Saturday, October 31

Silverwing - Kenneth Oppel

Young bat Silverwing has always been more inquisitive and curious than his fellows. Frustrated by the rules that govern bat behaviour, he is incensed by the requirement that all bats must roost before the first light of day, a punishment imposed generations ago, after the great war between birds and land animals when bats declared neutrality because they belonged to both groups. The victorious birds branded the bats cowards, while the animals called them traitors, and bats were banished to the dark.
Desperate to see the sun, Shade disobeys the rule and incurs the wrath not only of his leaders but of the creatures who maintain the punishment - as a result, the colony's home tree is destroyed, forcing the group to leave early for their winter home. In the exodus Shade becomes separated from his group and, as this is his first migration, he doesn't know the way to their meeting place. As he tries to find the route on his own, Shade discovers many different kinds of creatures, and ways of life different from those he could ever have imagined, from villainous pigeons to Marina, a birghtwing bat with ideas of her own.
The first in a four book series (including the prequel Darkwing), Oppel draws from a complex mixture of mythologies to create an anthropomorphic world that, though aimed at younger readers, is quite adult. There are certainly adult themes, most striking of which is the cannibalistic attacks of two vampire bats.
I'm not a fan of wholly anthropomorphistic animal world - as I've mentioned many times before, though happy for animal protagonists and rich but fictitious animal cultures, I prefer my animals to behave like natural creations and not furry (or feathered) humans. I did finish Silverwing but have no intention of following the series through to its conclusion even though there are several unanswered questions (like the fate of Shade's father) left hanging. - Alex

Friday, October 30

Issac Asimov's Utopias - Gardner Doizois + Sheila Williams (eds)

The collection of not-quite-Utopian-for-everyone FSF shorts covers a variety of potential perfect worlds and asks what happens if the fit isn't perfect for you. In "Mountain Ways" Ursula Le Guin explores a mountain-dwelling society where group marriage is not only the norm but a requirement - two men, two women, one marriage - and where one woman finds men wholly repellent. In addition to the interesting premise (which was also the basis of Neanderthal culture in sawyer's parallax trilogy), I'm happy to have been introduced to the concept of moiety,

In "Out of Touch" Brian Stableford looks at an unexplored aspect of immortality - what happens to the last mortals, too old for treatment to prevent aging? Jake's son and daughter-in-law don't understand him and have little patience, his beloved wife and most of the few friends he had are dead, and nothing much gives him any pleasure until he hitches a ride with another old man. I hope any longer works by this author have at least a little lightness because, though eminently readable and quite interesting, "Out of Touch" was not exactly uplifting.

In "Getting to Know You" by David Marusek, Zoranna is testing a new interactive AI belt while visiting her sister Nancy in Indiana. Though instructed to return the belt because of unexpected glitches int he programming, Zoe decides to hold on to it for a while, and discovers having someone (or something) in your life that knows you better than yourself is a profoundly disquieting experience. This plot is interwoven with a really interesting, rather depressing view of the future, a dysfunctional family relationship, and a frightening glimpse into what might happen to us when current careers become obsolete.

Like "Out of Touch," Mike Resnick's "One Perfect Morning, With Jackals" is about a father/son relationship where communication and acceptance are not a two-way process. A creature of Ngai, a Kikuyu, Koriba has taken the African name his son has discarded (for his more Western middle name, Edward) and is leaving Earth for a colony that will return to traditional customs and beliefs, leaving behind a white-dominated world that acknowledges artificial national boundaries and identities instead of tribal mores. he will also be leaving behind a son of whom he's proud, but who he does not understand. This is apparently a prequel to a string of stories about Kirinyaga, an attempt at Utopian recreation of a Kenyan-based space colony. I enjoyed this one but not enough to seek out the stories it precedes.

In "Canary Land" Tom Purdom's protagonist George has left Earth for the moon, but he has only limited resources and has to rely on a download music program for a living. When heavies pressure him into infiltrating an isolation zone, where new animals, plants and insects are quarantined for years to ensure they pose no harm to the moon's delicate biosphere, he does so knowing he may end up quarantined himself.

Steven Dedman's "Transit" is an adolescent, cross-cultural love story. Aisha, an Islamic girl, is travelling with her father from al-Goharan to Earth to make hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca every Muslim ought to make during their lifetime. Alex lives on da Vinci and e has never thought about worlds different than er own - the novelty of a monosexed person is interesting, but even before e discovered that, e was attracted to Aisha. I think I enjoyed this short story, and the complex world building that underlies it, the most of the collection, and hope there's a longer tale set in this universe.

"Smart Alec" by Kage Baker is the story of a small boy, neglected by his wealthy parents but cosseted by his carers, who at the age of four is taken from the yacht that is the only home he's ever known and plunked into London. An exceptional child, he adapts to the new rules and ends up turning a monitoring AI toy into something quite different. "Smart Alec" is perhaps the most intriguing story in this collection, combining both the frightening end point of a nanny state with a really devastating portrait of what happens when self-absorbed adults decide to reproduce. It ends on a point that could be a very interesting new plot, and the whole thing would be a great starting point for a novel-length work.

I'm not sure why I lost interest by the time I got to "Nevermore" by Ian R MacLeod and "Bicycle Repairman" by "Bruce Sterling." I suspect it's in part because I bolted the whole anthology, a genre better dipped in and out of, but also because so many dystopian vision among apparently Utopian worlds was a little exhausting. While I could see how some of the worlds would be Utopian, at least for some, others seemed fairly unpleasant for the majority. - Alex

Thursday, October 29

Racso and the Rats of NIMH

Timothy Frisby is heading off for his third year of school - because of the distance from home, he won't see him mother or siblings for nine long months, but the education he'll get from the NIMH rats will be invaluable. Jeremy the crow usually takes Timothy on his back, but his mother's injured and he can't, so Timothy careful makes his way on foot. Walking cautiously through the woods, Timothy comes across clear signs of another traveller - one considerably less cautious than he, for there are broken branches, marks of a carelessly waved tail, and even a fire that has only been partially extinguished.
The newcomer is Racso, a city rat who's heard about the NIMH school and has run away from home to learn. Ignorant about almost everything to do with country life, Racso is nonetheless very confident and full of himself, something that doesn't change when they arrive at the rats' valley home. Yet as a new catastrophe threatens the home of the world's only intelligent rats, Racso shows his true worth.
I am a hopeless completist - despite my disappointment with Robert O'Brien's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, I nonetheless felt compelled to continue rereading the trilogy. O'Brien's daughter wrote the sequels, which are true to the original, which sadly means all the things I had issue with first time around are still there. Timothy's off for his third year at school, yet somehow his mother's still well, despite the fact that she's not an enhanced former research subject but an ordinary field mouse. Timothy's brother has a new bride but his sisters live at home still - with no question of them also going away to school. And there're still references to clothing - including a jaunty beret worn by Racso.
Racso and the Rats of NIMH is a whimsical animal-based novel that would appeal to young readers, and certainly appealed to me when I was one. If you have a problem with overly anthropomorphised characters, though, and like me cannot move past this, you will be wrenched out of disbelief on every other page. - Alex

Wednesday, October 28

Best Friends Forever - Jennifer Weiner

Addie Downs had never fitted in, and with the exception of her older brother, nor had her family - all the other father's dressed in a suit and went to work, but hers made toys and was frightened by loud noises, and none of the other mothers were as big. But Addie loved her parents and these things never bothered her like they did Jon. But when Valerie moved into the house across the street Addie found a new friend - she had no father, her slender mother was impulsive and fun, and the girls hit it off. Firm friends until senior year, one night and one boy not only turned Addie into a social pariah but also ended the friendship.
Until fifteen years later, on the night of the high school reunion, an uncharacteristically panicky Valerie arrived on Addie's doorstep at half past ten. Taking revenge for that long ago night, Valerie may have killed the man who ruined Addie's life and now she needs her old friend's help.
Best Friends Forever combines Addie's present tense narration with chronological flashbacks through her life, and third person accounts of Pleasant Ridge police chief Jordan Novick, called from his quiet night in his empty house to investigate a pool of blood and discarded man's belt in a parking lot. As the stories of Addie, Valerie and Jordan unfurl and intertwine we learn more about them and their histories.
One element I particularly liked, and that is under-explored in life and fiction, is the tension infertility and IVF create in relationships - as is often the case in life, the combination of sex on demand purely for the sake of procreation, and one party wanting to stop trying well before the other, ends a marriage, and I thought the way this was portrayed, including the aftermath, was particularly well described. Sadly I read this a wee while before completing the review, so all I have to conclude with is that I quite enjoyed Weiner's latest novel. - Alex

Tuesday, October 27

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - Robert C O'Brien

As summer approaches it's almost time for widowed Mrs Frisby and her four children to move from their winter home. But Timothy, the youngest, is recovering from pneumonia and Mrs Frisby fear he's not strong enough for the journey. If they stay, though, the whole family will die - for Mrs Frisby is a field mouse and their home, a half buried cement brick, will be ploughed up once the frost breaks. In desperation she goes to Mr Ages, a white mouse who's been helpful in the past; he directs her to an owl, who refuses to help until he learns that her husband was Jonathon, whereupon he suggests she visit the rats who live under a giant rose bush on the farm grounds.
The rats are escapees from a science experiment run in the mysterious labs of NIMH, a government testing centre where they received a course of medication that boosted their intelligence to human level. Both Mr Ages and Jonathon were part of a simultaneous experiment on lab mice, the only two to survive the escape attempt. The rats have built an amazing home beneath the rose bush, complete with plumbing and furniture, but are preparing to abandon it for a safer home further from people.
I loved this novel and it's two sequels (written by O'Brien's daughter) when I was younger, and was pleased when I stumbled across it recently. The basic premise is intriguing, and the idea of competing biology, including why ape-like creatures rather than-rodent-like creatures became dominant, is interesting. It was therefore bitterly disappointing to discover the blatant anthropomorphisation riddled through the novel, an element that interrupted my suspension of disbelief every time I came across another example.
Some leeway may grudgingly be given for the rats, who are literate, read human books, and spent time in a house during their escape. But Mrs Frisby is an ordinary field mouse - yet somehow she not only brings home breakfast in a bag made of husks, but also has a dining table in her (brick-sized) home, compares a field seen from the air to a postcard, and carries things in her paws while walking. The rats also carry things, write on blackboards and on paper, carpet their hallways, and were somehow able to open a freezer. Their longevity is explained as a side-effect of the lab tests, but Mrs Frisby is inexplicably at least four years old and still spry - the usual life expectancy of a wild mouse is under three years.
As is clear from my review of the classic Watership Down , I have no problem with novels that feature animal protagonists. I do, however, ask that the animals be depicted as behaving like animals and not miniature human beings. The rats might as well have been teeny tiny people as rodents, and though I'll sally forth into the sequel part of me regrets not having left my enjoyment of the first reading stand. - Alex

Monday, October 26

Eclipse - Stephenie Meyer

After the events of New Moon Bella and Edward are back in Forks, under the watchful eye of her distrustful father. The sheriff is adamant that she must see people other than Edward, as he is increasingly concerned about the relationship. Bella is living in the future - after graduation Carlisle has promised to turn her, and Edward has not only agreed but will do it himself if she agrees to marry him. She's torn, though, by her friendship for Jacob, and by the enmity between his kind and the family she plans to join.
That's about all I can say about the plot - I made it to page 95 and just couldn't take any more of the fervent, fevered emotion and blind adoration. What tipped me over the edge was a note from Edward to Bella that ended "Look after my heart - I've left it with you" in an elegant cursive script. But there was no shortage of similarly sugary and overwrought sentiment ("black eyes, wild with their craving for my death") leading up to this point, and the writing is predominantly tell over show.
As with my previous experiences of the series, I found the naked adoration disquieting to read, particularly:

My eyes traced over his pale white features: the hard square of his jaw, the softer curve of his full lips - twisted up into a smile now, the straight line of his nose, the sharp angle of his cheekbones, the smooth marble span of his forehead - partially obscured by a tangle of rain-darkened bronze hair...
I saved his eyes for last, knowing that when I looked in them I was likely to loose my train of thought. They were wide, warm with liquid gold, and framed by a thick fringe of dark lashes. Staring into his eyes always made me feel extraordinary - sort of like my bones were turning spongy. I was also a little light-headed, but that could have been because I'd forgotten to keep breathing. Again.

I appreciate this series has a vast and appreciative audience. I don't get it myself, and unquestionably think there's better work in the genre available, but if we all thought alike the world would be a far duller place. I do finally feel as though I've taken enough of a silver bullet for the team, so don't expect to be reading a review of the final installment - Alex

Sunday, October 25

The Escape - Robert Muchamore

Marc Kilgour was abandoned at a railway station as an infant - the only life he's known is at the orphanage, where he and the other children must work for the simple food and barely adequate clothing, along with beatings for every infraction, they receive from the director. Twelve-year old Marc works for a nearby farmer, mucking out the cows sheds of the hundred and twenty litres of urine and loose feces each adult cow produces daily. When Marc tussles with the farmer's attractive daughter Jae, with whom he's slightly in love, she falls in a pit filled with this excrement, and Marc receives the beating of his life. When a German bomber crashes alongside the orphanage that evening Marc seizes inspiration and runs away.
Paul Clarke and his sister Rosie have been going to the English school in Paris because that's what their French mother wanted, and although most families have evacuated their father has waited until the tanks were at the edge of the country to leave. Ostensibly a clerk, Mr Clarke has secret papers that must get to London is the Allies have any hope of winning the war. When he pulls them out of school he seems unprepared for a flight, which results in the deaths of their landlady, a German soldier, and sadly Mr Clarke. Paul and Rosie are alone and surrounded by the population of a city fleeing ahead of an invading force.
This precursor to Muchamore's best selling CHERUB series begins the tale of how Englishman Charles Henderson set up a secret organisation that uses children as spies - it can easily be read by those unfamiliar with the initial series, but can hardly be said to stand alone.
Muchamore has brought the vibrancy of atmosphere, depth of character and rapidity of plot to this new series that the CHERUB books are known for. He conveys a strong sense of France on the brink of invasion in June 1940, from the use of child labour and casual corporal punishment to the looming threat of German occupation and pervasive hope that things won't really change that much. His children are courageous, determined and predominantly moral, though realistically and humanly flawed, and they undergo significant punishment, both physical and emotional.
I was, however, disappointed to find that The Escape, unlike each of the CHERUB novels, is not complete in itself but ends on a cliffhanger that demands the next book be read. Though I had, and have, every intention of doing so anyway, I really resent this approach whenever I come across it, and doing so twice in a month didn't help. I do hope that this won't be the case for the entire series of Henderson's Boys. - Alex

Saturday, October 24

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - JK Rowling

In what should have been his final year at Hogwart's, Harry is instead preparing for the fight of his life - the final showdown with Voldemort. From leaving the only house he's ever know, though it was never home, to the bitter end, Harry knows his life is in danger. He also has a task from Dumbledore, a secret only Hermione and Ron are privy to, but along the way he's tempted by another, competing mission. And why has his scar started to itch and burn again, giving him glimpses of Voldemort's activities?
The seventh and concluding chapter in the enormously successful Harry Potter series, The Deadly Hallows manages to wrap up every aspect, from a final parting from the loathesome Dursley clan to answering the question of why Harry alone survived Voldemort's attempted murder. Along the way several well-known characters die, predominantly in the final battle, and the truths about other characters are revealed.
There's no question that Rowling's concluded her series, and no space for another Potter outing, and I very strongly felt as though that was her driving inspiration throughout the novel. I read the first in the series before it became a phenomenon (through chance and an interest in YA and boarding school novels rather than any prescience on my part), and though I read each instalment again before starting the latest addition, it's been a while since I've read anything in the universe. So long, in fact, that though I was sure I read The Half-Blood Prince, I don't remember Dumbledore dying. Hmm.
Anyway, the point when I started this ramble was that I can't tell if it's that my involvement at the series' beginning was due to the writing, or if the plot and the premise compensated. In The Deadly Hallows there's no question - Rowling was well over her creation. Although I persisted to the end, I didn't really care that much about any of the characters, the central plot, the secondary plots or the ultimate battle.
There were irritating slabs of exposition, pages of info dumping articles and text books, chunks of telling-not-showing, and I didn't feel any emotional resonance with the characters - when Harry's beloved owl Hedwig is killed early on it felt decidedly uninteresting, and the deaths of people were no more significant. The recurrent theme that Harry didn't know Dumbledore as a person, as adolescents transitioning to adulthood recognise their parents as individuals with a past and present separate from their child, was particularly clumsy.
Harry is oftentimes unattractively self-oriented for a hero figure - he loses sight of the bigger picture, his arrogance almost causes catastrophe (when, despite multiple warnings not to, he refers to Vodemort by name instead of allusion), and he persists in thinking that those rallying to his side - even at great personal risk - are doing so for him, rather than seeing that he's the face of revolution against Voldemort. They're on Harry's side because the alternative is the totalitarian regime of Voldemort and the Death Eaters, not because they think he'd make a better leader. Every time Harry beats himself up over this I wanted to reach into the page and smack him, which is at least an emotional response to the writing.
I was at a conference last month that spent an evening session on the depiction of death in the Potterverse, and that perspective made some of the novel more interesting, though it also made me more aware of the inconsistencies.
I also felt disappointed that some plot lines didn't resolve - the house elves, in particular. And Rowling's reliance on coincidencejarred. Mostly, though, I didn't feel connected enough to Harry, whose journey is the heart of the series. I'm glad I got to experience the early part of this publishing triumph before the hype, and I'm really interested in seeing where it is twenty years from now. I still think the basic concept is an interesting twist on a familiar theme, a series of novels that incorporate adventure, duality, change and growth. I just feel a little flat and uninvolved with the end. - Alex

Friday, October 23

Emma Holly: The Demon's Daugher

A society very similar to Victorian England has made a pact with a race of Demons. The outcasts of demon society are free to live amongst humans in exchange for the use of their advanced technology. But the deal has a dark side. Demons can, and do, feed from human energy, though supposedly only with the consent of the humans in question. Both governments turn a blind eye to the practice but secretly acknowledge the power differential by the employment of police officers, who have been enhanced with demon technology to give them greater strength and speed required to keep rowdy demons under control.
When the bastard daughter of a renowned courtesan is discovered to be half demon-a situation thought to be impossible-both governments want her for their own nefarious purposes. It is up to the prototype enhanced police officer and her demon father to save her from a terrible fate.
This they manage to do, all while avoiding diplomatic disaster, learning to accept themselves and each other and of course, discovering the many meanings of love.
Emma Holly is best known for her erotic romances and this story does have more than its fair share of erotic scenes, many of which do not further plot or character development. Having said that, they are for the most part, well written and varied, and not used as the only attraction between the main couple, making them welcome additions to the story-something other authors have not managed to carry off with anywhere near this level success.
I quite like steampunk when it’s done well and here the world building is excellent. So subtle that much of the mores of both societies must be inferred from background information and behaviour, yet detailed enough to make that inference easy and believable. The extracts from various texts presented as quotes at the beginning of each chapter serve both to assist with world building and to add a touch of humour to the story. I enjoyed many of these asides almost as much as the main story.
Romance, erotica, fantasy and intrigue: The Demon’s Daughter works on a number of levels. I am delighted to have discovered this book and pleased that Ms Holly has set at least two other stories in this fascinating universe.-Lynn

Thursday, October 22

Lock and Key - Sarah Dessen

Ruby had been managing on her own just fine, thank you very much, ever since her mother took off with her latest boyfriend. After all, she'd helped with the frequent house moves, the fake names to ward off creditors, assisted her mother at work, and pretty much run the house on her own. Okay, the power had been cut off and the water didn't work in the kitchen, but she was coping and if it hadn't been for the nosy landlords Ruby would have been fine until her mother came home, whenever that was. With child services involved, though, Ruby was delivered to her sister Cora's care until she was eighteen, only a few months away.
Cora, who protected her from their mother's drunken rantings, physical attacks and general neglect. Protected her until Cora left for college, that was - left and never looked back. Now a lawyer working with at-risk children, Cora's moved up in the world - she and her husband Jamie have a huge house and plenty of money. As soon as Ruby can she'll vault the fence and take care of herself again.
This beautiful, engaging and deeply satisfying novel has much more going on than my brief summation above. Its primary theme is introduced as a semester assignment, where each student in Ruby's exclusive new school draws a word out of a bag and has to explore the many definitions it has for a spectrum of people. Ruby's word is "family" - the first peron she discusses it woth replies (in part) "if something's wrong with you , you can usually trace it back to them." Through Lock and Key she discovers the many meanings it has, concluding that:
[Family are] the people who claimed you. In good, in bad, in parts or in whole, they were the ones who showed up, who stayed there regardless. It wasn't just about blood relations or shared chromosomes, but something wider, something bigger... we had many families over time. Our families of origin, the family we created, as well as the groups you moved though while all of this was happening: friends, lovers, sometimes even strangers... You couldn't make any one person your world. The trick was to take what each could give you and build a world from it.
All of which makes Lock and Key sound very Worthy, and that does this YA novel a disservice. Ruby is one of the most real, engaging protagonists I've come across for a while, and the novel is more than just Ruby's journey against a background of secondary characters. Each of the other central characters are not only equally layered and complex but are on their own developing paths.
The issues Dessen raises are significant and relevant. Although teen sex, drug and alcohol use are present, they occur without judgement while the focus is on more interesting and less travelled problems - abuse, acceptance, how things look and how things are, responsibility and accountability, friendship, trust, history and the need to rewrite it, and a whole lot of other things that really spoke to me.
This is the first of Dessen's novels I've read, but it most certainly won't be the last. - Alex

Wednesday, October 21

Bad Move - Linwood Barclay

Zack Walker moved his family from the city, where they were perfectly happy but at risk from dangers on every corner, to the safe 'burbs. Despite his caution and his warnings, neither Sarah, his journalist wife, nor his two teenagers Angie and Paul exercise any kind of wariness, and Zack is forced to frighten them into realising that they can't be so cavalier. His first lesson is borne from frustration at the dumping of school bags at the top of the stairs, where anyone could fall and break their necks - he pretends to do so, little suspecting his shocked children would call both their mother at work and the ambulance service, causing the whole exercise to backfire on Zack. Despite the family outrage he created, when Zack comes home to find Sarah's car open in the driveway, keys still in the ignition, he only briefly considers leaving it alone before driving the car around the block, a move that serves only to anger her and unite the kids in opposition.
In fairness, when Zack goes shopping with Sarah and sees her handbag left in the supermarket trolley while she's turned away he debates with himself before lifting her wallet - it's for her own good, after all. He's shocked to discover that Sarah's listened to all his cautioning and is being more careful - her wallet is secure. The wallet belonged to someone else, and Zack's a thief rather than a protector. Unable to admit what he's done to his family, and learning that the victim of his lesson didn't report the theft, he tries to return the belongings himself. But things go from bad to worse, as Zack finds himself helplessly and increasingly embroiled in real estate skulduggery and murder.
I really, really enjoyed Bad Move. An SF novelist with few hits - Missionary, his tale of aliens who come to earth to convert us, being a rare exception and curiously popular among fundamentalists - Zach loves collectibles and procrastination.Between my own habits and the interests of friends I could instantly relate, and Barclay has a great voice that brought me in from the first line:
For years, I envied my friend Jeff Conklin,who, at the age of eleven, found a dead guy.
It sets up the whole novel and tells you a lot about our narrator. Zack's a flawed but appealing character, who's quite open about his shortcomings. Early on he says:
You won't get very far in this before you start thinking that I am, not to put too fine a point on it, an asshole. At the very least, a jerk. I don't happen to think I'm an asshole, but I'm also willing to acknowledge your typical asshole's not blessed in the self-awareness department.
But he means well, and that makes up for a multitude of shortcomings. The characters are clearly drawn and genuine, the plot is unique and interesting, and the writing's great.
I saw Barclay's most recent novel in a bookshelf and thought I'd try his earlier work first. I'm sold, and will be reading more. - Alex
ETA: When looking through his backlist I discovered I have already encountered a previous work by Barclay, the promising (but sadly disappointing) No Time for Goodbye. I'm so pleased to have enjoyed this work, and reminded again of my sadness at the fatal flaw in his other novel.

Tuesday, October 20

Fairest - Gail Carson Levine

Abandoned at the Featherbed Inn as an infant, Aza looks nothing like her adoptive innkeeper family - tall, ungainly, with colourless skin, unseemly red lips and dull black hair, she was also blessed with the most beautiful voice in the village. In a country like Ayortha, that has raised singing to a high art and incorporated in in every aspect of life, this is no small thing. Aza has another gift - through an accidental outbreak of hiccups while cleaning, she has created a technique she calls 'illusing' where she can project her voice so it appears to come from wherever she chooses.
When a visiting Duchess's companion is unable to accompany her to the capital for the wedding of the King to his Kyrrian wife Ivi, Aza is chosen in her stead. Despite Aza's attempts at a low profile at the palace, she is chosen by the new queen to be her lady-in-waiting, over the King's preferred choice, of whom Ivi is jealous. When a freak accident renders the King unconscious shortly after the wedding, Queen Ivi rules in his place. Vain and with little awareness of how her actions are perceived, Ivi is unused to the significant emphasis singing has in Ayortha, and has a weak and tuneless voice. Discovering that Aza can illuse she blackmails the girl into providing her with a more spectacular voice. Ivi also institutes a series of changes that upset the country, from disbanding the council to banning Sings. Aza is a helpless witness, torn between loyalty to the family Ivi threatens and to her King, branded a collaborator and seen as a confidant, attracted to the Crown Prince and aware that the Queen intends to replace him as King should the still-unconscious ruler die.
Fairest is a really fresh and interesting twist on the Snow White tale, perhaps the most interesting I've seen in the genre. Levine has created a unique world, where all names begin and end with the same vowel (Prince Ijori, the cat Oochoo, singing master Ogusso), and the stereotypically beautiful heroine is replaced by one who is seen by others and herself as ugly. The characters ring with veracity, and the plot and character arcs kept me reading 'just one more chapter.'
The mirror only appears midway through the book but its affects are evident from early on, and the shadowy figure who serves little purpose in the traditional story has a far darker and more interesting role here.
I loved the little notes Levine inserts throughout the text, like Aza's intense dislike for apples - the fruit that ultimately almost brings about her death, and the commentary on beauty that threads through the novel. Aza has the opportunity to change her appearance but is cautious, a position that brings happy results - I particularly liked Ijori's comment that he was disappointed when she "became beautiful in a commonplace way" because he loved her grandeur and dignity, knowledge that transforms Aza's image of herself.
I possibly could have done without the tracts of song lyrics that are interspersed throughout the text, though the Song of Ayortha is key to understanding Ayortha's culture, and many of the songs were interesting. I have read most of Levine's other works, including the brilliant Ella Enchanted, and intend to reread them as well as explore those new to me. - Alex

Monday, October 19

Roses are Dead - Loren D Estleman

Peter Macklin likes to go about his day minding his own business - okay, he's a contract killer, but he keeps a low profile. When someone puts a hit out on him, Macklin's life gets complicated, particularly when he can't find out who wants him dead. And to add to the mess, his wife's hired a divorce lawyer and his son's decided to follow in his father's footsteps.
I often discover fiction authors new to me through references in other novels; in We Have to Talk About Kevin, Eva mentions that Franklin always liked Estleman's books so I decided to check him out. If you like your crime noir then Estleman's your man - though the setting is contemporary the mood and style are decidedly thirties, and the plot zipped along. I, unfortunately, have an aversion to the genreand was unable to separate this central aspect from the rest of the writing, and therefore had to set Roses are Dead aside early on. - Alex

Sunday, October 18

Jenna Mills: Veiled Legacy

Two years ago a pregnant MI-6 agent went into hiding after escaping a dangerous affair. But she knows she can’t hide forever, and when she sees that a woman who could be her twin has been murdered in the same town that was her last known location she decides that attack might very well be the best form of defence.
She returns undercover to confront her ex-lover and his powerful family. In the process she discovers a remarkable secret to which she is heir. A secret people have died to protect. A secret her daughters father may have killed to unearth.
She weaves her way through a tangled web, learning to trust again along the way and fitting her piece into an ever growing and dangerous puzzle
This is the sixth book in the Madonna Key series, and I thought, a return to form.
There is action aplenty, of course, and the return of characters from earlier episodes. But unlike in book five, this time the characters feel better integrated into the story. The main character shows herself to be intelligent in a street smart kind of way-she behaves much as one would expect an agent, or in this case an ex-agent to-but vulnerable when it comes to personal relationships.
The affair with a married man was an unusual twist and it took me a while to come around to him as a love interest. Not because he was married but because in previous books he has behaved in a manner that is ambiguous at best and outright ruthless more often. In fact, it is his acceptance by more established characters that is the one element of this book that I found hard to believe.
There is only one book left in this series and I am quite looking forward to the final. - Lynn

Saturday, October 17

The Terminal Experiment - Robert J Sawyer

When biomedical engineering student Peter Hobson saw his first organ harvesting he was profoundly disquieted - the responses to pain that the staff dismissed as autonomic looked real to him. Peter decided to design an instrument that could unambiguously determine when a person was really dead, by detecting the last neurones firing. He was unprepared to discover what became known as the 'soul wave' - a distinct field of electrical activity that moved across the brain and exited the skull.
In the aftermath of the disclosure of his findings, Hobson decides to explore another aspect of the mind. With the aid of a computer scientist and friend, Hobson creates three AI versions of his brain, all complete copies in every detail except that one has all bodily feedback (like hunger, tiredness and miscellaneous aches) removed, and one has all fears of aging, disability and death pared away; the third creation is left intact as a control. Not long after they're booted up, people begin to die and Hobson realises with horror that it's one of the versions of himself.
One of the things that sets Sawyer's work apart from the mainstream of fiction generally is his ability to combine multiple, significant elements into his work. The Terminal Experiment is an SF mystery but it's also a cultural and philosophical exploration that examines marital relationships, jealousy and revenge, the nature of humour, and human psychology.
Sawyer has explored some of these themes in other works, but he always manages to achieve a fresh perspective and unique voice. This, combined with his strength in narrative structure, means that reading several of his novels is succession is as rewarding an experience as reading them separated over time. His plots are fresh and layered, his characters three dimensional and believable, and the pace is both brisk and considered.
There are a couple of slightly dated passages dealing with HIV/AIDS on one occasion and AV technology on another, but as the book was published in 1995 this is understandable, and otherwise The Terminal Experiment has well and truly stood the test of time. - Alex

Wednesday, October 14

Putting on the Ritz – Joe Keenan

Librettist Philip Cavanaugh is at a very low ebb, following the disastrous opening (and closing) night of his and collaborator Claire Simmons’s cheeky musical satire. He is, therefore, unable to mount any defence against ex-lover and dear friend Gilbert Selwyn’s latest brilliant moneymaking plan. Or, as he puts it, “that fateful afternoon when Disaster, brilliantly disguised as Opportunity, first bade me come closer and listen awhile.”
From time to time over the following weeks Phillips manages to surface from the glamorous whirlpool of competing publishing moguls, family in-fighting, talentless but egotistical women of power, and deception to castigate himself for once again listening to Gilbert. For the most part, however, he is swept up in the intrigue of planting hidden mics, rubbing shoulders with New York’s crème de la crème, and competing with Gilbert for the attentions of the distractingly divine Tommy Parker.

This sequel to Blue Heaven is delightful. My humble wordsmithing cannot pay due homage to Keenan’s wit, a feat made more difficult by my leaving this review until some weeks after reading the novel. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the machinations of the plot, the beautifully witty writing, the subtle (and not so subtle) character shadings, and the sparkling humour that lights almost every page. My only hiccup came at the line: “Charmed to see you again,” she said, and, pivoting toward the door, breezed regally past Dunbar, her fanny undulating like a lava lamp.” As fanny means something rather different here than it does in the US, I had to pause a moment before continuing. That small cultural gap aside, Keenan is perfect for those days when you need something intelligent, but light, amusing but not trivial, contemporary but harking back to the eras of Wodehouse, Coward and Wilde. - Alex

Tuesday, October 13

Phil Rickman: The Prayer of the Night Shepherd

A deteriorating old house, now hotel, hopes to make its name by exploiting the rumour that the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles originated within its walls. Certainly there is a hint of sinister in the air that has the young Jane Watkins intrigued and her mother, diocese exorcist Merrily Watkins, worried. And local tales of hereditary evil aren’t easing her mind any. Neither is her unwanted and growing reputation as a faith healer helping.
Navigating through long standing family grudges, attempted suicides, documentary crews and a police murder inquiry would be hard enough on its own but throw in an impenetrable snow storm and an impromptu exorcism and this is one hell of a week.
This is the sixth Merrily Watkins mystery and the focus is more on her daughter than it is on the priest herself. While the storyline remains as intriguing and convoluted as ever and the eeriness that Rickman does so well is once again present, I am not convinced that the shift in character primacy worked well for me. While the teenaged character is well developed I don’t think she had quite enough depth to carry off the story more or less on her own. The lack of maturity on the part of the main character is something that isn’t really a problem as such; it just didn’t quite work for me.
Having said that this is still a great read, the series shows no sign of slowing down.-Lynn

Monday, October 12

A Crack in the Line - Michael Lawrence

Alaric lives with his father at Withern Rise, a remote English country house. Since the death of his mother after a horrendous train crash it's just been the two of them - the house, and their relationship, are slowly falling to pieces. One snowy day while his father's away on business and his interfering but well meaning aunt is trying to restore order, Alaric ventures into a forgotten part of the Victorian mansion and rediscovers a miniature of Withern Rise his mother made. When he touches it he feels searing pain, and when he opens his eyes Alaric is in a cleaner version of home, with a strange girl who seems to think he's the intruder.
Naia tries not to think about the terrible time when she and her father didn't know if her mother would survive the injuries from a devastating train crash two years ago - the doctors said it was fifty/fifty, and the odds were on their side. Alone one snowy day she's shocked to discover a strange boy in her living room, a boy who seems to think she's in his house rather than the other way around.
The first in a trilogy, A Crack in the Line explores the idea of parallel universes - Alaric and Naia are similar in almost every respect, except gender, and their lives continued on near-parallel tracks until the accident two years earlier. Alaric and Naia are somehow able to cross into each other's lives through the model of Withern Rise that was carved from the wood of a massive tree on the property. For Alaric, the sight of his mother restored to life is a painful joy.
I was unprepared for A Crack in the Line to so completely end on a cliffhanger - although I knew it was a trilogy going in, I had expected something of a full narrative with ends to be tied up later. There is, however, no resolution of any aspect of the plot, and I found this so profoundly irritating that it has coloured my perception of the novel as a whole, so that I cannot appreciate the awe it's inspired in others - unlike Sarah Meador I certainly haven't spent the intervening time since reading it "in a stupor, scared and searching for one of the alternate realities lying on the grounds of the Victorian mansion in the title."
I will, however, borrow the rest of the series from the library; I hope that the knowledge that I can read it as though all three volumes comprise a single text will allow me to better appreciate the complexity and thoughtful fears that Meador detected. - Alex

Sunday, October 11

A Classical Education - Caroline Taggart

Subtitled The stuff you wish you'd been taught at school, A Classical Education gives the reader a comprehensive but brief overview of the elements that comprise a traditional education in the classics - the history, philosophy, art and sciences of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
Taggart opens by explaining that a starting point is necessarily somewhat arbitrary, what with history stretching back pretty much forever. Her tone throughout is informed but unpretentious and light, extending on occasion to genuinely amusing, as in her definition of Latin phrases like
In vino veritas: 'in wine, truth'. A nonsensical expression that suggests you tell the truth when you are pissed, when it should of course be 'in vino gross exaggeration, distorted reality and maudlin self-pity.'
If you're interesting in the evolution of alphabets or numeric systems, want to get your head around the chronology and relationships of the ancient gods, know more about the line of Roman rulers, marvel at the unnecessary complexity of Greece's traditional three calendars (all differently calculated and inconsistent across regions), brush up on early philosophy, or discover a couple of interesting websites, this is the book for you. Actually, I can help you out on that last: Taggard mentions that she learned a lot (though much of it irrelevant) from 'interesting thing of the day' and though I haven't visited it yet, praises a site that examines whether Hannibal's elephants were African, Indian or a now-extinct species. She's also included my favourite Plato quote, which asks whether things are good because the gods love them, or loved by the gods because they're good, which is a great question to ask of annoying religious people (that last is my take, not Taggart's).
This is obviously not a book for everyone, but if you always felt the lack of classical education in your schooling, have an inquiring mind that runs along this kind of track, always wanted to get chronologies clear, or (like me) feel that your long-ago classes in Latin and Classical Civilisations have become muddied with time, A Classical Education may be for you. I found it, along with Taggart's I Used to Know That, a grammar text and another book that currently escapes me, at an HMV in London, of all places. Though I decided not to buy any new books while I was away I'm glad I made exceptions for this little trilogy (the grammar manual I left with my brother-in-law), and have now added Herodotus to my reading list and I, Claudius to my DVD viewing schedule. - Alex

Saturday, October 10

Obsession - Jonathan Kellerman

When Tanya Bigelow's aunt Patty first noticed her obsessive patterns, she brought her adopted daughter to Alex Delaware. Self-possessed and disciplined, it took little for Tanya to break the habit herself, despite Patty's own somewhat OCD traits.
A decade or so later, the aftermath of Patty's death from cancer, in the hospital she worked in as a nurse, has caused Tanya to seek out Dr Delaware again. This time, though, it's to get to the bottom of Patty's deathbed confession - she was involved in the terrible death of a man.
In the coincidental world of Kellerman, Patty's hospital just happens to be the same one where long time friend Milo Sturgis's partner, ER physician Rick Silverman happens to work. Not only that but, what are the odds, he knew Patty and is happy to help in the investigation.
As you may be able to detect, I was less than impressed by this addition to Kellerman's stable - I found the vast quantities of ink spent on Alex's new dog plot more fascinating than either the plot or the characters, and really didn't care about Tanya, her aunt or the intricate mystery.
I've read all of Kellerman's novels and this is not the first time I've been let down - 1996's The Web left me equally disenchanted, but that proved to be just a low-light in an otherwise enjoyable series. I hope that proves the same this time around, and am actually looking forward to reading the next novel. This is in no small part due to the only interesting aspect of Obsession - at the beginning of chapter nine we learn a little about Alex's childhood and how it shaped both his choice of career and the type of man he is. I don't remember reading anything previously about his family, including his estranged sister, though I did start reading the series soon after it was first released in the late '80s and may therefore easily have missed passing references. However, it's my hope that this allusion to his childhood and family opens a door in the next Delaware novel because that was genuinely engaging and gave fresh insight into Delaware's character. - Alex

Friday, October 9

Sarah Water: The Little Stranger

When a doctor is called to attend one of the servants at the local manor house he is surprised to find not the glamorous Georgian mansion of his childhood memories but a dilapidated post war residence inhabited by a family not quite coping with changing society.
As his acquaintance with the family grows he becomes privy to their dark secrets. The war-wounded son, reluctant lord of the manor, claims to be plagued by a ‘presence’ in the night. The elderly mother is tormented, mentally and physically, by the memory of her first-born’s tragic childhood death. The servants complain about ghostly goings on. Even the solid and dependable daughter thinks there might be more to the house than meets the eye.
But the doctor is a man of science and logic. He simply can’t believe all that the family are telling him. And yet, he can’t completely dismiss it either.
And here I can not be more explicit without spoilers.
Set in early post world war II Britain, on the surface this is a story of a once proud and powerful family now in decline. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, almost a little too slowly at times. The individual ‘spooky’ elements are not particularly scary but cumulatively they give a not-quite-right feeling that is far more effective in creating creepiness in this context than more overt horror would have been. I would have liked to see more made of this aspect of the story. In many ways the decision not to expand upon the haunting elements was an opportunity missed.
The characters felt true to the time. So much so that I found myself actively disliking them on some occasions, while pitying them on others but I never really connected to any of them. I think the back story of the main characters would have added an interesting dimension to the book and made it easier to identify with them.
The twist ending was at once both disappointing and intriguing.
This book has the feel of a traditional Victorian gothic while maintaining a distinct literary flavour. While it is far from the best I have read, it is the first book in many years that has me thinking about the central themes and wanting to dissect the story in order to find out what really went on. Speculation abounds-Lynn

Thursday, October 8

Dead to Me - Anton Strout

Simon Canderous has only recently turned from using his gift of psychometry - the ability to divine the history of an object through touch - from larcenous to legal. Now a junior member of New York City's covert Department of Extraordinary Affairs, he has attended seminars and read brochures about managing paranormal occurrences. However, when entering the DEA's front, the Lovecraft Cafe and movie house, Simon doesn't notice what his mentor Connor Christos realises immediately - that the lovely woman seated near the counter is actually a ghost. More importantly, Simon's ill-prepared for the consequences when he and Connor try to uncover why Irene is still on this plane.
The premise of this book was so promising, and the jacket blurb so entertaining, that Dead to Me is one of the very few books I've bought this year. I have to confess that I thought of Lynn as soon as I saw the word "psychometry," as she wrote an entertaining novel with psychometry as a hook for NaNoWriMo one year.
Sadly I found the execution profoundly disappointing. Part of this was the world building - I couldn't overcome my disbelief that an organisation like Strout's DEA wouldn't more thoroughly train its agents before letting them in the field. More than that , though, the writing style didn't appeal to me. And, as is sometimes the case, this meant even things that would have amused me if read elsewhere irritated me.
Dead to Me is heavy on the geographic detail, in a way we've commented on
unfavourably in other reviews. From one paragraph:
I jumped in a cab and headed down town. Thirteen minutes later, the cab dropped me off at West 18th and University and I headed across Washington Square Park... I came across a small crowd of drunken late night tourists fleeing toward Union Square... a clamour of footsteps and the crash of metal came from the alley between Sixth and Seventh...
Enough, already - plot please! Which I found a lot - reams of unnecessary information (like a scene with a disapproving waiter in a diner) that serve neither to develop character nor advance the plot. I would have preferred the novel had these chunks been replaced by background. Or character development or plot advancement, of course.
From time to time 'amusing' titles of the seminars and pamphlets that serve as Simon's training are leadenly dropped into the text - examples include "Deadside Manner: Staying Cool in Troubled Times" and "Clairvoyance or Clair-annoyance: You've Either Got it or You Don't". I suspect the intent was to parody the way office policies exist even in exotic organisations - this has been achieved admirably by Stross but fell flat here, at least for me.
I even found myself annoyed by the grammar, albeit only on one occasion - spot the unnecessary punctuation:
"Thanks," he said, circling carefully around the phantasm.
"Thanks?!?" I asked. "For what? I ought to be thanking you!"*
Of course, by this stage many things were annoying me, so that the 'amusing' title of Inspectre for the head of paranormal affairs (get it, get it?) grated more every time I read it, the misuse of 'object permanence' glared, and the reference to donning a black leather duster being a reflection of watching all five seasons of Angel in a single sitting made me wonder where he found the 72 consecutive hours or so that this would take.
The biggest issue for me, though, was the unclear nature of Simon's talent/gift. He seems to have made no effort to refine or hone it, and neither did DEA before sending him out in the field, leaving it to Connor to first suggest the concept. Reading objects leaves him hypoglycemic and exhausted, relying on Lifesavers to refuel, but sometimes he's drained by one reading and sometimes he can touch multiple things without fatigue, with no explanation given of why this is. He guards against accidental reading by wearing gloves, and has an inner sanctum in his apartment that has been carefully designed to be free of emotional echoes - the furniture is untouched by human hands, and the whole room is white (a presumably restful colour for Simon, though this is never specified). When his apartment is turned over, Simon is devastated:
my inner sanctum had been contaminated by someone else's memories, corrupting the one place in the world I could turn to as my safety zone. I had never felt so violated.
My first question is how everywhere else is so defiled when Simon needs to touch things to read them - and presumably touch with his hands, as I didn't notice any accidental readings caused by objects brushing past other exposed skin, or precautions like wearing long sleeves. More importantly, though, is the fact that Simon has no need to use his sanctum at any point in the novel - like the best china, it's tucked away for a special occasion but never actually needed, which seems like a massive waste of valuable space in the tight and expensive New York real estate market.

I have no doubt that Dead to Me is the first in a series, and see from Amazon that a sequel is out. Although I found the premise fresh and promising, the execution was so disappointing I have no intention of following up. Lynn is enthusiastic about reading the novel, though I've suggested she either skip reading this review until after or tucks the book away until time has faded her memory of it. In any case, another opinion will follow at some stage, and as we don't always see eye to eye it may be more favourable than this one. - Alex
* The grammar referred to would be the "?!?" - rarely seen outside the internet and letters written by adolescent girls, which is the way I like it

Wednesday, October 7

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants - Ann Brashares

When Carmen found the jeans in a second-hand store it was more to rile Lena's mother, who didn't like the idea of clothes that weren't new, than because she recognised their greatness. They just looked like a slightly faded pair of jeans, but the four girls - Carmen, Lena, Tibby and Bridget - quickly discovered the pants had an almost magical quality. For, despite their quite different builds, the pants flattered each girls' body.
Born over an eighteen day time span, the daughters of women who attended the same antenatal group and friends from babyhood, this would be the first summer they'd spent apart in fifteen years. Lena and her younger (but precocious) sister were going to visit their grandparents on an island of the Greek coast, Bridget was going to soccer camp in Baja, Carmen was going on her visit to South Carolina to stay with her father, and Lena was staying in Georgetown. The girls vow to write, and to share the pants via mail over the whole summer.
The Sisterhood is something of a phenomenon, spanning four books and two films. None of that was evident when I bought my copy, the year it was released, but coming to it eight years later I'm aware of the splash. When I began reading it I really couldn't see why, but the characters and their relationships did grow on me. While some tumultuous things happen, reflecting the period of change they're experiencing, the novel is considerably more character- than plot-driven.
Brashares does a great job portraying the conflicts of female adolescence (and probably male, but I can only draw on memories of these years for me), particularly Carmen's issues with her father. The girls are at different levels of emotional development but all grow throughout the novel, viewing differently the world and their relationships with their families, while keeping true to one another.
From being somewhat ambivalent at the beginning I'm now, if not hooked at least interested in what happens next and am sure my library has the series, so watch this space. - Alex

Tuesday, October 6

Cross My Heart - Maureen McCarthy

Michelle didn’t even like Kevin that much but when she fell pregnant there was no option but to marry him, trapping her for life in the small Victorian town she’d longed to escape. Her life was over at age seventeen. Until, propelled by a spurt of bravery and in the midst of their engagement party, Michelle found the strength to run away.
Mick knew better than to get involved in a stranger’s problems but the girl looked frozen, waiting at the petrol station before dawn, and his recent sentence meant he could read the intentions of the pair of guys in the flash car who offered her a lift. Almost despite himself, Mick found himself offering her a ride, and as they travelled north, through Australia’s landscape – virtually barren to Michelle’s eyes and filled with the richness of home to Mick’s – they got to know one another.
Published in 1993, Cross My Heart has been sitting on my too-be-read shelves through three house moves and I only got to it now because I took backlogged books away with me. It's a very Australian YA novel that could have been set nowhere else. There are loving descriptions of the land and of outback culture, and though it's set against the backdrop of the great drought, Australia's current big dry and the lack of pop culture and tech references means the novel isn't dated despite its age.
I was initially not particularly impressed with the novel, which is not particularly showy or dramatic, despite some really significant themes. But, like the landscape it describes, there are nuances and details that are missed if you don't take the time to look properly. The characters throughout are well rounded, the dialogue rings true, and there's a realistic amount of vernacular without knocking you over the head with signposts saying "we're in Australia, mate - too right!" The plot unfolds gently, and nothing stood out enough for me to note it while reading, but I ended with a mildly optimistic feeling and a little homesickness, not just for home but for the outback and rural Australia - Alex

Monday, October 5

Joe Hill: Heart Shaped Box

An aging rock star, with a collection of the macabre, buys a supposedly haunted suit from an internet auction. His purchase arrives in a black heart-shaped box and as advertised comes complete with a ghost. But unlike the gentle spectre he thought he’d bought, the entity he now owns is pure malevolence.
He soon discovers the ghost is the revenge seeking step-father of an old girlfriend who supposedly suicided in the wake of their break up. He’d been somehow tricked into accepting the haunting by his ex’s sister (the whys and wherefores of which are never satisfactorily explained). He immediately tries to return the spirit to her and so begins the ghost’s murderous rampage against him and those closest to him.
He runs with his current girlfriend but there is no place where they can hide and their efforts to exorcise the ghost uncover his ex’s perverted family history and its murderous secrets.
I can give no more detail without spoilers so suffice to say the guy comes out alive-though only just.
This story starts off well. I can’t say I particularly liked the main characters, who felt a little too clichéd at times, but I overlooked that since the writing has an appropriately dark feel to it and there is a definite creepiness present.
But as the story progressed the piling of trouble upon trouble for the main characters became quite repetitive and tiring. They never convincingly try to save themselves and the only defences they have against the spirit are discovered accidentally. By about two thirds of the way through, the story starts reading like the script of a second rate horror movie.
It does have a satisfactory ending with all the loose ends neatly tied in believable bows but somehow that doesn’t quite make up for the sagging middle.
Overall, a reasonably spooky book but lacking scare factor and substance.-Lynn

Sunday, October 4

We Have to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

Franklin and Eva Khatchadourian were in almost every way polar opposites - a location finder, he was staunchly American, Republican, and saw no need to leave home and see the rest of the world. Eva, on the other hand, was a Democrat who loved to travel and created one of the first budget travel guides for young Americans going overseas. Despite this they were deeply compatible and deeply in love. Until the decision - almost wholly Franklin's - to have a child.
Three days before his sixteenth birthday, their son Kevin went to his school armed and shot adults and children. In a series of deeply honest and revealing letters to her absent husband, whom she still deeply loves, Eva explores how this happened, alternating a fairly chronological sequence with more contemporary events, including visiting Kevin in jail. In the process she discusses and analyses their marriage and discloses details about her relationship with and attitude toward Kevin that Franklin had not previously been told about. As the letters go one way, Eva projects Franklin's responses to some of her reports and replies to them, so at times there's almost a dialogue through which we learn more about the polarising effect of Kevin's presence on his parents.
This is one of the most difficult reviews I've written in a long time, primarily because the unfolding details are an integral part of the narrative style so I've tried to balance plot description with keeping surprises intact. We Need to Talk About Kevin is perhaps the most gripping and fascinating book I've read this year. Eva's voice is opinionated and merciless, filled with tart asides and commentary, and she would certainly be difficult to live with. Far from a 'born mother' she dislikes virtually every aspect of motherhood, a confession that is both markedly contrary to community expectation and familiar to many women.
The unrelieved first person account is a magnificent example of the unreliable narrator - hers is the only perspective we have of Kevin; though she includes Franklin's increasingly starry-eyed view of his beloved son, Eva makes it clear that she thinks he's unable to face what she sees as the truth. I was compelled by her interpretations of Kevin's behaviour, from infancy to adolescence, which never allow for anything but malice. At the same time I increasingly asked whether he was really born bad or if it was Eva's unrelenting hostility that created this annihilating child, and this tension forms an integral part of the reading experience.
After writing my review I checked what other readers had written, and was struck by how many Amazon reviewers disliked the book because Eva was unsympathetic. She's certainly not warm and fuzzy, but for me that was an intrinsic part of the novel's attraction. In some ways her unsentimental pragmatism and clear outlook reminded me of Lynn, which may have made me more sympathetic toward her. Well, that and my own perception that gestating fetuses are parasitic, babies are the more egotistic creation on earth, small children sometimes go out of their way to be annoying, being a mother is ludicrously difficult, and instant mother-child bonds are vanishingly rare.
Provided you can be comfortable with a protagonist who shares these, and even harsher, opinions about her own offspring then you, too, may find We Need to Talk About Kevin a fascinating, resonant and compelling read that deserves its prominent position on best seller lists and book group schedules. If, however, you prefer your mother figures doting and cosy, you may prefer to pass. - Alex

Saturday, October 3

Friends Like These - Danny Wallace

Approaching his thirtieth birthday, Danny Wallace received a box of things his parents had cleared out of their attack. Memories of his childhood flooded back as he rediscovered newspaper clippings, certificates, homework and, most importantly, his old address book. Danny's parents moved around a lot when he was young, forcing him to leave old friendships behind.
Unlike his former girlfriend, who broke up with him on discovering he'd founded a movement without telling her (as recounted in the book Follow Me), Danny's wife agrees that he can try to catch up with the twelve friends from the address book, provided he earn Man Points (by doing all the domestic chores around the house that he puts off), and with the deadline of his birthday.
And thus follows an amusing, touching and engaging account of reconnection after reconnection.
Wallace has a great voice, and the touches of humour (like referring to miniature cans of Heineken has tinyken) contribute to the story rather than overpowering it.

The chapters are interlaced with school day writings ("Tuesday 24th May. I am going to a birth day party on Sunday") to support Wallace's claim of spelling excellence, photos and certificates, and by the belated return letters to a once faithful correspondent. The sequence of events adds a later layer of poignancy that's masterful.
The allure of these kinds of books is three-fold - taking a fairly common idea past it's logical termination point, actually acting on the impulse, and the near lack of adverse outcomes. Who hasn't approached thirty and decided to take stock, or thought about reconnecting with old friends? Without that impulse sites like Friends Reunited wouldn't exist. For most of us, googling the odd name or joining Facebook is enough, but Wallace is determined to track down all twelve friends, and not just email them but meet them in person, which takes him across Europe, the the US, Tokyo and Australia. And his almost reckless disregard (why wait until after the World Cup final to go to Berlin?) is intoxicating to someone who is far more timid and cautious when venturing overseas. I am one of those cautious, planning people and I was vicariously thrilled and wholly amused by Wallace's adventures. I won't go so far as to say I was inspired to see my own old friends face to face, having not so much lost track of them in the first place, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. - Alex

Friday, October 2

AKA Goddess - Evelyn Vaughn

Long ago, before accepted history began, there lived a Great Queen with nine powerful daughters. Their powers lay in their beauty, in their truth, in their abilities to heal and create and protect. Their powers lay in their skill at dance and art and sports and poetry. But their greatest power lay in being women.

The nine (sometimes seven, sometimes thirteen) daughter poured their powers into cups that have since been lost but the Grail Keepers have kept their legacy alive through rhyme and fable ever since. Since she was fourteen Magdalene Sanger has known she was one of this long line, and that she could rely on any woman who knew the intersecting circle design off the vesica piscis and the recognition rhyme.
Now a professor of mythology, Maggi has devoted her adult life to the discipline of tai chi, the study of myths and tales, and to avoiding becoming ensnared with Lex Stuart, a man she's known since boyhood and with whom she shares a magnetic attraction. But when her apartment is broken into and her goddess figurines smashed, Lex in the first person she contacts after the police. When Maggi learns her great-aunt Brigitte, a Parisian historical sociologist, has been attached and her office also ransacked, Maggi is certain it's more than coincidence - aunt Bridge had been researching the goddess Melusine, one of the daughters.
There follows a search for the Melusine chalice, complicated by the Comitatus, a male secret society searching for the Holy Grail and bent on destroying the Goddess Grails. Lex keeps coincidentally turning up, and Maggi is torn between trust and suspicion. She's also attracted to Father Rhys Pritchard, who left the priesthood for love only to have his fiancee die just days before his papers came through.
A fairly uncategory category romance, AKA Goddess combines contemporary action and Da Vinci Code-esque* mythology with a chronology of Maggi's relationship with Lex, from their first meeting at the age of five. The emphasis here is on action - though there are some sex scenes (the physical attraction overwhelms reason), their relationship never wavers from balancing precariously between Maggi believing he's a good guy and believing he's part of the team against her. The heart of the plot is the pursuit and keeping of the chalice, rather than a typical romance, and even the potential competition for hero is tokenistic - Rhys and Maggi have some chemistry but he's never a contender.
The main theme of the novel, though, is the difference between male and female conceptions of power, which is crystallised in the gendered societies - Comitatus is male, exclusionary, blood focused in terms of both lineage and spilling, structured and hierarchical, plagued by intrigue and internal disharmony, fearful of challenge and attack, and secret to protect its strength and power, which are seen as force and weapons. The Grail Keepers are female but allow men to participate, encompass all manner of co-faiths, dismiss blood lines in favour of emotional relationship, have no leadership or internal structure, are bound by womanhood and female experience, believe in shared power and balance, and are secret "like deer" - to protect themselves from attack and destruction, rather than to consolidate a power base.
The message is essentially that the world would be a better place with more women and more female energy at the helm. That's not to say that women are portrayed as being weak or defenceless - Museline is powerful when confronted, and Maggi is able to evade pursuit, manages not to be killed when pushed in front of a train, scales buildings, swims through underwater caverns in the dark, and is able to kill half a dozen men in a sword fight while avoiding injury herself. This is through her martial art of choice, which complements the novel's thematic drive - tai chi looks peaceful and nonthreatening, causing the observer to dismiss it, but a skilled practitioner uses an attacker's force against themselves.
I found some of this a little over the top - did we really need waves of swordsmen? In places the writing a little jarring - "I should let you go, shouldn't I?" might be layered but in no universe is a double entendre, heart hurting or otherwise, and the line "my heart didn't have a return policy" made me wince. For the most part, however, it was unobjectionable, and the plot carried me along.
However, while the cover tips the alert reader off that this is a series (though according to the author's website it's more like a novel with a sequel), I did expect resolution by the end. In other genres a total lack of resolution is unwelcome but not wholly unexpected, though a partial resolution is more common. But I ended AKA Goddess with no feeling of any kind of ending. The primary relationship is being renegotiated but is still precarious, the chalice is still in hiding, and the enemy are unchanged.
I had to search online to find out more about the series - Maggi's story continues in Her Kind of Trouble while Something Wicked follows another Grail Keeper, while books one and seven of the Madonna Key mystery Lynn's been following ties in too (and apparently book seven is also about Maggi). Leaving aside my determination to read every Sweet Valley High novel, which continued well past the time a normal person would pass based on age alone, I am no stranger to long series novels. However, I do like the pay off of the resolution of at least one storyline per book, particularly when the genre convention is strongly oriented that way. For example, most romance series follow a group of people with each novel detailing one primary relationship and secondary relationships that are picked up in subsequent installments. Category romance series typically come in threes, perhaps siblings or cousins; non-category entries range further, like Suzanne Brockmann's deservedly loved SEAL team 16 or Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Chicago Stars. While the previously resolved romances may crop up in subsequent works, and reading the whole lot may add a layer of completion and roundness to the reading experience, each novel is self-contained.
I may have been interested in reading more about the Grail Keeper's world (which is "Grail Keepers" on the cover, but both "GrailKeepers" and "Grailkeepers" on the author's site, in the same way Maggi is also Magi in the text and Maggie on the back cover). I am not, however, prepared to read not only the rest of this series but a whole other seven part series as well. Fortunately Lynn's only one book away from completing the Madonna Key septet and will let me know if it ends as strongly as it started. As for me, I may give Vaughn another go but I'll be making very sure the book is a stand alone before I start. - Alex

* I feel the need to point out that, though I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail when it came out a hundred years ago, I haven't read The Da Vince Code. Lynn took the bullet for me - between her description and the Wikipedia summary I know enough to see the san greal/sang real plot similarities