Saturday, February 28

Babyproof - Emily Giffin

Claudia Parr never wanted children, not even for a moment. They're fine for other people, but not for her. This had been a relationship killer with previous boyfriends, and when she met Ben Claudia was concerned that her decision would spell the end for them too. She was delighted to discover that he felt the same way. Happily married for two years and now in their thirties, Claudia doesn't know any happier, more in sync couples than they. Until Ben drops a bombshell - he's changed his mind and thinks having a child will deepen their relationship.
Ben might say all he wants is to discuss children as an option, but Claudia feels betrayed. Her decision was made long ago and is a significant part of her identity; Ben knew how she felt from the beginning and they had a deal. She still loves him but her position isn't negotiable. Within months the marriage is over and Claudia's in the midst of a new relationship, but she finds herself worrying about Ben and who he might have children with. Will she reconsider, or is it all over?
Before I get to the plot itself - I'm clearly out of the NY upper-class set, because I have no idea what a "monogrammed john-john" is, except that it's clearly an article of clothing and it's (they?) teamed with knee socks. Moving on.
As a childless-by-choice woman in her thirties (not that this has been an issue with potential partners), I was interested in seeing this reflected in a genre better known for a-ring-and-a-brood endings. The characters, particularly the protagonists, are well drawn and sympathetic, and the secondary plots (including Claudia's sisters, who have relationship and reproductive issues of their own) are strong.
I was concerned, however, that Claudia's decision not to have children, a position integral to both her character and to the novel, felt weak. Not born from ideology or intellect, experience or fear, it read more like something she chose once and never returned to or reflected upon. My position, for example, comes from a combination of elements and though I haven't changed my mind I do from time to time think about what having children of my own would be like. Claudia, on the other hand, steadfastly refuses to even consider the issue, as though any softening equals capitulation. She also tends to reach unfounded conclusions and project her own perceptions on to other characters as though they were fact.
That said, a flawed heroine is far more interesting than a perfect one, and while frustrating Claudia is likable and human. the ending is somewhat controversial, though open to interpretation, and all in all I quite enjoyed the experience. While far from perfect, Baby Proof is definitely superior to the majority of chick lit offerings. - Alex

Friday, February 27

The Mercedes Coffin – Faye Kellerman

When Hollywood music producer Primo Eckerling is murdered execution-style, billionaire computer genius Genoa Greeves sees similarities with the murder of her teacher fifteen years earlier. Bennett (Ben) Little was the only person who, through the entire miserable course of her high school education, gave her any encouragement or support. She couldn’t do anything for him then, but now she has wealth and power – Genoa offers the LAPD a substantial incentive to solve the cold case. Peter Decker doesn’t like having his strings pulled, but he can’t deny there are eerie similarities between the two cases, and when one of the original detectives apparently commits suicide only twelve hours after being interviewed Decker takes the request even more seriously.
The joy of Kellerman’s writing lies at least as much with renewing acquaintance with her well-established characters (particularly Decker, his wife Rina and his daughter from his first marriage, Cindy) as much as from the crystalline and lucid veracity of her plots. I was less interested in the mystery aspect of the plot than in the unfolding character development, particularly with Cindy's new husband.

This is not to say that the mystery wasn't involving, but as I've got to know these characters over the past fifteen years or so since I began reading Kellerman's work, it's been them more than anything else that's kept me involved. If you're interested in trying out her writing, I strongly suggest you begin with the first on the series, The Ritual Bath - like the rest of the series, it combines strong characters with well-integrated information about Orthodox Judaism in the modern world, and an involving mystery. - Alex

Thursday, February 26

Crime Seen – Jenny Pausacker

Fifteen-year-old Harris Johnson, much to the distress of his mother, has long been interested in what happens to the dead. When he gets a work experience position at the State Coroner’s Office he’s thrilled – he’ll get to see what involved in determining cause of death. He thoroughly enjoys the experience, rotating through the grief counsellors’ office, sitting in on a case, inputting data, and learning about the many people required to solve the mystery of unclear deaths. He’s protected from actually seeing bodies, and has no particular desire to change that.
When, a few days after he starts, the body of a young woman is brought in though, the exercise becomes less academic and more real – Tansy is a murder victim, the daughter of one of the Coronial pathologists, and Harris had played with her as a child. The media attention to the case, the activities of a journalist, and an attempt on his own life, spur him on and Harris discovers links between Tansy’s case and a long-unsolved murder.
There’s no description of any distressing post-mortem details (not even a passing description of the autopsy suite), making it suitable for squeamish readers, and the chief effect of the book is normalise and encourage an interest in this vital area of health care. This is a strong and engrossing YA novel that conveys a strong but understated sense of place, an absorbing and believable plot paired with a protagonist who noticeably matures and grows over the course of the book. I’m hoping Pausacker has a sequel in the wings. - Alex

Wednesday, February 25

The OK Team - Nick Place

Hazy Retina was born out of focus, an issue that's been a problem for him all his life. A lifelong fan of superheros, he suddenly realises that maybe his affliction is really a path to him becoming a member of the Australian Federation of Hero Types. Heroes come in all varieties, with associated gradings - initially ranked Entry Level, Grade Two, does Hazy have what it takes to reach the dizzying hights of a Level Triple A hero like the Golden Boy or (retired) Mr Fabulous? As Hazy gathers a motley crew of equally unlikely teen superheroes around him (Cannonball, who can fly but can't aim himself, Yesterday, the Hero Who Can See Into the Past, and Liarbird, who cannot tell the truth), he creates the OK Team and they all work toward improving their skills, spurred on by retired Hero Mr Fabulous.
This is fun and engaging, an ideal book for reluctant young male readers. I liked the underlying premise, the character development and the subtle sense of place; though I found the obvious characters names (Hazy Retina? Really?) irritating, I'm not exactly the target audience, and there were any number of ligh humorous touches to compensate. - Alex

Tuesday, February 24

Bootlegger’s Daughter - Margaret Maron

Incensed by judicial injustice, lawyer Deborah Knott decides on the spur of the moment to run for a vacant appointment in her home town of Cotton Grove, Colleton County, North Carolina. It’s a four-way race, and Deborah’s position is made a little more complicated by the fact that her estranged father was the county’s most renowned bootlegger. That would be tricky enough, but when fliers begin appearing, on her letterhead, racially vilifying her main opponent, the race gets dirty.
At the same time eighteen-year-old Gayle Whitehead approaches Deborah to find out who murdered her mother. When Gayle was three months old she and her mother vanished; they were found three days later, in an abandoned mill – Gayle was starving, sodden and soiled, and Janie had been hit over the head, unconscious for several days, then shot.

Aside from a prologue the action takes place in the 'present' (it was published early in the 80's and is a little dated) but concerns events from almost twenty years ago, providing many opportunities for contrasting attitudes then and 'now' - the most marked contrasts revolve around civil rights, both racial and sexual, with the latter playing a particularly integral role in the plot.
The first in a series, Bootlegger’s Daughter is stronger on character development and scene setting than suspense, and though I didn't guess the murderer early I wasn't as interested in her/his identity as I was in the rest of the story, which includes the unfurling of Deborah's relationship with her father, and the resolution of the election.

I've read Bootlegger's Daughter before, maybe a decade ago, and though I couldn't remember anything at all about the plot (except that the titular daughter was the protagonist) I did have positive associations with it. I'll read the next in the series but not necessarily commit to the ten or so. - Alex

Monday, February 23

Kelley Armstrong: Industrial Magic

Someone is murdering the teenage offspring of the sorcerers’ cabals and it falls to a young witch to find out who and put a stop to the killing. With the help of her sorcerer boyfriend, a pair of werewolves, an egocentric vampire and a haunted necromancer she hunts down the killer, discovers what set him off on his murderous rampage and puts an end to it once and for all.
While not a part of a series in the strictest sense of the word this is the fourth book set in this world and it reintroduces characters from previous stories and continues with threads from earlier books. It was nice to revisit past characters and meet up with new ones that I expect to see more of in future works.
The plot was straightforward but it contained enough twists and action to keep from becoming too predictable. My one complaint is that about three quarters in the story takes a turn for the ridiculous. (I can’t be more specific without spoilers.) I feel that the episode was unnecessary and stretched the bounds of even a fantasy world too far. The story does get back on track but by then I felt its integrity had been compromised. If the scene had to be included I think it would have been better played out by a different character.
For all that I did enjoy Industrial Magic and hope that the plot point in question was an anomaly. I would read more stories set in this universe unless I found the unbelievable became a regular feature.-Lynn

Sunday, February 22

The Science of Science-Fiction Writing - James Gunn

In this generally comprehensive (I'll come to the not comprehensive part shortly), Gunn guides the would-be SF writer first (in "How to Write Fiction") through the history and craft of fiction writing (subdivided into smaller chapters dealing with character development, scene writing, suspense, dialogue, critiquing among others) before looking at science fiction. Much of this would be relevant to any would-be writer, or indeed anyone interested in learning about the structure and mechanics of writing. I always find this a little challenging, being confronted by the fact that the books I enjoy don't effortlessly and seamlessly flow out on to the page. I do, I hasten to add, know this, but I like to avoid the knowledge of this unromantic fact as much as possible.
Gunn's second section, "How to Write Science Fiction," begins with a reflection on the origins of the genre (was the first SF novel Frankenstein or The Time Machine, the Golden Age of Science Fiction etc), an eight page discussion about how to define the term, and extensive chapter on how ideas come to the prepared and inquisitive mind, and an examination of the different kinds of characters prevalent.
The last main, and to my mind least useful, section is about SF writers, with chapters for each of HG Wells, Robert A Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and the partnership of Henry Kuttner and Catherine Moore, who wrote under a variety of nomes de plume in the forties and fifties. Each author section explores the era, the author's history, their writing beginnings and their greatest works, and their impact on the genre.
I've read all of the featured authors bar Kuttner/Moore, which might be why I was disenchanted with Gunn's rhapsodical (and by far most exhaustive) raves for their work. This last chapter reads like a pared down version of a lovingly-researched thesis, and I don't think it helps budding authors at all - the Golden Age is well over.
There is very little acknowledgement, apart from the obligatory William Gibson reference, to more contemporary writing, even though the book was only published eight years ago, and often times Gunn refers to authors with an expectation that the reader is already familiar with their work. I kept thinking about some of my favourite genre authors who aren't even obliquely refereced, and I'm startled by the complete absence of women from Gunn's discussion.
Which brings me to my biggest issue with The Science of Science Fiction Writing - the intent of the book and its target audience. My library have it shelved as an 808.3, writers' resources, in with a bunch of how to guides and literary riffs. But it doesn't necessarily tell the beginner reader how to write SF, as opposed to, say, Will Write for Shoes, Cathy Yardley's how to write chick lit text I recently reviewed.
Nor is it a history of the genre, and it most certainly is not about the science of science fiction, a topic far better covered in books like The Physics of Star Trek, Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics (which I haven't read but think sounds fabulous), or The Science of Star Wars. I think I expected the approach, taking in these books and similar ones (like The Philosophy of the Simpsons or Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld) of marrying an aspect of pop culture with a (soft or hard) science analysis, but Gunn hasn't looked at the science aspect at all - the science fiction writing advice doesn't even mention making sure your science is feasible, concentrating instead on other, unquestionably important, aspects of writing. That's fine, but in that case call your book How to Write Science Fiction - your audience will find you far more easily, and those expecting something different won't be taken aback.
There's a small final section which suggests a program (based, I strongly suspect, on Gunn's own teaching course), using chapters of his book as reading guides.
It was interesting, and I'm glad I read this erudite contribution from an author I haven't previously read (but whose work sounds interesting), but it was nothing like I expected. I can't tell if my issue with the text was that it actually is flawed, or if it was a result of the dissonance between expectation and reality. As I renewed the book twice, picking it up and putting it down multiple times, I suspect the the latter but can't be sure. - Alex

Friday, February 20

The Devil Inside – Jenna Black

Morgan Kingsley knows all she needs to about demons – raised in a Spirit Society family, her parents support the willing hosting by humans of demons, and thanks to their non-stop brain-washing her once-beloved brother Andrew is ridden by one. Morgan’s greatest fear is being taken over by one, and she works as an exorcist to free those poor devils unwillingly possessed. It may be legal to volunteer to host a demon but if they take you over unwillingly they will be exorcised, resulting in the death of the demon and, unfortunately, destroying the mind of the host four times out of five.
When Morgan’s called to Topeka to read the aura of a child believed to be possessed and, if necessary, exorcise the possessing demon, she’s far from eager. The city is far from her usual stomping ground, and her fears that cops unfamiliar with standard precautions are guarding the child host prove to be well founded – the freed demon tries to enter Morgan’s body. She wakes in a holding cell but for some reason was not possessed by the rogue demon. When she discovers that this is because she’s already hosting a demon, one more powerful than any she’s even heard of, everything Morgan thinks she knows about demonkind is blown away.
The first in a series, The Devil Inside combines well-crafted world building with a convincing plot and a strong, albeit significantly flawed protagonist. This is not to say that it’s an unqualified success, and for me Morgan raised the greatest issues. Not only does she frequently act or speak without considering the consequences, thereby endangering herself and others, her multiple unconsidered issues began to grate after a while. They’re all linked to her pathological fear of being powerless: there is no room in her mind for anyone voluntarily choosing to host a demon, and despite protestations from those who do host she cannot believe that this may be a connection the hosts value and find rewarding.
Without going into any plot spoiling, two central characters have a very strong BD/Ds/SM relationship that involves bullwhips, among other disciplinary tools. Despite being powerfully sexually aroused by both the idea of two men together and the (wholly consensual) scenes, Morgan flat out doesn’t approve. That said, I found the sex scenes jarring; there’s nothing particularly graphic, I just found them… unnecessary, or just plain too much, and, not being usually averse to pornography, I don’t know why.
I would have appreciated learning a little more about Morgan’s upbringing, particularly what made her not only so morbidly afraid of being powerless but also what determined that her attitudes would be so antithetical to those of the rest of her family. Perhaps we’ll see more of this in the sequel, which I’ll definitely being hunting out. Because, despite the predominantly critical tone of my review, I found Black’s world, the power struggles (demonic and human), and Morgan’s character compelling. – Alex

Thursday, February 19

After-Death Communication – Emma Heathcote-James

Some people who have experienced the death of someone close have vivid dreams about them; sense the strong presence of the dead person (or pet); smell a distinctive scent; or see butterflies or other creatures. In this book Heathcote-Jones, apparently a journalist, whose previous books include Seeing Angels, Psychic Pets, and They Walk Among Us, (sao you know what you're getting yourself into) has collected dozens or more of these experiences, which some believe are deliberate messages of comfort from beyond the grave, also known as After Death Communications (ADCs)
Heathcote-Jones has separated them into thematic groups that include: visions at the point of death (either a vision experienced by the dying person, or a visitation from the dying person to a relative unaware the person is dying); dreams (or “sleep-state ADCs” that are categorised as being extraordinarily vivid); symbols (like butterflies and wind) and signs (like stopped clocks); non-visual senses (scents, auditory communications, strokes or embraces), among others.
Apparently most of the people who experience ADCs feel comforted and at peace as a result of their message, and if that helps them in the grieving process it’s all to the good. That said, apparently somewhere between one in five and one in seven experiences are negative but underreported. There are, sadly, none of these more interesting stories compiled in After-Death Communications.
This is not an academic investigation, in that there is no critical analysis of these communications, merely a reporting of both the stories and of the Guggenheim After-Death Communication Project (a group I was heretofore unaware of). In her introduction Heathcote-Jones states that she has not had an experience like this herself, but was captured by the concept when she first heard of it, and felt compelled to bring this information to a wider audience. According to Heathcote-Jones “a shift is taking place... that is taking us away from science being the be all and end all, and into a more spiritual dimension. Anthropologically speaking, we have developed through differing eras – one of magic, followed by religion, then science… I would argue that, here and now, we are in the process of leaving the scientific era and heading toward a more spiritual outlook.”
Wow. Science didn’t get very long.
I’m not denying that the bereaved may have these experiences, and I certainly can’t categorically deny that the dead decide to visit some people, but I’m highly sceptical that these experiences aren’t a combination of wishful thinking and coincidence. Certainly people are more likely to be visited by dead pets if they rank their relationship with the pet as equal to or higher than other members of their family. My position is strengthened by never (in almost twenty years of being present while people are dying) seeing anyone reaching for loved ones not present, or talking to invisible persons who’ve already passed over, or being relieved by peace moments before death. Perhaps I’m just envious that none of the over a dozen people I’ve known well in my personal live have ever decided to send me a sign.
Or maybe they have and I just haven’t realised that thinking of someone around the anniversary of their death, or seeing a small host of butterflies, or having an olfactory memory unexpectedly waft by “is” a sign. But I have equally strong thoughts of people who are alive, have very vivid dreams that are unrelated to anything or anyone dead or dying, and get gustatory and olfactory ‘wafts’ that are unrelated to anyone dead.
Heathcote-Jones closes with a list of positive benefits of ADCs, all directed toward relieving the grief experienced by the bereaved person – expressing emotions, accepting death, “establishing a new relationship with the deceased loved one,” creating new rituals etc. There isn’t any discussion about what benefit there may be for the 14 – 20% (perhaps more, if they’re so underreported) people whose ADCs are unpleasant. Maybe I should be glad my dead loved ones have left me alone. - Alex

Wednesday, February 18

The Thieves of Ostia – Caroline Lawrence

Flavia is the young daughter of a sea captain in Ostia, a Roman seaport. Always good at finding things, her search for a missing signet ring (taken, she deduces, by a magpie) leads Flavia to meet some extraordinary people – Jewish neighbour Jonathan (who, along with his physician father and older sister, are some of Rome’s first Christians), African slave girl Nubia, and a mute beggar named Lupus. Together they solve an even bigger mystery, the first in a series of adventures set in varying parts of Rome’s empire.
I’ve long been partial to this era, the result of five years of Latin studies at school, and Lawrence combines historical detail with a gripping plot, well developed and clearly distinguished characters, convincing sense of place, and a little unobtrusive education about a time very different from our own. Flavia is na├»ve but quick-witted and kind, and though it would have been nice to have some sense that she wasn’t a complete loner before meeting Jonathan, she is a fairly well rounded creation.
I bought the sequel, The Secrets of Vesuvius, (not realising at the time that it was not only part of a series but also not the first) several years ago, and am delighted not only to have found the first but also to have so thoroughly enjoyed it. - Alex

Tuesday, February 17

Nathan Burrage: Fivefold

A group of friends out hiking stumble across the ruins of a thirteen century cathedral. After exploring the site they suddenly start to manifest unusual gifts-and find themselves the subjects of unwanted supernatural attention. Confused about what is happening to them, they seek out the only group who seem to have any answers-the mysterious and secret Order of the Brightening Dawn.
They soon come to understand that the future direction of human development will rely upon the choices they make both individually and as a group. They must put aside their petty grievances and long held alliances in order to hold together for the good of mankind. Easier said than done when supernatural forces are holding back nothing in their efforts to split the group asunder and reclaim the earth from humanity.
Conspiracy theories, angels, demons, secret sects: this book had the potential to be a real page turner. Instead it turned out to be a combination of the The Da Vinci Code and The Celestine Prophesy, with all the credibility and literary merit as those two works.
After a sparkling prologue the main story settles down with a much more mundane style. Large info dumps slowed the pace several times. The equal emphasis given to all characters made for only the most superficial development of any of them, leaving it difficult for the reader to identify with any one. The frequent point of view shifts (almost every chapter is told from the perspective of a different character) gave the story a cobbled together feeling.
There is a decent story hidden in this book but it is presented in a stilted and amateurish manner worthy of an early draft rather than a published piece. This debut novel took on a premise the author does not yet have the skill to execute. It was only the promise made by the outstanding quality of the prologue that kept me reading until the end.
This author can write. I can’t help but lament the loss of the book this could have been if the editors had insisted the rest of the story came up to the mark set by the prologue.
Publishers please note: sometimes a book isn’t ready for print no matter how good its potential or how hot its topic at the time. This was, unfortunately, one of those books.-Lynn

Sunday, February 15

Freedom's Price - Suzanne Brockmann

American journalist Liam Bartlett came close to death on the island of San Salustiano - investigating corruption among the nations military, once his identity was known the collective power of the armed forces were united against him. He only survived because Marisala Bolivar hid him in the jungle for six months, tending his wounds and keeping him safe. He hid his attraction to her because of her youth, and he's still haunted by nightmares from the agonising and torturous time he and Mara endured when they were finally discovered.
Mara has been looking forward to escaping the protective care of her uncle for years - she thought that going to college in America would allow her a measure of freedom, but when she discovers that her uncle's asked Liam to watch out for her she's incensed. She was attracted to him five years ago, when their close proximity forced an intimacy she'd not known before or since, but Liam still sees her as a child, not as the autonomous woman she is.
So, it's a romance. And normally I'm a bit fan of Brockmann's work, but this slender novella lacks much of the oomph of her more (and justifiably) well known military romance novels. The obstacles to their love rely too heavily on their not communicating honestly or knowing and trusting each other well enough, things that I find not only irritating but also that interfere with my feeling that they belong together, which makes the relationship artificial to me.
A re-release, Freedom's Price was initially published in 1998, which may go some way to explaining its uncharacteristic lack of punch. - Alex

Friday, February 13

Wedding Season - Katie Fforde

Sarah Strafford doesn't believe in love, which is somewhat unexpected in a wedding planner. She is, however, creative, organised, and connected to a wide range of useful contacts. When an upper class country wedding goes off perfectly she's contacted by an American movie star (or at least by her assistant) - the current hot young thing wants Sarah to organise her upcoming and highly secret nuptials. This is a gig that will sky-rocket Sarah's profile and pretty much guarantee her success in the field, provided she can pull it off.
There are only two small hitches - Carrie Condy's getting marries in two months, rather than the year or more this kind of event would usually need to set everything up (where on earth will Sarah find a picturesque English country chapel on such short notice?), and it's the same day as Sarah's baby sister's wedding. And there's no chance of changing Lily's dates - she's pregnant and wants to tie the know as soon as possible. Can Sarah pull off too simultaneous, short-notice, important weddings, and maybe find love along the way?
Of course she can, because this is chick lit. It is also a really good example of the genre - the romance is not coerced, the stumbling blocks are understandable (particularly in light of the heroine's character) and unforced, and the secondary plots - which include the two weddings, Sarah's relationships with the various members of her eccentric family, and the development of her friends careers in step with her own - are absorbing.
Unfortunately I read this a couple of weeks before reviewing it, and so I can't be more detailed than that, but I always enjoy Fforde's writing and this was particularly good, If you're after something light but absorbing, with a guaranteed happy ending, this is the book for you. - Alex

Thursday, February 12

Ten Days to Zero - Bernard Ashley

Ben Maddox is a journalist who could be embroiled in the biggest case of his fledgling career, tracking down the truth behind a diplomat's planned eviction from Britain to his banana republic African homeland (where, he claims, he is certain to be killed). In the meantime a kidnapping is planned at a private girls' school where the Princess Royal is scheduled to view a play.
A combination of straight narrative and 'found sources' - memos, secret service run sheets, tape transcripts, TV reviewers' columns, official police forms and the like, which I found getting in the way of the story and with my connection with the protagonist.
I also found the target genre surprising - Ben's 24 and grappling with some fairly esoteric issues and big picture politics, as well as issues about employment and journalistic ethics. But according to the publisher recommendation the audience is aged 9+ which I'm thinking is a little young.
This is the first in what I believe is a trilogy but I just didn't connect with at all - the characters weren't particularly well developed, the conflicts lacked tension, and the plot didn't grip me in the slightest. I did finish Ten Days to Zero but mostly because I feel bad having so many unfinished books so early in the year. Eh, eh, and eh again - Alex

Wednesday, February 11

I Married an Earthling - Alvin Orloff

Norvex 7, an Earth Studies professor from the evolved planet Zeeron, wants to make a point. His planet is benevolent and prioritises outrageous fashion - hairdressing and fashion design are particularly prestigious professions, the more innovative the better. Earth's television broadcasts have been received on Zeeron for a few years, and have heavily influenced the common sense of what is and is not hot - enormous flares, massive Afro's, hugely platformed shoes and glittery makeup are the coolest things in fashion. When fashionistas at a cocktail party disparage the tastes of Earthlings, Norvex decides he'll go there himself and prove them all wrong.
Chester Julian struggles every day with the mundane, straight world around him. If it weren't for his best friend Daphne he wouldn't be able to make it through the day at all - being gay and a goth and having incredibly better sensibilities than those around him make him a target for the small minded peasants he has to daily confront at school.
I liked the premise, particularly the idea of an Earth Studies anthropologist. Leaving aside the predictable, but nonetheless annoying, view that nowhere on earth exists except for the US, many aspects of I Married an Earthling irritated me - the book was a triumph of alleged style over any substance, the characters poorly developed, and the dialogue unrealistic. This was compounded by a threadbare plot and a lack of any kind of real insight into either a wholly different culture, a first contact situation, or a strong romantic relationship at the heart of the novel.
Perhaps I was expecting too much science fiction, where there was none, but this interesting idea could have been so much better and more interestingly executed by a stronger writer. Eh, eh, eh - Alex

Tuesday, February 10

City of Bones - Cassandra Clare

When Clary Fray's attention is caught by a gorgeous looking guy at the all ages night club Pandemonium she's intrigued. When he follows an equally gorgeous, willowy brunette into a store room she's unsurprised, and when she notices two young men clad in black surrepticiously stalk the couple she's indignant. Clary asks her closest friend Simon, who's come to Pandemonium with her even though he hates trance, to talk with security, and she goes to investigate. Surprisingly the strangest thing isn't that the two men and the girl join forces to kill the gorgeous guy, but that she can see it - Alex, Jace and Isabelle are Shadowhunters. Also known as Nephilim, a race that may be the product of angels and humans, they are supernatural warriors who fight demons and share the Shadow World with Downworlders like werewolves, vampires and faeries.
This is the first of a planned trilogy, subtitled The Immortal Instruments - each novel deals with one of the tools integral to the Shadowhunters. In City of Bones Clary discovers that the Nephilim were ideologically split in two fifteen years earlier, when a charismatic and intelligent Shadowhunter, Valentine, tried to wrest the Mortal Cup from the control of the Clave, the Shadow Hunters' ruling body. By coincidence Valentine was man married to Clary's mother at the time.
Worried that the Shadow Hunters were losing ground against the demons, and believing they should also fight the Downworlders, Valentine wanted to use the Cup to create more Nephilim. When humans (or Mundies) drink from it they become Nephilim, or at least the 10% of those who survive the experience intact do. The rest become Forsaken, zombies loyal to those who created them. For many of the Nephilim this was too high a cost, but Valentine believed the cause was great enough to risk the lives of (potentially) thousands of Mundies.
This is an ambitious and absorbing debut novel that combines elements of a number of paranormal/supernatural/urban fantasy novels, that has themes and archetypes that reminded me of both the Harry Potter and Star Wars universes, while creating something unique and readable.
The protagonist is likeable and believable, and the supporting characters are strongly drawn. The plot is convoluted but not unduly so, fast-paced and gripping, and the world building/background is well integrated into the text. There's a little lightness, some inspired moments, and the tangled relationships between the teens (Alexc and sister Isabelle, Isabelle and Simon, Simon and Clary, Clary and Jace, Jace and parabatai [closer than brothers] Alec) are convincing.Though City of Bones is satisfactorily resolved, there are enough loose ends to be followed up that I'm eager to read the sequel, and frustrated that the final book has not yet been released. - Alex

Monday, February 9

Barbara Michaels: Someone in the House

An academic is invited to spend the summer at a friend and colleague’s house where the two of them hope to finish a text they have been collaborating on.
But the atmosphere at the isolated gothic manor is not conductive to work. Days of tennis, swimming and house parties are followed by evenings of needlepoint, crosswords and novels. At first the academic believes her change in interests is a factor of the summer holidays and her growing romantic interest in her host a product of their relaxed time together. But she soon begins to suspect that there is a more sinister force at work behind the changes in her personality.
Convinced that the house is haunted she teams up with the other house guests-her host’s aunt and her friend-and the local vicar to set the spirits to rest. This is achieved with ease but the academic still finds herself unsettled. It is only when her host proposes to her that she comes to understand what is happening.
The house itself is sentient and is ensuring its own survival by forcing contentment upon all its inhabitants.
She escapes back to her old life, regains her personality and counts herself lucky to have escaped.
I’ve been undecided about Barbara Michaels’s work. Of the two other works of hers I’ve read one was terrible, the other, quite good, so this book was a bit of a decider for me.
Sadly it contained many of the elements that I didn’t like in work I’d previously read. Particularly an absentee boyfriend that is introduced only to be more or less ignored for the rest of the book, and more detail about character’s pets than strictly necessary. The female characters were the type of humourless Feminists that were already going the way of the dinosaurs when this book was written but they were an even match for the male characters who were patronizing at best, if not completely misogynistic.
Having said that when in form, this author can deliver a great sense of place and a good story. But for me the inconsistent, uneven writing was too great a cost for the rare payoff of a good passage.
For me this book falls somewhere between the previous two Michaels I have read. Not awful but not great either. From my experience Michaels writing is mediocre at best. I’m glad I gave it a chance but I see no reason to try this author again.-Lynn

Sunday, February 8

Winter - John Marsden

At the age of sixteen Winter De Salis has returned to her childhood home, the country property of Warriewood. She has been living with relatives since her parents died in a car accident when she was a small child, and now the feelings she has had, of absence and loss and being forcebly kept from what is hers, are abating. As she settles into the house memories begin to return, and as she roams the property she discovers corruption and mismanagement. More importantly, she learns that the story she's been told about her parents isn't entirely true, and she learns an unspeakable secret.
Reminiscent in its style (though not content) to Daphne De Maurier's Rebecca, Winter's story unfolds gently, with well-placed touches of not quite Had I But Known. Winter herself is a somewhat unsympathetic protagonist, not unlike Mary, the protagonist of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Though not petulant and sulky like Mary, Winter sounds like she wouldn't have been much fun to raise, and she seems to lack any number of basic interpersonal skills. That said she's quite likeable, which is quite a trick to pull off.
I prefer Marsden's similarly-structured novel Checkers (which I found really powerful on the first reading), and his more substantial works (like the Tomorrow series) to Winter but I'm not unhappy I read it. - Alex

Saturday, February 7

The General - Robert Muchamore

Just outside Las Vegas lies the world's biggest armed forces training camp and, for the first time, the US Army wants to include the CHERUB unit as part of the enemy combatant force, mixing with paid students and members of the public. What the US Army don't know is that the Cherubs (lead by an anti-US Ukrainian instructor) don't play by the rules...
Unfortunately I've only just realised that I started but didn't finish this review, and it's now a couple of months since I read The General so all I can say is that I enjoyed the plot and charachterisation but remember very little about specific details.
Up next for Muchamore is a 40's era novel about the formation of CHERUB, which I think will be both interesting in its own right and also a diverting change of pace. Wathc this spot - Alex

Friday, February 6

Christopher Moore: Bloodsucking Fiends

When a woman is attacked in an alley and wakes up a vampire she soon learns that her new lifestyle will require daylight support. To this end she employs a wannabe writer and grocery store night clerk to be her daytime errand boy. The two form a relationship and spend their time between testing out the limits of her new powers and trying to find the vampire who bit her so that they can kill him and, theoretically, return her to normal.
But when they do find the vampire in question their plan to kill him goes awry when the grocery store clerk and his colleges decide to steal his vast horde of treasure before blowing him up. The woman then steps in to save the vampire. He is, after all, the only one who can explain to her the how’s and why’s of her new life.
Once she discovers all she needs to know she shares her knowledge with her boyfriend and they incapacitate the old vampire with plans for a very long happy ever after.
A strange combination of horror, romance and mystery told with a humorous edge, this book really stood out as something completely different in the current explosion of the vampire stories.
I found the humour often laugh out loud funny. The characters’ behaviour seems both reasonable and believable, the more insane they acted, the easier it was to accept, and even identify with, them.
I would absolutely love to see this book translated to film. It would definitely be worth the price of admission. -Lynn


To see Alex's review of Bloodsucking Fiends click here

Thursday, February 5

The Game - Diana Wynne Jones

Hayley's an orphan and an only child being brought up by her grandparents. Her grandmother's rule-bound, hates colouring outside the lines, and despairs of Hayley's chaotic hair; her grandfather teaches her a little about the world but is always very busy, and spends half his time either working (which includes fielding calls from the PM's office) or visiting his other family. When Hayley's shipped off to her aunt's in Ireland she's overwhelmed - there are cousins galore and a bewildering array of aunts. When they play the Game, a timed quest for various articles from the mythosphere (the realities of fairytale, fable and folklore), the reign of her feared Uncle Jolyon is threatened.
Like many of Jones' most meaty works, The Game is (obviously) strongly influenced by a rich tapestry of storytelling from almost every European tradition, from Russia's Baba Yaga to the Brothers Grimm, but most heavily of all the legends and mythology of Ancient Greece - the old gods, the Hesperides and Pleiades, and interwoven through them all the culture-crossing golden apples.
Included at the end are a brief discussion of a number of the elements contained in the books (most interesting was a listing of the number of cultures in which golden apples appear), and suggested further novels for young readers.
Unfortunately, The Game is a novel that reads as an outline for a fantastic new world that combines elements of her Eight World/Chrestomanci series and her stand alone mythology novels (Dogsbody, Archer's Goon and Eight Days of Luke also contain transformed mythological figures, with greater characterisation and world building). I'm hoping that The Game is the first of what will be a more developed world, though I'm not sure now Jones could return to the universe now that many of the central tensions have been resolved. - Alex

Wednesday, February 4

Quite Ugly One Morning - Christopher Brookmyre

Jack Parlabane has fled the US and is laying low in his native Scotland. When he wakes, hung over, the smell of fresh vomit is familiar, but he has no memory of creating the source of the smell. A gust of wind locks him out while he investigates and, clad only in a pair of boxers and a grubby t-shirt, Jack decides to get back in through his downstairs neighbour's place. That's when he discovers the source of the odour - his neighbour's dead, his throat cut, two severed fingers stuck up his nose, a tide of vomit washing the floor, and a giant turd on - of all places - the mantelpiece. Which is when a WPC finds him.
I don't want to go too much deeper into the plot, because unravelling its tangled tendrils is part of the enjoyment - through the course of the novel we discover why Jack ran from the US, why he's unhappy to find he's living opposite a cop shop, and why his first thought on being locked out is not to get a locksmith or ask one of the helpful polis to help him but to break and enter. That all runs alongside not only a great mystery that involves the behind-the-scenes machinations of Britain's tortured NHS, but also some great characterisation and dialogue.
With a health care background myself, I particularly liked the scene where Sarah Slaughter, an anaesthetist and the victim's ex-wife, deals with a particularly painful orthopaedic surgeon:
Surgeons chronically misunderstood the role of the anaesthetist. They thought that he, or she, was there in an auxiliary, subservient capacity, to gas the patient and keep the awkward bugger quiet and still why they worked their little miracles. The anaesthetist saw his/her role instead as keeping the patient (a) alive and (b) comfortable while the surgeon did his/her best to ensure otherwise.

There's more, but I'd end up quoting most of the book.
This is Brookmyre's debut novel, and he does a brilliant job of conveying place and sensibility. His work's been criticised for its language and "stomach-turning olfactory and vomitory detail" (reviews are posted on Brookmyre's home site), but I found myself fascinated rather than repelled, albeit glad the book doesn't come with a scratch'n'sniff option. I have already read and reviewed a number of Brookmyre's books, but this is my first in the five (to date) Parlabane novels and it's only through rare discipline (I will make inroads in my own books) that I've not already borrowed the rest of the series from the library. In fact, it's only because they didn't have this first in stock that I haven't already read them. Great fun, absorbing and funny, Brookmyre's a winner. - Alex

Tuesday, February 3

Water Witches - Chris Bohjalian

Scottie Winston, a lawyer/lobbiest for the ski industry in Vermont, is married to a dowser, a gift that runs in the Avery family. Laura's gift is moderate; her sister Patience is one of the strongest dowsers in the country, and believes that Scottie's daughter Miranda has the potential to be even better than her.
In the midst of one of the worst, and most prolonged, droughts Vermont has seen, Scottie is trying hard to pressure local government to allow the ski resort to expand. A long-lasting lack of snow has made the industry resort to snow-making machines and, although the Chittenden river is running lower than every before, he wants to be able to take water in great quantities.
This is an exploration of what happens when careerism and income clash with the ethically right thing to do - in terms of not only the environment and long-term sustainability, but also truth and integrity. These are conflicts I'm particularly interested in from a professional and an academic perspective, and the descriptions of the increasingly dry bush land was particularly resonant because I read it during Victoria's most severe heat wave, just before our devastating fires, and in the seventh year of severe drought across the country.
I have enjoyed many of Bohjalian's works, particularly Midwives but also The Law of Similars and The Buffalo Soldiers. For some reason, though, Water Witches didn't resonate with me. I'm sure part of that, something of a product of the time and place, was Scottie's careless disregard for the ecology of his town. Mostly, though, I think it's because I didn't find the central struggle, of Scottie weighing expediency with conscious, sufficiently compelling. Perhaps I would have enjoyed this more if it had been written by an author from whom I had lower expectations, because it's not a badly written or uninteresting book, it just didn't quite achieve the level of excellence I associate with Bohjalian. - Alex

Monday, February 2

Pam Rosenthal: The Edge of Impropriety

A widowed countess, left impoverished by her husband’s first family, turns to writing popular novels to make ends meet. For publicity purposes she fosters an image, not entirely false, of hedonism that boarders on scandalous. Blackmailed by a former servant who knew her when she was young, wild and trading on her beauty, she must keep her past a secret from society if not to ruin her career.
The release of her latest book coincides with her meeting a retiring scholar and antiquarian with whom, against all odds and expectations, she has a torrid affair. Wanting nothing more than a fling with a mystery lover that will set tongues wagging and sales soaring, she is shocked when her feelings for him take an unpredictable turn (she has never taken a lover for longer than a season before). But if she is to have any hope of winning the love of her current paramour he must not find out about her past.
Discovering the direction of her affections, the blackmailer threatens to tell all, unless she bestows her favours upon him in addition to her monthly cash payments. She can’t go through with the deal and writes a Dear John letter to her lover detailing all of her colourful past and makes plans to run away to the continent before the truth of her history is widely known.
Against a background of break-ins, thefts, and questionable deaths the lovers manage to sift through the many, many obstacles in their paths and accept each other for who they are, not were or might have been. While not expressed a happy ending for the two is heavily implied.
As an historical romance I found this book to be no better, or worse, than others of its kind. Its novelty was in its erotic nature. The premise for the affair was believable, as was the affair itself. In spite of the characters wildly different natures their paring seemed quite natural. The writing was sensual, giving erotic detail tastefully. The plot held its own and was not merely a vehicle for tying together a series of sex scenes.
I would read more of this author’s work should it cross my path.-Lynn

Sunday, February 1

House of Many Ways - Diana Wynne Jones

Charmain Baker mother is always concerned about things not being proper - as a consequence, Charmain has no idea how to cook or clean, but she compensates by throwing herself into books. When her Great Uncle William is taken ill and needs to leave his cottage to be cured by the elves, Charmain is the only one who can caretake in his absence. Emboldened by this semi-independence and responsibility, Charmain writes to the King asking if she can help catalogue his library, something shes's been long to do since she heard he and Princess Hilda were beginning this immense task. She doesn't realise that Great Uncle William is the Royal Wizard Norland, or that the cottage is magical - magic being one of the things her mother considers improper. Fortunately he left helpful directions, triggered when she asks a question (like "how do I get breakfast") aloud.
The arrival of Peter Regis (a very annoying would-be apprentice), the appearance of a small loyal dog (Waif), the acceptance of her offer to the palace, and a number of dastardly royal relatives, combine to make Charmain's house-sitting a far greater adventure than she imagined.
House of Many Ways is something of a sequel to Jones' Howl's Moving Castle (made into an anime film) and Castle in the Air - Howl and Sophie play a part, but the focus is on young Charmian, who comes to learn about herself and about a world she knew little about - with treachery, non-human creatures, magic and Independence. Though undoubtedly richer if read as part of a trilogy, House of Many Ways stands well on its own. It lacks some of the textural depth of Jones's Eight Worlds series, as well as those influenced by folklore and mythology, but is none the less rewarding for that. - Alex