Wednesday, November 25

Brigands MC – Robert Muchamore

After a long absence the Cherubs are back! Eight year old Dante Scott’s father is an official in the South Devon chapter of one of the most feared motorcycle clubs in the world. The Brigands have strong ties to organized crime, drugs and gun running, but to Dante they’re a group of cool adults he’s known all his life. That is until an internal argument ends in a bloodbath – Dante’s parents, older brother and sister are shot and killed, and he and his baby sister are in protective custody. With no family, no ties, and a strong need for unassailable safety, Dante’s a good CHERUB candidate.
Eight years later, Dante returns to the campus after a three year mission in Northern Ireland. The kids he knew have grown up, but he still recognizes his old friend James, and the hotter, older version of the first person he ever met on campus, James’s younger sister Lauren. When the opportunity to infiltrate the South Devon Brigands comes up, Dante leaps at the opportunity. But can he put his grudge against the Führer, the father of his former best friend, the head of the South Devon chapter, and the man who slaughtered his family, to one side in order to carry out his mission?

Up until now the only CHERUB-agents back stories we've heard in detail have been those of James and Lauren - I really enjoyed getting a different perspective, and found Dante a fascinating character. The Muchamore characteristics of well-developed characters, realistic dialogue, fast-paced plotting, danger and intrigue, and realism (once you accept the underlying premise) combine to create another worthwhile addition to this entertaining stable. My only concern is that, following the usual epilogue section, the teaser for the next book is capped "James Adams will be back for one final adventure." I do hope this means he graduates but the series goes on; I fear, however, that it heralds the end of this really well written series. - Alex

Tuesday, November 24

Shattered - Dick Francis

Gerald Logan is a master glass blower whose pieces are already receiving acclaim. His studio, where he creates work and trains up three young apprentices, is open to the public, and in the hours leading up to the eve of the new millennium he's busy creating commissioned commemorative creations (sorry). Gerald takes a break to watch his good friend Martin, a jockey, ride in the Cheltenham races, and is devastated when, due to a freak fall, Martin is killed on the course. Devastated, he barely notices when he's given a brown paper-wrapped video cassette that Martin had handed over before the race. Later that night, though, his studio is robbed of the night's large takings, ransacked, and the owner of Martin's horse is assaulted; the next day his house and that of Martin's widow and children is also turned over, with every video tape taken.
Although I didn't enjoy this quite as much as Longshot, my first Francis encounter, Shattered shares many of its elements - a strong, interesting protagonist with unique skills who is something of an outsider to the racing world he becomes involved in. Like Longshot, it's a pacy, interesting novel that incorporates technical detail - on both racing and glass blowing fronts - seamlessly into the wider tapestry of the plot, and has the added bonus of a romantic sub-plot. I baulked at the use, twice, of "cul de sacs" instead of culs de sac, and found the plot a little overly complicated, but otherwise thoroughly enjoyed the Francis experience. - Alex

Monday, November 23

Lie By Moonlight - Amanda Quick

Concordia Glade was happy to find a position as governess after revelations about her past were revealed to her previous employer. Her duty as a governess/teacher, however, did not allow her to turn a blind eye to threats to her charges, regardless of the potential cost to herself - discovering the four orphaned girls in her care were being groomed as high calibre call girls Concordia rescued them, though she had no idea what to do once they escaped the castle where they were being held captive.
Gentleman thief turned private investigator Ambrose Wells little expected, when he began investigating the death of a female attendant at the baths, that he would encounter five young women fleeing a burning building. Quickly grasping the situation, he provided disguises and found them shelter in the home of his protector. As his case and that of the thoroughly unconventional Miss Glade increasingly overlap, so too does their attraction.
Inspired by Lynn's recent review of Quick's Affair, I decided to try her for myself, and I wasn't disappointed - Quick captures the mores of the time while retaining a modern sensibility that, thanks to her character development, doesn't jar. The mystery is somewhat interesting but - at least for me - served mainly as a backdrop for a quite lovely romance. - Alex

Sunday, November 22

Dead and Gone - Charlaine Harris

After much debate, the Weres have decided it's time to let the human world know that vampires are not the only paranormal creatures dwelling alongside them. Simultaneously, in newsrooms across America, friendly spokespeople change in front of the cameras. In Sookie Stackhouse's workplace, Merlotte's bar, the report is accompanied by her boss Sam's transformation into a collie and her friend Amelia's boyfriend Tray turning into a wolf. She can tell through her gift that the revelations, both global and local, are generally well received in the bar, but her former best friend Arlene is a notable exception. A convert to the Fellowship of the Sun, an anti-vampire 'religion,' Arlene's initially unsure of how to respond, but she quickly moves to outraged revulsion.
When the body of Sookie's brother Jason's pregnant ex-wife Crystal is found nailed to a cross, her limbs partly transformed into their panther form, Jason is a prime suspect. In light of the revelation, though, the murder is being looked at as a possible hate crime. In uncovering the killer Sookie is in more danger than ever before, and from an unexpected source. She gains and loses part of her already tiny family, and consolidates her relationship with vampire sheriff Eric. Former lover, and vampire, Bill is still interested, but he'll never be more than a friend to her now, though when her fairy great-grandfather Niall tells her “the vampire is not a bad man, and he loves you”, she's not sure which one he means.
As I said in March (when reviewing From Dead to Worse), I've been finding the more recent books a little flat. Although there's a heaping of back story that has to be slogged through at the beginning of each novel, I enjoyed Dead and Gone far more than I expected. The characters were interesting, there was a hell of a lot of action, and for once Sookie didn't make a new conquest. I wasn't wholly satisfied, and one sizable plot point particular irritated me:
a massive argument divides the fairy folk, who despite their longevity are dwindling in numbers due to decreased fertility. Some fairy believe this is because they're being contaminated by contact with humans, whose inventiveness has provided the fairies with inventions they can use but whose fondness for iron is toxic. This group want to kill all humans with fairy blood and close the passage between our world and theirs, to protect themselves - it was they who drowned Sookie and Jason's parents. The other group, which includes Sookie's great-grandfather, want to maintain things as they are, knowing this will trigger a war which will only end when the leaders of one or other side are killed. Despite winning a battle that sees all the fairies we've met in the series so far (including Claudine, who's saved Sookie's life several times before and who is - for no good plot reason except pathos - pregnant) die, the victorious Niall decides... to close the doors to the world of the Fae anyway. WTF? Couldn't he and his brother's son Breandan have talked about it first? Maybe reached a compromise along the lines of - we'll spare the fairy-tinged humans but close the passage and not allow any more interbreeding?
This irritating quibble aside I did, as I said, enjoy this installment more than I expected, and I'm quite looking forward to the next one, though I'd rather read another in the Harper Connelly series. - Alex

Saturday, November 21

No Corners for the Devil - Olive Etchells

Concerned about the increasing level of crime in Manchester, Rob Baxter left the city and brought his family to South Cornwall. He and wife Sally bought a round house for themselves and their three children (seventeen year old Luke, fifteen year old Tessa and sensitive baby of the family Ben), along with four cottages to rent out to summer tourists. On the morning of their first arrivals Ben and his friend Malachi find a girl's body on the beach - a girl Luke had given a ride to the night before. Sally believes Luke when he says he didn't do it, but she can tell he's hiding something and is terribly worried about him. Rob, on the other hand, is strangely unsupportive, and for the first time in their lives together isn't the dependable rock she's used to.
DCI Channon's investigative style - quiet, undramatic and cerebral, is not to his abrasive Sergeant's taste - Bowles would rather his new boss confront the motorcycle riding teen instead of this softly softly business Channon goes in for. But Channon suspects there's more going on than first appears, and his investigation uncovers a number of secrets in the small coastal village.
No Corners for the Devil, an expression that comes from the round houses typical of that area of England, is the first in a series about a really engaging, compassionate detective. Channon's family died before the novel opens, which adds a layer of compassionate care to his character. There's something soothing about the atmosphere and writing despite the content, and Etchells' writing is subtle and underscores the plot rather than dominating it. Between the setting and the secrets I was frequently reminded of the film Hot Fuzz, though there's a dearth of guns, car chases and straight men. I love that film, and I really enjoyed this novel - I intend continuing with the rest of the series. - Alex

Friday, November 20

First Lady - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Cornelia Linchfield Chase is America's most perfect First Lady. She should be - from birth it's the role she was groomed for. But a life in the public eye, the nation's sweetheart from the time she was snapped at sixteen crying, a dying African child in her arms, has been stifling. When her husband, President Case, died Nealy mourned but she thought she was finally free. When she realises her politico father and the new President expect her to stay in the role, Nealy rebels. Disguised as an elderly tourist she escapes the White House and heads off on an anonymous adventure.
Mat Jorik is a man's man - the only boy and the eldest in a fatherless family of eight his whole life was nothing but nappies and drying nylons. Unemployed after leaving an increasingly tawdry anchor position, he hopes to return to his journalist roots. When he receives a legal letter informing him that his long-divorced wife has died, naming him the father of her two daughters, he feels dragged bag to the domesticity he tried so hard to escape. He scoops up the toddler and adolescent he knows are no kin of his and treks cross-country to deposit them with their grandmother.
You always know what you'll end up with when you read a romance - obviously Nealy and Mat are going to wind up together, along with the kids. As always, though, the journey is what counts, and with Phillips it's always a pleasure. The elements one expects from her work is here - well rounded characters, engrossing plot, romantic attraction and realistic dialogue, and the portrayal of both children is spot on.
First Lady's political component adds an interesting extra dimension - I'd not previously considered the pressure these scrutinised women are under, or the ordinary things they miss out on, and Phillips does a masterful job of portraying a woman with conviction, a strong sense of duty, and a need for relief. She also manages to avoid identifying which party Nealy's associated with - the only real life political figures mentioned are former First Ladies from both parties, and Nealy's own politics are "left wing here, right wing there, then middle of the road" as she steers clear of partisan politics in favour of the national interest. This aspect is an integral part of Nealy's character but doesn't drive the novel, so if you're disinterested in politics it won't affect your enjoyment. For me, though, in addition to the usual satisfaction I feel when finishing a Phillips novel I also felt inspired that a politician like Nealy might come along, here or in the US. - Alex

Thursday, November 19

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book

A sleepless toddler escapes from his family home and thus survives the murder of his entire family. He is tracked to a nearby cemetery by the murderer but saved from the rest of his family’s fate by its ghostly inhabitants. They agree to raise the boy to adulthood in the relative safety of the graveyard.
And so begins a series of outlandish adventures, unusual friendships and exceptional bravery.
Inevitably he must face and defeat the assassin who still wants him dead in order to go out into the world and live amongst the living.
Strongly reminiscent of the books of my childhood, both in presentation and theme, I found this book utterly charming. Though dark at times, it never degenerates into gore. The natures of the creatures in the graveyard are implied but never spoken of, a subtlety that is threaded throughout the story. Scary, funny and serious by turns this books teaches lessons about love, loss and the importance of listening to your elders in an exceptionally entertaining manner.
I would have loved this book as a child, I certainly enjoyed it as an adult.-Lynn

Wednesday, November 18

How It's Done - Christine Kole MacLean

Grace feels stifled by the expectations of her religious father - he's so sure about who she is and what she should do that Grace doesn't feel as though she can object. But when he considers her good behaviour of over two months is insufficient to outweigh breaking her curfew by five minute, causing her father to forbid her to go the the senior concert, Grace is primed for rebellion. Liv, her best friend, convinces Grace to go with her to a college literature class for extra credit Liv badly needs if she's ever going to escape her alcoholic parents. Slipping out part way through for a toilet break, Grace meets Michael - witty, urbane and over a decade older, Michael's a lecturer at the university.
When they meet again, by chance, at a coffee shop a brief attraction becomes something different, and Grace loses herself in a relationship with a man who challenges her, attracts her, makes her feel things she never dreamt of, and who offers her a way out. The question she doesn't ask is - into what?
MacLean sustains a strong degree of tension throughout How It's Done - Grace is not only torn between the traditions she was raised to respect and new mores Michael confronts her with, but also a growing awareness of her parents' marriage as a distinct entity, and the demands of a friend who expects favours Grace is uncomfortable asking for.
I found elements of How It's Done reminded me of Twilight, primarily the concept of a love-starved, insecure adolescent girl who, despite the protests of her family, is bewitched by an attractive, attentive older man with a dark side. MacLean manages to illustrate some of the concerns I had with that series here. Michael is not a blatantly bad person - he doesn't beat Grace or abuse her, but his motives are complex and he's not entirely honest.
However, my recollections of my reading experience are strongly overshadowed by a list of twenty discussion questions at the end of the novel. While I can see the need for analysis when a book is read for English literature class, or for a book group that's unable to come up with their own questions, or a texturally deep novel that has sold widely and that demands deeper analysis, in this case it came off to me as presumptuous and annoying. The questions weren't particularly insightful ("How are Grace's father and Michael the same or different?"), and I didn't think there was enough going on below the surface to warrant the inclusion of the questions. I am not, I acknowledge, the likely target audience of this YA novel, but it still rankled. If you decide to read it, consider stopping at the novel's end. - Alex

Tuesday, November 17

Join Me - Danny Wallace

Bored out of his mind one day, Danny was searching for something interesting to do. When his mother rang to tell him that his gread-uncle Gallus had just died, Danny had no idea that this event would set him off on one of what his girlfriend Hanne called his "stupid boy projects" (both meanings - stupid projects and projects of stupid boys - are accurate). For Join Me is the story of how a relatively normal bloke, inspired by an elderly relative's long-ago attempt at forming a commune, created a cult. By accident.
Danny discovered this information during the wake - even fifty years later Gallus's attempts were the cause of great hilarity among his surviving relatives. Out of a village of a hundred Gallus had hoped to recruit 100 members, but succeeded in only attracting three. On his return to London Danny wondered how well he'd go at gathering followers - to find out, he inserted a small ad that said only"Join Me: send one passport-sized photo to..."
What follows is a truly amusing, well-crafted tale that had me laughing aloud at several points. Each chapter begins with a verse detailing events that will follow. Chapter one, for example, begins:

1. In the beginning was the Word.
2. And the Word was There.

There is a man in Camden, Noth London, who once made me very happy.

Some of the humour is situation specific and therefore not easily described in a brief review, and all of the verses are amusing, particularly verses 9 - 11 (wherein the toasted cheese sandwich of the Leader burns) and Chapter 13, verses 1 + 2:
1. It came to pass that the words of Daniel were heard by a second Daniel, son of Ander.
2. And Daniel - nay, but the other one - was mending a chariot from the land of the Ikeans.
For conspiracy theory lovers like Lynn and I, the entire section with Benjamin (which takes up most of chapter 13, appropriately enough) is worth the price of admission, as Danny tries valiantly to distance himself from the many secret societies that Benjamin is convinced want to rule the world. I think my favourite part is when, after Benjamin asks him about a whole series of secret organisations ("What would you say if I said the words: 'The Process'?... What about The Children?... The Finderers" etc), Danny finally interrupts with:
"No. No, I've never heard of any of this lot. They're nothing to do with me. Im doing something called Join Me, and it's about good deeds. That's all. No Moon Children, Luciferians, or Finders."
"You've heard of The Finders?" Benjamin's eyes filled with horror.

"You just mentioned them a minute ago," I said...
Benjamin looked around the room, decided it was safe, and whispered conspiratorily "Since 1987, The Finders have been active, mainly in America."
The words "mainly in America" translated to me as "this is bollocks" and I sat back in my chair with a sign.
There's gold everywhere, from Wallace's self-deprecating comparisons of himself to other authors ("I'm sure if I'd been Bill Bryson my taxidriver would have told me a funny story of something") to language barriers ("She clearly meant it as a compliment, but round my neck of the woods being called 'a special' won't really wiin you any girls"), and a spectacularly amusing scene involving an evil friend and a tinted limo.
There's also impending doom - Hanne had been very clear after his last 'stupid boy project' that it had better be the last, and you sense from the start that when she finds out about Join Me she will not be pleased. There's also the tension of working out what he's going to do with all these followers, and some interesting sociological questions about joining in general, and why these people decided to Join Danny knowing almost nothing.
Join Me is spectacular fun and I cannot recommend it highly enough. - Alex

Monday, November 16

What Angels Fear - CS Harris

It is the beginning of 1811, and in London politicians and advisers are planning how to proceed with succeeding King George, who slips ever further into madness, and the upper classes are nervous that revolutionary fervour will turn the populace against them, too.
When the ravished, slashed, blood-soaked body of a young woman is found in the lady's chapel of a parish church not far from Westminster Abbey, even the police are shocked. Sir Henry Lovejoy is investigating the crime - the discovery of a pistol in the dead woman's cloak provides almost the only clue. It belongs to Sebastian St Cyr, a viscount who served as a spy in the war against Napoleon and who returned to London a very different man. Political pressure is high, and the investigation is driven by fears that news of a nobleman avoiding quick and severe justice for such a heinous crime will incite an anti-noble backlash that will spark a British revolution.
Fresh from a duel, St Cyr is arrested by a constable whose class-driven anger causes a fatal incident and propels St Cyr to flight. Anxious in equal parts to remove suspicion from himself and to find the real killer, he hides among the lower classes and investigates the case himself.
What Angels Fear is a truly great work - Harris, (better known as historical romance writer Candice Proctor), has combined a strong mystery with a genuinely engaging protagonist, and set it in a clearly well-researched era, while avoiding hitting the reader over the head with historical accurate, "I researched this" facts.
Although St Cyr is blessed with many attributes (from the de rigueur intelligence and athleticism to stunningly acute hearing and night vision, which Harris attributes to "Bithil Syndrome, a little-known but very real genetic mutation"), Harris's writing spares him from being an insufferable 19th century superman.
Self-contained but allowing possibility for further adventures, I was pleased to discover that What Angels Fear is only the first St Cyr novel - I look forward to the next installment but will delay it until I need something to bring me out of a run of bad books. - Alex

Sunday, November 15

Sold – Patricia McCormick

Lakshmi’s Nepalese family is struggling to survive, thanks in no small part to her step-father – unable to work because of an arm that was fractured and not set in childhood, he instead spends all day gambling. Lakshmi is the star pupil at her small school, and helps her mother with growing the meagre crops they need to survive. She hopes her baby brother will live long enough to have a name, unlike the sons who died. She is promised in marriage to a boy her own age, and though they don’t talk she from time to time glances shyly at him and thinks he looks at her, too.
When a glamorous woman comes to her small village, Lakshmi’s step-father sends her off to work in the city in exchange for enough money to repay their debts, buy a new outfit for her mother, and maybe even a tin roof that won’t leak. Lakshmi is sad to leave behind her mother, brother and baby goat, but pleased to be able to help her family. She hopes to return home to visit at festival time, but very soon learns that she’s been sold for a very different purpose than she imagined, and will never see her home again.
This story of child slavery and forced prostitution is powerful and clearly well researched. Lakshmi has a clear voice, and her narration is consistent (at least as far as I can tell) with her age, experiences and background. The cultural mores are reflected without comment –
a son will always be a son... But a girl is like a goat. Good as long as she gives you milk and butter. But not worth crying over when it’s time to make a stew
even a man who gambles away what little we have… is better than no man at all
– which just increases their impact on a Western reader. The various strategies for keeping child prostitutes from fleeing are described from the perspective of the enslaved children, and the bleakness and depression of the situation are intelligently portrayed in a fist person narrative.
Yet for some reason I didn’t really connect with Sold, and though I’ve spent some time thinking about it I can’t work out why that is. Part of the reason probably lies in the close reading proximity of this to Identical, which deals with related, powerful themes in a way I connected strongly too. Perhaps, too, though abhorrent and though I contribute money to organizations fighting this practice, there were no surprising revelations that struck me when reading Sold.
The novel concludes with factual information about human trafficking and child prostitution in the developing world, with a note specifically about Australia (where some three hundred women a year are trafficked too, and an estimated 1,000 are currently sex slaves) and some information about Nepal. I can see Sold being used as a set text in schools, and as an aid for workers in the field. But, despite its strong and important message, it just didn’t resonate with me. - Alex

Saturday, November 14

Dreaming of You – Lisa Kleypas

As S.R. Fielding, Sara Fielding achieved no little recognition on the publication of her first novel, Mathilda, the gritty and meticulously researched tale of one of London’s prostitutes. Despite her gentlewoman’s position Sara had been able to connect with the streetwalkers who so ably helped her get the nuances and background right ion what was a work of fiction, though many refused to believe the book was not biographical. Sara’s follow up novel, The Beggar, was as successful, and she had left the country village where she lived with her parents to research her third novel, about illegal gambling.
Unobtrusively lingering in the dark streets of London one evening, gleaning information to use in her as yet untitled new work, Sara sees a gang of ruffians attack a tall, dark man. Unable to stand by and do nothing, she reprimands them, to no avail. Retrieving a revolver from her reticule (for, despite her not-quite-fiancé Perry’s beliefs, Sara is not wholly helpless), she shoots in their general vicinity. Intending to miss, Sara is shocked to see her bullet hit one of the men in the throat, but the action served at least for the rest to flee, though not before cutting their victims’ face. Sara soon learns the subject of this vicious assault was none other than the owner of Craven’s and thus just the man to aid her in her research.
Through determination and hard work Derek Craven rose from his sordid beginnings as the abandoned child of a prostitute to a wealthy lord. Ever fearful of it all being taken from him, Craven continues to amass a fortune, from his investment holdings to London’s most exclusive gambling house. Handsome but hard, he has bedded almost every married woman in the ton – they know it means nothing more than a short lived series of tumbles, except for his most recent paramour - married to an old man at the tender age of fifteen, Joyce Ashby refuses to believe he is done with her. Craven has no time for the country chit who came to his aid, but his household has other ideas.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read an historical romance, and even then they were predominantly of the more category, Regency-era variety. Despite its thoroughly modern-sounding title, Dreaming of You is considerably more nuanced and rich. Although the setting is integral to both plot and character, the combination of unfurling mystery (who is determined to bring Craven down, and why) and romance take centre stage.
The characters, from the chief protagonists to Derek’s closest friend Lily, married Lady Radford, and his factotum Worthy, and Sara’s parents and unattractive fiancé, are rounded and complex. The writing is engaging, and the plot absorbing. I was lead to Kleypas through a thread on Smart Bitches, and while I think overdoing it would be a mistake, this will not be my last reading of her work. – Alex

Friday, November 13

What I Did For Love – Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Georgie York’s life was perfect – thanks to her father’s close management of her life and her career she’d avoided the usual pitfalls that befell child stars, and she was married to Lance Marks, universally acknowledged to be the world’s most handsome man alive. Okay, her father was reluctant to let her take on roles that stretched her far beyond Scooter, the plucky red-head she played on America’s favourite sitcom, her last two movies tanked and the one in post-production was almost certain to do as badly, and her plans for a child had been put off over and over by Lance. But the worst thing was Lance leaving her for actress/humanitarian Jade Gentry – they apparently fell in love while on set. At least Georgie had thought that was the worst thing, until confronted by the paparazzi with ultrasound pictures of Jade and Lance’s baby and the news that Lance said it was Georgie’s career that had stood in the way of her becoming a mother. Unable to maintain a breezy façade, Georgie broke down in public and is now desperate to regroup.
Her plan to go to Vegas with her best friends and have a very public good time, followed by a string of dates with attractive, unattached men, is ruined when first all her friends pull out of the trip leaving her alone. Bumping in to her fellow Skip and Scooter star, Bramwell Shepard was unexpected. It was his fault the series ended, when he created a sex scandal the family-values show couldn’t overcome; more than that, though, Georgie couldn’t forgive him for the casual way that, after years of worshipping him, he carelessly took her virginity then ignored her. Desperate not to be portrayed in the media as sad and alone, however, Georgie follows him to a party at the hotel they’re both staying at, and also follows him shot for shot. When she awoke in her Bellagio suite half-naked Georgie thought sleeping with Bram was her biggest mistake, but that was before he found the wedding certificate. Anxious to avoid Britney Spears-like comparisons, Georgie decides to stay married to Bram for a year before graceful separating – he agrees, on condition she pays him a monthly stipend.
Forced marriages are a staple of the romance genre, but in Phillips’ able hands this weary plot device is fresh and interesting. The characters are developed and interesting, their backstory (told primarily from Georgie’s perspective) is woven through the novel to give both texture and context, and a central secondary character is also redeemed. The plot is interesting, and though I started out thinking it was strongly inspired by Jennifer Aniston/Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie, I very quickly viewed the characters in their own right. This is a highly above average novel that I read at the perfect time to break me out of a long streak of disappointing books. The only issue I have with Phillips is that she can’t write as quickly as I read. - Alex

Thursday, November 12

Ever - Gail Carson Levine

From the moment she sees the lithe servant at her uncle’s wedding, Kezi is attracted to him. But she has only a month to live, thanks to a vow her father made to Admat, the one true God in exchange for saving her mother’s life. That Kezi is to be sacrificed is a terrible and unforseen calamity that has her parents despairing, but one cannot break a vow to Admat and there’s no room for negotiation.
Olus has infiltrated a wedding to be closer to Kezi. With power over the winds, Olus is the youngest of the Akkan gods by many centuries; restless, he has left his homeland in search of diversion and connection with mortals. He had watched Kezi for some time before she stepped in, sacrificing herself rather than allowing her aunt to unwittingly be involved in the vow. He goes in search of this god, Admat, hoping to reason with him, but can find him nowhere.
This is new territory for Levine, who generally works within more Western myths and fairytales, and I was initially a little disappointed not to be reading one of her cleverly twisted. reimagined variants. Although I didn’t feel as involved with Ever as I have with other of her works, I did enjoy this novel of a very different world and clash of cultures, particularly the contrast between monotheism and an uninvolved (possibly non-existent) God with a pantheistic culture where the gods are decidedly present. I’d rather read her more traditional work, though. - Alex

Wednesday, November 11

Amanda Quick: Affair

A young lady left near penniless after the murder of her hated stepfather must find a way to support herself and her young sister. The usual occupations of women in her position (governess, paid companion) are unsuitable-both because they are unappealing and will not allow her to keep her sister by her side. Inspired by her mother’s disastrous second marriage, she starts a business that makes discreet inquires into the character of gentlemen offering for the hand of wealthy women so that they can make an informed choice whether or not to wed. When one of her clients is murdered she is determined to discover if the culprit was one of the suitors she was investigating. Little does she realise that her new man of business is investigating her on suspicion of the same murder. The two eventually team up and using an affair as cover embark on an investigation that leads them into a shady world of alchemy and malign hypnotic suggestion.
They uncover the murderer and thwart his evil schemes, falling in love along the way.
It has been quite some time since I last read any Amanda Quick and I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoy her writing. The historical setting is vivid, the heroine is strong and intelligent, the secondary plots complex. It all adds up to an easy and satisfying read.
I continue to enjoy her portrayal of heroines that are neither young, nor particularly beautiful, by the standards of the age. And I quite liked that this heroine was the only person who thought the hero attractive and interesting-she was obviously seeing him through the eyes of love right from the start.
Contradictory as it seems this is fluff with substance.-Lynn

Tuesday, November 10

The Good Daughter - Amra Pajalic

Sammie was happy with her life in Thornbury - her mum was cooler than most of the other mothers, she had a best friend and could slide along at school without any worries. But when her grandmother died and her Dodi came from Bosnia to live in Melbourne everything changed. She went back to being Sabiha, they moved to St Albans to be closer to family and the Bosnian community, and all of a sudden she had to start acting in accordance with community standards.
Irritated by her mother's attempts at finding a suitable boyfriend, frustrated by the close supervision of a neighbourhood where everyone knows your business and reports to your family, and disappointed at the disintegration of her friendship with Kathleen, Sabiha's fifteenth year is not a happy one, and it's all the fault of her stupid grandfather.
Pajalic fits a lot into this YA novel about identity and discovery. All the secondary characters have secrets and back stories that Sabiha is unaware of when the novel opens, predominantly dealing with betrayal and forbidden loves of all kinds.
The reflection of how the dissolution of communism in Yugoslavia changed the cultural norms and identity of Bosnians is interesting, and I liked the way this tension was differently portrayed across the generations.
For the most part Pajalic does a credible job of working this and other background unobtrusively into the text, and Sabiha's own lack of familiarity with her faith allows a degree of explanation that isn't slab-like exposition. That said, I did find the first section, where Sabiha explains why, though they're Muslim, Bosnian women don't wear hijabs and the men are neither turbaned nor bearded, a little forced.
From time to time there are nice turns of phrase, like "Now I had all this Bosnian baggage to drag around and I didn't know how to carry it." I also really liked a discussion between Dido and Sabiha's mother, Bahra, about conventional medicine versus faith healing:
"Have you been taking your tablets?" Dido asked.
"I don't need them any more." She smoothed her skirt.
"All I need is to pray."
"If you don't take your tablets you'll get sick," Dido said gently.

Mum shook her head vehemently. "I pray to Allah and I won't get sick."
"And Allah hears your prayers, but he created medicine so it helps you."
Much of Sabiha's angst is due to her forays into the world of dating, as she finds herself attracted to several boys but indecisive and unsure. Her attitude to male/female relationships is coloured by her mother's experiences as both an abandoned wife and as a sinner (at least in the eye of the community, for she dated several Bosnian men and lived with an Australian), and also by being molested a few years earlier by one of Bahra's male friends. The effects of this traumatic experience, as well as the distress caused by Bahra's illness when she was younger (and Sabiha's subsequent surveillance care taking) are well done.
Despite my concerns that this might be jumping on the band wagon of recent young-Muslim-women-growing-up-in-the-West novels, The Good Daughter is readable, the coming-of-age plot is fresh, and the secondary plots are relatively substantive. There were a few loose ends (the severing of Bahra's relationship with her former closest friend is never well explained), but I'm not a fan of every little detail being accounted for, so that wasn't a problem.
Yet for some reason The Good Daughter felt flat to me. While not everything was wrapped up, there is a markedly last minute transformation, as in the space of a few pages Sabiha becomes sensitive to the needs and concerns of her mother, her grandfather, her friend Brian, her cousin Dina... that seemed a little abrupt. That doesn't account for my lack of enthusiasm throughout, though. After much thinking about why, I think it's because Sabiha is not particularly sympathetic. Though self-centredness is typical for teens, Sabiha almost never sees anything except in relation to its effects on her. She seems sulky, moody and inflexible, and as the novel is told in first person this is something of an achievement by the author. The Good Daughter is certainly accessible to a wider audience, and I'm interested to see what she writes next. - Alex

Monday, November 9

Small Eternities - Michael Lawrence

In this sequel to A Crack in the Line, Naia and Alaric are still living in one another's worlds - Alaric is bereft, and Naia is still thrilled every day to see the mother she thought was lost to her forever.
Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, I just could not get in to this second of a three-part novel. Out one day, having brought only Small Eternities with me (to force myself to read it), I found myself taking a supermarket catalogue off the tram seat beside me as an alternative, and gave up on what other reviewers have called ambitious, thought-provoking and uniquely unpredictable. - Alex

Sunday, November 8

Identical – Ellen Hopkins

Mirror-image twins Kayleigh and Raeanne used to be inseparable, but that was before the accident, eight years earlier. Their district-court judge father crashed the car, scarring his politician wife and fracturing the family. Not long after that Raymond began climbing into bed with Kayleigh – all she wants is her icy mother’s love, but Kay is always away from home campaigning. All Raeanne wants is her father’s love, even if it came at the price Kayleigh is so reluctant to pay. Now the twins barely talk and their lives only marginally intersect, though they think about one another all the time.
As Raeanne increasingly desperately seeks love elsewhere, and fills the void at her centre with purging, drugs and alcohol, Kayleigh feels increasingly dirty and insignificant, until only bingeing and cutting help her feel anything. Something has to change, but how?
Identical is entirely laid out as non-rhyming verse – each sister described events in free-form, sometimes shaped, verses, with change in voice indicated by poems on facing pages that highlight the same words but in a different way. That’s not very clear, so a brief example may help. On one page will be a six verse poem by one twin; on the facing page the other twin has a similarly constructed poem that highlights the same word or words:

I’ve Got to Learn
To say no, and not only say
it, but mean it. In some
situations, but not always
the right ones. I know,
I’m strong.

If Only
I could say yes, Ian, get close to me.
But it’s a place no one should ever be,
and it would be cruel to let him think
I’m strong*

The shared words create their own poem, sometimes differently punctuated (“evil. isn’t born it’s created?” and “evil? isn’t born it’s created.” for example) but mirroring the similarities between them despite their differences.
Had I know about this style going in I may have been hesitant to read the book, particularly as I generally dislike poetry inserted into the middle of a novel - it's usually banal poetry, at that, and does nothing to enhance the plot. In Identical, however, the poetry is integral to the reading, well crafted, and is so powerful in both theme and construction that once I started I really had trouble putting it down. Hopkins has clearly thoroughly researched the psychology of sexual abuse, not only the effect of the victims but the victimisers and those around them. The conflicting emotions, underlying distress, coping mechanisms, and portrayal not only of Raeanne and Kayleigh but of those around them is lucidly and beautifully, powerfully expressed. As the narrative continues we see wilful blindness all around, and there’s a stunning revelation that took me by surprise.
One of the things I most admire and envy in Lynn is her ability to foresee twists like this, so that when I told her about Identical while I was only part way through she predicted the revelation – a writer herself, she says that’s because that’s what she’d do but it still amazes me. Anyway, although I… not enjoyed, but was drawn into and powerfully affected by Identical, and though Hopkins has written four other novels (according to the jacket), I won’t be returning to her work for a while, as it’s quite overwhelming. I will return, though – I just need a frothy break first. - Alex

*The Blogger formatting won't let me space it as it is in the book so this will have to suffice

Saturday, November 7

Singletini - Amanda Trimble

Victoria Hart loves being part of a foursome of single girls in Chicago - she's been friends with Gwynn, Kimmie and Julia since freshman year at college, and they all agreed to stick to the single life. At least until Gwynnie got engaged to Bryan. Now Vic's life's out of control - she lost the job she never liked but needed, and has somehow become a Wingwoman, helping men pick up for the night, a job so ridiculous she can't tell her friends, much less her parents. She's been roped into assisting Gwynn with a wedding that's rapidly becoming bigger than Texas, a role that somehow also involves spying on Bryan, because his old girlfriend (who his mother loves, unlike the hatred she has for Gwynn) has been hanging around a little too much. And she's falling for one of her clients, which is a huge no-no. All the while this horrible, breathless feeling keeps stealing over her, as Vic finds herself propelled toward change and adulthood.
From the opening lines I knew what I was letting myself in for.
Oh. My. God. What the...?
My heart thumps wildly as I snatch a City Girls magazine off a Lincoln Park newsstand. I clutch the glossy little weekly in horror as my eyes zero in on the headline:
Shitty! It can't be.
Chills prickle down my spine as I rip off my Diesel sunglasses to take a closer look.

And so on. It will, for example, come as no surprise that Vic's cat's named Armani, or that designer names are sprinkled liberally throughout, though there's a merciful near-absence of shoes. The vast majority of the other chick lit memes are present, however, most notably an underdeveloped heroine who's self-centred, shallow and somewhat feckless.
Vic is fired for numerous absences, continually oversleeps and is late, forgets important things and has little regard for her credit card. She also drinks. A lot.
I realise, re-reading this, that I sound like someone's disapproving spinster aunt. Vic is only twenty-four, and responsible maturity hardly descends upon everyone at that age. But I found the reckless, heedless activity uncomfortable to read about, and I like my characters to have a little more depth. Plus despite the fact that the drinking repeatedly gets her in to trouble, she is unable, time after time after time, to remember to slow down, even when she's officially working. Vic does, of course, grow through the course of the novel - and I don't even know why I wrote 'of course,' because not all chick lit heroines do.
Singletini clearly had some mitigating elements because, despite my large pile of library books, stacks and boxes of unread books, and somewhat messy home, I did read it to the end. I suspect, however, that I may be aging out of the genre. - Alex

Friday, November 6

The Accidental Werewolf – Dakota Cassidy

Marty Andrews has made it to lavender, the first rung on the Bobbie-Sue cosmetics hierarchy, and has her gaze firmly set on sky blue. Her two newest recruits are disappointing – neither seems to have the dedication required to progress in the organization – but that’s nothing compared to the changes she’s noticed since that run in between her darling teacup poodle Muffin and a giant dog in a dark alley last week – while saving her beloved pet Marty got a tiny bite from the beast, and though there can’t possibly be a connection between the two events she’s become more emotionally erratic, is somehow no longer a summer on the Bobbie-Sue color wheel, and she’s noticed a disturbing increase in her body hair. The handsome guy telling her he’s a werewolf who accidentally nipped her, thereby making her one, too, is just icing on the cake.
I so liked the review I read somewhere and the premise for this series (three women accidentally turned into supernatural creatures and finding love in the process) that I reserved this and the next one before my library had even bought them. I cannot say how glad I am I didn’t buy them.
From the first page I was unhooked:
Well, it was official.
Lavender was soooooo not in her color wheel any more. Not looking like this, anyway.
It clashed with her hair and made her skin look sallow.
Marty Andrews was now an autumn. Thus, fall colors would best suit her new pallor. Greens, gold, and a couple of shades of yellow were currently her complexion’s new friends.
But the color lavender? Not so much.

That was once the color she’d been so suited to. A spring color. Or was it winter?
Spring, winter, spring, winter?

Sweet mother, she couldn’t even remember
her seasons of color. Where were her color-wheel-of-life skills? Each season had colors it represented. Any woman worth her salt knew that. Didn’t they?

This is what’s going through her head as the tall, dark, wolfishly handsome man is breaking the news to her. Now, I believe you can be intelligent and a cosmetics company rep, that being career focused regardless of the career can be important. But Marty is both shallow and unable to prioritise anything beyond her Bobbie-Sue trajectory. Shallowness is one of my pet peeves about chick lit as a genre – though by no means a requirement, many authors write as though it were, and Cassidy is no exception. In addition, and the two do often go hand in hand, Marty’s self-absorbed well past the line of narcissism, a trait I find unattractive in life and particularly in my heroine. If I can’t connect with the protagonist I feel little impetus to continue reading, and I not only disliked Marty but I had no interest in seeing how (or if) her transformation changes her character or life.
The writing wasn’t bad, but it didn’t appeal to me, with lines like “he had the thickest, most fabulous hair, with the kind of volume only a Nine Inch Nails concert had.” I quibble with the way Cassidy uses dichotomy: “he was a complete dichotomy” because he cradled her poodle tenderly but fills the room with his dominant power. But mostly I abandoned The Accidental Werewolf at the end of chapter four because I didn’t connect with anything in the novel at all. - Alex

Thursday, November 5

M.K. Hume: King Arthur-Dragon's Child

Fostered by the noble Lord Ector, Arthur, a young boy of unknown parentage, lives in the no man’s land between servant and master until one day three strangers visit and change the course of his life. On their insistence the young Arthur is trained in the arts of the warrior, the scholar and the courtier. This suggests to both Arthur and his foster family that he comes from a noble background but neither guess at the truth of his pedigree.
Grown to manhood Arthur becomes Lord Ector’s steward, marries, fathers a daughter and settles contentedly into his life. But fate has greater plans for him and the strangers return. They are shocked to find him married with a young family and have a hard time convincing him to travel with them to the High King’s court.
But this he does, believing he owes them for his education, and so sets off a train of events that lead to the war with the Saxons and eventually his crowning as High King of Britain.
This was an interesting take on the old tales focussing on the little explored area of Arthur’s childhood. Hume deftly walks the tightrope between keeping within the confines of accepted mythology and creating that mythology anew, presenting a totally believable history for the young Arthur.
The setting is a plausible mish mash of decaying Roman society and rising Celtic tribes which avoids the magical elements of more traditional tales, replacing them with common superstitions and witchcraft of the time.
The main characters are all present in their traditional roles, and while their character traits are not strictly inline with those generally accepted, they are not so different as to be unrecognisable.
Arthurian legend is a particular interest of mine, and while I am open to new interpretations of old stories, I’m always wary of what’s on offer. It doesn’t take a large leap away from cannon for a book to become a wallbanger for me. Hume’s approach was fresh enough to maintain interest while traditional enough to satisfy.
A great book. I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.-Lynn

Wednesday, November 4

RT, Margaret and the Rats of NIMH

Margaret never wanted to go camping in the first place - she'd rather spend time with her best friend Leon or eating junk food, but her parents thought it would be good for her and for her weird little brother Artie. Margaret knows he could speak if he wanted to, but why should he when he gets whatever he wants anyway?
Leaving their parents behind, Margaret takes Artie for a little walk, carefully watching which way they went, but when they turn a bend a come across a bear, the children run without paying any attention to where they're going. Now lost and helpless, Margaret is responsible for her little brother, and afraid they're going to die.
Christopher's feelign out of sorts and unappreciated by his colony. When he goes off exploring and discovers strange creatures in a cave he's excited - now he has a secret of his own. He hears the bigger one call the littler one "RT" - something makes him feel sorry for him, and Christopher packs up some food from the kitchen. When the bigger creature catches him and takes him prisoner, Christopher potentially risks the entire colony. Instead, the rats take Artie and Margaret in, caring for them through the summer and changing their lives.
The third in the NIMH trilogy, RT, Margaret and the Rats of NIMH is a heart-warming tale of human/animal connection and change. It has all the elements that annoyed me in the first two NIMH novels but to a significantly lesser extent, and though my credibility was at times stretched all in all I quite enjoyed re-reading the novel, at least in comparison with my first two NIMH re-reading experiences. I also feel no need to return to the world of the enhanced rats any time soon. - Alex

Tuesday, November 3

Longshot – Dick Francis

John Kendall has given himself two years to make it as a writer. Though he’s published several survival guides as part of his job with a more than usually exotic travel company, he wants to write novels. Indeed, his first has been accepted for publication in the UK and his agent is negotiating with the US. In the interim, however, Kendall is shivering in a garret and surviving on a limited and monotonous diet. When the pipes freeze and his landlady needs him to move out, Kendall is desperate. Which is why, despite his agent’s strong suggestions to the contrary, he accepts the task of researching and writing the biography of Tremayne Vickers, one of England’s leading racehorse trainers – as well as a fee, the position involves living at Vickers’ home in Berkshire for a month or so.
The beginning is not auspicious, but as Kendall gets to know Vickers and his family better he not likes them. He inevitably learns about the racing world, and they in turn learn about survivalist skills - skills that one of them uses for a very different kind of survival.
This is the first Francis novel I’ve read and though I’d avoided his novels because I’m not that interested in horse racing, when I read a recommendation on, of all places, Smart Bitches, I decided to give it a try. Longshot is indeed about racing, but that’s the setting rather than the dominant theme. The novel itself is about people, personal history, relationships and love of several kinds, all caught up in a murder mystery.
I was captured from the beginning, and increasingly delighted to find an author whose writing is satisfyingly like my adored Bagley, though still very much his own man. Similarities include an intelligent protagonist with unusual skills (though less flawed than most of Bagley’s), who is thrust into a situation where he needs to use wit and observation as well as his gifts to uncover a bigger picture and save both his own life and the lives of innocents around him.
The characters are deftly drawn, the dialogue is natural, the plot is genuinely involving, and the writing is clean and masterful. I am also delighted to discover an author whose work I so enjoy, all of which awaits me unread. I will pace myself, and know that one thoroughly enjoyable book does not a kindred writer make, but I’m hopeful. - Alex

Monday, November 2

The Roar of the Butterflies – Reginald Hill

Luton-based PI Joe Sixsmith is melting in the heat of his office, in the midst of an unseasonably warm British summer, when a Young Fair God engages him to investigate a delicate matter. Christian Porphyry has been accused of a heinous crime – cheating on the links of one of Britain’s most exclusive greens, the Royal Hoo Golf Club. Chris swears he didn’t do it, and Joe’s inclined to believe him, but what tilts the balance is a very generous retainer and an immediate liking of the young man.
What Joe knows about golf can, as he says himself, be written on the tip of a tee, but that doesn’t get in the way of him investigating what turns out to be one of the most devious cases of his career – an investigation that includes him being dangled over his own balcony not once but twice, receiving a literal bollocking, and risking running against the interests of Ratcliffe King (aka King Rat), one of the most powerful and connected men in the country.
Lighter than his more wellknown Dalziel and Pascoe, Hill’s Sixsmith stories are entertaining and engaging. The Roar of the Butterflies, a title that refers to a Wodehouse story describing the potential for any noise to interfere with the concentration of a serious golfer, is simultaneously current and echoes a Wodehousian sensibility. As Sixsmith negotiates a world as far removed from his own black, work class environment as possible, his knowledge of human nature and his instincts meanderingly lead him to the truth.
I love the protagonist, who
Had experienced plenty of being put in his place, which he played little heed to on the grounds that he found his place so very much to his liking that he had no notion of trying to get out of it. Also it was often very helpful to a PI for folk to be so certain you were in your place they didn’t watch you as close as they should have done.
In The Roar of the Butterflies Hill combines a unique and interesting mystery with a fascinating study of human nature, and the novel concludes with a truly satisfying ending. - Alex