Review: The Quiet at the End of the World

4/5

 

 

Shen and Lawrie are the last humans to be born…or will ever be born. A global infertility epidemic four generations ago made every woman sterile, and the human race destined to die out within the next hundred years. They spend their days mud larking and cataloguing the past, until an accident reveals a truth about their world…

Another solid and remarkable story from Lauren James. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers, even though this is only the second book of hers I’ve read. Her world building and characterisation is elegant and subtle, and her research feels solid and reliable. This is an end of the world you can feel and touch.

Their romance isn’t insta-love either, but a slow and sensuous burn.

Delightfully, Lawrie is bisexual, and it isn’t her defining characteristic. I’ve read too many YA books recently where it’s the only thing about the character that exists in any solidity, but not here. Lawrie and Shen are both rounded and fully developed characters in their own right, despite their preferences. Their romance isn’t insta-love either, but a slow and sensuous burn of low heat, of shared touches that eventually turn into something more.

There are deeper themes as well about what it means to be human and what it means to love and exist on the edge of extinction and about how it feels to have the responsibility to the rest of your species behind you. How your parents can coddle you or let you experience the world for yourself – and more importantly fail for yourself.

I’ll never know if my experience would be better if I hadn’t worked the twists out.

There was a plot twist about a third of the way through which I mentally called about fifty pages in, so it didn’t come as a surprise to me when it turned up. Another twist at the end was telegraphed earlier as well, so neither of them made me jump in surprise. It felt like it took something away from the story to know they were coming; I’ll never know if my experience would be better if I hadn’t worked them out.

I didn’t see the ending coming though, or a delightful, subtle echo that had been running throughout the whole story that was revealed towards the end. That was a lovely touch – sorry to be so vague, but spoilers would ensue if I wasn’t.

What didn’t work for me was the dialogue between Shen and Lawrie. Mostly, it felt flat and laboured and slipped towards cliché and overused expressions. Their dialogue didn’t seem as strong as that between Lawrie and her parents, for instance. When that major plot twist happens I was just talking about, James feels it necessary to repeat herself three times in three pages, just to make sure we all got it. It felt a little laboured and repetitive in places.

In all though, a book I savoured like a good wine. I shall be back for more Lauren James!

Who’s the best new author you’ve discovered this year? Let me know!

A birthday that wasn’t

It should have been a milestone today.

My brother should have been fifty. There should be a wife and kids (and grandkids maybe!) celebrating with him, and nieces and nephews for an uncle like me to spoil.

There should, at least, have been cake. And possibly a party. I’m not one for parties, but I’m sure I would have tolerated this one. Hey, I’m very food motivated, and never fussy when it comes to free sugar.

I’m not sure if our parents would still be alive – who knows the effect losing a son has on your health? Probably not my dad, who would be 86 and smoked all his life. But my mum might still be hanging in there: She’d be 79 nine days later.

I’m not sure about my sister being there either. My brother did have a calming effect on the worst of her sociopathy – some of the time, anyway. She might have parked it for the day, but that’s a big might.

There should have been lots of stories to share about my brother: The odd puckered scar on his elbow from falling off skateboards and always hitting the same spot. The dart that entered just beneath his eye and was a centimetre away from blinding him. Blowing apart lightbulbs by putting blu-tac on top of them. The time he annoyed my mum up so much she started hitting him with the plug from the vacuum cleaner. The wads of paper he shoved behind the electric heater at the top of the stairs and yet somehow managed not to burn the house down. The Christmas he broke my dads ribs without either of them realising it.

But back in the real world, the stories all stop when he reached twenty, as old as my brother ever became. Somewhere out there is a woman who should have been his wife and never was. His kids and grandkids went unborn. There are no stories about how the two of them met, about how he proposed. No tales of pregnancies or first-borns. There are thirty years of blanks where there should be memories.

It should have been a milestone today, and it is.

But not for the right reasons.

Review: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe

Warning: Unmarked spoilers!
4/5

 

 

Romy Silvers is the most isolated human in the history of humanity. For six years, she hasn’t touched another human being. She’s never felt the rain on her face, or sat under a tree. Her only company has been a TV show beamed to her from NASA, two light years behind her lonely spacecraft. But someone is coming, catching her up…

I don’t like to drop reviews under such a full spoiler tag, but this book makes me feel like it would be impossible to talk about without it. Look away now if you haven’t read it.

***

Romy’s follower on his spaceship is a boy called J – or so she thinks. I doubted from the start that J would be as wonderful as he was pretending to be, but when the absolute bombshell of what he’d been doing to Romy dropped in act three, my eyes widened and I swore internally. I never expected it to be so huge.

His manipulation – and downright torture – of Romy is textbook grooming and psychological manipulation. Not only has he isolated her from earth (under the very believable pretense of an imaginary war), he’s sending messages back to earth pretending to be her. He’s also pretending to send messages to her from earth from the “UPR”, a replacement government.

It’s grooming in space, and there’s not a damn thing Romy can do.

He forces Romy to live in the dark, to shower less, to flush the toilet less, all in an attempt to utterly degrade her and control her before he arrives. It’s grooming in space, and there’s not a damn thing Romy can do about it.

You know the best part? Romy doesn’t give in. She never yields or submits to J, even when he tries again to fool her later in the story. Romy is a young woman who won’t quit, despite her insecurities and her self-doubt. She really is stronger than she realises, and she’s a great character because of it.

It’s a wonderful story, full of subtleties and warmth. Parents who try and give their daughter the best life they can, despite the circumstances, and a daughter who loved them and misses them. We really get a feel for Romy and her isolation and cocooned existence. In one instance, she gets cold and doesn’t realise it: She’s never experienced anything other than 24 centigrade temperatures her entire life. Messages sent to earth won’t make it for two years. She really is all alone out there.

So NASA ships run on Windows?

If I have a problem with it, they’re only small ones: The use of zip files, mp3s and pdfs made me frown. So NASA ships run on Windows? And will they really do so in 2048? Mp3s are already being replaced by AACs, for instance. Romy also seems immature for a young woman given such heavy responsibilities. Given her only interactions have been with adults, I would expect to mature faster, not slower.

But as I said, these are only minor points. This is a gripping and thrilling read, and well worth it.

Review: Eve of Man

2/5

 

 

There’s a problem with the human race: For fifty years or so, no girls have been born. Until Eve comes along into the remains of a civilisation that has nearly torn itself apart…

Well, where did that go wrong? The four hundred pages of this seemed to take me forever to read…it seems longer than the two weeks I have it listed as “reading.”

I had hopes something was going to happen as the pace picked up.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, so I wasn’t expecting all the answers to be rounded up by the end. What I was expecting was something more than a painfully slow incremental drip of plot points that tip into something actually happening only 300 pages in. By then, the book was nearly over. I had hopes something was going to happen as the pace picked up…then it dropped off again. So much of this story seemed slow filler that should have been trimmed.

The world building is repetitive and dull. I lost count of the number of times a character describes the waterproofing of their underground home, always with the same details – the rubber panels that drip water, the pipes that snake across corridors. I lost count when we were told something about a character and then had it repeated two pages later. (“They were here to see Eve’s father, Ernie.” A page later: “Ernie – Eve’s father”). The place where Eve is secluded is described as a tower, a dome and mountain-like. Which is it?

A plot-important location falls out of the sky in the later part of the book, and conveniently, Bram instantly knows where it is to the point where they can find it with GPS. How?

Eve often chooses a dramatic course of action as an end–of-chapter hook.

Characterisation is inconsistent. Eve is suddenly aggressive and rebellious, then passive again a chapter later. She is determined to find the truth of her existence, but then gets sleepy and forgets all about it. She often chooses a dramatic course of action as an end–of-chapter hook, then never follows it up. Bram is unable to fight against his father, but manages to kick ass against other males.

There’s no chemistry between Bram and Eve, and the dialogue between them is stilted and insipid. The villain of the piece, Vivian

Spoiler!
(She’s obviously a hologram of Isaac Wells),
is mainly petty and a cardboard thin character.

There are a lot of parallels between this and Rapunzel, obviously: A lone woman in a tower (dome/mountain) with limited experience of the world. But there are also a lot more with The Truman Show, even the ending

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

The most fun I had with the book was Bram out of the tower and exploring flooded and forgotten London. It gave the story a sense of place that was desperately lacking.

I won’t be back for part two or three.

Have you ever been suckered by a pretty cover and an interesting premise that didn’t work? Let me know!

Review: Truth or Dare

4/5

 

 

When Kam gets in an accident that leaves him brain damaged, his brother Sef comes up with an idea to raise money to help him: Dare him to pull pranks. Enlisting the help of social-media expert Claire, things begin to spiral out of control…

It made it hard to guess where you were in the story and how much you had left to go.

This is one of those books where the narrative splits half way through, comes back together, then splits chapter by chapter until the end. Claire’s “half” of the book is flipped and inverted from Sef’s, which I thought was a nice touch. It made it hard to guess where you were in the story and how much you had left to go, which isn’t something you come across often in a story.

What did confuse me was the different fonts used for Sef messaging Claire and Claire messaging Sef, which were intermixed with their own internal voices. Got a little fuzzy who was talking and thinking there a few times.

And yet they felt so flat and predictable.

First the bad news: Claire’s half didn’t grip me at all. Her friends and her relationships with them felt so exactly calculated, you could almost guess to the page where they would be resolved. Despite that, everyone felt very real and their dialogue and characterisation were all spot on. And yet they felt so flat and predictable. No one acted out of character or threw up any surprises.

Sef’s half of the book though…wow. There’s a real sense of his absolute agony and guilt over his brother’s injuries, the explanation of which is hinted at but never explained until the end. And we’re right there with him, going through it as he does and feeling it all. Sef is unpredictable and wild and will do anything to help his brother. It lends his half of the story a sharp edge, and that edge cut me enough to make me tear up a few times.

His story resonated with me on a personal level as well – I had a brother who would dare to do anything. Only one of his didn’t work, and he never came back from it alive. So I certainly felt more connected to Sef than Claire.

I’ve read Non Pratt before, and I know she does tend to veer towards melodrama at points, but there’s only one instance I noticed it and it only bounced me out of the story for a few pages. It didn’t take long before I was right back in the story.

Pratt is an extremely talented writer, and her characters come alive and off the pages. There’s nothing flat here except the predictable sub-plots in the first half. Apart from that, it crackles and jumps with life…and desperation.

What do you think about Non Pratt? Let me know!

Observation is my superpower!

 

“You see, but you do not observe.” – Holmes to Watson, A Scandal in Bohemia.

 

For those of you who don’t know, my Myers-Briggs personality result says I’m an INFJ. So what does that mean for me?

Well, I’m very sensitive to criticism, shy away from confrontations (verbal and physical) and hate social events with a blazing passion. I don’t like bullies, and I hate to see animals and people get hurt. I’m very, very quiet until you get to know me. Then I’m just quiet.

I’m also a snowflake, baby, one of a kind: INFJs make up less than 1% of the population, and male INFJs are even rarer. I only know one other female INFJ for sure. We don’t get together much!

But INFJ’s also have superpowers…

Because I’m very sensitive to emotions, I pick up on mood changes very, very quickly, and I also observe people closely for those changes. It’s practically sub-conscious and instant when something about them changes and I notice.

Let me give you a little personal history: I walk quicker than average (Interestingly, my INFJ friend does the same), and for a decade of that walking, I worked in a very busy supermarket. I had to learn to guess people’s directions and movements from the subtlest movement of feet and hands and hips and heads, or I’d bang into them constantly.

So I learnt where people were moving to, and when those movements changed. I learnt it so well I can do it without thinking.

I was standing at the back of an auditorium at work one morning (That’s a thing with introverts and INFJs: we observe from a distance) and watching a small crowd of teachers gathered around a laptop. Humans are fascinating when you study the way they interact.

At one point, Mr B started talking to Miss A. I don’t know the subject of the conversation. I was too far away, and as I said, I watch hands and feet and heads. Mr B takes a step closer to Miss A after a few sentences. At this point, Mr C walks all the way around the crowd and physically places himself between them. Jealous much?

The conversation continued without a pause. No one noticed but me.

We have student teachers here from time to time. Mostly they hang out in the staff room and work. During my lunch, a regular teacher came up behind one of them and started talking to her. He wasn’t standing over her or pushing into her personal space and his voice wasn’t raised. He was completely passive.

But I noticed her fidgeting went up a hundred percent. While was talking to her, she was scratching her arms, fiddling with her pen and her hair and tapping her feet. This was from someone who usually barely moved.

I talked to the regular teacher a while later and asked him why he thought he made her nervous. He looked genuinely confused. “Did I? When was this?”

That’s one of the reasons I don’t bring this up with the people involved. They never see it themselves. I always feel like the conversation didn’t go well when I’ve tried it, so I never have those conversations anymore.

I don’t think people like it when you see something they’ve missed.

I also do that wonderful thing INFJs do so well: I listen. I listen for the gaps in the conversation, the parts where you hesitate and don’t even think about it.

A work colleague of mine, myself and a premises guy were taking a TV off the wall in the PE department. The premises guy was wondering how long it had been up there and mentioned, “It had been there before Miss J left the PE department”. Premises guy asked work colleague if he remembered her.

The colleague replied: “Yeah, I remember…her.”

I only needed that three-dot pause to figure out: “Ah. Beefy girl was she?” And premises guy nodded.

I can’t explain how I came to that conclusion; Like I said, I do this stuff sub-consciously and instantly. Best I can do: She worked in the PE department; PE department women tend to be Amazons (no judgement: Just observation), and my colleague wouldn’t pause over describing someone unless she was exceptionally Amazon.

I got that from a three dot pause.

Imagine what we can do if an INFJ talks to you for an hour.

What’s your personality super-power? Let me know!

Dickens!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
I have been reading Charles Dickens for quite a while. I started with A Tale of Two Cities at some point in the 20th century. My mum had an old copy published in the 1950s, I think.

It was kind of weird, since it was my first classic. It took a while to get into the language and the fact people took a page to ask for something simple. There were paragraphs that went on forever. Characters would say things like, “My G–!” and it would be written blanked out just like that. But there was enough there that I wanted to read more.

It wasn’t until 2011 or so when I joined Goodreads and started putting together a TBR list that I decided I was going to read all of Dickens, but I didn’t really make a conscious decision to do it until I found his complete works on Kindle and realised how many I’d already finished. Physical shelf space is an issue when you’re talking about someone who wrote fourteen beefy novels, after all.

So I can’t tell you exactly when I started; I can’t tell you when I decided to go through the whole works; But I can tell you I finished his novels with The Pickwick Papers on the 8th September 2019 at about 1:00PM.

And that’s just his novels – I still have his short stories to go through.

So who was this guy?

I know a bit about Dickens. I know his dad was thrown in prison for debt, and Chuck had to go work at a seriously menial job pasting labels on jars for a while at the age of twelve. Prisons, debt and the lives of the poor run through his stories and his strongest writing is there. He knows the dankness and the dregs of London intimately. He can’t write a female character to save his life.

I know he wasn’t above ditching a plot when it wasn’t working. He sold books in serial form to a specific word count every month, and if his sales dropped one month, he was on it instantly. There are times when plot follows plot until the public got something they liked.

At the bottom of it all is a man who feels like he was in it for the money. He never forgot the public was paying the bills, and wasn’t above toadying to them when they didn’t like what was going on. None of this “write for yourself” for Charlie.

And if his word count was down for the month, he had no hesitation slapping in filler. Oh, so, so much filler! I’ve read a chapter that was nothing more but the description of an inn. For a whole ten pages!

Was it worth it?

Of his fourteen novels, the ones that stand out are the ones most people have heard of: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations. To that list I’d add Hard Times, which is one I think slips by most people and which surprised me. If you want to experience Dickens, you could read those and call it good.

Avoid Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit. Oliver Twist I can take or leave – there’s an awfully contrived coincidence which is really hard to swallow. The same with Nicholas Nickelby…there’s a lot of filler there.

Charlie was a Victorian, so don’t expect anything from his women but fainting spells and fits (Read Wilkie Collins if you want kick ass Victorian women). His villains are a melodramatic bunch, of course. And since he’s a Victorian, happy endings are a guarantee.

In the end though, I have cried and I have laughed with the characters he created.

I’d call that time well spent.

Have you ever worked your way through an entire authors works? Let me know!

Review: The Pickwick Papers

 

1/5

 

 

“Being an account of the Pickwick Club”, of Victorian London. (Actually, slightly before Victoria. This was written in 1836, and she didn’t reign until 1837).

I’m glad I didn’t start with this one.

Phew. This was the last Dickens novel I had to read before I finished his fourteen novels…and what a drag it was. I’m glad I didn’t start with this one or I would have lost interest much quicker.

For the first third of the book, Dickens isn’t doing much more than transcribing stories he’s heard or has written down from other people. The book goes like this: Mr Pickwick (or his friends) go somewhere by coach. They meet someone. Someone tells them a story. Repeat for the first dozen chapters.

Perhaps that’s the problem: A lot of this doesn’t feel like his story. There was little through line or plot development to interest me.

There are flashes here and there of what he could accomplish.

I’d seen reviews where it said the story does get better as it goes along, and to be fair it does. But not by much. Dickens stretches his literary muscles and writes for a few chapters about his favourite topic – the poor and the mired in debt. There are flashes here and there of what he could accomplish: brilliant descriptive passages of rainy and foggy London streets, rural coach rides through August fields. There’s some nice wordplay with names – a doctor called Nockemorff (knock-em-off. It took me a while!) and a man called Smorltork (Which sounds like something IKEA might sell to me).

But it’s butter spread too lightly on a thin toast. If you ever feel like working your way through Dickens, start with Oliver Twist and then come back to this one.

Next post: Dickens. Was it worth it?

Do you have a favourite Dickens or classic author? Let me know!

 

Movies: First Man (and why I avoid Oscar movies)

2001? Nope, never heard of that movie.

First man is a potted biography of Neil Armstrong (You might have heard of him) from 1961 to the first moon landing in 1969 (I hope that’s not a spoiler for anyone except those who think he didn’t go).

At times it felt like it was trying to out-odyssey “2001”

It started off shakily. Story wise, that is. The shaky camera work was pretty consistent all the way through, and it was damn annoying. At times it felt like it was trying to out-odyssey 2001: A space odyssey. There were lots of extreme eye close ups, lots of shaking heads and shaking rockets. Despite that, I enjoyed the dive into his character.

This man is so stoical he wouldn’t sweat if he was on fire.

Armstrong was a notoriously reclusive and private man, and the film gets that isolation across. He doesn’t even talk to his wife or his kids, but internalises everything. It’s tough, trying to live with us introverts sometimes, huh?

The background information makes it sounds like this man is so stoical he wouldn’t sweat if he was on fire.

 

 

 

 

 

Well, so much for that, then. He looks pretty happy and emotive to have walked on the moon to me.

It’s not a film I’d go out of my way to re-watch, but it was interesting to see someone who was so private portrayed on the screen. Kudos to Ryan Gosling for trying to act so emotional internally and not externally.

***

It reminded me of why I tend to avoid Oscar-heading movies. (You can always tell: They come out in January and have odd subjects or are biographies). They’re usually like this:

Man: I told you.

(Long, long, long pause in which the camera does not cut away and no one moves)

Woman: About what?

Man: (Inhales)

(Cut to woman who has not moved at all)

(Long, long, long pause in which the camera does not cut away and no one moves)

(Cut back to man)

Man: About Jack.

…and so on, for about three hours or more. Scenes which never end and go on for far too long without dialogue or moving the film forward at all.

First Man was bad for this when it started: We have a shot of Armstrong’s daughter (I’m presuming: It could be his niece for all we’re told) in hospital, some kind of machine looking at her.

We have no clue how the actors are feeling.

We have no idea what’s going on, since there’s no dialogue or exposition going on. Is she dying? We don’t have a clue until we see her being buried. Again, this goes on with minimal dialogue, so we have no clue how the actors are feeling in these scenes.

I don’t mind not being spoon fed for every scene. I don’t mind long scenes that do something for the movie. But Oscar-bait movies always go for these long, endless scenes with no exposition and no explanation of what’s happening. You can make a great movie without the pretention, folks!

Do you watch Oscar laden movies, or tend to avoid them? Let me know!

 

Review: Brother in the Land

3/5

 

 

Danny Lodge is one of the unlucky ones when World War Three breaks out – he’s one of the survivors…

First up: I don’t usually mention covers of books, which change from edition to edition, but this one was particularly hideous. I feel like someone let their kid play with Photoshop for ten minutes. Small wonder YA was so unappreciated for so long…

 I would have been reading this when I was twelve when it came out.

The book was written in 1984, so it falls right into the middle of my demographic – I would have been reading this when I was twelve when it came out, right in the middle of my watching Threads and The Day After and I have no doubt it would have left a permanent impact on me if I had come across it.

And since it was published in 1984, it’s an interesting experience to see how much YA has matured since. Characterisation is non-existent and the events are sanitised and far more cosmetic than they would be today. Radiation sickness, third degree burns and nuclear winter are all off page or non-existent.

The last YA I read was Dry by Neal / Jarrod Shusterman, published in 2019, and what a difference that was…

I don’t mean this as a criticism of 80s YA. This is simply how it worked for a long time. There was no perception that teenagers could handle anything more than the slim thirty thousand words this book contains, no perception they could handle more than cardboard characters.

One plus for that shortness is that the book zooms along, event after event, with little pause for reflection or for the characters to catch up.

Swindells decides to really go for it.

Then something happens roughly three quarters of the way through: Swindells decides to really go for it. He pours on the bleakness and desperation and ramps it up. This is the book we should have been reading from the first pages, and it’s grim and sobering stuff.

Even sanitised and cleaned, it’s a brutal exploration of a war that might still happen.

Have you ever found a great book hiding behind a hideous cover? Let me know!