Monday, December 5

Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus

From the back of the book-
In 1886, a mysterious travelling circus becomes an international sensation. Open only at night, constructed entirely in black and white, Le Cirque des Reves delights all who wander its circular paths and warm themselves at its bonfire.
Although there are acrobats, fortune-tellers and contortionists, the Circus of Dreams is no conventional spectacle. Some tents contain clouds, some ice. The circus seems almost to cast a spell over its aficionados, who call themselves the reveurs-the dreamers. At the heart of the story is the tangled relationship between two young magicians, Celia, the enchanter's daughter, and Marco, the sorcerer's apprentice. At the behest of their shadowy masters, they find themselves locked in a deadly contest, forced to test the very limits of the imagination, and of their love...
This historical fantasy presents an unusual love story. For the bulk of the novel the protagonists are unaware of each others identity, knowing only that they are in competition with each other to prove their superiority. Their main means of communication is through challenging each other to greater and greater feats of magic within the arena of the circus.
The idea of practitioners of different disciplines within the same field challenging each other for superiority isn't new. Neither is the enemies to friends to lovers concept. This book stands out because both of these aspects have been done so well. The characters are all larger than life but somehow fit easily in the story. Secondary characters are as well developed as primary ones. The plot manages to unfold gently without losing pace.
There is an unmistakable literary inclination here with layers of meaning and subtlties to be seen if the reader is so inclined (the symbolism of a black and white world being the most obvious) but the story can be enjoyed without contemplating those deeper levels.
Quite unlike anything I've read in a long while. Delightful-Lynn

Thursday, November 17

Carol Goodman: The Drowning Tree

From the back of the book-
Juno McKay intended to avoid her fifteenth-year college reunion, but she can't resist the chance to see her longime friend Christine Webb. Though Juno cringes at the inevitable talk of her troubled personal life-and the husband who ended up in a mental hopsital only two years after their wedding-she endures the gossip for her friend's sake.
While lecturing at the Penrose College library, Christine shocks the rapt crowd by reavling little-known details about the lives of two sisters-memebers of the influential family whose name the college bears. Christine's revelations throw shadows of betrayal, lust, and insanity over the family's distinguished facade.
After her speech, Christine seems distant, uneasy, and sad. The next day, she disappears. Juno is alarmed and begins to peel away the layer of secrets and madness that surround the Penrose dynasty. She fears that Christine discovered somethig damning about them, perhaps even something worth killing for. And Juno is derermined to find it-for her friend and for herself.
This tangled combination of historical and modern mystery tales has a strong literary flavour. The pace is slow, the characters complex and the story deceptively straight forward.
My last foray into this author's work didn't leave me partiuclarly impressed but I'm pleased to say this effort was much more enjoyable. There were enough red herrings thrown in to cloud the antagonist's identity without it coming as a complete surprise at the end of the story or worse, being telegraphed loudly throughout the book. A complicated romantic subplot fits in well.
I would class this as a mild modern gothic worth a look for those with an interest in the genre and comfortable with a less sensational approach.-Lynn

Monday, November 14

Kate Mosse: Labyrinth

From the back of the book-
July 1209: In Carcassonne a seventeen-year-old girl is given a mysterious book by her father which he claims contains the secret of the true Grail. Although Alais cannot understand the strange words and symbols hidden within, she knows that her destiny lies in keeping the secret of the labyrinth safe...
July 2005: Alice Tanner discovers two skeletons in a forgotten cave in the French Pyrenees. Puzzled by the labyrinth symbol carve into the rock, she realises she's distubed something that was meant to remain hidden. Somehow a link to a horrific past-her past-has been revealed.
I read all 697 pages of this monster tome and the best thing I can say about this book is that it is crammed with historical detail. Occasional hints of intrigue tease the reader into believing that the story is about to take off but it never does. The modern heroine lives right on the border of too-stupid-to-live and her historical counterpart is firmly in too-good-to-be-true territory.
There is great vagueness as to how the characters from the different time periods are related to each other. It is as if the author couldn't decide whether she wanted the modern characters to all be reincarnations of the historical characters (each modern character has a historical equivilant, to the point of having very similar names) or if she just wanted the modern heroine to be a decendent of her historical namesake.
As for the labyrinth of the title: the reader never really learns the significance of it, why it must be kept hidden or the consequences of its discovery.
Not since Katherine Neville's The Eight have I read a book so pointless through to the end. A major dissappointment.-Lyn

Tuesday, November 1

Richard Ellis:Imagining Atlantis

From the back of the book-
The idea of Atlantis, the lost continent, has tantalized the human imagination since the fourth centuery B.C. when the brilliant civilization and its mysterious destruction were first mentioned by Plato. Is it only a myth, or did a real Atlantis exist? Over the centuries this question has inspired countless theories, from the scientifically challenging to the undeniably crackpot.

Richard Ellis takes us on a fascinating journey through the rich and exotic history of the search for Atlantis, during which we meet characters as diverse as Francis Bacon, Jules Verne, Edgar Cayce, Jaques Cousteau, Charles Berlitz, and even Indiana Jones. Both scholarly and diverting, Imagining Altantis has been hailed as the most important book ever written about the Atlantis legend and its perennial appeal.
This book certainly does give a comprehensive overview of the many faces of Atlantis. Using archeology, seismology, volcanology and mythology, it examines theories and possibilities as to where Atlantis was and how it met its fate. A large portion of the discussion is dedicated to the ancient Minoan culture and the debate over exactly where the Pillars of Hercules were in Plato's time (apparently it isn't accepted that the current Pillars of Hercules are the ones being referred to in the original Atlantis legend). There is also a brief look at modern films about Atlantis included.
This is a good and accessible scholarly work, that while fascinating in places, I found a little dry overall to maintain my full interest.-Lynn

Thursday, October 27


From the back of the book-
Once upon a time, there were three mums-Mum A, Mum B and Mum C.
Bored with their suburban existence, they decided to add some spice to their lives. For three months, they would dare each other to do things.
Mum B would find herself wearing firecracker red lipstick for a whole week (yes, even to swimming lessons); Mum C would tell her atheist husband she'd found religion; and Mum A would have a secret tryst with Santa in a shopping centre.
They also dared each other to tell the truth... The truth about motherhood. The truth about their lives. The truth about who they'd become compared to who they wanted to be.'

This book basically says what all parents, if they're being honest, know-motherhood is hard. It is exhausting, unrelenting, mind-numbing, dull, repetative work. Sure we love our children and wouldn't swap them for the world etc, etc but that doesn't mean we don't pine for the women we were Before Children or mourn the Woman We Could Have Been.
I could relate to a lot of what these women were saying about their mothering experience and sitting surrounded in the mummy-zombie suburbs even be a little jealous that they found each other.
The dares and their responses to them were fun. The truths were open, honest and at times confronting. Both are presented in an engaging, easy to read way. However the book left me with mixed feelings.
For all I knew where these women were coming from part of me (a judgemental, contemptuous part) couldn't help but want to give them a good shake and tell them to wake up to themselves. In the grand scheme of things they have it good. Their problems are most definitely first-world, middle-class ones and not even difficult first world ones. They weren't faced with the death or disability of their partners or children, poverty or abuse.
In all fairness they never claim that their lives are particularly difficult in any way other than motherhood and the book is about loss of identity and regaining self not social justice. I find it interesting that it provoked such a response in me and it has made me examine my world view.
A deceptively light read that will have many nodding in agreement and some wondering why.-Lynn

Tuesday, October 25

Cooking the Books - Kerry Greenwood

Corinna Chapman, baker par excellence and proprietor of Earthly Delights, is doing nothing during her holidays. Her trainee Jason has taken off to learn how to surf, her partner Daniel is busy tracking down corporate fiscal shenanigans, and her waif-like assistants Kylie and Goss are auditioning as extras on a new soap. Without care or responsibility, Corinna should be enjoying the down time, but she's bored.
Which is what allows her to succumb to the emotional blackmail of a former school mate, assisting her on the set of "Kiss the Bride" - coincidentally the same soap Kylie and Goss have got parts on.

There are so many delightful things about this series, from the oddments I flag for follow up (Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, the not safe for work song 'The Sexual Life of the Camel') and the meticulously seamless plot to the way traditionally-build Greenwood describes life as a fat woman
"But I haven't got long - I have a dinner date."
"You?" she asked with that touch of incredulity which flicks a fat woman on the raw. I resolved that I would try to do the Christian thing and forgive my enemoes, but that did not require me to turn the other cheek...
She had aged badly, looked haggard and lined. One advantage of being fat is that one does not wrinkly like the slim and gorgeous.
There's bullying, intrigue, a lion, high drama, a tiny bit of Doctor Who, a literary scavenger hunt, the tyranny of the thin-is-healthy obsessed, and bullying of all sorts. There's also the deep satisfaction of just desserts and righteous comeuppances, and the city of Melbourne as integral to the soul of the novel as a character:
The weather was temperate, which is a signal that it is about to change. In Melbourne, a city whose climate can only be called 'unstable'. If by unstable you mean that it is blowing a hot gale before lunch and raining like the Flood after lunch. This makes Melburnians flexible and agile. You have to be, to dodge he hailstones. Some of them are as big as tennis balls, I swear.
Not a breath of a lie! Greenwood's best book, and this is one of that predominant number, are so beautifully constructed, intricate and masterfully crafted that it is impossible to do them justice. It is a mystery greater than any Corinna or her 'twenties counterpart Phrynne have ever solved that she is not more greatly lauded and renown. - Alex the Fan Girl

The Corinna Chapman series:
Earthly Delights; Heavenly Pleasures; Devil's Food; Trick or Treat; Forbidden Fruit; Cooking the Books

Friday, October 21

Echo Burning – Lee Child

Thanks to an unfortunate run-in with an off-duty cop, Reacher finds himself hitching out of a small Texan town in the height of summer’s midday heat. Expecting to wait hours, he’s surprised to be picked up in minutes, by the kind of driver least likely to stop for a tall, heavily-built man in his prime – a delicate young woman. He’s even less prepared for Carmen’s request – to kill the abusive husband who, jailed for tax evasion, is about to be released early. Reacher is, and has been, many things, but not a killer for hire. He does agree, however, to go to the ranch where Carmen, her beloved daughter Ellie, and her in-laws live.
The fifth in this series about a former MP who goes where the road takes him, righting wrongs along the way, has the same elements as almost all the rest of the Reacher novels I’ve read so far - innocent victims, unrelentingly bad opponents, tensely perilous situations cunningly outwitted, good triumphing over villainy, and our hero riding off into the sunset. As with the rest of the series there’s no need to have read any of Child’s work before – all the back story you need is seamlessly woven into the first few pages, and except where needed for verisimilitude plays second fiddle to the plot. It is Child’s genius that transforms what would, in lesser hands, be formulaic pap into a compelling read that kept me up until late in the night. His characters are fully fleshed, dialogue compelling, sentence structure economical but somehow detailed, and a plot that satisfyingly doubled back on itself. Reacher is always a step ahead – of the other characters, and of at least this reader.
Echo Burning also has one of the nicest dedications I’ve come across in quite a while.
I thoroughly enjoyed Echo Burning and look forward to my next encounter with the laconic, idealised Reacher. – Alex

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

Before I Go to Sleep - SJ Watson

Christine wakes one morning in an unfamiliar bed next to a stranger with grey hair and a wedding ring. Though they're usually younger and single, the experience isn't a new one, but Christine has no recollection of the night before. she tiptoes to the bathroom, and that's when things start to become strange - her hands are wrong, old, and she's got a band on her left ring finger. Startled, she looks in the mirror and sees the face of a stranger - an old woman.
According to the man, Ben, eighteen years earlier Chris was in an accident that caused a rare form of amnesia - she can retain information for a day, but as soon as you gos to sleep for more than a nap it all goes. Sometimes she can remember parts of her twenties, and sometimes she thinks she's a girl, but she never remembers anything leading up to the accident or following it.
That premise is what lead me to pick up Before I Go to Sleep, and the idea of an exploration of identity reconstruction is fascinating. However, Watson's added a tense element - Chris discovers a journal, kept for weeks, where her previous selves details fragments they remember of their old life and secret therapy sessions with Dr Nash, a psychologist Ben refused to let see her. She learns about things Ben has kept from her, apparently to reduce distress, including the existence and death of their son. And on the cover of the journal, underlined, is the warning "Don't trust Ben!"
As the journal progresses Chris learns more about herself and her life, and becomes increasingly distrustful - about Ben, her therapist, and the reliability of the journal entries she wrote but can't remember. She also discovers that the act of writing things down has, as Dr Nash hoped, has allowed the waking her to retain some of that information. It also let her build up a more coherent picture of her post-accident life, including a lengthy stay is a psychiatric unit.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of Before I Go to Sleep is the beautifully executed unreliable narrator - like the very different but equally compelling We Need to Talk About Kevin, the single voice illuminates and clouds, creating a nivel that is both literary and genuinely gripping. As Anita Shreve says on the jacket, Before I Go to Sleep is "Brilliant in its pacing, profound in its central question, suspenseful on very page." I absolutely couldn't say it better myself. - Alex

Saturday, October 15

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender

In the week of her ninth birthday Rose Edlestein’s restive, restless mother bakes a cake. She’s made them before, and the ingredients are the same, but the usually distinctive flavours of chocolate and lemon are drowned out by absence, hunger, emptiness.
It’s not just her mother’s food – Rose can now taste the emotions of everyone who cooks her food or contributes to the ingredients – the nastiness of the farmer who grew that parsley, the cows whose milk is in this cheddar, the wholly factory-processed chocolate chips. In a world where despair, sadness, anger and desperation are rife, it is the latter that literally saves Rose’s life in adolescence, when the comforting nothingness of foods untouched by human hand offer her the only respite from an onslaught of gustatory emotion. And in the process Rose becomes familiar with the unique qualities of every large scale farm and processing plant in the US, as well as many around the world.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a unique novel that looks like another story of family dysfunction - loving but distant father, needy and unchallenged mother, brilliant but strange and removed older brother, introspective and responsible narrator. The theme of children compromising themselves for their parents is not new, but it is very well handled here, and the first person voice neatly walks the line between girl and retrospective woman. The familial functional dysfunction aspect is well done, and the use of tasting emotion through food is really interesting route, that not only allows Rose to discover and describe the emotions of those around her but also explore the nature of isolation.
I was for some reason strongly reminded of the very different Perfume, which I was sure I reviewed but can't find anywhere. I'm not sure why the evocation was so strong - perhaps because of the detailed and nuanced descriptions illuminating aspects of a sense to which most of us are comparatively oblivious.
What is very different about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, though, is the surprising SF element that appears midway through an otherwise more literary narrative. Always somewhat different, Joe seems to vanish without notice – at first for short periods and then for progressively longer periods of time, never talking about what he did or where he went, and looking less well on each return. At first this seems like relatively unremarkable adolescent behaviour, but quite late in the book we discover a clearly paranormal occurrence (not at all in the sense of magic or vampires-and-werewolves, more like Gould’s Jumper). The concept is woven into elements already present in the text, particularly right near the end, but I didn’t find this added illumination so much as surprise, for up until that point I’d thought I was reading something at the more literary end of book group fodder. Rose’s ability is certainly fantastical, but did not break my willing suspension of disbelief. This talent (or, possibly, propensity) of Joe’s. However, is most definitely fantasy/science fiction territory, and I’m not sure the genre mix is entirely comfortable.
This is not in any way to suggest that SF is inherently unliterary, nor that I’m opposed to crossing genres. Some of the best writing I enjoy falls firmly into the former category (this includes the redoubtable Sawyer and the magnificent Bujold among others), and some lauded literary writers have created what are unquestionably works of FSF (from Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to 1984, Brave New World and Farenheit 451). While I can think of none off the top of my head, I know I’ve enjoyed unusual genre combinations in the past. I’ve given this no little thought and am quite frustrated that I can't think of any, so suggestions are expressly invited!
I did get a strong Book Group feel from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; I was not wholly involved with it but curious to see how it (and Rose) would unfold. I’m not sorry I read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I picked up as a 3-for-2 offer recently, but had no strong desire to read more of Bender’s work. Writing this review, though, has unexpectedly piqued my curiosity though, so watch this space. – Alex

Thursday, October 13

The Nurse's Christmas Wish - Sarah Morgan

Mac (or, on p. 11 of my copy, Matt) Sullivan adores Cornwall, enjoys working with his brother Josh, and is dedicated to his work as an Accident and Emergency consultant - particularly since the death of his wife two years earlier. He has no interest in relationships but his brother has other plans.
Enter Louisa Young - not just a nurse, Josh has hired her to act as Mac's housekeeper, something Louisa only discovers after breaking in to the house. With nowhere else to stay the pair are trapped, at least for a while. Will it be long enough for them to find love?
Yes, of course it will be. This is my second experience of Morgan's medical romances (I reviewed the first a couple of weeks ago), and I have to confess I was disappointed. In comparison with the similarly Yule-themed the Midwife's Christmas Miracle the writing is less nuanced, the characters less subtle, the plot more shallow and the medical scenes are marked by clumsy exposition.
Louisa is a paragon of efficiency and good humour - she cleans, she cooks, she bubbles like an adult Pollyanna, trailing happiness behind her. She takes in strays, charms the hardest hearted, and invites patients into her (or rather, Jake's home) for a Christmas feast he doesn't want, complete with tree and boughs of greenery.
And not only is Louisa untouched, Jake is able to detect this once he takes her virginity in a glorious cascade of simultaneous orgasm. It must be because of the greater sensitivity of the unclad penis and the emotional integrity of our hero.
This is my least favourite romance novel trope, hands down. I can handle a virgin heroine if there's context - the era, her age, a protected upbringing, a strong religious conviction, the reckless sexual behaviour she witnessed as a child, uncomfortable with her own attractiveness or sexuality, whatever. Here there's none of that - she's attractive, straight, able to orgasm with penetration and precious little foreplay, and though she had a deprived childhood there's no mention of abuse of any kind.
I liked the other Morgan novel as much as I disliked this, and so I'll give both the author and the genre another run, though perhaps not for a wee while. In the interim I have no shortage of other novels to be making my way through. - Alex

Sunday, October 9

The 17 Day Diet - Dr Mike Moreno

The 17 Day Diet is a four stage program aimed at rapid weight loss through a combination of low carb, high lean protein, probiotics and (like every diet) calorie restriction - like many diets this last part is not explicit in the directions but a consequence of the program.
The first three stages (Accelerate, Activate and Achieve) run for 17 days each, while the fourth stage (Arrive) is ongoing maintenance. The underlying premise is that altering intake (in terms of both caloric value and composition) causes 'body confusion,' preventing a slowing in metabolism that might otherwise occur. Why seventeen days? No idea - it must be magic.
Stage 1 is the most restrictive. Though a sample 17 day menu's provided, the formula is the same for every day: a glass of hot water with the juice of half a lemon and three cups of green tea (to speed metabolism), three servings of lean animal protein in the form of poultry, fish and eggs
(though tofu can be substituted), one large salad with olive or linseed oil and vinegar, one large serving of steamed vegetables, two servings of fruit and two servings of probiotic (Yakult, yoghurt, kefir, tempeh). With the exception of Yakult (a small bottle) and salad dressing (one tablespoon of oil, two of balsamic vinegar) there's no restriction on serving sizes; the variety of allowable foods, though extensive, is limited to "low sugar" produce, and eggs are only allowed daily, in the form of two whole eggs, one whole and two whites, or four egg whites. The program also allows unlimited amounts of salsa and other low-calorie condiments.
So day 1 is:
2 scrambled egg whites
1/2 grapefruit of other fresh fruit
1 cup of green tea

Large green salad topped with tuna and dressing
1 cup of green tea
Plenty of grilled chicken with liberal amounts of any vegetable on the list, raw or steamed
1 cup of green tea

175g sugar-free natural yoghurt or other probiotic serving mixed with 1 - 2 tablespoons sugar-free jam
1 serving of fruit from the list
Moreno's clearly not particularly interested in food as cuisine - the suggested snacks devolve by day 6 to "2nd serving of fruit, 2nd serving of probiotic." There are twenty-two recipes included, ranging from the 17 ingredient (coincidence?) "Dr Mike's Power Cookie" to the blending of kefir, fruit and yoghurt into a "Yoghurt Fruitshake" and I see online that US participants in some places have the option of meal delivery. I found it particularly annoying that the recipes, which are included as an appendix, aren't in any particular order - time of day, occurrence in the program, or alphabetical, making it harder than it needs to be to see what exactly the "Taco Salad" comprises.
The 'Activate' stage starts on day 18 and introduces alternate day additions - a wider range of proteins (shellfish and lean cuts of red meat), limited quantities of low GI (though he doesn't say that) grains, pulses and starchy vegetables.
A sample menu at random:
25g porridge oats, cooked (I assume in water but Moreno doesn't specify)
4 egg whites, scrambled
1 peach, sliced
1 cup of green tea

Prawn salad: cooked prawns, 30g of chopped onion, generous bed of lettuce leaves, 1 tomato (large) and 1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 baked sweet potato, medium
1 cup of green tea

Pork chops, grilled
Steamed veggies
1 cup of green tea

150g blueberries with 175g sugar-free fruit-flavoured yoghurt
175g sugar free fruit-flavoured yoghurt or 240ml kefir
Stage 3 ('Achieve') kicks in at day 35 and adds an optional glass of wine per day; a slightly expanded protein range (fat-free turkey bacon, some game); a slice of multi- or wholegrain bread, cereal and pasta; and wider ranges of fruit, vegetables, dairy, snacks and fats (including nuts and avocado).
A sample day:
225g sugar free fruit-flavoured yoghurt
45g Muesli or organic granola
1 piece of fresh fruit (i.e., 1 peach, 1/4 cantaloupe, 1/2 grapefruit or 1 orange)
1 cup of green tea
Tomato stuffed with crab salad: mix lump crab meat with 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons chopped celery and serve on a generous bed of lettuce
Medium jacket potato with 1 tablespoon of fat-free sour cream or 100g brown or Basmati rice
1 medium eating apple
1 cup of green tea
Roast beef, silverside
Courgette, sauteed with 1 tablespoon olive oil and Italian spices
1 cup of green tea
2nd probiotic, dairy or dairy substitute serving
1 frozen fruit bar
"Courgette"? Yes, though bought in Australia this is the British version of The 17 Day Diet, so all the weights are given in both metric and Imperial, and "lorries" are used to explain biochemical processes. There are also references to tilapia, which are cultivated in the UK and US but categorised as noxious invaders in Australia.
The final stage ('Arrive') is a modified program aimed at long-term adherence - for five days a week follow any of the menus from stages one to three, with a more liberal (but not wholly abandoned) approach from Friday night
over the weekend. Still, Moreno cautions, avoid binging and maintain moderation, just loosen things a little. He also recommends exercise throughout the program, once again magically - 17 minutes of gentle daily exercise during the first phase, doubling that up for the second stage, and maybe increasing the intensity for the duration.
There are several things I really like about The 17 Day Diet, at least in theory. There's acknowledgment that menstruation derails programs, and a corresponding modification for that week (including brazil nuts for selenium and a little dark chocolate if craved); there are cultural adaptations for a number of culinary tastes, with corresponding differences in emphasis on flavours and produce; and I believe this is the first program I've seen that specifically addresses the problem of shift work, particularly when carbohydrate intake is prohibited after a set time (in this case 2PM).
For the most part Moreno gives an explanation for his restrictions and requirements, citing studies about rapid weight loss, diet-linked conditions (like heart disease), and the impetus for the program appears to be strongly tied to his clinical practice as a physician.
This is also the first diet book I've seen that mentions any of the benefits of being fat, from improved bone density to better heart disease and diabetes statistics for women with fatter thighs. The whole book, however, is strongly weighted to women readers - in the section discussing health benefits of his program Moreno references slipping in to a little black dress, which leaves out any non-girly women and all but the cross-dressing men, and his description of research into improved sex with weight loss focuses only on extremely obese women who have a poor body image.
There were several thing I didn't like about The 17 Day Diet. I'm not a huge fan of programs that eliminate whole categories of food, but at least the 17 Day Diet reintroduces them after a comparatively short time.
I am extremely dubious about the power of hot water and lemon juice to detox, increase metabolic rate, aid digestion or in fact do much more than create ritual and ensure adequate vitamin C intake, but this element is common in many diets.
There's also the warning to consume fruit or carbohydrates after two o'clock, when they'll magically turn from energy to fat, although carb-rich vegetables are included in dinner. There are other unexplained magical elements, like 17 day cycles and 17 minutes of exercise, but I think the bullshit factor's lower than most programs. I'm starting it today, so check our other blog for how it works out in practice. - Alex

Sunday, October 2

The Midwife's Christmas Miracle - Sarah Morgan

Miranda Harding only meant to go for a walk in the beautiful Lake District; with much to think about, it seemed an appropriate place to ponder in peace. She'd never liked Christmas, and recent events had nothing to change that. Unfortunately, while deep in thought she failed to notice the change in weather and, unfamiliar with the area, was unequipped for the sudden knee-high snow that not only bit to the bone but obliterated any sign of the way she'd come.
Jake Blackwell was pleased his closest friends had patched up their marriage, but seeing them so happy only brought home his own single state, and his longing for Christy, despite all the practice he'd had putting her out of his mind. Walks in sunshine were fine, but he preferred the tempestuous, unpredictable winter weather, and a gentle hike was just the thing to distract him. Until he was distracted by a wan, shivering girl almost hidden in the snow.
A recent review on Smart Bitches lead me to check what Morgan romances my library held, and though I'm not usually a fan of medical romances - all that longing gazes over full bedpans thing strikes me as highly unlikely, and in my experience doctors are far more prone to hooking up with other doctors now women comprise over half of graduates - I'm open to persuasion. The SBTB review was for a non-medical category romance that sounded intriguing enough that I forwent my usual aversion, and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.
Jake is an obstetric consultant, Miranda is a new midwife on his unit - and she's pregnant, which he doesn't realise until after he's rescued, chastised, recovered and soundly kissed her. In fact, it's not until he sees her at work the following day that the penny drops - and it's to Morgan's credit that this seems plausible.
What I particularly liked was the intelligence of both characters - both in general and clinically. Jake is, of course, a brilliant clinician, but Miranda holds her own, and if Morgan wasn't a clinician herself then she's done research that's incorporated in to the novel without any head-hitting signage.
She also avoids the too-common romance trope of equating conflict with passion - practitioner conflict is restricted to other clinicians, and though there are obstacles to their HEA (chief of which, unsurprisingly, is Miranda's pregnancy) they don't read as contrived or ludicrous.
I so enjoyed the Midwife's Christmas Miracle that I've borrowed another of Morgan's medical romances. - Alex

Friday, September 30

Joseph Cummins: Turn Around and Run Like Hell

From the back of the book-
Ranging from the siege of ancient Babylon and Caesar's campaigns in Gaul to the American Civil War and World War II, Turn Around and Run Like Hell captures key moments in history when the ingenuity, vison and daring of brilliant leaders turned the tide of battle.
Read about Hannibal's spectacular envelopment of the Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC; the Mongols' awe-inspiring rout of Christian forces at Liegnitz in 1241; Pizaro's daring kidnapping of Inca ruler Atahuallpa in 1532; and the brilliant campaign of subterfuge that helped ensure the success of the 1944 D-Day landings.

Subtitled Amazing stories of unconventional military strategies that worked this book delivers exactly what the cover claims.
I've never had a particular interest in military history but this title of this work raised my curiosity. Presented in a straightforward manner it is engaging and easy to read, bringing to life the fascinating personalities behind some of military history's most unorthodox moves.
Interesting and educational it might be worth a look for students of history.-Lynn

Thursday, September 29

Jennifer Crusie: Maybe This Time

From the back of the book-
Andie Miller is ready to move on with her life. She wants to marry her fiance and leave behind everything in her past, especially her ex-husband, North Archer. But when Andie tries to gain closure with him, he asks one final favor of her. A distant cousin has died and left North the guardian of two orphans who have driven away three nannies already, and things are getting worse. He needs someone to take care of the situation, and he knows Andie can handle anything...
When Andie meets the two children, she realizes the situation is much worse than she feared. Carter and Alice aren't your average delinquents, and the creepy old house where they live is being run by the worst housekeeper since Mrs. Danvers. Complicating matters is Andie's fiance's suspicion that this is all a plan by North to get Andie back. He may be right because Andie's dreams have been haunted by North since she arrived at the old house. And that's not the only haunting...
Then her ex-brother-in-law arrives with a duplicitous journalist and a self-doubting parapsychologist, closely followed by an annoyed medium, Andie's tatot card-reading mother, her avenging ex-mother-in-law, and her jealous fiance. Just when Andie's sure things couln't get more complicated, North arrives to make her wonder if maybe this time things could just turn out differently.
This unusual mash up of The Turn of the Screw and Dharma and Greg could have been ridiculous but it works quite well. I think the success is due to the very well developed and believable characters (with perhaps the exception of Alice who felt like a bit of a caricature to me).
The setting was acceptably creepy but I can't understand why the author felt the need to have the haunted mansion imported from England and rebuilt on American soil. It seems completely unnecessary, especially since the ghosts are connected to objects rather than the house itself. This is something I've come across a couple of times (with different authors) and I suppose I'll never understand. If the English mansion is essential then why not set the story in England rather than drag England to the U S.
I really enjoyed this book with the exception of one scene. It was pure Henry James. It didn't add to this story in any way other than possibly as a tribute to the original and for some reason its presence here particularly annoyed me.
In spite of the few quibbles I've mentioned I did find this a fun and easy read. Another hit from Ms Crusie.-Lynn

Tuesday, September 27

Fly Away Home – Jennifer Weiner

Sylvie Serfer has subsumed her life in service to her husband’s political career without any sense of sacrifice – the incessant calorie counting, tightly pinching shapewear, coloured and painstakingly straightened hair, never ending briefings and engagements, the secondary importance of her daughters to Richard have all been her willing contributions to their success. They’re a team, working toward a common goal since their college days thirty years earlier. That all changes in an instant, when Sylvie’s best friend Cecil breaks the news that, according to reports on every network, Richard has apparently had an affair with a staffer.
The news not only affects Richard and Sylvie’s lives but the lives of their very different daughters. Diana is a prototypical eldest child, high achieving and determined to have everything – marriage to a man who’ll never let her down, a well-raised child exposed only to healthy food and wholesome viewing, and a professional identity in medicine. From the outside she has everything, but her carefully constructed life was already cracking, and the one thing she really craves is no more likely than ever before – her parents’ unconditional love and attention. Lizzie could not be more different – from early adolescence she’s sought from drugs solace, absence and the filling of a soul-deep emptiness. Clean after her latest detox, Lizzie is managing to keep all her balls in the air and is caring for Diana’s son Milo, but therapy hasn’t managed to repair her past. The revelation of Richard’s affair acts as the catalyst for change, changed perceptions, and the revelations of secrets and truths for the whole family.
Fly Away Home is an engrossing novel that engaged me on several levels – a fan of TheGoodWife, I was interested in an exploration of what these scandals may be like on the inside, but it was Weiner’s characters that kept me turning pages. Richard is the closest to a cipher, for most of the novel acting more significantly as a catalyst than as a character. Diana’s losses of control and the tensions that cause is really well conveyed; LLizzie’s attempts at refashioning her life are admirable and feel real; and Sylvie is a complex character who, despite being betrayed, is no saint – her uxorial devotion to Richard has caused a profound emotional neglect of her daughters that created the strongest resonance for me. My only disappointment with Fly Away Home was that, except for Sylvie’s response to the affair and its related aftermath, there’s preciously little anger. This was most significantly the case with Lizzie, who I hoped would be able to give voice to feelings of betrayal and abandonment at events (and, more crucially, her parents’ responses to them) that clearly contributed to her life path, but Diana has been aware from a young age how much their childhoods were shaped around the father's career, their mothe's priorotising this over their best interets, and the expectation that follows them into adulthood, and isn't angry either.
I’ve enjoyed Weiner’s work since Good in Bed, though I've found her recent work somewhat mixed, and Fly Away Home (apparently written earlier and recently recrafted and updated for publication) delivers a similar combination of satisfyingly rounded and layered characters, intelligent and believable dialogue, and a compelling plot. - Alex

Monday, September 19

Boys Don’t Cry – Malorie Blackman

Dante’s life is on track – provided he gets four good A levels he’s off to uni, a full year earlier than his mates, and ready for a life of freedom from his overbearing father and irritating younger brother, a future where he can earn money and have the holidays and treats his dad can’t afford. And though he pretends modesty to his family and friends, Dante knows the odds of him getting at least four A’s is good – he’s just waiting impatiently for the postie to confirm it.
The doorbell brings him a different kind of life-changing news, though. When Dante opens the door it’s to Melanie, a girl who used to go to his school, and to whom he drunkenly (and embarrassingly rapidly) lost his virginity to about a year and a half ago. Mel’s not alone, either – she’s lugging a bag, pushing a pram, and has a baby. Dante has no interest in babies , who squall and mewl and puke, and he’s at a loss to why Mel would suddenly reappear at all, let alone with someone’s kid.
Only it turns out to be his kid, who Mel’s been caring for at her aunt’s after her parents kicked her out. She needs Dante to look after it for a few minutes while she buys some things at the shops, and though reluctant in the extreme Dante agrees. But Mel never comes back, and she rings to say she’s not going to – she’s had enough and now it’s Dante’s turn.
Written in first person, with occasional diary extracts by Dante’s younger brother Adam, Boys Don’t Cry is a strong, compelling and beautifully crafted novel by the author of the Noughts and Crosses series, among others. It portrays with sensitivity and veracity a side of teen pregnancy not often acknowledged, and Dante’s transition from self-oriented, slightly immature teen to responsible adult is beautifully depicted.
There’s a significant secondary plot about Adam, whose sexual orientation is ignored and side-lined by Dante and their father until acknowledging it becomes unavoidable, and though a valid narrative arc in its own right also serves to reflect significant issues in the family dynamics – avoidance of discussing important issues, pretending unpalatable truths don’t exist, and an unspoken agreement to silence.
Blackman manages to fit in a number of significant teen issues in addition to these main aspects, including peer pressure, violence, the disinhibiting effects of alcohol, the complex nature of love, and depression.
Despite this sombre collection of themes Boys Don’t Cry is rewarding, uplifting and thoroughly enjoyable. I particularly liked the way the changes in Dante are reflected in his voice, most notably in his references to Emma, and the way he can see no other way of being, even as he changes. His resistance against his new reality and his efforts to maintain the life he expected to have are both poignant and amusing.
I’d forgotten quite how much I enjoy Blackman’s writing, and have also been reminded that there’s a fourth in the Noughts and Crosses ‘trilogy’ that needs to be read! – Alex

Saturday, September 17

The Straight Road to Kylie – Nico Medina

Jonathan Parish’s life is pretty awesome – out and proud, surrounded by his three best girl friends, and senior year lies gloriously ahead; the only hiccup is the lack of any prospect of a boyfriend. The only other out teen at Winter Park High is not at all suitable, thank you very much. But everything goes horribly wrong when the meticulously planned celebration of bestie Joanna’s birthday is derailed by a combination of too much alcohol, adolescent hormones and the distress of second bestie Alexandra’s continued virginity. Somehow – how? How? – Jonathan finds himself in a bedroom, having sex, with a girl.
The act itself was less hideous than the aftermath – a chink having opened in his heretofore unquestioned homosexuality, Winter Park’s reigning teen queen Laura Schulberg extends an offer he can’t refuse: pretend to be her boyfriend for the rest of the year and get an all-expenses-paid trip to London, to see the fabulous Kylie Minogue who, almost certainly, will never tour the US (and is, coincidentally, playing in the Pret where I’m writing this review). What choice does he have?
The Straight Road to Kylie wasn’t unenjoyable, but I had several issues with it, almost certainly due to my vast age at least as much as to the writing itself. Chief among these is the fact that there is a lot of alcohol (and light recreational drug) use, with no real consequences apart from a few survivable hangovers. This makes me sound like a terrible prude – it’s not that I think there should be death, dismemberment, car accidents, permanent paralysis, teen pregnancies and brushes with STD’s, but the novel is almost a tribute to teen alcohol use in a country where the legal drinking age is higher than the global average. I certainly get that the pivotal plot moment comes about as a result of Jonathan being drunk but that doesn’t even cause him a second’s thought.
Which brings me to my second issue – all of the characters, but Jonathan in particular, as spookily composed, mature and rational. While it’s refreshing to have jocks who aren’t all homophobic meatheads, the only character who seems to get at all flustered is Alex, who makes the common mistake of confusing sex with love. Interestingly, despite all the alcohol there’s somehow almost no sex apart from the opening scene of Alex and Jonathan’s mutual deflowering.
Unsurprisingly, given these factors, there’s almost no adult presence in The Straight Road to Kylie – with the exception of Jonathan’s boss at Target (hardly fully fleshed) adults are peripheral and sketchy at best. I’m not saying my teachers and parents were fully people to me at that age but they were definitely in my life. Maybe that’s just the Gen X/Gen Y gap...
I did enjoy The Straight Road to Kylie, despite these issues – I liked the premise, and although Jonathan’s life is close to idyllic it was nice to read about a gay teen who’s not only comfortable with his sexuality but accepted by his parents and peers. I do doubt that groovy Jonathan has a MySpace account, but I’m old and on FaceBook so maybe there’s been a pre Google+ retro return to MySpace. Hardly the biggest of quibbles, anyway.
I didn’t hate The Straight Road to Kylie, and I finished it to its predictably rounded happy ever after, but I have no need to pass it on or re-read it and will instead be leaving it when I finish my lunch. – Alex

Friday, September 16

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You – Ally Carter

Cammie Morgan is a Gallagher girl – she not only attends, but is daughter of the principal at Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women. Truly exclusive, Gallgher’s is a private school like no other, for it educates the next generation of America’s spies and high hopes are held for the child of two of the most successful covert operatives of recent times, even if Cammie’s father died on a mission.
Appropriately, given her name, Cammie’s specialty is camouflage. She’s able to blend in to the background at will, which comes in useful when she and a cadre of her friends are set their first task – to follow highly paranoid former agent-turned teacher Professor Smith and determine what he drinks with his donut during the Roseville town fair. What Cammie doesn’t expect is to meet a town boy – and Josh doesn’t stand a chance against a group of girls trained in espionage and surveillance.
ITYILYBTIHTKY is the first in a series that is billed as a successor to boarding-school-with-a-twist success, Harry Potter. It’s not even close, reminding me far more of an American version of Muchamore’s CHERUB series but with less grit, guts and believability. I didn’t find the universe at all compelling or absorbing, the characters rarely moved beyond two dimensionality, and the ending was a dull thud. I’m clearly something of a minority, as I saw three further instalments on the Waterstone’s 3-for-2 table (with similarly cloying titles), but I also suspect I’m far from the target audience. This is not a series that will appeal to the Twilight crowd, but perhaps to their tweenage younger sisters – it’s surprising, given how young the book read, that the protagonists aren’t also in the twelve to fourteen age range. If you’re not a girl, that age, and interested in action lite redeemed only by having a female protagonist, move on. – Alex

Wednesday, September 14

Daring Detectives – Alfred Hitchcock (ed)

I unearthed this 1975 collection of deservedly well-known short mysteries in the aftermath of my recent book tragedy. The volume is over thirty years old now, and the stories’ original publication dates are far older – I’ve included them in the title/author information.

The day the children vanished: Hugh Pentecost (1958)
The nine students of a small town school vanish on their way home, along with Jerry Mahoney and the modified yellow station wagon/school bus he was driving. Last seen turning on to the two mile dugout track winding around the (guardrail protected) lake, the bright yellow vehicle never re-emerged. The town of Clayton didn’t take long to decide that the formerly trusted Jerry must have done something to their children, despite the distress of his young fiancée, and the stress seemed to push his retired-magician father off kilter.
Though the rationale is important, the centre of “The day the children vanished” is the disappearing act, which I couldn’t work out but which seemed familiar once revealed, either because I read this long ago or because another author’s employed the same sleight of hand. More interesting though is how well Pentecost portrays the understandable but disturbing swing in mood of the town as a whole and the power of fear. This alone makes me interested in checking the author, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, out further.

Through a dead man’s eye: Cornell Woolrich (1939)
Layoffs and downsizing are far from new, and nor is filial concern; when he overhears his detective father telling his mother that he’s looking at being demoted to beat cop because of austerity measures Frankie decides to help his dad out by bringing him the most prestigious crime and solution – murder. Fortunately, Frankie has a clue to one where the murder hasn’t even been discovered yet – thanks to the local boys’ hobby of swapping items for another of greater value Frankie is in possession of a glass eye. And why, he reasons, would someone get rid of a perfectly good glass eye unless they were dead?
Very much a product of its time, Frankie is plucky, determined, and significantly unchaperoned. Like boys across time he has scant regard for his own safety and is far more focused on helping his father, who he knows is “the best dick in town!” I very much enjoyed the reading experience, and though I don’t think a longer work by Woolrich would be to my taste this appetiser was very pleasing.

The disappearance of Mr Davenheim: Agatha Christie (1953)
Inspector Japp offers Poirot a wager – to find the missing senior partner of financiers Davenheim and Salmon, dead or alive, by the end of the week, without visiting the scene or investigating independently. The facts of the case are undisputed – Mr Davenheim returned by train from Victoria to his country manor at Chingside, wandered around the grounds for some time before tea, then told his wife he was going on to town to post some letters. He was, he said, expecting a Mr Lowen, who was to be shown in to the drawing room if he arrived before Mr Davenheim’s return.
Mr Lowen duly appeared; pleading a train, he left when, after an hour, Mr Davenheim failed to meet him. A subsequent search of the study he’d been waiting in revealed an empty and broken-into safe – a safe that was used to store the jewels Mr Davenheim had been in the habit of buying for his wife whenever he returned from business trips.
A somewhat convoluted mystery, “The disappearance of Mr Davenheim” includes the elements one expects from Christie – class, wealth, clever trickery, and the employment of the little grey cells to reveal all.

The grave grass quivers: MacKinlay Kantor (1931)
A young, unnamed doctor is interviewing for a position to replace the soon-to-retire Doc Martindale of Cottonwood. A sleepy town, he notes, to which Doc Martindale responds that there have only been four murders during the entire history of the town, and only two since 1861. That was the father and brother of young Martindale vanished, along with some $7,000 in gold. Their wagon and team were found, along with some blood, but their bodies were presumed dumped in the nearby river – though Doc always believed they’d been buried nearby.
“The grave grass quivers” is set sixty years later, and is less a mystery than an atmospheric, perfectly crafted vignette. There is, true, a murder (well, two), and the triumphant unveiling of the murderer decades after the crime, plus a unique indicator of the crime (that I somehow wasn’t surprised by, increasing the likelihood that I’ve read this collection before, albeit long ago). But the narrative unfolds gently and almost inevitably, rather than twisting like a contemporary mystery, and Kantor evokes splendid senses of both the time the story is set in and a brief but convincing feel of frontier life a hundred and fifty years ago. I might be interested in following up with Kantor, who is better known, according to Hitchcock’s introduction for “serious novels” – he certainly writes like an author comfortable with producing literature.

Adventure of the Grice-Patterson curse: August Derleth (1956)
Renown detective Solar Pons and his less bright assistant Dr Parker has been asked by Edith Grice-Patterson, grand-daughter of long-dead Colonel Grice-Patterson to come to the family home on Uffa to investigate the latest in a series of curses that have plagued the family – the mysterious strangling death, in a locked room, of her fiancé is but the most recent, following similar, motiveless, murders of her father and uncle. The family is also, somehow, able to keep dogs alive.
If both the protagonists and the set up are reminiscent of a more famous detective that is no coincidence – Derleth (with whose work I have previously been unfamiliar) has apparently created homage to Holmes, of which this is but a taste. The writing style is similarly evocative, and though the killer is different to that in the Doyle classic “The scarlet hat band” it is clearly inspired by that work. Certainly if you like Holmes you will like this – I confess I find myself more compelled by the recent BBC series. - Alex

The adventure of the seven black cats: Ellery Queen (1933)
Sent out to procure an Irish setter, famed New York city detective and author Ellery Queen discovers a pet-shop mystery – why has a bed-bound pensioner who hates cats been secretively buying a green-eyed black tom each week for the last month and a half? The question is quirky enough to intrigue Queen, who sets out for the nearby apartment that Euphemia Tarkle shares with her more mobile (and impoverished) sister, Sarah-Ann.
Sarah-Ann goes out every afternoon, leaving the door on the latch – this is always when Miss Curleigh brings the new cats around; today, however, there is no answer to her knock, and the door is locked. Procuring the key from the wife of building supervisor Potter reveals an empty apartment – empty except for the sight of a fleeing figure out one window. But where is the paralysed Miss Tarkle?
The core of this mystery is the rationale for the cats, and the answer is both practical and haunting, particularly if you’re a felinephile. The writing is compelling and engaging, and the mystery quite involving.
I have long enjoyed Ellery Queen, with whom I first became familiar through the mid-seventies TV series. I realise, writing this, that it has been many years since I last read one of the beautifully crafted, eponymous detective stories and will rectify this on my return to Australia next week.

The footprint in the sky: John Dickson Carr (1940)
Mrs Topham next door is a shrew and a thief; arguing with her yesterday made sleep walking virtually inevitable. Dorothy Brandt rarely recalls anything that happens when she sleep walks – waking with the faint remembrance of snow is unusual – but is it possible it was she who killed the horrible woman?
The scene certainly gives every indication of that: the only footprints, clear and crisp in the shallow snow, are Dorothy’s tiny size 4 and lead without hesitation to and from the adjacent houses, with not another step marring the white perfection. The only anomalous note is a larger footprint, equally clear, in the snow atop a bordering hedge – one that could not possibly support the weight of the grown man such footwear would fit.
Carr’s well known but I haven’t read his other work. I very much enjoyed the unexpected dénouement and unique flavour of “The footprint in the sky” and may look up his other work in the future. - Alex

Tuesday, September 13

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – Tom Franklin

Former football star Silas “32” Jones was once the closest thing to a friend that Larry Ott had. They could not have been more different, in terms of race, poise, financial security, parental support or popularity, but they connected. For a time. After Cindy, everything changed.
The disappearance of popular Cindy Rutherford shook the small Mississippi town of Chabot – though she was never found, and there was no evidence, it was obvious that she was killed by her classmate – slightly strange and socially awkward, Larry’s story of dropping her off at her request is patently ridiculous.
Twenty years later the mystery continues to reverberate in Chabot, for nobody more than Larry Ott. His inherited automotive repair business used only by strangers passing through, Larry is more socially isolated than ever. The town has never forgotten; eight days after college girl Tina Rutherford was reported missing, Larry is shot in his home and left for dead.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
is an arresting portrait of contrast and intersection – white and black, poor and rich, innocence and guilt, trust and betrayal, courage and cowardice, action and inaction all overlap and intersect. The text steps effortlessly between the past and the unfolding present, slowly revealing secrets and answers, while prompting psychological questions.
This is, quite clearly, literature despite the mystery at
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter’s core – though the disappearances, decades apart, of two white girls in their late teens act as an initial impetus for the narrative, they are a pretext for the exploration of deeper, less obvious mysteries. These include questions about the central characters of ‘Scary Larry’ and 32, but also about the meanings of friendship, connection, moral bravery, subtle peer pressure, fear, love and the meaning of truth. I realise that this description gives away almost nothing of the plot, but it's so closely interwoven that anything more specific would ruin it.
There are a number of laudatory reviews at the front of my paperback copy, with comparisons to other Southern literary works (
To Kill a Mockingbird and Faulkner’s Sanctuary) – though I enjoyed the reading experience, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter didn’t quite have that level of emotional impact for me. The most pivotal revelations, which come late in the text, were gentle undulations in a text I found interesting and engaging but pastoral rather than vivid, no doubt in part because I'd guessed quite early on that Larry and 32 were brothers.
I felt that the book could stand on its own but, no doubt in response to public demand, there is an additional section at the end about the author, his back ground and the novel’s development, the process of turning autobiography in to fiction, and a readers’ group guide. I found this last particularly irritating, but this has more to do with me than the book itself.
I’m glad I read
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a 2010 release I bought in Sydney this June (instead of reading books from my back log), read on my way to Hong Kong, and am reviewing on a train from Nijmegen to Schiphol. I shall leave it here, hoping it finds a receptive readership; I think once is sufficient for me. – Alex

Sunday, September 11

Think of a Number - John Verdon

Dave Gurney was best known for his capture of some of the East Coast's most infamous serial killers; in his retirement a chance art class, taken at the behest of his wife Madeleine, is allowing his an outlet related to but not directly connected with his police work. He's quite content to work, pixel by pixel, on digital images of his successes, to the disappointment of Madeleine, who had hoped for a murder-free life. Gurney's content, that is, until a former classmate contacts him.
Gurney was never friends with Mark Mellery, much as the latter's letter tries to imply the contrary. What is clear, though it is thinly masked, is that the other man is frightened. An alcoholic to the point that he blacked out while his wife drowned only feet away, Mellery has turned his life around to become a guru of personal transformation. Everything was fine - new career, wonderful house, acclaim, a loving wife - until the first letter.
Penned in red ink, the cryptic note alludes to a connection with the past and is written by a former, unnamed confidant so close to Mellery that he is able to predict what number Mellery would chose when asked to pick one between one and a hundred. The number (658) has no significance for Mellery, and the idea that this number (sealed inside an included envelope) could be known by another person totally disturbs him. It's the next stage, however, that causes him to contact Guerney - to find out who knows him so well, the second note says, Mellery must send cash or a cheque to a PO Box in the name of X. Arybdis ("not always my name"). Mellery sends the cheque, which is returned as unknown by the PO Box holder. The returned cheque is soon followed by two eight-line poems, also in red ink, that hint at past misdeeds and an impending threat.
I was attracted to Think of a Number (the first in what will clearly be a series) by the premise of a stranger being able to guess what random number another person would pick. I began reading it soon after, only to put it down after a couple of pages because I found the writing style irritating. I have, however, entirely too many unread books and so I took the opportunity of a long-haul flight to make inroads on some of the backlog. I'm glad I did - the mystery is interesting and unique, the character of Guerney interesting and flawed (I do believe that's mandatory in contemporary novels of the genre), and I really liked the way Madeleine's quite different perspective illuminates aspects of the case.
However, there were several times where I got ahead of Guerney, often by several chapters - these included how the killer guessed another number (ridiculously obvious answer that occurred to me immediately but not to Guerney until 240 pages later), the meaning of his pseudonym (X. Arybdis), and the identity of the killer a couple of chapters ahead of out hero. Fortunately, posing over the book for this review I now have an answer to something I had been thinking of as an unanswered loose end: a fish ("Was it a flounder?" Madeleine asked) was left at one scene to link it to another murder.
My biggest issue with Think of a Number (Numb3r in some editions), though, is the tone.
The writing has a literary quality at odds with the genre - sentences are not only over-long but unnecessarily descriptive, and Guerney is introspective and self-reflective to a ridiculous extent. Opening the book at random I found:
He closed his eyes, hoping the goodness of the moment would counteract those mental energies that were always propelling him into puzzle solving. For Guerney, achieving even a little contentment was, ironically, a struggle. He envied Madeleine's keen attachment to the fleeing instant and the pleasure she found in it. For him living in the moment was always a swim upstream, his analytical mind naturally preferring the realms of probability, possibility. He wondered if it was a genetic or learned form of escape. Probably both, mutually reinforcing....
He caught himself in the absurd act of analyzing his propensity for analysis. He ruefully tried again to be present in the room.
Gurney notes, assesses and weighs every characters' every aspect, and Verdon faithfully records it all. In case tone, word choice and description are inadequate, utterances are also qualified - glints in eyes shout, lips are pursed "by way of complaint"
There's also something of a laziness of description despite this gratuitous detail - a pathologist strongly resembles Sigourney Weaver (occasionally adopting a Mr Rogers-like tone, which no doubt has more resonance for American readers than I), two functionaries are reminiscent of Tom Cruise, and Guerney himself "looked like Robert Redford in All the President's Men" at college and "Still do - haven't changed a bit!".
I could also have done with more shades of grey - the supporting cast, primarily senior law enforcement, lawyers and politicians, are almost without exception relentlessly blustery, vainglorious and incompetent.
Despite this I finished Think of a Number, primarily because the mysteries (how did the footprints in the snow abruptly end? And most pivotal, how was the number 658 guessed?). I was also pleased that one thing I predicted (Madeleine leaving) didn't occur, though there's at least one sequel to come. I don't think I like Guerney much - his family come a distant second to work, despite the tragic death of his young son (in no small part due to Guerney's distraction about a case) - even when he doesn't have the potential death of future victims as an excuse he still fails to pay attention to his wife, or to do things that he knows would please her, in a passive-aggressive way I found markedly off-putting.
I did enjoy Think of a Number more than I suspect this review indicates. If you're interested in a mystery that combines an unusually literary feel with violent murder and a few good tricks you could do worse than pick this up. I suspect that, should I return to Verdon's work, which may well mellow with experience, it will via the library - I see that the sequel, Close Your Eyes Tight is available for loan. - Alex

Saturday, September 10

Good Book – David Plotz

Bored during his cousin’s bar mitzvah service, “Proud, but not very observant” Plotz idly picked up and opened the Torah in front of him. It opened to Genesis, and Plotz began reading the story of the rape of Dinah. Her rapist, Sechem, son of “an idol-worshiping chieftain,” decides he’s in love with Dinah, and asks to marry her; Dinah’s father and brothers acquiesce, with a couple of conditions, then attack the chieftain’s tribe while its’ men are incapacitated. The story shocked Plotz -
The founding fathers of Israel lying, breaching a contract, encourage pagans to convert to Judaism, only to cripple them for slaughter, massacring defenseless innocents, enslaving woman and children, pillaging and profiteering, and then justifying it all with an appeal to their sister’s defiled honor? Not on the syllabus
For a while, the story of Dinah preoccupied Plotz – he talked about with women named Dinah, and found different versions of the story (maybe Dinah went willingly with Sechem) and varying interpretations of the lessons the story was intended to teach.
Plotz had thought he knew the Bible, at least broadly – in addition to Hebrew School he attended an Episcopalian high school that included religious education in the syllabus, and he’d had the usual popular culture exposure to Bible stories, from testaments Old and New. Reading this section of Genesis caused him to reconsider – what else had been edited out? He decided to read the Torah, or Old Testament, verse by verse, in order, noting his responses to each chapter as they were read. Good Book is those reflections, bound.
Amazon recommended Good Book when I added several of AJ Jacob’s accounts (reviews forthcoming) to my basket. I’ve long been intellectually interested in religion, which is what attracted me to both Jacob’s Year of Living Biblically and Good Book in the first place. In my youth I read the Bible cover to cover three times over a six- or nine-month period, though clearly not with the rigour of Plotz and, I suspect, quite a big of skimming, particularly over the begetting sections. I certainly didn’t make the connections Plotz did, and I’m impressed by his connection of events and people from one book with intersections and recurrences in subsequent sections.
What kept me reading, though, was Plotz himself. His writing is snarky, thoughtful, shocked, considered, and above all else intelligent. I made note of so many examples that my copy of Good Book is markedly thicker at the bottom (where I’ve turned over corners) than the top, and were I to cite even a quarter of them this review would be excessive. However it would be a disservice not to give at least a flavour of Plotz’s style.
Fittingly, I’ll start with Genesis, and the story of Abram (who becomes Abraham) and Sarai/Sarah, who flee famine and attempt to con first Pharaoh and then a king by pretending to be siblings instead of spouses; God sends a plague to the former for admiring Sarai’s beauty (which “seems unfair of the Almighty. It’s Abram and Sarai who tricked Pharaoh – why should the Egyptian get punished for ogling Sarai?”), and warns off a lecherous King Abimelech in a dream (“Not explained – why would Abimelech want to seduce Sarah, who is at that point nearly ninety years old?”)
God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising him “all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding.” God is a kind of celestial Donald Trump: He can’t go a chapter without a new real-estate deal. By my calculations, He promises land to Abraham at least four separate times, and each time the boundaries are different. (Promised land, indeed.)
I’m sure most people are familiar with the sacrifice of Isaac, where God tells Abraham to kill his beloved son on an altar to demonstrate his religious fidelity. Isaac is spared at the eleventh hour, but
As a father I find this nearly impossible to read. The repetition of “my son” is devastating. Abraham does not try to distance himself from Isaac, to separate himself from the child he must kill. Isaac remains “my son,” “my son.”… This is, of course, another story adopted and repurposed in the New Testament; but in the Christian version, God does sacrifice the son. I’m a sucker for a happy ending, so I’ll take the Genesis version, complete with deus ex machina and the saved child.
Chapter 23 gets the (natural) death of Sarah out of the way before using eighteen verses to discuss land negotiations, a theme common throughout the text, which Plotz points out is as relevant and consuming in that region now as it was 3,500-odd years ago. Chapter 25 causes him to reflect on why antediluvian people were so long lived, and even after the flood it is not uncommon for Bible characters to live for over a century, usually with little or no infirmity -
The obvious answer, and the one I believe, is “It’s not true, that’s why.” But I wonder why the authors of the Bible *believed it to be true. At the time Genesis was written down, 1,000 years after Abraham was supposed to have lived, the Israelites who drafted it had normal life spans. Why did they credit their ancestors with such superhuman health? Was their theory that man got weaker the farther he got from creation? Modern scholars of folklore would probably attribute [it] to the normal process of mythmaking… the heroes grow grander and grander. Their towers reached the sky; they fought giants and met angels; and they lived almost forever.
This is only half of the extracts I’d like to cite, from Genesis alone; there is no way to include everything I’d like to without substantially breaching the Copyright Fair Reproduction Act! A few areas of note that I found particularly amusing, insightful or otherwise interesting – there are several instances where Plotz discovers that even things he knows he knows about the Bible are false (like the Ten Commandments); his discussion of why there are so may prostitutes is scattered through the text and insightful; there’s startling cruelty, violence and murder, much of it directed by a sadistic and often irrational God, particularly in Judges; and there’s the refrain of land – in the “morally repellent” Book of Judges
Jephthah tells the king, “Do you not hold what Chemosh your God gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything the Lord our God has given us to possess.”
And there, my friends, you have practically the entire history of Israel, of the Middle East, and of planet Earth, in two short sentences. Your God says it’s yours. Our God says it’s ours. Meet you at nine AM on the battlefield.
Chapters 5 – 7 of the Book of 1 Kings:
A hilariously magnificent passage pays tribute to Solomon’s wisdom. It’s essentially a list of everyone he’s smarter than… He writes 3,000 proverbs and 1,000 songs. He’s a botanist, an ichthyologist, and an entomologist; a poet, a musician and a judge; a joker, a smoker, and a midnight toker.
In chapter 18 of the same book, there’s a showdown between the prophet Elijah and Jezebel’s priests. Elijah, by the way, is a forerunner of Christ, performing the same miracles of food from nothing (in his case oil and wheat), and resurrects a child from the dead. But back to the battle of the gods:
My god versus your god, for all the marbles. “How long will you keep hopping between two opinion? If the Lord is God, follow him; and of Baal, follow him. Elijah proposes an incineration contest. He’ll get one bull and 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah will get another,. Each side will call on its god or gods, and whichever wide can make the animal go up in flames worships the true Lord.
The rival priests go first. They shout to Baal all morning long, to no effect. Elijah interrupts their fruitless prayers with a ripsnorting insult-comic routine, a hilarious, sardonic attack on Baal and his silence. When noon comes, “Elijah mock[s] them, saying, ‘Shout louder! After all, he is a god! But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.’” Reading this, you can imagine exactly what kind of man Elijah was – brilliant, blunt and sarcastic. (Oh, and even better: “on a journey” is an ancient euphemism for “in the bathroom.” Baal is on the pot!)
Above all, Plotz highlights
how often the Bible shows its seams. My childish notion was that the Bible was a singularity, a unified whole, but the more I read it the more I see it wrestling with itself.
When I was an adolescent I saw this as evidence of an inconsistent and inconstant deity, and I viewed the insistence on paying homage (have no other gods but me, honour the Sabbath and keep if holy) as the hallmark of a jealous and insecure Lord. I wonder now how biblical literalists reconcile these discrepancies, but my point is that Plotz’s narrative illuminated the connection between these instructions and the survival of Judaism – following the letter of the Torah, engaging with the text, the Talmudic precepts and laws, have kept the Jews coherent, unassimilated and viable for over three millennia, and that’s not by accident.

It takes Plotz 184 pages to address the fact that, claims to the contrary, there’s no archaeological evidence for a long-lasting, significant Israelite civilisation in the Ancient world – far from the Bible accounts of “a mighty nation that destroyed Pharaoh, killed 185,000 Assyrians in a night, and exterminated every non-Jew in the Promised land, the physical evidence suggests that Israel-Judah was a tiny, short-lived nation. It existed for a few hundred deeply troubled years, buffeted by mightier surrounding civilizations.”
This is not a scholarly work, but it is considered, thoughtful, researched (increasingly, as Plotz delves deeper in to the Torah), and there's some additional information at the end of Good Book about his process and progress. Most of all I was interested in how reading the Torah from cover to cover, complete with reflection, discussion and context, affected his own belief system. If any of this sounds interesting to you, go forth and read! I've already loaned my copy to a friend. - Alex

Thursday, September 8

The Bone Yard – Jefferson Bass

Bill Brockton is called away from his home under the University of Tennessee’s bleachers to Florida in the height of summer, at the request of forensic analyst Angie St. Claire – she’s convinced that her sister’s death, attributed by the coroner to suicide, was really a murder committed by the dead woman’s husband.
What promises to be a relatively quick trip is lengthened when an adolescent skull is found in the panhandle – decades old and damaged by time and predation, it bears the unmistakable signs of violent death. When a second skull, of similar age, vintage and trauma, appears Bill has to investigate. What he discovers reopens a dark and disturbing chapter in Florida’s history – and reveals a cycle of abuse that persists to this day.
I found this the most powerful in this six-part (to date) series. This is in part because it’s stepped away from the family aspect of Bill Brockton, which I was finding distracting, but mostly because of the subject matter. The heart of The Bone Yard is institutional child abuse, and the novel is a strong argument for change to a system that, particularly for young back men, compounds misfortune, poverty, youthful indiscretion and poor parenting, creating a perfect breeding ground for abuse, escalating crime, diminishing options, and a growing prison population. For anyone inclined to dismiss this as a problem of the past, disturbing contemporary cases are also discussed.
This is a novel, and the key message, along with a plea for better financing of forensic technology, is interwoven with a strong novel. There are also some light notes; I particularly liked the scene, clearly influenced by experience of police phone lines, when a press release about the first skull asks for anyone with information about a missing child (white, aged ten to twelve, and missing for months or even years) to call:
“We’ve had a few calls, including one from a guy who says that he’s the missing child.”
I laughed. “Did he say how he manages without his skull?”
“No,” Vickery deadpanned, “but I’m guessing the lack of a skull makes it a lot easier to go through life with his head up his ass.”
I was a little disappointed with the fifth novel in this series, and was relieved to find that my return was worth it - The Bone Yard combines an interesting mystery with a strong social message, including enough forensic detail to be genuine without becoming overly technical. The discomfort I had in Brockton's personality last time is not in evidence this time around, and the slightly more soapy aspects of the character arc (father/son issues and a pregnant ex-girlfriend fleeing from the law) are mercifully backgrounded. It is with relief and genuine excitement that I look forward to the release of book seven. - Alex

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

Tuesday, September 6

R & R Heller: The 13th Apostle

From the back of the book-
In the ruins of a medieval monastery in Dorset, the diary of an 11th century monk is uncovered-and the murders have already begun...
Cybersleuth Gil Pearson and expert translator Sabbie Karaim are thrown together to decipher the ancient text, rumoured to contain the location of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls-and unimaginable riches.
But what they discover is far more shocking. In their hands lies a document written by Jesus's fabled '13th apostle' which could rewrite history iteslf, sparking international terror.
Pursued by those intent on controlling the past, their frantic quest takes them across the globe as they stop at nothing to expose a two-thousand -year-old conspiracy.
Just who can you trust when you hold the fate of mankind in your hands?
I have a well-documented delight in stories based around conspiracy theory, particularly those with a religious focus. So whenever one comes my way I anticipate a great read. Since the publication of the Da Vinci Code and the lowering of standards therein entailed, I have been consistantly disappointed with the quality of the books on offer. Here I think we have hit a new low.
Every genre has its standards and expectations but that is a long way from the overt, shall I say homage, this title does to its mediocre predecessor. That is crime enough on its own but add in flat characters, poor pacing and possibly the worst dialogue ever and you have that new low I spoke of earlier.
The book opens with way too much back story and continues to, paradoxically, give too much detail and yet not enough. I could go on but the problems I had with it almost read like a beginners' guide as to what not to do and there are plenty of book on the market that go there. I was expecting much better from authors the front of the book claims are New York Times No. 1 bestsellers. I should have turned to their biography hidden in the back of the book where it clarifies that their previous work has been nonfiction dieting guides.
I understand the urge of authors who read a badly written book and think they could do better, I really do. But this pair should have stuck with what they know and left fiction well alone.-Lynn

Monday, September 5

About Last Night – Adele Parks

When cool new student Philippa-call-me-Pip Foxton decided she was her new best friend it transformed Stephanie Amstell’s life- formerly invisible and destined to a life of suburban mediocrity, she was now popular and interesting, and she had the confidence to go with it. It was a change that Steph would forever be grateful for.
Thirty years later Steph and Pip’s roles have reversed –Steph’s happily married to hard-working Julian and following their life plan; they moved to the country to raise their three boys, and Steph’s days area busy whirl of perfection creation. Pip, however, is a single mother,abandoned after three years of fighting and affairs by the father of her only child and virtually penniless. Mired in depression, furious at her cheating and untraceable ex, and lost for purpose, it’s only thanks to Steph’s emotional and financial support that she and Chloe are okay.
Steph loves her life, and she loves her best friend, but the one-way street is starting to get old. Why can’t Pip take some responsibility? She knew the meeting Steph encouraged her to make with a buyer from Selfridge’s would mean she couldn’t drop Chloe off at school, for example, but waited until morning to ask Steph to do it for her.
For Pip, so overwhelmed by anger, grief, shock and betrayal for the past two years, just functioning has been hard, but she’s ready for a change. In one day,, thanks to a combination of her artistic ability and chance, she not only gets a commission from the buyer but also meets a man – a man different from those she’s been attracted to in the past, a man who could possibly be her future. And on the same day Steph’s life changes forever, when she discovers her husband is having an affair.
About Last Night was engaging from a psychological perspective, but I was disappointed by its predictability – while there were certainly a couple of small surprises, but no twists and for the most part I guessed what was going to happen early on. For example, as soon as I read about how Steph replaced one set of perfectly functional crockery for another, and how Julian didn’t notice this or other domestic changes, I knew that she was replacing fulfilment and happiness for consumerism and the pursuit of a perfect-appearing life, and that Julian was having an affair.
There’s a lot of description and not a lot of dialogue, and the shifting third person perspective (primarily Steph, Pip, Julian and the thoroughly unlikeable mistress, Kirsten) allowed for different points of view but reduced my engagement.
This certainly isn’t to say that I disliked About Last Night, but I would have liked to be surprised more often. Certainly the plot device of “incomplete information leading to (contextually believable but avoidable) misunderstanding that changes everything” was disappointing, though a reflection of a number of issues.
There were several things that I really liked, from the idea of having a day (or perhaps just a meal) where every food begins with the same letter (“Chocolate, cherries, croissants, cake, crisps. Cashew nuts.”), to a really lovely scene that retrospectively redeemed Julian for me - experiencing the familiar symptoms of pregnancy after three boys, Steph doesn’t take a test and attributes minor differences between this and her previous pregnancies to it finally being a girl. She and Julian discuss names, focusing on Dairy, Rose and Lily. Sudden, crippling pain brings the unwelcome revelation that, rather than “growing a beautiful baby girl” Steph has ovarian cysts and will be unable to conceive again. The response of everyone around her is that there wasn’t a baby, and thus no need to grieve; Julian takes her to the beach, where he’s laid out a picnic feast par excellence, complete with Krug to toast themselves,and a bouquet of roses, daisies and lilies.
Kirsten is portrayed throughout the book as shallow, self-centred and immature; I was disappointed to have her redeemed in the final pages, by the love of a good man who's inexplicably interested in her. It was almost as though an editor told Parks she couldn't have an unwrapped end, and it didn't fit with the rest of her character arc - had that been the intent all along I think better ground work could have been laid.
Certainly I kept reading About Last Night 'til the end, and it's not a bad choice if you're going on holiday and want something moderately more substantial than your average beach book, but that won't make you work. I just wish there'd been a little less predictability about the whole thing. - Alex