Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Single White Vampire by Lynsay Sands

Author: Lynsay Sands
ISBN # 0505525526

Publisher: Love Spell

First Published: 2003

369 pages

Rating: 7/10

The Blurb:
When the biographies of his relatives are mistaken for romances, vampire Lucern finds his life thrown into entertaining chaos as the newest editor of Romance at Roundhouse Publishing makes it her mission to transform him into a bestselling author, and steals his immortal heart in the process.

The Review:
There was recently a bit of a debate on The Book Club Forum on the subject of the entire Romance Genre and how there’s a general perception that they’re all Mills and Boon-type bodice-rippers, full of heaving bosoms and quivering members, which can be rather off-putting to modern women who feel they want more Sex and the City than Romp in the Hay. There’s also a bit of a boom in supernatural chick-lit, and vampire chick-lit in particular seems to be peaking recently, so it was only a matter of time before a slew of vampire-romances came to the fore.

Surprisingly, SWV is a lot of fun and, as a romance, it certainly has bite (please, forgive the punning – it’s utterly unavoidable in such cases!). Sands has a great sense of humour that shines through, but adds enough no-nonsense titillation to keep the most ardent romantic happy. It also explores the very real possibility of having to give up absolutely everything (i.e. your family, your job, etc) in order to gain things such as love and almost-eternal life – there’s a real dilemma there that we’re often not really expected to broach in many other vampire love stories and it makes a nice change to have this injection of realism in out-and-out fantasy.

Seeing as this is actually the first in a series, I may even be tempted to give the others a bit of a nibble…

The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo

Author: Jenny Nimmo
ISBN # 1405211385

Publisher: Egmont

First Published: 1986

122 pages

Rating: 9/10

The Blurb:
On his ninth birthday, Gwyn is given a brooch and told to cast it into the wind. Later he discovers the wind has sent something back: The snow spider. So begins Gwyn's journey as a magician. Against the shimmering backdrop of a magical domed city, Gwyn has to battle evil and heal a fractured family. A spine-tingling trilogy of stories, full of magic and power.

The Review:
Sometimes, when you revisit a book you read and loved as a child, you find it a disappointment; you become completely disenchanted when it doesn’t live up to your memories. Twenty years ago, I read the first book in The Snow Spider trilogy and was completely captivated by everything on the pages.

Nothing has changed.

This was every bit as wonderful as I remembered it being – the story of a young boy who discovers what it means to be a little different, a little removed, and has to suffer the consequences when he does things wrong, is still as thrilling and magical as it was when I read it as a ten-year-old. It barely dates at all – in fact, apart from a brief mention of records being played rather than CDs is the only thing that betrays the fact this wasn’t written yesterday.

The Snow Spider is one of those rare books that will surely stand as a modern children’s classic and still be loved by children in generations to come. If you haven’t read it yourself, find yourself a small child to read to and immerse yourself, or hide in a corner and read to yourself. Whatever you do, just read it – you won’t regret it or forget it!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda

Author: Sayo Masuda (Translated from Japanese by G. G. Rowley)
ISBN # 0099462044

Publisher: Vintage

First Published: 1957 (Translation: 2003)

186 pages

Rating: 7/10

The Blurb:
Sayo Masuda's story is an extraordinary portrait of rural life in Japan and an illuminating contrast to the fictionalised lives of glamorous geishas. At the age of six Masuda's poverty-stricken family sent her to work as a nursemaid. At the age of twelve, she was indentured to a geisha house. In "Autobiography of the Geisha", Masuda chronicles a harsh world in which young women faced the realities of sex for sale and were deprived of their freedom and identity. She also tells of her life after leaving the geisha house, painting a vivid panorama of the grinding poverty of rural life in wartime Japan. Many years later Masuda decided to tell her story. Although she could barely read or write she was determined to tell the truth about life as a geisha and explode the myths surrounding their secret world. Remarkable frank and incredibly moving, this is the record of one woman's survival on the margins of Japanese society.

The Review:
Having read several other “Geisha” books, I already had something with which to make a comparison and this autobiography is starkly different from the others. The style is much simpler, having being written by a woman who was almost completely illiterate when she first committed her life to the page in order to submit it to a magazine in the hopes of winning the much-needed prize money. This seems to be quite a faithful translation, as the simplicity shines through on every page and there is an honesty attached to every word that makes this quite striking as well as moving.

The harsh reality of life in the “Flower and Willow” world is that women were seen purely as objects, there for the entertainment of those who could afford them; starved of genuine affection and struggling to make ends meet when they were finally freed from the life of a Geisha.

Autobiography also differs in that it focuses less on the training experiences, and more on personal experiences of Masuda – it’s not pretty and, at times, difficult to read, but very much worth it as a story of hope and survival.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Author: Zoë Heller
ISBN # 0670914061
Publisher: Viking
First Published: 2003
244 pages
Rating: 5/10

The Blurb:
When the new teacher first arrives, Barbara immediately senses that this woman will be different from the rest of her staff-room colleagues. But Barbara is not the only one to feel that
Sheba is special, and before too long Sheba is involved in an illicit affair with a pupil. Barbara finds the relationship abhorrent, of course, but she is the only adult in whom Sheba can properly confide. So when the liaison is found out and Sheba's life falls apart, Barbara is there...

The Review:
According to the note on the front cover, Notes on a Scandal was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, however, I really can’t see why.

When the basis of the plot is an middle-aged female teacher becoming embroiled in a relationship with one of the 15-year-old boys in her class, you expect something a bit risqué, perhaps a little tantalising, somehow sensationalist in its approach; but this is nothing of the kind. In fact, the one work I could really use to describe it all is “dull”.

There were no remotely likeable characters to be seen – Sheba was naïve, selfish and incredibly stupid; Barbara was just plain odious – a creepy, immature, stalker-type hanger-on who insinuates herself into the lives of those she chooses as her “friends” to the exclusion of all others in order to make herself feel important. This could have been in interesting foray into obsession, but it was just too boring – in fact, I barely made it to the end. It had so much promise but utterly failed to deliver.

To be perfectly honest, this was my second attempt at this book and I wouldn’t have bothered revisiting it at all if it hadn’t been chosen as this month’s reading circle for discussion. I found it pretty pointless and a real chore to plough through. There is no way I will ever read any of Heller’s other work, even if it gets picked for a reading circle – I’ll just pass thanks.

Oracle by Ian Watson

Author: Ian Watson
ISBN # 0575602260
First Published: 1997
287 pages
Rating: 8/10

The Blurb:
When Tom Ryan stops his car late at night on a dark road for a man dressed as a Roman Centurion, his first thought is that he's picked up one of those amateur re-enactors... but the man, Marcus Appius Silvanus, appears to speak only Latin. He insists the year is AD60 and that the British Queen is Boudicca - and that he and his men of the Fourteenth Gemina are in hot pursuit of her.

Tom and his sister Mary shelter the Roman, but inadvertently attract the attention of an unscrupulous journalist. He's not the only one interested in the Ryans: An IRA terrorist who was once Mary's lover in Northern Ireland tracks her down to tell her the plane crash which killed her parents 20 years ago was caused by the British security services.

Deep in the English countryside, those same servants of the state are busy exploiting the theories of a young prodigy to build "Oracle", a probe that can view the past - and, they hope, the future, so that threats to national security can be stifled before they ever occur.

The Review:
Whenever I pick up a book who’s plot involves time travel, I get a bit wary – I read in constant fear of a paradox ruining the story for me, as I’ll invariably pick it apart, proving that such-and-such couldn’t happen because so-and-so did this, that or the other. It’s rare for an author to pull it off without writing him or herself into a corner, but Ian Watson has accomplished it with flair. Not content with planting a first Century Roman Centurion in modern Britain, he also manages to delve deeper, adding politics to the mix and making it an integral part of the plot, even managing to show substantial comparison between events witnessed by the Roman and those happening in modern-day Ireland.

He doesn’t faff around with phoney scientific explanations for the sudden appearance of a man from the past either – he gives the reason, but doesn’t offer up scientific theory, which makes a refreshing change and also means that as science progresses, there will be fewer holes picked in this novel than in some others (hurrah!).

This would have been awarded 9/10 but for the ending which was rather abrupt and felt like a bit of a cop-out – it felt unfinished, like Watson had more to say but was edited in the final chapters, so a point is retracted. Still, what remains is an intense political thriller with terrorists and a Roman soldier in tow and it’s a while since I’ve read something of this kind that was so good. It’s well worth a look.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bitten and Smitten by Michelle Rowan

Author: Michelle Rowan
ISBN # 0446617008

Publisher: Warner Forever

First Published: 2006

390 pages

Rating: 7

The Blurb:
Sarah Dearly has had a bad date. What else would you call being buried alive before dessert? Not to mention the bite mark on her neck and the creepy way her date keeps saying that he's sired her. Then these guys with stakes show up and turn her date into dust! Sarah runs for her life, only to be rescued by a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. Sure, she interrupts him as he's about to throw him-self off a bridge - but as far as rescuers go, Thierry de Bennicoeur will do. The only problem is their age difference. He's a 600-year-old vamp with a death wish. She's a new kid on the block with a need for someone to show her the ropes - and to keep her one step ahead of the vampire hunters. Sarah doesn't know what to make of all this. She's got a hankering for blood lately, but she doesn't feel like a monster, just like an unemployed girl looking for love - even if the object of her affection can't go out in the sun for very long.

The Review:
There seems to be a bit of a rush on both supernatural romance and vampires at the moment and with Bitten and Smitten, Michelle Rowan has pounced on both and run with them. Being set in Toronto, it might draw comparison with Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, but this is far more light-hearted and incredibly chick-lit in its approach (more akin to Maryjanice Davidson’s Undead series, although it doesn't quite live up to that) and seeing as there’s nothing really original in the plot at all, it means that it looks rather more like the poor cousin when they are held up side by side. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s not bad at all despite not having any exciting new slant to offer on the whole vampires-are-incredibly-sexy-and-cool front.

That said, it’s enjoyable enough fare and easy enough of a read to finish in a day if you’re stuck for anything decent on the telly to keep you amused.

Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

Author: Sharyn McCrumb
ISBN # 0140118489

Publisher: Penguin

First Published: 1987

219 pages

Rating: 7/10

The Blurb:
For one fateful weekend, the annual science fiction and fantasy convention, Rubicon, has all but taken over a usually ordinary hotel. Now the halls are alive with Trekkers, tech nerds, and fantasy gamers in their Viking finery --- all of them eager to hail their hero, bestselling fantasy author Appin Dungannon: a diminutive despot whose towering ego more than compensates for his 5'1" height... and whose gleeful disdain for fawning fans is legendary.

Hurling insults and furniture with equal abandon, the terrible, tiny author proceeds to alienate ersatz aliens and make-believe warriors at warp speed. But somewhere between the costume contest and the exhibition Dungeons and Dragons game, Dungannon gets done in. While die-hard fans of Dungannon's seemingly endless sword-and-sorcery series wonder how they'll go on and hucksters wonder how much they can get for the dead man's autograph, a hapless cop wonders, "Who would want to kill Appin Dungannon?" But the real question, as the harried convention organizers know, is "Who wouldn't?"

The Review:
Occasionally I get pleasantly surprised by a book – this was one of those moments. From the title, you’d expect this to be a trashy sci-fi packed with vixens seducing gallant space explorers, but you’d be wrong – this is murder! Anyone who’s ever been to, or knows anyone who’s been to, a sci-fi convention will recognise all the characters here: The Trekkers (they don’t like being called Trekkies, you know!); the gamers; the nerds and geeks; the authors and organisers; and the Big Name Fans – those who have become famous simply for being avid fans of whichever sci-fi series or author they adore and religiously showing up to every convention.

The plot is both simple and complicated – simple in that this is a straightforward who-dunnit where the answer is pretty obvious, but complicated in that it goes into great depth over the various aspects of fandom and conventions. It’s a lot of fun and a light read that will enjoyably fill a few hours on a long commute or a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Undead and Unemployed by Maryjanice Davidson

Author: Maryjanice Davidson
ISBN # 0749936460
Publisher: Piatkus
First Published: 2004
230 pages
Rating: 7/10

The Blurb:
'And the first who shall noe the Queen as a husband noes his Wyfe shall be the Queen's Consort and shall rule at her side for a thousand yeares.'
~ The Book of the Dead

'If that rat bastard Sinclair thinks I'm going to be his wife for a thousand years, he's out of his f----- mind.'
~ From the private papers of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I, Empress of the Undead, Rightful Ruler of the Vampires, Consort of Eric I, Lawful King

Nothing can make Betsy Taylor give up her shoe fetish - even dying and rising as the new Queen of the Vampires. Only being royally undead doesn't mean there aren't still credit card bills to be paid. Luckily, Betsy lands her dream job selling designer shoes at Macy's Department Store. Things couldn't be better - except for her new friends who keep pestering her while she's at work. As if she has time to socialise when there are deliciously sinful shoes to try on - and buy at a discount. It seems there's been a string of vampire murders in town and they're all clamouring for Betsy to do something about it. The worst part is she'll have to enlist the help of the one vamp who makes her blood boil: the oh-so-sexy Eric Sinclair. Only the last time she ran into Sinclair she accidentally fulfilled an ancient prophesy - and ended up married to him...

The Review:
Every now and again, it’s nice to take a break from the heavier, deeper, darker books and try something lighter that won’t tax the little grey cells too much, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you could do a lot worse than the second in the Undead series. This is fun, frothy and lighter than air, but it’s also got a great line in humour. The characters are, well, they’re caricatures, but they’re really funny ones. There’s sarcasm dripping from almost every line, but when you’re reading it you just don’t give a damn – you just want to keep turning the pages to get to the next laugh.

This is one of the easiest reads that has come my way in a long time – in fact, it only took a couple of hours to finish – and is the perfect pick-me-up when you’re feeling down; especially if you are the kind of woman who loves Sex and the City and has a shoe fetish.

Actually, there’s enough of a plot here to keep you interested, even if it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work it out, but when all you want is to kick back and relax, that’s exactly what’s needed. Don’t expect a sensational, Booker Prize-worthy tome, but do expect a gaggle of giggles and you won’t be disappointed.

I’ll certainly be continuing with this series, just to see where it goes…

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Secret Purposes by David Baddiel

Author: David Baddiel
ISBN # 0349117462

Publisher: Abacus

First published: 2004

408 pages

Rating: 8/10

The Blurb:
The Secret Purposes, David Baddiel's third novel, takes us into a little-known and still somewhat submerged area of British history: the internment of German Jewish refugees on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. Isaac Fabian, on the run with his young family from Nazism in East Prussia, comes to Britain assuming he has found asylum, but instead finds himself drowning in the morass of ignorance, half-truth, prejudice, and suspicion that makes up government attitudes to German Jews in 1940. One woman, June Murray, a translator from the Ministry of Information, stands out - and when she comes to the island on a personal mission to uncover solid evidence of Nazi atrocities, her meeting with Isaac will have far-reaching consequences for both of them. A haunting and beautifully written tale of love, displacement and survival, The Secret Purposes profoundly questions the way that truth - both personal and political - emerges from the tangle of history.

The Review:
David Baddiel has long been a fixture on the hot-list of British comedic talent and his previous two novels, Time for Bed and Whatever Love Means, although not played for obvious laughs, showed evidence of his comedy background throughout his portrayal of modern relationships. However, with The Secret Purposes, Baddiel shows maturity and a deeper understanding of people under pressure, making this novel a groundbreaking achievement for him as a talented writer.

This heartrending portrayal of families split apart during World War II due to the interment of Jews on the Isle of Man is both passionate and compassionate, uncovering the extent to which the persecution of an entire race was perpetrated, not only by the Nazis, but by the nation to whom many of them turned for help – Britain. It is intelligently written and never patronises the reader, immersing one completely in the lives of those interred, those left behind and those on the outside looking in.

There are some beautifully described thoughts on the very nature of religion and politics, giving the prose a deeper, philosophical meaning that is then debated within the reader’s own mind; challenging beliefs and practices, making this much more than simply a pleasurable read. It is well researched and although the subject is traditionally very difficult to tackle, Baddiel shows a flair for a lighter touch whenever it is needed, so that the plot is never maudlin or contrived.

The Secret Purposes is an immensely satisfying novel and if Baddiel continues in this vein, he will surely be accused of literature.

Dying Light by Stuart MacBride

Author: Stuart Macbride
ISBN # 0007193157
Publisher: Harper Collins
First Published: 2006
432 pages
Rating: 9/10

The Blurb:
This is a new Logan McRae thriller from the author of Cold Granite. It's summertime in the Granite City: the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and people are dying! It starts with a prostitute, stripped naked and beaten to death down by the docks - the heart of Aberdeen's red light district. For DS Logan MacRae, it's a bad start to another bad day. Only a few short months ago, he was the golden boy of Grampian police. But one botched raid later, he's palmed off on a DI everyone knows is a jinx, waiting for the axe to fall with all the other rejects in the 'Screw-up Squad'. Logan's not going to take it lying down. He's determined to escape DI Steel and her unconventional methods, and the best way to do that is to crack the case in double-quick time. But Rosie Williams won't be the only one making an unscheduled trip to the morgue. Across the city, six people are burning to death in a petrol-soaked squat, the doors and windows screwed shut from the outside. And despite Logan's best efforts, it's not long before another prostitute turns up on the slab! Stuart MacBride's characteristic grittiness, gallows humour and lively characterisation are to the fore in his un-put-down-able second novel, confirming his status as the rising star of crime fiction.

The Review:
This is the second novel by Stuart MacBride and is a sequel to the excellent Cold Granite. I’ll admit to being a tiny bit biased as, once again, this novel is set in Aberdeen, which is home to me, so I recognised all the locations as well as the people, but familiarity only counts for an insignificantly small part of my overall rating.

Thankfully, this time round, it’s set during the summer (Cold Granite’s setting was the run-up to Christmas, so the weather was, understandably, appalling, even if that is a cliché in connection with Aberdeen), so the descriptions of the sparkling buildings and Aberdonians wandering about in short-sleeved shirts, soaking up the sunshine (yes, there was still some rain, but in moderation this time!) during the daylight hours, and tottering about in skimpy outfits during nights on the town (although, to be fair, young Aberdonian women do that in the foulest of weather – we’re dead hard up North!).

The writing is as tense as it was in the prequel, leading one to believe that this will be characteristic of Macbride in future offerings; his characters are developed more fully here as we have already been introduced to them prior to this, but this could still easily be read without having first delved into Cold Granite, although there are references to past events. The plot is finely tuned and MacBride does not make the rookie mistake of having the entire police department focus on just one single crime – there’s a lot happening here, keeping everyone on their toes and making this a gripping read.

As a follow-up to an exciting debut, MacBride has proven that he can sustain the suspense and should become a forced to be reckoned with within the crime fiction genre – I can highly recommend giving him a try.