Category: dystopia

Review: ‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman

Review: ‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Most people dismissed the reports on the news. But they became too frequent; they became too real. And soon it was happening to people we knew. 

Then the Internet died. The televisions and radios went silent. The phones stopped ringing. 

And we couldn’t look outside anymore.

I saw a lot about Bird Box around its release, bought it in a Kindle sale at some point and then forgot that I even owned it. Then one morning, I woke up early and couldn’t read my current physical book because it was dark and I’m kind enough that I didn’t want to bash on a lamp while Boyfriend was sleeping.  So I picked up my Kindle, flicked through the many books on there and went for this, drawn back in by the cover tagline “If you’ve seen them, it’s already too late”.
I wanted a thriller but I was very ill-prepared for just how dark this book was going to be.  Well, I suppose less how dark it was going to be than how gruesome.  The premise is fairly simple: the world is under threat from some being that, when seen by humans, makes those humans kill those around them before ultimately killing themselves.  The narrative is split between two main threads: one in the present where Malorie is alone in a house struggling to survive with two children, unable to go outside but desperate to brave it in the hope that she’ll be able to find some kind of life for her little family and one in the past that starts with news reports of the phenomenon and Malorie finding out that she’s pregnant and shows the world gradually unravelling from there.
I think what makes this book different from other dystopian fiction is that readers never find out exactly what is causing the implosion of the human race.  There are theories about what it is (including a fascinating one that there is in fact nothing at all causing the deaths other than mass hysteria and delusion) but, given that everybody who has seen it has died, nothing concrete.  It’s one of those stories that relies on readers’ imaginations to fill the gaps about what terrifying vision might be stalking the streets.  And my goodness does it work.  There are moments where characters are blindfolded and fetching water or something from outside and they’re plagued by images of what might be lurking just beyond their blindfold and the terror as they start to imagine something touching them and gradually descend into panic feels so real.  It perfectly conveys that feeling when you walk into a pitch black room and have that fleeting “But what if…?” thought and suddenly have to get a light on.
The novel also manages to touch on the social impact of strangers being forced to rely on each other to survive, the plight of being torn between the desire to help save others and saving yourself and it all feels very (worryingly) realistic.  The ending isn’t exactly definitive but it worked for me and even while it introduced a whole host of new moral quandaries, it did wrap up the story enough and didn’t feel as though Malerman had just got bored and stopped writing.
I really, really liked this book.  It was terrifying and it was brutal but it was completely gripping. I like stories that are told through flashbacks and this one uses the technique particularly well.  You know what’s coming (in a way) but I was still completely astonished when it came to the point of actually getting there.  Bird Box won’t be for everyone because it doesn’t shy away from some very raw and gory details of people’s demises (particular warning to those who especially don’t want to read about violence/death of animals).  There was a scene in particular towards the end that really freaked me out and that made me feel physically ill so even if it’s by no means a pleasant read, it is a hell of a gut-punching one.

Overall: With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I’d definitely recommend Josh Malerman’s debut. While I was reading it, I alternated between fervent hope for characters, disgust and all sorts of other over-wrought emotional states.  It was a trying time but one I’d say is worth inflicting on yourself.  It actually looks as though HarperCollins will be publishing Malerman’s second novel, Black Mad Wheel, later this year and I’ll definitely be picking up a copy when it’s out.



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Date finished:  14 January 2017
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Dystopian fiction; thriller
Pictured Edition Published: in January 2015 by HarperCollins Publishers

Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery

Review Minis: The Library Edition

I’ve been on a bit of a library kick lately. Every time I go back to return my books, I decide to “just have a look” to see if there’s anything in that I like the look of and then I leave with at least three books to read. Contrary to my normal behaviour, I’ve actually been reading these books lately. Often I’ll get books out, pile them up, forget, renew them 5 times and then return them unread. I think the last time that I returned a batch, I’d actually read them all. Ludicrous behaviour. 

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell


The Ship was one that I’d seen Ellie (of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm fame) talk about and had a pretty stunning cover. The book was…ok. I think it would have made an excellent short story or novella but it felt a bit laboured as a full length novel. The novel opens on a gloomy and tragic London, with citizens huddling together in its once great buildings and hiding from the authorities, who will shoot anyone who can’t produce an identity card or commits some other minor infraction of the terrifying ‘Nazareth Act’. The environment as we know it is destroyed and civilisation seems to be following. Lalla’s father has been secretly hoarding food aboard the Ship, to save a pre-chosen group of people and sail away from the devastation. The opening third or so is outstanding. The set-up is solid and the plot moves quickly and in ways that I didn’t always expect despite having read my fair share of dystopian novels. I really liked the writing too and some of the haunting passages about the final moments of certain aspects of our world have really stuck with me, like this incredibly sad image of a lonely polar bear that just gets me every time I see it:

…I remembered the film of the last polar bear, swimming and swimming in the empty ocean, in search of a mass of ice that had finally melted away

Out on the open sea, however, I found my interest waning. The writing still has some great moments but I felt as though the narrative became a bit repetitive and Lalla started driving me crazy. She becomes petulant and ungrateful. I understand that circumstances aren’t ideal and there are some decisions that other people are taking that were pretty damn creepy but it seemed that there could have been far better ways to address them. Like trying to have a conversation with her father, for example. I really wasn’t a fan of the ending, either. I think I can see the point that the author was trying to make but I just didn’t buy into it. 

3 out of 5 stars for the concept and the cautionary tale about what we’re doing to the world, the philosophical meanderings on who should be saved and what it even means to be saved in the first place and the writing

Buy a copy: Wordery | Amazon

Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman

Illuminae was a bit of a punt. I’m not usually a fan of science fiction but this one was billed as playing around with format and I’d seen a few positive reviews so I ordered it in. It was brilliant. Not ‘brilliant compared to my expectations’ or ‘brilliant for science fiction’. Just brilliant. The story starts with a bang and the destruction of the tiny ice-covered speck of an island where hapless young former lovers Ezra and Kady live. A lot of people die and small groups of survivors flee on a few ill-equipped spaceships. Families are split up and it isn’t clear who has survived or, if they have, whether they will continue to survive between being chased by their attackers who want to finish the job they started and the lack of resources on the hastily boarded escape vehicles. So far, so standard. What had lured me in in the first place is that it’s told through screenshots from computers, messages sent between residents of different ships, security debriefings and other confidential records. The story is pieced together through ‘evidence’ and it’s so much fun. It makes reading the story feel like something unique, like more an experience, and it doesn’t feel as gimmicky as it sounds as though it will. I cried at least once. Probably twice. Despite it being over 500 pages, I read it over a couple of days and if I hadn’t been busy, I’d have finished it in a day or so. I’ll probably be buying a copy of this one along with Gemina (the next instalment that was published recently) soon.

4.5 out of 5 stars for putting together scraps of text and making something that I was completely tangled up in. Absolutely recommended if you’re looking for a super quick, gripping read.

Buy a copy: Wordery | Amazon

Leviathan’s Wake by James S. A. Corey

Buoyed up on the science fiction success of Illuminae, I was emboldened into thinking that I actually might like science fiction after all and went all out with a “proper” science fiction novel. I did sort of like Leviathan’s Wake but it was hard going. It’s the first book in an epic space opera series and is just over 600 pages of politics, spaceships, shoot-outs and impending disaster. It felt like it took me forever to read and if I hadn’t had a return train journey to London while I was reading it, goodness knows how long it would have taken. 
 The story centres around a few characters that end up at the centre of a war between Mars, Earth and the ‘Belts’, most of whom I liked but only a couple of which were really developed properly. Chapters alternated between the perspective of Jim, a former Earth resident turned astronaut who’s a sort of technician-turned-captain down to earth type of chap, and Detective Miller, a Belter policeman fallen on difficult times (who was hands down my favourite). There are a couple of female characters but only one who I’d class as a main character and even though she is a respected engineer (yey), she is repeatedly described by reference to how attractive she is and ends up with a hugely unnecessary romantic side-plot, which I was not a fan of (boo). The characters and the action are engaging enough but I found a lot of the detail really hard to follow for some reason. I think I’d have hated this book if it hadn’t eventually stopped confusing me with its political ramblings and started freaking me out with zombie-based chemical warfare. Admittedly even that ended up being confusing by the end but it livened up the middle no end!

3.5 out of 5 stars for the appearance of the zombies. Cautiously recommended if you’re patient and don’t feel the need to always follow what’s going on in a book that you’re reading…

Buy a copy: Wordery | Amazon

Audiobook Mini Reviews: YA Dystopia and Fantasy

Legend by Marie Lu

I’d heard a lot of great things about this series so I was pretty keen when I saw the first in the series on my library’s audiobook list.  It was a disappointment.  If you’ve read any YA Dystopia in recent years, chances are you’ll be able to take a stab at make some pretty accurate guesses about the plot from the blurb.  Shining light in the Republic’s academy, June, is devastated when her brother is murdered.  The country’s most wanted criminal, Day, becomes the prime suspect and June launches off on a state-sponsored under-cover mission to track him down and exact some revenge.  When their paths cross, they realise that (shocker) everything with the Republic is not quite as it seems…
I struggled to find the story very compelling because I felt like I’d already read it.  I finished the book and felt as though all of the detail had been forgotten somewhere – there’s a great ramble about “the Colonies” and how the Republic hates them.  Problem is, it’s difficult for me to really get into this Republic v. Colonies struggle if it isn’t fully described.  What are the Colonies?  Why does the Republic hate them so much?  What’s the political position of the Colonies?  I haven’t a clue.  It felt a little bit as though it was relying on the atmosphere that pervades the genre rather than creating any of its own; you’re lead to believe that you hate the Republic not because you’re really shown why (at least at first) but because you know that’s who you’re supposed to hate.
The characters are also pretty two dimensional and if it hadn’t been for the fact that June and Day’s chapters were narrated by different actors in the audiobook, I’d have struggled to tell them apart.  The romance is shallow and uninspiring.  All in all, I felt like as a first book, it’s too light.  There isn’t enough time spent building the world or developing the characters and I don’t plan on picking up the next one to fill in the blanks because I kind of don’t care about them.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars for being a passable re-hash of the ‘Big Bad Republic Tramples Poor’ trope.  It doesn’t offer anything new or particularly interesting but it isn’t appalling enough to inspire any major ranting.  Just ok.
The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix

This is another series that I’d heard wonderful things about.  The concept of the series is pretty great – Sabriel is adopted as a baby by the Abhorsen, a bell-wielding necromancer, and sent off to Ancelstierre as a child to learn charter magic and grow up away from her death-walking father.  When her father goes missing, the first book sees Sabriel returning to the Old Kingdom and setting off to find him with a tremendously sarcastic talking cat.  The later books are set about 20 years after the first and follow younger, new characters as they face down an impending apocalypse.
One of my main problems with the series overall was that the books are quite repetitive, which gives it away as epic fantasy for slightly younger readers.  Nix has gone to the trouble of creating a wonderful magic system for the necromancers that is centred around bells, each of which has a different name and power.  What was frustrating was that every time a bell was used, I was treated to a run-down of its characteristics and abilities.  Which was fine the first couple of times but by the end of the third book, felt a bit worn.  The characters are also very much young adults.  They can be whiny and there’s a lot of growing into powers and learning about who they are and who they can be etc. etc.  It works well in the first book but is much less dexterously handled in the latter two.
 
I did like the series.  I might not sound like I did, but I did.  It’s quite gritty and focusses a lot on Death (which is a place with levels that the Abhorsen can walk through that I wish had been featured more) and the undead.  It’s dark in places and worth reading if you’re patient and the odd bout of self-pity/whining.  Maybe they’d be better read with a few books in between to break them up and give you chance to forget some of the facts that you’ll be reminded about later on.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars for having some great ideas and concepts that were just lacking in their execution for me.  It also loses stars for having a talking dog (“the Disreputable Dog”) feature heavily in the second and third books because it is a) is a talking dog, which is a bit insipid and didn’t appeal to me because I’m just not a dog person and b) has far too many hidden powers that conveniently manifest themselves when the going gets tough and the characters need an easy out.
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Oof.  Sorry, friends.  This set of mini reviews isn’t the most positive I’ve ever written!  I think that maybe YA fantasy and I need to take a little break…
This offering is about Grace, a teenager living in Mercy Falls who has a frankly unhealthy preoccupation with a wolf with yellow eyes who lives in the woods behind her house.  One day she meets a boy, Sam, who has hauntingly familiar yellow eyes and…guessed where this is going yet?  Yep, this is another book that’s pretty predictable.  And a bit annoying.  
The twist on the usual werewolf day/night shifts was interesting – these werewolves get to be human while its warm and turn into wolves for the winter.  Eventually, they run out of summers and turn into wolves forever.  Unfortunately for Grace, this is Sam’s last summer as a human and so the lovers have to race to find a way to stay together.  Perhaps I’m a cynic but I really struggle to buy into a relationship that’s based on years of Grace having watched Sam as a wolf.  There are some minor moral quandaries along the way but the plot is really just Grace and Sam canoodling and trying to plan a life together in their second month together.
My sister loves this series so it could be just me but my overwhelming feelings is just a world of ‘meh’.  
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars for making me feel like I was wading through tropes.  Cross-species relationship, parents that are conveniently always busy and out of the main characters’ way, InstaLove (because I’m sorry but I will not believe that meaningful ‘getting to know each other’ time can happen while one of the parties is a wolf) and high school friendships straining under the weight of one person’s new obsession with The One.

Review: ‘Allegiant’ by Veronica Roth

**SPOILER ALERT – ALLEGIANT is the last in the Divergent series so there may be spoilers for earlier books in the series (although I have kept things spoiler free so far as this book goes).  If you haven’t read the first, Divergent, you might want to head over to my review of that HERE instead.  Up to the second book, Insurgent?  My review mini is HERE.

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Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

 
The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered – fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal.  So, when offered a chance to explore the world pat the limits she’s known, Tris is ready.  Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties and painful memories.
 
But Tris’ new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind.  Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless.  Explosive new truths change the hears of those she loves.  And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature – and of herself – while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice and love.
 
Review
If you’ve even remotely followed this series as it’s flown around the blogosphere, I can’t imagine that you managed to avoid the furore that surrounded the release of the final instalment at the end of last year.  People’s reactions seemed to range from utter emotional devastation to out and out rage.   I’d gone into Allegiant expecting more of the same high drama, fast action and semi-political wranglings that graced the pages of the first two.  The hurtling pace was still there and there were times when I managed to stop rolling my eyes and sighing in a melodramatic manner long enough to be gripped by what was going on but, when it comes down it, I just wasn’t a big fan.  It was ok but not at all the life-suspending read I was looking forward to, was disappointing.

Perhaps surprisingly to those that have read it, it wasn’t the ending that made this a bit of a retrospective dud but the plot generally.  For me, the first two books were made great by the idea of society being divided into factions. People living according to one defining characteristic and balancing governance and responsibilities for the protection of that society according to those attributes was a great idea that was executed well.  As Tris, Four and her band of loyal friends go Beyond the Fence, they more or less leave behind the factions and instead step into a world with a far less engaging and considered conflict based on some flimsy history and some even more wobbly science.

I won’t go into too much detail about it all because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you that haven’t made it to this book yet but I will say categorically that the factions were better.  There was no need to completely shift the focus and try to set up and resolve a global conflict within one book and it just felt under-developed as a consequence.  Shelving pretty much everything that readers have come to love in the first two books of a trilogy and wandering off onto a tangent that just has no traction is brave in some ways and I suppose worthy of at least a small nod of praise.  But “genetically pure v. genetically damaged” backed up with some shaky explanations and some excellent glossing over of anything that might make it stand up to more thought?  As weak as it sounds.  I never bought into while I was reading and I haven’t bought into it on reflection.

We also have a split narrative this time around, with the story being told both from Tris and Tobias/Four’s perspectives.  Super.  I have no problem with having more than one narrator.  Actually, I’m quite a fan of the device in general.  Here, though, I found that I kept forgetting who was “speaking”.  Both characters are now at the stage where they are internally conflicted and are having family problems and are all but indistinguishable in tone.  Both also seemed to be all too happy to put aside their worries and feelings of grave betrayal/upset/general anger any time an opportunity to snog in a hallway/empty room presented itself.  Maybe I’m not enough of a romantic or maybe it’s been too long since I was a teenager but sporadic kissing in corridors does not a romantic sub-plot sustain.  The relationship that has been lauded generally as being realistic in its troubles just became silly for me.  Sorry.  Oh, and while I’m on the characters, pretty much all of the characters that you’ve come to know and love from the first couple of books will be put to one side so that you can spend some time with those that populate Beyond the Fence world. 

I suppose I couldn’t let the whole review go by without at least mentioning the thing that had people talking, sobbing and/or throwing things.  When I started reading Allegiant, I had no idea where The Incident occurred and I spent the whole time waiting for something to make me incandescent with fury.  It isn’t right until the end so if you’re planning on reading this and might be in the hyper-aware state that I was for the first half, you needn’t worry.  And The Incident?  It was a bit of a shock but not at all the trauma that I had come to expect and hasn’t really impacted on my feelings towards the series in any way.  By that point, I was too exasperated with the whole experience to really care a great deal what happened to any of the characters and I didn’t cry once.  Unusual for me and (you guessed it) disappointing.

In all honesty, I didn’t hate Allegiant as much as it sounds like I did.  Everything is wrapped up reasonably neatly (almost too neatly, really…) and the conclusions to the plots that existed at the end of Insurgent fairly satisfying.  Most of my frustration lies in the fact that I was looking forward to a weekend spent tucked up with a riveting read and was left wanting.  Would I recommend the series as a whole now that I know where it ends up?  Sadly, I’m not at all sure.
 

Overall:  If you’ve read Divergent and Insurgent, this isn’t a completely terrible end to the series and I wouldn’t warn you off completely because it does wrap everything up and give you that “Ah, series complete” feeling.  Just please don’t say that I didn’t warn you that it’s far from perfect and closure might be the best reward you’ll get. 

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Date finished: 26 January 2014
Format: Hardback
Source: Borrowed from my local library
Genre: YA fiction; Dystopian fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2013

Review: ‘The Bone Season’ by Samantha Shannon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The year is 2059. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is working in the criminal underworld of Scion London, based at Seven Dials, employed by a man named Jaxon Hall. Her job: to scout for information by breaking into people’s minds. For Paige is a dreamwalker, a clairvoyant and, in the world of Scion, she commits treason simply by breathing.


It is raining the day her life changes for ever. Attacked, drugged and kidnapped, Paige is transported to Oxford – a city kept secret for two hundred years, controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. Paige is assigned to Warden, a Rephaite with mysterious motives. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy. But if Paige wants to regain her freedom she must allow herself to be nurtured in this prison where she is meant to die.

 

Review

Sometimes I wonder how much of a bubble we book bloggers live in. When I was flicking through the reviews of this book on Goodreads, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t a sweep of four and five star reviews. Maybe I follow a group of bloggers with similar tastes to mine but I haven’t seen anything but glowing reviews, urging me to read The Bone Season as soon as I could. At an average of 3.66 out of 11,913 ratings (as at the time of writing), however, Goodreads tells a different story. So what is it that makes book bloggers crow with love and the wider reading population feel a little more than luke warm?
Maybe part of it is down to marketing. I haven’t seen the articles myself but apparently Samantha Shannon has been hailed as the “next J. K. Rowling”. Leaving aside the fact that J. K. Rowling is very much alive and well and might be a bit miffed to read that she was now being replaced by a fresh face in YA fantasy, I can see why readers might be a little disgruntled if they picked up The Bone Season expecting something akin to the tale of a young boy finding his place in a magical wizarding school, engaging in a bit of tom-foolery and ultimately fighting evil alongside a host of well-mannered and trust-worthy companions. I can vaguely see some similarities to the later Harry Potter books but only really in a (SPOILER FOR HARRY POTTER COMING UP!) “what would have happened if Voldemort won” sort of way.
Whatever the reason for the mixed reception, I really enjoyed it. It took a little bit of getting into but once I’d got my head around the types of clairvoyant and the slang, I was hooked. A lot of thought and imagination is clearly behind the creation of the worlds of Scion London and Sheol I.  Plenty of politics, a history that really seemed to fit with the current state of the world and with the characters’ memories and a huge range of types of clairvoyants that have their own skill sets and place in society. It actually took me most of this book to really feel as though I understood the different types of “voyant”, which was part of the reason I think it took me some time before I really felt as though I could focus on the story.  The detail is clever and is layered perfectly, without any clumsy information dumping or the like, but I found myself feeling a little as though I was behind on something and couldn’t quite work out what.  I’d read the name of a new type of voyant and think, “but I don’t know what you can do!” in the way that only a true control freak really can.  I did learn to shut that part of my brain off and trust Shannon to gradually dole out the relevant background and terms but it took some getting used to.  I was a much happier reader without that little part of my brain.  I probably would have been entirely happy had I not been reading an eBook copy that didn’t reveal it’s glorious glossary to me until I’d already finished the book…
I definitely liked Paige Mahoney well enough and was more than happy to spend some page time with her but it was the criminal underworld of Scion London and the hidden prison camp (effectively) of Sheol I that really pulled me in. There are some elements of Sheol I that stray a little close to the monstrosities of WWII concentration camps for comfort (take tattooing people with their identification number by way of an example) but it did make the setup seem worryingly realistic (if you ignore the fact that the subordinate class have some form of clairvoyance and the dominant class are aliens, obviously!) and much more morbidly engaging as a result.  If you wanted to read too much into it, I’m sure there are plenty more parallels that you could draw about the drone like, brainwashed voyants that serve in the Rephaite army, murdering on order but there’s an external threat in the form of the flesh-eating monsters to keep the action up and moral disquiet down as needed.
Credit also to Shannon for boldly going where not many YA authors appear to be prepared to go and killing characters off. There’s really nothing else for it if you’re going to write good dystopian fiction in my view and I respect it even when it’s making my heart hurt and my stomach clench.
For all of the positives about much of the book, though, I wasn’t totally convinced by some of the events towards the end of this book. I don’t want to spoil this book for anybody because I do absolutely recommend it as a marvellous mix of some of the best that YA fantasy and dystopian fiction have to offer but some things towards the end felt a little…easy. Not contrived, necessarily, but just as though they didn’t quite work with the society that I had immersed myself in, particularly when it comes to Paige’s interactions with Warden. There is some gradual development of their relationship and respective characters but most of the book seemed to be spent with Paige thinking and feeling one way, only to have quite the turn around later on. I don’t mind shifting friendships and I’m fine with a changing captor-prisoner dynamic in fantasy series but I like there to be enough in the way of development and reasons for me to really get behind the direction the characters are moving in.  In a way, I guess that it’s praise that I just wanted more of everything that was brilliant about the book.
Overall: Minor grumbles aside, The Bone Season is really very good so please don’t say that I didn’t warn you when you pick it up and find that 90 minute chunks of your time are disappearing in a blur of voyants. I will definitely be snaffling a copy of the next book in the series and am looking forward to seeing where the series goes.
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Date finished: 13 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you, Bloomsbury!
Genre: Urban fantasy; dystopian fiction; YA fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Orbit in May 2011

Review: ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his 
distress…

Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.

Review

I love the idea behind Brave New World and the moral issues it throws up, which I think are increasingly more relevant despite the book originally having been published in the 1930s.  Love it.  You might be forgiven for thinking in a few paragraphs time that I hated reading the book but I didn’t.  Some of the writing is witty and there’s a tongue-in-cheek feel about a couple of the characters’ attitudes but, for all of its cleverness, there was just something about the book that didn’t have me dying to pick it back up whenever I put it aside.

I may be opening myself up to accusations of stupidity but I can only assume that there was something about Brave New World that I just wasn’t getting.  To me, it felt like a short story pushed way beyond its strength.  I’ll keep saying it just so that I don’t sound like I’m moaning constantly but there are some solid theories behind this but very little character development or much in the way of a discernible plot.  I don’t need my novels to be all action and snappy dialogue but I do expect something that will keep me wanting to turn the pages.  If I wanted to read an essay on sociology, the perils of dictatorships and/or the pitfalls of excessive genetic engineering, I would.

There appears to be a focus on Bernard Marx as the resident malcontent.  Dissatisfied with perfection, Bernard is marginalised for complaining in a world where there is ostensibly nothing to complain about.  Other than serving to highlight the fact that perfection might not be all it’s cracked up to be, there is nothing to Bernard’s character that I could identify with or was developed.  I understand why I would be unhappy in the civilisation of Brave New World but Huxley never managed to mention why Bernard was unhappy. Why Bernard was much of anything, to be honest.

There was a little more to Lenina, Bernard’s (at times unwilling) companion.  Lenina is much more a product of her society and subscribes to many more of its ideals than Bernard does, even while she resists the simplicity a little bit by scandalously engaging in monogamy.  The connection between the two, though, is shaky at best.  I know that I sound like I’m going round in circles but it isn’t that the concept is off or that the writing is weak, it’s that I didn’t enjoy reading about the characters or the society; it was more like looking at a photograph of strangers in some exotic location.  Interesting but not very engaging without context.

After the first half and the bulk of the exposition on the modern society was done, I wasn’t sure that I was interested in where the story was going.  The contrast between Bernard’s world and the Savage Reservation was a bit too obvious but the addition of Linda and John was welcome.  The Directors talk readily about the repulsion they feel about the past and how promiscuity and drugs are the ways forward but there’s no back story as to why those attitudes in particular are the way to salvation.  Why were the Directors so compelled to remove freedom of thought and replace it with obedience?  Perhaps it’s supposed to be obvious and the evils of modern society are reason enough but I think part of my disgruntlement was because there just weren’t enough reasons to believe in the alternative reality.

The best bits about Brave New World are the bits that have nothing to do with Bernard, Lenina, drugs or the Savage Reservation.  They’re the bits where you’re left wondering if you would give up freedom and independence for almost guaranteed happiness.  Or whether happiness is really everything and whether it would even be worth anything if it was subliminal messaging from birth that gave it to you…

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensation for misery.  And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability.  And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt.  Happiness is never grand.”

Overall:  I can’t fault Huxley’s ideas but I think the execution leaves a little to be desired. Brave New World is a relatively small 229 pages but seems longer; I’d hesitantly recommend it for its social commentary and fascinating political points but not for its qualities as a rip-roaring read.  Take from that what you will.

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Date finished:  15 June 2013
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Classic; Dystopian fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Vintage Classics in December 2007

Review: ‘The Uninvited’ by Liz Jensen

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

A seven-year-old girl puts a nail-gun to her grandmother’s neck and fires. An isolated incident, say the experts. The experts are wrong. Across the world, children are killing their families. Is violence contagious?


As chilling murders by children grip the country, anthropologist Hesketh Lock has his own mystery to solve: a bizarre scandal in the Taiwan timber industry. He has never been good at relationships. Asperger’s Syndrome has seen to that. But he does have a talent for spotting behavioural patterns, and an outsider’s fascination with group dynamics.

Nothing obvious connects Hesketh’s Southeast Asian case with the atrocities back home. Or with the increasingly odd behaviour of his beloved step-son, Freddy. But when his Taiwan contact dies shockingly, and more acts of sabotage and child violence sweep the globe, Hesketh is forced to make connections that defy the rational principles on which he has staked his life, his career and – most devastatingly of all – his role as a father.

Review

I wasn’t at all convinced by this book when I first started it.  The summary was so dynamic and shocking sounding that I expected to be thrown straight into child-killer horror early on.  I think because I was expecting fireworks, I was a bit frustrated when it became clear that the story was going to take its time warming up but, as with so many slow-burners, I appreciated it by the end.  The characters are given time to slowly make links between seemingly unrelated tragedies and the gradual deterioration of culture, morals and society ultimately felt much more sinister than a huge IMPLOSION followed by lots of scrabbling around can feel.

The initial chapters see Hesketh going about his random-sounding day job and investigating apparent acts of sabotage within businesses, interspersed with news reports of killer kids.  It felt quite disconnected, even though there were hints that something was tying everything together.  When Hesketh and Professor Whybray start to make connections between the incidents, the pace cranks up to a satisfying level.  It’s never quite edge-of-the-seat stuff but it does manage to be captivating, letting the more science-fiction-y  elements shine through.  Because Hesketh has Asperger’s Syndrome, he is mostly quite a detached narrator and removes a lot of the sensationalism from even the more grim incidents of mass juvenile violence. His love of behavioural patterns and logic gives the story a clinical edge that I mostly found intriguing, even though it does make the story difficult to connect to at times. I wanted to get behind Hesketh and Freddy but it wasn’t easy and I almost always felt one step removed.  There are some moments where Hesketh’s attachment to Freddy dragged me in but overall, it was a strangely emotionless reading experience.  Fascinating in many ways, sure, but emotionless.

As always, it’s hard to talk about my favourite part of The Uninvited without spoiling it.  What I will say, though, is that in amongst the child violence and general apocalyptic trauma, there are some interesting human rights/humanitarian questions about how to deal with toddlers that are trying to kill adults on mass. Written out that way, I realise that it looks as though there’s going to be some clumsy and/or boring hypothesising by one or more of the characters but it’s actually quite well done.  You have plenty of time to get used to the way Hesketh and Professor Whybray think and communicate so it doesn’t seem jarring when they start spouting biological or sociological theories about what is happening or how to deal with the fact that children have become more likely to turn on you with a nail gun or push you down the stairs than they are to do anything else.

The ending was pretty much perfect and fitted so well with the rest of the story.  When I was reading the final few pages, it actually occurred to me how nice it was to be reading stand-alone books for a while.  Nice not to ‘turn’ the last page on my eReader and be filled with more questions than I had to start with.  Well, actually, I did mull over this one for a little while after finishing, although instead of trying to plot out the next instalment, I was just pondering the final chapters.  

Overall:  The Uninvited felt to me like the perfect blend of dystopian fiction and science fiction.  A bit of a mixed bag but the intelligent pay-off worth the effort of paying attention through the dawdling early chapters.  Recommended to anyone looking for a less melodramatic dystopian read (so much as there is such a thing!) who is happy with a little deferred gratification.

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Date finished:  02 February 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you Bloomsbury!
Genre:  Dystopian; Science fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Bloomsbury in July 2012

Some Thoughts on ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins

Despite the frenzy of enthusiasm surrounding this trilogy, it’s taken me ages to get around to starting it. I think it was just a bit of scepticism on my part that any series could be quite as good as the blogosphere was trying to make me believe. 
I know that I shouldn’t admit this but it was actually seeing the film trailer that made me pick up a copy. I went from just not being overly bothered about reading it to being pretty darn keen to get hold of a copy in the space of a 30 second trailer. The next thing I knew, I was stood in Waterstones in Leeds, staring at their pretty display and trying to resist the urge to buy it. I didn’t do a very good job.
Thankfully, the world was right: this is one seriously good book.



Seeing as I’m probably one of the last people in the world to read this, I’m not going to write out a ‘proper’ review.  Instead, these are my favourite things about The Hunger Games:

1.  Katniss Everdeen

The disadvantage to being so late to the party was that I had already noticed that everybody seemed to be in love with Katniss.  I also sort of knew that she was going to step into her sister’s place in the Hunger Games (although that might have also been mentioned on the back of my copy, I can’t quite remember…).  As with the book as a whole, I was pretty cynical about Katniss being the strong female character that she was lauded as after being lead down that road before only to find a female character that was strong as long as she had her boyfriend at her side. 

Pleasant surprise #1: Katniss really is a fantastic YA character.  I wasn’t convinced early on but definitely came around 

2.  Political undertones that aren’t shoved in your face

Dystopian societies with gross social imbalances are not new.  Pure, for example, is a stark example of the idea that I read earlier in the year. What The Hunger Games did well that Pure didn’t do was look at the dichotomy without making me feel unwell.  It worth saying again: there is something tremendously disturbing about the privileged residents of the Capitol forcing children to fight each other to the death for their entertainment.  It sounds ludicrous to us but ancient civilisations loved it so I suppose it’s horribly accurate in some way.  I’m intrigued to see how that pans out.

3.  The sheer force of the story that made me unable to put it down

There are books that, while not fantastically written, just have something about them that compels readers to keep going.  I suppose you could argue that that is fantastic writing.  Whichever way you look at it, I love feeling so caught up in a story that I will do almost anything to keep reality at bay.  In The Hunger Games’ case, Boyfriend was staying over at his friends so I read half, fell asleep, woke up and read the second half.  I was starving but had to finish before I went and made breakfast.  There are few things that I will postpone eating for.  That this book was one of them is praise indeed.  

I know that I haven’t mentioned everything but those are the elements that stick in my mind.  If you haven’t already read it, I am both happy that I’m NOT the last person to have read it in the world and sad for you.  

And yes, I have already bought Catching Fire and Mockingjay.  Bring on more Panam!

Review: ‘Pure’ by Julianna Baggott

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis


We know you are here, our brothers and sisters . . . 


Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers . . . to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run. 

Burn a Pure and Breathe the Ash . . . 

Review

The book blogosphere seems to be lighting up with apocalyptic explosions and revelling in the aftermath at the moment.  After reading the amazing Divergent by Veronica Roth, I started keeping one eye on the many emerging dystopian tales, in case something equally amazing that I could devour and then rave about.

Along came Pure; dystopian fiction the adult way.  I’ve seen whisperings that this book is intended to straddle the YA/Adult divide.  For me, this was well and truly in the grown-up camp.  The world is bleak and the story is tragic and barbaric, not to mention gory.  

Most of the survivors of the Detonations have horrific burn scars or have been ‘fused’ with items or creatures that they were holding or near at the time.  Pressia was holding her doll at the time of the Detonation and now lives with her doll’s head for a hand while Bradwell (who was running through a field) has birds embedded in his back.  Seriously dark stuff but morbidly clever. There are a whole army of novels that focus on the cleaner side of world-changing disasters, whether its years down the line after the dust has settled and society re-established or by looking inside the Dome at how that society should be rebuilt.  The idea that society might still exist, albeit damaged almost beyond recognition, is original and chilling.  Maybe that’s why I resented the chapters where I was forced to follow Lyra (a Pure) in the Dome.  The sterilised world interrupted the atmosphere that had gradually been built and, despite being a remarkable contrast, slowed the pace even further.  

The images that were so unique at the beginning soon became laboured. Every time a new character or set of characters are introduced, they are accompanied by a graphic account of their various mutations.  Objectively, I could see that the survivors are defined by their scars and ‘wear them’ as badges of honour, marks of their will to endure. Subjectively, I started to see it as gratuitous.  The descriptions are increasingly terrible and have a whiff of shock tactics lingering about them.  One particular group of women are fused to the babies that they were trying to protect during the Detonations.  So, yes, it’s clever but it’s also emotionally draining and hard to read.  A job well done for Ms Baggott, I suppose. 

The characters are strange.  Pressia is determined, strong, intelligent and fiercely loyal.  I should have adored her.  Similarly Partridge, running from the Dome and in search of family, is disarmingly innocent and charming and I wanted to like him.  The problem is that the characters are lost in the midst of the horror and dirt of the world they inhabit and it’s hard to bond with them and, ultimately, care about their fates.  The constantly switching narrative is probably also partly to blame for the general feeling of detachment.  Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, including Pressia, Partridge and Lyra to name but a few.  It’s good to see the world from a number of views but it’s hard to build a relationship with a narrator that you might not hear from for another 100 pages.  

Despite not enjoying reading Pure that much, I can appreciate that it was beautifully written.  Baggott’s ability to design and describe a broken world is immense and her descriptions are stunning.  Devastatingly so.  If you do read this and are feeling resilient, there are some great passages.

After a dramatic start, this book became a serious slog. It’s crazy that a book so arguably action-packed could seem so slow and be such terribly hard work.  And yet, after 100 pages or so, every time I picked it up it was just to get it read, rather than to enjoy reading it.  I kept hoping that I would pass a point where I would be swept into the story and get carried through to the end.  Sadly, I never found that point.  For that reason, and despite all of its virtues, I would only really recommend this to someone with the time to amble their way through a horrifying vision of a world almost without humanity.  If you’re looking for a fast-paced read, this one certainly isn’t for you.

Overall:  This seems to be a book that you either love or hate and I’ve read as many positive reviews as I have negative.  For me, it was a brilliant idea executed in a style that didn’t seem to fit its subject matter.  Elegantly told but somewhat excruciating to read (for more than one reason) and part of a series I can’t see myself reading any more of.

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Date finished:  16 January 2012
Format:  eBook
Source:  NetGalley
Genre:  Dystopian fiction
Published: by Grand Central Publishing in February 2012

Review: ‘Divergent’ by Veronica Roth

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis


For sixteen-year-old Tris, the world changes in a heartbeat when she is forced to make a terrible choice. Turning her back on her family, Tris ventures out, alone, determined to find out where she truly belongs.

Shocked by the brutality of her new life, Tris can trust no one. And yet she is drawn to a boy who seems to both threaten and protect her. The hardest choices may yet lie ahead….

Review

While I was reading this, everything else was put on hold. Washing up got left, clothes weren’t being cleaned or ironed and we ate appallingly simple meals. If I’d had children, they would have been ignored too (which is why I don’t…). I know that it’s rolled out as a cliché all too often but Divergent really is fiercely addictive. After the first couple of chapters, I never wanted to put it down. When I was compelled to, I grabbed at it whenever I had a few minutes free and read hungrily on buses, trains, hidden in a conference room at my office. After I was roughly half way through, I doubt even my job could have pulled me away. Fortunately, by then it was Saturday and I was free to devour the ending in one fell swoop, allowed myself to breathe again and then felt bereft.

So what makes for such compelling reading?  The story is set after war has rent Chicago apart, with those that survive banding together in factions.  Each faction prides one attribute above all others and put its members through a trying initiation to make sure they embody everything their faction stands for.  The history, the politics and the action are perfectly balanced and Roth manages to offer something that is both edge-of-the-seat exciting but also spectacularly well held together by substance.
Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior is the feisty heroine and I loved her.  While I was reading, there were times when I was willing things to go right for her so badly that I occasionally realised I was gripping my book ridiculously tightly.  She could quite easily be held up as an alternative definition of ‘plucky’.  I suppose it might mark me out as a bit of a feminist but both her independence and the fact that she occasionally gets to do the saving for the men in her life were brilliant.  Hmm, this is starting to sound a bit girl crush-y, isn’t it?!  On to Four it is…

In ‘real’ life, I’m not a massive fan of the strong silent type.  In fiction?  Apparently I like my leading men to be a little mysterious.  Four’s no easy man to understand but the fact that Tris takes her time getting to know him (and all of her other fellow faction members, for that matter), means that we can too.  By the time there’s even a hint of romance, there’s also enough of a relationship for it not to seem forced.

One of my favourite elements was a small one but one that I couldn’t write my review without mentionign: the explanation about how the factions came about and how they came to believe that their chosen trait was the most valuable.  It provided much needed political background and history and, most importantly, was bizarrely logical and terrifyingly believable.  Oh, and I defy you to read this book without playing the ‘Which Faction Would I Choose’ game.
The next in the trilogy, Insurgent, is out in May and I will definitely be among the many clamouring to grab a copy.

Overall:  What more can I add to the cacophony of praise surrounding this debut?  Some more praise, that’s what!  There’s a reason why it has been appearing on so many ‘Best of 2011’.  It really is just that good.  What are you waiting for?!  Go read it!  Thank me later 🙂
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Date finished:  26 November 2011
Format:  Paperback
Source:  The lovely Hanna @ Booking in Heels
Genre:  YA fiction/Dystopian 
Published: by Harper Collins Children’s Books in May 2011