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TonyTalbot

TonyTalbot

5/5: Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell

Park doesn’t think much of Eleanor when he first sees her on the school bus. And Eleanor doesn’t think much of Park when she’s forced to sit next to him either…

Wow. That was something else.

Where to start with E&P? I’d start with the ending, but to do so would feel like a major spoiler, and it’s not something I want to spoil for anyone, even by dropping it under the safety of hidden text. Just read the book for yourself, then we’ll talk about the ending.

I wanted to talk about the ending so much when I finished it, I wanted to bother my book-buddy friend on a Sunday night when she probably had better things to do. I would have asked my wife about it, but she’d have to read it first, and I didn’t want to wait that long.

But enough ending-related vagueness. What can I tell you about this book?

The simplicity of the writing pulls you in and along for the ride. The sentence structure is simple, almost an elementary level. But those simple sentences have complex themes poured into them. It’s like minimalism for writing; all the power is underneath the words. It drags you down the page and pulls you through the book.

There are no easy answers to the questions asked around the edges of this story. Eleanor is pushed into hard and uncomfortable shapes by the world she lives in. She cares deeply for her brothers and sisters, but finds she can’t drown with them and she can only save herself when the waters close over her head. Park, by comparison, seems to have life easy, but there are undercurrents to his life that make his footing less secure than it seems.

I liked the additional complexity of having it set in 1986 as well. Eleanor can’t simply reach into a back pocket and call 911, any more than she can call Park. He’s only a few blocks away, but it might as well be miles.

And how lost Park is without Eleanor, the music gone from his life both metaphorically and literally. The songs he’s never going to be able to listen to again. Ah, man.

I loved the way this book made me remember how it all felt. It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again, for the first touch of a hand in ours.

(Falling asleep listening to your love on the phone, the conversations about nothing that mean everything. The first time you ever made someone a mix tape. Yeah, I’m that old I can remember doing those: The careful selection and editing, the struggle to get everything to fit onto a 90 minute space. Trying to squeeze your personality down to thirty songs. Even though I didn’t get there until I met my wife - my own Eleanor in style and bearing if not by name - until ten years later than Park, I still went through it all.)

I was almost blubbering and had to stop sometimes when I was reading this, because it’s so fragile, what Eleanor and Park have.

I felt like I would break it by looking at it for too long, and that would make my heart ache for its lost beauty.

It's wonderful to watch these two fall for the first time, as we have all fallen. And in watching, we remember when they were us.

2/5: Moondust, Andrew Smith

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth - Andrew Smith

In 1999, Andrew Smith was interviewing Charlie Duke, astronaut and moon walker, when he was interrupted. A fellow moon-walker had died, and now there were only nine of them left. Inspired and motivated by the fact that soon there would be none, Smith set out to track them down and talk to them about their experiences…

The first thing to note about this book is how much harder it would be to write today. Now, instead of nine, there are only four (October 30, 2018). Soon there will be none, which is an astonishing thought: For three years, mankind sent people to the moon and then never bothered again.

I know a fair bit about the Apollo program, but Smith throws facts and information into his mix that I wasn’t aware of. He develops relationships with some of the astronauts, and struggles with others. I was most fascinated by the two introverts – Neil Armstrong and John Young. Armstrong avoided all attempts at a face-to-face interview, but Young was stranger: He sat with Smith at a conference table, not opposite, but one chair offset, and gave his bare replies to the wall.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts, which I found amusing, since I am one and he’d presumably have as much trouble talking to me. He seems a pleasant enough fellow, but I wonder about his skill as an interviewer if he can’t get what he wants from his subject.

The most annoying thing about the book is Smith’s writing style. Here’s a sample of his compound, complex sentence structure:

“Houston would never win a beauty contest, but Bean’s neighbourhood on the edge of town is lovely, like a series of causeways cut through a friendly forest, saluted by all manner of towering, weeping trees, no one’s idea of Texas.”

…and he runs these throughout the book. Full stops, man. Use. Them.

Also, Smith drops references to the 1960s and assumes his audience is familiar with them. He talks about “Warhol’s Electric Circus” as though we know what he means. Some context would have been nice.

This is a book as much about Smith’s journey as the astronauts. He wonders why he feels motivated to do this project and shifts from controlling fathers to the astronauts as mirrors for ourselves.

At some point, he realises, the experience stopped being theirs and became our expectation of it. We all went to the moon, and we all came back with something different. But we also all came back with the same thing...How fragile we really are:

 

 

4/5: Dolores Claiborne, Stephen King

Dolores Claiborne - Stephen King

Accused of a crime she didn’t commit, Dolores Claiborne sits down with the sheriff of her little island community and tells him what happened. And to explain that, she has to tell him why she murdered her husband thirty years before…

I’ve said it before in my review of The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, but I’ll repeat it here: King does his best work when it’s him and a few other characters. Never mind his sprawling epics with a hundred people like IT and Under the Dome.

He works best when he can dig into a character and scoop them out, when it’s just the two of them locked together. For me, that’s why his short stories are things I read and re-read.

And boy, does he do it well with Dolores. Right from the first line, you’re pulled into this woman’s head and taken along with her as she talks her way through the story. The style is an uninterrupted narrative without chapter breaks or section breaks, a recording of her conversation with the local sheriff.

And it’s only her talking. We get snippets like this:

What’s that, Andy? Yeah, that’s what I said, weren’t you listenin to me first time?

But mostly we listen to her voice and her accent and her life and we’re carried away with it. There’s nothing flat here; this feels like a real woman talking and telling her life story, and it’s captivating. The hard choices she makes, the hard life she leads with a drunken and abusive husband and the hard and (very rich) woman she works for, Vera.

There are moments of black comedy as Vera and Dolores try and outsmart each other. Vera is bed-bound, and out of meanness or just boredom, tries to avoid bed-pan duty. Dolores counters, and Vera counters back. It’s two very smart and very tough women playing speed chess with a bedpan. It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t make you laugh and yet it does.

Then there are moments of great empathy as well. Vera is losing her mind, and Dolores would often climb into bed with her and hold her until she slept when the nightmares came. Dolores feels the emptiness of the giant house where they live and needs the warmth of another human as much as Vera, it seems.

In many ways, their relationship reminded me of the two women in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? They’re tied together in love and hate because they have nothing else. Their husbands are dead and their children are gone. All they have is each other, and that’s better than nothing.

I discovered that this is related to another book, Gerald’s Game, but I haven’t read that and didn’t feel like I missed anything.

The only reason this drops a star is that King seems to run out of steam a little after the death of Dolores’s husband. Not a sense of ticking boxes, but there’s a sense of wrapping up the few loose ends and finishing off, and the narrative seems to lose a little power.

One of my top five Kings, and one I shall be returning to.

And one final note: I'm not one for audio books, but I bet this is a kick-ass one.

3/5: The Fireman, Joe Hill

The Fireman: A Novel - Joe Hill

An incurable disease is sweeping around the world. People are growing a spore called “Dragonscale” on their skin, creating elaborate and beautiful patterns…and spontaneous combustion. Nurse Harper Willowes is one of those affected, but she flees to an isolated community where they’ve learned to control the Dragonscale and survive.

I was about half-way through this when I came across this line: “She had herself a nice cry.” It hit me then that Joe Hill doesn’t like his protagonist. There’s an undercurrent of contempt from him about the way Harper’s actions lead to problems other people have to solve.

That’s the biggest problem here: Harper isn’t a 21st century woman who can kick ass, and the story suffers greatly because of it. She constantly gets into situations she didn’t need to and then the other characters pull her out. She’s more like a 1950s scream-queen who has to be saved by the men around her. I suspect it may be that which irked Hill…I feel like he wanted her to solve her own problems. He creates situations for her and then gets annoyed when she doesn’t step up. There’s a teenage girl who pulls her weight far more than Harper and the story would have been more interesting if it had focused on her.

Another flaw is Hill’s dialogue…he has an absolute tin ear. “I love babies, they’re like little sausages with faces!” someone says. Someone else exclaims, “Golly! These are yummy!” This character is not five years old and living in 1956. I mean, seriously? What adult talks like this?

The romantic subplot between Harper and The Fireman feels flat and uninteresting and Hill plainly wasn’t invested in their relationship or their dialogue. When a major character dies at the climax, the dialogue is so trite and clichéd that it bounced me out of the scene. I was more upset reading that JK Rowling had been shot.

Hill mentions in the notes that he didn’t tell his agent that he was Stephen King’s son for years. For a writer who doesn’t want to be compared to his father, he’s sure going out of his way to copy him – he uses character names and characterisations freely from The Stand.

Items: There’s a deaf character called Nick, Harper’s middle name is “Francis” and a creepy character called Harold kept a diary. Fireman Harold’s surname is Cross, the surname of a woman The Stand’s Harold had a relationship with. Someone even says “It’s the hand of God!” at a dramatic point. I kept seeing John Rookwood as Nick Hopewell from The Langoliers. More metaphorically, there's a character called Father Storey.

So those were the flaws. What did I like about it to bump it up to three stars? There was an old fashioned feel about the apocalypse that I enjoyed. The name of the camp where Harper spends most of the book is called Wyndham, and this has the feel of a John Wyndham tale.

It’s more of a 50s morality story about how the healthy protect themselves than a gore-fest: the collapse of law and order into vigilantism, the easy killing of the diseased, the shunning of the outcasts. There’s a parallel there with the old leper colonies, or people with AIDS.

There’s a section towards the end where the characters walk through Maine, and it shows the kindness of the healthy as well as their adjustment to a new reality. Signs that tell them to keep out of town, but there’s fresh food beside the signs. It’s the strongest section of the story, and the most rewarding. If only there had been more of it.

 

3/5: "The Ocean at the end of the Lane", Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel - Neil Gaiman

A man sits beside a pond and remembers when he was seven years old and the pond was an ocean. And his neighbours seemed to be immortal…

This is my second exploration of Gaiman, after Coraline and Other Stories. I was undecided then whether I’d get into Gaiman or whether he’d end up as take-him-or-leave-him writer after my first attempt.

After this, I’m coming down on the or-leave-him side.

There’s nothing wrong here, with Gaiman’s writing or his characters. The story moved along at a nice enough pace, the imagery was adept and skilful. I liked the unreliable nature of the un-named narrator, and the theme of how liquid our young memories are. And I've always liked young narrators in stories, the easy acceptance of the strange things going on around them.

But there was nothing here that made me want to read more Gaiman. None of my internal dials went to eleven. I didn’t hate it; I didn’t love it. It was merely a story, and nothing that would make me want to zero in on his work.

Gaiman for me is the equivalent of mashed potatoes: Bland, easily digested, quickly forgotten, unmemorable.

Having said that, if I read anything more of his, I'll stick to his short stories. I suspect he might be a slowly acquired taste, and that I’ll get used to him.

One day, I might be back.

5/5: "The Hate U Give", Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

Starr alternates between the predominantly Caucasian school where she learns and the poor black neighbourhood where she lives. By the age of sixteen, she’s seen two of her friends shot and killed in front of her.

On a very warm Sunday morning, I was 33 pages into this book. I’d finished its 400+ pages by that evening. It’s a story that grabs hold of you and screams that you listen and more importantly, that you listen well.

It is the 21st century, right? I’m just checking, because the neighbourhood Starr lives in doesn’t seem to think so. The predominantly minority population feels itself as oppressed as 19th century slaves, and who can blame them? They take care of themselves, because it seems the rest of the city where they live won’t. Law is enforced by neighbours working together and gang members patrolling the streets.

The people who should be protecting them – the police – are distant and disinterested and just as likely to shoot them as a random drive by killer. (There’s also a wider debate here, I thought, about arming police officers. If the police officer had a Taser, we’d having a twitching teenager, not a dead one).

You get a feel for the world Starr lives in within a few pages of the book starting. She’s at a party when there’s the sound of gunshots. She doesn’t wonder what the noise is; she doesn’t stop to investigate. She and everyone else runs for their life. In those few paragraphs, you see what life is like for Starr and her friends. How used to it they are, how much they expect it. There’s a tragedy here, growing up so hard and fast in a place where you should feel safe. Starr is able to identify a handgun without any hesitation at the age of sixteen.

This is a story of living between narrow spaces. The neighbourhood exists between being labelled a ghetto and gang wars. Starr walks the space between her Caucasian friends and her black family, of wanting to stay silent and be safe or speak up and be a target. Her father walks the space between wanting to help the neighbourhood and making a better life for his kids.

There are walls here as well. One that jumped out at me was late in the story: Starr’s white boyfriend is putting up with some good natured jokes from her black friends. But when he wants to ask a question about black life, a wall immediately goes up for a paragraph or two. You can feel the here comes the racism vibe without it being spoken. But how else are we to learn if we don’t ask questions?

Starr also puts up walls between herself and her boyfriend and school friends. She walks differently, talks differently and behaves differently around them. The only way the black girl feels as though she can be accepted is if she doesn’t act black.

I’m five hundred words into this review and I haven’t got to the best part of the story yet. Starr’s extended family is absolutely awesome. You know they would kill for each other and die for each other without hesitation. No matter what happens, the family is the strongest and most enduring thing, the spine the book is built on.

I want to sit in their kitchen and listen to them argue and love each other and hate each other and all the other things good families are supposed to do. And I want some of that red velvet cake.

And you know that love and support stretches out across the street and the neighbourhood and is reflected and magnified back to them. Starr lives in a ghetto, but that doesn’t mean the ghetto isn’t a family and a strength that she knows is there for her and everyone else.

Everyone in the story is so well developed, I read most of this book in terror that some of them wouldn’t make it out alive. I was expecting gunshots and screeching tires every page. I got a glimpse of how Starr must live all the time, and my respect for her and her family and neighbours went up to eleven.

I have a few minor gripes, but they are very minor: The subplot with Mav and the Kings seemed to wrap up too quickly and neatly, and there seemed to be some author intrusions, especially in the above quoted example of Chris asking a question. But damn. This is Angie Thomas’s first book. There’s a humour and warmth and characterisation here of a twenty year veteran.

Consider me a fan.

4/5: Challenger Deep, Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep - Neal Shusterman

Caden Bosch is a normal fifteen year old. A little geeky, a good artist. He’s sarcastic and witty and fun to be around. But he’s falling apart. He thinks the kid at school, the one he passes in the corridor and doesn’t know, is going to kill him. His parents may not be who they say they are. He starts to hear voices that tell him to do things he doesn’t want to do…

This is a difficult book to rate. As a work of fiction, I would rate this quite low, perhaps 2/5. The story drags a little at times, and Caden’s relationships are muddy and ill-defined in places.

But here’s the thing: This isn’t a work of fiction, as Shusterman says in the notes at the end. This is a semi-fictional biography of his son and his declining mental health. I’ve never read a book on schizophrenia before, so there’s no baseline. There’s nothing to say, “Compared to ‘X’ this is better or worse.” I’m not an expert on how accurate it is, so I can’t rate it on that.

I misted up a few times while I was reading it. I also laughed out loud in others. But, my god, Caden’s parents – and by extension, Shusterman - must have felt so helpless. You can only cry with them, as powerless as they are as they watch their son dissolve.

Running alongside Caden’s story is a wider symbolic journey he’s taking on a sailing ship, crewed with representations of the people around him in the real world. He knows where he’s going – The Marianas Trench – but he doesn’t know how long it will take him, or why he’s on the ship in the first place. It’s a personal journey of discovery and revelation, of choices and friendships. No spoilers, but not everyone makes it – in the real world and on his journey. Sometimes people get lost on those oceans and never make landfall again.

Most terrifying of all is when Caden is at the depths of his illness. His journey and reality blur together, without transition or warning. It’s jarring enough that we as readers have to check again where we think he should be. He undergoes dissociation for a few chapters, referring to himself in the third person (“You look at your sister”, not “I look at my sister”). He is, in literal terms, out of his mind.

I didn’t know much beyond the barest layman’s knowledge of schizophrenia when I started this book. People hearing voices, I thought, and that was it. I didn’t know about the other symptoms: the growing paranoia, the mania, the dissociative personality. The closest I could come as an analogy would be the engine of Caden’s brain is red-lining at 4000 RPM and won’t slow down even if he could turn it off. I learned things from this story.

I have a feeling that this was made with slow and deliberate care, an intense desire to get it right. I wonder how many times Shusterman had to stop writing so he could stop crying. I certainly had to when I was reading it.

Neal Shusterman didn’t write this book for the reviews, or the money it’s making him. He wrote it because he had to, and he wrote it so it helps someone else understand.

And like the best of stories, it worked.

3/5: "Release" by Patrick Ness

Release - Patrick Ness

Adam Thorn is having one of the worst days of his life. It’s also the day the queen and her faun rise from a lake and examine the life of the woman who died in her waters…

The queen and the faun is only a short story, entwined very loosely with Adam’s awful day. So why is it there? I saw some places where it mirrors Adam’s day: The desolate spaces that some people call “home”, filled only with anger and sadness. Dialogue that echoes between them.

But they are minor interactions, and really, the whole stream-of-consciousness tale could have been dropped with no loss whatsoever. The characters of the queen and the faun are also entirely two dimensional. The faun only exists to repeat “My queen” and to fix the damage she causes as she wanders the town where Adam lives.

So, the queen and the faun can be dismissed easily. What else is going on here?

In the course of his day, Adam finds his friendships changing, his brother dropping a bombshell, he’s fired, and he comes out of a relationship and into to a new one. There are fires lit on this day that won’t be extinguished for years to come.

As usual with Ness, his dialogue crackles with wit and humour. There’s a vibrancy and a life to his characters that’s a delight to read…apart from Adam that is, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Did I mention Adam was gay? Because to me, the least interesting thing anyone can tell me is their sexuality. I don’t give a hoot about where and what Adam snuggles against. Whatever helps get you through this tough old world.

Surprisingly, Ness doesn’t make much attempt to make Adam beyond a stereotype. He’d rather watch the Oscars over football. He’s dreamy rather than aggressive. Therefore, he must be gay. His boyfriend is a ballroom dancer – but at least that one is pointed out.

His parents are a stereotype as well: Angry and bigoted Christians who can’t move past man-woman sexuality, and a father who tries to pray the evil spirits out of him. There are glimpses of a real person under his puritanical preaching, but it’s not developed.

Ness doesn’t seem to be able to move past Adam’s sexuality either. I don’t mean in terms of homophobia, but in terms of character. Adam’s only characterisation is in reference to his sexuality. We only see him as he reacts to other people’s perceptions of it.

It’s like he runs down a checklist. I am with my (checks list) family; therefore I am (checks second list) angry. I am with my (Checks list) boyfriend; therefore I am (checks second list) horny.

In one scene, Adam and his old boyfriend park at a spot and look at a mountain. We’re never told if Adam finds the mountain beautiful or the view boring, whether he looks at it as something he wants to climb or with the eyes of a geologist. His only response is how he should react to the boy next to him.

Part of this is Adam’s insecurity, but the pattern repeats with everyone he meets. We never see Adam alone, to find out what’s going on internally. We see him drive places, but we don’t find out if he’s a careful driver; we don’t see what flavour pizza he likes. The small things that would have defined his internal world are missing.

There are a few exceptions to this, and they are heart breaking to read. Adam’s intense loneliness and fears for his future shine through in those few brief passages. The sex scenes, seen in silhouette as appropriate for a mature YA read, are sensual and passionate. There’s a wondrous sense of intimacy, of watching the simplest thing in the world: Two people falling in love and expressing it in the most fundamental way they can.

Overall, Ness is better than this, and this book should have been four or five stars. I needed to see Adam more as he really was, to feel the raw nerve endings that make him flinch. I needed to see more to truly care about this young man terrified of walking into the world alone.

3/5. "Scythe" by Neal Shusterman

Scythe - Neal Shusterman

It’s so far in the future that humanity has stopped counting the years. Immortality has been perfected by a benevolent, omnipotent AI called “The Thunderhead”, who runs the planet with a quiet purpose. All of the wisdom and experiences of humanity are stored online. Any question and any moral problem can be solved instantly. All injuries – even jumping or falling from a great height – can be repaired in a few days.

The main problem with all this immortality is a simple one: Population control. The space program has literally crashed and burned and earth is all the room we have. Rather than enacting a policy of restricting childbirth, humanity comes to a different conclusion: Random, society-supported murders. But because murder is such a loaded word, these people are gleaned, picked from society and discarded. For the good of the many, the few have to die.

Most of those chosen to do this murd…gleaning – The Scythes - see it as a high calling, the ultimate public service. They go about their business as if in a holy order. They live as simply as monks, taking only what they need. They kill with compassion, granting the gleaned and their families’ dignity in death.

Then there are those that enjoy the kill, the ones who are nothing less than psychopathic in their slaughter. These are the ones who consider themselves Nietzschean Ubermensch, supermen above normal men.

And the amount of killing is extraordinary: Scythes are required to kill five people a week on average, year in and year out – for eternity. All of the Scythes find different ways to live with themselves for what is nothing more than an endless parade of murder. Pulled into this world are Rowan and Citra, teenagers who caught the attention of the Scythe Faraday and are taken as his apprentices.

I made a major mistake before I started this book: I went and looked at the sequel. There, in the first sentence of the teaser, is the basic plot for this one. (Note to future self: DO NOT DO THIS.) Also, some things early on bounced me out of the story, and I found it hard to settle back in to it for a few hundred pages.

An example: Rowan is holding the hand of a character about to be gleaned. The gleaning character is fibrillated with a massive electric shock, killing them instantly. Rowan is thrown across the room. It’s a minor point, but electrocuted muscles grip, they don’t unlock. He should be as dead as the gleaned. And we’re told again and again that the repairing nanites in everyone’s bloodstream get to work immediately on any injury. Wouldn’t they restart the gleaned characters heart?

It bugged me, and bounced me out of the story for a long time. I kept looking for other errors in the world Shusterman creates. I found it hard to believe, for instance, that humanity has lost all of its curiosity and any sense of adventure, enough that they can’t be bothered with a space program after it failed. Really? An all-knowing AI that can’t work out a space program? A group of guys (and women) did it with pen and paper in the 1960s. And I believe curiosity is hard wired into us as much as the ability to judge distances.

Secondary to that was the fact that the Rowan and Citra were so damn boring and two dimensional. At an early instance, we’re told about Citra’s quick temper, not shown it. The two of them had no chemistry, and didn’t even fight with each other particularly well. They are supposed to have bonded and fallen in love, but there wasn’t a spark between them, of love or hate. They are only surfaces everyone else reflects from. There was little inner life or conflict going on.

So for the first two hundred pages or so, I was reading with no sense of narrative tension. I knew how it was going to come out, after all. No surprises…until there was a sudden screaming right turn and the story shot off into an entirely new direction.

Suddenly it started to get more interesting. Rowan and Citra are split up: Rowan is sent to the brutal psychopath Goddard and Citra studies under another legendary scythe named Curie. Their training takes very different paths and they split until the climax of the story.

And the reason is got more interesting is because in some ways, Rowan and Citra aren’t the central characters in the story anymore. I was much more interested in Scythe Curie, Apprentice Volta and Scythe Goddard. In fact, every character in the story is better developed than Rowan and Citra. Even the people being gleaned were more interesting.

Despite the minor early niggles and poor main characters, Shusterman creates for the most part an entirely logical world that you know would work. It’s a very different world and morality from ours, this post-AI place, but you know it would work.

I don't usually comment on book covers, but the first edition paperback one is great. I love the 1930s red and cream feel of it, like a World War Two propaganda poster.

Humanity is supposed to have put aside its squabbles over politics, but it’s very much alive in the meetings of the Scythes. State sponsored psychopaths are free to murder or save who they choose (and take their mansions) with impunity, as they once did in Nazi Germany.

Most disturbing is watching Rowan’s humanity being destroyed by his brainwashing under Goddard, until little of him remains. How thin that thread of compassion is and how easily we can allow it to snap.

Humanity has moved on, but it still seems it has a dark heart, and a long way to go.

4/5: Hard Times, Charles Dickens

Hard Times - Charles Dickens, Kate Flint

Thomas Gradgrind has a principle in life: Facts and cold logic are all that matters. There’s no room for imagination or anything that can’t be defined or measured. He expects the small school he runs to adhere to that principle, and expects the same of his own two children, Louisa and Tom. After all, what go wrong with the solid logical base of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (Or the one)”…?

Dicken’s tenth novel, published in 1854, has a very different feel to most of his other work. For a start, it’s very short for a Dickens novel. The chapters are shorter and the pacing faster as a result, and he doesn’t linger or pad scenes out.

Part of that may be the setting: Dickens isn’t in his beloved London for this one, but a fictional Northern England town called “Coketown”. He can’t fix the geography with real examples, so he goes for metaphor and simile. The pistons of the mills are described as working up and down like “the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness”, for example.

This was another story written as a serial, and it shows early on: Dickens quickly abandons his opening plot line of the school and his master and moves on to getting Gradgrind’s children grown up and married, which is when the story kicks in.

Louisa is married in a loveless union to Gradgrind’s best friend, Bounderby. And what else could it be, but loveless? The young woman has had imagination and love pounded out of her and replaced with cold facts since the day she started school. Her slacker of a brother encourages her to marry Bounderby so he can have an easy life (Tom works for Bounderby, and knows Bounderby will ease up on him to keep his sister happy).

Louisa is briefly seduced by an interloper, and fascinated by his lifestyle, but backs away. Instead, she confronts her father with the results of her cold education: His grand experiment has broken her ability to love, to feel anything for anyone. Shocked that the rigid rules of his life have done this to his daughter, Gradgrind recants.

In the meantime, Tom the slacker has run up some gambling debts and frames a local man for a robbery. He flees, but is captured by one of the former pupils of Gradgrind. In the best scene in the book, Gradgrind pleads with the pupil to let Tom go, but has his Utilitarianism is thrown back at him with brutal efficiency: The needs of the community outweigh Gradgrind’s wishes, after all.

The story wasn’t what I was expecting from Dickens. His tone is almost conversational at the start of the book; it felt more personal than his usual removed narrative voice. The novel is short, which helps the story move along, and the shift of location to a fictional town meant that he didn’t spend pages on padding descriptions.

Refreshingly for Dickens, Louisa felt like a real character and a not just a simpering and melodramatic female. Tom actually felt less well developed and more two-dimensional.

I liked the exploration of Utilitarianism, and I loved the way it was thrown back against Gradgrind, who thought it was wonderful…until he was the one and not the many.

3/5: The Alpha Plague, Michael Robertson

The Alpha Plague: A Post-Apocalyptic Action Thriller - Michael Robertson

My wife picked this one up, then decided she didn’t like the gore and passed it to me.

In the administrative island hub of the UK stands a building called “The Alpha Tower”. Due to a biological warfare experiment escaping, a plague of what can only be called instant-zombies is released from it. Scurrying ahead of the growing plague are Rhys and Vicky, trying to stay alive long enough to escape the island and reach Rhys’s son.

I read the 260 or so pages of this novel in a day, which demonstrates how fast paced it is. The chapters are short and all end on enough of a cliff-hanger to keep reading. The characters – essentially just two – are well enough developed and interesting enough to care about.

The plot is essentially 28 Days Later compressed to something more like 28 Seconds Later. The zombies are instantly produced and very fast moving, and the island is quickly overwhelmed. Complicating matters is an apparent lack of guns or weapons, which seems to include the police not having any tasers or riot control hardware.

The story is competently written and the action clear and concise. But there are oddities. Rhys seems to regard Vicky as a romantic opportunity rather than a partner in survival, even in tense scenes where they’re running for their lives. There’s a constant and monotonous use of one profanity (You know the one: Four letters, starts with an F). Sprinkled through the text would have been fine for effect, but its overuse becomes boring.

3/5: Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, undergoes a radical procedure to bump his intelligence up to genius levels. Only intelligence isn’t all it cracks up to be…

At the start of the book, Charlie starts with the equivalent intelligence of a smart dog. He’s able to understand basic commands – sit, stay, fetch – but has no concept of yesterday or tomorrow or social relationships. He barely remember his parents. There’s no framework for his life apart from today.

Despite this, Charlie is content. You don’t get many fundamentally unhappy dogs, and it doesn’t take much for them to love you. All Charlie wants is for someone to show him some humanity and he’s happy.

And like dogs, some people kick them. Some people set them on fire and laugh while they bite themselves to put it out. I’ve never wanted to smack so many characters in the mouth and tell them to leave Charlie alone. He’s trying his best, damn it!

So many people are jerks in this book that Charlie’s arrogance when he becomes a genius feels semi-justified. He’s only learning from his peers.

When Charlie grows teeth and begins to bite back, his friends don’t like him anymore. The dog bites, take it back to the pound; it’s not amusing when it fights back. There’s an irony that Charlie’s later behaviour to others is the same way they treated him.

This is a book almost entirely about abuse. The doctors who worked on him regard him as a subject and not a human being. His fellow workers at the bakery taunt and tease him. Charlie’s mother threatened to stab him and slapped him when he wet himself or he got an involuntary erection.

Small wonder he can’t function emotionally. His emotional intelligence lacks far behind his intellectual intelligence, and he’s unable to consummate his female relationships except on a purely physical level. The main female characters are practically stereotypes: Miss Conservative and Miss Hussy. Miss Hussy seems to have walked in from Cabaret…I kept seeing her as a 1920s floozy Liza Minelli, not a 1960s liberated woman, which was probably the author’s intent. Although Miss Conservative seems to have no problem having a relationship with a former student. Ahh, the 60s!

And because this was written in the 60s, the terms for Charlie’s mental disability seem pejorative now: He’s a moron, he’s a retard. It belittles Charlie’s inherent kindness and the intelligence he does possess at the start of the story.

Sometimes in a book, you wish the characters were merely fictional. Like the men who abused Bernice, who will sleep with them for a pretty trinket and has three kids by the time she’s eighteen. Like Charlie’s ‘friends’ who think of nothing of kicking his legs out from under him when he falls asleep standing up.

In among all this abuse and degradation there are some sweet spots. The doctor who gives Charlie electro-shock seems compassionate, despite his eye on the dollar in Charlie’s father’s wallet. Burt, who tests Charlie and Algernon the mouse with patience and tolerance. And the entire facility of Warren Hill. Bright spots of the best of humanity on a dark stage.

The last few pages are heart-breaking to read. Only at the end before he slips into senility does Charlie come to his emotional maturity and learns humility isn’t such a bad trait after all. Finally, we can empathise and we can cry over his lost potential. Not just a smart man, but the good man he always was. There are glimpses of the poet and the eloquent man he could have been in his descriptions of New York and the people he meets.

It’s hard to rate this book. On the one hand, most of the people in it are absolute jerks, including Charlie, for most of the story. On the other, Daniel Keyes wrote a book which created characters so awful I wanted to punch them.

This isn’t a book I enjoyed reading. Seeing a character being bullied and abused is hard going. It’s probably a book I’ll never read again. But that doesn’t mean I regret reading it.

2/5: "The Children of Men", PD James

The Children of Men - P.D. James

Twenty five years ago, the last woman on earth gave birth. There have been no births since…

Sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss once came up with a phrase: “A Cosy Catastrophe” – a world where disaster has struck, but where the characters still have a decent quality of life. The world is ending, but the milk still comes daily and there are clean plates for crumpets and tea.

The Children of Men is a lot like that. The world is in slow, ageing decline after a worldwide loss of fertility. The playgrounds stand empty and silent, and the schools are closed. Yet our main character can go round to his ex-wife for tea and biscuits without it turning into a shouting match. It’s a very British end of the world. There’s a sense of a nation saying, “Oh, well”, shrugging it shoulders and carrying on as normal.

Yet under it, we see glimpses of humanity winding down into its old age: the roads are crumbling, the loss of power and lighting is starting to shrink communities. There are empty homes and silent, silent streets and countryside. There are government organised mass suicides.

All this atmosphere is wonderful. It’s just what I look for in an apocalyptic end of the world story. It’s the only reason this book rates two stars and not one.

Personally, I couldn’t help but comparing it to Day of The Triffids. Both have a similar 1950s feel to them, even though this was written in the 1990s. But whereas Triffids kicks into high gear immediately, CoM takes forty of its first 288 pages in back story and exposition before the plot arrives.

And there’s the biggest problem with the story: The pacing. James spends paragraphs lovingly writing about how Theo, the main character, lights a fire in a woodshed, or explains in long detail about his childhood summers spent with his cousin, the dictator now ruling England.

The book doesn’t pick up steam until the second half, when Theo goes on the run with a heavily pregnant woman. All the back story of the first half could have been woven in here and made more of an interesting time of it.

Don’t tell me about how much Theo loved his room when he visited his cousin. I came here for the bleakness of a coastal town where the elderly come to commit suicide – whether they want to or not. I came here for the absolute silence of a shrinking world when Theo gets out of the car in the middle of the night.

I came here for the end of the world.

Do yourself a favour: Read Day of The Triffids instead.

2/5: "The Last Jedi" by Jason Fry

The Last Jedi (Star Wars) - Jason Fry

A novelisation of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (Go figure!)

There were some nice expanded scenes with Rose, her sister Paige and Finn (particularly highlights were pointing out his innocence), but also some very odd typos that should have been caught – a paragraph that repeats half a page later, some out of place speech quotes and this paraphrased howler:

“He was a permanently scowling man who watched them approach, scowling.”

I’d long for the days of Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the novelisation of Star Wars IV, but he didn’t such a grand job on The Force Awakens either.

No one seems to give a damn that some of us might want to read these books, rather than own them as merchandise.

2/5: "Grey Mountain" by John Grisham

Gray Mountain - John Grisham

When The Lehman Brothers bank goes bust in 2008, Manhattan lawyer Samantha Kofer finds herself out of a job, alongside a lot of other lawyers. With a glut of legal talent on the streets and a lack of jobs, she’s forced to take a job in Western Virginia for free, encountering a different world of problems…

In New York, Sam was a proof-reader who worked eighty hours a week, her eye on a nice corner office and a salary in six figures. In Western Virginia, she meets people who need a new will writing, people who have been thrown out of their homes for bad debts, people on Meth with kids. She plays social worker as well as lawyer to a fair few of these clients. And to her surprise, she discovers that actually being a lawyer who helps people has its own rewards.

Plot wise, there’s no actually not that much going on in this book. It’s more like a series of vignettes, strung together to form a novel.

Behind most of these cases is the appalling destruction of Western Virginia by the mining companies. They will come in, strip a mountain – as in tear it down, with all the environmental damage that entails – then move on. The terrible working conditions and the mess they leave behind is not their problem.

The environmental subject is clearly something Grisham feels strongly enough to write a novel about, but the mining-companies-are-awful thing does get wearing after a few hundred pages. Yes, we know, John: mining company bad. Mining company awful. No argument here (I’ve looked on Google Earth). Let’s move on with the story.

There was a semi-feminist feel here as well. Most of the men Sam meets are evil and even the good ones bend and break the law when it suits them. Sam and her all-female team of lawyers are the only morally pure characters in the book, practically the only ones standing in the way of the nasty male miners.

Grisham is fine when he’s working in a courtroom or a corner office. His dialogue is sharp and witty, and his legal knowledge seems outstanding. Unfortunately, his descriptive writing is his weakness. And when he’s telling you how great the unspoiled areas are of West Virginia, he doesn’t immerse you in it. You don’t feel the breeze or smell the trees. In a book with such a heavy outdoor setting, it’s a hindrance.

SPOILER ALERT!

3/5: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

** SPOILERS THROUGHOUT **

 

Nick Dunne’s wife Amy goes missing on their fifth anniversary. And as revelations about their life come out, it looks like Nick might be the guilty party…

I did something unusual with this book: I didn’t read the teaser on the back (My wife never reads the teaser – she says it spoils the story too much for her, so I thought I’d give it a try). So I had no idea what this was about going in. None at all. I picked it up from a charity shop simply because I’d seen other people reading it on my Goodreads feeds, and I’d vaguely heard they’d made a movie about it.

During the first half, the narrative alternates between real-time Nick discovering Amy is missing and flashback diary entries from her. It’s a nice narrative split between the two of them, listening to their voices and slowly getting to know them.

It quickly becomes obvious that Nick is screwed down very, very tight and has quite a few self-worth problems and anger management issues, especially towards women. He unsurprisingly becomes prime suspect material, the reveal of which is paced quite slowly up to the middle of the book.

I didn’t believe that Nick, as angry as he is, murdered his wife at any point during the first half of the story. He seems smarter than the clumsy way the disappearance is organised, and his bemusement as to what’s going on seems genuine. But Nick admits he’s an unreliable narrator – the first time he talks to the police, he says he lied to them five times. So what is going on here? It’s the uncertainty that keeps the book moving through its slower first half. There’s a slow drip of revelations that keep things moving.

At halfway, the story rockets away into a new direction. There’s a bombshell, and what a bombshell it is: Suddenly we switch to Amy’s point of view, an Amy very much alive and very much running the show. The real Amy, not the one who wrote the fake diary we’ve been reading. And this woman is an out and out sociopath, with a steel trap of a mind to rival Hannibal Lecter. She operates and plans on levels so far above the rest of us that no one has a chance to keep up. She runs rings around the local police, the FBI and even the reader.

And what gleeful pleasure she takes in destroying Nick, of sending him to prison or even death for his transgression of taking a mistress. This is a revenge plan a year or more in the making. This is a not a woman you want to cross. Or even meet, for that matter. Nick has no chance. It’s like watching someone who runs for a bus trying to compete against an Olympic sprinter. All you can do is watch and wince as she carves Nick up.

At least at first she does. Amy has been extremely coddled her entire life, and it has its own pleasure to watch her struggle and fail in the real world and to have her backup plans fail. There are people out there crazier than her, it seems.

In the meantime, Nick has got her measure, and she eventually returns, believing him contrite and beaten. They try to outsmart each other, but after a few weeks of manoeuvring, she pulls a final rabbit from her hat: She’s pregnant and Nick decides to stay because of the child.

I read the ending yesterday, and then some reviews where they didn’t like it. The villain wins, after all. Nick is defeated because he wants to give his child a semblance of a normal life. He buckles under. It's unsatisfying. We want justice for the underdog.

Some said Nick should have been braver and stronger. In a sense I agree: Having encountered a few sociopaths in my life, I know the only winning move with them is not to play. The only path to take is away.

But then I was thinking about it again this morning. How many times has it been a woman who has buckled under because of their children? How many stay in loveless marriages – in and out of fiction – because of their child?

Does it take more courage to walk away and never see your children again, or to stay and tough it out? Which would you choose?