Thursday, July 30

Glasshouse - Charles Stross

In the 27th century life is very different – copied alien wormhole technology has allowed humanity to spread through the galaxy, allowing the creation of polities, somewhat akin to modern nation states. Robin’s in rehab, recovering from memory excision – he senses that he chose to erase painful memories from decades of war, and suspects that he’s at risk of assassination, though he doesn’t know why or who would want him dead. His only refuge seems to be participating in a research project attempting to recreate an almost forgotten period, the Dark Ages at the turn of the millennium. But once Robin awakes in the program polity he (now a woman named Reeve) suspects that the researchers running the program have a sinister agenda. Though Reeve tries to question the experiment and the dangers of this recreated life, she quickly discovers doing so is highly risky – the subjects are potentially under constant surveillance, and Reeve has no way of knowing who to trust.
Stross has created an integrated and cohesive history for his universe, details of which are thinly spread throughout the novel, so that the reader constructs a (not always reliable) picture of events through the reading. Much of the novel’s world building incorporates new imagined technologies (like transport and assembly gates), the aftermath of decades of cyber wars that included viruses, worms and radical censorship that erased the vast bulk of historical records and even memories of why the wars started in the first place.
I was less interested in this aspect, comprehensive and intricate as it is, than in the personal story of Reeve, though it is of course tied in with the larger narrative. The experiment opens with twenty ten-person cohorts, divided into male-female pairs who have separate homes and whose lives are designed to replicate late twentieth century (western) mores, including a strong emphasis on peer pressure and conformity, reinforced by compulsory weekly church meetings where points are awarded or deducted from pairs according to their performance and behavior over the previous week, with an emphasis on staying in character – points affect the group as a whole, reinforcing social pressure to behave appropriately.
It was this aspect of Glasshouse, which reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale and other novels set in totalitarian regimes, that most interested me, as Reeve explores the tension between conformity and her worries about the ideology of the experimenters. As the consequences for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour ratchet up and the stakes become higher, Reeves also begins to have flashbacks to her life as Robin.
Glasshouse is complicated, intricate, and I’m sure I missed much of the import of the novel, but I enjoyed what I understood. I haven’t checked but I feel certain Stross has set other novels in this universe, and the world building is so complex and developed that it would be wasted on just one excursion. And, when I work myself up for it, have a clear mind and time to take it slowly, I’ll search for them, but for now I need something a little more accessible. – Alex

Wednesday, July 29

The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge

I can think of no better opening than Doidge's:

This book is about the revolutionary discovery that the human brain can can change itself, as told through the the stories of the scientists, doctors and patients who have together brought about these astonishing transformations.
Subtitled Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science, Doidge examines the work of a multitude of scientists who are, in separate areas of practice, overturning the long-held notion that the brain is hard wired and essentially immutable. Increasingly, says Doidge, we are discovering that the human brain is far more plastic, or mouldable, than we previously realised.
The copy I borrowed from a friend has tags sticking out from practically every page, and it's sadly beyond my ability to be able to convey all the aspects Doidge covers in this review. Instead I'll cite some of the sections that jumped out at or stuck with me, starting with senses we don't recognise we have until they're lost.
Doidge discusses the case of a woman who, as a result of treatment with gentamycin, an aminoglycoside antibiotic, lost her ability to maintain equilibrium - for five years she felt as though she was falling every waking moment, even if she was lying down. Related to proprioception (the awareness of how you're oriented in space and where your body parts are in relation to one another), equilibrioception is taken for granted by most of us. She reported thinking often of suicide, which is apparently not uncommon for sufferers of this condition. Doidge describes a revolutionary treatment that allowed her to recalibrate her spatial awareness using a complicated feedback system involving a helmet, tongue plate and oral sensations like fizzing champagne. The actual technique is too long to discuss here but fascinating, albeit considerably over my head. What's fascinating is that, with increased use of the treatment the woman had normal equilibrioception for increasing lengths of time when away from the treatment - despite permanent damage to her inner ear, and five years of altered function, she regained normal sensation.
I discovered the pioneering work of Paul Bach-y-Rita, a scientist and rehabilitation physician whose practice was informed by his father Pedro's recovery from what they later discovered was a significant stroke - contrary to most rehab practices Pedro taught himself how to walk again, beginning (as infants do) by crawling. Bach-y-Rita says "I can connect anything to anything" - new neurological pathways can be made via a multitude of circuits.
There are a number of other case studies and therapies discussed, from the Fast ForWord program that has had astonishing success with brain development conditions like autism to the way a shift from memorised or rote learning is linked with a variety of learning disabilities.
Doidge discusses new findings about the addictivity of internet pornography, which is apparently a real and significant phenomenon that causes significant changes in the way the brain is wired and operates. In an unrelated section I also learned that women are generally better than men at spatial recognition, which is why men can have trouble finding objects (like socks or things in the fridge) that are in plain sight.
At times controversial (there's a long section criticising animal rights association PETA), Doidge's message is clear throughout: the brain has far more potential than we believed; the impact of dementing illnesses can be reduced; and cross-fertilisation of ideas and disciplines is an essential component in advancing science - Doidge advocates unstructured early college courses for this reason. He revisits the well-trodden but still relevant issue of ideas that conflict with the dominant paradigm are ignored, ridiculed or doubted by the mainstream of scientists. In this case it's the revolutionary theory that challenged localisation theory, or the idea that neuro-specialisation is absolute, but he discusses other cases also.
Doidge also emphasises reality as culturally constructed - from the contemporary 'ew' factor of Elizabethan women keeping an unpeeled apple in their armpit for their lover, to cultural mores on when to interrupt someone speaking and how far away to stand - all of which is interesting to me as a social sciences student.
He looks at how the brain 'maps' activities, and how these maps can both limit normal function, and can be redrawn. Examples Doidge discusses include chronic pain and musicians losing the ability to move fingers independently - and be redrawn. Unlearning, he stresses, is harder than learning, but possible.
Neuroplasticity is far from a panacea for all neurological conditions, and research into it is still fledgling, but it's fascinating and inspiring, and I'm interested in seeing what happens next. I work in the neurosciences and am also interested in seeing how this will affect clinical practices, particularly as the work Doidge discusses takes place almost exclusively in the US. I do know that, if I sustain a severe neurological assault like a stroke I want to the centre Doidge recommends. - Alex

Tuesday, July 28

A Snow Ball in Hell - Christopher Brookmyre

When reality TV show Bedroom Popstars airs it seems like just another step on the devolution of a genre – contestants need no talent other than the ability to mime in time with other people’s music.
Incensed, and lured by the softness of the targets, a criminal decides to create his own reality show – one that has more bite and higher stakes. Kidnapping third rate celebrities and television personalities (beginning with a record producer), her broadcasts his program over the internet
I really wish I’d reviewed A Snowball in Hell when I read it, because the distance of many months has sadly left only a fragmentary memory. I do remember that I thoroughly enjoyed both the novel itself and the return of a couple of genuinely interesting characters. Like all Brookmyre’s work, this manages to combine action, crime and twisted comedy to create a unique and utterly enjoyable whole. So enjoyable, in fact, that I’m tempted to reread it - Alex

Monday, July 27

Bomb, Book & Compass - Simon Winchester

Subtitled Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China this is an account of how a British academic wrote the most famous history of scientific invention in china, focusing on advances and inventions originating decades, centuries and in some cases (like botanical grafting) millennia before their equivalents in the West. Joseph Needham was a biochemist who, during the second world war, branched off into unexpected areas, particularly sinology (the study of China), triggered by the initiation of what would prove to be a life-long relationship with Chinese scientist Lu Gwei-Djen, second only to his (open) marriage to Dorothy Needham.
Bomb, Book & Compass (the title refers to three particularly significant discoveries that initially originated in China) traces Joseph's early and academic life, his marriage to Dorothy, and his relationship with Lu, as well as his first trip to China in 1944. Along the way Winchester discusses recent Chinese history, particularly the effect of the Japanese invasion of China, and what became known as"the Needham question": why did China, initially so scientifically advanced, not built on these discoveries, with the consequence of being overtaken by advances in the West?
I have to admit that not only had I never heard of Needham before this, my knowledge of Asian/Eastern history in general and Chinese history in particular is woefully minuscule. Sadly, reading Bomb, Book & Compass has not significantly altered this, because I was unable to finish the book - from the beginning, where Winchester launches into Needhams' arrival in China in 1944 I was on the back foot. Who was this man, why was he in China, and why should I care? I found the narrative disjointed and distant, and I quit on page 125 (of 265), having learned of no inventions but the aforementioned grafting and that according to Gewi-Djen, or at least her father, "China had made an immensely greater contribution to world science and technology that anyone in the West had ever acknowledged... the two of them were perfectly convinced that China had invented scores of other things of which the West was conveniently ignorant."
Having recently read Doidges' The Brain That Changes Itself, I've resolved to learn a language in the next decade and thereby stave off dementia. Bomb, Book & Compass has inspired me to consider making Chinese that language, though I've not decided on whether to learn it as Cantonese or Mandarin. Otherwise, however, I feel unenlightened by this book on a fascinating topic. - Alex

Sunday, July 26

Sue Grafton: T is for Trespass

When an elderly neighbour has a fall and requires home nursing his only living relative, a niece who lives across country, asks investigator Kinsey Millhone to do a background check on the only viable candidate. The check comes back clean but it soon becomes apparent that something isn’t quite right and Kinsey decides to take a closer look at the hired help.
A little digging finds that the neighbour’s bank accounts are slowly being cleared and his valuables sold off. She reports her findings to both the niece and local social workers but nobody will believe her, especially after the nurse claims harassment and takes out a restraining order against her.
Worried about the neighbour’s safety (and knowing the accusations against her are false) she continues her investigation until she unearths the terrible truth. The woman posing as a nurse has used a string of stolen identities to ingratiate herself with elderly patients who all die with their assets missing and no sign of the hired help ever again.
With a little help from a former victim’s family she rescues the neighbour but in doing so incurs the murderous attention of the nurse. After a life threatening confrontation all resolves as it should.
Sometimes you just want the comfort of familiar things-at those times I like to read Grafton’s alphabet series. The characters are familiar, the plots reliably entertaining and the writing style easy to relax into. And this episode was, I think, the best in the series so far.
The antagonist was sneaky, conniving and intelligent. The plot was strong on suspense but still had its humorous moments. The regular characters were developed without that progress intruding on the main storyline.
This story left me looking forward to the next instalment in the series.-Lynn

Friday, July 24

Sweet Love - Sarah Strohmeyer

Julie Mueller connects cooking with her mother's subservient domestic role - Betty has always had a meat, two veg and salad on the table by six, with something sweet to follow. A single mother, reporter, and part of the 'sandwich generation,' Julie has no time for such nonsense, particularly when shes's angling for one of the competitive places on the electoral team, following one of the candidates for the months leading up to the next election.
Betty thought she was doing the right thing when she ended her daughter's crush on Michael, the boy next door; at twenty-one he was four years older, and his white trash parents were an ominous predictor of his future despite the nurturing Betty had done. Now, twenty years on, Betty's not so sure she was right after all. To make amends she gives Julie a dessert making course at Boston's famed Cooking School, and engineers Michael to join the class to. Can love rise like a twice-baked souffle?
I've had mixed success with Strohmeyer's novels - I somewhat enjoyed one, and loathed another, so I approached Sweet Love with a little trepidation. The blurb is a little misleading - though the romance with Michael is present, it plays a secondary role to Julies acclimation to middle age - her daughter will be leaving for college in a few years, who parents are getting older, and she';s reevaluating her career and her life in general.
The mother-daughter relationships in the novel, between Julie and Betty, and between Julie and her teenaged daughter Em play a far more significant role than the relationship between Julie and Michael. Through the course of Sweet Love we get to know more about the women, particularly how a family history of breast cancer has shaped their lives, and discover how Betty's relationship with her somewhat distant husband has coloured Julie's picture of marriage and support.
Julie is relatively complex, has ssituations where career advancement battle ethics, and Strohmeyer clearly articulates her frustration at being an aid to those around her rather than being perceived as an individual with needs of her own - this is strongest when Betty assumes Julie can spend an afternoon taking her for an eye exam, not knowing Julie and Michael have plans of their own.
Despite these multiple elements, Sweet Love felt flat and undefined - the characters aren't very well presented, so we never have a strong sense of why Julie was attracted to Michael apart from habit, who Michael was himself, how he changes and why he was attracted to Julie, why Betty drew so much comfort from her emotionally and often physically absent husband, the relationship between Julie and her father, the relationship between Julie and her ex-husband, the relationship between Em and her father...
In many ways Sweet Love reminded me on an autobiographical first novel - though the writing was fine it felt as though Strohmeyer was working through some issues of her own. I say this because the character development wasn't as strong as I expected, and it ended with something of an 'eh' for me. Perhaps I approached Sweet Love as the romance it's very clearly presented as - title, pink cover, romance-focused blurb - but, as I said earlier, isn't. The book brought up some nuggets that caused me to reflect on my own mother-daughter relationship, but I didn't go into it with that expectation and so was left feeling rather flat. i think this is a third strike for me. - Alex

Thursday, July 23

The Clock Winder - Anne Tyler

Three years after her husband's death, Mrs Emerson is bereft but holding it together. Her children rarely visit, she's had to fire her long-standing handyman after she caught him urinating on her roses, and every day she becomes aware of knowledge she never knew her husband had, like how to keep all the clocks chiming at the same time. It would be easier to let some things go, but Mrs Emerson prides herself on maintaining her standards - even if standards are sliding nationally in 1960, she will always be appropriately attired.
When bringing the summer furniture into the house, Mrs Emerson is unexpectedly joined by Elizabeth, a most unusual young woman who offers to work as Mrs Emerson's handyman. Though clumsy in her usual life, Elizabeth is somehow transformed into a capable, focused person able to fix not only things round the home but corners of Mrs Emerson's life, including her dysfunctional family.
I'm conflicted about how I feel about The Clock Winder. For a start, though there are clocks present int he novel, their presence is minimal, Elizabeth is shown winding them, and Mrs Emerson's late husband isn't a significant part of the novel, and the title makes me feel as though I've missed something significant.
Initially published over thirty years ago, and decidedly set a decade before that, The Clock Winder could have been an interesting study in contrasts, between women of different eras, with different expectations and needs, set against a background of cultural change, but Tyler takes no almost notice of these aspects.
The pivotal character, Elizabeth, though present is never really known, by her employer, the brothers interested in her, her own family or even by herself. Rather than having a defined character of her own she's present primarily as a reflection of the way others see her and the needs others have for her. This is an aspect common to the novel as a whole - though the characters are interesting they somehow didn't feel wholly three dimensional, despite being quite complex.
This isn't a conventional narrative - no decisive structure, for a start. Instead it's more like a stream of consciousness chronology of several characters, who spend some time overlapping one another's lives. In those respects The Clock Winder is certainly Literature. Significant moments happen off-screen, particularly in a section that leaps forward a couple of years, leaving me wanting to know why and how the situation changed, though not strongly enough for that in itself to be interesting. The locust invasion that coincides with this leap served no dramatic or symbolic use that I could see, and after such a languid trajectory the end felt rushed, almost as though Tyler were as bored with the project as I.
Yet, despite this, there is something lyric in Tyler's writing and I did read it to the end despite an abundance of other books available and a plethora of tasks to be done. My first introduction to Tyler's work, Breathing Lessons, was a success I've been unable to subsequently match - though I also enjoyed A Patchwork Planet, I've had three unenjoyable novels cross my path and think it might be time to stop trying. - Alex

Wednesday, July 22

The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

Recovering from eye surgery that has temporarily left him bandaged and effectively blind for several days, Bill Masen is surprised when the usual routine of hospital life, usually so regimented, is broken. Impatient for both his breakfast and for the bandages to be removed, his irritation soon moves to concern - as he concentrates he notices almost no street noise, no bird song, and crying from the rest of the ward floor. When he boldly removes his bandages (relieved to discover his sight has fully returned) and investigates, Bill discovers that he is one of only a handful of sighted people left in London. The night before a spectacular and unprecedented meteor shower attracted the attention of everyone able to watch, and it seems that in the process it blinded the populace.
Before the crisis Bill worked with triffids, tall plants with tongue-like stingers that can kill, and that can walk awkwardly on three 'legs' - his proximity to the plants, whose origin is unknown but who are widely suspected to be Russian, allows him greater insight into their behaviour, and a degree of immunity to their poison. Bill is the first to realise that the triffids are taking advantage of the blindness, killing and devouring humanity at an unprecedented rate.
I was aware on this reading, as I certainly wasn't on my initial reading when I was a teen, of how clearly the era it was written is present in the text. Some of these are inevitable reflections of the era, like the presence of the Cold War and the mysterious blankness of the Soviet Union are so strong as to almost be characters in their own right, and the presentation of women; though this is to some extent addressed by one character, the image of at least some women as parasitic and decorative is uncomfortably present when contrasted with more contemporary fiction.
Other dated aspects could have been avoided has Wyndham been aware that his work would still be popular half a century after its publication, elements like currency references ("I myself had not been one of those addicted to living in an apartment with a rent of some two thousand pounds a year") and the snatches of song that both serve no purpose and anchor the decade, such as: like
I [was] twiddling the stem of my glass and listening to the phonograph in the other pub churning out the currently popular, if rather lugubrious, ditty:
"My love's locked up in a frigidaire,
And my heart's in a deep-freeze pack.
She's gone with a guy, I'd not know where,
But she wrote that she'd never come back.
Now she don't care for me no more,
I'm just a one-man frozen store,
And it ain't nice
To be on ice
With my love locked up in a frigidaire,
And my heart in a deep-freeze pack."

That said, The Day of the Triffids is post-apocalyptic SF classic that has in many respects barely dated in the almost fifty years since it was written. The central character is strong and engaging, the crisis is unique and fascinating, and the plot trajectory is strong and holds up after all this time. This is at least the fifth time I've read The Day of the Triffids, and each reading is fresh and interests me anew. There is romance, suspense, danger, intelligence, contrast and, as is the case in all great novels, I am every time left to ponder how I would fare in such a situation. There's a reason why this was known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and why Wyndham's reputation persists long after his death. - Alex

Tuesday, July 21

The Perils of Paella - Nancy Fairbanks

Carolyn Blue, food column writer and heroine of four previous books, is in Barcelona, catching up with an old friend while her academic husband attends a nearby conference. She plans to see the sights and try the cuisine but on Carolyn's very first day she discovers a body in the midst of an elaborate performance art piece, a body that in many ways resembles that of her dear friend and Miro scholar Roberta, resident at the museum.
Before she knows it Carolyn is waist deep in art, intrigue, run-away step-sons (Roberta's, not hers), seedy underbellies, suspicious police, murderous cabbies, pubs of ill-repute, amazing food and revenge.
This is a light and frothy series, ideal for a mentally break from more pressing concerns but far from substantial. The characters are sufficiently developed, the recipes amusing (though I have no intention of recreating any), and the plot diverting. I also liked the unusual setting, and Fairbanks' inclusion of Catalan history, language, culture and cuisine into the text - Alex

Monday, July 20

A Garden of Eden and Other Criminal Delights - Faye Kellerman

The title story is a purpose written tale involving Kellerman's chief protagonist, detective Peter Decker, his wife Rina Lazarus, gardening and a mystery - the mystery is very much less the focus of the story than the relationship between these much loved and long-lasting characters, and also plays second fiddle to the plants.
This short story collection also includes a mystery involving Decker's daughter Cindy, newly graduated from the police academy, a mystery unrelated to the Decker/Lazarus family, and two autobiographical vignettes in its seventeen-item quiver that has a uniting theme of family.
Some of the work is certainly darker than Kellerman's usual fare, with two particularly uncomfortable pieces - "Mummy and Jack" about an intertwined, interdependent, dysfunctional mother/son relationship, and "Bonding," which combines teen prostitution, quasi-consensual incest and murder.
Although husband Jonathan is better known, I've always enjoyed Faye's novels more, partly because of the stronger domestic aspect but also because of the way she weaves Judaism through both the text and the plot. Her novels combine character development with the mystery plot, adding layers of depth to each new installment.
I was therefore disappointed by the thinner, less intricate and less surprising plots in this collection. Even allowing for the shorter, and therefore less complex nature of the writing, I found both the ideas and the execution somewhat pedestrian. This may in part be because some of the entries were co-written with Kellerman's children, including novelist Jesse, or perhaps just because I was in the wrong frame of mind at the time of reading. In any case I think I'll stick to Kellerman's novels from here on in. - Alex

Sunday, July 19

Breathing Room - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Despite a chaotic childhood with alcoholic parents, Dr Isabel Favor never has to worry about moving on short notice brecause of unpaid rent, looking blowsy and dishevelled like her mother, or going hungry. Every aspect of her life is ordered and controlled, from her career as a best-selling help book author to her immaculate and neutrally-toned apartment, from her trim and neat appearance to her scheduled and appropriate relationship with her fiance. It's all built on the theory she created, the Four Cornerstones of a Favorable Life: healthy relationships, professional pride, financial responsibility and spiritual dedication.
And in one brief day Isabel's life falls apart - her accountant has embezelled the money she owed the tax department and her fiance leaves her for another woman. To add insult to injury Michael tells her she has sexual hangups, and his new love is older, fatter, rumpled and pregnant! Owing the IRS over a million dollars, her career a laughing stock and her new book selling only in triple figures, Isabel has to sell everything she owns with the exception of a suitcase full of clothes and a gold bangle engraved with 'breathe' to remind herself to stay centred. The offer from a friend to take over the short-term lease of a Tuscan farmhouse seems perfect, and Isabel gives herself some time to take stock and start over. But her neat schedule of events doesn't come off, and Isabel learns that real life is messier and less controlled than she believes.
I've read all of Phillips's novels and this stand alone is one of my favourites. She writes great novels, and this is no exception - the hero and heroine are rounded and layered, the plot hurdles are believable and integrate with the characters' personalities, the sub-plots are dynamic and involving, and the secondary characters are well crafted.
In Breathing Room the hero is Italian-born, American-raised film star Lorenzo "Ren" Gage, best known as the world's premiere murderer - his only role as romantic hero spectacularly flopped. Lorenzo and Isabel hook up in Fiorenze, where their chemistry and her determination to prove her ex wrong override their ability to communicate - he pretends to be an Italian called Dante, she a Frenchwoman named Annette. When they next meet it's as absentee landlord and tenant, and the chemistry resurfaces.
There are several separate sub-plots; one is a mystery involving the whole village, and the other involves Ren's mercurial first wife Tracy and her polar-opposite husband Harry Briggs. The latter is substantial and has a host of related sub-plots about their five children (one unborn) that interconnect with the issues Ren has about children and about his latest film. There's a particularly great scene where Ren coaches runaway daughter Steffie on the key aspects to avoiding being grounded, and an ongoing thread about toilet training. In particular the disharmony, and Isabel-led therapy, of Tracy and Harry provides a strong counter-point to the evolving relationship between Isabel and Ren, and the importance of honest communication between couples. - Alex

Saturday, July 18

Bad Faith - Aimée and David Thurlo

One of two extern nuns in the Our Lady of Hope Monastery in hot, humid New Mexico, Sister Agatha links the cloistered order with the outside world, a world that includes her high school boyfriend, now sheriff, Tom Green.
When Father Anselm comes one Sunday to celebrate Mass it seems like any other Sunday, until he collapses and dies while consecrating the Host. Tom suspects murder, and though Sister Agatha's loathe to believe that anyone within her community could kill, she fears he may be right.
Between keeping the Antichrysler (their run-down station wagon) running, working in the scriptorium to garner funds vital to keeping the monastery going, and helping Reverend Mother determine whether their postulant and novice ought to be ordained, Sister Agatha investigates Father Anselm's death, drawing on skill she hasn't needed for a long time, skills she developed in her previous life when she was Professor Mary McNaughton, a journalist and lecturer.
The Thurlos do an admirable job of weaving details about Sister Agatha's cloistered life with the main plot of the novel. The sub-plots, which involve the mysterious appearances of a large dog into an apparently locked compound, Tom's relationship with his shrewish wife, ever-dying computers, and the acquisition of a Harley with side car, compete with somewhat clumsy chunks of exposition about Sister Agatha's past. The characters are under-developed and often inadequately described, and the energy between Tom and Sister Agatha is a little odd, but despite these flaws Bad Faith is an absorbing read - the main mystery is involving, the details about everyday cloistered life were fascinating, and Sister Agatha's strength of commitment to the Church and God were far from pious and really refreshing.
There were enough loose ends for me to look forward to the next in the series, where hopefully more will be revealed - Alex

Friday, July 17

Watership Down - Richard Adams

Were it not for his odd brother Fiver, Hazel would have been someone of importance in the warren. Always unusual, Fiver became convinced that a disaster was about to fall upon their community, and though he couldn't explain exactly what was going to happen, his certainty was strong enough to persuade Hazel that he should approach the community's leader. Unsurprisingly, Threarah was unconvinced that he should evacuate the entire populace on nothing more than a feeling, and that from a nobody like Fiver, and he had the brothers evicted, though not before a few other members joined them, a band of rabbits in search of a new home.
Watership Down is a classic epic novel that combines adventure, heroic fantasy, intrigue, nature and anthropomorphised animals. Unlike less successful imitators (like the woeful One for Sorrow, Two for Joy), though rendered more human than real rabbits in terms of culture, intellect, communication and planning, Adams' rabbits exhibit rabbity behaviour, have a cohesive and unique language (Lapine), and when they do behave in human-like or non-rabbit ways there's a good and sinister reason.
Released in 1972, and an inspiration for first-time authors (the manuscript was rejected by thirteen publishers before finding a home and being on continuous print since its' initial release), Watership Down was turned into an animated film in 1978 and an animated BBC television series for three seasons from 1999.
Watership Down is large both in size and scale, but eminently readable. It can be read in a multiplicity of ways - as a monomyth in the tradition of Joseph Campbell; as an heroic quest like those of ancient Greek and Roman legends; as a religious (or anti-religious) allegory; as a pro-nature/anti-expansionist appeal; and as a gendered portrayal. I'm sure there are other academic viewpoints I've overlooked.
Most often, though, Watership Down is read as the children's book it creator intended. Originally created as a story to distract young daughters on a long car trip, it's ideal for a chapter-a-night bedtime book both for older readers and younger children being read to. There are stories within stories, including the rich mythology of El-ahrairah, the trickiest rabbit who ever lived, and his aide Rabscuttle, and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, the Lapine version of the Angel of Death. There are heroes and villains, cooperation and treachery, character development, birth war and death, triumph and defeat, shades of grey and strong morality, and beautiful descriptive passages that reflect a deep love of and appreciation for the British countryside.
As an Australian it's a little difficult to let go of the rabbit as an introduced scourge and appreciate it as part of a natural environment, but Adams' writing is so bewitching this happens almost instantly. He combines description, from both omniscient and Lapine perspectives, with convincing dialogue and a strongly plotted pace. Each chapter opens with a quote - some from his inspiration, RM Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit, and others from a variety of literary sources, including one of my favourite poetry fragments from Sidney Keye's Four Postures of Death.
If you haven't read Watership Down, do. If you have but it's been a while, read it again. And bear in mind the joke, popular shortly after the film's release: you've read the book, you've seen the film, now eat the cast! - Alex

Thursday, July 16

Jim Butcher: Fool Moon

Business has been slow for the only professional wizard in the phone book, so when the police call him in to consult on an unusual murder he can’t afford to turn the job down.
At first glance it seems obvious: a mutilated corpse, strange paw prints, a full moon, it’s got to be a werewolf.But werewolves are not as straightforward as one might think. There are several different varieties and he’s about to take on at least four flavours of wild beast in an attempt to stop a brutal murderous spree.
His hunt is hampered by the police and the FBI who are both involved in investigating the murders and refuse to admit the obvious. And all the while a local crime boss is using the killings as a cover for his own revenge plans against the wizard who refuses to join his empire.
With his magic failing, too many people wanting him dead and a large helping of guilt over the deaths, the wizard fights on in the face of certain death and manages to somehow make it out battered but alive.
The second book in this series, Fool Moon delivers good characterisation and a fast paced plot.
I read the first in the series, Storm Front, quite some time ago and to be honest the story felt a little bland. As a result I haven’t followed the series. I picked this instalment up on a whim and was surprised by just how much better it was than my memory of the first book would have me expect.The world building is succinct and yet detailed enough to give the reader a good impression of the wizard’s reality. Characters are complex and completely believable. Hints of romance in a well blended secondary plot add an extra dimension of interest. And a twist at the end is wholly unexpected.
This story has all the colour that I missed in the first one.Butcher makes the combination of paranormal and old-fashioned hard-boiled detective work. This is a series well worth pursuing and I will.-Lynn.

Wednesday, July 15

Practically Perfect - Katie Fforde

Interior decorator Anna has a huge and exciting challenge - her sister Laura has bought a broken down small cottage not far from London. All Anna has to do is fix it up for resale - from flooring to plumbing, and creating a stairway that's both sound and fits the interior architecturally and physically.
She didn't expect to acquire a retired greyhound, the perpetually high strung Caroline, and she never thought to contact the local building commission, who turn out to have rather strict requirements. She also didn't expect to find love.
I enjoy Fforde's novels, which tend to gentle English countryside romances, involving young single (or newly single) women who have a task to achieve and romance firmly off the agenda but creeping in anyway, and Practically Perfect was exactly what I expected. The characters are sufficiently three dimensional, the plot is believable and undramatic, the hurdles to romance don't stretch credibility too far, and the odd plot twist keeps things interesting.
Given Practically Perfect was published in 2006 I was a little disconcerted by the level of technological ineptness, demonstrated by the surprise Anna's neighbour and her sister show when discovering Anna set up an email address for herself unaided. She also went on a bit much about the tininess of the cottage, considering her young married neighbours are raising three boys in an identical (albeit habitable) home. These tiny quibbles aside, however, Practically Perfect was not particularly memorable or life changing but an amusing enough diversion. - Alex

Tuesday, July 14

The Eagle of the Ninth - Rosemary Sutcliff

Set in Britain in the second century AD, The Eagle of the Ninth is the story of Marcus Aquila, a young Roman officer on his first leadership assignment. The son of a member of the famous lost Ninth Legion, Marcus is determined to discover what happened in the north, why his father never returned, and hopes to reclaim the Legion's eagle - a bronze standard that serves as a symbol of the power and might of Rome.
I first read The Eagle of the Ninth at school, part of a curriculum that emphasised the history, culture and language of ancient Rome, and remember being fascinated by the book. It's been in the back of my mind on my mental To Re-read list for some time, and I came across a copy at the library while searching for Watership Down. It was with eagerness that I began reading, but either the novel or, more likely, the timing, just didn't work, and I couldn't make much headway - every time I went to pick it up my heart sank just a little and I gave up on it only a quarter of the way through.
I don't know why this is: the topic interests me, the era and the cultures fascinate me, and I have a strong - albeit elderly - foundation that includes five years of Latin and a year of Classical Civilizations (the philosophy, art, plays, poetry and culture of ancient Greece and Rome) to support my reading. This all leads me to suspect that the fault lies not with the book but within me and the time I chose to revisit it.
The book was a BBC television series in the mid-seventies, and a film is currently in pre-production, so I suspect interest in it will be renewed. The book is, in the interim, a classic much loved by educators and I may attempt to re-read it again at a more auspicious time. - Alex

Monday, July 13

A Meeting at Corvallis - SM Stirling

It's Change Year Nine, and the Portland Protectorate are becoming bolder in their attacks on Bearkiller and Clan Mackenzie territory. At the same time the newly independent Dunedain Rangers, headed by anamchara Astrid and Eilir, have captured a PPA raider who they want to try in the neutral university town of Corvallis. Aware that the only way they can face down Norman Arminger, the PPA's powerful Lord Protector, with any success is by banding together with the other free states, Lord Bear Mike Havel and Juniper Mackenzie join the Rangers on a trip to convince Corvallis to unite against their common foe. After all, with the proof of unauthorised incursions present in the form of the captured raider, Corvallis will no longer be able to turn a conveniently blind eye to the very real threat the PPA poses.
Still in possession of the Lord Protector's daughter, Matilda, the leaders sally forth, only to become reacquainted with the maxim that the enemy's plan can trip your own plan up - the Protector's wife Sandra is also in Corvallis, to present her side, and is accompanied by her private servant Tiphaine, an assassin. The Corvallis Faculty Senate inexplicably continue to be willfully blind, the proof is assassinated, Matilda is recaptured along with Juniper's son Rudi, and war seems certain.
The third in the Change trilogy, it is a testament to the depth and scope of Stirling's writing that reading this plot summary will not significantly affect the pleasure or surprise of reading A Meeting at Corvallis - there's so much going on and so neatly intertwined are the threads that reading this quite substantial book was an unalloyed pleasure. The narrative switches from one group (Bearkillers, Clan, Rangers, Protectorate) to another with rapidity,
I was a little less annoyed, this time around, with the broadly portrayed Aussie Hugo Zeppelt, in no small part because of the following passage:
"It's the Unspeakable Antipodean," Signe said with a mixture of sarcasm and goodwill. Zeppelt's Australian drawl was as rasping as ever. "Hi Zeppo."
"Still a bit of a figjam, eh?" He laughed back at her. "And grinning like a big blond shot fox, my Lady Signe is."
"Dinner's ready, I hope?"
"Fair dinkum, no fear, "Zeppelt said. "On the bloody table, and it's grouse tucker."
"Did you ever talk like that in Oz?" Havel said curiously, dismounting and tossing the reins to a groom.
"Why, that would have been superfluous considering the culture context, would it not?" Zeppelt replied in dulcet tones.
Well thank god for that! the dialogue is crisp and amusing, the characters interesting and rounded, and the plot absorbing. Most interesting to me is the way that Stirling addresses the question of what happens after a significant devastation on an established society. This is the subject of a number of classic novels, from Watership Down to Day of the Triffids, from The Handmaid's Tale to The Gate to Women's Country and of course beyond. Oft explored, never stale, Stirling's perspective is rich and interesting, and he combines a number of affects in one large-scale whole. - 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

Sunday, July 12

Bogus to Bubbly - Scott Westerfeld

Subtitled An Insider's Guide to the World of Uglies, Bogus to Bubbly is Westerfeld's explanation of how he came up with the ideas underpinning his best selling Uglies quartet. In essence, from the age of sixteen body modification surgery, in conjunction with cognitive modification that the majority of the population are unaware of, is a societal norm - young people in particular push modification to its limits. The first three books follow Tally Youngblood, a young girl who looks beyond the superficial and in the process changes her society irreperably. The final chapter, Extras (reviewed here), takes up events three years alter and on another continent, where Aya Fuse's society has also been affected by Tally's actions even though fame is more important there that the cliques that dominated Tally's city.
Westerfeld begins with the event that started him thinking about the concept that underpins Tally's world, a friend's encounter with an LA dentist. Not unlike a concept journal, Bogus to Bubbly covers aspects like technology (mag-lev boards and trains), cliques and sub-cultures, and slang.
I found this last aspect particularly interesting, in part because it's not something I've gtiven much thought to apart from wondering what causes language to change. It turns out there's a whole linguistic field exploring this aspect of language about what takes off and why. Westerfeld writes about why he chose the words and phrases he did, following a concept Allan Metcalf, in Predicting New Words, calls FUDGE: frequency of use, unobtrusiveness, diversity of users and suituations, generation of other forms and meanings, and endurance of the concept (though Westerfled thinks this last is fairly obvious and substitutes euphony or pretty-soundingness).
Bogus to Bubbly is less absorbing that the novels it's based on, and of no interest at all to those who haven't read the series, but I found it rounded out some aspects of Westerfeld's Uglies universe for me, and made me think more about authorial world building. Lynn believes that knowing more about how an art is created, the bones and structure and evolution of a mystery novel, for example, detracts from her ability to appreciate and immerse herself in it. I to some extent agree - though it may add a layer of technical appreciation, it seems as though a greater awareness of the how must perforce decrease the ah of the experience. In this case, however, I found reading Bogus to Bubbly added to my appreciation of Westerfeld's world. - Alex

Saturday, July 11

Going Dutch - Katie Fforde

After what seems like five years of wedding planning, Dora has realised that she doesn't actually love her fiance, John. Unwilling to go ahead with the marriage despite pressure from her mother and from their small village, where everyone knows and is related to either her or John, Dora flees to London and her friend Karen's mother, Jo, who's barge-sitting.
Jo thought her life was stable and on track, but when her husband unceremoniously traded her in for a younger mode she was cast adrift. She knows nothing about barges, but Phillip's strong reaction of disapproval decided her - he was now her ex-husband and no longer got to say what she could and couldn't do.
As the women, a generation apart but in a similar situation, discover who they are as individuals rather than couples, they learn that they are less constrained than they first thought. Out of necessity and chance, Jo discovers she has a previously unknown and unsuspected gift for refurbishing antiques, and as part of a series of dares Dora takes on an office manager role in a boat yard. They also find love.
Fforde's romance covers familiar ground but, as is so often the case with her work, in a fresh way. While the blossoming relationships are important, the emphasis in Going Dutch (the tile refers to a trip to the Netherlands) is on female empowerment, with a strong message that this is possible at any age. Dora is only twenty-two but already believes her option are limited, and at almost fifty Jo discovers an entire world of both possibility and freedom she never imagined when fettered by a pedestrian, middle class husband.
Quintessentially English, Going Dutch has something to offer readers everywhere. It's fresh and engaging, and though not my favourite book of even the month it's well worth the time. - Alex

Friday, July 10

The Adoration of Jenna Fox - Mary E Pearson

When Jenna Fox awakens after a year in a coma, her memory of the car accident that caused her coma, as well as much of the preceding year, is blank, but there are curious patches of verbatim memory. As curious is the way her body recovers - one day her eyelid droops, the next it's fully restored; one day she is unable to recall a mundane detail, the next she has total recall of an event that occured when she was only weeks old.
Her father is away, her mother is hovering, and her grandmother seems to hate her, though Jenna doesn't know why. She also doesn't know why she's been sent to the tiny local school, or why she feels compelled to obey her mother, even when she doesn't want to. Jenna does know, though, that she was adored by her parents - her every step was taped for posterity, and as Jenna watches the discs that recorded a life she only spottily remembers, fragment begin to take shape. She had whispers about her friends, who seem mysteriously absent from the discs, and she knows that there's a secret, a giant secret, but she doesn't know what it is . Yet.

The title refers to the loving attention her parents paid to her every move, as evidenced by the detailed and somewhat claustrophobic recording of her every move from birth - each celebration, recital and event faithful taped for posterity or, as it happens, to bring back memories.
While reading The Adoration of Jenna Fox I was reminded of both My Sweet Audrina by Virginia Andrews, and Unique - in both novels parents attempting to recreate lost, loved children use a combination of dishonesty, technology (less so in the decades-old Virginia Andrews version) and manipulation to make matters worse.
However, for some reason I was felt less powerfully invested in Jenna Fox than in the similarly-themed novels. When the secret was revealed it came rather anti-climactically, and I didn't feel connected to Jenna, her desperate parents or her somewhat distant and unsympathetic grandmother. This wasn't a bad book but I had higher hopes for it than it was able to meet. - Alex

Thursday, July 9

The Undercover Mother - Eirin Thompson

When the last of her three children starts school our unnamed protagonist decides the time is ripe to rejoin the workforce. She gets a position at the local mall, as an undercover store detective - as a run-of-the-mill, middle-aged woman she's ideally invisible.
There are work-related mysteries, like why everyone else ignores the blatant thieving of a posh school girl, and the question of vote rigging in a local Boony Babes photo competition. But as she begins not only an association with local FM star Lindy-May but also a decades-old abandoned baby story, her life begins to ravel around the edges.
More than a typical mid-life chick lit novel, Undercover Mother is also less than both I hoped and less than it could have been. For a start the style is choppy, with entries the length and style of diary extracts and about as interesting. The central mystery, the identity of the mother of the long-ago abandoned baby, is hardly difficult to penetrate.
As a portrait of an average woman with unexpressed fears and concerns this is a workable effort. But I found it difficult to relate or warm to the heroine, and the surprise twist of her ending up in a psychiatric facility changed the tenor of the book without necessarily adding to it.
I suspect this is Thompson's first novel. There's another one in print, but I doubt I'll be rushing to it any time soon. - Alex

Wednesday, July 8

Bone Crossed - Patricia Briggs

A week after the events of Iron Kissed, mechanic Mercy Thompson is trying to recover from being raped, almost killed, a hairs' breadth from murder charges and the unwitting cause of werewolves being known to the population at large. No longer the centre of a love triangle she's nonetheless far from conflicted about Adam - though the werewolf Alpha has been considerate and patient, Mercy's having panic attacks that embarrass and frighten her, and she's waiting not Adam to give up waiting.
When an old school friend comes to her for help the timing seems auspicious. Though Mercy is suspicious, events at home including the unwelcome attentions of Marsilia, Queen of the local vampire seethe, convince her that a trip is just the thing. Spokane is about 150 miles from Mercy's home in the tri-cities, and is home to James Blackwood, a powerful and reclusive vampire who keeps his territory free of his kin. Mercy is right to be distrusting of coincidence, though she has no idea how concerned she should be.
Bone Crossed is a welcome addition to a still strong series. Briggs keeps the pack dynamics unfolding, as Mercy's relationship with Adam both simplifies and complicated matters. Other supernatural creatures, and their uneasy relationships with the mortal world and with the more knows races, are revealed, and the way they're named is particularly interesting - I'm hoping to learn more about the creatures known as Jack Be Nimble for a start. As is so often the case, the vampires are far more Machiavellian than the werewolves, and the aftereffects of some truly Byzantine plotting thread through the novel, along with a renewed emphasis on Mercy's gift for seeing ghosts.
The relationships and characters are the heart of this series, and while the plots are detailed and compelling this is not at their expense. I mentioned in my review of Iron Kissed how compellingly, chillingly and resonantly Briggs write about assault, and I was impressed that she so accurately documented its lasting affects on Mercy. I'm really interested to see where she takes Mercy next. - Alex

Tuesday, July 7

How to Ditch Your Fairy - Justine Larbalestier

Charlie is a student at New Avalon’s sports school, the best in the country and probably in the world, because new Avalon does have the best of everything. To her enduring misery her performance at the first year basketball tryouts was so bad she only made the D squad, but she’s a B squad member in her second love, cricket.
Her bigger concern, though, is her useless fairy. Practically everyone in New Avalon has their own fairy, whether they believe in them or not. Charlie's best friend Rochelle, for example, has a clothes-shopping fairy, who ensures that everything she tries on suits her and is on sale. The school's most popular girl, Fiorneze, has an attract-all-boys-her-age fairy, that sadly includes the gorgeous new guy, Steffi. Well, she's not so popular among her female peers. But fourteen-year-old Charlie is stuck with a parking fairy, which is a fat lot of use to her. Charlie hates her fairy - its presence not only makes people take her with them when they don't want to pay for parking but also garners her the unwelcome attention of school star and unquestionably odd Andrew Anders.
She’s heard that you can lose your fairy by cutting it off from its area, and has been steadfastly refusing any wheeled transport for two months, but the move has her racking up demerits, and her fairy doesn’t seem any further away than when she started. Desperate to exchange it for a fairy with a more useful power, Charlie discovers that pastures really can seem greener from afar, learns not to judge others, and discovers her own value.
Like Larbalestier’s Magic trilogy, which takes place in both Sydney and New York, New Haven is a deliberately ambiguous blend of Larbalestier’s native Australia and her husband’s American home. I did enjoy the former series, but I loved How to Ditch Your Fairy. It’s a perfect combination of humour and angst, compelling narrative and crafted characters, romance and suspense. Larbalestier has taken a leaf out of her writer husband Scott Westerfeld’s writing, particularly the Uglies series, by creating and seamlessly integrating new slang that fits and adds a level of credibility and resonance to her young narrator’s voice. I particularly liked benighted, torpid, injured and malodorous for things (respectively) horrid, boring, lame and hideous, and pulchy (or pulchritudinous) for attractiveness. I also liked the way a cute new boy allows Charlie to see her home town and practices in a new light, and the undeniably direct way she discovers how much greener the grass can be. I really, really hope that Larbalestier decides to write another novel set in new Haven. - Alex

Monday, July 6

Crocodile on the Sandbank - Elizabeth Peters

Amelia Peabody is well aware that she is not attractive by any objective measure - her figure is too round for modern fashion, her manner too acerbic and her mind too quick. More than resigned, she is comfortable with her status of middle-aged spinster. When her father died, leaving the bulk of his estate to her, Amelia left behind the flood if suddenly-attentive siblings, in-laws, nephews and nieces to achieve a life-long dream - to travel Europe and particularly Egypt. Even in the 1880's it was scandalous for a woman to travel alone, but good fortune not only rid Amelia of her tiresome companion Miss Pritchett but allowed her to retain the services of a gentlewoman seduced by an Italian cad and stranded in Rome. Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a woman who would become a life-long friend.
When Amelia and Evelyn first cross paths with archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and his brother Walter, Amelia's first reaction is fiery - the man may be intelligent and attractive but he is also arrogant and strong-willed. Walter seems attracted to Evelyn but she is too conscious of her ruined status to besmirch his reputation.
A series of adventures in El Armanah, from fever to mummies that walk the night, serve not only to strengthen Amelia's love of Egypt but to solidify the bond between all four adventurers. From elderly spinster, Amelia becomes a dewy and appreciated partner, and part of a family more welcoming and appreciative than the one she was born to.
This is the first in the Amelia Peabody mysteries, currently some twenty books strong. The hallmarks of the series, including a deep knowledge of and love for Egypt, sparkling humour, self deprecation and glinting intelligence are present throughout. Peters does a masterful job of, like the redoubtable Greenwood in her Phryne Fisher series, presenting a modern feminist sensibility within the constrains of her chosen period. - Alex

Sunday, July 5

This Pen for Hire - Laura Levine

Writer-for-Hire Jaine Austen is more used to helping would-be Romeo's with personal ads and love letters than investigating crime, but when one of her lovelorn losers is the main suspect in a murder she knows he couldn't have committed, Jaine finds herself pretending to be everyone from a police detective to a journalist in her quest for the truth.
Her name should have been my first warning that this was going to be an average chick lit contender. With the merciful exception of a lust for shoes, all the stock elements are present - the possibly gay lust object, the Jewish community ties, the allegedly pithy dialogue... which in this case includes a lot of snappy remarks Jaine thinks about saying but doesn't have the chutzpah to actually voice:
So what were you doing with that cop?" he asked, once again the Grand Inquisitor.
"Having passionate sex on the kitchen floor."
Okay, I didn't really say that. What I said was: "Just once, can't you mind your own business?"
Okay, so I didn't say that either.

"It's a long story, Lance. I'll explain later."
My library has several more in the series. I think I'll pass. - Alex

Saturday, July 4

Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain

In 1914 Vera Brittain was twenty and about planning to study at Oxford, but a chain of events precipitated a war the likes of which the world had never before seen, and four years later the world, and Vera's generation, had changed in ways unimagined and unimaginable less than half a decade earlier.
The first volume of an autobiographical trilogy, Testament of Youth is Brittain's lauded reflection on that period of time. A great and lengthy work, it is not only a classic account of the Great War years but of feminist literature - it not only reflects on her own experiences but follows the impact of that war on a generation.
Or at least that's what the references to Testament of Youth that lead me to seek it out say. However I just couldn't get into it at all. I'm not sure if it was the style, the length, or just that I picked the wrong time to attempt it, but I skipped over much of the laudatory introduction and still couldn't make it to chapter 2 (entitled "Provincial Young-Ladyhood").
A taste, from pp. 27-28:
It would not, I think, be possible for any present-day girl of the same age to even imagine how abysmally ignorant, how romantically idealistic and how utterly unsophisticated my more sensitive comtemporaries and I were at this time. The naïveties of the diary which I began to write consistently soon after leaving school, and kept up until more than half-way through the War, must be read in order to be believed.
Not so much interested, but I appreciate the offer. - Alex

Friday, July 3

New Moon - Stephenie Meyer

Bella is dreading her eighteenth birthday - her vampire soul mate Edward is seventeen and this is the first official marker of her aging while he remains timeless, and though he says he'll stay with her forever, Bella has dreams where she's old and wrinkled, though not abandoned by her ever-youthful love. Despite her requests, the Cullen's are determined to mark the occasion, but a small accident results in Bella being significantly hurt and a hairs' breadth away from attack.
Certain that his presence is harmful, Edward breaks up with Bella and the whole family leave Forks, hoping her life will achieve some semblance of normality.
Instead Bella falls into a near-catatonic depression. Eventually able to go through the motions, she feels as though her centre is missing, and is unable to engage with life. Her friends fall away, and her father despairs, until a chance brush with danger brings Edward back to her. Well, not Edward but an aural hallucination of him cautioning her to be careful.
Filled with renewed hope, Bella begins to court danger in the hopes of hearing his voice again, eventually buying a couple of broken down motorcycles. She takes them to Jacob Black, a Quileute Native American she knew as a child. Though a couple of years younger than her, Jacob is attractive and interesting, and he knows what not to say. As they work on the bikes she finds the time she spends with him easing her aching emptiness, and though she's careful not to encourage the interest she senses, Bella relaxes in his company in a way she hasn't since Edward left her. When she discovers he's a werewolf, and then that there's bone-deep enmity between his kind and the cold ones, her trust in him is undiminished.
It's quite difficult summarising New Moon without including significant spoilers. The second half of the book is less interesting to me than the first half at any rate. I found Bella a little unnecessarily dramatic in Twilight, but that's nothing to her moping about here. While I quite liked the way her depression is portrayed early on (with a sequences of diary pages blank except for the month), she really needed a combination of a slap and medication, plus or minus therapy and electro-convulsion.
The Romeo and Juliet theme is significantly more overt in this installment - Bella and Edward are clearly Juliet and Romeo, with Jacob standing in for the unfortunate Paris. Not only are the characters and play frequently referenced but the suicidality that serves as the plot's dénouement is explicitly mentioned and echoed in Bella's risk taking and depression. Meyers does do a great job conveying the dizzying heights and the depths of adolescent despair that haunt one's teen years, but her relationship with Jacob is far more interesting, and I found his a far more engaging character than Edward.
Once again I'm concerned about the misplaced focus on age. The Cullen's make a big deal of Bella's birthday in part because they no longer celebrate birthdays, and the notion that one's biological age is the only one that counts persists. At no point does anyone observe that, while Edward may look like he's seventeen, the age at which he turned or died, he has existed for the better part of a century since then. Surely experience counts for something.
This is particularly interesting when contrasted with the way Bella and Jacob overcome the age gap between them - adding and subtracting years based on skills, experiences and biology, so that at one point they agree he's effectively thirty not sixteen and she's twenty-seven instead of eighteen. Of course, if Bella and Edward did that then the unpalatable truth of his inappropriate interest in someone more than a fifth his age would have to be acknowledged...
Something about New Moon made me quite uncomfortable, on an I-wouldn't-want-my-daughter-reading-it level. I can't quite put my finger on precisely what it is, but it includes normalising extreme behaviour, elevating obsessive romance, and romanticising suicidal depression and risk taking to an audience already sufficiently prone to those directions.
I didn't hate it, and I'll probably read the next in the series, but this is far from the best genre novel I've read, and I still wholly fail to see the magnetic allure this series has. For some idea of the absorption some fans have, take a look at this YouTube clip of a fan's reaction to the trailer for New Moon - I just don't get it. - Alex

Thursday, July 2

The To Do List - Mike Gayle

British author Mike Gayle is married, mortgaged, with a daughter and a child on the way. Yet, on the eve of his 36th birthday he still doesn't feel like a proper adult, at least not in comparison with his new and unquestionably grown up neighbours. He and wife Claire are fairly certain Derek and Jessica don't leave milk spilled under the fridge for weeks on end, or still wear undies over a decade old. Long a list writer, Mike writes an oberlist that ends up being 1,277 items long - it ranges from "eat more salad" to "clean windows" (numbers 1 and 1,277 respectively), and covers aspects of family life ("fly kite with child"), friendship ("have John and Sue over for dinner"; "post Jackie and Mark's unposted Christmas card"), love ("write love letters to wife like I used to"), self improvement ("read something by Freud"; "get to know cheese") and fiddly bits of business ("finish Guardian quick crossword begun in April").
To ensure he stuck to it, Gayle emailed all his friends with his intention to do all of his list within a year, giving them permission to tease him unmercifully if he failed. He inadvertently included his agent in the mass emailing, who approached a publisher, which is not only how Gayle stuck to it but also how The To-Do List became a book.
Gayle's voice is straight-forward, funny and honest. From the first page I found points of reference, from the unread (but once longed-for) DVD box sets to the evil siren call of procrastination and the arduousness of tackling War and Peace.
The book combines his attempts to meet his aims with reflections on his life, and the year he spent between birthdays was more than a pursuit of adulthood - it was an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family, reassess relationships, and take stock of his life. As an inveterate writer of many undone To Do lists I was inspired to create my own, far more modest 250-item version that I similarly hope to achieve by this time next year. One item is writing reviews of books in a more timely manner - Alex