Tuesday, March 31

Keri Arthur: Kissing Sin

The second book in this series picks up pretty much where the first book (Full Moon Rising) left off. Our heroine wakes up naked in an alley and must immediately fight off murderous mutants in order to escape a compound she has no memory of entering.
Through a combination of investigation and slowly returning memory she uncovers a plot to genetically engineer the ultimate supernatural warrior. As a rare natural vampire-werewolf cross her genome could hold the secret to perfecting these creatures, making her the target of a very persistent kidnapper.
She survives a variety of attempts on her life and freedom all whilst participating in a number of wild erotic adventures with an abundance of partners.
The one big complaint I had about the first book in this series (the surplus of unwarranted sex scenes) holds true for this second instalment. Conscious of the eroticizing of the story, I read this book as erotica rather than as dark fantasy thinking the change in perspective would make for a more enjoyable reading experience. Sadly, from an erotica perspective, the sex, though there is plenty of it, really does get monotonous quite quickly. The writing is just not quite hot enough to carry itself as erotica. Just as in real life, in literature, quantity is no substitute for quality.
If we could remove all the extraneous sex scenes (and yes I know it’s all part of who and what she is and we can’t judge her by our human standards but if it’s not moving the plot forward then why is it there?) there’s a good novella hidden in here. A little less sex and a bit more character development (because sex is no substitute for character development) would have gone a long way toward redeeming this book. As it is the story tries to be both dark urban fantasy and erotica and ends up doing neither aspect justice.
I will eventually read the next book in the series, simply because I have it here. I’m not sure how I’ll approach it-certainly not as fantasy or erotica.-Lynn

Monday, March 30

City of Ashes – Cassandra Clare

Clary Fray’s been through a lot – in the space of just weeks she has gone from being the only child of a single mother to discovering a brother (Jace, to whom she’s strongly attracted), a father (Valentine, who tried to bring about mass destruction), and learned that she’s a Shadowhunter. Her mother’s still in a coma, and the threat of her father is unabated but the Clave’s Inquisitor is focused on Jace – her stubborn refusal, grounded in her grief and loss, to accept that Jace is working for the Clave and not for Valentine puts the entire Clave, not to mention the Downworlder population (fey, Children of the Night, Children of the Moon and others), at risk. It falls to Clary and her best friend, mortal Simon, to save them.
I thoroughly enjoyed City of Bones, the first in the Mortal Instruments series, and City of Ashes (which deals with Valentine’s theft of Maellartach, the Mortal Sword with which the Angel drove Adam and Eve out of Eden) is as strong. There’s significant world building, well integrated into the plot, which is complicated but doesn’t stretch disbelief. The dialogue is smooth and (even considering the subject matter) naturalistic, and the paranormal beings are drawn both in harmony with convention and yet wholly unstereotypically.
The series is driven by characterisation and relationships, which are beautifully designed; the sub-plots involving Simon and Clary, Clary and Jace’s mutual but forbidden attraction, and the relationship between Alec and warlock Magnus were particular highlights, but Jace’s relationship with his foster mother, and the slow devolution of Imogen (the Inquisitor), driven by her own unacknowledged bias, are also notable.
City of Ashes is only the second high demand book I’ve borrowed from my library, and I can see why it’s so popular. It’s going to be a long wait for the concluding novel, City of Glass, but I can wait. Just. - Alex

Sunday, March 29

Pagan in Exile - Catherine Jinks

Saladin's army has taken Jerusalem, and the Knights Templar are seeking warriors to mount a new Crusade to reclaim Christianity's holiest city, which is why Lord Roland Roucy de Bram and his squire Pagan Kidrouk have made their way to the south of France and Lord Roland's home.
Though Pagan hasn't a clear picture of what to expect, and Lord Roland speaks seldom of things personal, he assumes that his near-perfect master has sprung from similar majesty. He is appalled and distressed to discover the squalid and depraved existence of the Bram household. The patriarch is an angry, violent, petty man, the elder brother is an unlearned lout, and the other is manipulative (and almost certainly homosexual). To Pagan's shock his master, rather than being the honourable and courageous Lord Roland Roucy de Bam he's come to admire and worship, reverts to his family role, and it seems only an emergency will bring the real Roland back.
Once again Jinks combines strong characterisation, subtle humour, a gripping plot and magnificently-integrated historical detail into a thoroughly satisfying whole. The fate of heretics (loosely defined and essentially comprising anyone who thinks differently than the received orthodoxy) in the time of the One True Church is grippingly portrayed. Just an accusation is enough, and I thought the scene where Roland attributed the reading of a gospel he was unfamiliar with as proof of her hereticism, along with his fumbling attempts to define a heretic to an incredulous Pagan, particularly effective of the incoherent religious fervour of the period.
The subsumation of Roland into his family's dynamic was interesting, and Pagan never fails to delight with his droll internal monologue and outsiders' insights. His horror at both participating in a hunt, and killing a man, are realistic and distressing, and many aspects of his personality are made clear by his distaste and disdain for the squalor and crude cruelty of Roland's family and childhood home. After a couple of unsatisfactory books encountered of late, Pagan in Exile was particularly rewarding. - Alex

Saturday, March 28

Smart vs Pretty - Valerie Frankel

In every sisterhood there's a smart one and a pretty one - the Greenfield girls are no exception. Smart Frank (Francesca) and pretty younger sister Amanda run the family coffee shop together, the only family they have since their parents died. Profits have been in serious decline since Moonburst, a coffee chain, opened next door - even though they sell over-roasted beans that lack the subtle complexity of Barney Greenfield's researched blends. When Clarissa O'Macfarlane enters their world, offering to make over the cafe as part of her marketing/PR course, the sisters agree, and thus is born Romancing the Bean. To get customers in they hit on the idea of a Mr Coffee of the Week - a hot guy to pull in the ladies. But when the first Mr Coffee's murdered, things get complicated.
I quite liked the characterisation and layered nature of the
first novel I read by this author, and had fairly high hopes of Smart vs Pretty, in part because (as a sister) I'm part of the titular dynamic myself.
Unfortunately I just couldn't get into it at all. Neither Frank nor Amanda were particularly interesting or dynamic, the enigmatic Clarissa O'Macfarlane (seriously? Because 'Mc/Mac' means 'son of' and 'O' means 'grandson of' but they're not used together) is too much of a cypher, and I just didn't get into the plot at all.
As this is my second unfinished book in a week, maybe I'm just going through a particularly critical period, but I suspect it's more likely that I made a couple of dud selections at the library. My disappointment with Smart vs Pretty doesn't wholly counter-balance the positive impression I was left with after reading Frankel's The Not-So-Perfect Man so I'll give her another go, but only one. - Alex

Thursday, March 26

Katherine Neville: The Eight

For centuries the nuns of Montglane Abbey have protected a mystical chess set said to have belonged to Charlemagne, the pieces of which contain a code that if deciphered offers its possessor unlimited power.
With France set on an inevitable path toward revolution and a number of dangerous players seeking the mythical set and the power it can endow them with, the Abbess fears for the safety of the pieces. She removes them from their hiding place and disperses them around the world in the care of her displaced nuns.
But nothing can stay hidden forever and centuries later a young woman dragged unwittingly into the dangerous hunt for and protection of the chess pieces finds herself in possession of the key to the puzzle encoded in the chess set.
Having deduced the answer to the timeless puzzle, she must decide what to do with her newfound knowledge. She and her supporters decide against using the power only they could wield-for now.
A twist on the old grail quest theme, this story is told from both an historical perspective (beginning in 1793) and a modern-ish perspective (encompassing most of 1973).
Several things irritated me to the point of almost giving up on the story a number of times. The biggest issues I had revolved around pivotal plot points upon which the premise was based.
It is never really satisfactorily explained why the chess set must be moved in the first instance. It has remained hidden where it is for centuries-there is no substantial reason to believe that it won’t remain so. It is its removal that brings its existence out of the realm of myth and into that of reality. I am able to believe that a paranoid abbess might panic and exhume the set but I then ask myself why she doesn’t then destroy it if it is as dangerous as everyone is led to believe.
If the chess set is indestructible (and at no time is this suggested as the case) then why are the pieces sent abroad to places where it is conceivable that they will eventually be found (churches, palaces etc)? Why are the pieces not dropped into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean or tossed into an active volcano or something else that would protect humanity from them for a considerable time to come?
Another thing that is never satisfactorily explained is who limits the number of hunters to 32 and calls people into the hunt/game to replace those that die? Why is this real life chess game not over when the king dies? Continuing the hunt for the sake of it I can understand but keeping within the constraints of a game seems singularly pointless in the real world. And we are supposed to believe that this takes place in the real world.
And that’s just the plot.
Then there’s the writing itself.
Poor character development, flimsy motivation, wooden dialogue, unlikable heroine, unbelievable romantic interest and constant historical name dropping do nothing to enhance a plot built on shaky ground already. I’d give more detail as to the things I had problems with but I might risk going on for more than the 700 pages the book did.
The Eight certainly weighed heavily on the cons but I did finish it. I’m still not sure why. Obviously for all it’s faults it must have had something going for it. Though damned if I could tell you what.
If you think you can suspend disbelief for the duration, are not too fussy about plot cohesion and explanation and can put up with a lot of mediocre writing then the story is possibly worth the effort. For me it just scrapped through-but one more reference to an historical figure’s obsession with this chess set and it would have been a wall banger.-Lynn

Wednesday, March 25

They're Only Human - James Grieve

While Susie and her mother travel through France they're both shocked when a bull fighting exhibition ends in the prolonged deaths of two Spanish bulls. When Susie meets up with Boris, a boy who was also at the event, she's attracted to him but she's also attracted to her French teacher, Mr Laramour. Mr Laramour is a strong support of animal rights, which causes particular conflict for Susie, the daughter of a scientist who uses animals in her experiments.
I was attracted to the premise, and the questions raised on the back cover (including "Is it better to be a dead mouse or a dead baby?" "Is cruelty to animals worse than cruelty to human beings?" and "Do animal lovers really like people?" among others) - they're presumably addressed in the book, and are interesting ethical questions about which great philosophers are still in conflict.
However, I found the writing style impossible to work through. Stolid and leaden, I couldn't make it as far as page thirty, which is a shame because the reviewer on Amazon seems to agree with Pam Macintyre (whoever she is), who thought They're Only Animals was wonderfully droll... satirical... patterned as colourfully and intricately as a mosaic
There's apparently a sexual relationship between Susie (who's fourteen, though I had no idea of this from the portion I read to) and her adult teacher, who also leads his students into acts of increasing violence and cruelty. Sorry I missed it, but revisiting the novel just long enough to remind myself while writing this review was enough labour. - Alex

Monday, March 23

Pagan’s Crusade – Catherine Jinks

There aren’t many options available for orphan boys living in Jerusalem in the 12th century – when Pagan runs away from the monastery that raised him since he was abandoned on its doorstep as a newborn, he lives by his wits on the streets for several years, before joining the Crusade as squire to Templar Knight Sir Roland Roucy de Bam.
Jinks has done a magnificent job with this, the first is a series. Not only is the setting extraordinarily vivid, artfully laden with well-researched and well-integrated details, but the character of Pagan is magnificent. His wry internal dialogue, veering strongly toward the sarcastic, is genuinely funny, his observations of the world and events around his piquant, and his modesty combined with hero worship of Lord Roland is endearing.
I admit to being a little thrown by Pagan’s frequent curse of Christ in a cream cheese sauce (was cream cheese popular then?), but his careless blasphemy in the midst of great piety (often coupled, particularly in the case of pilgrims, with great stupidity) is beautifully contrast, and the rarity of his learning subtley highlighted. This is a series I look froward to completing with joy. - Alex.

Sunday, March 22

The Mystery of Breathing - Perri Klass

Neonatologist Maggie Claymore is devoted to her career, to the saving of the youngest and most innocent of lives. Her life is orderly and controlled - she rotates between the clinical service and research, her marriage (to Dan, a doctor she met when they were both medical students) is sound despite their inability to conceive, and they share their home with her best friend Sarah (a medical school drop out) and her two-year-old daughter Penelope.
Maggie likes her life, a far cry from her impoverished childhood to single mother Annalisa. When she receives an anonymous letter that breathlessly accuses her of falsifying information and being dangerous, it comes out of left field. Unable to dismiss it but equally unable to report it, Maggie begins to suspect those around her. As the harassment escalates the author takes up more and more of her time, affecting the way she speaks to people and her concern about the way she's perceived. Then posters start to go up, and the hospital hires an investigator, but the campaign is beginning to affect Maggie in ways neither she nor her nemesis could have predicted.
This could have been a taut, Joy-Fieldesque suspense novel, but Klass (a pediatrician and medical writer) has gone a more literary route. The text combines flash-backs to Maggie's childhood, the occasional flash-forward of (presumably) Maggie's future, and from about two thirds in, scenes from her harasser's perspective, including his/her underlying motivation (very little of which has anything to do with Maggie herself and much to do with what she represents).
The medical details are strong and decisive, even to someone with a health care background, with enough detail to convince without belabouring the point; they're so well integrated that it's clear this is the environment of the author rather than information researched for verisimilitude. The contrast in learning interest between medical students (will this be on the exam?) and interns (will this be something that could help me save a patient's life?) is one such example, and she accurately recreates an insider's perspective of hospital life.
Klass has a sure and decisive writing style that suits her protagonist, and which reminded me somewhat of Chris Bohjalian, though some of that may be the female-medical-provider-under-pressure context.
There are odd light moments from time to time (like the aside that, though Sarah dropped out, their medical school "
sticking by its unofficial motto, Hard to Get In, Impossible to Get Out, did not let her go; they told her that she was on an extended leave of absence, and when the time was right, she could of course come back and finish.
Klass has all too clearly attended mandatory team building workshops where creating Necklaces of Need and Stockings of Support have robbed her of time better spent doing actually useful work - having been there, too, I was impatient as Maggie for those scenes to be over!

Mostly, though, The Mystery of Breathing is humourless and literary. This is not to say that it wasn't compelling or interesting, and I found her analyses of hospital politics, particularly neonatal conflicts (and rules, like the inevitable failure to thrive of multimillion dollar IVF babies versus the irrepressible survival of the unwanted products of casual flings by drug-using minors) were enlightening.
The Mystery of Breathing is a gendered novel - it's no coincidence that both the protagonist and the investigator are women, and the reader is left wondering how the hospital administration would have reacted to a male doctor being similarly harassed. Though, as the perpetrator shies away from acknowledging (but Klass draws out), the preoccupation of women with how they're perceived, of needing to be liked and seen as nice, plays a significant role:
[her tormentor] wouldn't bother sending [ male doctor] the messages that [s/he] was quite sure had helped unhinge Maggie.. would not have been able to explain [the] sense that [he] would be at most mildly perturbed by letters telling him everyone hated him and no one trusted him as a doctor. [He] might be irritated, but on some very profound level, would not give a real big flying fuck
(I apologise for the bracketing, but on the off-chance you read it, the slow reveal of the identity of the poison pen writer significantly ads to the suspense).
I was both involved in, and felt separate from The Mystery of Breathing, and am not sure whether or not I like it, which is always an annoying position in which to find oneself. I certainly found the ending unsatisfying, unsatisfactory and a little disjointed, but that's how you know it's literature. I have another of Klass's novels at home, and though I'll wait a while before tackling the next there's no question that I'll do so before it's due back at the library. - Alex

Friday, March 20

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

‘Outlier’ is a statistical term that refers to data that falls outside the general standard deviation of a bell curve, the remarkably different from the norm. Subtitled The Story of Success, Outliers explores what underpins success - why do some people achieve so much more than most? We think we know, that it comes down to a combination of hard work, perserverence and intelligence, but are we right?
Gladwell takes a different individual or population success story in each chapter, from Bill Gates to Canada’s ice hockey teams, from the superiority of Asian students in maths to South Korea’s once-shocking crash record. He uses these cases to illustrate different aspects that contribute to success or, in the Korean example, failure. While hard work, perserverence and intelligence certainly play a part, Gladwell's central thesis is that luck and timing play a substantial but unacknowledged role.
His first chapter looks at an anomalous US population, the long-lived community of Roseto, where the usual killers like cancer and heart disease rarely occur despite no significant difference in diet or exercise between that and similar communities with more typical health and illness patterns. The key difference seems to be the sense of community and connectedness that Roseto brought from italy and has managed to keep.

In other chapters Gladwell looks at confluence of events and timing, the lasting effect of birth date of sporting success, the legacy of different agriculture techniques on the development of cultural norms, and how heirarchy and tact can have devastating outcomes if not modified for different environments.
Gladwell is able to draw together a seemingly disparate collection of research fields into a cohesive whole, which I find intimidating and inspiring.I have found his previous works accessable, illuminating and coherent, and Outliers is no exception. - Alex

Thursday, March 19

Island in the Sea of Time – SM Stirling

The first hint Marion Alston, captain of the Coast Guard training windjammer Eagle, had that something’s wrong is when the magnetic card compass started spinning. St Elmo’s fire began darting along the Eagle’s rigging, and then filled the night sky with lightening. When weird bright light, like no electric storm seen before, filled the night sky over Nantucket its residents were shaken but not afraid. Not, that is, until they woke to a world without television, radio or satellites. A world, in fact, where the modern population of humanity has shrunk to just over 7,000. Somehow Nantucket and a circle of water around the island, including the Eagle and her crew, have been transported in time to 1250 BC and there’s no way home.
Written earlier than, but set in the same universe as Dies the Fire, Island in the Sea of Time is the first in a companion trilogy. Though superficially quite different - they have modern technology and knowledge but all around them is underdeveloped – many of the same fundamental issues are the same. These include balancing immediate and long-term survival (the more labour pulled from tilling fields and fishing the less food there is, but neglecting research and development increases workload); managing internal disagreements and schisms; defence against hostile external forces; and building a strong community. The response to adversity includes new pair bonding and a poulation jump (as in Dies the Fire), and brings out the central aspects of character, both good and bad.
I thought some of the overly generous trading, and some of the innocence (like bringing a wily Tartessian trader back from Britain to Nantucket) a little unconvincing, and the consequences foreseeable, though not necessarily predictable. The composition of the population, heavy with convenient historians, was a mite convenient – of all of history to be familiar with, a strong cultural knowledge of the time and place they arrived at, including the folklore of a tribe that left almost no trace in the 20th century – but that’s a relatively minor quibble. I also would have liked a map – the combination of original (versus contemporary) place names with being unfamiliar with Nantucket’s location, let alone its position relative to other countries, meant that I was quite often lost regarding specifically where they were.
In general, though, I enjoyed Island in the Sea of Time. The characterisation was vivid, the scenario both fresh and involving, and the plot moved briskly. I found the reaction of varying groups particularly interesting – the rational leaders, who made plans to maximise outcomes for the groups as a whole; the irrational religious leader, who declared the move to the era before Christ as the work of Satan, and how this was contrasted with more logical religious heads; the dastardly, who plotted in their own long-term best interests; and the hippy dippy eco-romantics, whose attempts as being as one with the native populations were something less than a success.
I think I probably need to take a bit of a break from Stirling, whose novels are dense and thought provoking, but I’ll be continuing with both series once I have a breather. - Alex

Wednesday, March 18

My Voice Will Go With You - Sidney Rosen (ed)

Milton Erickson was a psychotherapist who used stories as an integral part of both teaching and conducting therapy. The stories often seemed spontaneous and unrelated to the problem at hand, but were in reality carefully constructed therapeutic tools.
Subtitled The Teaching Tales of Milton Erickson, in My Voice Will Go With You Ericksonian acolyte Rosen has gathered some of his most well known and pivotal case studies and stories. Rosen contextualises each section or story, and suggest reason why each one is effective, or how is demonstrates Ericksonian theory, providing insight Erickson's process - a proponent of neurolingusitic programming (NLP) and hypnotherapy, Erickson used metaphor and indirect suggestions to influence his patients' outcomes, emphasising rapid therapeutic change in a comparatively short period of time.
The language he used was key, and Erickson utilised individual facts about his patients (from their backgrounds, beliefs, history, habits and the metaphors they themselves used) to tailor his approach to the individual - he believed that the unconscious was always alert and, provided there was resonance with what was said, hypnotic suggestions could cause therapeutic change even without the patient having any conscious knowledge that a suggestion had been made. Rosen notes that the written word is a poor substitute for the full effect of hearing Erickson speak, as cadence and tempo significantly influence the impact of his words.
Though I had heard of Erickson, I had no idea of anything about him beyond the fact that he was a therapist. I read My Voice Will Go With You because my mother recommended it, and had no particular expectation of the book. I was fascinated by the concept and the execution, and the key idea of Erickson's that prescribing problem behaviour can diminish its power. There are two examples of this that stayed with me - the first was when Erickson's (then school-aged) daughter told him that everyone else at school bit their nails and she needed to do the same. Erickson told her she could easily catch up if she bit her nails for fifteen minutes every hour, making the activity a chore that she decided not to do. The second story involved a patient who cycled her weight between a hundred and a hundred and eighty pounds - she came to Erickson to keep the weight off permanently, and he told her to gain weight until she was two hundred pounds, insisting she reach this target even when she was only two pounds away from the weight he set. In a similar story a woman who could never stick to her diet for more than three weeks was told that she had to binge on the twenty-first day of a diet, then start anew on the twenty-second day, turning her previous (problem) behaviour into compliance.
My Voice Will Go With You is the first book in many years that I have wanted to re-read as soon as I finished it. This was partly because the stories and the concept are powerful, partly because I'm using narrative as a methodology in my research, and significantly because I feel differently about a number of aspects of my life (including weight, activity and food) since finishing the book. I most certainly didn't expect to reap a therapeutic change just from reading the text, and it's still early days, but it's a very interesting effect. I'm also intrigued by Erickson and suspect I'll be reading more, so watch this page. - Alex

Tuesday, March 17

The Snow Tiger - Desmond Bagley

When Ian Ballard's grandfather sends him to Christchurch, he knows he'll be heading into trouble - he hasn't been back to the small mining town of Hukahoronui since he was a child, not long after his grandfather sold land (but not the mineral rights) to a local family, then used the Ballard corporation to mine the land. Concerned by the changed wrought on the landscape, and fearful of avalanches, Ian sends for a geologist friend he met while skiing in Switzerland. Mike McGill expresses concern as soon as he enters Huka, and the men try to warn the town but to no avail.
The format of The Snow Tiger is something of a departure for Bagley - following a prologue that sets up Ballard and McGill's friendship, and gives the reader a taste of avalanche behaviour, he launches straight into the conveneing of an investigative commission, and the novel is told primarily in the form of flashback narrative in response to the hearing. The judge presiding over the investigation has structured testimony chronologically, allowing the story to unfurl from the perspectives of multiple survivors, who report as required. Bagley adds some omniscient details into the flashbacks, which contribute to the shape and depth of the narrative. This is particularly effective in the scenes set after the avalanche, as victims perish and initial survivors try to escape being trapped.

This is my favourite of Bagley's novels, and I've held off rereading it for some time. Like all his work, The Snow Tiger is well researched, and the detail about geology, snow and avalanche behaviour is unobtrusively woven into the text. Surprisingly, knowing almost from the beginning not only that the tragedy will happen despite Ballard's best efforts, and even who some of the victims are, the suspence is successfully maintained throughout the text. This is in part to the combination of tight writing and vivid flashback scenes, and partly due to a secondary plot taking place during the inquest. - Alex

Monday, March 16

Virus on Orbis – PJ Haarsma

When all the adults on the seed ship Renaissance died, it fell to their children to meet the terms of the contract – a year of work on each of Orbis’ rings then freedom. The children, whose entire lives have been spent on board, have little idea what their new lives will be like, but Johnny Turnbull (JT to his friends) has high hopes for both himself and his mute sister Ketheria. He’s also looking forward to getting away from Switzer, a boy who has bullied him all his life and who never believed he could communicate with Mother, the ship’s computer, with his mind. He doesn’t anticipate discovering that he’s a softwire, a natural computer-communicator who can access any terminal merely be standing beside it, the first known human with that ability. And JT has no idea that, within days of arriving on Orbis’ outermost ring, he’ll be charged with trying to crash the Orbis mastercomputer, nor that he’s the only one who can save it from a destructive virus – a virus in the form of a young girl.
Virus on Orbis is a little convoluted but highly rewarding. Its main characters, both human and alien, are compelling and JT in particular is well drawn. The environment is unique, and the abruopt transition from familiar to wholly alien is strongly portrayed. Highlights for me were the descriptions of the isolation cells, the relationship between JT and Ketheria and between JT and Max (a friend from the Renaissance), and the character development of both Weegin, their alien master, and Switzer. - Alex

Sunday, March 15

Dancing on Knives – Jenny Pausacker

Wrenched from Sydney and her friends in the aftermath of her father ending his marriage to live with the Slut, Rochelle has to adjust to living in Melbourne with her mother, who doesn’t want to talk about him or anything much except her new social work course. Rochelle’s already going to be a couple of days late for the first day at her new school, and when her tram reaches the private girls’ school something makes her turn around and explore the city instead. Her mother’s too absorbed in her own classes to even shop for food, let alone ask Rochelle anything more than the most generic questions about school, her mobile’s broken, and her best friends back home haven’t even written to see how she is. So Rochelle takes a holiday and browses the funky shops of Smith and Brunswick streets, then gets a part-time job at a fairy tale bookshop. As she learns more about mythology and folklore, and discovers that there’s a tale that fits everyone she meets, Rochelle starts to make sense of her new life. Until that, too, starts to fall apart.
Dancing on Knives is told a little as a fairytale itself - each section opens with a scene and a new notebook, through which Rochelle’s story unfurls. The title comes from the original version of the Little Mermaid, which she learns is significantly different that the Disney film, though its significance isn’t clear to Rochelle until the end. In the meantime she begins to discover who she is in her own right, and what she wants.
This is a rewarding coming of age tale that beautiful combines a rich background of myth, folk and fairy tale with a contemporary setting. The Melbourne details are real and vibrant without being obvious, and I thought Rochelle was a convincing character whose journey was absorbing and interesting. - Alex

Saturday, March 14

From Dead to Worse – Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse is back, her love life as complicated as ever and the paranormal world around her no simpler. Still reeling from the double blows of Hurricane Katrina and the death of the Vampire Queen of New Orleans, a power struggle among the vampires of Louisiana threatens the entire community, none more so than those under the protection of Eric. As Sookie's boyfriend Quinn recuperates in Bon Temps, Sookie once again has to fight her competing suitors and juggle an increasingly complex number of negotiations both natural and supernatural. And, as if that weren't enough, her heretofore unknown great-grandfather reveals information about her heritage that complicates things even further.
The great strength of the Stackhouse series is Sookie - her strength of character and integrity drive the novels, her relationships and friendships (particularly the Eric/Bill/Sookie triangle, and her increasingly vile brother Jason, who does not come out of From Dead to Worse at all well) provide pace alongside the action, and what Janet from Dear Author calls Sookie's "insider-outsider dynamic" provides a lot of her relatibility. All these elements are present in From Dead to Worse, along with lashings of action, but the never-ending attractiveness of Sookie to Every Straight Man around is a little too much and doesn't significantly abate, while the ramping up of supernatural drama is getting more intense with every instalment.
I enjoyed From Dead to Worse, but am relieved that I was able to borrow a copy rather than buying it, and don't foresee any desire to re-read it in the future. I'll no doubt read the next in the series, but with a little less avidity that I did the first few, and certainly with less excitment than I did the first few in the series. - Alex

Friday, March 13

One Coffee With - Margaret Maron

Sigrid Harald is a detective, like her dead father, but as one of the few women in a male-dominated field she has to tread carefully. When a university professor is murdered with a cup of poisoned coffee Sigrid has an unprecedented opportunity, but working out who poisoned the coffee, and why, is far from easy.
This is the first in a series and, first published in 1982, has not aged particularly well. This in itself wouldn’t be so much of a problem in the writing was more polished or the plot less straight forward, but in the absence of either of these attributes One Coffee With was flat and disappointing, particularly because I’ve enjoyed other of Maron’s works previously. However, the characters were well drawn, the portrayal of academic life was interesting, and there was a lot of ground work laid for the series as a whole.
While some authors put their best work into their first novels, others become more accomplished with practice. In hopes that this is the case here, I’ll try the next Harald novel, but with caution. - Alex

Thursday, March 12

Dies the Fire - SM Stirling

At 6:15PM on March 17th, 1998, an electromagnetic pulse of unknown origin knocked out every modern technology - planes fell from the skies, car engines cut out, electrical sub-stations stopped working, telephone services went down, and the electronic age ended in an instant. Whatever, or whoever, caused the Change also changed the laws of nature - gunpowder no longer explodes, rending firearms useless, and steam can no longer power an engine. The authors of the Change are unknown, their motives similarly mysterious, and for those who survive the struggle to stay alive is considerably more pressing than determining their identities.
Dies the Fire follows the fates of two groups of survivors in the first year after the Change - former marine-turned-pilot Michael Havel, and Wiccan High Priestess Juniper Mackenzie. Though very different in style and in followers, both protagonists have similar aims - to settle in a safe, arable part of Oregon and create a civilised, well-defender community. But as the country is stalked by plague, cannibals, and gangs of marauding criminals who use might to enslave and destroy communities. In Portland a history professor has taken control and created a neo-feudal system with him at the top.
One clear theme throughout the book (which is both the first in a series and a companion work to another Stirling trilogy ) is the effect leadership has on its community. Though Havel and Juniper have the same intent, the communities they develop are substantially different in style - Havel's is militaristic, with strong discipline and an emphasis on all able-bodied members contributing to protection and armed defence. Juniper's Celtic heritage, the source of her Wiccan faith, leads her to adopt an extended family approach that stresses long term maintenance of education and provisions. Similar to both groups is moral fortitude and a recognition that changing times mean changing what is and is not acceptable.
The exploration of how well nations as a whole and individuals would survive the sudden loss of so much we take for granted is thought-provoking and well crafted. There is strong recognition of the role that members of unappreciated groups - like creative anachronism societies, farmers and historians - would play in this new world.
The detail is meticulous, from the (many) fight scenes to the impact of day to day life. I often felt hungry while reading Dies the Fire, and found myself eating carrots and other fresh fruit and vegetables (and longing for newly baked bread), in sync with Juniper's cravings. I also found myself appreciating being able, despite Victoria's water restrictions, to take a shower in water that I didn't have to heat myself.
I liked that my expectation that these two would unite and create a pair bond was not (exactly) met, and found this typical of how Stirling manages to eschew predictability. I felt profoundly irritated by the one Australian representative:
That you in the Ned Kelly suit, Eric-me-lad?... Who're you cobbers? S'truth, it's good to see yer! C'mon in and have a heart starter - we're a bit short of tucker, but there's some neck oil left.
but he mercifully left the scene shortly thereafter; and I could have done without the lengthy extracts from songs and poems, and the heavy sprinkling of Celtic sayings that permeate the text, but was involved enough in the tale that despite its length (almost 500 pages) I'm heading straight back to the library for both book two and the first in the companion series. - Alex

The Emberverse novels of the change:
Dies the Fire
2. The Protector's War
3. A Meeting at Corvallis
4. The Sunrise Lands
The Scourge of God
The Sword of the Lady
7. The High King of Montival

Wednesday, March 11

A Cry From the Dark - Robert Barnard

Bettina Whitelaw left the small town of Bundaroo behind her when she migrated to England. Now a well-known and well respected author, those childhood years seem almost as far away as the little Australian town itself. But when Bettina decides to write her memoirs, in third person but recognisably history down to the names and places, she discovers that events of the past echo through to the present.
I usually enjoy Barnard's writing, but several things about A Cry From the Dark disrupted my usual absorption. The first, I think, was the style - chapters of current events are interleaved with chapters of Whitelaw's memoirs. I'm usually fine with flashbacks but there was something about her style that really grated, and though I tried I was unable to work out precisely what it was. I also didn't like the slow unveiling of the event that precipitated her abrupt departure from Bundaroo, initially to Sydney and then to London - we know from early on that she was sexually assaulted but the details are only slowly revealed - for some reason I found this unnecessary and irritating rather than suspense-building.
I also found myself bridling at the neo-Colonial attitude harboured toward Australia by Whitelaw (and, I suspect, Barnard - who, according to his author bio, taught English here at some stage). Which brings me to the heart of my discontent - I really didn't like her at all. I was captured by the suspense, and I wasn't shocked by the last-minute revelation that was supposed to turn the whole plot in its head.
I've read perhaps a dozen of Barnard's works, so this isn't enough to put me off, but I think that in future I'll stick to those novels set in the British isles. - Alex

Tuesday, March 10

My Best Friend Has Issues - Laura Marney

Alison, Scottish and friendless, has moved to Barcelona to change her life. Still recovering from a severe bout of glandular fever that not only left her organs vulnerable but also caused a dramatic and attractive weight loss, Alison casts the events around her as imaginary postcards to her former 'best' friends, who are lumpen, hateful, and trapped in dead-end lives back home in Cumbernauld, near Glasgow.
Alison hopes for glamour, and an end to her virginity. When her initial search for accommodation that is neither ludicrously expensive or disgustingly filthy is aborted by the discovery of a blood-covered body on a flight of stairs, Alison flees, certain (for some unknown reason) that she'll be charged with the murder of a man she'd never met. Rescued by American heiress Chloe, Alison discovers a very different life - Chloe allows her to stay, rent-free, is generous with her possessions, and asks only that Alison water maria (her colony of dope plants) and tend to her dog Gita (and her eight new puppies).
Leaving aside the medical inaccuracies (long-term liver impairment is not a complication of mononucleosis/Epstein-Barr virus/glandular fever, a fact easily checked), My Best Friend Has Issues is a very odd book. The cover portrays not only a pair of tanned legs with ankle floaties and high heels against a blue-skies-and-green-water backdrop, but also the tag line "If you suffer from giggle incontinence, beware!" I grant you this is something on a par with 'romp' as an indicator that no humour lies within, and in that I was not betrayed. However I think I could be forgiven for believing that My Best Friend Has Issues was at least a fairly light hearted holiday read.
It's not, though it's hard to say what it actually is, as Marney seems unsure about her target genre. Certainly not light (or any) comedy, chick lit or romance, there are elements of coming of age (that don't come off), an interesting but half-hearted revenge, shades of SWF in the unequal and increasingly bizarre relationship between the women, and a really unexpected, disjointed and shocking (not in a positive way) epilogue that made no sense to me at all. The epilogue reverses several aspects of both Alison and Chloe but, unlike well-crafted twists, there was no 'a-ha!' moment wherein puzzling pieces fell in to place. I found no hint of the twist in the preceding novel, and it served merely to add to my dissatisfaction with the novel as a whole.
And if you think I'm being too harsh, try this sample from the text on for size:
Weeks ago, resisting the temptation to invite the buck-toothed Frank into my hospital bed, I'd decided that the first man I slept with would be gorgeous and sexy. Was Ewan a worthy recipient of my favours? The criterion, like my gloriously intact hymen, was tight.

Need I say more? - Alex

Monday, March 9

The Not-So-Perfect Man - Valerie Frankel

Frieda, the recently widowed mother of four-year-old Justin, runs a gallery and supplements her income with Gregg's insurance policy. Glued to one another for the nine years they were together, after a marriage filled with love, laughter and great sex, Frieda knows he can never be replaced - all she needs to do is convince her meddling sisters that she's happier alone. Then she meets an out-of-work actor, and though the sex is hot and the rapport strong, her sisters are less thrilled by his youth (only twenty-five!) and lack of continuous employment.
Her older sister Ilene has her perfect life together - slender, organised, profoundly content with her life and her marriage, all Ilene wants is for her sisters to share her happiness. The only flaw is her husband Peter's perpetual insistence of remaining overweight - it's unhealthy and unattractive, and she's sure he's doing it on purpose. It's the centre of every meal, argument, and attempt at sex (it's hardly Ilene's fault that her husband's naked body repels her).
Youngest sister Betty is fat, bitter and shy. Never comfortable with men, none more so than those she's attracted to, her response to any overture is attack. That is until her colleague Gert forces her to charm Earl, a dashing free lancer whose the hottest thing Betty's seen in a long time. He actually seems attracted to her, and Betty blooms, but Earl's not all he appears.
I could relate to Betty, but found Peter the most interesting character. Frankel has a gift for naturalistic dialogue, and her inter-familial dynamics rang true for me (also one of three sisters). I liked that the women were all flawed but strong, and their foibles were consistent with the way the rest of their characters were drawn. The ending was a little too pat, but other than that I thought The Not-So-Perfect Man (though Men would have been more accurate), light, fun and interesting, with a little more depth than the typical froth. I'll try another Frankel work again soon. - Alex

Sunday, March 8

The Agony of Alice - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Alice McKinley is on the verge of adolescence but, with only an older brother and her father, she's a little short of guidance. She hopes to get the lovely Miss Cole as her teacher, a born substitute mother if ever there was one, but instead winds up with lumpy, bumpy Mrs Plotkin, who makes all her students keep a journal. Angry, frustrated, and constantly embarassed by all the backward progress she's making, Alice is hostile and rude to Mrs Plotkin, while adoring Miss Cole from afar. The funny thing is, though, that as the year progresses Miss Cole seems to be a little shallow and mean, while Mrs Plotkin seems to become nicer and more approachable...
The Agony of Alice is the first in an ongoing series (which apparently goes on to tackle fairly substantial issues), and is a little light-weight to start with. I was reminded throughout of the Katie Nash trilogy, which had a similar scenario but carried it off with a little more weight and accomplishment. I think I'll probably try another Alice book down the track, but not for a while. - Alex

Saturday, March 7

Something Blue - Emily Giffin

Darcy Rhone used to have it all - thinner and prettier than Rachel, her best-friend-forever, Darcy was engaged to Dex - gorgeous, wealthy and successful, Dex was everything she ever wanted in a boyfriend. So when, only weeks before the wedding, Dex breaks off the engagement (Darcy Rhone is always the dumper, never the dumped), Darcy's shocked. When Darcy dashes to Rachel's apartment for the comfort and self-esteem inflation she's relied on all her life, she's devastated to discover not only Dex's watch by Rachel's bedside but the semi-clothed person of her (only just) former fiancé in her best friend's closet.
Okay, fine, so she'd also been having a little fling with Dex's best man, Marcus, who she knew Rachel was interested in, and had just discovered she was pregnant (to Marcus - she and Dex hadn't had a minute to sleep together in over a month, between wedding preparations and her urgent need to spend every minute with Marcus), but Dex didn't know about either event. And her affair in no way mitigates the outraged angst Darcy feels by Rachel's betrayal. Unable to return home to Indiana, and certainly unable to stay in New York (where everyone knew about her humiliation), Darcy flees to London. Prepared to spend her entire pregnancy there, Darcy invites herself to Rachel's friend Ethan's tiny flat 'for a few days.' A writer, Ethan doesn't really like Darcy very much, and he has no time for her game playing or her angst. And, as her pregnancy advances and Darcy finds the real man of her dreams - a Harley Street obstetrician - Darcy finally grows out of her spoilt princess attitude into something more like an adult and mother.
A companion to Rachel's story, Something Borrowed, Something Blue is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying novel that, unlike a recently read disappointment, lives up to its chick lit promise. Like its predecessor, Something Blue has a somewhat too-neat ending, but the plot and the character development more than make up for this. Okay, it's a little predictable, but that can be somewhat comforting (and nobody except Lynn likes a romance where the characters don't end up happily ever after). I felt a special resonance with this novel because it, to a degree, mirrors (without the pregnancy, affair and betrayal) one of my sister's lives. Not too frothy, a nice sense of place, and a satisfying ending - perfect. - Alex

Friday, March 6

The Chronicles of Blarnia - Michael Gerber

When Pete, Sue, Ed and Loo Perversie are sold (well, to be fair, rented) to a scientists for child experimentation they had no idea that they would end up in a fantastic magical land ruled over by the despotic (and huge) Wide Witch, or allow the great Asthma to return and bring Spring with him.
A parody of a dearly-loved classic, the better one knows The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the more the carefully crafted details will resonate. Though it's been a while since I've read the original (and the accompanying six books), I read it at an impressionable age and many times since, with unquestioning eyes. The Chronicles of Blarnia have certainly made the less sublte aspects of Mr Lewis's craft obvious, and Gerber's distortions have a decidedly adult turn that I found amusing but that render it inappropriate for younger readers. Ed, for example, discovers a penchant for truly huge women and is attracted to the vast Wide Witch almost against his will. His distress at discovering that Turkish Delight is neither "some exotic sexual practice" nor particularly delicious mirrors (at least in the latter half) my own disenchantment with the none-chocolate-covered variety at the same age.
I ear-marked about a dozen pages that I intended to quote, covering Gerbers word-play, plot holes in the original, the import followers ascribe to mundane events (in a scene strongly reminiscent of the shoe sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and incorporation of other literary classics (in one scene he manages Alice in Wonderland, A Wrinkle in Time and Harry Potter), among others. However many of them are too lengthy, or too intertwined with the rest of the plot to include.
Parody is difficult to pull off, and even more so when the attempt is sustained. I was so impressed by The Chronicles of Blarnia that I will fish out the Harry Potter parody he wrote (which is lying somewhere in a box of unread books) and try that too. - Alex

Thursday, March 5

Firestarter - Stephen King

In 1969 college student Andy McGee decided to take part in a government-sponsored experiment on campus - he and a group of other students were trialling a drug known as Lot 6. The drug trial itself was frightening - it must have been some kind of acid, because Andy had some really vivid hallucinations, and he felt as though he could communicate telepathically, particularly with Vicky, a young woman he'd been attracted to before the trial began.
Both Andy and Vicky have mild residual effects from the experiment – she has very mild telekinesis and he can push people to do what he wants, though not without a price – the harder he pushes and the less time there is between attempts the more disabling the resulting headache. But Lot Six has more far-reaching effects – their daughter Charlie can start fires at will.
When The Shop moves in Andy grabs his six-year-old and runs, the tortured body of his beloved wife still strapped to a chair in the laundry. Despite his best efforts to keep her save, Andy and Charlie are eventually captured and separated, and some of the most skilled experts try to get Charlie to perform on command. It takes a particularly subtle sociopath, though, to get Charlie to cooperate – tall, broad, one-eyed and scary, John Rainbird is an enforcer who knows that he’ll one day see the light of a spark of awareness as he takes life but it’s so far escaped him. On the proviso that he can kill her when the time comes, Rainbird works his way into Charlie’s confidence.
It must be twenty-five years since I read Firestarter, one of a handful of King novels I read as a teenager, and I’m relieved to report that it’s lost none of its power or strength in that time – I found the characters and the plot as involving as the first time I read it. With rare exceptions (predominantly to do with technology and inflation, plus the occasional ‘can you dig it?’) the novel has survived without dating, which is fairly impressive in itself, and the descriptions are so detailed and compelling that I could almost see the testing room events, snowed-in cabin, and burning barn. I was also interested to discover the source of a few things I’d previously had unattributed, including my knowledge of the Damon experiment (which examined how strongly the prohibitions instilled during toilet training affect us), and my (fortunately resistible) temptation to put my hand into waste disposals while they’re running.
I don’t think I need to revisit the other King books (Carrie, Cujo, Thinner and Christine) I read then, but I’m very pleased I revisited this one, and I suspect I’ll read it again – perhaps even a little sooner than 2034. - Alex

Wednesday, March 4

Robin McKinley: Sunshine

A woman is kidnapped and chained up with a hungry vampire. As part of a battle of wills with their captor he refuses to kill her. In thanks when she discovers latent magical ability that allows her to escape she takes him with her.
When their escape is discovered their captor knows something extraordinary has happened and starts to hunt them down. The vampire turns up on the woman’s doorstep with the news and the two of them band together to destroy their mutual foe and save each others lives.
But vampires and humans are eternal enemies and the woman is conflicted about their developing friendship and her role in saving the life of an unrepentant killer, who may, at any second, decide to kill her. All she wants is a quiet life working in her family’s cafĂ©. Instead events have drawn her to the attention of a government agency set up to monitor all nonhuman species in a post war world, alienated her from her few friends and forced her to confront the dark side of her psyche.
My summation doesn’t even come close to describing what is essentially a rich, modern reworking of Beauty and the Beast.
The story is unapologetically derivative and the pace can be a little slow at times but for all that it is still engaging.
This story’s main strength is its world building. McKinley has produced a reality I can completely believe in. Magical and yet mundane. A place where evil is truly evil and good can be ambiguous. If you’re sick of the vampire as a tortured or misunderstood hero then you’ll love this return to the traditional horror story vampire and be impressed by the author’s ability to make a hero of the monster yet still have him remain essentially a monster.
In the end a number of questions are left unanswered making me think there might be a sequel in the works, or perhaps even a series. If that’s the case I think they would be worth a look.
Not the best book I’ve ever read but head and shoulders above most of the stuff on offer in the horror/ urban fantasy arena at the moment.-Lynn

Tuesday, March 3

Fake ID – Walter Sorrells

Chass and her mother have always been ready to move at short notice. For most of her life Chass thought of it as a game – her mother would pick a town at random and when they arrived they’d head straight to the library to find Chass’s new name - thanks to a Fabio-covered romance novel she became Chastity Pureheart (daughter of Allison) when they hit High Hopes, Alabama three years ago. Despite her pleas Chass was stuck with it - her mom has some very strong ideas about rituals and jinxes, and messing with the name finding would spell doom. Nothing’s more forbidden, though, than music – according to her mother it’s the worst kind of bad luck. Which is hard, because Chass loves to sing, and when she picks up her first guitar it feels more right than anything ever has.
When, at her sixteenth birthday party her friend Ben (the only one there apart from Chass and her mom), Chass not only gets a guitar of her own but her three years of secret lessons are revealed, Chass’s mother leaves. Though Chass knows her mother would never abandon her, Allison doesn’t come back, and then the local sheriff finds a pool of blood and a handful of her mother’s fake IDs (in names Chass never heard of) in an abandoned house. Now Chass only has a few days to keep out of foster care, find her mother, and get to the bottom of the reason why they’ve been on the run.
Fake ID is a nice combination of mystery and coming-of-age novel, as Chass begins to see her mother as a real person in her own right, with her own history. The triggering event (and subsequent pursuit of Chass and Allison) was a little far-fetched, and there’s a slightly stronger reliance on coincidence than I liked, but all in all this isn’t a bad YA novel. - Alex

Monday, March 2

Night Game - Christine Feehan

When Special Forces paranormal squadron member Gator Fortenot is tasked with saving Iris 'Flame' Johnson, another victim of the genetic engineer whose experiments distorted Gator's DNA, he can't resist. Drawn to her and familiar with the way her mind works, he must walk a thin line between confrontation and caution to rescue her from a shadowy stalker, her justifiable fear, and the terrible history that haunts them both.
Or something like that. Clearly not the first in a series, Night Game may have been more comprehensible with a fully fleshed back story. Feehan has certainly made an effort to prompt the memories of those who've paused between installment, because there was a fair bit of exposition in the couple of chapters I read. It's not a subtle or particularly good effort, but credit where it's due, she has at least given a nod to the concept.
I suspect, though, that even if I had started with Shadow Game (or possibly Mind Game, I can't tell from the title list which is first) I'd have found the plotting improbable, the characters unengaging and the writing god-awful. Certainly that was the case with Night Game, which I stopped reading at page 58 - not the end of a chapter, or even at a scene change. I don't even think I read through to the end of a paragraph.
That's right, it was just that bad. I think the final straw, worse even than Flame talking aloud to her (absent) nemesis as she stealthily broke into his safe room, was what passed for flirtatious banter between Gator and Flame. I just couldn't take it. If you can, more power to you. - Alex
PS In searching for a sample page I could link to I found a scribd page - one of the "searches leading to this book" was "aching mound," a phrase that's scarily more prevalent on Google than I had thought. If you want to appreciate Feehan you could check out the writing.com entry (that I explored no further) that contains the line "She had moved her wet aching mound toward George’s face, hoping he would reciprocate but alas he turned away from her." Alas indeed. Aaaaaaand I think that's all I need say, except that yes, Night Game is the third in the series

Sunday, March 1

Firestarter - Catherine Forde

Fifteen-year-old Keith dotes on Annie, his charming, bossy and precocious three-year-old sister. When his mum has to go away for a training week she offers to pay him the going rate to look after her, as their dad's not exactly domesticated (and has to work, anyway). Event hough his two best mates are away Keith jumps at the opportunity to make some money and spend more time with Annie. He didn't count on the arrival of Reece, his widowed elderly neighbour's great-nephew. Reece isn't bad, but he's not quite right, he smells faintly of petrol, and he alternately repels and frightens Keith, while delighting Annie, who calls him Funny Boy.
I don't know what I was expecting from Firestarter, a book I borrowed solely because I planned to borrow the Stephen King book of the same name and found this one when checking the library catalogue. Certainly a more substantial plot, stronger characterisation, and some kind of resolution, but I don't think I had any ideas about the storyline. This is a good thing - the story meanders about, Keith is an uninteresting and wishy-washy narrator, and I finished this YA novella about a damaged teen arsonist wondering who thought it was worth type setting, printing, binding, distributing and selling.
It's always good to have a reminder that taking back-up books with you is almost always a sound policy. - Alex