Thursday, April 30

Madam - Jenny Angell

When Abby graduated college she drifted from job to job until she began work as a receptionist at a brothel. Surprised she discovered that she really enjoyed the work, until her employer (who also rented her space to live) sent a punter down to her wile she was sleeping. Deciding she could run a call out service better than Laura, Abby chose a new name, a new location and a business title. Within a short time Avanti became Boston's premiere escort agency and Peach was known to provide excellent girls with one phone call.
Madam is Peach's story, as told to Angell, a former call girl who worked at Avanti. She's written her own story, an extract of which is included at the end of Madam - Callgirl is by far the superior work. It is coherent and interesting. Madam, on the other hand, is choppy and leaves out details that would enhance the story.
We learn about a variety of problems, like the call girl whose client expired mid act, or the client who decided to withdraw from his sex addiction and asked Peach to cut him off. But then the story ends, leaving this reader at least wondering what happened next. The most annoying of these was Jill - after several months of apparently promising work Peach learned Jill had been intimidating clients into giving her extra things (from tips to tickets to games). The story ends with Peach reassuring the client who finally revealed this to her that Jill would never know it was him who told, and organising a new girl for him. What did she do next? How did Jill react? Did this affect business with other clients? Was it something Jill had done with all if them? We'll never know. I also wanted to know about how Peach paid her taxes (prostitution being illegal in the US), tested new girls, and more about how she kept her public and private personas separate, particularly after becoming pregnant.
I finished the book but was unsatisfied. I should really have known better, as most memoirs in this vein tend to be sold more on their titillation factor than good writing. As I said, Jenny Angell's own story may be more compelling, though it won't reveal much about the day to day running of an escort agency as much as the day to day life of a high end prostitute. I'll keep you posted. - Alex

Wednesday, April 29

The Mercy Rule - Perri Klass

Pediatrician Lucy Weiss works for the state, assessing parents whose children are in foster care. It's work that's close to her heart, because Lucy was brought up in the system herself after her mother died. Her own children are deeply loved and live an upper-middle class lifestyle of soccer lessons and beach side holidays.
Lucy reflects on her upbringing, from her barely remembered parents to the abuse of a foster-sibling, and her eventual adoption, and observes her own parenting. She worries about her children, prickly adolescent Isabel and first grader Freddy (who they're hoping is only very-eccentric-and-very-bright) and her marriage (to Greg, an academic), and she worries about her patients.
The Mercy Rule is a beautiful, sparse slice of life. I'm usually annoyed by novels that lack an arc, but though The Mercy Rule is essentially a sequence of linked vignettes I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience. Freddy is captivating, and Lucy's encounter with a similarly precocious child on a plane trip was particularly well written. The home setting is contrasted with Lucy's professional experiences, particularly those dealing with the mothers she feels bonded to, women whose circumstances will never change despite the support and encouragement Lucy gives.
The narrative third person voice is authentic and crystalline, and the writing is lucid and subtle.I only wish I'd reviewed this a little closer to when I read it, so that my review could be more useful. - Alex

Tuesday, April 28

Honey Trap - Julie Cohen

Sophie Tennant is an ex-bobby turned private investigator. Although she imagined, when she started, that she'd spend her days tracking down missing persons and helping people, her work is predominantly acting as a honey trap - women who suspects their partners of cheating hire her to tempt them. When a case she was already dubious about - she was hired by the woman in question's wealthy father to check out a sleazy fiance - turns sour and Sophie comes within a whisker of being raped, she decides to give up on both investigations and London.
Five years later Sophie's an aromatherapist in a small country town. Her gift for getting people to open up hasn't left her, but those who confide their secrets then feel uncomfortable around her and Sophie's having trouble keeping her business afloat. When washed up rocker Max de Milo hires her for his group's tour of the UK she's delighted. Until she discovers that Dominick Steele, '80s burn out and the first man she ever trapped, has joined the band. She was attracted to him then, despite herself, but could never be involved with a cheater. And Dominick blames her for the dissolution of his marriage, making for a hostile travel environment.
Honey Trap is an interesting and absorbing romance. Sophie's more complicated than the average chick lit heroine, and Cohen combines a mystery with the romance while creating an absorbing larger plot. The novel criss-crosses in time, flashing back to her honey pot experiences between the current plot unfolding, which maintains the tension and allows Sophie and Dominick's characters to be revealed in a more interesting way.
I liked this very much and look forward to reading more of Cohen's work. - Alex

Monday, April 27

How Would You Move Mount Fuji? - William Poundstone

Cumbersomely subtitled Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle - How the World's Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers, this slender tome combines an exploration of the kind of questions now commonly asked at job interviews (designed to assess problem solving skills) with a study of corporate hiring in general and Microsoft’s work culture in particular.
Readers hoping to get a leg up on these questions for upcoming interviews are likely to be disappointed – it’s in the nature of the format that answers are not formulaic, and the specifics are likely to change over time. But if you’re interested in the changing nature of upper level interview theory and practice, problem solving and logic problems, or techniques for improving the way you tackle these kinds of issues you may find *How Would You Move Mt Fuji? more rewarding. Most useful is the process of being confronted by the limitations of your assumptions – one review I read suggested also trying David Perkins’ *Eureka Effect for more on this aspect.
I have to admit that I found this book disappointing, for the most part, and was quite pleased that I borrowed it from my brother-in-law rather than buying it. I am, of course, far from its target audience, and this kind of interview technique is unlikely to ever be used in my industry. I do, however, have an interest in the application of logic and theory to real life scenarios, and an academic interest in sociology. This last is probably why I was most interested in the information Poundstone reveals about experiments run on interviewer evaluation based on first impressions, where there were strong correlations between people who interviewed candidates for a standard period of time, asking traditional questions, and volunteers who watched fifteen second sections of video of the same participants. There’s far less objectivity in play than either participant believes.
It seems likely that puzzle- or problem-based interviews are similarly subjective. The initial issue, of judging interview performance on initial impressions, is not ameliorated, and though the process can seem thoroughly objective, people are very good at rationalisation – if a disliked candidate does well it’s easy to dismiss their performance by assuming they’ve encountered the problem before; a poorly performing candidate may have need some prompting to arrive in the right vicinity but they were only gentle hints. Like other kinds of IQ tests, solving these scenarios is a better indicator of puzzle solving ability than real intelligence or aptitude.
Like it or not, valid or not, however, this kind of testing is becoming increasingly common in a job market that’s getting tighter and more competitive. Like all kinds of intelligence and puzzle solving tests, however, performance improves with practice. If this is an area that you are not particularly strong in, if this is a market in which you’ll be competing, or if you interview poorly despite strong work performance, this may be of some assistance. Just bear in mind that a poor aptitude for this kind of mental work doesn’t reflect on your ability to problem solve in real life cases, or on your intelligence as a whole - Alex

Sunday, April 26

Puzzled to Death - Parnell Hall

Bakerhaven seems like the ideal place to have a charity crossword competition - after all, it's the home to America's best loved crossword creator, Cora Felton. The competition is the brain child of rival creator Harvey Beerbaum, and as the deadline approaches Cora is increasingly concerned that Harvey will unmask her as a fraud - Cora knows nothing about crossword puzzles and the real Puzzle Lady is her niece Sherry. This becomes less important, however, as a series of murders rocks the small Connecticut town - first the unfaithful wife of pool-playing ne'er-do-well, then contestants in Bakerhaven's inaugural (and possibly only) charity fund raiser.
The third in the Puzzle Lady series, I found Puzzled to Death more involving in its characterisation than the plot. While interesting, the mystery was plausible but not particularly captivating. It's peopled, however, by a series of fascinating characters - Cora is delightful, Sherry's attempts at restraining and managing her are still fresh and amusing, and the relationship between Sherry and reporter Aaron is rewarding. A fun and diverting read. - Alex

Saturday, April 25

Pagan's Daughter - Catherine Jinks

Babylonne is accustomed to her life, such as it is - the motherless bastard child of a priest and a heretic, she's been raised by her aunt and grandmother with Cathar beliefs, key among which is that the world is intrinsically evil and a product of Satan. Anything resulting from copulation (including all animals, eggs, and milk) is tainted, and the only way to salvation is being a Perfect. Fish, fortunately, appear spontaneously in the water or there'd be precious little to eat. As the by-product of rape, by a Roman priest no less, Babylonne is the lowest member of their household. Chastised, punished and essentially in servitude, the last straw comes when Babylonne learns she is to be wed to a senile geriatric mortally afraid of the giant olives that bounce around his bed.
She escapes the only family she's ever known to work for the exiled faidit lords who oppose the current regime. Life there could only be better than the miserable existence that awaits her here. By chance she stumbles upon a priest who she'd previously had a run in with, on his way south. The priest is Isidore, last seen in Pagan's Scribe, who recognises her as Pagan Kidrouk's daughter. In mourning for his beloved master, Isidore
Babylonne is considerably more sheltered for her age than either Pagan or Isidore were, and (perhaps because of this or her gender) less intellectual and contemplative. The dynamic that runs through the rest of the series, or a younger acolyte initially dismissing and eventually revering an older father figure, continues, as do the snarky silent asides that made the first four books such a delight.
The key themes of the series - politics, religion, education, friendship, courage, personal growth, persecution, tolerance - are echoed in Pagan's Daughter but are less strongly present than in its predecessors, and some of the passion is absent.
Rather than a failing, though, I found this difference interesting. There's much more emphasis, particularly at the beginning, on upbringing and family, which I think reflects not only Babylonne's markedly different childhood (both Pagan and Isidore were involved with the Church) but her gender.
As with the rest of the series Jinks creates a strong sense of place, seamlessly imbuing the text with historical detail. The siege and crusade scenes are vivid and distressing, and the real presence religion had in the lives of the people and in the sequence of world events (albeit often as a pretext) is confronting for a secular reader in 21st century Australia.
I didn't warm to Babylonne as much as Pagan, who is the true heart of the quintology, but I appreciated the idea of some continuity after the epilogue of Pagan's Scribe. - Alex

Friday, April 24

Tunnel Vision - Sullivan McLeod

At the age of 29, after much travelling, "a lifetime of silly ideas" and the odd bit of stand up, Sully McLeod decided, while in a Norwegian sauna, that he was going to try to make it as a professional surfer. Okay, he was overweight, unfit, broke, and hadn't surfed since he was eleven, but it was an idea.
Subtitled The true story of my probably insane quest to become a professional surfer, Tunnel Vision is the story of the nine months McLeod spent training (mostly drinking) in his home town of Margaret River, funding (persuading a brother to add on to the size of a business loan), and competing (see 'training) in Indonesia, South Africa, England, France Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Hawaii. Along the way he meets a variety of predominantly agreeable people, has almost everything he own stolen (including his boards), and winds up in a detention cell because he entered a country without a visa.
This is a highly entertaining and genuinely interesting tale that made me nostalgic for the misspent, impulsive youth I managed to avoid. The irreverent tone and 'she'll be right' attitude could only be Australian, and I found McLeod's take on his homeland as interesting as his account of the circuit, with the added bonus that it wasn't complicated by surf speak (there's a handy glossary at the back, though). I particularly liked his description of Melbourne as a place where, if you distilled its essence you'd have "a young woman with pink beads in her hair who studies law during the day and karate at night."
There aren't any great insights or life changing events, and this travel book has much in common with others written by young globe trotting men in their twenties, but it was amusing and the quest was absorbing enough that I almost feel bad McLeod won't get anything from my having read it, as I polished off Tunnel Vision in a spare hour or so between meeting a friend for coffee and meeting my parents for dinner. - Alex

Wednesday, April 22

In the Company of Ogres - A Lee Martinez

When Never Dead Ned is transferred to head up Ogre Company, his commanding officers expect his posting to be like all the others – annoying, ultimately inconsequential, and rapidly disposed of. But Ned is more than meets the eye – his sobriquet is something of a misnomer, more like “Never Stay Dead” Ned, thanks to a red witch who for some reasons keeps resurrecting him. More out of boredom than anything else, Ned begins instituting drills, somehow manages to win over his command, including attracting the attentions of both a man-hating Amazon and a sultry but undeniably fishy siren. When Ned discovers the perilousness of mortality his retreat is swiftly followed by his discovery of why the Red Woman kept raising him, and the special role he had to play.
This unique and very readable offering from the author of Gil's All-Fright Diner is charming, absorbing, and quite difficult to summarise. If you like fantasy that stands alone, is laced with humour but not comedic, and is peopled with well-rounded, unique characters combined with strong and engaging plot, Martinez’s work may be for you.

“I know what it’s like to feel sorry for yourself…But life doesn’t always go the way you want. You can either grumble and moan about it, or you can do what you can with what you’re given.”
Ned took another drink. “I think I’ll just stick with grumbling and moaning.”
“Always play to your strengths, I suppose.”
Now that’s something I can relate to – Alex

Tuesday, April 21

Last Puzzle & Testament - Parnell Hall

Cora Felton, everyone's favourite grandmother figure, is America's Puzzle Lady, the creator of a syndicated daily crossword puzzle. Well, more accurately she's the face of the Puzzle Lady - the real title belongs to Cora's niece Sherry Carter, who finds reigning in the irrepressible, crossword-averse, Bloody Mary-loving figurehead more work than creating the puzzles.
When wealthy Emma Hurley dies her will is formulated as a combined puzzle and treasure hunt. Of her long-estranged family only the first to solve the puzzle will inherit her fortune. Emma has stipulated that Cora is the arbiter and ring master of the hunt, but as Sherry 'assists' her aunt she becomes increasingly concerned that all is not as it appears.
And as local reporter, and Sherry's boyfriend, Aaron Grant becomes involved, Sherry's increasingly concerned he'll discover the truth - a truth she wants to tell him but can't. If only she knew he already knows. As if she doesn't have enough to worry about, beautiful and intelligent Becky Baldwin arrives in town - a lawyer, Becky and Aaron know each other, and Becky seems interested in Sherry's man.
My enjoyment of Last Puzzle and Testament was marred a little by the fact that it's the second in the series, and so the reasons for Sherry's secrecy are unknown to me. This did not, however, diminish my investment in Sherry maintaining her secret, which is a skill in itself. Compared to the captivating plot and (more importantly) the interesting characters, this knowledge gap was only a minor irritation. Multiply-married Cora is a delight, and watching Sherry drag her back to the point could in lesser hands been repetitive but Hall makes it tense and interesting every time.
I fear that the crossword angle will become a little Murder She Wrote-esque over a series, but there are half a dozen or more Puzzle Lady novels at the library, one of which I plan on reading this week. - Alex

Monday, April 20

Kim Wilkins: Grimoire

In Victorian London a magician’s quest for eternal life culminates in his summoning of the Devil himself. Angered by the summoning, Satan kills the man and threatens to destroy the world if anyone should try such a thing again.
In modern day Melbourne a group of academics devoted to the Victorian era have found the magician’s grimoire and are secretly trying to recreate his paranormal experiments, unaware of the consequences.
But they are not the only secret society meeting at the College. A group of students devoted to illegally exploring a labyrinth beneath the college uncover both the secret of the grimoire and the potential result of performing the magic it describes.
They steal the grimoire in an attempt to put an end to the experiments and soon find themselves the targets of a ruthless killer.
They escape, barely, but are unable to destroy the grimoire. The experience irreparably alters them and their relationships with each other and the question remains will they be able to protect the secret they have discovered or will the grimoire’s esoteric knowledge prove too much to resist.
A horror story in the gothic tradition, Grimoire, is dark and eerie. The atmosphere is decidedly creepy everywhere it should be and the author gives a sense of place without intruding upon the story.
Explanations as to how such disparate times and places have become linked are solid and believable, something many authors don’t manage to achieve convincingly.
The characters are complex and though a lot of time goes into their development I would like to have seen more of this towards the end of the story when situations change rapidly. I had a slight problem believing some of their behaviour in respect of their supposed ages-they behaved much younger than I would expect but that is a minor quibble.
As expected of a character driven piece the plot is relatively straightforward. Though there were still a few surprise turns there was nothing coming out of left field leaving me bewildered. I must admit that the ending left me a little flat. It felt a bit like the sequal bating endings of bad horror movies and I felt the characters deserved better. I would be disappointed if the grimoire were to feature prominently in a future work.
Overall slow in places but genuinely chilling at other times, this early effort by an author for whom I have high hopes, was a great find and I look forward to reading their more recent works.-Lynn

Saturday, April 18

Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

One long, warm summer between the World Wars, the four Walker children - John, Susan, Titty (!) and Roger - sail on the Amazon, a borrowed dinghy, to Wild Cat Island in the middle of a lake and set up camp. They are shocked to discover another boatload of sailors arriving on theor island and determine to oust the pirates, but in short succession they and Peggy and Nancy Blackett are firm friends.
The first in a well-loved series, Swalloss and Amazons describes an idyllic, relatively parent-free untopian kids adventure. There's a spice of danger mixed with the adventure but no real discomfort.
Redolent of the era, there's nonetheless a relative dearth of sexism - Nancy is captain of the Swallow, and thiough Mother is relegated to being little more that a cardboard cutout the same is true of all the adults except 'Captain Flint' - the Blackett's Uncle James.
A great book for kids in the eight to twelve age group, I also suspect Ransom's work is a nostalgic pleasure for returning adult readers. I've long felt as though this was a book I ought to read, and am glad I finally did, but though it was enjoyable I am well past the age where it would resonate, and don't need to read any more of the series. - Alex

Wednesday, April 15

As Hot as it Was You Ought to Thank Me - Nanci Kincaid

For Berry Jackson Pinetta, Florida is the world - it's the only home she's known, a town where the weather moves from hot to really hot, where snakes and quicksand await the unwary, and where the Methodists and the Baptists compete every Sunday for the most cars in the parking lot and the loudest hymn singing.
Nothing much ever happens in Pinetta, at least as far as Berry can see. Even after a shock revelation about Jewell Longmont (wife of the wealthiest man in town) and the Methodist preacher, Berry's thirteenth summer is fairly uneventful. That is until the tornado that blows half the town away, and - one way or another - takes Berry's daddy away as well.
Kincaid's ability to convey truths to the reader without revealing them to Berry is masterful, and she beautifully conveys a sense of time and place. A great book to read in winter, I imagine the descriptions of the unrelenting heat would make summer reading of As Hot as it Was close to unbearable. The title, incidentally, is her mother Ruth's response when Berry asks her how she could allow Berry to wander around topless as a toddler and small child.
Yet somehow I didn't connect with the book or its characters. While I felt a certain mild interest in discovering what happened to femme fatale Rennie, and to Ford (Berry's school principal father), and was interested in the revelation that all was not as it seemed reguading the affair, it never rose above mild interest.
The novel comes with an annotated list of books Kincaid has found life changing, the reading of which contributed to her ability to write the novel, along with readers' group guidelines. When I discovered these I realised that that was part of what had been bothering me - As Hot as it Was has a foundation of would-be literary classic woven through it. The emphasis on religion and tolerance, acceptance and disapproval, the contrast between Berry and her wider community, the neighbour boy who dresses in his sisters' clothes... it's all there not for the purposes of the story itself but for textual dissection and literarty merit.
I'm not a particularly astute reader, and literary elements often pass over my head. I believe, on reflection, that what bothered me about As Hot as it Was were these additions. Kincaid has tried to create another To Kill a Mockingbird, with a small town female pre-teen protagonist observing events that she doesn't fully understand but sees more clearly than many of the adults around her. I disagree with the jacket reviewer that Harper Lee would claim this novel as her own, but can see where they were coming from. A week after I read it I'm still not sure how I feel about As Hot as it Was You Ought to Thank Me (though I'm happy I won't ever have to type the title again). I was invested and interested enough to finish it, but I had no sense of satisfaction on doing so. - Alex

Tuesday, April 14

Bridesmaids - Jane Costello

At 27, Elvie has never been in love, and doesn't know that she really believes in the idea, at least for her. Her best friend Grace seems to have the real deal, though, and Evie's delighted to be her head bridesmaid, a task that includes wrangling Grace and Ptrick's four year old daughter Polly, and (even harder) wrangling a pair of breast enhancing fillets. It's when the latter have made an unexpected bid for freedom that she first meets Jack, who's not only handsome and interesting, but possibly interested.
For most of its run Bridesmaids is a fairly typical light romance - Evie attends a variety of weddings, her relationship with Jack is plagued by relatively believable hitches, and her career (a budding journalist saddled with the lamest news stories) is important to her life but secondary to the plot. There's the usual 'amusing' hyperbole: "her stress levels have not just been through the ceiling, they've been through three floors, a well-insulated loft and the roof as well." There are a number of allegedly hilarious moments involving the afore-mentioned 'chicken fillets' and a comically large bright blue vibrator among other, though I confess I didn't find Bridesmaids more than mildly amusing.
Over the course of the novel Evie's friendships with the women in her life mature and develop, which is often a key component of the chick lit genre, and it's here that Bridesmaids breaks away from the usual, though not necessarily successfully. There's Valentina, the status-seeking snob who's beautiful and bitchy; Georgia, who's down to earth, generous and wealthy; Grace, who seems to have it all but discovers that marriage is more than a piece of paper; and Charlotte, whose weight dominates every aspect of her life and whose transformation is the most stunning. With encouragement of the whole group Charlotte loses weight through diet and exercise, and in the process blossoms. The only problem is that this blossoming isn't quite as confined as it should be, and once Charlotte becomes the woman she never thought she could be she acts on her long-concealed love for Patrick, sleeping with him and endangering his new marriage to the mother of his children.
In an unusual move, this betrayal isn't neatly wrapped up and resolved by novel's end. Instead Charlotte is neatly excised from the circle, which troubled me both on a friendship level and because of the message I read - fat women can't be trusted to behave appropriately, beware! Beware! Which may be harsh, but readers bring themselves to their reading.
I wouldn't run screaming from Costello's next work but I think there's enough better writing in the genre to keep me occupied without seeking her out. - Alex

Keep Me Alive – Natasha Cooper

Conspiracy theorist Will Applewood is convinced his friend Jamie, an investigative reporter, didn’t commit suicide by truck as a vegan protest against a meat distributing company, but nobody’s interested – the coroner’s given his finding and Jamie’s family (an estranged sister) agree. Mired in a case against one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains, Will is represented by barrister Trish Maguire, the only person Will thinks will listen to his concerns. His business destroyed, his marriage over, living with his increasingly less supportive sister, and still filled with rage over his treatment at the hands of Furbisher’s, Will isn’t as credible as he’d like. But once he’s testified he’s at a loose end waiting for the case to wind up, so he starts investigating on his own. And Trish, forced to miss out on a family holiday to Australia with her partner and half-brother (thanks to the case extending through the summer), has a little more time than usual for windmill tilting. When she then falls victim to food poisoning her interest in tainted meat takes on a personal aspect.
I have thoroughly enjoyed each of the Trish Maguire series, and Keep Me Alive was no exception, though it was (very slightly) marred by my inability to read the series in order – I read this just after Poisoned Mind (see below), which is set four years later, which was a little annoying. However that’s clearly in no way a fault of the novel, which is deft and complicated without being obscure or snapping belief.
The interlocking central themes (involving price cutting, large chains versus small business, profit over safety and quality) are particularly relevant in light of the global economic crisis, and the characterisation is, as always, spectacularly accomplished. One of the joys of following a series is watching the development of the regular characters, and Trish’s growth has been particularly interesting, but in Keep Me Alive I was more strongly attracted to the unsympathetic-despite-himself portrayal of Will, who is more three dimensional than most of Cooper’s non-core characters. Though paranoid, angry and inconsiderate, he has integrity and passion, and welcomed his every appearance. This is a series that continues from strength to strength – my only recommendation, if you chose to embark on it, is to read each book in order. - Alex

Sunday, April 12

Under the Knife - Tess Gerritsen

Anaesthetist Kate Chesne is good at her job, particularly when the patient is someone she knows and likes. When colleague Ellen O'Brien is on the table for routine gallstone surgery Kate doesn't anticipate any particular issues - Ellen's young and in good health, and her pre-op workup was fine. When Ellen arrests on the table Kate is stunned and distressed; when Kate is the subject of litigation she's stunned, and as evidence that she was negligent emerges, Kate becomes convinced that Ellen was murdered.
Under the Knife combined a medico-legal thriller with romance, as Kate and opposing attorney David Ransom find themselves attracted to one another despite themselves. David usually has no sympathy for malpracticing physicians but something about Kate makes him doubt, for the first time in his career, his own case.
I've reviewed two of Gerritsen's books here previously, one of which I found disappointing and uninspired, and one of which I liked. Under the Knife is definitely one of the former - even discounting the turgid poetry on p. 12, there's the uninspired description:
If he had to chose one word to describe Patrick and Mary O'Brien it would be gray. Gray hair, gray faces, gray clothes. Patrick was wearing a dull tweed jacket that had long ago sagged into shapelessness. Mary wore a dress in black-and-white print that seemed to blend together in a dull monochrome.

Not enough for you? How about Kate and David's first meeting:
His cold flippancy, rather than easing her tension, made him seem all the more unapproachable. She forced herself to move toward him, feeling his gaze every step of the way. For a man with his highly regarded reputation, he was younger than she'd expected, not yet in his forties. Establishment was stamped all over his clothes from his gray pinstripe suit to his Yale clip. But a tan that deep and hair that sun-streaked didn't go along with an Ivy League type. He's just a surfer boy all grown up, she thought derisively.
A section as long ago about his physique and facial features ("a slab of a nose and a blunt chin saved him from being pretty") follow.
I couldn't invest in anything - the characters left me cold and the plot just seemed too far a stretch for credulity while being simultaneously predictable. Maybe it's my professional background combined with being a veteran reader of several hundred medical novels, but as soon as the surgeon remarked that Ellen's abdomen was a little tight I knew the sux (paralytic agent) had been substituted.
in truth even the author description (which begins "Tess Gerritsen is an accomplished woman with an interesting history") put me off. Under the Knife reads to me as an unsuccessful attempt to add a medical mystery to a romance novel, rather than adding a level of romantic interest and motivation to a medical thriller. Well, the portion I read did, at any rate. I stopped reading at chapter six and have only now realised that the "and Whistleblower" on the cover refers to a second novella packaged together to make one book-sized tome.
First published in 1990 Under the Knife does not show Gerritsen at anywhere near her best. I strongly recommend that you try a little later in her publishing list if you want to give her work a go. - Alex

Poisoned Mind – Natasha Cooper

Angie Fortwell and her husband John moved from London to an isolated farm two decades ago – between the bed and breakfast (that caters to ramblers), the leasing of land to a chemical waste disposal company, and John’s salary from the company to maintain the underground storage tanks they scrape by but are far from comfortable. When one of the tanks explodes, killing John and contaminating the farm with benzine, rending it uninhabitable, Angie sues.
Trish Maguire takes over as QC when her superior and mentor, Anthony, is unexpectedly hospitalised. It’s her first case, and though nobody expects them to win she takes it seriously. But promotion has its own complications (in the form of a colleague pissed about her promotion ahead of him), and things aren’t exactly quiet on the domestic front (in the form of an unsuitable friend edging his way into her teen half-brother David’s life). At least as pressing is Trish’s certainty that there’s something a little peculiar about Angie’s support team, who are almost stereotypes of ecology champions but who seem, surprisingly, to be backed by an influential lawyer.
I was tempted to write that character development, though robust, takes a back seat to plot in Poisoned Mind, but on reflection that’s not accurate – we learn more about Trish’s history, her partner George’s family, and Anthony. Though Angie and her relationship with her isolating husband and her long-estranged son are explored in some depth, the strongest characterisation involves Jay, a boy from a disrupted and disadvantaged background who befriends David and exposes him to pressures and tensions not previously experienced. All this is woven into a plot that intriguingly twists and turns around themes of management and disposal of waste, profit versus environmental concerns, and family conflict. Satisfying, absorbing and generally excellent - Alex

Saturday, April 11

Book Smart – Jane Mallison

I don’t know what I expected from Book Smart, but given its subtitle (Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days) I imagine it was a shortcut approach to all those books I know I should have read but haven’t. That’s not so far from the mark, less the shortcut aspect.
Mallison has grouped essential titles by category (“Towering Works to Read in Translation,” “”Strong Women, Admirably So and Otherwise,” “Unaccustomed Places, Real and Fancied”) and allocated each collection to a month – her suggestion is that the reader selects one book from each category (making one, I imagine, a tenth of a literary genius by years’ end), but hopes that some will opt instead for an alphabetical, chronological or otherwise themed (female writers, non-English-language authors) reading list.
Each month is introduced and Mallison explains the theme (for example “June is often a time for hitting the road or taking to the air, so it’s an appropriate month for traveling of the mental variety as well”), giving a brief description of each title (“Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim from England in the 1950’s, my all-time favorite, concerns the fortunes of a hapless history professor”). Each title then gets a couple of pages wherein Mallison discusses the plot, the author, the era and the impact of the book. Sometimes she follows this up with a boxed recommended reading section:
Strachey may have changed to some degree the course of biography but the whirligig of time brings its revenges. In 1967 and 1968 Michael Holroyd brought out a hefty (and excellent) two-volume biography of Strachey… its revelations of Strachey’s many same-sex affairs and ribald witticisms shocked readers of its generation much as Strachey’s arch volume has shocked his contemporaries. If you like the Romans, try Lives of the Caesars by Strachey’s first-century model, Suetonius.
Unfortunately I found Mallison’s voice a little condescending and didactic, which interfered with my ability to get involved with the writing. The preface was stuffed with quotations to such an extent that I suspected she’d drawn them from a collection (there are five quotes about books or reading just on page xiii), and in some places I felt as though she were showing off her erudition. The self-congratulatory section on “the joys of being well-read” was particularly annoying. It’s enough to be discussing the book in question (primarily novels but there is also a smattering of biographies, a hefty dose of poetry, and the odd work of non-fiction), many of which I was wholly unfamiliar with, without bringing in other esoteric works.
In fairness, at least some of my displeasure was probably unrelated to the merit of Mallison’s writing and due, instead, to a broader disenchantment related to a combination of disappointing books and external pressures. Though I read a lot, being reminded of my preference for accessible over worthy works probably didn’t help - of the 120 books listed I’d heard of only half (and of the sixteen which I’ve read most were when I was at school). If would probably do me good to work my way through at least some of Mallison’s suggestions, but not just yet. - Alex

Friday, April 10

The Accidental Virgin – Valerie Frankel

32-year-old Stacy Temple is shocked to discover that it’s been almost a year since she’s had sex, particularly when she reads an article by columnist Diva XXX that twelve months without sex makes you a virgin all over again. “Stacy Temple was no virgin. And she would never be again.” With only a week until the revirginization, Stacy is desperate to hook up with someone (anyone!), but as each attempt meets with failure things do not look good.
I really should have known better – the title alone was a tip-off, and the cover blurb (an email to “Stacy, lapsed temptress” from “Venus, Goddess of Love, 120 Main, MI, Olympus” – a character who doesn’t appear in the book) should have set off alarm bells, but no. The writing is a little grating:
Charlie was high frequency… It wasn’t just his physical bearing (tousled blond hair, six-foot six inched of tautness, red lips and otherworldly green eyes) that drew attention. His voice, baritone, bounced, and the words he chose as effortlessly as a fish swims couldn’t be discounted.
But I could have overlooked that as a function of the genre had I been able to buy the premise. The biggest flaw was Stacey’s motivation – side-tracked from her romantic life by her job (for an online lingerie company), her about face based on nothing more than a mention of the concept of revirginization (a term used throughout the novel rather than coined by me) by her platonic male best friend and a couple of columns written by a stranger made no sense at all. This is the second strike for Frankel and despite my enjoyment of the first of her novel I read, I won’t be giving her an opportunity for strike three. - Alex

Thursday, April 9

Rosalind Mile: Isolde

The first book in a trilogy retelling the tale of Isolde and Tristan, this is the story of how they come to meet and fall in love.
When the champions of two courts fight to prevent a war, one kills the other but in the process is stabbed by a poisoned knife. The only known antidote is to be found in the homeland of the defeated knight so the wounded man is disguised by his comrades and sent there to be healed.
He is nursed back to health by the crown princess and by the time he is well again they have developed feelings for each other.
It is then they discover that in a bid for peace her mother has arrange for her marriage to his uncle the king and it is his duty to escort her to him.
Seeing her daughter’s distress at the news and mistaking its cause her mother brews a love potion that will bind the newly weds in an undying love. But the potion is accidentally drunk by the princess and the champion and the two become lovers.
They try to do their duty. She marries as she was promised and he travels from tournament to tournament seeking honour and glory but their love can not be denied and the book ends with the two of them running away together into the night.
This female-centric version of the legend of Tristan and Isolde is a refreshing take on an old tale. The conflict between duty and desire is sharply outlined. The characters are complex creatures of their times. The plot, though familiar, is presented with freshness and just a hint of magic.
The only quibble I had, and it is a very small one, was that I felt the slow pace detracted from the emotional intensity of the story. But that is, as I said, a very small quibble.
I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy-Lynn

Wednesday, April 8

Witch Bank – Catherine Jinks

Heather has learned to be as unobtrusive as possible – that way she’s less likely to attract her tyrannical father’s attention – so she’s not surprised when most people at the bank where she now works tend not to notice her. When her boss suggests that she may actually be able to become invisible at will and, like her, be a witch, Heather is taken aback but rapidly becomes involved with the small coven associated with the bank. All goes well until Heather discovers that, even when she’s deliberately being invisible, a strikingly handsome computer tech can see her – Jasper’s attractive, and seems interested, but shortly after he fixes her computer Heather starts having blackouts. Is Jasper as benign as he seems?
I can’t tell how much of my disenchantment with Witch Bank comes from the dated elements (inevitable when technology plays a significant role in a book nearly fifteen years old) and how much is due to actual flaws in the text. Either way I found myself not particularly invested in the story or the outcome. Unlike Jinks’s Pagan series, Witch Bank lacks wit and humour, and though Heather grows by the end of the novel and I finally able to stand up to her dad, the other characters are significantly less well defined. Jasper in particular remains something of a cipher, which is unfortunate given the pivotal role he plays in plot development. - Alex

Tuesday, April 7

Simply Irresistible - Rachel Gibson

Hockey star John "the Wall" Kowalsky is at his Fortune 500 manager's wedding to a trophy wife out of necessity - you don't cross Virgil Duffy and maintain your career. He was prepared to put in an appearance, but that's about the extent of his involvement - hung over and disinterested, John leaves before the wedding even starts. On his way to the car, a '66 Corvette, he's waylaid by a pretty young thing in a hot pink dress who begs a lift. It's not until they're miles away that he discovers she is the intended trophy wife. If Virgil finds out then John's career is over, and that's not a sacrifice he's prepared to make, no matter how toothsome the ditz might be.
Georgeanne Howard was always more interested in tea parties than math, but when she overheard a doctor telling the grandmother who raised her (after her mother abandoned her at birth without so much as a backward glance) that she has a brain dysfunction, Georgie was determined that no one will over know her secret shame. Instead she'll make the most of her looks and marry well; Virgil looked perfect, but when it came down to it Georgie knows her reluctance was due to more than cold feet. John isn't a suitable substitute - he's arrogant and opinionated, and though he's undeniably hot he drinks all the time. The chemistry between them might be too much to resist, but when John unceremoniously dumps Georgie at the airport with a ticket home she knows she'll never forgive him. Discovering she's pregnant doesn't change that, either.
The combination of romance and sports stars strongly reminded me of Susan Elizabeth Phillips's work, and the style isn't dissimilar either. Georgie recreates herself and becomes an independent success, and John makes changes in his life too, so when they meet again some years later it's not precisely as the same people.
There's an irritating lack of honest communication that, though consistent with the way the characters are drawn, was nonetheless a little too convenient, and I could have done without the comparisons (one character looks and acts like James Dean, another bears "a striking resemblance to Burgess Meredith") but it was fortunately sparse enough to move past.
The most impressible characterisation was Lexie, the daughter Georgeanne has chosen to raise alone - Gibson has done a great job conveying the way little kids think. When, for example, John turns up at Georgeanne's house unannounced, though her mother's warned her not to let strangers into the house Lexie reasons 1) that he's not a stranger because he came to her school, and 2) that he must have come to sign her things because she missed out on that occasion.
I wasn't excited enough by Simply Irresistible to track down the rest of Gibson's oeuvre but I won't run away screaming if I see her, either. - Alex

Monday, April 6

Meg Cabot: Size 12 Is Not Fat

Dumped by her record company for refusing to sing anymore prefabricated songs, left by her fiancé for a rising star rival, and scammed out of her fortune by her own mother, a former teen pop idol is forced to take a job in a college dorm.
With her former brother-in-law to be giving her a place to live and slowly making new friends, she’s beginning to get her life back on track-until the girls in her dorm start to die with alarming frequency.
Officially the deaths are due to elevator surfing but she has suspicions otherwise and sets out to prove that the women have, in fact, been murdered.
She succeeds in uncovering the murderer and their motive but almost loses her life in the process.
This was a fun crime novel in the chick lit style. There is a touch of romance but it takes a back seat to the other action.
The heroine is heard to repeat the title several times throughout the book which I found a little trying, but only a little.This story isn’t a stand out, either positively or negatively. It’s just an easy light-hearted read and doesn’t try to be anything else. And sometimes that’s all you want.-Lynn

Sunday, April 5

Country of the Blind – Christopher Brookmyre

The murders of media tycoon Roland Voss, his wife and two bodyguards in a country manor house owned by the government sent a wave of (tabloid-fuelled) rage throughout England. The manhunt for the four men responsible is fevered; when they escape from a prison van, killing three guards in the process, the press bay for blood.
Only Nicole Carrow, a junior lawyer, believes the men are innocent, based on an envelope she was given by one of them the week before the bunged robbery. It’s only thanks to the conspiratorial instincts of investigative report Jack Parlabane that Nicole escapes a cunning attempt on her life and, working together, Nicole and Jack begin untangling a complicated plot that involves the highest levels of government.
The second in the Parlabane series, Country of the Blind is twisted, involving and quite brilliant. The dialogue snaps, the twists are unpredictable (particularly the two surprising and supremely rewarding occasions when hunter becomes hunted), and the tense pace is ferocious.
Brookmyre’s writing is always inclined toward the political, and Country of the Blind is no exception – set in Major’s Britain there’s a decided leftward lean I related to; the main thrust is grounded in EU reform, with decided distrust of government and big picture ideology and politics. The pivotal plot point was both convoluted and believable.
As with other of his novels, Brookmyre sprinkles humour and realism throughout. I was reminded of my own, eighties era activist past when one character’s recollections of (Thatcherite-era) youthful activism brought back memories of one group falling out with another

“over some minute point of interpreted socialist principle, and the Labour Group got shirty with the Marxist Group about what slogans to put on their placards, and the Intergalactic Socialists for a Marxist Universe started a spat with the Vegan Organic Hamster Protection League…”

It could be possible to overdose of Brookmyre, which is part of the reason why I’m pacing myself. The other is that my library seems not to have the third Parlabane novel and so I’ll have to request it. Strong, clear, funny, clever – if I’m not careful Brookmyre will be my favourite author of the year again. - Alex

Saturday, April 4

Pagan's Scribe - Catherine Jinks

It's some twenty years since we last met Pagan Kidrouk, once squire to a Knight Templar and now Archdeacon of Carcassone. When his scribe Julien is taken ill, Pagan nabs Isidor, parish clerk of Merioc, in his place. Initially stunned and more than a little intimidated, it doesn't take bookish Isidore long to realise his good fiortune - here is a man who also loves books and intellectual pursuits, for all that he is intimidating.
Unfortunately for Isidore, it's 1209 - the year that the Church decided to crusade south, toward Isidore's country, and root out the Cathar heretics. The crusaders are something less than picky about who actually gets killed, provided it's all int he name of religious might and right, and Isidore soon discovers more about the way the world works than he imagined possible.
In the first three books of the Pagan Kidrouk series Pagan's was the voice heard; in Pagan's Scribe the roles are reversed - Pagan is the one intially feared then revered by a younger, intelligent and intellectual man. The key themes of the series - intellect versus instinct, piety versus realism, honour, faith and love - are clearly but subtly articulated, and the historical detail is closely woven into the plot wihtout any of the "I researched this" hallmarks of lesser writers.
Pagan's Scribe concludes with an epilogue that is both satisfying and sad, both because it described the death of Pagan but also because of the revelation of the length of time encompassed by this wave of the crusades. Anyone convinced that military might in the name of religious righteousness is a good would do well to read this engaging and deeply rewarding series. It's so neatly wound up that I was surprised, but also pleased, to learn that there's a fifth book in the series, which I'll undoubtably read any day now. - Alex

Friday, April 3

The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner

Unschooled, brow-beaten by her tyrannical father, and utterly lacking in self esteem, demure but diligent Tess is the perfect bride for Jim. An apparently respectable cop, Jim is a sociopath who not only terrorises his young bride but becomes one of America's most renown serial killers. It was Tess, who documented his unexplained absences, odd scratches and wounds, and the timing of gifts of jewellery, who managed to seal Jim's conviction, a betrayal Jim would never be able to forgive. When Jim escapes from jail his only aim (apart from staying free) is to kill Tess, but she's no longer the ingenue he married. Enlisting the help of JT Dillon, a former marine, Tess is determined that this time she'll fight back.
The underlying theme - powerless wife rises up against her abusive husband and triumphs - is hardly new, but Gardner has managed a quite satisfying twist by jumping (after the initial chapters setting up his character, her subjugation, and their relationship) to the aftermath and then combining the domestic plot with an action-packed crime procedural.
The bulk of in depth characterisation falls on Tess, but reluctant hero JT gets his fair share. The depth and detail of his significant back story made me wonder is he's a recurring character, as I couldn't see any plot-based reason for the amount of minutiae he learn about him, but this wasn't enough to derail the book - the pace is furious, the plot involving, and there are enough twists to keep it interesting.

The Perfect Husband isn't particularly ground-breaking but it's certainly a notch above the average domestic horror offering, and was enough for me to consider specifically searching out more of Gardner's work in the future. - Alex

Thursday, April 2

Pagan's Vows - Catherine Jinks

After Sir Roland renounced the sword (and thus renounced his role as a Knight Templar) he decided to follow the calling he felt since childhood - to serve the Church. His faithful squire Pagan has no choice but to follow him, though the first twelve years of his life delivered more than enough of the monastery for Pagan's tastes - obeying rules he thinks are unnecessarily restrictive, issued by petty tyrants, and nary a glimmer of comfort. Unlike Roland, Pagan is under no illusions that the monastic life attracts only those pure of heart, but even he is shocked by the hypocricy and theft he encounters and which he is determined to unmask, even at the risk of his own life.
The most rewarding aspect of the Pagan series is the voice of Pagan - sly, biting, insightful and free from artifice, it is as clear here as it was in the first two books. His loyalty to and intermittant frustration with Roland are undimmed by exposure, and their relationship is the cornerstone of not only the books but of Pagan's life. The plot is unexpected and involving, by turns humourous and shocking, and I found the ending truly unexpected. I've got the next in the series waiting, and suspect I'll be making way through it quite soon. - Alex