A Terrible Ordeal – Above by Isla Morley

ABOVE-provisional-coverThis review is part of the Hodderscape Review Projecthrp

I’ve reviewed close to 500 books over the past few years. Most them I’ve enjoyed greatly, which suggests I’m either easily pleased or good at knowing what I’ll like. Since starting the blog, and having greater interaction with publishers and writers I sometimes worry that I’m getting a little soft. I rarely write bad reviews these days.

This is mostly because I have a greater understanding of the travails of bringing a book to print. Nobody sets out to write a terrible book and publishers don’t knowingly print thousands of copies of a turkey, so the last thing anybody needs is some opinionated toss-bag, telling everybody their book is rubbish.

I’m not sure how much Amazon reviews alter buyer opinion, but I’m a top 500 reviewer on there, and since ‘with minimal power comes great responsibility’, if I don’t like a book I’ve been given by a publisher, I don’t leave a review. It doesn’t feel it’s fair to. I still write a review on here, because, well it’s my space and I’m not sure anybody reads it anyway. (Having said that, one of my few bad reviews – for I am Pilgrim is my most read and searched for.)

Above by Isla Morley was given to me as part of the Hodderscape Review Project, and so I feel obliged to review it, even though I find it has very little to recommend. My other HRP reviews have been mostly highly favourable. So much so, that compared with other members of the team, I started to wonder whether I was a gushing Pollyanna, always seeing the best in everything.

No longer.

The initial premise of Above, is not dissimilar to smash hit and prizewinner Room by Emma Donoghue. I initially balked at reading Room, as I feared it would be too distressing. Donoghue’s use of a five year old narrator is inspired. His singular and peculiar world-view offers a buffer against his and, more particularly, his mother’s horrendous situation. It’s a horrific subject dealt with incredible compassion and subtlety.

Above, by comparison, is like a sledgehammer to the face. It’s brutal and distressing with absolutely no finesse. A young girl is kidnapped off the street on the night of the country fair. She is incarcerated by a crazed survivalist, deep underground in a disused nuclear bunker. Convinced Armageddon is around the corner Dobbs hoped to keep Blythe alive so that after the apocalypse they can repopulate the planet. It’s not difficult to imagine the sort of thing that happens next.

The writing isn’t especially graphic, but I did find it a nasty, unforgiving read. A book can of course be both of these things, but it’s hard to pull off without alienating the reader. I found Blythe impossible to engage with. Similarly, Dobbs is little more than a cut-out lunatic. A villain by numbers. Blythe’s attempts at escape didn’t really interest me; there was never a sense she might make it, though perhaps that was the point – to highlight her helplessness.  The psychological effects of being incarcerated for an extended period of time go largely unexplored and are underplayed.

The novel’s setting in a silo is perhaps unfortunate, as it has to compete for space in my imagination with Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy, which has a silo of infinitely more interest.  In Howey’s novel the claustrophobia is palpable but I found it missing here.

Then there’s the twist.

My copy of the book was a proof copy, and I stress that I haven’t seen a finished novel, so this may be not the same come publication. The unbelievable ‘you’ll-never-guess’ nature of the the twist is heavily emphasised. If there’s one thing to make you likely to guess a twist, it’s being told you’ll never guess the twist. Simply imagine the thing least likely to happen and it’s probably what’s gonna happen. And lo it came to pass. (I’ve since received a copy of the finished book, and again the shocking nature of the twist is quite heavily emphasised).

Which is a shame as the twist is pretty good, and the book does turn upwards at this point. Blythe’s rehabilitation ‘Above’ gives the reader plenty to think about.  Yet I still remained unconvinced.

I can say very little about the second half of the book as to do so would spoil vital components of the story, but once again this sort of thing has been handled so much better elsewhere. Not least of all in Room, but in many other books too.

After an upturn in quality in the third quarter, Above falters again, limping to its flaccid conclusion. The plot is riven with coincidence and is often confusing (though this may have been the tedium of it all ruining my concentration.) Whilst some of the characters found above ground are believable many are little more than ciphers. The story is fragmented with whole sections which could easily have been cut. I’m sorry to say it but Above is the worst book I’ve read in many a month.

 

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Room Worth a View – Room by Emma Donoghue

ROOM-IIThis is an old review from April 2011 that I posted on Amazon. I’m reposting it here as it dovetails nicely with the next book I will review – Above by Isla Morley 

Being aware of the rather unappealing premise of ‘Room’, it wasn’t a book I wanted to read. Despite the praise heaped upon it, I had expected it to be the sort of voyeuristic account of great suffering that passes as entertainment these days. My book group however, were keen to read it, and so I acquiesced agreeing to give it a try. I have to say my original assumption was well wide of the mark. Right from the beginning it is obvious that this novel is something special.

The story (as you probably already know) is narrated by ‘Jack’, a five year old, who has only ever lived in ‘Room’. Jack’s mother has been kidnapped and held for seven years. Jack is the product of her kidnapper’s unwanted attentions. Knowing the book had a child narrator had also put me off reading it. I tend to find that books written with a child’s voice are normally pretentious and hard to read. Room’s Booker prize nomination had done nothing to allay these fears.

Although Jack’s voice is not entirely consistent with how I imagine a five-year-olds might be, it is the making of the novel. For a start, that something so pure and innocent can come from such bleak circumstances, makes the novel bearable. Secondly, Emma Donaghue uses Jack’s over-simplified understanding of the world almost without fault. She uses the space between reality and Jack’s view of reality to convey events in a much more powerful way than writing about them directly. The whole novel is the ultimate example of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’.

It is curious that the most exciting point of the novel is about halfway through. Though I feel novel’s the gradual relaxation of tension is entirely justified (mirroring, Jack’s return to something like a normal life), it does make the last half of the novel feel over long. That said, following Jack coming to terms with ‘Outside’ is well-handled and almost as heart-breaking as his incarceration. For a book about such a dispiriting subject, `Room’ contains a surprising amount of humour; Jack’s unique view of the world, does show us all up to be rather foolish.

‘Room’ is a highly readable novel. Although not always pleasant, it is never depressing. If, like me, you are wavering about reading it, then I would say ‘Room’ is well worth a view.

Lost in a good book – Libriomancer by Jim C Hines

LibriomancerUKI almost didn’t read this book. It’s cover is terrible. I know one shouldn’t judge and all that, but there are so many books and such little time, you’ve got to have a filtering mechanism. But then… it is called Libriomancer and libris (at the risk of sounding like Pooh Bear), means books. Oh, and libraries.

So I figured I might at least read the back cover: ‘Gutenberg, secret societies, magic in books, reaching into books and drawing forth objects’. That sounds bloody great! It also sounds like Polly Shulman’s Grimm Legacy books, which I loved. Behind the tacky, off-putting cover lurked the germ of brilliant idea.

So I read it.

I was right. Libriomancer is bloody great. OK – it’s not aiming for literary greatness, but it is hoping to deliver a fun, action-packed and slightly silly story. Which it does, perfectly. Indeed behind the light veneer is some pretty scholarly stuff. You can’t write something based on other works of fiction like this without knowing your texts inside out. One might almost have to qualify as a Libriomancer.

Isaac Vainio is a disgraced libriomancer. He’s not meant to practice any more, but when vampires turn up on your doorstep and try to kill you, it’s probably time to stop following orders. Rescued by a plucky dryad, he tries to piece together what is going on. Isaac embarks on an adventure that explores many of SFFs common tropes; pokes fun at them, tinkers with them, and uses them to build something original, whilst managing to make you think about the themes underpinning whole subsections of the genre.

There’s some clever stuff here. A classification system for vampires, all based on the many works of bloodsucking fiction. The newer ones are harder to kill, exemplifying the theory put forward in Scream 2 that each iteration has got to be bigger, nastier, scarier and harder to kill. There’s a gentle examination of the role of women in genre fiction. A hot topic right now. Hines shows how absurd female characters have been in the past, and what they might be like if they were real people.

The possibilities of things that could be brought into the real world through the pages of fiction are endless, and Hines has some loose and vaguely sensible reasons for why you can’t bring through Superman or the One Ring. I have no idea whether the rules stack up to close scrutiny, but they worked well enough to keep me interested and maintain a logical consistency. The shadowy league of libriomancers, the ‘Porters’ has enough revealed about them to make them intriguing whilst keeping the reader hanging out for more.

This is a series that could run and run. The overall plot is a little daft, but who cares?  It’s a fun book and it pays homage to books and the people who love them. I would happily spend more hours in the company of Isaac Vainio and the fevered imagination of Jim C Hines.  Which is lucky as book 2 Codex Born is available now.

Many Thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of this book. 

Bleak House – Arms Wide Open by Tom Winter

arms‘They sit in silence at first, the two of them sharing in a holy communion, the transubstantiation of mere chocolate into feelings of love and security.’

It’s always nerve-wracking picking up a new novel from a writer when you’ve loved their previous work. Tom Winter’s Lost and Found was one of my novels of 2013. I even got my book group to read it and they all loved it too. How would Arms Wide Open compare, could it possibly live up to my expectations?

Probably not.

In tone and humour the books are very similar. Winter is very good at highlighting the absurdities of life. Trite though it may be to say it, his observations are funny because they’re true.  What made Lost and Found for me, is that the whole cast of characters had a perfect synchronicity.  They worked together in unison, separate notes combining to make a beautiful ensemble piece. Arms Wide Open has a wider cast, and there a few characters are slightly off key. Both novels, I think, are very English affairs and the introduction of two American exchange students in Arms Wide Open didn’t quite work for me.

The overall tone here is different too. Lost and Found is bittersweet, and ultimately redemptive. Here there is redemption of sorts, but the story is more bleak and the finale is more bitter than sweet. So on finishing Arms Wide Open, I wasn’t left with a warm fuzzy feeling that I had with L&F. Rather than ‘life throws curve balls, but good things do happen’, it’s more ‘life’s a shitty mess and then you die’; probably forgetting who you are.

So because I didn’t enjoy Arms Wide Open as much, it’s tempting to dismiss it as an inferior novel. After all, total enjoyment is a pretty good qualifier for measuring the quality of an experience. But what if it’s me? Maybe I don’t like the book as much, because it didn’t offer the redemptive assurances I was looking for? If that’s the case, maybe it’s a better book. It reflects my own life, my own fears and worries; it’s not the pages of a book I’m staring into, but an abyss. This stirring up of negative emotion might make it a stronger book.

OK, the abyss thing was overstating it, but here’s why I found the book discomfiting.

When reading Lost and Found I was 39. 40 was only a few months down the way, but not yet reached. Despite being not overly worried about this milestone, it did hit me quite hard when it finally arrived. Now, I’m 41. Closer to 80 than to birth (as my 8 year old helpfully pointed out this week). There is suddenly a feeling that my best years are behind me. I’m probably not going to set the world alight now (see my Stoner review).Things ache more than they used to. Nights out, are not only rare, but also require about 3 days to get over. The world is not so much an oyster but a mountain of dirty washing. My marriage, whilst not over like Meredith’s, is after ten years and three children starting to calcify. There is the sense, as Winter puts it, that,

‘…it’s like life is made of concrete or something and I’ve already set. No one tells you when you’re young that your life is going to harden and solidify, That you wake up one morning and find it’s turned to stone and that you’re not actually some architectural marvel, you’re a pavement.’

This is wonderfully, beautifully spot on. It’s also bloody depressing. In addition to picking out my deepest neuroses directly from my brain, Winter backs this up by writing about degenerative illness. As any regular readers of my blog (should there be any) will know, my Dad has Parkinson’s. A comparatively slow degenerative illness compared with Jack’s, but the idea of personalities being subsumed by illness is one that strikes a chord with me at the moment. The third strand of woe that Winter tugs at is the parent-child relationship and he pretty much sides with Philip Larkin. As my children grow up and the teenage years loom ahead of us, books like this strike terror into my heart. Winter is a fine chronicler of the agonies and ecstasies of family life (with heavier focus on the agony).

All in all it’s perhaps not surprising that I came out with idea that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped. Whilst I didn’t get my redemptive resolution of Lost and Found, on reflection I find it impossible to know which of Winter’s two books is the best. What I do know if you want someone to display the absurd side of life, whilst dealing with some serious themes, and if you want to have the occasional belly laugh, you could start by reading Tom Winter.

Many Thanks to the team at Corsair for sending me a copy of this book. 

111/10010 – Binary by Stephanie Saulter

binaryThis book is book two in the Revolution series and a direct sequel to the excellent Gemsigns. If you haven’t read Gemsigns, then read no further.

Gemsigns is a great book. Perhaps a little heavy on the details, but it’s a rich dystopian novel that examines prejudice and what it is to be human. It does what all good science fiction novels do. It makes you think.

Binary is a direct follow on from Gemsigns, featuring the same characters. With most of the world building done in the first novel, this is more a straight-forward story with less sociology, and I think it suffers for that. Binary’s story is an interesting one, but I didn’t find the themes it explored as thought provoking as those in its predecessor.

Saulter’s tendency to info dump is still present, and this time I found the information more confusing than enlightening. It details complicated computer systems, nested shadow companies within the Gemtech industry, and theoretical genetic manipulation techniques. The volume of information given sometimes overwhelms the story.

The structure also vexed me. There’s a straightforward narrative interspersed with flashbacks to events years before. This is nothing wrong with this in principle but whilst the flashbacks are predominantly written from the perspective of Aryel, one or two of them weren’t, with little or no indication that this was case.  As a result, I’d be reading for half a page or so, before realising that it didn’t makes sense in the context of what had come before, and that I must be reading about another character. I’d have to stop and reread in light of this realisation which jarred me out of the story.The arbitrary nature of the flashbacks’ point of view, highlights that they are only there to divulge important plot information. It goes back to series’ biggest issue; telling rather than the showing.

That’s the negative stuff out of the way. It shouldn’t stop you from continuing on with this intriguing set of books. Binary is a good read. It’s exciting and keeps the reader hooked and entertained until the end.  Once you’re past the info overload, the political skulduggery gives rise to great suspense scenes and interesting twists – some obvious, so much less so. The provenance of gems, Aryel, Rhys, Callan and computer savant Herran is a mystery but will that mystery be resolved?  

The villain from the previous novel, Zackva Klist has turned over a new leaf. Her gemtech organisation wishes to start afresh, a partnership with the gems. Is she simply trying to maintain a commercial footing in the new world order or does this new compliance hide sinister intentions?

Again there are interesting parallels to the real-world, particularly in the area of equality and prejudice. Saulter also uses her world to extrapolate what technology’s next steps might be, focusing on the human-tech interface. I haven’t read many cyberpunk novels, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but this has the feel of post Facebook/Twitter cyberpunk.

Overall I enjoyed Binary, it’s a interesting tale that takes place in a well constructed world, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed it doesn’t match Gemsigns for depth of vision and incisive observation.

Many thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of Binary.

Animal Pictures – Animal Kingdom Infographics by Nicholas Blechman

information-graphics-animal-kingdomI love infographics. I can lose hours staring at them. But whilst they’re pretty, and feel informative, I’m not sure how much of the information actually sticks. This could well be my mind, but I find Infographics are great to display a particular point, (where they can be very persuasive),  but I don’t find them useful for retaining factual knowledge. Having said that, I reiterate, I love infographics.

Animal Kingdom is a beautiful book. It’s vibrantly coloured, has tabbed pages for ease of use and contains all sorts of interesting tidbits of information contained within. It’s broken down into 8 sections. These are mostly unrelated to one another, and the order appears arbitrary (Species, Senses, Record Breakers, Food & Drink, Family, Habitats, Killers and Man’s Best Friend). This sections do not build on each other nor is the information grouped by species, habitat or location. That’s OK as the sections are well labelled, and the tabs to help you locate the section you are looking for. Having said that, there is no index. So if we were doing homework (for these book are aimed at children), we’d probably be more likely to plum for one of our more traditionally arranged books. The lack of index is, I think, a criminal oversight.

I gave the book to my 8 year old to read. He is probably at the lower end of the age range this book is aimed at. He liked it. The visuals he found interesting, and there isn’t too much text to switch him off. He did keep reading for a reasonable length of time.  His major comment was, he liked it, but ‘preferred books that were arranged by type of animal.’ As I said, he is at the lower end of the range of this book, and is still at that ‘I want to read about sharks’, phase of using non-fiction books. Animal Kingdom takes a more holistic approach to its information.

This is a nice book, made with high production values. It’s very pleasing to the eye, and it’s great to browse through. Quite what its longevity would be, I’m not so sure.  It strikes me as the sort of book that would sit on the shelf; admired but rarely used. As I own a host of infographics books that I rarely read, perhaps that’s a personal failing rather than one of the book. A lovely book then, but probably a luxury rather than an essential purchase.

Thanks to the team at Templar Publishing for sending me a copy of this book