Sunday, January 31

The Paid Companion - Amanda Quick

When Miss Elenora Lodge discovers her rapacious, recently deceased stepfather wagered, and lost, her home, she is reassured by her relationship with doting Jeremy Clyde. Until, as quickly as he hears the news, he abandons her. Like all women of modest means and dim prospects, she heads to London and seeks employment as a paid companion. But it seems that not everyone is happy to employ an outspoken, bold woman in her mid-twenties.
When he hears that his betrothed, Juliana, has fled to Gretna Green with her young lover, Arthur Lancaster (the Earl of St. Merryn) remarks only that next time he will seek a partner through an agency. Though received as a witticism, when a change in need sparked by the murder of his beloved great uncle requires he not be bothered by the bright young things of the current season (and, as importantly, by their mamas), Arthur does indeed avail himself of Goodhew & Willis.
Quick combines a period romance, peopled with characters that both embody their era and yet defy it, with a mystery. Someone is tracking down three mysterious jewels from the orient, and it seems likely their intent is to create an alchemical machine, a mystery of ancient lapidary.
Told from the perspectives of Arthur, Elenora and the mysterious and shadowy murderer and alleged genius, the Paid Companion is a good cut above the genre in general. There is sparking dialogue, a satisfying secondary romance and a rewarding secondary plot about a beautiful but dastardly butler, and the occasional amusing line. I particularly liked the following exchange:
"Oh, Arthur, that is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me."
"Thank you. I was rather pleased with it myself. I practiced it during the carriage ride here today."
The physical love scenes are well placed, necessarily explicit but not gratuitous, the characters are engaging and fresh, and the mystery creates a strong foundation for the novel, providing impetus for both the plot and the primary relationship.
It was through Lynn's reviews that I first learned of Ms Quick's work and I have not yet been disappointed - Alex

Saturday, January 30

Kitchen Literacy - Ann Vileisis

Subtitled How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and How to Get it Back, this work traces the pattern of American food preparation from the early days of settlement to the current day, focusing primarily on changes in food sourcing, markets, marketing, advertising and pre-packaging.
Kitchen Literacy reads very much like an academic thesis - the points Vileisis makes are well supported, and she draws heavily on American diaries and cook books from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds to contrast modern supermarket shopping with home cooks who planned months in advance in order to plant vegetables or raise livestock.
I found this significantly outweighed accessible reading - the tone is scholarly and the arguments (primarily that it would be better for the planet and for ourselves if we were more invested in food production locally) are less strongly made than I'd like. For example, she speaks of the advantages of organic produce, including the increased consumer investment in the way the food is grown and transported, and she mentions the new choices savvy consumers have between (for example) local produce and imported organic produce, but doesn't argue either way.
Perhaps I should have paid less attention to the title, which is a little misleading, and more to the neatly encapsulating subtitle, because I was expecting a book that concentrated more on food preparation than sources.
However, perhaps because I had farming grandparents, I found little of the revelations very surprising. Vileisis' references several times to the inherent presence of fauna in home-grown produce - the role of insects and their presence in one's food particularly stood out.
I read the first two thirds of Kitchen Literacy then flipped through the remaining text, skipping the extensive (64 pages) notes and references and the 15 page index. If I were interested in this discipline I think Kitchen Literacywould be an excellent resource; as a woman interested in eating better and cooking differently, I found it less useful - Alex

Friday, January 29

The Philosophy of Death - Steven Luper

I have an academic interest in death and deathwork studies, and have only myself to blame for my unmet expectations of this comprehensive introduction to the philosophical issues that underpin the topic.
Divided into two sections, dying and killing, Professor Luper explores the topic from a hard philosophical perspective. He opens by exploring what it means to be alive, then questions about whether death is harmful to the individual, before moving on to more applied aspects - killing, suicide and assisted suicide, and abortion. Throughout the tone is that of theoretical philosopher, incorporating hypothetical scenarios and argument theory, and drawing on the work of philosophers past and present, from Epicurus, Socrates and Plato, through Kant, Rawls and Schopenhauer, to Nagel, Nozick and Feinburg.
This is, for the most part, familiar ground for me - I have a background in applied and theoretical ethical philosophy, and considerable applied and theoretical experience with death and dying. I saw the book on the library's recommended stand and jumped on it without examining the content at all. This lead me to expect a more applied, social science-based approach.
The Philosophy of Death is, as its cover blurb announces, instead a "discussion of the basic philosophical issues concerning death, and a critical introduction tot he relevant contemporary literature." For anyone interested in, but new to the field, curious about how this richly explored subject has been approached over the ages, or keen to see argument theory applied, this is the book for you. I must admit that I flicked through it after the first chapter, and sadly found it more theoretical that my current interest allows. - Alex

Thursday, January 28

Grave Secret - Charlaine Harris

Harper Connelly's life is pretty much as good as it gets - she's happy in her relationship with her step-brother and manager, Tolliver, her younger half-sisters seem happy with their legal guardians even if her aunt Iona can't stand the sight of her, and her latest job is with one of Texas's wealthiest families - though her discovery that the housekeeper died shortly after childbirth rather than ruptured appendix, and that the patron (whose cause of death was what she was hired to find) died when a snake was thrown at him, seem to come as an unpleasant shock, the family pays up. Plus the ranch is close to her home town of Texarcana, which means Harper and Tolliver can visit their little sisters, Gracie and Maricella
But Harper's adult life has always been overshadowed by the disappearance of her beloved sister Cameron, a loss more significant than the trauma of alcoholic, abusive and neglectful parents.
When Tolliver's father, Matthew, reappears after nine years in jail, reporting that he's clean, sober and wanting to reconnect with his children, Harper doesn't buy it. She watches in disbelief as Tolliver's older brother Mark takes Matthew in, and she fears than Tolliver will also bite. Had it not been for the care she and her siblings took of each other, neither Gracie or Maricella would have survived their childhoods, and she can't understand how a man she knows so well could forgive him.

Though the job plays a pivotal role in the plot, Grave Secret is primarily about Cameron's disappearance. It's the single defining event of Harper's life, and its resolution is stunning. It's also an indicator of Harris' skill, because the interweaving of the facts of Cameron's disappearance with the other plot elements (including Harper and Tolliver's relationship, her evolving relationship with the aunt and uncle who've taken in her half sisters, her attitudes toward her parents and step-father, the cases of the dead housekeeper and patriarch and, of course, the reappearance of Matthew and the puzzzling behaviour of Mark) is seamless.
Though they both centre around strong women who have a unique gift and troubled childhoods, this series is very different from the Sookie novels, and I've come to enjoy it more. I eagerly await the release of the next Harper novel, and am intrigued by how the aftermath will play out and the possibilities of where Harris will take Harper, now that the driving mystery of her life has been resolved. There's enough back story for Grave Secret to stand alone, but the conclusion is significantly more satisfying four books in. - Alex

Wednesday, January 27

Emma Holly: Prince of Ice

When a disgraced royal demon scheming to regain power by bearing the emperor a child, dies before her plans come to fruition, the daughter she leaves behind is raised alongside a young prince. That is until his affection for the girl starts to worry his parents who turn her out of their house.
Prospects are not good for the unwanted orphan, so when she is given the opportunity to make her fortune as a courtesan she takes the chance.
Her first protector is none other than her childhood friend. But he is no longer the sweet boy she remembers and she is no longer the carefree child she was all those years ago. Not only that, but their stations in life are greatly changed and their interaction is governed by a strict code of behaviour. The two fall in love and as a result face charges of treason and potential death sentences. But the girl’s family blackmail the emperor into accepting banishment rather than execution and the couple leave the isolated world they know to carve a future together in the human world.
I picked this book up because it was supposedly set in the same alternate Victorian universe as The Demon’s Daughter but while the story is set in the same universe, it takes place entirely in the isolated demon world. For all intents and purposes it may as well have been set in the Far East. Everything from the characters’ names and interests to the social structure scream eighteenth century Asia. The technology was entirely modern and while I knew this aspect of the demon world, I was disappointed that the steampunk elements that so attracted me to the first book were missing here.
There is plenty of Holly’s trademark erotica to be found within the pages which is technically well done but I feel wasn’t quite up to her usual standard. The ruling class genitalia and hormone cycles seemed both unnecessarily complicated and unbelievable (the royal males are physically different to common males but status is at the whim of the emperor-hmmm?).
Overall, not a bad book, particularly if you are a fan of the friends-to-lovers storyline, but certainly not what I had hoped for.-Lynn

Monday, January 25

Kitty and the Midnight Hour - Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Norville used to DJ the midnight shift for a local Denver radio station - her focus was music, particularly anything before 1990. When a random remark about a tabloid cover story about the oft-sighted Bat Boy starts a discussion about the supernatural, Kitty starts feeling more invested than she has for a while, and when her next caller reports being a lone vampire undergoing an existential crisis, Kitty gets to sink her teeth into a wider discussion about redemption, suffering and Milton. Purely by accident, her show changes in the space of a few minutes to the Midnight Hour, and Kitty proffers advice and support to the disenfranchised. But she walks a slender line - she must succour the suffering without revealing her own identity.
For Kitty is a werewolf, and though she strives for independence, she is comforted by the dominance of her Alpha, Carl and his partner Meg - and they want werewolves' existence to stay secret. All that's blown to hell when Cormac, a paranatural hunter, comes after her while she's live on air, and it's while talking him down that she uncovers a conspiracy to strike at the heart of all she finds dear.
This was a really interesting take on the werewolf genre - I found Kitty an interesting, erudite and unique take on the usual paranormal heroine. That said, I was disappointed to find once again the pervasive sexual dominance element that seems to run through werewolf series, where all females are available to the alpha male to mate with subserviently, and dominance and hierarchy are key. Not only am I uncomfortable with this as a feminist, it appears to be rooted in flawed research based on captive grey wolf packs. I would really love to see a series where this model was not the foundation of the were universe, but it seems this some time off.
I was able to move past this aspect to enjoy Kitty's first adventure, and am looking forward to the sequel, particularly as events toward the end of Kitty and the Midnight Hour mean significant changes in Kitty's pack. - Alex

Sunday, January 24

Making the Cut - Mohamed Khadra

Subtitled A Surgeon’s Stories of Life on the Edge, Making the Cut is the “impressionistic memoir” of an Australian surgeon, from the first time he incised a patient in theatre, through his own journey as a patient, to his decision to retire from clinical practice and teaching.
I generally enjoy reading about medical practitioners – though
Atul Gawande is far and away my favourite in the genre, he is not alone. I rarely buy books now, but Making the Cut was on my wanted list for a long time, and when last year I decided to cheer myself up before having hand surgery, I bought a small stack of new works, including Khadra’s

collection of impressions and retellings that are meant to raise issues about health, surgery, death and dying…[featuring] amalgams of characters and events and fictionalised places and names…I have tried to imagine for the characters a persona and a life outside my contact with them so as to accentuate their humanity to the reader… based… on conversations and snippets of insight I gleaned from my interactions with the doctors who cared for these patients, or with my conversations with these patients themselves.
Believing doctors should be well rounded and educated, Khadra insisted that his students open their tutorial sessions with a poem, and each chapter of Making the Cut does so too.
At times Khadra well encapsulates the frustrating aspects of medicine – the utter exhaustion of long hours and high pressure, unnecessary and futile attempts at resuscitation, intervening in the deterioration of a respected colleague, the tension in private practice between generating revenue and exposing patients to as little risk (ie surgery) as possible, the ease with which mistakes can be made, and the awful consequences of these mistakes.
But he has several points he’s at pains to make. Chief among these is his dissatisfaction with the Australian health care system, from the change in equipment purchasing from surgeons deciding what they need themselves to large expense panels, to the kinds of meals served in public hospitals and refurbishment (or lack thereof) of patient facilities. As a cardiac inpatient Khadra pities the lay patients who “were not armed with the knowledge to influence their passage through the health system… the number to call maintenance to grease the squeaky door… the supervisor to call to ensure [their] bathroom was kept clean.” Reading these sections without having any knowledge of the Australian public health care sector would paint a very dark picture, and one that is almost wholly incongruent with my experience.
He also has very definite ideas about nurses – though he acknowledges that a good (“experienced and sensible”) nurse can make life easy, Khadra has no time for the new breed of university educated nurses, “custodian[s] of quality, the barometer of good care… bureaucrats rather than carers.” In Khadra’s view, if “you are a good clinical nurse then you get promoted to administration, the worst-paid job is to look after the patients” – by default, floor nurses must not be good clinicians. I don’t disagree with all his positions, and certainly agree that by qualification hospital trained nurses “had seen a lot of illness and health and certainly knew what a nurse does for a living” while university educated graduates come out with different knowledge. But I think his perception that newer nurses’ focus on charts and tools and instruments of measurement comes from a lack of awareness of patient care is misplaced – it comes from administration requirements that, though they take away from time on the floor, apparently improve patient outcomes and for which nurses are responsible in addition to all their other jobs. And while some students may think they’re above bed making, few and far between are newly graduated nurses who are allowed to believe that.
Women in general do not come out well, particularly the greedy, grasping wife of one surgeon, whose focus on money and things inextricably leads to his premature death. It’s in vignettes like this that I was particularly uncomfortable with the knowledge that many of these cases are both hearsay (or ‘retelling”) and embroidered with fictionalised additions. There are few female surgeons (and no male nurses), and though the most sympathetic treatment received is to a pre-op male-to-female transsexual, Jo is referred to throughout as “he.”
Khadred discusses the stresses on doctors, referring to the hospital as a “hell zone” that family moments (like a child opening a present or a wife showing off a new nightgown) bring back in full force (the parent who’ll never see their child’s joy again, the patient who died in a similar nightgown). I agree that there’s a lot of pressure on doctors, that their suicide rate is unreasonably high and unaddressed, as is their rate of alcohol and drug abuse, and that a great deal of this pressure is internal. And, in what I suspect is an inadvertent reflection of this within the profession, Khadred recounts two suicides by doctors and references at least two more, with little sympathy or surrounding detail. He also

to this day look[s] down on doctors who take time off. For me, the worst offenders are those that take stress leave, whatever that may be. I have always lived by the aphorism ‘stress is good for you, it flushes the coronary arteries.’
Not a lot of scope for support there.
Although he acknowledges we should consider quality of life over (or perhaps instead of) longevity, Khadred reports that he stopped exercising when he read that, for each hour spent exercising in youth, an hour is added at the end "when there is a good chance every day would be a prayer for death." This view of cardiovascular health is certainly unusual in a health professional, not to mention what it says of his perception of the aged and aged care.
This is not to say that I disagree with all of Khadra’s opinions. I agree that we make poor decisions about end-of-life care, though I think the statistic that “about 70% of the health budget is spent on caring for patients in their last six months of life,” though accurate, is misleading – the picture most people have, of old people being medicalised to the last breath, is not always the case; some of that 70% goes on patients whose first six months is also their last, on patients battling potentially survivable cancers, on previously well patients who present in terminal distress of one kind or other, and on trauma patients.
I found Khadra unsympathetic, and Making the Cut disappointing and depressing. As mentioned, I disagree with his portrayal of the Australian health system, though I acknowledge that my experience of it has been primarily with one institution and rarely as a patient. I also found his tone irritating, and didn't really understand what the point of Making the Cut was or at which audience the book was aimed. In parts a plea for economic rationalism in health care, in others an uninspiring autobiography, and at times an insider's portrayal of modern medical practice, it somehow failed to be even as much as a sum of its parts. I think a return to Gawande is in order - Alex

Saturday, January 23

Slow Burn: Burn Fat Faster by Exercising Slower - Stu Mittleman

I found this tome, by "a much sought-after fitness educator whose secrets of endurance have helped people from all walks of life" by accident while looking on the fitness shelves of my local library. The cover, front and back, gave me the impression that it was about improving the quality and results of exercise by working out smarter rather than harder - the training program promises to provide information on creating a work out plan that's flexible and comfortable, with nutritional information and advice on finding "your fat-burning zone" so that "the movement - not the outcome - is the reward."
I have never liked exercise but have vowed to this year embrace a more active, less chocolatey lifestyle. I was really drawn to the possibility of finding enjoyment in the exertion as an ends in itself, and the idea of getting better result in the process was an added bonus.
The cover includes a red-hued photo of a woman running, which perhaps should have warned me - Stu's program is about running. His basic premise is that you get better results focusing on how you feel when you run and then tailoring your style to fit the exertion where you feel energised and at one with your environment will get you better results that focusing on moving as quickly as you can.
Listen to your body, says Stu, and it will tell you what it needs. I'm not a runner - the last time I ran anywhere for longer than a couple of seconds I fell and fractured two bones in my dominant hand, a memory that becomes vivid whenever I use my right hand, which is often. I was, however, moving above this dislike of the sport. I could not, sadly, move past Mittleman's advice on how to chose the most energy-giving foods, which involves
Enter[ing] the food into the "circuitry of the system" by holding the food (against the jaw, of over the thymus gland, about where the second button of a shirt would be), tasting, smelling, or even thinking about the food. Place the first two fingers of the tester's free hand around the back of the subject's neck, just off the spine, under the base of the skull. (This asks the body if any system in the body will be stressed by the consumption of this particular food.)
This approach builds on similar bio-feedback testing designed to check if muscles are blocked, if supplements will be useful, which workout shoes are most appropriate, how well a piece of sports equipment suits the athlete, and what kinds of topical applications (from sunscreen to cosmetics) works with the body.
It's also where I decide enough pseudoscience was enough. I will take from Slow Burn the idea of focusing more on how I feel during exercise than on my destination, and aim for that zone of environmental awareness that sounds akin to meditation, but pick my food (and equipment and toiletries) based on non-Mittleman approved approaches. - Alex

Friday, January 22

The Truth Machine - James L Haperin

After his younger brother was murdered, child prodigy Randall “Pete” Armstrong tries to understand how it happened, how a convicted criminal could be unsafe but paroled. Over the subsequent decade, while completing an education that includes early entry to Harvard, the idea of creating a way to definitively know if recidivism is likely ticks away in the back of his head, and Pete decides to create an infallible truth machine.
This summation does no justice to the complex and riveting story that is The Truth Machine – the narrative, recounted by a journalistically-programmed computer, opens twenty-five years after the launch of Pete’s truth machine, at the beginning of a tribunal hearing into the fraud, and worse crimes, committed by Armstrong. After giving the reader a little background, it opens with a chronological account of the creator of the most revolutionary invention in human history.
Each chapter opens with a snapshot of life in that time – political events, health recommendations, the effects of new laws – that become more speculative the further into the future they occur; the timing of these events is partly determined by the plot, but others (like the banning of margarine because of the health effects of trans-fats, or the increasing prominence of the Unitarian church) were based on aggregate estimates from SF writers and scientists. Both the inventions foreseen (like VOIP) and not (widespread mobile phone uptake) are interesting.
The Truth Machine is equally driven by character and plot; the former relies heavily on the persona of Pete, a driven, honest, blindingly intelligent man still trying to atone for the last words he said to his baby brother. As he’s drawn ever deeper into law breaking due to seemingly unviable alternatives, we see a brilliant example of justifying the means for the ends. When alternatives are revealed the reader, along with Pete, is stunned that these weren’t seen.
This is easily the tenth time I’ve read The Truth Machine, one of my all-time favourite books. Published in 1996, each time Halperin’s world and ours is a little further apart, and each time I’m drawn anew into the transformative idea of an invention that would make getting away with dishonesty impossible. Halperin looks at how it would change aspects of culture from government to trade negotiation, relationships and finance. He’s also created a fairly utopian future – not only are people necessarily more honest but among other changes: prisoners are only released when they pass literacy and numeracy tests, prisons focus on fitness for life outside and rehabilitation rather than punishment, but some crimes are punished capitally, and health insurance is freely available regardless of pre-existing conditions. I find something new in The Truth Machine on each reading, and this time was no exception – Alex

Thursday, January 21

Thief in Retreat - Aimée and David Thurlo

Sister Agatha, investigative reporter and journalism professor turned extern nun, has been sent by her Archbishop to the nearby New Mexican town of Bernalillo. Some year earlier the diocese closed a monastery and sold it to a respectful couple, who run it as a retreat. The diocese left several piece of artwork on loan, artwork that has value both as collector's pieces and a religious symbols for the church and the town. The grounds are also said to be haunted by the restless ghost of an unhappy woman, who has apparently been playing tricks - taking art work and random belongings from their usual homes and leaving them in odd places. That's been going on for a while, but recently Retreat owner Ernie Luna and his wife Ginny realised that the artwork they've found are clever replicas of the originals.
Under the pretext of catalogue crates of belongings and records from the site's time as a monastery, Agatha and her faithful former police of Pax have been sent to uncover the person or persons behind the thefts. She also hopes to discover why a local college's curator, Professor Lockhart, has vanished, and what happened to the pieces he had with him when he was last seen - his empty car was found abandoned not far from The Retreat.
As well as the alleged ghost, the need to keep her real mission a secret, and the confronting nature of the work - as the monastery became less and less self-sufficient the records become increasing dire, causing Agatha to compare it with the possible fate of her convent - the intrepid nun must negotiate around the inquisitive writers currently at a writing workshop on site, the presence of her long-ago boyfriend and local sheriff Tom, and a very territorial local sheriff who wants nothing to do with Agatha or her investigation.
This sequel to Bad Faith has all the elements of its predecessor - Agatha's faith and the tapestry of her cloistered life are woven into the fabric of her routine, and this is contrasted with the laypeople around her. This time she has an easier, less strained relationship with Tom and, to an extent, his rather jealous wife, aided by their mutual investigation.
The secondary story of the writers' group speaks of experience, and the petulant would-be author Charlee, convinced of the brilliance of her huge, and missing, first novel had a particular ring of truth. It also caused me my only moment of disconnect from the narrative - she is distraught at the loss of the manuscript, wildly accusing the other writers en masse of theft, and declaring at one point that a copy is with her solicitors and can be produced should anyone seek to publish her work under their name. The way she acts makes it initially appear as through the missing manuscript was her only copy, which in 2004 (when the book was published) seems unlikely - who doesn't create at least one backup? And when we learn she does have a copy her over-the-top melodrama seems even more excessive. This is to some extent explained in the text as attention-seeking, but I was not wholly convinced.
As for the rest, however, was very pleased. I suspect too much Agatha would be a mistake but hope to dole out installments from time to time over the yer ahead - Alex

Wednesday, January 20

The Sky People - SM Stirling

When Soviet probes discovered life on Venus in 1962, everything changed - we were no longer along in the universe. With only minor differences in gravity and air composition, Venus was home to Earth-like flora and fauna, including dinosaurs and at least two humanoid races - H. Sapiens and H. Neanderthalensis. These similarities are far closer than evolution would account for, and are the subject of much research by the US base; an uneasy Soviet/American truce exists on Venus and on Earth, but the USSR keeps its work secret, and its base is miles away.
When Cajun ranger Lieutenant Marc Vitrac welcomes a new shipload of colonists it's 26 years later; Marc's been on planet a year, and is well accustomed to Venusian life. When the US forces are asked to help rescue the crew of a crashed Soviet shuttle, Marc is tapped to join the crew, along with newcomers Cynthia Whitlock (an African-American geologist with paleontology and information system skills) and supercilious Brit Christopher Blair (who, like Vitrac, has specialties in ethnology, linguistics and power systems, and flies lighter-than-air craft), Soviet scientist Jadviga Binkis (wife of the USSR shuttle commander) and Captain Tyler. After a couple of incidents the airship is unrecoverable and the team must decide whether to continue the rescue attempt or head home, but their choice is reduced to no choice when they stumble on a battle between the inhuman and inhumane Neanderthal-like natives and the far more human Cloud People.
The Sky People is shallower and less compelling than Stirling's Change series, and less engaging than Conquistador - the characters seemed less fully fleshed out, the villain was too obvious from the outset, and the scientific interest in this parallel world development was insubstantial. There was a secondary plot about a masterless monitoring AI that I found more irritating than useful, and which seemed to serve primarily as the launch pad for a sequel. The world building was intriguing, and I'd not be averse to reading another novel set in this universe, but this is far from my favourite of Stirling's work - Alex

Tuesday, January 19

Can You Keep a Secret? - Sophie Kinsella

Emma Corrigan's life is bound by secrets - she only went into marketing because photography didn't work out, she doesn't really like her boyfriend that much, her g-string is killing her, and her life hasn't been the same since her older cousin moved in when Emma was ten. It's this aspect, most of all, that's coloured her life - when fourteen year old Kerry arrived, all blonde hair and bossomy maturity, she set a pace than Emma was supposed to match but always fell short. Striving to make her parents proud of her like they are of Kerry, Emma has never stood up for herself.
Coming up to her one year performance review, Emma's determined to cinch a sale, earn a promotion she can rub in Kerry's face, and finally feel as though she's accomplished something. But it all goes wrong - the sure thing falls flat, she ends up spraying an executive with sticky soft drink, and once again her life is in ruins. A stiff drink before the flight home turns into several, and though she's upgraded to business class by a lovely and sympathetic flight attendant, the plane runs into serious turbulence. Terrified of flying (another secret), certain of near death, and quite drunk, Emma tells the guy in the seat next to her that she's going to die without having achieved anything and before she knows it hysterically confesses every secret she has. The experience is quite cathartic and safe, until the complete stranger, who has perfect recall, turns out to be Jack Harper, the American head of her company, visiting London for a week. And just like that, Emma's secrets are no longer her own.
I really enjoyed this novel from Shopaholics creator Kinsella - Emma is relatable, rounded and quite human. The secondary characters - Kerry, Kerry's boyfriend, Emma's parents and boyfriend, her housemates and her office mates - are believable and well drawn, and the cipher that is Jack is attractive, mysterious and thoughtful.
I was a little disappointed in the romantic hurdles, which primarily consisted of miscommunications and misunderstandings that could have been easily resolved with a little straight talking but are instead allowed to blow into huge obstacles. I also had the feeling, throughout the second half of the book, that I'd read it before, which is possible given it was published three years before Lynn and I began blogging.
These quibbles aside there was plenty to enjoy in Can You Keep a Secret? These include the aforementioned characterisations (I particularly liked aspects of the woebegone Connor), the romantic bus ride home after a miserably unsuccessful date, and the very satisfying comeuppance of Kerry. Kinsella conveys a nice sense of place, and I think I prefer her standalone novels to her series. - Alex

Monday, January 18

Undead and Unworthy - Maryjanice Davidson

Undead queen of the vampires Betsy Sinclair has celebrated just over a year of her reign - now married and the legal guardian of her half-brother BabyJon, she's struggling to overcome the shock her posse feel following the exposure of a new talent - sucking the life out of someone without even touching them, even if the resulting energy did cure her best friend of a particularly tenacious leukemia and help her friend Antonia finally be able to turn wolf at the full moon, all while saving her beloved and Fiend-turned-friend Garrett.
Her attempts at normalcy are not helped by the now overt hostility of her best friend Jessica's cop boyfriend, the unhappily aware Fiends, feuding with her mother and, worst of all, being haunted by the ghost of her step-monster.
This is book 7 in the Betsy series. I read the last two Undead books out of order, and re-read Undead and Uneasy to catch up. In the process I realised that my review was woefully inadequate, glossing as it did over several key plotpoints and completely failing to mention the darker tone of that installment in the Betsy saga. Undead and Unworthy continues that arc - though superficially as light as the first five novels, Betsy's begun to grow up, and her consequences have actions that extend beyond herself. In Undead and Unworthy we see more deaths of significant characters, in a series of truly unfortunate events. I found this new take interesting, and though I feel sorry for Betsy I'm really interested in where Davidson's going to take her next, both in terms of plot and also in character development. - Alex

Sunday, January 17

Undead and Unpopular - MaryJanice Davidson

Betsy Taylor is adjusting to her new, unexpected afterlife as Queen of the Vampires and is almost looking forward to her 31st birthday, her 1st undead anniversary, and her forthcoming wedding to the delicious Sinclair. But she's not exactly reconciled to the life vampiric and has decided to give up drinking blood, a decision that's a little more stressful than she imagined - her fangs tend to just pop out, making her lisp unattractively, and she's far more short-tempered than usual.
This alone would be bad enough, but as usual the problems keep mounting up, including a visitation by some powerful European vampires (just skirting dosrespect with the tardiness of their arrival), a zombie in the attic, and most worryingly a secret her very best friend is keeping from her. Ans thats's without factoring in her step-sister, daughter of the devil, her evil step-mother, and the latter's tendency of dropping off her baby half-brother for increasingly long periods of time.
The fifth in Davidson's popular Undead series, Undead and Unpopular is entertaining and brisk, but doesn't offer any real surprises. For example, the revelation that frequent mentions of a zombie on the grounds is not a joke assorted people (including a ghost nobody but Betsy can interact with) have spontaneously decided on comes as no real revelation, and unless it plays a significant role in the next book was rather a dead end (so to speak). Betsy herself is superficial, with an ongoing interest in shoes and fashion, and she's had very little character growth throughout the series.
That said, there's something about her that's quite charming, and I enjoyed her rant against the imperative of answering the phone regardless of how inconvenienced you may be by doing so:
The phone, the fucking phone! People used it like they used to use the cat-o-nine-tails. You had to drop everything and answer the fucking thing.And God help you if you were home and, for whatever reason, didn't answer. "But I called!" Yeah, it was convenient for you so you called. But I'm in the shit because it wasn't convenienent for me to drop everything and talk to you, on the spot, for whatever you needed to talk about.
Despite the mentioned caveats, spending time with Betsy is always an amusing diversion, and I quite enjoyed reuniting with her again after what, I was surprised to discover, has been quite an absence - not only has it been the better part of eighteen months since I read a novel in the series, I somehow managed to jump over this one in the process, heading straight to Undead and Uneasy! - Alex

Saturday, January 16

Harry Turtledove: The Disunited States of America

A young man and his mother travel to a parallel universe where the United Stated didn’t actually unite and North America is a patchwork of individual nations.
While away on a day trip there is an outbreak of a highly contagious, and highly deadly, virus resulting in the country of Virginia quarantining its citizens. The young man is reasonably confident that immunisations from his own universe will be effective in preventing him from contracting the disease but he is nonetheless stuck in a small town and worried about his distant mother.
It is here he meets a young woman, a Californian visiting family, who is likewise stuck until the quarantine is lifted. Her political views are vastly different from those of the locals; particularly her belief in racial equality and the young man finds it hard to maintain the façade of racism required for him to pass himself off as a true Virginian. But letting his cover slip would endanger not only himself and his mother but his entire universe.
When it is discovered that the virus is a genetically modified version of measles deliberately released upon the Virginians by the neighbouring nation of Ohio war is declared. Virginia soon finds itself fighting on two fronts as the native black population take advantage of the war to rise up against white oppression.
When a soldier billeted in town dies of the virus the young man slips into the soldier’s uniform and makes his way back through the war torn countryside to his mother, getting caught up in active fighting along the way.
As armies advance the young woman and her grandmother escape the town and head for the city in hope of escaping back to California. When the grandmother comes down with the virus the young woman seeks out the young man for help.
He convinces medics in his own universe to send a cure which he gives to the young woman for her grandmother before returning with his mother to his own universe.
When I got this novel I didn’t realise that it was the forth book in a series (though how I missed the fact when the cover clearly states Crosstime Traffic book four I don’t know). I can only assume that the questions I had about world building, particularly the technology involved in jumping between alternate universes, had been addressed in previous books since it is not mentioned in this one. Having said that this story stands alone well and though familiarity with the previous stories in the series, and a better knowledge of US geography and history, would probably have given me a deeper understanding of the story it wasn’t strictly necessary.
First for the good: while the story focussed on racism, it also addressed a number of other issues, running the gamut from when profanity might be considered acceptable to the morality of war. The complexities of the issues are not over simplified for the target audience, the historical, social, political and emotional aspects of them being acknowledged, though the conclusion of their moral value strictly adheres to modern mores. Character growth, via flashes of understanding, is minor but brilliantly done making me think this author is capable of much more than we see here.
BUT: I can’t help but feel that the author bit off more than he could chew with this book. The concept is great but for the main part the writing just wasn’t up to it. Ideas are reiterated frequently with no new insight, giving the feel of a repeated lecture that quickly loses reader interest. This is to the detriment of other, equally important, issues which could have been explored in more depth but were not. The main characters, supposedly in their late teens, think, behave and speak as though they were much younger. And there is no clear explanation as to why the young man is there in the first place (though this might have been presented in earlier works).
Not a bad book but perhaps a bit too much going on at once. I don’t think I’ll be following up earlier instalments in the Crosstime Traffic series.-Lynn

Thursday, January 14

Never Change - Elizabeth Berg

Myra Lipinski has never demanded much of life. Her parents never really wanted her, she faded into the background at school, and she always figured that she didn't really deserve anything more. The bright spot in her life is her work - from the moment she began her nursing degree Myra was a star, captivated by the knowledge and skilled at the technical aspects, she moved from intensive care to home nursing, where her patients could speak to her and where she could see the impact she made on their lives.
When Myra's allocated a new, terminal patient, she's a little thrilled to find it's Chip Reardon, the boy she always dreamed of at high school. With only months to live, is it too late for Myra to find love?
Though more of a romance than any of Berg's other books, or at least those I've thus far read, Never Change is as much about the relationships Myra has with her patients, and with herself, as it is her developing relationship with Chip.
Like her other books, though, Never Change is lyric, seamlessly crafted, and vibrantly real. I found it easy to relate to Myra,. whose life is not so very different from mine in a number of respects (though quite different in others), and was interested in her journey. Though I've connected more strongly with other of Berg's protagonists, I did very much enjoy the Never Change experience - Alex

Wednesday, January 13

Friday Nights - Joanna Trollope

Newly retired professional woman Eleanor began the Friday night gatherings almost by accident - after weeks of watching two young women, both apparently alone and with a young child, walk separately past her Fulham living room window, she impulsively asks them to join her for a drink, and offers to watch the boys. From this begin sprang a weekly meeting that grew to six semi-regular attendees: Eleanor, single mother Paula (and her energetic son Toby), widowed mother Lindsay (and her enigmatic son Noah), Lindsay's younger and feckless sister Jules, business woman and neighbour Blaise, and Blaise's business partner (and mother of Rose and Poppy) Karen. Through their regular meetings close ties develop, ties that are threatened when Paula invites a man to meet them all.
Although I liked the way the children, particularly Toby, were portrayed, I found Friday Nights a little disappointing. The men in particular are universally appalling - from Toby's adulterous father to Karen's painterly (but unproductive) husband, and most of all Paula's new and ultimately unsatisfying man, the entire gender is a washout.
I agree that female friendships can be strong, enduring, supportive etc but the thrust of the book seems to be that women are better on their own. Though each woman ended up in a different place than she started in, I didn't really feel like there was a lot of growth, and I finished the novel with a strong sense of 'eh.' That and an interest in knowing more about Noah's internal life. - Alex

Tuesday, January 12

Good Germs, Bad Germs - Jessica Snyder Sachs

In this interesting and accessible tome, subtitled Health and Survival in a Bacterial World, Sachs introduces the reader to the problems of microbial invasion with the devastating story of a young high school footballer who, with ferocious speed, succumbed to overwhelming sepsis from an antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Ricky's story is followed by Daniel's, a young boy with severe and multiple food allergies. What links these stories? They're both consequences of less than a century of attempts to combat microbes - often indiscriminately, even though our lives and well being depend on many germs, and with little thought for potential harm.
Over the next 230 pages Sachs describes the intersection between modern man and mutating microbe, from the evolution of germ theory to revelations about the bacteria (helpful and harmful) that dwell on and in us; from an unhealthy focus on 'hospital level' cleaning to the rise of multi-resistant bacteria; and concluding with three chapters that explore alternatives to the traditional use of antibiotics.
Sachs's meticulously researched work, much of which draws on leading research into an increasingly vital aspect of health, is beautifully synthesised and comprehensive. I was particularly interested in the section where Sachs discusses the evolution of our bacterial colonies over the course of our lives, no two of which are identical. This starts with the way newborn immune systems are boosted by ingesting maternal microbes, from the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria that are created in the mother's vagina and milk ducts respectively, but also from the tail end of her digestive tract:
it's no coincidence, but rather the result of natural selection that a newborn's head typically faces in the direction of its mother's rectum when the head first emerges and remains there until the next contraction delivers the shoulders and the rest of the body.
I was surprised to read of the direct link between high stress and intestinal microbe Bacteroides thetaiotamicron or B. theta, a bug associated with gene switching and possibly with how thriftily an individual metabolises energy.
Though slightly familiar with the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that maintaining an environment as close to germ-free as possible increases autoimmune and reactive disorders, I had no idea of the extent to which this was the case. I learned with interest that the kinds of microbes we're exposed to, particularly early in life, have potential lifelong consequences - children who are exposed in day care to many other children in infancy have dramatically lower rates of type 1 diabetes, while rates of multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel conditions like ulcerative colitis and Chrone's disease rise as sanitation improves. Similarly, children exposed to livestock, particularly stabled animals, are markedly less likely to develop allergies. Children are also far more likely to develop allergies and asthma if treated with antibiotics at a young age. And twins are more likely to have depression if their identical sibling has either of these conditions.
I have some knowledge of the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, so that aspect was less surprising to me than others, but I was impressed by Sachs's summation of the evolution of the problem, and the way she was able to convey frustration and impotence in the face of poor prescribing practices despite all physicians knowing the dangers of indiscriminate antibiotic use. Some of the findings Sachs reports, from the discovery of multi-resistant flora in never-hospitalised school children to the revelation that antimicrobial chemical triclosan (used widely in antibacterial soaps and other toiletries) can trip a bacterial genetic switch and trigger drug resistance on microbes never exposed to the antibiotics in question, were fascinating.
Antibiotics are used widely and relatively indiscriminately in agriculture, an aspect of the problem that Sachs thoroughly examines
Though recommendations about antibiotic prescribing are emerging - including the stunning (at least to me) revelation that three day courses of amoxycillin are as effective in treating bacterial pneumonia as the traditional ten day course - the outlook seems fairly dire.
But I was heartened by the research that, rather than just focusing on the next silver bullet antibiotic, is exploring alternatives to antibiotic therapies. I was also interested to read about research examining the possibility of using targeted bacteria to 'vaccinate' against cancers, and the idea of using positive strains of bacteria to outnumber harmful (or even less beneficial) varieties - a technique that may help reduce conditions as varied as dental caries and vaginal thrush.
Although I'm cautious about genetic modification of microbes, it sounds as though safety is a significant concern for researchers, and the boards that oversee them - safeguards include non-reproducible mutations and elements essential to the bug's survival that are not naturally available in that environment, meaning that failing to swish around mouthwash twice daily will kill off the tooth-protecting introduced Strep.
Most of all, I was hopeful when I read in the penultimate paragraph that we may one day aspire not to the death of microbes but "a relationship of symbiotic coexistence" with the flora that are so vital to our lives. - Alex

Monday, January 11

Owen Davies: The Haunted-A Social History of Ghosts

The title pretty much says it all. The author is a Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire, UK who, in this book, documents the history of ghosts and hauntings in English society. The said history is presented thematically with sections covering different aspects of ghostly experience, the changing explanations for ghosts and various representations of ghosts over time.
For what is basically an historical text, this book is reader-friendly. The use of end notes means that the text isn’t often interrupted and there are just enough examples to illustrate points made without tipping the work over into little more than a collection of ghost stories.
This is a fascinating examination of all aspects of ghosts throughout history; I just wish there had been more on the sociological aspects of hauntings (these are mentioned but not in great depth the author being an historian rather than a sociologist).
Well researched and highly accessible this is a great book for anyone interested in the subject.-Lynn

Saturday, January 9

Twenties Girl - Sophie Kinsella

Lara's life is not going to plan - her best friend Natalie has taken off, leaving her to try running their fledgling headhunting firm even though she has no experience or contacts, and even though he's the love of her life, Josh has broken up with her and won't even take her calls. The last thing she wants to do is go to her great aunt's funeral - she never even knew Sadie, and the last thing she feels like is lying to her parents about how together she is, maintaining that façade in front of her smug older sister, and having the brilliance of her coffee-chain billionaire uncle rubbed in her family's face yet again.
When Lara hears a young girl calling shrilly for her necklace she discovers that she can communicate with the ghost of Sadie. Though a hundred and five when she died, Sadie always felt like the young woman she was in the twenties - when life was a kick, filled with lovers and fashion and the dancing she adored. Sadie wants Lara to have a bit more life, too, and is quite good at persuading people to do things by screeching in their ear. Sadie can help Lara in ways she doesn't expect, and in return Lara is determined to track down Sadie's missing necklace, a task that reveals the most unexpected of family secrets.
When I started Twenties Girl I was underwhelmed - I found Lara one of those most trying of chick lit heroines, all self-centred and trailing after a useless man who clearly doesn't want her. But despite myself I was drawn into the novel and the characters, and before I knew it I was enthralled. Part romance, part historical and part mystery, Kinsella weaves together the lives of two twenty-something women living eighty years apart. As we learn more about each woman we see layers and maturation. The resolution of two secrets, one about Sadie's long-lost love and the other about Lara's odious Uncle Bill, is intertwined and deeply satisfying. Most of all we get to see Lara evolve into an independent, forthright woman. It's not serious literature but it's well worth the investment - and I'm not a big fan of Literature anyway. - Alex

Friday, January 8

Born to Rock – Gordon Korman

Leo Caraway’s defining moment came just before a class trip to Canada in fourth grade when, at the age of ten, he discovered that his dad wasn’t his biological father. Instead a Marion X McMurphy fathered Leo in a one-night stand his mother avoids talking about at all costs. Leo tells no-one but responds by embracing conformity, including membership in the Young Republicans group at school. From time to time though an inner demon he names McMurphy rises up and causes trouble.
Leo has no interest in his bio-dad until an act of selflessness results in the loss of his full-ride scholarship to Harvard. His need for $40,000 a year comes just as he discovers through best friend and goth-girl Melinda that McMurphy is better known as King Maggot, head of the seminal punk group Purge. Leo makes his way on to Purge’s comeback tour as a roadie and, while waiting for the paternity test to come back, gets to know his bio-dad and his life, if only because just hitting him up for the money seems crass. Over the next few weeks Leo learns more about himself than his bio-dad, and even finds love in an unexpected place.
I have loved all of Korman’s books but haven’t read any in several years. It’s surprising to me that they’re not better known, as they’re so accessible, particularly to young male readers – his protagonists are generally good guys placed in ridiculous situations despite their best efforts, most often through the actions of a thoughtless or reckless friend or acquaintance. Born to Rock has an older than usual hero but is otherwise the same. Which is not to suggest that Korman’s YA novels are identical – the enjoyment is in seeing the twists and turns he invests each book with.
It’s sadly too hot in Melbourne at the moment for me to be any more creative in my reviewing than this, but believe me Korman does not write in 43-degree heat, because his work sparkles with creative inventiveness, light touches of humour and realistic dialogue. Go, read him - Alex

Thursday, January 7

War Reporting for Cowards - Chris Ayers

Subtitled Between Iraq and a Hard Place, this tells the story of LondonTimes financial-turned-entertainment reporter Ayres' embedment with the US Army's 2nd Battalion 11th Marines artillery squadron.
I really like Ayres' voice, from his contemplation of Marine codes for contact with the enemy:
'Contact', in the language of the Marines, where all emotion is surgically removed to avoid collateral damage to troop morale, means being attacked by the enemy. When fire is returned it becomes 'engagement'. A nuclear exchange, presumably, is a white wedding.
Ayres was not a born war correspondent, and he's admirably honest about his complete disinclination to cover the war in Iraq. In fact, I was struck more by his candour than anything else in this well-written and absorbing book. This is nowhere more striking than in his account of September 11 - an Englishman in New York, Ayres sets the scene with his arrival in America some months earlier, and is open about his utter failure to grasp the impact of the event initially - unhappily caffeine free, and hypochondriacally worrying about his gall bladder after reading the New York Times lead story on arsenic poisoning,
I stepped into the lift at precisely 8:50 a.m.
"Down?" I asked.
"Did you hear anything about the trade center?" came the unexpected reply...
At first the words 'trade center' didn't mean anything to me. It was early, after all, and I hadn't had my morning espresso...
I wondered if this was a news story. If so, I was ill-equipped to cover it: I kept all my pens and spiral-bound notebooks at work...
There were probably much bigger stories to be worrying about, I thought. What with the arsenic in the water supply, this would probably make only a few hundred words: a photo story, perhaps.
The account that follows is vivid and traumatised, and brought back the full horror I felt watching events unfold in the middle of the night in Melbourne. In New York but not of it, Ayres speaks with shock, removed from the situation by shock and otherness - when he notices the proliferation of American flags he realises that he's "in a foreign country at war. The US had never really felt foreign to me: it did now."
His reporting of the first days on the invasion of Iraq is as vivid, honest and raw, which is not to say that it's in any way unpolished or unsophisticated. I found War Reporting for Cowards by chance while looking for follow-up works after reading The Faith Club. I'm glad I did, though I don't recommend reading it in public if you're liable to get chocked up revisiting the events of September 11. - Alex

Wednesday, January 6

Uncharted Territory – Connie Willis

Explorers Finriddy, our narrator, and Carson are surveying Boohte, a scrubby and inhospitable planet. Their only human companions are loaners – annoying newbies who rotate in and out, causing more trouble than they’re worth – and CJ, a blonde bombshell who stays at base camp channeling footage and audio back to earth while trying in vain to get the loaners to name something after her. However, in response to the imperialist colonisations of the past, the explorers’ actions are heavily regulated – they must use indigenous terms for flora, fauna and natural features, and where the indigenes have no terms they may only use descriptives. There are also heavy fines for actions that impact on the planet or the indigenous inhabitants, fines allocated and collected by Bult, their native scout, who’s adept at creating fines out of almost every action Fin and Carson take.
When loaner Evelyn, a socioexozoologist specialising in sex and mating behaviour, joins the explorers he changes the tenor of group dynamics, and reveals that the pairs’ exploits are the subject of a popular pop-up (3D video) series back home.
A slender volume in comparison with Willis’s more well known novels, Uncharted Territory is correspondingly more straight forward and less densely plotted, but thoroughly accessible and sprinkled with deft humorous touches, predominantly relating to Bult and fine giving, and human interactions, all framed by mating behaviour, human and animal. - Alex

Tuesday, January 5

Living Witness - Jane Haddam

Ann-Victoria Hadley has long been the most disliked woman in Snow Hill - the opinionated, educated and wealthy daughter of the town's only doctor, she returned to the small Pennsylvanian town after she earned a degree at Vassar, but not before traveling the world and serving in the Navy, a time that was the happiest of her life even if two years of it was spent as a prisoner of war. Now 91, her only family live far away but she's often visited by the doting offspring of her siblings. When Annie-Vic is found unconscious and near death in her home it seems certain that the reason is tied up with the new school board's decision to include Intelligent Design in the curriculum, a move Anni-Vic vehemently opposed. Unheard on the board, she joined in a suit against the board, a suit that has attracted national attention and whose hearing is about to start.
Gregor Demarkian is keen to leave the chaos surrounding his incipient wedding. he'd be happy with a quiet ceremony at a registry office, but between Bennis's flourishes and the demands of his Armenian community, that is a distant possibility. When an old friend seeks his help Gregor is only too happy to oblige.
The twenty-fourth Demarkian mystery is just as pacy, interesting and involving as the first. unlike most victims in mysteries, Annie-Vic's character is both well developed and integral to the plot - but then, unlike most victims, Annie-Vic isn't actually dead. And Living Witness is strongly character driven, with several personalities well defined, from hillbilly-turned-pastor Nick Frapp to the almost willfully stupid Annie McGuffie, ex-Marine now Chief of Police Gary Albright to the highly irritating state police representative Dale Vardan. but the most interesting aspect for me was the evolution/design aspect.
Running through the novel, Haddam does a beautiful job of articulating, through her characters, both sides of the issue, including why those who support evolution oppose the 'harmless' insertion of stickers asserting that evolution is 'just a theory' and that there are alternative theories. Of particular note is the stubbornness of each side to see people in the opposing position as immoral, satanic, heathen creatures hell-bound and hell-bent on destroying Christians, their morals and mores or undereducated, stupid automatons incapable of rational thought or insight, stubbornly clinging to their outmoded beliefs and standing in the way of progress and modern life. There is sadly too little room here for me to fully describe how impressed I was with this last portrayal - Haddam moves beyond the image to the ideas and ideals underpinning these perspectives and brings them into a bigger picture about change, small and large communities, and inherited attitudes.
The mystery itself was interesting, I always enjoy catching up with Gregor and his now bride Bennis (and their always interesting relationship that, though quite different in nature, reminds me of Lynn's marriage), and I particularly liked the perspective of the unconscious Anni-Vic. But I will take away from my reading of Living Witness another perspective on the war on science that this intelligent design 'discussion' is waging. - Alex

Monday, January 4

Cycler - Lauren McLaughlin

Jill McTeague is a run-of-the-mill American teen – she’s neither an outcast nor most popular, enjoys school for the most part, and really wants her secret crush to ask her to prom. But four days a month Jill isn’t quite so run-of-the-mill – though her teachers and friends think she has a medical problem that requires monthly transfusions, ever since she was fourteen Jill has spent four days a month as a boy, complete with genitals and attitude.
After seeking medical advice, to no avail, Jill’s mother decided to lock Jack away from the world, protecting Jill from the publicity and scrutiny the alternative would cause. But Jack’s becoming less happy about a life that consists of one small house and not so much as an internet connection to let him interact with the world, and he’s emerging more often.
I was captivated by this premise when I first came across the book a couple of years ago, and when I found my library had no plans to purchase it bought a copy myself. Jack is by far the most dynamic character, though throughout the novel Jill becomes more aware of the confines her very controlled mother has placed on her, and on the passive role her father plays in their life.
The parent relationship is interesting, and somewhat under-explored, though this is understandable given the narration of the text by Jill and Jack. I was also a little disappointed that Cycler ends at the most narratively interesting point. There’s some interesting, but somewhat masked, aspects of gender and sexual identity brought up in the text, and the romantic hero identifies as bisexual which is unusual in the genre and worthy of note, particularly the response of his classmates. All in all, though, I was a little disappointed in Cycler, which I think could have spent a little less time on the more vapid aspects of Jill’s personality (like the intricately planned and doomed Operation Swoon, designed to entice her target into inviting Jill to prom) and more time on these interesting aspects. – Alex

Sunday, January 3

Home Safe - Elizabeth Berg

Helen Ames is still devastated by the sudden death of her husband over breakfast one morning - it may have been eleven months ago but the shock is as new as it was when she turned around to see him slumped on the floor. Dan took care of the details of their life together, leaving Helen to write the novels that contribute the bulk of their income. Since his death she just can't write, and though her publisher seems calm, she knows that's because they don't understand that Helen will never be able to write again - all the things that used to inspire and calm her now serve only to remind her of what's missing. And nothing works the way it used to, most of all her head, but also her relationship with her single daughter, Tess - whatever Helen tries to do seems to annoy Tess, and the harder she tries the angrier Tess gets, even though Helen's just trying to help.
When her accountant rings to say that Dan withdrew $750,000 almost a year ago, Helen's stunned. She can't imagine what he would have spent the money on, and over and over again in her mind she looks at the mild, loyal husband she thought she knew .
It was when I wrote up my end of year summary that I realised I hadn't read a single Berg novel in twelve months, and I'm so glad I returned. Her books may deal with serious, significant themes and devastating events but they're also uplifting, comforting and deeply satisfying. There were a couple of elements in Home Safe that particularly resonated with me - the first was the exploration of mother-daughter relationships, both Helen and Tess's but also the briefer but vibrant exploration of Helen's relationship with her mother, Eleanor. Reading these passages made me resolve to be more compassionate and giving in my own mother/daughter relationship, though that's sometimes easier in the abstract than in reality.
I also really liked the moment when the deeply feeling, sensitive Helen is confronted by her tolerant best friend Midge, who Helen thinks doesn't understand the depths of her despair and grief:
"Let me tell you something, Miss I-Feel-the-Pea. I feel the pea, too! All of us feel the pea! The difference is what each of us chooses to do about it!". ... Helen has always thought of herself as being different, as feeling more than others.
Sometimes she views it as a gift, more often as a curse. But it had not fully occurred to her, until now, that if someone doesn't react as she does, it doesn't mean they feel any differently...
"You know the story of the person who's thirsty?" Midge says. "Well, the person is complaining and complaining and complaining that she's so thirsty. 'Oh, my God, I'm thirsty, I am so thirsty. She's given a drink of water. And you know what happens then? She says, 'Oh, my God, I was thirsty, I was so thirsty!'"

And this is what I love about Berg's writing - it reflects truths about ourselves and others. Oh, and it's uplifting, comforting and deeply satisfying! - Alex

Saturday, January 2

A Question of Upbringing - Anthony Powell

Opening at an unnamed British public school in 1921 and closing during his first year at university, A Question of Upbringing begins the story our narrator, Nicholas Jenkins. We learn little of his own life and family, as Jenkins strings together reminiscences of his school days with the romantic Charles Stringham, daring Peter Templar (who is sent down after a string of practical jokes), and the plodding and clueless Windmerpool, branded an outsider his first day, when he wore "the wrong kind of overcoat." Through the course of the novel Jenkins' path randomly crosses his old school friends and Widmerpool, along with those of other characters, most notably during Jenkins' stay at La Grenadière in France to hone his French.
Starting the year off the way I intend to continue, I have not only started with a non-library book but the first in the acclaimed twelve-part series A Dance to the Music of Time, with the intention of reading one each month. God help me. Because I just didn't get the attraction. A Question of Upbringing is certainly not a strongly narrative or plot-driven novel, and nothing much seemed to happen. Neither is it character-driven, for I learned little about Jenkins and only glimpses about the other characters he encounters. There is certainly a strong sense of time, place and above all class, but that doesn't so much grab me.
I've been told that the books become more interesting and intricate with each installment, and that analysing each novel separately robs the narrative as a whole of its complexity, subtle nuance and character development. We shall see. - Alex

Friday, January 1

2009 in Review

Alex – Last year I aimed to make my way through some of my unread backlog, read my mother's favourite novels, the twelve-part Anthony Powell creation A Dance to the Music of Time, and tackle Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (huge, but apparently worth it). I was also going to review each book as I finished it.
Sadly, once again my resolutions were for naught. At the time of writing I'm just finishing writing up the dozen books read but unreviewed over the course of 2009. I read neither the Powell nor the Seth works, and my own unread book piles were added to rather than diminished even though I took a dozen or so overseas with me (and left them there). This year I will read a Powell book each month, and both Lynn and I have decided to alternate our own books with those from other sources like the library.
I did read marginally fewer books this year - of the 254 books I reviewed, 222 were fiction and only 32 non-fiction (and yet another year with no poetry, except by accident). I've been interested to see that the strength of the last part of the year has coloured my perception of the year as a whole, and I'd completely blanked out the odd run of books I hated or abandoned. Starting there we have:
Most disappointing novel: Dakota Cassidy's The Accidental Werewolf just didn't do it for me, particularly as it's one of only two books I recommended my library purchase. I thought Anton Strout's Dead to Me had more promise than it delivered, but did like the author's comment, which acknowledged that it wasn't for me without taking this on board as a vituperative attack on his very personhood (thank you, Anton).
Least rewarding non-fiction book: in a year where I put more books aside than ever before, the stand out of disappointment was probably Vera Brittain's autobiography Testament of Youth, mostly because I had quite high expectations which fell wholly flat.
Most disliked read: the Twilight series - I pushed myself until I just couldn't read any more of it.
Greatest achievement: an overseas trip forced me, by virtue of taking them with me and refusing to buy any other until they were read, to finally tackle half a dozen long unread members of my To Read pile. The three longest lingerers were John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (perhaps 15 years), Richard Adam's The Girl in a Swing (almost 30 years), and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, (some 20 years after buying it). Completing Eco's work is without question the triumph of my recreational reading year!
Favourite novel: No question the most compelling novel I read this year was Lionel Shriver's We Have to Talk About Kevin, a book so gripping it inspired me to start a book group (we meet for the first time next month and so far feedback's been mixed).
Favourite non-fiction book: I'm torn between the really compelling The Faith Club (by far my longest review this year), all of Danny Wallace's adventures, the always readable Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and the Milton Erickson tribute My Voice Will Go With You. But the winner has to be The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.
Favourite newly encountered author: I thoroughly enjoyed Kylie Chan's
Dark Heavens trilogy, Linwood Barclay's atmospheric mysteries, and my belated discovery of the almost-Bagleyesque quality of Dick Francis's racing mysteries. Simon Kernick certainly warrants a follow up, as do Olive Etchells, CS Harris, Perri Klass and SM Stirling. But I think the winner is Carolyn Parkhurst, whose two, extremely different, novels were resonant reads that stayed with me long after they were finished and which I've recommended indiscriminately.
Interestingly, I realised writing this that I haven't read a single novel by Elizabeth Berg, my favourite author of 2008, but have recommended her to several people and sent my sister three of her books for Christmas.
Reviewing the year has reminded me of several authors I want to chase up in the year ahead, particularly CS Harris, Aimée and David Thurlo, Sean Doolittle, Ben Bova, Olive Etschells and Simon Kernick. As always the good news is that there are always great books being written and released, faster than I can read them. The bad news, of course, is that there are great books being written and released faster than I can read them - Alex

Lynn: My 2009 reading list has proved to be a rather uninspired one. With a couple of notable exceptions my book selections this year have been mediocre to poor. This has left me spoilt for choice when it comes to naming a worst book of the year.
My biggest disappointment would have to be Sandom’s
The God Machine. I had such high hopes for this one but I found it to be a complete dud-a view not changed by the passionate arguments in support of it made here by the author (or author’s best friend, biggest fan, whatever).
But I feel it would be unfair to award this one the status of worst book read in 2009 because as a ‘did not finish’ I can’t claim to have actually read it.
So in a very closely run race the worst book I read in 2009 goes to
The Eight by Katherine Neville. The sheer pointlessness of her work means she edges out Mary Gentle’s 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, which at least made some sense.
Strangely enough, choosing a best book I read in 2009 was not as easy as I thought it would be. Sure I could fall back on the tried and true Rickman or Greenwood, both of whom are consistently great but how could I choose between them. Take it as said that they rate right up there and with those two out of contention the very level playing field left meant that many could vie for the title. So for its warped and twisted fun I’m naming Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore my best read of 2009.
My favourite newly discovered (by me) writer for 2009 is a three way of historical romance authors. I was delighted to discover
Pam Rosenthal, Jo Goodman and Joanna Bourne may their backlists be long and their careers longer.-Lynn

James Herbert: The Magic Cottage

When a young couple out to escape life in the fast lane find a cottage in the country it seems it was meant for them. Not only does the money required for the purchase seem to fall into their laps but the place turns out not to need the extensive, and expensive, renovations they originally thought. The garden seems to be in constant bloom and even the local wild life is tame. The change in lifestyle does them no end of good. His music and her art develop a depth that has hitherto escaped them; even their relationship reaches new, unexpected heights. They truly believe they have found a slice of paradise.
But such happiness can not last indefinitely and trouble arrives in the form of seemingly friendly neighbours. Actually a magical cult, the neighbours want their house. They were willing to kill the house’s pervious owner-reputedly a witch whose power was linked to the land the cottage is built on-in order to get it and are not happy at having their plans thwarted.
They attempt plan B and almost succeed in indoctrinating the young woman but her partner sees the signs of her defection in the slow disintegration of their cottage and extricates her at the last minute leading the cult to stage a full magical onslaught.
This they fight off but at a high cost to all involved.
I’ve long enjoyed James Herbert’s particular brand of horror but I don’t feel that this book is one of his best.
The main problem I had was one of pacing. For a good two-thirds of the book very little happens. The stage is well set, the characters established and the foreshadowing heavy but very little of interest takes place.
When the action does pick up, it picks up quickly and comes across as rushed. There is no gradual increase in tension, no time to savour the scare. There are a couple of surprise twists near the end but they are all but lost in the frenzy of the story’s culmination and so don’t have the impact that they might have.
This one is strictly for the fans-Lynn