Saturday, January 31

Couch World - Cathy Yardley

PJ has a life she's happy with - she spends her evenings as an up-and-coming San Franciscan DJ, scratching, spinning and mixing disks and creating great vibes on the floor. She lives in couch world, spending her nights on the couches of friends and acquaintances, and only has what she can carry in a blue duffel. There are rules for living in couch world - don't spend too long on any one couch, keep unobtrusive, don't eat their stuff, and her routine's served PJ well for two years.
When well-known DJ Jonathan Hadeis hears her work and decides to manage her properly, PJ's wary but thrilled. He loves her sound but her style could do with some work, which is where aspiring model/accountancy student Samantha comes in. Samantha has her eye on Jonathan - older, sexy, wealthy and powerful, he could help her go places in her career, if only he'd stop paying the attention she deserves to PJ.
All Leslie really wants is to get married, but her long-term boyfriend Rick is concerned that she'll be unhappy at having her career derailed. On to her eighth position in four years, Leslie's not sure exactly what career that might be, and her family are only too happy to point that out. Currently working in the personals, Leslie really wants to work in features (or at least she thinks she does), and she's got one shot to prove herself to the editor. When her story on a homeless DJ lacks 'bite' Leslie starts to investigate PJ's past, and in the process jolts DJ PJ out of couch world and into the real world.
The release of the article forces all three women to examine the way they've been living their lives, and to face up to the family and relationship pressures that have oppressed them. That all sounds a little heavy, but Yardley's message (at least as I read it) is that women should be focusing more on what they want and less on what others want for them.
There were a couple of moments I particularly enjoyed, including the analysis PJ does on both Leslie and boyfriend Rick's apartments, and the rules of couch world survival. The writing is involving, the characters strong, the premise certainly unique, and the plot unpredictable. I'm often wary of the Red Dress Ink imprint, which often indicates below-par chick lit, but Yardley (author of Will Write for Shoes) delivers a unique and interesting story that switches between first (PJ) and third person. PJ is strong enough a character for the story to pivot around, and as her history emerges the story becomes even stronger. - Alex

Friday, January 30

The Extra Large Medium - Helen Slavin

From the time she was a child Annie Colville has seen the dead - they're always dressed in chocolate brown, and they want her to deliver messages, even if the messages are useless ("like 'at, see. He is, in 'e. 'Xactly like that. So catch 'im and tell 'im eh" or "and he goes about... and he goes about") and the recipients of some of those messages are also long gone.
Annie is mourning the disappearance of her beloved husband, Evan Bees. He didn't come to see her clad in brown, and his absence is something that stalks her even as she tries to pass on the messages, the only thing that will stop the dead from pestering her.
The Extra Large Medium (the title comes from a man who billed himself that way, not from Annie's girth) alternates her story with perspectives from her outrageous mother, Madeleine (who was such a free spirit she doesn't know who Annie's father was), observations from an archaeologist about the new character on their dig, and other random documents, all of which add up to an ecclectic and interesting multi-dimensionality.
The Extra Large Medium has been on one of my many to-read lists for a good eighteen months (I'm pretty sure I saw it at Heathrow in 2007) - I'm glad I read it, and enjoyed it enough, but I'm not particularly compelled to track down anything else Slavin's written. - Alex

Thursday, January 29

Enna Hittims - Diana Wynne Jones

Anne Smith is miserable and exhausted (and starving!) with the mumps, thought she's so miserable and exhausted that her parents say she also has the grumps. They have to go to work, so she's stuck at home alone. Lying in bed she imagines that the multi-coloured duvet is a magical world - her knees are mountains and the gap between her legs is a deep valley. She imagines a bolder, more daring version of herself, Emma Hittims (Anne Smith backwards, kind of) who, along with her two friends Spike and Marlene, is on a quest to kill a dragon.
Anne draws their adventures in the magic land that changes shape every time she moves, and until her markers run out is truly happy for the first time since she got sick. But then she has nothing left to draw with, and things get far worse when Enna and her friends really come to life.
This absorbing short story, aimed at young readers, is as strong as Jones' fantasy for older readers, albeit necessarily less complicated. Illustrated by Peter Utton, it's the perfect gift for primary school children who are mildly ill and out of sorts. - Alex

Wednesday, January 28

A Darker Domain - Val McDermid

It seems like the coldest of cold cases when DI Karen Pirie is asked to locate a man missing for almost quarter of a decade, but Mick Prentice's daughter is desperate to find a potential bone marrow match for her dying child. She and her mother had closed their hearts to Mick since the night he, and five other scabs, vanished from the mining town of Newton of Wemyss in the middle of the 1984 national miner's strike; anonymous envelopes of money begin arriving shortly afterward, postmarked Nottingham. It was, according to all account, atypical for a man so devoted to the cause, but emotions and tension were high, and the devastating effects of Thatcher's union busting strategies had left many families in despair. Only, when Karen looks, Mick isn't in Nottingham with the other scabs...
At the same time as Mick's disappearance, a young mother and her infant child were kidnapped in nearby Fife. The only child and grandchild of wealthy Sir Broderick McLellan Grant, they were worth a small fortune, a price Grant was prepared to pay. However, in the handover process something went awry, and Grant's daughter was shot dead, his grandson vanished, and his wife died by her own hand shortly thereafter. Two decades on Grant is remarried, with a young son, but his first family have never left his mind. When journalist Bel Richmond discovers a clue to the mystery while in Tuscany, the case is reopened.
There is an interesting duality throughout the novel - two cases, two places, two mysteries, two very different social landscapes, and two eras - as the text switches between between police and journalistic investigations, and between 1984/85 and 2007. In general, as a character references events in the past the text takes us there, providing a concrete example (which I'm usually so poor at doing) of what sets McDermid's work above the usual mystery hack's efforts.
I particularly liked the neat and integral incorporation of the social contexts of the strike action - the consequences for miners at the time, the corruption of the union, and the pressures on both those who stayed and those who left. Markedly different from her well-known Wire in the Blood series, A Darker Domain is ambitiously complex and it's all show no tell, gripping and nuanced, with a spectacular pay off.
These strong elements make the obvious connection between the cases, and the length of time it takes Karen to discover them, all the more disappointing. As I've said before, I don't read mysteries with the intention of discovering what happened for myself, so when I do I'm usually displeased. I was waiting for a twist to reveal that I'd been mislead, but instead the novel concludes with a character acting without forethought and in unnecessary panic. Many of the characters were at least partly unpleasant, leaving me nobody to root for.
However, McDermid sub-par is still better than many of her colleagues, and for the most party I did enjoy A Darker Domain, and look forward to more of her work. - Alex

Tuesday, January 27

Kitty Kitty - Michele Jaffe

Jas, the star of Bad Kitty, is back, this time in Italy, completely against her will, thanks to Dadzilla, who's researching the history of soap, of all things. Okay, Venice isn't all bad, what with the pretty canals and gondolas and 142 types of pizza, but Jas still has to write college essays, and go to Italian class, and her only friend is this lame girl from Italian class.
Arabella is paranoid, like seriously certifiable, but when she doesn't turn up for a meeting with Jas, and her body is found in the water, Jas doesn't believe for a minute that it was suicide, not matter what the carbinieri think. Rescued by the appearance of her best friends (and, sadly, her evil cousin and her lame best friend), Jas investigates Venice to find the killer, and the truth.
Like its predecessor, Kitty Kitty is a witty, fast-paced novel that hinges on the unique voice of its narrator - her description, for example, of petite Arabella's black-and-red-beruffled apartment ("any parts of the room not suitable for Ruffling were filled with porcelain statues of pugs wearing red ribbons round their necks") as "what I imagined an Elf brother would look like (not that I've spent a lot of time imagining that)." Or her dialogue (in footnotes) with her evil alter ego BadJas, particularly their disagreement about using the same word (in this case 'smoulder' and versions thereof) in the same sentence, which results in "Smoulderingly, he reached out with a gentle yet-filled-with-smoulderingness touch to brush a lock of hair from my forehead and said, smoulderingly..."
The mystery zips along, with some new vocabulary,* a satisfactory number of red herrings and a surprise killer with a strong but unseen motive, but I was less interested in that than in Jas, her friends, and the interesting outfits and creations they came up with. I can't wait for the third instalment!
In a unique twist, by coincidence Lynn and I both have a copy at the same time, and are attempting a synchronous read-and-review - hers follows and, as we felt quite differently about Bad Kitty, I imagine will be somewhat less of a rave. - Alex

*Rompicoglioni, by the way, means "ball breaker" or (if you want to be less colourful and still have the same flavour "strong woman"

For a brief synopsis of this story please see Alex’s review above.
While Kitty Kitty has some very funny moments, for me much of the humour just missed the mark. It was in the mystery elements of the plot that, I think, the best of the story was to found. They were very well written with no hint as to who the antagonist was until the reveal and yet when unmasked the culprit was entirely plausible. Praise where it’s due, that’s not easily done.
It is no secret that I am not a fan of the footnote conversations as used by this author. I find them distracting at best and often pointless. Information they provide could easily be given in the body of the text with little or no effort.
I’ve thought long and hard about why it is this series doesn’t appeal to me. Humour and mystery in the plot are well balanced. The writing is of a reasonable standard. By all indicators I would expect to like these books much more than I do. I think the problem for me resides in the characters. While they are meant to be in their late teens they behave, speak and think as if they were much younger. I think the disconnect is too much for me. If these characters were starting middle school instead of shopping for colleges I think the stories would gel better.
Though Kitty Kitty doesn’t appeal to me, it is a hit with its target audience. My teenaged daughters love this instalment and eagerly await the next in the series.-Lynn

Monday, January 26

The Fourth Bear - Jasper Fforde

Jack Spratt, head of Reading's Nursery Crimes Division, is back from his triumph in the Humpty Dumpty case (The Big Over Easy) - only the NCD has once again been relegated to second place, and Jack's facing suspension over the Red Riding Hood fiasco. When the mass murdered the Gingerbread Man escapes, Jack's on the case, albeit unofficially - after all, he caught the Ginja killer in the first place. But tied up with tracking down the psychopathic biscuit (or cake) is an investigation into exploding cucumber growers, a missing journalist known as Goldilocks who was last seen by the Three Bears, a mystery involving the Quangle-Wangle's QuangTech corporation and the SommeWorld theme park, a car that recovers from all accidents (though its picture, in the book, shows an increasingly dilapidated but otherwise identical model), and a possible romance between Spratt's 2IC Mary Mary and resident alien Ashley. Spratt can't even relax when he gets home - not only have Punch and Judy moved in next door, but Jack's beloved second wife seems perilously close to discovering Jack's secret.
A little less convoluted than Fforde's Thursday Next series, if only for the lack of time travelling, The Fourth Bear is a fun and intricately-plotted mystery. There are literary and nursery rhyme allusions, a loving familiarity with and subversion of the police procedural, meticulous attention to detail, and playful puns:
"Killed two male nurses and a doctor with his bare hands. The other three orderlies who accompanied him are critical in hospital."
"Yes; don't like the food, beds uncomfortable, waiting lists too long - usual crap. other than that, they're fine."
Each chapter open with an extract from the 2004 edition of the Bumper Book of Berkshire Records, most of which not only relate to the chapter ahead but are funny in their own right. A recurrent theme through the book is the addictive nature of porridge and honey, which are strictly rationed for ursine users, giving us the following opening for chapter ten:

'Most illegal substance for bears. The euphoria-inducing porridge ("flake") is a "Class III" foodstuff and, while admitting a small problem, the International League for Ursidae consider that rationed use does no real harm. Buns ("dough-balls") and honey ("buzz" or "sweet") remain on the "Class II" list and are more rigorously controlled, except for medicinal purposes. Honey addicts ("sweeters" or "buzz boys) are usually weaned off the habit with Sweetex with some success. The most dangerous substance on the "Class I" list is marmalade ("chunk", "shred" or "peel"). The serious psychotropic effects of marmalade can lead to all kinds of dangerous and aberrant behaviour, and is best avoided as far as bears are concerned.'
There are discussions about the plight of incidental characters ("your entire life summed up in a few perfunctory descriptive terms, the sole meaning of your existence just a few lines in the incalculable vastness of fiction"), a running gag about using plot devices (In response to his superior asking if he's trying to pull a plot device number twenty-seven, Spratt replies "The one where my partner gets killed a drug bust gone wrong and I throw in my badge and go rogue?... I don't think so, sir... I'm suspended awaiting a psychological appraisal, and I don't know what plot device that is"), and a very nice description of why conspiracy theories that rely of governmental complicity and destined to fail.
You would need to be in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate Fforde's writing, and I think readers would get more enjoyment out of The Fourth Bear reading The Big Over Easy first, but with those provisos in mind, this a great and thoroughly enjoyable escapade. - Alex

Sunday, January 25

Will Write for Shoes - Cathy Yardley

Subtitled How to write a chicklit novel, this comprehensive text begins with a history and definition of the genre:
a subgenre of the larger classification of women's fiction, generally a
coming-of-age or "coming-of-consciousness" story where a woman's life is transformed by the events of the story... a sense of humour... a funny tone... the characters don't take themselves too seriously, no matter how dire the circumstances... deal[ing] with topics that affect a woman's life: friendship dynamics. Glass ceilings. Over-nurturing. Kids and biological clocks. And, of course, love.
I'm inclined to say that this pretty much defines women's fiction in general, but it's not too off the mark. And of course the problem with defining chick lit is that it's constantly evolving and comprises an expanding number of fuzzy sub-genres, so there are exceptions to every aspect of any detailed definition.
This engaging how-to book takes the aspiring writer through all the stages of the writing and publication process. The bulk of the book is divided into two sections - writing and publishing.
The first discusses the basics of traditional novels in the genre; up-and-coming trends (and the pitfalls of writing to capture the wave rather than the kind of writing you want to write); the key points of plotting and a couple of ways to do it (meticulously detailed in advance vs free form and evolving); the elemental but overlooked concepts of structure, setting and voice; and the unpleasant but vital necessity that is editing.
Yardley then moves on to getting published, from query letters and synopsis creation to forming a crit group and networking online. The book is rounded out by answers to questions Yardley (a multipublished author I confess I haven't heard of until now, let alone read) receives, samples of query letters and synopses, and an extensive but American-centric listing of agents and publishers, with brief descriptions of their imprints and histories.
As I'm not interested in publishing my own writing (NaNoWriMo's field enough for me, and I should probably work on academic publication before thinking about a hobby), I found the frequent references to, and tantalisingly brief synopses of, books I hadn't read (What a girl wants by Liz Maverick, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, American Idle by Alesia Holliday, Fishbowl and Me vs Me by Sarah Mlynowski, The Weight-Loss Diaries by Courtney Rubin, Julie and Romeo and Step-Ball-Change by Jeanne Ray, Play Dates by Leslie Carroll, Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner, Are you in the mood? by Stephanie Lehmann, and The song reader by Lisa Tucker, among others).
However, as both an amateur writer and reader, and friend of a couple of aspiring writers in the genre, I found what Yardley wrote cohered with what I already knew, as well as expanding on any number of points I didn't know about, particularly in the section on making sure you and your crit group are a good fit. I also thought her advice to bother revise, revise, revise, and to read widely in a varity of genres was well worth reiterating.
Yardley's refreshingly blunt - "if you think of your novel as your baby you're in for a world of hurt", people aren't necessarily going to love it, and you can easily write a synopsis shorter than ten pages - while still being supportive. I found Will write for shoes by accident in the writing section at the library, and though I say this without having read any other how to books for the genre think anyone interested in writing for the market ought to read this book.
If her fiction's anything like her non-fiction, I think I'll enjoy that too - and I'll try to overlook the fact that she's swollen my to-read list past it's previous bulging parameters.- Alex

Saturday, January 24

Fractured - Karin Slaughter

Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent is unpopular with Atlanta's police force as a result of the corruption enquiry he headed that jailed sixcops and forced the resignation of a well-loved high ranking officer. When the murder of a young girl and the abduction of her wealthy friend sparks one of the most high profile investigation's the city's seen, Will is partnered with Faith Mitchell, a city police officer who happens to be the daughter of one of the cops targeted in the investigation.
A sequel, or at least companion piece, to Triptych, Fractured concentrates on the enigmatic Will. I can't recall a lot of detail about the first novel but I remember his character being odd and distant - Fractured goes a long way to addressing why that is. As the novel progresses we learn more about his upbringing, and about the disability that's lead to his secrecy and privacy. I particularly liked the relationship that develops between Will and Faith, of mutual respect and appreciation truiumphing over initial guardedness and suspicion.
Of course, this would just be Literature without a pounding plot - there are multiple suspects and dead-ends, background to investigate and internal issues, all bound together with the overriding urgency of the hunt for a seventeen year old girl.
I've enjoyed all of Slaughter's novels, but I think Fractured is a notch above even her usual high standard, primarily due to the complexity of both the lead characters - Faith has a son at the university involved in the investigation, even thogh she's only thirty three, and Will is scarred from a childhood of foster care and an undiagnosed learning disability. It would have been understandable if Slaughter had decided to hook them up, but the relationship they develop instead is more satisfying and internally coherent. I hope there's a sequel, and look forward to whatever she puts out next. - Alex

Friday, January 23

The Alphabet Sisters - Monica McInerney

It's been three years since Anna, Bett and Carrie have spoken; a huge fight caused by Carrie stealing Bett's fiance from her ripped the once close sisters apart. Carrie is now married to Matthew and living at the hotel their parents run, Anna lives in Sydney with her husband Glenn and daughter Ellie, and Bett works in London as a music journalist. When their interfering grandmother Lola insists that they all come home to celebrate her 80th birthday, none of the sisters is happy, but Lola's very persuasive, and she's not going to rest until this three year long feud is resolved. Lola has planned for everything - except the revelation of long-buried family secrets, including her own.
McInerney writes above-average novels that combine family drama with strong characterisation, usually set in Australia and/or the UK. There are touches of light humour: when told by a young singer that he wants to "stay close to my beginnings... and keep it real" Bett ponders the irony of a youth so masked by makeup and hairgel that it was "hard to tell where his body stopped and the cosmetics industry began," being real to start with. And when involved with neo-punk quintet Dogs from Hell, "five children in heavy makeup sneer[ing] at her" Bett's boss refers to them as "Puppies from Hammersmith", while Bett thinks "Five Go Mad in Mummy's Makeup."
However, that's about all I can offer, not because of deficiencies by the author but because of the slack procrastination of the reviewer - I know I said I was going to write reviews more contemporaneously, but I haven't this time, and so all I'm left with is a general sense of enjoyment tinged with sadness (The Alphabet Sisters is more layered than most in the genre). It was good, so don't let my memory-impaired, lukewarm review put you off! -Alex

Thursday, January 22

All Through the Night - Suzanne Brockmann

FBI agent Jules Cassidy and partner Robin Chatwick, who met in Force of Nature, are about to tie the knot, an adventure marred only marginally by the success of Robin's new television series (that heightens all of Jules' relationship paranoias), an overseas crisis, the uncompleted renovation of their home, a nosy reporter trying to find a non-existant story, an ex-lover with an agenda who's being stalked by an anonymous psycho, and family dramas.
The significant section of the Jules/Robin story was told in Force of Nature, and though All Through the Night continues their story it's really a romance with an agenda that is well integrated into the plot but strongly present - gay couples are just the same as straight ones. The romance genre is notably conservative, and I doubt that an author less well established than Brockmann would have been able to pull this off in a mainstream market. The physical aspect of their relationship is toned down, which I imagine makes it easier to allow this fact to shine through to what may be a gay-squeamish audience, and when the families of the team come to support Robin when Jules (along with the rest of the team) is missing in Afghanistan, their places are reinforced as equal.
The chief secondary plot, of ex-Adam trying to split up man he was involved with first, while increasingly worried about a weirdo who keeps sending him letters about robot invaders, is interesting, and neatly rounds out what is more a novella than a complete novel.
The characters are, as always with Brockmann, strong and well-rounded, and for those familiar with the series it's a pleasure to catch up with all the partnerships created over the previous eleven Troublemaker/SEAL team 16 books. In fact, the only quibble I had was the book's brevity, but I'm going to console myself with the thought that this means the next novel will be out even sooner! - Alex

Wednesday, January 21

The Sleepwalker - Robert Muchamore

An explosion on a flight from New York to London crashes, killing all those on board, including the wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren of former Cherub chairman 'Mac' McAfferty. When the twelve year-old son of import/export dealer Hassam bin Hassam makes an aborted anonymous call to the crash tip line, an inexperienced officer classes it as a D-grade call, low priority for follow up, but Mac hears genuine fear and distress in the boy's voice. He puts two cherubs on to it, experienced agent Lauren and novice (and her best friend's younger brother) Jake. There's not ime for the usual stealthy iniltration, so Lauren and Jake approach Hassam, the bullied only Arabic student at his private school, directly.
The Sleepwalker (the title is only clear right at the end of the book) retains the combination of quality writing, strong character development, advancing story arcs and fast-paced plot that the previous eight books demonstrated. The focus has shifted a little from James, though he's still present in the story, and on to Lauren, who's starting to come in to her own after a rocky patch. This is thoroughly enjoyable reading, and I'm anxiosly awaiting my reservation for book ten to become available. - Alex

Tuesday, January 20

Bet Me - Jennifer Crusie

Actuary Min Dobbs decided not to sleep with David in the first week they were dating, when he told a waitress they wouldn't need desert because 'they' were dieting - as he was fat free, David clearly meant her, and Min got enogh grief about her waight from her mother. But she stuck it out with David so she'd have a date for her sister Diana's wedding. When David dumps her in a bar, and a theme bar at that, three weeks before the wedding, Min's pissed. When she overhears David bet a hot guy $10 that she won't go out for dinner with him, and that he can't sleep with her in a month, Min's furious - but she decides to get back at David and accepts Cal Morrissey's invitation.
Min's not Cal's type - he likes them willowy and blonde, like his psychologist ex Cynthie, not plump and brunette and blander than an accountant. Min dresses twenty years older than she is, and the only spark about her appearance is her quirky footwear, but there's something about her. Cal's everything Min loathes in a man - he's a player, a gambler, slick and chock full of one liners. He's also hot, and though they have nothing in common he keeps turning up wherever she is. When his best friends spark with her best friends, it looks like Min and Cal are going to get together despite themselves.
It's been a long time since I read Crusie's work; in fact, looking back over the posts to date I see I've only read one since starting the blog over two years ago. I can't imagine why I waited so long, because I've enjoyed all her work and Bet Me was perfect - light but substantial, funny and real and gripping from the beginning. I'm always a sucker for a well written plus-size heroine, particularly if she manages to retain her sense of self without losing half her circumference, so that helped. But my mother, who is so very much not a chick lit reader or a plus-size afficianado, picked Bet Me up yesterday while visiting and waiting for me to cook dinner, and made it past the third chapter without pausing to sip her wine - this is a very good sign!
The central plot, a conflict between two people destined to be together, is meticulously choreographed - the obstacles are believable and consistant with the way Crusie has created their characters. There are really strong secondary plots that contribute to, and contrast with, the primary plot - the imminent wedding of Diana to a man Min has never really trusted or liked, Min's relationship with her controlling mother, which is nothing to Cal's realtionship with his dismissive and disapproving ice parents, the fate of Cal's sensitive but robust young nephew Harry, the plotting of Cal and Min's exes to break them up, and the romantic entanglements between their respective best friends.
The cornerstone is, of course, the characters - the central players are fleshed out and individualised, and the point of view switches back and forth between Cal and Min to give us a clear picture of what they're thinking and where they've been. Their present and furture are determined by their pasts, and Crusie conveys this with subtle integration into the fabric of the text rather than dumping data in chunks. The secondary characters - best friends of each our heroes - are similarly strong, and Crusie avoids the obvious traps that would make the romance/s there predictable. The physical attraction between Cal and Min is hot, and Crusie manages to fully explore it organically within the story, rather than gratutiously adding obligatory 'physical love' scenes.

And throughout there are humour, pop culture and elegant one liners woven into the story and doing double duty in character and/or plot development. When Min's mother Nanette expresses dismay during the bridal fitting at the plainness of Min's bra,
Diana widened her eyes and looked prim. "Well, you're going straight to hell."
"Diana," Nanette said.
"I know," Min said as she headed for the dressing room. "That's where all the best men are."

Okay, that may not be the best example out of context, but everything is so well integrated that all the random bits I selected to illustrate the greatness of the writing lose some of their impact when unadorned by the backstory, plot developments and impact of the characters. Just trust me - read Bet Me and you won't regret it. I'd put money on it. - Alex

Monday, January 19

The 'Caine' Mutiny - Herman Wouk

Willis "Willie" Keith has been fairly protected, sheltered from the harsher realities of life by his doting yet domineering mother. Fearful of being drafted into the Army, Willie signs up as a midshipman, hoping to miss the War altogether. After an eventful beginning Willie is assgned to the USS Caine, a WWI destroyer turned minesweeper.
Willie has never seen Navy life as being real, and he fails to take his assignments seriously, starting with his response when he misses his rendezvous with the Caine. When he finally catch up with her Willlie discovers that the Caine is barely held together, both physically and disciplinarily, a situation he attributes to the captain. Between his contempt for the Navy in general, and De Vriess in particular, Willie falls foul of him and, unable to acknowledge that the incident was his own doing, sulks and blames his superior.
When De Vriess is relieved Willie is ecstatic - the new captain is determined, military and thorough. It doesn't take long, though, for Willie to discover that Queeg is manipulative, bullying and petty, and he quickly loses the respect of his crew. Hidebound by the rules, and apparently terrified of doing wrong, or at least of being seen to do wrong, Queeg is inept, distracted from the big picture by little trivialties, furious if crossed, and a coward.
This last is the deciding factor in turning Queeg's officers against him, and when Queeg conducts an inquiry into the disappearance of a quart of strawberries, reliving a triumph of his early years, the disquiet turns to mutiny. Keefer, an intellectual passing time as Communications Officer while writing a novel, sows the seeds, suggesting that Queeg is mentally ill and implying that he ought to be relieved as unfit for duty. Maryk, second in command, begins secretly keeping a log book of all Queeg's strange behaviour and, in the midst of a severe typhoon, with Queeg apparently unable to make an independant decision, Maryk relieves his captain, supported by the officers on deck.
Though it only occupies the tail end of the book, Maryks' court martial and its aftermath constitute the meat of The 'Caine' Mutiny. While the lead up to that point, including what led Willie to the ship, is obviously necessary for the mutiny to have any power, I felt the long and somewhat rambling first half dated the novel, though this wasn't something I noticed when I first read it, over a decade ago. I just kept thinking how much better a tighter version of the text would be, with less focus on Willie and his pre-'Caine' life - his domineering mother, doomed (or is it?) love affair with the night club singing daughter of Italian immigrants, casual disregard of the Navy as real, and piano-playing gifts, all unquestionably contribute to his role in the lead up to the mutiny and to the mutiny itself, but the parts of the books that sang for me were those that dealt with the increasingly eccentric Queeg, and the court martial scenes. In comparison with their vibrancy, the rest of the novel felt like it was just marking time.
I'm glad I reread what I recalled being an interesting and captivating novel of psychological drama, but I don't think I'll need to read it again. - Alex

Sunday, January 18

The Moth Diaries - Rachel Klein

A sixteen year old girl living at an all-girls boarding school in the late sixties keeps a diary. Her poet father had committed suicide, her remorseful mother is wrapped up in her own pain, and the refuge school should have been vanishes. Best friend Lucy and the author have adjoining rooms, but their routine and friendship and disrupted when a newcomer, Jewish like the protagonist, but mysteriously able to get away with behaviour she never could, arrives. Ernessa disrupts not only her intimate friendship with best friend Lucy but manages to turn all her friends against her.
Influenced by a supernatural literature class run by sexy male poet/teacher Mr Davies, our nameless narrator becomes convinced that Ernessa is a vampire feeding off Lucy, who gets sicker and sicker as the story continues. Is Ernessa really a creature of the night, or is our narrator, influenced by the drugs rife through the school and beset by grief for her father, delusional or psychotic?
Written in the style of traditional nineteenth century Gothic novels, The Moth Diaries has a fascinating premise, and the diary reads believable like that of an adolescent girl, but I found the way it was written frustrating and unengaging. None of the characters, including the protagonist, were particularly interesting, and the suspense that could have been engendered by the plot is undone by the disclosure at the very beginning - the diary is being read by its' author thirty years later, and was given back to her by the psychiatrist who cared for her when she had that one and only psychotic break at the end of her sixteenth year.
Lynn is the lover of all things Gothic, and has a better appreciation of nuance than I (the themes of The Shipping News' chapters was reflected in the descriptions of the knots opening each section?) and could no doubt get more from the subtleties of the plot. For me, though? Eh. - Alex

Saturday, January 17

A Greater Evil - Natasha Cooper

Sam Foundling is one of England's rising sculptors, the happy father of an infant and the loving husband of a good woman, the daughter of judge Gina Mayford. His childhood was bleak - abandoned as a baby, raised by the state, fostered at age 12 - and he is both insecure and subject to rages, primarily directed toward himself. When he receives letters from a woman imprisoned in Holloway jail who states she's his birth mother, he turns to solicitor Trish Maguire, based on his memory of her as the only person who ever helped him when he was a child, a memory tarnished when he learns she doesn't remember representing him some twenty years earlier. When Sam discovers his wife's battered and bloody body in his studio, he is devastated. When he is arrested and charged with her murder, he turns to Trish again, certain she'll not fail him in either uncovering his innocence or in caring for his daughter while he's incarcerated.
Defending Sam is far from easy - Trish liked Cecelia, who she met only weeks before her delivery, in one of the biggest cases of both their careers, and she has worked with Gina, a woman grieving for her daughter and trying to trust the man who may have been her killer. In any case Sam caused Cecelia a lot of pain - she wouldn't speak about it, but Gina saw her after their arguments, and her son-in-law has never been an easy person to get along with.
One of the things I enjoy about Cooper's novels is her strong female characters - well developed, complex and active in their lives, Cooper has put significant effort not only into her serial protagonist Trish, but into developing single mother Gina, who raised a child alone against impossible odds while creating a legal career, and Cecelia, a loss adjustor with intelligence and integrity who was troubled by the prevalence of coincidence around her in the weeks prior to her murder.
In some way coincidence is also a character in the novel - many of the characters have incidental, preexisting relationships before crossing in the murder case, a fact that is explicitly commented on and which mercifully doesn't culminate in a deux ex machina ending. The ending is satisfying and believable, and the ongoing evolution of Trish's relationships with partner George and half-brother David left me bookishly replete - the reading equivalent of a great meal.
My only quibble is with the letters from the woman claiming to be Sam's mother - functionally illiterate and originally from Italy, it's not unremarkable that the grammar and spelling would be flawed. But having almost every single word misspelled ('boxe' for 'box', 'gaw' for 'jaw', 'cees' for 'sees', 'yore' and 'youre' for 'your' but "yo'ur" and "your'" for 'you're', 'remembre' instead of' remember' and 'thingink' for 'thinking') struck me as a little over the top. That is, however, a minor quibble about what was otherwise a great mystery. - Alex

Friday, January 16

Girls of Riyadh - Rajaa Alsanie

Once a week an anonymous modern-day Scheherazade tells a growing email list of strangers the intertwining stories of four friends, all girls of Riyadh studying at the university. Sadeem was raised by her father after her mother died shortly after her birth; she meets a man who seems perfect, and they become engaged, but between the signing of the wedding papers and their marriage party their relationship irrevocably changes. Qamrah follows her mother's advice and is not too eager for the embrace of her husband, the result of an arranged marriage, but her strategy seems to have backfired when he still hasn't touched her, a week after their marriage and, alone in Chicago, she has nobody to turn to for advice. Lamees is the most centred of the group, and the most successful - her career and her marriage work well, and she acts as the grounding stone for her friends. Mashael, known as Michelle, was raised in America for the first part of her life and, the product of a Saudi father and an American mother, has difficulty fitting into either culture but makes her decision when she falls for Faisal, a man who seems to be her soul mate - at least until his mother finds out.
This complex, layered story has been translated from the original into English, and undoubtedly loses a a lot of the nuance and texture as a result - the author notes in the introduction to the English version that she had to drop all the dialects that would place characters for native readers, and - as a non-Arabic speaker - I wholly missed how characters were named to indicate aspects of their personality.
Despite missing these elements, present in the original, Girls of Riyadh works well - the intertwining stories, particularly in combination with the background (which is often prominently in the foreground) of modern Saudi life was fascinating, and Alsanie does a magnificent job of individualising the young women. The men generally come off less well, and made me particularly appreciative of Australian men - hypocritical, sexist and whipped by their mothers, they leave a trail of broken-hearted women in their wake.
A friend loaned me her copy of Girls of Riyadh, which she brought back with her after recently returning from a year in the Kingdom, and we spent some time both before and after I read the novel discussing her experiences and those of her colleagues. I'm appreciative of the second-hand knowledge and quite happy for it to stay second-hand. I must say that, after talking with her, I'd be really interested in reading the (non-existent, as far as I know) companion piece Boys of Riyadh, which could touch on the prevalence of so-called transient homosexuality, as well as the internal contradictions of the masculine aspect of modern Saudi society. - Alex

Thursday, January 15

Twinship - Laurie Foos

Persian cat breeder Maxie Dublin's been waiting for the birth of her daughter for as long as she can remember - she, too, will be a red-head, her labour will mirror her mother's delivery of her, and the three women will peaceful co-exist. The plan is meticulous; unlike absent Maxie's father, the no-good banjo player, Maxie has chosen a nice, gay man who works for her.
Not every step of her mother's pregnancy plan is followed (Jerry is a vegetarian, so Maxie had to cook tofu instead of beef), but as many as possible of the steps that resulted in Maxie were followed. And, like the plan, Maxie's pregnant, even though Jerry's seed ended up on the floor rather than in her. But from the beginning of the labour it all goes wrong, and when her daughter is born Maxie realises a terrible truth - she's given birth to herself.
This was an interesting concept, but the handling's very Literary; between that and the distressingly dependant and claustrophobic relationship Maxie has with her mother, her apathy, and the complete domination of the situation by the physicians involved with the case, I found reading Twinship a chore, and decided to quit at the half way mark. Wow - not even a fortnight into the new year and this is my second unfinished novel. Less time and less tolerance for books I don't love or learn from. - Alex

Wednesday, January 14

Burstein and De Keijzer (eds): Secrets of Mary Magdalene- A Guide to Her Story, History and Heresy

When one of the editors outs himself in the first chapter as a Da Vinci Code fan I expected this book to offer yet another weird and wacky conspiracy theory propelled interpretation of Christianity based on spurious evidence and dubious facts. What I got was a collection of articles, interviews, essays and book extracts from a wide variety of credible sources (ranging from feminist historians, through journalists and novelists, to theologians both practicing and academic).
Divided into sections covering topics such as what the biblical gospels actually say about Magdalene, her role as the apostle to the apostles, how her reputation as a repentant prostitute came about, traditions of women and the sacred, and depictions of her in art, legend and lore through medieval to modern times, this book provides an interesting overview of the many theories about who and what Mary Magdalene actually was.
Though dry in places (some of the articles are from academic papers) and a little repetitive towards the end (the facts are few and can only be presented in so many ways making repetition inevitable) I found this book to be a fascinating, if somewhat heavy read.
I would recommend this book to anyone with a serious interest in the subject as a great starting point for farther research. But for those with a mere passing curiosity it may be better to start with something less intense. And if you’re looking for biblical conspiracy theory look elsewhere entirely.-Lynn

Tuesday, January 13

The Secret Lives of Fortunate Wives - Sarah Strohmeyer

There are rules to being a Hunting Hills wife, rules that newcomer Claire Stark, a journalist who grew up in impoverished Webster County, is initially unaware of. Fortunately Marti Denton's only too pleased to teach her. Unbeknownst to Claire, that's because Marti has her eye on Claire's husband John - a man she had no interest in at all until he came back from Europe married after a whirlwind romance.
This looked like a frothy enough bit of escapism, but I found the plot predictable and somewhat contrived - the incestuous little world of trivial, privileged women who think a disaster is someone wearing the same dress twice and husbands who exist solely to ear money and not embarrass their wives was bad enough, but the unprincipled hypocrisy, bed-hopping and cattery left a bad taste in my mouth.
There's a significant secondary plot about Marti's husband, who she senses is shifting away from her and who is not only having an affair (with, unsurprisingly, one of Marti's best friends) but has done dodgy stock shifting that leaves his friends and neighbours exposed, contributes to the plot. It also contributed to my utter distaste for almost every character. I felt as though I'd read it all before, only with more sympathetic characters and in a more interesting way. Clearly something about The Secret Lives of Fortunate Wives registered, because I finished the novel, but I did so with a sense of bitter accomplishment rather than with pleasure. - Alex

Monday, January 12

Places I Never Meant to Be - Judy Blume (ed)

A decade old, this is an ecclectic collection of short stories on a variety of themes around young adults finding themselves in places they never meant to be (hence the title), and united by the commonality that all the YA authors represented have been censored. Each story is followed by a reflection on censorship - the author's experiences of being censored, a recollection of works censored when they were a young adult, or simply a description of what censorship means to them.
I found this last element the most valuable, as I found the stories themselves to be uninteresting for the most part - they didn't deal with censorship, or with themes that are often censored, and going in with the expectation that they would coloured my perception of the writing.Many of the expected writers are featured, from editor and contributor Blume to Norma Klein, Norma Fox Mazer, Paul Zindel and Walter Dean Myers, as well as a few authors I hadn't read. There were some notable omissions, too, including the amazing Chris Crutcher - Blume says some authors were approached, though she doesn't name them, who can't (or don't) write short stories, which could explain this.
Some of the contributors are explicit about where they think the limits of censorship for young adults should be - restrict your child's reading as you see fit, but leave my child alone. I don't have kids, but that's where I live, too. - Alex

Sunday, January 11

The Movie Girl - Kate Lace

Gemma genuinely loves researching clothes - her roommate hates watching historical series with her because Gemma can't see the plot or the dialogue if the costumer used the wrong type of military regiment for the era and setting. When a toffee-nosed woman comes to Sew Wonderful, the one stop shop for all things textile, wanting to know about braiding, Gemma can't help showing her up - being treated like an ignorant shopgirl presses all her buttons. Though she seems disapproving, Arabella - Butterfly Film's head of costume - likes Gemma and, after a brief interview a couple of days later, offers her a job on a new period film.
Jono Knighton's made it to the big time - Rowan, his beautiful actress wife, on the other hand, is slowly drowning her sorrows and wrecking what remains of her career. She's not averse to belting him, either, when she's drunk, which is much of the time. When he meets Gemma he's attracted to her realness, her gumption, and her readiness to tell him off. Though there's genuine heat, Gemma won't have an affair with a married man.
As if it wasn't bad enough that an upstart took her job, Tina is enraged when she discovers that Gemma is having an affair with Jono, the rat married to her beloved Rowan. Though they've never met, Tina knows they're kindred spirits, and she knows everything about her idol. They even have the same sheet of platinum hair, although Tina's is helped along. Desprate to protect Rowan and show up Gemma, Tina arranges to have her fired.
Fired from her first job in the industry, accused of an affair she wanted but never had, Gemma seeks refuge in a small but popular provincial theatre. The sole costumer, she works around the clock for months, to tired at the end of the day to read any gossip mags or even watch the news.
This is an entertaining but not startling addition to the Brit chick lit genre - the obstacles between the main characters are relatively believable and manage to keep them both sympathetic (not easy when infidelity's concerned), and the secondary plot's fine. I just wasn't enthralled by The Movie Girl, and at the beginning (before the plot took hold) found parts of it actively annoying - like the idea that "BMW... Big Male Wanker" is anything like "language [that] went from ladylike to something her father would have found profane in Southampton Docks." Well, unless the docks of Southampton are considerably tamer than... I don't know, my local cinema foyer.

However, the writing won me over, enough that - though I'm not tracking her books down - if another Kate Lace crosses my path I'll pick it up. - Alex

Friday, January 9

Force of Nature - Suzanne Brockmann

Ex-cop Enrique (Ric) Alvarado has set up a PI firm in Sarasota, Florida. The younger sister of his best friend from high school, Annie Dugan, is working for or with him (they haven't quite established which yet), and the assistance she provides is balanced by the distraction his attraction to her provides. It helps, to some extent, that she's a lesbian, and therefore firmly off limits.
Annie's still recovering from the death of one of her oldest friends from cancer. She took a long time off work to care for Pam, and couldn't readjust to life in Boston. Working for that irritating, sexist, womanising best friend of her brother is a good start while she works out what she wants to do next. But it's distracting - despite his philandery she's long been attracted to him.
FBI agent Jules Cassidy may be gay but that hasn't stood in the way of his success - tenacious, dedicated and hard-working, he's rapidly making his way up the ladder. The only thing missing from his life is a partner. Marine Ben Webster's interested in filling that position, but Jules doesn't return the depth of feeling Ben's latest email indicates he feels for Jules. Besides, after his disastrous, and all-too-brief, pairing with up-and-coming movie star Robin Chadwick, he's not interested in dating someone who's still closeted.
Robin's latest movie's creating a buzz - assisted by his ex-SEAL brother-in-law Cosmo, Robin got in some real Navy training, and did all his own stunts. Agents who wouldn't return his calls are now coming to him, and he has a three picture deal in the wind. Okay, maybe he has trouble getting hot FBI agent Jules out of him mind even though it's been a couple of years, but he can't come out at this point in his career, and maybe he needs a drink or two to make it through, but he's not an alcoholic like his mom.
In Force of Nature Brockmann combines two strong romances (one with new characters Ric and Annie, one following up on a plot developed in Hot Target, which hasn't been reviewed here) with an action novel to create one of her trademark juicy novels that I had a lot of trouble putting down.
The writing's crisp and vivid, the characterisation's strong and layered, the dialogue in natural and individualised (so none of the characters is easily confused with another), and the issues around homosexuality are tackled head on - career risk, closeting, exposure, homophobia and prejudice are all addressed within the novel without turning it into an ideological flag.
Though rewarding in its own right, and with enough detail to make every aspect clear to follow, I recommend reading Brockmann's SEAL team 16/TroubleShooters series in order, as the resolution of long lived story arcs and familiarity with the supporting cast makes each new production more satisfying than coming to it cold. Having read every one from Unsung Hero to this, I found myself both replete and interested in the next book - like a perfect meal! - Alex

Mad Dogs - Robert Muchamore

In Class A James Adams went undercover to destroy the Kevin Moore Gang. In the absence of a strong leader, Moore's old turf is being fought over by two other gangs, and two Cherub agents, Gabrille O'Brien and Michael Hendry, have infiltrated the Afro-Carribean gange the Slasher Boys. It's been a couple of months and progress has been made, but when Gabrielle's hospitalised after bing stabbed, the ethics committee want to pull Cherub out of the operation.
James has been involved in the training of red shirts (junior Cherubs), with new girlfriend Dana, when the chairwoman decides to take advantage of his previous relationship with Moore's son, junior. He and agent Bruce Norris are sent in as cousins, with James recreating his previous persona, and they begin working on the other side of the turf war.
As I've mentioned before, the Cherub series explores elements of young adult life that are often ignored in series writing, and problems are simply resolved at the end of one book. In addition to his temper, James has had problems reconciling being in a relationship with his fifteen-year-old libido, something that was a significant component of his break up with long-time girlfriend Kerry. Though his relationship with Dana is more meaningful, as well as more physical, James once again finds himself involved with a girl while on a mission, and has to make some hard decisions.
Interestingly, after a lot of emphasis on James' flaws, Mad Dogs turns the focus to Lauren - though in some ways more mature than her brother, when her behaviours of concern are listed it becomes clear she has some issues to work through, too.
This series is continuing as strongly as it began, with characters that are three-dimensional, that develop over each book as well as over the series as a whole, and storylines that are believable and exciting without being repeditive. I've already reserved the next two at the library, and will then have to wait (im)patiently for the next one to be released. - Alex

Thursday, January 8

Lioness Rampant - Tamora Pierce

Far from home, Sir Alanna, her cat Faithful and her trusty manservant Coram are on a quest to find the Dominion Jewel when she crosses paths with one of the noted Shang - a warrior class of exceptional fighters trained from infancy in all the arts, particularly unarmed combat. Liam Ironarm is Dragon, the most powerful of the Shang. Despite a cultural revulsion toward her Gift, Liam is captured by her unique tenacity and skill, and they become lovers shortly after he agrees to join their mission.
En route they become involved in a civil war and add the beautiful Princess Thayet, wanted dead by half the combatants and as a trophy wife as a means to power by the rest. She and her devoted maidservant Buriram join them too.
As they approach the Roof of the Worlds a snowstorm falls, and Alanna knows that it is at the behest of the mountain elemental who guards the Jewel - there will be no waiting out the blizzard, for it will continue until she confronts it or leaves. Unable to convince Liam, Alanna spells him to sleep so she can face this challenge on her own. She fights her way first through the bitter cold and snow, then against the monkey incarnation of Chitral, and returns to camp with the Jewel, but her relationship with Liam is over.
As they return home Alanna is iincreasingly troubled by dreams of her brother, Thom, and of the meance of the dead Duke Roger, who once threatened the crown. She discovers that Tortall is reeling from the deaths of the Queen, long ill, and the King who committed suicide shortly thereafter. Far more throubling is the discovery that Thom, goaded by the poisonous Lady Delia and by his own ego, has raised Roger fromt he dead. He says his Gift was left int he grave, but Alanna doesn't trust him.
She is, however, distracted by the toll the rising has taken on Thom - he sparkles with rust-red mage light and the life force is draining from his feverish body. The stage is set for a massive confrontation, where the fate of the kingdom will be settled one way or another.
I know this is all plot summary and no critique, but I'm exhausted from a hard night's work and resolutely sticking to my vow to review as I go. Maybe there was soemthing to be said for waiting til I had time to digest and put words of usefulness together! - Alex

Wednesday, January 7

The Fall - Robert Muchamore

James is trapped in Russia when mission with MI5 goes seriously, and mysteriously wrong. Though he's shown CCTV footage by a CIA agent, his mission control supervisor Ewart (husband of the Cherub chairwoman) tells James he's implicated in the catastrophe. Fearing his Cherub career could be over, and concerned that Ewart may be more interested in protecting himself than in clearing James, he decides to search Ewart's office. He asks his girlfriend Kerry to help him, but she'd rather play video games. Hurt and worried about his future, James searches Ewart's office alone, and is sprung by Dana, an older Cherub agent, who agrees to help him, a decision that results in some very unexpected changes.
In the meantime his younger sister Lauren in on her first solo mission, infiltrating a children's home to uncover a child prostitution racket involving young girls smuggled into Britain by Russian mobsters, and only narrowly escapes being raped and murdered.
The incorporation of significant thematic elements, present from the first book, The Recruit, continues through the Cherub series - in addition to the seriously heavy trilogy of abduction, prostitution and rape, Muchamore discusses the fate of these young girls - they are usually repatriated to their place of origin, only to (often) be recaptured and once again sent to the UK. The traumatic experiences Lauren has do not vanish without effect, and this is subtly portrayed toward the end of the book.
There are also elements that many teens have to deal with, from facing up to your responsibilities, to betrayal on a number of levels, the end of relationships, the consequences of actions, and the flawed behaviour of adults.
All that palatably wrapped up with an exciting plot, exotic locales, engaging characters and genuinely riveting writing. - Alex

Tuesday, January 6

The Second Wife - Elizabeth Buchanan

Oh, it is so hard being the second wife, particularly when you're husband's 20 years older than you, and you used to work for his wife - his (grown) children don't warm to you. his friends aren't interested in including you in their cosy circle, and all the things that are new and exciting for you are being done for the second time for him.
This could have been an interesting take on a well travelled path, but Minty Lloyd was so thoroughly unsympathetic - she doesn't love him, she just wanted financial security; she not only took her rival and former friend's husnband but also her job; she finds her twin sons boring and their care an unremitting chore - that I couldn't get past the midway point. Which is unfortuante because I suspect that things might have livened up. I just wasn't prepared to take the chace that they wouldn't. - Alex

Monday, January 5

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man - Tamora Pierce

Sir Alanna, the first female knight in living memory, cuts a unique figure - purple-eyed, lion rampant, a purple-eyed cat curled upon her saddle, she and her manservant Coram are captured by the Bloody Hawk tribe, a community of desert-dwellers. The Bazhir have strict rules and traditions that include the subjugation of women - Alanna's presence infuriates the tribe's shaman, who's convinced she spells doom, but the tribes' leader disagrees,a dn welcomes her into the tribe as a full member. She begins to teach three child outcasts her magic, as she sees the seeds of shamanism in them. When Ishak, the only boy, becomes arrogant about his abilities he retrieves a crystal sword brimming with malicious magic and, despite Alanna's efforts, he dies. Alanna decides that only she has the power to tame the sword, which will otherwise be a danger too anyone who finds it, and her will battles the power of the sword.
Jonathan is approached by the tribe to be the new Voice - a repository for the collective memories of the Bakhir and a unifying presence that will unite the city dwellers and the desert peoples. Jonathan wants to marry Alanna and, though she loves him, the idea of being tied down disquietens her. In the time they've been apart she thinks they've grown in different directions, and when Jon assumes that her hesitation is merely maidenly reticence she refuses his offer.
She falls into the arms of George, but he too wants her to change. When the Bloody Hawk chief asks her to check on his friend, a sorceress in another tribe, Alanna is pleased to investigate. Though she is ultimately unsuccessful, she learns of a stone, the Dominion Jewel, that can give great power to its possessor. Fearful that it will fall into unscruptulous hands, Alanna and Coram set out to find it.
An adventure story for young women, the Song of the Lioness series has a strong and principled female protagonist, a fact that augments rather than detracts from its enjoyment. Sometimes Alanna does come off a little too resolutely principled, and she is a little Mary Sue-esque in retrospect - without her everything would have come to an end not once but multiple times.
However, this is only in retrospect - as I was reading I was swept away by the pwer of the plot and the magnetism of the writing, and inspired by the strongly feminist ideals of the character. All of which makes the novel sound a lots less interesting than it is. - Alex

Sunday, January 4

QBVIII - Leon Uris

Once a prisoner in Poland's notorious Jadwiga Concentration Camp, Dr Adam Kelno fled England when, though defeated, a false charge of sadistic medical practice there resulted in extradition charges to his homeland. Takign his wife and children Kelno practiced in a remote colonial outpost in Borneo, bringing a degree of civilisation to a backward and remote tribe. After much pateint work with the tribe he was able to bring about significant changes, changes that resulted in international publication, and he felt it safe to return to England, only to discover that he's been named as a Nazi collaborator, the emsculator (without anesthesia) of some 15,ooo fellow prisoners. Outraged, Kelno sues, and "one of the greatest fictional trials of the century" unfolds - first Kelno's story and then, damningly, his accusers'.
Apparently. Because I really tried but Kelno's personality was so unpleasant, and so persistently anti-Semitic, that I couldn't develop any interest in him at all, and I found the text choppy and similarly unengaging. The testimony is written, at least in the copy I read, in all caps, which I found distracting and unhelpful, as well as difficult to read.
All this is a shame, because I found the underlying premise fascinating, and am interested in many of the aspects of the book - the aftermath of the War on survivors, the the factors that allowed people to cooperate with the camps (on all sides), collaboration, resistance and, particularly, medical professionals subverted to the interests of their captors.
If you're interested in what happened after page 72, check out the Wikipedia entry - that's where I stopped. - Alex

Saturday, January 3

In the Hand of the Goddess - Tamora Pierce

Still disguised, and on her way toward becoming a knight, Alanna is now a squire to Prince Jonathan of Conté. On her way back from Corus she finds a kitten, whose eyes are the same strange amethyst as her own. The kitten, whom Alanna names Faithful, can speak to Alanna, though other hear only mewing. Not long afterward the Great Goddess appears to her and gives Alanna an amulet that allows her to see the workings of magic around her - different practitioners have different coloured auras around their works (Alanna's is purple).
As she matures Alanna keeps her secret, but the two men who know, Jon and George, have both made it clear they're interested in her, and Alanna and Jon soon become lovers.
Alanna also reunites with Thom - a quick study and with significant power, Thom is on his way to becoming the youngest Master of magic the Temple has ever known, and Alanna is troubled by his surety and untempered confidence.
When Alanna faces her greatest challenge, the Ordeal of Knighthood, Thom presents her with a shield decorated with the Trebond crest - when she reveals herself as female it will vanish, revealing a lion rampant. A greater challenge awaits, however - still suspicious of Roger, Alanna unveils a plot to kill the King, Queen and Prince, leaving him next in line for the throne. In the sword fight, in which Alanna ultimately kills Roger, her gender is revealed to the court, and she decides to leave.
As quickly paced and tightly plotted as its predecessor, this second in the series was equally absorbing. - Alex

Friday, January 2

Alanna - Tamora Pierce

Alanna of Trebond wants nothing more than to be a knight, but she's a girl and has to train to be a lady instead. Her twin brother Thom doesn't want to be a knight, hoping instead to train as a sorceror, but their father is no fan of magic. Desparate, Alanna talk Maude, the local healing woman, into allowing her to pose as a boy - at ten, she and Thom have identical colouring (violet eyes and flame red hair) and features, distinguishable only by their hair length. Accompanied by Coram, who taught them the basics of sword play and horse riding, Alanna (now Alan) finds her initial training harder than she expected, but rewarding. She makes both enemies and friends early, and counts the prince and his posse in the latter group, as well as the King of Thieves. Her most devoted enemy, the older Raolon of Maven, leaves the palace in disgrace when, after months of tormenting her and secret training, Alanna bests him in a fight.
The apprenticeship for knighthood is long and arduous, and Alanna begins as a page. Not long after coming to the royal palace a strange illness, the Sweating SIckness, sweeps across the land. Resistant to all forms of therapy, it leaves a swathe of dead in its wake, depleting even the sorcerers, before attacking the Prince. Alanna has ignored her Gift but believes she can tackle the Sickness. While she hesitates a dear friend dies, and Alanna immediuately heads to the Prince's chamber, where he lies on deaths' door. She fetches Prince Jonathan's spirit form the place between Life and Death, in the process revealing her gender to one of her mentors, Sir Myles of Olau.
Over the course of the first novel her gender is also revealed to George and, at the end of the novel, Jon.
Not long after all is safe in the City, Jon's beloved uncle Roger, Duke of Conté, comes to the palace to teach the young pages and squires magic. Alanna dislikes and mistrusts him immediately, but cannot explain why.
The first in a quartet, Alanna is gripping and evocative. Magic comes at a price, and is wrought by few, but it is clear from the outset that the gods have a destiny in mind for Alanna and she has not only that Gift but others. To say more would give away significant aspects of the plot, but I was very impressed by my first contact with respected and long-standing FSF author Pierce. This is a great start to a new year of reading and I look forward to the rest of the series. - Alex

Thursday, January 1

2008 in Review

Alex – My resolution to read fewer, but better quality, books went the way of most resolutions: of the 300 books I reviewed this year, 250 were fiction and 50 non-fiction (another year with no poetry), which is neat but coincidental!
Favourite novel: Underground – I read it early in 2008 and it stayed with me for the rest of the year, something of a measuring stick, and now (in the wake of political change both in Australia and the US) a reflection of a time that’s passed.

Favourite non-fiction book: this is far more difficult than picking a novel! I'm torn between Why We Buy, Better, How Doctors Think (by Jerome Groopman not Kathryn Montgomery), and the re-read The Tipping Point.
Favourite newly encountered author: a tie between the prolific Elizabeth Berg, the breathtakingly amusing Christopher Brookmyre, and Robert Muchamore, though I'm sure I'm forgetting several writers.
Most disappinting novel: Sandra Scopettone's Too Darn Hot: I love her contemporary stuff but this just left me cold
Least rewarding non-fiction book: a tie between Anything Goes by David Stove and An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David: my mother loves her work but it just didn't speak to me at all
Most disliked read: Will Self's Great Apes, and I barely made it to page ten.

And what does 2009 hold? I’d like to tackle some of the novels I’ve had on my To Read list for a while, including Anthony Powell’s 12-part A Dance to the Music of Time (my mother’s favourite books), Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (huge, but apparently worth it), and make some inroads in my own backlog of books, 2008 being the Year of the Library. I also plan to write my reviews contemporaneously, rather than saving them up for one mammoth reviewing session.

When it comes to choosing a worst book of the year, my 2008 reading list leaves me spoilt for choice. Over the past twelve months I have been seduced by many a promising plot only to be disappointed by cardboard characters, poor writing, clichés and disbelief so suspended it snapped.
It has been a difficult decision but I have finally narrowed it down to my top, or should that be bottom, three books of 2008.
Coming in at number 3, the most boring book I read this year was L A Banks' Minion. How Banks manages to make a vampire huntress action adventure dull I don’t know. But she does. This book makes it no higher (or should that be lower) on my list because I read it with no expectations and so I was disappointed rather than annoyed.
At number 2, with possibly the worst ending to a book ever, was M J Rose, The Reincarnationist - A Novel of Suspense. I enjoy reincarnation as a plot device and could have forgiven a lot in my desire to like this book but somehow Rose manages to take a fascinating premise and turn it into a flat, convoluted mess. Going into this book actively favourable to its content yet still finding it annoyed the crap out of me, earns this book its number 2 position.
And with the dubious honour of being the worst book I read this year, coming in at number 1 was Allan Massie's Arthur the King. I am a fan of all things Arthurian and couldn’t count the number of retellings of the legends that I have read, from a wide variety of perspectives and with some wild interpretations. I am fairly forgiving of flaws in Arthurian works. I can tolerate a lot in the name of a new Arthurian variation. But I couldn’t even finish this book. When writing is so bad that I walk away from one of my favourite subjects that book deserves the title of Worst Of My Reading List for the Year.
Choosing a best book of the year was no easier. As I scanned my reading list there were several titles that brought a fond smile of remembrance to my lips but not many that had me thinking I would be sorry if I missed reading this book.
Naturally the superlative Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series features highly on my best books list but I have decided that the best book I read in 2008 was Phil Rickman’s December. While it was not perfect, indeed in some ways it was quite lacking, it was the one book that I recall coming to the end of and wishing wasn’t over quite yet.

Kim Harrison: A Fistful of Charms

A witch and her pixie partner set off to save his son, who has run away with her ex-boyfriend and ended up in trouble with a conglomerate of werewolf packs. Once they find and save the young pixie he tells them that her ex has located an artefact that could change the balance of power in the world in favour of werewolves (which is a bad thing) and since he won’t hand the artefact over they are holding him prisoner.
She helps him escape from the werewolves but nothing short of his death and the artefact’s destruction can deter them from hunting him down. Owing him her life she comes up with a plan to fake his death and the destruction of the artefact, giving him his freedom back.
A lot of double dealing and dishonesty ensures that the plan goes pear shaped but with some quick thinking the witch manages to set everything to rights-convincing the werewolves that her ex is dead (although he isn’t) and the artefact destroyed (though she actually keeps it in her possession).
This is an edited summary of the highlights of a very intricate plot.
The fourth book in a series, this instalment contained all the action and danger elements that readers have come to expect but at the same time had a more introspective angle than the previous books.
The development of some of the secondary characters was great to see, though it didn’t really make up for the main character’s lack of development. Four books into the series and she’s still making the same mistakes as she was in the first and in spite of a token step is really no closer to resolving her feelings towards her room mate than she was in the first chapter of book one, a situation that is getting old quickly now. As is the growing number of suitors, potential suitors and devoted friends she’s gathering without effort along the way. What’s wrong with having one or two love interests and moving on from there? Why does everyone the heroine meets have to fall under her spell in one way or another? Sadly this seems to be the way of urban fantasy and is an issue I have with the genre as a whole rather than particularly with this book.
These flaws are forgivable here because of the terrific world building and the great plot that kept me guessing until the end but I do hope to see some resolution or forward momentum with relationships soon.
Don’t get me wrong I really did enjoy this book; it was a rollercoaster ride of action and a well woven plot that tied up points from earlier works while introducing new threads for future works. I simply don’t want to see a good series go bad from a steadily weakening main character.-Lynn