-selling CHERUBs series, noting that I hoped the whole Henderson Boys series wouldn't be a chain of cliff-hangers. Though less the case here than in the Escape, this series is clearly destined to be less stand alone that the contemporary one. I suppose, given the work the series needs to do in forming a platform for the later, established organisation, this is inevitable and I have resigned myself to it.
This resignation is made easier by the compensations of strong characterisation, vibrant writing, a perfect encompassing of time and place blended with an immediacy born of its historical setting, and a brisk plot.
Muchamore infuses the novel with historical accuracy, footnoting translations for German and French terms rather than substituting their English equivalents, and interspersing sections with a brief update of the bigger picture of the war. The facts are succinct and digestible, and I imagine would be well assimilate by young readers rather than being seen as boring pedagogy.
I do enjoy the original series better, and am quite excited by the prospect of another CHERUB installment in my To Read pile, but making my way through Eagle Day was no hardship and I'll certainly continue on for the time being. - Alex

Tuesday, December 15

Nancy Warren: By The Book

A woman’s fantasies about her hot neighbour are doused when she discovers he’s got a ‘how-to’ manual about pleasing women. When he asks her to assist with the couples exercises she reluctantly agrees. Little does she know that he wrote the book and intends to investigate its validity using her as a test subject. The two hit it off, in every sense of the word, and end up falling in love.
This book from Harlequin’s Blaze imprint is pretty much what you’d expect-sexually detailed without becoming too explicit.
The storyline is reasonably believable, the characters have some personality and the sex is plentiful, if not particularly imaginative.
More romantica than erotica it focuses on the developing relationship between the partners and the sex scenes are threaded with emotion rather than just a vivid description of the physical act.
While this is not the best example of its genre that I’ve ever read, neither is it the worst. It’s an inoffensive love story with a mild erotic element. I’m not completely sold on the Blaze line but I would try another if the storyline appealed.-Lynn

Monday, December 14

To the Hilt - Dick Francis

Artist Alexander Kinoch has always been the odd one in his family - spurning London and convention, he lives in a remote bothy off the beaten path in Scotland. Arriving home one evening he is set upon by four men who pause the beating only to ask, over and over, "where is it?" Alexander has no idea what "it" is and has no response. Thrown over the side of the mountain and left for dead, when he crawls back home he discovers destruction - everything's been overturned or ruined. But his artistic talents allow him to recognisable sketch his assailants.
Called to London to comfort his stricken mother - her husband, head of one of Britain's leading breweries, has had a heart attack in the wake of discovering that the company is on the verge of collapse due to the financial director's embezzlement of millions of pounds. Ivan gives Alexander power of attorney, to the utter fury of Patsy, Ivan's daughter, who has always suspected Alexander of trying to finagle his way into her inheritance.
Less horsey than Francis' usual work, To the Hilt is just as pacy, engrossing and character and plot driven as the rest of his work. The hilt the title refers to is an immensely valuable sword given to one of Alexander's predecessors by Bonnie Prince Charlie; Scottish history and culture are woven throughout the narrative, with the bagpipes Alexander's chosen method of emotional expression, and golf not only a favourite pastime but also Alexander's more recurring painting theme.
In addition there's missing treasure, skulduggery, an ex-wife, a hidden racehorse (not completely removed from Francis' more oft used setting), and a cast of convincing characters including the thoroughly likable firm of Young and Utterly, who I'd love to see recur in another book. This was a magnificently enjoyable action novel that beautifully balances character development with action. - Alex

Sunday, December 13

Too Close to Home - Linwood Barclay

Derek Cutter is excited at the prospect of his neighbours, the Langleys, going on holiday - their empty house will be the perfect trysting spot for him and his girlfriend, provided he can hide in the house before they leave. Not even his friend Adam knows that he plans to hide in the basement storage cupboard, and though he feels a little guilty at deceiving his friend it's easily outweighed by the prospect of space and time to just be with Penny. But after a seamless start, successfully pretending to leave Adam and his parents to their packing but really squeezing into the crawl space, everything falls apart. First Penny's grounded, then the Langleys come home because Mrs Langley has a stomach upset. And then the entire family is murdered.
Jim Cutter lives with his wife and adolescent son down a laneway that you could easily miss if you didn't know it was there. He mows lawns for a living, and despite the derision his work inspires in some, he enjoys it. His wife is an academic, her boss (and former lover) a literary success on the back of his first - and, to date, only - novel, and Jim still resents his rival even though Ellen swears it was a mistake and all over.
Jim's heartsick when he learns about the deaths of his neighbour, a criminal defense lawyer, his wife and son. Promise Falls isn't the kind of place you expect such tragedies. When no direct motive can be found Jim has to ask himself how well he really knew the family. But how well does he really know his own family? And what if the Langley's weren't the real targets?
The writing is brisk, the plot interestingly but not confusingly twisty. The Derek section is a third-person prologue, contrasting with the first person narration of the rest of the novel, allowing the reader to have knowledge Jim only discovers part way through the chain of events and adding a layer of interest.
I had some trouble with Jim's unwillingness to resolve his issues over his wife's affair - he forgives her but can't let go of his resentment and dislike, which is understandable but continually interferes with anyone's willingness to take his suspicions seriously. A statement I know is vague, but more specificity would spoil the plot.
However, my biggest issue is that the heart of the novel is a secret left concealed because of fear that its revelation would be compromising, even though it's obvious people will be hurt. This was only a minor quibble, but it did grate a little. However, over all Too Close to Home is an intriguing premise well executed. - Alex

Saturday, December 12

Indigo's Star - Hilary McKay

After months recovering from glandular fever, Indigo Casson is about to return to school and he's dreading it - when he left a gang, lead by a red-headed boy of spiteful nastiness, had tormented him, and the time away from school has just made him ganglier than ever. Youngest sister Rose is the only one to have noticed anything's wrong, and though she's eager to protect him if she can, she has her own worries - glasses, which have made the world distressingly sharp and focused. But on his first day back Indigo discovers there's an American student in class, and Tom makes a difference to all their lives.
The second in a delightful series, Indigo's Star continues the story of the Casson family. As in its predecessor (below), McKay manages to seamlessly weave into the narrative serious topics without turning the accounts into lessons - bullying and pack mentality, separation and divorce, remarriage and new siblings, jealousy and resentment and alienation, the painfulness of growth, and love of many kinds. Unconditional love is a constant that threads through the series, and is most prominent in this instalment - it may not always be felt but it's always there. In many books for younger readers adults in general and parents in particular exist as somewhat stock figures, rather than being layered and characterised in their own right. In McKay's writing they are seen through the eyes of the child protagonists but are layered and textured, and though not free from fault are lovingly present (even Bill, the Casson's geographical and ideologically distant Daddy). As Tom's grandmother points out, "there are all sorts of families" and McKay demonstrates that what binds us together more than blood is love. - Alex

Saffy's Angel - Hilary McKay

Saffy Casson was eight when she discovered that her name was not on the colour chart that hung in her family kitchen. Oldest sister Caddy was there - as cadmiums lemon, deep yellow, scarlet and gold, younger brother Indigo was there amongst the blue and purple section, and baby Permanent Rose (who had come very close to being not at all permanent) was there, but no Saffron, however hard Saffy looked among the yellows. When, frustrated, she asked why, the annoying Health Visitor who was checking on Rose, and who continually compared her genius twin daughters unfavourably to the Casson children, asked their mother "Doesn't she know?" Which is how Saffy found out that her mother was really her aunt, her siblings her cousins, and her own mother was dead.
The first in a quintet, Saffy's Angel is a delightful, touching and comic story about a truly unique family. Though Saffy's its' focus, we learn as much about the other members - beautiful but unfocused Caddy, half in love with her driving instructor, only male Indigo, ferociously defensive of his pack, determined Rose, the most artistic of the lot, their vague and artistic mother, challenged by shopping and not very interested in anything but her children and her art, and their Serious Artist father, who lives in London and visits when he has to. But most of all we learn about Saffy, who since her discovery has felt wholly an outsider, and who needs to find proof that she is loved and belongs.
McKay writes with immediacy. Her characters are beautifully crafted, engaging and amusing and emotionally resonant. This series is probably less accessible to young male readers but is a great choice for young female readers; I've recommended it to several godparents, grandparents and friends. - Alex

Friday, December 11

Jim Butcher: Grave Peril

When ghosts suddenly become restless and start causing trouble it is up to the only professional wizard in the phone book to discover why and put a stop to it before anybody else gets hurt. Assisted by a Christian warrior and hindered by his godmother (a fairy of the traditional kind-untrustworthy with a cruel bent), he tracks down the source of the problem and deals with it. Though he saves the day it is not easy and results in great personal loss.
This is the third book in the Dresden Files series and I can’t decide whether I liked it or not.
The fantasy element was stronger than in the previous book, as was the Christian message, though both were done well and neither seemed misplaced. There’s plenty of the action and humour that I enjoyed so much in the previous story and the world building-this time expanding upon vampires-goes from strength to strength.
So far, so good: so what bothered me? Two things.
Firstly, the trouble upon trouble that was piled onto the hero went just that little bit too far. He frequently taps himself out, both physically and magically and simply has no more to give and then the situation intensifies and, will you look at that, he does have just that little bit more he needs to get out. Once or twice this would be okay but at almost every turn it become less and less believable-a sin even in fantasy novels.
Secondly, as I read I kept feeling as though I’d skipped a book and was behind on the story. This is definitely the third book in the series, I actually went and checked to be sure, but it seems to draw on events that I don’t remember from previous books. Admittedly it has been nearly two years since I read the first book in the series and some of the events may have occurred there and I simply don’t remember them (the first book didn’t leave me with much of an impression). But there was an irritating sense of not knowing something I should right through the story. Perhaps there were some short stories with these characters that I missed or something along those lines.
Anyway, apart from these two quibbles I continue to enjoy the series concept and the writing isn’t bad so I’ll give the next title a go. Hopefully it will be a return to the unquestionable good form of the second book.-Lynn

Thursday, December 10

White Tiger - Kylie Chan

Aussie ex-pat Emma Donahue loves teaching the small students who attend Miss Kwok's Hong Kong kindergarten, but Simone Chen holds a special place in her heart. Her businessman father has filled all Emma's private teaching periods, and when an argument with Miss Kwok results in Emma resigning she's grateful but unsurprised when he offers her a full-time nanny position. Emma is attracted to John Chen, although he's older than her and a widower. But she senses something unusual about his household - the sheer wealth, American bodyguard and strange visitors are not strange for Hong Kong but Emma senses something else.
John Chen is a Shen, a god-like immortal being. Known as Xuan Wu,the Black Turtle, he "is Emperor of the Northern Heavens, ruler of a quarter of the sky; he also owns a complete Mountain in Heaven, on the Celestial Plane." Somewhere along the line he has lost part of himself, the Serpent, but is still a powerful and great Shen. But when he married Michelle, Simone's American mother, he promised he would not take True Form. Though she was killed by demons, Xuan Hu has kept his promise but without returning to the Celestial Plane he grown ever-weaker and his enemies, spurred on by the demon king's vow to promote whoever kills him, are intent on his destruction. Chief among them are the king's son, Simon Wong - wily, powerful and determined, he launches a series of attacks of an unprecedented ferocity and has his eye on using Simone, Emma and John's household to get to the Shen.
One of the richest, most textured novels I've read in a long time, White Tiger is a romance, an adventure, the opening of a paranormal series, and an exploration of Chinese culture, religion and mythology. The writing is exquisite, the dialogue rings true, the characters leap off the page, the action is vivid and the plot is engaging.
One of the aspects of White Tiger (one of the other four Shen) that I particularly liked was the twist on that hoary staple of paranormal romances, most notable in the Twilight series - John and Emma can't consummate their relationship because his diminishing energy means that, without barriers between them, he would be helplessly unable to avoid draining her energy. The only solution is for him to return to True Form and depart Earth for the Celestial Plane and return to his full power - a move that would mean an absence of anywhere between ten and one hundred years.
I am unable to convey the layers of texture and the seamless integration of Chinese culture in this novel. I can only imagine how much more satisfying this would be is the culture and religious stories White Tiger is rooted in were mine, but through her outsider heroine Chan does a brilliant job of incorporating enough detail to make these aspects accessible. As soon as I finished White Tiger I reserved the next two in the series - reviews of Red Phoenix and Blue Dragon to follow shortly. - Alex

Wednesday, December 9

Greenberg and Davis (eds): If I were an Evil Overlord

From the back of the book-
The fourteen original tales in this volume run the gamut from humorous to serious, fantasy to science fiction. These are stories for anyone who has ever played the role of an Evil Overlord, or has defeated an Evil Overlord, or would like to become an Evil Overlord. After all, isn’t it more fun to be the “bad guy?”

It has taken me the better part of a year to get through this collection of short stories, which says more about their appeal to me than any words could. It’s not that I didn’t like them, for the most part I did. I found the humorous additions funny and some of the more serious efforts thought provoking but I simply didn’t find the collection particularly compelling. The book was very easy to put down and equally as easy to overlook. Though I could probably remember plot points of the individual stories no single story stands out in my memory in either a positive or a negative way. This anthology wasn’t bad as much as unremarkable. -Lynn

For Alex's review of If I Were an Evil Overlord, click here

Tuesday, December 8

The Business of Dying - Simon Kernick

Dennis is a killer for hire, but he's selective about who he's prepared to kill - he knows that the justice system favours the criminals, while the victims have to go on with their lives without benefit of state housing, food and higher education. Okay, so he's only done once before, shooting a bent businessman, but the principle's the same, and for the money he's prepared to kill three violent drug dealers. The first hiccup comes when he's witnessed - a hardened criminal would take her out, but Dennis can't. The second hiccup is when he's pulled over by a roadblock shortly after the girl raises the alarm - to get out of it he has to show his ID.
And that brings him to the third problem, because Dennis Milne, killer for hire, is also a Detective Sargent in the British police force. The biggest problem, however, is that Dennis was manipulated - he shot and killed two decorated Customs agents and an accountant, triggering a massive investigation.
Kernick's debut novel is accomplished and engrossing. Dennis is a fascinating protagonist, a bent cop with a moral code that reminded me of a UK version of The Shield's Vic Mackey, and was published the year that series debuted (but is otherwise wholly different).
The first-person narrative is honest, captivating and compelling the writing is immediate and vivid, and the plot combines Dennis's back story and attempts to extricate himself from an ever-tightening web, with his investigation into the disappearance of one young prostitute and the violent murder of another.I came across The Business of Dying by chance, but after I make my way through some of the back log will be checking out his other works. - Alex

Monday, December 7

Susan Krinard: Lord of Legends

A young bride, abandoned on her wedding night and blamed by her mother-in-law for her husband’s absence, is left at her husband’s country estate. While wandering the grounds she discovers a man imprisoned in a folly. Seemingly insane, she takes pity on him and her kindness is rewarded when the man proves to be merely suffering from amnesia rather than insanity.
Unfortunately when he finally remembers who and what he is, he also remembers why he was imprisoned in the first place. He is king of the unicorns cursed to live as a man in the mortal world until he can lure his young carer into the clutches of an evil Fane Lord.
As he works to gain her trust he finds himself falling in love with the pretty virgin and unable to condemn her to a life of virtual imprisonment.
Eventually he explains all to her and once the questions of each other’s sanity are answered they band together to thwart the Fane Lord, break his curse and live happily ever after.
It’s been a while since I read a fantasy novel and I thought this one by an author I’ve enjoyed in the past would be a good one to slip back into the genre with, however this book was not what I expected. While there is undoubtedly a fantasy element to the story, it very much takes a back seat. I would class this book as first and foremost an historical romance with full fantasy elements only making an appearance in the last two chapters.
As a romance it didn’t rate particularly highly for me. Evidence of the hero’s supposed love of the heroine was thin on the ground and the heroine came off as just a little bland. It also suffered from the, unfathomable to me, American transplanted heroine syndrome. A great deal is made of the heroine’s American heritage and a rather convoluted explanation is given as to how and why her family ended up in America. Then another unlikely set of circumstances occurs for her to end up back on the English estate where the bulk of the story takes place. The plot is saved by a fascinating cast of secondary characters.
Though the story isn’t bad I had hoped for more from this author given how much I’ve enjoyed her other works. I finish it just a little disappointed but with hopes for the sequel (starring the more interesting secondary characters) high.-Lynn

Sunday, December 6

No! I Don't Want to Join a Bookclub - Virginia Ironsides

When she turns sixty Marie Sharp is ready to slow her life down - she's earned it. Well meaning people continually offer suggestions of things she might like to do, to fill her time and to keep her mind active, from book groups to adult learning courses. But Marie doesn't want to be young and stimulated anymore, and the idea of being compelled to "wade through Captain Corelli's Mandolin, or The God of Small Things, or, groan, The Bookseller of Kabul" makes her despair. She wants to shout at these people to stop denying their age and stage and embrace it instead. She's too old for new love, and too old to change.
But Marie's sixtieth year holds some changes for Marie regardless of what she wants. Her son becomes a father and she discovers the joy of grandparenthood, "pure and clear, unclouded" love and none of the worry and conflict of being a parent (though the prospect contains its own, unique worries). Her half-brother's beloved partner is in denial but undeniably sick, and Marie may not be as done with love as she thinks.
I enjoyed Marie's voice, and the many gems scattered through her journaling that made me tag one in five pages - I particularly though my mother, an anxious and loving granny herself, would find the passages on natigating grandmotherhood resonant. She has observations about aging and end-of-life that I agree with, and there are genuine moments of amusement. But I was very disappointed by the ending - she begins a new relationship, which undermined Marie's resolute stance from the beginning and turned her from being a determined woman who knew what she wanted into a somewhat feeble lady protesting that she doesn't want what she feared she wouldn't be able to have. Very disappointing, and coloured my feelings about the novel as a whole. - Alex

Saturday, December 5

The Faith Club - Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver & Priscilla Warner

In the aftermath of September 11, Episcopalian Suzanne’s book club began reading books about the Middle East, which prompted her to invite Ranya, the mother of one of her children’s classmates, to a meeting. A Palestinian, Ranya mentioned her idea of a collaborative children’s book project, co-authored by three women, Jewish, Christian and Islamic. Suzanne was keen to be involved, and through a mutual friend recruited Priscilla to the project.
The women soon discovered, however, that the task was more complicated than they thought, and the book writing quickly took second place to their discovering about common ground, prejudices and explorations of faith. This book, subtitled A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew – Three Women Search for Understanding, is the story of that journey.
The book is presented chronologically, with each woman contributing her perspective of events, the discussions and their personal history. Interwoven with the text are transcripts of their meetings, which they had the forethought to tape. Each chapter has a central topic – issues around the Crucifixion, conversion, prayer, rituals, ideas about an afterlife. These combine to present a picture of contrast. The overwhelming theme, however, is similarity and points of connection between these three, related faiths.
Though predominantly Christian, Australia is very secular, and though I went to a religious school the emphasis was on universal acceptance of difference – fellow students covered a number of non-Christian faiths, and while hymns were sung and Bible verses recited they tended toward the 'love one another' end of the spectrum. My father is anti-Catholic with the virulence only the lapsed have, and my mother was Presbyterian but not church-going, and though we haven’t talked about religion or beliefs I suspect now trends toward the New Age/Wiccan end of things. This all left me with a strong intellectual interest in religion in general and Judaism in particular.
I realized two things on reading The Faith Club. The first was how rarely we talk about the details of religious belief, and the honesty of these women is inspiring – many of the discussions raised strong emotions, often ties in with key parts of their identity.
This is strongest in the sections about Israel and Palestine, which I expected, and which confirmed for me that it’s too complex an area in terms of history, injustice, myth and tension, for one to have a reductionist position on. Although I understood intellectually something of the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish psychology, I realized I grossly underestimated its significance.
And I was surprised by the whole chapter on the Crucifixion, from Priscilla’s strong aversion to and discomfort about it to Suzanne’s complete lack of awareness of Jewish persecution based on the notion of Christ killing, a more in depth discussion of which follows shortly.
The second, and more significant thing for me, was the realization of how little I knew about Muslim practices beyond the fairly superficial. In particular, I was distressed to discover how much of my picture of Islam has been coloured by the way the popular media portray it. Even though I work with several Muslims and know them to be moderate, I tend (or tended) to think of them as exceptions. However, as is pointed out over and over in the text, there is as much room if not more in Islam for a range of practices, from extremely orthodox at one end to liberal at the other, but the most frequently presented image is of fundamentalism. Though this is often not the way the faith is practiced, Muhammad taught that the centrepiece of faith was inquiry, intellect and reason, saying :
You shall not accept any information unless you verify it yourself. I have given you the hearing, the eyesight and the brain, and you are responsible for using them (17:36)
and
[God] has sent down to [Muhammad] this book which contains some verses that are categorical and basic to the book and equivocal. But those who are twisted of mind look for verses equivocal seeking deviation and giving them interpretations of their own but none knows the meaning except God (3:7)

That is certainly not the way the faith is portrayed. As Ranya says, "people use the most liberal of lenses to judge their own religions and a literal lens when they look at Islam!" She also explains:

you must understand that while average American sees images of primarily militant, angry Muslims on TV, and characterizes Islam as violent, the average Muslim sees equally violent images of angry Israeli settlers and Israeli soldiers and helicopters firing missiles onto cars, killing innocent Palestinian children. So what kind of image do you think they have of Jews? Or of American support of Israel?
To which Priscilla responds with new recognition, "So... in the Muslim world, Jews are considered violent, because the loudest voice in Judaism is an occupying, aggressive, militant voice?"
I also realised that, apart from thinking it was entirely too complicated for me to have an informed opinion on the matter, I had very little knowledge about post-New Testament events in the contested region. Although I knew a little about Zionism and the creation of Israel, I certainly didn't know that before 1948 Jews lived peacefully alongside Muslims and Christians. Having Priscilla and Ranya's viewpoints, coloured by very personal histories, contrasted gave an interesting and powerful insight into the hostility and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
I was similarly interested in Priscilla's very strong reaction to the Crucifixion, and her disbelief at Suzanne's total lack of knowledge about the anti-Semitic term, and idea of, Christ killer. I had come across it before, though only in books* and never in person. As the book points out, interpretation of the New Testament accounts of the decision being made by the Jews of the era to crucify Christ are not possibly accurate, as the Romans would never have given Jews that power. I had long known this, but it was only while researching background for this review that I discovered first that the portrayal of Pontius Pilate as reluctant may well have been to avoid antagonising the Romans during the early days of Christianity's establishment, and second that Pope Paul VI's Nostra Aetate in part repudiated the notion that Jews of the time were responsible or that their modern descendants hold any accountability (how generous, two millennia later). I had certainly never interpreted, as Priscella does, "Philistine" as a sub-section of the Jewish population.
Priscilla's accounts of feeling as risk of another Holocaust, an outnumbered member of a tiny and easily-eradicated population surrounded by goyim hostile to her beliefs, was fascinating. This position is not framed as being unique to her, and if it is common among Jews generally, or even only North American Jews, goes some way toward explaining the strong presence of Judaism in popular culture, as an affirmation that Jews are not alone, are vocal, and are present. More than any other section this disclosure and discussion demonstrated how Idliby, Oliver and Warner's open, honest and relentless explorations of their own and each other's beliefs reveal hidden truths that usually go unsaid and acknowledged.
I found their differences in world views fascinating, across a spectrum of issues. Priscilla, for example, lost faith after 9/11, seeing it as abandonment by God; Ranya and Suzanne saw it as separate from God, an expression of human decisions and actions. Discussion with them helped her put the events of Sept 11 into "a broader context of world suffering" instead.
I think this difference in initial outlook is to some degree reflected in the fundamentally different approaches Judaism and Christianity have toward God. Suzanne articulates it thus: "Judaism is more humble, unsure of God's love,. seeking to earn it and praise Him; Christians begin assuming His love and forgiveness, and expect entry to heaven on the back of Christ's sacrifice."
Yet the core of the book is the similarities that bind the three Abrahamic faiths, rather than the more commonly emphasised differences - for although we have different social values, we share moral values. As each woman learned more about the other two belief systems, and in the process about her own, the more blurred many of the divisions seemed. i suspect that, for some practitioners, this possibility would be the most confronting aspect of participating in a faith club themselves, as there could be a potential for loss of one's own distinct religion in appreciation of the merits of others.
One of them, and I've sadly lost the note to remind me who, captured the essence of The Faith Club for me, by saying to her husband:
I've started thinking of religion like college degrees. One person might earn a BA in literature while another earns one in history. They're both equally well educated, though differently educated. The real test is how they apply that knowledge in their lives.
Perfect.
I finished reading The Faith Club approaching the anniversary of the death of someone close; until I came across the authors' discussion of their first interfaith Yom Kippur, I had always found WH Auden's "Funeral Blues" the most affecting and resonant articulation of grief. I finish this review grateful for the discovery of this Jewish prayer of remembrance, which I said for Dy:
We Remember Them
We remember with sorrow those whom death has taken from our midst during the past year...
Taking these dear ones into our hearts with all of our beloved, we recall them now with reverence.
In the rising of the sun and its going down, we remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.
In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and are sick of heart, we remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share, we remember them.
So long as we live, they too shall live,for they are now a part of us, as we remember them. - Hebrew Union Prayer Book
- Alex
* most notably in Deborah E Lipstadt's amazing text Denying the Holocaust - The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, which I cannot recommend highly enough. For a quick primer on Holocaust denial, check Wikipedia.

Friday, December 4

Are We There Yet? - David Levithan

Brothers Danny and Elijah Silver used to get along well, despite - or perhaps because of - their seven year age difference. But when Elijah was seven and Danny fourteen something changed between them, and now they live almost completely separate lives - Elijah hangs out with his best friend Cal (who is not his girlfriend), smoking weed, dreaming about life and disarmingly thanking people. Danny wears a suit and tie, is the metaphorical fair-haired boy of Gladner, Gladner et al thanks to his brilliant rescue of the Miss Jane's account, and resents Danny's faultless kindness and laid back attitude.
When their parents pull out of a non-refundable trip to Italy, the brothers are forced to take their place. Their parents hope it will bring them closer together, and their parents may be right. Because when Elijah meets Julia he's instantly attracted, and something about her softens the edges of both brothers.
I enjoyed reading this YA novel, and particularly liked the memories it conjured up of my own, significantly less eventful, trips to Italy. The tension between the brothers is well portrayed, their characters are clearly distinguished, and the book was pleasant enough. But nothing particularly stood out for me - a little like an unexceptional gelati, perhaps - sweet, inoffensive, a little refreshing, but not piquant or particularly memorable. - Alex

Thursday, December 3

Love is Hell - Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Gabrielle Zevin and Laurie Faria Stolarz

This collection of five novellas is linked by the twin themes of adolescent romance and paranormal//supernatural elements.

"Sleeping with the Spirit" - Laurie Faria Stolarz
As soon as they moved into the new house, Brenda began strange dreams and waking with mysterious bruises and marks. She hears a male voice calling her name and becomes afraid to sleep, and then she starts seeing an attractive boy about her age - he says his name's Tyler and that he's been waiting for her. It doesn't take Brenda long to discover that her home was the site of a grisly murder - Travis was slaughtered and his mother bashed by her boyfriend, now serving time, twenty years ago. Brenda knows about sadness and death - her parents never talk about Emma - and she and Travis find common ground. But Travis is still here because he's left something undone, and to help him means Brenda will lose him.I found "Sleeping with the Spirit" mildly interesting but not particularly memorable. Equal parts mystery and romance, it somehow failed to fully be either.

"Stupid Perfect World" - Scott Westerfeld
Kieran's happy with his life as it is - he's got a project in Antarctica, building a snow hut, and he's doing well in school. except for Scarcity class, that is - it's bad enough having to turn off all the overlays and only seeing things that are there. But suddenly his final project proposal's due and Kieran's given the concept no thought at all. When swotty Maria Borsotti suggests he try sleep, Kieran jumps at the chance - it's not as good as the common cold, physical transport or any of those other old time inconveniences, but how hard can it be?
The most enjoyable of the collection for me, Westerfeld brings his gift for character, humour and self-discovery to a fascinating new future, and provides all the Scarcity students with a wholly new way to look at their world.

"Thinner than Water" - Justine Labarlestier
Jean lives in a quaint town, visited by tourists who marvel at their traditional ways and their belief in the fairy folk, the green men. The old ways are far less appealing when actually lived, however, and Jean longs to leave. She wants to go to university and be a doctor, not marry young and bear children, her whole life the size of the village. She has a plan, too – she’ll leave at Lammas, when she has the whole day off from the family bakery. Her parents expect her to handfast, and Lammas is the traditional time for arranging these trial marriages. They’ll never suspect her of getting a lift out of town with the non-traditional family of her best friend. But then she meets Robbie, the orphan boy found in a cradle boat and rumoured to be sent by the green men, and she finds they have more in common than she dreamed.
This is a powerful and far darker story than the two that precede it, and I found myself thinking about it for days afterward. The strength and violence of emotion, the depth of despair and longings for freedom were beautifully expressed, and I particularly liked the job Larbalestier did of combining traditional Gaelic tales with a contemporary world.

“Fan Fictions” – Gabrielle Zevin
Neither dark nor light, fat nor thin, smart nor stupid, beautiful nor ugly, Paige is nondescript and ignored. She likes to read, and retreats to the library when she has nowhere else to go. The new librarian recommends a book, The Immortals, which sounds uninteresting, but while looking at the new releases she becomes aware of someone watching her. Aaron’s eyes are violet with grey and silver flecks, he is somehow old-fashioned but glossy, and he seems interested in her. Aaron encourages her to think for herself, work out who she is at her core, and not always follow the rules. Except for one – she can never tell anyone his secret, or he will leave, forever.
“Fan Fictions” is not only an interesting story in itself, with a heroine identifiable on some level to many readers, but is also a fascinating portrayal of conflict between image and prestige on one hand and integrity and devotion on the other. There’s a line blurring that discussion here would ruin, but that adds a really interesting base note of uncertainty about truth and perception – though very different in tone, subject and style, I was reminded of We Have to Talk About Kevin. I am definitely interested in reading more of Zevin’s work.

“Love Struck” - Melissa Marr
Alanna has always loved the sea. When a strange boy approaches her at a party on the beach one evening, something in her senses an offness, and it’s not just his strange remarks about someone or something called Murrin. He feels predatory and makes her feel trapped, and she runs. But Vic is not done with her yet, and the fact that Murrin wants her for his own is enough to mark Alanna as a target.
Like Larbalestier, Marr combines ancient lore with a contemporary setting. The story is interesting enough, but I was distracted form it by terminology - having known them always as selkies, I was thrown every time I read ‘selchie’ but have since found either term is appropriate for this kind of fairy folk. I did enjoy “Love Struck” but was more impressed by the three central stories than the bookend novellas. - Alex

Wednesday, December 2

The Chalet Girl - Kate Lace

Millie Braythorpe has enjoyed her months as a hostess in a chalet resort - the pay's not bad, she gets to ski for free, and she now knows the French village as well as the one she grew up in. Best of all, and a secret from all but the locals, she's had an opportunity to sing and to try out her new compositions. She's dreading the end of the season, when she'll once again be homeless and dependent on the generosity of her wealthy best friend, Freya, but since her forbidding father not only threw her out of his Westhampton bishopric but also had her expelled from her cathedral school she's had no choice.
Luke Hastings and his mate Archie decided before they went on holiday to hide the fact that they're journalists - painful experience has taught them that way lies women attracted tot he possibility of glamorous parties and celebrity shoulder-rubbing. Though there are a couple of dolly birds in their group, Luke's attention is caught by their unassuming hostess; when he follows her to an out-of-the-way bistro and hears her sing he's even more intrigued. But there's something sad about Millie, something he's determined to find out and - hopefully - fix.
I've had mixed success with the Little Black Dress imprint, though I prefer this to the Red Dress Ink brand (which has a higher strike rate), and was pleasantly surprised. The back blurb is wholly misleading, but the novel itself is relatively refreshing and quite well crafted. The characters are vibrant, there are a number of interesting secondary plots, and the resolution is satisfying if a little too happy ever after for realism.
That said, I did have some issues, not least of which is the use of that most irritating of plot devices, the Easily Resolved Misunderstanding. It drives me mad, and Millie's determination to turn her back wholly on Luke is not her only impetuous move. Granted she's only eighteen, which I have a bit of an issue with anyway, particularly as Luke cannot possibly be any younger than mid-twenties, but she makes a habit of ill-considered flouncing out in response to getting the wrong end of the stick, not just once but multiple times. Her tender feelings are very close to the surface, and she almost seems to be looking out for insults and slights.
I could also have done without Luke's frequent comparisons of Millie to his ex-girlfriend, but could live with it; I was less easily able to gloss over Archie using a desperate and unattractive investigative reporter (known around the office as Batty Brenda) to move their relationship along. I've edited out the paragraph I wrote about this in my first draft, and will leave it at: that sub-plot left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, coloured my perception of the book, and was wholly unnecessary. - Alex

Wednesday, November 25

Brigands MC – Robert Muchamore

After a long absence the Cherubs are back! Eight year old Dante Scott’s father is an official in the South Devon chapter of one of the most feared motorcycle clubs in the world. The Brigands have strong ties to organized crime, drugs and gun running, but to Dante they’re a group of cool adults he’s known all his life. That is until an internal argument ends in a bloodbath – Dante’s parents, older brother and sister are shot and killed, and he and his baby sister are in protective custody. With no family, no ties, and a strong need for unassailable safety, Dante’s a good CHERUB candidate.
Eight years later, Dante returns to the campus after a three year mission in Northern Ireland. The kids he knew have grown up, but he still recognizes his old friend James, and the hotter, older version of the first person he ever met on campus, James’s younger sister Lauren. When the opportunity to infiltrate the South Devon Brigands comes up, Dante leaps at the opportunity. But can he put his grudge against the F├╝hrer, the father of his former best friend, the head of the South Devon chapter, and the man who slaughtered his family, to one side in order to carry out his mission?

Up until now the only CHERUB-agents back stories we've heard in detail have been those of James and Lauren - I really enjoyed getting a different perspective, and found Dante a fascinating character. The Muchamore characteristics of well-developed characters, realistic dialogue, fast-paced plotting, danger and intrigue, and realism (once you accept the underlying premise) combine to create another worthwhile addition to this entertaining stable. My only concern is that, following the usual epilogue section, the teaser for the next book is capped "James Adams will be back for one final adventure." I do hope this means he graduates but the series goes on; I fear, however, that it heralds the end of this really well written series. - Alex

Tuesday, November 24

Shattered - Dick Francis

Gerald Logan is a master glass blower whose pieces are already receiving acclaim. His studio, where he creates work and trains up three young apprentices, is open to the public, and in the hours leading up to the eve of the new millennium he's busy creating commissioned commemorative creations (sorry). Gerald takes a break to watch his good friend Martin, a jockey, ride in the Cheltenham races, and is devastated when, due to a freak fall, Martin is killed on the course. Devastated, he barely notices when he's given a brown paper-wrapped video cassette that Martin had handed over before the race. Later that night, though, his studio is robbed of the night's large takings, ransacked, and the owner of Martin's horse is assaulted; the next day his house and that of Martin's widow and children is also turned over, with every video tape taken.
Although I didn't enjoy this quite as much as Longshot, my first Francis encounter, Shattered shares many of its elements - a strong, interesting protagonist with unique skills who is something of an outsider to the racing world he becomes involved in. Like Longshot, it's a pacy, interesting novel that incorporates technical detail - on both racing and glass blowing fronts - seamlessly into the wider tapestry of the plot, and has the added bonus of a romantic sub-plot. I baulked at the use, twice, of "cul de sacs" instead of culs de sac, and found the plot a little overly complicated, but otherwise thoroughly enjoyed the Francis experience. - Alex

Monday, November 23

Lie By Moonlight - Amanda Quick

Concordia Glade was happy to find a position as governess after revelations about her past were revealed to her previous employer. Her duty as a governess/teacher, however, did not allow her to turn a blind eye to threats to her charges, regardless of the potential cost to herself - discovering the four orphaned girls in her care were being groomed as high calibre call girls Concordia rescued them, though she had no idea what to do once they escaped the castle where they were being held captive.
Gentleman thief turned private investigator Ambrose Wells little expected, when he began investigating the death of a female attendant at the baths, that he would encounter five young women fleeing a burning building. Quickly grasping the situation, he provided disguises and found them shelter in the home of his protector. As his case and that of the thoroughly unconventional Miss Glade increasingly overlap, so too does their attraction.
Inspired by Lynn's recent review of Quick's Affair, I decided to try her for myself, and I wasn't disappointed - Quick captures the mores of the time while retaining a modern sensibility that, thanks to her character development, doesn't jar. The mystery is somewhat interesting but - at least for me - served mainly as a backdrop for a quite lovely romance. - Alex

Sunday, November 22

Dead and Gone - Charlaine Harris

After much debate, the Weres have decided it's time to let the human world know that vampires are not the only paranormal creatures dwelling alongside them. Simultaneously, in newsrooms across America, friendly spokespeople change in front of the cameras. In Sookie Stackhouse's workplace, Merlotte's bar, the report is accompanied by her boss Sam's transformation into a collie and her friend Amelia's boyfriend Tray turning into a wolf. She can tell through her gift that the revelations, both global and local, are generally well received in the bar, but her former best friend Arlene is a notable exception. A convert to the Fellowship of the Sun, an anti-vampire 'religion,' Arlene's initially unsure of how to respond, but she quickly moves to outraged revulsion.
When the body of Sookie's brother Jason's pregnant ex-wife Crystal is found nailed to a cross, her limbs partly transformed into their panther form, Jason is a prime suspect. In light of the revelation, though, the murder is being looked at as a possible hate crime. In uncovering the killer Sookie is in more danger than ever before, and from an unexpected source. She gains and loses part of her already tiny family, and consolidates her relationship with vampire sheriff Eric. Former lover, and vampire, Bill is still interested, but he'll never be more than a friend to her now, though when her fairy great-grandfather Niall tells her “the vampire is not a bad man, and he loves you”, she's not sure which one he means.
As I said in March (when reviewing From Dead to Worse), I've been finding the more recent books a little flat. Although there's a heaping of back story that has to be slogged through at the beginning of each novel, I enjoyed Dead and Gone far more than I expected. The characters were interesting, there was a hell of a lot of action, and for once Sookie didn't make a new conquest. I wasn't wholly satisfied, and one sizable plot point particular irritated me:
a massive argument divides the fairy folk, who despite their longevity are dwindling in numbers due to decreased fertility. Some fairy believe this is because they're being contaminated by contact with humans, whose inventiveness has provided the fairies with inventions they can use but whose fondness for iron is toxic. This group want to kill all humans with fairy blood and close the passage between our world and theirs, to protect themselves - it was they who drowned Sookie and Jason's parents. The other group, which includes Sookie's great-grandfather, want to maintain things as they are, knowing this will trigger a war which will only end when the leaders of one or other side are killed. Despite winning a battle that sees all the fairies we've met in the series so far (including Claudine, who's saved Sookie's life several times before and who is - for no good plot reason except pathos - pregnant) die, the victorious Niall decides... to close the doors to the world of the Fae anyway. WTF? Couldn't he and his brother's son Breandan have talked about it first? Maybe reached a compromise along the lines of - we'll spare the fairy-tinged humans but close the passage and not allow any more interbreeding?
This irritating quibble aside I did, as I said, enjoy this installment more than I expected, and I'm quite looking forward to the next one, though I'd rather read another in the Harper Connelly series. - Alex

Saturday, November 21

No Corners for the Devil - Olive Etchells

Concerned about the increasing level of crime in Manchester, Rob Baxter left the city and brought his family to South Cornwall. He and wife Sally bought a round house for themselves and their three children (seventeen year old Luke, fifteen year old Tessa and sensitive baby of the family Ben), along with four cottages to rent out to summer tourists. On the morning of their first arrivals Ben and his friend Malachi find a girl's body on the beach - a girl Luke had given a ride to the night before. Sally believes Luke when he says he didn't do it, but she can tell he's hiding something and is terribly worried about him. Rob, on the other hand, is strangely unsupportive, and for the first time in their lives together isn't the dependable rock she's used to.
DCI Channon's investigative style - quiet, undramatic and cerebral, is not to his abrasive Sergeant's taste - Bowles would rather his new boss confront the motorcycle riding teen instead of this softly softly business Channon goes in for. But Channon suspects there's more going on than first appears, and his investigation uncovers a number of secrets in the small coastal village.
No Corners for the Devil, an expression that comes from the round houses typical of that area of England, is the first in a series about a really engaging, compassionate detective. Channon's family died before the novel opens, which adds a layer of compassionate care to his character. There's something soothing about the atmosphere and writing despite the content, and Etchells' writing is subtle and underscores the plot rather than dominating it. Between the setting and the secrets I was frequently reminded of the film Hot Fuzz, though there's a dearth of guns, car chases and straight men. I love that film, and I really enjoyed this novel - I intend continuing with the rest of the series. - Alex