Saturday, February 27

Portion Perfect - Amanda Clark

As everyone knows, the Western world is apparently in the midst of an obesity epidemic that threatens to make this generation of children the first to live shorter lives than their parents.
While I have significant issues with this whole concept, and with the increasing correlation of thinness with healthiness and fatness as horrific, with too little attention paid to fitness as a goal in itself rather than a means to weight loss, there is no question that most people have no concept of what constitutes a portion of pretty much anything. I, for example, know that I eat well but entirely too much, and I'm sure I'm not alone
In Portion Perfection: a visual weight control plan, nutritionist Clark aims to change all that. To no little extent a marketing vehicle for her products (a plate and bowl, heavily featured in this glossily photographed book, that are marked with regions for salad/vegies, carbohydrates and protein), there is a lot here that's valuable for the would be dieter, or anyone whose knowledge of portions is shaky.
Clark opens with a discussion of how manufacturers have shifted our perception of what a serving is, comparing the sizes of take away coffee, chocolate bars, flavoured milk and chips now to their counterparts twenty years ago; in most cases the calories have doubled, and for coffee the increase is over 5 times as much. A meal should be 300-500 calories, and a snack 100-200, but all these examples contain far more calories than a snack, and some of them hit up against the far end of a meal size, a frightening thought for any of us who've washed a meal down with 600ml of soft drink (245 calories) or chocolate milk (440). Clarke discusses how this change came about, pointing out that spending more money on food you don't need, regardless of a reduction in the per gram cost, is no saving for your wallet or waist. She also points out that the manufacturer's serving size may widely differ from that of the average consumer, so that a 200g pot of chocolate dessert, though the same size as a serving of yoghurt, contains five servings, even if it can be polished off in a couple of minutes.
I very much liked the meal suggestions that follow - Clark distinguishes between everyday and occasional foods, providing portions for each that stay within the caloric bounds of healthy eating. Each meal has three calorie options - for breakfast that's 300, 400 and 500 calories, while lunch and dinner have 350, 450 and 550 versions. Clearly and lavishly illustrated, there are photos of foods under each category, all around the same calorie equivalency. The everyday snacks, for example, are all roughly 100 calories, and categorised as fruit (6 small apricots, 1.5 cups of strawberries), dairy (variously sized individual tubs of yoghurt, one Paddle Pop, 200ml skim milk with a heaped teaspoon of Milo), nuts and seeds6 macadamias, 2 tablespoons of pepitas) etc. The occasional options have the same average calorie content but are higher in fat and GI. The size of a serving of apple pie (no cream or icecream) is distressingly small, as is the discovery that a 350 calorie lunch is 4 chicken nuggets and 8 hot chips!
And that's the worth of this book - when you can easily see that, for your calories you can have a small sausage roll or 1.5 cups of starchy vegetable soup with a piece of bread and butter, or a generous plate of pasta, ham and salad there's no comparison. And knowing that a single Lindor ball or two chupa chups take the same bite out of a daily allowance as the more filling options of three oatmeal biscuits, a tub of diet chocolate mousse, or a small apple and a small pear means I'm far less likely to mindlessly scoff the former. the plate and bowl may well help, and I think I'll borrow Portion Perfection from the library every few months to refresh myself, but for now just reading the book has been a great help as I gear up for healthier eating. - Alex

Friday, February 26

The Soul of a Chef - Michael Ruhlman

America's CIA is of overwhelming significance to a select, small but significant number of Americans, even though many outside that country's borders have never heard of it. In The Soul of a Chef - The Journey Toward Perfection, food writer Ruhlman continues the exploration begun in his 1997 work The Making of a Chef by chronicling a group of contestants vying for the awarding of the title Certified Master Chef. The Culinary Institute of America had only (at the time of publication) awarded the title 53 times, with 170 professional chefs undertaking the gruelling ten day process. As Ruhlman observes the seven candidates, posing as a member of the fictitious National Council of Accreditation (the CIA knew his real role), he combines a genuinely thrilling account of these competitors high pressure, expensive and precarious journeys, with a discussion about what it's all for. The CMC title is little prized outside the CIA, doesn't necessarily lead to greater success or job opportunity, and is heavily weighted toward some cuisines (particularly classic French) over others (like fusion).
The Certified Master Chef Exam comprises one part of this text; the other two sections follow two quite different chefs - Cleveland-based Michael Symon, head chef of Lola, and Napa Valley's Thomas Keller, owner and chef of French Laundry. The three components are unified by the dominant theme of the pursuit of perfection, with quite different paths followed by each group. I quite enjoyed The Soul of a Chef while I was reading it, particularly the Master-Chef-on-speed first section. But now the only trace flavours remaining in my memory are that the CIA is pretentious and wouldn't really fly in Australia, that Symon's kitchen sounds like a fun place to work if you're interested in hard work and strong training, and that the French Laundry might be worth a trip to the US. - Alex

Thursday, February 25

Off Duty - Jane Middleton (ed)

When chef David Nicholls' son was paralysed during an accident on Bondi Beach, he decided to raise funds for spinal research by asking his chef friends to contribute to an unusual book about food - each writer has been asked to describe the food they cook for themselves and their families when they're at home.
Each of the forty-eight sections opens with a paragraph about the chef, their responses to ten questions (about their favourite flavours, utensils and ingredients, their inspiration, their guilty pleasure junk food, their attitude to children and others), followed by a three course meal.
In some cases the food choices are surprising (Heston Blumenthal's simple and delicious trio of pea and ham soup, oxtail and kidney pudding, and trifle for example), and on occasion they're ridiculously ornate for home cooking (I'd order Marcus Wareing's scrumptious sounding menu but never make crab and lobster tian with guacamole, cocktail sauce and Oscitra caviar, boiled pork belly with turned vegetables - pretty but turning's so fiddly - followed by an amazing peanut parfait with chocolate mousse and chocolate sauce that has several stages). In every case this is not a book to peruse when you're on a diet and haven't eaten for a while, but quite useful if you're into food porn and/or looking for dinner party inspiration - Alex

Wednesday, February 24

Jane Harris: The Observations

A young woman tries to escape her sullied past by taking a job as a maid in lonely house outside Edinburgh. She is fascinated by her beautiful new mistress, if somewhat confused by the lady’s increasingly strange requests. As her affection for her mistress grows so too does her jealousy toward her predecessor-a young woman who died under mysterious circumstances. Learning that her employer preferred the dead girl to her, she decides to ‘punish’ the woman. But her practical joke takes a turn for the serious and she soon finds herself caught up in a web of sex, lies and insanity.
Through it all she remains faithful to her mistress but can’t help but wonder what really happened to the other young woman and to make matters worse, her past is catching up with her, threatening to destroy the tenuous hold she has on her new life.
As the mysteries are unveiled one by one everything falls into place sending her life off on a tangent she never expected.
I really enjoyed this intriguing tale, particularly the unexpected ending. Though some of the secondary characters were a little clichéd, the main pair was quite well developed. Historical detail is scattered throughout with a light hand and the style imparts a strong sense of place.
It took me a little while to customise myself to the liberal use of dialect in the writing, something that I am not usually fond of but that works here. (And I was surprised at just how many words and phrases are still in use today-at least in my house).
This is an unusual story, and a step apart from others of its genre.-Lynn

Tuesday, February 23

Don't Try This at Home - Kimberly Witherspoon & Andrew Friedman (eds)

Inspired by famed French food writer and chef Brillat- Savarin's oft quoted observation that a the true food lover is one who manages to "go beyond mere catastrophe and to salvage at least one golden moment from each meal," this slender volume (subtitled Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Most Famous Chefs) collects the purpose-written remembrances of thirty three well-known chefs and food writers from around the world.After a brief career synopsis, each brief section aims to tell a story of culinary tragedy that (hopefully) has a glimmer of gold, from Jamie Oliver, Neil Perry, Anthony Worrell Thompson, Heston Blumenthal, Anthony Bourdain, Bill Granger and others.
Unsurprisingly, some contributions succeed more strongly than others - I particularly liked food writer Rowley Leigh's horrific tale of kitchen violence, so much so that I'm interested in tracking down his other work, and chef Gabrielle Hamilton's distressing tale of a would-be chef who was incompetent and blithely unaware of it, and blind. I also liked chef David Burke's story of triumph snatched from the jaws of defeat thanks to large quantities of polystyrene, and cookbook writer Tamasin Day-Lewis's accounts of her first forays into cooking while at college (the grouse scene was especially distressing and hilarious). Other entries were less captivating, or served to show the writer in a good light, or illustrate an aspect of restaurant life that patrons rarely see.
I wouldn't buy Don't Try This at Home, and probably won't feel the need to re-borrow it, but I did enjoy the ride and will sadly soon be disembarking my exploration of culinary literature. - Alex

Monday, February 22

Stephan Chbosky: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Through a series of anonymous letters we get a glimpse into a year in the life of a high-school boy. We see his struggle to make new friends, deal with family crisis and cope with the intricacies of sex, drugs, violence and death as he establishes his place in the world.
This book has been compared favourably to The Catcher in the Rye and I can certainly see the similarities. This coming of age story is raw, honest and beautifully written.
The main character’s confusion as to what is socially acceptable amongst his peers and his difficulties navigating interpersonal relationships is wonderfully portrayed. His lamenting the loss of that intense delight in simple things as experienced by the very young awakens similar feelings in the reader.
Ever passive, the sense that something is just a little ‘off’ with this character pervades the story. The reveal at the end goes a long way towards explaining how he has become that way and gives the reader hope that he will learn to accept and grow into who he is.
Poignant and powerful, I highly recommend this novel.-Lynn

Thursday, February 18

D.L. Wilson: Unholy Grail-A Novel

While researching for her latest book a biblical scholar is shown part of a document supposedly written by James, brother of Jesus, shortly after the crucifixion. Her attempts to authenticate the document lead her to a secret sect within the Jesuit community. But no sooner has she uncovered these guardians of the secret gospel than they start turning up murdered bearing the marks of the stigmata.
Afraid for her life, and those of her informants, she rushes across Europe, accompanied by a Jesuit priest, in a race against time, hoping to find the proof she needs to authenticate the document before the crusading murderer catches up with her.
A series of convoluted coincidences lead her to the very heart of a secret so huge it could smash the foundations of Christianity entirely-if she can prove it to be true.
It is probably unfair to compare this book to the Da Vinci Code but such a comparison is inevitable. Not only does this book have a similar plot (an academic and a researcher racing to stay one step ahead of a fanatical religious assassin while unravelling clues that may prove a blood line of Christ) but it also has similar format (very short chapters, action happening on a number of different fronts, big on tell rather than show) and similar faults (wooden dialogue, two dimensional characters, info dumps).
It also had a few problems all of its own. One stand out is the equal emphasis given to every event in the story. What the characters had for lunch is presented with the same amount of detail as is the murderer planning his next hit. The main characters have the same disagreement (though differently worded) almost every time they speak about the document. And don’t get me started on the idea that a Christian who questions the literality of the Bible is mistaken in their beliefs.
But it would be shooting fish in a barrel to point out the problems with this work, much harder is to pin down why I finished it when I’ve walked away from others of similar quality. I think the thing this book does successfully is keep the reader from getting bored. The short chapters allow for rapid switching of action fronts, information is dumped in spoonfuls rather than by the bucket load and red herrings abound.
Had this book been published before Dan Brown’s breakout novel, it may very well have captured the imagination of religious conspiracy theorists with the same success as his work. Had the author taken time to develop his characters or concepts more they may have stood out from the crowd. As it is this has all been done before, a problem with the entire genre rather than just with this particular book.
Overall this book has a big bang of an opening that didn’t fulfil its promise.-Lynn

Wednesday, February 17

A Touch of Dead - Charlaine Harris

Subtitled The Sookie Stackhouse Stories, this is, unsurprisingly, a collection of short stories featuring Harris' most popular heroine, a telepathic barmaid lusted after by virtually every male supernatural creature who crosses her path. The series is now up to its ninth installment and the stories, written for various collections, span Sookie's character trajectory over that time. Harris provides a time frame, and presents them chronologically. I would think that elements of each plot would be less satisfying for a reader unfamiliar with Harris's universe but enough background is woven in that that new readers won't be wholly lost. Familiar readers may welcome the return of characters who are now dead or estranged, and though Harris writes in the introduction that she was unsure when first approached to write a Sookie short that she'd be able to her justice in a more abbreviated format, I think she sells herself a little short. The stories fit into the overall narrative relatively smoothly, without creating events that would make the novels incomplete.

"Fairy Dust" takes place after the fourth novel, Dead to the World - Sookie is asked to investigate the murder of Claudette, a fairy who works as an exotic dancer, by her surviving triplets, Claude (also a dancer) and Claudine, and through a combination of telepathy, clever questioning and her knowledge of the Fae, is able to identify the killer and the motive.

In "Dracula Night" regional vampire Sheriff Eric Northman is excited by the potential visit to his vamp club Fangtasia, on the night honoured by vampires across the globe, of legendary vampire and birthday boy Dracula. Though his second, Pam, is sceptical, Eric has invested in ultra rare and extremely costly bottled blood and spared no expensive for the occasion. Sookie is surprised to receive an invitation, and even more surprised that Dracula (apparently) exists - in a move akin to the traditional belief that you should set a place at the Passover table in case Elijah drops by, in vampire lore Dracula turns up at one of the parties celebrating his birthday every year, and this year Eric believes it will be his.

"One Word Answer" introduces Sookie to Mr Cataliades, a part-demon lawyer who works for Sophie-Anne Leclerq, the Queen of Louisiana - he brings Sookie an increasingly unwelcome pieces of news, starting with the fact that her cousin Hadley is dead, that she was a vampire, that she was the lover of the Queen, and that she was murdered. The final, and most unwelcome, item of information id that Sookie is expected to deal with Hadley's killer a fellow vamp Mr Cataliades has brought along for the trip. Sookie must negotiate a delicate path between not offending the Queen, failing to honour her cousin, protecting herself, and maintaining her reputation.

In "Lucky" Sookie and new friend (and witch) Amelia Broadway are asked by insurance agent Greg Aubert to investigate who's been breaking in to his office in the evenings and going through his papers. They discover that the breaker in is unrelated to other events, which have creates a wave of unintended ill-fortune for a number of people, inadvertently caused by Greg.

"Gift Wrap" is a holiday tale that brings Sookie a special Christmas surprise in the guise of an imperilled stranger - a surprise that is more of a gift than Sookie realised, and about which I can say no more without spoiling the delicate unfurling of events.

Like most anthologies I found A Touch of Dead somewhat mixed. I recognised the strongest story, "One Word Answer" and found I'd read it before. I quite liked "Gift Wrap" but was a little uncomfortable with the manipulation, albeit benign, involved, and felt the section spelling out Sookie's personality a little heavy-handed and obvious. All in all not a bad collection and an enjoyable enough way to spend an hour but I think I prefer the novels. - Alex

Tuesday, February 16

Jonathan Biggins: As It Were-A Satirical and Humorous Look Through History

This collection of short essays presents a fictionalised potted history of everything from the creation of the universe (In the beginning God created the committee and things went downhill from there) through to the destruction of the earth (leaving the continuance of the human race to a space station full of overly political correct personnel).
This collection of stories is best read with considerable breaks between instalments. The writer’s style is amusing in small doses but becomes tiresome very quickly. Though perhaps, that is just me. Humour is a very personal thing and written humour is quite difficult to carry off.
Like any collection the quality of the individual essays varied. I found some pieces very funny but much of it left me flat. This was all a bit too hit or miss for me and I can’t say I’ll be following up this particular author any time soon.-Lynn

Monday, February 15

Winning by Losing - Jillian Michaels

Subtitled Drop the Weight, Change Your Life, this is US Biggest Loser trainer Michaels’ take on weight loss and exercise. She takes the reader through a three-part process aimed at long-term weight loss. The first section, Self, looks at the psychological aspects of pre-preparation – how to set realistic goals, looking at why there’s a problem in the first place, how to set yourself up for success (removing temptation from the kitchen, for example), and an introduction to behaviour modification.
The second section, Science, explores different aspects of nutrition – the differences between various kinds of carbohydrates and why some are better than others, an overview of Glycemic Index and discussion of Glycemic Load Index, the difference between good and bat fats, translation of food labels, and hints on eating in and eating out.
The third section, Sweat, covers exercise – how muscles work and which is which, what kind of exercise to do, what intensity to work at and for how long, a series of exercises (complete with photos), and a workout schedule. Michaels believes that the best workout focuses on one group of muscles at a time, in a variety of ranges, with a two day break before concentrating on that area again. Her schedule begins with the front muscles – chest, shoulders, triceps and quads and the abdominal muscles – followed the next day by the dorsal and side muscles – back, biceps, hamstrings, glutes and oblique abdominals. The third day is a rest day, followed by front work, back work, a general cardio routine on the sixth day and a final day of rest before beginning again. There’s a lot of variety in her routine, and many of the pictured exercises have variations for beginners and/or advanced exercisers. The schedule runs for twelve weeks, increasing in intensity and duration over that time.
One of the things I found most interesting in Winning by Losing is the idea that there are three different metabolic types, depending on how quickly nutrients are broken down, and that your type influences what kind of nutritional balance you should have. Fast oxidisers, who have a rapid breakdown of carbs and consequently have rapid release of insulin, should eat more fat and protein, to slow carbohydrate release; slow oxidisers should do the opposite to avoid delaying glucose release and therefore energy to exercise; while balanced oxidisers should have a fairly even mix of fat, protein and carbohydrate.
How do you know what kind of oxidiser you are? Take the 48-item questionnaire, which covers topics as varied as your response to different foods before sleeping, how red meat makes you feel, and your response to insect bites. If nothing else, this exercise made me think a lot more, and in a different way, about food – I’d never previously considered whether I concentrate better after eating fruit and grains or red meat and fatty food, or whether certain foods made me feel depressed.
I’m apparently a balanced oxidiser – I should have a 40/30/30 mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat, and only have high purine foods like anchovies or organ meats in conjunction with low purine foods like tuna and low fat yoghurt. However, some of these answers were not quickly apparent, and I put Winning by Losing to one side for a couple of weeks while working out how I responded to different foods, somewhat losing the impetus to follow through in the process. There is a quicker way to find out what type you are – take 50mg of niacin (a B-group vitamin, so it won’t hurt you) on an empty stomach. If you flush immediately you’re likely a quick oxidiser, if not at all then slow, and somewhere in the middle means you’re balanced. Alternatively, take 1g of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) an hour for eight consecutive hours – balanced oxidisers feel less acidic, rapid oxidisers feel more acidic or get gut symptoms like gas or nausea, and slow oxidisers feel nothing.
I quite liked Michaels’ approach to calorie intake. In addition to basal metabolic rate she provides calculation to work out your active metabolic rate, which is a more refined and individualised picture of how many calories you need over a week to maintain your current weight – each pound (approximately 400g) of fat takes 3,500 calories expended to lose, so working out how much food depends on overall weight loss goals, and Michaels doesn’t prescribe a specific intake. She does, however, have two strong suggestions – never let daily calorie intake dip below 1,200 calories for women or 1,500 calories for men, or you risk tipping your body into survival mode, meaning it will hold on to stored energy and decrease metabolic rate. The second caveat is that you should vary your calorie intake every day, to avoid your body adjusting to your new program and slowing metabolism that way. Michaels recommends working out your weekly requirement (say 9,800 calories) then creating a daily diet that swings between a relative high and a low at or above the safe minimum. The example she gives is a weekly intake of 9,800 calories, divided into days of 1,200/1,500/1,200/1,600/ 1,200/1,400/1,700.
This all sounds like quite a bit of work, and I think I might skip that portion of the program. I also think I need to have a little more stamina, endurance, and upper body strength, along with smaller breasts and a more supportive sports bra, before doing her routine. I'm looking at something of a body makeover in the next few months, which is why there's been an uncharacteristic increase in the exercise books of late, and I may come back to Winning by Losing when I'm ready to make a commitment. Right now I suspect that if I started Michaels' program it'd be just another thing I failed - Alex

Sunday, February 14

The Scourge of God - SM Stirling

Rudi Mackenzie, tanist of the Clan Mackenzie, and his travelling companions are en route to the fabled island of Nantucket, and arduous cross-country trek made more difficult in this 22nd year after the Change by the increasing prevalence and ire of the Church Universal and Triumphant - in addition to being fanatical, invadingly territorial, intolerant and sexist, CUT members are virtually unstoppable in battle. Even when mortally wounded they manage to fight long after ordinary men would be gone.
Rudi's most immediate task is freeing his childhood anamchara Matilda, princess of the Portland Protectorate and her companion Odard Liu, along with Ingolf Vogeler, himself a target of the cutters. New friend Frederick Thurston decides to join them rather than fight with his brother Martin, in part because it's a fight that will surely end in fratricide.
As they reach Deseret the band come across and join forces with a Mormon group who are also resisting the CUT. Her beliefs are very different from his but Mackenzie member Edain, Rudi's closest childhood friend, falls for the Mormon leader's daughter Rebecca; the tragic result of an impossible task required to allow them to continue their information gathering and quest is made all the more tragic by this fledgling relationship, and foreshadows the rest of the series.
Injured in the resulting battle, Rudi is seriously injured - as his team find safety and shelter so he can recover, Rudi has a vision; the Norse god Odin appears to him and tells him that his life will be short, sacrificed willingly for his people.
The Scourge of God is complex and mythologic in scale as well as content - the synopsis above barely traces a third of the text, and doesn't even touch on the plot winding through the various communities back West, which intersect the questing narrative.
At the same time Stirling continues to explore different ways of dealing with the aftermath of the Change - as Rudi and his group travel zigzaggedly across the continental (former) US they encounter communities that have survived and adapted, including a few religious orders, and the remnants of isolated groups that failed.
Although I am more interested in what happens after Rudi reaches Nantucket, I've accepted that this is a questing trilogy, where the goal is unlikely to be reached until the very end, and in which the journey is at least as important as the destination. The characters do develop, and their relationships too, and even the endless fight scenes are grippingly portrayed. But I did find myself getting a little tired of the repetition, hoping we could occasionally cut to the chase. That said, I already have the next book on reserve, so I'm clearly ready for more! - Alex

The Emberverse novels of the change:
Dies the Fire
2. The Protector's War
3. A Meeting at Corvallis
4. The Sunrise Lands
The Scourge of God
The Sword of the Lady
7. The High King of Montival

Friday, February 12

James McGee: Ratcatcher

When a naval courier is mutilated and murdered by highwaymen, a Bow Street Runner is assigned to the case. Though a little trickier than his usual jobs, the case appears routine enough. That is until a colleague investigating a disappearance is found murdered and the runner takes over both the victim’s current case and the search for his killer.
The investigator soon finds himself following trails that leads all over London, both geographically and socially, weaving the three separate cases into a web of conspiracy. Napoleon’s agents are planning to assassinate the prince in the heart of London and if he can’t stop them then nobody can.
And that’s about as far as I can go without spoilers…
Balls, duels, London lowlife, sex and conspiracy-this historical action novel was, dare I say it, quite a romp.
The pace is fast and the plot twists not overly complex, making for easy reading. There is a bit of deux ex machina (often in the form of the hero’s old army friend, who has a reassuring tendency to turn up just as things are looking dire for our hero) that did put me off just a little. I wanted a hero who was smart enough not to get into those situations to begin with or who was clever enough to get out of them alone if he did.
I suspect this is the first book in a series and though I liked it well enough I’m not sure that I would seek out more of the same. It would very much depend on which tack individual instalments took-Lynn

Thursday, February 11

When Gods Die - CS Harris

On a summer's evening in the middle of Jun, 1811, the Prince Regent is delighted to find Guinevere Anglessey lying, waiting for him in Brighton's Royal Pavilion. Although she had rejected him previously, Prinny knew she'd come around, marriage being no barrier to his conquests.
Death, on the other hand, is a more difficult obstacle to overcome, and no sooner had Prinny discovered this fact than he was discovered by guests of the reception. Already somewhat unpopular among the common folk, and with his advisers fearing Great Britain may succumb to the same fate at recently revolutionised France, it is imperative that the heir to the throne be wholly cleared of suspicion, a task made more complicated by the fact that a dagger from Prinny's collection is protruding from her back. There is some concern that the pronouncement of the Regent's personal physicians that death was from natural causes will not allay rumours of his involvement.
Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, may have been more reluctant to become involved in the case had it not been for an additional mystery - clasped around the dead woman's neck was a unique piece of jewellery, a silver triskelion mounted on a dark disk of bluestone. A necklace with a legendary history, it has personal significance for St. Cyr - the last time he saw it was around the neck of his mother, some twenty years earlier, on the day she drowned at sea. Her body was never recovered, but there is no question that this is her necklace.
When Gods Die is a worthy sequel to Harris' magnificent What Angels Fear. In addition to a gripping central mystery the reader is also caught up by St. Cyr's search for he truth about his mother, which reveals information about his childhood and his parent's marriage, which in turns sheds light on his personality and character.
St. Cyr's lover, actress Kat Boleyn, resisted his push to a formalised relationship in What Angels Fear, and in When Gods Die we learn why that is. As is the case throughout the meticulously crafted, well researched and seamlessly written novel, that reason is a product of its time, and there is a magnificent atmosphere of the era.
I particularly liked the forensic science, which managed to be consistent with the period so far I could tell. It would be safe to read When Gods Die without having read its predecessor, as enough background is provided for relationships to make sense, but you would be doing yourself a disservice by not acquainting yourself with as much of Sebastian St. Cyr as you can manage. - Alex

Monday, February 8

Victoria Holt: Mistress of Mellyn

A penniless young gentlewoman takes a job as a governess in a lonely house on the Cornish coast. But, if the servants’ gossip is to be believed, the house has dark secrets and its enigmatic owner is only one of them. The man is insufferable and it is only her concern for her poor motherless charge that stops her from leaving and leads her to seek the truth behind multiple family tragedies.
Little does she realise that uncovering that truth may cost her life.
This book was exactly what one would expect of an old-school gothic romance.
Spooky old house-check.
Dark and mysterious man-check.
Unsolved mystery-check.
Heroine in danger-check.
Secondary characters with ambiguous motives-check.
Possible paranormal element-check.
It was all here. No wonder I loved this book.
I read somewhere that old style gothic romances are love stories between a woman and a house and in this case, at least, nothing could have been truer. A fan of the modern romance is bound to be disappointed. The hero barely rates a mention for the bulk of the story. To say he is two dimensional is to give him more substance than he possessed. He is present only insomuch as he is required to move the plot forward. The supernatural elements hinted at are, in the end, quite mundane, but I think, no less interesting for that.
Victoria Holt is the Grande Dame of gothic romance and this book is a prime example of how she became so. I just wish there was more of the same around today.-Lynn

Sunday, February 7

The Sunrise Lands - SM Stirling

It's twenty two years since the night when something altered physics, preventing gunpowder sparking or internal combustion, electricity, and steam power work. In the Willamette Valley a comfortable tension exists between the various communities that arose in the aftermath of the Change, and the future looks more secure than it has at any time since 1998.
That is until Ingolf Vogeler, a mercenary from Wisconsin, lands in Mackenzie territory. He says he's being pursued by Cutters, soldiers of a Montana-based church (the Church Universal Triumphant, or CUT), who have follow him - Ingolf is attacked that night and barely survives. When he's nursed back to health he relays a tale that begins with an expedition to Nantucket to garner pre-Change relics, and culminates in a powerful vision that he should "travel from sunrise to sunset and seek the Son of the Bear Who Rules. The Sword of the Lady waits for him."
Rudi Mackenzie, son of Juniper Mackenzie, head of the Clan, and Bearkiller the late Mike Havel, was prophesised to be the Lady's Sword. He sets off on a journey to Nantucket to seek the Sword of the Lady, accompanied by Ingolf, close friend Edain Aylward, and twins Mary and Ritva (Dunedain rangers); they are soon join by Matilda, the daughter of Portland Protectorate Association regent Sandra Arminger, her guard Odard Liu, Odard's servant Alex, and Father Ignatius, a senior priest.
Unsuspecting readers such as I might expect the journey to cover the length of the novel, but they would be mistaken. By the end of The Sunrise Lands, though much has changed, the group has travelled only as far as Boise. Indeed, like the Tolkien classic that colours many aspects of this series, the quest will cover all three of this second Emberverse trilogy.
The writing is as dense and textured as the originals, and the universe Stirling has created is increasingly fascinating. Of particular interest, and an enduring these thus far, is the influence a leader has on his or her people - the structure and driving force behind each of these diverse groups is intrinsically tied with the ethos of their creators, then taken in a direction that is both unexpected and consistent. There are a couple of moments when this is made explicit in the text like, for example, when Juniper Mackenzie explains that the kilts weren't her idea, and that the brogue adopted half mockingly by her peers has been unquestioningly incorporated into the next generation's speech patterns.
I was initially a little dissatisfied with The Sunrise Lands because, as in the very different A Question of Upbringing, I had a different narrative expectation. And, like my encounter with Powell, I've come to see that my expectation got in the way of my enjoyment of the reading. In fact, so absorbed was I that before I even finished The Sunrise Lands I borrowed the second in the new trilogy. - Alex

The Emberverse novels of the change:
Dies the Fire
2. The Protector's War
3. A Meeting at Corvallis
4. The Sunrise Lands
The Scourge of God
The Sword of the Lady
7. The High King of Montival

Saturday, February 6

Julie Kenner: Carpe Demon

A retired demon hunter suddenly finds herself back on active duty when a spate of demon attacks occur in her, hitherto, demon-free small town.
Fifteen years out of the game have hardly left her in peak condition and with a two year old still in nappies, a teenaged daughter and husband with an eye on political office, the last thing she has time for is demon hunting.
But with the help of her best friend and an elderly hunter of questionable sanity, she manages to take on her old role without letting her family know what she’s up to.
And though it’s a close thing, she does manage to save the day.
This was a refreshing change from what has become the norm of this genre. Unlike many of her compatriots this demon hunter has no magical powers, relying on knowledge and training to do her demon destroying thing. Neither is she young, fit and oversexed. Instead she’s middle-aged, exhausted by her daily to-do list and has priorities other than herself. A situation that undoubtedly a lot of readers will relate to.
The writing is well paced and has just the right amount and style of humour to be funny without tripping over into ridiculous.
Though the heroine is a little slow to pick up on signs the red herrings are believable. I spotted the twist coming but even so was delighted Kenner didn’t go down the obvious track.
This book is the first in a series and though I enjoyed it I think it could grow old very quickly so I would suggest a long gap between instalments.-Lynn

Click here for Alex's review of Carpe Demon.

Friday, February 5

The Year We Disappeared - Cylin and John Busby

At the end of the long, hot summer of 1979, police officer John Cylin was shot in the face while on his way to work. Hospitalised for months and facing years of reconstructive surgery, JOhn quickly realised it was an attempted murder and suspected a local tough. His family was under police protection, but John was sure that his department was corrupt, and that the arsonist was being fed information from one or more of his colleagues. When the town protested the ongoing cost of protecting his family in the face of no charges, the Busby's vanished.
Alternating authors, the memoir aims to add to straight forward true crime by combining John's fairly dispassionate report with the impact of Cylin's recollections as a child - she was nine at the time of the shooting.
Every review I've read since reading the Year We Disappeared has been positive and full of praise - for example:
It's hard-hitting and very, very tense. Neither Busby shrinks from revealing their darkest moments or innermost thoughts and so this book has absolutely immediate insight. Nothing about this year in the family's life was exciting or special. It was all about fear, anger, and loss. - honest, unflinching, and revelatory. It's graphic and painful to read ... heartily recommend

I am clearly heartless and alone, because I found The Year We Disappeared underwhelming. In fairness to the book, I did read it in store, after night duty, so it didn't get its best reading from me. That said, even though I knew it discussed real events and real people, I just wasn't gripped by the writing or the events. I don't know why, either - in addition to the shooting itself there's the undeniable and increasingly obvious corruption, the wierd lack of support from the town and from friends and family, and the premise is compelling. Yet something about the writing, which read a lot like a therapeutic exercise, didn't capture my attention, and the end was unsatisfactory. I know that this is because there never was a satisfactory resolution - the statue of limitations has expired without so much as an arrest, let alone conviction, but that in itself could have been stronger. Eh - Alex

Thursday, February 4

This Charming Man - Marian Keyes

When charming Irish politician Paddy de Courcy's engagement is announced, five women are particularly affected - his long-time girlfriend Lola, journalist Grace, Grace's sister Marnie (whose first lover was Paddy), and fiancée Alicia. Through these women we learn the secrets of Paddy's life, and the dark secret that binds them.
But I have no idea what that dark secret may be, because I couldn't make it more than half way though Lola's section, let alone to Alicia. This was partly because of the deeply angsty diary entries that comprise Lola's perspective (oh! the tragedy! he's engaged to another and won't return my calls! even if I make over a hundred a day! everything is life is terrible! and I would take him back in a moment even though he's a cheating bastard who would never be seen in public with me and who told me she was just a friend). And it was partly because of the annoyance of having Lola leave out sentence parts when reporting speech, like
"Could make you a little sandwich. Will see what's in fridge." or:

"Not!" Bridie dismissed it with a flourish of her hand. "I know all that goes on. Situation in Milan doesn't require his presence. I suspect he has his eye on an Italian lady. Will not facilitate his philandering."

This habit became increasingly grating as I read on, and finally undid me to the point where I pout this Charming Man to one side and just couldn't pick it back up. - Alex

Wednesday, February 3

Libba Bray: A Great and Terrible Beauty

On the death of her mother, a young girl is sent from the life she knows in India to the English boarding school her mother attended as a child. Her reception there isn’t warm and settling in isn’t made any easier by the need to hide her ‘visions’ which tend to come true.
When she covers for the school’s social leader the two become friends and she finds herself part of a secret society accessing supernatural powers. All is well to start, suddenly she sees a future other than the one Victorian society dictates for her and her friends, but the magic has a dark side and she soon discovers it is her destiny to rebalance this magical world.
This book is set in 1895 and the anachronistic first line almost had me putting it down but I’m glad I didn’t. Other than the occasional linguistic time slips (when the characters have a tendency to sound like modern 16 year olds) the story depicts life in this age nicely.
The social structure of the school and the attitude of its ruling student elite were very well portrayed. There is strong undercurrent of frustration at predetermined futures, repressed sexuality, the stress of secrets kept in order for the individuals to appear as society expects them to and fear of the consequences of being found out.
While I spotted the main twist well in advance it didn’t decrease my enjoyment of the book so much as pull me in that little bit more. And I’m not sure if my anticipation of certain events was a function of pure paranoia on my part or an ability to see what the character’s naivety hid from them (it is, after all, a long time since I was a member of the young adult target audience).
This story could stand alone but it is the first of a trilogy and I will most definitely be reading the rest.-Lynn.

Tuesday, February 2

A Buyer's Market - Anthony Powell

In the second chapter of A Dance to the Music of Time we pick up with narrator Nick Jenkins, who has finished his education and is now a member of adult society. In addition to the reappearance of familiar characters like Templer, Stringham and the ubiquitous (and no more likable) Windmerpool, we meet a new cast. The first of these, introduced in the first sentence, is unsuccessful artist and old family acquaintance Mr E. Bosworth Deacon, brought to mind many years later by Jenkins' seeing his work at an auction.
In the style of the series, Jenkins then reflects on his interactions with Deacon, from a chance meeting in Paris as an adolescent, to seeing his work half-hidden at the home of Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, cousin of Jenkin's school friend Peter Goring. And this takes us through a series of debutante balls and a dance with an assortment of characters, threaded through with Deacon and his rather disreputable lady friend Gypsy Jones (who dallies with both Windmerpool and Jenkins, though at different times).
Perhaps because I had a better idea of what to expect, I found I quite enjoyed A Buyer's Market, certainly more than A Question of Upbringing - the key is not to expect a traditional narrative with a plot, or the introduction and explanation of characters. The narrative style is instead more like a stream of consciousness, where one thing reminds our guide of another. Like the title suggests, the reader is danced in a complicated by seemingly random (though planned) pattern, interacting with and parting from various people new and familiar.
It's quite difficult to extract a part from the whole to give a flavour of the writing, as it's all so intricately intertwined. I doubt I'll be able to keep track of the vast cast, particularly as on a first reading there's no way to tell who will recur or be important and who is there as an extra. I now understand why repeated readings would increase the enjoyment of the series, as there are certainly things already that I'd pick up differently from both the first books on a second encounter.
I had a better sense of the comedy threaded through the writing this time, as well as the nuances in the writing, and Widmerpool's heavy presence more strongly indicated his importance in the overall narrative. We also learn a little more about Jenkins, those these glimpses are usually incidental and used to illustrate the character of others - for example, Jenkins gives Widmerpool his work address (not in the City), certain he'll never call by, to which Widmerpool
made some formal enquiries about the firm, and seemed rather disapproving of the nature of the business.
'Who exactly buys "art books"?'

We are, however, left with very clear impressions of how Jenkins sees those around him, particularly potential rivals for the women he (so far quite ineptly) fancies.
There's no question of the writing being a product of both its class and time (both when the novels are set - A Buyer's Market apparently takes place in 1928/29 - and when they were written - copyrighted 1952), as the terms "Jewess" and "negro" and the line "a plump man with a hooked nose and black curly hair, perhaps an Oriental" make clear, quite apart from the minimal role of women. The easy, familiar references to classical art and literature reminded me of Stephen Fry's similar sensibility, and the contrast between this and contemporary novels set in the past was interesting.
I think I'll enjoy my self-imposed task of finishing the series over the year more than I expected, but I doubt I'll preempt a month and read the next installment sooner than planned. - Alex

Monday, February 1

David Blair (ed): Gothic Short Stories

This is a collection of 20 Gothic stories covering the spectrum from the supernatural through insanity to just plain violent horror. It includes both works by famous authors (Poe, Dickens, Hawthorne) and gems from lesser known writers. It is well annotated with explanations of references unfamiliar to a modern reader and a short biography of each author’s writing life.
These Gothic tales are classics. They illustrate the development of the genre from the eighteenth through to the early twentieth century. Like any anthology there were some stories that appealed to me more than others but I believe each earned its place in this collection.
I enjoyed the stories not only for their own sake but also recognising them as the basis of many modern stories enabled me to see how individual tales could be adopted and grown.
A well selected and presented collection I would recommend to those with an interest in Gothic Literature.-Lynn