Monday, June 29

It Had To Be You - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Phoebe Summerville scandalised her father's football team, and the media, by wearing an ivory jacket and thigh-high split skirt teamed with a gold bustier to his funeral. But then, she is a bimbo - blonde, easy on the eye, immaculately clad in designer clothing and high heels, flirty, superficial and accompanied everywhere by a fluffy poodle. When she learns he left the team for her, rather than Reed, her cousin and the son Bert always wanted, to manage, Phoebe is as shocked as the rest of the Chicago sporting community. Only she is privy to the letter her estranged, disapproving father left, expressing his hope that this would be one thing she wouldn't screw up.
Initially resistant, though she has gone out of her way to know nothing about the game Phoebe throws herself into managing the Chicago Stars, as much for the team as to prove her father wrong. Despite her best efforts tot he contrary, Dan Calebow, the Stars' head coach and former gridiron star, soon learns that Phoebe's ditziness is an act that covers a ferocious intellect, and her outrageous flirting disguises an almost virginal and deeply scarred sexual psyche.
It's been some time since I've read Phillips's work, after I managed to devour her every novel within the space of a few months. Her writing is strong, her plots involved and compelling, the hurdles between hero and heroine believable and usually not too far-fetched, and her characters are nuanced.
It Had To Be You is chronologically (though not by publication) the first in a series about football stars, and it doesn't disappoint. Phoebe is damaged by her father's distance, disapproval and disbelief when she was raped; she has found a way to cope with this herself, a coping strategy that is fascinating to read about, but which is incompatible with a relationship.
It takes the attention of Dan for her to be able to trust a man again. He is turn has become disenchanted with women, particularly teases, after the end of his marriage with a complex, game playing senator. One scene in particular is quite uncomfortable, and Dan's heroism is saved by him finding it as distasteful as the reader.
As Phillips helps her protagonists overcome their separate demons and find love she introduces a couple of interesting sub-plots, including Phoebe's prickly half-sister Molly; the evolution of a couple of football players and the team's much maligned general manager; an embittered father skewed not by grief at the death of his once-hero son but by the loss of his reflected glory; and a related revenge plot.
Reading this previously, and even remembering some of the elements and much of the plot, in no way diminished my experience. I suspect I'll be making my way through Phillips' oeuvre again in the coming months. - Alex

Wednesday, June 24

Cry Wolf – Patricia Briggs

Anna used to be a college student, but after three years at the bottom of a Chicagoan werewolf pack that life seems very far away. The alpha, Leo, subjugated her, forced male pack members to rape her, and forbade any contact with her family. The arrival of Charles Cornick, leader of the North American werewolves, has pushed Anna further off balance – after killing Leo, Charles claimed Anna as his mate and insisted she was a rare and valuable kind of werewolf, an Omega. Though attracted to Charles Anna is fearful and mistrusts her own instincts. With no experience of pack life except as the bottom of a dysfunctional fringe pack she feels lost enough. When a shadow from a pack members’ past threatens the whole pack, though, Anna discovers her value, and reclaims her life.
Cry Wolf opens with Anna travelling toward Montana with Charles and his father, Bram. Set in the same universe as Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series, Cry Wolf both answers a dangling question from the first Mercy book and is also apparently the sequel to a short story, which I haven't read. I imagine the events which lead up to Cry Wolf (Anna's turning from human to were etc) are detailed there, but there's enough
suggestion, reference and detail for readers unfamiliar with the novella or new to Brigg’s world. Though self-contained, I suspect the experience as a whole would be more rewarding and make more sense if read in conjunction with the short story and the other series.
The characters are well crafted, and Briggs does a great job of conveying the relative age of some of the senior pack members and the underlying politics with subtlety. The chief plot, of the threat, only crops up late in the book but is convincing and dark, while the whole text is underpinned by Anna’s journey, which is portrayed convincingly and is well integrated with the other plots. These include a strong romance, as Anna’s human side learns to trust and bond with Charles – his wolf chose her, but that doesn’t mean the human aspects are compatible, and we see another relationship within the pack where this is the case.
It’s elements like that which put Briggs above many other writers in the genre – she does a masterful job of showing aspects of the universe she’s created without telling or spotlighting them with a neon arrow. I also liked Anna’s intermittent use of Latin phrases, a habit from her pre-transformation life. Had I thought to look I’m sure I would have been able to find Me transmitte sursum, Caledoni* online but coming across it in passing was infinitely more rewarding. I look forward to the next in what I imagine (based on the subtitle An Alpha and Omega novel) is a series. – Alex
*Beam me up, Scotty

Sunday, June 21

Safer - Sean Doolittle

Academic Paul Calloway was a little concerned about moving from the security of Boston to a quiet mid-western town, but it's a career opportunity his wife can't pass by. The night they moved in their house, in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, was broken into and Paul was injured fending off the intruder. While horrifying, the incident had an up side, as Paul and Sara met their neighbours and Paul joined the local neighbourhood patrol, run by former cop Roger Mallory, who lives directly opposite the Calloways. He strikes up friendships, plays golf with a group of mean from the neighbourhood, and settles into tranquility.
When, in the middle of a faculty party he and Sara are throwing, Paul's arrested by the Clarke Falls Police Department, he's understandably shocked. When he learns the charges he's stunned - producing and promoting pornographic images of a child, specifically the thirteen year old daughter of his neighbour. He knows he's innocent, but the evidence against him is strong, and as the truth emerges nobody will escape unscathed.
Safer opens with the arrest, and the rest of the novel alternates between events following and events leading up to the arrest. Narrated in first person, the novel hinges on Paul - his character and his relatability. The nightmare situation he finds himself in is breathtaking, and while the conspiracy ends up being a little far-fetched, the way events unfurl is so breathtaking and suspenseful I only recognised this on later reflection.
If you like a whirlwind pace, shuffled chronology (a technique that's integral to the plot), unexpected twists, suburban terror and intrigue, Safer is for you. Doolittle's written several other novels that I'll be encouraging my library to purchase. Watch this spot. - Alex

Saturday, June 20

The Immortality Factor - Ben Bova

The news that scientist Arthur Marshak is on the verge of being able to create replacement organs is met with both acclamation and condemnation. Unable to continue because of the furore, Arthur agrees to participate in a Congressional "science court" in Washington, D.C. The first of its kind, Arthur expects that the court will focus exclusively on the scientific aspects of his research and leave the messier, irrelevant aspects out.
Alas Arthur is somewhat naïve, both regarding the way the world works and about his younger brother, Jesse. A doctor who's won humanitarian awards for his work with both the urban poor and third world communities, Jesse is also the husband of Arthur's former fiancée Julia.
Though the strong underlying message is about why politics, religion and science should be kept well separated, what I was struck by was the interpersonal relationships, particularly between Arthur and Jesse. Undoubtedly coloured by current issues I'm having with family members, I was really impressed by how well Bova depicted the complex underpinnings and motivations of family dynamics. Told in first person by the main protagonists (the brothers and the bride), the reader sees how past events and perceptions colour action and interpretation, and how they are unable to see events except through these filters. Jesse, for example, views everything Arthur does as an attempt to show him up and to show off. Arthur sees baby brother Jesse, who he supported after the death of their mother, as a natural for whom everything comes effortlessly.
The more obvious plot, about pioneering research, cost, animal ethics, responsibility, foreseeability and progress in conflict with 'traditional values' is interesting, but it really was the portrayal of family that I found compelling.
This was my first Bova book, which I know is appalling for someone as immersed in FSF as I. It won't be my last. - Alex

Friday, June 19

Look Again – Lisa Scottoline

When reporter Ellen Gleeson encountered an abandoned baby while writing a story of neonatal intensive care she fell in love with the infant recovering from open-heart surgery. Now three, Will is fully recovered and legally hers. With the help of babysitter Connie, Will and Ellen have a harmonious and smoothly-running life, and the biggest clouds on the horizon are lay-offs at work and her forbidden attraction to her boss, Marcelo.
That is until Ellen comes home to a flier about a missing child – age progressed, Timothy Braverman looks enough like Will to be his twin. Though she first puts the similarity out of her mind, Ellen’s instincts won’t let her leave it alone, and she finds herself investigating the missing child’s story and his grieving parents, even to the extent of abandoning her current assignment, a dangerous move with more lay-offs scheduled. The more Ellen discovers the more concerned she becomes that Will and Timothy are the same child, though she can’t work out how. If she’s right then her adoption was fraudulent and her beloved son isn’t hers after all. Torn between truth and love, Ellen has some heart-breakingly difficult decisions to make.
Before I move on to content I have to mention the cover. At first glance it looks as though someone spilled oil over half the hardback cover – the title’s blurred and the red background is stained darker. But when you Look Again the silhouette of an adult looking down at a child looking back up becomes visible – nice tie in!
Most of Scottoline’s novels revolve around a group of women lawyers, so this is something of a departure in that sense. The hallmarks of her other books are present her, though, too – the characters are strong, driven and convincing, and the plot is fresh and gripping.

In other hands this would have been a compelling literary novel – I can see Jodi Picoult, for example, focusing on the competing needs, rights and best interests of the child, his natural parents and his adoptive family. Scottoline’s treatment is compelling in a different way – third person but purely from Ellen’s perspective, she combines the moral aspects with a mystery and a hefty dollop of action, and raises new dilemmas. There are several twists, plenty of suspense, and a little romance to finish it off. This was a satisfying and rewarding experience and I look forward to Scottoline’s next foray. - Alex

Wednesday, June 17

Bones of Betrayal – Jefferson Bass

Bill Brockton, head of the world famous Bone Farm, is participating in a terrorism safety drill when he’s called to a death in nearby Oak Ridge, the birth place of nuclear weaponry. A body lies in a motel pool, covered with a foot of green ice. Leonard Novak is frozen solid but it’s when the nuclear scientist’s body begins to defrost that things really take off.
I generally prefer encountering plot twists without too much warning, so though this occurs really early in the novel I don’t want to disclose much more of the plot. I can say that the novel compelling involves both contemporary issues and events from the build up to the end of the Second World War.
Bill is a really satisfying character – a little goofy, intelligent, self-aware and funny, I suspect he incorporates many traits that the authors possess. He (and therefore they) seamlessly incorporates details about forensic anthropology into the narrative, informing and maintaining interest while advancing the fairly intricate plot. The other characters are nuanced and rounded, particularly Bill’s grad assistant Miranda and potential love interest Isabella Morgan, an Oak Ridge librarian who bar a staggering resemblance to Bill’s murdered lover. I really like how her involvement allows Bill’s grief to progress, and how realistically this loss is portrayed.
Perhaps the most interesting character portrayal is the way details of Novak’s life are posthumously revealed, emerging like a negative in a developing bath. The stand out character, though, is Novak’s ex-wife, Beatrice. Now ninety, the former Oak Ridge employee is quirky, interesting, an unreliable but charming narrator who, either directly or through information she imparts, is the source of most of the plot twists. In many ways I hope to be like her at that age – selectively senile, lively, determined, winsome and intelligent to the end.
Bones of Betrayal is the fourth fictional collaboration of forensic anthropologist Bill Bass and journalist/writer Jon Jefferson. There’s no sign of complacency or writing for the sake or either deadline or profit – the writing is crisp and compelling, the plot original and absorbing, and the characters shine. The next Bill Brockton novel will be on my Must Read list. - Alex

The Bill Brockton series:
Carved in Bone
Flesh and Bone
The Devil’s Bones
Bones of Betrayal
The Bone Yard
The Bone Thief

Saturday, June 13

The Lost Recipe for Happiness - Barbara O'Neal

When Elena Alvarez fights with Dimitri, her sometimes lover and head chef at Vancouver's Blue Turtle, it's the last straw. When the owner of Blue Turtle, director Julian Liswood, offers her an amazing position she jumps at the opportunity even though it means relocating. Liswood is opening a new restaraunt in Colorado and he wants Elena to be head chef. It's going to be a lot of work - Elena not only needs to create a new menu and redesign the building layout but also negotiate her relationships with the rest of the crew, including former head chef Ivan, a man with a drinking problem and a massive chip on his shoulder but a brilliant cook.
I don't know why I didn't really enjoy The Lost Recipe For Happiness as much as I expected. Maybe it's just that there was too much. There are significant secondary plots about Elena's childhood, including her abandonment by her mother, the death of one grandmother, the transplantation to the Latin side of her family, and her sole survival following a devastating accident many years earlier that has left her with significant scarring and pain. There are recipes scattered through the narrative. There's a romance and the resolution of an old relationship. There's the ending of an old friendship and haunting by long-dead ghosts.
It wasn't bad, everything hung together alright, the writing was fine and the characters were fairly well developed, though everything wrapped up a little more neatly than I found believable. I just didn't find the experience as rewarding as I'd hoped, and it's really irritating me that I can't pinpoint why. - Alex

Thursday, June 11

Old Bones - Aaron Elkins

Forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver is mostly enjoying his conference in France, which is more than can be said for his friend FBI agent John Lau. He was hoping while in the country to catch up with Guillame du Rocher, whom he'd met previously and whose company he'd enjoyed. When Oliver is asked to assist with identifying some bones found in an old cellar he's initially delighted to learn that it's du Rocher's home, then saddened to learn that the old man had died only days earlier, caught in quick sand and drowning in the lightening fast tide off the coast.
The age of the bones indicates they belonged to a man who died during the Second World War, information that causes many of the involved French locals to try to shut down the investigation. As Oliver continues to pursue the partial skeleton's identity secrets from the past come to life, their effects rippling through du Rocher's tragic death and endangering Oliver's life.
This is the second Oliver novel I've read, though not the second in the series. Unlike my first encounter with the "famous American Bone Detective" I was not really aware of the time lag between publication (1987) and my reading, except in regards to the WW2 timing. Oliver is engaging and interesting, the Normandy setting was a refreshing change from the more usual locales, and I caught shades of Christie's style in both the country house/family setting and the time table detailing (which will make sense if you read the book).
There are notes of humour (I particularly liked Oliver's statement that the bones could be human or perhaps those of a polydactylous pig), and an interesting albeit brief discussion about the erosion of grammar and spelling ("Wither Man" - hilarious) was particularly illuminating given the age of the population he's discussing - the university students of the mid-eighties are not only my peers but also the people criticising this in today's students.
I love learning new things in unexpected places. One here was the existence of the apparently spectacular Mont St Michel, which I now have to add to places I want to see (and which reminds me of the Rock of Gibraltar), and a long-held question I had was answered - while bones retain information about musculature (because of the depth and strength of insertion points), they don't give any information about non-muscle weight. The subsidiary question, why reconstructions on TV shows therefore always create 'normal weight' people, was sadly unanswered but this is a start.
None of this detracted from the overall involving mystery. The characterisation was a little thin, with some reliance on stereotype - I particularly noted the gluttonous son whose furious devouring of sweet treats, pushed into his pink mouth with a finger tip, is mirrored by his avarice. The lead character, however, is well drawn, and the pace of the novel prevented the drawbacks from overshadowing the book as a whole. Though I won't be rushing out to read the next one, when another Elkins novel crosses my path I will read it. - Alex

Wednesday, June 10

Runner - Thomas Perry

Jane Whitefield gave away helping people escape their pursuers when she married her New York surgeon husband, and she embraced her new life of fund-raising and support gladly. The habits of a lifetime are a little harder to lose, though, and despite herself Jane notices suspicious behaviour from the kitchen staff at a charity night hosted by Carey’s hospital. Before she can investigate a bomb explodes, creating confusion and chaos. In the midst of the aftermath a desperate, pregnant young girl seeking assistance approaches Jane. Despite her promise Jane is compelled to help her, in a world where forging a new identity is harder than ever, and with a foe who is not only determined to track down his quarry but who has the resources to back it up.
Jane is one of my all-time favourite characters and it’s a delight to have return from retirement. As with the rest of the series, Perry combines a fast-paced plot with strong characterisation and convincing detail. Jane’s character is rooted in her Native American culture - the lore and traditions of both her tribe and those of other Native American cultures are threaded through the plot.
Christine, the runner, is flawed but determined, and I became sufficiently involved with her story that I actually spoke aloud (“no, no!”) when she did something stupid but plot-necessary. The behaviour that triggered my outburst was understandable and I liked that she took action instead of waiting passively for rescue.
I also liked that, despite the potential cost to Jane’s marriage and family life, Perry finishes Runner with the possibility of another Jane Whitefield novel. Bring it on! – Alex

Click here for a review of the first Jane Whitefield novel, Vanishing Act

Tuesday, June 9

The Atrocity Archives - Charles Stross

Bob Howard is a desk jockey keen to move into field work. He works for Britain's ultra-secret intelligence agency known as the Laundry, and the fact that the Laundry's brief is paranormal phenomena, albeit interpreted through science and cutting edge information theory, in no way diminishes the amount of petty bureaucracy Bob has to wade through.
When what should be a standard a training course goes horribly awry, Bob keeps his head and his calm, and his first mission follows soon after - a break in at an industrial building where a young mathematician's discovery risks him summoning demons from an alternate universe, just the sort of thing the Laundry is designed to prevent.
Something of a success, Bob is sent to the US, to pry a beautiful redhead away, but when Islamic terrorists interfere the mission becomes a bloody disaster. In between a psychotic on-again, off-again girlfriend, two truly odd roommates, and a slew of office polices akin to a collection of Dilbert strips, Bob finds himself getting deeper and deeper into parallel universes, Third Reich escapees plotting a come back, demons and shades of Lovecraft.
Ostensibly a horror novel, and certainly chilling, the tone of The Atrocity Archives (a serialised novella and a short story about gorgon-esque monsters who turn a bunch of cows in the heart of Milton Keyes into concrete) is light and sarky. The details of office hoops and paperwork ring true for anyone who's ever worked within a government system, and the world Stross creates is both compelling and true, while still being fantastic and strange.
The final component of the book is an essay by Stross comparing the genres of horror and thriller, with some unlikely but interesting comparisons and areas of overlap. All in all this is an original voice with a unique perspective. Though superficially light, some of the ideas he introduces are profound, and I suspect I whisked through The Atrocity Archives a little too quickly to glean everything from it that I could have. I look forward to trying another of his works when I have the time and mentally energy to make the most of it. - Alex

Monday, June 8

Twilight - Stephenie Meyers

Bella Swan has returned to her childhood home in the small town of Forks, Washington, and the father her mother left when she was an infant. Though Bella has spent a little time with her sheriff father, they aren't close, but her flighty mother has remarried and Bella's giving them some space. Never popular in Phoenix, Bella's surprised to be something of the centre of attention in her new school.
She is immediately attracted to her new seatmate, Edward - gorgeous and enigmatic, Bella is dismayed to find him treating her with hostility every time their paths intersect, at least until he saves her from being mowed down in a car accident. She would swear he moved as fast as lightening, and the dents in the van's fender are hand shaped...
Bella is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. A chance conversation with childhood friend Jacob, who tells her about local Native American mythology, leads Bella to conclude that Edward and his family are vampires. His adoptive father, Carlisle, has a non-human policy and all the members of the group drink animal blood, unlike the vast majority of vampires. Bella's scent is intoxicating to Edward, which is why he avoided her, and she is strangely immune to his ability to read thoughts.
Twilight is the first in a massively successful quartet that I've avoided until now. Lynn reviewed this first installment a few months ago and was less than impressed, which was good enough for me, but in the space of less than a week I've had three people tell me I have to read it, and I succumbed to the pressure.
I can certainly see why Twilight is popular with its' adolescent readership. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the first vampire series aimed squarely at teen girl, and that's certainly a factor. Bella is an archetypal Every Girl - unappreciated, lonely, distanced from her parents and unpopular until she discovers an environment where she blossoms. Edward is the ideal boyfriend - courteous and devoted, attracted but limit setting, gorgeous and faithful. There's a strong tension between desire and restraint, they have a secret that binds them from the outside world, and from the beginning Bella is concerned about the age difference between them.
Of course, like all vampire romance novels there's no concern about the fact that her apparently seventeen-year-old paramour is really a century or so old. Why does no-one ever find this disturbing? Instead the concern is that he will never age while she will continue to grow older and more withered. Bella desperately wants to join Edward as an immortal, a move he resists because of his belief that the turning will damn or lose her soul. With all the passion of young love Bella is deaf to any objections, and there's a strong Romeo and Juliet-type atmosphere, though more in terms of heedless, blind passion than suicidality and death.
Though pleasant and absorbing enough, I have certainly read more captivating and absorbing novels, even in this sub-genre. However, the pace is brisk, the large cast of characters introduced in a measured tempo and well differentiated, and I enjoyed the novel enough that I've reserved the next to read as well. I must say, though, that I still don't understand the strength of the passion this novel has inspired, particularly in middle-aged readers like myself. It's been suggested to me that at least some of this is down to the novel bringing back memories of their own disenfranchised teen years, and I suppose I can see that. However my adolescence wasn't all flowers and adoration and I seem to have moved past that in the intervening twenty years. - Alex

For Lynn's review of Twilight click here

Sunday, June 7

The Book of God - Walter Wangerin

From the dustjacket:

Here is the Bible's story as it has never been told before.
The Bible as an epic novel, with all its sweeping action, its larger than
life characters, its universal themes of good and evil, and always, above everything else, its enduring story of a love that staggers the imagination: the love of God for his people.
The Book of God unfolds the Bible's story in a clean, continuous thread, free of repetitions, lists of laws and genealogies.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from this thick tome, subtitled The Bible as a Novel. I think the claim that it "add[s] flesh and bones to biblical characters - exploring their motives, their feelings, their relationships" was what intrigued me. Unfortunately I didn't find any of that in the small section of The Book of God that I was able to make my way through. Instead it read very much like the Bible, which I have read all the way though three times, albeit many years ago. For example, there's no indication of what was in Lot's mind when he told the inflamed men of Sodom that they could have his two virgin daughters instead of the travellers he was housing. The angels of the Lord might well have declaimed the sin of the city, but I've never seen how Lot was worthy enough of being spared, and this rendition gives no insight.
Similarly I'd have liked some interpretation of Abraham's thoughts when commanded to sacrifice Issac, or at least relief when his piety and love of God over his child was rewarded, but The Book of God sweeps right over it and on to the next event.
Had I been more patient it would have been interesting to see how Wangerin dealt with the conflicting reports in the gospels about Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, because there's no way to conflate all four versions into a streamlines whole - he'd have to pick certain elements unique to some gospels and omit details from others. But I was disenchanted with the project before I got past Esau and Jacob.
I appreciate that this approach would have the significant potential for controversy, but it would have been a more interesting read. As it was, I just didn't get the point.
If you haven't read the Bible and want to know the stories of the testaments, old and new, then the Book of God is probably a better bet than actually reading the Bible itself. If you're looking for something more, though, you'll be disappointed. I was. - Alex

Thursday, June 4

Creeping Ivy - Natasha Cooper

When she discovers, on watching the evening news, that her cousin's daughter is missing barrister Trish Maguire is shicked and feels compelled to act. She doesn't suspect that she'll become embroiled in a darker side of family life than she first anticipated.
It's been some time since I read Creeping Ivy, a magnetic novel that drew me in and kept me stck to the pages. Trish herself is engaging and interesting, and this adds layers to her character that would have been more rewarding had I read this series in order (a bemoanment I think I make with each Trish Maguire review). - Alex