Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review: Resist, Sarah Crossan

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2/5

 

Resist is the sequel to Breathe (Review here). The resistance against the controllers of the pod has been crushed, and the book picks up the storyline immediately after.

 

I had the same problems and praise for this as I did for the first in the series: The world-building is excellent, the premise is great. What pulls it down is the chapter-head hopping and the similar voices of the different narrators. Give me a section of this as an extract and I won’t be able to tell if it’s Alina or Bea without the chapter heading.

 

As a result, nothing moved me or pushed me one way or the other. I think this also needs to be read back-to-back with the first book without a gap. There was a lot of name dropping from the first book that made me feel like I’d missed something.

 

Not a bad book by any means, but the constant jumping and the catch-up pulled me out of the story instead of dragging me in.

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Review: Every Day, David Levithan

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4/5

 

“A” wakes up each morning in a new body. “A” has done this every day for the whole of their existence, and doesn’t question it any more than we question waking up in the same body every day. Then “A” meets Rhiannon and wants to have a ‘normal’ life.

 

This is a difficult book to review. Not because of the content or writing. It’s a lot simpler than that, and a lot harder: “A” is without a pronoun. They are completely non-corporeal – without a permanent body. “A” is neither he nor she, and I’m going to be forced to call them It, to give them the overtones of a non-person. It feels like the wrong approach, because “A” is such a strong character, labelling them as It feels…rude. Derogatory.

 

“A” has a unique narrative voice, one I have never come across, or even contemplated – one without gender. Gender is so tied into every book I’ve ever read, that having a character without gender, with a constant shifting body every day is disorientating. The only way I could relate to “A” is to read them as a male character.

 

A female friend is going to read it and I’m really fascinated to see if she reads “A” as a female. I wasn’t sure I wasn’t projecting my male narrative voice onto “A”. I needed a gender to work with.

 

That isn’t an issue with the book at all by the way; just my perceptions of reading it.

 
The book itself is wonderful. “A” is eloquent, warm, emotive, caring, passionate. If you wanted a friend for life, “A” would be it. “A” feels every moment of every day, living entirely in the present; it’s all “A” can do before It moves on. Because of “A”‘s unique perspective on life, “A” notices details the rest of us would miss. The shoes Rhiannon wears; the callous on her thumb; the texture of sand through a host’s fingers. “A”‘s language is lyrical and powerful, the soul of a poet.

 
We get to touch lives from the inside with “A”, feeling the tragedy of a girl who can’t stop drinking; the first funeral “A” ever goes to; a girl who wants to commit suicide. But also the joy as well; a gay pride parade with “A”‘s host’s boyfriend. Gender or sexuality doesn’t matter to “A”; only the emotion. So we get to see “A” as girl with another girl, a boy with another boy. Love is all that matters.

 
Through it all, “A” loves Rhiannon; it doesn’t matter if he’s a girl or boy, black or white. “A”‘s only thought is to be back with her, and It breaks Its own rules of ‘non-interference’ to do it more and more as love takes over.

 
It’s great writing, but the book does have problems – hence the not-perfect rating. There are plot holes left undeveloped – most significantly, is “A” the only body-hopper? – and the subplot with a boy who remembers being ‘possessed’ by “A” just fades away. And then there’s the epilogue. It’s only eight or nine lines, but it wasn’t needed, and only left confusion.

 
What “A” knows, and the rest of us barely realise, is that the package love comes in doesn’t matter; only the emotion matters. It’s a message that Levithan carries off with panache and style, with wonderful passages of lyrical and emotional writing, and a tearful punch of an ending. Superb.

Review: A Streetcat named Bob

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4/5

 

James Bowen was a mess. He’d lost touch with his family, his music career had stalled and he was a recovering drug user in emergency sheltered housing, only a few steps away from living on the streets. He scratched a living busking on the streets of London, but had no purpose or direction to his life.

 

Then he saw a cat sleeping outside a nearby flat, and after some hesitation, he adopted it. It was a decision that was to change his life.

 

Suddenly, he was aware he had a responsibility to his cat – he named him Bob – and from that he realised he wanted to take more responsibility for himself as well. The real transformation for him is when he took Bob busking – from scratching a living, suddenly he can afford a proper meal. Suddenly he wants his life back. He’s been thrown a lifeline and he snatches it with both hands.

 

This deceptively simple tale gets under your skin. It slips under your guard and sucker punches you, sliding into your heart and restoring your humanity. It melts your cynicism and makes you look at the people you ignore on the street with new eyes and compassion.

 

Bowen alternates tales of his cat with tales of himself, his past life and his attempts to rebuild himself. He doesn’t skim his past or romanticise it, being wise enough to know he was a mess, and smart enough to know what Bob has done for him.

 

I nearly cried when he lost Bob for a few hours – then he found him again, even more emotional. Even more when James visits his mother and starts the slow process of methadone withdrawal.

 

It is an overused word and almost a cliché, but this is the most heart-warming tale: This man, slowly slipping through the cracks of society, rebuilt his life because he adopted a cat.

 

What could you do with yours?

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go

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4/5 – Spoilers throughout

 

Todd Hewitt lives in a strange village on a distant colony world…a village where there are no women, and all the men (and all the animals) can hear thoughts…that is, every thought. This Noise – as Todd calls it – is constant, a mash of every waking and sleeping thought; enough to drive men away from each other into isolation or lose their sanity. It’s covered in the book with changes in font and size, a really nice idea – (if you look at the first example, you can see Aaron thinking Todd Hewitt? by the way)

 

Todd has been told that the village where he lives is the only one left on the planet; and since there are no women, one day that will die out as well…

 

When Todd stumbles across something in the local swamp – a silence, a hole in the noise of the world, he has to investigate. And everything he’s been told is a lie…

 

It took me three or four chapters to settle into this, but once I did, it rocketed away and I couldn’t finish it fast enough. Other reviewers have complained about the constant danger-escape-danger-escape format, and the bad language, but I didn’t notice any of it. I was swept into Todd’s world, his stream-of-consciousness narrative, and I was eager to finish it.

 

As for the bad language, did they read the same book? Todd uses ‘effing’ – and then says, ‘…except I didn’t say effing.’ His language is never worse than that. Puzzled over that.

 

Todd has a great narrative voice, a real treat. He uses words like direcshuns and creechers, and when Viola shows him his crashed spaceship, it takes him a minute to work it out. I like that; no telling here, just all show.

 

There were plot twists I saw coming thirty pages back from where they appeared – Todd is told there are no women on the planet, so it was inevitable that the silence, when he finds it, is going to be a girl; he’s told that the village where he lives is the only one left on the planet – so it’s inevitable that the rest of the world exists and is populated. I also worked out about half-way through that Prentisstown was a ‘penal colony’ (I didn’t know why though, that was a startle.)

 

The world Todd travels through is rich and verdant, vividly described and created. When Todd comes across creatures he doesn’t know the names of, all he can do is marvel at them; he has no names for them, so neither do we. The people he meets all have different viewpoints on life – and different accents. I read the dialogue of the first people he meets in a Scottish accent; it was simply how they sounded to me, along with another family that sounded Dutch. This is a world full of everyone, not just a homogenised colony.

 

Also refreshing is his attitude to Viola. He’s never seen a girl before, so he doesn’t act any differently around her, or think she’s incapable of action because of her gender; nor does he fall instantly in love, or even romantically attached to her – she’s a friend like any other to him. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end where he realises he can use Viola’s body language to tell her moods. It’s a real insight for him, and a wonderful piece of writing.

 

The book is rich in symbolism. Todd and Viola travel through an unspoilt world to Haven – only a letter short of heaven – always being told that hope is lying there…salvation awaits them if they can only make it.

 

The knife Todd is given takes on a character of its own as well. He’s given the choice again and again to kill, and he can feel the power of life or death this inanimate object gives him. How he uses it shapes and defines Todd, and he begins to realise a man who kills isn’t who he wants to be. He will not kill, even in self-defence, even under extreme provocation.

 

Except that’s where part of the story breaks. Todd kills a local intelligent alien – a Spackle – attacking him viciously without provocation; two pages later, the incident is all but forgotten. Yet he refuses to kill Aaron (who is virtually a Terminator – that boy does not stay down!) and the price he pays for letting Mr Prentiss Jr live is high.

 

Frontier life is brutal, and the violence in the book is brutal as well, not shying away from describing gory details, especially in Todd’s battles with Aaron near the climax.

 

Some of Todd and Viola’s actions aren’t logical – why are they walking? Why don’t they steal a horse? They could travel most of the way by boat, for instance, and it never occurs to them.

 

The most wonderful part of the book is one quite a few people seemed to have picked up on – Manchee the dog. Originally, it seems, he’s just there for comic relief, but he turns on the dog loyalty as the story develops, a shining example of dog-dom, unswerving in his devotion to Todd and Viola. No Disney animal here though – his life is poo and squirrels. He’s the star of the show, without doubt.

 

And it was inevitable that he would die. Unnecessary, but inevitable. Heart-breaking as well, but I saw it coming ten pages before it happened.

 

There are parts of the book that didn’t work for me. The climax is a cliff-hanger, and I should have felt manipulated by it, but I don’t (Then again, I don’t have to wait for the sequel!). Todd is told things and doesn’t relate them to the reader until a hundred pages further on, a bit of a cheat there, especially for a first-person present tense.

 

Worst of all is exposition that’s about to begin when –

Oh sorry, I got called away there.

 

Annoying isn’t it? Imagine a conversation being interrupted by a random horse-rider and then the characters moving on, even though they could have continued their conversation as before.

 

Luckily, I spotted when it was and wasn’t going to happen, and it produced more of a rueful smile than annoyance. But it was starting to get old.

 

In some ways, this book is manipulative. It knows what buttons to push, when to hold a finger over those buttons and not push them. Sometimes it holds the finger over those buttons for two hundred pages before pressing them. Todd and Viola are constantly in danger and escaping it, but it doesn’t feel repetitive.

 

I didn’t feel manipulated. Like good magic tricks, no one cares if the tricks are good and the reveals are worth it. And they are worth it.

 

The best trick in the book loops right back to the start of the journey – Todd wonders which fork in the path to take, and when the Mayor arrives at Haven before him, we find out what would have happened if he’d taken the other one. Nice touch. Very nice touch.

 

I already have the library looking for the sequel. Count me in.

Rambles: The Mall

 

a disgorged

swollen belly of concrete

air conditioned

womb against

the world.

a whore of eternally raised thighs

open for business all hours.

 

automatic doors

discharge spent shoppers

to the open air while new ones

copulate

with eager hands and feet,

penetrate inside

convinced an

orgasm of spending

pleasure

awaits them.

 

I look

from a double glazed

soundproof lifeproof window

and watch a

sparrow

pick at bread.

Review: Flash Fraction, Helena Mallett

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3/5

 

Writing flash fiction – short or very short stories is an art form. It’s almost as hard as poetry to get an image and a story into so small a space.

 

Helena Mallett manages it almost 75 times with 75 stories in this eclectic collection of tales, most of which work wonderfully well. In these little gems are stories of alien abductions, forbidden love, infidelity (which crosses gender and stereotype barriers), incest and allergies.

 

Some of the stories are incredibly poignant – The Cap, Simple Things Really and Last Ferry jumped out at me, and I read them a few times, enjoying them more each time.

 

Mallett has an eye for alliteration and sibilance, and she uses our expectations like the punchlines of a joke or a twist in the tale to make the endings more powerful when they do hit us.

 

Not all of the stories worked for me – The Tube didn’t a lot for me, neither did Iron, but most of these work – and out of seventy five, I’d say I enjoyed sixty of them. Not a bad average, and certainly better flash fiction than I’d manager.

 

The stories that did work well were the twists and the jokes – some of them I had to read three or four times before the full effect hit me. Wee Cough was a delight, especially the punchline. Taut Trousers was a delightful twist of sexual imagery at the…climax.

 

There were tales of sadness and parental loss in there as well, people I wanted to know more about – The Knock and Absent Son stand out among a few others.

 

Overall, a book to be dipped into; if you do that, I can almost guarantee you will come out with something to make you think – or even more precious – to make you smile.