Thursday, September 30

Beyond Heaving Bossoms - Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan

As is clear from a quick perusal of our blog, both Lynn and I enjoy romance novels, from the unquestionably Mills & Boon end through to modern variants where the strong romantic narrative is intertwined with another genre like suspense or mystery, from Regency-era froth to contemporary settings, and even the odd Old Skool ridiculousness (Carole Mortimer, anyone?). We both have Masters degrees (one of us has two) and both have our eyes on Ph.D.’s in the relatively near future. We also both enjoy popping in on Wendell and Tan’s website – there’s a link in the left hand column, if you’re interested.

Like the website, Beyond Heaving Bosoms (subtitled The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels) sets out to explore the world of the romance novel or, as they title it, Romancelandia. Wendell and Tan’s starting point is that readers of romance novels are inappropriately ridiculed for their literary tastes, typecast as dowdy spinsters of a Certain Age and plumpness, desperate for a little romance in their bleak and lonely worlds. The reality is that romance novels constitute the biggest part of the publishing market, in terms of both volume and revenue. Like us, the majority of readers have a tertiary education and a comfortable income. Yes, there is something of a formula, in the same way every genre has conventions and formulas. Romance novels are ridiculed primarily, though, because they’re overwhelming written and read by women.

This is not to say that Wendell and Tan don’t take the odd jab at the genre themselves though, from ludicrous cover art to the healing powers of the hero’s untameable Mighty Wang of Mighty Lovin’ and the heroine’s Magic Hoo Hoo.

However, mixed in with the lighter moments are relatively serious discussions, including: the bewildering persistence of sex myths and tropes, from the painfully pierced and misplaced hymen (which generally moves half way up the vagina) through to the heroine incapable of enjoying sex, ever, with anyone but the hero, and the ridiculousness of the Simultaneous Orgasm (which I think is often short-hand for ‘they’re just massively compatible on every level and meant to be together forever’); several discussions about the use and frequency of rape in Old Skool romance novels (including discussion about why they were written and how they’re still defended); the impact and underlying bias of shelving non-white romance fiction in other parts of bricks-and-mortar stores; the bizarre concept that everyone critiquing in the field ought - with a full moral imperative - to Be Nice, a fact Lynn and I became aware of in the earliest days of our still wholly amateur writing; and an introduction, for newcomers, to the Smart Bitches Plagiarism Debate.

Which isn’t at all a debate, except in as much as there still seems in some corners to be some people who continue to question whether plagiarism is acceptable. In a nutshell for those newcomers – two years ago a friend of one of the authors borrowed a selection of romance novels to get a feel for the genre. As an example of bad romance writing the woman was given a copy of prolific author Cassie Edwards’ Shadow Bear. The reader, a classic student, was struck by a distinct change in tone in the midst of one scene and, inspired to look a little further, discovered through Google that Edwards had lifted slabs of writing from an article on wildlife. See here for a recap of just some of the total drama that ensued.

I predominantly enjoyed my reading of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, though I have a couple of quibbles. The first is that the audience isn’t entirely clear – there’s certainly an assumption of some degree of knowledge of the genre going in. Certainly there are discussions about the evolution and history of the romance novel, including a description of types of heroine (doormat, plain and strong, antiheroine, ingénue), and exemplars a plenty. However, I suspect that readers who aren’t familiar at all with the field will find some things a little confusing. Perhaps the target audience is the more experienced romance reader, and these aspects are there as refreshers and reminders of aspects of the genre outside the readers’ usual material.

The tone is also a little conflicted, so that serious discussion of the elements I mentioned above are nestled between a game allowing the reader to scour second hand book shops for bad covers to score (“is the heroine’s eye shadow a color you’ve never before witnessed on a human being? 4 points”) and a choose-your-own-romance (“As you sleep, you dream. Do you: see Hawkings in your dream? Turn to option 13 - page 223”), accompanied by MadLibs across an arrays of sub-genres. And I very quickly got tired of the entendre remarks: (“insert ‘more open’ joke here… insert joke about ‘insert’ here… oh, never mind” and “swelled head. No, not that head, the other one”). The activities were, I imagine, far more fun to create than I found them to read, and the former could certainly have been significantly shorter, and funnier. I did find the latter, where the choices of heroine description dictated the sub-genre (contemporary, urban, supernatural and much sexxoring,™ historic classic, historic pirate), valuable but think it could have come earlier. I also think it would have been more relevant if it had been used as an exemplar to illustrate some of the sub-genres of the field.

Perhaps that’s because I found the more academic aspects of the text interesting, for all that I was fairly familiar with the feminist aspects of writing, the demography of the readerships, and need no convincing about the worth of the genre. I found the comparison of Old Skool rape with current paranormal trend of heroines being unwillingly and non-consensually transformed really interesting and hadn’t identified it previously myself. I have to applaud their inclusion of fantasy authors, and personal favourites, Bujold and Shinn, and I did discover the latter through reader recommendations on the blog. I was also interested in Wendell and Tan’s predictions for the future of romance novels, which includes: an increasing emphasis on non-traditional romances (male/male, female/female/trios and more); the mainstreaming of anal sex and bondage; more historicals set in the Victorian age and fewer in Regency England; and a move away from vampires and werewolves to other creatures from the paranormal pantheon – they tip zombies. On their five point concluding wish list is also something I’d like to see, the demise of the alpha hero and the rise of the beta male (or, as Candy frames it, the hipster). Whatever the future of romance, there’s no question it will continue to thrive, on paper and in e-publishing. But pretty much everything I got out of Beyond Heaving Bosoms I could have read on the blog, albeit in a less condensed format, so it’s a good thing I borrowed it from my awesome library. – Alex

Tuesday, September 28

Jacqueline Winspear: Maisie Dobbs

In post war London an ex-army nurse sets herself up as a private detective. Her first case is a husband who suspects his wife of being unfaithful. Investigation proves the wife’s innocence but opens up a greater mystery-what is really happening at a rest home for disfigured war veterans?
The more she uncovers, the greater her worry about her old comrades-in-arms becomes. With her worst fears confirmed it is up to her to save the lives of these men who have lost so much, facing her own demons in the process.
With a little help from her mentor and the local constabulary she manages to set things to rights and put her fledgling business on the map.
It took me quite a long time to read this because I kept comparing Maisie Dobbs with antipodean counterpart Phryne Fisher and Maisie came off a decided second best. The writing I associate with 1920s female detectives is much stronger and more subtle than this author’s, who has a 'tell rather than show' style. However, I eventually managed to give Maisie her due and ended up enjoying the story.
The initial case is simply a lead in to the greater mystery and is solved in the first quarter of the book. The story then regresses to tell us of the main character’s history from her early childhood through to the present day and while it gives great insight into her motivation, it makes the entire book feel like a prequel/prologue.
There is, however, a most satisfying conclusion to the many story threads.
I can’t say I’m sold on this series. Although it has many elements that I like in a story the author’s voice just misses the mark for me. I would consider giving another book in this highly successful series a go simply because, as I said earlier, this one felt like a prelude (or, to borrow TV terminology, a pilot episode) and I’d like to read a story dedicated entirely to a case.-Lynn

Monday, September 27

Undead and Unwelcome - MaryJanice Davidson

Marc Spangler's become used to life with paranormal creatures, but he's becoming increasingly concerned about the Satanists coming to pay homage to Laura. Sure, his brilliant idea to put them to work doing good deeds seemed to get them out from underfoot, but Laura's acting kind of weird, and Tina has most uncharacteristically vanished. He can't ring Betsy, because Laura's done something to all their cell phones, and even though he keeps emailing Betsy she stubbornly won't reply.
Reluctant vampire queen Betsy (not Elizabeth!) Taylor and her husband Sinclair, accompanied by their ward and her half-brother BabyJon, are accompanying the body of Betsy's friend Antonia to her estranged family, a pack of werewolves in Cape Cod. Antonia died saving Betsy from an assassination attempt, which has made the wolves none to happy to see her, and with a potential vampire/werewolf war on the horizon Betsy has only a little space to ponder the wolves' weird responses to BabyJon. She has no time at all for the increasingly text-jargon-heavy emails coming from her housemate, Marc, and refuses to respond until he sends one in English, with actual grammar. With Sinclair's factotum Tina, and her half-sister Laura (technically the devil's daughter, but a sweet girl) at home, how much trouble could there be, anyway?
Undead and Unwelcome is the eighth in an ongoing series about the adventures of an accidental vampire who'd have been more interested collecting shoes and going to the beautician than deposing leaders and correcting barbaric practices. Though more substantial than many similar series, particularly now some of the deaths are striking closer to home, the Undead series does suffer the same problem common to the sub-genre - in addition to an introductory "The story so far" there are several expository sections catching the reader up on recent events, and some of these sections lack a little finesse. Not only that, when they continue at least to page 63 of a 236 page book it can get a little teeth grinding.
The majority of the novel is told in first person; to allow simultaneous description of what's happening in Minneapolis while Betsy et al are in Cape Cod, Marc conveniently starts a journal, addressed to "Dear Myself Dude" or Dude for short - the references to 'dude' became increasingly annoying the further I read. It's in these sections in particular that the exposition is chunkiest and clunkiest. And I'm not even going to address the fact that this doctor either has only one adrenal gland or doesn't know the normal human body comes with two (which I admit is a snarky note). I also found the use of TXT, though necessary for the plot, really irritating; I could decode GYBBH (get your behind back here) and IDKWTD (I don't know what to do) unaided, but TSIATHTF, CBRACBN and LHM? I was SOOL.
I did like the theory that vampirism is a virus that, among other things, induces severe suggestibility, explaining why even atheists who are turned can be deterred by crosses. I prefer the Westerfeld explanation in Peeps but this isn't bad. I also think the cross-over with Davidson's werewolf novel Derik's Bane (which I've not read) would please more dedicated readers, and more information on the reincarnation of Morgan le Fay would round out that (admittedly small) section. And I enjoyed the reading enough that I've got the ninth in the series out from the library, but going from something like Shinn's work to this is distinctly anticlimactic, and I think my future Davidson reading would benefit from being timed to follow weaker and less well enjoyed works. - Alex

Thursday, September 23

Persuader - Lee Child

Jack Reacher, former MP turned self-directed trouble shooter, happens to be unloading a van outside a New England college when he witnesses an attempted kidnapping - armed as always, he intervenes, rescuing the anxious target, Richard Beck. Unfortunately, Reacher accidentally shoots a cop in the process, and for the first time needs to lie low out of necessity rather than choice. When the skittish Beck, a survivor of a previous kidnapping in which he lost an ear, insists on being taken home to Maine, Reacher is persuaded by the possibility of a temporary refuge. But he has another agenda entirely, and this apparently coincidental intervention is only the first step in what proves to be one of Reacher's riskiest, most dangerous and most important escapades to date.
The seventh in the best-selling Reacher series, Persuader is engrossing and engagingly twisty. The novels are pure escapism, and to that end they serve their purpose beautifully - the action is relentless and believable within the confines of the genre, the characters are relatively well drawn, and if I felt a little sketchily informed about some of the details I was happy to gloss over them in pursuit of the fast-paced plot and unwinding conclusion. There's a little Reacher back story, and these thinly sown glimpses into his past that build his motivation and character development are always an interesting addition to my mental picture of the man.
There was a, possibly unintentional, light moment near the end, where Reacher's thought of "Can't go round it, can't go over it. Got to go around it" irresistibly and unexpectedly reminded me of Rosen and Oxenbury's children's classic. I was also jolted out of the action at another point:
Her butt looked spectacular in the jeans. I could see the label on the back: Waist 24. Leg 32. That made her inseam five inches short of mine, which I was prepared to accept. But a waist a whole foot smaller than mine was ridiculous. I carry almost no body fat. All I;ve got in there are the necessary organs, tight and dense. She must have had miniature versions. I see a waist like that and all I want to do is span it with my hands and marvel at it. Maybe bury my head somewhere a little higher up. I couldn't tell what that might feel like with her unless he turned around. But I suspected it might feel very nice indeed.
Perhaps - but unless teeny tiny women's jeans are very different than plus-size women's jeans, the size tag is on the inside. Maybe those skinny bitches are happy to show their measurements off!
Those two moment aside, however, and I was fully engaged with Persuader from the opening rescue scene to the final flashback and Reacher's plan to take off, alone again, going wherever the road takes him. My life is significantly encumbered, and I suspect Corinna Lawson's take on why Child has a large female readership is on the money. Sometimes there's nothing better than pure escapism, and you can't get much better than Reacher. - 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

Tuesday, September 21

Tobsha Learner: Soul

When a geneticist researching a possible genetic basis for violence kills a man in self defence without compunction she begins to believe that not only a tendency to violence, but also to remorselessness, may be hereditary and that she has inherited those traits from her great grandmother, a woman who was accused of murdering her husband.
In the wake of her action her life starts to spiral out of control. Her husband runs off with her best friend. She suffers from a traumatic miscarriage resulting in infertility. Her colleagues are not supportive of the military funding her research, a subject about which she is severely conflicted, particularly when she discovers the army is keeping information from her. She then discovers that her husband’s lover is pregnant. At each point violence becomes a more and more attractive option until she finds herself planning her ex-husband’s murder.
Interlaced throughout this story is the tale of her great grandmother’s life, from her engagement through to her trial for her husband’s murder.
The book culminates in a revelation about the importance of nurture’s impact on nature. And as vague as this summary is, I can’t really go into any more detail without giving too much away.
I was initially attracted to this story because of the main character’s ethical dilemma about the potential uses of her research and while this is an integral part of her character it isn’t the focus of the entire story and the book is none the worse for that.
This author is known for her erotica collections and there was a touch of erotica in this book but it is a distinctly minor element, thank goodness because her erotic writing style doesn’t appeal to me and is the reason I put off reading this for as long as I have.
I needn’t have worried. I really enjoyed watching the two interwoven stories unfold. The actions of each woman seemed not only completely believable but entirely reasonable from their point of view. Identifying with them as heroines makes the reader think about their own potential for violence in similar circumstances-where exactly would you draw the line.
The plot skips along at times and while that thinness is filled out by great characterization it is a fault that prevents this story from taking the step from very good to great.
It leans heavily towards the literary end of the scale but is highly enjoyable and I will be seeking out more of Ms Learner’s work.-Lynn

Sunday, September 19

A Fountain Filled With Blood – Julia Spencer-Fleming

Now aware of her mutual attraction with the married police chief of Millers Kill, New York, town Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson is consciously concentrating on her duties as a pastor and community member, which is why she’s attending her first alderman’s meeting. Accompanied by Paul Foubert, nursing director of the town infirmary, Clare is both learning who’s who, thanks to Paul’s whispered commentary, and hearing for the first time about a controversial development that could significantly increase revenue, but possibly contribute to elevated PCB levels in the water supply. When the meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Russ Van Alstyne her heart, despite her best intentions, gladdens a little. But Russ brings devastating news – the town’s medical examiner, and Paul’s partner, Dr Emil Dvorak, has been found beaten almost to death.
When video store owner Todd MacPherson, also gay, is also severely beaten, Clare is convinced that a group of homophobes is on the loose. In both cases neither money nor valuables were taken, and Clare wants Russ to make an announcement warning any other gay townsfolk to be aware of the danger. Russ, on the other hand, believes there’s not yet any evidence that the sexual orientation of the victims is more than coincidence. His concern is that a premature declaration could lead to copycat attacks. With the discovery of a third victim, also gay, and still in shock from seeing the battered body, Clare is unable to stop herself from speaking to the press, gathered to cover a protest against the Millers Kill development. Almost as soon as she does she’s filled with remorse, fearful she’s damaged the dear but already delicate friendship she has with Russ. To atone, Clare throws herself into a parallel investigation into the attacks and, particularly under the influence of a couple of cocktails, gets herself into a truly dangerous predicament. But Bill Ingraham was also the development company head, and the situation is more complicated than either Clare or Russ imagined.
This is the second in the Reverend Clare Fergusson series, and I enjoyed it as much as the first, though I felt that this time the case receded to the background, giving centre stage to the relationship between Clare and Russ. Some of this constitutes part of their unfurling character development, so there are references to the sexist but relatively benign hostility Clare faced in the army, and flashes of Russ’s wartime experiences in Vietnam. We also get to see Clare’s love of flying, the greatest sacrifice made on the alter of her faith, and a striking contrast to Russ’s Vietnam war-influenced antipathy to helicopters. There are a couple of secondary plots, but much of the action served to throw them together, and there’s a nice hurt/comfort section quite late in the novel, though no vows come close to being broken except in the Jimmy Carter sense.
I did pick the perpetrator relatively early on which, as I don’t actively try to work out who dunnit, is usually indicative of poor writing. But in this case I was significantly less interest in that aspect of the story, and so didn’t particularly mind. I didn’t come close to working out all the intricacies of why, but didn’t really care about he motivation, which was at least internally consistent. Without the mystery this would have been a weak novel, and the attacks were definitely needed to drive the story, but that aspect is definitely a sub-plot. For that reason I think A Fountain Filled With Blood would be most disappointing if read alone, but read in context, and with In the Bleak Midwinter still very fresh in my mind I found the experience thoroughly enjoyable, and have already borrowed the third in the series. - Alex

The Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series:
1. In the Bleak Midwinter
2. A Fountain Filled with Blood
3. Out of the Deep I Cry
4. To Darkness and to Death
5. All Mortal Flesh
6. I Shall Not Want

Friday, September 17

Passage – Connie Willis

Joanna Lander is a psychologist investigating near-death experiences, a research field mired in pseudoscience and agenda. Located at Mercy General, her aim is to get to patients who’ve survived dying as quickly as possible, partly to record their experiences as accurately as she can while they’re still fresh, and partly so her data is uncontaminated by her biggest rival at Mercy General, Maurice Mandrake. Author of such erudite tomes as The Light at the End of the Tunnel, Mr Mandrake reshapes survivor’s memories to fit his theory, ruining any subsequent interviews Joanna manages. When she hears about another NDE researcher, Joanna goes to lengths to avoid him – in her experience even the fact he’s an MD is no evidence of sanity.
But Richard Wright is as scientifically based as she is. A neurologist convinced that NDE’s occur for a reason related to survival, he’s created a drug that seems to imitate the NDE experience without endangering the participants – they continuous brain scanning and blood collection while they undergo the induced NDE. His work would allow Joanna access to uncontaminated data from people undergoing repeated, manufactured NDE’s, if only they could get enough appropriate subjects. Instead their ever-shrinking pool includes a socialite to busy to ever undergo the process, a garrulous WW2 veteran more interested in telling tales of his experiences there than post-NDE, a taciturn man who seems to experience nothing when he goes under, and an increasingly skittish college student. Which is why, desperate to discover something before the first round of funding expires, Joanna becomes a subject.
Part of the advantage of having Joanna undergo the process was that she, unlike the other participants, would be able to describe the experience more accurately:
“I’d know if dark meant dark as in Carlsbad Caverns or the hospital parking lot at nine o’clock at night. I’d know if peaceful meant ‘tranquil’ or ‘anesthetized.’ And I’d know what they’re experiencing that they’re not even mentioning because they don’t realize it’s important, and I don’t know how to ask them about it.”
As a qualitative proto-researcher I understand that frustration, of your participants unable to usefully describe or articulate the elements of their experience or practice that you want to explore, and the difficulty of neither leading them nor letting them leave without saying something. So Joanna is all the more frustrated by her inability to capture many of the elements of her own experience, which Richard takes as support for his position that the NDE is a temporal lobe event – the temporal lobe has no connection with the brain’s language centre, and thus no way of articulating. But for Joanna, whose NDE’s built to a fuller, but metaphorical, experience, this focus distracts from her attempts to identify a familiarity she’s certain she has but can’t quite recall.
Her frustration about these teasing almost connections is extremely effectively portrayed – every time she was close to consciously realising what something meant she was interrupted and the fleeting proto-thought vanished again. This aspect was combined with an element that frequently recurs is Willis’s work: as in The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, in particular, there’s a terrific state of urgency, enhanced by obstacles and people to avoid. While reading the novel I had much the same feeling as one of those dreams where I need to get somewhere in a frantic hurry but am obstructed at every turn. Though caught up in the rush, I also felt irritated by it – the research, though potentially life-saving, didn’t require that kind of immediacy, and I kept being annoyed that Joanna’s priorities were directed toward that rather than the truly time-constrained situation of Maisie, a disaster-obsessed young girl with worsening heart failure.
It is this narrowed, urgent focus that leads to the biggest twist in Passage – having finally discovered the purpose of NDE’s, Joanna frantically searches Mercy General for Richard; hearing that another doctor with whom he’s associated has gone to the ER, where her best friend Vielle works as a senior nurse, she rushes down there. Joanna doesn’t see Richard, but she does see an anxious-looking Vielle talking with a young man – anxious to find Richard and tell him of her discovery, she interrupts the pair, only to find that the young man is armed with a knife, with which he stabs her. As the ER staff swings into action to try to save her, Joanna tries just as desperately to convey the information to Vielle, an effort that she takes with her into her final NDE.
And though I enjoyed Passage as a whole, this is where I detached from the text, because really – apart from the needs of the narrative, what was the rush? There aren’t going to be real world applications of any scientific advance, let alone one as esoteric as this, in anything under a couple of years, so waiting less than an hour for her next scheduled meeting with Richard wouldn’t have delayed anything.
The remaining couple of chapters alternate between Joanna’s new perspective, frantically trying to communicate her findings to Richard before it’s too late, and Richard’s attempts (assisted by Maisie, Vielle, another character whose plot thread I’ve not had space to explore and, unwittingly, Mandrake) to piece together what Joanna did for a missing hour and what relevance it had. This was interesting, and complemented the sense of haste woven through the novel, but I alternated my reading with thinking about what the book would have been like without this twist.
Each chapter opens with a death-related quote, from the last words of historical figures to the last letters of the famous, last messages from lost planes and sunk ships to live reports from broadcasters seeing a tragedy unfold before them. The characters are rounded and well drawn, and I found the research topic fascinating, particularly as it’s related to my own area of academic interest. I’ve yet to have any direct contact with a death survivor who talked about having an NDE, but was prepared to let that aspect go.
Despite its somewhat grim subject matter, there are touches of comedy in Passage. Joanna distresses Richard when, weeding through his participant list looking for Mandrakian ringers, she finds half a dozen who seemed find on Richard’s initial screening but who are True Believers associated with the near-death community, spies for Mandrake, or believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, or otherwise tainted. When Richard, outraged by her revelations, is surprised they weren’t all picked up by the preliminary psych profile, Joanna replies “Believing in the afterlife isn’t a mental illness; a number of major religions have been doing it for centuries.” There is also a romantic undertone, so that although nothing completely develops the reader is left with a strong sense of potential.
I also really enjoyed a thread I alluded to above and haven’t been able to explore here, which involved Mr Briarly, Joanna’s favourite high school teacher, now struggling with Alzheimer’s, and his niece Kit. Both the characters and the situation were beautifully portrayed, and I particularly liked the depiction of Alzheimer’s as a progressive death of personhood. There is also a recurring motif throughout the novel, clear in retrospect, that hints at the purpose of NDE’s; the characters in the book, like this reader, were equally blind to them, and in the last section they were also deaf to Mr Briarly’s remarks that, in a metaphysical communication with Joanna and with the part of him already gone, desperately tried to pass on a message.
I feel as though I’ve failed to capture all the elements of Passage that I’d like to – I haven’t, for example, given Maisie a fraction of the time she deserves, nor her fascination with disasters, the apparently tangential recurring Titanic/disaster motif, or even mentioned the confabulating Mrs Davenport. On the other hand perhaps, by having difficulty directly communicating what I intend, I’m doing Passage greater justice than I think. – Alex

To read Lynn’s review of Passage click here.

Wednesday, September 15

In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer-Fleming

It was a bitterly cold night in Miller’s Kill when Clare Fergusson found an abandoned, but well wrapped, newborn at the door of her Episcopal church. A newcomer to the small New York town, Clare is used to the surprise of being a woman and a minister, just like she was used to being the only female helicopter pilot in her Army squad.
When she meets police chief Russ Van Alstynne at the hospital she instantly discovers a lot in common, starting with their shared military backgrounds and not extending to their faiths. Shepherds, in different ways, for their town, they team together to discover the identity of at least the mother, to make sure her decision to give up her clearly cared-for child was voluntary. The note attached directs the baby boy to a wealthy couple desperate for a child – when the body of a young woman who recently delivered a child is found later that evening, Clare and Russ have to ask how desperate Geoff and Karen Burns really are.
I immediately engaged with the writing, characters and plot of In the Bleak Midwinter. The interweaving of faith meeting agnosticism, big city and country, minister and police office were beautiful. I found the characterisation beautifully realised, and really liked Clare’s discussion with town dispatcher Helene about prayer:
“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending us His spirit, giving us strength and peace and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”
Helene frowned. “In other words, sometimes the answer is no?”
“No. Sometimes the answer is, ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.”
The exploration of religion, practice and belief comes from Russ, who bother wonders about aspects of Clare’s faith – what, for example, is a calling? It’s not a huge presence in the book, but it’s clear that this is significant to Clare, and makes her occupation more an integral component of her personality and being than a quirky twist to breathe life into a familiar genre.
Clare confronts her own share of prejudices, both directed at her and about her previously unexplored beliefs about obesity which, though only a paragraph and part-way through the text, I found interesting and warmed me to an author I was already fully engaged with. A slightly stronger, but also sympathetic, perspective on care of the elderly cemented my connection, while adding another element that raised In the Bleak Midwinter above the average mystery novel.
Running through the novel, from their first meeting, is a strong physical attraction so delicately drawn that it’s only at the novel’s end that the characters acknowledge it. And, by adding the frustratingly delicious element of Russ’s not wholly compatible but until now satisfactory enough marriage, it’s a bond that cannot be strengthened. The last scene, where the mutual interest and almost magnetic physical draw to one another is finally brought into the open, only to be clearly shut down, was achingly perfect and consistent with both characters.
I so thoroughly enjoyed, and immersed myself in, this multiple award winning first novel that I’ve already reserved the next two in the series, and eagerly await their availability at my library. I feel anticipatory satisfaction at the reading of them already – no pressure, Ms Spencer-Fleming! – Alex

The Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series:
1. In the Bleak Midwinter
2. A Fountain Filled with Blood
3. Out of the Deep I Cry
4. To Darkness and to Death
5. All Mortal Flesh
6. I Shall Not Want

Tuesday, September 14

Dr Rick Kausman: If Not Dieting, Then What?

From the back of the book:
So how do you manage your weight? There is a solution and it’s all about attitude. In Not Dieting, Then What? shows you how to look at food in a more positive way and move away from the ‘no pain, no gain ethos’, an well as explaining how to fine-tune fat content without sacrificing food enjoyment.
Dr Rick Kausman is recognised as the Australian pioneer of the non-dieting approach to healthy weight management. In this straightforward, no-nonsense guide to weight management he shares his, and his clients’ experiences with the reader. You can learn how to: enjoy food without feeling guilty, increase your eating awareness, improve how you feel about yourself, fit some sort of activity into your day, and achieve and maintain a healthy, comfortable weight for you, without being deprived of food or quality of life.
Since I’ve decided to finally follow my doctor’s advice and stop dieting I’ve begun researching intuitive eating. The basic principle is simple: eat when you’re hungry, don’t eat when you’re not. But anybody who has ever had a genuine weight problem (and not just carried four or five excess kilos) can tell you that hunger often has very little to do with eating. This author understands that.
The purpose of this book is to give the reader the tools they need to get out of the yo-yo dieting cycle and get back in touch with their body. With chapters that address why diets don’t work, the importance of choosing realistic goals, non-hungry eating, body image and the inevitability of losing focus occasionally, this book covers the most commonly asked questions of this approach to weight management.
Personally I found chapter 3 ‘Non-hungry eating’ and chapter 7 ‘Eating with awareness’ to be of particular interest. I am making an effort to apply the techniques suggested to relearn to recognise my body’s needs with the hope that eventually these will become second nature (or is that a return to ‘first’ nature). At the time of writing this it all still requires considerable conscientiousness on my part and it is much too soon to say if the techniques will, in fact, work for me.
As far as “diet” books go this is one of the most reasonable and sensible ones I’ve ever read. The local references were a novel bonus too.-Lynn

Saturday, September 11

Inside Job - Connie Willis

Rob is a sceptic who has devoted his life to exposing paranormal frauds, from past-life channelers and psychics to spiritual healers and mediums in contact with the other side. His newsletter also exposes the faulty reasoning of intelligent design and other pseudo-science and, though nothing on par with the Amazing Randi, he’s well enough known. Two of the rules Rob follows are that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and that if it seems to good to be true it probably is. When Kildy Ross, a beautiful actress tired of the Hollywood scene, asks to join him researching and writing his magazine "The Jaundice Eye"Rob is a little suspicious, but Kildy seems to be the real deal.
When Kildy comes to him about Ariaura, who channels Isus - an 80,000 year old high priest from Atlantis who's "spoke[n] with the oracle at Delphi [and] delved into the Sacred Writings of the Rosicrucian" - Rob is initially struck by the vast sums of money being harvested from the gullible - $750 per person for the group seminar, photos of Ariaura (28.99 unsigned, $35 signed and "If you want it signed by Isus it's a hundred"), and tapes of the seminars. That's until Ariaura's chanelling is interrupted by another disapparated spirit, and this one's not a fan of the paranormal.
To say any more would spoil the main hook of Inside Job, but despite the comparitive shortness of the book, at only 99 pages, there's still a lot here. I at first assumed that Inside Job was written earlier than Willis's deeper, more layered time travelling academia stories The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. However, though this is a novella it still incorporates many of the elements of Willis's more developed novels - these include complex characters, romantic sub-themes, touches of humour, and a keen eye for both the absurd and the little-remarked upon in contemporary culture. - Alex

Thursday, September 9

Angel-Seeker - Sharon Shinn

Elizabeth has grown used, but never reconciled, to her life as an unpaid servant in her cousin's farm house. It's a long way from the luxurious life she knew as a child, but it's still a roof over her head. When the opportunity to travel to Cedar Hills appears, Elizabeth is a little conflicted, but decides to try her chances as an angel-seeker, one of the women who live near angel conclaves and try to conceive an angel baby. Though the majority of angel/mortal unions produce non-angelic offspring, angels are desperately wanted, particularly now, and their mothers are adored and feted, which is all Elizabeth really wants.
Eldest daughter of a Jansai merchant, Rebekah has always known what her life holds - veiled and chaste, with more time spent in the company of women than men, and never alone with a man who isn't family. But when she finds Obadiah, a fallen angel, wounded and near death alongside an oasis she can't leave him - and thus begins a journey that will see Rebekah's life change in ways she could never have imagined.

This fifth in the Samaria series is set shortly after Archangel and before Jovah's Angel by chronology, but I've been reading the novels in publication order. There aren't enough angels, thanks to the faithless behaviour of former archangel Raphael and his followers, so the demand for my angel babies is stronger than ever. There's reference here to the flaws of a society that values one kind of child so highly while leaving the human offspring of an angel/human union unsupported and (at least in some cases) wholly abandoned; since I discovered the amazing Shinn earlier this year this has been an aspect of Samaria I've hoped she'd address, but that novel is not this one.
The elements I've come to expect and appreciate are here, though - richly layered narratives that weave seemingly disparate plot lines into a beautiful and cohesive whole; internally coherent, three-dimensional characters; genuinely distinguishable, unique cultures within a society that is heterogenous and flawed but integrated; realistic, intelligent, amusing dialogue; motivations that are genuine and that drive the novel in ways both surprising and natural; and unexpected but convincing romance. Like its predecessors, the only flaw of Angel-Seeker was that it ended, leaving me so satisfied and replete that I closed the book with only a little sadness that it was done, and that I was one book closer to running out of more. - Alex

Monday, September 6

Victoria Holt: The Shivering Sands

When her archaeologist sister goes missing, a young widow takes a position as music teacher at her last known whereabouts, in the hope of discovering what became of her. She soon finds herself entangled in the complicated lives of her employer’s family, fascinated by the complex backgrounds of her four pupils, drawn irresistibly to the son recently returned from years of banishment after the accidental killing of his brother, intrigued by the real story behind her master’s wife’s suicide and plagued by the elderly spinster artist apparently obsessed with her long dead nephew.
She suspects that somebody knows more than they are saying about her sister’s disappearance and when one of her pupils also disappears she is sure of it. But it is only when an attempt is made on her life that she begins to believe that her sister met with foul play rather than a tragic accident.
The house is full of suspects and misplacing her trust almost results in her death but at least she’ll go knowing exactly what horror happened to her sister.
This traditional gothic romance from the late sixties has lost nothing with the passage of time. The plot is convoluted yet believable and the characters’ behaviour deliciously ambiguous. The hero is decidedly dark, though typical for the era his character is very much a two-dimensional figure in the background of the main story.
I can easily overlook the weak romance elements though since this is first and foremost a mystery and that aspect of the story is very well done.
Overall a great escapist read that aptly shows how it was Victoria Holt earned herself the title of the queen of gothic romance.-Lynn.

Sunday, September 5

Knight Errant – R Garcia Y Robertson

Robyn Stafford knew flying unannounced to the English Cotswolds from Hollywood to surprise her British lover on his birthday was the kind of move that would either cement or destroy their relationship – she just didn’t realise there was only one way it could go. Well, at least not until she realised the impossibly beautiful woman who answered the door of Greystone, Collin’s ancestral home, was his wife, and the mother of their three children.
The saving grace of an otherwise humiliating and heart-breaking act was meeting Collin’s sister, Jo. Lovely, gracious, warm and welcoming, Jo and her daughter Joy took her in to their far less grand home. Hiking along the Anglo-Welsh boarder the following day, Robyn crossed paths with a handsome youth astride a truly magnificent mount. Dressed, authentically as far as her untrained eye could tell, in a knight’s armour, Edward Plantagenet believes it to be 1459 and mistakes her pant-clad self for a lad. Certain that the poor, but assured and attractive, boy is deluded, Robyn is stunned when his pursuers emerge – three armoured men ready to do battle. When Edward first puts himself between them and Robyn, and then dispatches two or the men leaving the third to flee, Robyn is less certain that Edward is touched. He gives her the white rose from his cap, and leaves.
Returning to Jo, Robyn discovers her hostess is a witch and member in good standing of the local coven. As, it turns out, is Collin’s wife Bryn. The women agree to meet and try to help Robyn work out what happened. With an anchor to each world – her mobile phone and the rose Edward gave her – in each hand, the coven begin to cast their spell. Had Robyn turned off her phone the spell may have had a very different ending – as it rang, Bryn said tartly, “That will be for me,” and snatched the phone from Robyn’s hand. And, unanchored, Robyn was sent back to the Middle Ages.
Robyn is surprised to find versions of the family she left behind in the mid-1450’s – now Sir Collingwood Grey, her Collin is apparently unattached but has no knowledge of her. She meets him, though, after being thrown into a cell for witches, where she discovers nine-year-old Joy, daughter in this world as well as hers of Jo. Joy tells Robyn that witches are immortal – their bodies may die, and they have no memories of their old lives next time around, but they are guaranteed to be reborn, apparently in the same physical form and with the same familial ties.
As Robyn tries to return to her own time she also seeks Edward, whose youth decreasingly seems an obstacle. Fleeing one countryside setting for another, Robyn and her hosts are pursued by the forces of their political foes, and after Greystone is attacked and set afire in the middle of the night Collin and Robyn and separated from Jo and Joy. They head for a secret friend of Collin’s, over the boarder to Wales – to a woman Robyn has met before, or hence. Once again, Collin is wed to Bryn, though this time secretly.
There were many things I liked about Knight Errant – Robyn is not only navigating the differences between her modern sensibilities and life five hundred years earlier but also the contrast between American and British traditions. The political turbulence of her new here and now (a phrase used with irritating frequency) makes it an interesting, in the Chinese sense, time to live, and Robyn finds herself and her allies on the under dog’s side. Robertson described the deprivations of the time vividly, and overcomes difficulties in the evolution of language by including an understanding of fifteenth century Saxon, French, Latin and Welsh in the spell.
But after an engrossing and interesting first third I found myself less and less engaged with the characters and the text. I’ve tried to work out why this is, and have not yet had success. There were certainly a couple of details that jarred, like Jo’s coin-operated shower taking shillings in decimalised England, and Robyn’s electronic journal retaining battery power a month after her last charge. These were so few and niggly, though, that I suspect I’d barely have noticed had I been more involved in the narrative.
I read about two thirds of my way into Knight Errant, long enough for Robyn to be reunited with Edward but not yet able to see how the tale ends. There are, of course, only two ways it could go – either Robyn returns to the twenty-first century (where she may leave Edward behind, somehow bring him with her, or he’s unexpectedly a witch and she meets up with his modern day incarnation), or she stays in the past, dead or alone or with Edward. I’m sorry I so completely lost interest that I care not at all which of these it is, because I did really enjoy the first third of Knight Errant very much, and may try Robertson’s other works, but not before a breather. – Alex

Thursday, September 2

Tony & Susan – Austin Wright

When Susan Morrow receives a manuscript in the mail from her ex-husband Edward, it’s like hearing from a dimly remembered land. His writing was one of the, many in retrospect, reasons their marriage didn’t last – he took it very seriously, she viewed it as an indulgent hobby. And she’s afraid to read Nocturnal Animals, in case it’s terrible. So she puts the manuscript aside, remembering it only at inconvenient moments when it’s not to hand. Until Christmas, when the card from Edward’s current wife includes a note from Edward – he’ll be in Chicago for one night, providing an impetus and time frame for her reading. Her husband Arnold is going away the day after Christmas, so Susan has three days from then.

Tony Hastings is a mathematics professor. When his daughter, Helen, suggests he continue driving through the night toward their summer house in Maine he agrees, and so does Laura, his wife. But things quickly take a turn for the worse when, on a desolate stretch of Pennsylvanian highway, an altercation with strangers in a couple of cars quickly gets out of hand. Before Tony knows it, he and his family are in danger.

Tony & Susan alternates between Susan’s responses to her ex-husband’s first novel and the novel itself. As Tony struggles in an environment very different from the rarefied, civilised academic world he’s accustomed to, Susan recalls the beginnings of her relationship with Edward as a teen, through to the ending of their marriage. She analyses the novel for hints of the Edward she no longer knows, clues to the man he once was, and for an idea of how he sees her.

I picked Tony & Susan up at Heathrow and was caught by both the premise and the first chapter of Nocturnal Creatures, which conveys an amazing sense of suspense, danger and foreshadowing. I decided against buying the trade sized recent release, and was delighted to find, on returning to Melbourne, that my fabulous local library had it.

It is therefore doubly disappointing that I so disliked the novel as it progressed. I had issues with both halves of the novel, too. So I found the chapters of Nocturnal Animals, initially so engaging, increasingly frustrating – Tony is constrained from acting by his class and values, and the aftermath of the abduction just didn’t resonate at all for me. And good god, the focus on his identity:

He catalogued the idiocies of punks and hoods... who would play chicken with real cars on a highway and kidnap a college professor and dump him in the woods...

Tony Hastings was insulted but refused to be humiliated. My name is Tony Hastings, he said. I teach mathematics at the university. Last week I gave three students Fs for the course. I gave great pleasure to fifteen others with the grade of A.I have a Ph.D.

I get that holding on to his identity is a key component in his character, but enough already – those two extracts are from contiguous paragraphs, but the theme is hammered over and over throughout the novel. I wanted to kidnap him and leave him in the woods.

And there’s a lot of that full name business – he’s almost always Tony Hastings, and she’s almost always Susan Morrow, as though the reader might forget who the protagonists are. Not only is this the case when they’re being referred to in the third person, but they themselves frequently think about, address and are addressed by others in first and last name, so that Tony’s flirtation with a student is never with Louise but always with Louise Germane.

For the Susan sections my ire was directed more to the Literary writing style than the characterisation:

Electricity, like Selena at the picnic, Selena with the purring cat’s voice, whose matter seemed fully convertible to energy in the Einsteinian sense: e=mc2. Selena the electric, altered into Susan the electric, as if Arnold were a transformer, thinking how easy to be free, what delicious things could be done in Edward’s absence if you were the kind of person who did such things. Susan was not that kind. Susan was Susan, from Edgar Lane, teacher of Freshman English, well organized, coherent, grammatical, unified, with margins on all sides, always ready to revise and improve herself. This Susan had delicious wild thoughts full of mountains and forests and floating streams, with fish on the wing and birds at sea, thoughts concentric and phallic, with penis hunting in the mists and cave exploration in the hermaphroditic clouds, but they were only thoughts, unacted, unuttered, the absent underside of Susan the Good.

And then there’s the self-aggrandising sections, where Susan (Wright’s character) is marvelling at the brilliance of Edward’s writing (by Austin), and reflecting on the experience of reading his work.

Susan Morrow thumbs ahead, trying not to see the words, finds PART TWO not far ahead. How sad it is, she thinks. Sadness in the news to come, which nobody mentions but all expect. She gropes for the loophole Edward might have allowed, but finds none. Meanwhile, despite the sadness, she feels this energy and does not know if it’s her own chemistry or the book, Edward in a state of excitement, enjoying his work? She likes to see Edward enjoying his work, it sparks her up. She awaits the horrible discovery her soul deplores, she awaits it avidly.

Maybe I’m just not a very conscious reader, but I don’t think anything like that while I’m waiting to return to a book I’m excited about. Plus I found it a little self-serving, given that the work Susan is responding to, as described by Wright, is the book written by Wright (in the person of Edward). It all felt a little ego-driven, in a way I found grating but may have accepted if I liked either of the characters or felt compelled by the plot.

There are also endless little recaps by Susan as she picks the manuscript back up, which I found annoying – I remembered what had happened on the previous page, having an attention span occasionally longer than that of a parakeet.

I did finish Tony & Susan, though less out of any interest than a combination of mild curiosity, resolution, and discomfort about my recent run of unfinished reads. I did find the penultimate line amusing, albeit not (I suspect) in the way Austin intended:

She wanted to punish Arnold too, but the only thing she could think of was to make him read the book.

- Alex

Wednesday, September 1

Fish Out of Water - MaryJanice Davidson

Marine biologist and human/mermaid hybrid Fred has finally chosen between her two suitors - she's marrying Artur, High Prince of the Black Sea. Dashing, manly, and most importantly actually interested in her rather than swanning of with some other woman for months at a time without even a word, Artur is obviously the better choice. And now that the Land Dwellers are aware of the Undersea Folk, her watery kin are in need of a media savvy spokeswoman like herself.
But though Artur and his father seem happy to accept her into the family, they don't represent the Undersea Folk as a whole. Fred's long-exiled father has not be fully forgiven for trying to overturn the rightful Royal family, and his remorseful reappearance for the first time in Fred's memory is only the first in a series of significant events that sees Fred's incipient marriage under threat - and in almost as much trouble as the peace of the Undersea Folk.

This is a lightweight novel that, though enjoyable enough in the reading, carried little resonance for me once I closed the cover. I did like that Fred wasn't wedding obsessed, but her actual aversion to all things wedding organising should have been a hint there was a problem.
This mild pleasure was considerably outweighed by my finding Fred a little irritating, though not enough for memorability, and I felt confused about her allergies - on page 36 she is mildly disappointed that "goliath grouper was strictly catch and release. Pity. She'd heard grouper were delicious." But on page 38, when she sees mermaid Rashel "chomping on the head of a grouper and offering the body to her mate" Fred is allergic to fish.

The final in a trilogy (parts one and two are reviewed
here and here), I'm certainly ready to let go of Fred and partake of some more substantial fare when I next partake of something fromt he paranormal sphere. - Alex