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TonyTalbot

TonyTalbot

1/5: The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

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.

4/5: The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

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.

2/5: Before I go to Sleep, SJ Watson

Before I Go to Sleep - S.J.  Watson

(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.

3/5: The Girl with all the Gifts, M.R. Carey

The Girl with All the Gifts - M.R. Carey

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.

4/5: The Quiet at the End of the World, Lauren James

The quiet at the end of the world - Lauren James

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!

4/5: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, Lauren James

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe - 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.

2/5: Eve of Man, The Fletchers

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

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 

(She’s obviously a hologram of Isaac Wells),

(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

where Vivian even tells Eve as a voice from the clouds, “You won’t be safe out there”.

(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.

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.