The Catcher in the Rye
The Shadow of the Wind
The Raven Boys
The Night Circus
Living Violet
Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Casual Vacancy
Carnival of Souls
When She Woke

Friday, 5 February 2016

Shift by Hugh Howey (Dystopia 2)

Publication date: 27 January 2013
Published by: Broad Reach
Genre: Sci-fi / Dystopia
Read in 2014

Shift is the sequel to the New York Times bestselling WOOL series. It combines the three Silo-focused books creating an omnibus edition.

My synopsis
The novel starts in a time that resembles present day and focuses on a US politician who has been assigned a special project.  He is required to apply his previous profession as an architect to design a very unique building.  The specification is to design a building like a skyscraper but in reverse (a core-scraper - as in the earth's core).  Donald creates the Silo, a building with over 100 levels underground.  

Donald is part of a team who creates a multitude of these Silos in preparation of a time when humanity will no longer be able to survive on the earth's surface.  Although there is some understanding of this, it is vague and unclear what and why.  Anna is another team member working on the project and her father is a powerful man leading the entire operation.  He is involved with nanotechnology, which he uses as a form cosmetic surgery and to prolong his life.  Donald soon discovers that this nano technology will play a key part in what is yet to come - as will he...

My review
Shift is quite different from WOOL.  The latter was like a literary version of a good DVD box set in that each instalment would end on a cliffhanger that kept you addicted.   Shift is not like that. It is more like the literary verison of the movie Inception (mind boggling stuff that may require mulitiple reads to come to grips with - certainly for me in any case). This one reads more like a continuous narrative and lacks the rollercoster feel of the first book.  It is structured so events are occurring over long periods of time.  This is because the nano technology allows humans to remain in stasis indefinitely, and most people in Silo 1 are kept that way.  A chosen few are woken up intermittently over periods in times (decades) and each time is know as a 'Shift'.  Donald becomes one of them.On his first shift his memory is fuzzy and everything is a mystery.  With each shift things become clearer and Donald discovers the awful truth; the magnitude of what has occurred to humanity, the purpose of Silo 1 with its shifts and how it relates to all the other Silos.

When it is not focusing on Donald, Shift takes the reader to other characters existing in other Silos.  What this serves to do is to give some insight into how WOOL came about (a prequal of sorts), and how the characters in the first book ended up where they did.

Shift reads like a proper Dystopian novel, fully evoking bleakness, misery and dread.  As such, it is a rather uncomfortable read.  I did not enjoy it as much as WOOL (which is also a proper Dystopian novel), but liked it enough to read the final instalment DUST, which I would say is closer to WOOL in style, and therefore a better read. I would definitely like to revisit the trilogy in the future.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Divergent by Veronica Roth (Dystopia 1)

**International Bestseller**
Publication date: 28th February 2012
Published by: Katherine Tegan Books
Genre: Sci-fi/Fantasy (YA)

Book Synopsis
In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is--she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are--and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her
This book was extremely popular among teenage readers when it first came out, and has successfully transcended the reader age groups - much like Twilight and The Hunger Games had.
What I liked about it
I made a point of avoiding finding out what the book was about before I read it.  Now that I have I can say it turned out to be a pleasant surprise and an easy read.  At no point did I want to skip pages.  There is a good mix of characters who are well-rounded - and quite human.  Beatrice for example, is quite flawed and at times it is hard not to be critical of her for the things she thinks, says and does.  Then you remember she is a 16 year old living under extreme circumstances. She is also quite critical of herself and considers herself to be unworthy of Abnegation (her family's faction), which I feel are redeeming qualities.

I don't think it would be much of a spoiler to confirm that there is a love story woven into the plot.    The author manages to convey the innocence of teenage first love without being sentimental.  It is absent of fluff and the exchanges between Tris and Four are realistic.  I think this aspect of the story in particular was executed really well.

I am not one who preaches 'show don't tell' when writing.  Personally, I think there is a place for both show and tell - it's the context that matters.  However, it is an argument made strongly and if you support that school of thought, you'll be pleased to know Veronica Roth gets full marks for all 'show' and no 'tell'.

Where I took issue with it
The premise of this alternate reality is unconvincing. The idea of a society grouped into brave people, smart people, humble people etc. makes no sense to me - unless we are talking about aliens.  Surely all human beings are divergent (??).

I would not call Divergent true dystopia since, although bad stuff happens, the book fails to evoke the sense of dread and discomfort a dystopian novel should. It's just not disturbing enough and the above-mentioned weakness in the premise doesn't help.

I appreciate that guys have a sensitive side, but I had a problem with the way certain male characters were portrayed at times.  Al in particular came across as a whimpering cry baby, and I was unconvinced that, in the harsh, competitive Dauntless environment where the stakes were so high, he would have gotten away it.  The stronger characters would have targeted him for being so weak. 

The novel vs the movie
I saw the movie version shortly after and I have to say, although it is even more sanitised (to make it watchable for an even younger audience), I enjoyed it.  I was pleased that the script writers got rid of aspects of the plot that I felt didn't work in the book (an example is the scene with Tris and Christina when they retrieve the flag - which in the book was at odds with their relationship with each other).  On the other hand, reading the book gives you a more in-depth understanding of the movie.

Divergent may not be my idea of proper Dystopia, but it is a good read and one I would recommend.  Having said that, I have also read the second book, Insurgent, and it does not measure up to the same standard as the first.  I struggled to finish it and so I didn't bother with the last one, Allegiant.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Martian by Andy Weir

Publication date:  18th August 2015
Published by:  Broadway Books
Genre:  Science Fiction
Read in 2016

Publisher's synopsis
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit — he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

My Review 

As you may have picked up from the publisher's synopsis, The Martian is a very compelling read.  I found it an absolute joy.  It is very much a character-driven novel.  Most would have given up and accepted their pending doom but not Mark Watney.  

“I’m a survivor! I’m gonna make it!” That song Survivor, by Destiny’s Child comes to mind when I thnk of this book. The way they convey determination and convition is how the character approaches his predicament. Mark is very much a survivor and this is primarily down to his inability to give up, but also his 'glass-half-full' approach to life.  He is also resourceful, clever, and quick-witted - all characteristics that help keep him going against the odds.  He matches the definition of a geek, but not a stereotypical one.  He is a tough-guy (a macho type) and, as such, refuses to show signs of weakness.  He uses his sense of humour as a coping mechanism.

Mark comes across as the inquisitive sort - the kind who continuously asks questions and seek answers.  I imagine that this habit has turned him into a problem-solver (as coming up with solutions  is naturally the next step - when finding answers to problems).  It is no wonder he is a scientist.  Be warned, the novel is packed with detail of how he puts scientific theory into practice.  Much of it went over my head but I was never bored. 

Mostly the chapters read as daily logs (digital diary entries) of what transpired that day and what are his plans for the following day.  As a result, with each log there is increasing tension and anticipation as to whether he had a good day or a disastrous one.  I enjoyed following his progress, although sections of it were nail-biting.  With each triumph I rejoiced with him and with each disaster I worried for his safety.

I loved this book and will definitely revisit it in the future. 

Friday, 15 January 2016

Missing You by Harlan Coben

**International Bestseller**
Publication date: 12 February 2015 (First Edition 1st Jan 2014)
Published by: Orion
Genre: Crime/Mystery

Publisher's synopsis
From SUNDAY TIMES bestselling author Harlan Coben, a heart-pounding thriller about the ties we have to our past ... and the lies that bind us together.

It's a profile, like all the others on the online dating site. But as NYPD Detective Kat Donovan focuses on the accompanying picture, she feels her whole world explode, as emotions she's ignored for decades come crashing down on her. Staring back at her is her ex-fiance Jeff, the man who shattered her heart 18 years ago.

Kat feels a spark, wondering if this might be the moment when past tragedies recede and a new world opens up to her. But when she reaches out to the man in the profile, her reawakened hope quickly darkens into suspicion and then terror as an unspeakable conspiracy comes to light, in which monsters prey upon the most vulnerable.

As Kat's hope for a second chance with Jeff grows more and more elusive, she is consumed by an investigation that challenges her feelings about everyone she ever loved - her former fiance, her mother, and even her father, whose cruel murder so long ago has never been fully explained. With lives on the line, including her own, Kat must venture deeper into the darkness than she ever has before, and discover if she has the strength to survive what she finds there.

My Review 

I would describe Missing You as a light and easy read.  I am not sure if it is for die-hard crime fiction fans as the plot is rather weak and there is a strong romantic plot woven into it. Kat is working on 2 cases but I am not sure she should be working on either of them - as one is closed and the other is out of her jurisdiction. She has a personal interest in one and seems unable to disentangle herself from the other.  I found myself wondering who is working on the cases she should be working on.  (It's not her partner, since he spends his time helping her with said cases.)  

Although not the main protagonist, the real heroine of this novel was Dana.  She came across as brave and smart, so the story was most intriguing when it focused on her.  In this sense she over-shadowed Kat, who came across rather weak in comparison.  I couldn't help but think that, had the roles been reversed, both cases would have been solved a lot quicker.  Dana has true potential as a crime fighter, while Kat's competence was at times questionable.

The novel explores contemporary issues and I liked the premise.  I can see where the inspiration comes from.  Without giving too much away, it focuses on the internet and the darker side of it's use. I also liked how it explored people's attitudes to those with unconventional lifestyles.

I think Harlan Coben writes crime fiction aimed at readers who enjoy romantic novels, since romance tends to be at the core of his (or her) books - at least the ones I have read.  I also noticed similarities in the way the plot unfolds for both Six Years and Missing You (like he is telling the same story but in a different way).  Out of the two, I preferred this one.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Grey by E.L. James

** International Bestseller**
Publication date: 18th June 2015
Published by: Vintage
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Read in 2016

Publisher's Synopsis
Christian Grey exercises control in all things; his world is neat, disciplined, and utterly empty—until the day that Anastasia Steele falls into his office, in a tangle of shapely limbs and tumbling brown hair. He tries to forget her, but instead is swept up in a storm of emotion he cannot comprehend and cannot resist. Unlike any woman he has known before, shy, unworldly Ana seems to see right through him—past the business prodigy and the penthouse lifestyle to Christian’s cold, wounded heart.

Will being with Ana dispel the horrors of his childhood that haunt Christian every night? Or will his dark sexual desires, his compulsion to control, and the self-loathing that fills his soul drive this girl away and destroy the fragile hope she offers him?

My Review

Grey is a retelling of the Fifty Shades of Grey story told by Christian Grey.  This has become a common phenomenon with romantic novels written in the first person and originally told by the female character when said books have sold extremely well.  I am not entirely against this idea as I see it as an opportunity to show a different perspective and reveal details that would not have been previously clarified. 

The problem with Grey (the main problem) is that it is FSoG regurgitated. EL James has failed to recognise that, although she has created both characters and therefore they exist in her head, they are supposed to be individuals with different thoughts and feelings. When two people communicate, they do not assimilate and interpret the information they exchange (the input) in exactly the same way, and so one would not expect the exact same thought processes, and the subsequent output, to be identical perspectives (unless maybe they are identical twins).  Most of the story is pretty much cut and pasted from the original and what has been added, i.e, the running commentary going on in Christian's head, renders the book disastrous.  For one thing he constantly talks to himself, addressing himself in the third person, and for another his penis has a personality of it's own and contributes by apparently 'concurring' with Christian on a regular basis (I kid you not).

The central plot of FSoG is basically a game of tug-of-war (Christian pulling Ana towards the dark side, Ana pulling Christian towards the light). I did not hate it but  I could not understand the appeal of Christian Grey.  I found nothing about him alluring or sexy, but I did find him disturbing and creepy.   Now that I have read Grey and I have been in Christian's head, I would add (to creepy and disturbing) that he is odious and misogynisticHe is both inwardly and openly hostile to most women and (oddly) he complains bitterly about them showing signs of finding him attractive (apparently all women do). This revulsion by a heterosexual alpha-male is unrealistic and is an example of poor characterisation on the part of the author.

This character was inspired by Edward Cullen of Twilight.  Edward Cullen is a vampire - which is disturbing and creepy, but he is not. Neither is he sexist, nor a misogynist. Vampires see humans at worst as food and at best as pets.  Edward has rejected his true nature and is trying, as far as possible, to be like a human - but he is not human. He comes across as a dominant alpha male who treats Bella like his submissive because of WHAT he is (it's a vampire trait). It is one of his flaws.

Love it or hate it, with Twilight Stephanie Meyer was able to create a contemporary version of a classic gothic anti-hero (a perceived villain who is dark/shady, but also alluring). While Christian Grey is an anti-hero, he bears no resemblance to the type in a gothic romance. Unfortunately, EL James failed in her attempt mainly because the masochistic analogy has been poorly executed.  

Here is an example of the difference between Edward and Christian.  In Twilight, Bella observes that attractive girls often flirt with Edward and he is unresponsive every time.  He is never impolite or hostile towards them, rather he is oblivious to their advances.  The problem with Christian is that he is unsympathetic with zero redeeming qualities (which sets him poles apart from a romantic gothic anti-hero), and without Ana's rose-tinted glasses he is horribly exposed.

Room for improvement?  To improve Grey, it would need to be re-written from the beginning, by a ghost-writer.  Failing that, deleting the words 'baby' and 'laters, baby' every time they appear in the text would at least reduce the cringe-factor considerably.

As it stands, the writing is such that it reads like a parody of itself.  Here are some examples:

1. Ana & Christian's first date in a cafe.
I watch her dunk her tea bag in the pot.  It is an elaborate and messy spectacle.  She fishes it out almost immediately and places the used tea bag on her saucer.  My mouth twitches with amusement as she tells me she likes her tea weak and black.  For a moment, I think she is describing what she likes in a man.  Get a grip, Grey.  She's talking about tea.

2. Christian's driver/minion on receiving a set of instructions from him.
"Will you be needing Charlie Tango?"
(Apparently, Christian loves his helicopter so much he named it - and his minions are expected to refer to it by name)

3. Christian being a gentleman
...I grab her hair and hold it out of the way as she continues to throw up everything she has had this evening. It is with some annoyance that I note that she doesn't appear to have eaten.  (In other words, he exams the contents of her vomit!)    ...I lead her away from the curious onlookers toward one of the flower beds. "If you are going to throw up again do it here.  I'll hold you."  It's darker here.  She can puke in peace.

Since the only way to portray Christian in a positive light is through Ana's rose-tinted glasses, it raises the question: what were they thinking? Answer: Huge cash revenues.  FSoG is a successful business venture, resulting from an incredibly successful marketing campaign that began the minute E.L. James and her original publisher signed over the movie and publication rights several years ago. 

As there is nothing new to learn, Grey is mostly a boring read but the writing is so bad that parts of it are entertaining.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Paper Towns by John Green

**International Bestseller**
Publication date: 15th May 2015 (First Edition 16th October 2008)
Published by: Penguin Books
Genre: Young adult Contemporary

Publisher's synopsis
Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life—dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows.

After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees of the girl he thought he knew.

My Review 

Caution: This review contains potential spoilers.

Paper Towns is the second novel by John Green that I have read - the first being 'Looking for Alaska'.  I have not yet read the more well-known 'The Fault in Our Stars' but the success of that book and the subsequent movie led to the making of the movie and the 2015 published edition of Paper Towns (see cover).
John Green is a magnificent writer and I really loved this book.  I found the inspiration behind the book to be an interesting one.  Paper Towns are exactly that: non-existent towns that have been added to maps in order to identify copyright infringement.  Like an artist's initials on a painting, it is how cartogrphers know if their work has been reproduced by someone else.  

The story is a coming-of-age one.  Quentin is in his senior year at high school and there are only a few weeks left until graduation.  It is a time when teenagers are concerned with finals, prom and graduation.  Unlike his friends, Ben and Radar, Q is not so concerned about any of the above.  His raison d'etre is to love (and preferably to be loved by) Margot Roth Spiegelman. 

What I loved about it.
Margot lives in the house opposite Q's and they have known each other since they were toddlers.  They were best friends as small children but drifted apart at the age of 9.  This is revealed in the prologue and there is a line that reveals a lot about Q, about Margot, about their relationship and why they drifted apart.  "I took two steps backward.  ...As I took those two steps back, Margot took two equally small steps forward."

Chapter 1, the first line - 'The longest day of my life began tardily', is the kind that is so memorable and telling that I can see myself quoting it for years to come. It told me that Q was about to share an adventure with me.  It is the sort of line that instantly sparks one's interest and raises hope of a good read. This would have been a problem if it did not live up to expectation - but it did.  There is a passage on the final page that I found equally 'attention-grabbing'.

What I got from the novel was a story about first love and this is addressed from two angles.
  1. Being in love with an idea of a person, rather than the actual person.  Q has become a mere acquaintance with Margot and he hardly knows her, so he has had to settle with loving his 'idea' of who she is.
  2. The unfortunate state of being in love without actually realising it, due to youth, inexperience and not being the sort of person who is remotely interested in the concept.  I see this as Margot's predicament.  (I have compared her to Lucia Honeychurch in A Room with a View.)
I was interested in the misinterpretation and miscommunication that occurs between the two characters because of their (above-mentioned) predicaments.  For example, the way Q saw the clues Margot left behind as an invitation and a quest (when the intention was not for them to be either).

What I took issue with
To avoid repetition see paragraph 2, below.

The book vs the movie
I did not enjoy the movie.  Unfortunately, the story has been stripped of its vital organs, starting with the heart, and picked apart until only the skeleton is left.  Those vital parts have then been replaced with artificial substitutes, aimed a simplifying the plot and ensuring a Hollywood-type ending.  

It was not all bad though, as the movie did give Angela (Radar's girlfriend} a personality and a prominent role.  There are a few scenes added with just the two of them, which removed their token-like status in the book.  Also, the way the relationship between Ben and Lacey plays out in the movie is more realistic than in the book.  Finally, although Radar's parents' unique hobby provides comedy value in the book, it was also believable in the movie because a feasible explanation for it is provided .

Thursday, 31 December 2015

SBR's Best Reads of 2015

In no particular order, here are my best reads for 2015. 
Please note: They were not necessarily published in this year,
but read (and many reviewed*) by me throughout the year.

Sally Green's second instalment to the Half Bad series did not disappoint. 
This one is not the kind of hard-hitting dystopia of the first, but still a great read.

I am drawn to novels that explore human relationships.
This one by David Nicholls is about a man trying to make sense of the breakdown of his marriage
and his frustation by the inept way he connects with his teenage son. 

Malorie Blackman's hard-hitting dystopian love story set in an alternate reality where the dark-skinned ruling class are the opressors of a colourless underclass.
It's a tough read but also a must read, in my view.

Tom Reiss' compelling biography about an unsung hero.  Most of us have never heard of General Alexandre Dumas, the real Count of Monte Cristo, but he lives on through his son's fiction.  The General is also the inspiration behind The Three Muskateers.  We all know how famous those books are, and yet in no way as fascinating and compelling as the real thing.

Having read The Black Count I had to read this novel by his son Alexandre Dumas.  Suffice to say, it is easily the best book I have ever read.

Ben Aaronovitch has done it again.  It's crime fiction meets fantasy. 
It's Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter with a dash of Dr Who.   
What's not to like?

Daphne Du Maurier's classic gothic tale parallels that of Jane Eyre.  It is beautifully written and full of intrigue.  Because it follows the principles of gothic fiction, one can sort of see where it is heading, and yet the central plot unfolds in an unpredictable way.

E. M. Forster's classic love story about a young couple who fall in love but are kept apart because of the social class divide.  Lucia has a choice of two suitors, Cecil, like her, is 'old money' while George and his father are on the first rung of the ladder of respectable society.  Who will she choose?

John Green's novel about a high school senior - Quentin - whose perception of the girl he loves - Margot Roth Spiegelman - is somewhat skewed by the fact that he hardly knows her.  When Margot does yet another disappearing act, Q embarks on an odyssey that does indeed lead to discovery. 

I enjoyed this novel and agreed with the general view that it is a good read. This was tarnished to some extent by the disappointing follow-up - Insurgent - which read like the sequel from hell.  Nevertheless, as a stand-alone I am happy to include it in this list.

*Reviews to be published in early 2016