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: 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: 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!

Books you’ve probably missed (And should be reading!)

There are a lot of books out there. And there have probably been a lot added since you read that sentence. But here are some I bet you’ve missed and I think you should be reading sooner rather than later…

 

V

It might seem odd to start the list with a TV tie in book from a show that aired in the 80s, but this book is brilliant, and engrossing enough to be read as a standalone without having seen the show. Crispin could have slavishly copied the script, but she pours characterisation and backstory into a well-rounded experience. Superb.

The Chrysalids

One of my candidates for “Where’s the movie?”, and the first of my John Wyndham choices. The Chrysalids concerns a strict restrictive religious community long after a nuclear war has decimated the world. This orthodoxy despises mutation in any form – extra toes is a cause for exile. Which is a problem for the teenagers born with telepathy. Just brilliant.

 

Day of the Triffids

Imagine waking up blind one morning. Now imagine waking up blind and everyone else is as well. Now imagine a rogue carnivorous plant is somewhere outside your front door, and you don’t know where it is. How do the few sighted survive in this silent and new dangerous world? There are scenes from this that still haunt me on dark nights (“Bill. There’s a light.”).

This book deserves better treatment than the dodgy two BBC adaptations (One too low a budget, the other nothing like the book) and the feeble 60s Hollywood movie.

(Special shout out to my man Wyndham for The Kraken Wakes: He was talking about the effects of the ice caps melting in 1953.)

House of Stairs

My wife put me on to this one. She remembers reading it thirty years ago, and the ending has still stuck with her. From her brief summary, I tracked it down and ordered a copy and then devoured it. If you want to know how easy it is to brainwash someone, read this and be very afraid.

Jumper

Although dated a little now – there are terrorists in the later part that hijack a plane and keep it on the runway – this still manages to be a powerful and rewarding story. Gould admits that the trope of teleportation is an old one, but he manages to give it a fresh and invigorating spin. Just don’t watch the terrible movie or bother with the book sequels.

The Great Train Robbery

Now this one has been made into a movie, even though it wasn’t very good. Crichton takes a train robbery of 1855 and spins a fanciful (and mostly fictitious) host of rogues, ne’er do wells and scoundrels into the mix. He adds historical notes (Did you know Victorian women were deemed mentally incapable of committing crime?), and lets it all whisk and blend and then simmer for a few hours before serving. It’s a hoot and a blast.

… And these are just a few of the books I know about. Do you have any favourites that the rest of us missed? 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: Dry

4/5

 

 

During a poorly-managed and endless drought in Southern California, Alyssa Morrow turns on the tap and something unexpected happens: No water comes out. Through the next week of escalating dehydration, brutality and survival, she has to keep herself and her brother alive…

Wow. I’m exhausted after reading this! Alyssa takes the advice of her survivalist neighbour and head towards a “bug-out”, a safe house away from the chaos of a society without water. They spend the best part of the next three hundred pages trying to get there and the pace (for the most part) doesn’t let up.

The promise of water is often cruelly taken away.

Shusterman throws every single thing he can think of into the way of Alyssa and her companions, from evacuation centres that are death traps to forest fires and “water zombies” – those in the last stages of dehydration. The promise of water is often cruelly taken away at the last second, again and again.

For a section in the middle, the pace drops a little as a new character is introduced and we dive into his backstory and development, but it’s a temporary lull before the story rockets away again. It’s intense stuff, and only gets more so as the ending approaches – I read the last ninety pages or so in a few hours and a frantic blur of needing to know.

Like the best of stories, it holds a mirror up to ourselves and asks what would you do? What surprised me was that some of my answers to those questions would have been wrong. Alyssa’s survivalist neighbours have one approach – hoard and protect – and later in the book we meet a woman with a different approach – share and survive together. Both work in their own ways, and both are successful.

There’s a moment in the midpoint of the book which is absolutely heart-breaking to read, and it destroys one family more effectively with a single gunshot, than any water raiders or rioters could. No spoilers…but Shusterman makes the point that gun control is a good thing. Time and again, solving a problem with a gun is ruled out as an option…until there is no option left. Gun control is a good thing: But one day, that gun might save a life.

Surprisingly, Alyssa is the protagonist in this story, but she’s not really the main character. That role drops more onto her neighbour, Kelton, and it’s him who goes through the biggest character arc and development and the one we feel the most invested in.

This is a world totally believable.

 

As usual with Shusterman, he carefully considers how a society works, then breaks it brutally to see how his characters survive and react. This is a world totally believable, and scarily realistic. There are weaknesses I didn’t notice (Would people really riot after a day without water? Did they exhaust every other source of hydration that quickly? My wife asked), but despite those, I felt the desperation of the people for water.

And as usual, there are big questions. How well would you survive a disaster? How many do you try and save? Do you hoard and survive alone, or share and survive together?

If you have to drown someone to survive the shipwreck, do you deserve to reach the lifeboat? And how do you look at yourself afterwards in the mirror?

(This was a buddy read with Becky from Blogs of a Bookaholic, who some of you might remember is not a pancake. Her review is here. Blog post next time on my first buddy read with her!)

What would you do in a shortage? Hoard or share? Let me know!