Friday, July 30

Libba Bray: Rebel Angels

It is the 1895 Christmas holidays and one young lady in particular is looking forward to getting away from school and spending time with friends and family in London. But it’s not all beaux and balls. She is being plagued by increasingly violent visions of three young school girls-victims of violent magic. Soon she and her friends return to the magical realms, where they meet up with the spirit of a recently deceased friend and are soon frolicking amongst the magic.
However something is not quite right. It soon becomes apparent that her earlier attempt to rebalance the magic hasn’t worked and now it has become wild and destructive and it is up to her to bind it before a greater evil does. Finding and defeating that greater evil proves a harder task than she ever imagined but in the end she manages in the process changing her outlook on life forever.
This is the second book in a trilogy and sadly suffers from a common problem of the form-sagging middle. There is quite a lot happening in this book, not only is the main plot progressing and deepening but a number of secondary plots are playing out as well. Yet for all that this book was slowwww. Very little seemed to be happening most of the time and twists were visible well in advance.
The anachronistic dialogue remains, and though I’ve come to accept that, the behaviour of the heroine and her friends was inconsistent for girls of their time and class and that grated a little. Having said that I am not the target audience for these books and I’m sure teen readers would identify well with the ‘historical’ characters.
Given the quality of the first book I was a little disappointed in this second episode but I’ll reserve judgement until I finish the final instalment.-Lynn

Wednesday, July 28

How Starbucks Saved My Life - Michael Gates Gill

After a quarter of a century at one of New York's most prestigious advertising companies, 63-year-old executive Gill was taken out to breakfast by a protégé, and fired. After a privileged lifetime of never having to worry about money, and never having to interview for a position, Gill found himself unemployed and unemployable. In the space of a few short months he was also divorced, the direct result of an affair that unintentionally produced his fifth child, and diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, with no health insurance to cover the cost of specialist visits let alone surgery.
Unready to accept the changes in his life, Gill dressed every morning in a suit and tie, briefcase in hand, and set out the front door. And more often than not he wound up in Starbucks, where the people were friendly and the ambiance uplifting. When a woman sat next to him one morning and casually asked if he was interested in a job, he said “yes,” without thinking. And that act changed his life.
Subtitled A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, this riches-to-rags-to-fulfillment bio epitomises the concepts that you make your own luck, happiness is unrelated to income, and that it’s never too late to change your life. Though not something that had at all occurred to him – Gill, unsurprisingly, had been looking at executive-level positions – he found he flourished in a position that required a substantially new skill set, had different priorities, and involved a very different population that his previous role. And while there were certainly small areas of overlap, for the most part Gill was a neophyte – he’d never cleaned his own home, but relished getting the public toilet of his store sparkling, and threw himself with gusto into every task. And in return he was rewarded – by a supportive management style, humane corporate policies, complete health care coverage, and the opportunity to shine.
How Starbucks Saved My Life is also an excellent advertisement for the Seattle-based coffee chain that’s had worldwide success - except in Australia, where 75% of stores closed within two years. I have to admit that I’m no fan of American chain corporations, who pay minimum wage, offer few benefits, and modify employment hours to reduce these still further. I also have a fairly cynical view of chains in general, and global American chains in particular; though I don’t drink it myself, Melbourne sees itself as a foodie mecca, and that includes some of the best coffee you can buy, so the opening of Starbucks here was greeted rather hostilely, even more so when a Starbucks opened in Italian-rich Carlton.
So I was pleasantly surprised by Gill’s description of the benefits Starbucks affords its employees, and by their humane policies – toward employees but also to indigent Guests.
Gill does a veer a little toward the evangelical on the topic, though. Indeed, the tone of How Starbucks Saved My Life is a little too unrelentingly positive for me throughout – there are only cursory mentions of Gill’s wife and children’s reactions to his affair and new baby, for example. And he has a decided tendency to paint himself in the most flattering of a lights – even when recounting an incident where he was less than sterling (as when he remembers the way he treated an affirmative action trial staffer) the spin is less on his poor behavior than his new-found excellence. I was also a little irritated by Gill's frequent recollections of the past, usually triggered by something in stark contrast, and frequently involving contact with the rich and famous, particularly writing. That said, I didn't find Gill self-aggrandising or at all self-important. I did find his open embrace of change and life lessons positive, and I feel a little warmer toward Starbucks, though not enough to go there. If you’re in the mood for something a little Chicken Soup for the Soulish or if, like me, you’re killing an hour in a Singaporean bookshop, this is excellent. - Alex

Wednesday, July 21

Penelope Farmer: Charlotte Sometimes

A young girl wakes up to find that she has travelled backwards in time forty years and is living in the body of another girl. The two trade places regularly until one becomes a day student at their shared boarding school and finds herself stuck in war-time England. Eventually she manages to return to her own time taking with her the experiences and memories of her visit to the past.
This was a delightful revisit to a childhood favourite. Through an adults eyes very little seems to happen over the course of this story, particularly considering the historical period covered. However I can still remember the tension of wondering if the heroine will manage to safely return to her own time and indignation at the injustice of getting into trouble for not completing school work.
Perhaps not intricate enough for the sophisticated youth of today, this story’s simplicity still held a lot of charm for me.-Lynn

Tuesday, July 20

Threshold - Sara Douglas

Startled by the abrupt arrival of debt-collectors, a young glassmaker drops the vase that could have paid off her father’s debts; instantly losing their citizen status, girl and man are sold into slavery. Taken far from home, they attract a good price thanks to their high level of skill, particularly the girl – she has a talent for caging glass, particularly rare in one so young. Renamed Tirzah, the girl and her father are bought on behalf of the Magi, a fearsome cult of sorcerers who use the power of numbers as magic.
For the past two centuries the Magi have been building a giant structure, Threshold, which their calculations predict will allow them to cross to the Vale, a well containing the power of creation, that will give them access to immortality and immense power. Glass, carefully crafted, is a key component of the enormous pyramid, but only perfection will do.
Project head Magus Boaz doubts Tirzah’s skills, and demands she cage a vase – one riddled with weaknesses, microscopic cracks and other flaws. Though her father laughed at her when she told him of it as a child, Tirzah can communicate with glass – she reads the vase and, knowing how and where to cut and, inspired by an old tale, frees a design of frogs and reeds to creates beauty where once was only dulled imperfection. The onlookers are amazed, none more so than Boaz, who sweeps up the gladdened glass... and dashes it to the floor.

Thus is Tirzah inducted into the way of the Magi. Single-minded in their pursuit of the One, they rule tyrannically. Their cruelty is not confined to the slaves – when Tirzah first enters Threshold she is so overwhelmed by the despair of the imprisoned glass, which cries agonizingly, that she collapses to the ground. This alerts a subgroup of her glassmaking companions that Tirzah, too, is an Elemental – able to communicate both with elements and with the peaceable, benevolent Soulenai. Tirzah learns that the enslaved Elementals are plotting to overpower the Magi and destroy Threshold. But Threshold grows stronger and more malevolent by the day, and Tirzah suspects that force may not be the best way to defeat it. And if the Magi can cross in to the Vale, something can cross from the Vale in to the world…
Threshold’s an absorbing combination of fantasy, action and romance, with a strong Gaia-type spirituality running through the text. Douglas creates a convincing sense of threat and malevolence from the apparently inanimate creation, and I liked her character development, particularly Tirzah’s arc – Douglas explores the seductive effects of security and comfort on drive and determination.
I was a little surprised there was no reflection on slavery in a society where one act of fate can turn anyone from respected citizen to slave, but it’s also the case that we’re often unable to see our own society with clear eyes.

This was my most belated introduction to Douglas, as I was given Threshold a decade or so ago, and it’s taken another trip away to have me dig through my unread backlog. I’ll be leaving Threshold on the train when I disembark at Bath in an hour, but enjoyed the experience and will check out what else Douglas has written. - Alex

Friday, July 16

Pride/Prejudice - Ann Herendeen

Charles always knew he'd one day need to take a wife, but he never dreamed he'd find a woman who would catch first his eye and then his heart, until he met Jane. This distresses Fitz, had never been attracted to a woman, intellectually or sexually, until he met Elizabeth. And Elizabeth enjoys her intimate romps with Charlotte more than anything she could imagine doing with a man, though glimpsing Charles and Fitz together makes her feel curiously faint and flushed.
As the title indicates, Pride/Prejudice is a slashy reworking of Jane Austen's most loved novel, that incorporates much of the original plot, characters, dialogue and events, but adds a new and significant dimension. Taking place before and between the scenes of Austen's novel, Pride/Prejudice seeks to uncover a truth universally ignored - that the two male leads of this most well read of literary classics has a clear but unseen subtext. In Herendeen's reimagining, Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy are enthusiastic lovers, the latter more so than the former, who's ready to move forward into a more adult (ie heterosexual) relationship.
When Lizzie goes to Netherland Park to tend to her incapacitated sister she not only falls out with Darcy but also spies a rigorous tryst between him and her sister's love interest. The scene distresses her, for she loves Jane and wants her to be happy, an outcome Lizzie considers unlikely given Bingley's otherwise directed interest. But Lizzie is also a little captivated by what she sees...
And that's where I left Pride/Prejudice. Perhaps it was just that I read it a little to soon after Phyllida, perhaps I'm just over the obsessive love of Pride & Prejudice, or perhaps I just wasn't in the right head space for it. Whatever the reason, I had the strong sense that, like Phyllida, the action would in all senses focus on the men, that the male relationships would be more complex and rewarding that those with and between the women, and that Lizzie's main role would be to support Mr Darcy doing as he desired while she was content with the scraps of their relationship. I may well have been wrong - that, after all, is the down side to halting only part way through a book. But I'm not unhappy with my decision. - Alex

Thursday, July 15

Mercedes Lackey: The Serpent’s Shadow

A young half-caste female doctor returns to England from India after the suspicious death of her parents, hoping to hide from their killer amongst the outcasts and the poor. She attempts to use her magical talent to hide her household drawing the attention of local mages wanting to know who had invaded their patch. Upon deciding the woman is harmless one smitten young gentleman accepts the task of training her in magic.
All goes well until the killer from India tracks the woman down and sets in motion a plan to murder her in order to absorb her power.
With the help of some local mages, her seven familiars (that take the shapes of native Indian animals) and the street people she has treated in her capacity as doctor, the murderer is defeated, her life saved and a happy ever after for all ensured.
This story, the first in a series of re imagined fairytales set in Edwardian London, is a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While all the elements are present they are beautifully incorporated into a story all of there own yet unmistakably derivative. This aspect of the tale was very well done.
What wasn’t so well done was the period. The setting is very good, capturing a true sense of time and place; it is the characters that let the piece down. All the main characters have very modern sensibilities but the heroine, in particular, is a twenty-first century girl dropped into 1909. Quite regularly I felt that I was reading a treatise on the treatment of women and conditions of the poor at the turn of the last century rather than a work of fiction, and that pulled me out of the story every time.
In spite of that I did like The Serpent’s Shadow and will read others in the series but not in any great rush.-Lynn

Tuesday, July 13

Dead Beat - Val McDermid

Kate Branningan is a Mancusian, independent, and a PI. Her usual remit involves data tracking, phone calls and hours in front of a computer screen, so her current task – tracking down a group of counterfeiters, or ‘schneids’ – is proving a little more adventurous. Between stakeouts, surveillance and multiple roadside café meals, Kate’s highest priority is a quiet evening home. So when her live-out partner Richard, a music journalist, leaves her a note headed ‘don’t forget’ – a sure sign he forgot to tell her something, she was in no mood to attend rock star Jett’s party. But she owes Richard for a work function he attended, and so she frocks up and sallies forth.
Kate has no inkling that this act will result in her working for Jett, tracking down the location of his one-time partner (in life and song writing), Moira Pollock, nor that this job would find Kate investigating her first murder case.
The author of the justifiably well-known Tony Hill/Wire in the Blood series has crafted a new, and interesting but less complex character in Kate. There’s certainly more humour in Dead Beat than in the former series, and the characters are well rounded. I enjoyed the writing, and the plot developments, which were twisty enough to be absorbing without straining incredulity.
The biggest problem I had with Dead Beat was that there were multiple incidents that dated the novel, published in 1992. Many of these were tech-related, and though Kate was undoubtedly cutting edge when *Dead Beat was written, having references to “turbo charged IBM compatible” computers, PBX phone systems, Railroad Tycoon (“the ultimate strategy game”) and an explanation of Tetris (“a game that sounds simple but isn’t. The object is to build a solid wall out of a random selection of differently coloured bricks”) solidly sets the scene almost two decades ago. That’s even without an episode of Dallas, and the admiring references to turquoise and gold shell suits
I did enjoy the journey, but every single time I came across these anachronistic references, I was jolted out of the story. I know that a degree of these are inevitable – there’s no way an author can predict technological progress, and these elements often need to be included in contemporary-set novels to give a sense of place. So although I quite liked the reading experience, I’m not sad to be leaving Dead Beat at Changi airport, one fewer book burdening my journey through life. - Alex

Monday, July 12

Where Underpants Come From - Joe Bennett

One afternoon, after purchasing six pairs of underpants (a five pack of everyday undies and a more flattering pair for special occasions), Bennett was struck by the fact that
underpants can be made in China and transported to New Zealand, passing through the hands of, and making a profit for, I don’t know how many middle men, and still be sold to me for just NZ$5.99. And as for the pack of five pairs for NZ$8.59, well, the economics of it is beyond me.

This realisation is followed by awareness that, apart from some vague notion of cotton fields, spinning jennys, and elastic, he has no idea how underpants are made, and that this “is representative of a far wider ignorance… about the commercial and industrial processes on which my easy existence depends.”

Where for most of us that would be the end of the story, for Bennett this insight was the first part of an exploration into how a particular pair of underpants came to be, tracing them from his starting point (The Warehouse chain store in Christchurch) to theirs (a cotton field in Urumqi, roughly midway between China’s borders with Kazakstan and Mongolia). Along the way he also learns about the history and culture of the world’s most populous nation, a country without which the global economy would collapse, and about which the West as a whole knows virtually nothing. There are, says Bennett, “plenty of better-informed books about China, but I suspect this is the only one to begin with a pair of underpants.”

Those books are also unlikely to be funnier of more entertaining than Where Underpants Come From. I was sold when I got to page four - after a brief introduction to the agricultural and population might of China, Bennett opens with the shopping decisions that started his quest, and the aspirational nature of his ‘special occasion’ jocks:

Underpants ought to be a swift purchase… but it takes me a minute or two to settle on the Authentics. What delays me is vanity. It is a ridiculous concern. No one will ever see these underpants except my dogs and the occasional sexual partner. The dogs will take no interest, and if a sexual partner and I reach the underpants stage, then, frankly, it’s a done deal. It would take more than pictures of racing cars to halt the momentum. Nevertheless I am clearly not alone in taking aesthetic considerations into account, otherwise there wouldn’t be hundreds of different varieties of underpants.

This combination of self-deprecation, humour and insight continues for the next 254 pages, interwoven with information. While some of this involves the manufacturing process Bennett set out to explore, more of it relates to the culture, history, mores and behaviours of China and her people, both in their own right and in comparison with the West.

For example, Bennett discusses the problem of applying western concepts like queuing to the task of buying a train ticket in China, where there are crowds instead of queues:

The shape [of the crowd trying to buy train tickets] resembles the head of a cauliflower, each customer a floret… and if you look closely at its heart you’ll see a single static floret. That’s me.

There are many aspect of Where Underpants Come From that I want to reference, but if I discussed all of them my review would be almost as long as (and far less entertaining or informative than) the text.

His description of a lunch menu is equally visual:

'Braised chicken intestines with satay sauce’ looks more tempting than the ‘stewed pigs tendons with assorted meats’ but I pass on both. I don’t choose the pigeon soup either… The soup is a broth with a few vegetable slivers floating on its surface. The pigeon is a pigeon. It lies slumped on its side in the broth. The difference between this pigeon and one in the street is that this one is dead and plucked. Its claws poke over one side of the bowl, its head flops over another, its eyes and beak are intact, and its skin is the colour of putty.

Bennett does not shy away from the many distressing aspects of modern Chinese society, from endemic corruption, a long cultural history of (sometimes justifiable) xenophobia and racism that would be wholly unacceptable in a modern Western setting, to a brief discussion about crime and punishment - 99% of people charged with a capital crime are convicted, and trials are rare as most people admit to the crime. For example, a man who initially denied killing his wife confessed “after a few days and nights of polite questioning,” but wasn’t executed, because his wife turned up to rescue him. And the use of death penalty criminals as organ donors is mentioned in passing – “the condemned are paraded into a stadium, made to kneel and shot in the base of the skull. A doctor is usually in attendance” to remove and preserve the organs.

The contrast between Chinese industrial safety and standards in the west is shocking – laws are lax and

[China] competes but plays to different rules. It will cut any corner. An article in the China Daily… announced that fatal workplace accidents had fallen 10 per cent…. This month only 7321 people died at work. That’s a mere 250 people a day…

Although little explored, there is reflection on the changing nature of China’s youth – none of the subsistence farmers Bennett sees are under 30, and a generation of indulged only children who, after 30 years of the One Child policy, will be the end point of two parents, four grandparents and eight great-grandparents.

China, Bennett observes,

is no longer in the grip of any sort of political or social ideology. Those in power have only two objectives. The first, as always and everywhere, is to stay in power. The second is to make China rich. In that aim they are entirely at one with the people they govern. The aim of the second objective is to help them achieve the first objective.

But, Bennett explains, this race is unsustainable – China is destroying the resources on which its vast population depends in the race to increased manufacture combined with minimal oversight, little regulation, active avoidance of what legislation there is, and an official policy of masking pollution problems.

Water is the more pressing issue:

China has never abounded in water. Now the stuff is becoming scarce and dirty, especially in the north. Recently the thirst largest lake in Chian turned toxic. Only half of China’s sewerage is treated before entering rivers and lakes… According to government figures, and the Chinese government is not known for inflating a problem, over 90 per cent of urban water is contaminated by industrial or organic waste… In short, the charge up Industrial Wealth Street is entirely understandable, but what’s further up the street does not look pretty.

I’ve made it sound as though Bennett has been critical and harsh, which is not the case – his approach is clear eyed and sympathetic, to the people if not to the institutions running China. His interactions with the people of China are almost uniformly pleasant and helpful, and I believe he leaves as something of a Sinophile, but it’s a little hard to tell. This is particularly because Where Underpants Come From trails off, rather than conclusively concluding, but the impression it leaves behind, of contradiction, complication and crowds, is appropriate for at least a partial glimpse of China. I’m interested in trying others of his writing. - Alex

Saturday, July 10

Some Nerve - Jane Heller

Ann Roth is a celebrity journalist based in LA, but unlike most, she has a strong sense of ethics - she doesn't twist the truth, report on rumour and innuendo, and she doesn't stoop to sneaky tricks. But times are tight and magazine budgets tighter. When Famous magazine's editor Harvey tells her she needs to land Hollywood's most impossible 'get,' and interview with press-hostile actor Malcolm Goddard, he makes it clear that failure to deliver will result in a one-way flight back to Middletown, Missouri. It takes a little planning, a flash of inspired deviousness, and the recalling of a few debts, but Ann manages a brief chat with an expansive Malcolm - until he realises she's not a besotted fan, at which point he throws a tantrum. Contrary to her ethics though it is, Ann uses the scene to finagle an actual interview from Malcolm's publicist, Peggy.
The only hitch is that Malcolm insists on it being on his small plane, while he's piloting. And Ann's deathly phobic of flying. Despite her best efforts, she can't make it on board, and Ann returns to the small town where she grew up. She moves back into her childhood home, where her mother, aunt and grandmother have various phobias and fears, and she feels herself fading. Until a school mate (who still burns for her but for whom she never felt a flicker), now assistant chief of staff at Middletown's prestigious hospital, lets slip that Malcolm Goddard's scheduled for admission for investigation of a few worrying symptoms, under an assumed name. A little planning, a little subterfuge and a little revenge on the man who purposefully ended her career and Ann could have her job back. But at what cost?
Some Nerve is intended as a meet-cute romance, with a few unusual stumbling blocks on the way to the Happy Ever After, where Ann and Malcolm are united, both better, stronger people for the experience. The premise is not bad, and the secondary plot of medical malfeasance was entertaining, but I found Ann profoundly irritating and quite immature for a thirty-one year old. Some of that comes from my inability to understand why Ann didn't work on resolving her phobia earlier, and a little impatience with the strongly emphasised phobia sub-plot - Ann has fear of flying, of sickness and hospitals, of vomiting (witnessing or doing), of medication side-effects, clowns, and peanut butter sticking to the roof of her mouth. Her grandmother is terrified of germs, her aunt is claustrophobic, and her mother is both agoraphobic and afraid of "heights, dogs, and dentists, and she would only ride on escalators if they were going up."
There were also a few minor errors that pulled me out of the narrative, like the use of emotophobia (fear of strong or negative emotions) instead of emetophobia (fear of vomiting) by a hypnotherapist who specialises in phobia therapy.
Most of all, I was irritated by the whole second half, where Ann becomes a candy-striper at this major hospital in the middle of nowhere. I found most of the hospital scenes unconvincing, and thought that if I were a nurse working on the wards where Ann floated about I'd ask the volunteer coordinator to pull her - she blocks the way of a crash team, gives advice to patients, and repeatedly fails to knock and wait for a response before entering patient's rooms. The first time she does this Ann walks in on a nude man receiving oral sex. Instead of exiting quietly and closing the door, she tries to stop them:

"You need to stop now," I said with more authority. "You could become a code blue, and it would be my fault if anything bad-"
"Faster, faster," he moaned to the woman, who seemed to me to be going fast enough.
"I'm not kidding," I said, fearing the guy might flatline on my watch and that I would be held responsible. "Please stop."

Then she calls security, causing "a SWAT team" to charge the room. Authority? Code blue? Flatline? And above all, her watch? From a candy-striper on her first day.
I did finish Some Nerve, and I enjoyed parts of it, but for the most part I found Ann annoying and Malcolm more a cipher than a rounded character. I'll try others of Heller's works in the future, but perhaps not for a while. - Alex

Friday, July 9

Poppy Z. Brite: Love in Vein-Tales of Vampire Erotica

From the back of the book-
Beyond fear, beyond horror, beyond temptation, there is a realm of the senses that only the boldest may enter. An acclaimed master of the dark fantastic, author Poppy Z Brite has brought together the genre’s most powerful and original writers to reinvent the literature of the macabre and give it a distinctly erotic spin.
A shameless celebration of unspeakable intimacies, the stories within explore out most sinister and irrepressible hungers, those that even lovers are forbidden to share.
The fact that it has taken me ten years to complete this collection of twenty short stories says more about what I think of them than any words could.
To be fair I have only vague memories of the first part of the collection but I didn’t find any of the offerings piqued my interest enough to follow up on any particular author. The same can be said of the final third of the collection which is fresh in my mind.
I think part of my disappointment in this book comes from the liberal definition of vampire. I was hoping for the traditional blood sucking monster, however, here the term vampire is used to describe any parasitic feeding from a human. While it’s not unheard of to use the term in this way it still skewed my expectations and lead to disappointment.
Also erotica, like humour, is personal and while I wasn’t surprised or offended by this collection, neither did I find it titillating. It simply wasn’t to my taste.
For me this was a ho-hum anthology that left me just a little flat.-Lynn

Thursday, July 8

Where Serpents Sleep - CS Harris

Sebastian St. Cyr is asked to help investigate what appears to be an accident - the deaths of eight prostitutes in a house fire. There are, however, a couple of interesting elements, including the unwillingness of Bow Street to investigate, evidence that at least one young woman was shot, and the source of the request - Hero Jarvis, daughter and now only child of Lord Jarvis, himself cousin to the king. Hero was interviewing one of the fallen women, to support her suspicions that they turned to prostitution out of dire necessity rather than loose morals, at the time of the attack.
As with its predecessors What Angels Fear, When Gods Die and Why Mermaids Sing, Where Serpents Sleep immersed me in a rich world of privilege and poverty, society and the sordid, mores and immorality. As St. Cyr unravels the murders, performed to cover the death of one particular woman of surprisingly privileged background, he uncovers some of society's dirtiest little secrets. And at the heart is the long shadow of child abuse, at the hands of a prominent man informally known to be
A tad too fond of little girls. It was a polite, euphemistic expression for something so ugly and bestial most Englishmen found it difficult to admit it actually happened in their oh so proper and painfully civil society.
Two hundred years later and little has changed.
One of the most interesting things for me about Where Serpents Sleep was the overlap in setting and era between it and the recently-read Phyllidia and the Brotherhood of Philander, which also mentions the assassination of Prime Minister Spenser Perceval - knowing the assailant from the first book made me more aware of that seam of tension despite my incomplete knowledge of British history. CS Harris does a rather better job of capturing both the spirit and the details of the time, however, including a far more layered description of Almack's.
There is this time little mention of St. Cyr's missing mother, and though his lifelong love, actress and half-sister (so far as they both know), Kat Boleyn, makes an appearance, that plot strand is not advanced further, leaving a tantalising thread for future resolution.
The characters are clear, unique and developed, the plot is intricate without being unduly convoluted, the mysteries are satisfactorily resolved both intellectually and viscerally, and the writing is informed and evocative without being laboured or uninteresting. My only quibble, and it's slight, is the use of dialect ("I was 'opin' maybe I'd get t'ride in yer curricle. I ain't never ridden in a rig like that afore... I ain't gonna pike off"), but it's rare and the quality elsewhere was more than high enough to overlook it. I await book five with anticipatory pleasure. - Alex

Wednesday, July 7

Fade - Robert Cormier

The only mystery Paul Moreaux knows of is a family photograph, taken just before the first World War, before the family moved from Quebec to New England - where his uncle Adelard ought to be was an empty space, which Paul found thought-provoking even if his father thinks Adelard just ducked. Other than that his life seems ordinary enough - he shares a bed with his older and younger brothers and the room with his sisters, his father works at the nearby comb factory and smells always of the flexible but combustible celluloid they use, and his greatest interests are performing and spending time with his Pete.
That is until the summer Paul turns thirteen, when everything starts to change. It begins with the return of his aunt Rosanna - his beautiful, flirtatious, mysterious aunt, who has an intoxicating effect of the young boy. It continues with union activity and industrial action at the Monument Comb Shop. But Paul's life really changes when his uncle Adelard returns home, and explains that Paul has inherited the Moreaux family trait, passed from uncle to nephew as far back as they can trace, and kept secret from everyone else - Paul has the ability to become invisible at will, to fade. And though this seemed at first a gift, as Paul begins to see, hear and learn things better kept secret, he wonders if the fade is instead a curse.
I really liked, in particular, the idea that something which seems so perfect as controllable invisibility being a bad thing. It all sounds like a great premise, though the concept reminded me more of a William Sleator novel than something by Cormier (better known for edgy but realistic young adult novels). Unfortunately I just couldn't engage with the narrative or Paul. I suspect, as the opening section is titled 'Paul,' that there's at least one other voice in the novel, but I stopped reading just after Adelard reveals the fade, so I can't say for certain. I don't know if this was because the writing seemed laboured, if it's because there's a strong hindsight aspect ("I didn't know it at the time but that was the first time I faded"), if it's because it took about a third of the novel before Paul learned of his ability... whatever it was, for the second time already this week I just couldn't be bothered reading on. And that's a shame given the prestige of the author (whose work I very much enjoyed when I was at school) and the promise of the premise. - Alex

Tuesday, July 6

Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander - Ann Herendeen

Phyllida Lewis has few prospects, despite her good birth and curvaceous figure - at her one and only Season she received but one expression of interest, and that from an elderly and on all fronts unattractive, half-hearted suitor. Despite her mother's meddling, Phyllida would far rather in any case continue her writing - her first novel was published, under a pseudonym of course, only a short time ago and she's going through the proofs of her second.
She is, however, aware of her obligations to her family. So when the ton's most eligible (and formerly believed confirmed) bachelor, Andrew Carrington, in line for an earldom, comes courting, Phyllida is interested. His revelation that the marriage will be primarily to guarantee an heir, and will not obstruct his preference for men, provides little impediment - as long as Phyllida may write she's happy. But Phyllida and Andrew have more in common, and more chemistry, than they could have expected.
I came to Phyllida because of Lynn's review, which was intriguing. And, like Lynn, I was a little disappointed, though the cause of my disappointment differs. I haven't the familiarity with and exposure to Regency novels to pick up the same level of era discrepancy as Lynn, though I did feel a little as though the characters had contemporary sensibilities (compared, for example, with the way Greenwood's Phryne Fisher is both of her time yet not confined by its mores). However for me the missing element was all sexual, starting with the ease with which the formerly resolutely homosexual (though that word is never used in the text, as explained in the appendix) hero is robustly attracted to the very feminine Phyllida. I'm happy to accept that the inexperienced, unworldly Phyllida is quickly and (very, very) easily aroused by Andrew, despite his lack of attention to the differing needs of women than men. I also have no trouble at all with the idea that she's even more interested in seeing Andrew with another man. What I found frustrating was that, though both parties were aware of this, that aspect never came into play.
Instead, Phyllida's interest is manifested by her support for the like-minded gentlemen of Andrew's club, the Brotherhood of Philander. And while the novel is not an erotica (though the premise would make for a good one), nor even yet as much a romance as an historical mystery/exploration of the times, there are indicators that a three-way romp is in the offing - a tryst that never eventuates. For example, the first time Phyllida sees her husband with another man, a passionate kiss in a theatre changing room, she:
watched, the blood rushing to her face and her breath coming in short little gasps. She should look away, she told herself, or say something, but she did neither. She was only vaguely aware that her secret place, the one Andrew had brought to so frightening a peak of ecstasy, was again engorged, almost throbbing, just at the sight of her husband and the handsome actor embracing.
But the promise hinted at here is never delivered, as the plot moves instead in pursuit of a Napoleonic, somewhat Byzantine mystery involving ledger books, codes, Franco-American spies, blackmail and wheels within wheels that made (for me, at any rate) Andrew's orientation more a reason for pressure than an integral part of the plot - any other scandal might almost have done as well. That direction takes precedence over not only the sexual side of the story but also the romance, and the whole is then rather hastily wound up in about a chapter and a half.
That said, I did enjoy Heredeen's voice, and have borrowed another of her novels, which I hope will be a little less conflicted about its purpose. - Alex

For Lynn's review of Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander click here.

Monday, July 5

The Birthday Present - Barbara Vine

Married Tory MP Ivor Tesham is a rising star in the dying days of the Thatcher government. He also has a keen taste for bondage, and a long-standing affair with Hebe Furnal, the married mother of a young boy. To celebrate Hebe's birthday, in addition to the string of pearls her unaware husband won't be able to distinguish from the costume variety, Ivor sets the scene for the fulfillment of an elaborate fantasy - he hires two men to abduct and bind Hebe then transport her to his cousin's country home for a weekend of adventurous, role-playing sex. What could possibly go wrong?
The Birthday Present is narrated through a combination of Ivor's cousin Rob Delgado's reflections almost two decades later, and diary entries from Hebe's friend Jane, who often provided alibis for the affair. I read a review of the novel soon after its 2008 release, and it's been on my To Read list ever since.
It's significantly disappointing, therefore, that I found The Birthday Present so politically dense that I didn't even make it to the abduction, or even the first mention of it (which is only on page 32 in the copy I had). I didn't like Rob's voice, and that got in the way of my engagement with the text. The unheralded switch from his voice to Jane's diary was obvious by tone but not signalled, and I found that annoying, too. I'm hoping this isn't a sign of the month to come but just an indication of the depth of enjoyment the Seafort saga has provided, and the difficulty other novels will have in comparison. Watch this space! - Alex

Sunday, July 4

Wake - Robert J Sawyer

Caitlin Decker is an ardent blogger, a high school student, gifted at maths, and she’s been blind since birth due to a condition called Tomasevic’s syndrome. It’s a fact she long ago accepted, and though she would love to see, blindness is not a significant handicap. When it comes to computing, in fact, she’s far ahead of most of her sighted peers, for Caitlin is able to surf the net with ease, finessing search terms and effortlessly retracing her cyber footsteps. When Caitlin, newly relocated to Toronto from the US because of her unemotional father’s work, receives an unexpected email it’s only chance that stops her from relegating it to the trash. The email turns out to be the most life-changing thing possible – a Japanese neurologist and his team have developed an ocular implant that might help redirect the signal processing error that’s caused Caitlin’s blindness.
When the device is implanted Caitlin’s disappointed to have no change in her vision, but once a software update is downloaded through her Wi-Fi link, Caitlin does see. Her vision, though, is not of reality but of the internet – sites, traffic and connections. There are colours and lines, and Dr Kuroda posits it’s because the optical sections of her brain have been co-opted virtually since birth to computer use. Caitlin calls what she can see ‘webspace’ and the phenomenon ‘websight’ - it’s beautiful, though nothing compared to what she sees when she also develops real world vision
Had Wake just been about Caitlin and her adaptation to sightedness it would, in Sawyer’s hands, have been a fascinating read, laced with science and neuroscience, technology and psychology. These are, indeed, components – Caitlin doesn’t magically adjust to being sighted, but instead struggles with learning to read, is stunned to see geese flying south for winter well out of hearing range (and therefore something she’d not have noticed before having sight), discovers she’s myopic, and expresses insight into the discrimination of vision – the way we don’t see everything that’s there, that frogs don’t register static images, and my introduction to confabulation across saccades, which is the way our brains skip over the transition images when we shift our glance (compare the way your vision is when you pan around the room with a dizzying camera pan).
Being Sawyer, though, this first in a trilogy is significantly more complicated, intertwined, funny and beautiful. I, as ever, find myself struggling to do justice to the perfectly balanced structure of his writing, which is complex and lucid. Wake is about a multitude of sentient awakenings – Caitlin’s, of course, and the ‘soul dawn’ of Helen Keller, but also the first representational artwork created by a primate (a chimp/bonobo cross named Hobo), and the dawning of AI self awareness. In both these cases the conditions triggering these awakenings are specific, plausible, and appear well supported by science. They’re also accompanied by less than altruistic human behaviours, from primatologists freaking over primate intelligence to Chinese government officials erecting an electronic wall and cauterising an outbreak of influenza. In the way strands of apparently disparate texts can intermingle, this whole section strongly echoed parts of
Where Underpants Come From, which was most unexpected – not because they both deal with China but because they both discuss the Chinese cultural mindset.
There are resonant moments, like Caitlin’s English teacher, whose response to the observation that Atwood’s
The Handmaid's Tale is science fiction is, “It can't be science fiction, young lady – if it were, we wouldn’t be studying it!”
One of the many things I love about fiction is that it gives sociological insights that I would otherwise be unaware of. I was, for example, aware that US school children begin the day with a recitation of the pledge of allegiance, but had no idea that their northern counterparts sing O Canada before classes
Great writing can also introduce the reader to authors, and even fields, previously unknown to them. I’m now aware of
Fiona Kelleghan, an academic and critic whose field of interest is fantasy and science fiction, and of Harvard linguist George Zipf’s research, which uncovered the fact that all languages have an inverse ratio between the frequency with which words are used proportional to its’ rank on a list of the frequency of all words in that language.
I also want to read Songs of the Gorilla Nation, which is a memoir by an autistic primatologist, linked to the text because Caitlin’s father is at the very high functioning end of the autism spectrum, a fact she was unaware of when blind (having misheard it, when her mother told her, as ‘artistic’) and which may be connected to her facility with the internet. Sawyer also raises the fascinating concept that Caitlin’s blindness prevented her from developing autism, though she displays (or has displayed) some autistic traits, including not automatically orienting her gaze to people when they speak, something non-autistic blind people do without direction.

I also very much want to read Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which sounds fascinating but too distracting from school to read right now. Jaynes’ ideas are strewn, with full attribution, throughout the novel, and his thesis that consciousness arose due to increasing societal complexity, and within approximately a hundred year window, is fascinating. According to Sawyer, Jaynes says this change is evident in the differences between The Iliad and The Odyssey, and between the Old and New testaments of the bible
I’m saddened a little that Sawyer and Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist whose work I read frequently several years ago but not at all since I began reviewing, are at odds when it comes to primate communication via signing, though not at all surprised to find the latter sides with Noam Chomsky, whose work I find virtually incomprehensible, and whose sovereignty I feel was shaken by
this research. Which is all a bit of a meander from the book at hand. I was also disappointed to learn that Jagster, a transparent search engine with open source page ranking, was invented by Sawyer and – at least as yet - wholly hypothetical. I was exalted by the way Sawyer combined childhood development research into his projection of the flowering of AI sentience, particularly the recognition of object permanence, and the difference between animate and inanimate objects
And I wept (on public transport, on the way to work, which was particularly embarrassing) when Caitlin experienced for the first time seeing the first images from Apollo 8 of the earth, followed by the Apollo 8’s astronauts
Christmas message.
Sawyer’s work combines strong scientific fact with a meticulously crafted and coherent plot, rounded characterisation and multiple intersecting narratives, humour, truth, and humanity in all its shades, to create work that is deeply satisfying. I read Watch first a few months ago, just before going overseas, and didn’t at the time have the opportunity to review it with the length and depth it demanded. I’ve reread it now, and know I’ve done it no justice at all, and I look forward to rewarding myself for my attempt by reading the second in the series, which is waiting for me on the library’s reserve shelf even as I type
. - Alex

Friday, July 2

Die Trying - Lee Child

Former MP Jack Reacher is idly walking down a Chicago street one morning when his path intersects with that of a young woman exiting a dry cleaner's. Teetering on crutches and laden with clothing, Reacher pauses to assist her, and finds himself sharing her fate - kidnapped at gunpoint the two are bundled into the back of an anonymous van.
Holly Johnson says only that she's an agent of the FBI, but Reacher senses there's more to her than that, and he's right - Holly's also the daughter of a prominent senator. Holly's abduction is part of a wider plan, and more than her safety lies in Reacher's competent hands.
Die Trying is the second in a lengthy series about this aimless yet purposeful retired serviceman, and my introduction. I became interested in reading Childs’ work, which I’d seen around but paid no attention to, after seeing him on the First Tuesday Book Club’s bestseller special episode. I’m glad I did – the series won’t change the world, but Die Trying is entertaining, escapist and fun. It rings true without beating you over the head with researched miscellany, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to catching up with the rest of the series, which it doesn't seem essential to read in order. - Alex

The Jack Reacher novels
Killing Floor; Die Trying; Tripwire; The Visitor; Echo Burning; Without Fail; Persuader;The Enemy; One Shot;The Hard Way; Bad Luck and Trouble; Nothing to Lose; Gone Tomorrow; 61 Hours; Worth Dying For

Thursday, July 1

Eloisa James: Desperate Duchesses

On returning from an extended stay in Paris a disenchanted Duchess needs to entertain herself in the face of continued marital neglect. She finds that entertainment in the form of a distant cousin who asks for her help in seducing a renowned rake into marriage. After transforming the young miss into a desirable woman she concocts a plan to have the man visit her house regularly-she challenges him to a game of chess.
Things almost immediately start to go pear shaped when the man, disregarding her husband, makes unseemly suggestions as to the rules of play and her brother embarks on a mission to seduce the young lady before she marries.
While nothing goes quite to plan, there is at least one happy couple by the end of the book and hints that the Duchess’s marriage might not be beyond hope.
The first in a series, this book stands alone quite well while introducing a cast of characters I expect will be given books of their own.
There are no real surprises to be found as the story plays out in conformance to romantic comedy tradition. But the writing is excellent, the characters well developed and the dialogue amusing, making the tried and true formula shine. The inclusion of flying cow pats, bed wetting toddlers and dubious poetry give the book a certain quirkiness that marks it out from its contemporaries.
Definitely a series I will be following.-Lynn