Category Archives: Reviews

38447

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38447.The_Handmaid_s_Tale

4/5

In a harsh dystopian America, women are stripped of all rights…

It’s scary how prophetic this story is. A coup overtakes America – most members of Congress are killed in a terrorist attack and the constitution is suspended. Fundamentalism takes over, a fundamentalism that regards women as nothing. The reduction of women to non-citizens is done by the simple process of checking their bank accounts. If it has an F in your gender field, your account is frozen. And who, these days, carries cash?

So women aren’t allowed to read; they aren’t allowed to drive; they aren’t allowed money; they must go with their bodies and hair completely covered. They are split into castes that denote their position by the colours of clothing they wear. Women don’t exist without a man to act as a proxy.

Does any of this sound like a Middle Eastern society? Interesting if it does, because the fundamentalists running America are Christian. The subject here isn’t religion; the subject is fundamentalism, the corruption of religion.

This dystopia has a deeper problem as well – a catastrophically falling birth rate. The most fertile women are shoved into the role of Handmaids – inseminators, for want of a better word (artificial insemination is deemed immoral). In a cold and clinical scene, we see the process through the eyes of the protagonist, physically stuck between a wife and her husband in a symbolic and utterly passionless union.

The story is told from first person, and we only have the un-named protagonist to guide us. And we know she’s an unreliable narrator, frequently recounting events and then back-tracking to tell us what really happened.

We never discover her name. She is merely “Offred”, literally “Of-Fred”, nothing more than the property of her male owner and an inseminator for his wife. (Since this is a complete patriarchy, men cannot be sterile; only women can be so imperfect.)

There are complications when the wife, hungry for a child, sets Offred up with the chauffeur, and the husband, breaking taboos, tries to get to know her (intimately) better. For his purposes or just to make Offred’s life easier, we never discover.

There are times when we feel Offred’s sanity start to slip, and we slide along with her, travelling through disjointed flashbacks – sometimes in the middle of a thought. It’s disquieting to feel like you know her so well and then feel her reason falling away.

Attwood has a beautiful descriptive style of writing, throwing in marvellous images that work brilliantly (“I walk along the gravel path that divides the lawn neatly, like a hair parting”). It’s a world, despite its grim nature, that the narrator sees in vivid colours – the reds of the Handmaids, the black of a car, the green of a dress. However, Attwood skips on the punctuation of dialogue except when it suits her, and it can take a few reads to figure it out sometimes.

It’s an engrossing story, and one well worth reading. It took me along for the ride and never dragged or lost my interest. It’s a story not just for feminists or women, but for anyone who thinks and reasons.

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20550277

Review: The Hunted, Charlie Higson

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20550277-the-hunted

4/5

Everyone over the age of fourteen has been turned into a flesh-craving monster, with a taste for teenage meat…The kids that are left are fighting to survive.

Book six of seven. I reviewed Book five here, and went straight on to The Hunted.

In terms of pacing, as a comparison, it took me four days to read the four hundred and fifty pages; it took me a fortnight to read The Fallen (the previous book), which is about the same thickness. What was missing there came back here; the characters are pushing forward even when there’s not much happening.

Higson moves the action out of London entirely for this one, into the countryside west of London. It’s no less dangerous though… Small Sam’s sister Ella and her protectors make a break for the countryside. No spoilers, but it doesn’t end well for some of them.

Ed and some fighters go and look for her to bring her back to London, meeting new groups of kids – some friends and some enemies – on the way. There’s also a group of adults, untouched, who have secrets to tell…

There’s a drawing together here, a tying of loose ends that started five books back with characters you thought were long gone. There are ends tied up here that I didn’t even realise were loose, and Higson is clever and subtle in the way he weaves them back into the storyline. Coming out of it are new plot lines for the final book.

The final battle is about to begin…

17402901

Review: The Fallen, Charlie Higson

3/5

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17402901-the-fallen

Everyone over fourteen has been infected with an illness that makes them crave human flesh…Only the kids are left to fight and survive for themselves… 

This is book five in a seven series set. Luckily, I’m reading them back-to-back which helps a lot. There’s no way I’d remember all these intertwining stories with a long gap between them. There are a lot of characters floating around London… 

The focus this time is on a group at the Natural History Museum. There’s an infected kid hiding and hunting them, and a second group sets out on a trip to where the disease affecting the adults started, stumbling across a group calling themselves the ‘Twisted Kids’, a teratogenic bunch with odd abilities. 

As though sensing that the endless killing of diseased adults is getting a little repetitive after five books (And it is), Higson keeps the death count down and spreads his wings a little, digging into the characters more, exploring their relationships and friendships. 

Because of that, this is a slower and more thoughtful read than the other books. The pacing slips a little though, and this feels like it could have been shorter by about twenty pages. 

Towards the end, the pacing picks up again when Small Sam and Ed re-appear. There’s a monster of a cliff-hanger with Sam’s sister Ella, but no spoilers as to what’s going on. I’m glad I don’t have to wait a year for the follow-up though. 

As usual, the geography and the world is flawless and the characters (the ones he develops, that is: The rest are sometimes merely second-spear-carrier-on-the-left material) are well thought out and developed. 

It felt like a long walk to those closing chapters, but I’m here for the long haul right the way to book seven in September 2015.

 

11870085

Review: The Fault in our Stars

3/5

The cancer that seventeen-year-old Hazel survived left her lungs in tatters and tied to an oxygen bottle for the rest of her life – however long that may be. Her mother suggests she visits a support group, where she runs into Augustus Waters…

This has been at the edge of my reading-pile for at least two or three years now, and I finally picked it up. (One of the reasons I delayed was Becky’s review (Here), where she rated it…okay. Didn’t set the world on fire for her. I trust her judgement on books, which is why it’s taken me so long. But I digress.)

The first thing I noticed when I was reading this – and I’m talking Chapter One – is that no seventeen year old in the history of the world talks like Gus and Hazel. I’m a pretty smart guy; I’ve know some very smart people. I have never met ANYONE who used the word univalent in a sentence. No one. People simply don’t talk like this. Hazel knows what an oncogene is; she knows the word hamartia; Why then, doesn’t she know the word ontological?

Green seems determined to be obscure and borderline pretentious with his language and his characters, and they suffer because of it. Their conversations are superficial, for the most part; cocktail party debate on the breakfast-only nature of scrambled eggs.

I got very little from Hazel and Gus but mostly surfaces. It felt like I rarely saw the places where they lived and dreamt. Because of it, they’re as superficial as the conversations they hold, and easily forgotten.

Fortunately, the dialogue settled down after a while and approached a normal level. Green definitely has different narrative voices for Gus and Hazel, there was no trouble telling them apart. His wordplay and love of puns makes the dialogue – when it does work – sparkle and shine. Make no mistake that Green is a smart guy…but he seems intent on preening his feathers and flapping his wings to show off.

There are moments which do work wonderfully well in the book. The trip to Amsterdam was the delight of the book, the real highlight. Making Hazel’s favourite author a jerk was a masterstroke: After all, you should never meet your heroes – they’ll never live up to your expectations. And because Green wasn’t too worried about showing off with the author, he’s the most realistic character in the book.

There’s a character dies in this – no spoilers as to whom – and another character goes to their funeral. I’m pretty sure…no, I’m definitively sure…that Green never went to a funeral when he was seventeen of anyone close to him. I did. And there’s no way you would act the way the character did when they were there. You don’t have the mental capacity, for a start. You’re certainly not going to fire off witty replies to people who post on a dead characters Facebook page.

An intriguing read, but it lost its way somewhere with an author determined to show off and not let his characters do the walking and the talking.

 

10148340

Review: You’re Next

4/5

Four year old Mike is dumped by his father at a foster home, with no real memories of who he is or where he came from. For years, he sits and waits for him to return. He grows into trouble as he matures, minor law breaking that will inevitably lead to major crimes and trouble for life.
He’s given a chance to redeem himself and grabs it, eventually becoming a successful housing contractor. He’s married and has a precocious (Aren’t they always?) eight year old daughter.
But the past is coming to claim him…

The book starts with the mystery of who Mike is and where he came from and builds in pace from there. The pacing doesn’t stop to take a breath until three-quarters of the way through, and by then, you have to finish it. I read this in thirty minute bursts at lunchtime and regretted leaving it every time. Mike is always on the move.

What worked really well was the easy way the villains are able to manipulate him. They know exactly which buttons to press to get him moving without thinking, and the logic is so scarily perfect that we would all act the same way. See one of the villains standing over your daughter? Race to her side…only to find it’s a distraction for something far more sinister.

For all his teenage life of crime and knowledge, Mike is three steps behind the villains most of the way through the book. That’s what makes it work so effectively: If a man with the street-smarts of Mike is losing, how would the rest of us manage?

The short sentences tumble together and roll into a stream-of-consciousness style, picking the pace up even further, like Dean Koontz without the endless weather descriptions. It’s only when The Big Reveal happens that it slows down.

I won’t give away The Big Reveal, but it was unexpected…and…pedestrian. It’s not above believability that someone would kill Mike for it. It’s just mundane. People have killed for less, but from the unstoppable determination of the villains, somehow you expect something grander.

The pace does slow with The Reveal, but it didn’t bounce me out of the story at all. I wanted to see Mike in full Papa-Bear mode, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Great book.

Review: Books of 2014

2014Books

Thirty two books this year! That’s roughly half a book a week…some of them were monsters of 500 pages and some of them little snippets. Any that jump out at me now I look again?

Looking through them, I’m glad I managed to get so many good books out of my choices. Of all of them, I can see three stinkers I’ll never go near again: Solaris (Nothing but dull exposition), The Bunker Diary (No resolution) and The Giver (Passive hero doesn’t do much).

And I don’t remember anything about Resist, the second part of the Breathe series. I had to check back to see the names of the characters and my review on Goodreads. Two stars for that one, it seems.

I found some genuine emotional books this year, ones that moved me to tears – A Monster Calls, and the social anxiety felt by Lochlan in Forbidden really resonated with me. The simple heart-warming tale of A Street Cat name Bob was wonderful as well.

There are books this year that are really pushing the boundaries of young adult writing, and they’re invigorating to read. Every Day has a character without gender; The Chaos Walking trilogy has a stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Speaking of which, I’ve soaked up a lot of Patrick Ness this year with Knife, Ask, and Monsters and A Monster Calls. He’s definitely an author I’m on the lookout for now.

Another new author for me this year was Neil Gaiman and Coraline. This collection of short stories was variable, but I like his style enough to look for more in 2015.

Of the three Stephen Kings, I would read Carrie again over The Regulators. Brilliant story, streamlined and powerful. As was Doctor Sleep, a great sequel to The Shining.

Two classics this year, quite short ones: Emma, which clicked for me half way through, and The Great Gatsby, a sensual trip back to the 1920s.

Finally, a special shout out to my friend and antipodean author Anna Hub and her two books Beyond the Shadows and Shadow Hunters. Love those covers!

Happy reading for 2015!

3636

Review: The Giver, Lois Lowry

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3636.The_Giver

3/5 – Spoilers throughout

When Jonas reaches the age of twelve, his career will be chosen for him, as it is for every twelve year old in the community where he lives. Some will become labourers, some mothers, some doctors.

Jonas is the reciever of memory – every memory in the history of the old world, passed on by his tutor, The Giver. The question is, what will he do with that knowledge?

This is a short book, only about two hundred pages, so it only took me a few hours to read. The premise, though an old one – Utopia with a dark heart – is unique in its width. The community (it’s never named) has pushed blandness to an art form. Even colour (somehow) and music are banned, for fear of the population going wild and rioting if they see a patch of green grass or hear some Mozart, or something. Sex is forbidden and love controlled with drugs. Procreation is moved to a rotating group of birthmothers (who are presumably inseminated artificially).

However, they have taken the smart move of delegating everything ever learned onto one person. Most Utopias seem determined to forget the past ever existed.

Early in the book, Jonas talks about elderly patients and miscreants being sent ‘Elsewhere’ and ‘being released’, and it was very obvious from the first references that this is a community that not so much enjoys euthanasia as revels in it; ‘sub-standard’ infants and the elderly all go through the procedure. So it’s no shock to witness it when it happens late in the book to a baby.

The technical aspects of this book – it’s all telling and no showing (“Jonas was angry”, not “Jonas clenched his fists”) – and the oddly stilted dialogue make this book feel like it was written in 1955, not 1993. The writing is at the level of a children’s book; this is not YA, people! Eleven year olds have moved on – you don’t need to spoon-feed them by telling and not showing.

On the other hand, that stilted approach works well in the community as presented – everyone is bland and two-dimensional as the colourless world where they live. But here’s the thing: For effect, that tell-not-show should have changed when Jonas began his lessons with The Giver. And it didn’t.

Because of that, I felt nothing for Jonas or anyone else. I didn’t connect to him because he remained so two-dimensional. He could have been given so much more depth, but he’s never given the chance before he’s running away from home.

Jonas is also very passive. His relationship with The Giver is there only for exposition. Instead of Jonas finding things out for himself, instead of him pushing the boundaries of his life, instead of him maturing into an adult, he asks and The Giver explains the world to him on a plate. Spoon-feeding again. So the hero in this book does nothing until the last twenty pages.

Let’s talk about those last twenty pages, which is when the book really starts to fall over. Jonas crests a hill, finds a sledge and slips through the snow. It’s the first memory The Giver passed on to him. I had the feeling that Lowry wanted some deep metaphorical ending, but it didn’t work for me; Jonas is obviously hallucinating, or already dead. So the passive hero who does nothing but flee dies at the end. Lovely.

I rated this three stars, but I hesitated between that and two. Lowry creates a solid world, and one that works, but the hero in it is bland, even when he has the chance to become much more. The only colour in the book comes from The Giver, and all he does is exposit.

For a better time with a Utopia with a dark heart, read Mel Cusick-Jones, “Hope’s Daughter” – teenagers who actually discover things for themselves.

Disappointing.

18138917

Review: Trouble, Non Pratt

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18138917-trouble

4/5

Hannah is a wild fifteen year old, who loves nothing more than drinking parties, socialising with her friends and not caring too much about school. Then she gets pregnant.

I hadn’t heard much about this book before Becky’s enthusiastic and passionate review here (http://tinyurl.com/krzzevq). I follow every one of her reviews, and she very rarely rates a book five stars…and certainly never reads a book in two days. This was one I had to see for myself…and I’m glad I did.

I was expecting some social lecture about the perils of pregnancy, and some moral lessons about underage sex (age of consent in the UK is sixteen), but there was little of that. In fact, the book isn’t really about Hannah’s pregnancy as much as it about the social changes it causes around her.

I won’t reveal the spoiler of who the father is (I did work it out fairly quickly though), and why Hannah doesn’t go to him is revealed over the course of the book and makes a major plot point.

This brings in the other main character: Aaron. Aaron is the new boy in school, emerging from some trauma he can’t deal with. He views the eddies and streams of friendships and enemies with an indifferent eye, new to all and in some ways immune.

But when Hannah needs a father, he volunteers himself to be branded as the dad. Why he does it links back to his trauma…which is another spoiler I can’t reveal.

The short punchy chapters alternate between Hannah and Aaron, and since they have very different narrative voices, it works very well. Hannah’s sister receives a pet rabbit called Fiver for instance: Aaron would have recognised the Watership Down reference, but Hannah thinks it’s how much it cost. Their outlooks and expectations were very different. No doubt that we were dealing with two different people at any point.

Minor characters were given lots of room and backstory as well. Neville, a pensioner Aaron visits, is a great character full of wit and wisdom, as is Hannah’s gran.

There were points when the plot veered into kitchen-sink soap opera, but they were isolated. Pratt does a great job of pulling at your heart and then tickling it with her emotive writing within a paragraph or two.

This is a book about the strength of family and the power of good friends; a book about finding out who those friends are and who you can count on when you need them.

In the end, it’s a happy and uplifting book, a potent and positive spin on a subject usually given a more dour treatment.

15800595

Review: Doctor Sleep, Stephen King

 

4/5

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15800595-doctor-sleep

Dan Torrance, the child protagonist of King’s The Shining, is now an alcoholic drifter, chased by the ghosts of his childhood and trying to drown them in drink. When he gets off a bus to nowhere in New Hampshire, his life begins to change…

Including The Talisman – Black House books King wrote with Peter Straub and his Dark Tower series, King is actually an old hand at sequels. This one doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of warmth and humour and characteristic King touches and style.

About a quarter of the way through, I realised the plot is more of a Dean Koontz feel: Troubled man helps protect precocious tele-everything teen from very real psychic vampires, learning the redemptive power of family on the way. Not that’s a criticism at all, I just thought it was interesting.

Dan attends Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the twelve steps is apologise to those you’ve hurt…and it seems like King wants to apologise to Dan Torrance for running him through the hell of The Shining. He wants to know that Dan’s life turned out all right in the end. It’s very much a story of redemption and returning sanity, a counterpoint to the damnation and slide into insanity that was The Shining.

And King’s own demons mirror the book: As a recovering alcoholic and substance abuser, he’s been at the bottom where Dan starts off. As a result Dan feels like a very intimate and personal portrait, a thin veil of King’s own fall and recovery.

As much as Dan realises he can’t escape the virtual demons in his head, so Abra – his teenage counterpart – can’t escape the real demons chasing after her: Wherever you go, there you are, they realise.

The climax felt a little rushed, but then as a book about redemption and healing, it was never really about who was going to win in the end. And, to be honest, it was pretty obvious from the start.

It’s been a while since King wrote anything as simple as splatter and gore, and the horror and the terror in this book are restrained and off-screen. No one loses a foot or does the Mashed Potato all over a giant eyeball for instance.

With such a strong young adult protagonist, it’s also a great young-adult book.

I haven’t read The Shining in a few years, and it didn’t feel as if I needed a refresher to read this. There would have been a few paragraphs that wouldn’t have made much sense, that was all.

If you haven’t read any King, this is a great place to start.

4214

Review: Life of Pi

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4214.Life_of_Pi

4/5

Pi Patel travels with his family from India to Canada, on a cargo boat filled with zoo animals. When the boat sinks, Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger for a castaway companion.
When I started this and the author spent a page and a half talking about three toed sloths, I thought this was going to be a long haul of a book. To my immense surprise, the pacing picked up and I zoomed through it.

What helped is the voice of Pi. He’s warm, very smart, witty, loves wordplay and puns, and has an unending love of life he voices through his polytheism and zoology. His relationship to Richard Parker, the tiger he spends seven months on a boat with, is full of clever observation and humour.

Then something interesting happens almost at the end of the story. Pi tells some insurance people what might have happened on the boat, and suddenly…you’re left wondering. You’re left to examine the story anew. Pi even asks which version of the story you prefer, and leaves it up to you as reader to decide. It’s an interesting twist, but did the book need it? I didn’t think so.

This is how all literature should be. It’s accessible, it’s smart, it’s dark and it’s humorous, and works on as many levels as you want it to. Great book.