Sunday, November 28

Kitty Goes to Washington - Carrie Vaughn

Midnight radio host and semi-famous werewolf Kitty Norville likes moving from affiliate to affiliate, fielding calls from the serious and the unheard. When she’s called to a Senate hearing, to testify on behalf of supernaturals, she’s a little uncomfortable, particularly as the hearing’s going to be televised – radio’s her medium of choice for a reason. It turns out that there are other things to be concerned about in Washington, DC though – and the rather controlling vampire mistress, hot werepanther, and her mother cause not half the drama of the combined forces of an inquisitive scientist who’s not too concerned with ethics and a fundamentalist Senator hell-bent on demonising Kitty and her kin.
Only two books in I’m quite enjoying Kitty, though I could do without the play list that opens the novel. There are some particularly nice scenes where Kitty encounters other lycanthropes (a term that applies here to any shapeshifter), including the aforementioned werepanther, and an interesting theory that they have existed alongside the rest of us for millennia, with support from Aesop’s animal fables to David in the lion’s den. There’s also an interesting sub-plot about an evangelist claiming to cure vampires, which I thought echoed similar programs that ‘cure’ homosexuality, and one of my favourite takes on immortality, courtesy of Alette, the DC vampire Mistress:
I happen to believe that immortality ought to make one more sensitive to the plight of downtrodden, and more apt to work toward the betterment of humanity. Not less. We have the luxury of taking the long view.
There’s also an interesting meander around the second World War and the use of werewolves by the Nazi’s, including the intriguing fact that organised resistors to allied occupation of Germany after the war ended were called Werewolves.
There’s more, but (in line with my general procrastination of late), I read Kitty Goes to Washington several books ago, so that’s about all I have, apart from a suspicion that it may be harder to impregnate paint with a long-lasting essence of garlic than Vaughn indicates. I may well pick up Kitty Meets the Band next month, for a final whirl before Lynn and I embrace a no-library year. - Alex

Saturday, November 27

Bitch Creek - William G Tapply

All Stoney Calhoun knows about himself for certain is his name, date of birth, and the fact that he used to work for a branch of the government. Everything else was wiped away when he was struck by lightning, an event that took months of rehab to recover from. As Stoney recreates his life, he learns more about his old self by the things he can do and the instincts he retains.
He's content with his life in a quiet town in Maine - he works for Kate Balaban, selling rods, tying flies and taking customers out to the many semi-secret fishing spots dotted around Casco Bay. It's Stoney's turn to act as guide, but he doesn't warm to Fred Green, a conventioneer from Florida interested in hooking a brook trout. So he calls his fellow guide, and closest friend, to do it instead.
When Lyle McMahon doesn't show for a meeting, Stoney's not alarmed - Lyle's reliable but he's young. Kate's not so sanguine, and after calling his anxious girlfriend, Stoney starts to feel uneasy, too. When Lyle's truck turns up, parked in the yard of the local high school, keys in the ignition, Stoney starts to worry; finding Lyle's body partly submerged in his secret fishing hole fills Stoney with sadness, guilt, and a desire for justice.
Bitch Creek is the first in a trilogy cut short by the untimely death of Tapply, an avid fisherman and writer apparently better known for his Brady Coyne mystery series. the writing, like the protagonist, is laconic, spare and deceptively effortless. Tapply manages to convey a lot with few words, and the plot I've outlined is only one of several that wind through the novel.
There are flashes of back story about how Stoney ended up in Casco Bay, the evolution of his relationship with his married boss, a mysterious government man who regular checks in on Stoney's recalcitrant memory, and a lot more about the art of fishing and fly tyin
Publish Post
g than I ever thought I'd have any interest in. So much so, in fact, that I've already got the second in the series (Gray Ghost) out on loan, and have my eye on the third. - Alex

The Stoney Calhoun trilogy:
Bitch Creek
Grey Ghost
Dark Tiger
To read the first chapter of Bitch Creek click here.

Friday, November 26

Undead and Unfinished - MaryJanice Davidson

She may be the Vampire Queen, but Betsy Taylor can’t read The Book of The Dead without losing her mind, a price she’s tried to pay before, with unsuccessful results. She’s had enough, though, and has decided that she’s prepared to make a deal with the devil, if that’s what it takes. Fortunately, Betsy knows Satan – she’s the mother of Betsy’s half-sister Laura. And Satan’s prepared to deal, too, provided the sisters pay a visit to Hell.
Undead and Unfinished opens with a four page catch up, leaning more heavily on recent events, a requirement I’ve mentioned before is peculiarly and irritatingly specific to the genre. Specific to this series is the glacial character development of Betsy who, three years after dying and waking as Queen, is still significantly superficial, her butterfly attention span instantly diverted by designer clothes or cute shoes. She’s self-interested to an adolescent degree, paying very little attention not only to things that don’t interest her but also to the people in her life.
The heart of Undead and Unfinished is Betsy (or perhaps Davidson) belatedly realising ten books in that she/we know next to nothing about the Queen’s consort, Sinclair. So, on a flimsy pretext, Laura and Betsy visit strategic moments in the past, all of which related to the evolution of Eric Sinclair from small child to young man, from newly turned vampire to companion to the most powerful vampire of all. Thrown in is a visit to 3010, where a humourless Betsy reigns alone over a colourless world, attended by zombies, and Betsy’s baby brother Jon is all grown up. For a brief time the point of view switched from now-Betsy to then-Betsy, including the final moments, where we learn about the origins of the Book and the chilling source of the skin it’s written on.
Well, theoretically chilling, but by that stage I’d pretty much given up on the whole thing. I’ve belatedly realised that I’m not at all invested in the main character, and so the events that will cause her to transform from Valley Girl Barbie to Post-Apocalypse CEO Barbie interest me only in that the change indicates her character will eventual develop. I doubt I’ll be seeing it, though, for I think I may be done with Davidson. - Alex

Thursday, November 25

I Shall Not Want - Julia Spencer-Fleming

In the aftermath of Russ van Alstyne's arrest, and subsequent release, for the murder of his wife, things have not improved for the Millers Kill police chief and its Episcopal minister. For although he's now free from his marriage vows, he's no more able to pursue a relationship with Clare Fergusson than he was before, and not just because she re-enlisted.
As always, Russ and Clare's romantic narrative is interwoven with several mysteries, in this case involving illegal immigrants, murder, and a vast amount of marijuana. As if that wasn't enough, a fledgling police officer happens on domestic violence in progress, a situation which rapidly becomes an out of control armed hostage taking.
The rookie is a new addition to the familiar cast - Hadley Knox, a single mother newly arrived in Millers Kill and even more newly a member of the police department. Already unsure if she has what it takes, and fending off the fumbling but sincere romantic advances of fellow officer Kevin Flynn, she rapidly finds herself out of her depth.
I Shall Not Want is, like its predecessors, absorbing, eminently readable, and resonant. The mystery elements keep the plot ticking along but it's the characters that bring the book alive. Well, the characters are the sparkling writing - Sister Lucia, a nun ministering to illegal farmhands, is modestly supported by the church, "and by modest, I mean it's swathed in a burka, unseen by human eye."
There's a rift between Russ and Clare that I wouldn't have imagined only a book ago, which rings true and runs deep, and though it's only dealt with in a few pages, the pain is raw and convincingly portrayed. The end is warm and satisfying, and sadly reads like the end of the series, but the journey has been wonderful. - 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, November 23

Christopher Moore: A Dirty Job

When a man’s wife suddenly dies shortly after giving birth to their daughter, he struggles to continue on. This would be a difficult enough time without strange voices whispering to him from the sewers and people and pets dropping dead all around him. At first he thinks grief might be driving him insane but everything starts to make sense when he finds out that he has been recruited as Death.
He soon comes to accept his role and integrates it into an otherwise mundane life. But over the years dark forces are gaining strength, his daughter develops some unusual abilities and his colleagues are being murdered. It is only when a couple of people refuse to die that he decides things are getting out of hand and he makes a stand for the good of all mankind.
Moore’s trademarked warped sense of humour shines through in this work and I enjoyed reading it. The ensemble of whacky characters worked well but the main character’s obtuseness got a little irritating at times.
I only read this book a week or so ago and already the finer details escape me and that’s okay. This is a light, comedic fantasy not an in depth moral commentary. I remember the reading with fondness, if not the story itself.
Certainly the humour won’t appeal to everyone but I like it well enough.-Lynn

Monday, November 22

Naked in Death - JD Robb

Lieutenant Eve Dallas is dedicated to solving crime - as a lieutenant in the NYPD she's renown for her single-minded devotion to the task at hand. When a licenced companion, granddaughter of a Republican senator, is found not just murdered in her apartment but shot - a genuine rarity now that guns are primarily collector's items - Dallas is intrigued. When another licenced companion, this time with a very different clientele, is found the same way, Dallas knows she has a serial killer on the loose. At least as alarming is the increasing presence in the case of the planet's most eligible bachelor, Roarke.
Although she has every reason to be suspicious of him, both regarding the case and out of a sense of self preservation, Dallas is curiously drawn to the multi-billionaire, and the feeling appears to be mutual. But what interest could a refined, wealthy, suave and handsome entrepreneur have in a plain, thirty-something with no family, a background in foster care, and virtually no memory of her first eight years on the planet, or even her name?
JD Robb is better known as well loved romance writer Nora Roberts, with whom both Lynn and I have previously had mixed success. A recent thread on SmartBitches, discussing readers' most loved romance couples, revealed a strong affinity for the Dallas/Roarke relationship, which clearly starts with Naked in Death and continues through what Wikipedia indicates is well over thirty books and short stories. Ever a sucker for a good, strong romantic couple, and having discovered some of my favourite authors through SmartBitch recs, I tried the first Dallas/Roarke novel.
The "In Death" universe is set in the near future, after the Urban Revolt on 2016, the Urban wars that destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, and significant legislative change, from the outlawing of guns to the legalising of prostitution. Naked in Death takes place in the late 2050's, when America has significantly recovered from these tumultuous events - the average life expectancy is somewhere between 120 and 160, and there's a vaccine to prevent cancer. Roarke conducts some of his business off world, and there are many innovative technologies.
Perhaps the import of setting the novel in the mid-future (Naked in Death was first published in 1995) is greater in subsequent novels, but I could seen the point in this first of the series. There isn't anything massively different in forensic technology, at least from an amateur's viewpoint, and I found the idea of that much change in such a short period of time - an increase in life expectancy of 50% in under a century, significant non-terrestrial commerce and colonisation - unconvincing, particularly in the aftermath of devastating upheaval and infrastructure compromise. Okay, having legalised prostitution (or 'licenced companions') and a scarcity of guns contributed to the plot, but as someone living in a country where the former is currently legal and the latter rare, needing to move ahead several decades seemed unnecessary, but I could have overlooked it.
I had greater difficulty overcoming the writing, which I found clunky and intrusive - on checking the crime scene, Dallas notes that the apartment was "Neat as a virgin... and cold as a whore." On learning that the first victim "bought it in bed" she:
only lifted a brow. "Seems poetic, since she' been bought there.".

There are big chunks of exposition, so we learn about her abusive past not through an integrated flashback, or a confidence to her new lover, but by Dallas's therapist telling her what she already knows:
"Lieutenant, we both know I'm fully aware of your background. You were abused, physically, sexually and emotionally. You were abandoned when you were eight... For two years between the ages of eight and ten, you lived in a communal home while your parents were searched for. You have no memory of the first eight years of your life, your name, your circumstances, your birthplace..."

I appreciate that Dallas needs to start out somewhat cold and distant, in order to increase the warmth and openness a relationship with Roarke apparently brings. But I found her extraordinarily difficult to warm to. More importantly, nothing about the Dallas/Roarke relationship resonated with me - I wasn't interested in either of them, I didn't feel convinced of their attraction (on either side, let alone mutual), and I got an unpleasantly stalkerish vibe about him as well.
I appreciate that Roberts is well loved by a vast number of readers, both under her own name and under pseudonym. I accept that for a number of fans this pairing is one of the most romantic is Romancelandia (a term I met through SmartBitch creators Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan). but neither of these things is true for me. - Alex

Saturday, November 20

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

Marcus’s school is, as is common in contemporary America, hell-bent of surveilling their student population for signs of disruption and rebellion. And, in common with many of his peers, Marcus’s knowledge of technology far outstrips that of the surveillance designers; it takes minimal effort to subvert the clumsy but obtrusive techniques they employ.
It’s when he’s out with friends when he should be at school – participating in a massive real-life treasure hunt – that Marcus and his friends become embroiled in an aspect of technological surveillance and control far greater than they ever suspected, and far outside Marcus’s ability to hack.
When a terrorist attack is made on San Francisco, Marcus is as shocked as the rest of his city. Unlike most of his peers, however, Marcus isn’t at school – he and a small group of friends are tracking down the latest clue in a real-life treasure hunt, and are caught by police not far from the epicentre. His previous, amateurish rebellions are recast as sinister, and his unwillingness to cooperate with the bullying tactics of his inquisitors mean that Marcus is held by the Department of Homeland Security for days.
On his release, Marcus discovers the entire fabric of San Francisco has been reformed – now a police state, every citizen is viewed, and treated, as a potential terrorist. Tracking systems have been implemented, and normal activities are eyed with suspicion. When even his own parents don’t believe him, Marcus realises the only way to stop the growing erosion of rights and freedoms is to create an uprising.
There are so many fantastic elements woven into Little Brother that the reading of it was a joy. The Alternate Reality Game that inadvertently leads to Marcus’s capture is Harajuku Fun Madness, and it sounds awesome:

Imagine the best afternoon you’ve ever spent prowling around the streets of a city, checking out the weird people, funny handbills, street maniacs, and funky shops. Now add a scavenger hunt to that, one that requires you to research crazy old films and songs and teen culture from around the world and across time and space. And it’s a competition, with the winning team of four taking a grand prize of ten days in Tokyo chilling on Harajuku bridge, geeking out in Akihabara, and taking home all of the Astro Boy merchandise you can eat…
As a libertarian I found the multitude of ordinary (or pre-terrorist) surveillance techniques chilling, from radio-frequency ID tags in library books that allow the school to track student whereabouts, to a truancy blog where suspicious shopkeepers can snap potential school skippers and uploads their photos for school administrators to check.
Doctorow beautifully articulates the importance of privacy – that one can want to keep activities, even those common to us all (like having a bowel action), private, separate from issues about shame or secrecy. He sues a class room confrontation to illustrate truths about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that are being distorted by educators and those more interested in the appearance of safety than the rights of US citizens.
I learned a number of interesting facts, which I always enjoy, including the fact that the framers of the US Constitution were merchants loyal to the British king until he started brutally enforcing policies against their interests, not the religiously persecuted founders who came earlier. I also got a little more than I already knew about the history of the Internet, and about ISP’s and DNS; that Domino’s is apparently owned by right-wing conspiratists who believe “global warming and evolution are satanic plots”; the merest introduction to Bayesian statistics, and the fabulous insight of applying false positives to terrorist detection. This last is so important -

Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten of them at the outside. 10/20,000,000 – 0.00005 percent…That’s pretty rare all right. Now, say you’ve got some software that can… catch terrorists 99 percent of the time, In a pool of twenty million people, a 99 percent accurate test will identify two hundred thousand people as being terrorists. But only ten of them are terrorists. To catch ten bad guys you have to haul in and investigate two hundred thousand innocent people. Guess what? Terrorist tests aren’t anywhere close to 99 percent accurate. More like 60 percent accurate. Even 40 percent accurate sometimes.
And yet the Department of Homeland Security acts as though their systems are better than 99 percent accurate, at least in Little Brother.
I also liked the way Doctorow articulated the attitude of displeased parental authority:
"Look, son,” he said. He’d taken to calling me “son a lot. It made me feel like he’d stopped thinking of me as a person and switched to thinking of me as a kind of half-formed larva that needed to be guided out of adolescence. I hated it.
And his account of Marcus’s first sexual experience:
It was nothing like I expected. Parts of it were better, Parts of it were a lot worse, While it was going on, it felt like an eternity. Afterward, it seemed to be over in the blink of an eye.’Afterward, I felt the same. But I also felt different. Something had changed between us… It was weird.
Little Brother is deservedly on many best YA lists - the characterisation is vivid and resonant, the set up is grimly more likely by the month, and the warning about the dangers of sacrificing liberty for safety have perhaps never been more relevant. At least as importantly it's an engrossing, extremely well-written novel that I imagine will strike a number of chords in many young adults, and older adults who remember their adolescence. - Alex

Thursday, November 18

The Visitor – Lee Child

Jack Reacher is used to the techniques police use to get suspects to talk - he used to be an MP. So when he's taken in for questioning by the FBI the usual tactics don't work. It helps that Reacher knows he isn't the serial killer targeting women who are ex-military and who made sexual harassment claims - women he had a connection with. He also knows that there can't possibly be any evidence against him. When the lead agent agrees, and with the assistance of his girlfriend, lawyer Jodie Garber-Jacob, Reacher is released, only to be blackmailed be two of the agents to assist them in tracing the killer before he strikes again.
This is the fourth in the Jack Reacher series, but although Reacher's history builds with each novel, there's no real need to read the books in order; Child includes enough background to aid new readers without inundating loyal followers with repetition.
The series is a cut above the average thriller novel, not only because of its unique, independent hero but also because of the interesting elements woven into the plot. In the case of The Visitor (Running Blind in the UK), this includes a very interesting exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of criminal profiling, particularly the role presupposition plays; the legacy of Vietnam-era inter-departmental conflict on current relations between the military and the FBI; some puzzling crime scene elements; and a truly original murder technique, with an opaque motive that I admit I saw coming, a aspect that barely reduced my engagement with the novel.
I do, however, have a couple of quibbles. The first is the extent to which hypnosis can override someone's true preferences, particularly having seen a Mythbusters episode dealing with the question. The second is when a pathologist is discussing ways of causing death without leaving a mark:

'Air embolism would be the best way. A big bubble of air, injected straight into the bloodstream. Blood circulates surprisingly fast, and an air bubble hits the inside of the heart like a stone, like a tiny internal bullet. The shock is usually fatal. That's why nurses hold up the hypodermic and squirt a little air out and flick it with their nail. To be sure there's no air in the mix.'
Yes and no - an air embolism can be fatal, triggering a heart attack due to an interruption in the heart's blood supply. But small gas emboli are almost always dissipated when the blood passes through the lungs before returning to the heart - fatal emboli are sizable, something bigger than 5ml in an adult; nurses push air out of syringes to ensure that the patient is getting an accurate dose.
These minor glitches were relatively insignificant, however, and were almost wholly compensated for by the insertion of the serial killer's point of view, interestingly presented in second person and indicated by italics.
The Visitor is fast paced, engaging, fun and a light-weight but well structured and well packed escapade. - 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

Wednesday, November 17

Laura Anne Gilman: Blood From Stone

After the final battle had been fought and won, all this retriever wanted was to return to her quite life. But things can never really return to normal with society so changed and her attempts to force them to result in her having to face the worst of her past.
On top of that she’s having trouble renegotiating the boundaries of a relationship that has been put to the ultimate test.
When an old friend asks for her help she doesn’t hesitate but she soon discovers that she’s taken on some fairly powerful dark magicians and if she doesn’t get things right it’s not only her life that’s on the line.
Naturally she manages to save the day.
This is the last book in the retriever series and as much as I enjoy this world I think it was the right time to end it. I think to continue on could have compromised character integrity and stretched believability beyond breaking point. Not all the threads are neatly tied up and the open ending felt right.
This particular instalment was a return to the basics of the first book. There was a job to do and our heroine got in there and did it. It was small and personal and I quite enjoyed the simplicity of that after the complexities of previous episodes. Character development continued right through until the end and the story finished with great hope for the future.
There author has set another series in this world, following the adventures of a minor character from this series. I’m not certain that I will be reading it any time soon but I am glad that the option is there should I wish to revisit this universe.-Lynn.

Tuesday, November 16

All Mortal Flesh - Julia Spencer-Fleming

Millers Kill police chief Russ Van Aldyne has told his wife Linda about the deep attraction between him and Episcopalian priest Clare Fergusson, and Linda has kicked him out of the family home. Moving back home with his mother is surprisingly not the worst thing - Russ is torn between the love he still has for a beautiful, vibrant woman who's done nothing to deserve this, and the sheer rightness of his every interaction with the former marine chopper pilot who's been called to a higher purpose. Though the two have vowed not to see each other, in a small town crossing paths is inevitable.
All this drama pales markedly, though, once the bloody, disfigured body of Linda Van Alstyne is found in their home - Russ is obviously the most obvious suspect, but his team know he couldn't have done it, and begin exploring other avenues. When one of his staff, agitated that the most obvious suspect - Clare - isn't even being looked at, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation is contacted. Investigator Emiley Jensen has a theory of the crime that prominently features Russ, which is a pity, because he has an alternate theory, one that will be difficult to explore under the uncompromising, unrelenting and prejudicial gaze of BCI's investigator.
In common with the other books thus far in the series, there's more to the novel than this central plot - while less rooted in the interconnectedness inherent in small town life, some aspects of this are touched on. There's also a reappearance of the surprisingly sympathetic Father Aberforth, and the emergence of a new character, Deacon Elizabeth De Groot, who's impossibly perky and annoying, which is far more fun to read about than to experience. We also get to see Linda for the first time, not just as a bit character but as a person in her own right - a little of her past, her friendships in Millers Kill, and the development of her soft furnishing designing company.
It's been increasingly clear that, being the principled individuals they are, the only way Clare and Russ could be together would be if he divorced or Linda died. While murder didn't feature strongly in my prediction of this story arc, it's not a total surprise given the genre. In Spencer-Fleming's hands the initial scene comes as a shock, the responses of the main characters are true and convincing,
and I was particularly impressed by her deft handling and portrayal of Russ's grief at the death of his estranged but loved wife. We also revisit his conflict at loving two women, most poignantly in a flashback a week or so before Linda's body was found, where he and Clare have an emotionally intimate discussion on the topic.
The twists of the plot are believable but not obvious; though I saw the penultimate surprise coming a little way ahead, the writing was so effective that almost didn't matter. The ending is particularly powerful and well written, coming to me as a complete shock. All Mortal Flesh ends with a rift between Russ and Clare that will be difficult to overcome, and a really big obstacle to overcome. I know it's not the end of the line for them, though, because I've got the next book waiting for me at home. - 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

Sunday, November 14

Heart of Gold - Sharon Shinn

Nolan Adelpho is an Indigo immunologist at Biolab in Central City though, like all wellborn Inriho men, his is less a career than employment until he and his betrothed, Analeese, marry. His specialty is viruses that affect gulden, a golden-hued race with whom his live in uneasy harmony. Until he moved to Central City, Nolan had never met a gulden, but now he works with them, and has been surprised by their similarities, and the enormous cultural differences between them – Indigos are matriarchal, Gulden are even more patriarchal, and there is almost no overlap between the two. Gulden/Indigo tensions heighten when a series of terrorist attacks targeting Indigo structures kill dozens and cripple the city. As panic and fear take hold, Nolan becomes increasingly suspicious about the selectivity of the virus, and about the cause of the violence. A chance meeting with Kitrini Candachi, controversial granddaughter of one of Indigo’s selective Higher Hundred matriarchs, starts Nolan on a journey he could never have imagined. Kit’s grandfather, Casen Solvano, was an anthropologist who lived among the gulden, and her lover, Jex, is the imprisoned rebel-leading son of gulden leader Chay Zanlan. Heart of Gold is a well-crafted mystery novel in its own right, but set against this fascinating, unique and beautifully detailed world it shines. Previously seen in the novella "Blood" in the Quatrain collection, this three-race land has the depth, breadth and contrast of Shinn’s five-part (to date) Samaria series, without in any way drawing on it. While some of the same themes emerge in the societal contrasts – primarily revolving around cultural embedding and gender roles – the mechanisms are quite different; there they’re illuminated by the presence of a male-dominated/female-subjugating culture that invites favourable contrast with our relative equality, here the female-dominant/male-subordinate Inrhio norms that Nolan accepts unquestioningly are contrasted both with the patriarchal Gelricht traditions and, more obliquely, with our still gender-biased patterns. It is a testament to Shinn’s skill that this sociological study is subtle, covert, and in no way dominates the text. As with all her novels I closed Heart of Gold with a mixed sense of satiety and desire for more. I’m also eager to learn more about the albino race that skirts the perimeter of the novel but do not figure in the narrative. I have thoroughly enjoyed Shinn’s Thirteen Houses series and her Samaria quintet, but though I’d be delighted to read her shopping list I really want to see another novel set here. - Alex

So Yesterday - Scott Westerfeld

Fashion is pervasive, and it’s not limited to clothing and designers – fads and trends can make or break companies. Innovators may initiate new ways of doing things, from relacing sneakers to being the first to whack a filling between slices of bread, but they’re not popular; in a competitive market, getting cutting edge changes from their low-profile creators to a wider audience takes a new step, Trendsetters – they’re popular, and what they adopt becomes cool – they’re the link between fringe trends and the early adaptors who make them mainstream.
Hunter’s a Trendsetter – well, now he’s being paid for it, he’s not sure he still counts as trendy. In any case, though only seventeen he’s one of the best around. Part of his job is to watch out for new Innovations and send them on to his agent, Mandy, which is what he’s doing when he asks a stranger in the street if he can snap the Innovative pattern she’s made with her laces. He and Jen are still chatting when Mandy asks him to a cool tasting; he invites Jen along on a whim. It’s Jen who points out that the sneaker ad, in common with much of contemporary pop culture (dating back to the Mod Squad) has what she terms the missing-black-woman formation: a black guy, a white guy, and a white girl. And now that the term’s out there, the new ad will soon “look as dated as a seventies cop show,” which is what comes of bringing an Innovator where only the second tier Trendsetters belong.
At first he thinks that’s the worst outcome to develop from his association with Jen, but when they discover not only The Most Perfect Shoe of All Time but its disappearance, Hunter and Jen begin to investigate a new movement, one aimed at stopping the artificial acceleration, and the Jammers mean business.
Like Westerfeld’s novel Peeps, one of the things I like about So Yesterday is that the novel alternates between advancing the plot and insights that reflect the underlying idea being explored. The son of an epidemiologist, Hunter sprinkles concepts of contagion and communicability through his narrative, so the Spanish flu of 1918 is mentioned, then coopted to a marketing model. In chapter ten, Westerfeld illuminates the idea that everything we do started with one person’s innovation – from birthday presents to mystery novels, which is freakier the more you think about it. As too is the realisation that many innovations are driven by practical purpose:

The guy walking past was wearing a shirt five sizes too big (innovated by gangbangers to hide guns int heir waistbands), shorts down below his knees (innovated by surfers to keep their thighs from getting sunburned), and oversized shoes (innovated by skaters to save their feet from injury). Together all these once-practical ideas made the guy look like he’d been hit by a shrinking ray…

The dialogue is realistic, the tempo brisk and envigorating, and the premise is more than plausible. Though Hunter is well rounded, the characterisation of some of the other protagonists is less well articulated, but that bothered me not at all in either my first reading of So Yesterday in 2004 or my re-reading this week. Instead it’s the ideas, the plot and the pace that set So Yesterday above the majority of novels, adult or YA, elements common to Westerfeld’s work in general. And, as always, there’s the writing – observant, articulate, insightful and amusing. He manages to convey a lot of information in a minimum of words. A sample, at random, from the section describing the base layer of the fashion pyramid:

Last are the Laggards… Proud in their mullets and feathered-back hair, they resist all change, or at least all change since they got out of high school. And once every ten years or so they suffer the uncomfortable realization that their brown leather jackets with big lapels have become, briefly, cool.
But they bravely tuck in their KISS t-shirts and soldier on.

As I’ve commented in my reviews of them, So Yesterday has elements in common with other books I’ve enjoyed, from Gladwell’s The Tipping Point to Willis’s Bellwether. In all three cases the writing is interesting and accessible, and the ideas sparkle. - Alex

Friday, November 12

Quatrain - Sharon Shinn

This is a collection of four novellas, each set in one of Shinn’s universes.
Flight is a story of Samaria, a land where angels intercede with Jehovah when sickness, drought or flood afflict the populace, and giving birth to an angel is almost the only way for a woman to rapidly raise her status.
Salome is content with her life in a small town, a life she has devoted to raising her niece, Sheba; it’s not an exciting life, but Salome has had enough excitement to last her a lifetime. The arrival of three angels in the village is cause for great excitement, particularly among the young women – the angels’ beauty is surpassed only by their voices, and every girl hopes an angel will be smitten by her and whisked away to Windy Peak or another angle enclave.
Sheba is particularly restless, despite the affections of David, a local boy who loves he and who is a steadying influence. Salome sleeps in Sheba’s room, to prevent her sneaking to an angel in the night, and she tries to warn the girls that life as an angel seeker is not the glamorous and easy time they imagine. Yet she knows they will not listen, the same way she would not have listened before she left home to learn for herself about depravity she could never have imagined. “Flight” takes place just before the archangel Raphael is scheduled to step aside for his successor, Gabriel, and is a beautiful encapsulation of the rest of the series in miniature – the writing is coherent and believable, the characters vivid and rounded, we learn a little more about the world and its peoples, there are two romances, and there is betrayal, redemption, and a very satisfying ending.
We also learn more about the risks angel seekers take – a very high miscarriage rate, ninety percent likelihood of a human child if the pregnancy continues, and a thirty percentage chance of dying if the baby is angelic. And nobody cares about the non-angelic children, often not even their mothers; as we’ve seen in other books, the towns at the base of each enclave ran wild with unwanted, abandoned children. This is an aspect I hope will be a central focus in a future novel, but here, as in the rest of the series, it’s just an accepted and unquestioned fact. Yet the absence of discussion about this apparently inevitable aspect of Samarian life in no way detracts from the pleasure and engagement I had with “Flight.”

In Blood a young gulden, Kerk Socast, travels with his family through Geldricht from Golden Mountain to a city that houses all three races. With his father dead, his step-mother Tess remarried, and his step-mother’s husband’s eldest son Makk nearing his majority, Kerk’s position is fragile; he may legally be cast aside, a fact he has been aware of ever since his mother took his younger sister and fled Golden Mountain. It is his hope that, while away from the work he does for Brolt Barzhan, he may be able to find his mother.
I was unacquainted with the Geldricht universe, introduced in Heart of Gold, and this glimpse of it was fascinating. Kerk is bronze haired, golden skinned, and speaks goldtongue, a circumlocutory formal language that reflects the stratified, codified and rule-bound culture of the gulden. As a fatherless man Kerk has low status, though not as low as an unmarried, unattached woman. Resolutely patriarchal, gulden society grants men absolute power over their family members – females indefinitely, and males until they reach their majority at the age of twelve.
The Inrhio people are blue of skin and dark of hair, speak the more direct bluetongue, and have greater gender equality. We learn less about them than the Geldricht because, though third person, “Blood” is very much Kerk’s story. We take away almost nothing of the third race, who are albino, not even their name.
There are other elements here, including a very nice riff on the cruelty of older siblings toward younger ones that, as an eldest child, articulated a reality I wish I could share knowledge of with my youngest sibling – the only one who didn’t have that impulse. And twinned with that aspect of siblinghood is the delight and enduring love of siblings, the deep connection and wholeness of that relationship. I so liked the world that I’ve requested Heart of Gold and will be reading it shortly.

Gold is set some years after Summers at Castle Auburn. In the aftermath of the death of Prince Bryan, a peace has settled, but now a claimant for the throne has arisen in Tragonia, and he marches on the castle. As heirs to the throne, Princess Zara and her younger brother Keeson are in jeopardy and have been sent off in different directions for the duration of the battle. Orlain, a knight, is taking Zara to the aliori, a race of otherworldly creatures known to ensorcel humans. Vulnerable to gold, Zara has been draped in jewelery for her protection – earrings, bracelets, and a necklace welded closed in case, despite her protestations to the contrary, she tries to remove it herself. In addition her mother has provided Zara with potions to take each night, potions that will remind her of herself and her home.
I found “Gold” the weakest of the four stories, in no small part because of the realistic but unsympathetic self-centredness of Zara - she’s undisciplined and thinks rarely of others. The time she spends with aliori is appropriately dreamlike and bewitching, but I just didn’t really connect with the character or the story, and the ending felt unsatisfactory and, though inevitable, unlikely.

Flame is a prequel to the quartet of Gillengaria novels that tell of the uprising against King Baryn. Senneth is a mystic who has the gift of fire – she can raise and quench flames, and create a false fire that wreaths but does not harm living flesh or property. Though for the most part requiring only direction and force of will, she has learned that the combination of anger and magic wielding exerts a toll, and as the story opens she is recovering from a crippling migraine, this time caused not by emotion but by the fierce concentration needed to ensure that only the contaminated cottages burned, while the neighbouring homes lit up, a task complicated by a driving rain and sodden timber.
Senneth travels relentlessly, both unwilling and unable to call any place home. Since being banished from her marlord father’s home, she takes care not to stay too long with anyone, nor to put too heavy a strain on any friendship. Despite this, and despite the gratitude of the villagers that she burned cottages where quarantined people died – cottages too close to other building to be safely burned in any other way, and too contagious for villagers to pull down – it takes very little for the mob sentiment to turn. When spontaneous fires begin igniting, Senneth is draped in moonstones, which burn mystics, and locked in a bedroom, awaiting judgment.
“Flame” not only captures the distrust and fear of ordinary people encountering mystics but, more importantly, introduces Senneth to the people who will become her family, including her future husband. She already knows shapeshifter Kirra Dannalustrous, a fellow marlady but one accepted by her unconventional father, and she knows Kirra’s companion, who also transforms his physique, Donnal. The novella also acquaints Seenth with the valuable knowledge that she, alone of mystics, does not feel a burn when touched with moonstone, a fact that becomes important later in the series. But it is her introduction to King’s Rider Tayse that is the most rewarding for readers of the series, particularly the penultimate line:

She could already tell she was fated to have his escort for the rest of her trip.
- Alex

Thursday, November 11

Carolyn Parkhurst: Lost and Found

Alex has already reviewed this book twice; see either of those for a more detailed synopsis. To briefly recap-
This story follows the progress of several pairs of game show contestants as they are filmed searching the globe for esoteric items in a bid to win a million dollars. Team loyalties are tested and partnership dynamics irreversibly changed as the show’s creators introduce challenges designed to reveal each contestant’s darkest secrets.
Unlike Alex, I am not a fan of the kind of reality TV show upon which this story is based, but since she thought the book good enough to read twice in such a short space of time when I saw it in my local library I thought I’d give it a try. To my surprise in the end I found that I liked it very much.
At first glance I found the main characters and their conflicts unrealistic, but as their stories progressed and aspects of their personalities were revealed they became more believable. The game show setting worked well, introducing tension and temptation that highlighted the cracks in foundering relationships and allowing the author to explore a number of controversial issues in an accessible way. The (probably) realistic technicalities of filming the show added a layer of realism and interest.
I don’t see myself rereading this book any time soon but it was certainly worth stepping outside my usual area of interest.-Lynn

For Alex's reviews click here (2009) or here (2010).

Wednesday, November 10

Dead Man’s Chest – Kerry Greenwood

After yet another adventure, the divine Miss Fisher and her household are overdue for a holiday – promising absolutely no murders, Phryne, Dot and her daughters are letting a house in Queenscliff from an acquaintance. Mr Thomas is in Arnhem Land but has promised his married couple, Mr and Mrs Johnson, to housekeep. However, when Phryne and family arrive, pausing en route only to rescue a poor fisher boy from the grasps of three bullying private school boys, they find the house untended, unprovisioned, and missing any number of useful items.
Ruth has long been keen to try her hand at cookery unsupervised by the redoubtable Mrs Butler, who tends to be rather protective of her domain. With the aid of a magnificent cookery tome and some gentle kitchen assistance she settles in for a glorious holiday of meal planning and preparation. Of course, despite Phryne’s best intentions, mysteries abound in the popular seaside resort – from the disappearance of the Johnson’s and the appearance of their dog, to a mysterious plait-cutter terrorising the town’s girls. Additional complications include the presence of a film crew in Queenscliff, a possible smuggling operation, and a new addition to the Fisher household.
As with every other instalment, this Phryne Fisher does not fail to delight. The writing is crisp, the dialogue is believable, and the characters are beautifully crafted. Above all, the writing is unobtrusive – I was swept up in 1929 without being at all aware of anything but the story. Greenwood’s research is meticulous and seamlessly woven into the plot, and the sensibilities are clearly of another era without clashing too strongly with our own. For example: motorcars are still relatively rare, and Phyne likes to drive her sporty car with speed, creating a beautiful contrast between the distress of her more staid family members at the great speed, and the subtle reveal that this alarming motion hit a top of around 48kph.
I also love the evolution of Phryne’s very different but equally independent daughters, domestic Ruth and academic Jane. One of my favourite scenes is on page 37, when Phryne explains to Jane that the private school boys they met in town were expecting the girls to be overawed by their presence and therefore spend the holidays doing their homework – here are young women quite comfortable with their equal place in the world.
One of the themes of Dead Man’s Chest is the surrealist movement – a small group live in Queensliff and have invited Phryne to a soirée; in addition to the surrealist elements observed at the gathering, the invitation also causes Phryne to think back to her time in Paris during and after the Great War, when she spent time with the creators of the movement. There’s a block of text that’s a little heavy in comparison with Greenwood’s usual light touch, but it’s brief and informative.
It is with sadness and joy that I read each of Phryne’s adventures, because Greenwood has stated that Phryne is too much a creature of the twenties to extend past that decade; set in the summer of 1929, Dead Man’s Chest clearly marks the last year of this lovely series, and the end in creeping inexorably nearer with each new, rapidly devoured novel. - Alex

Tuesday, November 9

Doomsday Book - Connie Willis

Kivren is a third year Medieval History student at Oxford – despite the dangers of the era, she’s well prepared for her field trip to the fourteenth century – armed with several period languages, a multitude of vaccinations, a plausible story, and a recording device implanted in her wrist for note-taking, she’s ready to gather data. Despite the concerns of her supervisor, Mr Dunworthy, Kivren is excited, secure in the knowledge that the net doesn’t allow paradoxes, that Badri is one of the university’s best techs and has calculated the date of the drop to within days, and that she’s arriving decades before the advent of the Black Death.
Dunworthy can’t shake his conviction that something will go wrong, heightened by the absence of Basingame, the Head of History – fishing and uncontactable somewhere in Scotland – and the actions of acting Head Gilchrist. Dunworthy believes Gilchrist to be reckless, a position confirmed by his removal of a ten ranking for the Middle Ages, replacing it with a far less dangerous six.
Gilchrist has rammed Kevrin’s preparation into next to no time, and has no awareness of the potential hazards Dunworthy’s student faces. When Badri comes to him after the drop, anxious and almost incoherent, his doubts are confirmed. But when Badri collapses, he not only can’t confirm that there was a problem, he’s also the index case in a pandemic that causes Oxford and its environs to be snapped into quarantine – after the dread Pandemic that killed millions, the populace is particularly sensitive to risk. Gilchrist responds to the hysterical, unfounded concerns of protestors that the virus has come from the Middle Ages, a scientific impossibility, by shutting down the net, potentially stranding Kivren in the past, a past more dangerous than she prepared for.
Doomsday Book is the first in this academic time travel universe, and it is spectacular. The hardback version clocks in at almost six hundred pages that fled faster than a novella, in no small part to Willis’s beautifully conveyed sense of urgency in both the (future) present and the past. The sections with Dunworthy, particularly, capture the feeling of urgent anxiety dreams; people and circumstances conspire to delay him, while Kivren misses several planned rendezvous thanks to illness, both hers and those of the family who take her in.
The writing is not only absorbing but intelligent – Willis allows the reader to piece clues together, without ever explicitly explaining why the foolproof net deposited Kivren in a far more dangerous time than intended. Her adjustment to the aspects of the Middle Ages that she could not have prepared for are realistically and deftly portrayed, and she has a gift for unobtrusively weaving facts in to the text. There are no lumps of exposition anywhere, so information about, for example, the previous Pandemic, is gleaned through passing reference – nobody needs to explain it, because all the characters are well aware of the details.
There are a multitude of sub-plots, from the knee-jerk superstitious reactions of British secessionists, and an overly protective mother, her strapping and swathe-cutting son, to an influx of American bell ringers, willfully unable to see higher priorities than their scheduled performances. And through it all is the awareness of the reader, which comes only slowly to Kivren, that she’s not in the comparative safety of the early thirteen hundreds but instead at the centre of a sweeping disease that will kill a third of Europe’s world population.
I first read Doomsday Book about a decade ago, and it was with delight that I re-read it. Although an outline of the plot, including the contemporary virus’s origins, stayed with me, this only added to my enjoyment of the text, heightening the suspense and deepening the sense of urgency so beautifully imbued in the novel. Willis has created a wholly unique universe, rooted in academia and able to move in a multitude of directions. I’ve previously reviewed To Say Nothing of the Dog, also set here, and will soon review the first in a two-part story partially set in London during World War II, Blackout. – Alex
For Lynn’s review of Doomsday Book, click here.

Monday, November 8

To Darkness and To Death – Julia Spencer-Fleming

Millers Kill police chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson have confessed their love for one another, as well as their determination not to act upon it. Russ still loves his unsuspecting wife, despite her distraction with her new career as a decorator, and her current focus on preparations for the luxury hotel about to usher in a tourist boom – opening night is just around the corner.
Clare’s suitor, Brit Hugh Partiger, is coming to Millers Kill from New York city for the weekend, and she expects him to press harder about the direction their relationship is heading, a discussion she feels ill-equipped to have while her heart and her thought are otherwise occupied. In truth her thoughts are almost equally occupied with concerns about the imminent arrival of the bishop on his annual visit as with Russ, particularly because of the guilt she feels about her illicit relationship – aside from a kiss, nothing untoward has happened, but thought as well as deeds can be cause for sin.
But there are bigger issues brewing than either Russ or Clare can predict – a local heiress has gone missing in the snowy woods, and this is just the first part in a cascade of blackmail, kidnapping, arson and murder.
The mystery plot thread is well executed, with a confusion of young blondes, erstwhile rescuers, and deep-seated rage. Spencer-Fleming is masterful in her ability to portray emotion, from the careless teasing of a confident young woman with an under-developed sense of danger, and the frustration of a feckless man with no insight always looking for the easy way out, to the battle between duty and desire that threads through the series. She also does a wonderful job creating layers of meaning, from the interwoven texture of small town life, where history is present and relationships are complex, to imparting knowledge to readers that the characters don’t have, so that the reader than sees events and responses differently than the characters. It’s difficult to discuss this without giving away essential plot points, but the scene in the section set at 12:30PM (page 119 in the hardback edition) is a particularly strong example.
There are, of course, other elements, including the nice mirroring of Russ and Linda’s relationship with another marriage where, though the content is different, the wife and husband have very different pictures of the way their life together is progressing. The exploration of the opposing views of conservationists and loggers was particularly interesting coming from an Australian perspective – when the former talk about allowing the woods to be restored to their native state I was strongly reminded of local clear felling and underbrush clearing taking place in the lead up to bushfire season in one of the most bushfire prone places in the world.
For me, though, the heart of this series is the unfolding of the relationship between two irresistibly attracted, principled people. As their lives intertwine, Russ and Clare find only deeper attraction and compatibility. In To Darkness and To Death Clare also has her first opportunities to speak with someone else about her relationship with Russ – first with Hugh, who catches the pair in the vicarage in a non-compromising but intimate scene, and then with Father Aberforth, the stern and observant deacon sent by the diocese to determine how she should be disciplined for a break from the Bishop’s rulings. And the novel ends with Russ declaring, before he and Clare waltz in the moonlight, that he will tell Linda about his feelings for Clare, a move that had me immediately pick up the next 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

Sunday, November 7

Tithe - Holly Black

Sixteen year old Kaye has grown up accustomed to a nomadic life - her mother's in a band, and not exactly the most maternal or protective of women. When circumstances compel them to return to her childhood home on the New Jersey shore, Kaye is reminded of the imaginary friends of her youth, vibrant characters who never fully left her. And she discovers they are real, they are faeries, and she is too.
For some reason I didn't connect with Tithe at all - I didn't even persist for very long, quitting before I hit the forty page mark. Black has a strong reputation, and Tithe - the first in a trilogy - has also been well received and reviewed; this leads me to suspect that the fault lies with me rather than the novel, and perhaps I'll give Tithe another try when I'm in a more amenable mood. - Alex

To read Lynn's more useful review, click here.

Saturday, November 6

The Bone Thief – Jefferson Bass

Sill recovering from the twin blows of discovering Isabella, briefly his lover, was a murdered, and from the devastation her murder weapon wrought on the life of one of Tennessee’s most gifted medical examiners, famed forensic anthropologist Bill Brockton is ready for a little peace and quiet. When he and his research assistant Miranda Lovelady are asked to collect a specimen for paternity testing it seems like a straight forward enough task – exhume the body, take a sample of long bone, and compare DNA to that of the child. But when Trey Willoughby’s coffin was open it quickly became apparent that something was wrong – the body’s limbs had been amputated and replaced with PVC piping.
A little investigation quickly reveals that Trey is only the first uncovering of a number of antemortem dismemberments. In no time Bill is acting on behalf of the FBI to get to the bottom of a multi-million dollar racket, one that not only mutilates the bodies of the dead but also risks the lives of the living. At least as importantly, to Bill at least, he’s required to act in ways he finds unethical and disreputable, risking his good name, his reputation, and the high opinion of those whose regard he values; and until they know exactly who is involved, the FBI have forbidden Bill to confide in anyone, including Miranda.
The Bone Thief is the fifth in this series, one I’ve thus far enjoyed thoroughly. I had a little less fun with this instalment though, for two reasons. The first is that the plot felt a little hackneyed – in the past couple of years there have been several novels and TV episodes dealing with similar illegal activities involving profiteering, the dead, and shady undertakers, and I didn’t feel as though this added anything particularly new or different, except for the ongoing chronicling of the very interesting Bill Brockton’s life in general.
This aspect was relatively minor – rarely are novels, particularly genre novels, groundbreaking in every aspect, and I would have been just a little dissatisfied had that been all. But I was less sanguine about the new personality traits The Bone Thief revealed of Bill. His streak of Puritanism seemed to come from nowhere, so that although he’s quite comfortable sleeping with a woman he’s relatively recently met, he’s morally distressed by the necessity of going to a strip club as part of his undercover operation. The only reason we’re given is that he finds it tawdry and he doesn’t like it. I’ve got no issue wth that, but his aversion seems unrelated to any of the usual reasons: there’s no mention of immorality, feminism, commodification or power inequity; in fact, there’s no explanation at all, apart from an etiquette-based discomfort once he’s inside:
I felt myself turn crimson and was grateful for the darkness of the club. “Not to worry,” I said, unsure of what to say next. Maybe, I didn’t recognize you without your clothes. Or, How’d you get so good at gymnastics? Or maybe, Doesn’t it bother you that strange men come in to stare at your body and don’t even clap or tip?
Perhaps part of my discomfort with these sections was because Bill is given to analysis in every other aspect of his life, from his career to his relationships, but spares no introversion for the marked visceral reaction he has to the idea of a strip club. It is, granted, part of larger activity he finds increasingly morally precarious, posing as being far more comfortable in ethically grey areas than he is so as to build a case for the FBI against the matermind behind the body part thefts. But this whole sub-plot, including a blackmail scam that’s equally implausible, wholly failed to enage me.
A secondary plot, about Bill’s previously estranged son Jeff’s reaction to the news that Isabella is apparently pregnant, didn’t feel genuine. I’m not doubting that the revelation your widowed father is expecting a child younger than your own children, could come as a shock. But given the equanimity with which Jeff received the news that Bill had slept with her, and the fact that the pregnancy was clearly unplanned, his shutting down and withdrawing from Bill read more like a plot device than an authentic, character-driven response.
I also found the writing overblown at times, which pulled me out of the narrative. For example:
I stared at the small digital recorder in my hand, paralysed by the countless unspoken questions it posed, questions to which I had no answers. I was as paralysed by the machine as I’d been by the man who loaned it to me: a Knoxville psychologist named John Hoover, highly recommended by my family physician.
And then there’s the unanswered question of why a forensic anthropologist, who therefore has no medical qualifications, is accompanying a critically ill man by helicopter from one hospital to another. Well, no reason except that it increases the drama of the plot, and allows for an uncomfortably neat and tidy ending.
It’s certainly not all bad. Though not as well accomplished as the discussion about evolution in Flesh and Bone, the authors briefly discuss some of the ethical issues surrounding paying for first and third world organ donation, albeit predominantly presenting only one aspect of this increasingly topical debate. The plot is also wrapped around the growing uses and demand for cadaveric body parts other than solid organ transplantation, in combination with stem cell research and biotechnological advances.
However, particularly in comparison with the first four books of the series, I finished The Bone Thief significantly disappointed, and with hoped that the sixth in the series proves to be a return to the previous form. I haven’t given up, yet. - Alex

The Bill Brockton series:
Carved in Bone
Flesh and Bone
The Devil’s Bones
Bones of Betrayal
The Bone Yard
The Bone Thief

Thursday, November 4

Dead in the Family – Charlaine Harris

Still reeling from the Fae War that claimed her pregnant cousin (and literal fairy godmother) Claudine, her witch roommate Amelia’s Were lover Tray, vampire Clancy, and her pregnant sister-in-law Crystal, Sookie Stackhouse is hoping for a little down time. That is, of course, not to be.
With the entrance to the fairy realm closed, Sookie’s stunningly handsome, predominantly gay, generally reserved fairy cousin Claude (twin to the now dead Claudine) has nowhere else to stay, and Amelia’s room is occupied before it has time to get dusty.
The petty irritations of living with Claude fall by the wayside, however, in contrast to the arrival of Sookie’s lover, and regional vampire Sheriff, Eric’s sire – a relic of the ancient Roman empire, Appius Livius Ocella is some two thousands years old. He’s tracked down his child in hopes that Eric can help manage another son brought over from the cusp of death – Alexei is about a century old but has retained the form of the boy he was when he was found, near death and the sole survivor of a family slaughtered by revolutionaries. Cosseted and indulged in life, Alexei has not adjusted well to the increasing constraints of modern life – the advantages of vampires being known to the world at large has not come without cost, and one of the sacrifices is conservation of humans, a price Alexei seems unwilling to pay.
In the meantime two internal power struggles are looming – the death of the Vampire Queen of New Orleans, Sophie-Anne, has made Eric’s position more precarious. Her successor, Victor, elected by region leader Felipe de Castro, is no fan of Sookie’s husband. At the same time there is dissent among the two-natured, who have followed the vampire’s lead and gone public. The move was not unanimous, and has not been met with universal acceptance – as some humans support regulation restricting the movements and other rights of American citizens who are Weres, local leader Alcide faces espionage and leadership challenges. When the body of Alcide’s new second, Basim al Saud, is found buried in Sookie’s woods, events become personal.
Now up to ten volumes, the Sookie Stackhouse universe is becoming almost unmanageably complicated. Although the various plot threads outlined were engrossing and well integrated, there is a massive amount of back-story, on a number of fronts. Harris does a better than adequate job of dropping enough reminders to bring the broad brush strokes of it all back, and finally the whole fairy thing, that felt quite tacked on initially, feels like a deliberate part of the narrative arc.
All this may make it sound as though I didn’t enjoy Dead in the Family, and that wouldn’t be accurate. But, and this seems to be common to the majority of paranormal series, I come away from each instalment feeling as though the drama de jour is another daub of hectic colour in an already confused and busy vision. I’m not sure why this plot complexity is so prevalent in the genre, but it is – Davison’s vampire queen series now has a two or three page recap of events to catch up readers, and anyone new to the Sookie Stackhouse series would be comprehensively lost a few pages in. In contrast, Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series is almost twice as long, and also has narrative twists that have affected the central protagonist – over the course of the series Phryne has acquired live-in staff, two adopted daughters, a long-term married lover, a close friend and maid whose fiancé is a police officer, multiple connections across Melbourne, and reunited with her sister. But one could pick up a novel anywhere in the series and pick up all they needed to enjoy the novel on its own.
Of course, Greenwood has also determined that her series has an end point, whereas Soockie seems determined to continue, in ever increasingly complexity, ad infinitum. Claudine left Sookie her savings, and for perhaps the first time in her life, Sookie need not worry about penury around the next corner. One senses, however, that her next round of troubles will also come not singly but in battalions. – Alex

Tuesday, November 2

Peeps - Scott Westerfeld

After a chance encounter with a gorgeous, older woman during his first week in New York City, Carl is a hunter for the Night Watch, an organization far older than the city itself. Carl hunts Peeps – parasite-positive people who are ruled by the microscopic creatures inhabiting them. The parasites make them averse to familiar things, including daylight and loved ones; Peeps hide in the dark, below ground, barely human until they’re caught by hunters and treated by the medical staff of the Night Watch. Peeps are better known to most of us as vampires.
Carl and the other hunters have adapted differently to the parasite infecting him – a carrier, he has increased strength and senses, a high metabolism and a raging appetite, he rarely needs to sleep and he always wants to screw, but he’s kept his humanity and he functions in the world. Having tracked down the girlfriend he accidentally infected, Carl’s next target is Morgan, the woman he slept with a year earlier. In the process of tracking her down, Carl discovers a threat greater than the Peeps – something gigantic, something that sets off visceral, instinctive, ancient alarms within him, is stirring below New York City.
Peeps is a triumph – the characters, particularly Carl, are strong and convincing; the plot is novel and persuasive; the dialogue and internal monologue are realistic and ring true; and Westerfeld creates the most internally consistent reason I’ve yet come across for why vampires (or the ancient peeps on who the myths are based) would be vanquished by crucifixes and holy water.
The novel is crafted so that chapters of narrative are interspersed with chapters in Carl’s voice about a variety of parasites, from Crohn’s disease and trematodes to guinea worms and screwflies. In addition to introducing general readers to a hidden part of the natural world, Westerfeld uses these sections to set up the biggest twist in the novel.
While some may find the guinea worm, on which the medical caduceus is based, the most interesting, I was already familiar with it. I was captured by toxoplasma gondii, a microscopic parasite far more interested in cats, their final host, than people. Toxoplasma occupies around half of humans; though not apparently harmful, research has uncovered some really interesting personality traits associated with people inhabited by toxoplasma, including spending patterns, interest in following social conventions, perceived attractiveness, reliability and, unsurprisingly, propensity to have cats or dogs as pets.
I found these little nuggets of digestible, fascinating information (including genetic research looking at whether human body live pre- or ante-dates the development of clothing) as fascinating as the plot. That’s not in any way to take away from the novel itself, but the two elements are essentially interconnected.
Westerfeld has tucked in other little interesting facts (like that the olfactory part of our simian ancestor’s brain was assigned memory, which is why smell is so evocative; or that flowers smell like the insects they’re trying to attract - butterflies smell like jasmine) that appeal to the trivia collector in me.
It is indicative of the strength of his writing that these elements enhance, rather than detract from, his writing. Carl picks up a neophyte on his journey, and some of these morsels are disclosed to her, others more directly to the intended audience. At no time did I feel lectured to, or hit on the head with the stick of I-researched-it, just intrigued.
I read Peeps the first time five years ago, when it was released; pretty much every time I’ve read another vampire novel I’ve been reminded of how well crafted Westerfeld’s universe it, and I find I’ve referenced it several times through this blog, in a variety of contexts. It really is a rare and exciting combination of informative, involving, believable, paranormal and memorable. Go, read it now! - Alex

Monday, November 1

Bettina Arndt: The Sex Diaries

From the back of the book:
“From the time I started working as a sex therapist back in the early 1970s, people have been talking to me about their sex lives. What I hear about most is the business of negotiating the sex supply. How do couples deal with the strain of the man wishing and hoping while all she longs for is the bliss of uninterrupted sleep?”
Bettina Arndt recruited ninety-eight couples to keep diaries, revealing their intimate negotiations over sex. Who feels like having sex? Who doesn’t? And how do couples cope if one person wants it more than the other? She draws on her thirty-five years of experience as a sex therapist and psychologist to provide a provocative analysis that challenges our basic assumptions about sex. With her characteristic humour and insight, Bettina Arndt proposes a new approach to how couples can enjoy regular sex-and sustain loving relationships.
I was attracted to this book by a combination of a voyeuristic streak and the title of the first chapter, “Fifty thrusts and don’t jiggle my book”. The humour implied by that title wasn’t forthcoming but this sociological study presents a combination of statistical analysis and case studies in a light and accessible way that avoids becoming frivolous.
The diary extracts from study participants were a fascinating inclusion and quite eye-opening. Stories of mismatched sex drives abound, but it was the recording of sexual negotiations that took place (or didn’t) that I found most interesting.
Though the research focussed on predominantly straight couples there was a brief look at the differences between homosexual and lesbian sexual behaviour as well.
This is not a how-to book for anyone hoping to improve their sex life, neither is it an attempt to legitimise titillating erotica. What it is, is an interesting and objective report about the sexual behaviour of the ‘average’ Australian adult.-Lynn.