Tuesday, August 31

The Hard Way - Lee Child

Former MP Jack Reacher lives in the moment, undistracted by possessions, relationships or responsibilities. Apart from money in the bank and the clothes on his back he owns nothing, and he won't even commit to a china cup when he drinks coffee in a New York café. gazing out the window, alert as always to every detail, Reacher notices a man climb into an expensive car. taking another cup at the same café the next night, Reacher is approached by a mysterious man interested in witnesses - when Reacher is able to describe the man and the car, down to the license plate, he's escorted to the home of Edward Lane. Employer of mercenaries, Lane's wife has been kidnapped, and he want Reacher to help track down the abductors. But int he process Reacher discovers a couple of facts about his new employer - facts that cause him to start his own investigation, which takes him to the English countryside, and the kind of action he thought he'd left behind in the service.
The Hard Way is Reacher's tenth outing, and my fourth - he's a little less cynical here than in the earlier novels, but just as decisive, action-packed and free. There isn't much I can add, having only recently written a review, about the third Reacher novel, Tripwire - it captures all the key components, which change only in the narrative details but not in the substance. All of which makes it sound as though The Hard Way is a poor knock-off of its owner's former creation. That impression does the author and the novel a disservice, but it's certainly true to say that all the Reacher novel's I've read thus far are more strongly short term enjoyment than food for long term thought, and all the more enjoyable for that. - Alex

Monday, August 30

Brian Wansink: Mindless Easting (Why we eat more than we think)

From the back of the book-
What does your favourite comfort food say about you? Can the size of your plate really influence your appetite? Why do you eat more when you dine with friends?
In this much-talked-about book, food psychologist Brian Wansink revolutionizes our awareness of how much, what, and why we’re eating-oftenwithout even realizing it. His findings will astound you….
Director of the Cornell University food and Brand Lab, Wansink uses fun and fiendishly clever experiments-like the “bottomless soup bowl”-to reveal the hidden dynamics behind our dietary habits. Starting today, you can make more mindful, enjoyable and healthy choices at the dinner table, in the supermarket, at the office-even at a vending machine-wherever you satisfy your appetite.
This is a fascinating look at the connection between how our minds perceive food and how our stomach responds to it.
The author presents an interesting array of experiments that show no matter how well educated a person is, or believes they are, they are still at the mercy of this connection and are easily exploited by food manufacture and service industries through it.
He goes on to offers suggestions as to how we can use this connection for our own benefit-to either lose or gain weight.
Interesting, fun and accessible, this isn’t the sort of diet book that makes claims about weight loss but by drawing awareness to the psychology/biology connection aspect of eating provides the reader with information that they may use to make better eating choices.-Lynn

Monday, August 23

The Unsung Hero - Suzanne Brockman

Navy SEAL Tom Paoletti knew it was going to hurt when the Seahawk he, his team and the object of their rescue mission had fled blew. He hadn't realised that the resulting concussion, combined with an ill-advised heated argument Rear Admiral Tucker, would result in a forced recuperation period away from his hand-picked team.
But maybe going home for a few days wouldn't hurt - except that, collecting his luggage at Logan, Tom saw a man who really, really reminded him of a terrorist he tracked for four months in '96. The Merchant was supposed to be dead, and Massachusetts is hardly a terrorist hotbed, but Tom couldn't shake the feeling that, with a couple of cosmetic surgery alterations, it was his man.
Tom reported the sighting, then tried to put it out of his mind, focusing instead on the small town where he grew up. Seeing his niece, Mallory, would be worth the trip and forced time off, and catching up with his great-uncle Joe was always a pleasure.
Plus there was the possibility of seeing Kelly, the girl next door now all grown up, daughter of Joe's best friend Charles.
And then he saw the Merchant again, this time in his tiny hometown of Baldwin's Bridge. Is this a product of a serious concussion, or is there really an international terrorist plotting, undetected, on the US East coast?
Well, of course it's the latter, but the uncertainty is beautifully written and comprises only one strand of a meticulously, seamlessly woven tapestry that involves plots about Joe and Charles' World War 2 history, two current romances, one long lost love, personal growth and coming of age, substance over style, the pettiness of small town bigotry and the triumph of rationality and intellect, and a celebration of fantasy/science fiction and graphic art. That's on top of convincing dialogue, realistic characters, strong women, and some really lovely sex scenes (including a hot, public places/near discovery moment).
The Unsung Hero
is an homage to the men and women who fought in the Second World War and, unusually for an American novel, this includes the French and the Brits. Joe and Charles' history is woven through the contemporary text, as painful and immediate as the unfolding events Tom's experiencing.
The Unsung Hero is the first in a fifteen book (so far) series about a connected group of Navy SEALS looking for love.
I find the books, which I've just discovered I haven't reviewed, particularly satisfying because of the overlapping, intertwining arcs - in each novel there are visits from past central protagonists, the beginnings of new relationships, and a harmonious, supportive, joyous relationship. The ending is neither unconvincingly tied up nor cliff hanger-y, and one of the many joys of this series is the knowledge that previous characters and relationships will appear in support of the larger cast and evolving big picture. I've thus far found this series without exception to be layered, nuanced, beautifully crafted, meticulously plotted, enjoyable and deeply satisfying. - Alex

The Troubleshooters series:
The Unsung Hero; Defiant Hero; Over the Edge; Out of Control; Into the Night; Gone too Far; Flashpoint; Hot Target; Breaking Point; Into the Storm; Force of Nature; All Through the Night; Into the Fire; Dark of Night; Hot Pursuit;Breaking the Rules

Friday, August 20

Sue Grafton: U is for Undertow

A chance sighting of a newspaper report about a twenty year old kidnapping triggers a man’s memory of a suspicious event he witnessed as a young child. He takes his experience to a local detective and she follows it up. It appears that he saw nothing more innocuous than a family pet being buried but the detective feels that something isn’t fitting quite right and curiosity piqued, investigates further.
Her inquiries reveal a pile of disparate facts and are not helped by the man continuing to provide her with questionable memories. She is about to give it up as a lost cause when the man is found murdered. With his death everything begins to fall into place. She uncovers the identity of the original kidnappers and prevents a second murder.
I’ve long been a fan of the alphabet series but this one offers more style than substance. The story itself, what there is of it, is great, definitely enough to keep me turning the pages. But, I found myself irritated by the over abundance of minutiae cramming the pages. Descriptive details that usually add a little flavour to the story (such as street directions and character actions) were prominent and felt like pure ‘filler’ (was it really important that we know every time the heroine locked her car?).
Familiarity is one of the reasons I like this series, realism is another but without a chunky story to embed them in these are meaningless. I do hope that the series isn’t running out of steam with five books still to go.-Lynn

Sunday, August 15

In Cold Pursuit - Sarah Andrews

Valena Walker has wanted for as long as she can remember to go to Antarctica. Her lifelong devotion is finally paying off – after much hard work, and more than a little wheedling, Valena is doing her geology master’s fieldwork under glaciologist Dr Emmett Vanderzee. But on her arrival at McMurdo base she discovers that Dr Vanderzee has been arrested for murder – the year-old death, formerly believed to be due to altitude sickness, of a journalist and Vanderzee critic. The only way Valena can avoid being returned to the US on the next ship is to turn her talents to investigation, and clear the name of her esteemed supervisor.

I came across Andrews by chance walking along the library shelves, and was interested in the number of hardback volumes in a series I’d not heard of. Apparently *In Cold Pursuit is something of a spinoff from her well known (though not to me) Em Hansen series, about a forensic geologist. Always up for a new twist on forensic science, and interested in learning more about disciplies I know little about, I found the idea intriguing. Sadly the first Hansen novel wasn’t available, so I picked up the first Walker one instead.

Which I sadly found drier than the continent on which it’s set. I didn’t care about Valena, Emmett, the random folk at McMurdo, the project, the journalist or the murderer. In fact, I didn’t even make it past page 50, which, considering the book goes for another three hundred odd pages, is something of a record. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right head space, or perhaps I got off on the wrong foot with In Cold Pursuit, but whatever the reason I suspect the next Andrews mystery I pick up will be by Donna rather than Sarah. – Alex

Saturday, August 14

The Rapture - Elliott Hall

Following an arduous debriefing about his investigation into the murder of Brother Isaiah, private eye and returned soldier Felix Strange is drawn into investigating the disappearance of old army buddy Issac Taylor. He owes Issac, not least because Issac saved his life in the field. But a cursory search reveals no evidence that Issac ever existed, a rare thing in a country whose citizens are now so well documented.
And then Strange discovers Issac is only one of an army of disappeared, as thoroughly and tracelessly, terrifyingly gone as the disappeared of south American totalitarian regimes past. But why?
This complex, noir-edged novel is the second in a planned trilogy that explores a post-apocalyptic, dystopia future with a difference, is absorbing and rapid. Unfortunately, like my review of its predecessor, The First Stone, I have waited a little too long after reading to go into specifics. Instead, i give you a taste of the style and tone:
The [mayor] we’d actually elected hadn’t lasted long after the Battle of Christopher Park last year. If you’d been asleep for the last ten years it might have looked like democracy in action: the mayor taking responsibility for not stopping an urban war that had left dozens in body bags and a lot more injured. He had held back the police while militias attacked his own constituents for the crime of being gay. The mayor had held the NYPD back on the orders of the Elders, the assholes who actually ran this excuse for a republic. We still had a Congress that anyone could run for, but every man there (and it was all men now) and even the President never would have gotten elected without their help. Some of the Elders had moved into government, but most stayed at their mega-churches and foundations, content for their power to be an open secret. I sometimes wished that they’d just move into the White House and be done with it, but America though too highly of itself to admit that it was a dictatorship.
I'm very much looking forward to reading the final installment in this complicated three-part series, which I will review immediately after I finish. - Alex

Friday, August 13

Belle De Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl

This chronicle of a year in the working life of a professional sex provider is taken from the author’s blog. It relates how she got into the business, what she gets up to with clients and the trials and tribulations of her personal love life (as opposed to her professional sex life).
There is always a delightful sense of voyeurism in the reading of somebody’s diary-even if they’ve made it public-and I don’t think I would be alone in expecting this particular diary to be a little more titillating than others. However as a representation of life as a sex worker I found it offered nothing that hasn’t already said elsewhere before. I suspect the reason this diary got the attention it did was due to its being kept in a public forum in the form of a blog.
First for the good: This particular diary has a fun and friendly tone to it making it very easy to read. The author is unrepentant about the nature of her work and talks about the business without trying to make it sound particularly glamorous or onerous.
Then for the bad: It really gets quite samey very quickly and ends rather abruptly (probably a result of it being pulled from a blog which continued on after the book ends).
Overall an inoffensive read but not one that has left me with an urge to read any of the many other publications of this author.-Lynn

Monday, August 9

Tripwire - Lee Child

Former MP Jack Reacher is digging pools in Florida, fitter than he's ever been in his life and reveling in the sheer physicality and simplicity of his life. He's become accustomed to flying under the radar and, though not specifically hiding from anyone, is happy not being found. So when a stranger, obviously from out of town, asks him if he's Reacher, he denies it. Costello's a private detective, looking for him on behalf of a Mrs Jacob, someone Reacher's never heard of.
When Costello turns up dead, Reacher feels responsible - he backtraces the PI to new York, and discovers that Jacobs is the married name of Jodie Garber, the daughter of Reacher's one-time CO and the only man who really felt like a father to him, although he harboured distinctly non-brotherly thoughts about the far younger Jodie.
Unfortunately, Reacher's not the only one to have found Jodie, and it's up to him to not only save her from a man murderously intent on protecting his identity and his vast, illicit wealth. And if his relationship with Jodie takes a bend toward the carnal, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Tripwire is the third in the unabashedly escapist Reacher series - this early on there's still some filling in of background, accomplished in this case by Costello telling the anonymous Reacher about the man he's searching for. Members of the ABC's "First Tuesday Book Club" discussion about the thirteenth Reacher book, Gone Tomorrow, criticised the lack of characterisation, but for loyal readers the history's already there. That said, I have been reading them only roughly in order and had no problem, and there's certainly nothing approaching a series arc here.
Instead there's a fast-paced, action-driven, plot-based drive that captures what one imagines is the Every Man fantasy of a baggageless life, unencumbered by responsibility, family or possessions, where casually meaningful sex is available as required.
All of which sounds like the antithesis of my interests, and yet I've had to slow down from munching through the baker's dozen (thus far) of published Reacher novels. And I'm not alone - according to the author, some 60% of his readership is female, a statistic I heard on the ABC discussion above and tracked down. This workshop review provided a really interesting take on why that is, as well as allowing me to discover that my very genre-driven, heavy reading father's something of an anomaly.
One of the things I like about the Reacherverse is that women are as likely to be strong, intelligent and self-rescuing as men, which certainly makes sense now I realise that women are deliberately targeted as part of the target audience. There's also a keen sense of justice throughout, which is apparently something women feels strongly about.
Often learning more about the author, the writing process and the way a work is aimed puts me off, but I have to say that's not the case here. I think the Reacher novels are like the best kind of romance fiction - engaging, relateable but separate from real life, with a comforting and comfortable predictability that the ending will be satisfying after an interesting journey. And I still have ten or so ahead! - 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

Sunday, August 8

Silver Borne - Patricia Briggs

When Mercy Thompson, skin walker and mechanic extraordinaire, receives a call from Tad, the son of her mentor Zee, she expects a little weirdness – par for the course when dealing with the fae. Tad’s friend Phineas had leant Mercy an antique book by and about the fae; he left a message for Tad, asking Mercy to take care of it. Sensing something awry, Mercy heads to Phin’s apartment – he’s not there, and his trying-hard-to-pass-for-human neighbour hasn’t seen him. Although everything seems to be okay, Mercy feels uneasy.
That all fades into insignificance when Mercy’s hit by a string of unpleasantness - someone in the pack uses her connection to it to influence her emotions and behaviour; Samuel, a lone wolf in Mercy’s partner Adam’s pack, is seriously injured in an accident that’s no accident; and bounty hunters, accompanied by a film crew, try to arrest Adam on a bogus warrant.
Series in other genres tend to focus on character development and, on occasion, a wider narrative arc, or the protagonists continue through each book little changed but possibly growing a little older. Paranormal series, on the other hand, tend to add characters, often supernatural, building and complicating the universe they inhabit. The first couple of chapters of each subsequent instalment are filled with back story upon back story, artlessly patched on to the narrative or, worse, the writer jumps right in, expecting the reader to be as intimately acquainted with and invested in the history of the character and their world. After a handful of books I sometimes feel as though I need a flowchart or timeline to keep all the developments, characters and entanglements intact, and there’s no real possibility of picking up a book midway through the series if you want to have any chance of being able to keep up. While the Sookie Stackhouse series is one of these, a stronger example is Harrison’s The Hollows series.
Silver Borne is the fifth in the Mercy Thompson series, and so far Briggs has done a great job of keeping the ‘twist’ developments that have to then be referred to and the extra, intermittently recurring characters to a minimum. Like all the paranormal series I’ve read thus far, each instalment expands the universe in which it’s set, adding new characters and, often, new supernatural creatures. The difference is that the focus is primarily on Mercy, her adoptive family (pack and work), and a world that is gradually discovering that mythical creatures really do walk amongst them.
Although there’s a plot involving the fae book, a fairy queen, murder, subterfuge and fantastic creatures, the heart of Silver Borne is the relationships Mercy has, primarily but certainly not solely with her Adam, head of the pack and recently her mate, and Sam, perhaps her closest friend. As these relationships grow and change, Mercy is also dealing with the aftermath of being raped (see Iron Kissed), which ties in with an attempted coup within the pack.
I found all these elements beautifully done. Briggs’s characters are complex and rounded, with histories and motivations that go beyond the purposes of the plot. Although surprised from time to time, because her writing is neither predictable nor formulaic, I have yet to find a description of someone acting out of character. So secure was I in this that when Mercy began behaving like a passive-aggressive princess I noted the section so I could complain about it in my review, only to have it be a pivotal, explicable plot point. And I know I mentioned it above, and in my review of Bone Crossed (book 4), but I so appreciate that Mercy has not just moved past being raped – though she is finding ways of dealing with it, it has profoundly affected her and her relationships.
I have been thoroughly engrossed in and captured by all the books in both this and Briggs’ sister series, and am hopeful that future additions to the universe will be equally well crafted and meticulous, even if that’s at the expensive of a long wait for the next one. - Alex

Friday, August 6

The Medieval Murderers: King Arthur's Bones

From the back of the book-
Five compelling interlinked mysteries from Michael Jecks, Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson and Philip Gooden.
During excavation work, an ancient leaden cross is discovered buried several feet below ground. Inscribed upon it are the words: hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex arturius… Could this really be the legendary King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere? ... As the secret of the bones’ hiding place is passed from generation to generation, those entrusted to safeguard King Arthur’s remains must withstand treachery, theft, blackmail and murder in order to keep the legend intact.
This collection of five novellas follows King Arthur’s bones from their discovery at Glastonbury Abbey in 1191 to the rediscovery of them in London in 2004. As might be expected from the authors’ pseudonym these tales take the form of mini murder mysteries. And as might also be expected in any anthology some stories appealed to me more than others but unlike other works of its type I did enjoy all of these to some extent.
I particularly liked the seamless way in which each story interconnected with those that went before. I also found realistic the way the history of the bones was slowly forgotten by those into whose hands they fell until at the end their relevance is completely unknown.
I was a little disappointed that in a couple of the stories the bones themselves didn’t play a central role. While these instalments were good enough as a fan of all thing Arthurian I would like them to have stuck a little closer to the theme.
Overall an enjoyable collection and a great opportunity to try a few authors I hadn’t read before.-Lynn

Thursday, August 5

Never Look Away - Linwood Barclay

Investigative reporter David Harwood’s been concerned about his wife Jan’s apparent depression – she’s been taking mental health days at work, had a couple of not so accidental accidents, and told him of flirting with the idea of jumping of a nearby bridge. So when she has the idea of a family expedition to the local amusement park David jumps at the idea, even if their four year old son Ethan is more anxious about roller coasters than excited. When Jan loses Ethan, taking her eyes off his stroller for only an instant, David is terrified. The sleeping child is found within minutes, before park security even start looking, but David’s relief is short-lived, because Jan abruptly vanishes. Unlike Ethan, not only does she stay vanished, the preliminary investigation shows no sign of her entering Five Mountains, of booking the tickets, or even of her recent depression. As David looks increasingly like the chief suspect in a domestic crime he tries desperately to make sense of his life, and his marriage.

Barclay’s stock in trade is domestic terror, and Never Look Away is a worthy addition to a fine stable. The reader is quickly aware that David was duped from the beginning, and as the novel unfolds we learn more about Jan’s motivation, alongside David’s increasingly frantic search to uncover the truth and protect his child. There’s also a secondary plot, about a political intrigue David was working on in the lead up to the Five Mountain’s trip, and some nice character development overall. There are a couple of gory moments, but for the most part this is more a psychological suspense and very well done; though not my favourite of his works to date, Barclay off his best nonetheless excels. - Alex

Wednesday, August 4

The First Stone Elliott Hall

The American ideological and political landscape, once separate and now one, looks very different in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on home soil. Southern-style fundamentalism has swept most of the country, and the Elders have established their own law enforcement structure, primarily manned by home-schooled, secularly-naïve Daveys. But private eye and former Greater Middle-Eastern War soldier Felix Strange has bigger things to worry about, chief of which is managing the nameless Gulf-War-like syndrome that doesn’t officially exist but nonetheless manages to beset him unless kept at bay by a complicated and expensive cocktail of off-label prescription drugs.

Felix doesn’t work homicide cases, but when Brother Isaiah, Elder council member, is found dead in a hotel room filled with obviously planted pornography and illegal drugs, he has little choice but to investigate at the instigation of Ezekiel White, head of the Committee for Child Protection, better known to the non-faithful as the Holy Rollers. Spurred on by the carrot of enough money to pay for a year’s worth of medication, and the stick of infinite harassment (beginning with, but certainly not limited to, tax audits), Felix looks at who might have had the motive and opportunity not only to kill but also attempt to discredit America’s most trusted and beloved religious figure.

I’m writing this review almost a month after finishing The First Stone, and over many intervening novels, which means my faint recollections are going to do this first in a planned trilogy inadequate justice. Despite this, several elements of the novel remain clear, particularly the stunning Revivalist Holy Sons of American Liberty’s attack on New York’s Christopher Park, in the gay and lesbian heart of Greenwich Village, which was triumphantly overturned by the Gay and Lesbian Self Defence League. The character of Felix is engrossing and unlike any character I’ve encountered in recent memory. The noir style of dames and grittily hard-boiled detectives, usually an uneasy style in contemporary works, sits particularly well in a world where feminist equality and homosexuality have vanished. The alternate history, in which September 11 was replaced by a nuclear bomb on American soil, is fascinating, and the almost unnoticed transfer of power from a secular base to a Christian ideology as fundamentalist as any organization in the Middle East, is chillingly convincing. In The First Stone, the reality of a movement that those on the West and East coasts were able to dismiss as not really affecting them becomes overwhelming evident, and I was left with a sense of their shaken complacency. I was so captured by the premise and the writing that I borrowed and almost immediately devoured the sequel. - Alex

Tuesday, August 3

Lost and Found - Carolyne Parkhurst

Laura hoped that competing on "Lost & Found," a reality TV show that combines travel, team work and problem solving, would bring her closer to her daughter Cassie. Well aware that she let Cassie down at the time her daughter needed her the most, Laura can see that her very eagerness to be close and to please is counter-productive, but can't seem to stop. And when things are going well with Cassie, she always tries to take advantage of the bond, ruining the moment in the process.
Cassie has secrets her mother knows nothing about - including the fact that the show's producers not only know all about it but that the rift, and its cause, is the reason they're on "Lost & Found" to start with. They're one of half a dozen other couples who have pre-existing relationships - brothers Carl and Jeff, geeks Riley and Trent, formerly gay born again Christian husband and wife Abby and Justin, where-are-they-now childhood TV stars Dallas and Juliet, long-ago high school sweethearts Jason and Betsy - competing for a million dollars. But all the competitors will find, and lose, things they never expected.
This is the first book I've read twice since beginning this blog and, not yet having re-read my initial review, I'm interested to see how my reading has changed in the last year. Although I remembered a lot of the basic plot, including the event that drew attention to, rather than caused, the rift between Cassie and Laura, many of the plot details had faded a little.
Something more of a reality TV watcher than I care to admit in real life, I strongly engaged with the premise, and anticipate my viewing of the latest season of "The Amazing Race" to be a little enhanced by my increased awareness of the production side of reality television, including the use of carnets to facilitate passing through customs. I remember wanting to watch the show on my first reading, and that certainly hasn't changed - I'd love to see "Lost & Found" broadcast!
The characters are beautifully and sparsely drawn - they all have clear motivations and are easily destinguishable, not always the case in a relatively slender, well-populated novel. Although the action is important, relationships are at the heart of this novel, and I really enjoyed the layered, resonant portrayal of these, particularly the mother-daughter relationship.
From Laura's perspective, everything changed when she was woken by Cassie in the middle of the night to find herself a grandmother. Berating herself for not noticing Cassie's pregnancy or her withdrawal, Laura bitterly regrets her first, angry response to the news, and her guilt is still twined with anger. But for Cassie the baby is just part of a growing estrangement - from her oblivious mother, more focused on a post-weight-loss relationship than on her daughter, and from her best friend and now not-so-secret crush.
The mother-daughter dynamic is captured for me here:
I wanted to say something... "I'm having a little trouble with this," I said.
Cassie yawned. "I'm sure you are," she said.
"You could have told me," I said, trying hard not to sound critical.
Cassie looked down... when she spoke, her voice was careful and even.
"You could have noticed," she said.
There are a number of sub-plots running alongside the main relationship development. I was particularly interested in the 'formerly gay' couple, and in the whole behind the scenes production aspect, from host Barbara's deliberate on-air persona construction and need for "Lost & Found" to succeed and rescue her career, to the agendas of the support crew. but there are no wrong notes - from dialogue to character, narrative arc to premise, the whole novel was a delight the second time around. - Alex

For my initial review of Lost & Found click here; for Lynn's review click here.

Monday, August 2

Lincoln's Dreams - Connie Willis

Historical researcher Jeff Johnston is familiar with the way his employer, historical writer Thomas Broun operates. His twelfth Civil War novel, The Duty Bound, revolves around Robert E Lee – Jeff’s job is to ensure every detail is correct, from the location of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s temporary grave to when lee’s beloved horse Traveller was bought and died. Broun has tendency to obsess over one aspect of his work or other and, when particularly stressed, retreat to the opus he’s been working at on the side. With the publisher’s ready to run the presses, and Broun changing each new version of the galleys, Jeff’s work is harder than ever.

Broun’s current focus is on the dreams Lincoln had in the nights before his assassination – could the tragedy have been avoided had their meaning been recognised? Did they have a meaning? Fortunately, Jeff went to college with Richard Madison, who now works at the Sleep Institute and specialises in dreams. Through Richard, Jeff meets a young woman to who he is quickly attracted. Richard is an expert of dreams and related disorders; he’s also both Annie’s therapist and, possibly, her lover, a situation Jeff finds distressing on more than one level.

There are several familiar elements in *Lincoln’s Dreams – the protagonist is surrounded by dominant, single-minded characters who have clear agendas, he often has an overwhelmed and slightly jet-lagged sleep-deprivation that obstructs clear thinking, and explorations of human psychology. In this case, the psychology of dreams – less about the hidden meanings of dreams than their impact on the dreamer. Is Annie in the throes of a mental illness, or is she somehow connected with Robert E Lee, dreaming his dreams?

There’s also a lot, understandably, about the American Civil War – while I found some of this interesting, Willis also assumes a level of knowledge that I didn’t have, despite a fair enough general vague awareness of the main players and events.

She does a beautiful job of describing dreams that would now be categorised as post-traumatic stress, and these are the most vivid parts of Lincoln’s Dreams. They were also, at least for me, the sole highlight of an otherwise thin and unsatisfying novel that was part historical, part romance, part fantasy/science fiction, past psychological suspense and wholly like the curate’s egg. The setting and the central drive of the novel, the source of and reason for Annie’s dreams, were not that interesting to me; combined with the then more inexperienced author’s less honed skills, I found this fairly early work far less interesting than Willis’s more recent novels. I have Blackout, the first in a new duology set in the same Oxfordian time travelling universe as The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, sitting in my To Be Read pile (which is growing only slowly, as opposed to my ever-expanding To Be Read list). I have high hopes, but will wait until the memory of Lincoln’s Dreams fades a little. - Alex