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TonyTalbot

TonyTalbot

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Eve of Man (Eve of Man Trilogy #1)
Giovanna Fletcher, Tom Fletcher

4/5: Truth or Dare, Non Pratt

Truth or Dare - Non Pratt

When Kam gets in an accident that leaves him brain damaged, his brother Sef comes up with an idea to raise money to help him: Dare him to pull pranks. Enlisting the help of social-media expert Claire, things begin to spiral out of control…

 

This is one of those books where the narrative splits half way through, comes back together, then splits chapter by chapter until the end. Claire’s “half” of the book is flipped and inverted from Sef’s, which I thought was a nice touch. It made it hard to guess where you were in the story and how much you had left to go, which isn’t something you come across often in a paperback.

 

What did confuse me was the different fonts used for Sef messaging Claire and Claire messaging Sef, which were intermixed with their own internal voices. Got a little fuzzy who was talking and thinking there a few times.

 

First the bad news: Claire’s half didn’t grip me at all. Her friends and her relationships with them felt so exactly calculated, you could almost guess to the page where they would be resolved. Despite that, everyone felt very real and their dialogue and characterisation were all spot on. And yet they felt so flat and predictable. No one acted out of character or threw up any surprises.

 

Sef’s half of the book though…wow. There’s a real sense of his absolute agony and guilt over his brother’s injuries, the explanation of which is hinted at but never explained until the end. And we’re right there with him, going through it as he does and feeling it all. Sef is unpredictable and wild and will do anything to help his brother. It lends his half of the story a sharp edge, and that edge cut me enough to make me tear up a few times.

 

His story resonated with me on a personal level as well – I had a brother who would dare to do anything. Only one of his didn’t work, and he never came back from it alive. So I certainly felt more connected to Sef than Claire.

 

I’ve read Non Pratt before, and I know she does tend to veer towards melodrama at points, but there’s only one instance I noticed it and it only bounced me out of the story for a few pages. It didn’t take long before I was right back in the story.

 

Pratt is an extremely talented writer, and her characters come alive and off the pages. There’s nothing flat here except the predictable sub-plots in the first half. Apart from that, it crackles and jumps with life…and desperation.

3/5: Brother in the land, Robert Swindells

Brother in the Land - Robert Swindells

Danny Lodge is one of the unlucky ones when World War Three breaks out – he’s one of the survivors…

First up: I don’t usually mention covers of books, which change from edition to edition, but this one was particularly hideous. I feel like someone let their kid play with Photoshop for ten minutes. Small wonder YA was so unappreciated for so long…

The book was written in 1984, so it falls right into the middle of my demographic – I would have been reading this when I was twelve when it came out, right in the middle of my watching Threads and The Day After and I have no doubt it would have left a permanent impact on me if I had come across it.

And since it was published in 1984, it’s an interesting experience to see how much YA has matured since. Characterisation is non-existent and the events are sanitised and far more cosmetic than they would be today. Radiation sickness, third degree burns and nuclear winter are all off page or non-existent.

The last YA I read was Dry by Neal / Jarrod Shusterman, published in 2019, and what a difference that was…

I don’t mean this as a criticism of 80s YA. This is simply how it worked for a long time. There was no perception that teenagers could handle anything more than the slim thirty thousand words this book contains, no perception they could handle more than cardboard characters.

One plus for that shortness is that the book zooms along, event after event, with little pause for reflection or for the characters to catch up.

Then something happens roughly three quarters of the way through: Swindell decides to really go for it. He pours on the bleakness and desperation and ramps it up. This is the book we should have been reading from the first pages, and it’s grim and sobering stuff.

Even sanitised and cleaned, it’s a brutal exploration of a war that might still happen.

4/5: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris

Arriving voluntarily at Auschwitz in 1942, Lale Eisenberg wonders what the place holds for him. He quickly learns that the only thing that prospers there is death. Moving quickly to a more “protected” occupation as a tattooist, he comes across a woman called Gita, and determines to save her…

 

At first, I wasn’t too impressed with Morris’s writing. Her style is almost childish, her dialogue primitive and sparse. It seemed dry and impersonal. But about a third of the way through, it ceased to matter about her writing style. The defining moment of horror piled upon horror for me was Lale entering a gas chamber of Auschwitz to identify two dead men.

 

For some reason, this mattered to the Nazis: Every box had to be ticked, to the point of inanity and absolute pointlessness. People were tattooed who would be killed seconds later. It was death on an industrial scale, and how many of the one million people Lale marked like beans on a supermarket shelf defies imagination.

 

The real power of the story is the simple and basic urge of humanity to live another day. How various people do that is as much down to what depths (or lengths) they will go to survive, from Lale’s position as the tattooist to the SonderKommando who emptied the gas chambers after their use, to the woman who let herself be used as a sex toy. To label them as sympathisers or collaborators is simplistic. They survived is all we can say about them.

 

Lale and Gita take the few brief, bribed moments of privacy as far as they can, and their relationship, born of desperation and determination flourishes in the awful clouds of falling ash and the ever present death that might be only a minute away.

 

Thinking about the prose line again and Morris’s style now I’ve finished, I realise that the style may have been intentional. She’s keeping herself out of the picture as much as possible, and letting the story tell itself.

 

It was all it needed. The horror and the inhumanity don’t need embellishment, and neither did their intense love story: To survive with each other was what kept Lale and Gita alive and moving.

3/5: Bird Box, Josh Malerman

Bird Box - Josh Malerman

No one has seen them and survived. No one knows what they look like – or even if they exist as more than mass hysteria. All people know is the result when they do see one: psychotic rage and suicide. Malorie doesn’t believe it until her sister becomes another victim…

Despite there being moments of absolute and complete cold terror in this story, it all felt flat to me. There’s far too much telling and not enough showing going on. I can understand it when the characters are blindfolded (“Tom sounded happy.”), but not when the blindfolds are off.

Because of that, there’s a distance between the characters and their fates that left the apocalyptic climax empty and hollow. Which is a shame; I’d rate it a lot higher if I felt for these people rather than had them described to me.

There are other structural problems as well: Malerman also tells most of the story through flashback, and when flashbacks happen inside that flashback, it’s time to look at that structure again. In one instance, a flash forward takes place inside a flashback. There’s a relationship implied between Malorie and another character, but there’s no evidence of it going on in the story.

It’s not easy to take a visual medium like a book and turn it into a world of sounds, and for the most part, Malerman pulls that off very well. But again, there are problems: Malerman focuses on sounds, not smells or textures. We only hear the world, not smell it or feel it.

When the characters are outside in the absolute darkness of their blindfolds, we are as blind as they are, and the mere snap of a twig sends them into a fear for their lives and sends a shock from us. It’s a terrifying feeling, and it stems from a very primal fear: One day, we might wake up blind.

4/5: Dry, Neal and Jarrod Shusterman

Dry - jarrod shusterman, Neal Shusterman

During a poorly-managed and endless drought in Southern California, Alyssa Morrow turns on the tap and something unexpected happens: No water comes out. Through the next week of escalating dehydration, brutality and survival, she has to keep herself and her brother alive…

 

Wow. I’m exhausted after reading this! Alyssa takes the advice of her survivalist neighbour and head towards a “bug-out”, a safe house away from the chaos of a society without water. They spend the best part of the next three hundred pages trying to get there and the pace (for the most part) doesn’t let up.

 

Shusterman throws every single thing he can think of into the way of Alyssa and her companions, from evacuation centres that are death traps to forest fires and “water zombies” – those in the last stages of dehydration. The promise of water is often cruelly taken away at the last second, again and again.

 

For a section in the middle, the pace drops a little as a new character is introduced and we dive into his backstory and development, but it’s a temporary lull before the story rockets away again. It’s intense stuff, and only gets more so as the ending approaches – I read the last ninety pages or so in a few hours and a frantic blur of needing to know.

 

Like the best of stories, it holds a mirror up to ourselves and asks what would you do? What surprised me was that some of my answers to those questions would have been wrong. Alyssa’s survivalist neighbours have one approach – hoard and protect – and later in the book we meet a woman with a different approach – share and survive together. Both work in their own ways, and both are successful.

 

There’s a moment in the midpoint of the book which is absolutely heart-breaking to read, and it destroys one family more effectively with a single gunshot, than any water raiders or rioters could. No spoilers…but Shusterman makes the point that gun control is a good thing. Time and again, solving a problem with a gun is ruled out as an option…until there is no option left. Gun control is a good thing: But one day, that gun might save a life.

 

Surprisingly, Alyssa is the protagonist in this story, but she’s not really the main character. That role drops more onto her neighbour, Kelton, and it’s him who goes through the biggest character arc and development and the one we feel the most invested in.

 

As usual with Shusterman, he carefully considers how a society works, then breaks it brutally to see how his characters survive and react. This is a world totally believable, and scarily realistic. There are weaknesses I didn’t notice (Would people really riot after a day without water? Did they exhaust every other source of hydration that quickly? My wife asked), but despite those, I felt the desperation of the people for water.

 

And as usual, there are big questions. How well would you survive a disaster? How many do you try and save? Do you hoard and survive alone, or share and survive together?

 

If you have to drown someone to survive the shipwreck, do you deserve to reach the lifeboat? And how do you look at yourself afterwards in the mirror?

3/5: The seven deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle - Stuart  Turton

Awaking in a forest, Aiden Bishop has no idea of who he is. He has no idea where he is, or how he came to be there. And, in fact, he doesn’t seem to be himself at all. In short order, he’s informed that’s he’s looping through the same day as different people. He has eight “days” to solve a murder that was never solved…

I’m not sure what to make of Seven… I haven’t read many murder mysteries, and when I do, I always think I’ve missed giant clues that I should have picked up. Sometimes I have trouble picking up the subtext in conversations and actions in stories, and it doesn’t help. The detective gets all excited about something small, and I’m wondering what obvious thing I missed.

It’s fairly traditional in its format: Isolated country house, everyone has a secret (including the maids), people being hit on the head, poisoned, and shot with a variety of weapons. Information is introduced towards the end that means you couldn’t possibly have solved the murder before the protagonist, and the murderer or detective often spends a chapter explaining what they did.

I wanted to rate Seven higher, maybe four stars, but hiding under the body-swapping and time-looping is a fairly traditional murder-mystery with a fairly traditional resolution. I think I was expecting something more…off the wall for such a fun concept.

I would have liked to have seen all eight hosts converging on the murderer, or more interaction between them. But because the hosts days are linearly explored, it wasn’t an option without giving away the murderer on loop one. I would have liked to have seen more dialogue and situations from (say) host four to host two, and then seen it from host two to host four, to compare their internal monologues. Even so, if they ever make a movie of it, it’s going to be mind-bending trying to keep it all straight.

There are some fun time-bending things going on though, like when Aiden talks to himself from a later loop, then repeats it the next loop from the other characters perspective. To give a sense of linearity to the whole thing, Turton takes a character and makes them bed-ridden for the whole day. We pop back into them now and then for some exposition and explanations before popping back out again, a nice touch. A character blackmails another in loop two by finding evidence in loop six, which won’t be for four “days”.

To add to the fun, Aiden keeps meeting a secondary character out of chronological order - for her. I'd love to see the story from her point of view!

One of the deeper themes of the book is who we become when we have no consequences to face in the morning. Murder and life become cheap when the person you kill is alive again in twelve hours’ time. There’s nothing like a mask to bring out our real personalities, a character says. Aiden struggles with that throughout the book, trying to find and keep himself in his hosts sometimes unattractive personalities.

Because it isn’t really my genre, some of the nods to Agatha Christie and other murder mysteries may have gone over my head, which is a shame. It felt like there was a sequel hook or two as well – the character running the loop says someone else is investigating a murder on an ocean liner.

Despite how well researched and planned this story was, I still feel Turton could have done even more with it. Next time around, maybe!

3/5: Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit - Charles Dickens

Returning from a long trip in India, Arthur Clennam finds his pious mother as unfeeling and callous as when he left her. Seeking to balance her selfishness with acts of charity, he notices that his mother takes an out-of-character interest in a maid: Amy Dorrit. Arthur decides to get to know the Dorrits and their sad history better…

About a third of the way through this, I was curious as to how Dickens was going to keep me interested. The story of the Dorrits didn’t seem enough to keep the thing going for eight hundred pages, and I was beginning to lose interest. He seemed to have felt the same thing, and introduces a whole raft of intertwining subplots. In fact, in some places, the subplots are the plot. For the first half of the book, the Dorrits rot in Marshalsea debtor’s prison while these subplots mostly run the show.

(A historical aside: Dicken’s father was put in Marshalsea when Charlie was twelve)

The second part of the story is where these plots start to come together. The Dorrits are released with much fanfare and a small fortune, and re-invent themselves by denying their past. Arthur is estranged from them and investigates a strange Frenchman hanging round his mother’s home, which brings about the final, amazingly convoluted twist to the story.

The whole theme of the novel is one deception and lies and even self-deception. Arthur revisits his old girlfriend, and discovers she’s become fat (and therefore unattractive!) and fatuous. Deciding to throw in the towel in the love department, Arthur hardens his heart to falling in love again. Which he promptly does with his friend’s daughter, then spends a few chapters agonisingly denying it to himself when she falls for someone else. Dorrit senior lies to himself and resists acknowledging that’s he’s come from a debtor’s prison when he’s released. And even when he was there, he relished being “Father of the prison” and people giving him money as though he were important. Casby, supposedly a genial and friendly guy, is a money grubbing fraud, and his agent, Pancks, turns out to be a decent and honest man. Flora, Arthur’s old girlfriend (she cannot take a breath when she talks!), turns out to be compassionate and friendly. Merdle, a man whose investments cannot go wrong, is a financial fraudster.

The more obvious villains, such as they are, are intense and sociopathic. Miss Wade, who casts any act of kindness as manipulation and replies with malice. Rigaud, who kills a dog merely because it threatened to bite him and sneers and sings and clicks his fingers through the story. Added to this is Arthur’s mother, a wooden ruler of a woman, upright and rigid, unfeeling and unbending.

They’re a nasty bunch, but are they any worse than the Meagles, whose spoilt daughter abuses their maid? The Meagles who won’t call the maid by her name, and only tell her to count ten when she’s angry, rather than listen to her? Are they worse than Dorrit’s eldest daughter, who marries a man solely to annoy his mother?

Woven into the story is a long diatribe at British efficiency: The Circumlocution Office. Any progress in England must be passed through this engine of uselessness. To quote Douglas Adams, things are “signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.” Thank goodness our governments are so more efficient these days, or where would we be? Even here, the lie that this department is necessary is believed by all to be the truth.

At the back of all this drama and deceit there stands a small figure: Little Dorrit. Alone in the Dorrit household, she remains as untouched by the sudden wealth they acquire as she was untouched by their Marshelsea debts. Tireless and selfless, she works to bring her father food, to find a job for her spoilt sister and wastrel of a brother. She does not complain, she does not falter. She is one of the toughest characters ever to have graced the pages of a book.

And since this is a Victorian novel, her reward for this is to marry Arthur. For what else would a woman want or need?

2/5: The Sun is also a Star

The Sun Is Also a Star - Nicola Yoon

Daniel decides to take his time getting to an interview that will determine the rest of his life. Natasha has a day left in America, and maybe a little longer if the universe allows it. Watching over all this with an omniscient eye into the past and the future is The Universe. All three of them bump together in one day in New York…

Let me start this with an admission: I am a romantic. I cry at the end of You’ve Got Mail. Every time. Sometimes I mist up when I write out my wife’s birthday cards. I wanted these two to be in love as much as they did.

But they weren’t. Infatuation, maybe…but love is adoring the creases, not just the ironed smooth surfaces. Love is your partner driving you crazy and you love them anyway, moaning at you because they had a bad day at work and they don’t have anyone else to vent to. It isn’t something you can feel about someone in a day. Daniel and Natasha didn’t touch me and their relationship didn’t move me the way it should have.

Let’s start at the beginning. The way Daniel and Natasha meet is just plain creepy. Dan decides to follow Nat on a whim, and despite his claims he’s not doing it to stalk her, he clearly is. Please don’t encourage this behaviour, writers. Please don’t make some impressionable teen believe he-she is going to win his-her heart by following someone around. All they’re going to get (and deserve) is maced.

The narrative switches between Daniel and Natasha chapter by chapter, and towards the middle of the book, I came to realise how similar they were. By the end, I had to check the pronouns to see who was talking. Daniel is supposed to be poetic, but his inner dialogue is the same as Natasha, the hard headed scientist. There were no verbal tics or mannerisms that separated them. Nothing made them stand out.

The most enjoyable parts were the little asides by The Universe, a cool and dispassionate voice of a removed narrator. A woman Natasha meets at a government building who wants to commit suicide; the security guard they meet on a roof. The backstory and forward story of Daniel’s brother and his family. I kept seeing this as a play where the stage would darken and a spotlight would rest on The Universe and the highlighted minor character while the other actors froze in place.

The chapters were short and the writing staccato, in brief bursts of sentences, and that pulled me through the story in only five days. Perhaps that was one of the problems with the dual narrative: I didn’t spend enough time with Daniel before head hopping into Natasha, and then back again.

There were good parts though – Natasha’s delight at explaining the grandfather paradox and the Novikov self-consistency principle. Any book that manages to get those into a YA romance deserves a nod just for trying it. I enjoyed seeing the lives that interacted with Daniel and Natasha as they dropped into their own bubble world for the single day they had. There was a nice mirror relationship between Daniel's father and Natasha's.

But it didn’t move me. I should have been reaching for the tissues at the end of this, not the book I’m going to read next.

3/5: Gerald's Game

Gerald's Game - Stephen King

Jessie and her husband have a game. He locks her up in real handcuffs, she pretends she doesn’t like it and wants to be set free. Except this time, she really does…

Every time I picked this book up, I was surprised by how far into it I was. I got to page two hundred or so, and realised nothing much had happened. That isn’t, by the way, a criticism, but praise of King’s writing skill. Who else could keep you turning the pages when all that’s happening is backstory? And it’s fairly obvious early on what’s at the bottom of Jessie’s backstory, at that.

So for most of the book, we get flashbacks into Jessie’s life, working backwards through her college years and to a solar eclipse when she was ten years old that defined and marred the rest of her life, until she finds herself submissive enough to be chained to a bed in the middle of nowhere with handcuffs she can’t escape from.

But what also kept me reading was how King was going to pull this off and get Jessie out of there. It didn’t seem likely he would kill her off at the end...Likely, but not impossible.

So those small things kept me reading for the three hundred or so pages, until something did happen. When the climax of the book arrives, it’s over in thirty breathless pages or so, and…

…that’s when it all fell apart. King spends the next twenty pages explaining the backstory of another character, before we finally get to Jessie’s ending (happy or otherwise, I won’t drop a spoiler).

I saw that giant epilogue when I was finishing this up last night and sighed. It felt very tacked on and unnecessary. Why not leave the ambiguity of what happened open? I hate to be vague, but unless you’ve read what went on, I don’t wish to spoil it.

This was written as a companion to Dolores Claiborne, and was meant to be a shorter story. There are elements there that mix in with Dolores: A single woman desperate and under pressure, incestuous fathers and abusive relationships. Tying them together is the single eclipse that changes both Dolores’s life and Jessie’s. I didn’t feel like I needed to have read DC to have read this though.

I wish I’d warmed to Jessie more and liked her better. I wasn’t rooting for her as much as I was for Dolores, which was a shame. Her passive personality annoyed me more than Dolores, although I understand why she was like it.

And as deep and exhaustive as her backstory was, I still don’t feel like I know her.

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.