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!

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: 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!

Two for one: Ready Player One, Book vs Movie

Books to movies rarely seem to work. People end up loving one over the other. Well, guess what…me too!

The Book

(From my Goodreads review, 2012)

In the disintegrating world of 2044, Wade Watts, a hermit teenager, dedicates his life to discovering the online clues that could win him the ultimate prize…

The OASIS is the only place to be in the future. The world has fallen apart, and almost every aspect of humanity is pushed onto a massive online, virtual reality. Even schools and public services are in there – there’s a planet with nothing but schools, for instance. Interaction is through avatars. They can be ‘killed’ (more like a restart), but nobody really gets hurt in there. Not physically, anyway.

The man who designed this became the richest man on the planet, and when he dies, his fortune is left up for grabs for whoever can solve the puzzles he left behind, puzzles rooted in very, very obscure 1980s pop culture references.

I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not particularly skilled at computer or arcade games, so the (80s) subculture that the author immerses us in is mostly lost on me. But luckily, he explains every reference as he goes along.

In fact, he seems just to drop references in just to explain them…they don’t really advance the plot much. There’s an example where Wade travels somewhere in a Back to the Future DeLorean with a Knight Rider and Ghostbusters add-ons. It’s never used again and not mentioned, so why do it?

In the movie “Signs” a character says: “…this stuff is just about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend their whole lives. They make up secret codes and analyse Greek mythology and make secret societies where other guys who never had girlfriends can join in.”

That’s what the 80s subtext of the novel mostly felt like to me; obscure references that very few people would understand (or even care if they weren’t there). They’re just secret handshakes for the society the author moves in.

Fortunately, the main character is likable enough to keep you reading – you want this little underdog to win, especially against the corporate bullies who are willing to kill him and his friends. You want him to come out with the girl and the prize and some good friends. There are no real surprises when he does all three.

I have some grievances against the pop culture references. Where was Madonna? Where was Spielberg? Where was Tron? And one the author missed that I caught: Wade references Fantastic Voyage (1966)…why not Innerspace (1987)?

Also, since the references seemed to stretch back and forward decades a little, where was Potter World?

Wade calls his diary for keeping track of all the clues his Grail Diary, a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a nice metaphor, and it carries nicely through the book; as Jones discovers that the search for the Grail is the search for what’s important rather than an artefact, so does Wade discover that what’s important to him isn’t inside a computer, but back in the world of the real.

The Movie

(Watched in 2019)

For a book I felt so frozen out of, the movie was very accessible. It’s one of those films where everything is thrown at the screen, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by it, or lose a sense of where the characters were while all this was going on. Because of the nature of the film, you could freeze every shot and spend hours looking for all the 80s references, and still probably miss some of them. And a shout-out for the retro soundtrack, which is awesome.

None of the flashy effects or 80s references pulled me into the movie and made it stick with me, though. What hooked me was the portrayal of Halliday, the man who invented this virtual world. High marks to the actor playing him: He nailed social anxiety.

In the first scene where we get a glimpse of his personality, his only friend is walking out of his life. How does Halliday deal with this? By avoiding eye contact, by fidgeting and moving chairs around, by keep his voice low and his attitude passive. I watched that and said to my wife: That’s exactly what I’d do!

In a closing scene, Halliday explains – while fidgeting and playing with nothing – the he created the virtual world because he was terrified his whole life and couldn’t connect with any of the people in the real world. There’s a solid sense of his loneliness and isolation. Yeah, man. I hear you.

It was so refreshing that Halliday was played straight. This was just the way he was made. No one sneered at him, or laughed at him or looked at him weird because he wanted to go to a movie instead of dancing.

I liked that. 

Verdict: Movie over book!
Book Vs Movie: Any you’d like to see me compare? Let me know!

My first buddy read

Just after Christmas (2018, for those reading this in the far future. Speaking of which, are you still using fossil fuels or did you work out crystollic fusion?) a friend of mine (Becky from blogsofabookaholic) suggested we do a buddy read. I’d never done one before, but I was up for it. My friend is smart, funny and often has insights that I miss, and I knew I’d have a blast with it. Sounded like fun!

(Note: She’ll be reading this, so I am contractually obliged to state that smart-funny thing, or she will have me pan fried and served on a bed of rice. Don’t worry…I’ll tell her not to read this part.)

I should also point out I’ve never met Becky, and only know her through emails and Goodreads and short Instagram messages. Which doesn’t stop her being my second best friend after my wife. I don’t make many friends (It’s an introvert thing) and I tend to relish the ones I have!

But I digress, as is often the case. Why, just last week, I was telling someone how much I digress when I’m writing about something. Why, yes you do, they replied!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a lot of books out there.

But, anyway. First problem with a buddy read: What should we read? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a lot of books out there. I had a stack of about six physical books sitting on my shelf at home, unread – and about a hundred and forty on my to-be-read (TBR) pile on Goodreads.

Becky has about four hundred in her TBR, and three full bookshelves, which is absolutely beautiful and pristine:

Less like bookshelves and more like a library. Yeah, so there’s that!

We wanted something newly published.

So we had a lot to choose from. We decided to make it something of reasonable length – neither of us felt like we wanted to be welded to a buddy read forever when there are so many good books to read, so eight hundred page monsters were out. Classics take a lot of time and sometimes they’re hard going.

In the end, we picked something YA, which we both of us enjoy reading and reviewing. And we wanted something newly published.

Becky had picked up a copy of Dry by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman (my review, Becky’s review). We made sure we got the same edition so our page counts matched.

I’d read quite a bit of Shusterman before (His Unwind is excellent), and I’d been following him for quite a while, so I knew this was probably going to be outstanding. But Becky went one better and got to meet Neal and got her copy signed. And she got it in 2017 along with a bunch of other cool stuff!

(I told her I feel entitled to hate her a little for this. Fortunately, she knows I don’t mean it!)

So we were off!

Well…not quite. One thing about buddy reads? You start them at the same time.

Which is harder than you might think for two people who get through as many books a year as we do – I average a book every ten days, to give you an idea.

I finished one (Actually, it was the Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle), and didn’t want to start something new and be halfway through it when Becky became…bookless. The same problem with her: She might start something new and be halfway through it. It’s harder to match up starting a book at the same time than you might think.

I struggled my way through readerless lunch-breaks with manly fortitude.

I decided to brave it and be without a book for a week or so. So I struggled my way through readerless lunch-breaks with manly fortitude and an iron will while I waited.

Well…not quite. I was re-reading Sherlock Holmes.

So we were off!

Well…not quite. Before we even started, we set some ground rules and got some background: where our first pages would be read, how many pages we were allowed to read before we stopped and talked about it. What we thought about the cover. Did we usually read the teaser on the back or skip it? I do, she doesn’t – but we both read the afterword and acknowledgements first, strangely enough!

One of the fun things about reading apocalyptic books is the what would you do in that situation? I was shocked to discover that some of the things I would have done were the wrong choices.

That startled me, talking about it to Becky. I always thought I’d be quite adept at surviving, but Becky made the right calls pages before I did. That’s what a degree in psychology will do for you!

It got really hard to put the book down in the last ninety pages.

We didn’t always read at the same pace…sometimes I’d be in front, sometimes Becky would race ahead (sometimes far ahead, ahem!) and wait for me. It got really hard to put the book down in the last ninety pages, and I was busting to discuss it with her when the story ended!

There were some interesting side discussions along the way about dehydration and finding water resources (It’s the plot of the book) how to make evaporation traps, does beer actually dehydrate you more, would you share or hoard, things like that.

Having a book buddy added a whole dimension to the story I wouldn’t have thought about; there are things I saw that she missed, and things she noticed I didn’t. It was an absolute blast guessing where the plot lines would go and where things would end up.

It might sound obvious, but it’s like reading the same book with a different brain. I had a riot, and I know we will be doing it again at some point (Shadow of the wind), and I’m sure we’ll do it again after that (War of the Worlds?).

And I’ve made a mental note that in any future apocalypses: I’m on Team Becky!

Have you ever done a buddy read? Did you enjoy it or hate it? Let me know!

Review: Dolores Claiborne

4/5

Accused of a crime she didn’t commit, Dolores Claiborne sits down with the sheriff of her little island community and tells him what happened. And to explain that, she has to tell him why she murdered her husband thirty years before…

I’ve said it before in my review of The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, but I’ll repeat it here: King does his best work when it’s him and a few other characters. Never mind his sprawling epics with a hundred people like IT and Under the Dome.

He works best when he can dig into a character and scoop them out, when it’s just the two of them locked together. For me, that’s why his short stories are things I read and re-read.

And boy, does he do it well with Dolores. Right from the first line, you’re pulled into this woman’s head and taken along with her as she talks her way through the story. The style is an uninterrupted narrative without chapter breaks or section breaks, a recording of her conversation with the local sheriff.

And it’s only her talking. We get snippets like this:

What’s that, Andy? Yeah, that’s what I said, weren’t you listenin to me first time?

But mostly we listen to her voice and her accent and her life and we’re carried away with it. There’s nothing flat here; this feels like a real woman talking and telling her life story, and it’s captivating. The hard choices she makes, the hard life she leads with a drunken and abusive husband and the hard and (very rich) woman she works for, Vera.

There are moments of black comedy as Vera and Dolores try and outsmart each other. Vera is bed-bound, and out of meanness or just boredom, tries to avoid bed-pan duty. Dolores counters, and Vera counters back. It’s two very smart and very tough women playing speed chess with a bedpan. It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t make you laugh and yet it does.

Then there are moments of great empathy as well. Vera is losing her mind, and Dolores would often climb into bed with her and hold her until she slept when the nightmares came. Dolores feels the emptiness of the giant house where they live and needs the warmth of another human as much as Vera, it seems.

In many ways, their relationship reminded me of the two women in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? They’re tied together in love and hate because they have nothing else. Their husbands are dead and their children are gone. All they have is each other, and that’s better than nothing.

I discovered that this is related to another book, Gerald’s Game, but I haven’t read that and didn’t feel like I missed anything.

The only reason this drops a star is that King seems to run out of steam a little after the death of Dolores’s husband. Not a sense of ticking boxes, but there’s a sense of wrapping up the few loose ends and finishing off, and the narrative seems to lose a little power.

One of my top five Kings, and one I shall be returning to.

And one final note: I’m not one for audio books, but I bet this is a kick-ass one.