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Hitch 22: Confessions and ContradictionsHitch 22: Confessions and Contradictions by Christopher Hitchens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book opens with Hitchens' experience of reading news of his own demise in a catalogue for an exhibition that described him as 'the late Christopher Hitchens', thus encouraging him to set down his memoir whilst he was still alive to do so. This has been further been given an air of almost unbearably poignant irony by his recent diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus, but this is not the place to dwell on that.

He follows a fairly structured route of memories of his mother and father, his schooldays in a series of grim public schools, his encounters with the socialist movement in the sixties and his time as a journalist in the booze addled Fleet Street of the seventies. He discourses on friends and acquaintances from Martin Amis to Salman Rushdie and Edward Said, and describes the things that drew them together as well as honestly setting down their differences. Needless to say, there are many humorous anecdotes to be found as well with an early encounter with a surprisingly saucy Margaret Thatcher provoking a laugh from me.

Through his life his political views have changed somewhat from his early left wing leanings, although he has been absolutely resolute in his opposition to tyranny of all forms, particularly when it takes its authority from theocracy. Thus, he demonstrates how he can support wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq without necessarily being in accordance with the western governments who initiated them. One barbed comment that he reports is that an anti-war demonstration in London is a rare occasion that a million people have taken to the streets in support of a brutal fascist regime.

One particularly moving chapter describes his search for his ancestry on his mother's side after a unexpected revelation following her tragically early death. He is not mawkish by any means, but approaches the subject with clear eyed and enlightening honesty.

He reads the audiobook, and his slightly plummy style is occasionally difficult to follow but it is well worth the effort and concentration required.

Unreservedly recommended.

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LustrumLustrum by Robert Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lustrum is simply a period of five years - an important division of time in the Rome of the old Republic where terms of political office and governorships were strictly measured out with military precision. Confusingly enough the book was renamed as 'Conspirata' for the US market, which does not have quite the same resonance.

This book follows on almost directly from 'Imperium' with Marcus Tullius Cicero taking up his role as Roman Consol. He faces the ill omen of a brutally murdered slave being discovered, which points to a conspiracy to subvert the established order. Cicero must confront the plotters and build a coalition to oppose them, but the compromises and deals that he brokers (including the cut price purchase of a ludicrously opulent house) and the decisions that he is forced to make will come back to haunt him many times over.

The Catiline orations, in which Cicero publicly exposed the conspiracy to the Senate, still stand as some of the most powerful and dramatic pieces of political rhetoric ever heard. Indeed, they are still quoted to this day. Robert Harris really brings this key moment in history to life by placing it in the correct context of a political body riven by intrigue and ambition, not least that of Gaius Julius Caesar - Cicero's most bitter rival. Harris's Cicero is a flawed individual - a brilliant lawyer, politician and orator but prone to bouts of self doubt and introspection, and after his term as Consol given to bouts of vainglorious self-aggrandizement.

Much of the legal and political wrangling will seem familiar to a modern audience - scandals involving sex and expenses, expedient coalitions between rivals and rabble rousing populism in opposition to the patrician order - but that is just a sign of the deep roots of our systems of government and the law, and the debt that we owe to the Roman politicians, lawyers and orators such as Cicero.


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For the Win For the Win by Cory Doctorow


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the dungeons and fairy kingdoms of the online gaming world, a new breed of worker is emerging. The gold farmers are teenagers from the slums of Mumbai to the backwaters of China, toiling in internet cafes and back rooms to earn gold to sell to westerners eager to get their avatar to the next level. These workers don't see the fruits of their labours though - the ones making a profit are the bosses and the owners of the cafes who pay a pittance and expect long hours in return, but when it's a choice between playing the game and working in a factory, then it's no choice at all.

Little by little, the workers come to realise that they have the power to withhold their labour. A network is formed between Yasmin, the girl from the slums, Ashok, an economics guru, Leonard from Los Angeles, a handful of young Chinese men and others and they begin to form a union called the International Workers of the World Wide Web, mentored by the mysterious Big Sister Nor. When a strike is called, the bosses and governments will respond with fists and knives and guns. Can the Webblies (as they call themselves) fight back with just the weapons of the virtual world?

This is possibly Cory Doctorow's most radical and subversive book yet, introducing its audience of young adults to the concepts of globalisation, market economics, the inner workings of virtual worlds and the power of trade unions. He does so with a plot that builds to a genuinely thrilling conclusion with characters who have to make life and death decisions about where their loyalties lie.

Excellent, and available as a free download from the author's site.

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59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wiseman


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Most self help books are effectively worthless. A few platitudes, a bit of psychobabble and rarely the odd bit of common sense wrapped up in a lot of waffle. Rarely will they have anything like the life changing effects promised on the cover.

Fifty Nine seconds by Richard Wiseman is different. It contains solid advice on a variety of subjects, backed up by properly cited research, with each chapter summarised into handy bite size chunks that can be digested in less than a minute. It covers subjects including personal happiness, memory, relationships, parenting and self motivation.

Excellent for dipping into and concise enough to be practical.

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Solar Solar by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Professor Michael Beard is a thoroughly unpleasant fellow.

Short, fat, balding and a serial philanderer, he is approaching the end of his fifth marriage with mixed feelings. His one achievement in life was a startlingly brilliant insight into quantum theory (the Beard-Einstein Conflation) that earned him a Nobel prize, but his subsequent career has ended up being little more than a series of plodding administrative jobs and dull sinecures where he is only employed so that his name and qualification can be quoted on the letter heads. By accident rather than design he finds himself in nominal charge of an institute investigating climate change and alternative sources of energy. Can he actually make a difference, and does he even want to when the young scientists doing the actual work all seem to have pony-tails and an air of evangelical fervour about them?

This book charts Beard's career as he stumbles across a theory that builds on his own discovery and promises a cheap, clean and potentially limitless source of energy, and contrasts it with his own venality and personal shortcomings in his various relationships. It is very funny in places, particularly on a 'fact finding' mission to the Arctic that descends into farce when the various idealists and dreamers can't even manage to organise their cold weather gear in the boot room of their accommodation, never mind save the planet. In other places, the book takes some very dark turns, not least in Beard's self-justification of some of his reprehensible behaviour.

It is an entertaining read, particularly in the light of the recent 'Climategate' non-scandal, where researchers pondered how best to present their findings to a woefully ignorant public. If scientists are not moral paragons, that doesn't necessarily detract from the value of their work. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, everybody is standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before, and thus we make progress in our understanding of the universe.

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Forty Signs of Rain Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While scientists and
Political wonks debate
Washington floods





Fifty Degrees Below Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Frank takes to the woods
Palaeolithic lifestyle
Now comes the big freeze






Sixty Days and Counting Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A new president
Vows to reverse climate change
Whatever the cost






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Under the Dome Under the Dome by Stephen King


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the sleepy Maine town of Chester's Mill, folk are simply getting on with their lives on a typical late Fall day. One person is making his way out of town - Dale 'Barbie' Barbara, Iraq veteran and lately short order cook at the local diner until he got on the wrong side of a gang of good ol' boys. Unfortunately for him the gang included the son of the town's second selectman, car dealer and de facto head honcho 'Big Jim' Rennie - exactly the sort of fellow that you don't want as an enemy. Barbie is nearly at the town line when quietly and without fuss the town is cut off, surrounded by an invisible dome that will allow nothing to pass.

The immediate consequences include a crashed plane, and several car accidents as vehicles hit the barrier and come to grief. The longer term effects are far more serious, as Big Jim sees his chance to seize control of the town. He establishes his own private police force and sets about settling scores and making sure that none of his dirty little secrets will come to light - and there are plenty of secrets to be hidden in Chester's Mill.

No one writes about life in small town America with the same eye for detail and authenticity as Stephen King. He deftly weaves this story with a large cast of characters, and plots the brutally swift collapse of civilised behaviour in the isolated town. There are allusions to the events of 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, as well as the Stanford prison experiment, and when things go bad, they go bad very quickly in ways that are all too believable. The environmental consequences are charted too, as resources start to run out and pollution chokes the air.

Definitely one of King's better books of recent years, as well as one of the longest, and the audiobook is superbly narrated.


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The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It is a well known myth.

A baby, born in a stable who will grow up to be a wise teacher who inspires people to acts of kindness and generosity before suffering a cruel death. What is less well known is this baby has a twin who would spend his life in his brother's shadow, observing and recording his words for posterity. The question is, will the reports be accurate or will they be edited in the service of a greater truth?

This is an extraordinarily powerful and effective book. The conceit is to split the character of Jesus Christ into two - Jesus the earthy man concerned with the life of people in the here and now, and Christ whose eyes are on the future and how history will perceive events. Familiar stories from the new testament are given new life and resonance, in ways that affirm the human spirit.

This is not a blasphemous book, in the strictest meaning of the word. Rather, it is a stinging broadside against a religion which takes a myth and twists it in ways that are used to subjugate and control, whilst accruing power and wealth for its own purposes. It is difficult to find anything to argue with in Pullman's thesis, and the only people who will be shocked by it are the bishops and popes who sit on gilded thrones, dismissing any criticism as 'petty gossip'.

I read the 'enhanced edition' version available from iTunes, which combines the audiobook with an e-book and other features. This is an excellent way to appreciate this book if you have an iPhone or iPod touch.

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The Robots of Dawn (Robots 3) The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another case of murder for Detective Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw to investigate, but what makes this case unusual is that the victim is an advanced robot who has been placed into a state of irreversible mental lock. The only person with sufficient skill in robotics to have done such a thing is the robot's designer Dr Fastolfe who happens to be Earth's only ally in a political schism between Earth and the Spacer worlds. Is this a plot to discredit the progressive faction or is something more complex afoot?

As with the previous books in the trilogy, this novel is concerned more with human relationships and motivations than the technology of the robots. The robot brains with their positronic desires form an analogue for understanding the workings of the human mind.

The concept of psychohistory - mathematically modeling the behaviour of large populations in order to predict the future - is introduced here too, touching on the concepts of determinism and free will. Are humans as predestined in their actions as the robots? What are the implications for relations between humans and robots, as more worlds are explored and colonised?

Fascinating concepts that are explored with Asimov's trademark insight. The longest of the robot novels, the most complex, and also the most satisfying in its conclusions. Excellent.

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The Naked Sun (Robot 2) The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The society of the planet Solaria is the polar opposite of that of Earth. There are a mere twenty thousand spacers living there, and they in turn are outnumbered by robots by a factor of ten thousand to one. This wealth of resources and space allows the Solarians to live lives of splendid isolation on their large estates, communicating with each other solely by remote holographic viewing and devoting their time to the pursuit of academic studies or art rather than physical labour which is the purview of the robots. The robots in turn have an elaborate system of communication between themselves so that they can respond instantly and appropriately to any human need.

It is a society in which crime is not only unknown, but practically unimaginable. When a murder is committed the Solarians have no alternative but to call for the services of Earth detective Elijah Baley, once more partnered with robot Daneel Olivaw. It seems that there is only one suspect, but also that there is no possible way that this suspect could have committed the crime. A mystery is once again afoot, although this time Baley will have to conquer his fear of leaving the safe enclosure of his cosy city to walk outside beneath the naked sun of an alien world.

This is not quite as taut a novel as its predecessor 'The Caves of Steel'. It is structured like a classical murder mystery with each suspect being introduced and interviewed in turn, followed by the traditional drawing room dénouement with the motive, means and opportunity being explained before the murderer is unmasked. The interest comes from the explanation of the functioning of Solarian society with all of its strange mores, and the realisation of just how very different it is from that of Earth. Asimov also uses this novel to expound further on the workings of his famous three laws of robotics and just how they would function in a true C/Fe (or human/robot) society.

Classic golden age sf of the highest calibre.


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Planescape Torment Planescape Torment by Rhys Hess (compiled by)


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Nameless One awakes on a mortuary slab in the city of Sigil, the nexus of all of the planes of existence. He does not know who he is or how he came to be there, only that he can not die. His body is covered with strange scars and tatoos that may be a clue to his true identity and purpose.

This is something of an odd book to review. The author Rhyss Hess has taken the text from the computer role playing game 'Planescape : Torment' as written by Chris Avellone and Colin McComb, and added linking sections to combine it into a continuous narrative, with mixed results.

The game is widely regarded as a classic of the genre. It is certainly a long way from the traditional Dungeons and Dragons world, being set in a strange city that is riddled with portals to every part of the multiverse. Each portal has a key, that may be an object, a word or a memory and it is the task of the protagonist to explore this maze and find the clues that he has left himself to try to recover his memories.

If the setting is strange and baroque, that is nothing compared to characters that you meet. Morte the floating skull who still has an eye for the ladies, Ignus the burning man, a fallen angel and a mechanical creature from a plane of pure logic. The strangest of all is the Nameless One himself, and the reasons for his immortal, tormented existence.

If you have not played the game, then this book may be difficult to get into. There are sections where the gameplay imperative requires fetch quests and combat challenges that do not translate particularly well to a linear form. However, certain sequences really do stand out as masterful pieces of writing. The back stories of each of the Nameless One's companions, the stories in the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, the maze of the night hag Ravel where the mystery starts to be resolved and the final section in the Fortress of Regret are all well worth reading.

If you haven't played the game, then you really should try to get hold of it, and read this book in conjunction with it. The narrative follows only one particular path through the game and there are other possibilities to explore.

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The Caves of Steel (Robot 1) The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Overpopulation forces the masses of humanity to huddle together in vast enclosed cities while the outer worlds maintain a token presence on Earth in the enclave of Space Town. The city dwellers view the spacers with suspicion, and some go further, harbouring medievalist sympathies that yearn for a simpler life, free from dependence on technology.

The final straw is the presence of the robots. The Earth robots are simple, menial creatures but still capable of taking over human jobs. Spacer robots are a different story - they are superior in almost every way and virtually indistinguishable from humans. If the presence of such a robot in the city became public knowledge it could provoke riots that would quickly disrupt the delicate network of systems that keep the city alive.

Such a crisis is threatened when a spacer robotics expert is found murdered, with a city dweller being the only possible suspect. Police officer Lije Baley is put on the case and assigned a spacer partner - a robot called R. Daneel Olivaw. Baley must overcome his personal antipathy and find a way for them to work together to find the murderer and crack the case before it escalates into a diplomatic incident with interplanetary ramifications.

I first read 'The Caves of Steel' thirty years ago, and it still feels as fresh and relevant now as it did then, and indeed as when it was first published in 1954. The issues of how technology affects our lives, with traditional jobs being subsumed and replaced, are even more pressing nowadays. The anti-robot sentiment also has uncomfortable echoes of racism and the current prejudice against economic migrants who are willing to work harder for less pay.

This book raises many questions about how different societies may function - the hallmark of classic science fiction - as well as being a tightly constructed murder mystery that maintains the tension right down to the wire.

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Unseen Academicals (Discworld, #37) Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Life is not easy for the ordinary people of Ankh Morpork - the kitchen maids and candle dribblers who work below stairs at the Unseen University. As long as you have a steady job and a roof over your head, it is foolish to dream of anything better. If you should happen to get ideas above your station, then you can be sure that somebody will drag you back down into the crab bucket.

Things are different in the Shove. A half day off, standing shoulder to shoulder in the rain with the promise of a hot pie if you are feeling flush (best not to ask what is in it) and if you are lucky you might even get a glimpse of the football.

Ah yes, the beautiful game, where a friendly match is one that doesn't involve edged weapons. Just make sure that you know who you are shouting for - the Dimmers of Dimwell Street or the Dollies of Dolly Sisters, bitter rivals for longer than anyone can remember. Not surprisingly this may prove a problem for Juliet the kitchen maid and Trevor the candle boy who happens to be from the wrong side of the street, even helped by the eminently sensible Glenda, who produces perfect ploughman's pies in the night kitchen. There is also the small matter of Mr Nutt, unfailing polite and well educated, and also the first goblin in Ankh Morpork - and everyone knows that the goblins are nothing more than common chicken thieves, don't they?

This is a very different sort of book from the early Discworld novels. Oh, there are occasional puns and sly allusions to footballing clichés (yes, we do get to find out who ate all the pies), but they are only a backdrop to a richer story. There is a lot of ground covered here - issues of class and community, prejudice against outsiders and the self imposed limits of the ordinary people who know their place and forsake the chance to dream. There are no world threatening villains or meddling deities, and even the political machinations of the Patrician Lord Vetinari go no further than taking football off the back streets and into the stadium. At the end of the day, it all comes down to a game of two halves, with the stakes being love and honour and decency and a sense of self worth.

One of the better Discworld novels of recent years, and I can recommend the unabridged audiobook version available from Audible.com, particularly for his interpretation of Pepe the dwarf - Discworld's answer to Gok Wan ... :-)



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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mikael Blomkvist, financial journalist and publisher of the modestly successful magazine 'Millennium' finds himself facing financial ruin and a prison sentence when he is sued for libel by a crooked business tycoon called Wennerström for running a story based on an off-the-record tip off. He reluctantly accepts a commission from another businessman, Henrik Vanger, with the promise of not only a large sum of money but crucial information to help him clear his name and nail Wennerström. Ostensibly he is to write a family history of the sprawling Vanger clan and their convoluted business dealings, but his real task is to investigate the disappearance of Henrik's 16 year old niece Harriet, who vanished in mysterious circumstances forty years previously. Henrik believes that she was murdered, and that the killer is now sending him a pressed flower in a frame every year to torment him. Meanwhile, a young computer hacker called Lisbeth Sallandar has been commissioned to run a background check on Blomkvist, but she has more pressing problems of her own to deal with.

This is an intriguing mystery story with a large number of characters to keep track of as Blomkvist tries to piece together events from the past. The resolution is slightly disappointing after the excellent build up, and will seem quite familiar to anyone who has read any crime genre fiction from recent years, including the obligatory nutty room. Larsson also has an odd habit of listing in detail the contents of bookshelves and the technical specifications of any computers that the protagonists use. The book is saved though by the Swedish setting which manages to feel familiar to British readers and oddly different at the same time. The characters of the phlegmatic Blomkvist and the tenacious Sallandar are very engaging, and would probably encourage me to pick up the other two books in the series.

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Moominland Midwinter (Moomin Books) Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
'It's dead. All the world has died while I slept. This world belongs to somebody else whom I don't know. Perhaps to the Groke. It isn't made for Moomins.

The Moomin family traditionally hibernate through the entire winter, safe and snug in their Moomin House. One year, Moomintroll wakes up early and finds himself on his own, unable to wake anybody else up, not even his Mama. Outside the house the world is cold and white, with no sign of the sun or the comforting warmth of Spring.

Gradually he discovers the others who are awake through the cold, dark months. The lonely and the rum, the dispossessed and hungry, the dweller under the sink and the ancestor in the dark. He also meets Too-Ticky now living in the Bathing House by the frozen sea and the irrepressible Little My who discovers the possibilities afforded by icy slopes and Mama's best silver tray.

This is a book that I have read many times, returning to at the darkest time of the year to savour both the air of melancholy and the hope for the return of the sun. It is a simple delight.

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A Christmas Carol (Great Stories) A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there anybody who hasn't experienced 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens in one form or another? Probably not many, but if you haven't tried the original text then you are missing a lot of the richness and relevance of the story.

Given that these things are now well worn clichés it is easy to forget that in one short story Dickens firmly established both the iconography of the traditional Christmas celebration as a family feast with good will to all and also the trappings of the cautionary ghost story with a moral twist. He achieves both goals with remarkably deft and humourous use of language that is still amusing and relevant more than 160 years after the story was written.

The text is long out of copyright and available from Project Gutenberg, and I can heartily recommend the reading by Mitch Benn available from his website here or by searching for 'Mitch Benn Podcast' on itunes.

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Duma Key Duma Key by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edgar Freemantle has it all.

He is happily married with two daughters at college, and he runs a successful construction company until a devastating accident leaves him crippled and missing an arm. He also suffers a brain injury that robs him of his memories, his ability to speak clearly and causes violent mood swings that lead to his wife divorcing him, unable to cope with the way he has changed.

As part of his recovery process his physician encourages him to take an extended vacation in Florida and so Edgar rents a property on an isolated island in the Keys. The house is called Salmon Point but Edgar renames it as 'Big Pink' and quickly grows to feel at home with the sound of the surf moving the shells beneath the part of the building that juts out into the sea. His recuperation begins with gradually extended walks along the beach as well as taking up a new hobby of sketching and painting the views of the sunset over the gulf as seen from the house.

At the far end of the beach he meets and befriends a man called Wireman who is caring for an elderly lady called Miss Eastlake. Gradually Edgar begins to realise that his paintings may be related in some way to certain events in Miss Eastlake's childhood and that apparently random images and themes are connected in a series. The waters of the gulf may not be as tranquil as they first appear ...

This is certainly one of Stephen King's better novels of recent years, dealing with themes of recovery and the creative process. The locale of Duma Key is deftly evoked, making for a refreshing change from King's usual stomping ground of Maine, and in Wireman, he has created one of his most likeable and sympathetic characters since Eddie in The Dark Tower series. If the book has any faults they lie with the conclusion which feels rather rushed and forced, compared with the first three quarters or so. The sense of mounting dread as the history of the island is uncovered really did not need to be resolved so neatly or explicitly, but this is probably to be expected from King's writing style.

Well worth reading - savour the start and then finish off the book in one gulp as you near the end would be my advice.



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Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1) Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Following the development of 'Tru Blood' - a synthetic form of human blood in handy bottled form - vampires have 'come out of the coffin'. Some are attempting to live alongside human communities as mainstreamers, others stick to their more traditional ways feeding off the 'fang bangers' - vampire groupies who offer themselves as a living food supply. One mainstreamer is Bill Compton, an undead veteran of the American civil war, who returns to reclaim his family home in Bon Temps, a backwater Louisiana town where he catches the eye of waitress and telepath Sookie Stackhouse. Is it just a coincidence that women who have liaisons with vampires are now turning up dead in mysterious circumstances?

This book formed the source material for the tv adaptation and, quite unusually as these things go, the tv version added to the original rather than being a cut down copy. Several of the most interesting characters on tv only make fleeting appearances in the novel, or are missing completely. The book is an enjoyable read, but I think that I'll wait for the tv series versions of future books.

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