Friday, February 25

Speed of Dark - Elizabeth Moon

Lou Arrendale is a bioinfomatics expert. Though high functioning, he and his colleagues in Section A are also among the last people in Section A to have autism, a condition now corrected in infancy. The autists have tools that help them to manage the effects of their disability, like music rooms and a giant trampoline - when Lou returns from his quarterly psychiatry interview, for example, he spends some time bouncing:
No one interrupts me while I bounce, the strong thrust of the trampoline followed by a weightless suspension makes me feel vast and light. I can feel my mind stretching out, relaxing, even as I keep perfect time with the music. When I feel the concentration returning, and curiosity drives me once more toward my assignment, I slow the bouncing to tiny little baby bounces and swing off the trampoline.
Their new supervisor, Mr Crenshaw, resents what he sees as frivolous and indulgent extras; though Section A boast the highest level of productivity in the unnamed corporation which, through their employment, is able to claim significant charitable tax deductions, he believes the company would be better off with normal employees.
Lou works with abstract symbols, finding patterns and connections invisible to most people. The patterns of human interactions, though, are predominantly mysterious, despite a lifetime of being told how he ought to act and what he ought to do. He knows that Dr Fornum thinks he ought to exchange pleasantries with his co-workers as they wait for dinner, for example, but
we are all, in our own way, settling into the situation. Because of the visit to Dr Fornum, I'm more aware than usual of the details of this process: that Linda is bouncing her fingers on the bowl of her spoon in a complex pattern that would delight a mathematicians as much as it does her...
Unbeknown to Dr Fornum, Lou has also taken up fencing in his recreational time - though not great at interpreting the interpersonal aspects of the sport, he's very good at recognising the patterns of players, and disciplined about his approach. He's also attracted to one of the fencers, Marjory. He doesn't know if she likes him in any special way, but he's interested in finding out.
He's not able to concentrate on this, though, because he's under siege at home (where he's the target of an escalating series of vandalism attacks) and work - Mr Crenshaw has discovered an experimental 'cure' for autism (well, it works on chimps) and is pressuring the autists to enroll.
The title comes from a conversation between Lou and his co-workers over dinner, early in the novel:
"I was wondering about the speed of dark," I say, looking down. They will look at me, if only briefly, when I speak, and I don't want to feel all those gazes.
"It doesn't have a speed," Eric says. "It's just the space where light isn't."
"What would it feel like to eat pizza on a world with more than one gravity?" Linda asks.
"I don't know," Dale says, sounding worried.
"The speed of not knowing," Linda says. I puzzle a moment and figure it out.
"Not knowing expands faster than knowing," I say. Linda grins and ducks her head. "So the speed of dark could be greater than the speed of light. If there always has to be dark around the light, then it has to go out ahead of it."
"I want to go home now," Eric says. Dr Fornum would want me to ask if he's upset. I know he is not upset; if her goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say goodbye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say goodbye in public.
Lou is the purest form of light in the novel - despite his differences in cognitive processing, his motivations are easier to understand and relate to though most of the apparently normal characters in the book. Moon asks us to consider deeply philosophical questions about worth, contribution, difference, normalcy, disability and about the richness of infinite variety. I was reminded, for two reasons, of Sack's Seeing Voices, a non-fiction account of American Deaf culture that had part of me longing to be born Deaf of Deaf parents and that considers the merits of reversing a 'disability' that, to the affected, is no restriction and that has value.
It is perhaps inevitable that I compare Speed of Dark to that other famous autist-perspective novel,
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; they are both well crafted narratives written predominantly in first person by an author who has clearly spent a lot of time talking with people at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and contemplating their thought processes, and common to both books is a mystery that contributes to the drive of the narrative.
Speed of Dark, though, is deep and textured well beyond that. In the Curious Incident Christopher's father has difficulty understanding how his words are literally interpreted; in Speed of Dark Lou and his cohort are surrounded by people driven to normalise them, not for their benefit but to ease societal discomfort, including the discomfort of those supposed to be helping and supporting them - Dr Fornum is, of course, the greatest culprit here, but Lou and his fellow autists have since childhood had experts telling them how they ought to behave, interact and think. Though Lou for the most part accepts this, I found myself becoming angry on his behalf.
Even his safest refuge, fencing class (where the trainer, Tom, not only accepts Lou for himself but supports, nurtures and appreciates him) is tainted by the knowledge that Dr Fornum would disapprove:
I met Marjory at fencing class, not at any of the social events for disabled people that Dr Fornum thinks I should go to. I don't tell Dr Fornum about fencing because she would worry about my violent tendencies, If laser-tag was enough to bother her, long pointed swords would send her into a panic.
There are so many striking, interesting, note-worthy elements in this book that, were I to discuss each time I inserted a flag this review would be almost as long as the novel itself. One of the aspects I flagged most often, apart from the multiple incidences where Lou has been remolded to better fit inside the parameters of 'normal,' is the presence of the neuroscience of autism.
Lou studies neurology and related fields to better understand the trial methodology and technique, discovering in the process not only a lot more about the way his perceptions operation and their similarities to other neurological conditions (like PTSD) but also how expectations of his abilities have directed and restricted his potential.
This is my second reading of Speed of Dark and, if anything, I enjoyed it more than on its 2003 release. I know that Lou is a rare exception, and that for the majority of people with autism this kind of independence of living, thought and employment are never going to be possible. Were an intervention that helped them process sensory cues better
available I would be more conflicted about its use. This, though grounded in reality, is fiction, and it is the best kind - it enhances understanding of ourselves and others, prompts thought and introspection, offers a different perspective, and presents these aspects in a palatable, entertaining, engrossing form. I just wish I could read it again. - Alex

Monday, February 21

Fall Girl - Toni Jordan

Ella Canfield is a slightly nervous evolutionary biologist. Part of her nervousness is because her project is fairly left of centre - she's seeking funds to research the possibility that there are Tasmanian tigers in Wilsons Promontory National Park, Victoria. The last known thylacine died in captivity in 1928, but there have been sightings ever since - Ella's proposal, made to the eccentric and well-funded Metcalf Trust, set up to support unusual scientific projects, is that thylacines may be a Lazarus species - thought extinct but still alive. She's seeking $25,000 to fund a three month project looking at scat, bone fragments and spoor. Though the Trust's administrator, Carmichael, seems sceptical, the person to convince is Daniel Metcalf, the heir of a fortune. Ella knows he's long had an interest in thylacines, and that's not her only unfair advantage.
Because Ella Canfield is fictitious - she's a creation of Della Gilmore, a third-generation con artist chasing the high of her first ever scam some twenty years earlier and desperate for a high-paying scam that will show her family she can do more than penny-ante short-cons. But Della didn't bank on Daniel being more than a superficial rich boy with more dollars than sense, and it might be Della who gets taken for a ride.
I so wanted to love Fall Girl - Jordan's debut novel Addition was excellent, and the topic of grifters (in fiction, at least) appeals to me. But I found virtually every aspect of Fall Girl irritating, from the set up to Della's family to the wholly unbelievable ending.
To take one example - Della's at lest third generation grifter, yet her cousin Timothy (who's somewhat jealous of Daniel) is more focused on his own agenda than this potentially very lucrative (for the whole family) con - his repeated interruptions while she's on the phone to Daniel in character are annoying, unprofessional and unbelievable.
Part were certainly appealing - I enjoyed the scenes setting up for Daniel's visit to Ella's university office, which reminded me of similar executions in Hustle, while other parts reminded me (sadly unfavourably) to the brilliant series Good Guys, Bad Guys, and the occasional line sparkled: "the dresser is white reclaimed timber that was once distressed but is now hysterical."
Overall, though, I was disappointed, but have high hopes for whatever Jordan writes next. - Alex

Saturday, February 19

An Abundance of Katherines - John Green

Early in his life child prodigy Colin fell into a habit that became a defining characteristic - he had an extremely short-lived relationship with a Katherine. Now seventeen, and freshly dumped by his nineteenth and most profoundly meaningful Katherine, Colin faces a turning point. Rapidly reaching the age where 'child prodigy' becomes 'failed to live up to his potential' Colin is obsessed with contributing something meaningful, having a 'Eureka' moment, and perhaps the Katherines can help him. In the break between high school and college Colin and his best friend, Hassan Harbish, take a road trip, wind up in the middle of nowhere, and not only undergo change but help change the lives of those around them.
I'm a little conflicted about An Abundance of Katherines - I enjoyed the ride, but had several issues with the believability of several key elements. Central of these is the improbability of anyone, particularly a teenage boy, being both able to have nineteen relationships (albeit some very short-lived), all with girls named Katherine, and yet be so wholly clueless about appropriate human interactions that he closely abuts having an autism-spectrum disorder:
"Do you sometimes feel like a circle missing a piece?" his dad wondered.
"Daddy, I am not a circle. I am a boy."
And his dad's smile faded just a bit - the prodigy could read, but he could not see. And if only Colin had known he was missing a piece,that his inability to see himself in the story of the circle was an unfixable problem, he might have known that the rest of the world would catch up with him as time passed. To borrow from another story he memorized but didn't really get: if only he'd known that the story of the tortoise and the hare is about more than a tortoise and a hare, he might have saved himself considerable trouble.
His parents might also have wanted to work on that a little.
The writing was in places very powerful - on the same page as the extract above, a young Colin is portrayed trying to interact with his peers in a way that made me cringe with the recollection of a similarly socially inept school mate. If only she'd had a Hassan - he lets Colin clearly know when he's veering off into the realm of the dull with a series of "not interesting" interjections whenever Colin pontificates his way into tedium.
I also found increasingly grating on its every encounter the heavy use of 'fug' (as in 'motherfugger' and 'what the fug..'), a word not
addressed until midway through the novel, when I was heartily sick of it.
By the last third of the novel I was at the point where the use by Green of specifying gender when Colin and Hassan visited a woman in a retirement home jerked me out of the narrative as much as another 'fug' would have.
I'm quite pleased to have added several new words to my vocabulary, though I suspect it'll be some time before I can use abligurition or sillage, I also found the contemplation about the adult lives of gifted children interesting, though not new - borderline gifted at school myself (enough to get placed in the gifted stream, not enough to be started out there) I was surrounded by pushy-parented prodigies.
Colin has a fascination with anagrams I don't share, and though I suspect those who do enjoyed the sections they appeared in, I skipped over them along with the mathematical formulae that evolves through the text. This last section is also discussed in a mathematical epilogue - it was all way over my head, but there's also a link to a fairly accessible Slate article on actual research on relationship formulae, if you're interested.
Despite these aspects, there was much to enjoy in An Abundance of Katherines, from the premise to the character development and the bizarre but often believable world Green's built; that may be why I was particularly
disappointed by the ending, which trailed off. However, I had a similar response to Green's YA novel Paper Towns, so perhaps this is common to his work. - Alex

Thursday, February 17

Kerry Greenwood:Murder on a Midsummer Night + Dead Man's Chest

Murder on a Midsummer Night
From the back of the book-
Melbourne 1929. The year starts off for glamorous private investigator with a rather trying heat wave and more mysteries than you could prod a parasol at. Simultaneously investigating the apparent suicide death of a man on St Kilda beach and trying to find a lost illegitimate child who could be heir to a wealthy old woman's fortune, she needs all her wits about her , particularly when she has to tangle with a group of thoroughly unpleasant bright young things.
But she is a force of nature and takes in her elegant stride what might make others quail. Including terrifying seances, ghosts, kif smokers, the threat of human sacrifices dubious spirit guides and maps to buried pirate treasure.

Dead Man's Chest
From the back of the book-
Travelling at high speed in her beloved car accompanied by her maid and trusted companion Dot, her two adoptive daughters and their dog, Phryne is off to Queeenscliff. She's promised everyone a nice holiday by the sea with absolutely no murders, but when they arrive at their rented accommodation that doesn't seem likely at all.
An empty house, a gang of teenage louts, a fisherboy saved, and the mysery of a missing butler and his wife seem to lead inexorably towards a hunt for buried treasure by the sea. But what information might the curious surrealists be able to contribute? Phryne knows to what depths people will sink for greed but with a glass of champagne in one hand and a pearl handled beretta in the other no one is getting past her.

Greenwood's stories were, as always, a complete delight. I could wax lyrical for hours about the depth of the characters, the development of Phryne, the complexities of plot, the technical skill demonstrated by the writing and so on-take it all as said.
If you're not already familiar with the series, what are you waiting for? Go! Read!-Lynn

For Alex's reviews of Murder on a Midsummer Night and Dead Man's Chest click here and here respectively.

Monday, February 14

Kat Richardson: Greywalker

From the back of the book:
Harper Blaine was slogging along as a small time PI when a two bit perp's savage assault left her dead.
For two minutes, to be precise.
When Harper comes to in the hospital, she begins to feel a bit strange. She sees things that can only be described as weird-shapes emerging from a foggy grey mist, snarling teeth, creatures roaring.
But Harper's not crazy. Her "death" has made her a grey walker able to move between our world and the mysterious crossover zone where things that go bump in the night exist. And her new gift or curse is about to drag her into that world of vampires and ghosts, magic an d witches, necromancers and sinister artifacts...
Whether she likes it or not.
I read this quite a while ago and I remember enjoying it at the time but now I come to review it I find the details escape me. Sadly I cannot distinguish between my memory of the events of this story and those of a dozen or so like it I have read in the past couple of years.
Not standing out amongst the explosion of works in the paranormal/urban fantasy genre isn't necessarily a bad thing. I rend to remember the complete dross of authors I want to avoid at all costs more than those that I liked. And for me it is a rare thing in these overpopulated shelves to come across a real standout.
This is an author I will read again but not one that I've sought out since.-Lynn

Sunday, February 13

Claudia Dain: The Courtesan's Daughter

A woman's infamous past is preventing her daughter from attaining a suitable match. Her pragmatic solution is to buy the girl a husband. She chooses an acceptable man, buys up his substantial debts, then offers him a clean slate if he agrees to her proposal. The daughter is outraged by her mother's action and refuses point blank to marry a man who could be bought for the purpose.
Then she sees him. And wants him. But only if he wants her in return, not her mother's money. And she can see only one way he could prove his devotion. He must be willing to pay for her.
She attempts to set herself up as a courtesan with dramatic consequences. Needless to say, in the end she gets her man.
This was, dare I say it, a genuine romp. A believable, well written romance with plenty of fun along the way. The naivety of the daughter to the realities of her mother's premarital way of life, together with the unglamorous details of the mother's memories of her courtesan days felt true. The hero managed to be heroic in spite of his less than ideal situation.
Sure, this is no accurate portrait of social history but let go and enjoy a frolic with this novel twist on the historical romance genre.

Friday, February 11

Angela Knight: Jane's Warlord

A time travelling serial killer is on the loose in a small town with a genetically engineered warrior hot on his trail. Knowing he has only days before the next murder, he decides to set a trap for his quarry, using the historically recorded next victim as bait.
But he doesn't expect to have such strong feelings for the victim, let alone that those feelings would be returned. He must convince her of his identity and mission and enlist her help if they both are to have nay chance of stopping a madman and surviving. But history says she died. Should he change that even if he can? What would be the consequences?
Naturally all is resolved successfully and they get a happy ever after, way after, three hundred years into the future.
Generally I like time travel as a plot device and I enjoy romance so this should have been a winner, sadly it didn't live up to its potential.
I got a strong "Terminator" vibe all the way through that had me feeling like I'd seen it all done bigger and better before. The characters, plot, the whole story really, felt thin and second hand which is a shame because occasional glimpses made me think the author has the talent to deliver better. This story needed to be bigger than a romance and the hero more than a knight in shining armour. Fleshing out the moral dilemmas of time travel would have been a good start.
Overall a bit disappointing because I could see so clearly what might have been.-Lynn

Wednesday, February 9

Jane Rule: Against the Season

The death of an elderly woman sends quiet ripples throughout her tiny community. Her sister copes with her loss by reading her sibling's diaries. Her shy grandnephew, sent to assist his surviving great aunt, learns courage from their pregnant and unwed housekeeper. A couple of lonely middle-aged friends turn to each other for comfort and are finally able to admit to wanting something more. An elderly couple throw caution and public opinion to the winds in order to be together. And the reclusive town butch is courted publicly by a very determined social worker.
It has been months since I read this and my memories of it are warm, almost affectionate.
As is the nature of Literature very little actually happens within the pages of this book but it is so deftly written that I barely noticed.
This is really a character study examining how people of various ages, experiences and inclinations react to love in all its forms. The characters slowly and gently unfold to the reader, beautiful in their complete ordinariness.
Well worth the effort if you're in the mood for mellow.-Lynn

Monday, February 7

Paper Towns - John Green

Eighteen-year-old Quentin has always had a mild crush on his neighbour Margo - once close, their paths diverged when they were eight and discovered the body of a man in a nearby park, for while Q was apprehensive, freaked and concerned about zombies, Margo Roth Spiegleman was invigorated. Ten years later, Margo Roth Speigelman appears at his bedroom window, like she used to, encouraging him to join her on a midnight adventure. There wasn't any question that he wouldn't do what she said, and though Q doesn't really understand most of what they're doing, he has more fun, mixed with more terror, than he can ever remember having before.
The next day Q's convinced that he and Margo Roth Speigelman have a future, of some kind. When she doesn't show at school he figures she's tired from the adventure of the previous night. But Margo's gone.
Paper Towns is in part about Q's search for Margo Roth Spiegelman, but it's also a coming-of-age novel about his search for himself, and his dawning discovery that who people are and our perceptions of them are very different things - a journey in which Walt Whitman's Song of Myself plays an integral role.
There are many things I really enjoyed about Paper Towns, from Q's clueless psychologist parents (who "generally believed that I was the most well-adjusted ... person on the planet, since my psychological well-being was proof of their professional talents") to the epic roadtrip Q, his best friends Radar and Ben, and Margo Roth Spiegelman's former friend Lacey. Mostly, though, I liked the lovely lines and valuable passages strewn through the novel, like Radar's insight that
You know what your problem is, Quentin? You keep expecting people to not be themselves. I mean, I could hate you for being massively unpunctual and never being interested in anything except Margo Roth Spiegelman, and, for, like, never asking me about how it's going with my girlfriend - but I don't give a shit, man, because you're you.
Or the observation that "Talking to a drunk person [when you're sober] was like talking to an extremely happy, severely brain-damaged three-year-old." Or Margo's statement that
That's always seemed so ridiculous to me, that people would wwant to be around someone because they're pretty. It's like picking your breakfast cereal based on color instead of taste.
Although, as a believer in random capitalisation (because "the rules of capitalisation are so unfair to words in the middle") she and I will forever be at odds.
The title, incidentally, comes from a copyrighting trap of map creators, which is only one of many interesting trivialities Paper Towns furnished me with.
Despite all these elements in its favour, I did close Paper Towns with a slight sense of anticlimax, though a happy-ever-after ending would have run counter to the whole premise of the novel. I suspect that, though I enjoyed the ride, some of that was because the characters, particularly the protagonists, are far more self-aware and perceptive than feels credible, though perhaps I'm just not spending enough time with young adults. I also have a copy of Green's YA novel An Abundance of Katherines, and hope for more joy with that. - Alex

Saturday, February 5

Ellen Hart: Hallowed Murder

Although a young woman's death is ruled a suicide her sorority sisters are certain she was murdered. They request the help of their alumnae adviser to uncover the truth. Together with her best friend, the woman begins to search for clues to what actually happened. She soon discovers the women are right. There is a killer on the loose and she must risk everything to stop them before they kill again.
I read this back in November 2010 and already the finer details escape me.
I remember thinking that the main characters were well rounded and their lesbianism delicately and realistically handled. I have no particular strong recollections of the mystery itself, so I can only assume it was reasonably well written with twists not signposted too well in advance. The identity of the murderer seems quite obvious to me now but I can't honestly say whether that is attributable to hindsight or not.
I recall enjoying the story at the time but not so much that I've been inspired to track down the author's other works.-Lynn