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!

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!

Review: The Sun is also a Star

2/5

 

 

Daniel decides to take his time getting to an interview that will determine the rest of his life. Natasha has a day left in America, and maybe a little longer if the universe allows it. Watching over all this with an omniscient eye into the past and the future is The Universe. All three of them bump together in one day in New York…

Let me start this with an admission: I am a romantic. I cry at the end of You’ve Got Mail. Every time. Sometimes I mist up when I write out my wife’s birthday cards. I wanted these two to be in love as much as they did.

But they weren’t. Infatuation, maybe…but love is adoring the creases, not just the ironed smooth surfaces. Love is your partner driving you crazy and you love them anyway, moaning at you because they had a bad day at work and they don’t have anyone else to vent to. It isn’t something you can feel about someone in a day. Daniel and Natasha didn’t touch me and their relationship didn’t move me the way it should have.

Let’s start at the beginning. The way Daniel and Natasha meet is just plain creepy. Dan decides to follow Nat on a whim, and despite his claims he’s not doing it to stalk her, he clearly is. Please don’t encourage this behaviour, writers. Please don’t make some impressionable teen believe he-she is going to win his-her heart by following someone around. All they’re going to get (and deserve) is maced.

By the end, I had to check the pronouns to see who was talking.

The narrative switches between Daniel and Natasha chapter by chapter, and towards the middle of the book, I came to realise how similar they were. By the end, I had to check the pronouns to see who was talking. Daniel is supposed to be poetic, but his inner dialogue is the same as Natasha, the hard headed scientist. There were no verbal tics or mannerisms that separated them. Nothing made them stand out.

The most enjoyable parts were the little asides by The Universe, a cool and dispassionate voice of a removed narrator. A woman Natasha meets at a government building who wants to commit suicide; the security guard they meet on a roof. The backstory and forward story of Daniel’s brother and his family. I kept seeing this as a play where the stage would darken and a spotlight would rest on The Universe and the highlighted minor character while the other actors froze in place.

The chapters were short and the writing staccato, in brief bursts of sentences, and that pulled me through the story in only five days. Perhaps that was one of the problems with the dual narrative: I didn’t spend enough time with Daniel before head hopping into Natasha, and then back again.

There were good parts though – Natasha’s delight at explaining the grandfather paradox and the Novikov self-consistency principle. Any book that manages to get those into a YA romance deserves a nod just for trying it. I enjoyed seeing the lives that interacted with Daniel and Natasha as they dropped into their own bubble world for the single day they had. There was a nice mirror relationship between Daniel’s father and Natasha’s.

But it didn’t move me. I should have been reaching for the tissues at the end of this, not the book I’m going to read next.

How many fiction books do you know mention the Novikov self-consistency principle? 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!

Review: Eleanor and Park

5/5

Park doesn’t think much of Eleanor when he first sees her on the school bus. And Eleanor doesn’t think much of Park when she’s forced to sit next to him either…

Wow. That was something else.

Where to start with E&P? I’d start with the ending, but to do so would feel like a major spoiler, and it’s not something I want to spoil for anyone, even by dropping it under the safety of hidden text. Just read the book for yourself, then we’ll talk about the ending.

I wanted to talk about the ending so much when I finished it, I almost bothered my book-buddy friend on a Sunday night when she probably had better things to do. I would have asked my wife about it, but she’d have to read it first, and I didn’t want to wait that long.

But enough ending-related vagueness. What can I tell you about this book?

The simplicity of the writing pulls you in and along for the ride. The sentence structure is simple, almost an elementary level. But those simple sentences have complex themes poured into them. It’s like minimalism for writing; all the power is underneath the words. It drags you down the page and pulls you through the book.

There are no easy answers to the questions asked around the edges of this story. Eleanor is pushed into hard and uncomfortable shapes by the world she lives in. She cares deeply for her brothers and sisters, but finds she can’t drown with them and she can only save herself when the waters close over her head. Park, by comparison, seems to have life easy, but there are undercurrents to his life that make his footing less secure than it seems.

I liked the additional complexity of having it set in 1986 as well. Eleanor can’t simply reach into a back pocket and call 911, any more than she can call Park. He’s only a few blocks away, but it might as well be miles.

And how lost Park is without Eleanor, the music gone from his life both metaphorically and literally. The songs he’s never going to be able to listen to again. Ah, man.

It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again.

I loved the way this book made me remember how it all felt. It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again, for the first touch of a hand in ours.

(Falling asleep listening to your love on the phone, the conversations about nothing that mean everything. The first time you ever made someone a mix tape. Yeah, I’m that old I can remember doing those: The careful selection and editing, the struggle to get everything to fit onto a 90 minute space. Trying to squeeze your personality down to thirty songs. Even though I didn’t get there until I met my wife – my own Eleanor in style and bearing if not by name – until ten years later than Park, I still went through it all.)

I was almost blubbering and had to stop sometimes when I was reading this, because it’s so fragile, what Eleanor and Park have.

I felt like I would break it by looking at it for too long, and that would make my heart ache for its lost beauty.

It’s wonderful to watch these two fall for the first time, as we have all fallen. And in watching, we remember when they were us.