Wednesday, October 27
When Prim's name is drawn, Katniss volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games in her stead. With two participants, a boy and a girl, from each of the Districts, Prim has no chance. For the Hunger Games are an annual, compulsory event combining skill, physical and mental strength, prowess, guile, thousands of cameras, and great reward for the winner and his or her home District. But to get there the winner has to be the sole survivor.
This justifiably renown novel is a triumph - from the set up and characterisation through to the action seasons and the twists, every note is perfect. The star, of course, is Katniss, but all the supporting characters are equally vivid, flawed and realistic.
Realism is, of course, at the heart of the concept, for the Hunger Games are reality TV writ large - voyeurism at a remove, with an audience relating to but removed from the participants, and each series promising something new to keep the viewers hooked. Instead of votes for elimination, supporters can proffer presents - supplies, food, medicine - to favoured contestants, but everything goes through a mentor, a Hunger Games survivor from a previous season. To get supporters contestants have to make a connection with the audience, and each contestant has a styling team prior to entry in the arena.
I was reminded of several other novels while reading The Hunger Games, particularly the Star Trek novel Kobayashi Maru (where a no-win scenario is defeated by a young James T Kirk) and Westerfeld's Uglies series. This was not because The Hunger Games is at all derivative but because there are similar elements, differently handled. Additionally, the premise of a reality program that devolves into a race for survival is similar to that of the 2001 film Series 7; where the Hunger Games differs, apart from the age of its protagonists, is the exploration of a culture where this arrangement could not only be tolerated but state sponsored. Narrated in the first person, Katniss gives the reader background that sites the societal set up for the Hunger Games, and she struggles with the concept throughout. The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy, and I strongly suspect that the manipulation Katniss uses to beat the game will be echoed in a larger form in the sequel. I've reserved a copy at my library, and will find out soon enough. - Alex
Tuesday, October 26
For her this all points to the reactivation of the legendary anti-Grail. A dark chalice rumoured to be hidden somewhere within the town’s confines and a source of untold power and wealth for whosoever should claim it.
Together a rag-tag bunch of friends must face both physical and spiritual attack in order to prevent the dark chalice from seeing the light of day and unleashing untold evil upon the village and eventually, the world.
This is one of Rickman’s earlier works and like all his books this one has a much deeper and more complex plot than I could summarise here. It is as much a story of small town politics as anything else yet the supernatural overlay fits perfectly. There are a number of plot threads running concurrently but each disparate element is slowly woven into the fabric of the story until the final picture is revealed.
The characters are wonderfully drawn, each with an integrity that brings them to life. And all are completely believable, from the psychologically fragile heroine to the visitor’s three legged dog.
Needless to say I enjoyed The Chalice very much and would not hesitate to recommend it-Lynn
Saturday, October 23
As a contemporary mystery - the disappearance of clinic doctor Allan Rouse, perhaps at the hands of anti-vaccine campaigner Debba Clowe - is investigated by Millers Kill police chief Russ van Alstyne, details of a tragedy almost eighty years old begin to emerge; and threaded throughout is the ongoing, deepening attraction between Clare and the inconveniently married Russ, a connection that a brush with almost certain death forces them to acknowledge, and to finally name - love.
Spencer-Fleming packs so much into her novels - i intertwining plots, strong characters, forbidden romance and pitch-perfect dialogue. Deftly woven in are details about Prohibition and other historical accuracies, and she has a keen understanding of human psychology, particularly parental.
The heart of Out of the Deep I Cry, though, is epidemic illness and vaccination - fears about the use of the first antidiphtheria serum in 1924, the wildfire speed with which unchecked illness rampages, the devastating swathe it cuts, the inability of contemporary culture to appreciate this after decades safe from pandemic disease, and the fallacy of a thiomersal/autism connection. The writing is so incisive, clear and evocative that I feel strongly that Spencer-Fleming intended to convey a clear message, one I fully support.
In lesser hands this could have been strident, diminishing the power of the text as a whole. Here, however, it is an integral part of the plot, seamlessly integrated and beautifully conveyed. The passages where modern concerns about the alleged ills of vaccinations are contrasted with strikingly similar (and identically baseless) concerns from over eight decades ago, are subtle and well crafted.
The novel is chronologically layered, so that each time line unfolds with internal linearity but the present is interfolded with the seventies, the fifties and the twenties. This technique allows the precipitating events, some eighty-five years ago, to only slowly emerge, devastatingly exposed almost at the end.
The novel finishes, though, with its engine. The driving heart of the series is the relationship between Russ and Clare, both honourable people committed to the vows they took long before they met. An affair is an anathema to them both, but the measures they've taken thus far have done naught to dampen the mutual feelings of respect, attraction and intellectual pull they feel. I so look forward to seeing where Spencer-Fleming takes them next. - 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
Thursday, October 21
Rina Lazarus could probably have avoided jury duty thanks to her husband's career, but she likes the idea of contributing to her community. The case she's serving on has a number of Hispanic witnesses, and interpreting for them in the enigmatic, and blind, Brett Harriman - when Harriman overhears a couple of men speaking about the murders, particularly about someone called el patrón being angry that there were survivors, he asks a nearby woman to describe the men, one of whom is speaking Spanish with a Mexican accent, the other with Cuban intonation. The woman is Rina.
I loved this series from the beginning - unlike more famous husband Jonathan's Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis series, the mystery/crime plots are strongly tempered by character development and the rites and ritual of orthodox Judaism. In the very first novels, where Peter and Rina meet, fall in love, and he learns about his unknown heritage, this was particularly beautifully done.
Sadly neither series feel fresh to me any more - though I finished Blindman's Bluff, I never felt engaged with, interested in the mystery, or connected to the characters. Given the central relationship is now up to its nineteenth outing, and that I've been reading about them for over twenty years, this is not a good sign. I heartily recommend the early novels (The Ritual Bath, Sacred and Profane, Milk and Honey and Day of Atonement in particular), but have to pass on this. - Alex
Wednesday, October 20
In order to take her mind off things she accepts what should be a simple retrieval job. She soon finds her mission wasn’t what she’d thought it to be and comes to the conclusion her people can no longer hide.
They are at war for their very survival and don’t stand a chance at open warfare. So she decides to fight back her own way-save those she can and inflict maximum damage to the enemy in the process. The battle is brutal and there are major losses on both sides and she is far from unscathed. But at the end of the day she knows who her real friends are and is relieved that her old partner/lover is amongst their number.
This is the second last book in this series and it reads very much as a continuation of the previous novel, so unlike earlier episodes it does not stand alone.
There is plenty of action and danger is ever present making for a fast paced read that is somehow less satisfying than it should be. There is a lot going on as the overarching plot reaches its zenith and I think perhaps character development suffers a little due to the rapid plot pace. A shame because the main character faces significant personal issues that I would have liked to have seen explored.
Overall this wasn’t a bad book but it was far from the best in the series. To be honest it felt a bit experimental, as if the author wanted to push the characters in a direction they didn’t want to go and their resistance shines through making the story feel false.
I can only hope that the final book in the series sees everyone back on track.-Lynn
Saturday, October 16
College life strains their relationship more than Vince anticipated - Kendra has no time for him but apparently endless hours to star in would-be-director and Vince's classmate P. Richard Shapiro's (a real P-Rick) student film. And though he's trying hard to be strong, roommate Trey's new, gorgeous, older girlfriend Willow seems to be throwing herself at him. Trey can't stand his father, US senator William Sutter, but the straight life fascinates Vince, who desperately wants to expunge every aspect of his father's involvement in The Life from his life.
This sequel to Son of the Mob is as funny and fun as the original - in common with most of Korman's longer novels, it's peopled with distinctive characters who have agendas that bewilder the Everyman hero, tilting him a little off the unobtrusive path he has in mind for himself. for Vince this starts with his rebellious roommate and the host of characters who inhabit his college aerie, but the arrival of his connected brother Tommy, apparently interested in going straight, is only the second in a series of appearances of family (both blood and Family) who pop up, reminding Vince that you can never really leave.
I've said before that Korman should be more widely read, particularly by reluctant male readers - his writing is accessible but nuanced, his plots are twisty but easily followed, his dialogue is realistic and funny, his protagonists are everymen, and his supporting characters are just a little larger than life. - Alex
Tuesday, October 12
From the back of the book-
Increase your energy levels and banish fatigue from your life forever.
Do you toss and turn at night?
Do you find it hard to get out of bed in the morning?
Do you use caffeine to help you stay alert?
Do you feel tired most of the time?
If your answer to two or more of these questions is yes then you are not getting enough sleep. Written by sought-after physiotherapist Sammy Margo, this essential guide to getting a good night’s sleep will help you:
Understand the importance of the right environment, bedding and sleep position
Discover the best over-the-counter sleep remedies
Combat jet lag
Say goodbye to sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnoea
Written by a physiotherapist, you would expect this book to focus on the physical aspects of getting a good night’s sleep and you would be right. It covers topics such as how to choose the right bed, mattress and pillow for optimal spinal alignment and the benefits and disadvantages of assorted sleeping positions. It addresses some of the more common physical complaints that may result in poor quality sleep and how an individual might effectively deal with them using both medicinal and lifestyle elements. It also emphasises the importance of creating a good pre sleep routine.
While the book offers nothing new (or at least nothing I haven’t heard before in my quest for a decent night’s sleep) it is easy to read and presented in a logical format.
Sensible and sound advice succinctly summarized for the newly sleepless-Lynn
Monday, October 11
1. Mystic and Rider
2. The Thirteenth House
3. Dark Moon Defender
4. Reader and Raelynx
5. Fortune and Fate
Saturday, October 9
As is her wont, Jones has used tales and elements from folklore and fairytales to frame her thoroughly original story - in this case the fairy king Oberon, his consort Titania, and trickster Puck. But there's a lot more here, too - from feuds large and small, unusual aptitudes, and even an incipeint romance. I didn't find Enchanted Glass quite as much as some of Jones's other works, but even an average Jones is better than many writers at their best. - Alex
Wednesday, October 6
No sooner does she arrive when a tragic accident claims the life of one of the school’s most promising students. Reminded of her own recent loss and troubled by her daughter’s emotional distance, she throws herself into her research and soon discovers the private diary of one of the school’s founders. What she reads within its pages, together with what she picks up from the student body and the attitude of the local sheriff, leads her to suspect that the student’s death was no accident after all. But she has no real proof and the school is riddled with suspects, from the elderly head mistress right down to a competitive classmate of the dead girl.
The more she investigates the past, the more enlightened she becomes about the present, until finally, with the ‘suicide’ of a colleague, everything falls into place. However, her knowledge has put her, and by proxy, her daughter, in grave danger.
It is only with the help of the sheriff that she eventually manages to save herself, her daughter and another student from murderous intent and achieve the life she had hoped to have when she first accepted the teaching position.
I feel this mystery novel, with decidedly gothic overtones, overreaches itself. The plot is unnecessarily convoluted and the characters’ motivation thin at best. I couldn’t relate to the heroine at all. She, like most of the other characters, simply didn’t have enough depth to create any real interest. And the romance subplot was completely unconvincing.
However, to damn with faint praise, the story wasn’t really that bad. Though I feel it was poorly executed there was a lot of potential. With a less contorted plot, more developed characters and a greater sense of place this could have been an outstanding work rather than an average one.
Simply due to that potential I would consider another of Goodman’s works but I’ll not be rushing out for one.-Lynn
Monday, October 4
Set in the mid seventeenth century, Pirate Latitudes is a significant departure on many fronts from Crichton's usual work, which tends to explore intersections of two or more of modern culture, health care, contentious issues, and emerging technologies. The manuscript was found on a computer and was apparently completed before his death, along with another novel (to be published in 2012, which suggests a lack of completion). I certainly found it less satisfying or engrossing than his other works, which I generally found absorbing and well-written. Unfortunately I just couldn't get into Pirate Latitudes, which I abandoned about 100 pages. - Alex
Sunday, October 3
Being different certainly comes at a high cost - from the scorn of jock star Bobby, who she crushed on for years, to the uncompromising ill-favour of her teachers, and the disapproval of her widowed father, the only people in Jade's life who accept her for who she really is are her friends. When a clash with her trig teacher sends Jade to the principal's office one time too many, Jade expected consequences, even if Mr Parton's treatment of her was totally unfair. What she didn't expect was that her universe would be turned upside down, nor that the only other person aware that everything was now wrong would be her arch-enemy, Barbie girl and Miss Popularity Mercedes Turner. As Jade battles against her popularity, including the more seductive aspects of unearned approval, Mercedes struggles with her abrupt transition to outsider status and near-universal disapproval from the cohort who were once her more adoring friends.
I liked the concept behind oh my goth, of an alternative universe were being Goth was the norm and all the things that set Jade apart before were now the very things that made her popular. Yet, as I read I found myself feeling increasingly detached from the novel; a little reflection allowed me to recognise that this was due, at least in part, to the expectations I didn't realise I had about where Showalter was going to take the novel. The universe inversion mechanism (induction of a virtual reality by a discredited scientist) was fine, and certainly able to be incorporated into the suspension of disbelief inherent in the premise, and it gave Jade and Mercedes a reason to work together, but I didn't buy that they were able to interact with each other and a third character, nor that the time they spent in the VR world was shorter than in real life, nor that it occurred to neither of them that the drug-enhanced alternate reality would need to be monitored by someone, who would then be well aware of the escape plans they made.
But I could have overlooked that had the novel itself been more substantial. I'd hoped for something that dug into the deeper aspects of popularity, non-conformity and peer pressure, particularly regarding teens. Instead I found oh my goth to be disappointingly superficial, starting with Jade herself, whose first diary entry bemoans appearance-based judgement but on the very same page judges the "Barbies" at school. Her raison d'etre seems to be individuality for the sake of it, but her style is purely reactionary rather than reflective of what she wants, and designed purely to proclaim that she is a non-conformist.
Jade's father, like every character in the novel, is barely two-dimensional - he seems to have no understanding of why Jade is traumatised by the idea of driving, or why she might be preoccupied with death, instead fixated on the way she dresses. He's also, it transpired through the novel, in a relationship with Mercedes' mother, a relationship that apparently pre-dates the death of his wife, and which is part of the reason for Mercedes' intensive dislike of Jade. Yet somehow this significant aspect isn't addressed.
And that's really emblematic of the novel in toto for me - there are opportunities to explore issues in some depth, but instead only the most superficial and hackneyed messaged are conveyed: popular guys can screw you over, Barbie clones can have intellect and insight, judging by appearances doesn't necessarily tell you what's going on with someone, and walking in someone else's shoes can give you an idea about their reality and allow you to transcend the barriers you imposed. Oh, and some discussion about how the different kinds of Goth vary would have been nice - all we got was that cyber goths are lovers "of all things futuristic," which is surely a simplification at best.- Alex
Saturday, October 2
What Jack didn't expect was to be embroiled, on his very first day in town, in a brutal murder that saw him in jail, that almost got him killed, that triggered a wave of violence through the apparently peaceful town, and that was committed to cover up a massive criminal enterprise.
Killing Floor is the first in what is now over a dozen Jack Reacher novels, and it's a worthy opening - the writing is arresting from the opening line - "I was arrested in Eno's diner." (I swear that when I typed that I had no thought of wordplay in mind). Child conveys a sense of purpose to this aimless-looking man, imbues him with strengths and weaknesses, and shows the reader how an experienced and intelligent cop can size up and manipulate virtually any situation.
I really liked the character of Jack, and although there was more of a crowd of secondary characters than usual, I thought they were fairly well drawn. I also liked the smaller mysteries (like what happened to Blind Blake) scattered through and tied into the larger narrative.
There are genuine moments of shock, chief among which is the identity of the initial murder victim, and while there was a little more reliance on coincidence than I'd like, that aspect's not flagrant and is used fairly judiciously. I was a little disappointed in to spots (the first when I guessed how the scam was bring run, and when I picked up a point that indicated there was an inside man), but overall enjoyed Jack's first foray. Having now read the series thoroughly out of order I'd have to say my enjoyment of the later ones wasn't in any way hampered by my nonconsecutive reading. - 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