August 22

Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders

A few weeks ago I reviewed the second book in this series. It isn’t often that I actually part with cash for a book because publishers keep me very busy, but this one I bought and even put it at the top of the reading list as a treat.

This time Oscar is late for a meeting, and arrives to find the room lit with candles and a dead body in the middle. Severely shaken, Oscar retreats to consider his next move, and when he finally decides what is to be done, he returns to the room to find it empty. Has there been a murder? Was the whole incident simply a result of an over-active imagination?

This is the first book in the Oscar Wilde series and as such it’s purpose is to establish characters. Brandreth is not as concerned with keeping the plot moving as he is determined to demonstrate that a historical figure of Wilde’s fame can truly be considered a likely detective.

I found this book considerably slower than the second in the series. I wanted the story to flow as brilliantly as the next. And I also felt the murderer and the motive were unnecessarily controversial. We all know that Wilde was gay at a time when it was seriously illegal. So why on earth did Brandreth feel it necessary to lay it on quite so thick?

August 22

Left to die by Lisa Jackson

Sometimes it seems that I get to review a lot of first time authors. However, from her bibliography page on her website, Lisa Jackson is an accomplished and popular author well experienced in producing suspense novels with just a touch of romance.

In this book a serial killer is loose in Montana, one state in the US that still has vast wilderness areas. This killer is regularly shooting out the tires of a car driven by a woman on a lonely mountain road, ‘rescuing’ the victim and holding her in an isolated cabin until she is partially healed, then tying her to a tree naked, leaving her to die from exposure. A team of detectives/FBI and others are working desperately to find this man. Enter Jillian Rivers, her tire is shot, she is rescued and she is even tied to a tree, but her rescuer is for real. Gradually they fall in love. The police agree that Jillian’s attacker is a copycat seem at a loss to find even the impostor.

This was a very effective thriller. The characters work, the plot is interesting with enough twists to keep the pages turning, and even the romance is conceivable. I will admit to thoroughly enjoying the read, right until the very end. But the story stopped so suddenly that it almost seemed like the publisher had a word count limit that could not be breached. Then why on earth were there 10 blank pages at the end. Was my copy incomplete? Or are the readers expected to wait for 12-18 months for a sequel.

My advice, wait a year before starting this. And make sure you have the sequel in your possession before you even start. Left to die? more like Left Hanging…

August 17

The Host by Stephanie Meyer

I was very happy to receive a review copy of this very popular novel. Certainly the library copy has proven very popular with the senior girls, and I was curious about what all the excitement was about. The girls all told me it was different from the Twilight series, but just as good.

The plot is certainly not original. SciFi fans, especially those familiar with the popular Stargate TV series will know exactly what I mean when I say the subtitle could easily be ‘from Goa’uld to Tok’ra. For those non-scifi fans, let me explain.

Wanderer is a member of a parasitic race referred to as ‘soul’. Physically he resembles a complex wormlike being that directly attaches to the brainstem of the victim and replaces the personality. These aliens have made a practice of moving through the universe taking the places of the ruling species, be it plant or animal, on each planet. However, Mel, the human Wanderer has taken will not go away. Her fighting spirit keeps her in Wanderer’s head and influences Wanderer’s response to this world. Mel forces Wanderer to find Mel’s lover and brother who are both still living free. Gradually Mel and Wanderer learn to co-exist, each appreciating the best qualities of the other.

This book is really examining the philosophical question trying to identify the critical element that sets humans apart from all other species. This is a common theme in scifi literature, and in many ways The Host is simply a minor contribution to that vast library. However, I believe this is an important contribution simply because of Meyer’s fan base. It is a very rare thing for a girl of any age to be seen reading scifi. If this book serves to introduce the ‘Gossip Girl’ fans to speculative fiction, I can only cheer.

However, hard-core scifi readers be warned. I found the book incredibly slow and boring for about 100 pages. About the time that Wanderer became Wanda, suddenly I was involved. And there were still over 500 pages to enjoy.

 

August 17

The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

Thank you to Gollancz for their practice of republishing classic scifi and fantasy works. In this way they are keeping alive many wonderful books that would quickly be forgotten. The Broken Sword was originally published at about the same time as Tolkien’s LOR. This edition maintains the exact typesetting of the original, which may appear strange to some modern readers. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The book is one of Anderson’s fantasy works. It is set in Danelaw England during the time of the Viking invasions. This was an age when the magical and mystical interacted with the real world. Orm the Viking has decided to settle in the Danelaw and take an English wife. Through a series of misadventures, his eldest son is stolen by the King of the Elves and replaced with an evil changeling. This story is about the eventual battle for dominance between the two ‘brothers’ that involves the whole of England, Scandinavia and even large portions of Europe.

This book is written in the style of a Norse saga. As you read each chapter, close your eyes and imagine the village storyteller telling the tale through long winter nights. Each chapter has it’s own story and most of them are fairly short. Once the battles begin, though, there would be many late nights as the action unfolded.

Anderson is far better known for his classic ‘golden age’ scifi. Wikipedia goes on about his political, moral and literary themes. The Broken Sword is simply great storytelling, possibly based on Anderson’s own ancestral origins. My next question is..’Did the saga continue?’

August 6

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I met Neil Gaiman at a conference a couple months ago and I have been eager to read this book ever since. Finally I managed to get my hands on it.

On the surface the story seems very typical. A family has recently moved house. Mother and Father are too busy with their own projects to spend any time with their only daughter, and so she finds her own amusement. She considers herself an explorer, and spends her time exploring every nook and cranny of the house and immediate neighborhood. She meets the sisters next door and the man upstairs with the mouse circus. But mostly she is fascinated by the locked cupboard. And then she finds the key …

This is a very interesting book. It is certainly a horror for children, but the age of the children intended as audience is a little hard to pick. Coraline is only in primary school behaves accordingly. But I am a little uncomfortable about the level of violence and horror for primary children. The Victorian Premier’s Reading Challenge has graded it for years 7 and 8, and I think that is about right. Certainly the book’s popularity is at that level.

 

August 6

In the Dark by Mark Billingham

 Apparently Mark Billingham is a well known author of mystery novels, but this is a departure from his normal series. I haven’t read any of his normal series, but if this is typical of his style, they must be very stark and realistic.

This book begins with a random drive-by shooting, or that’s what it appears. A gang initiation requires one young man to fire a gun into a car chosen by his friends. The frightened driver loses control of the car and drives into a group of pedestrians waiting for a bus. One is killed.

The dead man happens to be a cop, and his pregnant girlfriend is even more determined than the rest of the police to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. Using a mix of careful police work, and the contacts she maintains with his friends to work out what happened.

This is a wonderfully crafted novel with many layers of complexity. Nothing is exactly as it appears. In many ways the young shooter is one of the more sympathetic characters in the book. But the story is well structured and the solution is not too extreme.

This is truly a frightening book about senseless violence, directionless youth, and a society totally dedicated to personal gain. But it is a very good read and will certainly give you plenty to think about as you read it.

August 4

The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth is an accomplished author of fantasy fiction for both adults and children. This book is the first in a series of six books set in the time of Cromwell and the Puritans.

The main characters are two Romany children whose family has hidden for years within one of the Great Forests, but venture out briefly in order to trade for supplies. The family are arrested by the pastor and imprisoned while they await execution. Luke and Emilia escape arrest and are sent on a quest to collect 6 charms, one from each of the Romany families. Together the 6 charms will help their family escape.

However, the children cannot travel undetected. Their entourage includes a horse, a dog, a dancing bear and a monkey. This troup inevitably attract attention as they travel around.

The first book in the series is simply setting up the tale. Collecting the first charm is easy because Maggie’s grandmother gives it to her as she sends her off on the quest.

I am reading the series in order to determine what age level is most appropriate. There have been questions raised about some of the later books. Certainly this first in the series is very gentle.

August 4

Bandit Roads by Richard Grant

Technically this is an information book, but in reality it is an adventure travel guide, or travel advisory.

Richard Grant has a fascination for Mexico, especially the Sierra Madre mountains. He is determined to see them regardless of threat to life and limb. Before he begins he finds and interviews several Americans who have spent time there. They all give him the same advice. 1. Never travel alone. 2. Learn to ride a horse because you cannot depend on motor vehicles in the wilderness.

Grant heads off in a new Toyota SUV. You see, he doesn’t like horses. However, he does start off with company. But it isn’t too long before he is off on his own with the simple protection of a few popular names to drop as necessary. The other alteration to his immediate plans is that instead of traveling through the mountains north to south or east to west, he ends up following contacts around a district and then moving on to another district.

This book gives a fascinating insight into the modern version of the lawless west. It seems that the Sierra Madres are the new agricultural base for the marijuana and narcotics industry serving the US. There are very few lawmen and those that do exist are usually corrupt. Grant must have a very warm confident personality that others find interesting, and as a result his book is filled with real people.

This is also a cautionary tale. When I began to read about his final trip I began to wonder how on earth he was going to travel down the east side of the mountains, cross them and then half-way up the coast to meet his next contact, all in less than 50 pages. The reason became clear very quickly.

This book is a very good read. It gives the reader a rare look at one of the truly wild areas of the modern world and the trip is worth the time.