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

Friday, September 2

A River in the Sky – Elizabeth Peters

The nineteenth in the Amelia Peabody series, about a pair of British Egyptologists and their growing family of blood and choice set in the first decades of the twentieth century. A River in the Sky and moves us back in time to 1910, before the production of grandchildren, but with the shadow of the Great War looming. Though Egypt is where Amelia and archaeologist husband Emerson’s hearts lie, they are persuaded to go to Palestine in pursuit of the inept Morley, who is hell-bent on discovering the Ark of the Covenant.
I do wish I could do justice the complicated, beautifully crafted, eminently readable world Peters has crafted – I like the setting, but i love the characters, particularly the relationships between Peabody and Emerson, and between them and Ramses. Sadly, in no small part because my reading pace has far exceeded the pace of my reviews, I have only a few fragments of specific memory from which to reconstruct a cohesive whole.
Emerson is, it will surprise nobody familiar with him, atheist, and his vehemence about the tissue of lies that comprises the Old Testament is profound. The opening pages also provide the first time, to my recollection, that Peabody has been mistaken, albeit in an area where the truth is only recently known; she says that:
If it is history you want, you had better skip on to the books of Kings and Chronicles. The historical validity of Exodus has been much debated – no, Emerson, I do not care to debate it now – but the lives of the kings of Israel and Judah are based on solid historical evidence.
Or made out of whole cloth.
I do admire the way Peters has created characters who, like Greenwood’s Phryne, have modern attitudes while retaining compatibility with their own era, rather than being contemporary characters in a historical setting.
As in, I think, all the novels featuring Ramses of age, the first-person Peabody narrative is intertwined with extracts from Manuscript H (because the series are presented as the publications of contemporary journals) that let us know what he’s up to in the absence of his parents. I found myself a little distracted on this occasion by who might have authored them in this scenario, which hasn’t previously troubled me, but that quickly passed as I became more fully emerged in the narrative.
I think the finest of this series is the first three books, and though there is enough context for the new reader to pick the series up at any point, I would strongly recommend beginning with Crocodile on the Sandbank to get the most out of the depth and richness of this quite lovely series. - Alex