Thursday, December 30

The Aloha Quilt - Jennifer Chiaverini

Bonnie Markham has had a grim year - in the throes of an unpleasant divorce from a man she knew not nearly as well as she thought, she's also lost the quilting supplies shop she dreamed of and which was the financial and occupational centre of her life. When an old friend from college contacts her, it seems too good to be true - Claire needs her help, and her Elm Creek Quilts experience, setting up a quilter's retreat in Hawaii.
As well as learning an entirely new approach to quilting, Bonnie finds herself relaxing in the welcoming environment of America's fiftieth state - she knows little of Hawaii's history or culture, but is keen to learn, particularly after she strikes up a friendship with the brother of one of the Aloha Quilt camp's staff. But Bonnie's ex-husband hasn't finished with her yet, and he threatens not only her future but that of Elm Creek Quilts itself. Can Bonnie make a new life for herself, free of him?
Of course she can, but the journey to that point was very enjoyable and beautifully balanced. As I've written in my last few Elm creek reviews, I've been a little less involved in the last few novels, in part because of over-immersion in Chaiverini's world. In The Aloha Quilt I felt as engaged and interested as I was at the beginning.
Throughout the series the characters have been well crafted, well rounded and believable, with histories and flaws. The dialogue rings true and, with rare exceptions, actions aspring from believable motivations. There were several differences with The Aloha Quilts, though - all positive.
The first was the shift in focus - Sylvia appears as a secondary character, with most of the focus on Bonnie, a middle-aged divorcee used to putting the needs of her children and her husband ahead of her own. With the former now grown and the latter no longer her concern, Bonnie at the beginning of the book is pale and listless, with neither drive nor spirit. The novel traces her growth into a professional, with strength and attitude, a new man, a new home, and ownership of herself for the first time in her life. Threaded through this triumphant narrative is (of what I'm sure is only a hint) a history of the islands, culture and people of Hawai'i.
Events in her friend Claire's life, specifically her marriage, cause a rift that, though over-reactive, is believable in light of Bonnie's experiences. What I particularly liked, though, was Bonnie's dawning awareness of the role her own assumptions, preoccupations and lack of listening contributed to a situation that Claire would have found distressing and traumatic anyway.
There are romantic elements here, and there's certainly a happy ending, but The Aloha Quilt is only a romance in the sense that it deals with the lives of women. I think it's my favourite so far of this strong and engaging series that, until the final (for me, fourteenth for the series) chapter comes in to my branch. - Alex

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
4.
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
6.
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt

Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You - Peter Cameron

In the summer between graduating from high school and starting college, eighteen-year-old James Sveck decides he doesn't need to continue his education, and would rather move to an isolated farmhouse somewhere - maybe Kansas. His mother, an art gallery owner recently returned from an aborted honeymoon with her third, soon-to-be-ex-husband, and his working-class-made-good lawyer father are not pleased, and send him to a therapist. During his sessions with Dr. Adler James talks about his life, particularly the incident that happened while he was in Washington, DC, attending the American Classroom program.
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is literature - James is filled with angst, more sensitive that the common folk around him, and appears devoid of the need for human connection. He has no real friends, is close only to his grandmother, and manages to drive away the nearest person he has to a proto-friend, because he's unable to understand societal norms. Had these personality traits been related to an autism-spectrum disorder they may have made his narrative more interesting - though difficult, I can think of at least two novels (Moon's The Speed of Dark, and the more well-known Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Haddon) that have carried it off well.
James, however, is not in any way disabled, except by his crippling sensitivity. Like the vast majority of adolescents I, too, was Too Sensitive To Live - every moment was filled with high drama, visible only to me (and, if hey weren't involved in it, my friends). I sporadically kept diaries at the time - like Someday This Pain... they don't make for interesting reading as an adult.
This isn't to say that I found the novel barren of interest - I finished it, and from time to time came across a line that resonated, like this one:
“My mother was right, but that didn’t change the way I felt about things. People always think that if they can prove they’re right, you’ll change your mind.”
But my common complaint when it comes to Literature, holds true here - nothing happens, nobody changes, and I didn't enjoy the reading process. Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You has been favourably and frequently compared to Catcher in the Rye. Another gap in my literary background, I'm ill-equipped to judge. Knowing the way analysing novels for English Literature generally reduced rather than increased my pleasure of the work, I am heartily glad I'll never have to study the themes, metaphors and sub-texts of this book. - Alex

Friday, December 24

The Fry Chronicles - Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry is intelligent, urbane, assured and the epitome of an Englishman - unless you ask him. In this second autobiographical installment (taking up where Moab is My Washpot left off), Fry describes is candid, clear-eyed and distressingly self-deprecating detail his life following his release from prison for credit card theft, from his university years at Cambridge to his thirtieth birthday.
In that time he began what was, and still is, a prodigious career. By any definition a polymath, by this point Fry had already established himself as an author (of fiction, a play and comedy skits), comedian and actor; hats as a screen writer, television host, wildlife documentarian, narrator of audiobooks and video games, director and early adopter of Twitter and other social media still lay ahead of him, though the seeds for many of these endeavours were also sown in his twenties.
Fry is quite clearly remarkable and yet he is refreshingly, almost disturbingly, oblivious to this. If one is to accept the interpretation he presents of himself as accurate, he gives himself no credit at all. His writing is honest and unpretentious, and filled with apology - from the first line ("I really must stop saying sorry: it doesn't make things any better or worse") his intense dislike of himself is clear.
I have yet to find an aspect of Fry that I, on the other hand, don't like. From Black Adder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which were my introductions to him in the eighties, through a number of his novels, Peter's Friends (one of my favourite films), his need (like mine) to point out that 'decmate' means to take away ten percent of something rather than (as is often assumed) to destroy it, his appearances on Bones and the brilliant enjoyment that is QI, and his revisiting of Douglas Adam's Last Chance to See, through to this latest chronicle of an extraordinary life, every glimpse appeals. The only down side for me is that I feel, in contrast, intimidated, talentless, unintelligent and a waster of life - a universal state of affairs, which Fry discussed later.
In his extraordinary life, Fry has met many other extraordinary people - The Fry Chronicles documents some encounters, and he is as good at observation as he appears to be at almost everything else (except creating music in any form). I particularly liked Tom Stoppard's observation:
I was at a dinner party many years ago, sitting alongside Tom Stoppard, who in those days smoked not just between courses but between mouthfuls. An American woman opposite watched in disbelief.
"And you so intelligent!"
"Excuse me?" said Tom.
"Knowing those things are going to kill you," she said, "and still you do it."
"How differently I might behave," Tom said, "if immortality were an option."
Further in the book, Fry recounts his experiences of working with Richard Armitage on the stage musical Me and My Girl, which originally featured "The Lambeth Walk" by Armitage's father, and rewritten some forty years later by Fry. Armitage was simultaneously "producer, the heir and manager of the composer's estate, and not least so far as I was concerned, my agent" and "proved himself capable of switching hats mid-sentence" thus:
'I have had a word with myself,' he would say, 'and I have agreed to my outrageous demands as to your financial participation in this project. I want to cut you out of any backend, but I absolutely insisted, so much to my annoyance you have points in the show, which pleases me greatly.'
It was the profits from this project, which ran for eight years in the UK, three years on Broadway, and was nominated for a slew of Tony awards, that initially contributed to Fry's wealth; he is, typically, modest about this achievement. but I have leapt ahead of the chronology.
Fry discusses his fears, when starting at Cambridge, of being found out, of having his intellectual right to be there questioned, a fear I once believed relatively unique to myself until a casual conversation at uni revealed not only all my fellow post-grads, but my supervisor and even the head of my department all felt the same. Knowing that has, sadly, in no way obviated my concern. There's also a fascinating section on the different characters of Cambridge and Oxford, too long to reproduce here but very interesting, particularly for someone wholly outside the system. Part of my, while reading The Fry Chronicles, in the same way that I wonder what might have been different had I not dropped out the first time around, did ponder how my tertiary academic life might have gone had my family not moved from England to Australia when I was a child.
Fry had a role as an extra in Chariots of Fire, his introduction to the world of film, and I love how he describes his thinking at the time (when given visiting cards marked "Cambridge University Tennis Club" by a prop man) "that film makers were imbecile profligates," with his insider knowledge now that they are instead "imbecile misers." The contrast of experience with outsider assumption is beautifully presented, elegantly written, and manages to be both self-deprecating and forgiving of other outsiders who may think similarly; he returns to this two pages later, and in both cases I was reminded of the episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson decided that all the people standing around doing nothing during roadworks were superfluous.
The heart of the writing, though, is the twin and twined elements of Fry's insecurity and his recognition that this state is all but universal.
Never, at any point in my life, can I remember feeling that I was any part of assured, controlled or at ease. The longer I life the more clearly one truth stands out. People will rarely modify their preferred view of a person, no matter what the evidence might suggest. I am English, Tweedy. Pukka. Confident. Establishment. Self-assured. In charge. That is how people see me, be the truth never so at variance... It may be the case that my afflictions of mood and temperament cause me to be occasionally suicidal in outlook and can frequently leave me in despair and eaten by self-hatred and self-disgust. It may be that I am chronically overmastered by a sense of failure, underachievement and a terrible knowledge that I have betrayed, abused or neglected the talents that nature has bestows upon me... All these cases may be protested, and I can assert their truth as often as I like, but the repetition will not alter my 'image' by one pixel. ..
What I wanted to say about all this wailing is not that I expect your pity or your understanding (though I wouldn't throw either of them out of bed), but that I am the one actually offering pity and understanding here. For I have to believe that all the feelings I have described are not unique to me but common to us all. The sense of failure, the fear of eternal unhappiness, the insecurity, misery, self-disgust and awful awareness of under-achievement that I have described. Are you not prey to all those things also? I do hope so, I would feel the most conspicuous oddity otherwise. I grant that my moments of 'suicidal ideation' and swings of mood may be more extreme and pathological than most have to endure, but otherwise, I am surely describing nothing more than the fears, dreads and neuroses we all share. No? More or less? Mutatis mutandis? All things being equal? Oh, please say yes.
Yes!
it is this humanity and openness that makes fry's accounts so breathtakingly honest and fearless. These qualities are evident again when Fry recounts a premier he went to with Rowan Atkinson:
To hear his name shouted out by photographers and see the crowd of fans pressing up against the crash barriers caused the more intense excitement in me, combined with a sick flood of fury and resentment that no one, not one single person, recognized me or wanted my picture. Oh, Stephen. I have clicked on and selected that sentence, deleted it, restored it, deleted it and restored it again. A large part of me would rather not have you know that I am so futile, fatuous and feeble-minded, but an even large part recognizes that this is our bargain.
I went in to The Fry Chronicles respecting, admiring and liking its subject. I left with all my positive feelings burnished, and my feelings of comparative poor self-worth somewhat ameliorated. I know I have failed to do The Fry Chronicles justice - it is human, humane, intelligent, funny, insightful, modest and astounding, a just reflection of its author. - Alex

Thursday, December 23

The Quilter's Kitchen - Jennifer Chiaverini

Perhaps it's because, in the lead-up to a year without library books, I've glutted on the Elm Creek Quilts series, but I have become decreasingly enchanted by the novels, none more so than The Quilter's Kitchen. I knew going in that it was "an Elm Creek Quilters novel with recipes" because it says that right on the cover. I didn't expect, though, that it would be an account of new member Anna Del Maso's fledgling foray into life on the Bergstrom estate thinly layered between pages of recipes.
I've read several books that include recipes in the narrative, of which perhaps the best are Greenwood's
Corinna Chapman novels, and have yet to cook a single dish from one. In Greenwood's version the recipes are few, packaged at the end of a section and easily skimmed over before returning to the narrative. In Chiaverini's version the recipes are the narrative, while the story serves the purpose of light flavouring. Each recipe is related to the text and to the characters, though I almost always had the sense that this was a slight stretch rather than an organic sequel to events. Although food plays a part in the rest of the series, there's a dwelling on it here that's laboured.
This isn't to say I didn't find sections of the Quilter's Kitchen interesting, though predominantly for reasons other than those I suspect Chiaverini intended. I noted, for example, the insistence in almost every recipe on kosher salt, something that I don't remember coming across in any of my wide collection of recipes, garnered from books, online and through friends and family. I had to Google it to discover what makes this kind of salt so special, and must confess that, despite reading a couple of descriptions (like
this one), I don't really get how it's different from sea salt or Victoria's Murray River salt. Most of the things that caught my eye were contrasts with Australia cuisine, like canned pumpkin (unknown here outside specialist grocers, in contrast with what my Colorado-based sister tells me is a dearth of edible pumpkins in the US)

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
4.
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
6.
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt


This is Where I Leave You - Jonathan Tropper

Judd Foxman learned of his father’s death from his sister Wendy, who delivered the news casually; it was almost appropriate, given Mort’s repression of emotion, a trait held by the family as a whole. After eighteen months treating metastatic cancer, his death was less surprising than Mort’s instruction, despite his long-held atheism, that the family sit shiva for him. Wendy brings her financial big shot husband, Barry, and her three small and boisterous children; older brother Paul brings his wife, Alice, who desperately wants o become pregnant; and wild child baby brother Phillip, after some tension about whether or not he’d make it all, meets his life coach/therapist/fiancĂ©e Tracy at the family home after the service. Judd goes alone – he and his wife separated after he found her, on her birthday, in bed with his boss. And, as Judd finalises his packing for the drive to the family home, Jen breaks the news that she’s pregnant to Wade – news especially distressing because their baby died three weeks before the due date.
Like the recently-reviewed Tropper novel How to Talk to a Widower, This is Where I Leave You deals with grief, loss and renewal. In this case, however, there's a wider cast and a broader palette - it's also a masterful study of family dynamics, interpersonal tensions, change, the presence of the past, and love and relationships of all kinds.
As Judd deals with his wife in the present he revisits the evolution of their relationship, from their first meeting on campus to his discovery of her in flagrante on her birthday, and the fallout. The shiva requirement that the family sit together every day for a week forces them to spend more time together than they have since their teens, bringing old allegiances, tensions, guilt and hostility up from the depths.
Though markedly different from my own family, so many of the Foxman’s interactions and tensions resonated with me, a fact I suspect lies less with our similarities than with Tropper’s skill. Seen through the filter of Judd's gaze, we view a family that, despite matriarch and celebrity therapist Hillary's (who Mort so often responded "Jesus, Hill," to that Judd thought that was Jesus' full name) best efforts to have total honesty and openness, is full of secrets, chaotic, flawed and real.
The product of an over-sharing mother, many of the scenes featuring Hill struck a chord with me. But then t
here are so many wonderful lines and vignettes that I imagine readers from wholly different backgrounds would find things with which to relate, too - “You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone.”
I've become more aware, since the weddings of my siblings, of the massive differences there are in family cultures, something I was already aware of thanks to the very different dynamics of my maternal and paternal grandparents, but which I see differently encountering them as an adult. So I was struck by the apposite response of
Judd and his family to an attempt at interveneing in a fraternal fight:
"We all stare at Tracy as if she just started jabbering in ancient tongues. We've always been a family of fighters and spectators. Intervening with reason and consideration demonstrates a dangerous cultural ignorance."
And of the long-winded passage sung by a cantor, his “slow, operatic tenor makes you want to prostrate yourself on the spot and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” I read Tropper's second novel, The Book of Joe, not long after it was published, before beginning this blog. Like This is Where I Leave You it was funny, observant, raw, real, and poignant, though less accomplished. I'd like to revisit it, but I also think that, having read two of his novels in the space of a couple of weeks, I should probably take a break for the time being. - Alex

Tuesday, December 21

The Winding Ways Quilt - Jennifer Chiaverini

As the composition of the Elm Creek Quilters changes, founder Sylvia searches for a way to represent, honour and welcome the departing and arriving members of Pennsylvania's most loved quilting camp. She decided to create a winding ways quilt, because of its symbolic meaning and its pattern of interconnecting curves and overlapping circles, representing the connectedness between the women.
In common with the rest of the series, quilting is representative of and a metaphor for life, particularly the lives of women in domestic occupations and with domestic preoccupations. As the group reflect on their time together we learn a little about their lives to this point, including how they met and where they're heading. For those familiar with the series this combines known information with new aspects, well enough integrated to be interesting, and written clearly enough for readers new to the series.
Also common to the series is the familiar theme of forgiveness and moving past significant events (loss, grief, betrayal, and just the changes of life) to continue the journey of life, as whole and self-realised as possible.
The Winding Ways Quilt was a pleasant read, but I'm also ready to take a break from the series, and have only two more novels to go. - Alex

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
4.
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
6.
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt

Under Orders - Dick Francis

It's the third death on Cheltenham Gold Cup day that really troubles super-sleuth Sid Halley. Former champion jockey Halley knows the perils of racing all too well - but in his day, jockeys didn't usually reach the finish line with three .38 rounds in the chest. But this is precisely how he finds jockey Huw Walker - who, only a few hours earlier, had won the coveted Triumph Hurdle.
Halley was forced to abandon the career he loved after his left hand was amputated following a fall - he has a top-of-the-line motorised prosthesis, but it has none of the sensitivity required to judge force in a horses' mouth through reins, making Halley useless in the saddle.
Under Orders is as much about the media as it is about Halley's detection work. It's also, of course, about the world of racing, but there's no need to know anything about that going in. Published in 2006, Under Orders is also a novel of the new millennium - online betting plays a key role in the racing world now, and in the plot; Francis clearly knows his field, and I doubt my skimming over odds and betting terminology significantly impaired my understanding of the novel. He raises very interesting questions about online gambling in general, and his take on the potential for turning users into addicts is insightful, if not unique.
Unfortunately there's been a lengthy gap between my reading of Under Orders and my review, which means that, though I remember how much I enjoyed reading it, I haven't a more coherent review to present. That will change next time -
Francis introduces the character and some of his history form the opening:
Rear Admiral Charles Rowland, Royal Navy (retired), my ex-father-in-law, my confidant, my mentor and, without a doubt, my best friend.
I still introduced his to strangers as my father-in-law, although it was now some ten years since his daughter, Jenny, my wife, had seen the need to give me an ultimatum: give up my job or she would give me up. Like any man at the top of his profession, I had assumed she didn't really mean it and continued to work day in and day out. And so Jenny left with acrimony and spite.
Though a sufficient background to begin with, I had a suspicion, which I haven't had with previous Francis novels, that Halley is a recurring character, so I wasn't surprised to discover that Under Orders is the fourth and final novel featuring this interesting and well-rounded character. A completist, I now have to read the preceding three novels, which is far from an arduous or disagreeable task. it may be a while, though, as Lynn and I are taking a break from the library in 2011 and focusing instead on our extensive To Be Read piles. - Alex

The Sid Halley quartet
Odds Against
Whip Hand
Come to Grief
Under Order

Monday, December 20

Room - Emma Donoghue

Today I’m five. I was four last night, going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”
“Hmm?” Ma does a big stretch.
“Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three ---?”
“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”
”Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”
For the first time in a long time I don’t know how to begin reviewing a book. This is in part because I don’t want to give away key aspects of the plot, and in part because the novel is extraordinary and affecting, and my attempts to capture it fall far from my reach.
Room is powerful, complex and compelling; though the premise is simple, the execution is detailed and ornate but direct. Perhaps I should start with the premise – Jack is a child raised by a kidnapped woman and fathered by her abductor; through the lens of an adult we read truths in his narration of which he is unaware.
Donoghue has enormous skill, great sympathy and imagination. Though undoubtedly inspired by one or many news stories of women kept captive for years, and though clearly well researched (as evidenced both in her acknowlegements and in the clarity and truth of the writing), Room is fiction of the purest sort – it illuminates more sharply than fact, resonates more strongly than reality, and provides insights that are piercing and crystalline. The novel as a whole is seamless, with not event he faintest suggestion of a false note anywhere in the 321 pages.
Room is structured in five chapters – Jack’s life as he’s always known it, the events leading up to and the aftermath of Ma’s revelation that the universe is far larger than he ever knew or could imagine, her realisation that a turning point is coming, and after (the immediate after and the beginning of a new reality).
The first half of the novel takes place in Room and is fascinating because of both Donoghue’s imagination and Ma’s – Jack’s routine is structured and varied, created to allow him an upbringing as well rounded as possible. I was a little reminded of Bad Boy Bubby, without the creep factor. There’s a brilliant and gradual increase in tension, as Jack’s growing need for independence and inquiry as he grows up conflict with the imperatives of staying safe in Room.
The second half takes place in the world, and as the canvas widens so does the narrative emphasis. I was again reminded of another work, this time Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, as Jack attempts to interact with and understand people whose experiences and worldview are significantly different from his. The first half of Room is imaginative and very, very good; the second half is viscerally gripping, primarily as Jack’s mother tries to readapt to a world long ago lost to her, and Jack to a reality he knows almost nothing about.
The contrast between people who mean well and their actions is so beautifully portrayed I was simultaneously astounded and vicariously angered. One scene in particular, when Jack’s uncle, aunt and cousin take him to the zoo but decides to stop en route at a mall to buy a child’s birthday present, is simply brilliant – I found myself speaking to the page, telling Paul off, fortunately when I was alone. I was similarly inflamed by the media presence, the judgement of people about Jack’s mother’s decisions, and even by Jack’s unintentionally distressing words and actions.
And every scene, every moment, was a useful part of the whole - a whole that will certainly feature prominently in my review of 2010, if not taking the spot for most memorable novel. - Alex

Sunday, December 19

Dark Tiger - William G Tapply

Stoney Calhoun has been content to live his life since waking up in a VA hospital seven years earlier. He has amnesia about his life until then, and though occasionally surprised by the appearance of a new skill or flash of knowledge, he's happy with who he is now and not interested in uncovering who he used to be.
The Man in the Suit has been content to visit from time to time and check on the state of Stoney's memory, but things have changed - Stoney is coerced on a number of fronts to accept an offer he really can't refuse, working as a guide at an exclusive fishing lodge in the far corner of Maine. He can't tell anyone why or where he's going, which doesn't help his relationship with Kate, and he can't come home until he discovers who killed a government agent and the sixteen-year-old local girl found with him.
Dark Tiger strikes a beautiful balance between plot and character development - amnesia may mean Stoney's lost a lot, but there's a clear sense of who he is at his core, and we're given the impression that hasn't changed. Clearly highly trained, he discovers
a memory in his body and his brain of how the stick felt vibrating in his hands, and how his feet could feel the air pressuring the fuselage when they worked the rudder pedals, and he knew he'd flown a plane such as this one low and fast over woods and lakes. This memory, like all of his memories from the time before he was zapped by lightening, was imprecise and refused to be pinned down, but Calhoun could feel it in his fingers and toes.
I was less interested in the finer details of who did it and why than in Stoney himself - his character, the way he works and how he processes information is calm, methodical and intelligent. Tapply's writing is seamless and invisible - though occasionally struck by a particular line or thought, I was otherwise unaware of the reading process. I read Dark Tiger with a tinge of sadness - it's clear from the tone of the novel and the loose ends that this was intended to be a longer series but was cut short with Tapply's death. I've enjoyed Stoney so much I'm almost afraid to try any of Tapply's other novels, but perhaps the enforced rest of the 2011 Library Ban will help. - Alex

The Stoney Calhoun trilogy:
Bitch Creek
Grey Ghost
Dark Tiger

Saturday, December 18

The New Year's Quilt - Jennifer Chiaverini

In keeping with the first holiday-themed novel, and really with the series as a whole, The New Year's Quilt uses events from the past to direct activity int he present. In this case, newly-wed Sylvia tackles the distance of her new daughter-in-law, Amy. Amy has opposed the re-marriage of her elderly, widowed father since the idea was first mentioned, and the couple's impetuous Christmas wedding did little to allay her misgivings. With the memory of how her estrangement from her sister Claudia only ended with her death, Sylvia works harder than she's inclined to in order to get to the bottom of Amy's opposition and help her see that together she and Andrew are happier and safer than they are apart.
The writing's good, the characters are well crafted and three dimensional, and the plot is strong, but I'm losing a little interest in the series. I had two main issues with The New Year's Quilt: the first is that I'm starting to get heartily sick of the Sylvia/Claudia thing. I understand that the relationship itself, as well as the rift, was hugely significant and tells us a lot about Sylvia as a character, but it was a long time ago and she has other relationships, so make peace already.
The other, bigger, issue is Amy - I don't buy that her opposition to the marriage is because she's concerned Andrew will get hurt again, or will be lumbered with a dependent wife to nurse should Sylvia fall ill (with, the implication is, a degenerative age-related condition like Alzheimer's). I appreciate that one's first reaction may be a knee jerk of concern, sadness over one's mother being replaced in one's father's affection, or something similar. But to think your surviving parent would be better off alone than with someone he clearly loves, who gives every indication of loving him, and who's fit, well, emotionally stable and financially secure seems bizarre.
this, fairly sizable, quibble aside, The New Year's Quilt does what it ought to. Were I not caught between a need for completeism and a dawning ban on library borrowings I think I'd space this series out more widely, and no doubt increase my enjoyment similarly. - Alex

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
4.
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
6.
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the first ever duo to survive the Hunger Games, have returned home. As promised, their District now has more food, along with more prosperity, and her family has been rehoused. Her troubles are, however, far from over; she foresaw relationship problems, both with Peeta (on whose pronouncements of love their survival hinged) and with Gale (whom she has long loved).
But Katniss and Peeta’s duties are far from over, and their transgressions have not been forgiven. As they are fĂȘted through all the provinces, Katniss and Peeta see increasing signs of civil unrest; when confronted with the stark contrast between starvation in their own District and profligate waste in the Capital they are sickened. And when the 75th annual Hunger Games are announced, things get even worse – the third Quarter Quell has a twist that is intended to punish Katniss and Peeta for their offence against the state.
It’s difficult to get too far in to the plot without giving away essential and surprising elements of this compelling and really well written centrepiece in a stunning trilogy. Cleverness abounds – the game design concept is startling this time around, and the science of psychology is exquisite. There are influences everywhere, from Ancient Rome to reality television, crafted into a wholly original and spell binding whole. As I mentioned in my review of the first in the series, The Hunger Games, the world building is reminiscent of Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, which similarly contrasted youth and rebellion with governmental totalitarianism; The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, though, are darker. There’s also a degree of complexity that’s interesting – not in the twisting plot, for Westerfeld is adept at that, but in the layers of control and suppression, compliance and impotence, that are the shared experience of the general population and depicted in the chief protagonists.
One of the most striking moments, among many, comes at a ball in the Capital – fresh from literal starvation at home, the scenes of wilful gluttony for the sake of conspicuous consumption, are nauseating. That scene manages to encapsulate a lot of what is at the heart of the narrative – a total disconnect between the rulers and the ruled, heartless spectacle mindless of cost, humanised by the presence of the powerless.
This moment is not alone – there are numerous descriptions, opaque and direct, demonstrating the untempered power and disfavour of President Snow and his cohort, and the growing anger of the populace. Katniss is brave and fearless for herself, but not particularly devious, which allows the reader to spot some of the coming action before she does and, fittingly, the importance of a symbol. Her growing sense of targeted anger, her awareness of injustice, is a sped up microcosm of the populace at large, perfectly portrayed.
Collins’ writing is invisible and nuanced, her characters vivid and compelling, and the premise is intriguing. I strongly suspect I’ll be returning to this series in a year or so, and have the third (and sadly final) installment on reserve, a disappointingly long way down a lengthy list. – Alex

Friday, December 17

The Woodcutter - Reginald Hill


Once upon a time I was living happily ever after.
That’s right. Like in a fairytale.
How else to describe my life up till that bright autumn morning back in 2008?I was the lowly woodcutter who fell in love with a beautiful princess glimpsed dancing on the castle lawn, knew she was so far above him even his fantasies could get his head chopped off, nonetheless when three seemingly impossible tasks were set as the price of her hand in marriage threw his cap in the ring and after many perilous adventures returned triumphant to claim his heart’s desire.
Here began the happily ever after, the precise extent of which is nowhere defined in fairy literature.
In my case it lasted fourteen years.

So, after a brief three-part prologue, begins this fascinating tale of suspense, triumph, loss, betrayal, revenge, restraint, excess and Machiavellian plotting.
In the space of half an hour the life of Sir Wilfred Hadda, more familiarly known as ‘Wolf,’ fell apart. Woken from sleep by the police, accompanied by television and press media, his response to the smug and sneering DI Medler who proffers a search warrant was impulsive and had far-reaching consequences – he punched the shorter man in the face.
Promptly arrested, Wolf’s attention is on the police tip-off to the media, a focus he doesn’t shift until his lawyer and long-time friend Toby Estover appears and redirects him to the grounds for the search warrant. What little thought Wolf had given it had been in the direction of fraud; DI Medler, though, in Vice. Specifically paedophilia.
Wolf’s initial relief is quickly checked by the appraising look Toby gave him, a look and an attitude Wolf was soon to find familiar and ubiquitous – somehow, despite his clarity that this was an area (unlike business) where he was wholly guilt-free, encrypted images are found on his computer. And in no time at all, things go from bad to extremely worse.
Always a writer of complex and cleverly plotted mysteries, The Woodcutter is a startlingly different kind of novel than Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series – still intelligently written and superbly crafted, it twists perception and assumption. Written in first person from Wolf’s point of view and in third person semi-omniscient, this reader at least was swayed first by Wolf’s version of events and then by the perspective of his psychologist, Alva Ozigbo, assigned to evaluate his fitness for parole. Is Wolf an innocent betrayed, or a child molester so horrified by his thoughts and fantasies that he’s in denial even to himself? And how did he, in the space of only a few short missing years, rise from his working class, penniless origins to financial and business success? These two questions lie at the centre of The Woodcutter, shaping and framing both the character of Wolf and the dense plotting of the novel.
Set in 2016, with the arrest happening eight years earlier, The Woodcutter’s plot is cleverly constructed, with retrospective chapters that lay out the evolution of his nightmare chronologically, written by Wolf for Alva as part of her assessment of his readiness to return to the world. The global financial crisis looms over the wilfully blind, largely unsuspecting financial sector in 2008 and provides impetus for this novel that could only have been set in the superficially egalitarian but still class dominated world of contemporary England.
There are some amazing quotes throughout the novel, predominantly Germanic – I was particularly struck by this, which articulates much of Wolf’s persona, by Heinrich Heine:

I am the most easygoing of men. All I ask from life is a humble thatched cottage, so long as there’s a good bed in it, and good victuals, fresh milk and butter, flowers outside my window, and a few beautiful trees at my doorway; and if the dear Lord cares to make my happiness complete, he might grant me the pleasure of seeing six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees.
From the bottom of my compassionate heart, before they die I will forgive them all the wrongs they have visited on me in my lifetime – yes, a man ought to forgive his enemies, but not until he sees them hanging.

Pastoral, serene, surprising, confronting, occupied with revenge and justice, it might even have formed a template for this work that has caused me to view Hill, an author whose writing I have read for two decades with affection, appreciation and thorough enjoyment, in a new and more exalted light. If you want an internally coherent, intelligent, meticulously crafted, invisibly written, seamless, absorbing novel that combines, as I wrote in my opening, a “fascinating tale of suspense, triumph, loss, betrayal, revenge, restraint, excess and Machiavellian plotting” with all the elements of the very darkest of fairy tales (and is there any other kind?) then The Woodcutter is for you. - Alex

Thursday, December 16

Change of Heart – Jodie Picoult

When her husband died in a car crash, June thought she’d never be happy again, let alone find love. But the policeman who rescued her from the wreck and accompanied her to the hospital kept checking up on her and her infant daughter Elizabeth, and one morning June woke up to find her life had restarted – though Kurt accepted she would never love him like she loved her first husband, June also discovered that she could love as deeply and as truly once again, and Elizabeth adored the only father she’d ever known. Expecting another child, June’s life was perfect, until the day she opened the door to a young, odd man requesting work; though June was hesitant, he connected immediately with Elizabeth, and June took him on.
It was a decision that would tear apart her life once more, for Shay Bourne slaughtered Kurt and Elizabeth and, for the first time in over half a century, a New Hampshire prosecutor sought the death penalty.

Michael was conflicted about sentencing a man his own age to death – though unconvinced, the other members of the jury persuaded him, and became the twelfth juror to vote in favour of lethal injection. Twelve years later this decision has reshaped his life – burdened by guilt and plagued by anxiety attacks, he’s become a priest and found a kind of peace. That is until he’s assigned to be Shay’s spiritual adviser.
Maggie is a lawyer for the ACLU – her professional life is smooth and accomplished, but her personal life is narrow, peopled only by her rabbi father, hyper-critical mother, and Oliver, her pet rabbit. Restricted by her size, her self-doubt and her constant struggle against her mother's disapproval, Maggie is resigned to happiness only in regards to her career. Assigned to Shay’s case, she creates legal precedent when, learning that Shay wants to donate his organs after death, she fights not against the death penalty but against the method of lethal injection.
Lucius is an HIV-positive lifer, sentenced after he discovered his lover in the arms of another man and killed them both. An artist who uses whatever he can scavenge – from the candy shells of M&M’s to soot – to recreate portraits of the man he still loves, he occupies the cell next to Shay and narrates details of his last months, and the seemingly miraculous deeds wrought by Shay.
I’ve begun to find Picoult’s novels formulaic since reading My Sister’s Keeper, when she first used the technique of alternating between several differing first-person viewpoints in a linear narrative that builds toward a controversial event - a court case determining how much autonomy a minor has, in that case, or the campaign for a death row inmate to donate his heart after death, in this.
Entwined around the primary narrative is an ethically charged or controversial issue, the various perspectives of which are humanised and conveyed by the narrative voices. The opposing elements are generally intelligently articulated, and though emotion is present and influences perspectives, the characters usually retain their equilibrium and rationality. The final chapter is from a pivotal but previously unheard character, with a left-handed twist that jerks the narrative on to a different, often anticlimactic, track.
Familiarity with this technique meant that I spent much of the reading of Change of Heart making predictions about the plot, particularly plot twists, and about narrator and content of the final chapter. And I was right on all counts (spoiler alert): I knew from the moment I learned June was pregnant that the baby would be somehow unwell, and that her voice would conclude the novel. I suspected Shay found Kurt abusing his stepdaughter; once his sister, Grace Bourne, was introduced I suspected this mirrored abuse she sustained at the hands of her foster father. It was certainly clear as soon as Michael saw her burns that she set the fire that killed him, and that Shay took the blame to protect her, probably because he felt guilty about not being able to protect her from her abuser. Though I did not foresee the final, somewhat paranormal element of the novel’s final sentence, but by that time I was a little over the miraculous aspect of the novel.
I was also unimpressed by the method Maggie used to seek a medical opinion of alternative methods of execution that would be compatible with organ donation – because “it could take a busy doctor a week to call me back,” and rather than do any independent research, or call an organ transplantation coordinator, she pops into the local emergency department and fakes appendicitis so she can see a doctor. Not a cardiologist or cardiothoracic surgeon, not an immunologist, but whichever random resident assigned to assess her. I know ED physicians and ED nurses, and I can’t see the consultation she had with (the very gorgeous) Dr Gallagher happening. But things are different in novel-land, and he not only helps her but becomes invested in the case and the campaign.
All this could be interpreted as a dislike of the novel, and that would be an unfair impression. Picoult certainly manages to incorporate not only multiple viewpoints but also multiple, interrelated elements, many of which I was intellectually interested in.
They include: children with chronic illness; the fierce, protective love of parenthood; the natures of expiation, faith, mercy and truth; the willful blindness of those who do not want to see truths; the way experiences are shaped by perspective; the heavy, cloak-like bleakness of grief; the desire for vengeance; the theory of muscle memory, where organ recipients – particularly of hearts – take of characteristics of the deceased donor; the barbarity and irrationality of the US adherence to the death penalty; the inflexibility and biases of the prison system, including an assumption that all inmates are literate and speak (read and write) English; similarities and differences between religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity; the nature of divinity; the working of miracles, and perhaps the undoing of them; the shaping of Christianity, and alternative messages, including the Gnostic texts; the nature of heresy, and the history of the Catholic church; and the distortion of religion.

I was also moved on several occasion, particularly during June's recollection of Kurt's funeral:
Through the radios of the other policemen came the voice of the dispatcher: All units stand by for a broadcast.
Final call for Officer Kurt Nealon, number 144.
144, report to 360 West Main for one last assignment.
It was the address of the cemetery.
You will be in the best of hands. You will be deeply missed.
144, 10-7. The radio code for end of shift.
But the foreseeability of many of the elements gave Change of Heart too great a degree of predictability to me, and I felt as though she was just plugging different elements into their various, preassigned slots.
The Messianic aspect felt uneven, superficial, implausible and incongruent with the rest of the book.
Perhaps my reaction is in part because I only relatively recently read Handle with Care and so the parallels were more blinding than they would have been with more time. But I also found the characterisation, particularly of the women, somewhat uni-dimensional and weak - Maggie's obsession with her weight and resulting unattractiveness was irritating, and though in her thirties she read as mired in her teens; June was driven only by her enduring grief and her abiding maternal love, with no other personality traits portrayed - and that was disappointing.
Picoult's most recent book, House Rules, deals with an eighteen-year-old with Asperger's who's fascinated by forensics, and charged with murder. Lynn and I have decided that 2011 will be the Year of the Backlog, with no library books (apart from a few, predetermined exceptions); perhaps a twelve month break will give me enough space from Picoult's technique to enjoy it. - Alex

Wednesday, December 15

The Quilter's Homecoming - Jennifer Chiaverini

Elizabeth Nelson left Pennsylvania with no little sadness - with one exceptiong she was leaving everyone she knew and loved behind her, from the security of her family's wealth to her adorable and stubborn young cousin Sylvia. It was that one exception, however, that made the leaving worthwhile, for Elizabeth was leaving home with her best friend and brand new husband, Henry.
Securely packed in their trunks are the quilts Elizabeth has made, lovingly and meticulously stitched together. As she packed, and as they make the long journey to California, Elizabeth imagines the first night in their new home, on the 120 acres of Triumph Ranch. but when the newly-weds arrive in the Arboles Valley they discover they are just the most recent of several couples duped by unscrupulous con men - there is no Triumph Ranch and their deed is a forgery. Penniless and dejected, Elizabeth and Henry have only their love for one another and their work ethic to support themselves.
I know next to nothing about the era (mid-nineteen twenties) or the region (America's west coast), but the historical details ring true, without being overt or forced. I really enjoyed reading The Quilter's Homecoming, in no small part because the mystery of Sylvia Bergstrom Compton's favourite cousin has been dangled before us in several previous novels. The biggest unanswered question - why she lost contact with the rest of the family - is answered, and having a new cast relieved a little of the ennui I've been feeling with the series, more due to my immersion in it that a decrease in creative quality, I suspect. - Alex

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
4.
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
6.
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt

Tuesday, December 14

Show No Fear - Marliss Melton

Ten months after an intelligence mission in the Middle East went bad, CIA operative Lucy Donovan is delighted to be assigned to rescue hostages held by Colombian rebels. She's undaunted by the risk and the threat of harm; the only thing that troubles Lucy about the mission is her co-operative, Gus Atwater. Then known as James, he was the only man she ever loved, but Lucy left him when the aftermath of a bomb explosion left her unable to reconcile her terror with the promise of happiness.
Now a very buff Navy SEAL, and going by his abbreviated middle name of Angus, Gus rescued her from her most recent mission, searching for vital information in an elite Guard warehouse after freeing herself from restraints. Though convinced she'd have managed to rescue herself, thank you very much, her boss is wedded to the idea of a joint operation, and the insulting notion that she needs assistance - and that she and James need to play a married couple as their cover. Or something. I quit at the top of page 28, so I have no idea how the story played out. The plot is clearly far-fetched, but I'm prepared to suspend my disbelief quite high if the writing and characterisation promise a worthwhile payoff. And perhaps the brief insights into Gus and Lucy's personalities fail to do them justice - certainly the SmartBitches forum recommendation brought me to it, and those bitches are usually on the money. On the other hand, it was multiple recommendations there than caused me to read Naked in Death, so I knew going in that I don't see eye to eye with every member of the community (or even great swathes of members - do people come in swathes?).
My point is that the plot, or at least as much of it as I managed, was ridiculous but genre-appropriate. The characterisation was superficial, but again I didn't get very far. I warmed not at all to the heroine, who seemed mired in an unattractive combination of PTSD denial and unfocused shittyness, while the hero was something of a cipher.
what caused me to put the book down before I was 10% through, though, was the overblown, florid writing. In the first three pages, as 'seconds drain[ed] away like sand through an hourglass', Lucy is 'awash in a cold sweat' and then

Lucy's heart stopped.
It had to be the greasepaint that made him look exactly like her college boyfriend, James, The athletic body didn't jibe with her mental recollection. But as she took a curious step closer, his expression of horror confirmed her observation.


Okay, I've never been rescued from a terrorist warehouse, my cargo pants pockets stuffed with CD's full of important intel, by an old boyfriend. I have, however, been in an emergency situation and surprised by the appearance of an ex-lover. I'm not aware of a type of recollection that's not mental, but I'll ignore that tautology to point out that I, a non-combat trained person, responded with a brief nod, a frisson of surprise, and an immediate return to the emergency before me; Lucy, not quite so quick.
The writing's all tell, not show - not a facial expression nor a feeling goes unmentioned, from stabs of of suspicion to expressions "both guarded and disapproving.
As that brief extract demonstrated, the writing's a little... florid. As they're escaping, "thoughts shifted across [Gus's] face, too quickly for her to gauge." Really? Perhaps too quickly to decipher, or to read, but to gauge?
And, in common with poor writing, the characters rarely just say anything - in one scene alone Lucy amends, brazens, insists, quips with sarcasm and archly demands (in consecutive statements), explains, assures, protests, retorts twice, adds, cries in disbelief, counters, admits, answers and asks ("remembering with a pang the tenderness he used to show her"), while Gus counters, counters softly, quietly reminds twice, retorts, growls, grates, continues, repeats, articulates ("with a tremor in his voice") and actually both asks and says (the latter with a scathing look). He also "rake[s] her with another look, this one reflecting honest fear and concern." That's a lot to fit into four pages. In the interim, nobody looks - Lucy regards while Gus gazes. It was reading the line:
Lucy shook two Advil tablets into her hand and regarded them in her palm, lit up by the bright sunlight streaming through the airplane window...
that I decided I'd had enough. Next time I'll stick with Brockmann. - Alex

Monday, December 13

A Quilter's Holiday - Jennifer Chiaverini

Elm Creek Quilts has new faces, and as Thanksgiving approaches the final touches to the Manor are being made, in anticipation of the unofficial beginning of quilting season, which starts the day after Thanksgiving.
When Sylvia and her sister Claudia were children, Claudia's less meticulous basketwork became the focal point of a Bergstrom Thanksgiving ceremony - each family member would put something in the wicker cornucopia and, over dinner, as each item was withdrawn its owner would tell the story of how their object represented what they were grateful for that year.
While clearing out cupboards on the century-plus old kitchen, new chef Anna discovers an openwork basket, and another Elm creek tradition is reborn. The quilters have much for which to be thankful, and in A Quilter's Holiday they share their stories.
In this third holiday-themed Quilt novel, Chiaverini's technique is as adept as always, and her palette of well-rounded, flawed but good-hearted women is as rich as usual. However, most likely because I've been rushing before year's end to make my way through the series before our self-imposed ban/drastic reduction of library books takes place, I'm feeling a little tired of the characters and the stories. Some of the elements - like Sylvia and Claudia's childhood antagonism - feel like they should be resolved already. And, to be wholly contrary, I also felt faintly irritated by the neat wrapping up of other aspects, like Diane's relationship with her sons, and Gretchen's charity work.
There are certainly some lovely moments, including the resolution for Sylvia of some of her curiosity about her favourite cousin Elizabeth's life after leaving Pennsylvania (revealed in the novel before this, The Quilter's Homecoming). And, as I say, I suspect much of the dissatisfaction comes from the reader rather than a fault with the author. I have only one more Quilt novel to go, and I think a break will be the best thing for my connection witht he series. - Alex

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
4.
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
6.
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt

Circle of Quilters - Jennifer Chiaverini

As two of the Elm Creek Quilters leave for new journeys, a significant gap has opened in the groups’ teaching roster. The Quilters agree that they need to hire people whose skills complement those of the remaining members, and whose personalities and priorities fit the culture of Elm Creek. The response to their advertisement is promising, with applicants from across the country, promising a broad range of teaching experience and quilting skills. As those on the short list visit Elm Creek for interview, tensions within the group emerge.
In a departure from Chiaverini’s usual style, Circle of Quilters opens with the story of the first prospective addiction to the group, care worker Maggie Flynn, from her arrival at Ocean View Hills Retirement Community and Convalescent Center to her post-interview departure, certain her performance was woeful. As Maggie leaves she bumps into a young woman dressed in a suit, dragging two small children along, which is how we meet Karen.
In each section the narrative starts with an applicant, tracing her or (in one case) his journey through quilting and through life to the point of interview, through the interview and transitions to the next. It was well done, surprisingly effective, and left me having trouble deciding which of the five very different applicants – Maggie, Karen, Anna, Russell and Gretchen – should get the two available places.
Each character has a compelling story and a strong, but different, reason for wanting to move to Pennsylvania and focus on quilting. And the novel also portrays how taking a decisive move, regardless of its success, can impel change in different areas – the process of application and interview changes all five people’s lives.
Chiaverini creates novels that have a balanced mix of character and plot, with both elements finely tuned. The characters are complex, flawed, capable of change, and real. The plots are primarily domestically based, as is the life of most of us, and Chiaverini explores the drama and power of ordinary lives, particularly in traditionally female arenas. I was on occasion reminded of Berg’s novels which, though quite different in tenor, similarly highlight the extraordinary in the lives of ordinary women. I know nothing at all of quilting, but that has in no way diminished my interest in this series. - Alex

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
4.
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
6.
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt

Sunday, December 12

Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold

Kibou-daini is a planet ruled by one preoccupation – to stave off death. Its’ citizens are placed in cryostasis as soon as possible, to improve their chances of a successful return once the condition threatening their life has been overcome by technology. The giant corporations running the cryofacilities are interested in negotiating with the Barrayan Empire, so Emperor Gregor sends his most wily Imperial Auditor, Miles Vorkosigan, in to investigate.
Having survived one cryo-revival, and after a lifetime of cheating death from before his birth, Miles is uniquely qualified for the task. And within hours of landing on the planet, Miles discovers a less well publicised side of Kibou-Daini culture – enormous wealth discrepancies, an invisible underclass, and a real-life Snow White, asleep but waiting to for a prince (or scaled down facsimile) to rescue her and, in turn, her planet.
Cryoburn is the thirteenth Barrayan novel, and though the publication dates and chronology do not always cohere, it takes place after Diplomatic Immunity (after a seven year gap, hopefully for new stories). I wish I were able to write a more useful, insightful review than the one which follows, but I cannot do justice to the complex but navigable plot, nor the meticulous yet invisible world building. As has been the case with the series as a whole, the writing is lucid and engaging, the dialogue rings true, the characters are multidimensional, and the different cultures are truly unique (rather than cosmetically different but substantively similar). Miles’ bride, Ekaterin, sadly makes no substantive appearance, but we are reacquainted with many favourite characters, from Armsman Roic to clone-brother Mark. There are moments of humour (though not nearly to the degree of the butterbug scenes in A Civil Campaign), though the overall tone is a little more somber. And the series-altering shock of the final line of the novel proper is surpassed only by the wave of sadness conveyed by the penultimate line of the last of five ‘Aftermaths’ drabbles. I finished Cryoburn (which refers to the cryonic version of freezer burn) simultaneously replete and craving more.
And writing this review I realised, as I tried to link to the other titles mentioned, that I somehow didn't review them in 2008, which means I get to re-read them to review early next year, thus assuaging my craving. What a lovely pre-Christmas present! - Alex