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3/5: Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens, Mark Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Villains really do get the best parts of a story.

4/5 "Bag of Bones", Stephen King

Bag of Bones - Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/5: House of Stairs

House of Stairs - William Sleator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/5 "Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children"

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs

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

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

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

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

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

2/5: Rogue One, Alexander Freed

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Alexander Freed

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

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

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

1/5: Martin Chuzzlewit

Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens, Patricia Ingham

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

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

So where did it go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s. A. Mess.

4/5: The Martian

The Martian - Andy Weir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5. "Dreamcatcher" by Stephen King

Dreamcatcher - Stephen King

Four friends on an annual hunting trip find themselves in the middle of an alien invasion…

King has said that “Dreamcatcher” is the least favourite of his novels. It was written when he was recovering from a car accident and doped up on painkillers. Some of the descriptions of the physical suffering of the characters are turned up a notch or two as a result. This is Stephen King, though, and it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

He’s on familiar ground here. Four friends are defined by a childhood incident that still pulls them together as adults (as in IT). There’s more than a hint of extra-sensory abilities going on with them (as in IT) and they even visit Derry briefly, one of the best scenes of the story. There’s also a Down’s Syndrome man-child called Duddits (A name which becomes a drinking game with its repetition. Duddits, Duddits, Duddits).

If anything, this is a fifties B-movie sci-fi. Aliens invade, the humans defeat them (I’m sure that’s not a spoiler). Some folks live, some folks die.

Most of the book is a car chase; it’s a testament to King’s abilities as a story-teller that I wasn’t bored with it. It would have been easy to skip to the last few chapters and not felt like I’d missed anything.

King, as usual, has trouble with his ending. The alien being carried by a character in his mind may not be an alien after all…I was confused as to what was going on there. There are also some odd references to the Dreamcatcher of the title and its twin which seemed muddled and poorly developed.


3/5: Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams - Stephen King

A short story collection from Stephen King.

There was nothing technically wrong with the stories contained inside this collection. What was wrong was my expectations of the kind of stories I’d be reading. A lot of them were character driven, and the stories felt flat to me. Herman Wouk is still Alive was the weakest entry for me.

I don’t expect King’s stories to simply end without a kicker or a punch, and a lot of these stories simply petered out. They felt like drafts rather than finished products.

King’s thread running through a lot of these is closure. Many protagonists are facing the end of their lives, or the end of another dear to them. King at sixty-nine is clearly feeling the weight of his age and the loss of his lifelong friends. Nothing wrong with writing about it; just not what I like to read in a King short story.

There were some crackers as well though. Mile 81 is a wonderful little King snapshot of horror. Under the Weather is a subtle delight. For me, the best two were Morality and Drunken Fireworks which was a hoot.

4/5: Being, Kevin Brooks

Being - Kevin Brooks

Robert goes in for minor procedure on his stomach…but what is it that terrifies the doctors who are looking inside him?

A great thriller from Brooks. I read the 320 or so pages in about four hours, which gives you an idea of the pacing and the speed it zips along.

Robert’s reactions to what’s going on are believable and logical, and his arc through the book is nicely handled. But the villains hunting him down are mostly two dimensional, and we never discover what he is – Robert decides he is what he is, and that’s good enough. That's oddly unsatisfying.

The world building is nicely done. There are shades of Blade Runner in the almost constant rain and grim streets and grey world Robert walks and drives through (And there’s a lot of driving going on).

Only in the last third of the book does the pace slacken as Robert finds himself in Spain. The climax was pushed into the last few pages, and was predictable in hindsight (A we-could-be-a-family-when-this-is-all-over moment that means certain death for at least one character). It didn’t ruin the book or it’s enjoyment for me, though.

3/5: The Lie Tree, Francis Hardinge

The Lie Tree - Frances Hardinge

Fourteen-year-old Faith and her Victorian family are forced to flee mainland England for a quieter island off the coast of France. But scandal has followed them, and when her father is murdered, Faith must break free of her extremely binding social conventions to bring some justice to his memory.

When a book has paragraphs like this one:

"She had tumbled off the safe, hallowed shore of childhood, and now she was in no-man's-water, neither one thing nor another, like a mermaid. Until she dragged herself up on the rock of marriage, she was difficult."

...you know this might be a bumpy ride. Purple prose like that litters the early pages of the book, and it staggers and reels for the first few hundred pages or so, apparently seeking a plot.

I read that paragraph to my wife who said, "If I'd read that, I'd put the book down right there and then."

But I stuck with it because I'm not someone who relishes the thought of a didn't-finish. It did take its time to get moving in a direction - two hundred pages, give or take, and only when Faith's father is murdered.

As usual in young-adult fiction, the adults are useless, and it's entirely up to Faith to sort the murder out. Further constraining her is the setting: The number of things a Victorian girl can't do is quite startling 150 years later. She can't go out alone, or at night, she can't be alone with a man or even a boy her age and be less than ten feet from them. She's encumbered and corseted (literally and figuratively) by the clothes she wears, by the society that regards her as invisible and incapable. She will not be attending school or furthering her education for much longer. Her interest in natural history and science can only be expanded by picking at the crumbs her father drops.

But Faith is like a Judo champion, twisting the forces opposing her so they work in her favour, taking the expectations of the men (and women) around her and slamming them to the ground. There's a nice twist at the reveal of the murderer when Faith realises she's party to that short-sighted sexism as much as anyone.

A word or two about the reveal of the murderer...to me, it seemed very Agatha Christie. Information we couldn't possibly know suddenly turns up three pages before it happens, making it impossible to solve for those playing along at home.

There's a nice sense of place and time throughout, a very solid feel to the island and the physical, emotional, social and intellectual restraints placed on a young woman and widows and families in the 1860s.

Faith is not a particularly nice character, not exactly pleasant to be around. She has only one ally on the island, and she tolerates him only because she needs a male partner. She's bratty and sullen, a typical teenager a hundred years before the word existed.

I'm a long way into this review and I haven't mentioned The Lie Tree. Its origins are left nicely vague, open to a scientific interpretation or a spiritual one. Faith and her father approach it from different ends and almost meet in the middle. An unanswered question is whether the tree grew because of the lies Faith told, or whether it would have done so anyway.

A tree that feeds on lies and gives out a fruit filled with knowledge (although that knowledge is extremely vague and abstract) has obvious Biblical overtones, but there's more to the symbolism to that. The lies that Faith feeds it twist and grow as quickly as the plant does.

I was surprised that Faith didn't see it for the honey trap it was. I imagined she would already be someone accustomed to lies, and would know how they grow and thicken without much effort. And like their modern equivalent, the Meme, they don't need much watering.

5/5: The Talisman, Stephen King and Peter Straub

The Talisman - Stephen King, Peter Straub

Chased by the ambitious and power-hungry partner of his dead father, Jack Sawyer and his dying mother find themselves in New Hampshire, exiled from California. Jack is sent on a road trip back to the west coast to retrieve something called “The Talisman”. Its description is vague to the point of non-existence by the odd man sending him on the trip. But Jack is just desperate enough to try it…to try anything to save his mother. It’s the McGuffin that powers the plot along.

And, it seems, not just his mother is in trouble. Jack discovers he can travel to a parallel world called “The Territories”, a place which has “magic instead of physics.” (A world King would later expand into his Dark Tower series). Ruler of this place is a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jack’s mother, a dying queen who also needs saving from the Territories equivalent of his father’s partner.

The Talisman is not a short book by any means…but the best part? I didn’t even notice, because the pages flip by so easily. From Jack’s first trips into the Territories to the horrors and good friends he finds in this world and the other, nothing lags or drops. There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to leave the book alone, even though I’ve read it before and knew where it was all going.

At the time of publication (around 1984), this was touted as an adult horror story, I believe. But horror forms such a subset that it seems like a mis-identification. This is odyssey, this is Frodo and Sam growing as characters as they travel the road to Mordor. This is all about the journey. This is about finding strength you didn’t know you had, discovering who your friends are, friends willing to die for you, as you would for them.

This is as much about a twelve year old boy discovering what it takes to turn into a man, and what sort of man he wants to turn in to.

In 1984, this was classed as adult fiction, but there’s nothing here that a teenager couldn’t read. I would class it as young-adult, actually, both in terms of protagonist and the themes that run through it. And like the best of YA, there’s something there for all of us, no matter how old we are.

The Talisman is, in two words, bloody brilliant.

2/5: Extinct, Ike Hamill

Extinct - Ike Hamill

A strange snowstorm on an island in Maine and a sentient vine in another part of the state that won’t stop growing are just the beginning of the odd things happening to the world.

Hamill starts this book off at a roaring pace, with odd disappearances, eccentric government agents and events that defy any explanation. He splits the narrative nicely between the two protagonists, Robby and Brad.

Their two stories don’t meet up until the second half of the story…and that’s when it all starts to lose shape. Continuity errors pop up and subplots are introduced and then dropped again a chapter or a few pages later.

And it was all going so well…

As a for instance of subplots forgotten, Robby comes across some cabalistic markings on a basement wall. He memorises them (Rather than take a photo with his phone, for instance). Only once more in the story does the author do anything with the markings. Then they’re forgotten.

There’s no explanation for some of the things Brad comes across behind his home - an odd sound that hypnotises him, for example. We never discover who the government people who turn up at his door really are. A character is kidnapped and then breaks free again a chapter later, the subplot quickly dropped. There’s also the mystery of a sexually mutilated body which is never resolved either.

Mystery in a story is fine, but I don't feel as if any of these plot points were resolved before Hamill found something else he wanted to throw into the mix.

Characters at times also start acting out of character. Robby starts joking with corpses, even though he’s plainly terrified of them a few pages earlier. He doesn’t remember visiting a place at the end of the story, despite his perfect memory.

There are conversations reported after the fact that never took place. In one, Brad discusses a theory of Robby’s that we've never heard. Brad suddenly states that a child they harbour may be a girl rather than a boy, but there’s no text or subtext to support his sudden claim, and no more is said or done about it.

Hamill also needs to be more confident in his use of pronouns instead of personal names. When there’s only Brad in a scene and it goes like this:

Brad tried all the trucks in the lot. Brad found one which wasn’t locked, and Brad climbed inside to look for the keys. Brad found the keys under the visor and started the truck. A sudden noise made Brad turn around in his seat.

…it gets a little wearing.

There’s some repetition early in the book that could have been skipped. Brad writes to his dead wife weekly, and then we read in the narration that Brad wrote to his dead wife, and the summary of the letter we just read.

Hamill has clearly watched a lot of disaster and sci-fi movies, and seems determined to put every one in there he can. So we have tornadoes, intense snowstorms and people pulled into the air. I was waiting for the zombies as I read, and sure enough, they were there right at the end.

Despite the flaws in the story, there are some stand-out moments: The fight with the bear is particularly memorable, as is Robby’s desperate boat trip south and Brad’s lonely journey through the snow and the wonderfully eccentric (and very efficient) government agents.

4/5: Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Armadale - Wilkie Collins, John Sutherland

When a man named Allan Armadale (Senior-1) murders a man named Allan Armadale (Senior-2), it sets in motion a dramatic and long complication that takes twenty years to resolve. By the way, Allen Senior-1 has a son called Allan Armadale (Junior-1), as does Armadale Senior-2 (Armadale Junior-2).

Armadale Junior-1 is told this his father's dying wish was that under no circumstances should he meet up with Junior-2 – believing that Junior-1 will cause some accidental injury to Junior-2. Junior-1 adopts the name of Ozias Midwinter and drops out of society, so luckily, I didn't spend the entire book trying to figure out which Armadale is which (Junior-2 is still called Armadale, by the way).

With me so far?

Since Midwinter spends the first part of his life avoiding contact with Armadale, he gets an interesting upbringing: Vagabond, pirate, gypsy slave, that sort of thing. Armadale knows only a good life under the wing of his father's best friend, a smart priest by the name of Brock.
Of course, the two meet up (otherwise there wouldn't be a story!) and Armadale and Midwinter become best friends pretty much instantly. Actually, In 21st century terms, I'd call it a serious bromance. The two of them don't like to spend much time apart at all.

Midwinter is haunted by visions of inevitable disaster, while at the same time drawn to the simple and foppish Armadale and his quiet life. Armadale, for his own part, suspects nothing. But then Armadale would be surprised by a sunrise every morning. He's a simple kind of guy.

Armadale inherits a large property in Norfolk, and invites Midwinter along to run the place with him. But Lydia Gwilt, the now-adult maid of one of the Armadale seniors thinks the property should go to her. She sets out a complex plan of marrying Midwinter (Who tells no-one his real name), dumping him, killing off Armadale and posing as Armadale's widow (Since the last name and first name would be the same on the wedding certificate). What could go wrong?

Gwilt takes up most of the rest of the book, and as driven and devoted as she is to getting her hands on the Armadale fortune, you gotta root for her. She's portrayed as a flame-haired goddess that no man can resist: Even a doctor called in an emergency to a dying man can't help but stare at her for a few minutes. And since this is Victorian England, a beautiful woman couldn't possibly conceive or carry out a crime, could they? Even when her backstory comes to light and it turns out that she was days away from hanging for a previous offence, her beauty lets her slip free.

Gwilt is a wonderfully realised villain (or even an anti-heroine) and a fully realised woman. Considering, again, this is Victorian England and a novel written by a man, Collins has nailed her mannerisms and determination and character. He gets into her head in a way that was forty or fifty years ahead of anyone else. But then, Collins always wrote such great female characters, far better than Dickens's two dimensional women.

As a for instance, you get to see Armadale from her point of view to hilarious effect, observing him as a love-stricken puppy who won't stop talking about his betrothed or his yacht. You practically cheer for her when she finally snaps at him after days of polite listening to his fatuous conversation. You feel for her when Midwinter's writing career locks him away for hours and hours, and she takes the distraction as lack of affection. Her absolute loneliness.

Most meaningfully, there's a chance for redemption for Gwilt when she marries Midwinter. She takes the opportunity to try and correct her life...because she really does love him, despite herself.

And it's that glimmer of humanity that keeps you rooting for her and keeps you turning the pages.

2/5: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens (Star Wars) - Alan Dean Foster

The novelisation of The Force Awakens.

I've read quite a few novelisations by ADF – the first three Alien films and his Star Wars works (He ghost wrote A New Hope and the original story Splinter of the Mind's Eye). This is one of his more pedestrian works and probably one I won't dip into that many times.

Fast paced scenes are reduced to plodding, and there's little tension generated in the scenes which were tense on the screen. The mental-rape ability of Ren he uses against Poe and Rey, for instance.

On the plus side, there's more character development for Han Solo and General Organa, and some deleted scenes that add a little to the depth of the story.

2/5: The Last Orphans

The Last Orphans - N.W. Harris

A strange event makes all the animals in the world target only the adults…everyone else is left behind to try to figure out what's going on.

Harris takes a great premise and runs with it for all he's worth. The world building is nicely done, with attention to detail a plus point. The gore level is high, but not to excess, and the plot hurries along to the climax.

The book need a good brush down with an editor though. There are a few passive sentences and odd comma placements that make the prose stutter. There are also some continuity errors and physical ones: A car changes from a Honda to a Ford, a hotel with no power still needs MagCards to open the room doors.

The main character is developed solidly, but most of the other characters are flat and not given much room to grow.

This is book one of three, and the ending is an abrupt sequel hook into the second story. I won't be reading it though.