Friday, April 30

Welcome to Temptation - Jennifer Crusie

Sophie Dempsey wants a quiet life - between her con artist father and younger siblings in need of a substitute mother, her childhood ended fairly early. her brother's safely off in Hollywood, and she's set up a wedding video business with her sister Amy that combines her stability and organisation with Amy's unique and quirky insights.
When Amy wants to film failed film star Clea Whipple's return to the small town she left, Sophie's happy to help. But there's something about Temptation that challenges her neat and tidy life, beginning with hereditary mayor Phineas Tucker. Before she knows it, Sophie's broken up with her therapist boyfriend Brandon, making a film that's becoming increasingly pornographic by the day, unwillingly bonded with a motherless girl, adopted a freeway dog, embroiled in small town politics, and fallen for the mayor. And that's before she gets involved in the murder.
Crusie's novels are more substantial than the average romance, with glints of humour and a real integrity.The journey is a joy, the characters jumped off the page, and the twisty plot was involving. - Sadly, at the moment everything pales in comparison with Shinn, but it was still pretty good. - Alex

Thursday, April 29

Dark Moon Defender - Sharon Shinn

King's Rider Justin has been sent to investigate events at Coralinda Gesseltess's convent, where the increasingly fanatical Daughters of the Pale Moon cult is growing in strength and passion. Though he's heard rumours about harassment and worse, he's shocked to witness the murder of mystics, clearly at the instigation of Coralinda, known by acolytes as the Lestra to those at Lumanen Convent, and to followers of the Pale Mother. Ellynor has been sent to the convent to accompany her cousin, Rosurie, who fel in love with the wrong man - a potential disaster among the Lirren, who duel to the death if a female family member wishes to marry outside the complex network of families that comprise the sebahta-ris. Ellynor is restless, happy to obey the dictates of the convent though she worships the Black Mother, the Dark Watcher, who fills her with the power to heal and cloaks her in the night.
When Ellynor, running an errand for the Lestra, becomes lost in the streets of nearby neft, she comes perilously close to being ravished by a nobleman. she is saved by a dashing stableboy, and a close relationship swiftly springs up between them. But the people of Gillengaria and the Lirren are separated by more than the Lireth mountains, and Ellynor knows that anything serious between them can only ends in Justin's death or, if he were somehow able to defend himself with skill, the death of her father, brother or cousin. And yet she cannot stay away.
This third in the Twelve Houses series is as strong and complex as its predecessors - continuing the larger narrative of the inevitable war between those loyal to the king and those affiliated with the Pale Goddess, Dark Moon Defender is also a beautiful romance, continues the journeys of relationships from the earlier books, and both fills in and expands on details of this fascinating world.
I know I gush about Shinn in general, and this series in particular, but the writing is mesmerising. Deeply satisfying, rounded and compelling, its only flaw is that I find myself reading 'just one more chapter' until the early hours of the morning. I'm holding off on the fourth book, but suspect it will be a close thing indeed. - Alex

The Twelve Houses series
1. Mystic and Rider
2. The Thirteenth House
3. Dark Moon Defender
4. Reader and Raelynx
5. Fortune and Fate

Wednesday, April 28

The Crystal Singer - Anne McCaffrey

When Killashandra Ree fails her music exam she's initially shattered - being a singer is the only thing that's occupied her life. But any sorrow is quickly subsumed by anger, particularly toward the Maestro who gave her hope instead of warning. With the end of her student candidature comes a loss of both housing and income - Killashandra goes to drown her dashed hopes at the space-port, but is distracted by an unpleasant whine from an incoming engine. She's not the only one to notice it - a forceful man directs a space port official to hold the ship until its engine is re-tuned, and the appearance of his credentials causes significant deference and respect.
For Carrick is a member of the Heptite Guild, a crystal singer. Killashandra's never heard of Heptite or singers, but almost anything would be better than hanging around Fuerte now she has no chance of becoming the success she always knew she was meant to be. She accompanies Carrick to Heptite, over the protests of Maestro Valdi and the warnings of the transport captain, and finds a new future, singing and cutting crystal in the spectacular ranges of Heptite, where the beauty of harmonies and scenery, combined with great wealth if the right crystals are cut in the right way, outweigh the near certainly of madness, death and disability.
I first read the Killashandra trilogy over two decades ago (I feel old), and remember being spell bound by the world building and description. Returning to the first novel after all this time I'm a little less overwhelmed but still enjoyed the experience. McCaffrey's world is unique and compelling, and though I don't remember Killashandra being quite so arrogant, I still warmed to her. I have a lot on my plate already, but intend re-reading the rest of the book in the forthcoming months. - Alex

Tuesday, April 27

Susan Krinard: Dark of the Moon

When a junior female reporter stumbles onto the story of a lifetime (a cult of blood-drinkers is stalking the poor of the city) she finds herself the target of killers. Saved by a vagrant, she determines to save him in return, not realising he is an ex-enforcer for a now disbanded vampire gang. When he learns of the story she is pursuing he tries to dissuade her but she will not be put off and he soon finds himself dragged back into a turf war he became an outcast to escape.
As if being hunted by rival vampire gangs isn’t enough, the two soon find themselves drawn into a cult dedicated to the peaceful co-existence of vampires and humans. But while the cult espouses peace, its methods are anything but peaceful and the pair is in more danger than either of them realise. Soon he is forced to do the unthinkable in order to save her life once more and she must summon the courage to cope with her fate and the compassion to forgive him.
This is the second story set in the paranormal underworld of 1920s New York. It picks up some months after the events of
Chasing Midnight but can easily be read as a stand alone novel.
I really enjoy this particular time period and Krinard uses it to great effect in this series bringing the criminal and the supernatural underworld together seamlessly. This story offers plenty of plot twists and while some are easily anticipated, others come as a surprise. Certainly the shifting allegiances and double crossing keeps both the reader and the main characters guessing as to who is and who isn’t on their side. It was a pleasant change to find that there were no clear cut ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys but simply a choice between a greater and lesser evil for the individual involved. It was a level of realism that brought the fantasy world to life.
I have had both positive and negative experiences with this author in the past so wasn’t really sure of what I could expect from this novel. I needn’t have worried. It was a return to the vivid world building, rounded characterization and fast paced action that drew me to her work in the first place. I’ll definitely be following on with this series.-Lynn

Monday, April 26

Gone-Away Lake - Elizabeth Enright

Every year Portia and her space-mad younger brother Foster spend the summer with their aunt, uncle and cousin in Creston - Julian's a year older than Portia, fascinated by insects and animals and plants, and the ideal companion for all day explorations of the wild countryside around his home. This year's even better, because Foster has a playmate his age, Davey Grayson from the neighbouring farm. But that fades into insignificance when Portia and Julian discover a ghost town on the edge of the swamp - glorious houses falling own through neglect, uninhabited except by an elderly couple, Mrs Minnehaha Cheever and her brother Pindar Payton.
This classic children's book from the mid 1950's is imbued with the best of both that era's sensibilities and a touch of turn of the (last) century setting. I enjoyed all of Elizabeth Enright's children's novels, which (perhaps because of the EE, perhaps because of timing proximity) I always classed along with British Edward Eager's young adult fantasy stories. All I remembered of it was the setting, gingerbread houses and safe adventure, so the individual details were delightful encounters rather than fond memories, though no less appreciated for that. Though I haven't the whole hearted love for Gone-Away Lake and its sequel Return to Gone-Away, I thought of how much I'd enjoy sharing this, when they're a little older, with my sibling's children. Just beautiful, harmonious, and incorporating a true, '50s style happy ending. - Alex

Sunday, April 25

Slay-Ride - Dick Francis

David Cleveland is an official of the Racecourse Committee, sent to investigate the disappearance of English jockey Bob Sherman, along with 16,000 kroner, from an Oslo racecourse. The case seems simple enough at first, and David has contacts in Norway, which helps. He begins with his friend Arne Kristiansen - always somewhat paranoid, Arne insists they speak in a boat on the fjord to avoid anyone overhearing their conversation. It's a decision that proves life-threatening when their dinghy is capsized by an out of control speedboat - Arne vanishes into the icy autumn water, and David barely escapes with his life. When he goes to inform Arne's wife of his disappearance, David is overjoyed to find Arne safe and in the process of reporting him missing.
That may have been an accident, but the deeper David digs the more violent his life becomes. It's soon clear that Bob did not, as has been proposed, take advantage of a breach in security to opportunistically steal the race takings but has, in all likelihood, been murdered. But why, and by whom, remain a mystery.
I am in many ways glad I only came to Francis now, as I have the joy of discovering his writing while an extensive backlist is available. Though not quite as perfect as the great Bagley, I am reminded of him often when reading Francis, and enjoy these works almost as much.
Slay-Ride is a little dated, both in tech and attitude, but for the most part stands up well for a book some 35 years old. The pace is brisk, the plot involving, and the reveal of the murderer is both surprising and makes a few plot points click into place in retrospect, which is always satisfying. I think Francis' writing has developed in the interim, as one would hope, so that his more recent novels are a little denser, but all in all I quite enjoyed this. - Alex

Friday, April 23

The Thirteenth House - Sharon Shinn

When the Romar Brendyn, the king's regent, is kidnapped, King Baryn sends his trusted band of mystics and warriors to retrieve him. It falls to Kirra, elder daughter of the house of Danalustrous, to contact him and describe the plan; the rescue is successful, and from the first moment she is strangely attracted to the dashing lord; that he is married affects her attraction not at all.
On her return home, marlord Malcolm gently informs Kirra that he will be naming his heir - and that he has chosen his younger daughter. Kirra's mother left when she was all but a babe, and contrary to expectation she is exceptionally close to her step-mother Jannis, and her half-sister Casserah. Kirra knows that Casserah is the better choice - her principal loyalty is to Danalustrous rather than Gillenagaria, she has no restless need to roam, and she is not a mystic. Kirra is relieved by the news, but needs some time away from home to fully absorb it.
Aware of the threat posed to the throne, King Baryn has decided that his heir, the reclusive Princess Amalie, will tour Gillengaria, alongside her step-mother, Queen Valri. As well as hopefully reassuring the people, he hopes to both garner information and demonstrate his power. It's the season for balls, which serves a perfect pretext, and Casserah would be a perfect companion, but for the fact that she abhors social outings. So Kirra shifts her form to that of her sister and, accompanied by fellow mystics Cammon and Senneth, her own faithful companion (and shape-shifter) Donnal, and Kings' Riders Justin and Tayse, the royal party tour the Twelve Houses of Gillengaria.
This densely plotted, seamlessly written combination of political intrigue, magic, religious zeal, reckless romance, love, passion, loyalty, heartbreak, power and sacrifice was a joy to read, marred only by my inability to put it down. The dialogue is convincing, the world building subtle and meticulous, the plotting deft and the scene setting evocative. This is a rich and luxurious novel that is perfect for total immersion. It's going to take an effort of will to prevent me gorging on the next novel... - Alex

The Twelve Houses series
1. Mystic and Rider
2. The Thirteenth House
3. Dark Moon Defender
4. Reader and Raelynx
5. Fortune and Fate

Thursday, April 22

The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes - Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer & Anne Stuart

Dee, Lizzie and Mare Fortune have been dubiously blessed with magical powers - powers that are unschooled, poorly controlled and unpredictable, particularly when attractive men are around. So it's particularly problematic that, through what seems like a strange confluence of coincidences but is actually the meddling of their estranged aunt Xan, each of them will encounter the right man for them, at just the wrong time.
The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes sounds promising - a more grown up Charmed perhaps, written by two authors I've enjoyed (Crusie and Dreyer) plus an unknown (to me) third). The combination of proven writing ability, romance, magic, a little zaniness and a plotting relative - what could go wrong?
Perhaps it's just that I was fresh from the great Shinn, and anxious to return to her world. Perhaps I just wasn't in the right head space. Or perhaps it just wasn't that engaging.This was so disappointing, as I had good expectations, though somewhat ameliorated by my previous, mixed, experiences of the Little Black Dress imprint. Whatever the reason, I limped through it, finding the dialogue, premise and intrigue less convincing by the page until, at chapter four, I abandoned the Misses Fortune to their fates. - Alex

Wednesday, April 21

Mystic and Rider - Sharon Shinn

Gillengaria has long been peacefully ruled by the royal family, assisted by the marlords of each of the Twelve Houses, each of which has its own colours, loyal retainers, and characteristics. King Baryn was much loved, but after the death of the queen he isolated his heir, Princess Amalie. He has since remarried, but nobody knows the background of the new queen, Valri, and since their marriage the king has seemed besotted by her, becoming reclusive himself. Rumours have arisen, alleging that the new queen is a mystic, that the king is frail, that there is no suitable heir to the throne. And alongside these are stories of mystics being persecuted, despite a royal degree that they be tolerated.
In response to these whisperings, King Baryn has dispatched Senneth to investigate - a powerful mystic with the ability to generate fire, Senneth answers to no one but her king. She is accompanied by two other mystics - Kirra, a shape-changing healer, daughter of the House of Danalustrous; her faithful, shape-shifting retainer Donnal; and two of the King's best Riders, young Justin, who distrusts mystics on principle, and Tayse, whose distrust is particularly strong for Senneth. Together this unlikely band are to travel through Gillengaria, gathering information about the source and danger of these rumours.
This new series by the author of the fabulous Archangel takes place on a wholly different world but is at least as textured, nuanced and meticulously crafted as Samaria. World building is one thing, but novels live through their characters and are driven by their plots - and Shinn's creations are flawless. I find myself struggling to articulate specific points of interest because the elements are so seamlessly interwoven, from the insidious and sinister growing power of a fanatical cult, to the exploration of the dynamics of the land itself. The tensions between the team diminish over time, as each of them learns to rely upon the rest, and there's a romance that is subtle and convincing.
I was so absorbed into the world of Gillengaria that I stayed up until 3AM to finish Mystic and Rider, and then borrowed the second novel of the twelve houses the following morning. I've thoroughly enjoyed the Samaria novels, but have to force myself not to devour this series, and my avarice is tempered only by the knowledge that once they're read there are no more. - Alex

The Twelve Houses series
1. Mystic and Rider
2. The Thirteenth House
3. Dark Moon Defender
4. Reader and Raelynx
5. Fortune and Fate

Tuesday, April 20

Jovah's Angel - Sharon Shinn

On Samaria angels intercede with Jovah, asking his for rain, to stop storms, and to favour the people of the land. Archangel Alleluiah was happier with her life before, but when Delilah fell from the sky during a tempestuous wind storm, breaking her wing, she could no longer function as Archangel, and Jovah named Alleluiah her successor. Jovah seems to listen to Alleiah's requests more than those of the other angels, but he seems hear his people less and less well - all over Samaria things are getting worse - were one area floods, another's in drought, and between it all the nomadic Edori are being squeezed and confined. With the annual Gloria only months away, the new Archangel needs an angelico, but she's more concerned about whether Jovah will hear even their great songs raised in tribute.
A hundred and fifty years after the events in Archangel, and faith is once again being lost. Equal parts mystery/adventure, romance, and a compelling tale of faith, belief, culture and technology, Jovah's Angel explores what happens when the technology that founded a colony begins to fail, when a community's culture is externally warped (there's a strong indigenous cultural flavour to the Edori), the idea of a living god, and the transmutation of faith. All of which sounds far heavier and less entertaining than Shinn's creation actually is.
I'm so pleased I stumbled on to Shinn's writing - she's rapidly becoming my favourite new writer and I'm about to embark on another series of hers that I can only hope will be as entertaining, involving and promising. Watch this space! - Alex

Monday, April 19

Tell Me Lies – Jennifer Crusie

Maddie Faraday was relatively content with her life – though the gossip mill grew a little tiresome, she liked the small town she’d lived in all her life, loved her beautiful daughter Em, and had managed to move past her husband’s affair five years ago. At least until she found a pair of black, lace, crotchless panties tucked under the front seat of her husband’s car. Even so, she could perhaps have lived with that, but her discovery coincided with the return to town of C.L. Sturgess, the boy who she lost her virginity to back in high school, admittedly in a fit of pique over something Brent had done. As Maddie discovers that C.L. still has a certain something, Brent disappears, and much to the distress of her mother, Maddie becomes the most gossiped about person in town. She also uncovers some long-held secrets, regains her self, and finds love.
I first read Tell Me Lies when it was released in 1998, as part of a glut of Crusie, and though I’ve thought fondly of her novels, until recently I hadn’t returned to them. I enjoyed going back, but in the week or so since my re-reading, and in the wake of half a dozen other novels, I have only a foggy recollection of the finer plot points. I certainly enjoyed the ride, but couldn’t tell you anything significant about any of the characters or plot twists, except for Maddie’s best friend Treva’s big secret. I know this was a better than average romance, with some interesting characterisation and fresh dialogue, and it certainly hasn’t dated in the interim, but that’s about it. - Alex

Saturday, April 17

There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union - Reginald HIll

There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union
The title story in this six-novella collection is contemporary (for publication) - the USSR in the late 1990's. Inspector Lev Chislenko has been sent to investigate the death of a man who fell down a lift shaft. But when he arrives at the building in question he discovers an alcoholic lift operator, an older woman wracked by hysteria, and her savagely protective daughter, all of whom have the same ridiculous story - a man dressed in old-fashioned clothing, was thrust into the lift by another man, and fell through the solid floor, screaming as he fell. Unfortunately this story is confirmed by Comrade Rudakov, an engineer and Party member in good standing, and disastrously his statement is made in front of witnesses. In no time Chislenko is beset by problems on many fronts - the puzzle of the man who wasn't there, Party politics, and an increasingly attractive witness.
This is both an interesting story and a fascinating study of the paranoia, intrigue and machinations of the USSR. I confess I found the later a trifle more interesting than the former, and was scarcely surprised by the twist in the tale, but the characters were interesting and the narrative was smooth and brisk.

Bring Back the Cat!
Joseph Sixsmith, the London-born West Indian detective, has only just (metaphorically) hung his shingle. With only one case under his belt, Joe's keep for more work, but he draws the line at missing moggies, particularly when the owner is so unpleasant. From the beginning Joe is uncomfortable with the odd dynamics within the Ellison family - she does all the talking, he sits quietly reading his paper and wholly ignored, the teen daughter flashes an underage and underdone pair of breasts at him, and the spotty son sulkily slopes off to his room. But Mrs Ellison agrees to his outrageous fee, and he has nothing better to do, and when his initial investigation reveal a number of untold secrets, Joe's curiosity is tweaked.
More atmosphere and character development than mystery, Bring Back the Cat! is interesting enough and quite a change of pace from the first story in the collection.

The Bull Ring
Harry and his best mate, Bert, signed up through a combination of patriotic zeal and the belief that, with conscription around the corner, volunteer soldiers would get some preferential treatments. They had no idea how brutal just getting through basic training would be, particularly for Harry - Pierce, the canary in charge of them seems to have it in for him, bullying and berating Harry every chance he gets. Every time Harry turns around, there Pierce is, telling in his ear and denigrating him. After Bert all but shoots off his own thumb, it gets worse, as Harry's on his own. But perhaps Pierce is more effective than he realises...
More a study of war and character than a true mystery, there are strong streaks of non-graphic horror running through this testing tale. Of the collection it left the strongest resonance, and was very atmospheric.

Auteur Theory
We are warned in the opening line that nothing is as it seems, in this twisting tale that combines Hill's An Advancement of Learning with a glimpse at film production, tempestuous relationships, treachery, murder and self-deception. To say more would ruin the carefully plotted twists and turns.

Poor Emma
This period tale of intrigue and plotting involves sibling and marital relationships, entailed property, and the mislead expectations of several parties. Nobody comes out smelling particularly of roses, and I found keeping track of everyone a little more difficult than it might have been...

Crowded Hour
"At twelve noon there were three people in that house. By the time the clock struck one, two of them would be dead and the life of the third would have changed for ever."
As this collection goes on each story is successively more slender than the one before, and this is the thinnest in both verbiage and content. I quite liked the idea but was disappointed by the execution. - Alex

Friday, April 16

Scandal in Spring - Lisa Kleypas

Daisy Bowman has managed to pass through three London seasons without attracting a husband, much to the disgust of her self-made father. He didn't bring her, her sister and his wife from New York without making good matches for both his daughters, and he'd imagined that Daisy's sister Lillian would be the harder to marry off. Almost despite herself, Lillian managed to snare an earl, but Daisy? Nothing. And so Thomas Bowman gave Daisy an ultimatum - if she was not engaged within two months, she would marry his right hand man, Matthew Swift. Daisy loathed that thin, pasty, ill-attired man who seemed in every remark and perspective to emulate the father who had never understood her.
But seeing Mr Swift again after some three years was... interesting. He seemed to have grown into features that ill-suited him as a youth, and almost despite herself Daisy found herself attracted to him. Yet he seemed disinterested in her, and instead of considering herself spurned, Daisy was spurred on.
Kleypas's writing is deft, her characterisation subtle yet complex, and her plot was absorbing. Both hero and heroine were likable without blandness, and the obstacles to romance were convincing within the setting. The heat was well written - sensuous without being overly graphic, but I had just a little trouble believing that a young woman of the era would so heedlessly countenance 'physical love' with a man to whom she was no even engaged.
Matthew harbours a secret, one that would not only destroy his reputation and career but also his liberty, and though a little more could have been made of this earlier, the finale is urgent and breathtaking. Daisy's skills with lockpicking were unexpected, but I assume that they were discussed in greater detail in previous novels.
It was evident fairly early on that Scandal in Spring, though it read easily as a stand-alone, was the fourth in a quartet of romance novels centering around sisters Daisy and Lillian and their 'wallflower' friends Annabelle and Evie - at this point they're all happily married, one is with child and one has an infant. The rapport and friendship between the women is as evident, and I felt a little cheated that I had missed the opportunity to watch it develop. So much so, in fact, that I intend checking out the three previous books in the Wallflowers quartet - I may know that each heroine has a happy ever after, but one hardly reads the genre with an expectation of any other kind of ending. - Alex

Thursday, April 15

Dan Brown: The Lost Symbol

When a prominent freemason is kidnapped, his friend’s only hope of saving him is to find and unravel the code on an ancient Masonic icon, which the kidnapper believes will provide him with a map that identifies the location of a tool of magnificent power.
Though he is a firm sceptic as to the existence of this map he undertakes the task which leads him on a frantic quest through Washington D C, from its most public buildings to its hidden chambers and secret tunnels. His steps are dogged the entire way by powerful government agencies that are willing to sacrifice his friend’s life in order to maintain national security.
It will come as no surprise that he succeeds in breaking the code, the kidnapper is eventually foiled, the ancient Masonic secret is revealed and the tool of power left safely in place.
There has been enormous criticism of Dan Brown’s literary ability and I think I can safely say that I would agree with most of it. His writing is pedestrian, the characters are walking clich├ęs and the ultimate solution to the puzzle is an anticlimactic disappointment. This is a shame because his ideas are great and, in the hands of a more accomplished writer, could become true works of art.
Plot twists are so heavily foreshadowed that even a reader skimming the pages (which I did not) would be able to predict where the story is heading. And for a world leader in symbology the hero is remarkably obtuse. But perhaps I am missing the point. Maybe the clues and plot twists are supposed to be obvious to the reader so that they can feel insightful and intelligent by deciphering them before the expert character does.
The inclusion of a map of the relevant parts of Washing DC would have been helpful to those readers with no first hand knowledge of the city.
My assessment, in a nutshell, this is a nice idea ruined by amateurish execution. But, let’s be honest, he’s not the first mediocre author whose career has flourished due to unaccountable popular acclaim. I just wish he would collaborate with somebody of more advanced writing skills. I’m sure the result would be the fun clue solving adventure he envisions his work as.-Lynn

Wednesday, April 14

Fear the Worst - Linwood Barclay

When newly-divorced car salesman Tim Blake's seventeen year old daughter, Sydney, doesn't come home form her summer job at the Just Inn Time hotel, his first thought was that she was with friends. When she didn't answer her cell phone he began to worry. And when he went to the hotel to see if anyone there knew anything, he began to panic - according to the desk staff and then the manager, Syd never worked at Just Inn Time.
Tim had dropped her off at the short shopping strip abutting the motel, and as he checks with the staff of the nearby independent stores he becomes increasingly concerned. And as he investigates further, jeopardising his work and then his life, Tim becomes increasingly convinced that something larger lurks behind his daughter's disappearance.
This was another absorbing mystery from Barclay, who writes excellent domestic suspense and manages to wring nuance out of every scene. The supporting characters are strong, and the secondary plots persuasive and interesting, but the standout is Tim, followed closely by the absent Syd, whose personality is conveyed through Tim's memories and the perspective of her best friend, Patty.
I did find Patty, and her involvement in the novel, a little unconvincing, but that's my sole gripe with what I otherwise thought was a very good mystery that delivered in terms of action, suspense and readability. - Alex

Tuesday, April 13

Chris Wooding: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray

In an alternate Victorian London a girl is found with no memory of who she is. Obviously of privileged heritage, and suspected insane, her saviours attempt to reunite her with her family. But their attempts to discover her identity, together with her recovering memory, lead them into uncovering a plot so evil it can barely be comprehended.
Understanding the girl is the key to this abominable plan, they seek to keep her hidden. But she is discovered and kidnapped. She manages to escape (with the aide of a serial killer) but too late to save the world.
With the beginning of the end flaring around them, a motley crew embark on a last ditch attempt to put a stop to the devastation. They do but not without loss and the knowledge that the world will never be the same again.
This young adult novel has a vaguely steampunk flavour with strong paranormal elements. The writing is excellent bringing this world to life. The author doesn’t sacrifice atmosphere for pace delivering a sense of urgency bound up with eeriness-not an easy task.
The characters are very well drawn, behaving believably for their age, time and social positioning. The relationships between the characters are complex and add an unexpected emotional layer to this adventure story.
I hope Wooding intends to use this world and these characters again, if not already.-Lynn

Monday, April 12

The Habit of Widowhood - Robert Barnard

In this collection of seventeen short stories, mystery writer Barnard unifies a diverse range of characters, over a hundred and fifty years, with domestic murder. Predominantly, though not exclusively, first person narrated, the characters include a sheltered young woman married off by her conservative parents ("Cupid's Dart"); a returned soldier who is a little too free with his favours; an adolescent girl who sees a way of using one act to solve two problems; a serial black widow; two first time black widows; a sadistic sodomite who enjoys a perfect Christmas; and innocent sister who learns more about hr adored brother after his death than she ever did while her was alive; a loyal dog; and Jane Eyre (set after Rochester's eyesight recovers).
Plots twists about, range from a bitter man playing with his malevolent family from beyond the grave; proof that people never really change, regardless of how log ago one's school days were; an elegant hoisting by one's own petard; four quite different cases of the biter bit; and the attractive lure of evil in a number of guises.
Though there are an almost uncomfortable number of treacherous women, as evidenced by the number of black widows, many of the men fare no better, and the fate of British wives prior to 1935 (when they were first allowed to own property) is sympathetically handled. Barnard's writing is accomplished, crisp and evocative. Despite the shifts in time and perspective, each story is utterly involving, accessible and interesting. I particularly liked is subtle malapropisms in one first-person tale, which added a layer to the character without being intrusive or overdrawn. I thoroughly enjoyed every one. - Alex

Sunday, April 11

Falling for Gracie - Susan Mallery

Gracie Landon knew returning to her home town of Los Lobos would be difficult - at age fourteen, half a lifetime ago, she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle after her obsession with dream high school senior Riley Whitefield spun out of control, culminating in her lying in front of his car to protest his engagement to pretty Pam. Gracie adjusted well to her new life, and at twenty eight has outgrown her early teen gawkiness and put her past behind her. She's had relationships, her career as a wedding cake decorator has even lead to a feature in People magazine. Though her banishment from home still hurts, she's keen to help her baby sister Vivian have a dream wedding, and she was braced for the small town gossip before she arrived. It doesn't bother her, much, until she crosses paths with Riley - just as handsome as ever, long divorced from Pam, and that four year age difference doesn't seem so important any more.
Riley Whitefield never intended returning to Los Lobos - he thoroughly enjoys his work on oceanic oil rigs, and his Three F rule sees his need for female company sufficiently met without any of the mess of relationships. One marriage was well and truly enough. But when his wealthy uncle died, leaving everything from a mansion to the town bank to him, Riley had to return to the place that never felt like home, because his inheritance comes with a giant string - he only gets the $79 million fortune of he wins the upcoming mayoral race. And once elected he'll take the money, sell the bank, and leave behind forever the memory of the man who stood by and left his sister, Riley's mother, die.
I read about Falling for Gracie on a Smart Bitches thread, and was sufficiently intrigued by the raving to check it out. If you like makeover/'coming back hotter' sub-genre, Falling for Gracie is for you. Obsession makes me a little uncomfortable, but Mallery puts that firmly in the past, and the dominant present plot threads include Gracie's growing awareness of her separateness from her mother and two sisters, her long-unrecognised anger at being bundled off, sabotage of Riley's mayoral campaign and Gracie's cake business, physical attraction that both try (and fail) to resist, and the ridiculousness of both sisters' relationships.
There are certainly things that grate a little, chief among which was Gracie's passivity in the face of coldness from her mother and a combination of dismissal and exploitation from her sisters. I also thought that Riley's determination to screw over a town that wasn't involved in his uncle's perfidy was out of character. Most unsatisfactory was the fact that there wasn't a really good explanation for why Gracie was not only sent away from her family but then rarely contacted or seen by her parents or sisters.
But I found these aspects were adequately compensated for by the tangled plot, the strong characterisation, the dialogue, and the moments of genuine humour:
"How much are we talking about [for one of your cakes]?"
She shrugged. "I'm working on a shower cake right now. It's fairly ornate and will serve fifty. I'm charging a thousand."
The car swerved slightly. "Dollars?"
"I've found it really helpful to keep my prices in U.S. currency. It saves confusion."

The 'physical love' scenes are hot without being either unnecessary or unnecessarily explicit, and are fairly well integrated into the plot. Unlike less well written romances, they serve as neither obstacles to the relationship nor the only way the reader illustrates their growing compatibility.
If my library have more of Mallery's work in stock I'll check it out, along with a couple of other makeover/'coming back hotter' romances suggested by the SMTB readers. Watch this space! - Alex

Friday, April 9

We Are All Welcome Here - Elizabeth Berg

Diana Dunn's life is at first glance ordinary enough - growing up in Tupelo Mississippi (whose claim to fame is being the birthplace of Mr Elvis Presley) in 1964, her interests are like those of other girls her age. She likes sodas and looking at copies of movie magazines, and she puts on plays with her best friend Suralee. And in other ways her life is very different, because Diana's mother Paige is unique - she not only survived polio and escaped life in an iron lung, she also gave birth to Diana within the lung. And though she was abandoned by her husband, and is a quadriplegic confined to a chair, she's the strongest person Diana knows.
Diana's been brought up in equal parts by her mother and by their housekeeper, Peacie. Diana and Peacie rarely see eye to eye, but Diana adores Peacie's boyfriend, LaRue. And if she's honest, Peacie's better than the other carers her mother has. She's used to waking several times overnight to tend to her mother, as the state provides nowhere near enough to actually pay for twenty-four hour care, but since she was tiny Diana's known that has to be a secret from Susan, their case manager. And everything seems to be going smoothly enough, until the dawning Civil Rights movement combines with a falling out with Suralee, and everything Diana has known and taken for granted starts to fall apart.
I love Berg's books - I find her characters engaging and relatable, and her plots absorbing. We Are All Welcome Here is something of a departure form her usual writing style, as it was inspired by Marianne Raming Burke, whose mother Pat Raming was (like Paige) orphaned, adopted by parents who died when she was young, fostered, contracted polio while pregnant, abandond by her husband, and fought against everyone who said she couldn't raise her daughter.
This is an inspiring story, but perhaps this difference in origin is why I just didn't feel the Berg zing I've come to expect. I do in any case prefer her adult-narrated novels, but that aside I just felt a little disappointed by We Are All Welcome Here and I'm not sure why. Part of it is undoubtedly the narcissism inherent in many books with teen protagonists, and part of it is the somewhat deus ex machina ending, but there was something else that just didn't click for me. I've read a couple of novels lately that have been a little flat and am starting to think it's me rather than them. - Alex

Thursday, April 8

Bad Guys – Linwood Barclay

After the disaster that ensued when he tried to protect his family by moving them out of the dangers of urban life, SF writer Zack Walker and his family are back in the city, not far from where they used to live. Zack’s been taken on by the city paper, which leads him to what may be a homicide, and before he knows it life has started to become perilous again.
I really like Barclay’s voice – he’s able to create domestic scenes that strongly resonate, then introduce external threats with insidious ease, resulting in breathless, well written rides that are extraordinary but read as believable. We first met Zack Walker in Bad Move, and I think reprising him was a good idea – he’s such a real character. That said, you could quite easily read Bad Guys without having read its predecessor. – Alex

Wednesday, April 7

Enquiry - Dick Francis

Jockey Kelly Hughes thought the Steward's Enquiry was a formality - that's what Cranfield, Squelch's trainer, said and as Kelly knew they hadn't rigged the race that Squelch lost he wasn't too worried. Not until the Enquiry was underway and it became clear that Lord Gowery had no interest in uncovering the truth - in combination with lying witnesses, videotape of the wrong race, trumped up photographs and the appearance of conspiracy and bribe, it comes as no surprise when Hughes and Cranfield have their licenses withdrawn.
Cranfield may be reduced to suicidal despair, but Kelly's made of stronger stuff. Determined to clear his name and restore his career, he begins investigating who set him up, and why. In the process he endangers his life, becomes estranged from his already-distant family, and finds love from an unexpected quarter.
I've written before about the unexpected pleasure of Francis's work, and Enquiry is no exception. Published over forty years ago, it's a little dated but for the most part manages to be surprisingly contemporary, though one hopes the class system in Britain is a little less rigid now. A true delight. - Alex

Tuesday, April 6

Double Vision - Fiona Brand

Rita Morrell lost her sightwhen she was young, in the car accident that killed her mother. Almost twenty years later she still suffers from psychosomatic blindness, until a series of accidents restore not only her vision but a second sight. This, along with the realisation that her husband is not only an integral part of a South American crime syndicate but also responsible for the fatal car 'accident,' cause her to turn to the CIA. But not even a false identity can protect her from the man she once loved.
Apparently. And I'm guessing, based on the prologue set in 1944 Germany, that the heart of the whole thing is a Nazi scandal plus or minus a treasure or secret weapon. Because, though I was intrigued by the admittedly-familiar premise, I just couldn't make my way past the end of chapter three - the florid and breathless writing style annoyed me, and the characters didn't grip me. Above all, which I only realised when writing this review, the first 51 pages (which is all I read) were chock full of tell, with almost nothing shown. So for me, this was a pass. - Alex

Monday, April 5

Bounce - Natasha Friend

Evyn and her brother Mackie are used to their life the way it is, just them and their dad, Birdie. She's shocked when, over dinner in a restaurant, Birdie breaks one piece of life changing news after another - he calmly announces that he's getting married, to a woman they'd never met, and moving into her house, with her five kids. They met while Evyn and Mackie were at camp, and Evyn could kick herself when she thinks of all the references to Eleni that snuck into his letters to them, references she chose to ignore. And now it's too late.
There's a lot to like in Bounce, as Evyn adjusts to a very different life to the one she'd always known. Grief for her dead mother, anxiety over change, adjustment to all the new and different things, wrapped up in the self-focused preoccupation of adolescence. And yet somehow I didn't feel that interested on invested, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's just that I've been spending a little too much time on angsty teen novels lately, or maybe it's just that this didn't resonate on some level. - Alex

Sunday, April 4

The Children of Green Knowe - LM Boston

Toseland’s used to being alone – his father and step-mother are far away in Burma, and last holidays he stayed at boarding school with the head mistress. But then his great-grandmother wrote to say that he was coming to stay with her at Green Knowe.
The house is amazing, with wonderful things around every corner, and Tolly has a room filled with amazing things – a carved mouse that looks incredibly lifelike, a rocking horse with real hair, and a miniature doll’s house that replicated Green Knowe to the last detail. Except that there are four beds in the doll house, and only one in Tolly’s room. The other beds belong to Alexander, Linnet and Toby – and if Tolly listens hard enough he can hear them in the house and on the grounds.
I read all the Green Knowe books around twenty-five year ago, and look forward to revisiting the characters, and the plots I only dimly remember. The Children of Green Knowe is justifiably a children’s classic - into what appears a somewhat bleak and lonely childhood enters magic, fantasy and acceptance. Great-Grandmother Oldknowe played with Toby, Linnet and Alexander when she was a child, and fully enters into Tolly's world, providing him with validation. The books are, more importantly, very well written, and strongly evocative. - Alex

Saturday, April 3

Archangel - Sharon Shinn

From the time he was fifteen, the angel Gabriel knew he’d been chosen by Jovah to be the next Archangel. But, although he knew that this meant he had to lead the Gloria that year, with his bride by his side singing her part, he waited until he had only six months left before seeing Josiah to find out who Jovah intended for his wife. Though Gabriel knew she needed strengths to complement his weaknesses, that she had to be human and not angel, he was shocked to learn that he was meant to woo and marry the daughter of farmers.
Rachel has never entertained thoughts of being the angelica – when her village was destroyed she was only six, and the life she had after the Edori adopted her was nomadic and unaffiliated with the angels. And these last few years as a slave in Lord Jethro’s home left precious little time for singing, let alone fantasies of a different life. And though she heard stories growing up of how Jovah indicated the presence of one’s true love by heating the Kiss, implanted in the arms of all infants dedicated to Jovah, even the light and heat of her Kiss does not incline her toward the arrogant angelo before her.
populace. Legend has it that if the Archangel and his angelica, together with representatives of all the people of Samaria, do not sing the Gloria every year, Jovah will first smite the mountain and, if Gloria is not sung within three days, will wreak increasing destruction. The angels have trouble believing that Rachel, an untutored former slave of farming stock, could possibly do the Gloria justice and Rachel, stubborn and proud, refuses to let any of them hear her.
Though pivotal, this and their larger romance play second fiddle to a larger plot revolving around corruption, power, wealthy and blasphemy, on a world where god is a present being. That is just one thread of Archangel's plot, which also includes political machinations, slavery, inequality, and a tapestry of cultures. I find myself unable to do justice to the rich, textured and beautifully crafted world created by Shinn in Archangel, the first in a fantasy series set on the colonised planet Samaria. Equal parts romance and adventure, Archangel has strongly developed characters, a beautifully imagined and wholly unique world, and a thoroughly engaging storyline. I'm forcing myself not to devour the series as a whole, but suspect this will be of limited success. - Alex

Thursday, April 1

David Fontana: Is There An Afterlife: A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence.

From the back of the book:
Do aspects of our personality survive our physical body? The fruit of many years research and experience by a world expert in the field, Is There An Afterlife? presents the most complete survey to date of the evidence, both historical and contemporary, for the survival of physical death. It looks at the question of what survives, in particular exploring the question of consciousness as primary to and not dependent on matter in the light of recent brain research and quantum physics. It discusses the possible nature of the afterlife, the common threads in Western and Eastern traditions, the common features of “many levels,” group souls and reincarnation.

The author of this fascinating work lists Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Past President of the Society for Psychical Research, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Cardiff University and much more amongst his qualifications. It is no surprise then, to find this book has a strong academic style. Extensive references are supplied for all the topics addressed and reported experiments include thorough descriptions of methodology with an emphasis on control of variables. While at times this can make for rather slow going it is worth the effort of reading such details in order to appreciate the results obtained. It is an ongoing lament of the author that there is so little academic interest (and funding) to repeat many of the experiments undertaken in the past.
The author takes great care to answer claims that much evidence of the afterlife can be dismissed as symptoms of mental illness, overactive imagination or outright fraud. While agreeing that many cases fall into these categories he searches for explanations for those that don’t and proposes that where no other reasonable explanation can be found that a paranormal one be considered.
He presents some of the more convoluted explanations for phenomena presented by critics for whom no evidence will ever be sufficient to accept a paranormal causation. He also presents paranormal explanations that have been put forward as alternatives to the concept of surviving death (some of which are almost as complex as those suggested by die-hard critics).
I have long believed in a number of parapsychological phenomena but had never given a lot of though to the details of what exactly they are, or process by which they occur. My image of the majority of investigators in the field was one of new-age hippies, gullible innocents and self-proclaimed experts of questionable pedigree, at best I imagined good academics gone bad. If nothing else, this book had opened my eyes to legitimate parapsychological research, an area I wish I’d known about twenty years ago when I was starting out on my academic career-I certainly would have pursued it then, and may still now-Lynn.