Wednesday, March 31

When Men Become Gods - Stephen Singular

The subtitle tells you all you need to know: Mormon Polygamist Warren Jeffs, His Cult of Fear, and the Women Who Fought Back. Indeed, When Men Become Gods is the well researched story of how a community of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (carefully distinguished from the official LDS church) developed over decades and was fragmented by a combination of legal reform, police work, good luck and the tenacity of women who left the compound and sought assistance.The first half of When Men Become Gods focuses on the history of FLDS communities, from the revelations of the angel Moroni to LDS founder Joseph Smith and his subsequent persecution (which itself contributed to the growth of the religion) to the outlawing of plural marriage, only tokenistically applied in regions where it prevails, and the emergence of fundamentalists branches from the officially recognised religion. Singular then traces the history of this branch, including the circumstances that contributed to Warren Jeffs' personality, his gradual takeover of power, and the consequences for his community.
I know that the way Big Love (an HBO series about an LDS family that includes one husband, four wives and a number of children) depicts plural marriage is considerably more egalitarian and palatable than the reality of plural marriage for many of these women, a note Singular touches on several times. However, it's in part due to that series, which also shows small communities like Jeffs', that drew me to this text when I came across it by accident.
And it was this aspect that I found the most interesting - how the culture arose, what it's like for the people (particularly girls) growing up within it, what happens to those who don't fit, and how sustainable it is. After all, if you start with roughly equal numbers of male and female children but allocate spouses unevenly, you have to have a whole lot of leftover boys, and I'd have liked to know more about these Lost Boys.
I found myself far less interested when Singular turned to the chase, when Jeffs became a fugitive, abetted by his parishioners, the investigation, and the subsequent trial. It's not that I'm unimpressed with the effort, nor the clear bravery shown by those young women who came forward and testified against the head of their church. It's just that I found that part less absorbing than the sociological component - perhaps an unavoidable consequence of my academic leanings.
Some of the writing was a little breathless, and I found the odd description (like that of PI Gary Engels on p. 118) unnecessarily detailed, but overall I found When Men Become Gods accessible and engaging. I would have liked a little more examination of internal contradictions, like the necessity of government support in maintaining the financial viability of this group and the effect of having so many FLDS-affiliated members in local law enforcement (both areas touched on in the book), but in fairness that's not the aim of the writing. - Alex

Tuesday, March 30

In Search of Perfection - Heston Blumenthal

Notorious, experimental chef Heston Blumenthal, renown for creations like snail porridge and bacon & egg ice-cream, has turned his hand to British classics, trying to create the most sublime versions - with a twist.
His brief for the series that inspired this book was to first discover what dishes constitute Britain's favourites (one for each of the eight episodes), then uncover the origin and essence of each meal, before creating a dish that is the synthesis of the original. The selected concoctions are: roast chicken and potatoes, pizza, bangers & mash, steak, spaghetti bolognese, fish & chips, Black Forest gateau and treacle tart & ice cream.
Those unfamiliar with Blumenthal's work could be forgiven for thinking that this makes for rather a slender cookbook, but that the recipes would be delicious and easy. They'd be right on only one count - I'm sure the dishes are divine.
Each creation takes around 40 pages (including lavish photos) to cover, encompassing the history of not only the dish but also many of its components (the introduction of potatoes to the Old World, controversy over the first country to create noodles), discovery of what elements are essential and what can be altered while still retaining a sense of the original (texture is an integral part of bolognese sauce, spaghetti cannot be replaced by fettuccine), and sourcing the best recipes and ingredients.
I'd love to have tried some of these dishes, but they're so labour intensive that it would have to be for something really special, and in some cases I can't think of an event special enough to warrant it - for example, the ice cream in the last dish required 1kg of dry ice, which is only available in quantities of 10kg or more.
I learned many interesting things while reading this book, not least of which was that Australia and the US lead the world (and certainly the UK) in beef labelling and quality. I think a trip to one of Blumenthal's restaurants may feature in my next trip to the UK, currently scheduled for September 2011. And I suspect my own cooking will remain relatively prosaic, but I enjoyed the food porn while it lasted - Alex

Monday, March 29

Thief - Brian James

Elizabeth is a foster child in New York – she and her foster sister Alexi live with and work for Sandra, who ensures they generate an income for her. If they don’t steal enough money, Sandra makes their lives hell.
None of this is anything Elizabeth gives much thought to – it’s just the way things are. Until Sandra takes in Dune. She doesn’t like boys – they’re clumsy, and can’t fade innocuously into the background like girls can, significantly reducing their usefulness as thieves. But Sandra’s stuck, and when Dune enters the house everything starts to change; in teaching Dune abut her life, Elizabeth begins to wonder about it herself.
I wanted to like this YA novel, but just didn’t engage with it. I kept reading, hoping something more would emerge, but although the topic is interesting and the setting great, I wasn’t captured by the characters, their plight, or invested in the outcome. - Alex

Sunday, March 28

The Runaway Quilt - Jennifer Chiaverini

When Sylvia Compton, owner of Elm Creek Manor and lifelong quilter, is shown a quilt that may have been part of the Underground Railway, she's spurred to search through the vast attic for evidence that, as family legend suggests, her family were part of the anti-slavery journey. Though evidence suggests that the Log Cabin pattern, long believed to signal willingness to harbour runaway slaves, actually evolved after the Civil War, Sylvia's keen to find a quilt supporting her more romantic beliefs.
When she finds not only a couple of truly old quilts but also the diary of Gerda, Elm Creek patriarch Hans' spinster sister, Sylvia's a little disappointed - she had hoped for something from his wife Anneke who, according to family lore, played an integral part. Instead Sylvia learns some painful truths about her family, and is more immersed in and connected to the past than she realised.
The fourth book in the Elm Creek Quilts series takes us back to the Manor, and once again shows how domestic work both binds women and families together, and pushes them apart. The writing is as crisp and evocative as previously, while the plot is unique and textured - both Gerda's journals and Sylvia's responses are genuine and involving, and the layering of truths with family lore, a natural preference to project oneself in the best light, and the blurring distortion of history are well depicted, so that the contrast between Sylvia's certain knowledge and Gerda's near-contemporaneous recollections is interesting and believable.
Since reading about Harriet Tubman when a child, I've been interested in this time in American history, and I really liked the mingling of past with present, as the work of women speaks to them over time. Runaway Quilt is a powerful, absorbing novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. The Lost Quilter (book fourteen in the series) is a companion piece to The Runway Quilt - Alex

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

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

Saturday, March 27

Peter Blake & Paul S Blezard: The Arcadian Cipher

From the back of the book-
This is the story of a quest, a search for a place that is not meant to exist. The elect who have been allowed to share its secret across the centuries have employed codes, secret signs, mysterious writings and works of art to ensure its location and significance e remains concealed from the uninitiated….
Fascinated by ancient history, esoteric writings and the paintings of the greatest Renaissance masters, art historian Peter Blake has watched as others have made guesses as to the codes and meanings that are embedded in them. But from the recurrent themes, symbolism and patterns Peter has discerned, he reaches quite different conclusions from those grasped at by other researchers. Not least, he has uncovered an Arcadian hillside tomb, untouched for hundreds of years.
If the clues that have led him along his trail are right, this could be the final resting-place of two of the most significant characters in the Bible.

Many books claim to have uncovered Christianity’s Greatest Secret and most of them rehash the same old theories based on the same patchwork of Biblical writings, historical record and creative guesswork, resulting in no objective ‘truth’ or convincing evidence being presented in support of, what I have come to think of as Christianity’s Worst Kept Secret.
Still these particular works hold an inexplicable fascination for me and I keep reading in hope that one day one will deliver on its promise. Sadly for me this wasn’t to be the day.
These authors focus their arguments on supposed clues that can be found in various famous works of art. Not a particularly new idea but one that has been worked a little less than others.
They go to some lengths to convince the reader that the diagrams they see actually exist within the paintings but I was not won over. I do believe that they see the various clues they claim to, but only because they are looking for them. Any five points could be joined together to form a pentagram, just as any four could make a square or six a hexagon. In spite of their arguments the points chosen seemed fairly arbitrary to me.
Likewise the rescaling and laying of the patterns found over a map to discover points and lines within the paintings match up with long standing natural features on the ground. Perhaps I don’t entirely understand the methodology used but I’m sure those same patterns could have been laid over almost any map and if the scale was right they would magically match up with other natural features.
While I can’t deny that the authors did, at some point, discover something, and that the something might have been used as a pair of tombs in the distant past, their conclusions left a lot of doubt in my mind.
There may very well be visual codes hidden within great art works but I am not convinced that those codes have been correctly uncovered here.-Lynn

Friday, March 26

The Paradox of Choice - Barry Schwartz

Subtitled Why More is Less: How the Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction, this interesting text explores the common perception that more choice equals more freedom, and finds that the converse is true.
Schwartz opens with the incident that first alerted him to this counter-intuitive idea, jeans shopping. This was a task he thought relatively straight forward, but he soon discovered that, since the last time he bought a pair of 'just regular' jeans, the world of denim pants had expanded, offering him a vast variety of colours, lengths, closures, treatments (acid wash, stone wash...) and six types of fit from fitted to extra baggy. What was once a five minute purchase had become a task that occupied not only significantly more time but also a elicited a lot of concern where once there was none, including anxiety about making the wrong choice.
And it's this aspect that Schwartz discusses the most. The more choice we have, he says, the greater the likelihood that we'll be paralysed by fear of picking the wrong, or perhaps least good, option. And experiments show that the more options there are to choose from the less likely we are to make a decision - shoppers given a choice of six types of jam are far more likely to buy some that those confronted with twenty four varieties.
This disparity between what we think we want and what we actually want runs across the board - though up to 65% of people say they'd want to pick their own cancer treatment, more than 88% leave treatment modalities to their physician, while doctors faced with choosing between two medications or referring to a specialist are twice as likely to make a referral as doctors asked to chose between one medication or referral.
There are too many really interesting facts raised in this book for me to do them justice in this review. So my take home message - you can save yourself a lot of stress by deciding that sometimes 'good enough' is better than hunting until you find 'the best' regardless of whether that's a jumper, a restaurant or a house; making rules that limit some of your choices (eg only go to two shops when looking for crockery, only drink one glass of wine at dinner) will streamline your life; avoid reversible decisions (like being able to return items to shops) because that increases your potential for regret; work out what decisions are important to you (where to work, who to spend time with, for example) and what aren't (which kind of pasta to buy, where to have dinner tonight) then focus on those choices; be grateful for and appreciate what you have instead of thinking about what you don't; choose to regret less often; be aware that we quickly adapt to things so that something that brought up great pleasure rapidly becomes taken for granted and less pleasurable.
I've yet to out these changes into action but look forward to making them part of my life - Alex

Thursday, March 25

Flashforward – Robert J Sawyer

On April 21st 2009, particle physicist Lloyd Simcoe and his partner Theo Procopides initiated an experiment two years in the making – they were attempting to collide two particles in order to recreate for a nanosecond the power that initiated the Big Bang. Instead they, and everyone inside the Large Hadron Collider passed out for almost two minutes. For Lloyd the time passed with an extraordinarily vivid and disturbing hallucination of being in bed with an elderly woman; he awoke as abruptly as he’d passed out, to discover injuries ranging from bloody noses to limb fractures.
Only when his fiancée, engineer Michiko Komura, rang the ambulance service, she brought back devastating news. Everyone in Geneva had also been affected, and there was no knowing how many were dead. Over the next few hours it became evident that every conscious person on earth had lost consciousness for almost two minutes, and most of them had also experienced vivid hallucinations.
It didn’t take people long to realise that there was consistency between hallucinations. And from there to discover that, rather than hallucinations, the experiences were glimpses of a future twenty one and a half years into the future. For Theo, who had no hallucination but saw only blackness for the two minute event, this discovery is devastating – if quickly becomes evident that those who saw nothing have died in the intervening time. And when a woman calls him from Johannesburg to say that her vision included reading a newspaper account of his murder, Theo is filled with purpose. He is determined to find his killer and prevent his death.
Now a television series, Flashforward is one of Sawyer’s most compelling novels. While it retains many of his trademark elements, including crystalline, accessible writing, and meta themes about spirituality, the nature of consciousness, and explorations of interpersonal relationships, Flashforward is also a mystery, an examination of obsession and self preservation, and a confronting picture of how future knowledge affects the present.
First published in 1999, Sawyer includes a potted history of the future that reminded me of Halperin’s predictions – it includes the fate of the British royal family (Elizabeth II dies in 2017, the throne bypasses a now-balmy Prince Charles, and is renounced by Prince William, forcing parliament to dissolve the monarchy), and that the US President in 2030 is black, with a woman to yet hold the most powerful position on earth (an interesting forecast nine years before Barak Obama’s election success), among other information ranging from ecological and conservation data to the state of science and fashion.
I stopped watching the series a couple of episodes in, in no small part because of the deviation in the premise from the novel, which I fondly remembered but had been unable to find and re read (thanks again to the marvellous Boorondara library service). Having read it again I think I’d now be interested in seeing how the adaptation plays out, but suspect it won’t be as strong and involving as the novel that inspired it – Alex

Wednesday, March 24

The Mammoth Book of Women’s Erotic Fantasies – Sonia Florens (Ed)

In 1973 Nancy Friday published a groundbreaking text, My Secret Garden, a collection of women’s sexual fantasies that revealed women could be as daring, surprising and explicit as men. Over the next two decades she followed this up with three more collections, two of women's fantasies and one of men's. In all four cases the fantasies were presented thematically, biographical data was provided (including age), there was often an attempt by the narrators to explain or analyse their fantasies, and sections were interspersed with Friday’s analysis of the fantasies and fantasists.
This noughties revisit to the ground explored by Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking books skips straight over the clinical, objective phsychological analysis and interpretation of the writing and goes straight to the good stuff. The women represented come from Canada, the US, England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Germany and Puerto Rico, with no further biographical information given.
Rather than the somewhat brief and fragmented scenes narrated by Friday’s research participants, that sometimes included more than one scenario, or which described an outline of the fantasy rather than the scene itself, these women also seem less compelled to explain or justify their fantasies, and the scenarios are lovingly and completely described. In most cases each entry runs over eight pages, with one as few as six, and a few going for more than a dozen pages.
While themes including light sadomasochism, domination, lesbianism, power play, men with men, exhibitionism, and group sex are present, the more taboos elements present in Friday’s collections (including bestiality, rape, underage and incest fantasies) are absent from this more mainstream work. There is, however, likely to be something for most people, and I certainly found a few of the works particularly well written, well imagined and effective. – Alex

Tuesday, March 23

Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMahon

Rhonda Farr was hypnotised by the scene before her, or at least that’s what she told herself later. How else could she explain watching a six-foot rabbit (or at least, a man in a rabbit costume) hop up to Trudy Florruci’s car, approach Trudy’s daughter, escort Ernie into a gold VW bug and drive away?
Distraught at her inaction, Rhonda involves herself in the subsequent investigation, and the more she sees the more strongly she’s reminded of the disappearance of another young girl from the small town of Pike’s Crossing, her childhood best friend Lizzy, and the more she thinks about that summer, viewing events through the filter of youth, and complicated by her still unrequited feelings for Lizzy’s brother Peter.
While the hunt for Ernie shapes and propels the plot, it is many ways a secondary storyline, as McMahon explores Rhonda’s personality, in many ways stunted, her life unexamined and on hold without her realising. This unique and interesting novel combines mystery with a more literary pastiche of past and present, as Rhonda uncovers truths about herself, about those closest to her, and as she begins to fear that there’s nobody she can truly trust.
The writing is certainly accessible, but though not an overtly heavy or ponderous book, Island of Lost Girls is far from light reading. I really liked McMahon’s voice and her interweaving of past and present. She was able to reveal truths to the adult eyes of readers that could be easily unseen by a child and by inattentive adults, and the emergence of facts if oblique and covert, making the reading experience rewarding. I anticipate tracking down her other works - Alex

Sunday, March 21

The Cross-Country Quilters – Jennifer Chiaverini

When five women meet for the first time at Elm Creek Manor they anticipate a week of quilting - consolidation for some of them, a new learning experience for others. What they don't expect is that over the next twelve months they'll make lasting friendships, co-create a work of art, and all change their lives.
Julia is an aging actor in a world where age spells the end of her career. Used to the backstabbing and gossip of Hollywood, Julia cannot let anyone know her agent misled the producers of her only forthcoming project - a last ditch role in the promising project of a new writer means she has to learn how to quilt, and look as though she's been doing it all her life.
Megan has long loved quilting, though not as much as she loved her husband. His abandonment of her has been less painful that its affects on their son, and she's sworn off love for good.
Donna first met Megan through an online quilting group - now close confidants, she's both excited and anxious to meet her friend for the first time. But her anticipation of this week at Elm Creek Manor has been tempered by her fears for the daughter she raised to be independent and self-sufficient - nineteen year old Lindsay has gone from being one of the promising students of her freshman class to deciding to drop out in favour of marrying her boyfriend. Donna doesn't know him very well, but judging by his affect of her daughter, combined with her age and willingness to abandon a future of her own, she had grave concerns.
Grace is a noted quilter, interested in the history of the craft and renown for her own work. But she hasn't created anything new in over a year and a half - she says that her muse has fled, but the truth is far more sinister and, to Grace, too shameful to share even with her friends.
Vinnie has attended Elm Creek Manor every year, for a week around her birthday. The grand matriarch of a large family, she enjoys the time away from her beloved family, but is too used to meddling in the lives of her kin to abandon the habit on holiday.
The third in the Elm Creek Quilts series, The Cross-Country Quilters takes us a little away from the women running the Manor. The new characters and the interlaced plot are just as rewarding, however, and though a couple of the twists were unsurprising the journey itself is no less enjoyable for that.
I really like this series, and have to confess that I've already read the fourth in the series, which will be reviewed about a week from this entry - the domestic setting encompasses big themes and strong women, with meticulously crafted characters. The year is early but Chiaverini's already looking promising for my favourite newly encountered author of the year - Alex

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

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

Saturday, March 20

Along for the Ride – Sarah Dressen

Auden has always known what her parents expect from her – older brother Hollis is wild and untamed, but Auden is reliable and well behaved, academically minded and somber, making no demands on her remarried father and presenting no competition for her flirtatious mother who holds soirees with her (male) undergraduates. When a confluence of events causes Auden to act spontaneously, she finds herself staying with her father, annoyingly buoyant stepmother Heidi, and baby half-sister Thisbe for the summer. In the process she learns more than she thought possible, about her parents, her brother and herself, and about an enigmatic and attractive local boy.
There’s something enchanting about Dressen’s writing – she beautifully captures the voice of adolescent girls and combines this with a relatable but fresh plot that incorporates coming of age with transformation through self-realisation. Auden manages, in the space of a few months, something that many of us never manage – being able to see her parents as individuals, separate from their parental roles, flawed and human, and in the process detach from a lifetime of feeling responsible for them.
I think I could find it easy to glut on Dressen’s work, and am therefore resisting the urge to immediately go out and borrow more novels until I need a lift from a morass of less engaging and uplifting work - Alex

Wednesday, March 17

Phil Rickman: The Smile of a Ghost

When a young boy dies falling from the tower of a ruined castle the question of accident or suicide is raised. But his recently retired police detective uncle thinks neither to be the case. He suspects something a lot more sinister and confides the fact to his priest.
Along with gang related violence on the estate where the boy lived, the child’s fascination with history and involvement with ghost walks, a death obsessed singing star had befriended him shortly before his fall and a number of her goth fans have copied his example and leapt off the tower since.
The priest, facing an uncertain future herself, becomes entangled in the case. Slowly she unravels the bizarre web in which the boy had inadvertently become involved. Setting a number of spirits to rest in the process.
The Smile of a Ghost was a welcome return to form for Rickman after the not quite up to par Prayer of the Night Shepherd.
The main characters and their relationships to each other continue to grow and develop realistically without becoming too predictable. The primary plot was delightfully complex without becoming unnecessarily complicated. I particularly liked the secondary plot which I found by turns to be believably frustrating for the heroine and amusing in its likelihood.
I am very happy to see this series is nowhere near running out of steam and look forward to reading the next instalment.-Lynn

Tuesday, March 16

Round Robin - Jennifer Chiaverini

Elm Creek Manor has become known as a great retreat for quilters new and experienced - women come from all around the US to spend a week focusing on technique, reinvigorating their creativity, and making friends with like minded new friends. And the enterprise has spelled success for the Elm Creek Quilters, who pitch in as teachers for various sessions.
the women decide to make a Round Robin quilt - each woman contributes to the boarder of a central piece. And as each member of the group works on her piece her life significantly changes. From infidelity to a change in relationship with a son, from illness to conflict between mothers and daughters, the quilt reflects the women's lives.
The Quilter's Apprentice, the first book in this series, had its share of conflict, but most of that centred around Sylvia Compton, who fell out first with her town and then with her sister and sister-in-law, in the years of the Second World War. In Round Robin the other women's rocky relationships are exposed, revealing long hidden truths, assumptions and hurts.
Chiaverini portrays these layered emotions and events beautifully, no better than in the relationship between Sarah and her mother - the past is very present, not only for Sarah who, like many adult children, is holding on to slights from her adolescence and childhood, but also for Carol. We see how, in her determination not to be her mother, Carol becomes a different kind of unsatisfactory mother and how, in her eagerness to spare her child the pain she endured, she has driven her daughter away by imposing over her son-in-law a picture of her husband.
This is a very fine, readable, accessible but complex novel that manages to satisfy and warm. Not everything is resolved, not everything ends harmoniously, but I came away from Round Robin not only at peace but also filled with resolution to approach my own familial relationships with more honesty. - Alex

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

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

Monday, March 15

Absolute Zero - Helen Cresswell

The Bagthorpes are back, in full competition mode - when Uncle Parker wins a Carribean family holiday by creating a fairly average advertising jingle it spurs the rest of the family into a frenzy of competition entering. The most avid, yet secretive, is Henry, who thinks being seen to enter competitions would reduce his patriarchal standing but who cannot bear that his brother-in-law won a prize using words - he, after all, is a BBC scriptwriter, and if anyone should win a wordsmithing prize it should be he.
Within days the Bagthorpe home is filled with magazines, specialty products and, to Mrs Fosdyke's great distress, label-less tins, in scenes that reminded me of the little I've read on serious competition entering. The already chaotic situation is helped not at all by the presence of Daisy, a strong-willed and very special child who has apparently outgrown her pyromaniachal phase.
Absolute Zero is genuinely funny, thanks to both the situations (some of the food creations Mrs Fosdyke manages, thanks to the unlabelled cans, are quite distressing - oxtail trifle, anyone?) and Cresswell's meticulous characterisations. Each family member is so utterly themselves that it's almost impossible to see any other possible outcome, which extends all the way to the stunning, televised finale. - Alex

Saturday, March 13

Boyfriend in a Dress - Louise Kean

Nicola and Charlie have been together since they met in the US during a student exchange program - both from the UK, they bonded over similarities and didn't really notice the differences. Though they both recognise it - they live in separate apartments, and she turns a bling eye to his indiscreet indiscretions - neither is prepared to confront their relationship issues. Well, until Nicola discovers Charlie at a lap dancing bar with a group of mates - she went there for a laugh, but he seems quite serious, lied to her, and humiliated her in front of her friends.
Determined to end it, she arrives home one afternoon, only to find Charlie crying and wearing her blue lycra dress. Torn between pity, dispair and affection for what they used to have, Nicola takes Charlie away from London so he can sort himself out.
Although I finished Boyfriend in a Dress, I cannot tell you why. I found both Charlie and Nicola profoundly irritating - there was no softness or affection, and I have no idea why they got together in the first place, let alone stayed together. The plot meandered in a pointless (rather than scenic) way, and the frequent flashbacks to America were overblown and unsubtle. Nicola's narration was waspish and ascerbic, and I kept thinking how little I'd like to meet her, while Charlie was charmless and borish. Perhaps I missed the greatness - the back quotes include: "brilliant observed," "compelling," "provocative" and "a cracking read." Not for me. - Alex

Wednesday, March 10

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White

A woman falls in love with an artist, and although their stations in life preclude a relationship between them, she feels duty bound to admit the attraction to her fiancé and beg him to break off the engagement. He, being desperate for her dowry rather than her affection, refuses and her family insist on the wedding going ahead.
She receives an anonymous letter warning her against the match but feels honour requires her to go ahead with it, even though her sister is beginning to have doubts about her husband to be.
Once married her refusal to sign over a large amount of money without legal advice angers her husband who sets a convoluted plot in motion to gain control of her fortune at any cost.
(here follows spoilers-be warned)
He arranges to pass off a crazy unknown bastard half-sister as his wife (since she will be much easier to control) and have his wife committed as a lunatic. The plan works better than he might hope when the bastard sister dies.
But the woman’s sister is suspicious and with the help of the artist they find the woman and help her escape from the asylum her husband has placed her in. With a lot of effort they manage to prove that she is who she claims to be, though by that stage her fortune is well gone and her husband dead.
Now a penniless widow she marries her artist love and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is a dramatically simplified outline of an incredibly complex tale of love, loss, lies, madness, and international intrigue-with just a hint of the paranormal thrown in.
Considered a classic of gothic literature this 1860’s tale of mystery is told from a variety of view points. Though the reader has no trouble guessing where the story is going, there is a constant question as to how it will get there, keeping suspense high even as foreshadowed plot twists are confirmed.
The chosen presentation style (a series of written narratives) does make for a slow pace at times but that is typical of the era and doesn’t detract from enjoyment of the story. There are several paths not taken throughout the tale which surprised expectations without disappointing them.
I found the main character to be a little too passive, even for a woman of her time but I can see how this gained its classic status though I have no desire to acquaint myself with the author’s other highly acclaimed works at this time.-Lynn

Tuesday, March 9

Big Fat Manifesto - Susan Vaught

Jamie Carcaterra's in her senior year, an aspiring journalist, and fat. Not a little pudgy, seriously fat. And she's fine with that - so fine she writes a regular feature in her school's paper, about her life, and signs of as Fat Girl. Her writing is strong, funny, serious, informed, and she hope that it will be what gets her a National Features Award for writing. But when her beloved and loving, footballing boyfriend Burke decides to have bariatric surgery everything changes - and Jamie writes about it all.
I really enjoyed this strong, convincing novel that reflects the conflicts involved in being plus-sized in a 'normal'-sized world. Vaught incorporates a number of really interesting details about fatness - the really frightening facts about bariatric surgery, health and fatness, the tyrrany of clothing manufacturers and the fashion industry, and the attitude of many health care providers toward fat people; I particularly liked the way Jamie's doctor assumed she was sexually inactive, and how (as happens so often in real life) he acted as though any medical issues she had were due wholly and solely to her weight.
That much is, one would hope, a given in this context. What makes Vaught's writing stand apart is her recognition and exploration of Jamie's unrecognised conflict. It's not until Burke begins to lose weight that she acknowledges that she, too, wonders what she'd by like, her life would be like, if she was thin. Who would she be, how would she (and the world around her) change, and what would she be prepared to sacrifice for it? Burke is prepared to risk his life - and though Jamie is informed, and strongly opposed to bariatric surgery, some part of her is okay with the danger if it means passing for normal.
Like Jamie a significant part of my self-image is tied in with being fat, and I similarly feel the tension between accepting who I am and embracing a Healthy at Every Size philosophy, and wanting to be thin. At the moment I'm leaning considerably more toward the weight loss end of that continuum, and experiencing quite a lot of conflict, so Big Fat Manifesto came along at a great time. It hasn't left me any less divided, but has given my conflict visibility and allowed me to recognise it more clearly. I really liked the complexity and depth of this novel, and am interested in seeing what else Vaught has written. - Alex

Saturday, March 6

Ordinary Jack - Helen Cresswell

Jack is the youngest of the Bagthorpes, and the least talented - all his siblings have several Strings to their Bows, ranging from photography to ham radio, but Jack's not much good at anything. If it weren't for his beloved dog Zero, and his zany uncle Parker, there'd be nobody in his corner at all.
When Jack bemoans the fact that he can't even outswim his younger sister Rosie - a discovery Jack knows will be yet another laughing point - Uncle Parker comes up with a plan to increase Jack's mystique. With a little assistance Jack can seem to tell the future - but not all turns out as well as he hopes.
The first in the well loved Bagthorpe saga, Ordinary Jack introduces the eccentric Bagthorpe family, from Jack's fight-provoking Grandma to his temperamental script writer father, the talented and aggravating siblings, wafty Aunt Cecelia (Parker's beloved wife), precocious cousin Daisy and (my favourite in many ways) the hedgehog-like housekeeper Mrs Fosdyke. It also sets the tone of the novels, which are accessible, funny, and relatable.There are a couple of gentle lessons, learned by Jack and overlooked by his competitive family, but Cresswell steers well clear of any preaching or didactic tones.
I loved this series as a child, and will be buying my niece and nephew copies when they're old enough, particularly if either of them are reluctant readers. Returning to it many years later was as rewarding as I hoped, and I can see bright little dots of Bagthorpes in my reading future, even without a crystal ball - Alex

Friday, March 5

The Quilter's Apprentice - Jennifer Chiaverini

Sarah McClure was frustrated by her inability to get work in any field but accounting - regardless of what position she went for, as soon as they saw "CPA" on her résumé that was all they were interested in hiring her for. Despite that, having a job was a plus, but her husband Matt was clearly growing increasingly frustrated by his inability to find any kind of suitable work. And so they moved to the far smaller town of Waterford, Pennsylvania.
Unable to find any work at all, Sarah takes on a temporary position for the cantankerous owner of Elm Creek Manner, a dilapidated stately home that Matt has been contracted to landscape prior to sale. Though Sylvia Compton is cantankerous and unpleasant, Sarah soon finds she has a complex story. Long estranged from her younger sister, Sylvia has only returned to Waterford to sort out her sister's estate. The town has painful memories, and being reminded of long ago pains has brought them back as vividly as though they were recent rather than decades old.
This delightful novel, the first in what has become a substantial series, has quilting at its centre and, like a quilt, takes fragments from a multitude of sources, creating a beautiful and warming whole. And that's enough of that metaphor. It's true to say, though, that this is one of those novels that left me with a deep sense of satisfaction - there's resolution, but there are enough loose threads hanging for verisimilitude (and it didn't read as though they were left in order to write a sequel). The writing is compassionate, evocative and somehow very female.
And this is without doubt a book for women - the scope is domestic and woman-centred, focusing on the interests, preoccupations and growth of a number of well drawn female characters. Men certainly appear, and are even important, but it is the strength, fortitude and determination of the women that carry the narrative.
i don't quilt - I can barely sew on buttons - but even though I didn't know the patterns or even some of the fabrics, the detailed descriptions of stitching, battening and composing embraced me rather than allowing me to feel excluded through lack of knowledge. And this inclusive feeling is a key component of the novel, which also9 discusses the nature of quilting groups - welcoming, inclusive and embracing. Though there are, as we discover, exceptions.
I was so taken with The Quilter's Apprentice that I've already borrowed the second in the series. - Alex

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

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

Thursday, March 4

Liar - Justine Larbalestier

From her first freshman day at her new school, when she was mistaken for a boy and didn't correct her homeroom teacher, everyone knew that Micah Wilkins lies. But Micah has good reason not to tell the truth - her family has a shocking secret that she has to protect, a secret that would horrify all the kids who already think she's weird, and involve the media and scientists. But when her classmate and secret boyfriend, kind of, popular boy Zach is found dead and mutilated in Central Park, everything starts to come undone, and Micah has to tell the truth, at least to her reader. Or does she?
Micah's a sympathetic and intriguing character. Lying is an ingrained habit and though she vows at the beginning to tell the truth, Micah confesses to lying during her narrative, often about really significant details and events. And somehow her lies make her outrageous story more believable, as well as keeping the reader on their toes and glued to the page - with each statement and revelation one has to ask if this, too, is a lie, a truth, a half truth, an exaggeration, an omission or a distortion. And this complexity includes her character, the structure of the novel (which twists between the past and the present, in a non-linear winding I found compelling), and the dance of the narrative.
There's certainly scope in Liar for literary analysis - metaphors abound, and Micah herself straddles several worlds: she's bi-racial (black and white), her father's American and her mother French, she hovers between childhood and adulthood, the country and the city, insular and cosmopolitan, and she's an outsider by both circumstance and choice. Above all there's space for a wide variety of interpretations - with such an unreliable narrator almost every aspect of Micah's story is up for debate, including whether the things she confess to as lies are truth.
That does not make Liar boring and literary, however - the plot and the character are engaging for the duration, and the sensation of never being able to rely on her version of events is novel. I can see, however, how some readers would find this disquieting or unpleasant. Similarly I can see how some readers could find the central twist unconvincing and forced.
Not knowing Micah's secret going in is key to engagement with the plot, so I won't even hide it as a spoiler. How the reader responds to this revelation will affect how they feel about the text as a whole - it certainly kinks the genre, which will be disruptive for some, while others will embrace both the concept of the secret and the fact that the reader's left with ambiguity: is Micah delusional, substituting an unpalatable reality for a fantastic alternate version of her reality, or is she really what she believes? I was left thinking the former, and saw hints of this throughout the text, but almost anything is possible. If you're interested in a young adult novel that's strongly written and leaves you thinking, but unconventionally composed and unpredictable, this is for you. - Alex

Wednesday, March 3

The Acceptance World - Anthony Powell

The third installment in the Dance to the Music of Time sequence brings narrator Nicholas Jenkins to the 1930's. He has his fortune read by Mrs Erdleigh, a very certain woman introduced to him by his Uncle Giles; she declares that he will see her again in a year, and find love in the meantime, much to his scepticism. And indeed, after many an unhappy sojourn into affairs of the heart, Jenkins is reunited with school friend Templer's younger sister, Jean, separated from her husband, who after a time returns his affections.
Politics are more prominent in The Acceptance World, as Marxism enters the vocabulary of England's upper middle classes - a move seen most prominently in the conversion of out moded author St. John Clarke to the cause. The paranormal element first rising in Mrs Erdleigh recurs later when a Planchette board (which sounds something like a ouija board) is brought out, which occasion is also the first appearance of changing politics of the era.
While Widmerpoole appears only briefly, the change in him is significant. Once somewhat pallid and ineffectual, he now seems more certain and almost powerful, though no less pompous - it's when, during a school reunion dinner, he begins pontificating at length that old school master La Bas sustains a severe stroke. Widmerpoole is also the source of the title - he works for the Acceptance World, a company that accepts the debt of others, for a sum. Readers more astute than I have noted that it refers also to the characters of the novel accepting the disappointment of their lives as lived rather than their imagined future lives, idealised in youth.
Unimpressed with A Question of Upbringing, but more appreciative of A Buyer's Market, I am right back where I started. The Acceptance World left me cold and, with the sole exception of Widmerpool, disinterested in the fate of any of the characters. I can see the literary skill of Powell, but this is a purely intellectual appreciation. At no point did I feel gripped by the plot, captured by the characters, or invested in the outcome.
And yet I cannot help feeling as though the fault lies with me - that if only I were more literary, intelligent, or aware of nuance then I too would see this series as a masterpiece, and also be able to find the humour in what many have called "perhaps the finest long [20th century] comic novel that England has produced" (that specific quote, from Anthony Burgess, is on the dust jacket).
Perhaps the problem is that, though I lived there for some of my formative years, I'm not English, not upper class or even particularly class conscious, and have no knowledge of the real people or situations on which the series is based.
My mother says that repeat reading significantly increases one's enjoyment of the series. Frankly, just making it through all twelve once will be something of an achievement, but who knows - perhaps this time in December I'll be raving about the magnificence of A Dance to the Music of Time and eager to start at the beginning again. - Alex

Tuesday, March 2

Stephanie Bond: In Deep Voodoo

At a party to celebrate her divorce, a woman is given a voodoo doll of her husband as a joke gift. Egged on by her friends she sticks a pin through the heart hoping that he might suffer the same heartache his philandering ways caused her. It’s all a bit of a laugh until the next day when her husband turns up dead-a stake through his heart-and she’s the prime suspect.
Though entirely innocent, events conspire against her. As the circumstantial evidence builds she begins to doubt the police are investigating the case as thoroughly as they might and so she hires a detective to prove her innocence.
Eventually she manages to clear herself but only by incriminating an acquaintance who is then arrested for the murder.
It is only through chance that she then discovers who the true murderer was and manages to free the wrongly arrested man and see justice done.
This book is light, mindless fluff-and I enjoyed it!
Sure, on occasion the heroine does some fairly dumb things on particularly flimsy motivation. And okay, I saw many of the red herrings for what they were a mile off. But I must have been in the exact right frame of mind while reading because instead of being irritated by these things I was amused by them.
The only disappointment was the ending. The twist at the end was entirely out of left field-no hint was given anywhere throughout the story of the turn things were going to take. This was quite common during the early days of crime writing (think Agatha Christie) and is something I really don’t like in a modern work. It somehow feels like cheating to me. A good writer can give hints all the way through a story and still pull of a surprise ending. As a reader I like to be able to look back at all the little things that suddenly make sense after a reveal. This book left me thinking WTF happened there.
But in spite of the ending I enjoyed the story. I wouldn’t say a categorical no to other works by this author.-Lynn

Monday, March 1

The Sword of the Lady - SM Stirling

Rudi Mackenzie, tanist of the Clan Mackenzie and leader of a band of travellers bound together through adversity and all manner of kinship ties, is crossing the breadth of what was once the United States from his homeland in Oregon to the island of Nantucket in search of a sword that has been foretold will allow him to unite his region and defeat the greatest threat since the Change. Along the way they has make friends, and enemies, endured many losses, and decided that their disparate home communities will be united under the name Montival. Their resolve is strong, and they have proclaimed Rudi (whose birth name is Artos) their first High King.
When they finally reach the island, Rudi is stunned to discover densely wooded forest with trees older than any he's previously encountered, peopled by a small population that seem unlike modern men at all and insist they come from another era. When Rudi enters a lone building he discovers the sword he's sought for over a year, and has a vision akin to that he had while injured during a battle. This time, though, instead of seeing Odin he sees three women - an exotic youth, the likeness of his own mother, and a more aged black woman. And when he exits the building, sword raised high, Rudi is forever changed.
Readers of Stirling's Nantucket trilogy will already understand why he set the Change for 1998 - to tie in with the other side of events, where the modern inhabitants of Nantucket, along with their island and a region of surrounding ocean, where transported back to 1250BC. In this final instalment of the second Emberverse trilogy (with another three books scheduled), the worlds cross over briefly - though familiarity with the other series would help a little in the last section, it's not necessary.
There are still battle scenes aplenty, and encounters with different ways groups evolved post Change. I also found a couple of sections that particularly resonated - first when Matilda (Princess of the Portland Protectorate) reflects that if you act as though there's no doubt you'll be obeyed, especially when people are frightened, odds are you will be. And I really liked Sandra, Matilda's atheist mother, when she silently observed that not having anyone to be thankful for can be a drawback to having no faith: "My eternal gratitude, O blind and ontologically empty dance of atoms, just isn't very satisfying, somehow."
And this is not a book to read when you're hungry - the loving descriptions of feasts could be used to entice the appetite-suppressed to dine lavishly.
I was relieved that the quest for the sword was finally over, and glad that Rudi's journey is not yet over. I really enjoy the Emberverse Stirling's created - it's rich and textured, layered and satisfyingly complex. I'm going to take a little break before reading the first in the third trilogy, in part to concentrate on less engrossing and taxing tales, and in part because deferring the reading myself is less frustrating than waiting for their release! - 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