Tuesday, May 31

All Clear – Connie Willis

Post-graduate Oxford historians Michael, Merope and Polly have travelled to 1940 to complete their research. They were prepared for contingencies, and were given a lot of background prior to their journeys, but being stuck wasn’t a possibility and of them had contemplated. As window after window fails to open the likelihood of them getting home becomes ever more remote, particularly as the dates of previous trips to the past approach – nobody can be in the same time twice. And Polly has a greater concern – even though it should be impossible, their presence seems to be altering events, potentially changing the outcome of the War and history itself.
Far less a sequel than the second part of an enormous story (the novels combines total almost 1,200 pages), All Clear picks up directly where Blackout left off. This is an ambitious and complex return to the universe first encountered in The Doomsday Book, and is characterised by many of the same trademarks, most notably a breathless, pervasive sense of urgency. In The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, the previous novels set in this universe, I found myself swept up in the emotion – Willis has an amazing ability to recreate that feeling so often encountered in dreams of being in a tearing hurry but beset on all sides by people and events seemingly intent on delay and derailment.
This time, however, perhaps because of the length of time over which it has to be sustained, I found myself becoming impatient with it. And instead had a far stronger feeling of irritation. That said, Willis does this time include a reason for it, though this itself opens the door to some interesting questions about inevitability, free will, self-correction, randomness and sentience.
There are several interwoven narratives, and the setting jumps from year to year, so the opening chapter set in “London – 26 October 1940” is followed by “London – 7 May 1945” and is then interspersed between “Bethnal Green – June 1944”, “Kent – April 1944” and “Golders Green – June 1944” among others. Combining this darting timeline with a host of character, including the historians adopting different personas, meant that I eventually gave up on trying to keep track and decided to be swept along by the story. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it did mean I ended up missing some of the nuances and detail.
While I enjoyed Willis’ homage to Jerome K Jerome’s classic Three Men in a Boat in To Say Nothing of the Dog, I found the unexplained references to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the 1944 scenes set in Kent irritating – as well as Earnest there’s an Algernon, a Chasuble, Gwendolyn, Moncrieff, Cess, Prism, Merriman and Lady Bracknell; though I originally enjoyed the allusion, after several encounters it was just irritating.
It may well be that this was explained in Blackout, but I read that perhaps the better part of a year ago, and though I was able to pick up enough of it for All Clear to make sense, there’s a lot of information to carry over. It would, perhaps, have been better for me to read the two parts back to back, or at least in close chronological proximity, but that didn’t happen. I appreciate that Willis wanted to include a myriad of detail about this clearly well researched era, as well as the several individual stories, and for the most part this paid off. But there were certainly times where I wanted some heavier editing.
There are several touches I very much enjoyed, primarily to do with the evacuated children – from Alf and Binnie Hodbin tearaways to a quote from a letter in 1940:

There are six evacuated children in our house. My wife and I hate them so much that we’ve decided to take away something for Christmas.
I also liked the ending, which was a little messier and organic than most fiction completions, and I look forward to the release of another novel set in this universe, which I very much enjoy. I just hope that, should Willis continue the series, she returns to the slightly more straightforward plots of the first novels. - Alex

Sunday, May 29

Hell to Heaven – Kylie Chan

Australian Emma Donahoe, nanny turned wife of Xuan Wu, absent god of the Northern Heavens, would have her hands full with any of her many tasks – managing the training academy, running John’s empire while waiting his return, raising his teenage daughter Simone, and fending off the advances (personal and political) of the Demon King and his competitive progeny. She has to juggle not only all these demands but also her own demon nature – as if discovering she was part snake were not enough, contamination with demon essence presents the very really danger that Emma may become wholly demon.
Her quests to uncover the reasons for this, undo it, and discover who (or what) she really is, form the driving narrative of the second in Chan’s Journey to Wudang trilogy, Hell to Heaven. It continues the story started in the Dark Heavens novels, and like the previous four novels blends a combination of contemporary sensibilities with ancient lore – in both cases primarily Eastern but with a little Western flavour (primarily Australian) added to the mix.
Though engaging and intelligent, this is not a light or easily accessible series, and if the books are read out of order or elements forgotten the plot could easily become unintelligible. This is certainly not to say that Chan’s writing is oblique, just that the subject matter and the plot are layered and complex.
As I read I noted several passages I wanted to include in my review – the role of ‘calling’ in preventing consanguinity; the lure of Emma’s other nature; Emma’s Archivist experiences looking at indigenous Australian records; the concept of Celestial High school; the unexpected results when the uninformed but well-intentioned (and determined) act – but they all turned out to be too difficult to include without having to explain half the book, because it is so much of a piece. Instead I give you this snippet:

It sounded too much like a Druidic sacrifice ritual, which was very disturbing. Druids had been nature-loving tree-huggers, yes; but they’d also disemboweled people and used their own intestines to tie them still alive, as sacrifices to the trees they worshipped.

I look forward to the final part of the Journey to Wudang trilogy but hope it will conclude the story, rather than being a springboard for a third trilogy. Thus far Chan has managed to keep the central plot, of Xuan Wu’s return and Emma’s growth, at the heart of the narrative. I would hate to see that diluted. – Alex

The Dark Heavens Trilogy:
1. White Tiger

2. Red Phoenix
3. Blue Dragon
The Journey to Wudang trilogy:
1. Earth to Hell
2. Hell to Heaven
3. Heaven to Earth

Friday, May 27

Dead Reckoning – Charlaine Harris

We last left mind-reading waitress/vampire sheriff’s wife Sookie Stackhouse recovering from the fae war that saw most of her fairy relatives either dead or separated from the mortal realm, with trouble brewing on two fronts - an internal vampire power struggle, and the consequences of the two-natured 'coming out' to humanity.
This may have been problematic enough, but Sookie has other issues to juggle – two of her fairy kin are staying with her, and though she delights in their presence she can also feel herself becoming more fae, which concerns her. Former housemate and witch Amelia may have a way to dissolve the bond between Sookie and Eric, which would allow her to decide how she real feels about her husband, but it’s not a decision without cost. She’s also concerned about whatever t is Eric’s hiding from her – something she can tell his 2IC Pam knows about. Her first lover, Bill, has relationship issues, and Sookie’s not at all sure that her shifter boss (and dearest friend) Sam’s girlriend Jannalynn’s good for him. But first up is a Molotov cocktail attack on Merlott’s, the bar Sam owns and at which Sookie works – is it aimed at Sam and the two-natured, or is it something closer to home?
As I've mentioned several times before, each instalment in this series is more convoluted than the last, and though Harris does a good job of keeping the various strands coherent and intelligible I find myself increasingly weary of the plot devices, massive cast and ever-tenser drama.
I did very much enjoy the reappearance of Hunter, the mind-reading son of Sookie’s deceased cousin, and though he had only a brief guest spot I was also glad to see werewolf Alcide again, and Bubba’s one of Harris’s most tender characters, who was used with care. In fact, for the most part I do enjoy spending time in Harris’s world, but I find myself paying less attention with each book to tracking the character arcs and the numerous persons who threaten Sookie and her entourage. Otherwise spending time here diminishes in escapist quality and becomes more like work. This is definitely a series to read in order, and with a little time between adventures. - Alex

Saturday, May 21

61 Hours – Lee Child

A random accident on a snowy bridge in the middle of South Dakota sees traveller Jack Reacher stranded with an elderly tour group and a shocked driver. In the midst of two approaching snow storms all the tow trucks sixty miles in either direction are caught up, and the only nearby shelter is the small town of Bolton. Most of the town is reliant on the recently opened jail; the contract was contested, and came with a number of non-negotiable conditions, chief among which was the requirement that, in the event of a jailbreak, all officers in town must attend until stood down.
When Reacher learns that there’s a witness under protection in the town, and that a lawyer’s been shot in the head in his car, he suspects an attempt to kill the witness before she can testify. Though he doesn’t know it, there’s a clock running – he’s got less than three days to stop a murder.
And we’re reminded of that clock at every opportunity. Done more subtly I think this would have added to the suspense, but I became increasingly irritated by the ending or opening of almost every chapter reiterating the countdown - the first lines of the book are
“Five minutes to three in the afternoon.
Exactly sixty-one hours before it happened.
And that was fine, setting the scene. But then we have page twelve:
Five minutes to four in the afternoon. Sixty hours to go.
The end of chapter two:
Five minutes to five in the afternoon. Fifty-nine hours to go.
The end of chapter three:
Five to eight in the evening. Fifty-six hours to go.
Page forty-seven:
Five minutes to ten in the evening. Fifty-four hours to go.
The end of chapter six:
Five minutes to eleven in the evening. Fifty-three hours to go.
Page 71 (and a small variation):
The clock on the refrigerator ticked on and hot five to midnight. Fifty-two hours to go.
And so on – four more times in the next twenty pages, and another thirty-two times (unless I missed one) before we get to “Twenty-seven minutes past three in the morning. Twenty-eight minutes to go.”
And then we have another two updates before:
Five minutes to four in the morning. Sixty-one hours gone.
61 Hours is supposed to be a novel of significance on the Reacher series, with a cliff-hanger ending and a twist, because the countdown isn’t to what we expect. There’s even a twist in the hook-up aspect that’s de rigueur in the series, because Reacher’s potential bed mate isn’t even in the same state.
As is often the case in the Reacher novels, the initial issue is only the introduction to a far bigger situation, and in the case of 61 Hours it’s a pretty big scenario, with roots going back to WW2, and an almost believable premise.

However, the impact of the twist, the force of the shock ending, was almost wholly diminished for me by the monotonous countdown. Not only did it occur with tedious regularity but, like a series of 24, every update occurred at five minutes to the hour. Except for the three updates within the final hour, page forty gave the only break in the monotony: “Twenty-five past nine in the evening. Fifty-four and a half hours to go.”
Okay, fine, ratchet up the tension with a ticking clock, but a little variety and a little less tick-tick-tick would have been more effective and less distracting. Though that wasn’t my only issue with 61 Hours, it was my biggest.
Others included the fact that I also got ahead of Reacher a couple of times, when it came to the location of a key, and the identity of a mole; in the first case I got there over fifty pages ahead of him, and I wasn’t looking for an answer.

But back to the count down. Frankly, by the time of the big boom finale I didn’t really care any more. Worse, when I closed the book my sense was relief rather than suspense about where to from here for Reacher.
And that’s a shame. Though I’ve found a number of the Reacher plots to be a little far-fetched, I think they’re generally great escapist action novels that repay a willing suspension of disbelief with strong story telling and satisfying conclusions – the wrong are punished, the righteous rewarded, the right upheld, there’s a little non-graphic sheet action, and our archetype strolls off into the sunset as footloose as he began.
When 61 Hours was released there was the promise of a sequel, as Jack Reacher’s story was to be continued. I certainly found the least-sequelly-sequel-ever next instalment a return to the Reacher I enjoy, and it’s reviewed here. - Alex

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

Wednesday, May 18

PC and Kristin Cast: Betrayed

From the back of the book-

Fledgling vampyre Zoey Redbird has managed to settle in at the House of Night finishing school. She finally feels like she belongs, even gets chosen as the Leader of the Dark Daughters. Best of all, she actually has a boyfriend...or two. Then the unthinkable happens: Human teenagers are being killed, and all the evidence points to the House of Night. While danger stalks the humans from Zoey's old life, she begins to realilze that the very powers that make her so unique might also threaten those she loves. Then, when she needs her new friends the most, death strikes the House of Night, and Zoey must find the courage to face a betrayal that could break her heart, her soul, and jeopardize the very fabric of her world.
I had high hopes for this series. The first book, Marked, was great. A fresh, new twist on the young adult dark fantasy genre, it had great promise. Sadly with this second instalment it fails to deliver.
The first 50 or so pages are basically a recap of events from the first novel, which was nice for those of us with poor memories-putting my hand up to that on-but that's about the best thing I can say for this story
The little things that irritated me in the first book have not been ironed out in the second. In fact, they have been magnified and placed centre stage. It would be easy to sit and list every tiny thing that didn't work but I'll limit myself to what I found to be tied for worst.

1. The "twins" that aren't related. I get it. It's like they're the same person only not, oh yeah, and one's black and the other's white. These two don't need names because they refer to each other as "twin" constantly. The most attached of real twins don't even do that
2. The "vampyre" rituals that are basically lifted from witchcraft. Fom the casting of circles to the use of "merry meet" and "blessed be" there's a very strong homage to wicca. It just feels lazy. If you want this lot to be witches then make them witches, otherwise make up some original rites.
3. Add to this the lack of character development, the three
(unbelievable and innappropriate) love interests and quite possibly the worst dialogue ever written and you've lost a keen reader.
What a waste of potential! At least the book was well named. Betrayed is exactly how I felt.-Lynn

Wednesday, May 4

Jesse Petersen: Married with Zombies

From the back of the book-

Meet Sarah and David
Once upon a time they met and fell in love. But now
they're on the verge of divorce and going to couples' counselling. On a routine trip to their counselor, they notice a few odd things-the lack of cars on the highway, the missing security guard, and the fact that their counselor, Dr. Kelly, is ripping out her previous client's throat.
Meet the Zombies
Now Sarah and David are fighting for survival in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. But just because there are zombies doesn't mean your other problems go away. If the zombies don't eat their brains, they might just kill each other.

This book was exactly what I expected it to be-light-hearted fun, with very little substance, the perfect beach read. I did find that the zombie killing got a little repetitive and the main characters were a trifle naive . I'm not saying most people are prepared for the zombie apocalypse but this pair do some truly stupid things, though they do, at least, learn from their mistakes.
The story is told as a kind of retrospective narrative, which allows for a few amusing asides to slip in but it means the main character's voice is hard right from the start. It would have been nice to get more of a sense of character growth from ordinary housewife to zombie killer
These though are minor quibbles. After all this is pulp fiction.
This is very obviously the first in a series, and though I enjoyed it I have no particular interest in following on. If you've read about one zombie killing, you've read them all.
Keep literary expectations low and enjoy a romantic comedy with a unique twist.-Lynn