Guy Montag burns books for a living, those heretical, contradictory, awful things that encourage people to think…
The thing with the Ray Bradbury's I've read: They aren't really novels, or stories. Bradbury writes dense, metaphorical blank prose, and the story and everything else is dragged along behind it.
There really isn't any characterisation to speak of and world building is slender. No one is physically described beyond a metaphorical level. The city and country where Montag works isn't named. When you've read a few, you just accept this and move on.
Some of it is quite beautiful:
The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward.
And Guy's phallic relationship with his fire hose and fire department ("With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world"). He also slides and grips the firemans pole a few times.
And, then, some of it doesn't work at all. Be warned: Bradbury never uses a metaphor when he can use six.
He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact.
Starts off fine, but then he pushes it too far. Are her eyes bright water or violet amber? His writing is like this throughout the story: metaphors and similes pushed until they break, then another and another. His dialogue is more of the same.
I don't think Bradbury is someone I'm ever going to enjoy reading. He's a dessert that's far too sickly to stomach a large serving.
Luckily, it only took me a few hours to read. Without the dense paragraphs of metaphor, this would be a short story fleshed out to novella length. And in the notes, that's exactly what Bradbury says happened.
Civilisation blows itself apart in a nuclear war, and a small party of survivors begin their new life in an isolated Swiss hotel. Only one of them may be a murderer…
Reading a premise like that, you'd think this was a murder-mystery. Reading reviews on the back that say this is like "Ten Little Indians" you'd think the twenty guests would drop like murdered flies every night. You'd think the other guests would flitter and scurry about the hotel in fear of their lives.
But no…there's actually only one murder, and the only person who cares is the narrator. There's more of a Lord of The Flies feel to what's going on. How do you construct a civilisation in miniature? Who decides: death penalty or exile for a crime when there are no police or courts to take the burden? There are also existential conversations on the nature of religion, both as a source of comfort and as a source of antagonism.
There are conversations about what happens when every single thing you love and work for has disappeared in a nuclear fire...who do you become after that? Some good explorations on the different natures of shock and trauma. Some guests give up, some hoard and prepare, while others obsess to the point of mania.
So most certainly not a murder-mystery, and I find it odd it was ever advertised as such. In a typical rolling-eyes-give-me-a-break murder mystery move though, the murder is resolved in the last five pages with information we didn't have. The main drive of the story feels like a casually thrown in afterthought.
Stereotypes fill the hotel: A Japanese woman is described as delicate and graceful, speaking with a calm voice; the black security guard is aggressive and the dominant male; the beautiful woman is a loner and a bitch.
Towards the last thirty pages, the plot became unravelled and started to break. Character dialogues became indistinguishable from each other as it hurried towards a weak anti-climax.
What started out as a solid and intriguing idea ran out of steam in the second act and rolled to a complete stop by the end. There's a curious note added to the end as potentially a sequel hook, but I won't be looking out for it.
"Being an account of the Pickwick Club", of Victorian London. (Actually, slightly before Victoria. This was Dickens first novel, written in 1836, and Victoria didn't reign until 1837).
Phew. This was the last Dickens novel I had to read before I finished his fourteen novels…and what a drag it was. I'm glad I didn't start with this one or I would have lost interest much quicker.
For the first third of the book, Dickens isn't doing much more than transcribing stories he's heard or has written down from other people. The book goes like this: Mr Pickwick (or his friends) go somewhere by coach. They meet someone. Someone tells them a story. Repeat for the first dozen chapters.
Perhaps that's the problem: A lot of this doesn't feel like his story. There was little through line or plot development to interest me. There's not much characterisation going on.
I'd seen reviews where it said the story does get better as it goes along, and to be fair it does. But not by much. Dickens stretches his literary muscles and writes for a few chapters about his favourite topic - the poor and the mired in debt. There are flashes here and there of what he could accomplish: brilliant descriptive passages of rainy and foggy London streets, rural coach rides through August fields. There's some nice wordplay with names - a doctor called Nockemorff (knock-em-off. It took me a while!) and a man called Smorltork (Which sounds like something IKEA might sell to me).
But it's butter spread too lightly on a thin toast. If you ever feel like working your way through Dickens, start with Oliver Twist and then come back to this one.
A very short read - I went through the 153 pages in just over four hours.
There nothing different from the Hitchcock movie apart from Norman is fat and Marion Crane is Mary Crane. It's probably the closest book to film translation I've ever seen.
Being only 153 pages long, it didn’t have time to sag or linger, which was both a strength and a weakness. If you've seen the film, there are no surprises in the book, and vice versa.
The place is a suburb of Munich and the time is World War Two. Watching the small life of young girl Liesel Meminger is Death, but it's not her he's here to collect…
This was a re-read from 2012, and I'm confused as to why I rated it four stars last time. Death cannot keep himself from interrupting this story and robs it of all momentum.
*** A Small Note ***
Momentum: noun; plural noun: momenta
1. Physics: The quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity.
2. The impetus gained by a moving object.
3. The impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events.
Yeah, kind of like that. Except those inter-textual notes are every other page. Just when you're feeling like you're digging into the story and relaxing, one of those notes pops up and throws you back out again. It's like a book full of footnotes, destroying the flow of the story. Or like someone blowing one of those party poppers into your face every page or two. It did the story no favours whatsoever.
Not that there was much story to start with. It's more like a series of vignettes of Liesel's life, most of which was simple repetition: She would get shouted at by her mother (The author also seems to have learnt one German swear word, saumensch and the masculine saukerl and is determined to use it five times a page), she would go somewhere with her friend Rudy. Repeat this for three hundred pages or so. There's little character development or story arc for Liesel or anyone else, and what there is becomes fractured by the annoying asides of Death.
Death also has no idea what a metaphor or a simile is either, coming out with some absurd images: "He watched the parade with the blinds drawn across his face." - "Liesel sat with her hands between her knees in the long legs of the day." The metaphors aren't effective, and only make the prose pretentious.
Did anything work for me? Only the last thirty pages or so had any emotion woven into them and I teared up as I read them. Tellingly, those are the same pages where Death shuts up for a change.
Commuting to and from a fictional workplace on the same train every day, Rachel gets to know the backs of the homes she passes and has time to imagine the people who live in them. She even names them and gives them lives…but then reality comes back with a crash when one of them is murdered…
Ugh. That was deeply unpleasant. Hawkins seems to have decided that “thriller” means “plot from East Enders soap opera”. So we have a woman slipping into alcoholism; lots and lots of vomit (Seriously: Hawkins loves the word and loves the grossness of it); women being serially unfaithful – every one of them; men being abusive physically and psychologically just for fun; screaming and crying all around and generally unpleasant behaviour.
There isn’t a character in here I was rooting for. There isn’t anyone with a moral standing or a fibre of decency. We have a man whose wife died and he’s sleeping with another woman inside of a week. We have a therapist who sleeps with his patient.
Everyone seems fine with this, by the way: The therapist is still seeing patients after this is discovered, rather than…gosh, I don’t know…being suspended and struck off. We have a man with a very small child sleeping with the babysitter while his wife is asleep upstairs.
Ugh and ugh again.
There are quite a few points I wanted to scream at the people in this book. Rachel is our girl on the train. Not woman on the train, girl.
No woman in this book is defined in any other terms than their relationship to the men in it. Rachel is defined by her abandonment by her husband (Tom) for another woman. Anna, Rachel’s replacement, is a weak and feeble shadow of a woman who can’t put her foot down and does nothing about Rachel’s semi-stalking. And by nothing, I mean nothing. Rachel sometimes phones Tom when she’s drunk. Anna and Tom tolerate this rather than…gosh, I don’t know…changing their phone number.
I figured out who the killer was on page ninety (nothing really happened for the first eighty pages or so), so it came as no surprise at all when the reveal rolled around.
Grimly unpleasant characters with no morality, lots of running mascara and emasculated women only defined by the men in their lives. I could go on, but this book has taken up too much of my life already.
Coerced into accompanying thirteen dwarves on an adventure to kill a dragon and grab some treasure, the home-loving Hobbit Bilbo Baggins eventually has the adventure of his life…
Well, it’s taken me a while to get around to this one, hasn’t it? Most people read this as children, and I’m forty-six right now and just picked it up for the first time. What took me so long?
Mostly, I really don’t do stories where they name swords, just on principle. It’s just one of those things, alongside avoiding books where muscular men don't wear shirts on the cover. It’s just not my bag, baby. I tried Lord of The Rings once and got halfway down the first page before I gave up.
I also think if you’re naming a sword, you might want to think about your fictional life a little more. Having said that, I read all of Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series, and there’s lots of sword and axe naming in there. Fortunately, there were only three swords named in here, so I’ll give that one a pass.
If you know The Hobbit, as most people seem to, you really don’t need much of a plot recap than the title. What kept me interested was the blistering pace that Tolkien sets: Only a chapter for each creature – goblin, elf, man-bear, whatever, before he was moving on to the next.
It wasn’t until Bilbo and company reach Smaug that it started to drag for me. I suspect Tolkien didn’t know how to kill off the dragon once he got there.
There’s not much to fault it. It’s a clever mixing of the everyday and the fantastic, something Harry Potter learned well. It touches our childhood imaginings of creatures under bridges and hiding in holes in the ground, just out of sight.
The story is charming and funny and very entertaining, and I can see why people develop a lifelong bond with Tolkien, Middle Earth and fantasy after they read it.
(I apologise in advance for the use of caps lock. Never a good sign when a review makes me use caps lock…)
Chrissie wakes every morning and does not know where she is. She doesn’t know who the man sleeping next to her is, and why the face in the mirror is twenty years older than it should be…
They really made a movie out of this? Well, it started with a strong premise, fair enough, but then quickly ran out of steam. Most of the book is section-break repetition of “Can I trust my husband? Yes. Oh, no, I can’t. Oh, yes, I can. Nope…changed my mind again.”
I understand that Chrissie’s mental state is fragile and easily unbalanced, but it gets pretty wearing after two hundred pages, sometimes when it happens from one paragraph to the next. And when it’s essentially the only thing happening, it really slows the pacing down.
So, yes. Let’s talk about pacing. The writer seemed to think thriller means filler. Here’s a paraphrased example:
“I started washing the dishes in hot, soapy water. I made sure the bubbles were frothy before I started. I washed Ben’s breakfast plate. The doorbell rang. I put down the sponge. I dried my hands on a tea towel. I walked to the front door. There was a man there.”
GET. ON. WITH IT.
And I was wondering what about the narrative voice was annoying me until I realised that Christine doesn’t use contractions, making her stilted and artificial:
“I think Ben does not hear me walk into the kitchen. I do not hear him move from the sofa. He has walked into the kitchen behind me. But he does not talk.”
For most of the story, there’s not much else going on but this stilted narrative and clumsy dialogue: “It’s your novel,” he said. “The one you wrote”. As opposed to the novel she didn’t write?
By the time the last third came around, I just wanted to be finished and done. Which is a shame, because the last third is where all the good stuff happens. But by then, it’s too late to save it.
Melanie is like other ten year old girls. She’s curious about the world and has the hugest crush on her teacher, Miss Justineau. She also lives in a basement cell on a military base and is chained to a wheelchair, just in case she bites…
For some reason, I thought this was a YA post-apocalyptic book when I started it. No real reason, apart from the title and the fact that the main character at the start is a girl and not an adult. It took me a while to figure out it wasn’t, which says something about how close the YA and adult field are these days…
There were no real surprises in here. From the first act, I had the character fates and the story line determined, and it happened the way I thought it might apart from a little swerve right at the end.
For the most part, the pacing was quick enough to keep me reading, and the differing POVs gave new insights into the breakdown of society and the way the characters interpreted it.
I did find it derivative of other zombie-genres I’ve seen. The ending and premise were reminiscent of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (wellll, that's vampires, but you know!), and the speed of the infection reminded me of 28 Days Later. Perhaps that’s a general fault with the zombie genre, or a fault in the story: I haven’t read many zombie-genre books to tell.
The biggest weakness I found was Carey’s apparent swallowing of a dictionary and thesaurus. Here’s a man who will happily use “consanguinity” instead of “kinship”. It bounced me out of the book a few times, and didn’t endear me to his writing style.
Shen and Lawrie are the last humans to be born…or will ever be born. A global infertility epidemic four generations ago made every woman sterile, and the human race destined to die out within the next hundred years. They spend their days mud larking and cataloguing the past, until an accident reveals a truth about their world…
Another solid and remarkable story from Lauren James. She's rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers, even though this is only the second book of hers I’ve read. Her world building and characterisation is elegant and subtle, and her research feels solid and reliable. This is an end of the world you can feel and touch.
Delightfully, Lawrie is bisexual, and it isn’t her defining characteristic. I’ve read too many YA books recently where it’s the only thing about the character that exists in any solidity, but not here. Lawrie and Shen are both rounded and fully developed characters in their own right, despite their preferences. Their romance isn’t insta-love either, but a slow and sensuous burn of low heat, of shared touches that eventually turn into something more.
There are deeper themes as well about what it means to be human and what it means to love and exist on the edge of extinction and about how it feels to have the responsibility to the rest of your species behind you. How your parents can coddle you or let you experience the world for yourself - and more importantly fail for yourself.
There was a plot twist about a third of the way through which I mentally called about fifty pages in, so it didn’t come as a surprise to me when it turned up. Another twist at the end was telegraphed earlier as well, so neither of them made me jump in surprise. It felt like it took something away from the story to know they were coming; I’ll never know if my experience would be better if I hadn’t worked them out.
I didn’t see the ending coming though, or a delightful, subtle echo that had been running throughout the whole story that was revealed towards the end. That was a lovely touch – sorry to be so vague, but spoilers would ensue if I wasn’t.
What didn’t work for me was the dialogue between Shen and Lawrie. Mostly, it felt flat and laboured and slipped towards cliché and overused expressions. Their dialogue didn’t seem as strong as that between Lawrie and her parents, for instance. When that major plot twist happens I was just talking about, James feels it necessary to repeat herself three times in three pages, just to make sure we all got it. It felt a little laboured and repetitive in places.
In all though, a book I savoured like a good wine. I shall be back for more Lauren James!
** spoiler alert ** Romy Silvers is the most isolated human in the history of humanity. For six years, she hasn’t touched another human being. She’s never been cold, or felt the rain on her face, or sat under a tree. Her only company has been a TV show beamed to her from NASA, two light years behind her lonely spacecraft. But someone is coming, slowly catching her up…
I don’t like to drop reviews under such a full spoiler tag, but this book makes me feel like it would be impossible to talk about without it. Look away now if you haven’t read it.
Romy’s follower on his spaceship is a boy called J – or so she thinks. I doubted from the start that J would be as wonderful as he was pretending to be, but when the absolute bombshell of what he’d been doing to Romy dropped in act three, my eyes widened and I swore internally. I never expected it to be so huge.
His manipulation – and downright torture – of Romy is textbook grooming and psychological manipulation. Not only has he isolated her from earth (under the very believable pretense of an imaginary war), he’s sending messages back to earth pretending to be her. He’s also pretending to send messages to her from earth from the “UPR”, a replacement government.
He forces Romy to live in the dark, to shower less, to flush the toilet less, all in an attempt to utterly degrade her and control her before he arrives. It’s grooming in space, and there’s not a damn thing Romy can do about it.
You know the best part? Romy doesn’t give in. She never yields or submits to J, even when he tries again to fool her later in the story. She never gives him the satisfaction. Romy is a young woman who won’t quit, despite her insecurities and her self-doubt. She really is stronger than she realises, and she’s a great character because of it.
It’s a wonderful story, full of subtleties and warmth. Parents who try and give their daughter the best life they can, despite the circumstances, and a daughter who loved them and misses them. We really get a feel for Romy and her isolation and cocooned existence. In one instance, she gets cold and doesn’t realise it: She’s never experienced anything other than 24 centigrade temperatures her entire life. Messages sent to earth won’t make it for two years. She really is all alone out there.
If I have a problem with it, they’re only small ones: The use of zip files, mp3s and pdfs made me frown. So NASA ships run on Windows? And will they really do so in 2048? Mp3s are already being replaced by AACs, for instance. Romy also seems immature for a young woman given such heavy responsibilities. Given her only interactions have been with adults, I would expect to mature faster, not slower.
But as I said, these are only minor points. This is a gripping and thrilling read, and well worth it.
There’s a problem with the human race: For fifty years or so, no girls have been born. Until Eve comes along into the remains of a civilisation that has nearly torn itself apart…
Well, where did that go wrong? The four hundred pages of this seemed to take me forever to read…it seems longer than the two weeks I have it listed as “reading.”
It’s the first part of a trilogy, so I wasn’t expecting all the answers to be rounded up by the end. What I was expecting was something more than a painfully slow incremental drip of plot points that tip into something actually happening only 300 pages in. By then, the book was nearly over. I had hopes something was going to happen as the pace picked up…then it dropped off again. So much of this story seemed slow filler that should have been trimmed.
The world building is repetitive and dull. I lost count of the number of times a character describes the waterproofing of their underground home, always with the same details – the rubber panels that drip water, the pipes that snake across corridors. I lost count when we were told something about a character and then had it repeated two pages later. (“They were here to see Eve’s father, Ernie.” A page later: “Ernie – Eve’s father”). The place where Eve is secluded is described as a tower, a dome and mountain-like. Which is it?
A plot-important location falls out of the sky in the later part of the book, and conveniently, Bram instantly knows where it is to the point where they can find it with GPS. How?
Characterisation is inconsistent. Eve is suddenly aggressive and rebellious, then passive again a chapter later. She is determined to find the truth of her existence, but then gets sleepy and forgets all about it. She often chooses a dramatic course of action as an end–of-chapter hook, then never follows it up. Bram is unable to fight against his father, but manages to kick ass against other males.
There’s no chemistry between Bram and Eve, and the dialogue between them is stilted and insipid. The villain of the piece, Vivian(show spoiler)
is mainly petty and a cardboard thin character.
There are a lot of parallels between this and Rapunzel, obviously: A lone woman in a tower (dome/mountain) with limited experience of the world. But there are also a lot more with The Truman Show, even the ending(show spoiler)
The most fun I had with the book was Bram out of the tower and exploring flooded and forgotten London. It gave the story a sense of place that was desperately lacking.
I won’t be back for part two or three.
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.
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.
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.
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.