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Hard Times
Charles Dickens, Kate Flint

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.


3/5: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn



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?

2/5: From a Certain Point of View

Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View - Paul Kemp

A collection of forty short stories, celebrating forty years of Star Wars.

Warning: I’m going into some Star Wars minutiae below and your eyes may glaze over. If you don’t give a diddly about Star Wars, feel free to stop right here and get off. I won’t mind.

You know that creature in the cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, the one who looks like a bat? Don’t worry if you don’t…they’re only in the movie for about five seconds.


This character has a name (Kabe). This character has a backstory and a characterisation. This character has a gender. This book is forty stories from characters like Kabe, peripheral to the main plot of Star Wars, but running alongside it. Some of them take bigger roles (Like Wedge Antilles, who shoots down a TIE fighter and saves Luke Skywalker), but most are like Kabe.

So as you can imagine, this isn’t a book for an initiate into the Star Wars universe. There are characters only the most devoted Star Wars fan will recognise in here. It makes it hard for it to be accessible for someone who might just wander by and pick it up. The same goes for some of the authors – I recognised some had penned other Star Wars works, or were associated with Star Wars in some way.

I had higher hopes for this collection. For a start, all forty stories take place over the course of only Star Wars: A New Hope. There are nine (at time of writing) official Star Wars films to choose from (more if you drag in the Ewok movies), so I found the limit to be an odd one. I’d have liked to have seen a story from The Empire Strikes Back or Rogue One. It’s a big universe to choose from.

But enough with the flaws. What worked for me?

A particular favourite was the officer who files the endless paperwork that keeps the Empire moving and who knows how to work the system to bail out other officers. Sounds like a hoot, right? A paper pushing bureaucrat? But the story centres on the officer who didn’t fire at the escaping droids in A New Hope (His name is Hija, for those keeping notes), and how this bureaucrat helps him figure out a good reason for not firing. And any author who can write a decent story about a bureaucrat deserves Kudos.

There’s a kicker of a story from Wil Wheaton about a tower guard who watches the X-Wings depart for the Death Star - the twist near the climax is heart breaking. There’s a fun story from Emperor Palpatine done entirely in rhyming couplet. A tale from Boba Fett done like a 1940s pulp detective story. A tale from the last seconds of Alderaan. An argument between Whills.

Not a collection for the Star Wars novice by any means, and the scope of the tales was disappointing. Nevertheless, some were very entertaining.


3/5: The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, Stephen King

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - Stephen King

When nine year old Tricia McFarland steps off a hiking trail – mostly to ease her bladder, but more to escape the arguing of her brother and mother - she makes a mistake. When she doesn’t retrace her steps, she makes a bigger one. What follows is nine days of deprivation and rising terror…

King says he works best when he’s writing epics, full of a hundred characters, but I’ve always found his best work to be the simplest: a few characters, a simple setting – Misery comes to mind, as do his short stories.

Concentrating on Tricia gives him a chance to dig in and scoop her out, to see what she’s made of, and we feel every ache and cut as she does. King certainly puts her through the grinder in her walk in the woods: Thirst, hunger, swarms of insects that love the taste of her sweat. There are simple joys too, like a meteor shower on a crystal clear night.

But there’s something more in the woods: Something odd following her, waiting for her strength to fail. It’s girl versus nature tale, simple and effective in its delivery and its imagery.

I checked the map from where Trish started her walk after I’d finished the novel, and it seemed to me the woods were conspiring against her – I don’t think it’s possible to walk as she did without crossing what looks like a major road. But then again, the things she sees – or imagines she sees – probably wouldn’t have been there either.

I devoured the first half of this book in roughly two hours. It’s not a long tale at around three hundred pages, and it didn’t take me long to finish the rest.

The only parts that slowed it down for me were the baseball references. Trish has a personal stereo with a radio that can pick up baseball games, and the sound of human voices is what keeps her moving, especially when her hero appears, a man named Tom Gordon.

The only problem with a book with sports references (of any kind) is the inference that your reader knows what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about baseball except its basic terminology, so I was lost when Gordon is called “A closer” or “it’s the bottom of the eighth with three outs.”

It’s either a case of explaining it and slowing the book down, or moving on and hoping for the best. I mentally skimmed the parts where Trish is listening and commenting on the baseball matches she’s listening to. They weren’t more than a page or so anyway, so the effect was minimal. But it felt like I missed something important, since Trisha’s survival is linked to the game so closely. Even the chapters are titled after segments of a baseball game. (I feel the same way when I watch “A Field of Dreams”. Still love the movie though.)

I would have rated this four stars but for King’s notorious weak spot: His endings. I bought this book from a charity shop, and the ending changed my mind from I-want-to-keep-it to I’m-donating-it-back.

In the last few chapters, King simply seems to give up. He jumps out of Trish’s world and rushes headlong to the climax, as though suddenly bored with the tale and wanting to get it done. He skips four days of her walking in two pages to reach that climax. It’s a jarring jump out of a very involving and personal story.

And, much, much worse, when Trish finally faces the creature following her (Something which seemed to me was a twisted relative of IT), it’s not her that banishes it, but a random passing hunter. Not what I wanted to see in any way. I wanted to see her do it! It’s her I’ve been rooting for over the past three hundred pages, Mr King! Don’t drop in a random stranger with a rifle just to wrap it up.

A few years ago, I was in Washington State, driving through its endless evergreen forests. You could have lost anything in there – aircraft carriers, towns, whole civilisations. Walk into those woods more than a few hundred yards and you would die as you looked for a way out. A single child, alone, un-provisioned, unprepared? No one would ever find her.

Forests are a primeval environment anyway, a scary-as-hell place to get lost. A scary as hell sensation to feel like you’re being followed on top of that (as I can personally attest to).

Trish is made of tough stuff, I’ll tell you that, and to not have her beat the creature following her is simply a cheat.

2/5: The Pelican Brief, John Grisham

The Pelican Brief - John Grisham

Two US Supreme Court judges are killed in what appears to be a related incident, but no one can figure out why, except a law student named Darby Shaw who suddenly everyone wants killed…

This was John Grisham’s third novel, and in a way it follows closely the formula of the previous one, The Firm. I picked it up on a whim, mainly because the copy of The Firm I have has a teaser for this at the end.

As a comparison to The Firm: both protagonists go on the run, “chased…by anonymous corporations and police forces” to paraphrase Inception. Both of them find a way to tell their stories and both end up in the Caribbean in the epilogue. Neither have any real ties, and both are rich enough to be able to hop on a plane at a minutes notice and stop in decent hotels night after night. The Firm’s male protagonist needs a woman to help him succeed; Darby Shaw needs a man to help her succeed.

I don’t wish to drop too many spoilers here, but the plot creaked and dragged in too many places for me to rate this higher. In the middle of the book, there’s a long section where two characters are interviewing students. Obviously, it’s going to be the last student they talk to, or none at all, that gives them the information they need. It dragged on for a whole chapter, and it could have been trimmed and we wouldn’t have missed anything.

There’s an exposition scene at the end where the head of the FBI explains what’s been going on and my eyes glazed over, even though it was only a page.

It’s a timely book though, given the political situation of 2018 in the US: A golf loving president tells the head of the FBI to stop investigating a crime, and it’s repeatedly stated it’s close to obstruction of justice to do so.

There also seems to be some author-intrusion going on in one chapter as well, when Grisham is discussing the oil business in Louisiana and it's destruction of the environment. It's a jarring note.

The premise had a touch of Agatha Christie: It’s impossible to work out why these Supreme Court judges were killed without information that comes to light only 80% of the way through the book.

Perhaps I was reading it too much as a who-done-it, but that does seem to be the intent: Darby goes to a records office to research her brief, but no clues are given as to what the subject is. And because I was looking for those clues, it made an unsatisfactory read to be given the answer in a plot dump.

3/5: Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens, Mark Ford

Nicholas Nickleby is thrown into increasing debt on the death of his father. With a sister and a widowed mother to take care of, he travels to London and seek the help of his uncle. The only problem is, uncle Ralph is a miserable and miserly money-lender with who wouldn’t spit on Nicholas if he was on fire. Grudgingly, he packs Nick off to Yorkshire, and so his adventures to find his own fortune begin.

Nick arrives at an appalling boys school called Dotheboys Hall, run by a one-eyed child-hating Wackford Squeers. It’s tense as to how long Nick will keep his easily-lost temper with all the casual cruelty going on (If only it had been merely fictional…). It’s a delight when he finally snaps and metes some punishment to the Squeers family. I practically cheered.

Nick leaves Yorkshire in a hurry after that, and the book starts to ramble a little. He finds himself in London (briefly, to argue with his uncle), then on the road again and heading to the coast to become a sailor…but he’s diverted into becoming an actor instead. You can tell Dickens is having fun at the expense of actors and theatres in general through that section – he acted often, and the odd characters Nick meets seem like they were people Dickens would have met.

Determined to carve a living for himself, Nick eventually finds some good friends in the Cheerbyle brothers and their bottomless goodwill and endless philanthropy.

Nick’s good fortune - and more importantly, his good friends and family – are contrasted with Uncle Ralph, who lives alone, unloved and uncared for in a cold and draughty home with a single housekeeper (he’s rich and could afford to warm it; he’s just too tight with money). He looms in the background of Nick’s life throughout the book. Nick would be quite happy to ignore him, but Ralph has made it his mission to break him. It ultimately ends up breaking Ralph, instead though…this is Dickens, after all, and happy endings are guaranteed.

This was the third of Dickens novels, written in monthly instalments between 1838 and ’39. It starts off strongly enough, with the backstory of how Ralph and Nick’s father came be estranged, and the collapse of the Nickleby estate and the journey to London. But then it starts to ramble – there are two chapters which are nothing more than travellers relating to Nick some folk tales about York on his way there. I skipped them, and I know for a fact I didn’t miss a thing.

In fact the book doesn’t really settle into a rhythm until Nick finds himself back in London again, about halfway through. Even then, there’s almost a chapter dedicated to a dinner party for characters who live downstairs from Nick. They play a very peripheral part in the book, and I skimmed it until I saw the word “Nicholas” again. They turn up towards the climax for a single chapter to tie up their storyline.

The ending almost feels like an anti-climax, even though it’s obviously well developed and planned. I can see Dickens practically ticking boxes labelled “Loose ends” as he works through the epilogue. With the death of Ralph, it felt like the book ran out of steam immediately.

Villains really do get the best parts of a story.

4/5 "Bag of Bones", Stephen King

Bag of Bones - Stephen King

Mike Noonan last sees his wife alive after she runs a routine errand. As he struggles to come to terms with her death, his writing career and life falls apart, and he closes himself off from the world.

An idea for a vacation at his summer home by a lake restarts his life after four years and leads to some surprising places and revelations, particularly when he stumbles into the middle of a custody battle over a small girl…

When things start going bump (and when bells start ringing) in Mike’s home, he realises fairly quickly he’s living in a haunted house…with more than one ghost. That bubbles along under the surface for most of the story, but the real plot is the custody battle between the woman living in almost poverty down the road in a double-wide trailer and one of the richest men in the country.

A pleasingly old-fashioned ghost story from King – the ghosts are fairly benign to begin with, and the horror only kicks in towards the climax of the book, which is told in a breathless rush of a few chapters.

It’s more of a character driven story than most of King’s work, and Mike feels very real and solid for it. King also goes down the route of Mike being an unreliable narrator, an unusual device for him. So much so that an alternative explanation of what’s going on could be made: Mike could simply be psychotic and imagining most of it. There’s an element of uncertainty there that livens things up. Like most of us, Mike considers himself a hero in his own story, but King drops hints both broad and subtle that he wasn’t at times as wonderful as he would like to think.

There’s none of the usual bloat of King’s work – he doesn’t spend a chapter talking about characters only peripherally related to the story, for instance, and the plot doesn’t slacken even through the custody battle.

The horror is low key, the supernatural quite tame, the characters nicely developed, and the whole thing hums along smoothly without dragging. If I was looking to start someone on King’s work, I would pick this one.

5/5: House of Stairs

House of Stairs - William Sleator

Five orphaned teenagers find themselves pushed into a strange room. There’s nothing but stairs that lead them eventually back to the only object beside a primitive toilet and a water source: a machine that delivers their food. But what do they have to do to earn that food?

This is a short book – only 166 pages for the paperback. I’d never heard of it until my wife sent me a message on Facebook (She found it while I was asleep and didn’t want to forget). As soon as I saw the premise, I ordered a copy. It’s a testament to the story that my wife read this when she was perhaps ten or eleven and still remembers it forty years later.

I can see why. Last night, I had forty pages to read and even though it was getting late and I needed to be up for work the next day, I had to finish it.

If I have a complaint about the story, it was the fact that all the characters survived. The civilisation I read about that would allow this experiment would have no problems letting them starve, I suspect.

The setup is chilling in its simplicity. Take five teens, drop them in a minimalist prison of stairs and condition them to act bizarrely with the reward of food. Then condition them to fight, condition them to move without thinking on the production of lights and sound. Condition them to begin to hate each other. Feed them when they become violent.

My wife asked me last night if it’s something I would have read when I was ten or eleven, its target age group. I probably would have, but I wouldn’t have believed it would have been possible for human beings to become sociopathic so easily.

But since I was that age, I’ve found out about things like The Milgram Experiment and The Stanford Prison Experiment, and I’ve learned differently. I’ve come across the phrase “Civilisation is only nine missed meals from anarchy”, and I’ve learned differently.

It’s the most terrifying truth of all: How easy it is to strip the humanity from someone and turn them into a monster. To get on a bus with a bomb strapped to your belt, to drop the Zyklon B down a tube. To see our fellow primates as something below us. Untermensch, indeed.

The circuit in our heads that gives us our compassion is so very, very fragile. How easy it is for us to short circuit it, to trip some mental fuse. To take a human being and break them is so very easy and so utterly terrifying.

There are characters in this story that refuse to bow to the machine, who start a resistance. I wish I would be as brave as them if I were in the same situation.

2/5 "Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children"

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs

Jacob’s grandfather use to spin some stories about his own World War Two childhood, some pretty strange ones…stories about the boy who could lift rocks with one hand and the girl who could fly. As he turns into a teenager, Jacob realises they couldn’t have been true. Could they?

An entertaining read from Ransom, based on some odd Victorian photographs he’s collected over the years, the basis of which pull the story along and illustrate it nicely. Some of the pictures are very odd and disquieting. Of particular note is a dentist with no pupils or irises, and the worlds creepiest Santa. I even bought the paperback so I could see the pictures better than on my Kindle. It’s a nice novelty for a story to see the frame it’s draped on, to see the process of turning pictures into a story.

There’s nothing wrong with Ransom’s characters, and his writing style is easy on the eye, flowing along nicely. The descriptions of the Welsh island where Jacob finds himself are all nicely done as well, lending a solid and realistic feel to everything. I would have probably commented more on the bi-lingual nature of Wales, but that’s just a minor point.

So why only two stars? The problem for me was that the story was remarkably…forgettable. I finished this three days ago, and I had to check the book to look up the name of the main character before I started this review.

Nobody stuck with me; I have no urge to see where the next two books are going, where the lives of the characters are taking them next. If you asked me to name Jacob's love interest or his fathers name, I couldn’t do it.

2/5: Rogue One, Alexander Freed

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Alexander Freed

A prequel movie to the original Star Wars, "A New Hope".

There's nothing wrong with Freed's writing style, and there are some nice asides with background information - the leader of the Rebel Alliance's thoughts about Jyn and a very realistic back-and-forth memo about the reactor hole in the Death Star, for example.

The movie wasn't that brilliant though, and the book does what it can with what it has. I suspect it's not the fault of Freed that it's such thin material.

1/5: Martin Chuzzlewit

Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens, Patricia Ingham

A story of the extended and generally mean and selfish Chuzzlewit family.

According to my reading history, it took me nine months to read this. That’s not quite representative – I did put it on hold for a while and also read two books in between – but it’s an illustration of what’s wrong with this monster. For a comparison, this is about seven hundred pages; I read War and Peace at over a thousand pages in just over a month.

So where did it go wrong?

This was Dicken’s sixth book, and he was obviously very off his game at this point. There’s no coherent plot, or through line (Except the general selfishness of most of the characters). The padding is immense and never-ending. Seriously: He spent almost an entire chapter describing a boarding house / inn. This boarding house appears for a chapter more or so, then we’re on to something else. It’s wonderful descriptive writing, but it doesn’t move the story on one jot.

The novel was written as a serial for publication, and when Dickens decided that the story wasn’t working, he wasn’t above ditching it and shifting to a new one. So, we start with the death of an aged relative, move on to the Pecksniff family, then on to something else. Then…Boom! A character decides he’s off to America! When I read that, coming from absolutely nowhere, I knew this book was in trouble. It’s also very obvious when Dickens wasn’t up to his word count and spent pages describing a London market, or a forest. He’s never one to use one word when a dozen will do.

Mostly, it’s forgivable because you know his characters are so grand and well-drawn, but not here.

Plot after plot is thrown at this thing in a desperate attempt to save it, and nothing works. The American adventures are padded to the point of insanity; there’s (again) almost a whole chapter describing a town-hall meeting, where an American foists a letter upon our character. But not to worry, since the letter isn’t important and is never featured again.

By the time the climax (such as it is) begins to roll around and the bad guys get their justice, I’d lost interest in being able to tell the characters apart. Someone is murdered in a forest, and I really couldn’t tell you why beyond the idea there was some sort of scam going on. Someone nearly dies and then doesn’t, for no point whatsoever.

I checked the summary of the plot on Wikipedia, and it says a character conned another out of a pocket watch at one point. I have no memory of this event having taken place at all, in a book I just read.

There are a few chapters which work. Tom Pinch and his sister have a few memorable scenes of domestic bliss. Mrs Gamp and her umbrella were apparently so popular (Or there was a genius at the marketing department) that a Gamp became a byword for an umbrella. But she adds little to the story beyond a social commentary on Victorian healthcare. Everyone else is utterly forgettable.

It’s. A. Mess.

4/5: The Martian

The Martian - Andy Weir

During a mission to Mars, Mark Watney is left stranded by a freak accident. The rest of his crew think him dead and leave for Earth.

This book should be subtitled “How to survive on Mars when everything there wants to kill you.” Almost every chapter has something going wrong for Watney, yet he manages to stay alive using the most powerful tools he has – his brain and his will to survive.

Watney is indomitable, a Martian Terminator. He won’t stay down, and it’s that spirit of resilience that carries the book. We all love someone who just. Won’t. Quit.

I say it’s Watney that carries the book, and I’ll stick with that. We’ll get to his character in a minute, but the rest of the cast are pretty flat and two dimensional. They exist only as props for the main action. And yet they work, because all we really care about is the guy on Mars. Everyone else can be the second spear-carrier on the left and it doesn’t really matter.

Watney himself is an odd character. He writes sometimes like a twelve year old, his logs full of exclamation marks and comments like “Look, boobs! (.Y.)”. The immaturity is striking against his other character traits. He’s a very smart guy, very determined to survive.

We never get a feel for what’s going on internally though; we only get surface impressions. Nothing about the intense pressure of someone living alone without hearing a human voice, without seeing a blade of grass, or even the simple pleasure of taking a shower. Very little about what it’s like to be where he is. I’m reminded of other stories about Mars that bear comparison – “I, Mars” by Ray Bradbury and his “Martian Chronicles” both of which give more insights into what people are experiencing as they wander the Martian hills.

The book is so much more powerful when we do get to see inside Watney – he makes contact with Earth, then goes back to his habitat and cries. When he’s being rescued, he asks for a minute when he sees another human being for the first time in years. More moments like that would have deepened the book.

Mars itself exists only to throw things at Watney. Weir is (perhaps intentionally) vague on what it would really feel like to be there, to see what Watney is seeing. Watney is trying to survive, but there’s nothing even as small as the way the Martian dust clings to his boots or gets in his hair.

Because of that, the setting of Mars becomes irrelevant. With a few tweaks, the story could have been set anywhere where the character is isolated and survives on his own wits. An asteroid or a desert island – if you don’t immerse me in where you are, it doesn't matter.

There are a lot of pages where this book felt like maths problems from a textbook: “I have 50 square metres of soil which I need to cover to a depth of 3.4cm. I need to irrigate it with 1.64 cubic centimetres per gram of water, how much will I need?” Fortunately, the answer is given instantly and it can be skimmed through without thinking about it.

As a last note, I saw the film before I read the book, and I think the two complement each other very well. A rare case where each is as good as the other.