Saturday, May 30

The Protector's War - SM Stirling

Eight years after the Change that removed technology and much of civilisation from the face of the earth, life is slowly achieving some normalcy, at least in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The alliance of the Clan Mackenzie, led by Wiccan Juniper, with Mike Havel's (aka the Bear Lord)Bearkillers has been advantageous for both groups. The only fly in the ointment is the Portland Protective Association, a dictatorship headed by former history professor Norman Arminger, a man who has turned the events of the Change to his advantage. The PPA ignore treaties, make raids, and extort small communities. Juniper and Mike know that war is inevitable but hope to forestall it as long as possible.
In England the Change has been devastating - though better off than most of Europe, the population has been massively diminished, few animals capable of pulling ploughs have survived, and the shock of it has affected the mental state of King Charles the Third. Now married to Queen Hallgerda of Iceland, a woman with plans of her own, Charles has become increasingly eccentric to the point of instability. Once loyal followers Sir Nigel Loring, his son Alleyne and former SAS soldier John Hordle flee England, now enemies of the crown.
The first half of The Protector's War is complex, skipping not only between continents but not strictly chronological. The pace and writing, however, more than make up for any confusion, and the comparisons between the two communities highlight the effects of the Change. There's also an unusual presence of Australians (Tasmanians, in fact) in the UK - fortunately they're not portrayed as broadly ocker as the profoundly irritating Aussie in the first of this Emberverse trilogy, Dies the Fire. Common to that novel, though, are the strong Tolkien presence, clever integration of practical with spiritual, loving descriptions of food (this is not a book to read when hungry), well-researched detail over a wide variety of areas, and strongly drawn fight scenes. This sequel is as compelling as its predecessor - so much so that, having just finished it I'm at the library ready to borrow the final in the trilogy. - 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

Thursday, May 28

Ice Station Zebra - Alaistair MacLean

When a fuel oil fire destroys Drift Ice Station Zebra, a UK meteorological research facility in the Arctic, killing many of the crew and stranding the remainder, the US Navy submarine Dolphin is sent to save the survivors. Much to the commander's displeasure Dr Carpenter, a Brit with expert knowledge of frostbite and other deep cold medical conditions, is thrust upon him. Despite an order for the Chief of Naval Operations instructing him to offer Carpenter every assistance, Captain Swanson is suspicious, and Carpenter reveals that Zebra is a listening post, the first line in detecting a missile attack from Russia.
The remaining plot is convoluted, and detailing it is impossible without revealing key plot points. The first-person narration allows the reader access to knowledge the crew are unaware of, including Carpenter's relationship with the Zebra leader, and the fact that the fire was deliberate. He does not, however, disclose all and the true role he plays, as well as the nature of the ice station, are not revealed until the end.
MacLean is far better known than my favourite action author, Bagley. This is only the second of his works that I've read, and I can't tell how much of my diminished involvement with this (in comparison to my depth of involvement with the Bagley oeuvre) is because Bagley's better and how much is because my enjoyment is coloured by fond and prolonged previous exposure.
I found the journey to the Arctic unnecessarily drawn out, primarily showcasing MacLean's naval experience rather than substantially advancing the plot. The station is variously referred to as "drift ice station," "ice station" and "drift station," for no reason I could see bnut that may be unnecessarily petty, as is my observation that alcohol is usually contraindicated for both cold exposure and shock (a fact Carpenter doesn't seem aware of).
Published in 1963, the novel is necessarily dated - not just because of technological changes and Cold War mentality but also because of changes in word use like "to-day" and "damn'" (to indicate that it's a contraction of 'damned').
This may make it sounds as though I didn't enjoy Ice Station Zebra; despite these flaws, and though I suspected the villain from the start, the twists and turns kept my interest, the plot was involving, and the narrator was enigmatic and engaging. I doubt I've found an adequate replacement for the redoubtable Bagley but I'll give MacLean another go. - Alex

Monday, May 25

Sandra Schwab: Castle of the Wolf

Rather than accept the status of poor relation in her brother’s house and tolerate the whims of his shrewish wife, a young woman decides to accept the terms of her father’s will that enable her to escape this dreaded fate. He has left her a castle in the Black Forest but in order to become its mistress she must marry the son of its former owner.
The man in question, wounded physically by war and spiritually by love, has no idea the castle no longer belongs to his family and doesn’t accept the news that his future is dependant on a woman very well.
Naturally, two such spirited individuals clash constantly but for the sake of both their futures they do the logical thing and marry. It is not until they face an attempt on their lives that they realise just how much they have come to mean to each other.
True love triumphs and they, in the best of traditions, live happily ever after.
Being a huge fan of the, sadly rare, old style Gothic Romance I really enjoyed this spin on the old beauty and the beast story with its strong gothic leanings.
The characterization was great; this pair danced right off the page. The heroine was strong and determined and the hero brooding enough to be enigmatic but not so much as to be off-putting.
At times the plot became a little transparent (I found it quite obvious who was behind the ‘accidents’) but in all fairness to the author, I think that may have been done deliberately.
I am delighted to discover somebody reinvigorating the dark romance, and am please that this work is more polished than her debut novel. I begin to expect big things from Ms Schwab and won’t leave it so long before I read her again.-Lynn

Saturday, May 23

Love in a Cold Climate - Nancy Mitford

Love in a Cold Climate returns to the decade between the First and Second World Wars. Like its forerunner, The Pursuit of Love, it is narrated by Fanny. This time the emphasis is less strongly on her Radlett cousins, though they and the other members of the family certainly appear. We learn more about Fanny's adult life, and the beginnings of her marriage to Alfred, an academic at Oxford. But the main focus is on the Lord and Lady Montdore, neighbours of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie. Their beautiful and only daughter Polly creates an unthinkable scandal shortly after the death of her aunt, resulting in her outraged and jilted mother cutting off all contact.
The property is entailed, and though the heir (an American) has never expressed an interest in the stately home, the Montdore's contact him. In no time Cedric replaces Polly in Lady Montdore's affections - articulate, aesthetic and effete, Cedric manages to revamp her image and brighten her life.
A longer and more rounded novel than its' predecessor, Love in a Cold Climate is justifiably better known, but reading the Pursuit of Love first does enhance ones' enjoyment. As in the first novel misconceptions that some things are modern inventions, from children's awareness of sex to promiscuity and homosexuality, are disabused. This is a joyous, absorbing and fascinating novel, deserving of its status as a literary classic. - Alex

Friday, May 22

Kerry Greenwood: Trick or Treat

Baker and amateur sleuth, Corinna Chapman is under a lot of pressure. Her livelihood is threatened by a franchise bakery opening at the end of her street. Her love life is threatened by a tall, gorgeous blonde who has just moved in with her boyfriend and has obvious designs on him. The neighbourhood is playing host to a dodgy coven of treasure hunting witches. And a new drug on the streets has crazy people regularly turning up on her doorstep.
Dealing with all of these challenges isn’t easy but Corinna is a strong and determined woman who will not let her world fall apart without a fight. She soon discovers that all of these events are tied up together in a very tangled web and with the help of her friends and the police she manages to unravel it and settle back into the comfortable life she has worked so hard to achieve.
This is the fourth book in this series and builds on earlier works. The cast remains basically the same, and though the story focuses on different secondary characters, we are given updates on our old friends from previous stories.
It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Greenwood’s work but this novel left me a little flat. The writing, as always, was superlative. (Let’s be honest, Kerry Greenwood at her worst would rival many an author at their best.) It was particular elements of the plot that I felt a little disappointed in.
Without spoilers I can’t give details but suffice to say as soon as the flour sack appeared it was obvious what was about to happen. (And if you just guessed sorry but the twist really is that obvious). I have seen this particular plot point used half a dozen times in the last decade in a number of different contexts. Perhaps it just made a strong impression on me but as soon as I mentioned it to Alex her mind went in the exactly the same direction. I had hoped that the point in question was going to be a red herring but sadly that wasn’t the case. And while its impact on the story was minor it was enough to take the shine off.
Still a reliably good read from a consistently good author-just not one of her best.-Lynn

For Alex's review of Trick or Treat click here

Tuesday, May 19

The Pursuit of Love - Nancy Mitford

Fanny is the daughter of feckless parents - her father was never interested and her mother abandoned her shortly after her birth, in pursuit of another man. Though the children aren't supposed to know it, society refers to her as 'the Bolter.' Fanny was raised by her mother's sister, the gentle and loving Aunt Emily. Life with Aunt Emily was nurturing and supportive, but considerably less exciting than her visits to Alconleigh, the home of her Aunt Sadie, terrifying Uncle Matthew, and her eccentric cousins. Fanny and romantically dramatic Linda are the same age, Louisa is older and relatively well behaved, and close knit Jassy (who saves every penny to run away from home) and Matt add colour. Less prominent are their siblings, Bob, Robin and baby Victoria.
Opening between the Wars, The Pursuit of Love recounts the Radlett children's unique upbringing, which eschews education (particularly for girls) over a good seat and love of the hunt. It offers a fascinating insight into a long-gone era, and introduces some fascinating characters, eccentric, unmistakable and singular. Events then unfurl into the Spanish and Second World wars, ending in 1945. A reminder that nothing really changes, The Pursuit of Love has references to abortion (the Bolter may have bolted often but Fanny's an only child), hunt sabotage, hypochondriasis and dietary fads.
I loved this book and its sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, when I was an adolescent, and fondly remember the mini-series of the same number. This enjoyment was shared by my mother, long a Mitford fan, and still serves as a bond between us. So closely are these elements intertwined with the books themselves that I cannot tell how much of my enjoyment and comprehension comes from these experiences and how much is due to the texts alone.
Fanny is a superb narrator, observing the eccentricities of a very British family from her own conventional (but superficially unconventional) position, alternately admiring and outraged. In the second half of the novel Fanny's focus shifts from the Radlett's as a whole toward the love-oriented Linda, who lurches from one doomed marriage to another. From her own happy marriage to an Oxford don, Fanny thrills and despairs for Linda by turn, each adventure making her more grateful for the stability of her own life. When Fanny sadly tells the Bolter that Linda's last, and also doomed, relationship was with the great love of her life, the novel closes:
"Oh dulling," said my mother sadly. "One always thinks that. Every, every time."

A melancholy-tinged joy. - Alex

Sunday, May 17

Make No Bones - Aaron Elkins

A new exhibition at Oregon's Natural History Museum coincides with an anniversary of the Western Association of Forensic Anthropologists. It's been twelve years since the first biennial conference, and a decade since Albert Evan Jasper, the innovative 'dean' of the discipline, died in a bus crash. The charred remains of his bones are being mounted in a display case as part of the exhibit - when the case is stolen forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver's interest in piqued. The only member absent from the fatal gathering ten years earlier, his suspicions are roused and then confirmed. Jasper was murdered, and the killer is a member of the Association, a fellow academic.
Though this is clearly not the first in the series, I had no trouble catching up. Novels and series about forensic investigation have come a long way since Make No Bones was published in 1991, as has technology, but the lack of gadgets and computer simulations does not detract from the novel. The mystery is delicately played out, the protagonist is engaging, and I'm seriously thinking I'll sample at least the next book a long. - Alex

Friday, May 15

Halting State - Charles Stross

When police are called in to investigate a robbery they discover something completely out of their experience - not only in the theft significant, it's virtual. Orcs broke into an Avalon Four bank, backed by a dragon for "fire support" and stealing thousands of dollars worth of virtual prestige items.
Underlying the robbery is information that could not only destroy the creators and financiers of Avalon Four, a massively multiplayer online role -playing game, and virtual gaming as a whole but for the whole European Union. Someone has compromised the cryptographic keys that form the backbone of all electronic information. In 2018 that means almost everything.
I'm not usually a big fan of cyberpunk novels, but Halting State was mesmerising - even as I glossed over the tech I read on. To give you a taste:
Most modern multiplayer games run on a couple of distributed-processing platforms - Zone runs on Symbian/GDF and Microsoft Arena runs on.NETSpace - and they've standardized on a common client engine... So, you've got out-of-band merchant sites like IGE and eBay's Gameboard, and a whole bunch of coyotes who make their living by providing tools to migrate avatars from one environment to another, using the exit game assets as arbitrage against a position in the entry game.
The novel is structured in three sequential internal trilogies, from the points of view of Sue (an Edinburgh detective), Elaine (an insurance investigator) and Jack (a recently fired programmer). What makes Halting State's style particularly interesting is that it's written in third person throughout, with the exception of internal monologues which are first person. This is amazingly difficult to carry off and Stross has managed seamlessly through the whole, lengthy novel. The writing is dense but compelling and there's an abundance of information not only about the plot and character development but also about the world in which it occurs. Only a decade ahead from the present, virtual reality has infiltrated every aspect of life, in ways both fascinating and (no the less technical, like me) frightening. Combined with the futuristic aspects are a truly Scottish sensibility, rich with local idiom and tradition. My previous experience with Scots and Scottish literature meant I found this added a layer of richness to the already substantial presentation, but it could be confusing for some readers, particularly - I suspect - Americans.
In summary - very different from my usual fodder but interesting. I'll definitely try another of Stross' works in the near future. - Alex

Wednesday, May 13

Nigel Cawthorne: Witches - History of a Persecution

From the back of the book:
Between 1450 and 1750, more than 100,000 people-mainly women-in Europe and colonial America were prosecuted for practising harmful magic and worshipping the devil. Tens of thousands were executed, often after being subjected to bestial tortures.
Witches examines this persecution and the religious hysteria which inspired it, tracing its root back to the savage suppression of the heretical Waldensian sect by the Catholic Church. With the creation of the Inquistion, and the publication of the book Malleus Maleficarum, the ‘Witchfinders’ Bible’, the craze soon spread across Europe and reached as far as the United States where, despite the infamy of the Salem Witch Trials, it was soon dismissed by a more rational population.
Although witch trial continued in Scotland until 1727, Norway until 1760 and Hungary until 1777, the growth of scientific reason gradually gained ground from the witch hunters.
From this blurb I expected to read a book that examined the religious-political foundations of the witch hunting craze and perhaps even speculated on the social psychology that would allow such a movement to flourish. But this book did not take that path.
Instead it contains a number of court reports, torture records, letters and other written material from the time to present the general mood of the period and to examine a few specific cases.
Details of how the system worked from accusation through to conviction were interesting but they are presented with only the most superficial examination. It’s all facts and figures with no real attempt to answer the question of why this happened when it did. And that is where I think this book falls down.
There is nothing wrong with straight factual accounts, I understand their importance for the historical record, but my reading of the blurb had me expecting deeper insight into the time. This wasn’t delivered and the result was a book that I found rather too dry for my tastes, dare I say dull.
While this book does provide an overview of the witch hunts during a three hundred year period, it was not quite what I expected. A good starting place for an investigation of the witch hunting phenomena but only a starting place.-Lynn

Tuesday, May 12

A Puzzle in a Pear Tree - Parnell Hall

Cora Felton, the tippling front for America's real Puzzle Lady, neice Sherry Carter is back in another mystery revolving around word puzzles, this time acrostics, set in the midst of a Nativity play.
Sadly it's been a while between reading and reviewing, so all I can remember is that I enjoyed the novel for what it was - fluffy and light - but was annoyed by the toodle-pipness of a British character. There's more in the series and when I next need something that will distract me from more serious endeavours I'll check out book number five. - Alex

Sunday, May 10

A Place of Safety - Natasha Cooper

Barrister Trish Maguire has been asked by Sir Henry Buxford to discretely investigate the Gregory Bequest, his art trust that manages a French collection gathered during the First World War and brought to London. Sir Henry suspects something fishy but it's vital no word of his concerns leaks out until there's proof of wrong doing.
Trish's priority is well-being of her half-brother David, whose existence she has only recently discovered and who has come to live with her. On the other hand Sir Henry is influential and powerful, and she's still at the beginning of her career. She agrees to take on the case and is rapidly thrust into a complex world of dealing, valuation and fraud that stretches back almost eighty years.
Woven through the current text is the story of Helen, an English nurse stationed in France in 1917, her lover Jean-Pierre Gregoire, and their child. The historical section spans 1917 to 1925 and adds details to the main story as well as an interesting texture to the narrative as a whole.
Cooper's style is deft and light, seamlessly integrating atmosphere, character and plot with the odd light note ("She remembered the old joke about the extrovert actuary being the one who looked at your shoes rather than of his own"). Though not my usual approach, and born of disorganisation rather than intent, reading this series out of order has added another layer to my experience. The seeds for her relationships with David and partner George, as well as they with each other, are present at the beginning, and I am more aware of her transition as a character than I believe would have been the case had I read the series chronologically. That said, I'm not planning on deliberately reading any series out of order in the future, but it's given me an interesting perspective. - Alex

Friday, May 8

Perfect Match - Jane Moore

Though some couples would have drifted apart under the strain, Karen and Joe Eastman's bond has deepened since learning that their young son has a rare kind of anemia that requires frequent painful treatments. Their only hope of a cure is a bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor, but neither parent is a match - the only answer is having another child through genetic screening and implanting, who will be compatible. It is when they're tested that Karen learns Joe is not Ben's father - as she feared, he is the result of a drunken one-night stand with her best friend's boss, MP Nick Bright. Ben's only chance at a normal life is for Bright to agree to donate sperm for another baby, but the cost to his career and his own marriage is high.
This all seems like Jodi Picoult territory, but the cover of Perfect Match looks more like chick lit, complete with the tag line "for better, for worse... or just for now?" which has nothing to do with the plot. The main story revolves around the affect of Karen's disclosure on her husband, who himself had an affair, with secondary plots about Bright and his relationship, and Karen's best friend Tania.
I'm a little conflicted about how I feel - the basic idea is interesting, and there's token acknowledgement that the hypothetical created sibling may be distressed to learn he was born as a means. The main characters are well fleshed out, and there's no shortage of tension, as well as impulse and destructive behaviour. I was profoundly irritated by Joe, which may have marred my enjoyment of the novel somewhat, but even beyond that I had an anticlimactic feeling about the whole thing. For no good reason, eh. - Alex

Thursday, May 7

Piggy in the Middle - Catherine Jinks

Dallas shoots feral pigs for a living - she has to send a specimen from each one to the biotech company that employs her as proof of death, and is paid per pig. When she sent in a sample of her own skin as a test she wasn't paid, so the company must do some kind of analysis, but Dallas isn't too fussed about that. She is, however, concerned that there are fewer feral pigs about and an increasing number of diseased, dying pigs - she'll soon be out of a job and has few prospects.
Ron lives with his blind grandfather and looks after the pigs at Agricultural Biomedical Research Industries. The modified animals, with fingers growing out of their backs and ears out of their sides, discomfort him, but not as much as Jibby does - she has oddly human grey eyes and malformed trotters. More important, though, is the loss of his license - he can't marry his girlfriend until he gets his wheels back.
Felix is a sixteen year old genius, working in a limited capacity at ABR. When a call from Dallas is put through to him over summer, when most of the other desks are empty, he encourages her to come to ABR and ask for compensation for the results of the ABR-designed virus that has killed off most of Australia's northern feral pig population. He befriends Ron in the cafeteria and inserts himself into his new best friend's life.
This is a deceptively complex novel about genetic research, gene ownership and xeno-transplantation that involves naive and young protagonists. Perhaps because of my background in ethics, I would really have liked to see more about the former aspects of the novel, but the impact of this is to a degree let down by the latter, as most of the issues around these topics are not explored. Instead much of the focus is on relationships - Ron's with his girlfriend and his grandfather, Dallas with her odd and distant family, and Felix's with both his very remote parents and his intense feelings for Ron.
Piggy in the Middle felt undeveloped or incomplete for me, and I was left with my unresolved questions about the plot and the characters, and particularly the projected fate of Jibby. I have found Jinks's contemporary novels less compelling that her historical ones, and that pattern continues. I'm glad I read Piggy in the Middle, and certainly didn't not enjoy it, but I'd rather have read another book about Pagan. - Alex

Wednesday, May 6

The Pajama Game - Eugenie Seifer Olson

Burned out by only a year of teaching science to middle school students, Moxie Brecker has moved to Boston and works in the less demanding career of lingerie sales. Her closest friend, Gerard, also works at the mall, selling men's cologne and waiting for Boston native James Spader to wander in and fall in love (even though Spader's married with children); her downstairs neighbour, Steve Tyler, keeps odd hours and receives fan gifts from those odd individuals who think a high profile musician would have his number in the phone book. Steve shares some of his deliveries with Moxie, but is very secretive about his own life and she suspects he's a drug dealer.
Moxie's life is uneventful, punctuated only by the g-string thief who steals huge quantities of underwear, and her regular therapy sessions. That is until a gorgeous man enters her world - unlike most men he manages to neither perv at the lingerie-clad mannequins nor ostentatiously avert his eyes, and though he clearly has someone for whom he's buying lingerie, each time she sees him Moxie's heart lifts a little. This is a highlight - every day Moxie feels tireder, less energetic, and even the simplest things exhaust her. Despite her therapists' assertions that these are symptoms of depression, Moxie harangues her HMO until she gets blood taken, but everything's normal.
Moxie's condition is the heart of The Pajama Game - it permeates every aspect of her life, affecting her performance and interactions. Olson, who was inspired to write this novel by her own experiences, beautifully captures the day to day life of someone living with a condition I won't reveal (for the sake of spoiler-avoidance) but diagnosed early on. Moxie's friendships, dead end and uninspiring job, and the romantic elements are all window dressing to this primary plot.
The cover, title (better known as a Doris Day '50's romantic comedy) and the blurb sell The Pajama Game as a romance; though there is certainly a roamntic sub-plot, and many stock romance elements (gay best friend, non-career retail job, meet cute, quirky secondary characters), this is not a romance. I'm not sure if this almost bait-and-switch is the cause of my lack of enthusiasm for Moxie, if it's the result of her own lacklustre affect, or because she seemed half-formed - there's a brief mention of friends from college who've all moved away, but otherwise she seems adrift in the world, anchored only by an obligatory gay best friend and an interest in marine life (Boston's aquarium plays a minor but pivotal role in the novel). Whatever the reason, I didn't engage with moxie nor, consequently, her story. The novel is also quite clearly dated by multiple references to the wonderful Boston Public, now sadly long off the air.
That said, there was much about The Pajama Game that I enjoyed, from the naked James Spader worship (the worship being naked, though naked Spader's not bad) and Bostonian setting (of particular interest as I'm going there later this year) to the interesting Tyler gifts and the descriptions of truly tacky underwear. Most of all I felt frustration with the state of the US health care system, and my opinion that all else is ignored once someone has a psych diagnosis was reinforced. I haven't read anything else by Olson thus far, but suspect I will in future, provided something falls in my path. - Alex

Tuesday, May 5

Do They Wear High Heels in Heaven? - Erica Orloff

Herald Tribute columnist Lily Waters rose above the distress of being abandoned, days after giving birth, by her professor husband. Abandoning her, the baby and their daughter, the Spawn of Satan took off for the UK with his student and has only been intermittently heard from since. Nine years on, and with the support of her best friend Michael Angelo, she has carved out a completely satisfying life that balances work and home, children and a life. Shortly after her fortieth birthday, as part of a breast cancer awareness column her boss wants her to write, Lily has a mammogram and discovers she has an aggressive cancer. Despite chemo and surgery Lily knows she's going to die. She also knows the Spawn, who has had next to nothing to do with the children, will feel guilt but not really want to take them on, and she can't imagine his Child Bride being keen either. But her only alternative is Michael, and though he's been part of her children's lives since birth, becoming a daddy at forty might cramp his cruising lifestyle. And even if that plan works out, the Spawn may not be so keen on a gay man raising the children he himself abandoned.
Atypical for the genre, Do They Wear High Heels in Heaven is more tear-jerker disease novel than romance. We see only glimpses of Lily's family, and her central relationship is unquestionably Michael, who narrates half of the novel. He has unprocessed issues about his sexuality, increased by both estrangement from his macho Italian father and scarred by the traumatic and involuntary nature of his coming out at college, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The HIV/AIDS atmosphere of the late eighties, equal parts hysteria (for the untouched wider community) and tragedy (for those affected) is well created.
I found myself relating more to his story than hers, perhaps because he get to know him better - very little of pre-cancer Lily is revealed, making it harder to relate to her. I was also angered by the revolting treatment he was dealt by his team and coach, and found his story of unexpected parenthood compelling. That said, I did sob at the end of the novel, though I found the epilogue a little too twee and neat. This is my first Orloff novel, and I suspect it won't be the last. - Alex

Monday, May 4

How Brains Think - William H Calvin

After a couple of quotes, Calvin opens his book, subtitled Evolving Intelligence, Now and Then, paraphrasing Piaget - "intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do," a neat encapsulation of his central premise, which in part differentiates being smart from being intelligent.
Informed by a number of disciplines, including linguistics, neurosceinces, evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, war theory and (in the last section) computing and AI modelling, Calvin explores how evolutionary biology allowed human intelligence to emerge, as well as looking at where we might be headed.
I learned a number of fascinating facts, among them the difference in cortex size between a human, chimp, monkey and rat, and found the entire language section fascinating - since reading Oliver Sack's book about Deaf communities (Seeing Voices) I've had a strong but strictly amateur interest in linguistics and language development. Calvin examines how word order differs from language to language; the differences, similarities and evolution from pidgin and creole; and some developments in our understandings of linguistic competence and rules.
In this wide-ranging book he also investigates what's involved in solving novel problems, differentiating between intent and instinct (even when the latter looks complex and directed, as in bird song), and has a very interesting section on the construction of reality and how we fill in what's not that. In the process Calvin discusses a number of examples that nicely counterpoint the experiences described in Heathcote-James' After-Death Communication (I do like it when seemingly disparate elemnets intersect unexpectedly).
I was interested to discover that Calvin refers to those neurologists who model themselves after Australian neurophysiologist John Eccles as "ecclesiastical," which gives quite a different flavour to the description, though it doesn't leand anything to this review so I'll move on.
I found myself noting quotations, something I rarely do unless I'm reading for academic content in my other life. One articulates a concept I've been sensitised to since reading Stephen J Gould's fascinating history of the (often only allegedly) scientific examination of intelligence, about how what we expect colours what we find, and is of particular relevance to me as a research student:

We do not realise how deeply our starting assumptions affect the way we go about looking for and interpreting the data we collect. - Sue Savage-Rumbaugh 1994 (speaking of animal studies and prejudices)
Also of particular resonance was this:
I often find that a novel, even a well-written and compelling novel, can become a blur to me soon after I've finished reading it. I recollect perfectly the feeling of reading it, the mod I occupied, but I am less sure about the narrative details, It is almost as if the book were, as Wittgenstein said of his propositions, a ladder to be climbed and then discarded after it has served its purpose. - Sven Birkets 1994

I sadly read How Brains Think some time ago, and concluded it while I was unwell. I made notes about hand-mouth synergies, and that Calvin includes a nice summation of the requirements for Darwinian processes that is both clear and concise without omiting essential elements, but sadly can no longer flesh these out.
Sadly Calvin lost me in the last third of the book. I am unable to tell if this was because of my weakened state, recovering from a killer cold, or the denseness of the book, but based on the readablility and accessibility of the first two thirds of this impressive time I suspect the fault lies with the reader not the author. - Alex

Sunday, May 3

Frank Stella - William S Rubin

Part autobiography (though focusing almost solely on his work), part art history study, Frank Stella explores a decade of work by one of the few post-war American artists still creating art. Born in 1936, Frank Stella appeared on the New York art scene in 1958. After experimenting with linear colour he concentrated on contrasting black with white. His first series, "the Black Paintings," resemble fine pinstripes of white on a black background, though he rejects this description and they are in reality broad stripes of black that leave thin lines of unpainted canvas showing. He used house paint over artists' oils, and re-introduced colour a few years later, retaining the symmetry and geometry of this early work. Stella was the first artist to use shaped canvases as an integral part of the composition, and in the late sixties began creating the Protractor series, 71 paintings named for Middle Eastern cities and based on intersection arcs of colour within square boundaries.
I know very little about art, and generally don't get modern art. Several years ago, while researching a paper for my more artistic sister, I read a couple of books about modern art. Though dissimilar from one another, and quite different to my usual tastes (which include well known Renaissance artists, surrealists, and the works of Vettriano, Botero, Cooke and O'Keefe), two of the paintings grabbed my attention. They were both by Stella, one of the Black series (The Marriage of Reason and Squalor) and one of the Protractor series (one of the Sinjerli variations), and interested me enough to follow it up from time to time over the intervening years.
Frank Stella is a comprehensive text, enhanced by quotes from the artist and shaped by interviews the author had with him. It is difficult, with reproductions, to get a feel for the size of the works, and there are several pictures of pieces hanging in galleries, as well as one or two that include Stella, allowing the observer to see the impressive size of each canvas. It is unfortunate that many of the reproductions are in black and white when colour is such an integral part of much of his work, and this was particularly disappointing in the metallic section. All in all, though, I found Frank Stella to be a useful and interesting overview of the first part of this insufficiently well-known artists' work. - Alex

Saturday, May 2

The Girlfriend Curse - Valerie Frankel

Peg Silver is stunned when she discovers her ex has married, only months after their long-term relationship came to an end. When she learns that this has been a pattern with all her exes she is determined to find out why. A private investigator tells her that she acted as a catalyst, and that they all think of her favourably. Determined to do something wild to change this pattern, Peg sells her Manhattan apartment and moves to a house in Vermont, a place she's never visited.
On the bus she meets Ray, with whom she has an instant connection. Ray has the same problem, and is embarking on Inward Bound, a retreat designed to help people with relationship issues overcome the behaviours that have held them back. Her new house filled with mice and her loins lusting for Ray, Peg decides to join Inward Bound too, and make over her life entirely.
As is often the case with this genre, it took me a while to warm to Peg and I found the description overblown. For example:
Nina was dressed, as usual, in a silk suit, this one the colour of pale tangerines. Nina loved silk, and silk adored Nina, clinging to her bust, gliding along the flat landscape of her midsection and streaming down her long legs.
The redhead was just as striking, a Technicolour wonder in Day-Glo pink knee-high boots, an orange denim jackets, a yellow ruffled shirt and a pomegranate vinyl tote on her lap.
I also wasn't so taken with a translation of Robbie Burns' poem ("the best laid schemes of mice and men often go wrong. And they leave us nothing but grief and pain for promised joy") as though that were the poem itself. Finally, on a critical note, the solution to the solution for the mice problem, an ongoing sob-plot, was a bit of a stretch.
However I did for the most part enjoy The Girlfriend Curse - Peg grew on me, the encounter group and its characters were interesting and detailed, and though her family and friends would have irritated me not end they were internally consistent.
I've had mixed luck with Frankel's work, and had decided not to read any more. I found The Girlfriend Curse on the recently returned trolley and was captured by the blurb before I realised it was by her, then decided to try it anyway. I'm glad I did - the location is a refreshing change, and even though Peg is the near-mandatory New York single secular Jew with poor impulse control and an unhealthy obsession with fashion she moves and changes. the romance was slightly unexpected, there were comic moments, and the psychology of the Inbound participants (including its leaders, therapist couple Linus and Wilma) was genuine and interesting. - Alex

Friday, May 1

Rubbish Boyfriends - Jessie Jones

Dayna Harris is in labour. Though her best friend is by her side, Dayna wants the father of her child supporting her through the quite unexpectedly large amount of pain and effort involved. As she pants and gasps Dayna reflects on the series of crap boyfriends she's had, from the soft toy giving and unfatithful Simon to the too-good-to-be-true Christian rock loving Mark. But who's the daddy?
Who cares? This was so boring, so insipid and so meandering that I stopped mid paragraph. Okay, I did read to page 349 (of 436) but that was more a result of being stranded without a backup book than the consequence of good writing. Whoever reviewed this for Heat and thought it was "bloody hilarious" (as claimed on the cover) was delusional and/or related to the author. Stay away! - Alex